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  • Introduction: The Public and the Nation
  • Dena Goodman (bio)

When the English translation of Jürgen Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere appeared in 1989, nearly thirty years after its original publication in German and eleven years after the French translation, it seemed fresh and bold. It brought new life to the field of eighteenth-century French history in particular, which had been struggling under the weight of a Marxist orthodoxy that was no longer either convincing or inspiring. Habermas brought into focus a public sphere of literate men and women who, through their participation in burgeoning discursive institutions of print and sociability, transformed the social and political landscape of eighteenth-century Europe while empowering themselves as autonomous individuals. He suggested a way of looking at the eighteenth century that gave it pivotal historical significance in the development of modern society and accounted for many of the features of eighteenth-century culture that generations of Marxist scholars had written off as mere superstructure. At the same time, he laid out the ground on which dix-huitièmistes could respond to the post-modernists’ indictment of the Enlightenment and its age as responsible for the hypocrisy of a false universalism on the basis of which various groups had been victimized over the course of the past two hundred years.

During the last six years there has been substantial debate about the validity of Habermas’s theory: about the importance and significance of his Marxism, for example, and about the existence or sociological meaning of such central features [End Page 1] of his theory as public opinion and even the public sphere itself. Questions have been raised about the possibility of multiple publics beyond the literate, “bourgeois” one privileged by Habermas, about women’s role in the public sphere and their relationship to it, and about the way in which the national cultures of England, France, and Germany figure in Habermas’s basically Marxist chronology, which sees England as in the lead and Germany pulling up the rear. The authors of the articles presented in this issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies acknowledge the limitations of Habermas’s vision of eighteenth-century history and culture suggested by this debate, but they choose to take certain of his key categories and insights as starting points for historical inquiry, rather than as debating points. They use Habermas’s interpretation not as a template with which to draw a single and hegemonic picture of the eighteenth century, but as a map with which to explore critically both the cultures of the eighteenth century and our own approach to them. These essays are testimony to the fruitfulness of Habermas’s vocabulary for thinking about eighteenth-century European history and culture. Because they do not set out to “prove” Habermas’s theory right or wrong, they demonstrate what any good physicist will tell you: that the value of a theory lies not in its ability to represent the world correctly, but in the richness of the investigations it stimulates.

The articles that follow explore eighteenth-century cultures in Germany, Russia, and Britain. The authors ask us to think about the relationship between the emergence of a public sphere and that of national identity. If Habermas provides the overt link among these pieces, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, published in 1983 and revised in 1991, is a second common denominator which creates a common set of issues. How do the institutions of the public sphere function also as institutions for the construction of both national identities and individual autonomy? What is the relationship between a circumscribed urban, literate public and the nation as a whole? How do the exclusions out of which political identities are constructed develop from or in relation to the universalistic claims upon which champions of the public sphere invited all who could read to join them? How does language function as both a particular bond of national identity and a universal discursive medium for the creation of a cosmopolitan public of reading and reasoning men and women?

The institutions of the public sphere—voluntary associations and print in all its forms—and the practices associated...

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