Print and the Public Sphere from the Junto, May 23, 2014

Taking Print from Print Culture & Leaving the Public Sphere Behind

Or how to make a causal argument about print, media, and communication in the eighteenth century

This post began as a brief response to Tom’s recent piece on the public sphereand to the conversation it generated in the comments section. As it turns out, brevity is not my strong suit, and I’ve got a few bones to pick. So all cards on the table: I’m more than a little invested in the importance of communication; I have a hard time watching print be stripped of its mechanistic or causal role; and I don’t believe we can possibly ever argue that changes in media didn’t cause social and political change.[1]

What I believe Tom rightly pointed out, however, is the argumentative timidity of much of the literature on print culture.[2] The scholarship born of the (capitalized) Cultural Turn in many ways divorced media from its convincing productive power: By turning away from media’s structural components—transmission, sources, geography—to focus on reading practices or the ever slippery concept of “identity,” we’ve often left ourselves tacitly arguing for social or political change without any sense of scale or reach or influence or even chronology.[3] By throwing up our hands at imperfect data on newspaper circulation and literacy—and by running away from numbers and statistics and structures altogether to talk instead (in the most extreme example that comes to mind) about how readers sat in arm chairs—we have simultaneously forced media and print into a more passive role.

A focus on print and media in the lens of print culture invokes a set of methodological approaches that we’ve perhaps outgrown or have come to find necessary to augment—a particular disjunction to our current moment of renewed interest in social-scientific approaches. Some of the latest scholarship on media and print certainly has begun to embrace numbers (yes, that’s right, numbers), spatial analysis and network modeling, suggesting a move beyond print culture, to something more like print cultures, societies, institutions, and geographies.

But—in addition to the unnecessary connotation of a disciplinary turn we’re arguably veering out of—I’d argue that print culture tends to carry with it some much, much heavier baggage: The public sphere. Even if we choose to actively reject Habermas and other dominant schemas, much of the scholarship on print and media remains—pivot foot fixed—positioned in some way in relation to his major claims.

Is the belabored public sphere the best foundation on which to build the study of print and media?

For those who are inclined to say no, consider the next set of questions: How do we extricate eighteenth-century “print culture” from the heavy net of the public sphere? Can we? Or is print culture too entangled with the literature on the public sphere to ever be pulled free? And if indeed these two are so ensnared, should we continue to rely on “print culture” as a field designator?

I think the real issue, however, is the pervasive assumption that we (or we should) favor a link between transformations in media and communication, and the growth of the public sphere.

That is not to say that the literature on eighteenth-century print has entirely excluded all else. But I do believe it has given particularly short shrift to (the admittedly equally slippery concept of) the state. As one commenter pointed out, how can we ignore the role of absolutist French media censorship, or the role of comparatively lax British regulation?

As important as these questions are, I think we need to dig still much deeper. We need to take our questions about the role of print, society, culture, and the state down to their most material levels, of logistics and infrastructure.[4] And from there, begin to challenge our most basic assumptions.

How many of the developments in Europe and North America—postal routes, packet boats, roads—that propelled the mediums read and discussed in coffee houses and salons, originated from governmental development, intervention or financing? What proportion of prints traveled these routes created by the state, rather than the communication circuits forged by literary (and epistolary and scientific) communities? How many of the sources and voices in prints—newspapers especially—came from the pens of military officers, colonial governors, and other agents, rather than from “independent” members of the public? How often did those of the military, of councils and of bureaucratic institutions utilize media as intelligence, not simply as a litmus test of public opinion?

Taken from the front page of the Pennsylvania Gazette, December 14, 1758:PennsylvaniaGazette1758

“On Sunday last an Express arrived here from General Forbes, at Fort Duquesne, with the agreeable News of the Enemy’s having blown up and abandoned that important Fortress. […] ‘Blessed be God, the long look’d for Day is arrived, that has now fixed us on the Banks of the Ohio!’”

Within the month, similar accounts found their way into papers that spanned the Atlantic, from Charleston, Boston, and New York, to London, Dublin, and Edinburgh. The public sphere, it appeared, was abuzz with news of the British North American frontier.

But if we look more closely and trace the specific transmission of this account, we also find “the state” in lockstep at nearly every stage.

On November 25, 1758, Brigadier General Forbes secured the capture of the key French fortification, Duquesne, at the forks of the Ohio. To announce the long-awaited victory, he began to write to Major General Jeffery Amherst, congratulating him on French surrender and the new establishment of Pittsburg. Forbes dispatched the military express on November 30, which was then carried eastward along Forbes Road towards Philadelphia, and then along the postal road from Philadelphia to Trenton to New York, arriving in the city on December 12. Soon after, the Pennsylvania Gazette and New-York Mercury published excerpts of Forbes’s account; and by December 20, these news accounts were added to the numerous bundles of correspondence and messages intended for England aboard the Earl of Halifax packet boat in New York harbor.[5] The packet made good time to Falmouth, and printed excerpts of Forbes’s letter reached London by January 19, 1759.[6] Accounts hit the British newspaper presses the same day, and were read before the Board of Trade the following.[7]

This isn’t some extraordinary example. For much of the eighteenth century, accounts of and commentary on North American affairs came overwhelmingly from state-affiliated sources.[8] Many more print accounts in North America and the British Atlantic moved over state-financed and regulated routes. And conversely, when newspaper accounts of North America outpaced official letters sent through formal governmental avenues, these prints were then read before the British Board of Trade and analyzed within the French councils as intelligence. The “state” was often just as interested in utilizing the network of prints as it was in opposing them.

Yet, if we survey the literature on the long eighteenth century and its dominant theoretical underpinnings, we find we tend to portray the state—as it relates to print culture—as something that limited or set the bounds of the public sphere, and vice versa. As an oppositional force in a push-pull, or tug of war. The state placed regulations on media and print, or it didn’t. It censored, or it didn’t. It distributed propaganda—thereby momentarily infecting or subverting or curtailing the public sphere—or it didn’t.[9]

In essence, we’ve either continued to rarify the public sphere as a distinct, separate space—into which we place print culture—outside of which stands the state. OR, we’ve gone ahead and squeezed the public sphere and civil society together with so much force that the structure we’re left with is no longer a simplified Habermasian triumvirate (state, public sphere, & civil society), but rather a two-dimensional duality of state & public sphere/society.

In either example of conceptual scaffolding: by seeing the public sphere and the state in such starkly separate terms, we’ve constructed a literature on print and media in which the state is something beyond the public sphere—and thereby something outside print culture—something whose role is at times antithetical, at times oppositional, at times conciliatory, and at times receptive, but at all times apart.[10]

But the state did more than just curtail or support or encourage or limit media and print. (And the state was more than just the subject of discussion in media and the public sphere). It was also a consumer and reader and a messenger and a source.[11]

What if, going forward, we make arguments about print and media that place “the state” not within some simplistic dichotomy/trichotomy predicated on exclusions—but as intrinsically entangled? What if we acknowledge that some of the same communication developments that allowed for robust social and political debate simultaneously increased the capacity of the state? What if we see that many of the developments we attribute to growth of public sphere—notably, newspapers—also fed local and imperial officials? How might doing so change our baseline assumptions or our ultimate conclusions?[12]

Here’s my take: By more carefully articulating and reconstructing the way that media influenced—and was influenced by—both culture/society/whatever-you-want-to-term-it and “the state”/military/bureaucracy/government, we stand a much better chance of making any sort of causal argument. Whatever direction we hope to take that argument.


[1] (I also enjoy deep conversations about roads, rivers, and maps.) Perhaps the issue is the designation of media “practice” rather than a more holistic view of communication. And while I agree on the importance of conceptual disaggregation, I also don’t really see a point in making one linear argument or the other, as if we have to choose between the chicken and the egg. Political/economic/social change and transformations in communication/media/transportation seem better suited to a feedback loop.

[2] I do suspect we differ in our frustrations with this literature, so here’s a quick disclaimer: The following thoughts, questions, mutterings, musings, and aspersions are most definitely only my own. I’d never attempt to drag anyone else along during my historiographical handwringing.

[3] Yes, I know there is a scholarship on reception.

[4] Konstantin Dierks’s In My Power (2009), which looks to letter writing in the eighteenth century, has certainly moved us much closer to a reconstruction of British imperial communications infrastructure than has anything else since Ian Steele’s English Atlantic. Works on print media could benefit from a similar approach. (Bolstered, perhaps, by quantitative analysis).

[5] Pennsylvania Gazette, December 14, 1758; New-York Mercury, December 18 1758; “British Packet Sailings, Falmouth – North America: 1755-1840,” compiled by John S. Olenkiewicz.

[6] “Yesterday a mail arrived from New York, which bring an account of the success of his Majesty’s arms on the river Ohio ; together with the following extract of a letter from Brigadier General Forbes to the commander in chief of his Majesty’s forces in north-America dated from Fort du Quesne, November the 26th and 30th, contains the only particulars as yet received of that important event.” “Whitehall, Jan. 20, 1759,” Read’s Weekly Journal Or British Gazetteer, January 27, 1759.

[7] Lloyd’s Evening Post (London), January 19, 1759.

[8] And these were not bland, factual recountings of events. They were colorful, charged, pointed, and often overtly political.

[9] This is of course an oversimplification of a very large literature. But take even moments in which the state plays a seemingly vital role, like the author-function carefully detailed by Chartier in The Order of Books. Even here the state operates from the periphery. The state creates the concept of authorship through its ability to grant privileges and enforce property laws, but it isn’t actually part of the world of prints. It’s not a reader, an author, or a discussant. There’s an impermeable membrane between print culture and the state, and the state can kick and punch—shaping that membrane—but it doesn’t break that barrier.

[10] And if you’re still unsure whether Habermasian concepts are to blame, consider this from Peter Hohendahl’s second footnote in the 1974 translation of Habermas’s “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article,” New German Critique (1974): 49-55, “The state and the public sphere do not overlap […] Rather they confront one another as opponents.”

[11] The one important exception in the literature is the (small) body of work on propaganda.

[12] A final disclaimer. I’m not advocating for a total abandonment of the public sphere. But I do question its usefulness in the study of eighteenth-century British and British colonial newspapers specifically. And I believe we need to question its assumptions about the relation of such prints to the state more generally. Perhaps, however, the public sphere remains a useful construct for other targets of inquiry.




One thought on “Print and the Public Sphere from the Junto, May 23, 2014

  1. The works of historians such as Michael Braddick, in relations to early modern English state development, and Philip Stern, in the role of East Indian Company as a company-state, have challenged the traditional notions of the early modern state, which the bifurcation between state and public, mediated by press, emerged. Braddick argued that the English state expanded through a, more or less, cooperative process with the outlying provinces. For instance, the poor law union is a good example of the problems and benefits of cooperation between the central state and the provinces. Applying the same principle to Stern’s work on the EIC, we see that corporations played a central role in the expansion and maintenance of Empire. Corporations, however, maintained a sense of autonomy. Print in the public sphere was often written by supporters of joint-stock companies (the writers were usually paid) or in the case of free trade and slavery (Pettigrew) media came from individuals and groups with schemes to better the ‘nation.’ If the development of the early modern English nation was more of a cooperative process, the dichotomy would be a non-starter. Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt’s blog does a wonderful job of encouraging further research on print and the public sphere.


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