A Tale of Two Michaels: McKeon and Warner on the Virtuality of the Public

Since this is the final day of discussion, I wanted to make sure we responded to at least one of Michael’s questions, so I decided to focus on the Secret History’s relation to another book that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit over the past year: Michael Warner’s Public and Counterpublic (Zone, 2002). As I was reading Michael’s book, I found myself thinking a lot about Warner’s, and, sure enough, I saw Warner’s book acknowledged at some key points of discussion.

As Carrie Shanafelt pointed out on the first day of discussion, “the special thing about the conceptualization of public discourse in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that, suddenly, it becomes one of the main explicit concerns of writers and other public figures.” After quoting McKeon’s reference to Charles Taylor and the “social imaginary” on p. 107, she gives an excellent description of how this social imaginary coalesced:

As any of us working in the long eighteenth century are aware, almost every author of the period has passages explicitly describing, defending, and even performatively constructing a particular relationship between the public and the private selves of the author, or even between the private and public selves of the reader. The text itself self-consciously serves as a mediator between those selves, both creating a public community for discourse through the publicity of publication and offering a subject for private contemplation.

Carrie has noted the important organizing effect of texts in these virtual spaces of community and solitude, an organizing effect that McKeon has characteristically aligned with two other effects of modernity: the emergent division of knowledge that likewise organizes generals and particulars, as well as the modern marketplace, which “conceives value to be a general and homogeneous category available through the equalization of particular and distinct commodities” (106).

Though Warner is not making a historical argument in the manner of McKeon, McKeon’s point about the role of the marketplace as a model for the new, virtual social and communicative relations of modernity adds an important, causal piece of the Big Picture (as Laura would call it) that Warner discusses chiefly in contemporary contexts. McKeon goes on to relate these features of epistemological “disembedding” to the characteristic features of modernity:

These basic features of features of the modern social imaginary–virtuality, self-constitution, reflexivity, –are germane to the fundamental quality of modern socioeconomic and cultural relations, the fact that they are relatively disembodied, mediated rather than face to face, disembedded from the substratum of physical presence and practice. Although in differing ways, modern social relations–the social contract, market exchange, public opinion–are normatively impersonal relations between “strangers” that who have no actual experience of one another (107).

For this statement, McKeon cites a number of sources, including Warner’s book, which includes this interesting passage:

The expansive force of these [modern] cultural forms [nation or public or market] cannot be understood apart from the way they make stranger relationality normative, reshaping the most intimate dimensions of subjectivity around co-membership, with indefinite persons in a context of routine action. The development of forms that mediate the intimate theater of stranger relationality must surely be one of the most significant dimensions of modern history, though the story of this transformation in the meaning of strangers has been told only in fragments. It is hard to imagine such abstract modes of being as rights-bearing personhood, species being, and sexuality, for example, without forms that give concrete shape to the interactivity of those who have no idea with whom they interact (76).

What we owe to McKeon, and what I am grateful to Laura for pointing out as well, is the recognition of how much these modern cultural forms of epistemological “disembedding” and virtual, “disembodied” interactions owe to the emergence of the modern marketplace, as an engine of historical change, as an epistemological model, but also as a model of social relations. And one of the key places where we see this virtuality elaborated is in the distinction between actual and concrete particularity, and the emergent doctrines of realism and the aesthetic (109).


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