The Origins of the Modern Public, Parts 1-14 (Listen)


Publicity was once the exclusive property of men of rank. They alone, by virtue of their stations, could make things public. During the 18th century it became meaningful to talk about "public opinion" as something formed outside the state. Today anyone with a Twitter account can make a public. In this series IDEAS producer David Cayley examines how publics were formed in Europe, between 1500 and 1700, and how these early publics grew into the concept of "the public" that we hold today.

All of us today participate in imaginary communities that we call publics - our Ideas broadcast assembles a virtual community of listeners - a listening public. But there was a time when making things public was the exclusive property of men of rank. Matters of state, Queen Elizabeth I proclaimed to her subjects in 1559, were fit to be treated only by "men of authority" and conveyed only to audiences of "grave and discreet persons." By the 18th century it had become meaningful to talk about public opinion as a sovereign power formed outside the state. What happened in the intervening years to make this revolution possible is
the subject of this Ideas series.

It draws on the work of an interdisciplinary group of Canadian and American scholars, who for the last five years have been engaged in a research project called Making Publics. Centred on McGill University, the project's field of study has been England and Western Europe during the period that scholars now call the early modern, or roughly 1500 to 1700. Its aim has been nothing less than a new view of where the public comes from, and how publics are composed. This attempt to re-imagine the modern public is what will occupy us during the 14 episodes of this series. The individual programmes will range over the revolutions that shaped early modern life - the Reformation and the printing press, the expansion of markets and the rise of the nation state - and over the new kinds of publicity, and of privacy, that they made possible. They will examine how specific arts and sciences formed publics - the new public theatres in Elizabethan England are an example - and they will look, finally, at the implications a new understanding of publics might hold for another world in upheaval - our own. Ideas producer David Cayley has been following the work of the Making Publics project from its inception.

Episode Guide

September 10 - Episode 1 - An introduction to Making Publics and to the Early Modern Period

September 17 - Episode 2 - The Reformation

September 24 - Episode 3 - Forms of Nationhood

October 1     -   Episode 4 - The Print Revolution

October 8     -    Episode 5 - Painting Modernity

October 15   -    Episode 6 - Elizabethan/Jacobean Theatre

October 22   -    Episode 7 - Theatre and Publics

October 29   -    Episode 8 - The Private Goes Public

November 5 -    Episode 9 - The Secret History of Domesticity

November 19 -  Episode 10 - Science and Its Publics

November 26 -  Episode 11 - Steps to a Public Sphere

December 3  -   Episode 12 - The News Revolution and the 18th Century Public Sphere

December 10 -  Episode 13 - Publics and Counterpublics

December 17 -  Episode 14 - The Public Sphere Today

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Episode 1 - An introduction to Making Publics and to the early modern period.

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Le serment de Jeu de Paume. Sketch by Jacques-Louis David of the National Assembly taking the Tennis Court Oath (1791). The representatives swore not to depart until they had given France a new constitution.

In 1791, two years after the beginning of the French Revolution, a discussion took place in the National Assembly about the constitutional significance of public opinion. One of the delegates Nicolas Bergasse rose to speak. "Before public opinion," he told the Assembly, "all authorities become silent, all prejudices disappear, all particular interests are effaced." A remarkable statement - not least because the Terror and the guillotine were only two years away - a high water mark of the Enlightenment faith in public opinion as the voice of reason. A century earlier the very idea of public opinion would have been unintelligible. There was no general public, and opinion meant only what it had meant since ancient times - something asserted but unproved, one view among many. Nor would it be long after Bergasse spoke before public opinion lost its identification with critical reason. John Stuart Mill in the early 19th century was already writing of it as a coercive rather than a liberating force. Today, in the age of branding and spin, it is all the more difficult to think of public opinion cowing authority, overcoming prejudice, or dissolving special interests. And yet, much as we might smile at Bergasse's naivete, and mock the myth that reason ever ruled the coffee houses and salons of the 18th century, what else have we to appeal to against tyranny and ruin but the public opinion? In this episode David Cayley talks with Paul Yachnin, David Harris Sacks, Steven Mullaney, David Boruchoff, and Vera Keller.

Episode 2 - The Reformation

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A sermon preached from St Paul's Cross in 1614 .

Contemporary people belong to many publics. Whether you're an environmentalist or a supporter of public broadcasting, a lover of ballet or baseball, you belong to a notional association, united by some preference or political opinion, most of whose members you don't know: a public. It's a form of social participation that we pretty much take for granted. But in the early 16th century, it was entirely novel.

One of the events that made this more voluntary form of association possible was the cataclysm that shattered the unity of Western Christendom: the Protestant Reformation. The issues at stake were theological and, at the same time, deeply political. Societies were torn apart by controversies about such things as whether God is physically present in the bread and wine that Christians call the sacrament or the host.

Questions about religious dogma were also questions about the foundations of political authority, and what people thought about these questions suddenly mattered. In the churchyard of St. Paul's cathedral in London, for example, there stood a raised pulpit - Paul's Cross it was called - and large crowds would gather beneath it to hear sermons in which the church and state authorities sought to justify themselves before this new public. In this episode David Cayley talks with with Torrance Kirby, Matthew Milner and Robert Tittler about how the Reformation engendered this first instance of a public sphere.

Episode 3 - Forms of Nationhood

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Section of a map in John Speed's Jacobean atlas, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (1611)

Maps, of one sort or another, go back a long way - there's a rudimentary map of the heavens in the caves at Lascaux - but in Europe in the Middle Ages there were few people who had ever seen one, and such maps as there were owed more to religion than to science. Then, in the 16th century, advances in cartography made maps more accurate, and the printing press put them into many more hands. What people saw when they looked at these maps was not just a new image of the place represented, but also a new image of themselves. Seeing a map of England made one English in a new way. New national identities began to coalesce, and not just around maps, but also around literature and language.

Self-consciousness about language, like an awareness of maps reflected the growing importance of civic and national identities in 16th century Europe. Stimulated by new media like the printed press, people developed wider interests, and around these new interests new kinds of association began to take form.

In this episode David Cayley talks with Roland Greene, Richard Helgerson, and Leslie Cormack

Episode 4 - The Print Revolution

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Gutenberg-style printing press from 1568.

In the early 1500's Europe was in the throes of a media revolution brought on by the invention of the printing press. Its effects were felt in every domain. In religion the laity gained access to the Bible and began to interpret it for themselves. Popular culture was transformed by the wider reach of printed texts, like the broadside sheets from which people sang ballads in early modern England. Printing also gave people access to more sophisticated forms of music, like Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci's books of motet prints. Wide distribution of printed images, finally, affected identities, as people began to locate themselves in relation to a wider world Today on Ideas we explore the print revolution in early modern Europe, and the ways in which the circulation of printed words, notes and images engendered new forms of public life.

In this episode David Cayley talks with with Richard Helgerson, Bronwen Wilson, Patricia Fumerton and Julie Cumming about how the print revolution changed the world.

Episode 5 - Painting Modernity

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The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer (1658-1660).

In the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, where painters were portrayed as peaceful soldiers, painting played a crucial part in the creation of a modern public sphere. Painting generated a market where popular taste rather than patronage determined what would be produced. Painting gave private life public relevance by displaying homely, workaday scenes. Painting fostered a culture of discussion by creating works that invited interpretation. And in all these ways, painting helped to recreate the public world as a place where private citizens and private concerns had a voice.

In this programme we'll explore the way Dutch painting changed Dutch society, and then look at what the Dutch example says about social change more generally. David Cayley talks with Angela Vanhaelen, Bronwen Wilson and Paul Yachnin.

Episode 6 - Elizabethan/Jacobean Theatre

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Elizabeth I in her coronation robes.

On the day before her coronation in 1559, Elizabeth I made a procession through the streets of London. "If a man should say well," one observer later wrote, "he could not better term the city of London [at] that time than a stage wherein was showed the wonderful spectacle of a noble-hearted princess toward her most loving people." Elizabeth well knew the value of a dramatic entrance. "We princes," she once said, "are set on stages in sight and view of all the world."

Theatricality pervaded early modern life. It was through pomp and ceremony, ritual gestures and costumed displays that the order of things was enacted. But, in 1576, when an actor, carpenter and entrepreneur by the name of James Burbage built the first permanent theatre in England since Roman times, something quite unprecedented got underway.

David Cayley looks at Elizabethan theatre and its many novelties. Guests: Paul Yachnin, Michael Bristol, Steven Mullaney, and Jean Howard.

Episode 7 - Theatre & Publics

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A 1596 sketch of a performance in progress on the thrust stage of The Swan, a typical circular Elizabethan open-roof playhouse.

In London, in the age of Elizabeth the audience for theatre underwent a dramatic change. For centuries theatre had been an art that was closely tied to religion and to popular traditions of seasonal festivity. Performances were largely homemade and took place on pageant wagons, in churches and innyards, or in some improvised location. Then, starting in 1576, something like our modern theatre began to spring up: professional companies of actors with their own buildings, writers and repertoires playing every day to paying customers. This theatre, by the very terms of its existence, had to negotiate a new and unprecedented relationship with its audiences. It had to appeal to the private people who became its public, and it did so by embodying their hopes and their fears, their concerns and their anxieties. From this new form of address - most fully perfected in Shakespeare's plays - there grew a new relationship between the public and the private.

David Cayley talks with Paul Yachnin, Steven Mullaney and Michael Bristol about how the theatre makes the private public.

Episode 8 - The Private Goes Public

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King Henry VIII

Public and private are relative terms. Like hot and cold or light and dark the one defines the other. Our modern conception of the public rests, necessarily, on certain ideas about what is properly private. These ideas first began to take shape in 16th century Europe, and notably in England, once described by historian Philipe Ari├Ęs as the birthplace of modern privacy. There one can see the first stirrings of the desire for privacy in our modern sense, though its achievement was still often frustrated and contested.

David Cayley explores the pursuit of privacy in Tudor England, and how it formed the foundation of a new idea of the public.

Guests: Lena Orlin, Patricia Fumerton and Richard Helgerson.

Episode 9 - The Secret History of Domesticity

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A section of 'Christ in the House of Mary and Martha' by Vincenzo Campi. Martha in the kitchen. Mary sits in the background listening to Jesus.

The word privacy comes from the same root as the word privation, and, at the beginning of the modern age, privacy generally meant whatever was deprived of the quality of public-ness. In Shakespeare's As You Like It, the clown Touchstone, in exile from the court, is asked how he likes the shepherd's life he is now living. "In respect that is solitary," he replies, "I like it very well. But in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life." It's vile, for Touchtone, because it's obscure, it lacks the publicity that lights up existence at the court. Privacy is defined by what it is not. How privacy took on a positive valuation, and became a good in itself is the story that is told in literary scholar Michael McKeon's ambitious book The Secret History of Domesticity: Public Private and the Division of Knowledge.

David Cayley
talks with Michael McKeon, professor of English at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Episode 10 - Science and Its Publics

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First navigable submarine by inventor Cornelius Drebbel.

Science, in our modern sense, is often thought of as something that just popped out of the heads of a handful of big thinkers in the 17th century: Galileo, Boyle, Newton. It's a way of thinking epitomized in the famous couplet that Alexander Pope proposed as Newton's epitaph: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night. God said, let Newton be and all was light." The reality, as recent work in the history of science has been demonstrating, is messier and more interesting. A sentence from Lesley Cormack and Andrew Ede's A History of Science in Society sums up this newer approach. "Science," they write, "does not exist in disembodied minds, but is part of living breathing society." The great man only centres and personifies the great swirl of desire and accomplishment that surrounds and animates him - the instruments he uses, the assumptions he makes, the kind of knowledge he desires, the publics he addresses, the patrons he must please - all express his situation and inheritance, and not just his individual genius, remarkable though that might be.

In this episode David Cayley explores how early modern science played to its publics.

Guests: Leslie Cormack and Vera Keller.

Episode 11 - Steps to a Public Sphere

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Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523 by painter Hans Holbein.

Portraits make publics both as objects through which people express themselves, and as objects around which other people can deploy and develop their own tastes. And artistic taste, as German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has argued, is one of the key avenues by which the public takes shape. So long as publicity publicness was something that belonged entirely to the court and the aristocracy, and art depended on patronage, Habermas says, the function of the arts was to glorify and sanctify the proceedings of church and state. When art became a commodity available for purchase - in the theatre, through the development of a market for painting, by the later 18th century in the concert hall - the audience became the critical authority, and the arts were set free to follow any bent for which a public could be recruited.

But the arts were only one of many pathways by which the public was constructed.

David Cayley examine the steps that led to a public spherea with Robert Tittler, Joe Ward and Kevin Pask.

Episode 12 - The News Revolution and the 18th Century Public Sphere

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The trial of Henry Sacheverell in 1710, represents the coming of age of a new kind of political culture in Britain, a culture in which politics and commerce began to interpenetrate - politics providing new motives for commercial production, commerce providing new avenues for political expression.

During the 16th and 17th centuries a steady stream of royal proclamations warned the people of England not to "intermeddle," as one such proclamation put it, in affairs of state. What was worrying the kings and queens of England was the spread of political information, and, with it, the sense that their subjects had the right to form an opinion on the questions of the day.

In the first half of this program David Cayley examines the spread of news, and an informed public. In the second half, a look at the 18th century when public discussion reached a critical mass and produced what German philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls the bourgeois public sphere. Some have seen this period as a golden age when public opinion was formed by rational debate, and mass media hadn't yet spoiled the party. But what was once known as the age of reason is now regarded by historians as no more reasonable than any other age.

Guests: David Randall and Brian Cowan

Episode 13 - Publics and Counterpublics

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Publics and Counterpublcs by Michael Warner.

At the beginning of his book Publics and Counterpublics, American literary scholar Michael Warner proposes a question that he says has the potential to reframe the way we understand the modern social world. The question is: what is a public? It's a question that's been in the air in recent years, as social identities have fractured, new media have created new connections, and groups formerly excluded from public life have demanded public recognition. An older sense of the public and it proprieties has been destabilized. Some writers say that the public is declining, or even disappearing; others that it is just changing, as it has so often in the past. But how would one know without first being able to answer Michael Warner's question, what is a public? Michael Warner shares his answers with David Cayley.

Episode 14 - The Public Sphere Today

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A public is the expression of some vital interest which draws people together. It's a vortex of attention - open at its edges - not yet amounting to an institution - but still exerting a pull on the shape of the surrounding society. Publics are connected by matters of concern to them - sometimes physical things like maps, printed broadsides, or paintings - sometimes mental things like the French language, the British Empire, or the Reformation of the church. Attending to the ebb and flow of publics, as these scholars have been doing, yields a different picture of society than does the conventional study of its rigid and durable institutional features, a more fluid picture of the underlying movements of interest, affinity, and desire. At the heart of this idea of how society is made are media - the means by which things get around and a common awareness is made possible. In the 16th and 17th century European world that the Making Publics group studies, the printing press was crucial, directly or indirectly, in the formation of publics. Today a rapidly changing media landscape is altering public life in ways that we have barely begun to grasp.

Guests: Darin Barney, Craig Calhoun and Paul Yachnin.

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