Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Are Blogs the New "Republic of Letters?"

I, as a historian of early modern Europe, have been considering this question in relation to bigger issues of public and private spheres as well as the development of public opinion as the premier arbiter of taste, policy and the general direction in life beginning in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In doing this, I was struck by questions relating to the blog phenomenon and the expansion of communication engendered by electronic communication. First, I will present two theoretical viewpoints and then I shall comment on these, relating the arguments into a picture of the place of new "information media" in the realm of public discourse. Centrally, I will argue that while the internet seems to expand the realm of public opinion, there still are factors (as there were in the eighteenth century) that limit access and give a decidedly circumscribed bent to much of the discourse.

Sociologist/philosopher Jurgen Habermas proposed a model of a growing bourgeois public sphere in the "age of Enlightenment." Habermas contends that the public sphere was composed of the state and official court culture, a heavily controlled milieu where the participants and subjects were limited to official notions of sociability and the whims of the royal household. The private sphere, conversely, was composed most importantly of the public sphere of the political realm and the world of letters as well as the commercial interaction of the marketplace (1). He also asserts that the institutions of this public sphere needed to, at first, hide the exposition of their public reason in secret societies and the criticism of the arts; this would expand with increased commerical congress on a continental scale as markets grew coupled with the expansion of literacy among the middle classes of society (2). He concludes by arguing that this new public sphere was comprised of property owners who asserted their role as human beings by attempting to influence society, culture and politics with the aforementioned excercise of criticism now applied to public life (3).

Following many of the same themes, historian Roger Chartier argues that through access to ideas and writing by a literate public built a new political culture where public opinion, constituted in the open and without an institution, usurped power from the private and localized monarchy (4). This dissemination of printed material gave rise to a public that had no visible presence, not reliant on proximity (5). Chartier, however, qualifies these arguments with a discussion of the difference between ideas of the "public" and the "people." The public was understood under much the definition given by Habermas with an increased emphasis on literacy as the "sheepgate" for entry into the realm of the "public (6)." Those who were considered to be "the people" were still considered as those who were led by passion, ignorant and illiterate. The new court of public opinion had little place for the "rabble," considered to be violent and easily manipulated-the greatest subjects of a paternalistic monarch (7). The public, therefore, was an exclusive group comprised of urban, literate people who would, as the eighteenth century progressed, make their influence known in the halls of power in Europe. It was from this group that the French Revolution would be ideologically born.

What do these developments of the eighteenth century have to do with the "blogosphere?" I think that there are two relations, one positive and one negative. First, the positive. Blogs, for me, represent the continuation of this global community of ideas and reasoned discussion. Just as the people of the eighteenth century used the latest in print technology to print journals and newspapers, we use blogs, message boards and the like to debate ideas of the day and enter our thoughts into this exchange of ideas. In this way, I think that the essence of the "Republic of Letters" lives on in many blogs; their authors concerned with developments in the larger society feeling compelled to share their ideas and debate in a robust public forum.

Negatively, however, I think that Chartier's argument about a distinction between people and public and Habermas's contention that this was a bourgeois phenomenon speak to the limited scope and nature of the blogs and the like. Just as literacy was the deciding factor for entry into debate in the past, access to computers, education and resources are the stumbling blocks for wider participation in our own day. Not all have access or opportunity to do these things. Today, with 24-hour cable "news" bombardment, soul-draining entertainment brought directly into the home and decreased opportunities for economic success, the "people" seem to have again been shoved out of the opinion pool by those who's very ideas define that unseen community. Like their eighteenth century counterparts, they have a voice but it can only be heard in relation to the culture that would not have them as a component.

How can these voices be heard? Where can the voiceless gain a platform into the new digital "Republic of Letters?" Tomorrow, I will discuss another historical paralell to this dynamic of communication. Here we will see that perhaps I paint an overly dark portrait of the possibilities of the blogosphere. We will look back to eighteenth century Paris to see what the people in the streets were saying and who was paying attention. We will also look at ourselves, wondering how the persistance of communities of ideas pass through technologies of knowledge to shape the world as we know it.

1. Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Society, trans. by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 30.
2. Ibid., 35.
3. Ibid., 56.
4. Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, trans. by Lydia G. Cochrane(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 30.
5. Ibid., 32.
6. Ibid., 36-37.
7. Ibid., 33.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would say definitively no. The problem is simply the seemingly infinite numbers of them. It is well nigh impossible to get people to visit them unless you know them personally. So what it does I'd say is create a very small talking shop where people can (with a very few exceptions, like daily kos or lgf) express their viewpoints to people who could probably ask it.

Moreover on the big blogs, there are often too many responses to read and digest in any manner. Looking at lgf, I see 787 posts about a creationist bill in New Mexico. No way in a million years I'd even read a hundered of them.

Unfortunately, too, many people have blogs about things unrelated to inspiring thought. I'm thinking of things like "this is where I've been" blog or "these are the parties i've been to today" blogs, or the "this is what I knitted" blog.

Just random thoughts