The Public Sphere, Media, and the Politics of Reading

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractAcademic


    In my talk I will present the research design for my current project on the reading public. Few books have summoned a reading public on the scale of Native Son (1940), the first novel by African American author Richard Wright. My project explores—in the jolt created by a single novel in the readership of its time—the power of literature involved in generating that institutional space of the public sphere on which democratic societies crucially depend. Furthermore, in extending on Jürgen Habermas’s notion of readership as a key constituent of the public sphere, it proposes that media, like readers, are shaping agents in this process in ways that merit renewed exploration.
    Native Son is ideally suited to study the U.S. public sphere, which from its inception did not aspire to an ideal of consensus, but instead relied on a system of checks and balances. The resulting pluralization of the public was inflicted with the fact that a large part of the population was enslaved. The reading public had long been exposed to this reality, not least through the many slave narratives brought into circulation by the abolitionist movement. But with the publication of Native Son at the end of the depression era, pressure on the predominantly white, bourgeois public sphere gained a new quality, which I approach as the product of an unusual degree of synchronization between the literary field and the public sphere.
    Three factors were crucial in the making of this constellation: Wight’s rejection of the aesthetic categories of the Harlem Renaissance (widely accepted by the black reading public) to shock his white readers; his mutual endorsement of political activism (he was a card-carrying communist) and celebrity authorship (with large stakes of visual media); and the multi-media-network engaged in proliferating his reading public on a national and global scale. This public was pluralized (and in part segregated) along lines of race and class, but pluralization was not yet propelled by the identity-political engine of the post-Civil Rights era. My project thus examines an exemplary moment in the transformation of the public sphere when pluralization and politicization worked hand in hand.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 2017
    EventResearch Seminar American Studies - Research Center for the Americas, University of Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands
    Duration: 13-Dec-2017 → …


    SeminarResearch Seminar American Studies
    Period13/12/2017 → …

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