Emergence of the Public Sphere

The concept of the public sphere is a metaphor we use to describe the circulation of information and ideas in a large society.  It is a “realm,” as some authors have called it, of our social life in which we are able to come out of our houses and talk to others in our community about our common affairs, whether it be matters about the government, economy, literature or the new neighbor down the street. The coffeehouse that Brian Cowan writes about in The Social Life of the Coffee and the gossip circle that Robert Darnton writes about in his article of the French in the eighteenth century are both prime examples of what makes up a public sphere.

The coffeehouse was the place to go if one was looking to try out some of the newly fashionable hot drinks. What was also great about the coffeehouse was that it was a more fashionable place for people of high and low society to socialize and gather without regards to social status. The rich and the poor could gather as well as the educated and those wanting to be educated. They gathered because of their likes for coffee and their insatiable curiosity for learning. The protocols for recognizing rank and authority were abandoned in such places, creating a “social fiction of equality” (Cowan 102) where everyone seemingly had the same social status. The coffeehouse was neutral ground, a place for intellectual debate and volleying of ideas.

The French in the 1750s had a similar mode of getting their news, and often, news was like gossip about the king and his many mistresses. Gossip spread like wildfire, coming from an insider of the court to the streets of Paris. The juicier gossip was written on scraps of paper that turned into manuscripts and news sheets. Because the majority of the French population at that time was illiterate, many relied on oral communication for their news. Much of the gossip was composed into songs and sung from one to another, providing a powerful medium for transmitting messages. This kind of communication process always involved discussion in a social setting – in the martketplace, shops, gardens, taverns, and cafes. As Darnton wrote, “It was not simply a matter of messages transmitted down a line of diffusion to passive recipients but rather a process of assimilating and reworking information in groups” (Darnton, paragraph 56) that gave rise to the collective consciousness or public opinion.

The mode of social learning in early seventeenth and eighteenth century coffeehouses, along with the gossip-style spread of news in seventeenth century France seem like a throwback to the oral traditions that preserved cultures before the advent of written, manuscript, or print culture. This mode of spoken information dissemination and social learning, despite being primarily oral, combines print with its unique way of spreading information. In “Some Features of Print Culture”, Eisenstein states that from the advent of print culture, “an enriched reading matter…encouraged development of new intellectual combinations and permutations” (Eisenstein, 44), but in the case of the seventeenth century public houses (the coffeehouse especially), the oral spread of information developed new intellect and created a new medium for which to rapidly and widely disseminate information: the public sphere.

For example, the coffeehouse was a center for both oral and print culture to combine in a mass exchange of information. Virtuosi and common people would gather at the coffeehouse to discuss topics of science, art, and the civility of the elite, but would also gather to read about the latest news and books. Discussion of information originally found in print was available to be passed back and forth between the elite and common people who gathered at the coffeehouse to socialize, discuss, and debate. Dissemination of print information was no longer llimited to those who could read; it could now be disseminated orally through coffeehouse conversations. Oral tradition did not completely disappear with the advent of print culture, but merely functioned as a way of further spreading information that print culture disseminated to people who might not necessarily gain such information otherwise.

In addition, the information that was amplified and spread by word of mouth in seventeenth century France was a new way of creating printed information. People would get together to hear the latest gossip or news about the dealings of the royal court, assembling a story from the information of several individuals who had information or hearsay on the King’s business. This would then be compiled into a sort of “news” story to be printed and distributed throughout the kingdom. In turn, people having read the story would tell others, and thus spread gossip about the King.

A new oral tradition of information exchange and gossip amplified and expanded the dissemination of information of print culture. The public sphere, the gathering of people in public houses – particularly coffeehouses – was essentially a new technology in itself as it worked to spread print information more widely by means of a mass and lively oral communication network.

One book in particular The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Jurgen Habermas addressed our topic of the public sphere in depth. His book contrasted various forms of an active, participatory bourgeois public sphere in the heroic era of liberal democracy with the more privatized forms of spectator politics in a bureaucratic industrial society in which the media and elites controlled the public sphere.

The “Bourgeois public sphere” Habermas describes is closely related with the “current public sphere,” which is a site of information, discussion, contestation, political struggle, and organization that includes the broadcasting media and new cyberspaces as well as the face-to-face interactions of everyday life. Even though the basic function of public sphere is same, in the contemporary high-tech societies there is emerging a significant expansion and redefinition of the public sphere. These developments, connected primarily with multimedia and computer technologies, require a reformulation and expansion of the concept of the public sphere. The rise of the Internet expands the realm for democratic participation and debate and creates new public spaces for political intervention. First broadcast media like radio and television, and now computers have produced new public spheres and spaces for information, debate, and participation that contain both the potential to invigorate democracy and to increase the spread of critical and progressive ideas.

Thinking back to the days of the English coffeehouse and French street gossips, have things changed so much today? Coffeehouses were gathering places where people could swap intellect and consume exotic drinks. Today, people go to coffee shops to study, catch up with friends, go on dates, and get together with group members, which all take place over caramel macchiatos, blended mocha fraps, soy cappuccinos and other such complex drinks. In Paris, the main gathering point to find out the latest news was the tree of Cracow. Today, people gather at the water cooler at work to discuss news and gossip. There are discussion forums on every topic imaginable on the internet, and gossip websites such as TMZ and PerezHilton.com flourish, as do tabloids like US Weekly and Star Magazine. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter allow us to receive news and gossip even faster: if you are friends with people in the know, you don’t even have to search for information – they will link you to it. The demand for news and gossip has only increased since the early days of coffeehouses and gathering trees, and today, we have more options now more than ever before with the advent of the internet. But unless people are content with sitting behind their computer screens all day without actual human contact, physical gathering places such as coffee shops will continue to serve as social places where ideas, news, and gossip can be traded. In this respect, while new mediums have changed the way we consume news, old mediums are still very relevant in today’s society.

Some interesting links: Starbucks has rebranded some stores in Seattle, calling them 15th Ave Coffee and Tea in an effort to drum up more business. These places capture “the spirit of a traditional coffeehouse” in an attempt to give the stores “a community personality” that is more similar to coffeehouses of the past.


Where people get their news: The Pew Survey found that television was the most popular way people got their news (70%), followed by the internet (40%) and then newspapers (35%). Unfortunately, there was no mention of coffeehouses..


Blog Contributors: Nikki Dance, Kailin Hu, Heamin Kim, and Pauline Loh

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