What do we mean by public culture?

US Constitution

(Photo credit: The Constitution, National Archives, Washington DC, courtesy Mr. T in DC, Flickr Creative Commons)

Monuments and memorials typically occupy public, not private space. What would be the point of putting up a monument to our shared history—our public culture—in a space that restricts access to the shared community? Actually, some monuments do just that—the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA, is a good example. (I’ll come back to that in a future post.) Museums are a little different, but even private museums are conceived in terms of being equally available to all who can pay the admission fee, without regard to race, creed, etc. But what do we mean by “public space” and “public culture”? What kind of space are we talking about? Is it just a geographical description of any physical land that happens to belong to no-one in particular? Or is it something more productive? How does it relate to public culture, i.e., the elements of our culture that we share? And how does this relate to the way we commemorate history in the United States?

Today I think I’ll start with the latter term, public culture. Most culture is public in some way, in that it involves a set of shared values and communicative symbols that most of us will recognize.

The classical liberal notion of public culture associated with political philosopher Hannah Arendt draws on the Greek polis as a model for describing a system where citizens come together to discuss common affairs and serve the public good through speech and communicative action. This approach distinguished the emerging “public” from the “private.” And the “public” was closely associated with the nation-state itself, whereas the private was clearly separated and insulated from the state. This distinction was partly broken down in the West, first and foremost in the United States, where the distinction between public and private realms grew fuzzier because of the unique circumstances of that country’s creation.

Many people—myself included—are not as familiar with the classical tradition these days. In the most commonly understood way for us, the Western Enlightenment tradition, it refers to a general “we” (as in “We the people …”), defined in national terms. Actually, if we’re going to talk about the Enlightenment we really need to focus on the U.S. experience, as the United States and its Constitution encapsulates traditional 18th Century Enlightenment values better than any other nation-state.

How’s that? Well, the United States, born in rebellion to the British monarchical nation-state, was conceived from the ground up as a res publica, a thing of the people, a realm of human activity where the actions of government—in fact, the very legitimacy of the government—rested on the will of the people. This is what is supposed to be meant by the American republic, created under the Constitution. It posits a public culture determined by citizens. What Americans are supposed to share “is a historically determined lexicon for speaking as citizens of the United States” (Cayton, 2008, p. 3). We don’t have to agree on the exact origins or shape of the public culture (res publica) that we shape and are shaped by, but we do have to agree on maintaining a rhetorical space for that conversation to happen.

The trouble is, in recent years this American public culture has become seriously frayed. Social commentators and academics such as Robert Putman (Bowling Alone) have charted this fragmentation and decline in civic culture. We have fragmented in many ways. Politically, we seem to be divided cleanly into conservative Red America and liberal Blue America. Washington’s dysfunction emerges directly from the breadth of that divide. But more broadly, our culture has lost much of its cohesion because we spend less time socializing with each other and more time in our own little worlds. On more and more issues (the economy, health care, abortion) we are unable to find even a common set of terms and concepts we can agree on. We are losing that historically determined lexicon that is supposed to provide the connective tissue that holds us together. There are many folks out there that have tried to make sense of this by talking about the degradation of the public sphere. I’ll have to come back to that at another time.

But for now, I’ll just leave it at this: If we’re arguing more and more about fundamental aspects of our common culture—and even about the very legitimacy of the national government that operates in our name—how can we come together to commemorate or celebrate our common past? Just how long will that common past hold us together, or will we begin arguing more and more about what that is supposed to mean? And if we can agree on little or nothing today, how will we be able to find an agreed-upon set of historical markers from today that we can safely pass on to future generations?

To be continued.


Hannah Arendt (1959), The Human Condition.

M. K. Cayton (2008). “What is Public Culture? Agency and contested meaning in American culture—an introduction.” in M. S. Shaffer, ed., Public Culture: Diversity, Democracy, and Community in the United States.


One response to “What do we mean by public culture?

  1. Pingback: What is public space? | The Memory Hollow·

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