The Public Sphere (I)

Recently, I asked some people in their twenties what the public sphere is. Uniformly, they shrugged, said something vague about freedom and politics and then, in some cases, looked for an answer on their iPhones. Several asked me, “Why should I care?” This paper gives a response to their question. I will answer their initial shrugs by giving a general account of what the public sphere is, before looking at why it is not simply some abstraction involving ideas about freedom and politics but a concrete reality, based on human action. In doing so, I will show why the public sphere is worth caring about.

public sphereWhat is the public sphere?

There are different conceptions of the public sphere, but the most prominent is the articulation offered by Jürgen Habermas. Habermas understands the public sphere as a space constituted by an active citizenry who gather independently of the state to engage in critical, discursive relations both with the state and amongst themselves. It is a historically-situated phenomenon, and as such its identity has evolved historically. Critics such as Nancy Fraser have debated its claims to universal inclusiveness, as certain voices have always been louder and more authoritative than others, whether because of gender, race, religion, education, or ideological position. The public sphere of 18th Century America, for example, was a place in which the voices of black people or women were a background presence but in which they went entirely unheard. There have also been debates about the function of the public sphere – is it to discuss issues that, from the outset, are deemed to be ‘of concern’ to all? Or, is it, as Habermas would claim, to provide a forum in which private interests are suspended in order to discuss matters that only affect the ‘common good’? Perhaps, as Fraser contends, the public sphere is a space in which private concerns are to be voiced in order to make them an issue of public concern, as exemplified by the emergence of domestic violence as a public issue in the 20th Century (Fra., p. 132).

The one thing uniting all conceptions of the public sphere is that it has consistently been defined in terms of its relationship to the private sphere. In this paper, I will use the term ‘public sphere’ to describe any arena for the formation and enactment of social identities. Because this conception of the public sphere is a mirror through which social identities can constitute themselves by bringing private concerns into public consciousness, its significance is both personal and political. I will first look at the personal dimension of the public sphere.

The personal dimension of the public sphere

The public sphere provides the space in which individuals are capable of negotiating questions of identity that would otherwise remain entirely within the domain of the private sphere. At its best, it is a forum within which all possible identities and persons can constitute and reconstitute themselves. This is accomplished by addressing themselves to the power of the state, the plurality of their fellow interlocutors, and, through the dialogue provoked by this public expression, to their own privately-held ideas of themselves.

Why is this important? For several reasons. The first is that in the discursive public sphere, one’s humanity is not reducible to a single identity within a social hierarchy. The black lesbian Muslim from a working class background has an identity that is not reducible to any of the above terms. In her public life, she can address the public from the plurality of her racial, sexual, gendered and religious identity, and will be addressed in turn by a plurality of responses. This is because one’s identity, one’s freedoms, and one’s beliefs are not a solely private affair. As Rudi Visker points out, the public sphere is not merely an extension of the freedoms and views that already exist in the private sphere (Vis., p. 2). Personal identities and their attendant freedoms and restrictions are only constituted and assured in public – historical examples like the civil rights movement in the US are representative of the power of individuals who, by entering the public sphere, can renegotiate existing norms of how we all live in society and of what citizens can expect from the state and one another. Thus, the personal cannot be considered as being distinct from the political, and the public sphere is the space in which the political self is negotiated.

The political dimension of the public sphere – identity and space

A clear historical example of how identity is politicized in the public sphere is the feminist movement, in which groups of private citizens organized themselves and entered the public sphere to recast their identities and their needs in new vocabularies describing social reality. Oscar Wilde once said that it took the paintings of Turner for people to realize the existence of fog in London – in the same way, it is often only when a marginalized vision of social reality is publicly articulated that a set of hitherto invisible problems and inequalities are suddenly made an issue of public interest and importance (Fra., p. 12). A contemporary example would be the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement has introduced a new vocabulary to discussions of economic inequality and political disenchantment. Terms such as the ‘ninety-nine percent’, contrasting the majority of the US population with the ‘one percent’ that hold the majority of the wealth and political influence, have come to shape the political discourse on economics in recent years. The introduction of such terminology into public discourse has had the effect of reframing the argument at hand, and the terms introduced by Occupy are now regularly appealed to by politicians, including those who openly oppose the Occupy movement. Another important characteristic of the Occupy movement is its pluralistic make-up: fundamentalist evangelical Christians, middle-class retirees, skinhead anarchists, former soldiers, Hassidic Jews, soccer moms, and many others, all negotiating their differences and commonalities in a public sphere that is not only conceptual, but physically tangible – an actual politicizing of public space created by the physical gathering of private citizens to debate and challenge the terms within which they all live.

Perhaps it is this physical dimension of the public sphere – the politicizing of any physical space by the face-to-face meeting of different individuals with a collective purpose (Ben., p. 78) – that is most threatened today. In the atomized world of 21st Century society, our interactions with others are typically limited to the faceless anonymity of those we pass on the street, the colleagues we meet through economic necessity, the few friends we see on a face-to-face basis, and the increasing movement of our social worlds into the digital spheres of Facebook, Twitter, etc.

As a result, many no longer experience our world as being constituted in public, a fact echoed in the indifference – even apathy – of much of the general public in response to contemporary politics, which more and more seems to be a theatre of predetermined arguments before which a spectator-type public passively identifies with one side or another (Hab., p. 206). In such a model, election campaigns are strange periods in which a previously non-existent public sphere is suddenly conjured up and mobilized by what amounts to little more than a vast advertising campaign (ibid., p. 210) – a fact borne out by Advertising Ages’s awarding of ‘Marketer of the Year’ to Barack Obama’s campaign management in 2008.

The public sphere is the strongest means that the private citizen has of contesting this colonization of one’s opinion, just as it is a means of contesting the enclaving of domestic, private issues of identity.

To restate what was said above, the private citizen is not simply a product of their private life – their private identity is also dependent on its articulation in the public sphere. If the public sphere is neglected by both the state (as one of the addresses of the public sphere) and private citizens (on whom the existence of the public sphere depends), then individual citizens will exist more and more in terms of isolated enclaves, ever more subject to an architecture of power that they have no means of contesting. Without the space created by the public sphere separating state and society, the private individual will be completely integrated into the architecture of the state. Such a collapsing of the indeterminate space between the individual and the state has historically resulted in the impersonal and anonymous social orders of totalitarianism (Lef., p. 13). It is our public dialogue that separates us from the inhibiting forces of state-imposed hegemony and self-imposed solipsism, and yet today we respond mutedly to cynically-marketed politics like jaded consumers rather than as critically-engaged citizens, increasingly neglectful of the one tool we have to facilitate critical engagement: the public sphere.

However, one remark is warranted here. Nancy Fraser has written that our contemporary model of pluralistic social organization means that citizens can only form what she calls weak publics, i.e. ones that produce opinions, not decisions. These weak publics are inevitably subject to the will of strong – i.e. decision-making – publics, such as parliament (Fra, p. 135). According to this view, the public sphere is thus fragmented into an atomized world of isolated enclaves in which opinions are formulated but never challenged from the plurality of perspectives that a shared public sphere would facilitate. Such a lack of exposure to contrary perspectives ensures that such ideas are thus never brought to a level of conceptual integrity capable of posing a legitimate challenge to the status quo of society, and of society’s relation to the state.

In order to ensure that the public sphere is capable of holding ‘strong publics’ such as the parliament to account, it must evolve beyond its current model of enclaved opinion formation. This will necessarily involve structural changes. For all the creative use of technological platforms of public expression such as Youtube videos and Facebook during the mass physical protests in Tahrir Square in 2011, the lack of significant structural reform ensured that the regime changes of Egypt led to little of the change for which the public space had been initially claimed. And yet, in order for structural changes to occur there must be dialogue between those interested in having their voices heard on the level of political decision-making. Such a dialogue would necessarily be a gathering of private people, bringing their private concerns into public consciousness. Thus, we can see that an improved public sphere is dependent nonetheless on the discursive activity of the existing public sphere.


It would be a contradiction to posit some finality towards which the public sphere may reach, for it is a space founded on dialogue, disagreement, plurality and indeterminacy. Instead, let me make a few statements in the negative. The public sphere will never be a neutral ground of uniform agreement: its very life-blood is discursive and agonistic. The public sphere will never reach any of its ideals: for no sooner has an ideal been reached than the contours of the public sphere change, a new dissatisfied voice makes itself known, and the end of history once again escapes our grasp. The public sphere will never resolve difference – it can only reduce attempts to simplify or nullify it.

All of these are reasons to wholeheartedly affirm the public sphere’s continued existence. The public sphere is the only space that ensures that politics is not the preserve of politicians alone. Without a functioning public sphere, political decision-making is determined solely by political parties and private interests who cannot be held accountable to the public affected by their decisions. Without a functioning public sphere, all individual citizens and social enclaves are at a profound disadvantage – not because the public sphere provides a solution to the question of how we live together, but because it is only in the public sphere that the question of how we live together can be formulated (and re-formulated) at all. One doesn’t look at the public sphere from afar – its terms of discourse surround us and speak through us, and this is why it is important. To paraphrase Brecht – a man whose work was based on the very principle of awakening citizens into a direct confrontation with the faceless forces shaping their lives – it is we ourselves who must change our world; the world needs us. And in order for that to happen, we need the public sphere.


  • Benhabib, Seyla, ‘Models of Public Space: Hannah Arendt, the Liberal Tradition, and Jürgen Habermas’ in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Calhoun, Craig (Cambridge Massachusetts, MIT press, 1992)
  • Fraser, Nancy, ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy’, in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Calhoun, Craig (Cambridge Massachusetts, MIT press, 1992)
  • Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence, (Polity Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 1989)
  • Lefort, Claude, Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey, (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1988)
  • Visker, Rudi, ‘Multicultural Difference in the Public Sphere’, publication pending.

One thought on “The Public Sphere (I)

  1. Pingback: The rise of the public sphere | Jameskohxj

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