Was the blogosphere born in the French Enlightenment?

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My friend, Anaïs Saint-Jude, sent me the link for this short piece, which brings the noble trade of blogging into disrepute.

Robert Darnton compares today’s blogging with what he considers an early-modern precursor, the “nouvelliste“:  “Gossip mongers who worked oral circuits of communication were known as ‘nouvellistes de bouche.’ When they reduced news to written anecdotes and strung the anecdotes together in manuscript “gazetins”, they graduated into the ranks of ‘nouvellistes à la main.”’

A couple samples of the genre:

The prince de Conti was knocked out of commission by a girl known as the Little F…..He blames it on Guerin, his medical advisor.

The duc de … surprised his wife in the arms of his son’s tutor. She said to him with an impudence worthy of a courtier, “Why weren’t you there, Monsieur? When I don’t have my esquire, I take the arm of my lackey.”

Well, of course I’d argue that not all blogging is of the scalding political kind, and not all of us are boiling scurrility and celebrity into one nasty soup.  Some of us politely exchange views about Tolstoy or Stendhal over our Limoges teacups.

Still, it’s reassuring that the much-ballyhooed breakdown of civility did not begin last year, despite the sanctimonious pronouncements of politicians.

The aptly named Amanda French, commenting on Darnton’s article, did her own research on the salon and journal culture of early 19th-century Paris – a bit later than the nouvellistes, admittedly – and was struck by this comment from the noted saloniste Delphine de Girardin, which she translates for us:

Finally, they say, “It’s hard to make a name for yourself in Paris.” Lie! Nothing is easier today. Published every morning, printed every week are a hundred enemy journals and twenty rival reviews that do nothing but talk, and which esteem themselves only too happy when you want to furnish them with some amusing pages for nothing, giving them the chance to say something a little malicious about their enemy while you show off. Nothing is easier for a young man of talent than to make a name in the journals. Ask rather about these old journalists without talent who are so celebrated.

“Boy, did that remind me of the blogosphere,” she writes.

But Darnton implies that these pre-bloggers were more than lazy gossip mongers. They may have lit the match that sparked the revolution:

“The anecdotes constituted the early-modern equivalent of a blogosphere, one laced with explosives; for on the eve of the Revolution, French readers were consuming as much smut about the private lives of the great as they were reading treatises about the abuse of power. In fact, the anecdotes and the political discourse reinforced each other. I would therefore argue that the early-modern blog played an important part in the collapse of the Old Regime and in the politics of the French Revolution. …

“I don’t believe that history teaches lessons, at least not in a direct, easily applied manner, but it does raise questions. Are blogs disrupting traditional politics today just as ‘libelles‘ did in eighteenth-century France?”

Over our teacups, we might point out – delicately of course – that Darnton himself is writing on a blog, denouncing the art of the blog from the blogosphere.  In fact, he himself realizes the irony as he pens his piece on the New York Review of Books blog.

Read more in his book,  The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon.

And we’ll have more to say on this topic at the Book Haven in a few days.

Postscript on 10/30:  Dave Lull sent me this link from 2Blowhards on the coffeehouse culture: “I’m not the first observer of the web and of blogdom to be reminded of the 17th and 18th century coffee-house. ‘It’s open! And everyone is having a say!’ – the parallels between now and then are striking. Even so, I haven’t yet run across a brief blog-intro to coffee-house culture. What was this coffee-house phenomenon about anyway?”  Check it out.


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