Since March 2020 I’ve been keeping a kind of diary on the word “public.” Without doing so consciously, I’ve used it to help me make sense of how the pandemic has both exacerbated long-standing tensions of living together and revealed new forces of collective life. Over a year since this pandemic’s start, it’s a good time to take stock of what “public” means, trace how and why those meanings have changed, and see how close interrogations of the word might help us through the days ahead.

As I’ve watched “public life” unfold this past year, I’ve seen people lament their shared loneliness, rage against forced associations, discover forms of solidarity, scour history for help with how to collectively cope with uncertainty, invent new shared rituals of caring and grief, rediscover the precarity of natural environments, and ask a seemingly simplistic but fundamental question: Why do we need each other at all? The pandemic has been confusing and disorienting, in part because, it has shown how an everyday word like “public” actually contains myriad assumptions about why and how to live together.

The pandemic has reminded us how

  • dangerous and fantastical it is to rely on presumably rational and deliberative governance systems to manage public life;
  • quickly ecological worlds can disrupt and reconfigure the shared and precarious physical environments that most people cannot escape; and
  • unevenly distributed public failures are, and how the seeming stability of shared social life depends upon layers of exploitation and power.

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to pause and rethink the meaning of “public.” If we take it, we have a chance to reexamine how this persistently vague, ubiquitous, powerful concept underpins so many assumptions about how to relate to others, build infrastructures, and understand ecological systems.

“Public” then

Despite critiques, for far too long, many academics, journalists, and politicians implicitly clung to a staid, Habermasian equation of “public” with “public sphere.” This sphere was envisioned as a space for rational debate and deliberative exchange premised on the unfettered expression of high-quality, truthful information that, through institutional designs, bracketed identities, and the magic of a marketplace of speech, would create good public life. It would surface but move beyond differences, justly allocate resources, and stand as a defensible process for creating the shared conditions of social life.

This is the image of “public” that social media companies and journalists often pursue. In their quixotic fights against the mis/disinformation that underpins their business models but sullies their reputations, and in their persistent search for “both sides” to a story, technologists and reporters alike show an allegiance to a deliberative public sphere.

“Many people’s implicit and unspoken understandings of “public” float gently upon stable, predictable, and privileged assumptions about collective life.”

Similarly, many people’s implicit and unspoken understandings of “public” float gently upon stable, predictable, and privileged assumptions about collective life. Representational government is flawed and untrusted but it is hard to imagine anything otherwise. The media and everyday political conversations are messy and seemingly rife with bias, but we look to them for truthful information that will protect us from manipulation and conspiracy theories. Whether you thought about “public” in terms of government, information, climate, movement, infrastructure, or health, the basic platforms of collective life were certainly perceived as flawed—but they also seemed stable, predictable, and redeemable.

But not to everyone. That last paragraph drips with the privilege of not having to think about the meaning of “public” because those seemingly stable systems were largely invisible to everyone of certain means, class, race, geography, and history. Yes, they were broken and always in need of improvement, but few people fundamentally questioned the promise and salvagability of representative government, journalism, and ecological management. The past year has forced a privileged “us” to rethink the word “public” because, for many, the presumably stable “we” no longer gently glides upon assumptions that our public institutions are manageably flawed and ultimately redeemable. Abolition of all kinds is increasingly part of the mainstream public imagination and the last several years of political and pandemic communication show, this ideal of the public is variously unrealistic, unachievable, and undesirable. We need new ideals of “public.”

Changing the meaning of “public”

Understanding changing notions of “public” means tracing interconnectedness. Some of these connections are longstanding but previously invisible, some are amusing, others are heartbreaking, and still others are hard to make sense of. Taken together, they show patterns of collective destabilization that must be understood if we are to reconstruct the idea of “public” in a postpandemic age.

After canceling its flower festivals and begging residents to stay away from the roses blooming in Yono Park, Japanese authorities cut the heads off thousands of roses, killing the public beauty that people refused to stop thronging to see. The town of Lund, Sweden, dumped “a tonne of chicken manure in its central park in a bid to deter up to 30,000 residents from gathering.”

“‘Public’ responses to both the pandemic and climate crisis depend upon prison labor and racist systems of incarceration.”

A nurse recalled that the last words of her dying patient, before he was placed on a ventilator, were “who’s going to pay for this?” (an old question many were asking anew), and hospitals across the country used prison labor to clean soiled laundry. People living in prisons rife with the virus washed the sheets of the people who died worrying about how to pay for their treatment. And when California finally decided that the virus had made prisons too dangerous and released inmates, the state quickly discovered that those same prisoners were the essential public workforce it needed to fight the wildfires ravaging the state. As first responders strained to contain the effects of the public climate crisis, and communities burned, many saw for the first times how the seeming stability of American public life depends upon layers of racism. In “normal” times, incarcerated Black people are critically important for making public prisons privately profitable, for washing linen, and for fighting fires. “Public” responses to both the pandemic and climate crisis depend upon prison labor and racist systems of incarceration. There is no public management of collective life without interconnected systems that need and perpetuate racism.

The pandemic has also shown how much the very idea of “public” depends upon expertise and even seemingly boring questions of measurement. In the United States, states disagreed on how high someone’s temperature needs to be to stay home (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit in Ohio, 99.5 in Delaware); the Trump government said that “science should not stand in the way of” schools reopening; and the Russian government gamed its pandemic numbers by distinguishing dying “from” coronavirus from dying “of” coronavirus. The California governor warned counties not to try to “game” their transmission numbers by excluding Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, and low-income populations from their infection counts. Maryland hid its coronavirus testing kits from a federal government it did not trust. The mayor of Los Angeles lamented the virus’s easy movements across city jurisdictions that would not agree on common responses. Two Sioux tribes used roadblocks to isolate themselves from virus-ridden South Dakota, and Santa Cruz lifted its beach restrictions not because it was safe but because the public health officer said that “people are not willing to be governed anymore.”

Roses, people, chicken manure, fire, prisons, hospital sheets, elected officials, fever thresholds, state power, and Covid-19 are all pieces of public life. Part of what has made the pandemic so disorienting is that we do not understand how these pieces fit together, which pieces have what types of power, and what it might mean for pieces to fit “successfully.”

Public officials call on people to remove themselves from public spaces in the interests of public health—to shelter in place, physically isolate, and work remotely in the service of a greater good. But this greater public good is only possible if people without the power to isolate themselves stay in public places, bringing the take-out food and Amazon packages that sustain the isolators. Dewey’s idea of the public as “shared consequences” quickly breaks down if you can outsource those consequences to others.

“You didn’t get to do the publicly responsible things that would make your spaces less dangerous, in part because the idea of ‘essential’ depended upon unquestioned assumptions about who creates public life.”

At the outset of the pandemic, if you had enough money or a powerful job, you could get a coronavirus test, experimental drugs, and a vaccine almost instantly. You could do the publicly responsible thing, learn your status, report your contacts, and quarantine yourself. But if you were an “essential” worker (e.g., transit workers were initially not classified as such and food deliverers and farm workers were classified differently from grocery workers) or experiencing homelessness and had to rely on initially sporadically available public testing services, you could not be part of the public who tested and knew their status. Even though you have to navigate dangerous, shared, “public” spaces, you probably had to fight for the privilege of testing and quarantining. You didn’t get to do the publicly responsible things that would make your spaces less dangerous, in part because the idea of “essential” depended upon unquestioned assumptions about who creates public life. And if you lacked access to testing and healthcare and vaccines and decided to stay home (the publicly responsible thing to do), states like Ohio used “the public” against you, encouraging your neighbors to report you so the state can take away your unemployment insurance.

Pandemic life has been so difficult, in part, because the “public”—as an idea, relationships, and infrastructures—has been downright anemic. We were caught off-guard not only because our public infrastructures were so weak and inaccessible but because we lacked the imagination to see ourselves as connected, dependent, and inextricably sharing the same ultimate fates.

Pandemic life has shown precarious interconnections among civic, domestic, and work worlds, starkly reminding us of inequalities that have always existed, that some people have always known about and felt.

For example, the pandemic has divided parents between those who can afford physically distanced tutors and low-density private schools versus those who need public schools to work and survive. Yet, among those who need public schools, there is further fragmentation. Parents who work from home can isolate themselves and, if possible, attempt some version of home-schooling—but their productivity and careers suffers dramatically, with women’s suffering the most. They are at the mercy of understanding employers, colleagues, and clients. Parents who work outside the home—in particular those who take public transit to work in public places—have had to scramble to figure out alternatives that keep their children safe and on educational paths. Parents who have relied on public schools for children’s meals have suffered tremendously and had to search for alternatives. Children sheltering in abusive homes are not regularly seen by public school teachers, but in Mississippi truancy officers still show up on the doorsteps of mostly Black, brown, and poor households. LGBT+ students forced to return home from college prematurely found themselves in unsafe environments and increasingly called suicide helplines. Many college students and professors alike were told to keep their cameras on during class, forcing them to reveal their homes—and subject their bodies to surveillance—in ways that dramatically rework earlier divides between school and home, public and private life.

Beyond the public sphere trap

“Examples abound that are dizzyingly different—I do not mean these as equivalent—that illustrate how the pandemic has revealed different senses of ‘public.’”

Examples abound that are dizzyingly different—I do not mean these as equivalent—that illustrate how the pandemic has revealed different senses of “public.” Some cities converted parking spots into outdoor dining spaces and quickly created bike lanes, using the pandemic to precipitate a reimagining of what public urban space looks like. When cities initially shut down, birds could hear their songs more easily and thrived as a result; when beaches cleared and oceans quieted, sea turtles and whales found new life. Until the climate crisis fires started, Los Angeles briefly had the world’s best air quality. Japanese theme parks told their rollercoaster riders to “scream inside your heart” because public shouts could spread the virus. A government tool for allocating public resources—the census—reported that it was in peril, in part, because quarantined people were afraid to open their doors to masked enumerators. We showed how elections could proceed through mail-in ballots, but only if public institutions like the post office functioned properly. Government relief packages have shown how publicly valuable a universal basic income could be, a public innovation that had not been tested. Labor rights and collective bargaining movements that had seemed unattainable have rapidly advanced, and suffered setbacks, as the pandemic showed gig workers to be essential and tech companies resisted such recognition. Telecommunication companies struggling to meet initial pandemic demand for work-from-home internet showed that data caps and throttling were never really needed, suggesting a new public urgency for technology governance. Faculty questioned why their universities needed such large endowments if administrators were not willing to spend their “rainy day” funds during a pandemic. News organizations dropped and then quietly raised their paywalls for pandemic stories. Los Angeles suspended power and water shutdowns and evictions for people who couldn’t pay, but the city also showed its power over public utilities when it stopped power and water from flowing to party houses spreading the virus.

While not all of these “solutions” are sustainable, the pandemic showed us what is publicly possible—what public life could be like.

In a strange and maudlin way, the pandemic has shown us ways out of this public sphere trap. It has shown us that “public” life is made not only by rational talk but also by

  • social arrangements that once seemed fanciful or unrealistic (e.g., universal basic incomes, abolished police forces, shuttered prisons);
  • feelings that convene people into affective communities (e.g., fears of a virus or a vaccine, the relief of hugging someone, or the guilt of surviving);
  • spectacles and performances that drive witnessing and testimony (e.g., “I voted” stickers, banging pots and pans to thank first responders, posting vaccine selfies to social media);
  • listening and empathizing and moving beyond personal self-interests (e.g., truly trying to understand the life experiences driving someone to be a vaccine doubter or virus denier);
  • inextricably linked material consequences (e.g., not just the vaccine itself but brief urban respites from noise, air pollution, or traffic);
  • categories, classifications, and terminologies that build bureaucracy (e.g., “essential worker,” “lockdown,” “social isolation”);
  • social justice movements and nation-state power (e.g., governmental breakups of asylum families and borders that let some people in and shut others out);
  • collective and niche responses to expertise and scientific knowledge (e.g., not only anti-lockdown protests and anti-vaccination movements, but also fast and widespread adherence to public health guidance, vaccine uptakes, and the power of vaccine lotteries to incentivize private actions in the public interest);
  • agonism, resistance, fighting, and protest (e.g., Black Lives Matter marches, labor organizing, police abolition movements, bans against facial recognition and online surveillance);
  • rejections of the very idea of representative government (e.g., the January 6 insurrection and voter suppression laws).

These are big questions that seem abstract, but they are with us every day. As the past year has shown, the idea of “public” is in the eeriness of a silent rollercoaster, bird songs struggling to be heard, double-masked delivery workers, unfought fires, party houses with no water, prison laundries, decapitated roses, state insurrections, and deepfake detectors.

We should continue to see and trace all the varied, contradictory, and powerful forces that make “public” life.

Banner photo: Laura James/Pexels.