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Between Social Constraint and the Public Sphere: On Misreading Early-Modern Political Satire

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The paper explores satire not as a literary genre but as an idiom of political and moral reflection discussing the extent to which contexts of relative constraint or freedom of expression are adequate for its understanding. The argument deals with the satire of Early-Modern England, especially that of the Restoration and early eighteenth century, as for most of this time political authority was purposely oppressive, the satire produced was highly significant, and it allegedly is part of the beginnings of a public sphere of open rational discourse. The paper outlines in turn: the significance of anonymity, differing understandings of humour, diverging satiric propensities, ritualised satire and taboo, and the distinction between constraint and restraint. It suggests that to locate satire between oppression and liberty lacks explanatory power and, in particular, that the very notion of a public sphere is of little historical value in discussing satire. If Habermas's concept is taken seriously it mythologises the early eighteenth century on scant evidence. If it is emptied of theoretical content, a healthy public sphere can be found in numerous places. The paper concludes by raising questions about how far the predominant roles of satire have changed since its ‘golden age’.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: School of Political Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, NSW, Australia. E-mail: [email protected]

Publication date: 2002-03-01

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