Thursday, January 27, 2005

Speaker's Corner Speakerless

At 16:00 yesterday, on my way to Oxford, I passed Speaker's Corner, in London. It was empty, speakerless. I can notice it was speakerless because it is a place marked for public speech. We also know that a streeet corner like Oxford Circus, only .5 miles away, isn't marked for public speech because people who speak there, like the Sinner or Winner man, are called kooks. Some of the people who speak in Speaker's Corner are kooky, but we recognise their right to speak aloud in public, in that space. Which is to say, we recognise that even if their form of speech is outlandish to us, they (like us) have acknowledged a basic rule: only to speak publicly in the designated areas.

Didier Eribon, in part 2 of his book Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, examines how a form of coded "gay speech" (p. 7), from the 19th c. forward, has helped to constitute a community and a politics through a form of "public expression." Here, too, there are rules for what one can say in public, and consequences for errant speech-acts, for speech-acts of all kinds. Far more violent and intensively imposed rules.

The internet is a form of public. Speaking there, on a blog, through words or photographs, is a kind of public speech act (the trick is to know what kind--but I don't know yet). And there have been consequences, many and various: formations of communities and sub-communities and splinter communities, cults of celebrity, cries from the outside and from the inside of narcissism, complaints that the internet has been flooded by puerile, (or worse) amateur noise. Etcetera.

So I think we can see blogs alongside Speaker's Corner, and other locations for public speech (all places areā€”but the consequences for speaking vary). Not that they are the same, or even analogous, but I think they are governed by similar strictures. Offline, the rules of public space are not homogenous or entirely predictable, and they are not simply migrated wholesale onto the internet, but if the internet is a public which alters or perverts the rules of publics elsewhere (and how can it not?), then still, it is working from the basis of those elsewheres, and so sustains a relationship to them.


Speaker's Corner Speakerless, originally uploaded by Kris Cohen.

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