The Origins of the Modern Public, Parts 1-14 (Listen)

Publicity was once the exclusive property of men of rank. They alone, by virtue of their stations, could make things public. During the 18th century it became meaningful to talk about “public opinion” as something formed outside the state. Today anyone with a Twitter account can make a public. In this series IDEAS producer David Cayley examines how publics were formed in Europe, between 1500 and 1700, and how these early publics grew into the concept of “the public” that we hold today.

All of us today participate in imaginary communities that we call publics – our Ideas broadcast assembles a virtual community of listeners – a listening public. But there was a time when making things public was the exclusive property of men of rank. Matters of state, Queen Elizabeth I proclaimed to her subjects in 1559, were fit to be treated only by “men of authority” and conveyed only to audiences of “grave and discreet persons.” By the 18th century it had become meaningful to talk about public opinion as a sovereign power formed outside the state. What happened in the intervening years to make this revolution possible is the subject of this Ideas series.

It draws on the work of an interdisciplinary group of Canadian and American scholars, who for the last five years have been engaged in a research project called Making Publics. Centred on McGill University, the project’s field of study has been England and Western Europe during the period that scholars now call the early modern, or roughly 1500 to 1700. Its aim has been nothing less than a new view of where the public comes from, and how publics are composed. This attempt to re-imagine the modern public is what will occupy us during the 14 episodes of this series. The individual programmes will range over the revolutions that shaped early modern life – the Reformation and the printing press, the expansion of markets and the rise of the nation state – and over the new kinds of publicity, and of privacy, that they made possible. They will examine how specific arts and sciences formed publics – the new public theatres in Elizabethan England are an example – and they will look, finally, at the implications a new understanding of publics might hold for another world in upheaval – our own. Ideas producer David Cayley has been following the work of the Making Publics project from its inception.

Listen here!

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