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Telos 159 (Summer 2012): Literary Criticism and the Public Sphere

Telos 159 (Summer 2012) is now available for purchase here.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous sonnet “If I should learn, in some quite casual way,” included in her 1917 volume Renascence and Other Poems, stages the harsh collision of private sentiment and public silence, against the backdrop of the mass culture of modernity. Seated in a crowded subway, the speaker glances at the back of a newspaper held by another commuter, only to learn of the death of a loved one, perhaps a lover, the unnamed addressee of the poem. The fact of the apathetic publication of the news underscores, through ironic contrast, the shock and the depth of private affect that cannot be expressed in the public of public transportation: “I should not cry aloud—I could not cry / Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—”

It would be a misreading to understand this sonnet as a modern protest against a nineteenth-century sense of propriety of the sort that would discipline public behavior while reserving romantic sentiment for the private sphere. Instead of such a neat separation of public and private, the poem announces a new, modern cultural paradigm of alienated crowds, random violence, sensationalist discourse, and narcissistic consumerism. The pale appeal to reason in the “learn” of the title yields to the power of aleatory accident and intrusive advertising. Literature proves to be a cogent critic of the degraded public.

Sorting out the relationship between private and public matters has long been a central concern of Critical Theory. Private property confronts public access; individual rights collide with the common good. The point is not only that the two principles pull in different directions; the very tenability of the binary is highly questionable. That is the point of the seminal discussion of the topic, Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which appeared in German in 1962 and in English translation in 1989. A neat distinction between private and public is only possible heuristically or, perhaps, with reference to earlier historical periods. Profound transformations have taken place. Private interests drive public policy through extensive intrusion into the economy, while public power penetrates ever more into private lives through the extension of state surveillance and control. In this administered world, citizens become mere clients, condemned to a pattern of passive behavior, not only in civic matters but in their subjective world too, their erstwhile private lives. In the words of the sonnet: “I should but watch the station lights rush by / With a more careful interest on my face.”

Long before the belated English translation of Habermas’s book, his argument was introduced to discussions in the United States through the prolific scholarship of Peter Uwe Hohendahl. Most of the contributions to this issue of Telos were presented initially at an April 2011 conference in honor of Hohendahl at Cornell University, organized by Leslie Adelson and Anette Schwarz. It is worth noting that Hohendahl and Telos had intersected decades previously: during the 1970s, Hohendahl was a faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, as was Telos founder and longtime editor, Paul Piccone. Bringing Hohendahl and Telos together in this issue recalls that earlier convergence as a rich moment in the trajectory of Critical Theory in the United States and provides an opportunity to document the Cornell conference, while joining in its celebration of Hohendahl’s accomplishments.

Literature, Criticism, Public Sphere: the Hohendahl paradigm brings these three terms together in multiple configurations. Works of literature have the distinctive capacity to elicit discussion and the habit of criticism. Precisely why literature occupies a privileged position in generating critical perspectives is another matter, having to do either with its imaginative character, i.e., its aesthetic autonomy, or, alternatively, with its capacity to provide life-practical orientation. Whatever the argument for the specific benefit of literature, it is the discussion about literature that is crucial here. Literary criticism incubates a general capacity for criticism, and this criticism then amplifies the public sphere. Civic virtue begins, counterintuitively, in aesthetic experience.

Yet such Enlightenment optimism quickly runs afoul of modern society. In The Structural Transformation, Habermas effectively rewrites the thesis of the “culture industry” that had been developed by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. No wonder then that Adorno’s thought became a major topic for Hohendahl. At stake are the dystopic outcomes of publicness in modern society, the deleterious tendencies Millay names in the sonnet: publication becomes sensationalism, interiority turns out to be repressive, identity and autonomy dissolve into suffocating crowds and uncontrolled technologies. Modern conformism—rather than old-fashioned propriety—proscribes individual expressivity.

The articles in this issue of Telos address questions of the theory of the public sphere and its transformations, across time and in different media. In the opening article, Daniel Purdy offers a magisterial view of the relationship between the public sphere and the spatiality of the European city. Habermas’s theory of the public depends, in an apparent paradox, on clearly defined private spaces of the bourgeois interior of the early modern home. Yet household spaces have changed, and urban design has evolved, even as new technologies tend to scramble categories: Is tweeting a public or a private activity? Is there a public future to the city?

The following three articles explore the vicissitudes of literature, criticism, and politics in the wake of the Enlightenment. It was in the writings of Immanuel Kant and most famously in his short essay “What is Enlightenment?” that the principle of publicity was established as a vehicle for education and emancipation. Thanks to unencumbered public discussion—and, as Kant did not fail to note, the largesse of the benevolent monarch—reason would spread even to those parts of humanity held back by laziness and ignorance. Other thinkers were not so confident. Jeffrey S. Librett takes a close look at Johann Gottfried Herder’s inaugural text, Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Humanity, exposing a set of orientalist assumptions that represent outer limits to the narrative of rational progress: the cultures of Egypt, China, and India figure in this account, as does Herder’s evaluation of Judaism and the ancient Hebrews. The “chaos” that Herder finds in “Asia” precludes the dynamism of the spirit, an evaluation that anticipates Marxism’s notion of “Asiatic despotism.” Sean Franzel similarly explores the pursuit of dynamism, turning to the romantic author Jean Paul and the early twentieth-century critic Walter Benjamin. Both deploy forms that subvert the cultural tendency toward monumentalism; for criticism to fulfill its public mission, it must resist the tug toward conventional academic genres, since short forms have more impact than exhaustive or sustained argument—a concern that resonates with contemporary discussions about the public humanities. Eleanor Courtemanche’s essay treats Marx and Heine. Marx’s radical critique of economic life converges with Heine’s poetic critique of, in Hegel’s terms, the “prosaic conditions” of modernity. Courtemanche leads us through the complexities of both: how Marx’s critical view of German backwardness pulls him unexpectedly toward a Smithian political economy and how the social satirist Heine came to express anxieties about radical revolution.

Loren Kruger moves the question of literature, criticism, and the public sphere into the working-class culture of late nineteenth-century Chicago—with its large population of German immigrants—and the radicalism around the events of Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, when a bomb exploded at a demonstration, killing a policeman and inciting further violence. Kruger explores this “proletarian public sphere,” using categories from Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s work on this topic. She also moves the theoretical discussion forward by expanding the paradigm to address the phenomenon of immigrant labor with its own specific “cosmopolitanism.” That culture of the radical working class stands in a complicated relationship to the commercial mass culture of the twentieth century and especially to film, long a stumbling block for Critical Theory: Does cinema merely entertain the viewers, or does it pacify them, or even manipulate and indoctrinate them? Alternatively, can film—like literature—act as a medium for criticism? Jaimey Fisher addresses cinema and criticism through an examination of discussions around Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 film The Bridge, a critical account of the German experience at the end of World War II.

The next three contributions move closer to contemporary problems of the public sphere. Brad Prager compares the treatment of Kaspar Hauser, the wild child found in Nuremberg in 1828, by German filmmaker Werner Herzog and Austrian playwright Peter Handke. Prager shows how they both function as criticisms of society and socialization. Casey Servais treats Thomas Bernhard’s 1970 novel The Lime Works, with its hybridization of literary and legal languages. Servais helps us understand this new language by drawing on Habermas’s account of juridification processes and Adorno’s aesthetics of reification. The current era, so Servais, is marked by “subjecting even the most intimate areas of people’s lives to increasing legal and bureaucratic regulation,” which in turn explains “the prevalence, in the heyday of the welfare state, of a specifically legalistic style of literary prose.” Katharina Gerstenberger addresses the double exposure of private and public differently, through an examination of two eyewitness accounts of major disasters: the 9/11 attacks and the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. Arthur Strum inverts our question of private and public by providing an autobiographical account of his education in “theory” or, more broadly, his liberal education. Does the habit of deliberation, at the core of the critical project, ultimately have a depoliticizing effect if the conversation never comes to an end? Not part of the Cornell conference, Michael Bray’s article offers an extended reflection on Alexander Kluge, particularly the problem of “openness” inherent in the German term itself: Öffentlichkeit. Critical Theory presumes that open forms enjoy a political advantage, while closed forms—like the sonnet—are deemed inherently restrictive. Against this map, Bray raises the sociological challenge that open and critical values tend to be “upper-class affairs and, when imposed from above, generate backlash among fractions of [the] working class.” One outcome is today’s rise of populism.

My contribution to the Cornell conference addresses the situation of the humanities with reference to the question of the public sphere. For the humanities to thrive, scholarship must revise those conventional practices that have produced a separation from the public; hence the needs to develop a public humanities and to recognize the priority of cultivating language abilities, the precondition for public rhetoric. The issue concludes with a review by Adrian Pabst of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion. Pabst shows how Hitchens’s militant atheism mirrors the dogmatism of religious fundamentalism. One needs no leap of faith to see that religion is not about to disappear from the public sphere.

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