The Literary Public

When I hear the phrase “public sphere,” I think of literature before I even consider politics. Much of the contemporary discussions on 'the public sphere' owe there genesis to Jürgen Habermas's 1962 monograph titled The Transformation of the Public Sphere. His approach, and most of those which have followed him, has focused on the political and sociological dimensions of the public sphere; but even in Habermas's original work, substantial analysis is devoted to the literary public sphere. He recognized, and I agree, that the literary public is an instructive microcosm for considering the public sphere more generally.
          Literature contains everything from the most secretive diaries, love letters, and poems to mass market paperbacks, movie scripts, and literary journalism. There are two especially intuitive ways to distinguish the literary public and private spheres. The first is to designate those writings with larger audiences as public and those with smaller audiences as private. In this case, the difference between public and private is only a matter of degree and in the middle there is a nebulous arena of semi-public, semi-private writing. This distinction between public and private emphasizes the continuity of the two and is defined by the actual audience – whoever happens to read what is written – without any concern for whom it was intended. The second way of distinguishing between public and private emphasizes the discontinuity of each. In this case, the private sphere is limited by the intended audience and the public remains everyone who is not intended. I will follow a single example to illustrate both means of defining the relationship between public and private: the letters written in the mid-19th century by Robert Browning to his eventual wife Elizabeth. In doing so, Hannah Arendt will be an instructive foil in analyzing the continuity of the public and private spheres, Claude Lefort will be of value in analyzing their discontinuity, and Nancy Fraser in transcending the seemingly irresolvable tension that will arise.
The Continuity of the Public and Private Audience
The letters written by Robert Browning had an original audience of one; they appear at first to be absolutely private. Years later when they were published, and now that they have been studied by thousands and are routinely available in book stores, they are entirely public. At least this is the case if the actual audience is the differentiator between public and private writing. What is significant is the fact that between their original composition and their popular availability, there is a slowly growing expansion of their publicness. They are shown to a few friends or discovered by the Browning's son. The letters are shown more widely, then to publishers and editors and finally printed. Even after publication their audience grows gradually. It may be tempting to draw a line in the sand between public and private writing at the moment of publication (in part because the word “publication” implies such a line), but this modern notion does little to explain the public and private character of letters written before the time of mass printing: for example, Saint Paul's letters were written to a specific community or even individual (like his "Epistle to Philemon") and over time became widely available quite apart from any publication process. Of course this is built upon the as-yet unfounded assumption that the actual audience is what defines the public character of writing.
          Hannah Arendt at first lends some support to this position, arguing that the presence of others, what I have called the writer's audience, is what makes something – action and speech – a public object (The Human Condition 23, 25). However, for Arendt the breadth of an actual audience is not what makes something public or private. Rather, writing is private if it serves some necessity, public if it serves freedom – that is, if its purpose is collaborative, rational deliberation (30-31). She contends that modern literary art confuses the public and private spheres by treating all of society as if it were one household. Thus in the modern world a letter written to an intimate acquaintance is not first private and gradually more public as its actual reading audience expands, rather it is viewed as social from the beginning: it is written first to one member of the society-household and its exponentially increasing circulation always remains “in house.” The deprivitization of art – for example, the publication of Robert Browning's letters – is what fulfills its social potential, rather than transforming it from private to public art; in effect, it was always social (50).
          But Arendt fails to give a satisfactory explanation of romantic writings. On Arendt's account, there is no better example of the collapse of the private and public realms than the publication of love letters. She contends that love can only be private, which would mean that when romantic writing is made public it loses its romantic character (Human Condition 51). But how can she maintain this given her definitions of public and private? She had argued that the private realm is the realm of mere necessity, but romantic writing is gratuitous and therefore a matter of freedom, not necessity or survival. Therefore, according to her own analysis, love letters appear to be both essentially private (as is all love) and essentially public (since it is an act of freedom). That is, they are gratuitous but non-political, both public and private.
          Though she maintains that the modern notion of 'the social realm' leveled the essential difference between public and private, romantic writing attests to the fundamental continuity of these two realms. Even with this failure to adequately explain the form of romantic writing, her introduction of the social remains instructive. Arendt's notion of the social helps us see even more clearly the essentially continuous character of the public and private spheres.
The Special Identity of the Private Audience
At this point, Claude Lefort performs important theoretical work in problematizing the social continuity of the public and private spheres. Though written as an analysis of totalitarian politics in society, his work has useful implications for the literary public arena. The question that motivates my use of Lefort is: how are a writer and his audience related? The continuity of the public and private spheres arises when the audience is only treated in terms of actual readers without any regard for whom it was intended. In the case of the Brownings, the actual audience was first Elizabeth but thenceforth anyone who happened to read Robert's letters. But the question remains: what if these letters were always private – by virtue of their limited intended audience? Did their publication violate their privacy rather than transform it? If so intention may be the differentiator between the public and private spheres.
          Lefort does not deal with intention per se, but his analysis of identity is helpful in understanding the limits of an intended audience. Lefort defines totalitarian society as that which unifies a group of people. Society does not unify the public and private (as in Arendt), but rather it produces a unified 'Us' that stands against a 'Them' (I am using the less political “Us/Them” opposition in the place of Lefort's “People-as-One/enemies; Image of the Body 297-8). Lefort applies the Us/Them division to his critique of totalitarian society, but it has much broader implications: any identity requires the exclusion of what is other. In Lefort's context, it is the unity of the party or state which excludes the enemy – foreign or domestic. In a broader context, an identity might be an individual which excludes all other individuals or a religious group which excludes all other religious doctrines or practices. More significantly, an identity might be a romantic couple which excludes all other possible romantic partners.
          When Robert Browning addressed Elizabeth through love letters a special unity was produced between them. At first there was the identity “correspondents” which turned into “lovers,” but in each case the fact that one intentionally addressed the other produced a unity which excluded all other people. Within the context of Robert's letters, there was an Us and consequently a Them; Robert and Elizabeth were the only parties in the Us. If we extend Lefort's logic of identity in this way and apply it to the question of the public and private spheres, the Robert-Elizabeth identity – the private Us – no longer seems easily extended to include anyone who happens to read the letters. Though a student can open a volume of Robert Browning's letters, he can never enter into that Robert-Elizabeth identity. The rest of us always remain a Them and the private realm of Robert and Elizabeth always remains unreachable to a wider public.
          I call this 'horizontal identity,' but Lefort continues his analysis of identity on a vertical level as well which forms a unity through representation: the unity of the people is identified with the party, with the leadership, and with the leader (Image 299). Each level of representation is identified with the level below – a people is its leader and a leader is the people. At this point Lefort's usefulness to understanding a literary public is questionable. Certainly one can force an application: the Robert- Elizabeth correspondence and another romantic correspondence could be unified by the representative genre of the lover letter (a “higher” category that represents anything that falls within its scope), but this appears to be a misapplication of his logic. A literary genre is not identified with specific texts; identity does not go both ways between genre and text: the text and genre are not “the same thing” and although the letter is identified with its genre, the genre is not identified (at least not entirely) with any specific letter.
          Lefort's analysis of horizontal identity – the privacy of an Us in opposition to the publicity of a Them – has helped to define the relationship between a writer and his intended audience. A unique private sphere is delimited by the Us intended by a writer when he make his address to a specific audience. This privacy appears to be untraversable by the public Them, by the rest of us. Since Lefort's logic of vertical identify is not applicable, the relationship between a writer and his actual audience (insofar as it includes unaddressed readers) fails to achieve the same degree of identity as his intended audience.
          Therefore, two arguments have produced a seemingly unresolvable tension. On the one hand, continuity between the public and private is produced by the incrementally growing actual audience of a text: there is no essentially private and public audience, only a social reception. On the other hand, the unique identity between a writer and his intended audience produces a barrier between the public and private audience. If this tension is to be resolved, a synthetic argument is needed.
The Private Within the Public
One point in particular of Nancy Fraser's critique of Jürgen Habermas is especially useful in overcoming this tension, namely her insistence that the private realm should not be banished from the public. Fraser makes special note of the personal, romantic, and sexual sense of privacy. She points out the social consequences of overly-privatizing this arena of human life: it tends to promote the will of dominant groups, those who represent social norms like men or heterosexuals (Rethinking the Public Sphere 131-32). Her precise motives for challenging Habermas's strong distinction between public and private spheres is irrelevant. The important point is that according to Fraser, the public sphere benefits from private influence. It it not merely that private interests are unavoidable, as in many of Habermas's predecessors (cf. Haberman's treatment of Hegel, Marx, Mill, and Toqueville; Transformation 117-140) but private interests are needed in order to promote contemporary social values like equality.
      Though Fraser's primary interest is in social equality, the reintroduction of private interests into the public sphere also allows empathy to achieve public significance. Habermas's Kantian disinterestedness would not permit empathy to function in the public sphere; however, Fraser's more overt Marxism allows private interests like empathy to have a public role. (One could convincingly argue that her interest in equality depends in large part upon the presumed role of empathy in the public sphere.)
          In a broader context, empathy is not only a socio-ethical impulse – it does more than make us feel for and with those who are oppressed; it also serves a role in the understanding. Empathy permits one person in a private context to understand the situation of another, in spite of a lack of similar concrete experiences. Empathy in the public sphere is what resolves the tension between public-private continuity on the one hand and exclusive private identities on the other.
The Transcendent Function of Empathy
The actual audience can never become privy to the identity produced by an intentional address; that is to say, those of us who read the letters of Robert Browning will never be a part of the love relationship and thus can never be 'inside' the correspondence. There is an aspect of it that always remains private. However, private writings can and do become legitimately public when their actual audience expands. What legitimizes this publicity is our ability to empathize, to become privately interested individuals who are simultaneously exterior (by virtue of the fact that we are not addressed) and interior (by virtue of the fact that we can empathetically identify with the parties in the relationship).
          It is fair to ask if empathetic identity is genuine identity. After all, even empathizing with the desires and admiration of Robert Browning is not identical with his experience. The answer is appropriately literary: empathy appeals to the order of metaphor. It allows something to be true beneath the surface. In this sense, the actual audience, reading in the social arena, employs its own private metaphors and empathetic powers to its public/social role as a reader, thereby becoming privy to an exchange to which it has no literal connection. The public which is excluded by Robert's intention is able to make sense of Robert's private meanings addressed to Elizabeth, to identify with a relationship from which it had originally been excluded. In this way, empathy and metaphor allows private individuals – readers and writers alike – to relate to other private spheres. It does not achieve this by shedding its private character, instead having private interests is the necessary condition for relating to other private individuals. Only privately interested individuals can empathize and employ metaphors. Therefore, as an actual audience, the public and private are bound together through the social; as an intended audience, the public and private are distinguished through non-identity; and again as an actual audience, the public re-identifies with the private through empathy and metaphor.
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