Response to Paul Yachnin

Michelle O'Callaghan


     1. Paul Yachnin's stimulating response to the essays collected in 'Printing Publics' has made me realise that how once the concept of a 'public' is opened up, then our understanding of other categories also comes under review. He is quite right to point out that 'We miss something fundamental about the formation of public life around works of art and intellect if we fold their various practices into an account of particular rational debates about matters of public concern, just as we mistake their nature if we view them as outside of politics altogether'. But, for me, this does not quite resolve the problem and instead introduces another set of questions, beginning with -- what do we mean when we use the term 'politics'?

     2. In my essay, I was responding to a particular way of modelling publics outlined in the introduction to Peter Lake and Steven Pincus's recent collection, The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. For Lake and Pincus, the 'post-Reformation public sphere' is primarily a political construct and not a cultural one, and its 'size and nature . . . were intensely dependent on political circumstance' (9). Their interest is in the way that religious conflict and political crisis at particular historical moments -- the 1590s, the 1620s, and the 1640s -- trigger the formation of publics; cultural processes and practices are important in the sense that they provide the infrastructure for religious and political debates, but what is key to the 'making' of publics is politics as understood within this historical framework.

     3. It is this model of the politics of the public sphere that poses particular difficulties for the study of the 'creative text'. Yes, politics, in this sense, do play a part in understanding how certain types of texts participate in making publics, but not all. This model cannot, for example, generate all the questions necessary for analysing how, as Paul Yachnin, points out 'readers, of whatever social rank or reason for reading the book, become members of the miscellany public because they share an understanding of the language and presentation of the text and thereby acquire some comprehension of each other's responses to the text, where they in imagination spend time together'. I would suggest that it is precisely these questions of social, cultural and aesthetic competence and value that cannot be adequately addressed through a model which equates the public with the political.

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