U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Print and Space, A Public Does Not Make

[Editor’s Note: The following essay is from Wes Bishop, a doctoral student in United States History at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. His concentration is U.S. intellectual history, labor history, social reform movements, and political economy. The following is a portion of a conference paper recently delivered at the 37th Annual Meeting of the Indiana Association of Historians. For the conference’s theme, participants were asked to think about the legacy of Martin Luther and widespread literacy on the concept of mass human liberation.]

Print and Space, A Public Does Not Make:

Thoughts on the role of literacy in the public sphere

Wesley Bishop

Although historians, philosophers, and political scientists understand that the public sphere is a complex aspect of modern democratic societies, without fail the default setting of thinkers and lay people alike is to treat the public sphere as largely the rise of print culture, and to a lesser extent the creation of physical space. In this way, the public sphere is only really a thing that reflects how people speak to one another. The rise of print and the creation of spaces, like boulevards, cafés, and working class beer halls undoubtedly had important impacts on society. Yet is this what we mean when we invoke the public sphere? Furthermore, what issues arise when we permit a popular understanding of the public sphere which views it as largely a change in space, availability of print, and ability to access that print via literacy?

Such questions are not abstract academic concerns. In a political period marked by the supposed rise of “post-truth” politics, and “alternative facts” people’s media literacy is of the utmost concern. In fact, to commemorate the five-hundred-year anniversary of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, we are asked to consider what influence mass literacy, supposedly one of the major accomplishments of the Protestant Reformation, has had on world civilization?

As the call for papers for the thirty-seventh annual meeting of the Indiana Association of Historians stated—

Nothing has influenced the historical development of the modern era quite like the rise of mass literacy and education.  Recognizing 2017 as the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting the 95 Theses, the Indiana Association of Historians invites papers and panels addressing the long and profound consequences of placing the scriptures in the hands of the people—and by extension including “the people” in the public discourse generally through literacy and education.

Although we are all able to think critically about this legacy, I would venture to guess that none of us, as educators and scholars, seriously question the value and ethics of mass education. As a profession, we value the ability of people to critically think, engage in complex ideas, and use knowledge to better society. Therefore, this call for remembrance of Luther asks us to look at the ascension of public education, mass literacy, and the modern public sphere. Yet, did we achieve a democratic public via the institution of higher learning, print culture, and literacy? This question is vital to understanding not just where we came from, but more urgently where we are going as a free and open society. Was the primary accomplishment of Luther and the other Protestant reformers a literate public? Is this the base of our modern public sphere?

To answer these questions, I suggest noting another historical anniversary we are currently commemorating. Much closer to our own time than the half a millennium that separates us from Luther, we are currently amid the centennial of World War One. A devastating conflict that killed millions of people, the war serves in many ways as a dividing point between Luther’s world and our own. The war swept away many of the lasting vestiges of European aristocratic hierarchy, which served as the status quo in Luther’s time. Likewise, the “War to End All Wars” initiated a wider global understanding that modern society, with its promises of technology, science, and organized planning, would not automatically save us. In fact, the very devices and technologies bequeathed by Europe’s enlightenment contributed to the scale and scope of the carnage. From new chemical weapons, to rapid fire guns, to mortars that could rip apart buildings and entire units of men, the war murdered at the rate of a massive slaughterhouse, with gears and machines dedicated to the manic mission.

This criticism of modernity is not limited only to weaponized machinery. The ability to try and influence the public through a robust print culture has remained one of the war’s more disturbing features. In the US alone we can see how the Wilson administration began a long campaign to purposefully manipulate information and arguments to gain greater support for American entry. The Committee on Public Information, or as it was more commonly known the Creel Committee, was created by Wilson in 1917 with Executive Order 2594, and from April 1917 to June 1919 went about issuing propaganda to increase support for the war, demonize the Central Powers (specifically Germans), and target anyone who spoke out against the Entente cause.

Even more disturbing was the fact that this push to support the war was not limited to just paid government officials and bureaucratic offices. Intellectuals on their own volition, and their journals such as The New Republic, willingly joined the government in arguing for US entry into the war. Noted thinkers like John Dewey, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and William English Walling all argued passionately for US involvement and in the process sacrificed friendships, and complicated previous political positions.

Perhaps no better example of this weaponizing of the print public exists than with the case of Randolph Bourne’s persecution, not so much by the government, but by the very colleagues of the intelligentsia who turned against him, attempting to block him from publishing many of his criticisms of the US’s entry into the war. Much historical work has been dedicated between the feud Dewey and Bourne had in the last months of Bourne’s life over the war (Bourne died along with countless others in the Spanish Influenza following WWI). However, if we step back from deciding whose position was “correct” we can see that contained within the American intellectual debate over WWI there was a much larger, and far more significant, debate over what the modern public sphere should entail.

Bourne’s major issue with US entry into WWI was not connected to an abandonment of American pragmatism. A former student of Dewey, Bourne remained an adamant supporter of the American 19th century philosophical tradition begun by William James. Instead, Bourne’s disagreement with the US involvement in the war was a disagreement with the way pro-war thinkers, like Dewey, applied pragmatism to conceptualize the outcome of the conflict. Whereas Dewey and other pro-war pragmatists argued the conflict was already underway, and that the US had little choice but to enter it so as to have a seat at the table to help negotiate, Bourne argued US history provided another inherited past where the US had remained largely neutral and uninvolved in open European conflicts. Such a commitment to neutrality, Bourne reasoned, made the US exceptional as a Western nation, and therefore permitted it the ability to be the staging ground for a new universal cosmopolitanism that would push the world into a deeper understanding of the full potential of a universal democratic public sphere.

Rejecting the idea that a basis for democratic society required a “melting pot” scenario, Bourne argued for a transnational cosmopolitanism to embrace global diversity and foster a civil society at ease with its multifaceted, fractured, and complex nature. Remaining out of the war would help ensure that such a state would be encouraged. Entering the war would almost certainly guarantee the rise of a European-like primitive nationalism, with Anglo identity increasingly serving as the basis of a “civilized” and “enlightened” identity. “Let us look at our reluctance [to enter foreign wars] rather as the first crude beginnings of assertion on the part of certain strands in our nationality that they have a right to a voice in the construction of the American ideal.”[1] Diversity, fragmentation, and multiplicity was not only present, to Bourne it constituted the foundation required to make a truly robust public, and democracy. Not all shared this view, however, going so far as to argue for not only involvement in the war but also that the larger project of the democratic public sphere was dead.

Walter Lippmann began his career as an avid social democrat, yet over time he had soured to many of his previous ideals. Looking at the events of WWI, Lippmann concluded that people were by and large unable to govern themselves due to a fatal flaw in their cognitive abilities. Lippmann argued the people of the US had been too slow to mobilize into the World War, that common people had largely misunderstood the issues during the conflict, and that apathy and ignorance had contributed to a disastrous state of affairs in the peace talks.

“Where mass opinion dominates the government,” Lippmann wrote, “there is a morbid derangement of the true functions of power. The derangement brings about the enfeeblement, verging on paralysis, of the capacity to govern. This breakdown of constitutional order is the cause of the precipitate and catastrophic decline of Western society. It may, if it cannot be arrested and reversed, bring about the fall of the West.”[2] Lippmann was quick to stress that this issue was not some kind of defect of Americans. Instead, this inability to rely on public opinion, and the public in general, arose from the basic way he saw how the public sphere was constituted. It was impossible, Lippmann argued, for a large enough group of civilians to become proficient in all the fields of knowledge needed to govern. Therefore, public opinion was often nothing more than an expression of ignorance and bias since it was impossible to be adequately versed in all the questions of public policy. The general public as a rational actor, and the public sphere as an arena where rationality arose from was a phantom. It did not exist. According to Lippmann the basis of the public sphere was literacy. Both literacy in the literal sense of being able to read, and literacy in the more general sense of proficiency in particular fields. What then do we do with this claim? Lippmann was not wrong that as society changed over time knowledge did become increasingly diverse, specified, and the world increasingly complex. Literacy, therefore, could not save us. What then would be the basis of justifying robust democratic societies as literacy was supposedly the foundation at its base?

It would be one of Lippmann’s allies during the war, who in post war America would answer his questions with a well-defined challenge.

Although Dewey had sided with Lippmann in supporting US entry into the war, after the conflict he broke with Lippmann and the other declension authors and argued that the public sphere was not in fact in a period of decline. Writing in response to Lippmann, Dewey published his book The Public and Its Problems in 1927. The definition of “public,” Dewey argued, rested upon “the objective fact that human acts have consequences upon others, that some of these consequences are perceived, and that their perception leads to subsequent effort to control action so as to secure some consequences and avoid others.”[3] Dewey continued, stating that the definition of public and private was determined by each community. Where there was perceived, shared interest and concern, there was the designation of the public. Where there was perceived, isolated interests and concerns, there was the designation of the private.

Such an argument profoundly challenges the common conceptions of the public sphere as merely a print based physical space. Instead, the public sphere arises, almost naturally, from a democratic society that imbues its social actors with political rights. What Dewey provided was an understanding that posited the public sphere as a shifting collection of thoughts, beliefs, and customs. There was no established and definite public sphere. Instead, each period determined its size and scope via a series of historical developments. If we combined this understanding with Bourne’s arguments to make a transnational public, a public sphere and democracy that incorporated multiple diverse identities and outlooks, we see that the outcomes of specific policy questions (be it war, abortion, or regulations of corporations) is not the only thing determined by the public sphere. Instead, the public sphere is defined by the social roles, political power, and economic standing an actor has in society.

The modern public sphere, therefore, emerges not as a collection of print artifacts, a series of physical spaces, or certain levels of literacy. Instead, the public sphere is a historically based set of thoughts that demarcates “public” and “private” concerns, and in which those demarcations are influenced, not just through rational widespread knowledge and debate, but through popular thought, ideology, and social power. Literacy, certainly, can be one of the aspects of that social power, but it is merely a reflection of a more pressing outline of the public sphere.

Instead, the modern public sphere bequeathed by reformers like Luther to peoples in North America was not primarily one of literacy. We see this in colonial histories, such Owen Stanwood’s The Empire Reformed. Stanwood argued that previous narratives of English colonial history ignored the way in which a distinct Anglo imperial identity was first forged in the new North American context. The English colonialists were very much prone to open rebellion of the imperial center early in English expansion, however this impulse of challenging authority was diverted in several colonies when imperial leaders successfully targeted religious, cultural, and ethnic “others.” The largest fear being a fear over “Catholic Conspiracy.” [4]

What Stanwood offered is an interesting origin story. No longer a top-down, king dominated chain of command, early Protestant colonists argued that sovereignty began in the community and percolated up. Prevalent where many radical Protestants settled, this ideology argued that community members maintained a relatively equal footing with one another, coming together and governing through a set of shared ideals. Yet this was not an emancipatory concept. Sexist hierarchy, racism, and Protestant bigotry excluded large swaths of the transatlantic populations. English settlers argued Catholics were prone to hierarchies, a state that would subvert the ability of the Protestant’s in their new society, and therefore were a threat to their self-governance. Why? Because holding to a particular ethnic, religious, or racial identity outside of the hegemonic one was courting bedlam. We see, then, in the very foundation of America’s conception of the public sphere, a concern over undemocratic hierarchies that subvert needed democratic exercises. Those deemed outside the basis of civil society are labelled a threat to democracy.

Literacy, then, is not the only bequeathed aspect we gain from Luther. We also have in our society a troubling tendency to view our democracy not as a multicultural stage to gain greater understanding, as Bourne would have liked, or a historically changing set of ideas debated via the various social relations we have in society, what Dewey argued. Instead, we ground the public sphere in space and mode of communication, and thereby leave ourselves prey to Lippmann-like readings of the “trouble” the public sphere causes.

We argue that the Civil Rights Movement succeeded via people being able to see dogs and hoses attacking children on television, or that the Arab Spring was created by Twitter. In other words, we insist that a particular medium and people’s literacy in comprehending that medium is what makes the public sphere. Literacy, from its traditional definition to the broader idea of media literacy, is what makes us a public. Yet, Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty did not require NBC to foster resentment in Boston. Nor did the German peasant uprisings of the 1400s need Twitter, or literacy for that matter, to foment revolution. No, what historic period after historic period demonstrates is that democratic societies, that is societies prone to challenge power, hierarchy, and oppression have in common is the ability to reimagine the previous confines of the private, public, and who has a right to govern those spheres. It is not a question of “alternative facts.” It is a demanding of alternative social relations.

We gain much if we look at this shift in thinking during the First World War when intellectuals, swept up in the conflict, proceeded during and immediately after to provide clear articulations of how this conception of the public sphere was rapidly changing.

The early years of the 20th century, and the first of the World Wars produced monumental change. Change that our global civilization is still living in the wake of. Besides sweeping away the final hierarchies of Luther’s world, it also produced the foundations of modern fascism. A political movement that is as much a series of political arguments as it is physical power, we are deluding ourselves if we think human civilization has moved beyond this historic threat. What the debate between American intellectuals in WWI shows us is that to build a truly democratic society, one that values a robust public, we must not merely focus on the physical manifestations of how that public is expressed, but that we must also engage in a much more critical and difficult ideological fight over what literally is grounds for legitimate democratic consideration, what is undemocratic control of people, and what social relations must be revolutionized so as to truly liberate people, giving them access to the public square where our civilization supposedly resides.

[1] Nichols, Christopher McKnight. “Citizenship and Transnationalism in Randolph Bourne’s America,” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 20 (2008): pp. 353.

[2] Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy (Canada: Little Brown & Company, 1955), pp. 15.

[3] John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927), 12.

[4] Owen Stanwood, The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia, 2011).


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Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1964.

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In Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society Issue 46:2 (Spring 2010): pp. 282-299.

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