Introduction: Public modalities, or the metaphors we theorize by

Daniel Brouwer, Robert Asen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

12 Scopus citations


The public organizes through metaphor. Both its practitioners and theorists employ a rich range of metaphors when enacting and analyzing public activity. Spheres, lines, networks, screens-these terms render distinctly intelligible the qualities, realms, collectivities, or processes signifi ed by multiple meanings of public. We have no recourse but metaphor, for public, so to speak, resists transparent representation. It resides neither in specifi c individuals nor in groups. It does not maintain a regular address. We cannot discover public in our physical environment. And yet public exerts a powerful force in our everyday lives, with signifi cant symbolic and material consequences. The idea of a public may foster camaraderie among its members, and it may spur hatred of non-members. A public may discipline members to comport their behavior with widely shared norms, and it may encourage new and creative behaviors. A public may offer hope and solace, and it may elicit discomfort and alarm. Under conditions of strife, some individuals will kill for a public-whether themselves or others. We need not invoke heroism and tragedy to discern the power of public. Consider the following quotidian case: In a New York Times Magazine article probing the implications of emergent social networking technologies, author Clive Thompson investigated the growing phenomenon of independent musicians who frequent Web sites like MySpace to establish direct, intimate connections with their fans. Unlike the Rolling Stones of the entertainment industry, these musicians post intricate details of their lives on blogs and spend hours every day answering fan emails. Thompson wondered if this trend would discourage talented young musicians from pursuing their passion. What about those shy souls whose muse felt uncomfortable with living in an online confessional? Yet, this very question, Thompson conceded, betrayed a generational bias. Teenagers understand public and private differently than their elders: "There are plenty of teenagers today who regard themselves as 'private' individuals, yet who post openly about their everyday activities on Facebook. . . . For that generation, the line between public and private is so blurry as to become almost nonexistent."1 In short, public and private carry consequences. Thompson, who maintains a blog in addition to his regular contributions to print publications, appreciated these consequences for himself and others. His observation about teenagers suggests that public and private shape their worlds in ways vastly different from their parents and teachers. Not only do public and private matter, but they matter in ways shaped by our language use. Thompson referred to lines of public and private, expressing anxiety over their increasingly blurry status. Lines connote boundaries or borders, often serving to delineate one realm (or, in common theoretical language, sphere) from another. In Thompson's writing, line marked two domains distinguished temporally by the practices of different generations. But what if he had written about a fi lter instead of a line? What if he exhibited anxiety about a tear in the fi lter? In standard usage, a fi lter allows some objects to pass through its membrane while preventing others. A fi lter between public and private may have functioned less to demarcate spheres and more to percolate experience differently. As these observations suggest, different word choices evidence wordplay and yet engender more than wordplay. Line and filter do not represent different names for the same things. Our metaphors help construct the worlds in which we live. Theorists have long held that metaphor does not serve as a stylistic technique apart from the substance of discourse but instead functions prominently in our understanding of ideas and events. Writing in the early twentieth century, I. A. Richards challenged the notion of metaphor as "something special and exceptional in the use of language, a deviation from its normal mode of working, instead of the omnipresent principle of all its free action."2 In our contemporary intellectual milieu, most scholars of language recognize its irreducibly metaphoric character and the constitutive power of metaphor.3 This scholarly common sense has been motivated importantly by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's germinal 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By. Through their notion of metaphorical entailment, Lakoff and Johnson explain how key metaphors invoke fundamental perspectives and normative frameworks. Our metaphors render events and contexts intelligible and commit us to particular values and beliefs, highlighting some conceptual connections while obscuring others.4 This collection of new essays, Public Modalities, interjects itself into on going scholarly conversations about metaphors and publics. More specifi cally, we intervene by drawing attention to the rhetoricity of prominent metaphors of publics and offering a new metaphor for the study of publics. That metaphor is, of course, modality. Modality references ways of being and studying public. In our rendering, modality entails a focus on multiplicity, movement and activity, and the mutual implication of theory and practice. Further, modality encourages scholars to pay attention to our language use, to recognize our own entailments. As critical scholars know well, no inquiry proceeds from an objective, value-free starting point. Our conceptual metaphors promise insights about our motives, values, and commitments. Like any metaphor, modality will live a life of its own-and we hope it does not die young. To grow robustly, modality will need many mentors and guardians. However, in our view, modality does not harbor imperial aspirations. We do not wish for modality to trump other metaphors, for we insist upon the enduring value of other metaphors' commitments, like those of sphere and networks, in which we have heavily invested. Nor, in a sense, is it possible for modality to replace other metaphors, for, as we demonstrate below, metaphors of public often share key entailments. Indeed, modality intersects with sphere and publicity, for example, to amplify analyses of public life. In the remainder of this introduction, we fi rst interrogate the dynamic lives and works of prominent metaphors-sphere, networks/webs, publicity, screen, and culture-advanced by scholars to study public, rendering explicit these metaphors' commitments and entailments and noting their convergences and divergences.5 We then elaborate our modality metaphor. As a newer member in the constellation of public metaphors, modality foregrounds the productive arts of crafting publicity, a rendering that we route through the rhetorical tradition of techne. Our fi nal section outlines the specifi c ways in which each of the contributions to this volume animates the metaphor of modality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-32
Number of pages32
JournalUnknown Journal
StatePublished - 2010


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

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