Monica Narula on Tue, 29 May 2001 14:29:57 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> On the Public Domain: From the Sarai Reader 01

Posted here is an email discussion from within Sarai which was 
printed in the Sarai Reader 01, around the idea of the public domain, 
and what it does and can constitute.

All responses welcome. For more articles, go to and 
click on Journal-> Reader.
Discussing the Public Domain

Subject: The public in the Public Domain
X-Mailer: Mozilla/3.0 (compatible; StarOffice/5.1; Linux)

I am interested in trying to stretch the meanings of the word 
'Public' in the expression Public Domain to express something as 
hidden as it is ubiquitous. This may shade off into meanings that are 
the very opposite of what we commonly understand when we say 'Public'.
Remember the Hindi film song that said "Šyeh public jo hai, sub 
jaanti hai" (this Public, it knows everything). This usage of the 
word makes the Public, which seems to be a presence, into an animate 
entity, a sentient being - a carrier of knowledge and a vector of 
information. The "it knows everythingŠ" of the song, suggests that 
this body of knowledge includes things that are not necessarily 
apparent, or visible, or transparent. It means, the Public knows more 
things than are generally up for grabs in, lets say, the 'marketplace 
of the knowable'. It suggests codes and protocols of encryption that 
circulate in self-governing constellations of people, data and 
cultures. It evokes the idea of very public secrets, of whispers, 
rumours, prophecies, blandishments, fantasies and calls for 
insurrection that no one may be willing to speak out loud for fear of 
being caught (a very wise and necessary fear) but which, 
nevertheless, everyone is murmuring.
This means that the Public Domain may be the safest refuge for those 
ideas that are vulnerable because they are the most radical. The ones 
that need to be most obscure to the censor, and at the same time most 
understandable in common speech, because they are the closest to 
lived experience.
The desire to place cultural material - beginning with the software 
in, and between, our machines, and ending with the software in, and 
between, our minds - squarely in the Public Domain, means that we are 
creating a body of work without necessarily placing any value on the 
fact of who has created them, where each can contribute to his/her 
inclination and take according to his/her desire. The identities of 
the giver and receiver being fluid and in some senses meaningless in 
this transaction, suggests that the origins and points of 
transmission of messages can not be reliably verified, and are 
therefore difficult to police. The costume designs of identification 
and the disguises of anonymity are equally attractive forms of 
attire. In shifting between one and the other, between secrets and 
announcements, lies the enigmatic attraction of the adventure sport 
of surfing the Public Domain.

Subject: Discussing the Public Domain

The history of the public domain is not an easy one. In his classic 
text, The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett traces the first use of 
the 'public' to England in 1470, where it was a shorthand for the 
common 'good'.Similarly, 'le public' in 17th century France was a 
region of sociability and conversation. It seems to me that classical 
western notions of the 'public' as a space of conversation, 
solidarity and dialogue face a run into a theoretical conundrum. Most 
accounts (Habermas, etc.) trace a high point in the early modern 
period and map a period of secular decline from industrial capitalism 
in the 19th century. From the 19th century the distinction firmly 
drove the sphere of intimacy into the private sphere, and public 
conversation declined. Modern architecture, particularly the 
International Movement emptied 'public' space, making it a formal, 
dead space - witness Corbusier's plans for Algiers and Chandigarh.
In the Indian case the street (the market, the tea stall) was always 
a space for public conversation in most towns and cities. Colonialism 
attempted to formalise this conversation, by setting up norms of the 
'public good'. The idea of the 'public good' is a deeply problematic 
one, all the more when we grapple with the contemporary. There is 
certain violence to the way in which the 'public good' has been 
retailed in the recent past in India's cities. Given the experience 
of the past few decades my personal sensibility would be to critique 
the entire discourse of the public good as it stands in India, where 
the term is increasingly moving towards a legal right to live, work 
and move in the city.
Is conversation possible in a future public domain? It seems to me 
that in the new media, there is conversation - among communities of 
free software coders, between sub-cultures of youth, hackers, sexual 
minorities. The important thing is that all this is happening in a 
medium that is ambivalent to space in the classic sense of the term. 
There is nothing 'Western' about this. Those cultural elites who have 
no problem in valourising print culture as a period of possibility 
would do good to take a stroll down the back alleys of their own 
neighbourhoods and see the social groups who are participating in the 
culture of new media. The vast majority of Indians access the new 
media outside their homes, diverging from the West.
Thinking about a future public domain must also lead us to question 
the classic and easy relationship between space and conversation, 
between intimacy and solidarity. There are no easy answers here, but 
the questions must begin.

Subject: What's this public?

Is it possible to construct a homogenous 'public' outside of class, 
caste, gender, race? Can the 'public' be a resolved category?
What happens to these multiplicities in a singular concept?
For those who go from home to work, and commute long hours to come 
home again, public space is basically the interminable zone between 
work, and rest, in order to go back to work again. And the park is 
usually for a short snatched siesta at lunch. Which is why they are 
locked and wetted at night.
For many women, entry into the public space is marked by idioms that 
work like umbrellas. They provide the required shadow in which they 
can experience the otherwise common sensation of being within a group 
of those who are familiar, not so familiar, or strangers.
One idiom that serves this purpose well is religion. My mother, for 
example, goes to kirtan every week. These are like kitty kirtan 
gatherings. Devotional songs, gossip, domestic knowledge, anxieties, 
and sometimes even wishes and desires are shared. Later, she returns 
home with prasad for the family. But like all the others, she has 
ensured that her time-out matches the not-at-home time of the other 
members of her family. In that sense, her public space is a temporal 
Another idiom is the commodity. For a woman to spend time in the 
market, the alibi has to be that she needs to buy something, a 
definitive sanctioned purpose. My mother enjoys going to the local 
market and the weekly bazaars. She moves around these spaces with 
confidence and poise. She bargains, weighs, buys and exclaims. But 
when she returns, she has to describe the bazaar experience as 
To be able to loiter, 'without intent', in a strange space, without 
the protection or the burden of umbrellas, may be a desire that will 
require a more open rendition of the public.
Another strand entirely:
If the curfew is a censorship of public space,
Then IPC Section 144 is the Cinematograph Act of the public space,
And the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act is a sub-clause.
But where, then, is the censor board of the public space?

Subject: For a discussion on Public Domain

A court judgement says, "The airways are public property". It is so 
because they have been created by public money. The job of the State 
is to manage and regulate the usage of this resource.
So, a specific definition around access, boundaries, permissibility, 
desirability, infringements, and sanctions has been marked and 
licenses will be promulgated. We can clearly see how a regulated and 
monitored space is being produced under the term 'public'.
Another term that emerges in the examination of such usage is the 
'public sector', used interchangeably with 'government business 
undertakings'. Here the irreconcilable contradiction between labour 
and capital is hidden under the dominant meaning-constructs of 
'public good' and 'public necessity'.
The term 'public order' is used insistently by the state to intervene 
and regulate in all kinds of issues, contests and conflicts. Here 
again the word is being used as a category that dissolves social 
antagonisms, contradictions, issues of power and access. Probably 
only 'public administrators' wholly understand the deep nuances of 
the term!
At one level the word 'public' is deeply imbricated within the 
state's presence in the ordering, regulating, monitoring, and 
creating of spaces, social wealth and discourses. But at another 
level it is clearly evident that this same word also makes possible a 
laying of a larger claim, to resources and spaces that would 
otherwise remain inaccessible to many. People contest various forms 
of economic and social denial, expropriation, and repression by 
creatively working out differing definitions of 'public good', 
'public lands', 'public interest', etc. This is what corporations, 
for example, find difficult to push out of their way, and will 
increasingly find it so because of multiplying contestations for the 
same resources. There is only so much land and water and air.
At this definitional level, it may be productive to engage with all 
the various definitions of the public that are being articulated 
through various contestations and negotiations. The crucial question, 
of course, is: from which vantage point is one to look at this 
contestation and which definition does one extend? I would think that 
an 'imaginary' of an 'ought to be', of a desirable social formation, 
perhaps exists, lingering somewhat as an under-articulated shadow.
I would prefer an imaginary which works out the politics and poetics 
of 'open and common' space, with un-regulated access. Imagination, 
creativity, fantasy and dreams would together produce, protect and 
multiply this fragile commons. The practice of the making of 'digital 
public databases', for example, or sharing music over the net, or 
developing software in a free and open way, seem to be asking for a 
challenging and inventive concept of the public. In that sense the 
term 'Public Domain' seems to me to have such a meaning, or at least 
to posit it, as it is a term not located in just the spatial.
But un-regulated access does not mean that one disregards various 
not-so-visible boundaries of this public domain. Since meanings are 
very mobile, they need to be continuously and creatively worked upon. 
Just like its earlier cousins, 'Public Domain' is also under pressure 
of being mutated into 'public space'!

From: Saumya Gupta <>
Subject: Anybody/Everybody

Continuing with the above, one can think of the opportunity/handicap 
of effacement that people have in the urban domain, not so in a 
village. Isn't it a case of nobody knows anybody vs. everybody knows 
everybody? By definition, I think, the public domain wants me to 
identify myself before it engages with me. Which is not to say that 
you cannot be anonymous in the public domain. It has historically 
signified a kind of happy nameless, effaced existence. But that is 
only when you are thought of as collectivity, and you think, behave, 
demand as a collective public. The moment you want to avail of 
something individually, a public identity has to be posited. For 
something as simple as travel by train, you have to be somebody 
identifiable, authenticated, verified.
Is the public something people are part of, or is it something inside 
them? Can the notion of a public have fantasy connotations?
The question of identity within a public domain deeply engages me. I 
am many things, many personas, and for me to define myself as one of 
those leads me into the terrain of suppositions, assumptions and even 
fabrication. I am not comfortable with this but do it all the time. 
The public domain then is a realm of fantasy identities that we 
assume as and when required. The multilayered-ness of self means that 
each of us is always/already made up of many 'virtual' selves. Which 
leads me to think - do I have to necessarily fabricate to be a part 
of a public? Any Public? Is the public domain just a notional entity?

From: Awadhendra Sharan <>
Subject: On the Public Domain

It seems to be that the Public domain, as a domain of experience, is 
of at least three types: political public domain, cultural public 
domain and a more generalized sense of the public which is the object 
of Development and Nation-building, the population as public. In the 
first two modes, publics constitute themselves; they exercise choice 
and decide to be counted. The public as population, however, is acted 
upon, is subject to agendas set from above, albeit accompanied by the 
rhetoric of participation. For the population as public, protest is 
the only mode of expressing choice.
All forms of the 'public' inhabit both an idealized space and many 
mutable forms of existing ones. Universal access (of adults) and 
active participation in issues of general interest characterize the 
ideal political public. Universal access within cultural boundaries, 
howsoever imagined, and a concern with intra-community issues 
characterize the ideal cultural public. Children, men and women are 
all constituents of this cultural public. Finally, the concern with 
equity, the daridranarayan as primary beneficiary marks the ideal 
stance of the population as public rhetoric.
Real publics, to be sure, differ widely from these idealized 
formulations. There are boundary keepers in all instances of the 
public, assuming such role through status, power or consent. These 
boundary keepers are also constantly challenged, the contest being 
most marked in instances where the State abrogates to itself the role 
of the watchdog, ensuring that only 'desirable' forms of public are 
constituted and others suppressed. The contest is not absent in the 
case of cultural publics either with the young, women and assetless 
asserting for recognition against the policing role assumed by the 
elder, male and propertied representatives of the community. These 
are indeed necessary contests if actually existing publics wish to 
strive towards idealized publics.
There is, however, another issue within the various forms of publics 
about which we have not worried enough. This concerns not the gap 
between the ideal and the real, but
the form of the ideal itself, of articulating interests that are 
general, beyond immediate
and parochial interests. The ideal signals to the possibility of ways 
in which we can think of collective interests, without prejudice, 
bias or calculations of personal benefit. It empowers each individual 
to assume responsibility for an abstract sense of the collective than 
that into which one has been born, to step beyond boundaries that are 
already drawn for us.
This ideal possibility of a universal way of becoming public is most 
marked in the political and the imaginations of the population as 
public. To a lesser extent, however, it is located within cultural 
public imaginary too.
I subscribe to this imagination. I believe that in a deeply 
inegalitarian society such as India, there is a need to aspire 
towards universality, to step outside one's ascribed status and 
identities. But this assent to universality immediately poses 
problems for I simultaneously recognize that the universal has often 
been a cloak for disguising the parochial. That it has historically 
served as an excuse for civilisational violence. On a different 
register, I realize too that in many instances public articulation is 
the basis for constituting the personal. To offer a divide between 
the private and the public would therefore serve to rob us of this 
I have no answers to this dilemma. Acting as a universal public, 
while recognizing one's situated-ness, seems to offer a way of 
negotiating with it. But this is possibly easier argued in theory 
than enacted in the public.

Subject: Public Domain - A few comments

It is obvious in the discussion that public domains are historically 
constituted and reconstituted through a series of contestations. In 
the modern and our own times, the idea of Democracy has worked itself 
out through various public domains. What is also crucial is the issue 
of violence in determining the shape and nature of the public domain. 
Violence is often deployed, in South Asian situations at least, to 
articulate a political point. As an important weapon in the struggle 
for or against power, it creates a logic of its own, marginalising 
other forms/agencies of political actors. Since the predicament is 
doubly ironical in a country like India which has produced one of the 
most successful and non-violent mass movements, violence as a tool of 
political hegemony is worth thinking about.
Language is another, perhaps less dramatic, but equally significant 
entry point to the conundrum as to how public domains get 
constituted. And the case of India's so-called National Language - 
Hindi - is curious. It is simultaneously the language of power as 
well as struggle. On the one hand it is pitted against the might of 
English, the language of erstwhile colonial masters that is also the 
language of the elite in India. But it would be a gross 
simplification to suggest that Hindi is only the language of masses. 
Because it quickly picked up the tricks of power and became the 
language of command in Independent India, devouring the numerous rich 
dialects in the process of standardising and 'Sanskritising' itself. 
Official Hindi became increasingly wooden and remote from living 
culture. This parallel culture of the popular of course continues to 
thrive in the films, fiction, songs and poetry. But there is the 
perpetual anxiety: why has Hindi not been able to graduate to become 
the language of research and reflection? Is it doomed to go on 
servicing the traditional, although by all accounts very rich, 
literary domain?
After this sketchy backgrounder, one can perhaps respond to the 
issues of Digital Divide raised by Geert Lovink. Yes, it is an issue 
here. With the onset of digital communications the anxiety referred 
to above has acquired a new dimension. There is a sense of being left 
out, an urgency to catch up with breakneck speed with which 
technologies worldwide are updating themselves while the Hindi 
Virtual Public Domain struggles to develop such basic computational 
tools as Digital Dictionaries, Spell Checkers, and E-mail. This is 
one side of the story. On the other side is also the large majority 
that is paranoid of the New Media, coming as it does packaged in the 
larger ensemble of Globalisation and the attendant structural 
adjustments and unbridled consumerism. The cultural shock of 
satellite TV is not yet over (the government is considering banning 
Fashion TV, on grounds of obscenity) and people are being bombarded 
with the mixed fare that is the World Wide Web. The tentative 
presence of Hindi on the Web is refreshing to the extent that the 
language here is more eclectic than officious and some innovations 
are taking place outside state tutelage, in the arena of small 
entrepreneurship and collective endeavours. Although, overwhelming 
NRI input is more in the nature of nostalgia rather than creativity 
and ways of seeing are not new at all. So, on the whole, digital 
technology is being received with apprehension and awe for the moment 
by the entrenched Hindi intelligentsia, the initial breakthroughs 
notwithstanding. The battle of languages to climb on to the 
triumphalist technological bandwagon and the sad story of the ones 
missing out and thereby getting relegated in the emergent public 
domain is interesting even as we try to make languages 

From: Ravi Vasudevan <>
Subject: Sarai Public Domain Discussion

There is a debate in India about the quandaries contemporary culture 
and politics faces in dealing with frameworks for representation. 
This has to do with looking at categories and frameworks which have 
emerged from western political and cultural theory, and center on the 
status of civil society - classically defined as the domain of freely 
associating individuals who determine the structures of political and 
cultural action - in the circumstances of a post colonial society 
riven with economic, educational, cultural, and status inequalities 
and hierarchies. These divisions have often meant that everyone 
cannot freely associate, have a voice within civil institutions and 
lay claim to the resources of the state. The irony has been that when 
new, formerly subordinated groups enter the civil domain they may 
entirely infringe the protocols of representation, discussion and 
communication, often very violently. Let us say that there is an 
inevitable, and perhaps necessary destabilization of such protocols, 
before a new, more equitable consensus emerges to determine adequate 
changes. While this debate around the civil defines one form of the 
exceeding of the repressive functions of normative structures, where 
does this place the issue of public discourse?
My sense is that the public cannot, in terms of conceptual 
creativity, simply mirror this process of cultural and political 
representation, or alternative formulations such as political 
society. The creativity of public forms and the public domain can 
have a series of on the ground, everyday dimensions, where people 
work at the interstices of legality, build ties and networks, adjust 
with the powers that be in the adminstration and police, to form a 
necessarily unstable public - with drives to find employment, to gain 
knowledges and effect communication, to dissemble about one's 
identity, to develop access to spaces and facilities that may be 
formally proscribed or economically out of reach. This is not a 
public public, but a necessarily unofficial one, one that does not, 
indeed cannot, afford to advertise itself. Let us not even call it a 
counter-public, because, as Calhoun points out, it is not as if these 
practices are the ones desired by those compelled to deploy them, 
there may be a desire to be included, and become legitimate, within 
official protocols; but it is this public that courses through the 
everyday life of our society, and is crucial to the very 
possibilities of its being.
But there is another field, that of the imagination, that we need to 
think through. What I will say here is entirely exploratory, but it 
arises from a sense that individuals form into liminal public 
entities through an investment in a disaggregating media universe. 
Whether you listen to the pocket radio, the widely circulated musical 
cassette, go to the cinema, watch programmes or films on the TV, 
access the net, there is a special, individuated way in which you 
receive and internalize what you hear and see. You might be doing it 
as part of a group - a cinema audience, a family watching the TV or 
jhuggi dwellers sharing facilities - but, arguably, there is still 
something that exceeds group circumstances of address and viewing 
practice. I say this because it is widely assumed that Indian society 
functions differently, is motivated by collective and group forms of 
subjectivity, and such forms are instituted in the way frameworks of 
representation and modes of cultural address have developed. But 
consider that there is still an interiority at work, which the 
outside, the larger intersubjective frame cannot map itself onto; and 
there you have a serious problem for inquiry and practice. For, if at 
this personal level, images and sounds and information impact on me 
in ways different from the way others seem to respond, I should step
back and think, this must be happening to them, too. And then I have 
to think, this is about memory and about desire, about fantasy, and, 
finally, it's about not wanting to be alone in these imaginings.
I'm not sure how we reach an understanding of this particular desire 
to connect an interiority to a public frame. Film and other types of 
cultural analysis have often tried to grapple with this, bringing a 
whole body of methods and sensitivities to the study of public 
cultural institutions, narratives, and formal peculiarities. Speaking 
as an academic, I would like to strengthen imaginative forms of 
research in ways which engage intellectual reflection in lively 
dialogue with the everyday practices that course through the public 
sensorium, to body forth the lineaments of shadowed desires, mundane 
hopes and yes, to confront our darkest selves.

From: "geert lovink" <>
To: <>
Subject: Answer to Public Domain Questions
Date: Wed, 15 Nov 2000 19:13:46 +1100

How do we distinguish the 'Public Domain' from the 'Public(s)'? What 
is the role that the Public plays in the Public Domain?
Why distinguish? Why not start with the question of the design of the 
public realm/domain? Is it there? What's its history in India? Were 
the media by definition part of the public domain? What kind of 
public domain does Sarai have in mind? The Public is the Enemy, as 
the famous saying says. That's Dadaism. I don't believe in these huge 
terms. They can easily make one depressive. It's like with masses and 
classes. Huge amorphous categories. I think a bit more micro-politics 
wouldn't be bad here. Multitudes of groups, strategies, practices, 
ideas, debates, images. They altogether might create a temporary 
public media culture. One that always has to be renewed, questioned 
and pushed forward. Nothing is taken for granted in this fluid and 
dynamic sector.
What is the relationship between the public domain/public 
sphere/public and the domain of the private?
I still think we can make that distinction. The public sphere should 
not be blown up. I think it is even better to scale it down and 
really make it lively instead of colonizing and claiming everything 
public. For the US-Americans there is no privacy. Europeans still 
believe in that distinction. I am not sure about India. I certainly 
believe in the merit of the individual choice as something very 
precious (not as a special effect of consumerism). It does not just 
mean the right to be left alone.

Does the Public Domain have a boundary? What is this boundary 
constituted by and when does it get manifested?
The boundary in my view would be its humbleness to be intense, 
radical and different, without being expansionist. I think we can 
still make the distinction between the state, the market and the 
public. And between the public and the private. I think 
disassociating the public from the state is one of the most painful 
and utopian processes of this age. They are no longer equal. We 
cannot expect from the state to take care of all the public domain 
and its functions. To some extent, that's sad. The fight for public 
domains always has that slightly ambivalent, nostalgic character. It 
has past the point of merely demanding. It has to shape, design, act 
out. Yet, a lot of its work is related to conceptual policy making.

Does the 'Public' nature of the Public Domain require that it have 
free and/or unmediated access, and freedom for anyone to enter, 
participate and express themselves in the domain?
Yes, but we will not GET it for free, we will have to MAKE it free. 
Free as in free of sugar, not free of costs. Freedom is a right, not 
a cheap slogan to suck people into something. And it could come with 
a cost.

Who decides the contours and the shape of the boundary of the public 
domain? It is not enough to say, those who are present in the domain 
Obviously. We can do a power analysis and identify the players, but 
we should as well be courageous enough (and naive) to state that we 
are players ourselves. The trick is to position oneself inside the 
technology, inside the media, inside the public domain. The 
outsider's position is a boring one. Morally and politically correct 
but without any drive to intervene.

Is the public something people are part of, or is it something inside 
them? Can the notion of a public have fantasy connotations?
Without fantasy it is dead. Empty rules. Repetition without a soul.
Monica Narula
Sarai:The New Media Initiative
29 Rajpur Road, Delhi 110 054

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