The Public Sphere (IV)

The public sphere should be the centre of rational debate, but it has become a spectacle for a stultified populace. How did it come to this and what is to be done? Our guiding thread will be Jürgen Habermas’s The structural transformation of the public sphere. To examine the troubles of the public we need to return to its modern origins in the liberal, bourgeois public sphere. If we can find the inherent contradiction undermining the public sphere’s efficacy, we can identify the core current enemies of the public in the true sense of the term. That will allow us to find an exit out of the labyrinth of today’s pseudo-public and sham-privacy.

1. The liberal public sphere and its discontentsIn_Moscow_living_room_by_B.Kustodiev

The political liberal public sphere emerged in the 17th and 18th century when private people came together to subject the state’s domination to their public use of reason (Ha, 51). Before, the public had only been the addressee of the state’s decrees, but it was not expected to answer (Ha, 21). In coffee houses, salons, etc. politics became the topic of discussion (Ha, 32-35). This new public sphere cultivated an atmosphere of rational argumentative debates where previously unexamined domains of common concern were scrutinized without regard for the status of the discussion’s participants (Ha, 36-37). In principle everyone was able to enter the debate and authority reflected not the rank of the speaker, but the strength of his arguments.

This notion of the public sphere makes one grand assumption, namely private people. It demands individuals to be psychologically emancipated up to a level where they can believe their own private household to be the origin of their lives (Ha, 46). A person is first an isolated individual and then a member of a public. Individuals first discover universal reason and humanity in the family and afterwards they publicize this in discussion with other private individuals. This emancipation is however only possible on the grounds of commodity-ownership (Ha, 46). Individuals can only maintain an independent family through capital accumulation on the market. To be a public citizen, one needs to exercise one’s humanity assuming one is bourgeois enough to own the commodities necessary to sustain the intimate sphere preceding public debate (Ha, 109-110).

As a result, we encounter an inconsistency within the liberal public sphere. De jure everyone is able to enter, but de facto a lot of people are excluded. The presumed identification of commodity-ownership and humanity is discriminatory for whoever is not in a position to own property, like women or dependents (Ha, 56). Their exclusion is not accidental, but necessary for the efficacy of the liberal public sphere. The liberal public sphere functions because all participants have a similar perspective on the world, since they belong to the same social class. That leads to the illusory idea that public consensus is the display of a natural order that has to be respected by the state (Ha, 95). In reality the consensus represents only commodity-owners and not humanity as such. Tocqueville shows that the notion of a natural order presupposes a harmonious composition of the public sphere that can only be guaranteed through social exclusivity and a common foe, namely the state (Ha, 131-133). Consequently Tocqueville demonstrates that whenever the liberal public sphere lives up to its promise of inclusivity, it undermines its own presuppositions. Once the working class is admitted to the public sphere, all coherence is lost and division replaces natural consensus. The subsequent conflicts instigate two tendencies that lead to what Habermas calls ‘the structural transformation of the public sphere’ (Ha, 142).

Administrative centralization and neomercantilism. The natural order of a general consensus determinable through rational-critical debate is destabilized when the working class is included, since they have no interest in maintaining a private sphere beyond public debate. Economic, private domination is just as contestable as political power. Moreover, the lack of a coherent perspective within the public makes consensus extremely difficult to reach. Consequently the public sphere transforms into an arena of bargaining collective private interests instead of rational consensus-formation (Ha, 132). Both consequences necessitate the state to step in to pacify and regulate private conflicts. Eventually oligopolistic capitalism makes the societal divisions so apparent that the state has to initiate a new interventionist economic policy (Ha, 142-143). The administratively centralized state intervenes so deeply into society that a liberal public sphere, separated from the state apparatus, is impossible.

tv-subliminal-hypnosis-300x191Social conformism and refeudalization. Paradoxically the division of the public sphere leads to social conformism (Ha, 134). Because of neomercantilist interventions the family loses its role of socializing individuals (Ha, 156). Societal entities take over this role. For instance, my job choice is no longer determined by my father’s job, but by clever hiring techniques of a particular company. Those institutions reproduce not a critical public, but stultified masses that automatically give acclamatory consent to whatever is presented to them (Ha, 195). The goal is to first isolate atomized individuals and afterwards project one single perspective on the common world in all of them separately (Ar, 58). For Habermas this process is enacted through auratic representation (Ha, 195). In feudal societies the lord is a medium for a higher power and represents this power before the public (Ha, 7; Lef, 16). The aura of the lord stupefies the people so that their only possible reaction is blind devotion. For instance, Rogier van der Weyde’s triptychs are not commodities to be judged by consumers, but works celebrating the splendour of the Church (Ha, 40). A similar process appears in contemporary consumption culture. Instead of inner life making itself public, the individual’s privacy is actively produced and reified by private enterprises (Ha, 172). I may think I shop at a particular store because I am a surfer, but in reality I am a surfer because I shop at this store. The production of identities aims at integrating individuals in one-on-one relationships with the commodity’s aura, which renders public discussion superfluous, since there is no reason to listen to each other. I have my own unique relation to the ‘unique’ commodities determining my private identity and the other’s opinion is hence irrelevant. Advertisement and public relations obscure the mass production of commodities and of ‘lifestyles’ compatible to these commodities (Ha, 193).

2. What is to be done? 

We can summarize our current condition as follows: neomercantilism replaces rational-critical debate with compromises between private interests and refeudalization produces acclamatory, uncritical masses. Both problems need a separate, but complementary solution toward a postbourgeois public sphere (Fra, 136).

Intermediary powers. Tocqueville suggests counteracting administrative centralization by promoting ‘des pouvoirs intermédiaires’ (Ha, 136). Habermas’s own proposal of multiple intraorganizational public spheres is rather similar (Ha, 209). If private organizations influence the state and the public, those organizations should be democratized. They can even function as multiple liberal public spheres, since the conditions of social exclusivity and a common foe, can be given new content. The publics can be exclusive in the sense that they deal with single issues to which only a part of the population can or wants to contribute (e.g. animal rights). Such publics would have a more or less coherent perspective and the common foe would be other publics (e.g. farmer’s organizations).disability_activism_9k-not-being-able-to-speak

The problem is how these multiple publics should interact with each other in the general public sphere. Firstly, there is the risk of turning into a large bargaining mechanism, because there is no natural order guaranteeing an ultimate consensus. Secondly, it may be impossible to even start rational debate with such different groups since the meaningfulness of some publicly relevant topics cannot be rendered explicit (Vis, 13). For instance, anti-discrimination organizations call ‘Zwarte Piet’ racist, but the significance of blackness and the Sinterklaas tradition cannot be judged from a distance. That is why these organizations are met with apathy instead of arguments. Some differences determine the standpoint from which people judge and aren’t up for judgement. They cannot be superseded toward consensus.

Nancy Fraser avoids the unfeasibility of a general consensus of multiple publics by pleading for dissemination instead (Fra, 124 & 129). At all times some publics are hegemonic, but the subaltern can form counterpublics to disseminate their views through agitational activities. The result is not consensus, but contestation, and the goal is to compel other publics to think differently about whatever is addressed. For instance, the anti-discrimination groups could organize an event of ‘Zwarte Pieten’ walking in the streets of Brussels chained to each other as if they were African slaves. This would not magically make whites understand the meaningfulness of skin colour, but it can make them fruitfully misunderstand blackness. They are coerced to think differently, change their discourse on skin colour and respect each other’s difference.

Every public claims knowledge of the general interest of the public as a whole. Since there is no longer the presumption of a natural order harmonizing the whole, but of structural differences leading to contestation, no public can claim to have absolute knowledge of the general interest. Institutionalized conflict can account for this lack, but rendering the place of power empty (Lef, 17). Who speaks for the general interest can change over time and past actions can always be reversed. A real democracy incorporates the indeterminacy of history.

Moreover, the contestation of publics confronts us with our internal differences and forces us to form private identities publicly. The otherness of the other confronts me with my own otherness (Vis, 15). I can only start to understand what it is to be white when confronted with public contestations concerning skin colour. Private identities thus created are essentially mediated by the public confrontation with difference. Emancipation lies not in the family or the market, but in the publicly mediated relation between the individual and his internal difference (Vis, 10).

Profanation. The refeudalization of the public sphere creates masses of superficial, isolated individuals. Habermas mentions that the aura of feudal culture was broken through commodification (Ha, 39). Objects became commodities sold for a certain price and could hence be criticized by the public. Nowadays commodities produce reified individuals, where individuals used to publicly judge commodities.

If it is true that capital reifies individual identity, then the idea of humanity as a force independent of commodities becomes ideological, because it obscures that commodities produce identities. Hence there is no standpoint outside capital to criticize it from. The aforementioned agitational activity of counterpublics can be helpful to challenge auratic capital with its own weapons. Guy Debord dubbed the technique of ‘détournement’ for this purpose (Deb, §208). Agitational activities can use the images of capital itself to break acclamation. For example, one could mix the clown from McDonald’s advertisements with the murderous clown from Stephen King’s It. The conflation makes immediate consent impossible and forces the viewer to distance himself from the images of capital.

pennywiseOne could object that capital can easily recuperate such small agitations. However, the order between capital and individuals is now reversed. Capital no longer produces individuals, but parasitizes on them. For instance, television networks can bombard the public with loads of advertisements, but when people flip channels or fast-forward, capital can only react and has hence lost its initiative. As a result, capitalism unintentionally instigates its own counterprivacy. The individuals who form the aforementioned agitational publics are not the private commodity-owners Habermas wrote about. They are more Marxian, since emancipatory autonomy lies in contestations within the public sphere itself (Ha, 128). Détournements break the acclamatory consent with the aura of the commodity and hence force individuals to think for themselves (sapere aude).

3. Conclusion

The liberal public sphere is an inclusive effort to gather private individuals to rationally scrutinize public domination. Factual exclusions show an inherent contradiction leading to a structural transformation. Private conflicts become public and are regulated by the state (neomercantilism) and private enterprises gain social power to hypnotize the public into consent (refeudalization). These processes are counteracted by the emergence of intermediary powers that both overturn the aura of the commodity through détournements and compete with each other for the empty seat of power. The postbourgeois public sphere, instead of being the product of private individuals, mediates privacy. Individuality can only be assumed after a process of dispossession where one encounters one’s own difference through the difference of others

4. Bibliography

  • Arendt, H. (1999). The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago press.

  • Debord, G. (1992). La société du spectacle. Paris: Gallimard.

  • Fraser, N. (1993). Rethinking the public sphere: a contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In C. Calhoun, Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 109-142). Cambridge: MIT Press.

  • Habermas, J. (1992). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Lefort, C. (1988). Democracy and political theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Visker, R. (Forthcoming). Multicultural differences in the public sphere. 1-20.


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