Public Spaces, Private Lives: Beyond the Culture of Cynicism
Henry A. Giroux. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001. 240 p, $24.95, hardcover. ISBN: 0742515532.
"For many young people and adults today, the private sphere has become the only space in which to imagine any sense of hope, pleasure, or possibility."
In Public Spaces, Private Lives, cultural and educational critic Henry Giroux argues that this widely accepted belief can be overturned. By understanding the cynicism and individualist culture which state that "politics is dead" and which prevent us from addressing today's numerous inequities (such as those of class, race, and gender), educators and activists can revitalize political life, forging together a civic education, public policy, and cultural politics that encourage critical thinking and progressive action.
In order to illustrate a claim so large in scope, the book includes five distinct chapters, each a tightly self-contained argument in itself. Briefly, these chapters cover: (1) the place of education in promoting critical thinking and social citizenship, and the role of cultural studies, (2) the political situation of the youth in contemporary society, particularly as related to the right-wing and zero tolerance policies that promote the modern prison-industrial complex, (3) cultural texts as a site of political and pedagogical struggle, as represented by the film Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), in which its critique of capitalism depends on assertions of misogyny, a military mentality, and private agency over social responsibility, (4) a critique of thinkers on both the left and right who do not acknowledge the potential for education as a democratic force, (5) the need for utopian thinking among educators and activists who desire political, social, and economic change.
While these diverse chapters are evidence of Giroux's wide range of approaches, equally impressive is the variety of sources taken within each individual chapter. Each chapter utilizes numerous sources from Homi Bhaba to Hollywood, using critical theory, popular culture, and contemporary anecdote to assure the book's relevance to readers across disciplines and professions. The book's scope is admirable, demonstrating that while it intends to reach a specific audience -- one concerned with revitalizing progressive political participation -- it also intends to reach the disparate factions within that audience (i.e. those primarily interested in "politics" or "policy" or "culture" or "education" as separate fields of engagement) and to show them that these fields are indissolubly connected.
In a sense, this great strength -- the book's scope -- is also its major weakness. In the end, the reader expects more. Throughout the book, Public Spaces, Private Lives seems to claim status as a call to action, telling us, for example, that "the time has come for progressives to rethink and revitalize cultural politics and social change" (140). With the well-researched and attentive critique that the book expends on societal contradictions and ailments, the reader expects -- for sake of balance -- that Giroux's explicit call to action be likewise impressive in depth and breadth. Giroux encourages a utopian thinking, which he argues is prevented when citizens cannot imagine finding public solutions within an individualist, market-based society. Yet Giroux's formula for utopian thinking -- imagining a different type of world -- does not account for how to get to that utopia given our current, real context, a setting mired in the forces of production, free markets, and the prison-industrial complex. While the book wants us to think differently and to think big, it does not offer much guidance as to how the individual reader can go beyond personal critical thinking to become part of some collective action. I was stirred by Giroux's multi-faceted examination of current societal ills, and I wanted to believe in his utopia, to follow his call to action. But not finding a stronger connection between how to approach the critical, pedagogical, and political, given (not simply because of) current economic and ideological realities, I felt more cynical than hopeful. The book jacket describes Public Spaces, Private Lives, as a "call to arms," but it tells us more that we need arms (which its intended audience likely believes to begin with) than what to do with them. We are encouraged to dream, but given that the present conditions Giroux describes are so antithetical to that dream, what should we do?
That said, while such complications -- the negotiation of utopian thinking and practical realities, of the abstract and the concrete -- may point to the book's potential shortcomings, they also point to its importance in understanding the complex relationship of political activism and academic cultural studies. Although Giroux's blend of the two weighs toward the latter, his assertion of their interconnectedness makes Public Spaces, Private Lives a useful starting point for those who wish to find the dynamic, ambitious models and solutions that the book may not explicitly delineate, but does show that we urgently need.