Public Opinion – a brief, gnostic history

P.S. is a 42-year-old man who has been affected by paranoid schizophrenia since the age of 20. At the onset of his psychosis, he was trying in various ways to compensate for his difficulties in getting in touch with other people. He had no secure ground to interpret the others’ intentions. He lacked the structure of the rules of social life and systematically set about searching for a well-grounded and natural style of behavior. For instance, he was busy with an ethological study of the “biological” (i.e., not artificial) foundation of others’ behaviors through a double observation of animal and human habits. The former was done through television documentaries, the latter via analyses of human interactions in public parks. An atrophy in his knowledge of the “rules of the game” led him to engage in intellectual investigations and to establish his own “know-how” for social interactions in a reflective way. – Giovanni Stranghellini, At issue: vulnerability to schizophrenia and lack of common sense (2000)




Consensus omnium, common sense and public opinion all exist as separate tracks through the intellectual history of the West – and each trail can be superimposed upon the other.

Early on, in Klaus Oehler’s definitive essay, Der Consensus Ominium als Kriterium der Wahrheit in der antiken Philosophie (1963), there is a quotation from Hesiod. The line quoted comes from the section of the poem devoted to “Days”, with its sometimes obscure reference to work, luck, gods and the days of the seasons.  The line, 760, goes: … and avoid the talk of men. For talk is mischievous, light, and easily raised, but it is hard to undo it. Talk is never completely lost, which has been in the mouths of the many. For talk is itself a God.” Talk, here, is not logos, but pheme – which, as Jenny Strauss Clay points out in Hesiod’s Cosmos, is the antithesis of kleos, that is to say, fame: “kleos is to be heard about, pheme is to be talked about.” This enduring couple still presides, in all their debased divinity, over the newspaper and the news and entertainment channels. They are structured by what is likely, or plausible. Only scandal breaks the dome of plausibility – it lets in air, it lets in horror, it lets in real life, that is, the margin that always escapes generalization.


The plausible as a category (whether epistemic or, what, ontic? From belief to the believable?) concerns the heart of Oehler’s theme. As he points out, Plato’s antipathetic stance regarding opinion – endoxe – is countered by Aristotle’s respect for it. “The positive value of general opinion is, as well, the ground for Aristotle’s preference for commonplaces [Stichwoerter]. It is said that in the peripatetic school, under his direction, a wideranging collection of commonplaces was made.” Furthermore: “… This preference of Aristotle … rested on the matter of fact that in commonplaces the infinitely rich experience of many races was documented in a unique way in brief and trenchant formulas, which is the way the Consensus omnium expressed itself.” [106]

One of the sources of Oehler’s interpretation of Aristotle comes from a fragment, preserved by a latter philosopher, Synesius of Cyrene, in a work boasting the comic title, “In praise of baldness”: “But how could it [common places] not be a [form of wisdom] concerning those things about which Aristotle says that when ancient philosophy was destroyed in the greatest cataclysms of men, the things left behind were preserved because of their conciseness and cleverness.” The mark of fire on the commonplace, the proverb – this is a rich image indeed, and has been the best friend of novelists since Don Quixote. In Bruegel’s painting, Flemish Proverbs, the metaphors contained in sayings are given literal pictorial space. The blind in Bruegel do lead the blind into a ditch. The painting is also known by another title: The World Reversed. The contrast between those two titles already speaks of an alienation from the common place – here we have the seed of what will later become critique in “modernity”.

If Aristotle’s notion of past cataclysms, in which the only fragments of science that survive are common places, is taken modally, that is, is taken to mean that the possibility exists that even the present order, or any order, can be destroyed in the same way, we have the steps leading to the Stoic notion of the eternal return of the same, and a strong tie between that idea and the proverb, or adage: the word in the mouth of all, which returns again and again.  The humanists of the Renaissance, with whom Bruegel associated, felt a strong kinship with the Stoics, in whom they saw the brilliant reflection of ancient wisdom and a certain dovetailing with Christian theology. The Stoics were, as well, an escape from the Aristotle of the schools – from which the humanists were in flight.  In Christian teaching, the apocalypse only happens once and for all: but that apocalypse is trailed by a history of fallen kingdoms, as given in the Old Testament.

Bakhtin, in  Rabelais and His World, borrows (although not literally – Bruegel is curiously unmentioned in Bakhtin’s work)  the Inverted World of Bruegel as a clue to what happens when a novelistic intelligence – one that can hear the Other in the speech of the other, endlessly and even in one’s own speech – comes into contact with the linguistic correlative of the carnivalesque: the coinages of the people in the marketplace, their proverbs, insults and swear words, where the Other in the speech of the other has become stony, bonelike – too explicative. In this regard, there is something metaphysically opportune about Aristotle’s view of the broken wisdom of the people emerging in a tract “in praise of baldness”. As Bakhtin points out, the carnival attaches to physiognomies, to noses, chins, Falstaffian bodies, big ears, etc. In the world of jokes, baldness has a definite place of honor.

It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – during the Baroque – that slang emerged in the books, became the tool of writers. Cant words and latin tags were part of the trove carried about by poor, lusting priests and perpetual students. This was the other side of the fragmented wisdom that had escaped the cataclysm. Daniel Tiffany has pointed out, in his marvelous book, Infidel Poetics: riddles nightlife substance, that slang and slum etymologically are themselves product of slang – slum entered into the language as a slang word denoting slang. Tiffany’s term, nightlife, points to the urban locale in which this culture was born. Peasant speech was simply, to the urban intellectual, unintelligible. Moliere’s Don Juan  made great fun of peasant French. Shakespeare’s clowns – from colonnus, to cultivate the soil – are distinguished by their speech patterns too, although Shakespeare was not into dialect humor like Moliere was, or Rabelais. When Dostoevsky was deported to Siberia for revolutionary activities, he began a notebook in his labor camp in which he wrote down the songs, catchphrases and proverbs of the other prisoners. Later, he used this material in his semi-fictious memoir, Notes from the House of the Dead.  Even Solzhenitsyn, no romantic admirer of thief culture, devoted some pages of the Gulag Archipelago to the poetics of thief’s cant. How could he not? It was Pushkin himself, the supreme instance for every Russian writer until recently, who used thieve’s cant in The Captain’s Daughter, thus creating another site, this one in language itself, of struggle between the legitimate and the illegitimate, between the authentic and the pretender, the real and the fake.

Cant is the ruses of reason elevated to a sub-language, caught in the mouths of rogues and meant to be obscure to all outside a certain sub-society. Yet in fulfilling the function of allowing members to communicate and obscuring communication with others, cant is only one of a species of jargons. There’s a parallel between thief’s cant and the jargon we are familiar with from academics, politicians, and all makers of “public opinion” – phrases that automatically pop up wherever dinner tables become arenas of political discussion – or even the discussion of entertainment.

But where does this conventional wisdom, with its language and conceptual limits, come from? Like rumor, popular opinion appears to be a mysterious social phenomenon, an epidemic of beliefs. Unlike rumor, though, public opinion  started out not as an oral phenomenon, not as what was being said in the supposed crowd, but as a written one. It grew into a semi-institution in correspondence with the growth of the bourgeoisie. Materially, that correspondence was about newspapers: not only what was written in newspapers, or pamphlets, but in the connection between the accelerated power of the printing press – the use of steam power, for instance, exponentially raising the ability of a newspaper press to produce sheets – and the written, the need to ride those blank sheets of paper, to fill them with words and pictures.   

Structurally, our thesis looks like this: the pair pheme/kleos presides over the objects of the news, the commonplace presides over the form. It is the style of the cliché, the proverb, the wisdom of mankind – the conventional wisdom of the moment. The duality of fame and infamy, expressed in cliché, is precisely the form of ‘betise’ that a certain school of modernist writers – Flaubert, Bloy, Peguy, Kraus, Tucholsky, Mencken, Orwell – took as their ultimate enemy, as the cataclysm under which wisdom, some essential relation to truth, was buried. In this way, public opinion became the weapon not of the slave uprising, but the slave catcher. For the latter, too, has his sayings. And he relies on the idea that consensus is better than truth – a substitute for it that allows for a slant that is rarely straightforward lying, but rather a means of clouding any method for finding out what the larger facts of the matter are, the air of the factual in which facts “live”.




“Such a book, such a problem has no hurry: on this question we are both friends of lento, myself as well as my book.” So wrote Nietzsche in the preface to Dawn.

Lento, of course, is the opposite of the speed at which, supposedly, both Fama and the mass media moves. In fact, Nietzsche was dead when his books – especially Thus spoke Zarathustra – began to move at a much faster speed. A sort of legend claims that 150,000 copies of Zarathustra were produced for a special field edition in World War I, thus introducing a generation of German soldiers to Nietzsche as a German thinker next to Goethe and Luther – Goethe’s Faust and Luther’s Bible being the other books put out by this soldier’s press. A Nietzsche scholar, Richard Krummel, has recently suggested that this legend was based on some misunderstood remarks in certain memoirs of the war.

Nietzsche, of course, took Fama’s course and  spoke, in his books, in many voices and tempos. He spoke in presto as well, showing a marked preference for images of lightning strokes and dynamite, and for “arrows” – aphorisms that were launched at great speed. Lento is definitely related to Nietzsche’s fascination with “great events”, events that unfold over thousands of years – as he supposed the uprising of slave morality had unfolded. However, there is a sense in which presto and  lento are not, in fact, opposites, but express two aspects of that characteristic of modernity – the simultaneity impressed upon modern societies by mass media. The mass medias may have interpreted themselves from the beginning in terms of acceleration. And yet they have also interpreted themselves from the beginning in the rhetoric of what Marx called the “middle class prophets” – those who prophesize that the world market and global capitalism are the end of history. “The observation that free competition=the last form of the development of the forces of production and thus of human freedom means nothing more than that the domination of the middle class is the end of world history – clearly a pleasant thought for the parvenus of the day before yesterday.” [Grundrisse]

It is hard, maybe impossible, to date a tempo. But one can make an at least symbolic case that modernist presto began on November 29, 1814, when the Times of London installed a Koenig press, which harnessed steam power to the old manually driven iron printing press and could print 1,100 one sided sheets per hour. John Walter unveiled the press with typical capitalist panache by firing his crew of manual pressman, telling them that “if they were peaceable, their wages should be continued until similar employment should be procured.” (The North American miscellany, 1851).

The faster machines made the newspaper, like the railroad, one of the avatars of the industrial experience. Being able to produce more newspapers meant extending the circle of newspaper sales; it meant changing the ‘turnover’ time of the newspaper, which could not only come out daily, but could compete over different segments of the day – as morning, afternoon and evening papers appeared. And the change in turnover time meant that news would have to be produced. The new would now be on the assembly line.


Public opinion has ancient roots, but it is a modern phenomenon, distinct from the forms of opinion that were dealt with by the governing class in those epochs, those thousands of years, where the oral transmission of information was dominant, and the book or scripture struck awe partly due to its rarity, and to the selection process that allowed a small number of figures to both write and read. The term itself seems to have emerged in the eighteenth century. Rousseau used the phrase in his Letter to D’Alembert on theater, but Rousseau scholars (for instance, Colette Ganochaud) have traced, in his work, a rich line of thought in which, on the one side, the Platonic view of opinion as half-truth finds its voice, making it a means of corruption, and on the other side, a proto-sociological view that sees in public opinion the non-governmental force that upholds the spirit of the republic. Public opinion thus defines the threshold between the savage solitary and the civilized subject, with a full consciousness of the costs of never, ever lighting out for the territory again. The most fascinating instance of Rousseau’s use of the term is in his Letter to D’Alembert on Theater (spectacles), in which Rousseau polemicizes against D’Alembert’s suggestion, in his artlcle on Geneva in the Encyclopedie, that the town should abolish its legal sanctions against theater and build one. This is one of the crucial, overlooked documents of modernity – overlooked because the semiosphere put into place over the 18th and 19th centuries, and become our second ecology in the 20th, is so overwhelming that it is hard to see it. Rousseau practically invents, here, a sociological view of view of social cohesion and its elements, and in doing so points to the vast number of social links that are changed by the introduction of other medias – of what one might call media conditions. The conditions of entertainment, from spectacle to literacy to an image-bound culture that penetrates every household, and even the most private dreams. Rousseau saw this was coming, and didn’t like it. Or sometimes didn’t like it. And we concentrate on whether Rousseau was a prude, or a puritan, instead of the creep of the total system that Rousseau caught a glimpse of  – and which was seen, after him, by every lively spirit in modernizing societies, from Marx to Dostoevsky to Nietzsche to the Ghost Dancer of the Seven Council Fires on the Great Plains, and so on – from Siberia to Patagonia.  D’Alembert’s side, of course, won, and it won in D’Alembert’s spirit, where every technique and art is thought of absolutely in terms of itself alone, its particularity, its “cool”, and its insertion in the socius is treated not as a matter of the whole constitution of the socius, but as a matter, essentially, of engineering and infrastructure. That the links reach outside the media is an externality we can worry about later, until we don’t see it at all. Society is the plug and play platform where we can all watch our video games in an infinite pursuit of happiness – or we can publish our internet zines. The choice both is and isn’t ours.

Rousseau’s vogue at the end of the 18th century was vast, as has been pointed out by all the historians, who draw various moral lessons from it. It was from Revolutionary France that the term “public opinion” spread elsewhere. Christian Garve, a German Aufklärer, wrote in On Public Opinion (1798) that the concept had come from France and been received in the high-fever philosophical community in Germany. This is how the concept entered into the higher spheres of idealist philosophy, most notably with Hegel.


In the 1850s, a critic, Alfred Strahl, noted a failing in a recent guide to Jena:


The writers, two Jena Residents, describe the accidents, fires, murders and deaths that happened in every street and square, and even specific houses, from the oldest times to the newest; but pass over in silence the houses in which Schiller and Humboldt, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Voss and Schlegel lived. A sad sign of how these names are disconnected from the consciousness of the people…

Which is a good citation to put into perspective the intellectual history line we are pursuing. All these heads, these thinking heads.

Hegel began to play with the meaning of public opinion in his early Jena writings. The phrase crops up in a significant context in the series of lectures he gave in 1805, which  were collected after he died. Hegel, like Fichte and Schelling, had taken up the cumbersome habit of baking the biggest philosophical cakes, into which one could stuff all sciences and history, with a little bit left over for the angels above.  Jena was a small university town, a “lovely mad nest”, in Goethe’s words, close to Weimar, and often lived in by the Sturm und Drang set, as well as by philosophers driven mad by Kant – most notably, Fichte, who’d been deprived of his professorship in 1799 for his supposed atheism. Fichte knew that the real reason was his supposed sympathy with the French revolution – he was suspected of being a “democrat”, and he surely was a nationalist – supporting the notion that all the little duchies and kingdoms be conglomerated into one glorious German nation. The rulers of the duchies and little kingdoms were not amused.  Fichte thus left Jena for Berlin. Schelling, Hegel’s ally and target, seducer and enemy, was teaching there, but he left in 1803. Hegel, by force of these subtractions, became the leading philosophical light. Jean-Paul noted, in 1808, that one could be born anywhere – say, in Bethlehem – but for the care and education of genius, a special atmosphere was required: which is how Weimar became the home of poets and Jena the home of philosophers. But in 1808, Jean-Paul’s remarks were out of date. The World-Spirit, at least as it resided in the crania of the philosophers, was on the move.

In the lectures, Hegel makes some play with the word “opinion” – Meinung. It is an old humanist habit, playing with the words one uses in philosophy, and Hegel was no exception – he read “opinion” in the light of Mein – of mine – and inferred some conclusions from that: for instance, how individualism and opinion are related.

The liberated commons is the point of individuality; this, freed from the knowledge of the All, is an immediate, a natural element, not constituted by the All. This is an extreme pole of the government , it is the hereditary monarch. It is the firm, immediate knot of the whole. The spiritual bond is public opinion, which is the true legislative body. National assemblies…, declarations of the popular will, associations, progressive laws, are unnecessary artifices.

The family tree I am presenting forks here. Marx, while casting off so many Hegelian positions, inherited the Hegelian notion of political institutions as “unnecessary artifices”, in comparison to his own re-formulation of public opinion, structured by the class violence and the opposition between country and city. It is for this reason that politics, the taking of power, happens outside of these institutions [although of course this is seeing Marx in the light of his systematic works – in the light of his journalist work, it is quite another story].  Similarly, the great German and Austrian critics of the media saw the importance of their object in the light of the power of public opinion.  It is, to give a modified Sonderweg interpretation of it all, the great German intellectual weakness, shared by both the left and the right. And it is strongly echoed in the Russian experience. To me, these historic trajectories eerily trace out a third worldist course long before the third world was a gleam in Fanon’s eye.

It is against this spirit that the French and Anglosphere political cultures look somewhat similar. While both, of course, depended on slave labor abroad (or, in the U.S., in the South) for the purchase of a distinct political sphere at home, each identified the state not with public opinion, but with its representation in the complex of state institutions.

This is not to disembed those institutions from the opinionmakers, the governing class, but to locate its relationship with the institutions and material arrangements of that class. The nation-making point was to create a consensus large enough, strong enough, formal enought that the state could identify with it, could even be it, enduring through geographic and ethnic changes. The people are not an organic concept, but a rational one – not a race, but citizens. In the liberal order, there is a political charge to the “plausible”, which is at much at the center of politics as it is at the center of realist novel or film. Recognition is, here, a soothing shock – for conflicts will eventually converge on consensus. The eccentric, the large classes of the marginalized, will either assimilate or remain forever the “underclass”, but to the extent that they assimilate they will adopt the same standards of plausibility as the rest of us.

Neoliberalism, which has worked to strip the economic sphere of “interference” by the state and make the market the central model of social life, has clung with all its might to consensus, to a credentialing order. Hence the neurotic obsession in the neoliberal era with polls. What neo-liberalism has missed is the dynamics of dissensus, as the social is shifted to the economic, for it does, indeed, strip away the old institutions as “unnecessary artifices”, leaving the citizen in a cold, direct relationship with the reality of power. This, in turn, encourages a doubt about purposes, about one’s enrollment in the system. What is the “system” for? Who is it for? The answers can’t be hauled up from the well of our collective consciousness by a poll, since the poll’s preset questions represent the spectrum of the plausible, of common sense, which is just what is being put in question.  These, my companions of this long strange trip, are not questions that can be answered with a little nudgery.












I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.
About Roger 78 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.