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Cultural outsiders can influence public discourse, too, KU scholar says

Thursday, May 23, 2013

LAWRENCE — Citizen bricoleurs: They’re the unsung heroes who spearhead efforts such as the Occupy protests and the food reform movement.

Their work can reshape culture — drawing attention to problems that have otherwise been ignored or overlooked. Yet few people could pick them out of a crowd. They’re not famous. They tend to prefer anonymity.

University of Kansas English Professor Frank Farmer thinks it’s time to recognize the role the citizen bricoleur plays in what he calls “street-level” democracy.  Over the years, they have included punks, anarchists, riot grrrls, “zinesters” and more.

“These citizens don’t want to be on 'Piers Morgan', they don’t want to be on all the talking-heads TV shows — they come from the margins of the public sphere, and they don’t really seek publicity for themselves, but rather for what they do,” said Farmer, whose new book, “After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics and the Citizen Bricoleur,” explores resistant and oppositional discourses in public spheres. Utah State University Press published the book this spring.

The term “bricoleur” comes from the French bricolage, referring to construction achieved by using whatever materials are at hand. In addition to whatever else they make — art, displays, protests, music, texts — citizen bricoleurs make new kinds of publics, or what he and other scholars refer to as counterpublics.

“Think of them as the handymen or handywomen who put things together from what’s discarded, what other people leave behind,” said Farmer. “They want to make a difference, but not necessarily through the usual forms of public engagement, such as running for local office or participating in civic organizations.”

Farmer spent the last few years studying counterpublics — marginalized citizens who break away from the larger public sphere and regroup, often around an identity concerned with a particular issue or cause.

They’re often looking to make the world more fair, more just and equal, but they’ve felt excluded from larger public discourses — those of government or traditional media, for example. As a result, counterpublics are often perceived as anti-institutional, Farmer said.

Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots present a unique opportunity for the study of counterpublics, Farmer adds, because the movement is composed of many, smaller counterpublics, each with its own goals.

“Among its members were community organizers, performers, celebrities, labor leaders, students, political activists, artists, the jobless, the homeless, the transient and more than a few sympathetic pedestrians,” Farmer said.

Farmer writes in the book that the diversity made it difficult for OWS to construct a formal set of demands that could lead to meaningful change.

So what can people learn from citizen bricoleurs and the counterpublics they help to define? For starters, they provide a broader view of what counts as meaningful participation in democracy, Farmer said. In a time when the term citizen has become increasingly hard to define, we may have the opportunity to enlarge our understanding of what democratic citizenship means.

Farmer said he wrote “After the Public Turn” in tribute to the democratic work citizen bricoleurs do.

In the book, he writes: “We need . . . the kind of citizen who believes democracy to be something more than law or policy . . . who knows that while any given democracy must be changed from within, it must also be contested from without by those who exist on the margins, who have been excluded from all the usual forms of participation, and who, because of identity, language, style or preferred ways of being in the world, desire nothing less than an alternative kind of publicness. These, too, are citizens.”