Eighteenth Century Ideology and the Roots of Public Opinion

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Enlightenment Era
  Culea Mihaela University of Bacău EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY IDEOLOGY AND THE ROOTS OFPUBLIC OPINION IN ENGLAND  Motto : “Whate’er men do, or say, or think, or dream,Our motley paper seizes for its theme” 1 Abstract The paper explores the role of the English periodical press of the eighteenth-century in aspects concerned with moral reformation, social instruction and culturalimprovement in general. Analysing the impact of Richard Steele’s and JosephAddison’s criticism on the society of the eighteenth-century England we can observethat the two inaugurated the emergence of public opinion but they also put forthgeneral human rights, such as the liberty of expression. According to JürgenHabermas 2 the eighteenth-century English periodicals can account for the genesis of the bourgeois public sphere. But the dawn of public opinion also supported theformation of the eighteenth-century English ideology understood as a system of social beliefs. It seems that the ideological patterns advocated by the journalists or the writers of the eighteenth-century England foregrounded srcinal values for thegeneral public, such as common-sense, morality, wit, taste, or decorum.We trace the early representations of public communication, the spaceswhere this public engagement was performed, the aims of the periodical press, thestrategies developed for the moral reformation of the community, the categories of readers, while all these aspects ultimately show the way in which writing and printing became active agents in cultural improvement even though they wereconsidered only some middle-class professions. Key-words:  public sphere; periodicals; ideology; values;    social criticism; the new capitalists The London of 1709-1714 was perhaps best portrayed by two influentialnewspapers edited by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, namely The Tatler  (April12, 1709 – January 2, 1711) and The Spectator  (March 1711 – December 1712; alsoJune – December 1714).The press was the second element in the early capitalist commercial system.The emergence of capitalism included new commercial relationships, such as thetraffic in commodities and news created by early capitalist long-distance trade. Thenotion of “traffic in news” was important because traders developed a new type of communication they needed for their business. Commercial correspondence under  1 Juvenal, Satires 1.85-86, apud  Mackie, Erin (ed.), The Commerce of Everyday Life.Selections from The Tatler and The Spectator  , Boston and New York, WashingtonUniversity, 1998, p. 49. 2 Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into aCategory of Bourgeois Society , translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2007, pp. 15-20.  the form of “news letters” suited their interests and they circulated within their group; thus, these “news letters” represented private correspondences commerciallyorganised by news dealers. This phenomenon occurred initially in Venice, then inParis and in England they were called “writers of letters” 3 . However, it was only inthe seventeenth century that the regular supply of news became accessible to thewider public. The published word became extremely important and the public feltmore united under the influence of the new strings secured by the regular newsreports 4 .The srcins of the English public press must also be related to the spaceswhere they were ‘exploited’ the most: the coffee houses (in the public sphere of thetown) and the salons (in the private-public sphere of the home) or the clubs. Thesespaces mediated and made possible the accomplishment of the objectives launched by the founders of the major periodicals of the time. Initially, the periodicals werethe instruments of art criticism. Criticism arose from written discussions and debatesand the writing of news letters soon developed into literary criticism. Habermas callsattention to the fact that the early journals were called  Monthly Conversations or   Monthly Discussions , showing once more that this kind of journalism – periodicallyissued – had its srcin in convivial critical discussion 5 .A special type of periodical writing was the moral weekly , with a clearlycorrective and educational or “enlightening” character. Considering them authenticliterary pieces, their founders assumed more roles concerning their relationship tothe public. But, first of all, we should underline the great success of these“periodical essays” which were the most successful innovation of the day since theyrepresented “the mode by which the most cultivated writer could be brought intoeffective relation with the genuine interests of the larger audience” 6 .The formula of the periodical – containing a set of essays – as it waslaunched by Addison and Steele entertained an intimate dependence not only between the written material and the space for its verbal reverberation, specificallythe coffee house, but also between the essayist and the reader/ debater. The publicwas kept close, and thousands of letters flooded the essayist’s office, out of which healways published a selection.Significantly, all this proves that the most important periodicals, out of which we will make special reference to The Spectator  and The Tatler  , strove tointroduce the learned or the unlearned public into the sphere of literature and culture,avoiding excessive erudition. The  strategy the essayists chose was suggestive from 3  Idem , note 32 on page 253. 4 Another decisive stage in the early outburst of the press can be observed at the middle of the seventeenth century when the first journals appeared. They were called “political journals” (according to Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural… , op. cit., p. 20) but they werestill an amalgamation of news of different sorts. However, the private letters of merchantsformed the foundation of these journals as they were selected and inserted in the printed papers. Gradually, information of different kinds was included in the newspapers and thetraffic in news seemed not only a profitable business but also an obvious need of the urbansociety. The roots of the press also marked the beginnings of  the public critical sphere .Additionally, in Great Britain the term “public opinion” arose in the second half of theeighteenth century. 5 Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural… , op. cit. , note 33 on page 259. 6 Stephen, L.,  English Literature and Society , no. 76, apud  Habermas, Jürgen, TheStructural… , op. cit. , note 35 on page 259.  this perspective: by showing  the society’s flaws and by mirroring its defects, the periodicals aimed at correction through the realistic and instructive representation of reality. We also consider that, having in view their strong critical value in alldomains, these papers grounded the intermediary space where the public confrontedthe authorities, thus instituting the press as the instrument of public opinion andcriticism. Additionally, the same periodicals sought to amend the social practicesand were then not only a medium of representation but an agent of moral publicmetamorphosis.Even though the two periodicals marked only the roots of   public opinion 7 , they facilitated the manifestation of some central qualities associated to the term“public opinion”: liberty of expression 8 ,self-expression, collective participation or mutual sharing and decision-making. People feel protected, listened to and importantin the state-machine when public opinion was constituted on such premises. Thus,M. Guizot traces the formulation of the “rules of public opinion” characterising theconstitutional state based on civil rights. Reason, justice, and truth regulated actual power and the representative system does this “( 1 ) by discussion, which compelsexisting powers to seek after truth in common; ( 2 ) by publicity, which places these powers when occupied in this search, under the eyes of the citizens; and ( 3 ) by theliberty of the press, which stimulates the citizens themselves to seek after truth, andto tell it to power” 9 .But “public opinion” cannot be separated from the aspects related to the formation of ideology . Habermas understands the term first of all as a manifestationof the socially necessary consciousness. The critic also draws attention to the factthat “ideology” started to exist only from the eighteenth century onwards as long as, by virtue of public opinion/ voice, it searched for truth. As far as its srcin isconcerned, this would be“the identification of ‘property owner’ with ‘human being as such’in the role accruing to private people as members of the public inthe political public sphere of the bourgeois constitutional state, that 7 The etymology of the term “public opinion” (provided by Habermas, Jürgen, TheStructural… , op. cit. , pp. 89-90) captures the various meanings of the term along thecenturies. Its first meaning would be that of the Latin opinio : “opinion” or “not fullydemonstrated judgment”. A second meaning is more relevant to our analysis, that of “reputation” or “regard”, “what one represents in the opinion of the others”. Another interpretation was added at the end of the eighteenth century according to which “publicopinion” refers to the critical reflections of a public competent to form its own judgments. 8 It should not be understood that, at that time, the English press enjoyed absolute freedom.On the contrary, censorship (though officially prohibited in 1695) and the Stamp Tax (1712)made it difficult for the printing of books and newspapers. The Stamp Tax, also known as the“tax on knowledge”, was particularly unfavourable for the journalists and printers. Itrequired that stamps should be bought and placed on all legal documents, licenses,commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and even on playing cards(http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761566912/StampAct.html#461516666   ). As a resultof the greater expenses, the journals printed fewer copies and some papers even disappearedaltogether. 9 Guizot, M.,  History of the Origin of Representative Government in Europe , series of lectures, translated by A. R. Scoble, 1852, apud  Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural… , op. cit. , p. 101.  is, in the identification of the public sphere in the political realmwith that in the world of letters; and also in public opinion itself, inwhich the interest of the class, via critical public debate, couldassume the appearance of the general interest” 10 .If ideology is rooted in public opinion, then the two periodicals under discussion really featured essential aspects regarding the shaping of dominantideologies which foreground new values seeking to correct or replace the existingones. We have seen that “public opinion” involves the critical reflections of a publiccompetent to form its own judgments; what these two papers intended, both throughtheir essayists’ reflections and through the attitude of the public voiced in the printedletters, is exactly what this definition epitomizes. The papers sought to show, toinstruct, and to correct not only by means of the specialized messenger of the worldof letters, namely Joseph Addison and Richard Steele; but they also wanted toencourage people to become competent agents in the formation and improvement of the society under all its aspects.Typographically, the periodicals’ standard pattern was soon established: thenewspaper was printed in double columns on folio half-sheets of foolscap, alsocontaining advertisements at the end. As we can see, this structure proves not onlythat the editors wanted to include as much information as it was possible, but alsothe fact that the editors were commercially aware and thus depended on some publicity, too.In the first number of  The Tatler  , Steele marks out two important aspects for the marketing of the paper: the target-audience and the general objectives of the publication. Firstly, the reading public is formed of “the Pleasurable” and of “theBusie Part of Mankind”, or, in other words, the paper is intended for the perusal of “Persons of all Conditions, and of each Sex” 11 . As for the general purpose of thenewspaper, Steele comments that it is “ to expose the false Arts of Life, to pull off  theDisguises of Cunning, Vanity, and Affectation, and to recommend  a generalSimplicity in our Dress, our Discourse, and our Behaviour” 12 . Consequently, themajor aims of the paper refer to showing and guiding the public towards ethically,socially and culturally correct values. Most often, the critics are interested inexposing the vices of general human types, not particular individuals, reiterating thefact that the whole English society somehow seemed to have taken a wrong path.In the first number of  The Tatler  Steele explains that he invented that   titlefor the newspaper thinking of the best entertainment that “the Fair Sex” has, namelythat of gossiping or talking idly. In reality, both The Tatler  and The Spectator  were particularly devoted to the handing down of normative rules for women, even if the predominant topics were addressed to the society of men. As nowadays, thisfeminine pastime and habit was heavily mocked, and so did Steele, secretly wishingto reform this inoperative practice which hindered active public involvement. Morespecifically, in The Tatler  , this “private and scandal-mongering activity traditionallyfigured as a predominantly feminine vice” is changed into “an agent of reform” 13 . 10 Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural… , op. cit. , p. 88. 11   Mackie, Erin, The Commerce… , op. cit. , p. 47. 12    Ibidem. 13 Shevelow, Kathryn, Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Feminity in the Early Periodical  , New York, Routledge, 1990, p. 93, apud  Mackie, Erin, The Commerce… , op.
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