In my workshops, Improve your Art of Conversation (the next of which at Joslyn Castle on July 3 you can register for here) I often reference the London coffeehouse milieu as a milestone in the history of conversation’s role in society. Tom Standage’s article, Social Networking in the 1600’s, illustrates the vibrant transition in the culture of conversation wrought by the social phenomenon of the London coffeehouse.
In the spirit of Mark Twain, who in a later era expressed the sentiment that we should never let schooling interfere with our education, coffeehouses were sometimes called “penny universities” because one could learn from a variety of formal and informal classes and experiments, debates and discussions, all for the penny price of a coffee. As Brian Cowan points out in his comprehensive treatment of the coffeehouse, The Social Life of Coffee, the coffeehouse began as and remained a place for the virtuosi or, as it were, the curious intelligentsia of the day. It was a place where one could read the news, collect mail, and engage in vigorous conversation. As Standage enjoyably illustrates, for example, “It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his ‘Principia Mathematica,’” and such was the mercantile nature of certain coffeehouses, that the London Stock Exchange and Lloyds, the insurance organization, began life in coffeehouses.
Moreover, the coffeehouse provided an atmosphere of diversity of thought, opinion and social station. “Londoners praised the coffeehouse for being an island of equality in a sea of class,” says Steven Miller in his book, Conversation, A History of a Declining Art.
Despite this rise of an unusual conversational space, I am less convinced of Standage’s assertion that, “Now the spirit of the coffeehouse has been reborn in our social-media platforms.” While the functionality of twenty first century social media offers parallels to the coffeehouses’ capacity to be “crucibles of creativity,” it lacks the humanity inherent in personal interactions. I concede, though, that I sense my own biases here… Perhaps, like the technology, I need to be more adaptive?
Nonetheless, there can be no doubt of the importance of personal interaction, whether in terms of creativity, social cohesion, human fulfillment and happiness. This suggests the concept of the public sphere developed by Jürgen Habermas in his book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas identified the London coffeehouses as discursive arenas and an illustration of, “The bourgeois public sphere,” which “may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public.” Cowan, in The Social Life of Coffee, suggests such a categorization is too blunt. Rather, “the rise of the coffeehouse public sphere was accepted by the British old regime only when it was clear that coffeehouse politics would not upset the status quo.” Coffeehouse advocates were seeking a “civil society” related more to cultural than democratic politics.
This leads me to my main point of inquiry: The state of the conversational space in contemporary life. Where now would you go to engage in an unexpected, unpredictable, engaging conversation? Have the idiosyncratic British pub or American bar now been subsumed by corporate chains? Are diners in depopulated rural communities slowly disappearing? Do libraries remain a conversational, as well as public, space? To the dismay of an African-American friend of mine, has the barber shop’s role as a conversational space begun to decline?
You tell me: Should we be worried about the rise and fall of conversational spaces in our surroundings and in our lives?