The dichotomy “public/private” has played a protean role in the modern era. Each of its terms carries shifting and oddly opposing connotations. Publicness can mean connections to the state, the condition of collective reason, or involuntary exposure. The private can be introspective, proprietarial, or a matter of deprivation. Yet each term and the dichotomy that joins and distinguishes them carries a profound normative connotation and plays an important role shaping basic ideas about the organization of social life. We seek the public good, we fear loss of our privacy, we wonder whether the public sphere is strong or weak.
In the present lecture, I want to explore the idea of publicness as a form of practice, a modality of social action, manifested in the sociability and mutual awareness of strangers and in the capacity of such strangers to undertake collective action, including communication. In this sense, publicness depends on learned capacities of individuals, including both habits and embodied knowledge. We may be better or worse prepared to be public. Publicness is also underpinned and shaped by social institutions and culture, not merely in formal or legal senses but in informal, practical senses.
There are normative questions about each dimension. There are questions about how to be good strangers, all the more interesting because so much thought about what it means to be good in relationships derives from strong relational bonds like family, friendship and community and applies less well to strangers. There are also questions about when publicness itself is good, or not, as for example transparency is a widespread ideal and forced exposure or imposed publicity a threat.