Yesterday's post on the decline of the traditional book review got me to thinking about the public sphere, a term I throw around a lot in this space without adequately defining what I mean by it. Also, I think it's worthwhile considering for a moment how blogs fit into the public sphere, especially now that the traditional print media and blogs are heading toward a cantankerous merger.
The concept of the public sphere arises out of our double articulation as subjects in a democratic state: we have a private self (oikos in the Greek) and a public self (bios politikos, literally public life). In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society Jürgen Habermas traces the emergence of the public sphere in the transformation of the village market, with its face-to-face transactions and localized economy, to the stock companies of the 1500's and 1600's. Global market enterprises like the East India Company needed state apparatuses (courts, navies, etc.) to support them, while the public demanded some sort of accountability from the trading companies. Thus, what had started off as a private transaction became a public interest. Newsletters started during this period as privileged communications between managers and investors, but the state, serving public interests, opened up the newsletters to public consumption, leading eventually to newspapers.
Other institutions of the public sphere developed as economic relations became more complex. In England, coffeehouses became gathering places of merchants, workers, and writers. In France, the more exclusive salons became a public forum for ideas. (The differences between the coffeehouses and the salons may account for the differences in British and French cultural life today.) The public that formed around the coffeehouses became the earliest audiences for public interest journals such as Addison and Steele's Tatler, which first appeared in 1709. These journals functioned much like blogs do now: dispensing personal opinions on politics and everyday life. By the end of the 18th century the function of the art critic arose, and a new self-consciousness developed in art, literature and philosophy. Through the figure of the critic, art became a matter of public discussion, and through the journals, middle class life itself became a subject of debate. Not coincidentally, this is also the period in which the novel emerged to make the most intimate reserves of the self a matter of public consumption, thus giving shape to the bourgeois subject.
In the 1800's, things got a lot messier. New interests and ideas emerged in the public sphere, but oftentimes they couldn't be reconciled with received interests, leading to the tyranny of dominant opinion. Figures as diverse as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx complained the hardening of opinion around established interests. Mill denounced the "yoke of public opinion" while Marx examined public opinion as false consciousness. During the 19th century a consumer culture arose. Consumer choice became a new basis of the private sphere; the other foundation was the newly constituted nuclear family segregated from the brutal competition of high capitalism. Consumption was at once a private family matter and the site of a "pure" individuality. Finally, in the political realm problems that we're familiar with now began to emerge, such as the discrepancy between election results and public opinion.
Maud Newton tells the story of Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis sneering at bloggers, "blog on, little honeybees, blog on." She retorts, "we have, thanks!" Richard Ford recently dismissed the typical literary blogger as "some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute." DeCurtis and Ford are clinging to established public sphere interests now under siege by bloggers who speak from the privatized realm of the cultural consumer. Traditionally, people were supposed to shut up and buy, but as the history of the public sphere teaches us, in order to be rational the public sphere must draw upon the private. As for the frequently-voiced complaint that bloggers are little more than exhibitionists, too idiosyncratic and self-indulgent to be taken seriously, Habermas reminds us that since the ancient Greeks "Subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was always already oriented to an audience." Hence, the blogger.