Andrew Calcutt, November 2009
Changing The Subject
The gentleman is said to distinguish himself by an (unwritten) code of behaviour in which self-interest and common interest are marvellously integrated: allegedly, the gentleman does right by all who are present, without doing himself down; indeed his capacity to serve self-interest and common interest simultaneously, is his proof of status.
Ever since the original conception of the gentleman’s persona (part-fact, part fiction) alongside the magazines which represented him, it has been the promise of the gentleman that there need be no conflict in society; that rational human beings can come to the table and work out a future for the civilisation they share. Again, this is consistent with Obama’s pitch to the American electorate, and to the world beyond the United States. In this respect, Obama’s election marks the return of the gentleman (appropriately enough, his image recently graced the cover of GQ ); and the aftermath of Obama’s election is a fitting time to return to the gentleman’s magazine, to reconsider the gentleman’s persona, and to re-position both of these in the historical development of modern media and society. These tasks are addressed in the following paper.
What are media for
Media mediate. That is, media establish a middle ground between disparate individuals, and in doing so they serve to connect readers, listeners and viewers with the world beyond them. Media typically perform this service by drawing down the outside world, packaging it and bringing it inside the domain of individual readers, listeners and viewers. Because of media, the whole world is being watched…by the whole world. Without media, the world and the people in it would be invisible, except for those people and that part of it which as non-readers, non-listeners and non-viewers we experience directly.
Thus media are the axis between individuals and the wider world made by other individuals who are not known to us individually. Different points on this axis are occupied by different media forms. Some points on the axis, and the media forms which correspond to them, are closer to particular groups of individuals and the relatively narrow range of their specific experience and interests. Other media forms have positioned themselves further along the axis of mediation between individual and society, sometimes with the aim (never fully realised) of encompassing the totality on behalf of a general readership.
Newspapers and Magazines
Among media forms that customarily appear in print, those oriented towards the generality of recently occurring events, are usually known as newspapers; those focussing on specific topics for particular readers are typically referred to as magazines. But the axis itself, and the take-up of positions along it, are subject to change over time. The factors which construct society and its individuals operate differently at different times, i.e. they are historically specific, from which it follows that neither individual nor society is fixed. It also follows that the axis of mediation between individual and society is no more and no less fixed than these polarities. Similarly, different points on this axis, and their corresponding media forms, may be more or less distinctive at various times.
For most of their history, magazines have distinguished themselves from newspapers by their orientation to a single topic and a select group of readers with an interest in it. Not that the range of topics covered by the gamut of magazines has been restricted; rather, each magazine from among the growing number of magazines has tended to restrict itself to a single, eponymous topic (from among a growing number of identifiable topics, concomitant with the diversification of human activity in modern times).
If all magazines were taken together, the subject matter of magazines in general would be as diverse as that of newspapers; but each magazine is devised not as a general compilation, e.g. the Universal Register, subsequently re-named the Times; rather magazines are receptacles (literally: storehouses) for various accounts of specific events and developments comprising a particular area of human activity, aggregated for the benefit of parties with a specific interest in that particular area, namely, readers.
The Line…and the Blurring of it
On this basis, the Times newspaper is readily distinguishable from the Church Times, a magazine for those interested in the Anglican church; or the Angling Times, a magazine for anglers (fishers but not of men). Similarly, the Press Association, an agency whose output is imported by newspapers and broadcasters in order to generalise and extend the range of their news coverage, is distinct from the Press Gazette, a magazine catering exclusively to news media professionals.
However, in the early days of English print media, the distinction between ‘newspaper’ and ‘magazine’ was neither widely made nor generally expected. Instead the terms were interchangeable, which is to say that they did not yet contain the distinguishing characteristics, one set against another, which each was soon to be associated with. Thus in 1828 the Spectator magazine declared itself a ‘newspaper’ with a remit for reporting on the widest possible range of all significant transactions. Likewise the Gentleman’s Magazine aspired to the breadth of coverage subsequently identified with newspapers.
Slippage between ‘newspaper’ and ‘magazine’ has remained the tradition at the Economist, which is referred to as a magazine by everyone except the staff who throughout its history have been obliged to call it a newspaper. Having been the exception for such a long time, however, the ambiguity of the Economist’s position now looks set to become more widespread.
After 150 years of segregation between newspapers and magazines, once again there is considerable overlap between them. Not only have erstwhile broadsheet newspapers moved close to the size and shape of magazines (Berliner, Compact), the bulk of their column inches has been re-arranged into a series of ‘supplements’ – magazines in all but name. Taken together, the volume of these supplements is tending to exceed that of the main paper, to the point where they can hardly be regarded as supplementary.
Moreover, many newspaper publishers are looking to digital technology to accelerate their convergence with magazines. The stream of proposals for the delivery of Me News – the aggregation of that which is of personal interest to individual readers, disaggregated from the glut of general knowledge – is a call for newspapers to be at least as selective as magazines. Except that even this degree of selectivity may prove insufficient. In their convergence around personalised selection, both newspapers and magazines are now responding to the aggregating capacity of internet search engines. These are derived from personal computing and designed to further personal interests. Thus the aggregates they produce are already intensely personalised, more so than either newspapers or even magazines have felt the need to be until now.
This essay addresses these anomalies. First, by advancing the proposition that English print media of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century were directed to and derived from a narrow group of individuals whose interests were remarkably wide – a group narrow enough to be a magazine readership but with horizons as wide as those of a newspaper.
Second, by indicating some of the social forces which from the mid-nineteenth century onwards served to distance private from public interests and led to their separate containment, for the most part, in magazines and newspapers respectively.
Third, by considering whether today’s media are oriented towards a much larger number of individuals whose range of interests is nonetheless smaller than the gentleman readers of the eighteenth century. This is to suggest that although newspapers and magazines may now be as close together as they were two centuries ago, today they are coming together at a different point on the axis between the interests of particular individuals and the attempt to represent society in general.
It is also to suggest that the media hybrids of today (half-newspaper, half-magazine; part-print, part-online) are addressing not only different individuals but also different expectations of the individual. Thus the human subject addressed by the Gentleman’s Magazine in the eighteenth century, was not the same kind of person as the subject hailed by GQ when imported from the USA and subsequently launched in Britain in 1988. This essay tracks the historical development of magazines by following their change of subject.
Eighteenth century readers of the Gentleman’s Magazine were different from their contemporaries. They differed in the development of their own kind of individuality; which was different again from individuality as it has subsequently come to be understood. They styled themselves ‘gentlemen’; and by this term they envisioned themselves as individuals with both private interests and shared responsibility for the common good. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they often defined the latter in accordance with their own collective interests.
That these individuals formed a cohort distinct from the overall population, anticipated the specificity of magazines and their dedicated readerships. On the other hand, the breadth of their interests, was in keeping with the all-encompassing scope of newspapers, with which the newspaper alone (not magazines) was subsequently associated. As yet, however, the relatively small number of readers (literacy being far from universal) saw no need to distinguish between these formats. In the period between 1688 (the Glorious Revolution) and 1848 (the political maturation of the working class in the form of Chartism), the widening horizons of this narrow group of individuals prompted them to demand a media form containing the combined elements of ‘newspaper’ and ‘magazine’, which came to be separated only later.
This cohort was accustomed to reading publications that simultaneously performed roles which were separated only subsequently, along with their respective print media forms. Until such time as this separation occurred, eighteenth English gentlemen comprised a particular kind of generalist addressed by a media form commensurate with the peculiarly expansive subjectivity of this minority of ‘gentle readers’.
What forced their expansiveness was the market. Not only the expansion of the market, which occurred at an unprecedented rate in eighteenth century England; more than that, trade as a way of life had a way of forcibly expanding the character of that life. The fortunes of these gentlemen depended on market exchange in which all goods were commensurate, i.e. measured and assessed, one against the other; similarly, the recurring patterns of the market economy had an equalising effect on everything which came into contact with them.
Whether shown in a shop window, or in the display cabinets of newly established museums, or on facing pages in the Gentleman’s Magazine, from the humblest vegetable to the most venerable artefact, all objects were now open to the scrutiny of this increasingly powerful merchant class. They made a living by applying this scrutiny in the marketplace; and they carried over the habits of their business life into the rest of their lives. Furthermore, other classes, their ideas and institutions, especially the aristocracy, church and monarchy, also became objects of scrutiny for these marketers. Soon the whole world was the object of their comparative analysis.
Just as the market was pitiless in comparing each commodity with every other commodity (it still is: the market must be single minded in comparing all commodities, since their value is but their comparative relation), so emerged the persona of the disinterested, but generally critical observer. Not that he was without his own interests; rather his interests depended on the comparison of objects according to their intrinsic merit and without prior preconceptions or bias based on pre-modern considerations such as family origins. The coming of this new subject was writ large in the title of the Spectator.
What first emerged as a widening circuit of commercial transactions was to be transformed into an even wider circuit of further transformation. As trade drew more goods into its expanding orbit, so it required more tradeable goods to enter circulation, which in turn prompted the expansion of production for exchange – commodity production – until this too became established as a constantly widening pattern. Thus it was that merchant capitalism gave way to industrial capitalism. Merchants were superseded by industrialists, the new subjects of a newly objectified world.
Whether merchant or industrialist, these were businessmen acting in pursuit of private interests. When in Britain (unlike France) it transpired that accommodating the aristocracy was the best way to do business, they duly reached a compromise, describing themselves as gentlemen and conducting themselves accordingly, at least in their relations with the nobility.
But the life of the gentleman was not reducible to private business. As production for exchange encompassed more people and more objects, in the process turning objects into subjects (it was as if commodities had a life of their own), while working people became mere objects in the production process, so even the working out of private, commercial interests obliged the English gentleman to keep pace with the widening range of human activity. He had little choice but to be concerned with particular developments in production and the way that these developments rippled out so as to affect production in general, including that part of it in which his interests were vested. Just as standards were set, and continually raised, in every branch of production and thus across production as a whole, so in reference to this totality there arose a social dimension to capitalist production, above and beyond the pursuit of private interests by means of market-oriented production. The gentleman had no option but to engage with this social dimension.
Moreover, this same gentleman was prompted to engage with the diversification of human experience by levelling every element within it according to common standards, just as he would evaluate each commodity on sale in the market according to its universal equivalent – money. Capitalism encouraged the comparison of all experience according to a common denominator; and it prompted the expectation that everything in the world is exchangeable for something else.
The further expectation that the world itself is an object exchangeable for another one just as soon as human subjects will have attained another, higher standard of production, was itself produced by the operations of private capital in its orientation to the market; yet at the same time it was integral to the idea of the public interest formed in eighteenth century England. The combination of interest (property) with the common properties of comparable, hence exchangeable commodities, produced a further kind of interest which was rooted in the property-owning individual but neither identical nor reducible to private interest or property ownership. This was ‘public interest’; and with this phenomenon at its forefront (part idea, part political practice, part economic relation), the social dimension originating in the expansion of market exchange and the development of capitalist production, began to take the form of modern politics.
The Contest for Common Standards
As production progressed, and as each product on the market was measured against standards applicable to all such products (the same), which standards were also progressively higher (constantly changing), so ideas and their implementation – what came to be known as policy – were measured against common criteria. Except that these criteria were openly contested, unlike those industry standards established beyond dispute by the unseen hand of market competition. The open space formed by gentlemen taking part in this contest was the public sphere. The struggle to set the standard, to establish criteria for the assessment of policy, the claim that our definition of these criteria serves the interests of the public, so that in our definition of it we ourselves come to represent the public interest – this battle of ideas was the blood and guts of that politics which emerged alongside gentlemen readers and the first professional journalists who wrote so that these gentlemen might read.
Variously described as newspapers or magazines, the publications of the day represented the dynamic relationship between private interests and the public interest. The latter was non-identical to the former; yet the pursuit of profit by private individuals was also a precondition for the development of public life and the further representation of public and private concerns in print publications.
Moreover, the overall dynamic in the relation between private and public was largely (by no means exclusively) in the direction of the latter; hence readers consumed what had been produced for public-ation; tellingly, this information was not said to have been produced for privatis-ation. Even business intelligence – information to be applied in pursuit of private, commercial gain – was to enter the public domain.
In its most vigorously expansive phase, capitalism forced the individual members of its eponymous class to look beyond themselves; and this direction of travel was represented not only in the publications of that time, but also in the development of publication itself
The window on the new world was provided by a new breed of writers. As the latter served readers who lived by their transactions, so these writers served and were themselves served by the transactions of the market. They were writers for hire; and in this respect they resembled the Hackney carriages (horse drawn taxis) to which they were soon being compared. Foremost among the fleet of hacks was Samuel Johnson, who famously declared that only a blockhead would write anything without being hired to do so.
Professional writers distinguished themselves from gentlemen who wrote either pamphlets to extend their political influence or treatises out of unalloyed interest in their subject matter, i.e. acting in the public interest on the basis of private income drawn from previously accumulated capital. Although the skills of their craft were highly developed, hack writers were equally distinguishable from the craftsmen who had previously lived by the patronage of aristocrats, the latter being as arbitrary (in their tastes, in their payments and in what they commissioned) as the market was now inclined towards standardisation.
The role of the hacks was to draw down the events of a newly accelerated world so that their gentlemen readers could go forward to meet it, equipped with prior knowledge of what had changed and how events were unfolding. The hacks found that demand for their work was expanding and accelerating along with the sphere of exchange and, latterly, production itself. As more new things happened, newness – news – came more to the fore.
For the new class, a new caste of scribes; and not only a new business model for publications – rather, there really was no model for publication until the expansion of business brought the public into existence, and with it the machinery for its transactions and transformations to be served by professional writers whose own commercial transactions, i.e. their personal income, depended on their ability to transform raw experience into cogent reports for public comprehension.
Thus the new writers were in every sense creatures of the market and its concomitant, the public. They encompassed both, and will have experienced the conflicting pressures of each; but at this point in the historical development of capitalism, there was no conceivable reason to assume that conflict between the two would prove intractable.
On the contrary, the political economy of the early nineteenth century, in which was represented both the emergence of the British capitalist class and the furthest development of its self-understanding, gave grounds for supposing that Homo Economicus – the capitalist persona projected onto all humanity – would succeed in directing economic expansion so as to reconcile conflicting interests. Not only demonstrated in Adam Smith’s account of The Wealth of Nations, this sort of supposition was also discernible in the everyday publications of the period, where, despite its connotations of polite society, the term ‘gentleman’ really served to translate Smith’s Latin (Homo Economicus) into the vulgate, i.e. the language everyone could understand.
Gentlemen, their publications, and their public role
Funded by profitable pursuit of his private interests, the gentleman nonetheless defined himself in his relation to society. Without society, he had no existence as a gentleman. Similarly, whether he read them in public (in the coffee houses of the early eighteenth century), or, latterly, in the privacy of his study, a gentleman’s publications addressed their readers as history-making subjects who would do more than mind their own business. Individual publications and even the process of publication itself, together served to remind the gentleman that he was obliged to engage with the public interest, or else his position as a gentleman would be called into question. These publications not only exhorted him to go public, in capturing the outside world on his behalf, they also enabled him to do so.
Financial collapse would lead to a gentleman’s ruin; but failure to participate in public life could be equally ruinous. To take no part was to be excluded from the stage; whereas readers of the Spectator and the Gentleman’s Magazine were much more likely to be included. In making and confirming connections between private interests and public roles, publications such as these worked towards the fulfilment of both.
There are numerous accounts of journalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that focus on the development of print technology and transport infrastructure, leading to a much higher volume of publication and a similar hike in the cost of entering the publications market. In this paper I shall abstract from these trends and their consequences, which is not to say that they are inconsequential; only that if this paper is to have any consequence it will derive from the specific attempt to reconstruct the subject of journalism. By ‘subject’ I do not mean subject-matter, but the kinds of person for whom successive kinds of journalism were intended; the expectations of journalism which such persons would have had; and the expectations of those readers or subjects on the part of journalists, editors and publishers.
In Britain the working class made its entrance into modern politics by means of Chartism, the concerted campaign for a Charter of equal rights, including the right to vote, to be extended across widening swathes of the general population. In its own terms Chartism was only partially successful; but aside from its specific demands it also succeeded in exposing the general contradiction between the particular interests of the capitalist class and the universal terms such as ‘public interest’, through which their specific interests were promulgated and pursued. In ideas and action, Chartism revealed the intractable contradiction between social production and private appropriation – both of them brought on by capital.
In its initial political struggle, the working class showed not that the subject of classical political economy was entirely a fraud; rather that Homo Economicus was insufficient, so that claims to the effect that this persona would suffice as the permanent subject of human, historical development, were indeed fraudulent.
From then on, being a gentleman became both insufficient and an overstatement. The latter, because in its erstwhile usage the term itself was now seen to have overstated the connection between private concerns and the public interest (insofar as these are connected, they were now revealed as contradictory also). The former, because even the most gentlemanly formulation of being a gentleman, Homo Economicus, was already seen to have failed in the attempt to resolve what had only recently emerged as full-blown class conflict.
Instead of the gentleman, the British capitalism moved to construct the Nation as the personification of history-making subjectivity; except that this personification was noticeably impersonal, abstracted from the individual men of whom the capitalist class was composed, and occasionally re-personalised as a woman, e.g. Britannia, or the French equivalent, Marianne. These feminine figureheads point to the emasculation of the gentleman.
While some aspects of the gentleman’s public role were made over to the nation and its state guarantor, in his private guise the gentleman was expected to become more of a recluse. This was the period in which the British ruling class began to retreat to country houses, not so much accommodating the aristocracy as aping an idea of them. Instead of removing aristocrats to the country, or exiling them to somebody else’s, or even chopping off their heads as in the French Revolution of 1798, the British capitalist class exiled its own private self to the country pile, in an explicit act of separation from the newly impersonalised subject that was to be the expanded nation state.
The subdivision of the gentleman was also the separation of culture from politics. Whereas the coffee house had been the place for the gentleman to conduct both of these at the same time as his business interests, now his cultural side was despatched to the country, while his political aspect was institutionalised in various state institutions. Only business was allowed to accompany him everywhere.
Accordingly, this was also the period in which magazines were clearly separated from newspapers. From now on, the former would normally serve personal interests; the latter would lead on affairs of state, i.e. matters of import to national institutions; and, appropriately enough, what soon became ‘the nationals’ were just as soon institutionalised as the leading newspapers and the most prominent publications of the day.
Newspapers went out in public, accompanying their readers on frequent journeys from home to business and back again. Meanwhile the home was indeed the natural home of many magazines. In that magazines were soon associated with domesticity, it is hardly surprising that magazines for women were quickly established.
Furthermore, that national newspapers were held in higher esteem than most magazines, is consistent with the relative social weight of the different roles allotted to men and women. Newspapers and their largely masculine readership existed on a higher plane, while proliferating magazines and the growing number of their readers, led by cohorts of women, were separately maintained at a lower level of social standing.
Thus was the gentleman subdivided, and both of his parts became something other than the composite whole which he had only recently represented. At home, the master of his own house was superseded by its mistress and her magazines Meanwhile state functionaries subsumed functions formerly associated with the public. The distance which arose between the separately functioning parts of the erstwhile gentleman was consistent with the degree of separation between newspapers and magazines, each inclined towards one or other of these increasingly dislocated elements.
Domesticating the Working Class
Among organised workers, not Nation but Class was often posed as the new subject. The prohibitive costs of printing voluminous broadsheets meant that indigenous working class publications which aspired to the universal condition of newspapers, would often appear in a smaller format by now more readily associated with magazines. On the other hand, when the capitalist class began to sell newspapers specifically to the working class, especially when many more workers became literate after the Education Act of 1870, these papers promised to cover everything but often appealed directly to women and the particularities of the domestic setting in which most women were usually to be found. Even when mass circulation papers did not do this explicitly, nonetheless they tended to address working class readers, men and women, in the guise of their domestic selves.
Thus during the disputes between capital and organised labour (management and workers) which characterised British society during the twentieth century, left-wing activists were quick to bemoan the influence of mass circulation newspapers: they recognised that these papers would address the worker first of all as a family man, thereby reducing the extent to which he saw himself as part of a militant workforce, and reinforcing the case for compromise with management in order to secure the family wage.
Similarly Sunday newspapers for working class consumption such as the News of the World (a title which claims to encompass the universal), nearly always led on domestic drama and appropriately claustrophobic violence. The News of the World prioritised only that part of the world which exists in the confinement of our homes. In cropping out much of the rest of the world, it also served to extract the idea of the working class as the potential subject, the main actor, in world affairs. Though the paper’s journalists would never have had reason to think of their activities in these terms, nonetheless they were complying with the interests of that other class which is unlikely ever to read the News of the World – the capitalist elite which claimed that its nation state was now the one and only history-making subject acting on everyone’s behalf.
From the point of view of the capitalist class, a working class which saw the whole world in domestic terms would be far more easily managed; even better if the working class saw itself in these terms also, far removed if not entirely separate from the capacity to make universal history in its own image. But the separation of workers’ domestic lives from their potentially politicised existence, was only a further degree in the process of separation which the bourgeois subject had already imposed upon himself. Responding to the emergence of the working class, the bourgeoisie subdivided its lifeworld and then imposed upon the working class an even more debilitating version of this same subdivision. Similarly, the separation of newspapers for working class readers from newspapers for the middle classes, was consistent with the earlier separation of magazines from newspapers – a separation which marked the subdivision of the bourgeois subject.
The recent trend for newspapers to become more like magazines cannot be comprehensively explained except by detailed reference to the pressures brought to bear on both by the advent of digital technology and the relocation of media content online. Within the confines of this paper, it is not possible to do justice to such developments. The narrow concern of this paper is the subject of magazine journalism, i.e. who it is for; and the forthcoming section serves to reconstruct the evolution of the person to whom new media hybrids are addressed. The suggestion is that the re-aggregation of newspapers and magazines is consistent with the recollection of public and private in such a way that the former is now oriented to the latter. This is also to suggest that when recalled in this way, public and private retain little of their original substance: they are indeed a distant recollection; yet they cannot but retain something of the social world which the addressees of today’s publications are obliged to inhabit.
Launched in Britain in 1988, the title GQ is a truncated version of Gentleman’s Quarterly. That a monthly publication could hardly describe itself as Quarterly, explains the abbreviation of this word to the letter Q. But what accounts for the surgical strike which transformed the expansive figure of the Gentleman into a single letter G Who was the gentleman amputee of 1988 How could it be that he was still important enough to remain in the title, but only in this drastically abbreviated form
The face of the launch edition (December 1988) was Michael Heseltine’s: former editor of 1960s gentleman’s magazine Town, successful magazine publisher, MP, Conservative cabinet minister, and bearer of a distinguished coiffure – part Presley, part public school, i.e. his hair was stuck up like Presley’s but frequently flopped over part of his face in a re-visitation of Brideshead. The cover line had him as ‘Britain’s Beautiful Bad Boy.’
The front cover of the debut edition also announced ‘The Death of the Honourable Englishman.’ So the birth of GQ (British edition) was also something of an obituary for the gentleman. Similarly, the appearance of Heseltine on the first front cover also turned out to be a fond farewell to the world of politics. With Heseltine fronting its first issue, GQ seemed to be suggesting that politicians inhabited the same world as its readers. But this was only a fleeting suggestion. In the following two decades there were no other Heseltines on the front cover. The recurring absence of political figures signalled a consistent lack of engagement with established, public life on the part of the magazine, and, presumably, on the part of the readers whose interests and engagements it was striving to represent.
Unlike their gentleman predecessors, the new subjects of GQ did not feel obliged to engage with the world of politics. GQ’s editors had but briefly acknowledged the original connection between publications and public life, before moving swiftly on to other, more private concerns.
The magazine Hello! also made its British debut in 1988. It was, as it is to this day, a picture book on the personal lives and domestic interiors of the rich and famous. When they set up shop in Britain, the owners of Hello! were following a format which they had already brought to fruition with the Spanish magazine Hola! Developed in a country where the public sphere had been forcibly removed by fascism under the leadership of General Franco, Hola! was renowned for exhibiting well known individuals as if they were exclusively private persons. The domestic focus of Hola! was consistent with its conservative, female readership and the peculiarly privatised society whence it came. That it translated so well into English in the late 1980s, becoming not just another women’s magazine but the template for the first wave of celebrity magazines in Britain, was consistent with the contemporary national trends towards privatisation.
In the late 1980s, at approximately the same time as the fall of the Berlin Wall and ‘the end of the end of ideology’, in the pages of GQ and Hello! much (if not all) of life was rendered into style; it was presented as style. Instead of the assumption that private individuals would always be gravitating towards public life, an assumption which also takes it that the existence of individuals is predicated on the prior existence of a wider, public world, in each of the ‘lifestyle’ magazines of the 1980s only that part of the world was deemed to exist which pertained to the particular form of privatised, individual existence specified in the magazine title.
To every magazine, a form of private existence; a lifestyle which the magazine existed to formulate. This was a popular version of the ideology of individuation – individualism – propounded at the time by the New Right and most succinctly put by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in an interview for Woman’s Own: ‘there is no such thing as society…only individuals and their families’.
While newspapers were expected to warn their readers of anything which menaced their individual lifestyle, magazines were called upon to represent its realisation. They were life-enhancing, with the proviso that the meaning of life was here restricted to the infinite extension of style. On the media axis, i.e. the line between individual and society drawn by media in fulfilment of their mediating role, the magazine had moved closer to a more privatised individual than any previous media form in the history of print publication.
That, like it or not, there really is a wider world beyond what little we might at some point choose to experience of it, meant that this kind of magazine was really plying its readership with fantasy. While the fantasy element was not new to magazines, its weighting seems to have increased in this period, along with increasing use of the epithet ‘glossy’ to describe magazines. This usage not only referred to the sheen of the paper they were printed on, but also referenced the expectation that magazines would gloss their subject matter so as to match the privatisation of their subject, i.e. it would appeal to the individualism of the particular people to whom each magazine was addressed.
The Public: can’t live within it; can’t live without it
Readers who were now seeing more of the world (their world) in increasingly privatised terms required publications to reinforce their modified subjectivity. Or perhaps their subjectivity was reconstructed at least in part by reference to the peculiarly privatised world now represented in magazines. Whether they are chicken or egg, magazines represent the reader to the world and vice versa. In the late 1980s, both parties had changed: the assumptions underlying the subject-matter of magazines became more privatised in accordance with the privatised subject of these publications.
Not that the privatisation of the subject was absolute; or else subjects would have had no further need of subject matter other than themselves; and media would be as redundant as mediation between individual and society. The Thatcherite declaration, ‘there is no such thing as society’, was itself a fantasy. Nonetheless, this was a time of ostentatious disengagement from ‘the God that failed’ – public life and the politics associated with it. In walking away from political parties, meetings, demonstrations and many other showings of public life, readers turning the pages of glossy magazines and relishing the acknowledged superficiality of ‘eye candy’, were also demonstrating the depth of their disengagement.
But who else would they be demonstrating this to, other than other people Discounting the possibility that we are never anything but narcissists, to display disengagement can only be to show some sort of interest in others and what they think of us as people who, in this instance, are demonstrably disengaged; and if interest in others is the unavoidable counterpart of self-interest, this too is bound to be expressed in media – the mediation between self and others. Even in the late 1980s when privatisation was at its most intense, coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the momentary triumph of Western capitalism, publications remained in some sense true to their word (and true, too, to the social character of the outside world). No sooner had magazines established themselves at a previously unknown point on the media axis, as close to the individual and as far away from society as possible, than they were striving to re-position themselves, further up the line once more.
Lads in the Gents
During the 1990s successive developments in magazine publishing expressed various degrees of frustration with privatisation and its genteel mannerisms. The first and most obvious of these was the lads’ magazine, led by Loaded (launched in 1994) and its in-yer-face editor James Brown, who blazed a trail followed by FHM (made over in a move away from gentility) and Maxim (moving part of the way back).
Loaded’s legacy extended to weeklies such as Nuts and Zoo (launched in 2004 to compete against each other), and subsequently a whole genre of magazines for young men featuring a combination of cars, girls and gadgets (known in the trade as ‘tits and tin’). Its influence was so extensive that founding editor James Brown was even invited to become editor of GQ, though he was soon removed from the rarefied offices of Conde Nast after a row over the appearance of German General Rommel on the magazine’s front cover. Even GQ’s remit for turning life into style did not extend to the stylisation of Nazis.
To its critics, the lads’ magazine replaced ‘wit and irony’ with ‘beers and leers’. Loaded railed against the domestication of men but could find no way of making this protest other than the celebration of male boorishness. The merit of the latter, as it appeared to its subscribers, can only have been that it was beyond the pale of debilitating domesticity. Thus Loaded mocked the gentility associated with ‘new man’, which in magazines such as Arena was taken to mean men getting in touch with their feminine side. But that was really new about men in Britain in the early 1990s, was not that they were becoming women, nor even, in Loaded’s terminology, that they were turning into a ‘big girls’ blouse’; instead they had lost their orientation to public life, and with it the ambition to be anything more than private individuals, preferably well-turned out.
Responding to this restrictive nature of newly privatised gentility, the subject of Loaded was wont to turn out in the best suits and be sick all over them. Loaded readers declared themselves to be Britain’s bit of rough. Yet if lad-ism positioned itself against the mannered quality of latterday gentleman’s magazines such as GQ and Arena, it was also directed against the amputation of the body politic, which had left the gentleman nothing more than the sum of his personal mannerisms.
‘You’re having a larff’, Loaded complained. But it transpired that putting a Nazi on the front cover of a style magazine would be the last laugh Brown was allowed to have against the shrink-wrapping of what it is to be a man (he was sacked from GQ and lost the limelight soon afterwards). Neither Loaded nor its creator was able to establish a new way of being a man, a different way of being human, or of once again being the autonomous subject of our own life-sentences. Loaded could only laugh loudly at the diminished gentlemen who populated the pages of established style magazines. Whenever they entered the room, lad-ism went off like a whoopee! cushion.
It is widely assumed that in their pantomime performance of masculinity, self-confessed ‘lads’ must have been lobotomised, at least temporarily. Yet lads’ magazines were also comic books for those who resented the privatisation of the gentleman, but could only position themselves as the mirror image of his recently truncated form. Loaded was anti-gentleman; GQ meant gentleman-lite. In their different ways both magazines represented the emergence of a diminished subject; a lesser kind of gentleman.
While Loaded was still rattling the bars of its playpen, the magazine industry was already looking elsewhere in an effort to escape the unsustainably narrow confines of extreme privatisation. In the attempt to bring the public aspect more to the fore of publications, major players adopted the strategy – or the rhetoric, at least – of reconfiguring their entire operations around brands. For readers and employees alike, the brand, this necessarily abstract entity, was to be the mechanism for establishing commonality beyond the variations of personal experience and individual interests. Surpassing the strictures of the personal, the brand would integrate personal values into something super-personal and beyond privatisation. Of course there were extensive profits to be made on the way, or so the brand strategists regularly reassured their finance directors; but eventually there would be not only guaranteed market share but a brand republic: a discourse between brands and those loyal to them, just as exchanges between publicly oriented human subjects had previously constituted the public. In this short-lived scenario, the subject of the new public was the brand.
In moving to this new campaign, however, publishers brought with them the weapons of the last war. Previously they had used style to rework life itself, making it over and making it out to be exclusively private. The content of those magazines in which social reality was re-made into a one dimensional-experience, was matched by singularity of form, i.e. all that they touched turned to style; and this turned out to be a double-edged sword.
When they adopted branding as the next big thing, like their counterparts in other areas of the corporate world, magazine publishers found that style was the single instrument left for them to work with. Even when it worked in its own terms, brand strategy could not but make brands more stylised, since style was the only language in which it could speak, even to the concern for commonality. Still worse, more stylisation, associated as it was with individuation, had the effect of undercutting the corporations’ own attempts to create commonality by means of the brand.
Not only in the milieu known as the anti-branding movement, but also in wider currents across society, magazine readers and other consumers were immediately suspicious of branding on the grounds that it was only more of the same superficiality. They had recognised for themselves that extreme individuation leaves the individual resting on the surface of society, with no way of entering further into it; and in brand-led consumption they saw little more than the continuation of this precarious confinement. Hence they have been largely impervious to its glittering charms. Ten years after, though magazine publishers are still investing in brand strategy, it has lost much of the high status which it enjoyed in the second half of the 1990s.
As the leading edge in magazine publishing, brands gave way to celebrity, though there was also a considerable amount of commuting between them. Brands were personalised by celebrity endorsement, while some celebrities became mere appendages to the branded goods they had endorsed. But even as brands corroborated celebrities and vice versa, celebrity magazines were changing. Led by Hello!, the first wave had only admired the rich and famous, inviting readers to ogle their domestic interiors and look favourably upon their private fortunes. Exclusive emphasis on private life, exemplified in publishers offering equally exclusive access to the private lives of featured celebrities, was new and attention-grabbing at the end of the 1980s. But by the end of the following decade, celebrities were not expected to be mannequins of domesticity that readers would gaze at admiringly, sitting in the privacy of our own homes looking at published photographs of celebrities sitting in the privacy of theirs. By now, celebrities were there to be talked about, criticised and even laughed at.
Heat, Now and other new magazines featured celebrities as damaged gods. Like the mythical creatures of pre-modern times, their social role was to prompt the stories we told each other about them, except that the tall stories told in the new celebrity magazines were of individual aspirations, idiosyncrasies and gross personal failings, not the fables of nature’s supremacy that comprised the oral history of pre-capitalism.
Moreover, as soon as readers’ horizons shifted beyond domestic interiors towards something other than purely privatised existence, the celebrity was more likely to be snapped in the street than in the home. When readers saw themselves represented in celebrities, and on behalf of readers the paparazzi contrived to document the seeing of celebrities in public places, so in this process these same readers were re-orienting themselves away from the private settings which they had previously pictured themselves in. Partly facilitated by the new wave of celebrity magazines, readers’ subjectivity was taking small steps along the media axis from privatised individual towards society and the public.
However, the route along this axis was by no means a one-way street. Perhaps the most talked about event of the late 1990s was the death of Princess Diana and the period of mourning culminating in her funeral. This sequence signalled that the human subjects then raising their eyes from the narrowest form of individuation were still not as outward-looking as the eighteenth century English gentleman. As already demonstrated in the wholesale rejection of the Conservative government and the election of New Labour just a few months earlier (May 1997), the widespread response to Diana’s demise was a turn away from privatisation towards something with a more public dimension. Yet just as the subjectivity expressed in these events was not the same as that of the eighteenth century gentleman, neither was the new public, if such it was, identical to the old one.
In its classical form, such seniority was attributed to the general public over private interests that particular individuals were expected, at least in theory, to suspend their particularity for the sake of general concerns. Hence the highest accolades were reserved for the distinctly public virtue of self-sacrifice, i.e. sacrificing the private self in the public interest. This had always been the stuff of what only now, in the language of New Labour, was dubbed ‘shared national experience’. But in dubbing it so, the stuffing was knocked out of it. Here the experience was no longer, for example, what British people had to endure collectively in order to arrive at the common goal of defeating the Nazis; instead, as demonstrated in the Diana phenomenon, the national experience was no more and no less than sharing emotion – the experience of experiencing feelings, or the experience of feeling the experience.
Another way of illustrating this contrast is to compare the most celebrated martyrs of these different ages and what, if anything, they died for. In 1805 Nelson inflicted a convincing defeat on the French navy at Trafalgar. He was shot and killed in action, and the message he signalled to the fleet immediately before the battle, ‘England expects every man to do his duty’, declared that every sailor could expect the same fate. Nelson had succinctly stated the pre-eminence of public over private life – even unto death. He died as he had lived, according to this message. Diana, by contrast, died by accident, although what she had lived by – the media and her celebrity – were perhaps complicit in bringing about the circumstances in which this fatal accident occurred.
Nelson died for the cause of the English gentleman, and these gentlemen celebrated him because of the nobility with which he represented what was to them the public interest. Diana’s death was causeless, arbitrary. Unlike the paparazzi who were vilified because they had a predatory interest in her, she had no palpable private interest; neither could her death be associated with the public interest. The moment of Diana’s death coincided with an historical moment in which established forms of private and public interest had been found wanting. Hence the widespread interest in Diana: she became a fable of the suspension of interest. In the Diana myth the legitimacy of private interests was called into question; likewise the validity of a public interested in anything other than coming together as a public, was also undermined.
However, if in this form of public experience there was little or no tangible objective other than the heartfelt expression of shared subjectivity, the subjects taking part in it were barely able to suspend their particularities even in the interests of generating a shared experience. In the week leading up to Diana’s funeral in September 1997, the people on the streets of London were more like an aggregate of individuals than a singular crowd. They were so wary of becoming as one, that even the flowers which they left at various Diana shrines to symbolise their shared empathy for her, remained personally, separately wrapped. Having baulked at suspending their singularity, these mourners remained as individually isolated as the flowers they had brought with them.
In Diana herself the new public saw itself reflected. She was the centre of attention, yet not a public figure in the classical sense. She held no public office; her roles had been domestic, yet public-facing. Before her engagement to the Prince of Wales, she was employed in an exclusive kindergarten which became the location for the iconic portrait of the nubile bride-to-be (in strong sunglight, the camera picked out the silhouette of her body inside the thin, cotton clothes she was wearing). Her own public position as a princess depended on her being wife and mother to a clutch of princes. During her separation from Prince Charles and after their divorce she came to personify palliative care as patron and ambassador for various charities. What society had consumed of Diana was not only her capacity to care but her capacity to show that she did. When she died, she became our way of showing that we did, too.
In the week before her funeral, the persona of Diana seemed to converge with the subjectivity of her mourners, as she became no longer entirely herself, but increasingly a construction of the new public. Just as the latter had little or no experience from which to conceive the traditional idea of the public and the subordination of the individual to public duty, in her estrangement from the Royal Family and its expectations of her, Diana was understood to have lived the same way. As Diana had struggled to retain her domestic self, so the new public was already domesticated.
In its adoration of Diana, the public was moving beyond the privatisation of the late 1980s while retaining much of its newly personalised character, even when seeking a public mode of existence. This meant that even when out in the street the new public would be looking homewards, as personified in Diana, Princess of the People’s Domesticity. We had opened the front door but instead of closing it behind us and stepping into the public sphere outside, we tried to bring the exterior closer to our domestic interior: perhaps the world might now be our verandah, or a marquee put up for an important family occasion. In mourning Diana it was momentarily possible to behave in these terms, to think that we were all one family, coming together beside the grave of a late lamented relative.
In posthumous media coverage of Diana, especially in those magazines which made frequent, almost constant references to her for years after her demise, it was possible to re-live that moment. Indeed the experience of shared experience which, for better or worse, really did occur in the week after Diana’s death, set the precedent for the ‘magazine moment’ which many publishers strove to capture during the decade after her funeral. This is what they aimed to offer to their reading public. However, in its domestic leanings, duly reciprocated by magazine publishers, the new public differed significantly from its predecessors. Though out in public, it gravitated towards a private persona, away from the external orientation of eighteenth century gentleman’s magazines, in which all trains of thought and routes of socially acceptable existence, even domestic ones, tended to culminate in outward-facing, public destinations.
For analytical purposes, this means that there are limitations to the idea of media serving as an axis between individual and society, with different media forms occupying different positions on this axis at different times. Though useful as a starting point, it is also a little too diagrammatic to capture all the dynamics involved in these relations. For as well as the position of subjects and the subsequent positioning of media forms on the axis between individual and society, there is also the question of which way the subjects, and the forms devised to cater for their subjectivity, are looking.
Even if late twentieth century celebrity magazines were found to occupy the same position on the axis as eighteenth century gentlemen’s magazines, their orientation to different horizons, public and private, would differentiate them nonetheless. In 1797, an age of unconstrained private interests, by definition the gentleman was nonetheless destined for the public interest; and his destiny was expressed in the publications he read. In 1997, the direction of travel previously pursued by gentlemen was personified, caricatured and even immobilised in the stiff upper lip of the House of Windsor. Small wonder that the new public preferred the plasticity of the Diana persona. The amplification of the personal, its projection onto a national and even global stage, is as close to going public as the new subjectivity was comfortable with at that time.
In some aspects, the recurring experience of coming together in remembrance of Diana anticipated the more recent coming together of users (the people formerly known as readers) as putative communities associated with particular magazines. Facilitated by the capacities of digital media, convergence around community is now, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, a priority among magazine publishers; yet this development is not explicable by reference to technology alone, any more than it can be put down to the influence of corporate marketing machinery upon a biddable readership. Insofar as this priority is coming to fruition, it does so because it gathers readers together to give them what they want: a forum in which to exchange their subjectivity.
Today’s readers do not want to be isolated or contained in the idea of themselves as consumers. The image of the magazine reader sitting on a sofa, alternately dipping into a box of chocolates and a packet of eye candy, i.e. a magazine, has also come to be seen by the industry as insufficient. Increasingly, magazines are in the business of offering community via the prior presentation of content, a sequence which also contains a commercial prospect in that readers/users, having been gathered together as a community, are themselves presented as a constituency to be addressed by advertisers, sponsors and various different kinds of retailers who may pay to gain access to them in the setting of their magazine.
The commercial players in this business model are as various as the different kinds of content capable of encouraging both casual and committed magazine readers to stick around long enough to become something like a community of users. But these variations need not concern us here. This paper is narrowly concerned with the subject, modified once again in accordance with the appetite for community formed in the act of exchanging subjectivity.
But what kind of community can be formed in this way? In many other instances, ‘community’ has really been the internal form of a boundary established by external factors. Thus in the pre-capitalist era, communities were constructed by the imbalance between frail humanity and the forces of nature – an imbalance of forces which severely curtailed the development of human subjectivity. Furthermore, the members of such communities were so enclosed by this boundary that they could hardly see beyond it, not even to the point of looking back at their situation and recognising it as community. Hence ‘community’ first emerged in the nineteenth century as a category to be applied retrospectively.
In modern times, similarly, the black community and the lesbian and gay community were in large part constructed by another, almost immovable force – none other than the nation state withholding democratic rights (the right to be a full member of the public) from non-whites and non-heterosexuals.
In recent years, while the oppression of minorities might be said to have become less explicit, the majority population has seemed envious of the familiarity between, for example, the brothers and sisters of the black community. In this recent context, both whites and blacks have shown signs of wanting to contract into some kind of community, up to and including the peculiarly provisional communities potentially formed around magazine titles.
But this kind of community is so provisional that it endures for just as long as its members (readers/users) are participating in the speech act of talking to each other. When the talking stops, the new communities dissolve and their erstwhile members disperse, often to participate in other, equally provisional communities. Such developments represent both opportunity and threat to magazine publishers.
Opportunity, in that it is relatively easy to attract the attention of readers and to claim that this constitutes loyalty on their part; moreover publishers can do this with a measure of confidence that would be untenable if there really were great causes for readers to be bound by. The absence of hard and fast boundaries is illustrated by the sudden slippage of ‘the war on terror’: the conviction it carried in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was soon lost along with the credibility of its commander-in-chief, George W. Bush. In a context where macro-allegiances appear as puny as this, micro-loyalty to a magazine may seem robust enough.
Threat, in that the insubstantial character of this loyalty contains the likelihood that readers will drift out of the magazine’s community at any, random moment. To minimise this possibility, even though they know it is also inevitable, publishers are obliged to do all they can to make their magazines as ‘sticky’ as possible.
Readers have to stick around long enough to become a community. In order for this to occur they will have to have become users rather than mere readers. As and when the formation of a community of users is seen to have occurred, the ‘eyeballs’ of community members can be sold on to advertisers or other sponsors.
Thus the existence of community becomes the commercial basis for magazines associated with it. According to this model, no community = no business. But this is not only a business model; it also implies the remodelling of magazine production, and the reconfiguration of the subject for whom the production process has been re-designed.
Lengthening an experience which begins with reading but is now bound to bleed into other ‘sticky’ activities online (commenting, chatting, comparing, buying) is in marked contrast to earlier modes of magazine production and consumption. Previously, the role of the media professional was to contract the relevant section of the outside world to such an extent that the reader could internalise it in the shortest possible time. A magazine’s success was measured by its compression: the more compressed, the higher the rating.
Magazines manufactured according to this criterion were produced for productive consumption: readers would need to have read the magazine in order to act effectively in areas away from but informed by the magazine’s contents. If they did not need to read a particular title for reasons such as these, then as like as not they had no need of it. Their media consumption was predicated on the expectation that they themselves would be productive elsewhere; their main areas of activity lay outside the magazine itself. They needed information about objects they did not already know, which category also included people they were not already familiar with, in order to move off the page and realise their capacity as active subjects.
Some of today’s magazines are still produced along these lines, e.g. the Economist; still more continue to be influenced by this sequence, while at the same time accommodating altogether different developments. These developments are now so advanced that a growing number of magazines is already employing a different mode of operation in order to address a different kind of subject.
In the revised set of relations between magazines and readers, the first thing that the latter expect from the former is to recognise themselves and others like themselves in it. Frequently, readers will have chosen a particular magazine largely because they see it as their reflection. This means that instead of telling them what they did not know, magazines are increasingly expected to tell readers what they are already familiar with. The people featured in these magazines will be the readers’ familiars: if culture were genetic, they would all be from the same gene pool.
Furthermore, with the advent of user generated content (UGC) these two cohorts may be so closely related as to be almost identical. At this point, the tendency is for the subject of magazines (who they are for) to become one and the same as their subject matter.
The take-up of UGC allows readers to present themselves to other, compatible selves, and to see themselves and their other selves represented. Although magazines have not yet become mere platforms for user-generated-content, and the threat to professional journalists from this quarter may have been exaggerated, that UGC is widely interpreted as the cutting edge of magazine content – the section that signals the future, is the industry’s way of acknowledging that many magazines are now based on their readers’ desire to commune with each other in an act of mutual recognition.
The new sequence is as follows: I show myself to you; you show yourself to me; I and you become ‘we’ because we have shown ourselves to each other. Sometimes this process occurs through the medium of celebrity; at other moments, users generating content become D.I.Y. celebrities and their own paparazzi, with media professionals on hand to format their material (if the demand for professional reporters is somewhat reduced, it is doubly important to maintain a constant supply of sub-editors). In both cases, mutual recognition is the main aim of this publication process.
Individuals are realised in the act of recognising themselves in other, compatible individuals; the subject is the subject because it sees the characteristics common to its collective existence; and the social character of our lives is represented, but only in the peculiarly personalised form of subjectivity exchange.
Form and Essence
But how peculiar is it really Did this kind of exchange not occur among the English gentlemen of the eighteenth century Are not the pages of the Spectator and the Gentleman’s Magazine peopled with compatible persons And in the days before journalism was fully professionalised, did these same people not produce their own copy, i.e. UGC The answer to all these questions is ‘yes’, with the proviso that the orientation of such phenomena as they appeared then, is different from the way they are facing now. Hence formal continuity is more than offset by substantive change; in short, they are formally similar, but essentially not the same phenomena.
In the eighteenth century people of different rank were made compatible by their participation in the public sphere. As the market levelled all commodities against their universal equivalent (money), so the public sphere did the same for those people taking part in it. That there was a public sphere for them to participate in, was largely the result of publications. Hence publications were tools deployed in the construction of a public sphere that was relatively homogeneous and homogenising.
Today, on the other hand, just as magazines are bound to differentiate themselves from each other and position themselves according to their differences, so in their provisional membership of particular magazine communities, readers are recognising themselves by their different positioning. Cultural diversity, niche marketing – there are various vocabularies but their common usage indicates the preference for difference rather than universality.
This new arrangement lacks the vertical line of ascent essential to eighteenth century rank, in which each rank was necessarily higher or lower than the ones next to it. Instead, it is as if the vertical ladder has been turned on its side, with each magazine (and its readers), occupying a particular segment (between rungs) along a ladder-line that is now horizontal. Drawn like this the line is not so much an axis between the individual and society, but society redrawn as an unending series of separate reader-communities, there being as many communities as there are magazines to commune with. In this respect, though readers are coming together in search of association, in the limited reconstruction of the world currently provided by magazines, as yet there is no such thing as a fully-fledged society (only the unending quest for it).
Then as now, self-recognition was one of the purposes of publication. But there are important differences in the arrangement of subjects and in the relative priority accorded to the exchange of subjectivity.
In the eighteenth century, the expansive character of economic development forced the subject – the gentleman of the age – to look outwards for his subject matter. He found the latter in new objects produced for the first time, which, taken together comprised his newly objectified world – the world of objects owned by this man of property. By using published information to make himself familiar with developments from which he would otherwise be estranged, i.e. news, the gentleman continually re-constituted himself as a property-owning subject, expanded his subjectivity (and his wealth), and, in one and the same process, recognised himself in others who were at the same time establishing and recognising themselves, also by means of the same unifying process.
Today, at least in the West, the tendency is for all but the last of these outcomes (self-recognition) to be edited out of the process. We seem content to compose ourselves by looking straight into each other’s eyes, screening out any and all developments with which we are not already compatible, and diminishing our subjectivity as a result of refusing to engage with what and who we do not already know. In this respect, many of the self-selecting, temporary communities around which individuals are now clustered, i.e. magazines, are themselves only a little less atomised than the outright individuation of late-1980s ‘lifestyle’.
In yet another notable contrast, the eighteenth century gentleman may have looked to the publications of the period for the expression of his subjectivity, and to establish what it meant to be a gentleman. But he was not so media-centric as to expect to play out and fully realise the gentleman’s role in the media itself. Economics, politics and even culture were the spheres which came together as ‘society’ and in which he aimed to exert himself. In this context the role of journalists was merely to go between these spheres as mediator, taking notes as they went. In today’s context, however, these other spheres, up to and including society itself, appear to have been largely subsumed in media; hence to prove our own existence as human subjects, we are obliged to show ourselves on various media platforms.
It seems as if subjectivity which was represented in media but could only be fully realised elsewhere, cannot now be played or expressed anywhere except within media. But subjectivity has no existence except in its expression, and if it is now expressed differently it cannot be the same as it was before now. Thus, not only are magazines different today, their individual subjects are by no means the same as those of two centuries ago. There has been a profound change of subject.
If it were to operate solely by its own internal logic, the diminution of subjectivity would reach a point where subjects could do nothing else but recognise themselves in the further exchange of subjectivity. However, the recent contraction of the subject has come about in response to a combination of both subjective and non-subjective factors, the latter being factors which are external to subjectivity. Thus the diminution of subjectivity is not entirely of its own devising, nor will it be left to its own devices.
That there is a new icon on the front pages of newspapers, on the front covers of magazines, and on the homepages of both, reminds us not only of the convergence between previously separate media forms (newspapers and magazines), but also of the continuous coming together which really does occur between people and what they have produced. This is the (half-made) society that continues to exist even if media forms have recently made a mess of representing it, and the latest incarnations of subjectivity have been largely unsuccessful in engaging with it.
The advent of Barack Obama marks the second coming of the gentleman. Scholar, community activist, advocate, skilled networker and consummate rhetorician, he is the first politician to front the cover of GQ (UK) since Michael Heseltine 20 years ago. Obama has the audacity not only to hope for change but also to promise that he will make it come. Whether advising homeboys to pull up their pants as a mark of respect to their grandmothers, or offering the hand of friendship to Muslim countries, he is the complete gentleman, known not only for his manners (so well mannered that American whites need not be nervous of him), but also for the expansive, inclusive subjectivity which he and his gentleman predecessors seem to have in common.
If a black man can win a presidential election, then the American subject surely remains capable of expansion. Moreover if Obama has achieved this at this time by putting himself forward as the personification of expansive subjectivity, the level of support for him suggests that no matter how much and how often the human subject has been diminished, the capacity for renewing the subject has not been lost.
But there is also something about the Obama persona which is contained by this time and these conditions, rather than representing the capacity to transcend them. The thing is that Obama is primarily a persona, an idea of a person who embodies the desire for change. Yes, this means that change is persistently presented as a desire in which we share. But so far our desire has only taken shape in his personality. As yet the popular imagination has not been captured by a programme of reforms (meanwhile, opposition to Obama’s health reforms is firing the imagination of many), nor has it found form in a party or any other organisation which might implement such reforms. Even if Obama is the most powerful executive in the world, in today’s conditions he must strive to succeed primarily by force of personality.
For all his straightforward sense of purpose, Obama can hardly contain the ambiguities underlying his performance. On the one hand he personifies the expansive subjectivity of the gentleman, with its orientation to the public sphere. On the other hand, his personality is as yet the most widely recognised form of the ambition to expand human subjectivity. This suggests that the decades of diminution – decades in which personality has served in place of a more expansive subjectivity – continue to exert a restraining influence on us all, up to and including the president of the United States.