Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

Jurgen Habermas’ 1962 book made a compelling argument about how people get involved in public life. In the 1700s, bourgeois men in England started drinking coffee. (It worked a little differently in France and Germany, as Habermas details, but let’s stick to one example for the moment.) Drinking coffee led to hanging out in coffee shops, reading the shipping news. The shipping news came to include other news of the day, including politics. Those coffee-drinking men started talking to each other about the news. Talking about the news led them to criticize the aristocratic decision-makers. The criticism, emerging out of a consensus formed in this way, gave these bourgeois men the courage to act on their convictions.



So, now, it’s 2008. I’ve published a book on literature. In that book, I wrote a chapter about how Habermas blithely leaves women out and how that omission replicates an omission by Virginia Woolf’s father. (Leslie Stephen was a chief source for Habermas’ account of 18th century England.) Thus, the feminist critiques of Habermas for ignoring women unconsciously repeat Woolf’s frustration at what her father didn’t see either.

I was really interested in a small moment in Woolf’s small novel Night and Day in which two women watch from the sidelines after a lecture. The lecture was on metaphor but the men in the room are suddenly talking about politics. “I suppose if we had the vote, we would, too,” one young woman says to the other.


Well, we've had the vote for some time now. And I've had this little blog about literature for some time now, too. It’s not a coffee shop, but it is my little shipping news. And I’m in the habit of writing a couple dispatches a week about literature. And, after a few years of doing this, I feel like I know how I want to sound in this forum, so I have more confidence than I did.


All I want to talk about now is politics.

It’s not exactly revolution, and I don’t intend to abandon literature, but it’s fascinating and eery to me to find that my own experience of writing for an immediate audience on this blog replicates almost exactly the sequence that Habermas described forty years ago in reference to London in the early 18th century…


Anonymous said...

A tangential view, but I think one that it is important to raise, is that that we don't really give a stuff about what those coffee-driking men were talking about, nor do we read those writers who articulated their primary political concerns.

But we still read Woolf. And we still go to her to help us think about what it means to be human.

Perhaps the route from literature to politics has another step yet to tread ... and that is back to literature again. Its concerns for the Truth are, for me, more important than the provincially "political".

Anonymous said...

Those 'coffee drinking men' may have been a massive part of the democratising process we see today in much of society. As Habermas thought, much politics start with these rational discussions that have evolved from the bourgeois coffee drinkers and come to include many previously marginalised groups in society. Although still a long way to go it is still part of the historical process.

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