Rousseau and the perils of public address

In December 1776, the Courrier d’Avignon reported a curious incident in Ménilmontant: a supposedly mortal collision between the famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and…a great dane.

‘Rousseau, qui se promène souvent seul à la campagne, a été renversé il y a quelques jours par un de ces chiens Danois qui précèdent les equipages lestes: on dit qu’il est très malade de cette chute, et on ne peut trop deplorer son sort d’avoir été écrasé par des chiens.’ (no.97, December 3, 1776, p.4).

‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau est mort des suites de sa chute. Il a vécu pauvre, il est mort misérablement; et la singularité de sa destinée  l’a accompagné jusqu’au tombeau.’ (no.102, December 20, 1776, p.4).

Jean Jacques François Le Barbier, Brusselles (éd. de Londres), 1783, ‘Rousseau apportant le manuscrit des “Dialogues” à Notre-Dame de Paris’. Illustration pour Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques dans Œuvres de J.-J. Rousseau.

Rousseau, as we know, died a few years later in 1778 – the event in Ménilmontant leaving him not mortally injured, but with a face bruised and beaten. The mistaken reports in the Courrier d’Avignon prompted his Rêveries critical assessment of eighteenth-century public culture and, in particular, the social and discursive mechanisms that permitted the spread of rumours, an absence of fact-checking, and sensationalism. It was hardly, however, his first diagnosis of ‘fake news’.

In the very era when the postal system and print culture brought people together in ‘imagined communities’, Rousseau worried deeply about the risks of dead letters. Although Rousseau’s colleague, Diderot, was convinced that the two most important technological developments in early modern Europe were the postal system and print culture (enthusing to his sculptor friend Falconet, ‘Il y a deux grandes inventions: la poste qui porte en six semaines une découverte de l’équateur au pôle, et l’imprimerie qui la fixe à jamais’), Rousseau was much more leery of the new information age.

A critical assessment of the Enlightenment’s faith in transparent communication must attune itself to the persistent traces of ancient modes of rhetoric: the traditions of doublespeak and dog-whistle politics. Rousseau, sensitive to the tensions between an esoteric, libertine tradition of communication and an intellectual climate of social progressivism, frames the debate in a series of vexed questions: for whom should I be writing? what is a public and what can it do? Despairing over the absence of any true ‘ami de la vérité’, Rousseau heads to Notre Dame cathedral to deposit, in a famous acte manqué, a copy of Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques on the altar of the church.

‘En entrant, mes yeux furent frappés d’une grille que je n’avois jamais remarquée et qui séparoit de la nef la partie des bas-cotés qui entoure le Chœur. Les portes de cette grille étoient fermées, de sorte que cette partie des bas-cotés dont je viens de parler étoit vuide & qu’il m’étoit impossible d’y pénétrer. Au moment où j’apperçus cette grille je fus saisi d’un vertige comme un homme qui tombe en apoplexie, et ce vertige fut suivi d’un bouleversement dans tout mon être, tel que je ne me souviens pas d’en avoir éprouvé jamais un pareil. L’Eglise me parut avoir tellement changé de face que doutant si j’étois bien dans Notre-Dame, je cherchois avec effort à me reconnoître et à mieux discerner ce que je voyois. Depuis trente six ans que je suis à Paris, j’étois venu fort souvent et en divers tems à Notre Dame; j’avois toujours vu le passage autour du Chœur ouvert et libre, et je n’y avois même jamais remarqué ni grille ni porte autant qu’il put m’en souvenir.’ (‘Histoire du précédent écrit’, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, OC, t.1, p. 980).

He notes that in spite of having been in the church scores of times, he had failed to notice the barrier blocking access to the altar. The unpredictability of the reading public – indeed, the plurality of publics and their occasionally indeterminate nature – makes literary reception a chancy affair. In the very loud and crowded market of ideas of the French Enlightenment, the rhetorical gesture of address underscored the vulnerability and power of the modern writer. In my study, Jean-Jacques Rousseau face au public: problèmes d’identité, I explore the vagaries of public communication during the Enlightenment and the dialectical tensions between shadow and illumination, musicality and transparency.

As an insider of the Encyclopédie project turned outsider, Rousseau understood the complexities of the new social and ethical demands placed on the philosophes in a way that is fundamentally different from his contemporaries. By noting the unpredictability and inconsistencies of systems of public address (with readers and spectators moved alternatively by emotions, reason, flows of information, and the major works of a few key power players), Rousseau proposes alternative ways of thinking about communication and the circulation of information. He places value on economies of speech that include silence, babil (babbling), laconism, and musicality – modes of communication that contest conventional modalities of rationality and social exchange. His work is thus an invitation to consider the precarity of address within modern social life and, consequently, the politics of truth at stake in symbolic exchange.

Masano Yamashita

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One thought on “Rousseau and the perils of public address

  1. Pingback: Rousseau and the perils of public address – fabiosulpizioblog

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