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Christian Moser

Literature, the Arts, and the Transformations of the Public Sphere, 1750-1815

Fake news, populist campaigns, shitstorms and the ruthless application of algorithm-guided information: everywhere there is talk of a brutalization of public discourse in Western democracies. The public sphere, it is claimed, is increasingly threatened by fragmentation and can therefore no longer adequately fulfil its task of scrutinising and critically commenting on activities in the political, economic and social arenas. This crisis in the democratic public sphere is usually attributed to a revolution in the development of communications media (digitalisation, the privatisation and commercialisation of networks from disseminating information, and the rise of social media). However, from the perspective of literary and cultural studies – both of which focus on wider historical contexts – explanations of this kind are unsatisfactory. Rather, the crisis depicted above presents an opportunity to ask once again about the principles underpinning the constitution of democratic public opinion and the conditions under which it was created. Talk of the crisis of the public sphere is, of course, nothing new: both of the ground-breaking studies that trace the emergence of the modern public sphere in the 18th century, Reinhart Koselleck's Critique and Crisis (1959) and Jürgen Habermas' Structural Change of the Public Sphere (1962), date the first phases of that process of disintegration back to the early 19th century. Indeed, in France, Germany and Britain, a deep-seated transformation of public opinion is already discernible by the 1780s, and becomes even clearer in the course of the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic Wars. Increasingly, an inclusive notion of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, characterised by mutual tolerance and an acceptance of diversity of opinion, is challenged by a reduction of the public sphere to just members of one's own 'nation'; and alongside the rational exchange of arguments we see the emergence of an appeal to the emotions of the addressee. New genres designed in terms of short-term effectiveness, such as the political manifesto, the chanson, or the anecdote, are establishing themselves as the literary forms associated with this public discourse. Whether such changes should be seen in the light of Habermas’s theory, namely as reflecting a fundamental disintegration of the public sphere, or whether they should instead be seen in terms of a transformation of that sphere (in terms of a shift from reason-based debate to disputes of an essentially agonistic character) is the question we seek to discuss in our panel.

Methodologically speaking, our project draws on the concept of the social imaginary as developed by the Canadian social philosopher Charles Taylor (Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham und London 2004). It draws on Taylor’s concept but seeks to develop it further, in particular by reflecting on the implications of this approach for the social status of literature. The social imaginary refers to the self-image of a society, namely the knowledge embedded in broad sections of the population that a society has about itself and its foundational values that imbues its political practices with meaning (Taylor 2004, 23-30). Following Taylor, the selfunderstanding of social relations that is constitutive for the social imaginary is pre-theoretical; it is conveyed through images, symbols, figures and stories (Taylor 2004, 23). Literature, as one of the ways of articulating the social imaginary, is therefore of particular importance. It produces and disseminates the relevant metaphors, tropes and narratives; at the same time, however, it also provides an non-theoretical form for the observation of social life and political practice.

The aim of the project is to adopt a comparative approach in investigating the transformations of the public in the period between 1750 and 1815 in Germany, France and the UK. Different levels of investigation can be taken into account:

  • theoretical approaches to conceptualise the public sphere as an agonistic or a deliberative sphere, as a fragmented or integral virtual space;
  • images, iconographies, tropes and metaphors that allow us to conceptualise the publicsphere and its transformations;
  • the literary genres, art forms and modes of exposition that accompany and effect transformations of the public sphere;
  • literary texts, films and artistic performances that explore and reflect the possibilities and limits of such a public sphere in fictional/experimental arrangements.

Sean Allan & Christian Moser