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A Theatre for Real Debates. The Meaning of British and French Parliamentary Cultures

23 ottobre 2012
Ex Boccherini - Piazza S. Ponziano 6 (Conference Room )
In his famous The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, 1962) the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas presents a historical analysis of debating in the public sphere. He argues that there once was a period of real public debate in Europe, during the Enlightenment and the early 19th century. According to him not only discussions in private societies but also parliamentary debates were really used to confront argument with argument and to convince your opponent. During the twentieth century, however, parliamentary debates (and public debate in general) degenerated into mere spectacles for the outside world. The decisions had already been taken in party meetings outside parliament and parliament was only used as a stage and a theatre. The 18th and 19th real dialectical debates had made way for rhetoric or even propaganda. In my presentation I will challenge this still popular opposition between the 19th and the 20th century by going back to the most prominent examples of parliamentary politics: Britain and France in the 19th century. It could be argued that 19th century parliaments were real debating chambers, but, on the other hand, they were very rhetorical, too. The publicity of debates was an invention of the late 18th century, and in the 19th century parliaments were almost literally theatres. The elite went there as if they went to the theatre. They enjoyed the show as real ‘connoisseurs’, and judged the performances of the great orators. Parliament was a political institution, but its debates were also judged as cultural performances. This was important because its cultural prestige immediately gave legitimacy to the new institution of parliament in a country such as France. British and French 19th-century parliaments can also be used to argue that parliamentary debates always need to combine dialectical and rhetorical elements: they serve to find an acceptable solution for social problems, and they also have an important representative function. The boom in the interest in ‘representation’ since the 1980s is one of the main reasons for the current renewal of parliamentary history and the recent interest in parliamentary cultures. In my presentation I will use material from British and French parliaments and I hope to be able to show some pictures of both parliaments and of rhetorical styles.
Te Velde, Henk - Universiteit Leiden - Leiden