Response to Paul Yachnin

Katharine Gillespie


     1. Paul Yachnin concedes that my "adoption of an idea of the public sphere" is "to a degree merely part of the set-up for what emerges as a deeply insightful analysis of how the Legacy negotiates its own conditions of public utterance and authority by privileging categories usually associated with the private, including womanliness, retirement from public life, and spiritual cultivation." However he spends little time discussing that analysis, focusing instead upon my invocation of Habermas. For Yachnin, "since the Habermasian 'bourgeois public sphere' of the eighteenth century has been subject to rigorous historical and theoretical objections, it is best not to adopt the idea for our period without the most careful reconsideration and reframing." I have benefitted greatly from having to think anew about my use of the term public sphere. But I also contend that, by focusing so heavily upon this dimension of my essay, Yachnin draws attention away from the number of ways in which my discussion does indeed "reconsider and reframe" our understanding of the public sphere's complex composition(s) in precisely the manner he describes.

     2. My overall purpose is to question another critic's claim that "the" public sphere is formed around the occlusion of women's selves. By examining the specific ways in which Hugh Peter's text brought his daughter into conversation as it were, I complicate the idea that gender played a single role in the formation of "the" public sphere. Instead, I advocate that we examine the particular circumstances under which particular versions of "the self" (both male and female) were formed within particular contexts at particular moments in time.

     3. Also, Peter's text bears the marks of its own perception of an a priori public and these marks help to explain the rhetorical choices made by Peter's text, including its use of his daughter as the implied reader. As Yachnin insists, we should acknowledge the degree to which writers'

struggles as well as their alliances are founded primarily in their working assumption that they are competing for the attention and approval of "the public," a totality that is conjured into existence on the strength of each public's address to "the world" and each one's aspiration toward growth. What has been called the public sphere is, in this view, a misrecognition of the jostling interactivity of publics that develop differing, competing forms of public expression, knowledge, and action. But the misrecognition itself is telling since the idea of "the public" is formative of individual publics; they bend their address toward the commonweal as it is traditionally understood even though their actual membership remains sectoral.

Nobody would have been more aware of such dynamics than Peter. The fact that he addresses his text to his daughter could be said to mean that he "makes" a "public of one" so to speak. But as I discuss, either he or some of his friends (or both) took his text and framed it with an address to "The Impartial Reader." In this respect, Peter's text is addressed to a larger public. Even then, however, one might say that it is not overtly intended for publication within "the public sphere" writ large but is rather geared towards those who are prepared to objectively receive a text written by Hugh Peter. By all indicators, this might have represented a quite small percentage of the reading population, even when one includes all of the Three Kingdoms, the continent, and the colonies. At the same time, the text is marked by an awareness of already-existing tracts which mercilessly parodied Peter for his religious zeal, his politics, his melancholic personality, and even his wife's mental state. Publishing his loving letter to his daughter, it was hoped, would ingratiate him with an international audience to whom he was now, on top of all that, legally certified as a treasonous and doomed Satanic Christ-killer, deserving of being put to death in the most tortuous of ways. No one seems more convinced of the difficulty of inducing someone to read Peter's letter than his publishers. They assume from the beginning that people will be "discouraged" from looking at his text when they learn who the author is. They even go so far as to offer their own apology for his failings as a prelude to offering his text as a product of a member of the elect rather than the condemned. Again, such rhetorical gestures, I suggest, mark the text as entering into a sphere of influence that is perceived as already existing, even as the text makes (and hopes to remake) that sphere through its entry and even as it purports to speak to a limited few. In "reality," it is not a stretch to assume that his publishers hoped that "everyone" would want to have thought of themselves as "impartial" enough to warrant inclusion in this intended audience. By addressing a limited public, they hoped to either reach a more general one or to bring it into being. Paradoxically, the potential for doing so was quite real. In short, to reverse Paul's formulation, writers and publishers also bent their address towards sectoral audiences in order to "actually" try and reach -- or form -- a broader "commonweal."

     4. If every text has to have been read by everyone in order for there to have been anything like a public sphere, then no, of course there could not have been then nor could there ever be one. But it would also be a mistake to suggest that there wasn't at that time, as there is today, a "realm" or "sphere" or "virtual place" wherein a substantial number of people read or knew about a lot of the same things -- and where they debated their opinions about those things -- due to the new possibilities for dissemination that mass forms of communication made possible. In short, to fully comprehend the complexity that defines Peter's text, we need to keep both the idea of a public sphere and the idea of publics in play. Yachnin himself does so, despite his disavowal of Habermas. As he stated in the passage quoted above, "the misrecognition [of the public sphere] is telling since the idea of 'the public' is formative of individual publics." One could likewise say that individual publics are formative of "a public" or that "the public" is formed by the interplay of individual publics. Is the plural any less, or any more, a "social reality" than the singular? Paul appears to imagine them as being mutually constitutive and, by focusing upon the complex function of audience(s) within Peter's text, I do so fully. Habermas himself envisioned the public sphere as a place of debate and contention rather than manufactured consensus (a form of "publicity" which he associated with the court). Peter's text posits an existing consensus even as it offers itself as a counterpoint to that consensus and views it as weak enough to potentially fracture. It acknowledges its participation in a culture of debate that is not monolithic.

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Content copyright © 2010 Katharine Gillespie.