The Public Sphere Problem

Preparation Guide 2014

If rhetoric is central to community, morality, and practical reason, then the next question is: How healthy is this dimension of human life? Not healthy, answers Jürgen Habermas. The diagnosis and the cure are an object of study.

The heart of Habermas' critique lies in his concept of legitimacy -- patterns of discourse must underlie a public identity that guides relationships of public life. In doing so, his work contrasts with those who see themselves as political scientists, and most sociologists of our century who view public life merely in terms of structures and institutions. At the same time there is a second reorientation involved here which connects "public" more broadly than to government. Government is merely a particular solution to the public problem. Typically today politics is viewed as a subject of study in social contexts from the family to the office to the nation-state. Viewed this way, problems of social identity are fundamentally problems in our rhetoric. This opens up so many new ways of thinking about social relationships and political communication that the studies are practically reinvented. The diagnosis has now crossed from the academic to the public media. Laments for the low state of public discourse are a part of editorial pages and talk shows. It is a part of the same movement.

Given the locating of the problem in the quality of discourse, the theoretical issues which follow have to do with the preconditions and praxis of a satisfactory public discourse. Habermas' approach to addressing this problem has been markedly different from American approaches. You will read both. The European reading will be difficult because of the vocabulary and theoretical differences. Work through it carefully.

Clusters: Communicative Action; Argumentation in the Public Sphere; Publics and Counterpublics, Deliberative Democracy.

Preparing for Discussion:

Scholars from many different disciplines have critiqued Habermas’s public sphere and the assumptions it makes about public deliberation. We consider two major criticisms--divisions in the public sphere, and the role of dissent--before considering whether modern technologies require a recapitulation, reconception, or renunciation of public sphere theory.

Questions While Reading

  1. How would you describe the two main criticisms found in the readings?  Do you think they are legitimate?  Why or why not?
  2. Which author responds to each criticism?  How?  Is that change productive?  Do you have any additional ideas for addressing the criticism?
  3. How does each author use or revise Habermas's worlds (objective, social, life)? How do those differences chain out into different concepts of human communication? Do you find them to be theoretically useful in explaining why humans communicate as they do?
  4. How have the definitions of "public" and "counterpublic" changed since The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere? Do these changes place strength or weakness within a public, or in a public's place within the public sphere (see Fraser and Phillips)? Do you feel that the term "counterpublic" accurately describes the position and communication of the people to whom it is applied?
  5. Many of these analyses portray the Habermasian public sphere as degenerating. What replacement(s) do they see emerging? Do you agree / disagree with these assessments? Why?
  6. What role do new media or social media play in the public sphere? What role does the "public screen" play in this new, mediated environment (see Deluca and Baym)? How can we shift Habermas's basic theory to account for new technologies and spaces?
  7. Many of the authors question the relative value of consent versus dissent for democratic deliberation. How does each author frame ideal public sphere communication? How do those contrast with Habermas?
  8. How do the authors who write about deliberative democracy engage the idea captured in the chart on page 30 in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere? What revisions/critiques do you find in Schudson's piece particularly? How can institutions work to promote public sphere?
  9. What responsibilities does each author attribute to citizens?
  10. What implications does Schudson’s concept of sociable and problem-solving conversation have for us as critics and teachers?

Basic Readings:

Additional Readings:

Recent Work: (Selected by Will Howell and Janna Soeder)

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