Worrying about the audience

Considering economists in a wider cultural context, not just as scholars, but as public intellectuals, as politicians, as popularizers, as entertainers, a recurring theme is “audience”. It is said that economists perform differently to different audiences. I react to this idea in the following video:


9 thoughts on “Worrying about the audience

  1. What you are up to is an history of reading, or listening or viewing economics and I welcome it. However, does the fact that there are as many ways of reading, listening, etc. really terminate the notion of audience? This I am not sure. First, the audience exists only because the economist created it: without a book, a course, a talk or whatever kind of performance, there is no audience and at the end of the day it does not really matter that this audience is so different from the one the author had imagined in the first place. Second, that there is a multiplicity of individual responses to a book, etc. does not necessarily mean that a collective cannot emerge from these individual phenomenons. Third, even if one does not accept the idea of a collective emerging from individual actions, the social scientist can claim its significance as an ideal-type.
    To sum up, I do not believe that the fact that the audience can be pulverized in individuals who have voices of their own, at least for those in the videos, discredit the use of the notion of audience, it makes it more complicated and interesting and the internet, as you have shown in your paper, drives us closer to a meaningful history of reading.
    By the way, you may like to read Robert Darnton’s celebrated essay: “Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity.” in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History.

  2. Lets put the sociology, anthropology, Goffman and other luminaries aside, and get a bit practical. I disagree with your core argument that the audience is non-existent or dead. In fact, there is a very specific role for the ‘author’s perception of the audience’ which is relevant to economics and its presentation:

    Know your audience.

    Yes, they are all unique and each one is a thinking person, but – and its a big but – while you cannot precisely identify your audience as a group, you can define the group by its shared characteristics, and tailor make your presentation/argument to them.

    We do it all the time. First year undergrads are different than final year Ph.D. students. Journal submissions differ from term papers, and each journal holds a different audience. HES conference audiences can be generalised as can the general readership or internet viewers. For your video, lets pick some of the major groups which fit the audience: English Speaking, undergrad education minimum, internet access (rules out a lot of people), social scientist, time conscious. Already, an image is being formed of what Loic calls the ‘ideal-type’. Define your audience, argues Nancy Duarte (2009: Slide:ology), and your work will be a lot more effective.

  3. I think the notion of audience does collapse. It is a particular notion of audience, the one that precedes the meaningful act. My claim is that the “reader” or “user” cannot be meaningfully anticipated (the audience is dead). Or at least the historian should not try to. The historian should focus on the interpretations of the performance and study them (long live the audience).

    Literary or scholarly genres do not differ because of the audience alone. They differ because they are made of different materials, follow different traditions, and fit in different contexts (of which audience is only a part, space is also context).

    We might discriminate (agree amongst ourselves) a possible/hypothetical/ideal audience for my “video” but do we known the interests and interpretative culture of this audience? Are we sure about how the “video” will be read? Will be used?

    My concern here is NOT with the “effectiveness” of communication, but analyzing the communicative act with its particular myths. To analyze communication we need to recover both sides of the relationship and for that we need to do away with the passive audience (anticipated by the author and encapsulated in the text/genre).

  4. It seems to me that there are three different claims in your response. First, you assert that the audience is dead which I contest (see above). Second, you say that the historian should focus on the interpretations of the performance and study them, which is another thing. I agree with you as long as it is a relative statement. I cannot help myself considering that the interpretations of a performance are somewhat structured by the performer and its intent and I have difficulties how you could prove me wrong. To use your wording in a dialectical mode, how could be sure that the various interpretations of one’s performance had escaped the performer in the first place and he was anticipaing them and welcome them, or at least some of them? Or put more generally, how could you be sure that a specific response, interpretation really distort the intended meaning of a text? The answer to these questions are no more easy than the to the ones you asked à propos the audience.
    Third, you say your concern is with analyzing communication, that’s fine with me and indeed at this point you reintroduce the oter isde of the relationship. My point is that I agree with you but while it might be news to historians of economics, it is certainly not the case for historians in general (see my quote above).
    By stating that the audience is dead, you are performing a kind of post-modern act of speech that do not really correspond to what you really intend to do. It might be sexy as a logo, but it seems to me that it induces your active audience to take what you say in a meaning different from you intentions (see here we are again, the audience is not dead).

  5. I am picking up a dialectical (conversational) notion in the dead and living audience.

    If I am understanding correctly than the author should not anticipate the audience in writing because the coherent whole of the work in the author’s mind is sufficient to create a conversation. The audience then interprets the message (decoding) and formulates a response (hopefully) which is in turn decoded. The Author then learns more about the subject by entering into this process.

    1) If the writing (or presentation) is never read, what can we describe the exercise?

    2) If the writing is a particular conversation (like a journal or a collected work) does this hurt or help the process — or is such an evaluation nonsense?

    3) I find it helpful to think of the teacher and student relationship as the dialectic (following, for example, Kierkegaard in The Present Age). What does the teacher need the student for? Surely the teacher is better off trying to explain his deep thoughts to an undisciplined mind. The student also needs the teacher, surely the process of learning is structured by some artifice. Further, the student needs someone to satisfy when making an attempt at answering questions. Now, when we think of this example, we learn that the teacher is ever a student, and that the student has to tell the teacher that (s)he has failed to communicate a coherent message. There is an emergence in the dialectic process that creates learning where neither individual had it on his or her own. Each action is meaningful, but neither is complete without the other.

  6. Two things.
    First, you take as an exemple this very talk on the blog, and blogging is a very peculiar (and new) case where audience as a consistent and unified notion stumbled. But such is not the case for the various audience economists have usually been adressing, even if, of course, nothing ensures that the message is passively and faithfully received, individually and collectively. Whether in scholarly journals, talks, journals (Newsweek, business work, the NYT), a classroom, a political society, the BBC, economists adresse a profile of “users” or whathever, the representation of which they don’t construct alone (the role of newspapers editors in getting economists write for businessmen, workers, housekeepers, voters, etc.)

    Second, you can analyse it. You can take a subject famously dealt with by Friedman (the death of the Phillips curve, or his infamous prediction that the price of oil will not stay high at the beginnning of the 70s or else), compare how he handled it in academic papers, in Newsweek chronicles, possibly in such and such radio talk, and you get the notion of perceived audience. Analyse how it is reported in the media at the time (first idea of real audience), and analyze the often numerous reader letters to his columns and his responses, which I guess are burried somewhere in the not so dark and dusty basement of the Hoover foundation.

  7. I want here to suggest a strange inversion of reasoning. I want to say that we truly do not know audiences, we do not perceive them, we do not study them.

    Instead, in the most current use of the term audience, audience is the idealized target of a performance, which we discover by looking at the performance (the scholarly article, the pictogram, the translation, the newsweek column, not the theater patrons or the readers of the newspaper in a cafe). And the performance we interpret by looking at the author’s expectation of what the audience is. We read the author, never the reader.

    So we study audience, like this: AUTHOR > PERFORMANCE > AUDIENCE. Its really about the author. And that is fine, if the question is about the author and his production. It becomes bad scholarship if we assume the rightness of the author’s performative decisions as an adjustment to his audience, because truly we never seen that one. So I kill this audience, the perfunctory, the one that fills the wholes of our author-stories.

    If we start with audience, active, diffuse, we get very different understandings of what is going on. My text here exploded in a variety of other texts, all of which I had not intended. (you can always claim that its a bad case of “signal to noise” ratio, and that I should learn how to communicate more effectively, but is it an engineering problem?) Loic breaks down my argument in parts to show that I should be more humble. Michael sees my communicative act as pedagogical exercise. Beatrice interprets my discussion as one of contrasting fora. My mom saw my video and not knowing english tried to decipher tone of voice and posture, and was more interested in the video that followed in the YouTube loop. Chicagoboy saw logical inconsistencies in my argument and asked for clarification. And these are only the voices I heard.

    Which one is my text? Which one is my audience? My audience, if I had one in mind, was a fiction, most likely it was me. But as analyst the author’s fiction clouds my understanding of how performance will be read. It is here that I resurrect the audience, a living audience.

  8. I agree with you that people usually take “audience” as author’s imagined/ideal/prototypical audience. And then some go on and argue that a certain feature of a text comes from the fact that the “audience” was, say, journalists. I also agree with your point that if we are interested in a narrative not about the author’s production, we should start with an active and diffuse audience, the readers.
    But I fail to follow your argument that the first audience (the prototypical) is dead or, better, should be buried. And here I’m repeating arguments made by all the others in this post: how do we get at this prototypical audience? As I see it, by looking to where the “text” is “published” (newspaper, academic journal, TV show,…), to general characteristics of the ideal readership (has access to internet, educated, scientist,…), among other things. So aren’t we considering things a bit more substantial than just the author’s perception of the audience? Putting this into your own words, aren’t we looking the differences in the “genres” also guided by the fact that “they are made of different materials, follow different traditions, and fit in different contexts (of which audience is only a part, space is also context)”? My point, I guess, is the same “humble call” you attributed to Loïc.

    MY REAL RESPONSE: being more professional, I asked another person to perform a kind of narrative that I believe is the future of the history of economics, and a video with a better audio is available to compete with yours!

  9. On the video and tangentially; it is Ironic that Friedman should write the prologue for a German version of the General Theory, especially if one reads the first german edition with Keynes’s own foreword, where Maynard Keynes – the man – comes out in a less than positive way when we look back at it today – I suspect he wasn’t just acting for the audience in that intro…

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