Wednesday, May 04, 2005

A "Republic of Letters" or a Dictatorship of Access?

Continuing on yesterday's theme, we left off with the question of providing a voice for the voiceless. If we look at an example from the eighteenth century, we can see that the supposedly voiceless were not really so; in Paris of the time, au contraire.

Cultural historian Robert Darnton has argued that popular speech and writing were a considerable political and literary force in eighteenth century Paris. Darnton maintains that there were intricate networks of communication and dispersal for the rough doggerel and popular songs/poetry/fables and the like. These networks extended throughout French society providing these intertwining arrangements where speech could (and did) pass from the streets to be read by those at Versailles (1). These writings, in a real way, showed the political concerns of the day and the reaction of the bulk of urban France to them; everything from the mistresses of Louis XV to the dissolute nature of the aristocracy (2). These texts evolved from their original forms, changing with the teller and with the situation of the day; they influenced each other and their readers to the point where Darnton cleverly dubs it "rampant intertextuality (3)." Darnton concludes by asserting that people in the eighteenth century made sense of often baffling news by fitting it into narrative forms that had cultural currency for them; they were reinforced in their interpretations by the many rhetorical forms that composed the political folklore of their world (4).

How does this inform the discussion of access to methods of political argument and the seemingly elitist modality that emerges in the bourgeois worlds described by Habermas and Chartier? I think the most valuable for our times is the idea of news taking cultural forms that are current and meaningful to different populations. It seems inconceivable, but cable news is a cultural form that seems to speak to many Americans and their cultural sensibilities. So do many of the other outlets of the the "conventional media." What of those who have cultural diferences, real or percieved? What are they to do with the news? Are they just ignorant?

I believe this is where Darnton's argument comes into play and has real meaning for us in the "modern" world. Concern for the world cannot take simple and safe forms that the majority finds current and profitable. Granted, these forms seem to dominate the cultural landscape. In this sense, the people of eighteenth century Paris had it easier; they inhabited a culture that was of their own making. Ours seems to be an imposed culture, made up of commodified elements and fictive bits of "tradition" that can be emphasized for effect or packaged for enjoyment. We, therefore, must dig deeper, look closer at the totality of our culture. We must seek those "outsider" voices that, miraculously, live beyond the pale of Fox News. How are we to do this? We must take the advice of another man of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, and "DARE TO KNOW!"

We must be endless seekers of the different, the skewed, the cacophonous, the offbeat and the marginalized. We must use these great information technologies of our day to seek and make plain these cultures that make different sense of the world than we do. It is only in this task that we can truly understand ourselves not as cogs in a culture that was created for us and done TO us. We must be the authors and finishers of our own worlds, worlds where ideas are not under control. These must be places where the fullness of human expression in all its many forms live in constant conversation.

What we need is not a "Republic of Letters." What we need is a direct democracy of human expression.

1. Robert Darnton, George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003), 35-36
2. Ibid., 47.
3. Ibid., 73.
4. Ibid., 74.

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