2nd March 2012

Materials and devices of the public

Noortje Marres & Javier Lezaun

A few months ago we published a special section of the journal Economy and Society dedicated to the ‘Materials and Devices of the Public’. The papers originated in a workshop celebrated at Goldsmiths in the now distant past of 2008. The issue includes articles by Gay Hawkins (on the publics of packaging), Sarah Whatmore and Catharina Landstrom (on the materiality of participation in flood management and prevention), as well as our own contributions: on domestic carbon accounting devices, and experimental democracies onboard merchant ships.

What is the relevance of our arguments about publics for the discussions on consumption that Charisma hopes to foster? Like many of the ideas already proliferating on this site, our interest in the materials and devices through which publics come into being is motivated by a desire to challenge the separation of politics and economics. This is, of course, a recurrent theme in contemporary consumer studies, where the very act of posing such a distinction in the first place – even if it is just to debunk it – might seem obsolete. Consumption is one of the mechanisms through which collectives acquire a certain material heft: it continuously inserts objects, substances and devices into the fabric of our everyday lives, and connects us in non-trivial ways to unexpected others. We are getting used to the idea that our purchasing decisions involve us in new and emergent forms of publicity. Even if this also spells trouble, as the issues that consumers are implicated in are not, on the whole, issues they can address in their capacity of consumers.

The situation is rather different in political philosophy and prescriptive democratic theory. There, contact with the material everyday is more often than not seen as a source of contamination, a constraint on our capacity to act in a disinterested, citizenly fashion. Publics are imagined to emerge through acts of discursive deliberation, and that requires extricating individuals from their mundane concerns and object-worlds, relocating them into specifically political settings and rationalities. You are not supposed to enter the agora with a heavy baggage of attachments to things, gadgets or, for that matter, consumer products.

Our special section in Economy and Society makes a series of points that will resonate with many of the arguments appearing on Charisma. One is the effort to look for the formation of publics in places often categorized as non- or extra-political. The home – as a platform for engaging with climate change – is a case in point, and so are the once popular programmes to create miniature democracies in industrial workplaces.

Augmented teapot

Public participation via an augmented, carbon aware teapot (see Marres’ article)

The papers also offer variations and deviations on the new economic sociology and their position on the role of perfomative devices, and the co-articulation of politics and economics. In their articles, Hawkins and Whatmore & Landstromm argue in favour of infusing a performative analysis of participation with notions of vitalism and affect. In her paper, Noortje questions the prioritization of economics over politics in Callon’s notion of co-articulation. Everyday technologies of carbon accounting (‘carbon dieting’) enable both a politics of participation and economization – and whether one or another category takes precedence is an open, empirical question, and something that is very much at stake in everyday practices of carbon accounting. Which is also to say that the different papers in the issue point towards everyday practices that may involve consumption, but also extend beyond it, and that, precisely to the extend that this is so, enable forms of political engagement.

The papers react against a certain way of conceiving the material dimensions of politics, what we describe as sub-political approaches to the formation of publics. By this we mean those accounts in which objects, settings and architectures exert an invisible, constitutive force in the formation of political subjects – subjects who are, by the same token, unaware and unable to articulate the very relevance of those material entanglements for the quality of their political being. Consumption is, again, a great counterpoint to this discussion, for it is difficult to argue that our attachments to consumer products suffer from a deficit of publicity. There is, if anything, a saturation of discourse about the costs and benefits, significance and implications, value and values of different purchasing decisions. Consumption forces us to enter into multiple, often conflicting public arenas, and to do so fully equipped to argue, assess and contest the implications of our choices, and the way in which those choices implicate us in one or another kind of public.