In the defense of Habermas

I’m at the moment enrolled in a web course – run by the University of Tampere -, called “Current issues in Communication Studies: Perspectives on Democracy and Citizenship.” One of the tasks during this course has been to comment on Juha Koivisto’s and Esa Valiverronen’s article from 1996, entitled “The Resurgence of the Critical Theories of Public Sphere” (Journal of Communication Inquiry 20:2 (1996): 18-36). I copy and paste my comments on the article here.

In their paper, Juha and Esa offer a critical assessment of the Habermasian theory of the (original) bourgeois public sphere and Negt and Kluge’s concept of the proletarian public sphere. I would like to address some points about the critique of Habermas (and to offer a suggestion which seems to bring Negt and Kluge much closer to the standpoint of Habermas than it is pictured in the paper of Juha and Esa).

I think their overall evaluation – that the theory of the bourgeois public sphere, as explained in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1989, onwards: STRW), and in Further reflections on the public sphere (Habermas 1992), is flawed in a number of ways – is correct, however, it also seems incomplete to me. There are some points over which my understanding of Habermas seems to differ from that of Juha and Esa.

There are three main problems mentioned by them as “connected to [Habermas’] idealized concept of the public sphere”: first, the questionable empirical relevance of the idealized model (even if understood as a model that supposedly functioned in a well-demarcated historical setting); second, the abstract and exclusive nature of the public sphere, and third, the “unreflected demarcation between public and private” matters.

The first one of these points I agree with (and I suspect that referring to the practical and historical shortcomings of the model is a normal course of attack against the Habermasian concept of public sphere). Even if we accept his claim that STRW tries to depict a model which could come to life in a special historical setting, under special circumstances, I think Juha and Esa point out rightly that this still could not provide strong enough proof or justification for the model’s empirical relevance. (However, as the authors themselves note, Habermas later changed his views and put the supposedly universal “communicative action” at the source of the public sphere, as opposed to the fortunate co-occurrence of particular socio-economic circumstances. So he abandoned the historically situatedness of the model.)

The second claim is that the original concept of the bourgeois public sphere is too abstract, and while in theory it was open to everyone, in practice it was a sphere of highly restricted access (STRW: 85-86); and so Habermas was talking about a “single” public sphere. This accusation certainly holds true from one perspective: indeed, the bourgeois public sphere is limited to members of the, well, bourgeoisie. In subsequent revisions of the theme (e.g. Habermas 1996: 373 – 374) he acknowledged that, contrary to what he had asserted earlier, there might exist several public spheres with several key themes and media organs, even if these overlapping spheres connect in some kind of overarching network[1].

But,

from another point of view, already in STRW, Habermas is talking about two different public spheres: the political and the cultural public spheres, or the way he terms this latter: “the public sphere in the world of letters” (STRW: 29). I think this deserves somewhat more attention.

The cultural public sphere is, historically as well as on a day-to-day level, the crib of the political public sphere, in the sense that it is through engagement in the cultural public sphere that members of the public achieve the consciousness and familiarize themselves with the argumentative (deliberative) practices that are needed for taking part in the political public sphere. (STRW: 55) This is a very commonsensical idea, after all: it is in conversations with others that we get to a better understanding of what we – and our own opinions – are, and how we can communicate these things.

(But this point seems to be lost from the analysis of Negt and Kluge as well, who seem – from the account of Juha and Esa – to consider the original bourgeois public sphere to be founded on nothing but “the abstract logic of the capital”; on the contrary, Habermas puts exposure to the world of letters at the very heart of the public sphere (though without using the word “experience”). Although it is true that the second half of STRW describes how this “world of letters” becomes dominated by capitalist logic and turns into a world of products and consumption instead; but then from this point of view Negt and Kluge and Habermas don’t contradict each other, rather, Negt and Kluge’s answer should be seen as offering a solution to, but not debating the situation that is described by Habermas.)

So while the historically situated model might not stand as it is, the crucial point it makes is that the cultural public sphere has an extremely important role in creating and nourishing the political public sphere. And, given the practicalities of how we are exposed to this cultural public sphere, this underlines the role of the mass media – and how it is an indispensable part of the democracy.

Related to the second point is the question of the private-public relationship, which, according to Juha and Esa, is “problematic and unreflected” in Habermas’ works in question. I’d argue for the contrary. Once again, seemingly curiously in sync with what Negt and Kluge claim about the proletariat, Habermas emphasizes the key role of subjectivity in the birth and functioning of the public sphere (STRW: 43, 49). But the very point is that this subjectivity, while privately developed and cherished, was turned towards things public! This is the key idea of the original public sphere. Privacy becomes public, insofar as subjectivity is turned – in Habermasian: “oriented” – towards an audience. And this is why I don’t think it’s entirely correct to talk about “a private sphere strictly separated from the public sphere”; as the latter very much depends on the former, whether we are talking about letters, or the sphere of “work and production.”

That the STRW could become such an influential piece of literature is, in my opinion, partly due to the fact that it offers a comprehensive and empirically relevant picture of the role of the cultural public sphere and the media in politics – even if the particular, historically grounded setting in which Habermas tries to introduce it seems do be flawed in a number of ways.

And finally, one thing which left me confused — the explanation of the Lukácsian background of Negt and Kluge’s conception of the “two antagonistics logics” of capitalism.

Habermas, Jürgen (1989): The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Boston, MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (1992): “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere” In: Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge and London, MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (1996): Between Facts and Norms. Cambridge, Polity Press.


[1] ”[…] the public sphere is differentiated into levels according to the density of communication, organizational complexity and range – from the episodic publics found in taverns, coffee houses, or on the streets; through the occasional or “arranged” publics of particular presentations and events such as […] rock concerts [!!!]; up to the abstract public sphere of isolated readers, listeners, and viewers scattered across large geographic areas, or even around the globe, and brought together only through the mass media. Despite these manifold differentiations, however, all the partial publics constituted by ordinary language remain porous to one another.”

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