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The Spectator: A study of comparison

Essays in Magazine Media, No 1, November 2012

Andrew Calcutt

Take any picture of Kate Moss. Note the physical attributes which contribute to her instantly recognisable appearance: cheekbones, mouth, hair, skin tone,
body shape, etc, etc. But over and above all these, the eyes have it. Supported by other elements in her physical make-up, her iconic status derives
primarily from her eyes – and the way her eyes are alive. Kate Moss, the 40-something woman who was brought up in the suburbs of south London, becomes Kate Moss, the supermodel’s supermodel, because of the way she is seen looking out upon the world.

Most pictures of Kate Moss show her looking directly at us, the people looking back at her picture. She is gazing at us explicitly; the implication is that
we are gazing back at her, each party evaluating the other in a comparative exchange. In this exchange of views, it is understood that she is looking to
see if we measure up and we are doing the same to her. That’s why she is ‘cool’; and because we are looking back at her on equal terms, we get to feel the
same way.

Kate Moss is a global icon because she is the individual who has come to represent the reciprocal process of continuous, comparative appraisal – a process
which most of us are engaged in much of the time; so much so that we do not even think about doing it. Continuous comparison, active appraisal – constant
performance of these ubiquitous activities forms an important part of our whole way of life; they are key to our culture. Moreover, certain cities – and of
these, London especially – have come to represent this aspect of contemporary culture for and on behalf of the whole world. As a global brand, London is
primarily a way of looking at the world – a world-renowned gaze which the rest of the world is prepared to subsidise; and Kate Moss, in the way she looks,
symbolises this way of looking, perhaps more than any other individual. No wonder she was the face of Rimmel’s long-running ‘London Look’ campaign,
launched in the 1990s.

The London look goes back a lot further than that, however. The culture of continuous comparison originated in London around the turn of eighteenth
century, when London became the fastest growing merchant city in world history. London’s growth depended on the city’s merchants and their characteristic
activity – comparing the price of merchandise against its market value, with the constant aim of selling at a higher price than you bought it for. Despite
the self-interested momentum of mercantile activity, i.e. making a profit by buying low and selling high, the merchant’s profitable margin was also a
variation on the true worth of any commodity. Thus, personal self-interest entailed constant reference to agreed standards, common to the cohort of
merchants, and arrived at by a collective process of continuous comparison. Moreover, this process was not restricted to commodities alone: instead,
people, their morals and their behaviour also came to be scrutinised, almost as if they themselves were commodities subject to the merchant’s continual

Thus the merchant city of London was also the birthplace of a culture of continuous comparison, in which nothing is beyond compare, and all human life is
subject to the same level of scrutiny.

So it is that in contemporary portraits of proto-journalist Joseph Addison, he is often to be found looking at out us, looking back at him, in the much the
same manner as Kate Moss. Furthermore, as Kate Moss is representative of the London look today, so Addison represented the London look of his day; though
in the early eighteenth century, the London look was not so much represented in the way Addison looked as it was by what he wrote and the way he wrote it.

Before going on to examine his writing, however, we should first acknowledge that what Kate Moss and Joseph Addison have in common, is not
common to all periods of human history. On the contrary, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that their level-headed appraisal of whatever appears in
front of them was absent from most pre-modern societies. This means that for most of the people living in earlier iterations of London, throughout all the
previous periods of pre-modern human history, performing the continuous comparison which we take for granted, and which I have thought to summarise as the
London look, would have been almost impossible and well nigh unthinkable.

Take another glance at their portraits: Kate Moss and Joseph Addison are levelling with us. Their eyelines – his and hers – are normally on the same level
as ours. In the earlier iconography of the medieval period, however, human figures and God-like creatures are seen to exist on very different levels: the
former are constantly looking up, their gaze a symbol of their subservience. Meanwhile the objects of their adoration – kings, saints, gods – are looking
down on mere mortals; further confirmation that, at this time, being human meant living in thrall to superior beings beyond our control. There could be no
comparison between us and them, whereas for Joseph Addison as for Kate Moss, everyone is accountable to more-or-less the same standards; and we arrive at
these, same standards by continuous appraisal of ourselves in comparison to everyone else (and of everyone else in comparison to ourselves).

In theory, at least, the modern world is a level playing field; and this is epitomised in the eyelines of iconic figures such as Kate Moss and Joseph
Addison – looking out at us on the same level as us looking back at them.

During the English Civil War which culminated in the execution of King Charles I (1649), the most militant section of the Republican army, the Levellers,
sought to establish a level playing field by force of arms; but they were overruled. Half a century later, when a new social order had been confirmed in
Britain, ratified in the constitutional monarchy of William and Mary (1688), the process of levelling the field of human behaviour was brought about
primarily through trade – notably the expansion of trade to the point where London became the foremost merchant city in the world. This was the
fast-changing context in which Joseph Addison and his publishing and writing partner Sir Richard Steele extended the characteristic habit of continuous
comparison from the markets of London, where it was already commonplace, connecting it to that other locus of comparative study, namely, moral

Here, in their libraries and the books that filled them, philosophers observed how people lived and pondered how they should be living. In other words,
philosophy was continually comparing what is with what ought to be, just as the merchants of London were continually comparing the
commodities currently on the market with the best-ever version of these same commodities; the silk, for example, which is now on sale compared
with silk the way it ought to be. In the midst of this culture of continuous comparison, in the form of two short-lived periodicals, The Tatler (1709) and The Spectator (1711), Addison and Steele created a middle ground between financial and moral speculation.
They made a space for describing, appraising and speculating upon day-to-day human behaviour, with one eye on the markets and the other on moral
philosophy. This space, and the comparative study which characterises it, are what came to be known as ‘journalism’.

Here is what Addison hoped his essays would achieve:

It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me that I have brought Philosophy out of the Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-tables and in Coffee-Houses.

(Addison 1711a)

Addison aimed to bring philosophy to the coffee house. Not that London’s new coffee houses lay empty: they were only recently established as the go-to place for trading commodities; Addison’s contribution was to make them into the place to trade ideas as well as commodities, especially ideas about how we should live. But where would these ideas come from? How would they reach the coffee house? Direct from philosophy, perhaps; more likely, via Addison and his essays. Thus Addison established himself in a new space which he himself helped to create, half-way between the commercial and the philosophical.

In form and content, Addison set about his journalism so that it would constitute the middle ground. When declaring his intention to ‘Enliven Morality with Wit, and to temper Wit with Morality’ (Addison 1711b), in his choice of subject matter he promised to combine moral seriousness with the business-like world of the sharp riposte. Similarly, Addison (ibid) preferred to formulate moral seriousness in the ‘common talk’ of London’s mercantile culture (N.B. ‘common talk’ does not imply vulgar or coarse – these connotations came later; here it is a non-pejorative term for the shared language in which people like Addison commonly converse.) He himself would not have used the following terms; nonetheless it is true to say that Addison was establishing journalism (form) as mediation (content); not least because in contributing to the creation of journalism, he positioned it half-way between the market and the library.

In both these venues, and also in the space between them – journalism, continuous comparison was the order of the day. For such comparison to occur, the people involved must have suspended their other activities, however briefly: the merchant comparing one commodity with another (a real roll of silk with the ideal version, perhaps) may be on the point of deciding whether or not to make a purchase, but the comparison comes to an end as and when he makes a decision and acts upon it. Similarly, the philosopher contemplating how we should live by comparing different modes of living is in the process of coming to a judgement, but he is not yet acting on his own judgement or implementing his decision. In the moment of comparison, whether it is long or short, both merchants and philosophers are standing aside from the action – their own actions as well as other people’s. Poised to act but pausing before doing so, like chess players just before they make their move, they are regarding themselves and the other parties involved; watching, in their mind’s eye, the diverse consequences of various courses of action, none of which have yet been taken.

Less of an actor, more of a spectator – here was a newly extended social position which acquired explicit representation in Addison’s journalism.

In order to highlight this moment of self-regard, in 1711 Addison invented an avatar, Mr Spectator, and made a play of appointing him the editor of his publication. In reality, Addison himself was the editor; but the pantomime he created around Mr Spectator shows how highly Addison regarded this orientation to the world and the capacity for comparative study inherent in it. Similarly, in naming his periodical The Spectator, Addison identified such self-regard – scrutiny applied to oneself as well as everyone else – as the essential social attribute. Introducing his
avatar in the launch issue of the eponymous periodical, Addison suggested that Mr Spectator, by virtue of being a spectator, is in a better position than those unable to stand aside from their normal activities:

Thus I Live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species, by which means I have made myself a Speculative Statesman, Soldier, Merchant and Artizan….[I] can discern the Errors in the Oeconomy, Business and Diversion of Others, better than those who are engaged in them; as Standers-by discover Blots, which are apt to escape those who are in the Game.

(Addison 1711b)

Thus Mr Spectator is crowned constitutional monarch of London’s many actors: he does not claim to rule by divine right, as Charles I had done (and lost his head for doing so). But he is a cut-above; by standing aside, he gains an overview. Not that Addison was really recommending a life of pure contemplation; rather, in the voice of Mr Spectator he was saying that human beings behave better for having been inactive spectators, however briefly; conversely, when human action is not informed by at least a moment of scrutiny, it tends to be uncivilised and unworthy of society. In writing and publishing The Spectator, Addison sought to instil self-consciousness as the characteristic trait of a new way of life. Although his publications were short lived, the new London was partly shaped by the way he framed this habit of mind.

But how, on the printed page, did Addison carry out his comparative study? What form would self-consciousness take? A quick glance at the first issue of The Spectator is enough to show that images were not his chosen vehicle. Quite simply, there are no images. Apart from the masthead (loosely defined) and a Latin quotation underneath it, there is nothing on the page except run of copy. For Addison and his generation, and further generations to
follow, form of words or prose style was the crucial element. To our eyes, the style they preferred may seem wordy and unnecessarily complex; but this complexity had a very important purpose. By holding various elements together in the same sentence, Addison et al made the sentence into an instrument of comparison. Thus:

Tho’ the other Papers which are publish’d for the Use of the Good People of England have certainly very wholesome Effects, and are laudable in their Particular Kinds, they do not seem to come up to the Main Design of such Narrations, which, I humbly presume, should be principally intended for the Use of Politick Persons, who are so publick-spirited as to neglect their own Affairs to look into Transactions of State.

(Steele 1709)

This is Steele (rather than Addison; but the two of them worked so closely we can assume they were of like mind) introducing The Tatler, and announcing its orientation to the public interest rather than narrow self-interest. It is an especially significant announcement because it proclaims the existence of that new space – subsequently dubbed ‘the public sphere’ – in which everyone’s behaviour is to be accountable to the same standards. But the way in which the proclamation is issued – its form – is equally significant.

In order to advance his claim, Steele compares his new periodical with ‘other Papers’. Whereas they are ‘laudable in their Particular Kinds’, his will ‘come up to the Main Design’, taking a broader view which encompasses ‘Transactions of State’. Taken as a whole, the sentence is a way of saying: ‘on the one hand there is X, on the other hand there is Y, and Y is preferable to X because of Z’. It is a comparison of two objects (in this instance, existing
‘papers’ compared to Steele’s new one) and their respective merits. Typical of the rounded prose style of Addison and Steele, this sentence also typifies their construction of sentences as instruments of comparative study. In their writing, the rounded sentence or period is the cell form of a whole organism (London and its culture) of continuous comparison. To this end, they were obliged to write sentences of sufficient length and complexity. Short sentences
are not long enough to undertake the comparative study which Addison and Steele assigned to them.

The use of Latin quotations – to us, perhaps even more arcane than their prose style – also performs a comparative role. In quoting from Roman poets such as Horace and Virgil, Addison and Steele were implicitly comparing themselves and their era to that other, earlier form of the examined life, as enjoyed by the ancien regime of Roman citizens (though not by their slaves or the peasantry of the period). On the other hand – and now I am using this
sentence to make a comparison – their regular reference to the Ancients, and their frequent recourse to other forms of writing – letters, dream sequences, dialogues – also indicate that at their time of writing modern journalism was still in the process of being formed: it was not yet sui generis, i.e. of its own kind.

Addison and Steele were among the first to formulate journalism as such, but theirs was very much work-in-progress, not a finished object. Nonetheless, they established the periodical (not yet designated as either a magazine or a newspaper) as a form of mediating activity. For the purposes of this module and the line of inquiry associated with it, this was their most notable achievement.


Addison, J (1711a) The Spectator, 12th March 1711

Addison, J (1711b) The Spectator, 1st March 1711

Steele, R (1709) The Tatler, 12th April 1709

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