‘Social Theories’ Reading Group

There were about 10 of us in attendance for our Reading Group on ‘Social Theories and the French Revolution’, with most of the group travelling only a short distance across campus to find the room (although for those of us with a little further to travel this was something of an adventure!). Once we’d settled in and caught up, we began by discussing what we already knew about the work of the writers we’d be discussing that day: Habermas (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) and Lilti (Figures publiques). There was an interesting range of perspectives! Some, like me, were not really familiar with their work; others, like Kate found themselves recalling well-buried facts from previous studies; some were well acquainted.

After this initial time, we began by discussing Habermas’ concept of the ‘public sphere’ in terms of its ‘creation’, to explore whether we felt it was something which could be manufactured. Jonathan suggested that the two terms perhaps meant something different, with ‘creation’ relating to socio-political spheres, and ‘manufacture’ to cultural spheres. Naturally, we also had to discuss the possibility of multiple public ‘spheres’ existing concurrently: was it possible, for example, that the flood of counterfeit and contraband imported prints was responsible for establishing a ‘public sphere’ of consumers who were below or ‘outside’ the official sphere of the nation state? Christie suggested that the cultural ‘public sphere’ was often over looked in favour of a socio-economic focus, but pointed towards our reading of Lilti’s work as a possible theoretical bridge ‘out’.

We also spent some time discussing the differences we perceived in public spheres across national boundaries, with a particular focus on the French and British states. It was suggested that during the long ‘revolutionary’ period, the creation and development of public spheres was more controlled than in France. Stacie posited that in France the Revolution had drastically altered the public sphere in a way which Britain never experienced with its gradual development of legal discourses and legislative frameworks. Jonathan argued that to be able to draw an effective comparison, we needed to think in terms of transnational public spheres.

Some discussion of the issue of gender was also had, and Stacie suggested that women had their own ‘private public sphere’ during this period, but we should not think that they were limited to it. After all, Tabatha pointed out that by being active within their own private sphere, they naturally participated in other spheres: as consumers, for example, they helped to drive the fashion and domestic industries. Stacie added that women indirectly participated in political debates by wearing certain items in public, such as the Indian shawl banned by Napoleon. We discussed the (in)famous story of French citizens attending the ‘red lace’ ball towards the end of the Revolution, which commemorated the victims of the guillotine, but Kate thought that this might only be apocryphal.

Jonathan mentioned that he had found examples of how fashion items had definitely caused political problems on the stage of the Opéra Comique, as the archives hold ominous letters from the Minister of Police threatening to shut the institution down if it continued in this vein. So the ‘cultural sphere’ we concluded could have great impact on the political, which seemed like a nice conjunction.

Having had several mentions of archival discoveries so far, Kate pointed out the importance of oral records. Often things wouldn’t make it into the press, but later records would mention threads of discourse as gossip. We agreed that French Revolutionary society was on the cusp of becoming a written society, but that it maintained a strong oral culture which carried a tremendous amount of power. This fed into Habermas’ anecdote about the power of memory, demonstrating how the minutes of British Parliamentary debates could initially only reach the public sphere thanks to the exceptional memory of one journalist (taking notes was banned in the public box). Jonathan brought up the chansonniers who caused the Revolutionary government a great deal of anxiety, because they were able to spread political sentiment without leaving any written record.

Nevertheless, as Tabatha argued, preserved written records or objects are a powerful and useful means of tracing the public sphere. Often these were in the ‘cultural sphere’, but this in turn had significant implications for the ‘socio-political sphere’.

This seemed to neatly bring us back to our earlier discussion about the difference (and possible competition) between two spheres: the cultural and the political. Upon reflection, this seemed to recur in all of our discussions about Habermas and Lilti: we didn’t feel we could talk about the ‘public sphere’ insomuch as the ‘public spheres’.