Third Annual MLA Subconference


Between the Public and Its Privates


in partnership with Punctum Books

January 6-7, 2016

Location: Studium Art Space
638 Tillery St., Austin, TX 78702


Today it seems almost impossible to point to the public without uncovering its uncanny twin–the private. Consider Google’s Hangout, a competitor with Skype, which is privatized software but sounds open and accessible; Google Books, an intermingling of private technology and the public domain; the channeling of tax dollars to everything from private ambulance services to charter schools; and the unforgettable Kraft Macaroni & Cheese sculpture that graced the University of Michigan’s stadium for a brief stint. The third year of the MLA Subconference seeks to locate how the notion of the “public” often hides its secret promiscuity with the private. We turn to the public and its privates not simply to critique their intimacy but also to seek other modes of study, such as those found in the commons, obscured by hard and fast public/private distinctions.In response to neoliberal attacks upon education and the lingering protections of the declining welfare state across the nation and globe, many advocates have seen the public realm as the primary battleground of our times. In taking this position, defenders of the public equate it with the proletariat, radical horizontality, shared intellectual resources, and diversity across multiple vectors. Others have questioned these equations , calling attention, instead, to the violences and exclusions that traverse the public terrain and the racist and heteronormative policies that have traditionally defined it. Instead, decolonial, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist organizations and political engagements like the Black Lives Matter and Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movements, Strike Debt, and Reclaim UC increasingly engage the concept of the public in order to provoke intentional divisions within the category itself.

Given the rise of the public alongside the rise of mass education and literacy it is impossible to separate such political questions from our concerns as scholars and teachers, even if mass education is not reducible to a product of the public sphere. Indeed, we continue to be indebted today to autonomous, subversive, domestic and underground spaces of study and learning, which have always been necessary to the education of subjects excluded from that sphere. Free schools, Blank Panther education projects, deschooling, indigenous language study, and mutual aid networks have so frequently filled the gaps of public services that they easily become elided as hobbies or individual projects, rather than being recognized as crucial collectives of social support. Such spaces can be understood to operate in a commons that extends below or beside the public. They make room for us to inquire into reading as a political, even a militant, project of self-care and self-organization that must be continuously nurtured.

We ask participants of the Subconference this year to take up the critical challenge of the public, considering which aspects of privatization–such as surveillance, enclosure, land occupation, and gentrification, among others–produce certain publics as a necessary entity in need of protection at the expense of the privations of others. At the same time, we take seriously the productive tension of the term “privation,” from which the private derives. As the Subconference attempts to highlight in the context of higher education, there are always non-monetary resources such as divergent modes of sociality, shared parenting and housing, communal kitchens, fugitive conversations, stolen wifi, free printing access and so on, that abound in those very communities marked as sites of impoverishment and precarity. In what ways do these surpluses hideout between the logic of privatization and defense of the public, and what can we gain by making them our focus?

By playing upon the geographic, political, sexual, civil, economic, and educational resonances of the terms “public” and “private,” we ask how historically accurate it is to ground our activism and scholarship in one or many various publics today given current economic realities. We ask contributors and participants to consider the following questions:

  • Is the rhetoric of the public too flawed by its attachment to stable wage labor of a different era, one that makes thinking about abolishing the wage impossible?
  • How might retaining a language of the public university illuminate or obscure the structural positions of contingent academic workers and other contingent workers on our campuses?
  • What kinds of political actions and engagements would be opened by resisting the category of the public?
  • What would we even call these heterogenous forms latent within the concept of the public?
  • When strategies of surveillance–such as the now-standard screening of student and faculty radicals’ emails, twitter accounts, and facebook pages–are justified through an appeal to the politics of civility that ostensibly differentiates the Ivory Tower from other institutions, can the notion of the public be weaponized, traversed, or mobilized as a form of resistance? What forms of reading does the notion of the public enable and/or curtail?
  • How do our material conditions inform these reading practices and produce new modes of communal engagement?
  • Is there such a thing as a digital public sphere and, if so, do its valences recapitulate or defy the power dynamics of non-digital experience?
  • Who is forced to read in public and who has the luxury of private pleasure and intimacy?
  • Is the classroom a public or a private sphere? Both?


In keeping with our continued attempts to challenge traditional modes of conference decorum, we encourage hands-on workshops, strategy sessions, and collective presentations rather than individual papers. Such sessions might include workshops on leading free school or autonomous study programs, interactive sessions that draw from artistic, ethnographic or theatrical practice, collaborative brainstorming projects, cartography workshops, or any range of other engaged and participatory frameworks.

Please submit abstracts of 500 words or less to by Friday, October 16th, 2015.