Part Representation and the Public

Download 2.07 Mb.
Size2.07 Mb.
1   2   3   4   5
Insert: Mercurius Politicus. Caption: In a tract of 1702 the High Church Tory Dr James Drake drew an explicit link between representation at the polls and misrepresentation of candidates. Immediately after the 1705 general election he also began a periodical, Mercurius Politicus, designed as an 'antidote to popular mis-representations'. He was prosecuted in November 1706 on the grounds that the paper was a 'scandalous and seditious libel'.
Given this context it is no surprise that the period examined the theory of representation as well as its practice. Hannah Pitkin's survey of the etymology of the term 'representation' suggests that 'in the second quarter of the seventeenth century, no doubt spurred by the pamphleteering and political debate that preceded, accompanied and followed the civil war, the "represent" family [of words] became political terms', and there was 'a transition from the earlier [meaning of] standing for others by way of substitution, to something like acting for others'. This shift reflected the need for a new examination of 'the relations of an individual member of the commons to his particular constituency'.78 Pitkin thought the first use of the word 'representative' (to refer to a member of parliament) occurred in 1651 and noted that this was the year in which Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan was published. In it, Hobbes made, she says, the first systematic examination of the idea of representation, for he argued that

'a commonwealth is said to be instituted, when a multitude of men do agree and covenant, every one with every one, that to whatsoever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part, the right to present the persons of them all, that is to say, to be their representative; every one ...shall authorise all the actions and judgments of that man or assembly of men, in the same manner as if they were his own'.79

As Leviathan stated,

'a multitude of men, are made one person, when they are by one man, or one person, represented ... every man giving their common representer authority from himselfe in particular; and owning all the actions the representer doth, in case they give him authority without stint: otherwise, when they limit him in what and how farre he shall represent them, none of them owneth more than they gave him commission to act '. 80

Hobbes thus applied a concept of individual authorisation, via contract, to the representative, and he explicitly linked political representation and the representation of language. He began his account of political power, Leviathan, with an account of speech and the proper signification of words. Hobbes recognised that control of language conferred power. But he also argued that an artificial person or actor was a personator or representative of others. Such representatives had 'their words and actions owned by those whom they represent', and it was this authorisation that was the basis of authority. Thus political actors and representatives were authorised fictions.81 Every man was the author of everything that their representative said or did; and the voice of the majority 'must be considered the voyce of them all'.82

The relationship between represented and representatives was repeatedly confronted in the later Stuart period. In particular, contemporaries were forced to consider how far representatives were actors who remained responsible to those who authorised them. Hobbes conceived of a transfer of power from the represented to the person representing. But not all agreed. As one critic put it in 1716,

'I cannot therefore agree with Mr Hobbes, that when a person chooses a representative, he resigns the power of resumption, unless it be expressly mention’d in the compact; for a representative acts not by vertue of his own power, but another man’s power, who may exercise his own powers, if he pleases, himself. Hence also a representative must be accountable to the person he represents’.83

The relationship between the represented and representative, including the power that each had, was under constant scrutiny. But there were also other dimensions of Hobbes's formula that were contested and debated. Some denied the contractural basis of representation altogether; others queried who were the people who could legitimately authorise a representative, an issue raised every time a franchise was contested or an appeal to the 'people' was made; others worried about what was being represented - interests, land or people? These ideological debates arose out of routine political practice.

The debate about representation, of course, went back much further.84 But in the seventeenth century its development ran alongside assertions of popular sovereignty that were formulated soon after the outbreak of civil war.85 Representative legitimacy was frequently questioned during the mid-century revolution. Pride's Purge, removing moderates from the Commons, heightened the representational dilemma, for the Rump's claim to be representative was challenged by many. The Presbyterian William Prynne, for example, drafted a declaration on behalf of a dozen counties, eight cities and 52 boroughs repudiating the Rumpers who, it was claimed, had erected a 'new representative …which neither we nor our ancestors ever heard of nor desired'.86 Yet the declaration of a commonwealth on 4 January 1649 asserted that the Rump, 'being chosen by, and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation'.87 In March the act abolishing kingship claimed to 'return' the nation to 'its just and ancient right of being governed by its own representatives'. A year later the Rump required subscription to the 'engagement' in order to procure (or manufacture) representative consent. And the Rump continued to deliberate its own representativeness.88 So when Hobbes was applying the language of representation to the Leviathan he was doing so against heightened claims about representing the people and novel arguments that representatives had the authorising consent of individuals.89 The later Stuart period thus explored and worked through problems and a language that had arisen in the 1640s.

In 1660 the Convention Parliament's first address to Charles II assured him it was 'the true representative of the whole nation'.90 During the Restoration there was a concerted attempt to restore the concept of the king as the representative of the people. But during the 1670s Charles's failure to dissolve the parliament that had been elected in 1661, a second 'long parliament', placed the issue of representation back at the top of the agenda.91 In 1677, for example, a number of tracts argued that parliament's longevity broke the link between the people and representation. One of these, 'The Young Men's plea …for dissolving this present parliament', was (like the works of the 1640s) grounded on the necessity of individual authorisation of representatives.92 It argued that all those aged between 21 and 37, '(which is a 3d part and more of the men of England) are not represented in this parliam[en]t', having been too young to vote in 1661. Thus while the 'law books say that parliaments are the people of England collectively taken', the young men had either to disown their MPs 'or ourselves for being a part of the people of England'. Freeborn Englishmen who were denied their representative rights were, it was asserted, neither obliged to obey the laws nor pay taxation.93

Even when parliament was dissolved in 1679, concepts of representation remained controversial. The issue was kept prominent by three general elections in as many years, by the king's refusal to allow the second parliament elected in the late summer of 1679 to sit until October 1680, by a mass of 'instructions' to MPs and campaigns of mass petitioning, and by the temporary expiry of the licensing laws, all of which allowed public access to a revitalised debate about popular sovereignty.94 During the later 1680s James II fuelled the controversy by embarking on a systematic campaign to pack parliament. And between 1688 and 1714 popular sovereignty and the nature of representation were debated vigorously. But by then, new threats to a 'true representation' of the people had emerged, it was thought, in the form of a fiscal-military state that could corrupt elections;95 an increasingly powerful concept of the sovereignty of parliament as the people;96 a press free from pre-publication licensing but capable of misleading as much as informing; and, most ironically of all, the very process of frequent elections. The study of representational practices must therefore be seen in this changed context. The later Stuart period faced some old problems, but it did so in new circumstances and, this book suggests, accordingly stands between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries conceptually as well as chronologically.

If a study of representation may appear whiggish, it also seems at odds with current historiographical trends that stress self-governance in the early modern state through office-holding, the experience of authority at the parish level and institutions of negotiation, such as the law.97 Participation rather than representation, it is urged, is more important for understanding the nature of early modern authority. Such an interpretation explicitly downplays the importance of parliament, elections and representative institutions in order to investigate the interlinked variety of institutions through which authority could be exercised.98 I have no quarrel with the focus on participation. To be sure, participatory mechanisms remained important, long after 1720.99 But even advocates of a highly participatory model of early modern society discern a shift in the later Stuart period when 'a more regularised routine of local government gave a more "institutional" appearance to the activities of local officeholders', especially as a result of more frequent parliamentary sessions.100 So, it seems to me, we would do well to chart the growth of a representative culture and discern ways in which it interacted with a participatory one. In doing so we should not see participation and representation as necessarily rival concepts, for they were often intertwined.101 And rather than paint out parliament, we should seek to explore how its role changed. A key dimension of this book lies, therefore, in stressing participation through representation and its processes. This is not just because in the later Stuart period elections provided a major opportunity for participation,102 or because parliament found a new importance, but also because representation involves much more than Westminster or voting. Representation required many other forms of participation, through reading and debating, through allegiance to party, through ideology and through varying forms of signalling consent. Representation was thus a cultural phenomenon. As Roger Chartier puts it, representation ‘is … one of the foremost concepts manipulated by writers of the ancient regime when they set out to comprehend the functioning of their society or to define the intellectual operations that enabled them to apprehend the physical or social world. This is a first and an excellent reason to make it the cornerstone of a cultural approach to history’.103 My own study suggests that participation needs to be explored by including, rather than excluding, means of representation. Indeed, the parish state only functioned through sophisticated concepts of representation, with households being represented by their heads and parishes by their office-holders.

The nature of public dialogue is particularly important if we understand the state not so much as a set of institutions as authority constructed by and through negotiation and processes of legitimation. Because those involved dialogue between interested parties, the language in which negotiation occurred was therefore important. Legitimisation of authority in part depended on the right choice of language for the right audience; but partisan language could make the internal dialogue of state negotiation more difficult, or change the way in which that dialogue occurred, and hence reorient state formation. Reward for partisan allegiance and national networks of patronage, for example, changed the way in which office-holding worked. A state capable of paying salaries was a different beast. And the language of negotiation changed, in part because of the new player, public opinion, and in part because the languages of interest and politeness were becoming increasingly powerful. The balance within the state also shifted, as parliament assumed a less occasional role. If political partisanship placed new strains on dialogue and public discourse, as I argue that they did, then this necessarily affected the nature of state formation.

A study of representation also appears at odds with a philosophical and political emphasis on participatory or 'republican' forms of citizenship.104 Discussions about representation have been much less vociferous, despite the paradox that there is some sense of crisis of democracy in the West occurring at the same time as an attempt to export representative principles and practice to other countries.105 Recent commentators have also had relatively little to say about the problems facing public political dialogue, even though popular hostility to what is perceived as political lying and a corrupt or unheard political discourse seems to be connected to a dangerous alienation from the representative process.106 Neither has there been a great effort to place these issues in a historical or conceptual context. Hannah Pitkin's classic study of representation, written in 1967, still remains one of the most useful treatments of the theme; yet her conclusion would suggest the imperative of historical analysis. She argued that representation was 'not vague and shifting but a single, highly complex concept that has not changed much in its basic meaning since the seventeenth century'.107 As she was happy to admit, hers was primarily a history of an idea, 'tracing the treatment of representation by major political theorists', and her study lacks any sustained contextualisation. Nor was she particularly interested in how language shapes political representation. This book therefore aims to suggest some features intrinsic to partisan politics and representative practices as much as a study located in a certain time and place.

Pitkin's argument that representation has not changed in its basic meaning since the seventeenth century has been given a new twist by Bernard Manin. He suggests that 'what today we call representative democracy has its origins in a system of institutions … that was in no way initially perceived as a form of democracy or of government by the people'.108 He argues that there was a fundamental shift from a participatory ideal of personal representation to one based on delegated impersonal power. Manin outlines four key criteria of a representative form of government:

'1. Those who govern are appointed by election at regular intervals.

2. The decision-making of those who govern retains a degree of independence from the wishes of the electorate.

3. Those who are governed may give expression to their opinions and political wishes without these being subject to the control of those who govern.

4. Public decisions undergo the trial of debate'.109

Each of this criteria can be related to the period 1660-1720 (an era that helped determine them in the first place) and in doing so, we begin to examine some of the birthpangs of representational politics. As John Pocock has suggested, from about 1700 'we date the centrality of the notion that the defining characteristic of the citizen is his or her capacity to be represented'. From then on the question was 'how much of myself I had retained in making myself over to these characters'. 110 In the context of globalisation, the collapse of communism, and voter alienation, this seems a particularly pertinent question to ask.

I have sketched large problems and big questions. But at the outset the limits of the current project's concern with representation should be recognised. A comprehensive study of representation should include, far more than I attempt here, a study of visual representation. The images in this book are only suggestive of the importance of integrating the visual and other forms of culture. One could also say much more about the way in which representations worked socially. Important themes, such as the representation of women and children by adult male heads of households, and the political uses of the representation of love and of sex, are touched on but the connections between the political and social need to be drawn more consistently than is attempted here.111 The book does seek to show ways – through the study of petitions, addresses, print, discourse and electioneering - in which social, cultural and political history should overlap; but the points of contact do need more attention.112 Representation outside England also receives skimpy attention. I hope to treat some of these important themes elsewhere. But primarily for reasons of space and focus, the book will revolve around a study of representation and misrepresentation in politics and language. It seeks to complement existing studies of the organisation and personnel of party politics, available in the array of secondary material already outlined.113 It does so by aiming to reconnect parliamentary history with public politics, political discourse and state formation, and by pointing to connections between cognate bodies of secondary literature - in political and social history, but also in the history of ideas, of science and literary criticism. Discussions are based on primary evidence drawn from research into electioneering and into the vast and, still under-used, archive of contemporary pamphlets and printed ephemera which runs into millions of words. The sources used for this study are therefore numerous and wide-ranging. Petitions, addresses, associations, speeches, pamphlets, periodicals, borough records, state archives, court cases, newsletters, personal correspondence, memoirs and diaries have all been used in order to investigate public discourse and representation. But how should those themes be approached and interpreted?
B. Context and Methodology.
C. The Linguistic Turn.
Geoffrey Holmes opened his classic study of politics in the reign of Queen Anne with the plea that we should 'study the vocabulary which contemporaries used to describe the political attitudes and questions of their own age' on the grounds that 'in the language of early-eighteenth century politics are to be found some of the most valuable clues to its character'.114 Holmes was identifying, even if he did not fully exploit, the importance of ‘the linguistic turn’. What, then, does the term mean and why is it important?

The 'linguistic turn' involves the recognition that language ‘acts’. This happens directly, as when we are told to do something, but also indirectly, when the words used can implicitly rather than explicitly tell us something. Certain words and phrases thus have a power of their own, because the way in which they are understood can shape and order behaviour and experience. As Quentin Skinner recognises, contemporaries were familiar with much of this theory simply as the art of rhetoric.115 The focus on language, then, is not an abstract bit of modern theorising, but something taught routinely in schools, universities and inns of court. The way in which men and issues were represented in words – the text of an address, printed advice at election time, the words of a speech and so on - mattered intensely. So a concern with language is not driven by a modern, or even post-modern, critical agenda; but stems from the preoccupations of the combatants in partisan conflict. The abuse of language, and the uncertainty of meanings were, as we shall see, prominent later Stuart concerns.

The approach mapped out by Skinner, John Pocock and others, suggests that change can be understood through the study of language; or, rather, the study of how language was used at any point in time can tell us a great deal about the society in which it was used. Contextualising political language has thus been particularly important for historians of political thought, a discipline which 'is now more accurately described as the history of political discourse'.116 Contextualisation has also been important for a movement within literary scholarship known as ‘new historicism’. Louis Montrose summarises the approach as being 'characterized, on the one hand, by its acknowledgement of the historicity of texts… and on the other hand, by its acknowledgment of the textuality of history'.117 Significantly the journal most associated with this movement is called Representations, founded in 1983. Since much of this book is concerned with how representation worked verbally as well as structurally, and how the two influenced one another, this contextualist line of enquiry is worth pursuing further.

If we accept that an author is doing something when speaking or writing, Skinner argues, then the words and phrases chosen will help recover something of what the author intended.118 A full understanding of texts 'presupposes the grasp both of what they were intended to mean and how this meaning was intended to be taken'.119 Thus an author might describe a man who opposed the wishes of the Court as disloyal, seditious, factious, a fanatic, and self-interested (all negatively charged terms), or more positively as patriotic, independent, moderate, rational and virtuous. There were a variety of different ‘languages’ from which to choose. These included, for the later Stuart period, the languages of scripture, common law, classical republicanism, patriarchalism, natural rights, reason and 'politeness'. Such languages had their own vocabulary, rules, tone and style; and they also had their own preconditions and political implications. The dominance of any one language and the interplay between languages thus tells us a good deal about a political culture at any given time. To give an example, in the 1690s some Whigs became highly suspicious of the way in which the power of the Court and the emerging fiscal-military state could distort men’s principles. They began to be labelled, and talk of themselves, as ‘true’ or ‘old’ Whigs, as opposed to the ‘new’ or 'modern' Whigs who complied with the Court and sought to profit from state expansion.120 They adopted a language, derived in part from Machiavelli via James Harrington, that stressed virtue, independence, and participation in the state – particularly through the militia. Their choice of such language was deliberate, for they might have couched their complaints in different ways. A biblical language, say, might see the Court as sinful; one based on natural rights might see the Court as subverting an abstract contract between government and individual. By analysing shifts of language – how words and concepts change their meaning and use - we can track change over time.121 Politics and language have to be related to each other and the political struggle often occurred over and through a linguistic one.122

A problem arises, however, in terms of how far words have agency.123 If words are powerful, how and what we think or speak (and hence also behave) may therefore partly be determined by the discourse around us.124 A second form of the linguistic turn embraces this position. A group of historians working mainly on late eighteenth and nineteenth century problems of class have argued that political language constructs, sets boundaries to, and even determines social identities.125 By restoring politics to its proper place, it is argued, we can find that changes in political discourse explain larger changes. Language is thus not simply a medium in which experience finds expression, but shapes or even creates that experience. One of the principal exponents of such a view, Gareth Stedman Jones, intended 'to dispel the illusion of the independence or even primacy of social history, to restore the central position of political history and to recast the pre-occupations of the social historian as a set of concerns encompassed within it'.126

It is not difficult to see how an approach that seeks an explanation for social and political identity in language might be useful, for party, like class, involves an identity, or set of identities, which need to be constructed. Might party identity and allegiance, therefore, be constructed by and through language? And might the language of party have had real social importance, ironically serving to reinforce unity by stressing horizontal ideological ties at a time when there were growing social and economic polarities that might have erupted in significant conflict? And did the reaction against the rage of abusive and mendacious party discourse foster the invocation of an ideal of rational, polite discourse that necessarily affected how the ‘people’, represented as irrational or lacking in judgement, were regarded? There is, as following chapters show, some mileage in these thoughts. Nevertheless the post-modernist approach alone can not explain shifts in political culture. It is too bent on claiming language as the sole construct of 'experience', too linguistically determinist.127 As Wahrman points out, such an approach ironically underestimates the importance of politics, for politics makes the choices between different conceptualisations of society matter, and this version of the linguistic turn removes agency and contingency.128

But the Skinnerian use of the linguistic turn is also in some ways problematic. Its stress on contextualising language and examining the rhetoric of political discourse is enormously important. Nevertheless, what precisely is the 'context' that has to be explored to recover the contemporary meaning of a text or discourse? All too often the history of political discourse is written with reference either to canonical writers or to a few articulate, well-known pamphleteers. This is partly because the Skinnerian school is not interested in the minor works per se, but in what they can tell us about the 'major works'.129 As James Tully puts it, 'minor texts of a period are carefully dusted off and surveyed to identify the constitutive and regulative conventions of the reigning ideologies and their inter-relations before they are employed as benchmarks to judge the conventional and unconventional aspects, and so the ideological moves, of the major texts'.130 Yet, as Tully's account explicitly recognises, the minor works are only minor if one is interested in exploring canonical writers or assume that it is the latter that are the main motors of linguistic and conceptual change.131 As Richard Ashcraft showed in his contextualisation of the thought of John Locke, apparently minor, ephemeral and even anonymous works could be, and were, innovative and influential.132 The ebb and flow of political, religious and economic disputes could change the meaning of words and concepts. As I hope to show, meanings were vigorously contested in this minor canon that was itself the product of disputed political practice. In other words, the ‘benchmarks’ used to chart change were themselves contested constituents of change and the means by which change could be effected. This is particularly important because in the later Stuart period (as in others) contemporaries were acutely aware of the instability of meanings, of the ways in which words could be abused or misused. John Locke, for example, observed that it was 'hard to find a discourse written of any subject, especially of controversy, wherein one shall not observe, if he read with attention, the same words (and those commonly the most material in the discourse, and upon which the argument turns), used sometimes for one collection of simple ideas, and sometimes for another, which is a perfect abuse of language'.133 In order to recover these dimensions this study is rooted in what might be called ephemeral political literature that was itself rooted in everyday political practice.

Such material raises a further problem, about the degree to which any political language was ‘pure’. When we talk of the variety of political languages, and the choices made by authors, the implication is that a single idiom is chosen. But the pressure of party polemic, the need to convince or cajole as many as possible, frequently necessitated employing more than one ‘language’ within any pamphlet. The anonymity of print audiences was problematic for a single idiom. To sell and be read in a market, controversial polemic necessitated different voices, and different types of appeal through different types of language, either within the same text or in a series of different speech acts aimed at different audiences. And it may also have been the case that authors themselves thought in more than one ‘language’. As we shall see in the next chapter, Henry Booth, who might otherwise be categorised as an ‘old Whig’, talked about natural law, natural rights, the ancient constitution, scripture and interest, even though each has often been labelled a discrete 'language'. Such points of overlap, and the interplay between languages, merit more discussion. So too does the way in which the variety of readers interpreted polemic and hence gave it different meanings.134 In other words we might move away from charting the variety of political languages towards mapping the contested words and concepts, the political framework or the moments of crisis that drove the contest, and the variety of rhetorical strategies employed to contest them.135 And to do this will necessitate examining genres of texts – such as petitions and addresses, election advice, letters and dialogues - as well as the meanings they contain and the meanings, so far as we can recover them, conferred by readers or listeners as well as authors. Although an author may intend a language to perform in a particular way, the reader or listener is also part of that process, and may impose different interpretations, both from that intended by the author and from each other. By studying elections – how the sum of individuals reacted to the public discourse that surrounded them - we may in part be able to examine a response to the word games being played.

There are, then, methodological issues that this book aims to raise. It stresses the importance of the practice of politics in shaping language, seeking to widen the ‘context’ that students of political discourse must examine. But it also argues that the historian of party must also be alive to issues of language, as a means by which allegiance and identity was constructed and as a tool in political conflict. The book recognises the shaping power of ‘ways of talking’ without withdrawing the potential for individual or group agency. On occasion participants were conscious of making a choice about certain vocabularies, not least because the meanings of words and phrases were contested; but languages, such as those of conspiracy or politeness, shaped political processes. Moreover, as the conflict became more protracted, the public became more aware and suspicious of human agency in political affairs but also of the misuse to which language could be put.

C. Habermas and the Public Sphere.

If approaches to ‘language’ can be helpful when thinking about public discourse, so too can ideas about the nature of the public itself. Politics was fought out in a dialogue of different claims to represent the public. How, then, should we conceptualise what the public was? One of the most influential models has been provided by German sociologist Jürgen Habermas's idea of a public sphere.136 Habermas identified a linguisitically-constructed interface between the public state and its private citizens, the ‘public sphere’. This was created, he suggested (drawing on Kant), whenever citizens meet to use their private reason to discuss matters of general interest. Thus the expansion of opportunities and greater freedom for such discussions give rise to 'the public sphere': a unified, collective but also idealised voice and site of rational debate.

Habermas argued that this expansion took place in Britain in the later Stuart period and offered a number of reasons. One was the growth of a mercantile, capital economy that gave information a new cachet and made it economically important. Merchants and tradesmen needed to know about state affairs in order to be able to conduct their business but they also needed to be able to convey their own opinions about trade back to the government.

'We are speaking of the elements of the new commercial relationships: the traffic in commodities and news created by early capitalist long-distance trade … almost simultaneously with the origin of stock markets, postal services and the press institutionalised regular contacts and regular communication …[and] there existed a press in the strict sense only once the regular supply of news became public, that is, accessible to the general public. But this occurred only at the end of the C17th'.137

This press was first a vehicle for criticism of literary works but rapidly became a vehicle for political discussion. Such talk took place in the coffee-houses that proliferated in the late C17th and early C18th, enabling men to meet more frequently, and in a new public space, to talk about matters of public interest. The expansion of the state also enlarged the public sphere. The growth of a fiscal-military state and the regular frequency of parliaments, meant opportunities to lobby, seek patronage, assess the impact of state policies or to discuss who was in and who was out. Public discussion was thus linked to the activities of the state and in part acted as a controlling mechanism on it, important because it was not intrinsic to the state itself. The later Stuart period, Habermas argued, thus witnessed the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere, appropriated by an educated elite who came to think of themselves as constituting the public and who formed public opinion.

Habermas argued that the public sphere was founded on the principle of access to all those who engaged in rational debate.

‘The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public’ in order to ‘engage public authorities in a debate about the general rules governing relations in the ...sphere of commodity exchange and social labour. The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent: people’s public use of their reason’.138

The public sphere was thus the product of rational debate. But Habermas argued that this rational debate decayed over time, producing a process of structural transformation. As new forms of communication evolved they changed the way in which the public sphere operated. The function of the public sphere as an interface between the public and the state, he argued, has broken down in the modern world.

‘The process of the politically relevant exercise and equilibration of power now takes place directly between the private bureaucracies, special-interest associations, parties and public administration. The public as such is included only sporadically in this circuit of power, and even then it is brought in only to contribute its acclamation’.139

Instead of a rationally constructed public sphere, therefore, we occupy a consumer culture, in which individuals are passive. ‘Rational critical debate had a tendency to be replaced by consumption’.140 The new public is not participatory but consumptive and ‘the world fashioned by the mass media is a public sphere in appearance only’.141 It is clear from this analysis that Habermas's model is not primarily historical, though it draws on historical evidence to support it. It is equally clear that his early rational public sphere is an ideal, from which he constructs a story of decay and corruption.

Habermas’s ideas have been examined by many historians and literary critics.142 Criticisms are various. Some think that Habermas may be right in discerning the creation of a public sphere but wrong about its timing, which, it is argued, can be found much earlier (though there is no agreement about precisely when) and brought about by factors which he had failed to consider (such as religion). Others suggest that the public sphere was not a single entity. Work by a number of scholars has suggested that a number of different public spheres could operate, not quite independently of one another but at different capacities at different times. Thus, it is said, it makes more sense to talk in terms of public spheres, which could open and close in vitality at different times and often, before the later Stuart period, at the government's bidding. Other scholars remark that the concept of the 'public sphere' is a vague one, with ill-defined notions of what was private and how the ‘space’ (physical or virtual) operated. The emphasis placed on the novelty of print and coffee-houses also jars with those who stress that manuscript, speech and ale-houses had performed similar functions a hundred years beforehand.143 There is some truth to all these objections and in the chapters that follow another criticism will be outlined. First, the stress on the rationality of the early public sphere will be questioned,144 and hence the degree to which there was a linear degradation or decay. Second, the priority of a literary public sphere before a political one will be questioned, not least because a distinction between politics and literature is often hard to define.

And yet there is clearly something of value in the notion of a new force of public opinion emerging in the early modern period and acquiring a new status under the later Stuarts.145 As historians of the French revolution remind us, the idea of a fusion of individual participants into a representative, collective unity (the public) is extremely important.146 It forces us to examine how such a fiction could be justified and encouraged; how the representation of the public as a single unity was compatible with, and actually fostered by, the development of conflicting groups of partisans; and the way in which such a collective unity could be used in political struggles. The concept of the public sphere relies on a notion of the public as something different to, separated from, but also in dialogue with the state. Again, this is a useful way of understanding the state itself. Early modern social historians have stressed a model of a participatory state, in which office-holding was widespread and in which power was negotiated; state and public were thus overlapping entities. Yet by the later Stuart period (and apparent at moments of crisis earlier too) there is also clearly a public that is outside the ranks of officeholders and the state is regarded as an 'other', with its own set of interests and against which a public opinion ought to act. If this is right, Habermas was correct to talk about his public sphere emerging in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for before then the state was not regarded as a self-interested entity. Scholars of sixteenth and early seventeenth century political culture have, perhaps for that reason, generally been more sceptical of the value of the Habermasian model. Peter Lake and Michael Questier have thus talked about a 'de-Habermased notion of the public sphere'.147 But their hesitancy may well be a sign that the political culture did change and that hence a model inappropriate to one era might be more applicable in another. Habermas was right to highlight the transforming conjunction in the later Stuart period of new factors such as the rise of parties, frequent parliaments, a free press, the coffee-house, the appearance of a stock market and the expansion of a capitalist economy, the funding of a national debt, the legal recognition of religious dissent, the permanent lapse of pre-publication licensing and the expansion of the press, the rise of literary criticism, and the unprecedented amount of tax extracted by the state which could then afford to maintain armed forces on a new scale.

Habermas can also productively help us with a problem identified in the discussion of the linguistic turn, namely the response of readers rather than authors to the power of words. One way of thinking about the public as a unified collective is to think of it as a reading public. Partisan politics involved reading events, either metaphorically or more literally, with voters and actors as authors and consumers of texts. Sharon Achinstein has suggested that the mid-seventeenth century witnessed 'a revolution in reading', since more readers were exposed to a greater diversity of reading material than ever before, leading to shifts in rhetoric and reading practices.148 She suggests that readers became responsible judges of what they read, though their judgement was informed not so much by reason as by conscience. The readers therefore constitute the public sphere, in part because they were encouraged to think of themselves as a conscientious jury and because '"the public" was … an ideological construct of an audience'.149 This produced 'nothing short of a new mode of political consciousness … turning English people into political activists', accompanied by 'a qualitative change in the ways people wrote and thought about political ideas'.150 The public appeal to a revolutionary tribunal of readers, she suggests, led to a confusion of conflicting voices, with the result that printed exchanges 'were clashes in language, verbal disputes, but they were also clashes about language - about the proper use of words'.151 Exploring the public thus involves something of a paradox: because it is an ideal construct of a collective unity, it can only be examined through the disparate and conflicting voices that helped create it. Achinstein raises the question of how partisan polemic was read and received. This is always difficult to answer. Nevertheless, voters were a set of readers, bombarded with electoral advice; and though their behaviour was not solely the result of such material, the way they polled was in part influenced by what they read. This is an issue that will be tackled in chapters 4 and 5.

C. Public Discourse Circumscribed: Politeness and Reason.
One further salvageable element of the Habermasian concept of the public sphere is the stress on rational public discourse governed by new conventions. Although the transition away from a medieval concept of 'courtesy' to one of 'civility' took place gradually over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Lawrence Klein has written about a more marked development that coincides with Habermas's notion of a late seventeenth and early eighteenth century innovation: the rise of 'politeness'.152 Politeness was defined in 1702 as 'a dexterous management of our words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and themselves'.153 It was concerned with representation through words and manners, and 'came into extraordinary prominence in the later seventeenth century, especially after 1688, and endured for a good deal of the eighteenth century'.154 Crystallised in the writings of Addison, Steele and the third earl of Shaftesbury, and disseminated in the coffee-houses where the ideal of 'polite conversation' was pursued, politeness was 'hammered …into place roughly in the years between 1700 and 1715'.155 It offered 'the opportunity to create a new public and gentlemanly culture of criticism' or 'public, secular gentility'.156 It 'invented a new ideal of elite culture', widening the gap between patrician and plebeian.157 Klein rightly links the rise of politeness to the ‘urban renaissance’ described by Peter Borsay, seeing it as a 'unified elite cultural standard' that was ‘quite tangibly a way of articulating and mastering actual changes in elite cultural life' in urban centres.158 Klein thus accounts for its emergence in cultural and social terms. He argues that 'stability could co-exist with partisanship in the eighteenth century because of elite social and cultural cohesiveness, summed up in the language of "politeness"'.159 Borsay suggests that during the eighteenth century ‘civility and sociability replaced the divisive aspects of politics and religion'.160
Insert; Faction Display’d. Caption: The hydra is depicted with heads of writers, suggesting that the Church was under devilish fire from Daniel Defoe, John Milton, Benjamin Hoadly, JohnTutchin and the Pope. The image represents the destructive power of polemical words. The first known use of the term 'journalist' was in 1693.

Download 2.07 Mb.

Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page