In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere ( 1962) Jürgen Habermas made a powerful version of the argument that printing changed the political life of the West. Unlike many who have made the connection, Habermas does not see printing as directly causing democratization or modernization. Instead he describes a set of institutions that he calls the bourgeois public sphere, developed in the West beginning late in the seventeenth century. An arena of discourse came to be separated both from the state and from civil society, the realm of private life (including economic life). This new public discourse could therefore regulate or criticize both. Because of its autonomy, the separateness that allowed critical regulation, the bourgeois public sphere played a key role in bringing about both the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century and the modern nation-states that followed. Habermas argues that the independence of the public sphere has since eroded; the media of publicity, in his view, have become increasingly colonized and have lost their critical relation to both the state and civil society. From the beginning, however, reading holds the key play in his narrative. Habermas tells the story of an interesting differentiation of a public sphere from state and civil society as primarily a story about new uses of texts. Newspapers, literary salons, coffeehouses, novels, art criticism, and magazines all play an important role in his account of how the fundamental structure of politics changed. 1
If Habermas is correct, then the spread of new reading practices of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were an epoch-making event. Once a public discourse had become specialized in the Western model, the conventions of the public sphere became an inescapable but always unrecognized political force, governing what is publicly sayable. Inescapable, because only when images or texts can be understood as meaningful to a public rather than simply to oneself, or to specific others, can they be called public. Unrecognized, because this strategy of impersonal reference--in which the subject might say, "The text addresses me" and "It addresses no one in particular--is a ground condition of intelligibility for public language.
The public sphere therefore presents problems of rhetorical analysis. The "public" in this new order has no empirical existence, and cannot be