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 sphere and 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.

13 responses

  1. Alyssa, I was worried you were planning an all-out attack (or rather, a defence of print as an object of analysis), but the more I read the more we seem to be in agreement. It seems that, like me, you are eager to look for what’s going on *in* and *through* print and communication–to look for institutions and relations of power, whether it be the state, or something else. Great!

    For the sake of debate, then, let me pick up on one or two little niggles. On the public sphere: I’m sympathetic to your challenge to this entire category, mainly because it seems to have been so badly used so often. But I’m not sure you would really deny that the important point about colonial newspapers and other forms of media is that they allow a *space* for public communication to develop that is outside and beyond, and therefore potentially *against* the state. It’s not that there’s no overlap–you show perfectly clearly that there’s a lot, and that communications in many ways *depends* on the state. It’s that there’s still a slippage between state and public sphere, a gap where opposition, and ultimately revolution, can creep in.

    And on the chicken & egg question, why is it important to talk about causality rather than just feedback loops? I argued in one of the comments to my original post that this is centrally important to Habermas for present political reasons; and that’s why it’s important to me too. I’m not just interested in change in the past. I’m interested in change now. So it matters to me what kind of things actually cause change, and how. I argued that Habermas got it wrong in his book–he was over-optimistic about the public sphere as an *agent* of change, when his own account really showed that different kinds of forces were what mattered. Of course, I don’t have the answers about how we should make our own history. But finding and clarifying such answers is the long-term purpose of my historical inquiry.

  2. Thanks for the engaging debate on the utility of the Habermasian Public Sphere in Colonial America Tom and Alyssa. The beauty of sociological inquiry into public formations, like that produced by Habermas, Coser, etc., is the resultant theoretical models and patterns that emerge. Yet, the devil is always in the details when the historical realities are uncovered. Even the focus of the area of analysis can change so much. For example, like much study into eighteenth-century America, there is an understandable favouritism towards the regions that would become the nascent U.S. Whether the topic is Pocockian republicanism, Habermasian deliberative democracy, or revolutionary Enlightenment influences, the end result tends to be the same: a colonial exceptionalism. I am sure that in some regions, specifically with higher literate merchant populations, that a more Habermasian public sphere did emerge. However, when you look at other British American colonies, such as Nova Scotia and Quebec for example, Alyssa’s model is definitely more prevalent. In those areas members of the State and the Church participated in the public sphere. There was also a very high degree of self regulation within the pages, where that public was not afraid to remonstrate with printers if they were not following their “virtual contract” with readers. Thus, mediation of the print world did not have to be restrictive from the top-down, but from a more subtle bottom-up. In the end, it may be the percentages of soldiers, bureaucrats, merchants and administrators that comprised that public that tipped the balance one way or the other. I have always been fascinated how similar messages, transferred along similar means of communication could be interpreted so differently between, say, Virginia, Mass. Bay, Quebec or Newfoundland. Thanks again for bringing this to the fore.

  3. Part (but, of course, hardly all) of the problem here may have something to do with the questionable decision of the translators of Habermas’ Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit to use “public sphere” whenever they could as a translation for a German term that does not necessarily carry spatial connotations. The results has been a tendency to think in terms of where things reside (in the “public sphere”? in the “political public sphere”? in the “literary public sphere?”) rather than to see Öffentlichkeit (“publicness” or “publicity”) as an attribute that historically situated actors use to characterize various locales, practices, texts, etc. (it may be significant that Habermas wrote the book as part of a larger project on the history of the idea of “ideology”).

    Harold Mah talked about this general problem in his “Phantasies of the Public Sphere” (Journal of Modern History 72:1) and I’ve tried to draw out some of the implications in a couple of posts on my blog (http://wp.me/p1YsWo-bB and http://wp.me/p1YsWo-c2).

  4. I am highly sympathetic to redefining the ways in which we think about print and print culture, both of which are central to my own work. I am also sympathetic to the critical reading of the Habermasian public sphere, such as it is. However, as I’ve written before on this topic here on the blog, in the early American context, historians have not applied the concept of the “public sphere” in strictly Habermasian terms, particularly regarding the its bifurcation with the state. Instead, they have adopted the term and defined it in different ways to serve their own purposes.

    Printing was established (i.e., made economically feasible) in the colonies in the late 17th and early 18th century largely due to the subsidization of government printing contracts. Even by mid-century when that was no longer the case, the state continued to share a significant interest in the production of print. If one looks at the historiography of print in early America, I would argue that one of the primary themes has been the relationship between the state (or agents of the state in the form of political factions or parties) and print. We see that in the colonial period in Michael Warner, particularly his chapter on the Constitution, and Charles Clark, and in the early republic through the work of Jeff Pasley and others. This makes me slightly wary of applying strict critiques of Habermas to the early American historiography.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree that for the historiography of print and “print culture” to move forward, we do need to get beyond meta-discussions of the mechanics of reception. I think there is work to be done on how the state attempted to manage and negotiate the “gap” between itself and the public sphere (as Tom described it). Our very own Joseph Adelman seems to me to be addressing the negotiation of that gap from those on the other end of the spectrum, i.e., the printers. I also agree with you and Tom that one way to do this is to begin thinking about print in institutional and political terms. I actually wrote a conference presentation for the 2012 S-USIH conference (that was, alas, canceled due to a hurricane in NYC), the subtitle of which was “Print as a Form of Institution-Building in British America.” In that paper, I tried to hint at how, as with our traditional conceptions of institutions, communities formed around specific prints and periodicals that shared cultural and/or political ideologies and were dedicated to affecting cultural and/or political reform. So while the historiography tends to focus on print’s role in the creation of “imagined communities,” I am far more interested in the way that print helped create actual communities within the public sphere and the subsequent public negotiation of the conflicts that emerged between those various communities.

    • Michael—
      Thanks for all this. I didn’t mean to suggest that historians of early America have simply transferred the Habermasian model onto their own work. In fact, I agree that’s often not the case. I briefly mentioned this above: one the most obvious deviations from Habermas has been the condensing of civil society and the public sphere. (In our attempts to broaden the membership of the public sphere, we’ve often obscured/discarded Habermas’s delineation between the two realms. The result? Society and the public sphere are often indistinguishable.)

      Back to my larger point, however, I believe it’s near impossible to talk about the public sphere without posturing in some way towards or away from Habermas. (The 2005 WMQ roundtable seemed to suggest much the same). For now, I remain rather skeptical that anyone can adopt the term “public sphere” and deploy it without the weight of an embattled theoretical literature. And, if we can just take a term because we like the sound and general vibe of it… well, we know what happened during the height of “middle ground” fever.

      I reread Warner last night, but it’s been a year or two since I’ve gone through Clark and Pasley. (By the way, if we’re going to wager on who has must closely applied a Habermasian model to an early American context, I’d go all in on Warner.) So perhaps I’m missing something, but my overall impression of literature on 18C North America (as well as France, Britain, and the Netherlands) is that the state remains still largely outside the world of prints. It has a relationship to print, yes—I have no idea how else we could ever talk about public opinion, for instance—but is it still largely portrayed as a foil to the public sphere. And the public sphere/prints portrayed as checks on the power of the state (or, perhaps, the ruling political party). (Take work on the oppositional political press during the Walpoleon era, for instance.) In any event, my larger point wasn’t that the state is wholly absent from print culture—rather, it was that our dominant portrayal of the state is distorted.

      In the end though, it’s heartening to see how many of us share a (nascent but growing) commitment to analyzing print—or the public sphere—in more concrete terms. I think it’ll ultimately provide us far more leverage as we construct stories of cause and effect.

      • Your points are well taken (and I totally agree about Warner), though overall you seem to have a slightly fatalist reading of the situation. I think we can talk about the public sphere or, more pointedly, what we (as junior historians) define as such, without an inevitable tangential recourse to Habermas. The way you rid yourself of the “spectre of Habermas” is by abandoning the impulse to re-theorize him and developing more concrete foundations for talking about print, public opinion, and the mediation between the public and the state. And I think we’ve already seen a number of possibilities for doing that in both your post and some of the comments, which personally makes me very optimistic for the next wave of the historiography. Take heart, Reichardt!

  5. Thanks Alyssa, as always, for a fascinating, long-form discussion on a broad issue of methodology or theory. I’m starting to think of you as The Junto’s occasional Special Reporter!

    I too am very sympathetic to the idea that Habermas looms rather larger than he ought to over any historical analyses of print, print culture, or public politics. My particular problem with how his theories have translated into discussions of early modern public politics is the exclusivity and exceptional analyses they give to print as a public medium at the expense of all others. One of the things I don’t think Habermas ever truly reckoned with is what “print culture” replaced as a medium through which to critique the state, exchange ideas, or report the news. The work of several early modern European historians, like Ethan Shagan or R. W. Scribner, have argued for major political debates taking place through pictographic impressions (arguably a form of print), the court system, and especially through church performances, probably the most public gathering in the early modern world. I find these quite persuasive as alternatives to the literary public sphere and in many respects believe them to have just as much causal value in explaining political change in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

    It makes sense, therefore, that government printing infrastructure (including your beloved packet boats) and government publications have as much to do with the “public sphere” as do Enlightenmnent-style literary giants and your more everyday gutter press. Another interesting question to think about is the extent to which government agents and officials, people ostensibly part of the state rather than the oppositional public sphere, acted in their private lives as citizens of the Republic of Letters (or whatever). I’m thinking of William Blathwayt, for example, who corresponded about political economy with noted intellectuals quite apart from his various governmental roles. I’m definitely persuaded that we need to keep such matters in mind when thinking about how (or even if) we should deploy Habermas’ public sphere as a theoretical approach.

    • Craig—
      I’m really glad you bring up scholars like Shagan and Scribner. And there’s another figure I’d add—one who is maybe all the more important to discuss precisely because of his enormous presence in the field of print culture. Robert Darnton. The entire first half of his piece on “An Early Information Society” was devoted to the notion that true news/media in eighteenth-century France wasn’t to be found in the prints at all. It was to stand by a tree in the Palais-Royal, or to sidle near a special bench in the Luxembourg Gardens, to tap into what outwardly looked decidedly pre-modern: oral communication networks.

      • Haha, I swithered over whether to include Darnton on that list, partly because he seemed more to embody the “Cultural Turn” you were suggesting we might be moving beyond. But I absolutely agree. We have to think about ways in which information was shared beyond simply printed materials. Perhaps it’s our inherent bias as (early) modern historians that makes us favour the printed word, as I’m certain my classicist and medievalist colleagues would immediately point to the limitations of such an approach in their own work.

  6. I would have thought that Habermas’ uptake of the concept of “lifeworld” and its rootedness in the sociological and historical turn he is making with regard to Hegelian and previous Marxist or sociological theories of society and the origins of the modern state would present itself quite nicely as an answer both to Tom Cutterham’s overestimation of the degree to which Habermas says the public sphere or social condition of publicity is a kind of idealistic driving force of history, and what seems to me to be the kind of neo-McLuhanite argument I take Alyssa Reichardt to be making. H’s attentions to the modes of practical rationality and their development, particularly the process of the colonization of the domain of practice by instrumental and purposive reasonings, and the corresponding account, furthered in Structural Transformation, of the development of the relationship between state and society seems like it kind of does what you are all saying you are doing contra H.

    • Yes, thanks as always Matt; to be clear, I think Habermas mistakes “the public sphere or social condition of publicity” as a “kind of driving force” only when he hints towards a political programme based on renewing the public sphere (which I take him to be doing in Structural Transformation and, generally, since, but you may disagree). The actually historical analysis in the book, as you rightly say, contradicts precisely that possibility. Still, it’s not about “instrumental or purposive readings” as a driving force, either; those are simply, once again, reflections of a larger *structural* transformation in what we would now call the economy. But this is a very big historical argument, maybe the biggest; so we probably won’t convince each other here in Alyssa’s comments 🙂

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  8. Thanks for this discussion, and thanks Alyssa for a great essay. I come at these questions from my work on the emerging culture industry of the 19th century. Specifically, I draw on Warner (<3 Warner) in my work on popular entertainment and celebrity in the early 19thC. One of the great frustrations of the historian of popular entertainment is that newspaper criticism shields as much as it reveals the world of entertainment and content of performance. One of the things I'm coming to realize is that newspaper critics writing about entertainment were not only promoting a particular vision of what they felt entertainment should be, but also doing do to further the readership and survival of their own nascent publications — and their emerging literary careers independent of organs like Burton's Literary Magazine (h/t Edgar Allen Poe!). These goals are inextricably intertwined. This is more than just "puffing" (when managers paid for glowing reviews and on dits). Critics aren't just trying to shape a world of popular culture that they look upon askance; they're trying to shape that world in order to establish the legitimacy of their own literary careers. In short, we need to pay careful attention to the structural engines that are always shaping the print sphere – whether our concern is the role of the state in the public sphere or (in my case) the complex relationship between capitalism, class, and cultural hierarchy.

    So I follow your point that we need to pursue a careful analysis of "media’s structural components—transmission, sources, geography" in order to make our arguments about "social or political change" with greater confidence, and provide that "sense of scale or reach or influence or even chronology" that you think is lacking in arguments about print culture. If Warner is interested in publics as "poetic world-making" let's pay as much attention to the engines driving that world as we do to the "poetic world" being created.


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