In this article, I use Delarivier Manley’s New Atalantis to examine how the public sphere arose at a moment of epistemological crisis defined by the tension between empirical and mass mediation—a tension that I argue continues to plague our participation in the public sphere today. This sphere inherited a model of knowledge predicated on the proximity between the knower, the instrument, and the object of knowledge; despite the fact that it was shaped by the new mass media, it continued to imagine itself according to this model and therefore to treat the newspaper as a tool for empirical observation. Newspapers themselves encouraged this approach by adopting formal devices that mimicked face-to-face communication. Manley’s novel theorizes the differences between empirical and mass mediation and the political dangers that occur when the public superimposes one onto the other. By mimicking the formal devices of the newspapers, the novel first interpellates readers into media culture before demystifying the ideological motives behind such devices. In debunking the reader’s empirical approach to mass media, the novel presents itself as a tool for information literacy that instructs readers how to appraise the truth-value of news. However, while readers then and now question the reliability of news and its ideological motives, they continue to deploy it as if it were a tool of empirical observation. In this sense, the public today is still living out the legacy of Enlightenment mediation.


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pp. 491-511
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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