Michael Warner – Publics and Counterpublics

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Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, Zone Books, 2002.

Why is sexuality (or body) problematic in the realm of politics? Why is it the problem of politics any way? First of all, we can think of the answer in terms of, in Foucauldian sense, biopolitics, which could explain control of population through control of body and sexuality as sovereign power’s inherent authority – whether it is democratic or totalitarian. Individual body is the place where the power relation (domination-subjection) occurs, or reversely, power forms only at the position of subjectivity. But, at the same time, it is where the transgression and resistance to the power relation also occur in the form of pleasure, for instance. Sexuality is at the core of individual sovereignty (right) which cannot be reduced or yielded to others. Furthermore, it is assumed that sexuality is the origin of transgressive pleasure (or intimacy) out of power’s reach – it is private.

Nonetheless, sexuality is not free from the power relation insofar as it is demanding the other’s desire. Desire is not working peacefully. It is basically violent. From Lacanian perspective, we desire other’s desire to us, but it is always impossible to get that desire. We want to love each other but what we do (what we return or get) is nothing but sex – violent pleasure of self. Politics is at the heart of this incoherence. Power recognizes this area of unequal relationship between desires as its own territory where its sovereignty should intervene and mediate. That is the moment when zoe is entering into the realm of bios, if we apply Agamben’s terms. Agamben argues in Homo Sacer, echoing the Foucauldian formula, “the inclusion of bare life in the political realm constitutes the original – if concealed – nucleus of sovereign power. It can even be said that the production of the biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power”(6). Although Agamben does not directly deal with the concept of sexuality in his book, he seems to pay attention to the moment when (or point where) the marginal status of (biological) human life visible – concentration camp, war, rape, abortion, euthanasia, surrogate mother, stem cell, and so on. Relationship between sexuality and politics is in Agamben’s context nothing but that of body and power.

Now, how are publics related to the problem of sexuality and politics? Michael Warner investigates the linkage between sexuality and publics. According to him, as Habermas and Foucault have argued, a hegemonic (dominant) public has institutionalized all the nonstandard intimacies and personalized sex. While Berlant’s concept of privatization of citizenship is describing the process of political project and ideology which makes sex personal, internal and private, Warner’s concept of counterpublics focuses more on the possibility of constructing a kind of counterculture – queer culture – as a world-making project. Thus Warner’s question is how to make sex public and how to make the personal political. The concept of counterpublics, which is derived from Nancy Fraser’s “subaltern counterpublics,” implies the importance of discursive public which “incoroporate the personal/impersonal address and expansive estrangement of public speech as conditions of their common world”(121). For counterpublics, to construct alternative publics by discursive acts and thus to “enter the temporality of politics and adapt themselves to the performatives of rational-critical discourse” is the way in which they can “acquire agency in relation to the state”(124).

However, is the public sphere organized only in terms of discursive activity? Is it the only possible way of the alternative construction (or subversion) of identity to acquire agency in the discursive public sphere? It is hard to think of other ways to achieve this goal, of course, without the transition (transformation) of verbal activity and then of epistemological framework, or put it differently, without counter movements by which intimate sexuality can attain the right position in the public communication and contemporary media (including its educational function). By heavily committing itself to the discursive porformativity, nonetheless, is queer politics not limiting itself in the realm of already established public sphere, in the name of counterpublics?

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