The Café as Information Exchange: Coffeehouses at the Heart of the Communication System in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 4:10 PM
Washington Room 6 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Thierry Rigogne, Fordham University
The first Parisian coffeehouses opened in the 1660s and quickly spread across the capital. Soon numbering in the hundreds, they became part of the fabric of urban life. Like their Ottoman and Persian models, or their English predecessors, Parisian cafés offered a space for consumption but also for socialization.

This paper is based on unpublished original research for my current book project, which rewrites the history of early modern French cafés. It is based on a close reading of a vast array of sources (plays, novels, moralistic tracts, guidebooks, police reports, court records, royal ordinances, gazettes, newsletters, diaries, prints, drawings, etc.)—most of which have never been studied before. Specific case studies detail what type of information was exchanged in cafés, through what media and modes of diffusion, how and by whom. The paper also situates cafés very concretely, including through maps, within larger information networks. Coffeehouses constantly interacted with other places, spaces, institutions, media and the people who circulated information through a complex, baroque yet vibrant communication system. Expanding on Robert Darnton’s pioneering work on the “early information age,” it probes deep within one of the nerve centers for the diffusion of information or all types: radical political ideas like neighborhood gossip, literary criticism like commercial news, scientific discourse like idle chat. Going further, it shows that the café occupied a central position in the communication system. Cafés served as powerful information exchanges firmly embedded within urban communication networks; they were places where information was gathered and disseminated but also created. Challenging many assumptions by theoreticians of the public sphere such as Jürgen Habermas, this paper helps redefine our understanding of public and private space, and it suggests new ways to analyze early modern information networks and communication systems.

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