Swallowing Down Burning Coals: Chaos, Impertinence and Treason in the Coffee House

On December 4, 2016 by admin


Arpit Kumar

“Yet these will o’er their Jewish Liquor,

About Religion Jar and Bicker;

And rave till grown as Piping Hot,

As the dull Grout o’er which they sot.”

~Ned Ward in ‘Vulgus Britannicus: or, the British Hudibras


At first sight, the world of the long-eighteenth century English coffee-house is immediately comprehensible and familiar. A meeting place for friends, for leisurely reading and talk over a cup of coffee, for the occasional discussion of news and politics – it is a metaphor for culture itself. The coffee-house has also always lingered in the background of literary criticism of the long-eighteenth century as a space frequented by the likes of John Dryden, Samuel Pepys, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. Addison and Steele promised to bring out philosophy out of its sheltered and closeted life to the crowds of the coffee-house. It was recorded thus in accounts of the literature, culture and life of the long-eighteenth century until the publication of Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere(1962; trans. 1989) where it became much more – the focal point of an emerging formation, the bourgeois public sphere, where strangers gathered, outside the structures of the traditional authority of the church and the state, to converse over matters of ‘common concern’ in a manner that nurtured ‘rational critical deliberation’ and eventually validated the legitimacy of institutions of authority. In such a framework, the coffee-house was seen as a converging point for the various energies of modernity – print, secular sociability, consumption and commerce, the scientific temper and a training ground for democracy. In Terry Eagleton’s Function of Criticism, the coffee-house and the various discursive projects that formed around it gave birth to modern criticism itself.

These are claims that have since been variously substantiated, contested and, in some cases, rejected but the fascination with coffee-house culture has not only endured but rather blossomed in the twenty-first century. Markman Ellis published The Coffee House: A Cultural History in 2004 that documented the travels of the beverage from the Levant region to London (in 1652) and its life thereafter whereas Brian Cowan published The Social Life of Coffee (2004) where the early life of coffee among the virtuosi and the wits is considered in depth. These relatively recent publications build on the work of other historians of the coffee-house, chief among them is Aytoun Ellis who described the eighteenth century coffee-house as ‘penny universities’ to emphasize the role it played in the education and improvement of the eighteenth century public. A whole host of other literary critics and historians have analyzed coffee-house culture with their own points of emphasis. Lawrence Klein has documented the significance of the coffee-house in the process of defining a culture of politeness that, he believes, existed in the long-eighteenth century. Emma Clery locates the world of the coffee-house at the center of a discursive deployment of the category of the feminine in association with commerce to illustrate its consequences for the social and cultural landscape of England. These interventions have revealed a greater complexity the coffee-house as it becomes more than a transcendental space of reason but rather appears as a space that was as much of the past as of the future. One can attempt to derive from, and build upon, these interventions that have complicated the nature and function of the coffee-house.

This complexity lends itself to an extended analysis of the conceptualization of the public sphere, picking up from Jurgen Habermas and his critics, to deepen the concept so as to be able to accommodate a less homogeneous interpretation of coffee-house culture.


The fact of the matter is that Habermas’ idealization of the long eighteenth century English ‘bourgeois public sphere’ gets complicated in the face of direct empirical and conceptual queries that prove beyond doubt that it systematically excluded participation. The conflation of ‘bourgeois’ and ‘homme’ is more than misleading; it’s an attempt to pre-empt and settle the boundaries of the public sphere. It doesn’t merely exclude participation but it pre-defines what constitutes ‘matters of general concern’ and the forms in which they can be ‘discussed’ and ‘deliberated’. These aren’t new problems for those critics who foreground and emphasize Habermas’ Kantian orientation.[1]

A detour through Shaftesbury, however, may allow us to develop a closer understanding of the kind of individual subjectivity that sustains Habermas’ proposed public sphere. The politeness and civility of the utterances emerging from the coffee-house suggest a notion of refined and virtuous publics but this chapter will attempt to articulate another template which displaces civility with contestation, controversy and conflict.

Nancy Fraser’s critique of the Habermasian public sphere demands a radical re-opening of the public sphere in relation to the participation and issues of a diverse set of stakeholders. It is important to recognize that the diversity of stakeholders doesn’t merely imply a diversity of interests; it also implies a diversity of discursive styles, a multiplicity of languages and an obfuscation of normalized lines of behaviour and action. At all times, in any given ‘public sphere’, understood as a coming together of utterances in dialogue, a gradual concretization of boundaries occurs which results in the identification and categorization of certain utterances as standing in violation of the public sphere. These utterances expose, therefore, the limits of any imagined/real notion of open publicness and become touchstones in the testing of the strength of an actually existing public sphere. In this chapter, the attempt will be to highlight such utterances that emerge from the margins or from ‘the outside’ of the public sphere in such a fashion that they are immediately perceived as threats. In doing so, the focus will be upon multiple dimensions of discourse: the thematic and substantive content of what is said, the ways and means of expressing (styles, genres, and rhetoric) and the difficulty, therefore, of retaining the template of ‘rational discourse’.

This multiplicity and discursive variety has always been an integral part of the matrix of language itself but its visibility increases manifold in the age of multiculturalism and globalization. Any new conceptualization of a public sphere must measure itself against the multiple aspects of late-modern complex capitalist societies. An in-depth detour of the world of the English coffee-house culture, which has been narrativized as a more homogenous space of ‘sober’, ‘civil’ and ‘polite’ dialogue, will not only allow us to enhance the theoretical apparatus but also reveal a sea of hidden conflicts. Through an array of coffee-house literature, the narrow understanding of rational ‘discursive will formation’ must be put to test. What are the voices of ‘the street’, to use a metaphor employed by Warren Montag[2], that pressurize the bourgeois public sphere? Let me specifically look at the recurring early appearances of sedition and treason in the coffee-house literature of late-seventeenth century that also prompted a crackdown in the form of prohibition first and censorship thereafter. The world of sub-literary London that made its presence felt in the coffee-houses will be analysed through the utterances that emerge from it to understand ‘the irrational’, absurd and hysterical ways in which rationality could be accessed and channelized into the public sphere creating a precarious situation.

Habermas demands the public sphere to become an institutional space of mediation between the private citizen and the state where matters of common concern can be dwelled upon so as to, if and when the need arises, allow the articulation of an oppositional stance. However, Habermas describes this as a process/procedure of rational political deliberation for the state such that it may function as a facilitator of democratic legitimacy. (27) Habermas is effectively opening up a space of play which in its ideal form is infinite and limitless such that the constant processes of deliberation, correction and transformation may lead to a structural situation that may be entirely separate from the configuration that existed at the moment of its inception. It is in this sense that Habermas is most allied with the reform movements of John Stuart Mill rather than the radical adventurousness of the mid-seventeenth century.[3] Habermas’ public sphere fosters public discussion and debate within a structurally defined space of a certain kind of market and a certain kind of state but insinuating in the process a possibility of long-term radical change that the processes of modernity promise. This, however, excludes the forces that insist upon immediate and substantive changes in the economic and political structures of the time to prevent a kind of a falling back into violence. It necessarily limits the nature and measure of change that the public sphere may bring about by limiting the kinds of language, modes of thought that are considered legitimate within it. Warren Montag argues in the same vein: “[…] despite claims to a discursive ethic of intersubjective rational action, Habermas creates a transcendent moral barrier that prevents citizens from exercising their immanent power to change the basic structure of their society.”(9)  The shadow of the mid-seventeenth century civil war, sectarianism and seemingly outlandish demands for collectivization are the obvious nightmares for Habermas. It is interesting, in this context, to note that the specific ideal that Habermas evokes for a functioning bourgeois public sphere capable of critical rationality is located in the discursive field created by the ‘moral weeklies’ of Steele and Addison –The Tatler (1709)and The Spectator (1711-1712)instead of the rich but bold argumentative chaos of the period from mid-seventeenth century till the bloodless revolution. (42) A herd of pamphlets, poems and broadsides published in this period, especially those centering upon the coffee-house, abound with anti-monarchical, anti-market sentiment that often evoked charges of sedition, treason, anarchy and cultural madness. Whether Habermas considers the participating members of this argumentative, sub-literary chaos competent enough to be participants in the public sphere is a question that lingers on.


 The Shadow of the Civil War: Order Restored?

There are two strains to the considered arguments regarding the significance of restoration of the Stuart monarchy and the return of Charles II to the English crown. The first strain maintains that the long term changes initiated by the civil war such as the radical opening up of authority to popular investigation were not deterred in any sense by the event. The period of the civil war had fostered an intimate connection between the printed word and politics; the liberty to criticize those who occupied the higher echelons of power was made a common and natural right. The collapse of censorship in 1641 was utilized fully in the service of the decimation of traditional pillars of old English society – the crown, the aristocracy and the church men. The original lapse of the censorship was particularly fertile in the sense that even when censorship returned henceforth with the threat of coercion and persecution; it would be faced with an element of malleability and deception that the irreverent writing forms of the times had acquired. Gerald MacLean has argued that the literature in the mid-seventeenth century was severely political “because of the ways in which reading and writing had made public debate increasingly central to the political experience of ordinary people living through the social and cultural changes of the 1640’s and 1650’s.” (11) In fact, the strength of the printed word by the end of the decade of the 50’s was such that a string of commentators have attributed to it the accomplishment of a successful return of the ‘reformed monarchy’. “So crucial had the commercial press become by 1660 that, during the months immediately preceding and following Charles’ return, all manner of commemorative and celebratory publications appeared that set about giving symbolic and cultural meaning to the social and political changes in British life.” (MacLean 14)

The second strain of the arguments about the Restoration deal with the return of Charles II as a kind of mistaken return to quasi absolutist monarchy which was eventually corrected through the bloodless revolution of 1688 when James II, Charles’ Catholic brother, was made to abdicate the throne in favour of William and Mary. The Restoration in such arguments is perceived to be more properly “a restoration” marked by structural and economic retreats such as, as MacLean documents, return of court censorship, return of confiscated estates, reinstatement of the powers of the clergy and various machinations to impose religious uniformity (4). The bloodless revolution also saw the crystallization of the Whig and Tory parties emerging out of the churning of the exclusion crisis. The crisis itself and its playing out are given lesser emphasis in Habermas’ conceptualization. It is this version that seems to have greater currency in Habermas’ framework as he pinpoints 1688 as the turnover point in the establishment of the bourgeois public sphere. Steve Pincus notes that Habermas “insists that the true emergence of the public sphere occurred only after the Glorious Revolution.” (808) The distinction is of great significance as it indicates exactly what Habermas wishes to hold aloft as the idealized public sphere and, perhaps, even more significantly what he wishes to exclude from it.

It is illustrative here to note that the archetypal institution of the Habermasian public sphere – the English coffee-house – has a vital life in the period immediately following the Restoration after it found its first existence in the aftermath of the civil war. The popularity and presence of coffee-houses as places of ‘sociability’ – not necessarily of a Habermasian kind – can be understood from the fact that already by 1663 there were over eighty coffee-houses in the city of London and new ones opening at a rapid pace even during the plague of 1665-66. Robert Hooke, like many other connoisseurs of coffee, was frequenting more than five scores of different coffee-houses in the decade of the 70’s. (Pincus 812) During this period, the coffee-house mirrored in critical ways the conflict, rage and enthusiasm of the times which were carried over from the civil war in opposition to the more cleansed, sedate and sober coffee-house of the Spectatorial public sphere. The exclusion and straight-jacketing of conflict to foreground consensus in a significant aspect of Habermas’ idealization of the bourgeois public sphere as it plays a formative role in establishing ‘the rules of the coffee-house’, that is to say, the proper business and boundaries of the public sphere. The erasure of conflict is also necessarily tantamount to the erasure of those disturbing voices that create conflict and confrontations of a religious, political and stylistic nature.


‘A Medley of Impertinence’: Chaos in the Coffee-House

The conflict between the modernizing impulses unleashed during the Interregnum and the re-instated forces of monarchy was dramatized in the coffee-house culture of 1660-1688. ‘Coffee-house culture’, in this context, is constituted by the actual spaces, ephemeral discussions, passionate arguments and the babble that filled them, along with the textual field created in the form of pamphlets and other ‘coffee-house literature’. The dominant canonical literature of the long-eighteenth century implies and carries along with it through parody and citation a mass of writing that is ‘sub-literary’. These ‘hack-writers’ are satirized by the likes of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Dryden, who were themselves participants in one or another kind of coffee-house publics. Christian Thorne highlights that, “If there is one feature of modernity that Tory skepticism consistently targets, it is the very idea of a public sphere and a critical press.The cast of characters in Tory satire is a catalogue of Habermas’s public-sphere participants-politicians, scholars, stockjobbers-and for the Tories this cast is unmistakably a typology of fools.” (533)

Let me try to illustrate that a great deal of this ‘sub-literary’ writing centering upon the coffee-house actually brought forth a gushing of ‘impertinence’ understood in the sense that it anxiously expresses a sense of violation of norms. The chronological appearance of this culture in the immediate aftermath of the civil war meant that the ‘norm’, perhaps like always, was in itself a highly unstable semantic category. Therefore, a sense of violation pervades the coffee-house literature of the period and appears at the prospect of almost anything; the denial of ‘english liberties’, ‘libertinism’, anti-clerical discourse, popery, monarchical and anti-monarchical sentiments, breaking of gender and class boundaries and so on.

The public sphere in all such discourse came across less as a space of elimination of pre-existing boundaries, as Habermas insinuates in general for coffee-house culture, but rather as a space where pre-existing conflicts and differences were more keenly observed, exaggerated to be visibilized, and in such a manner contested. It is significant to note that this constitutes, and qualifies as a valid mode of contestation, persuasion and influence. Let us read a bit closely the following excerpt from a 1661 pamphlet called A Character of Coffee and Coffee-Houses [4] in order to illustrate some of the aforementioned arguments.

“Six or seven years ago was it (coffee) first brought into England, when the Palats of the English were as Fanatical, as their Brains. Like Apes, the English imitate all other people in their ridiculous Fashions…Oh Heavens, how do the English Palats differ from those of more sober Nations? These preserve Snow to temper their Liquor with, those gulch down Coffee even boyling in the Dish, more eagerly, than an almost starve Dog doth lick up Pottage, just then taken from the fierce fire. In time (sure) the English-man will swallow down burning Coals…Coffee is a Dryer, and therefore with successe is drunk by those Gentlemen, who are infected with the French-pox, (syphilis) which is now become the Characteristal difference between the plumed Nobless and the highshoon (a country clown)…if you set Short-handwriters to take down the Discourse of the Company, who prattle over Coffee, it will be evident on reading the Notes, that the talk is extravagant and exactly like that of the Academians of Bedlam… Coffee being dry, in proportion, dryes up the Radical moisture. By constant use thereof, a man becomes, –ad unum Mollis opus (literally: ‘to be weak at a certain work; implies impotence in the given context) (italics are mine)”


Firstly, observe the close association of coffee and the coffee-house with the open passions and transgressions of the civil war. It is also significant to note the various identities and dispositions that are evoked in the following excerpt to mark the atmosphere and function of the coffee-house. The pamphlet brings together a number of anxieties existing within the dominant culture of the period in one zone of contestation. The French influence during the Restoration is much documented flowing directly from the person of the monarch, Charles II, but remaining however a cause of much anxiety in the course of this pamphlet. The emasculated Englishman would suggest a general fear of loss of native English masculinity, perhaps a metaphor for military and colonial aggression, as well as more commonplace anxieties about the fragile balance of patriarchy. The association with “academicians of Bedlam” indicates the critical outsider’s perception of coffee-house talk as madness and of its participants as fancy-stricken virtuosi. The growing impossibility of distinguishing between a nobleman and a country clown indicates further the already begun process of crumbling of status boundaries.

The backlash against the coffee-house, being a prominent event in the discursive public sphere of mid-seventeenth century, is driven by a specific form of language. One aspect of this language is evident in the fictional evocations of ‘the other’. This ‘other’ may take the shape of the ‘anti-English’, the emasculated, the religious non-conformist and different deviant political allegiances. These prejudices and conflicts were not always ‘real’ and may or may not truly reflect the diversity of the coffee-house participants but they do clearly illustrate the highly rhetorical, and often vitriolic, language of this partial field of ‘coffee-house culture’. The history of colonial discourse tells us that talking about the other necessarily entails oppressive, irrational flights of fantasy. This percolates into the discourse of the coffee-house as a shaping force enabling hostility and antagonism as forms of contestation. The confrontational intensity and animosity of these interchanges is what Habermas fails to document. Another hilarious and intriguing illuminating instance of this kind of interchange is captured in one of the visual images of the coffee-house, entitled ‘The CoffeeHous Mob’,[5] where two of the participants are seen confronting each other physically with hot cups of coffee being hurled as weapons. (Ellis 201) It indicates that the culture thrived on such antagonistic jabbing and name-calling instead of establishing an inter-subjective space of understanding where rational communication may begin. Ellis says, “In this sectarian coffee-house debate, coffee sheds its reputation for sobriety, and instead becomes a drink of rebellion and dissent.” (201) The constant evocation of a multiple otherness is an attempt to ideologically create a homogeneous imaginary space the coordinates of which shall differ in different utterances. In this pamphlet, the attempt seems to be to idealize the underlying idea of archetypal English masculinity.

Michael Gardiner has argued that Habermas’ overtly schematic and abstract model of public sphere that relies upon a crucial distinction between “lifeworld” and “systems” needs to be counterbalanced with Bakhtinian theory which relentlessly strives to capture the dialogue and voices of everyday life. (30) His reading, impressively titled “Wild Publics and Grotesque Symposiums: Habermas and Bakhtin on Dialogue, Everyday Life and the Public Sphere”, correctly detects an organizing influence of Kant in Habermas which is critiqued for its distance from lived reality. He says,
“However, Bakhtin feels that Kantianism is too abstract and prescriptive, and its use of transcendental a prioris renders it unable to address ethical problems as they emerge within everyday life. Kant’s moral philosophy is an example of what Bakhtin calls “theoretism”: in maintaining a disjuncture between immediate experience and “extra-local” symbolic representations, and by privileging the latter, such approaches subsume the open-ended and “messy” qualities of real-life communicative and social acts into an all-encompassing explanatory system. (32)”

Joan Alway, in the context of a discussion of the Habermasian model’s relation to feminism, argues that its core is the assumption of a disembodied mind participating in discourse; she says, “[Habermas espouses] a universalism that depends on a communicatively competent, but disembodied subject. Such a subject leaves us unable to acknowledge the important bodily dimensions of autonomy and self-realization; such a subject limits our ability to understand the ways in which domination and resistance have materialized in and around the bodies of women and members of other oppressed groups.” (138) The emphasis of rational deliberation through procedural communicative action can signal towards an evacuation of the “ethical”, emotional, private and the irrational which is a major concern. In contrast, Gardiner holds the Bakhtinian model of dialogue between the self and the other as an alternative. Gardiner exalts Bakhtin’s “practical rationality” which is about a more nuanced understanding of dialogue and relation between the self and the other.


The public sphere of Post-Restoration England went much beyond the mild claims that Habermas makes in the Structural Transformation. The material that appeared in print through this period did not just have the capability to take a critical and oppositional stance in relation to the public authorities but went much further. It expressed the messiness of everyday babble of the coffee-houses which meant that sedition, treason, bawdy humour and an attitude of utter irreverence to forms of social and political authority was widespread. This irreverence was also constituted, sometimes, not necessarily by what was said but by the mere presence of these strange, ‘non-conforming’ others. Another set of utterances that pervaded the 1660-1688 coffee-house public sphere that most explicitly embody this irreverence are discussed hereafter.


“For the gods have repented the King’s Restoration”: Treasonous talk and the coffee-house

It is impossible to make a neat and baggage-less distinction between the old world order (royal power, absolutism and feudalism) and the new modern world of the public sphere and the coffee-house (English liberties, parliament and early capitalism); rather the two are organically tied to each other in ways that once revealed open up the conceptualization of the public sphere in a radical way. Brian Cowan explores this debate and alerts us to the problems of different historical lenses:

“This view has its origins in some of the earliest Whig histories of the Stuart era, which also saw the coffeehouses as a necessary outlet for the English people’s natural aversion to “the growth of Popery and the French power”. For David Hume, the rise of the coffeehouse was proof of the “genius of the English government” and a sign of the “liberty of the constitution” (148)

On the other hand, “Historians of the post-Restoration period who have adopted a more revisionist bent have tended to ignore the political role of the coffeehouse in their work, preferring instead to emphasize the persistence of more traditional modes of political persuasion, such as royal charisma and court preferment along with the continuing prominence of the pulpit in Britain’s old regime.” (Cowan 150) The central point that needs to be made to bridge the gap between these two narratives is to recognize the eccentric modes of contestation, the irrational forms mobilized in the structural ‘progression’ initiated already in the period of the civil war and its aftermath with the opening up of the press, wider circulation of print and vulnerability of all forms of authority. This necessarily opens up the possibility of thinking of these groups of people, and their social languages, as specific kind of publics that function, at least, from Restoration onwards in a mode that is markedly different from the rational-deliberative, discursive will formation that takes shape in the Spectatorial public sphere.

XJF322562 The Popish Damnable Plot Against Our Religion and Liberties, 1680 (printed paper) by English School, (17th century); British Museum, London, UK; (add. info.: Broadside giving an account of the Popish Plot in cartoon form; the allegations of Roman Catholic plotting made in 1678 by Titus Oates included responsibility for the Great Fire of London in 1666; William Howard (1612-80), Viscount Stafford, was falsely accused and condemned to death by execution in theTower of London in 1680; in total 35 innocent people executed); English, out of copyright

In this sense, the central event of significance during the Post-Restoration period that most appropriately embodies the functioning of the public sphere is the controversy surrounding the Popish plot. The plot was, to the best of historiography’s reach, a fanciful and fantastical leap of the imagination grounded in little or no facts but it managed to play on the underlying anxieties of the age in a fashion that hastened and ensured the bloodless revolution, the absolute end of Catholic monarchy and a structural progression to parliamentary ‘democracy’. The plot was woven, consumed, debated in the ‘public imagination’ resulting in a plethora of pamphlets and also enduring works of canonical literature. The plot played on anxieties that had long taken shape within coffee-house culture. Roger North lamented: “[…] the mischief is arrived to perfection, and not only sedition and treason, but atheism, heresy and blasphemy are publically taught in diverse of the celebrated coffee-houses […] and it is as unseemly for a reasonable, conformable person to come there as for a clergyman to frequent a bawdy house.” (qtd. in McDonald 11)The coffee-house was associated quite often with ideas of treason and sedition, ironically employed to preserve the royal prerogatives, but in the larger picture the controversy surrounding such discourse was fundamentally about the boundaries of the public sphere and the limits of what counted as a legitimate subject for political discussion. It is also important to note that the coffee-house was equally the same space where the restoration’s grounds were prepared during the civil war when cavaliers made it their place for meeting. It was also the place where, after the bloodless revolution, Jacobitism was rampant and widespread.

The effectivity of the coffee-house was not necessarily based on the participation of all, even in the most glorious parts of its alleged existence, but it was definitely based upon the uninhibited use of language and logic so that almost nothing remained outside of the ambit of what could be said. These restrictions were impossible to impose from the outside as the forced withdrawal of the royal proclamation for the suppression of the coffee-houses of 1675 made evident. (This changed with the Spectatorial public sphere, through the alleged ideological cleansing of the coffee-house.) It has been interpreted by Whig historians as a resounding victory for ‘free-speech’ but it must more specifically be understood as a resounding victory for the pre-1688 model of public sphere which based itself on contestation, conflict, collective action and uninhibited exercise of language and modes of thought.

An interesting piece of imaginative synthesis of these ideas is found in a poem by Andrew Marvell called “A Dialogue between the Two Horses” which pans out in the absence of their two royal riders (Charles I and Charles II) and turns to a review of the Restoration. Markman Ellis says about the poem, “The horses run through a litany of complaints about the financial mismanagement of the country, the ruinous cost of wars, the immoral behaviour of the king and the court, the influence of the King’s mistresses and the bribery and corruption of great men.” (93)  They lament the “excising of our cups and the taxing of our smoke”. (Marvell) The poem illustrates a coming together of the two faces of the coffee house: the institution as an embodiment of the liberties won and secured through the terrors and struggle of the civil war

When they take from the people the freedom of words,

They teach them the sooner to fall to their swords.

Let the city drink coffee and quietly groan;

They that conquered the father won’t be slaves to the son. (Marvell)
as well as the capability of the coffee-house to double up as spaces for the rousing, battle cries of further revolt that the poem ends with.
A commonwealth! A commonwealth! We proclaim to the nation,/

For the gods have repented the King’s Restoration.[6]

The Post-Restoration public sphere was driven by this radical openness of subject matter that was validated against the injunctions of repressive state and royal authority through the evocation of the historical precedent of the civil war as a caution. Its effectivity and influence has been underestimated in the Habermasian framework. The distinguishing quality and hallmark of an actually existing, functioning public sphere isn’t the form of contestation – rational deliberation or irrational bawdy jesting – but rather its ability to demystify the oppressive ‘boundaries’ and ‘norms’ time and again so as to stretch the structures that define what is permissible, ‘pertinent’, and legal.

Mike Hill and Warren Montag reminds us the importance of this value: “We live in an era that threatens to match that in which international law had its origins, that is, the dawn of modernity with its unparalleled genocide and plunder, for the sheer frequency of just wars, legitimate bombardments of cities and legal massacres, all sanctioned by the highest judicial bodies…” (8) What Hill and Montag are alerting us to here is central to the entire argument about the nature and mode of functioning of publics. Through the way discourse circulates, organizes social lives, and creates identities it concretizes norms and, eventually laws, that determine political communities and it is only through a constant challenging of these concretized norms that we can sustain a functional model of publics. The violence, conflict and contestation, in this sense, are markers of new and old voices, voices standing on the margins and calling from the streets to ‘pressurize’ the consolidated dominant into a state of reform, re-opening, and if not, then into a state of chaos.

It is essential to understand, at the very beginning, that the question of what constitutes the matter of discussion and deliberation – if at all, the public sphere discourse must necessarily take that form – is not settled through the acceptance of the notion of multiple and counter-publics. Habermas has been receptive to the idea of a multiplicity of publics only to assert the aggregation of these in the form of something akin to a transnational/cosmopolitan public sphere. The resolution of this conundrum can arrive only when we understand how utterances that disturb the prevailing order of any publics can be accommodated without the Habermasian appeal to ‘disregard status’ or bracket off socio-political identities of those involved. A new conceptualization of the public sphere must embrace ideas of conflict, contestation and a diversity of modes of expressing the same and only in such a fashion can the contingency of concretized lines of law, normative boundaries be shifted.




[1]In ‘What is Enlightenment?’ Kants says, “For this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom, and indeed the most harmless among all the things to which this term can properly be applied. It is the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point.“ In this context, Montag says, “entirety. We may see clearly why he prefers Kant and Mill to Hegel and Marx. The latter’s insistence that imperialism, war and periodic crisis were necessary attributes of capitalism makes it far more difficult to repress the reasons why so many millions of men and women fought for socialist revolution as the only alternative to barbarism.” (143)


2 See Montag 141.


3 Calhoun says, “Accepting the disharmony of much of capitalist civil society, the liberalism they [John Stuart Mill and other nineteenth century liberals] developed sought protections and ameliorations, relative not perfect freedom…The key issue they confronted was how to maintain the virtues of public life while its size increased and composition changed.” (20)


4 Refer to http://people.bu.edu/jschmidt/enlightenment/clark.pdf


5 The illustration can be accessed here: https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/coffeehouse-mob-edward-ward-vulgus-brittanicus-1710-0


6 Paul Hammond highlights that these lines “though present in the manuscripts which preserve the poem as it first circulated in 1676, these lines are omitted by the printed texts from the reign of William III.” (39)


Works Cited

Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele. The Spectator. Ed. Henry Morley. 3 vols. London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1891. Print.

Alway, J. “No Body There: Habermas and Feminism.”Current Perspectives in Social Theory 19 (2000): 117-41. Web.

Cowan, Brian. The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. Londo: Yale UP, 2005. Print.

Clark, Emily, ed. ““A Character of Coffee and Coffee-Houses” Published 1661 for John Starkey.” (n.d.): n. pag. Http://people.bu.edu/. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.

Ellis, Markman. The Coffee-House: A Cultural History. London: Phoenix, 2004. Print.

Hill, Mike and Montag, Warren. “Introduction: What Was, What Is, the Public Sphere? Post-Cold War Reflections.” Masses, Classes and the Public Sphere.London: Verso, 2000.  132-145. Print.

Hammond, Paul. The Making of Restoration Poetry. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Google Books. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

Kant, Immanuel. “What Is Enlightenment?” Www.columbia.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Marvell, Andrew. The Poems of Andrew Marvell. Ed. G.A. Aitken. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1898. EBooks@Adelaide. The University of Adelaide. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

McDonald, Holly. “Social Politics of Seventeenth Century London Coffee Houses: An Exploration of Class and Gender.” Grand Valley State University ScholarWorks@GVSU. Grand Valley State University, 4 June 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.

Montag, Warren. “The Pressure of the Street: Habermas’s Fear of the Masses.” Masses, Classes and the Public Sphere. Ed. Mike Hill and Warren Montag. London: Verso, 2000.  132-145. Print.

Pincus, Steve. “”Coffee Politicians Does Create”: Coffeehouses and Restoration Political Culture.” The Journal of Modern History 67.4 (1995): 807-34. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.


Arpit Kumar has just completed his MPhil dissertation from Delhi University, working on the multifarious notions of publicness and their relationship to the circulation and dissemination of the arts in the European long eighteenth century.


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