Figuring out the Public Sphere

Erin Mackie
Syracuse University

The pithy study of figurative publics in Ann C. Dean’s The Talk of the Town: Figurative Publics in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Bucknell, 2007) makes the case for the primarily discursive nature of the “public sphere” and its allied entities more effectively than anything I have read.   While historians such as Steve Pincus and Brian Cowan document evidence that revises, from a positivist historical perspective, the understanding of the bourgeois public sphere handed down by Jürgen Habermas, Dean cannily sees into the heart of the problem: Habermas’s conception of the public sphere is not flawed by its failure to conform to empirical record of actual coffeehouses, but because of its imperfect articulation of the metaphorical and figurative shape of eighteenth-century publics.[1]  Habermas’s study locates the generation of the public sphere in two eighteenth-century institutions: popular periodicals and the coffeehouses in which they were read.   Pincus and, more substantially, Cowan focus their assessments of the notion of an ideal arena of public debate on the coffeehouse, concentrating on the rhetorical dimensions of this realm.[2]  Dean attends most completely to the newspapers.   Cowan’s recent The Social Life of Coffee provides a compelling history of the coffeehouse in England, yet this cannot illuminate the nature of British publics, for these are substantially metaphorical and only inaccurately are identified with the institutions from which they metaphorically abstract their figurative shape.[3]  Dean highlights this distinction early on: “To understand the interactions among court, coffeehouse, and Parliament as figurative spaces, it is necessary to distinguish between empirical accounts of political conversation and metaphors derived from the significance of those discussions” (12).

The Talk of the Town reveals two trajectories of abstraction involved in the figuration of eighteenth-century publics.   There is the abstraction through which particular places–coffeehouses, drawing rooms, and meetings–themselves become figures for types of discursive exchanges.   Related to this, there is the abstraction of the specific kinds of speech associated with these abstracted places into the exclusively oral metaphors through which public and political news was reported: “Figurations such as ‘coffeehouse talk’ ‘clamor’ in the drawing rooms of courtiers, or ‘free and candid debate’ in a civic meeting referred to three phenomena–replicated spaces, the language practices in those spaces and circulated among them, and an awareness of replication and circulation as general social phenomena” (14).   Dean’s discussion of the mechanisms of replication and circulation that produce these abstracted figures is most sophisticated and useful.   With greater savvy and accuracy than any other historical study, it reveals not how the symbolic, “imagined” publics fail to conform to actual social institutions, but how through replication and circulation these figures are generated from those institutions: “A self-reflexive awareness of these capacities for replication and circulation meant that each of these phrases (coffeehouse talk, clamor, and candid debate) referred to its own abstraction.   Each phrase refers to any particular conversation as one of many, part of a system of spaces among which talk can circulate and be replicated and of media for replicating and circulating it” (15).

Expanding the scope of sites from which the figures of the public are derived–not only the coffeehouse, but also the court, and the Parliament–The Talk of the Town presents the most effective amendment of Habermas’s notion of the public sphere and elaboration of Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” that has yet emerged from eighteenth-century studies.[4]  It should put to rest further attempts to confirm or deny the existence of eighteenth-century publics through their literal conformity to eighteenth-century institutions.   Bringing its examination into the 1770s, The Talk of the Town extends a discussion frequently limited to the earlier period dominated by The Tatler and The Spectator.  Productively isolating the three abstracted locations that dominate public discourse, Dean’s study broadens even as it corrects our understanding of eighteenth-century publics and the nature of the socio-political discourse promulgated there.

The Talk of the Town begins with the figuration of coffeehouse talk in Addison and Steele’s Tatler and Spectator.  The Tatler and The Spectator are key texts for the examination of how eighteenth-century media produce conceptual abstractions of the institutions which they inhabit.   Thus, rather than identifying themselves with newspapers and coffeehouses, The Tatler and The Spectator engage in an ongoing campaign to distinguish themselves and their ideal discursive space from these affiliated institutions with all their scandal, smoke, gossip, and folly.   As I have emphasized elsewhere, the concept of the public forwarded by The Tatler and The Spectator was “largely figurative and rhetorical–discursive–at once invested in the concrete and historical existence of its representative institutions . . . and, simultaneously, as a function of this representation, abstracted from them.”[5]  In this first chapter of The Talk of the Town, Dean elaborates her understanding of this process of abstraction in ways that far surpass my own.   She relates it to the material distribution of the periodicals and to its wider discursive contexts, most notably the “republican language of virtue and disinterest” (26).   In this way, Dean deftly refines and incorporates the topics of J. G. A. Pocock’s classic study of republican political thought and shows how its discourses of virtue are abstracted and so unmoored “from the specific constitutional claims of civic republicanism” (26).   Given the associations between coffeehouses and republican political sedition lingering from the seventeenth century, such abstraction serves ideological as well as rhetorical ends.   Dean’s study, then, adds detail and substance to our understanding of the development of Whig political discourse in relation to seventeenth-century political ideas.   Perhaps this development takes the direction of anti-political discourse, one which purports to operate in a sphere outside of interest and party faction.   So, while rejecting any too positive identification of popular print culture and republican politics, Dean’s analysis finds a more mediated place for The Tatler and The Spectator in the development of political discourse in the early eighteenth century, one that exploits the figurative qualities of the newsprint: “By appearing in print rather than in manuscript, texts claimed to be virtuous in republican terms, rather than connected to individuals and their interests and desires.   This is a figurative quality rather than an inherent aspect of the products of the printing presses” (29).   Associating themselves with print and its anonymous, impersonal, disinterested connotations, The Tatler and The Spectator put into reciprocal relation these “figures of talk [as in coffeehouses] and of print [as in their own pages]” and thereby imagine “a world of discourse both accessible and regulated, diverting and virtuous” (29).

In his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas posits the development of a “bourgeois public sphere” from coffeehouse and journalistic discourses.   Within this sphere, debates about common concerns developed outside the influence of church or court.   One of the most powerful features of Dean’s work lies in its reassessment of the relationship between the court and this realm of newspaper-driven town talk.   In distinction from Habermas, Dean argues in chapter 2 of her book that “British newspapers of the eighteenth century do not describe the focus of the public moving from court to the town . . . .   Instead, they depict the public moving to the periphery of the court, where readers were invited to participate, at a distance, in politics as practices by the King and his courtiers” (46).   In chapters 2 and 3, Dean looks at the ways in which mid-century newspapers abstract and extend the figures of courtly ingratiation, favor, whisper, and clamor to encompass the wider public spaces of their readership: “These conversations [as reported in the newspaper] are not imagined as part of a town separate from the court.   Instead, the town here is an extension of the court” (83).

The circulation of information and cultural influence among all these arenas–city, town, court–is an issue of considerable interest and anxiety to eighteenth-century writers.   Dean’s characterization of the extension of court clamor through progressively widening spheres of echoing replication recalls Alexander Pope’s characterization of the soporific operation of Dulness and her agents in Book 3 of The Dunciad: “What Dulness dropt among her sons imprest, / Like motion from one circle to the rest; / So from the mid-most the nutation spreads, / Round and more round, o’er all the sea of heads” (3.407-10).   Indeed, structured through the inversion of the trajectory Dean describes–with influence moving not from the court to the city but from the city to the court–Pope’s Dunciad describes as the decline and fall of English civilization what Dean examines as the development of figurative publics.   It is notable that Pope’s characterization of cultural influence, like that articulated in Dean’s study, is at once print-generated and metaphorically oral and aural.   In his lambasting of contemporary print culture, Pope writes not only of rubbish piles of waste paper, but also of deafening cacophony–demonic clamor: “Now thousand tongues are heard in one loud din, / The Monkey-mimics rush discordant in; / Twas chatt’ring, grinning, mouthing, jabb’ring all, / And Noise and Norton, Brangling and Breval, / Dennis and Dissonance” (3.235-39).   The exchanges Pope laments between Court and City, between high and low, between poetry and Grub Street, have received definitive critical attention from Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in their essay, “The Grotesque Body and the Smithfield Muse.”[6]  This discussion concentrates on how a cultural “middle-ground” is generated by eighteenth-century critics keen to avoid the degeneracy of both elite and street cultures.   What all these representations of the cultural topography of London emphasize is their highly charged figurative nature.   Dean’s work extends this discussion of the figuration of eighteenth-century topographies in valuable ways by enhancing our understanding of the interchanges between journalism and courtly clamor and corrects the tendency in contemporary scholarship to posit too uniform a shift of public debate away from the court.

In the final chapter of this economical study, Dean looks at how the figuration of public discourse is modified after 1771 when journalists are allowed to report first-hand on the proceedings of Parliament.   Briefly sketching the history of Parliamentary debate and its first masked, then frank, appearance in public print, Dean focuses on the elements of oration and procedure such debates add to political journalism.   It is only with these publicized representations of debate, Dean argues, that truly “rational” discussion enters into the public sphere.   And, as is the case with coffeehouse talk and courtly clamor, the discourse of rational debate abstracted from Parliamentary practices is only one “of several figures used to abstract a general concept of circulating discourse from familiar and local scenes of talk” (100).   Once publicized through journalism, this mode of discourse, with its emphasis on procedure and evidence-based argument, begins to characterize reports on extra-Parliamentary meetings and provides a legitimating rhetoric both for the government and its opposition.   With all its connotations of officialdom and legitimacy, this rhetoric itself circulates as a figure for what is consequential and grave, rational and orderly, distinguishable both from “clamor” and “chatter.”   By looking at parodies of this rhetoric, Dean underscores how it quickly became abstracted and stylized, easily available for fictional recreations: “These parodies . . . grew longer and more detailed through the 1770s.   They continued to use allegorical figures of the sort presented in The Spectator, but employed the literary techniques of formal realism to represent them and their speech” (118).

With its meticulously thorough examination of the rhetoric operative in the public dissemination of information and public discussions, Ann Dean’s study witnesses the substantial historical gains to be made by attending to how different discourses–of the court, of the coffeehouse, of the Parliament–shape eighteenth-century realities.   Rather than discarding the notion of the public sphere on the strength of evidence, her own and that of other critical thinkers, that such a place seems actually not to have operated exactly as Habermas first posited, Dean uses such evidence to articulate a revised concept that figurative publics are all the more valuable for being enriched by complexity.   She is able to do this only by fully acknowledging and expertly analyzing the constitutive effects of discourses specific to eighteenth-century institutions and their affiliated media.

In fact, the primary object of this book is to substantiate our interpretation of “political writing and newspapers” by understanding “the ways that media themselves could become metaphors” (13).   Her scrupulous analysis of these media metaphors–variously print- and oral-centered–and how they figure the public, its talk, and its relation to central social and political institutions is what distinguishes Dean’s approach and what makes her book most valuable.   This approach is tremendously productive: it alters the relation between the public and the court, it contributes to our understanding of the relation between print and oral culture, and it contextualizes in specific institutions and their histories the notion of rational debate so closely associated with the public sphere.


[1]   Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), esp. 1-56.

[2]   Steve Pincus, “‘Coffee Politicians Does Create’: Coffeehouses and Restoration Political Culture,” Journal of Modern History 67 (1995): 807-34; Brian Cowan, “What Was Masculine About the Public Sphere?: Gender and the Coffeehouse Milieu in Post-Restoration England,” History Workshop Journal 51 (2001): 127-57.

[3]   Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (New Haven, 2005).

[4]   Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1983).

[5]  Erin Mackie, “Being Too Positivist about the Public Sphere,” The Spectator: Emerging Discourses, ed. Donald J. Newman (Newark, N.J., 2005), 81-104.

[6]   Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, “The Grotesque Body and the Smithfield Muse,” The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, 1986), 80-124.