The progression of the public

I’m editing the manuscript for Public Parts now and so I’ll be throwing out some thoughts from the book to get your thoughts in return. Here, from my introduction, are what I see as the four stages in our conception of “public”:

1. From ancient times to the Renaissance, “public” was synonymous with the state and the state was synonymous not with its people (that’s our modern notion) but with its rulers. Leaders were not merely public figures; they embodied the public. The people had little political standing. They had little independent identity. “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category,” writes historian Jacob Burkhardt in Civilization of the Renaissance (via Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change).

2. In the so-called early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries (also known as the Renaissance), Gutenberg’s printing press as well as the theater, music, art, maps, and markets enabled some people to create their own publics, as the Making Publics project at McGill University argues (I’ll explore their ideas further in a later chapter). These were voluntary publics formed among strangers sharing similar interests—which could mean simply that they read the same book and then contemplated and discussed the same ideas. Now it was possible for private individuals to take on and share a public identity independent of the state.

3. In the 18th century, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues, the public sphere—and public opinion—first appeared as a political force and a counterweight to the state. Finally, the public began to mean the people. Habermas believes that a brief, golden age of rational, critical debate in society, carried out in the coffee houses of England and salons of Europe, was soon corrupted by mass media. I’ll argue differently, suggesting that the real corruption of the ideal of the public was to throw us all into a single public sphere, a mass—the lumpenpublic. To this day, the assumption that we are one public—which is the basis of mass production, mass distribution, mass marketing, and mass media—has enabled government, companies, and media to avoid dealing with us as distinct individuals and groups and instead to see us as faceless poll numbers and anonymous demographics.

4. Today, with the internet, we are just beginning to create a new notion of what public and the public mean. Like our early-modern ancestors, we—but all of us now—have the tools (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube…) to create and join publics, establishing our own identities and societies. I see that as a purer form of the public, built not around the interests of the powerful but instead around our own interests, desires, and needs. Rather than being forced into a public not of our own making, we now define ourselves and our publics. The new vision of the public may look chaotic, but then change always does. The critical difference today—the next step in the evolution of the idea—is that a public is no longer a one-way entity, flowing from the powerful—king, politician, publisher, or performer—to an audience. Now through our conversation and collaboration, ignoring old boundaries, we define our publics.

In this progression, we are continuing—but accelerating—a timeless dance of balancing the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects; our privacy and publicness. That describes nothing so much as the process of modernization. In ancient times, Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man, “public experience was connected to the formation of social order”—that is, the end of anarchy; while in recent centuries publicness “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, individuality and freedom. Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do; modern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, together.

So today are atomizing because we have the freedom to be independent. Then we can reform into new molecules because we are social; we need each other and can accomplish more together than apart. We find the publics we wish to join based not merely on gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us—red v. blue, black v. white, nation v. nation—but instead on our ideas, interests, and needs: cancer survivors, libertarians, Deadheads, vegetarians, single moms, geeks, even privacy advocates. We finally tear down the elite of the public few and each become public people in our own right. . . .

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  • Marie-Christine

    About time it got a buzz, thanks.

  • Jeff, if you need a break from editing and you haven’t read it already, you might want to take a look at Dan Hind’s latest book: “The Return of the Public”

    He too reviews the historical meaning (and role) of “the public” before arguing that, despite the rhetoric of modern day politicians, the public (in the electoral sense) doesn’t really play an active role in their own governance and that this is, in part, due to the failure of mass media – compromised by the profit motive – to ask awkward questions.

    His solution is to reform journalism through a system of “public commissioning”, the idea being that this will lead to the public being able to gain a better sense of reality than the one that Rupert Murdoch sees fit to supply them with.

    The author did a nice job of summarising his arguments on the BBC’s Thinking Aloud: – worth a listen.

    All the best with the editing – I’m looking forward to the fruits of your labour…

    • Andy Freeman

      > doesn’t really play an active role in their own governance and that this is, in part, due to the failure of mass media – compromised by the profit motive – to ask awkward questions.

      Ah, the “profit motive”. As if the folks at NPR work for free.

      Reporters are compromised by many things, including access and tribal membership.

      > the idea being that this will lead to the public being able to gain a better sense of reality than the one that Rupert Murdoch sees fit to supply them with.

      It’s interesting that you would mention Murdoch and not Pinch/Punch, Cronkite, Hearst, Pulitzer, etc.

  • Since I began listening to/watching you on the podcasts you are on along with reading/following/listening to your writings I have tried to be as open and out there as possible.Enjoyed what I have read here in this small taste from the manuscript,and will be waiting for the completed work.Do you have a tentative release date in mind Mr. Jarvis?

  • very interesting, BUT… this is clearly a western progression. have you looked into how these notions evolved in asia or the middle east at all? doing so could be all the more interesting for how publics now (perhaps) dovetail all across the world through the internet. or, at least qualify the intro by saying you’re only looking at the west.

    sorry to be nitpicky. chock it up to the sour taste left by western-centric college art history classes. (it’s easy to fall into these little traps. we’re taught to!)

    • You’re right: It is western-centric. That’s most of the available literature and, of course, it’s my perspective. I’m not trying to write a history of the public so much as to use concepts from the past to guide thinking about the possibilities of the future and that’s not Western anymore.

  • Eric Gauvin

    I think examining the meaning of “public” in different periods in history is very interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily show a progression towards theories about the future of social media — or at least I’m not seeing the progression part. I’m just seeing how the definition of “public” has changed over time. Also, for your definition in the current era, you seem to be limiting the scope to “the internet public” (or an alternate world where public has this new definition) and it seems primarily to be about access to means of publishing and communication tools.

    • Eric Gauvin

      unintended boldface in the above comment…

  • I enjoyed your article Jeff and also agreed with the comments made by Jonathan chambers, re Dan Hinds book ‘The Return of the Public’.

    My main point of agreement is around the influence of the media on the public ‘reality’. The sheer volume and intensity of news coverage is a good example of how the media can influence us so easily! I undertook a personal experiment and refrained from watching/listening to news articles for a week, before returning to my usual diet of BBC local and regional news programmes. I was amazed by how the subtle stresses of reports on terrorism, flooding, murder, crippled economy etc. were influencing my mood! After a few days away from them, I began to notice a brighter outlook from myself, plus more living in the ‘now’ of my own neighbourhood and surroundings.

    Yes, the influence of the media is subtle, but it is relentless and comprehensive. I wonder how much damage this constant flow of negativity has on our public reality?

    p.s. I also giggled to myself at the end of the 6 p.m. news, when after bombs, flooding and mass murder by a psychotic gunman, they did a two minute good news story about a young boys recovery from illness.
    Guilty conscience maybe or just a realization of how dreary their message actually is?

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  • Denys Yeo

    Have you come across the ideas of philosopher Prof. Denis Dutton on being public? (unfortunately he died late 2010). He founded the highly successful website “Arts and Letters Daily” which has opened the world of smart provocative writing online about books, culture and ideas to many thousands of people.

    He described himself as “a democratic optimist” and made the comment that:

    “I live in the belief that the more information people have, the more they can be trusted to make the right choices”.

    This comment certainly seemed to resonate with some of the arguments
    you have made in WWGD and presumably will build on in your new book?

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  • Hans-Joachim Ewald

    Jürgen Habermas was not living in the 18th century!! (Paragraph 3)

    He was born in 1929 and is still living. (

  • Greg Billock

    I’m interested in the book, but is ‘public’ being used technically? My understanding (non-expert, certainly) is that people in most places have a sense of themselves as “a people” distinct from the state. Sometimes even in tension or in opposition to it, and that this has been true for a very long time.

    I would expect us to agree that there is something it means to be “French” which has continuity back through the current State, the Vichy government, and on through Revolutionary and Napoleonic times. This despite these dramatic changes in the State.

    But what’s the argument that this didn’t apply to ancient Rome? That is, who it was that enlisted in the legions, were the constituents of Tiberius Gracchus, were ruled by various Caesars and Emperors? It seems natural to me to assume the same kind of continuity applied before the Renaissance as after. Is this not what’s meant by ‘public’? And it seems like tribal identities had the same quality of persisting through conquests and leadership changes.

  • Interesting thoughts. One trend that I’ve noticed recently is the conflation of the public and private spheres. Whereas Americans used to be able to assume their speech and actions existed largely in the private sphere, the proliferation of surveillance across public spaces, the Internet, cell phones, etc. have contributed to blending the public and private spheres together

    Now the default perspective for every American is shifting to an assumption that his/her speech and actions are generally public. That’s a considerable shift to struggle with for a society that places high value on privacy…

  • Martin Gurri

    I think Habermas and Einsenstein make complementary points. The printing press was the first internet: an explosion of stuff, much of it, like the web, of the porno-Nostradamus variety. The republic of letters was the first Google: a constantly churning set of evaluations of printed materials, sorting out the gold from the dross.

    The republic of letters (roughly 1600-1825) was Habermas’ ideal public as well – mostly gifted and articulate amateurs who kept watch over the mass of printed texts flooding the public sphere. It was an international group, and it included men and women, aristocrats and leather-apron types like Ben Franklin. It assumed tremendous authority outside official sanction, and although at first participants avoided all discussion of religion and politics, it ended up as a subversive force. Both the American and French Revolutions were inspired and propagated by the republic of letters and its control of the “public sphere.”

    Mass media made the republic of letters irrelevant by appealing to a larger public. It applied industrial principles to information: top-down, one to many, professionalized. Unfortunately it also demanded a mass audience, conceived as a vast shapeless animal which consumes in silence. This was Habermas’ “transformation.”

    Historically, for obvious reasons, mass media has proved to be a handy tool in the hand of governments, authoritarians, and commercial interests.

    With the rise of digital media, the needle reversed again. As with mass media, the public is now universal. As with the republic of letters, however, it is a participant rather than a passive consumer: it talks back. The implications are probably vast but, to me at least, still unclear. The atomization you describe, for example, seems less apparent than a fragmentation into communities of interest – informational niches spread out on the long tail of information. As Chris Anderson proposed for business, this may simply be the “natural” or original shape of the public, before it was converted into a silent mass.

    The two links below make mostly the same points with a lot more words:

    Look forward to more from you on this subject, Jeff.

  • Hmmm… we do form publics according to our affinities. But in a sense, that splits us up rather than binds us together. There are a host of people who see the world as Fox displays it, and another host who see it like MSNBC. I don’t think polarization is empowering.

    One of the saddest things for me about the way the internet has developed is the polarization it has brought, rather than the connection.

    • I agree with the comment by Francine Hardaway, relating to the polarisation of the public by the internet.
      However, I can also compare her thesis with the effect of ‘old school’ newspapers and other more dated news medium. For example, a person who regularly reads one of the more radical left/right wing newspapers would have their original moderate views reinforced and polarised further than without their daily dose of newsprint mind programming!
      The effect of the news companies on the public is much underrated by the average person and I believe that most of us don’t really notice the subtle influences of what we hear and see in the news and how it affects our outlook on the world.
      The publics ‘reality’ is shaped more and by TV and the internet in the form of Tweets, Blogs, etc. and as with most new things, the positives are always accompanied by some negatives.
      So, is a moderate view of the world/public the most beneficial for all of us? We do need some progressive thinking to ensure our progress towards a better society; but can we do this in a balanced way whilst still imbibing some of the vitriolic ‘news’ and opinions that we are constantly bombarded with today?

  • Pat Farrell

    Interesting, your comments about “the lumpenpublic” and the observation that you are basing this on the western cultures. Seems to me that a classic example of our western bias is when the media talks about “the Arab street” as shorthand for a different culture’s public expression. I’m sure that there is a huge potential disconnect between the Arabic lumpenpublic and what large numbers (majority?) of Arabic citizens think.

  • Interesting, but to my mind still lacking a lot of historical detail to support such broad categorizations.

    For the ultra-modern era, the last ten years or so, clearly “the hot action” is among a tiny well-incomed, well-equipped and highly knowledgeable minority creating “their own publics,” in the words of the author. I would ask, are they actually doing anything to erase the significance of the existing all-encompassing public we are familiar with? No, I would say, they are creating “sub-publics” if you will, which gain lots of attention among the small minority because they’re the ones who are defining “the hot action.”

    The larger sense of the public still exists, and will come to the fore again as times and circumstances change … for example we saw a small resurgence of the larger sense of the public this week in America with the Arizona shooting/tragedy. A common environmental or economic crisis would do much to restore the importance of the larger public (at the time it happens), without necessarily affecting the new sub-publics.

    And as a historian I’d like to see a trend of much more than ten years before we pronounce it as being significant for all time. Check the big article at my site, I definitely see humans as creatures who are constantly creating new cultural distinctions among themselves, without necessary losing the old ones which will at times be able to re-assert their importance.

  • Enjoyed the book “Hello I’m Special” a few years ago. Major problem with individuals participating in “the public” is the assumption that, if one is sitting in a coffee shop (or on a blog), then what one is saying is automatically profound.

    The true polarization of our time concerns ability vs. inability to engage in Socratic discourse regardless of tribal affinities or individual personas.

  • The publics remind me of the media, they are remediated. We still have or create media royalty that are public persons, famous for being famous (in a right to privacy sense). We still have the cafe, now online where people exchange ideas on a limited topic (here I am).
    What this expanding public persona of the individual into the public sphere (and sub-spheres) takes normally self aware people is to question just how much of a public person they really want to be.
    4. Today, with the internet, we are just beginning to create a new notion of what public and the public mean.

    I think that we are also beginning to create a new notion of what private means as well. We are a constructing public personas that mimic the exposed face a celebrity is forced to carry, while insulating our more personal selves that we share only in trusted personal relationships.
    We are limited-public persons of our own making, of two identities, public and the private.

    I am looking foreword to reading your book.

  • Please excuse my english, I am not a native speaker!

    It seems to me that whatever common notion of “public” emerges from the new ways of communicating, we will have to take into account the fact that, al least for a couple of years into the future, a HUGE part of humanity will not be part of it.

    For example. I am 35 and my dad 65. I have been working in internet related services for 9 years.. and just this week opened a twitter account (though I have had several websites, and FB grous and pages). My dad has an email, msn, skype. He NEVER reads the newspaper online, let alone a blog. (not even mine :P)

    So, the more we get access to be “social” the more that people outside it are ostrasized.

    It happened to me a while back. I had a popular blog on spirituality. People met through it, groups were formed, other pages came into being. Soon, people started to think that people NOT related to the online movement were either “too old”, “not wise enough” or, quite to my surprise, “beyond internet” (?¿)

    Is is possible that two types of public will emerge? the one that can connect, be part, and through association change what thet want to be changed, and the one that just has to go along, not because they want to, but because their opinions will not be heard at all?

  • I think you would develop and present a much more sophisticated idea of the premodern public if you were to use the work of medievalists and classicists rather than modernists who often portray the medieval as a monolithic time and space in order glorify the triumph and ‘revolutionary’ (as opposed to evolutionary) nature of the modern (and whose work, i.e. Eisenstein, has in turn been debated and modified over the past thirty years).

    There has been a concerted effort to detail the medieval public sphere despite Habermas’s celebrated denial. For example, The Use of English and the Public Sphere, c. 1300 to c. 1550 ( is a graduate course (with reading list) that specifically states: “While Habermas’ notion of a ‘public sphere’ raises a cloud of problems for medieval historians, most of us would accept that in these centuries, some kind of ‘public’ existed, and that the English vernacular rapidly became one of its most important and legitimate media. ”

    For a criticism of Eisenstein and alleged technological determinism, the beginning of Adrian Johns, _The Nature of the Book_ (Chicago, 1998) is particularly good. Eisenstein and Johns engaged in a debate about how ‘revolutionary’ the press was in the American Historical Review which is available online with an preface by Anthony Grafton (current president of the American Historical Association): (This is to Grafton’s intro, click next to get to Eisenstein and next again to Johns).

    Also, the idea of ‘voluntary publics’ mentioned in relation to the McGill project could be usefully paired and contrasted with the idea of ‘textual communities’ in the pre-modern world (Brian Stock’s work and elaborated by others) in which groups form around authorative texts and interpretors/interpretations.

    • Thanks much, Aidan. Very helpful. I have quoted the Johns-Eisenstein debate already. I’m not dwelling on early history of publics. I concentrate on the Making Publics Project concept of that in the Early Modern (they, too, then split from Habermas) because I see parallels to today and the tools we now have to make publics.

      • Sounds like an entirely justified decision given your scope then. The Johns-Eisenstein issues sound the most important and relevant. We medievalists are just always anxious to have medievalists’ work be included in the bigger picture! (at least if and when it works out). Look forward to seeing the work when it comes out!

  • Habermas, 18th century?

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