Correspondence – reflections on Dimitra Milioni’s article

What follows below is some reflections on Dimitra L. Milioni‘s recent article “Probing the online counterpublic sphere: the case of Indymedia Athens”, published in Media, Culture & Society.

It’s long(ish). You’ve been warned.


…on Habermas and the emancipatory potential of the internet

You write that “Habermas firmly rejected the view that liberal democracies can benefit from the deliberative activity of internet users in the countless chat rooms and online fora” (with reference to the “Dresden speech” (Habermas 2006)). I think his views on the subject are ambiguous at best, allowing multiple interpretations.

It is true that he judges “online debates of web users” as mostly driving towards the fragmentation of the political public sphere. However, he also points to the fact that, when “crystallized around focal points of the quality press,” these debates can promote and extend political communication. What he seems to deny is not the potential of online debates to contribute in some way to the deliberative processes of liberal democracies, but the potential of grassroots media and spontaneously created issue publics to replace established media organs as agenda setters and organizers of the political public sphere.

This line of argument also seems to fall in line with the concept of “transformativecounterpublics that you use (I will turn to this in a bit), and also with the hard reality of media economics – as it was often mentioned in Athens, producing news, creating content is expensive, and requires the institutional background and resources that grassroots journalism just doesn’t have.

In addition, as Axel Bruns (2007) pointed out, Habermas even contradicts himself within the Dresden speech: when talking about the various online chatrooms, he stresses how they fragment the political public sphere, but when talking about issue publics in general (on- or offline), he concludes that “[a]lthough a larger number of people tend to take an interest in a larger number of issues, the overlap of issue publics may even serve to counter trends of fragmentation.” That he doesn’t allow for this to happen in an online setting suggests that he might be unfamiliar with the practical circumstances of these online debates – and especially with just how much easier it is to participate in multiple issue publics online than in real life.

I think the most fruitful approach is then to imagine online conversations as some kind of extension of the “wild flows of communication” that feature the two-track model of deliberative democracy that Habermas presents in Between Facts and Norms. I will also return to this in a bit, but first –

…on the identity forming function of political debates

I liked the way in which you tried to “update” the public sphere theory by drawing attention to some modifications to it – some committed by Habermas, some by others – at least to me it seems that his ideas presented in Between Facts and Norms often go unnoticed, or at least they don’t usually get the attention they deserve (especially in comparison with The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and The Theory of Communicative Action). The idea of the public sphere being a complex construction of various, overlapping, porous public spheres is one case in point.

I also think you make a very good point when underlining how Habermas seems not to pay attention to the identity forming function of politics. But I’m not sure what you mean by writing “in the classic conception of the public sphere” – do you mean the one presented in The Structural Transformation… , or in The Theory of Communicative Action? There is quite a difference between the approaches of these two theories about the public sphere (see about this Malmberg 2006), and I’d argue that the concept of identity was very important at least for the young Habermas.

In Strukturwandel, he looked at the bourgeois public sphere as an institution comprising two distinct spheres: the political and also the cultural. This is the main thing; that in the historically situated original theory of the bourgeois public sphere, everything started with “the world of letters.” Everything started with the cultural public sphere, where members of the bourgeoisie could develop and nurture a hitherto unexperienced subjectivity (a new notion of what is “private”); and then they could turn this newly developed subjectivity to matters public – this is what I think Habermas means by “audience-oriented subjectivity.”

I think this idea of “subjectivity” could be translated as “identity”, too – a better understanding of who we ourselves are.

OK, but why is this interesting? – Because I think this kernel of thought, the subject understanding itself when immersed in communication, is implied everywhere in Habermas’ work. It might not sound like a revolutionary thought – probably it isn’t –, but still I think it’s very important. Especially when talking about blogs and discussion forums: these might only act to fragment the public sphere to millions of pieces, but even the most fragmented bits of “useless communication” have the function of making the speaker better understand what his or her own thoughts and views are. And I would argue that this function of communication helping subjects to “achieve self-understanding” is even more pronounced in online communication than in real-life communication settings, insofar as online communication involves writing, which is a more conscious activity (I’d argue) than speaking. It requires more attention.

So my point is that the concept of identity is indeed very important for Habermas. What he neglects to talk about is group identity – the importance of sense of belonging to an organization. This negligence is hardly defensible. I haven’t read much about the topic myself, but it seems that Mouffe (2005) has quite good points about just how important this group identity is, even if it lays outside the scope of rationality.

(On the other hand, I see Mouffe’s work a bit problematic too – she vehemently attacks the procedural model of politics that Habermas proposes, but ends up proposing a procedural model herself, and one whose definition seems bordering impossible… I mean, how to understand agonism in practice? What counts as “adversarial” relationship? And how to guarantee it? Where to draw the line between “enemy” and “adversary”? And most importantly, if we accept that there might be no agreement reached between parties ever and renounce discussion as a means to solve problems, how exactly should political decisions be made?)

…on the role of “communicative rationality and the demanding standards of ideal speech situation”

Let me quote Habermas on this one.

“[…] These examples might suggest that ‘rational discourse’ is a kind of philosophical ‘ideal’ belonging to what Rawls calls ‘ideal theory’. This is not how I understand the term. The conception of rational discourse results from the reconstruction of an actual practice and captures just those pragmatic features of a communicative setting that anybody tacitly presupposes once he seriously enters an argumentation in order to check a problematic validity claim […]. This rather demanding practice of ‘giving and taking reasons’ […] is rooted in, and emerging from, the everyday contexts of communicative action. The idealizing presuppositions of inclusiveness, equal communicative rights, sincerity and freedom of repression and manipulation are part of the intuitive knowledge of how to argue. Far from being an imposition of philosophical ideas from the outside, they form an intrinsic dimension of this practice.” (Habermas 2005: 385)

…which I understand so that Habermas acknowledges the counterfactual character of the ideal speech concept, but maintains that in spite of this, the “intuitive knowledge about the ideal speech situation” counts as constitutive of the everyday practice of speech.

And in Between Facts and Norms he does introduce a model which accommodates this practical understanding of the ideal speech concept. This is the two-track model of deliberative democracy (Habermas 2004, 2006). It is based on this model that I have been argued (Szabó 2008) that Habermas’ concept of democracy is reconcilable with that of Walter Lippmann (1993), insofar as it acknowledges the severely limited and wildly imperfect faculties of human beings.

The two-track model establishes a kind of division of labour within the society: deliberation, the mode of communication approximating the ideal speech scenario to the largest possible degree, cannot organize the totality of society – and it should not even do so. There are separate institutions whose job is to conduct deliberation and reach political decisions thereby; these institutions are to be found in the core of the political system.

But on the other hand, this decision making core – the political system – relies on the “wild, anarchic, unorganized” flows of communication, born and nurtured in the lifeworld-bound private experiences of individual citizens. This is the “other” track.

And mediating between the two tracks stands the (political) public sphere, with the media generating and filtering messages and trying to direct the flow of public opinion in order to supply the political system – the decision making core – with “considered opinion.” So the idea is that the political system, where the actual deliberation can take place, needs to rely on undistorted information coming from the Lifeworld; and what the public sphere does is the filtering, debating and channelling of this information (and, of course, to supply on the other hand citizens with information coming from the political system).

The “transformative, not merely replicative character” of counterpublics fits seamlessly into this model. It describes aptly much of online communication: whether you write a blog, chat online, take part in a discussion forum or use Twitter, republishing previous information (most often through providing links to the original material) gives you ample opportunities to transform, illustrate or comment on the original messages. But arguably you don’t even have to add any kind of new information to the original – because the mere fact that you republish a news item is a statement about item’s value, worth of interest etc – so it is a comment on the media agenda.

And I also like the concept of “transformative character” for the reason that it implies that there is something pre-existing which can be transformed. It implies that counterpublics are publics in contrast to, in opposition to, or in reflection to something that is already existing. This captures the dilemma mentioned in Athens – counterpublics, too, need the existing media institution to supply the raw material of news (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, commentary).

“Our research hypothesis was that the transformative potential of the internet resides in weaving together the different aspects of the democratic public life, such as information acquisition and opinion formation, political discussion, identity building and collective action. By facilitating the construction of active publics it suggests a changed notion of the public sphere.”

I think this is also a very good point. It is also one of the reasons why I think social news websites are important – i.e. that they combine the gathering and spreading of information with deliberation (or at least this is their promise); and this is important, because, as Schudson (1997) and Mouffe and others claimed, talk is not everything. There needs to be other parts to political decision making too. It is of course great if deliberation happens on a forum or on a blog; but what will the consequences of this deliberation be, beyond that participants come to a better understanding of the problem in question and reaching some rationally defensible consensus about it? Of course this is important, but just how much effect will this have on all those people across the society who are not part of the discussion?

In contrast, on social news sites, deliberation is different. It need not reach a consensus – issues are only debated for a brief period of time, at the end of which an article either gets to the front page or it doesn’t. But the debates are still meaningful, because they – ideally – affect what the news agenda of the site is going to be, which in turn has the potential to influence a much larger part of the society than any given discussion on even the most popular blogs or discussion forums.


—- Works cited: —-

Bruns, Axel (2007): “Habermas and/against the internet.” Blog post:

Habermas, Jürgen (2004 [1996]): Between Facts and Norms – Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (2005): “Concluding Comments on Empirical Approaches to Deliberative Politics” in Acta Politica 40, 384 – 392.

Habermas, Jürgen (2006): “Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Enjoy an Epistemic Dimension? The Impact of Normative Theory on Empirical Research” in Communication Theory 16, 411 – 426.

Lippmann, Walter (1993 [1927]): The Phantom Public. Transaction Publishers.

Malmberg, Tarmo (2006): “The Possibilities and Limits of Public Life: Habermas and the Mass Media.” Available electronically at

Mouffe, Chantal (2005): On The Political. New York, Routledge.

Schudson, Michael (1997): “Why Conversation Is Not the Soul of Democracy” in Critical Studies in Mass Communication 14(4), 297 – 309.

Szabó, András (2008): “A reply to ‘Life beyond the Public Sphere: Towards a Networked Model for Political Deliberation’ (Axel Bruns, 2008).” Unpublished; available online at

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