‘The Unknown Public’: fragmentary notes on public engagement

Already, I am veering away from what I originally intended this blog to be, i.e. a reflection on the historical use of material culture. A new post on the author as collector (another unashamed reference to Walter Benjamin) is imminent. But I have been distracted a little this week as I have been thinking about a presentation I’m giving next week on ‘public engagement’ and the arts.

Public engagement appears to be a much more palatable term than ‘impact’ for discussing the relationship between academic researchers and the wider world. And so it is. But the more I think about it, the more it also makes me feel slightly uneasy. At first, I found it hard to put my finger on exactly why this was. Then, when reading some Victorian penny papers, it came to me: ‘public engagement’ reminds me of Wilkie Collins.

Yes, Wilkie Collins, the author of such excellent novels as The Woman in White and The Moonstone. In 1858, Collins wrote a famous essay on ‘trash’ literature, titled ‘The Unknown Public‘, which was published in the periodical Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens. For Collins, this cheap literature was evidence of an ignorant ‘unknown public’:

The Unknown Public is, in a literary sense, hardly beginning, as yet, to learn to read. The members of it are evidently, in the mass, from no fault of theirs, still ignorant of almost everything which is generally known and understood among readers whom circumstances have placed, socially and intellectually, in the rank above them

… An immense public has been discovered; the next thing to be done is, in a literary sense, to teach that public how to read.

Collins’ essay has to be understood in the context of the time and the periodical in which he was writing. But it strikes me as odd that, in the twenty-first century, some of the jargon about ‘public engagement’ reminds me of it with its air of superiority [1]. What is meant by the ‘public’ when we talk about public engagement? My PhD supervisor used to tell me off for appealing to ‘anonymous massives’ such as ‘the public’. We wouldn’t allow this sort of sloppy term in our research, so why use it to discuss the communication of that research?

Anyway, below is the blurb I’ve written for my presentation in advance of the actual text. I’d be very interested in any response you might have to it – this is very much still in progress.

Blurb for ‘Public Engagement in the Arts’

I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis on the publication of the works of Karl Marx and the role of books and reading in the lives of British Marxists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I’ve recently worked with The Cornerhouse and the artist Phil Collins in connection with the latter’s marxism today project (see http://www.cornerhouse.org/art/info.aspx?ID=418&page=0) and was asked to chair and set the agenda of a panel discussion on the exhibition that brought together philosophers, sociologists, historians (well, me!) and artists to discuss the relevance of Marx in the twenty-first century (see http://www.cornerhouse.org/events/info.aspx?ID=1873&page=0).

I’ve also just started a blog relating to my interest in material culture. This is in VERY early stages but is already proving useful as a place to think through and discuss methodological and theoretical issues.

In this short presentation, I will question what we mean by ‘public engagement’. I want to suggest that we should reflect more carefully about what we are actually hoping to achieve when we share our work. I find some of the discourse surrounding the ‘impact agenda’ extremely limiting because it seems to treat ‘the public’ simply as an audience ready and waiting to receive our perfectly polished gems of research and sometimes verges upon patronising the audience it seeks to appeal to. Conversely, I have found that the most interesting discussions I have had about my work both inside and outside of the academy have been in response to sharing the problems, puzzles and process of research in progress. Sharing the thought processes and practical experience of research when actually in the thick of it has been much more rewarding for me, because it helps me to think through the problems I encounter and other people have become active collaborators rather than simply my ‘audience’. Sharing my work has gradually become an integral part of the research process itself. I would also argue that, in these times when the arts are under attack, sharing the way that we work is much more engaging and educative than simply sharing the work itself. Relatively few PhD topics are likely to be intrinsically exciting to a wide audience and can often appear bafflingly obscure at face value (I have seen the glazed-over eyes more than once … ) But opening up the process of research highlights the effort and expertise involved in undertaking any research in a much more tangible and engaging manner.

More practically, I will talk about how to raise the visibility of your research online (particularly using social networking sites and blogs) and how to turn casual online contact into concrete opportunities to further your research and – rather indirectly – your career.

[1] For an excellent discussion of Collins’ essay, which highlights the ambiguity underlying this surface smugness, however, see Lorna Huett, ‘Among the Unknown Public: Household Words, All the Year Round and the Mass-Market Weekly Periodical in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, Victorian Periodicals Review – Volume 38, Number 1, Spring 2005, pp. 61-82.

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2 Responses to ‘The Unknown Public’: fragmentary notes on public engagement

  1. Al says:

    Perhaps the use of ‘cloud culture’ within social networking and the blog arena will allow the networking possibilities you describe. Having a wider audience to question and critique your musings in real time gives you a myriad of possibilities, and, the links that researchers need so desperately to tie new found knowledge into usable factual debate can be found in online conversation. You just need to filter out the unusable without patronising your live audience and losing the focus of the research. This of course relies on your online audience being huge and for that you must also embrace the ‘unknown public’

  2. Tom says:

    Perhaps ‘social feedback’ would be better term than public engagement !

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