Print and Space, A Public Does Not Make

[Editor’s Note: The following essay is from Wes Bishop, a doctoral student in United States History at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. His concentration is U.S. intellectual history, labor history, social reform movements, and political economy. The following is a portion of a conference paper recently delivered at the 37th Annual Meeting of the Indiana Association of Historians. For the conference’s theme, participants were asked to think about the legacy of Martin Luther and widespread literacy on the concept of mass human liberation.]

Print and Space, A Public Does Not Make:

Thoughts on the role of literacy in the public sphere

Wesley Bishop

Although historians, philosophers, and political scientists understand that the public sphere is a complex aspect of modern democratic societies, without fail the default setting of thinkers and lay people alike is to treat the public sphere as largely the rise of print culture, and to a lesser extent the creation of physical space. In this way, the public sphere is only really a thing that reflects how people speak to one another. The rise of print and the creation of spaces, like boulevards, cafés, and working class beer halls undoubtedly had important impacts on society. Yet is this what we mean when we invoke the public sphere? Furthermore, what issues arise when we permit a popular understanding of the public sphere which views it as largely a change in space, availability of print, and ability to access that print via literacy? Continue reading