I’ve just finished reading Brian Cowan’s The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the English Coffee House (Powells, Amazon) which I really enjoyed a lot (thanks to Rick Perlstein for the recommendation). Its structure is a little unwieldy – the first part is an essay in the history of consumption, the second a semi-related exercise in intellectual and social history – but it really lays out a very strong historical case for something that I’ve suspected and presumed was true, but haven’t seen treated systematically. The typical academic view of the coffeehouse has claimed it as the herald and avatar of a far reaching civil society of intelligent discourse. London coffeehouses have been depicted as the empirical manifestation of Jurgen Habermas’s “public sphere,” a space in which individuals could come together to discuss art and politics, free from both economic pressures and the oversight of the state. They’ve been portrayed as sites of rational and civilized argument. Cowan provides compelling evidence that this view is, to be blunt, romanticized bosh.
Coffeehouses, far from being sites for disinterested and aetherial discussion of politics and art, were hotbeds of political strife and faction. Arguments could turn violent:
In the course of a heated debate in the Amsterdam Coffeehouse in 1683, the whig provocateur Titus Oates was struck several times over the head with a cane by one of his opponents. Oates could not retaliate in kind, and so he responded by throwing his dish of hot coffee in the eyes of his assailant.
Moreover, coffeehouses tended to have self-selecting clientele associated with different political opinions:
Almost as soon as the labels “whig” and “tory” became identifiers of political identity in the early 1680s, there arose coffeehouses associated with each identification.
It’s hardly original to argue that blogs are the modern day descendants of coffeehouses (indeed Josh Marshall’s TPMCafe builds a brandname on this identification), but the resemblances between blogs today and their actual (rather than imagined) 18th century equivalents are very nearly uncanny. Conservative hacks used coffeehouses to propagandize against any who would attack the privileges of the monarchy.
Sam’s Coffeehouse remained the famous home base for Roger L’Estrange and his crew, who gathered there regularly to manage their tory propaganda machine. In L’Estrange’s words, it was a place “where a company of honest fellows meet to confound the lyes of a caball of shamming whigs that make the popish plot a stalking horse to get a shot at the king.”
There was even a contemporary equivalent of Pajamas Media. It failed. Miserably.
[S]everal of the more prominent metropolitan coffeehouse-keepers attempted to band together to form their own exclusive news publishing business. They proposed to consolidate the news industry by establishing a collective system in which each of the subscribing coffeehouses would oversee the collection of newsworthy notices from their patrons and send them twice daily back to a general compiler who would then redistribute the news thus gathered back to the coffeehouses. By cutting out the middlemen, the coffeemen hoped to augment their income by reducing their expenditure on newspapers and collecting the subscription and advertising fees themselves Of course, the action simply invited the scorn of the professional newswriters, and it failed because both the coffeehouse and the news industries of the early eighteenth century were far too decentralized and freewheeling to admit the imposition of such a monopoly.
Even more interesting is how closely the modern critics of blogs track their equivalents in the seventeenth and eighteenth century English establishment.
To call a piece of news “coffeehouse discourse” in post-Restoration Britain was instantly to diminish its value and its trustworthiness, for it was equated with gossip, or mere rumour. … Sir Leoline Jenkins, secretary of State for Charles II, thought it unwise “to measure the temper of the nation by the humour of our coffee houses,” for he believed that “the bulke of the nation is not so injust, nor so ill natured” as the opinionated men who dominated coffeehouse conversations. The purveyor of such rumors, the “coffeehouse statesman” or the “coffeehouse politician” was another stock figure of ridicule. And much like the newsmonger, he was seen as an inept commentator on affairs, more interested in self display than in making any substantial contribution to the formation of public opinion. He was an amateur, a veritable armchair critic who knew little of the real stakes involved in public affairs, and yet was always eager to offer his ill considered advice on these matters.
Political elites argued that the coffeehouses were centers of vulgar mob politics, and threats to the peaceful and established discourse of the kingdom. They sought to civilize them by subjecting them to rules of politesse, when they didn’t seek to suppress them altogether.
For the new whigs such as Addison and Steele, just as much as for old tories like L’Estrange, coffeehouse discourse was best when it was politically tranquil. All parties, both Whig and Tory, shared an aversion to widening popular participation in the political public sphere. … Tarring his whig and dissenting opponents with the brush of vulgar popularity was a propagandistic strategy that L’Estrange could not resist using at every opportunity. For their part, Addison and Steele deplored the intrusion of the “rabble of mankind, that crowd our streets, coffee-houses, feasts, and publick tables” into the debates on the state of the political nation.
Now, I’m drawing a somewhat one-dimensional picture of Cowan’s argument here – there are many ways in which discourse about English coffeehouses was utterly alien to arguments about the blogosphere (for example, there was much contemporary anxiety about the foppishness of coffeehouse habitues; Julian Sanchez excepted, I don’t think there are many foppish bloggers) . Nor is it entirely fair to compare the propagandists of a monarch who believed in divine right with the propagandists of a President who at most has pronounced tendencies towards same. But there are some quite serious points that emerge from Cowan’s book. Complaints about the unruliness and vulgarity of non-elite speakers have a long established history as weapons used by the powerful to exclude or domesticate the unhallowed masses. When Lee Siegel and Morton Kondracke complain about the “knockabout origins” of bloggers, or how they are a fundamental threat to “civilty in American politics,” they’re appealing to traditional rhetorical tropes aimed at marginalizing awkward customers who threaten to disrupt a cosy purported political unity. The political freedoms of coffeehouse argument emerged not in spite of partisan contestation, but in large part because of it, and in the teeth of opposition from established elites, which included not only conservative Tories, but the Whigs who sought to roll back the powers of the monarchy (albeit not so far that their own privileges and sinecures would be threatened). In Cowan’s words:
Public social life, and even more so, public politics were both always problematic in early modern Britain, and it is very difficult to find many normative champions of a Habermasian public sphere in the period. The public sphere in the political realm, as Habermas calls it, was born out of the practical exigencies of partisan political conflict, but it found few outright defenders in the world of early modern political and social theory. Instead of a Habermasian public sphere, we find in early eighteenth-century political culture a number of advocates for a more “civilized” public life such as Addison, Steele, and their fellow-travelers in the cooperative Spectator project. This was a public life which includes the coffeehouse at its center to be sure, but the purpose of this civilization of public life was not to carve out a space for the politics of democratic reason as the Habermasian paradigm would lead us to believe. They wanted a “civil” society and this perhaps explains the growing popularity of the term among the literati of the British Enlightenment over the course of the eighteenth century, but they did not want a “bourgeois public sphere.” Their goal was not to prepare the ground for an age of democratic revolutions; it was to make the cultural politics of Augustan Britain safe for an elitist whig oligarchy.
Plus ca change …