The Phantom Of The Public

In Kierkegaard's view, levelling is made possible through the rise and agency of the 'monstrous nonentity' or 'phantom' of the public, which in turn is possible only in a passionless, reflective age by the aid of the press when it has become a phantom itself through the practice of journalistic anonymity (TA 90-1, 93, cf. 138-9).8 The concept of the public could not have appeared in antiquity, Kierkegaard argues, because in that time the people were obliged to come forward en masse in corpore [as a whole] in the situation of action, were obliged to bear the responsibility for what was done by individuals in their midst, while in turn the individual was obliged to be present in person as the one specifically involved and had to submit to the summary court for approval or disapproval. (91)

'Only when there is no strong communal life', Kierkegaard claims, is it possible for the press to create the phantom of the public, which is made up of 'unsubstantial individuals who are never united or never can be united in the simultaneity of any situation or organization and yet are claimed to be a whole' (91). The public is supposed to include everyone but cannot 'be called up for inspection' or held responsible because it exists only in abstraction; it is not a people, a generation, an age, a congregation, or an association—all of which are concretions of one sort or another (91-3). To illustrate how this nebulous nonentity goes about levelling or reducing individuals to insignificance and nothingness in modern society Kierkegaard alludes to his experience with the scandalous tabloid The Corsair, characterizing it as a 'dog' that is kept for the amusement of the public (95). The dog is goaded by the public to attack a man of distinction, tearing at his coat tails and engaging in all sorts of tricks until the public finally becomes tired and calls the dog off. But since it was a third party, namely the dog, that actually did the dirty work of levelling, the public assumes no responsibility, claiming that it is merely a 'subscriber', not the owner of the 'bad dog', which it now wants exterminated (95).

8 See Pattison (2002: 64-71) for a comparison of Kierkegaard and Heiberg on the public.

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