Mary Mullen

  • Assistant Professor, English
  • Villanova University

Publics and Counterpublics— CV

“Our being together doesn’t change the world.” -James Baldwin, Another Country

Michael Warner suggests, “publics are queer creatures” (Public and Counterpublics, 7). Publics don’t simply evince established political forms—the community, the city, the nation; they have complicated relationships to private acts, beliefs, and identity; they are unstable over time. Academics are familiar with the queer nature of publics: how addresses to the “American public” can intensify one’s alienation from the nation, how living in a city does not necessarily make one part of a local community, and how quickly one’s sense of belonging to a larger collective can morph and change.

But in a moment when public universities are increasingly underfunded, academics too often forget that publics are queer creatures. Stabilizing a narrow understanding of “the public,” public humanities pushes engagement with the public without necessarily theorizing what it means by a “public.” Too often, public humanities actually means privatization—as “public” programming is increasingly funded by private foundations and donors. Elsewhere, the public humanities solidifies oppositions between the academy and the very “public” with which it tries to engage, as community partners and faculty are divided by questions of accessibility, relevance, or prestige.

I suggest that these problems result less from actual divisions between academics and non-academics than from misunderstandings sustained by both groups about how theory and practice relate. Public humanities programs are seen as practical: ways of showing the public the value of the humanities, broadening support for humanities research, and raising money. But they rarely reflect or contribute to the theories of the public developed and debated within universities. Even as they aspire to cultivate democracy, public humanities programs insist that knowledge flows in one direction, that it emerges through traditional disciplines and hierarchies, and that the queerness of the public never threatens to queer the university.

My work in the public humanities results from a desire to not only shape public discourse, but to allow the queer nature of publics to shape academic discourse. Whether organizing the Common Read Experience at UW-Milwaukee, volunteering at the Returning the Gift: Writers and Storytellers Conference, or planning panels and discussions on Wikileaks, the bullying of queer youth, or the Wisconsin protests, I do so not to export knowledge to ‘the public’ but rather to break down divisions, subvert hierarchies and open the university to a shifting, unstable public.

Relevant Experience: