So given what’s going on* in Egypt and the Middle East, we in the West are fascinated by not so much revolutions and popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes, but an efficacious use of social media. Even Clinton is talking about the Internet as “the world’s town square”, and it seems that the old conversation about the Internet and the public sphere is going to flare up for the third time (1993-5 and 2001-3 are the other two times). Since Habermas is generally credited for bringing this notion of the public sphere to the forefront of popular, political, and academic discourse, it is natural to cite him. Then critique him to death, talking about how we need to get beyond an old white guy’s theories. And it feels good, I know.
The problem is that most people only read his first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which was written in 1962, and then proceed to critique “the Habermasian public sphere.” I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read which demand that we ‘move beyond’ Habermas or go ‘post-Habermasian’ and only cite Structural Transformation. It’s a great literary foil if you’re advancing your own concept of the public sphere, and the whole ‘new events require a re-evaluation of old theories’ is a mainstay of academia. As a crazy post-Latourian socio-technical ethnographer who grants agency to everything (literally, every single thing) except for social structures, it is weird that I’m defending him. But I’m also a huge proponent of keeping your intellectual allies close and your intellectual opponents closer.
* I love how all our social/cultural/economic/political theories of the state, legitimacy, revolution, and democracy are undergoing their most radical problematization since the fall of the Soviet Union, such that we don’t know how to name the events in the past month, thus we settle on something like “what’s going on.”
Problem one: We’re on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Structural Transformation
So there are two problems with equating the description of the public sphere Habermas gives in Structural Transformation with ‘the Habermasian public sphere’. First, Habermas — who is still not only still alive but writing, teaching, and lecturing — wrote twenty-nine books after he wrote Structural Transformation at the age of thirty-three. If by Habermasian we mean the ideas and theories of the public sphere found in that book, Habermas in the 21st century [note: great band name] is probably one of the most post-Habermasian theorists out there. He has expanded, refined, and further developed his theories of media, communication, politics, power, law, democracy, and, yes, the public sphere in a myriad of books and articles. Now, if you want a recommendation, I personally think that Between Facts and Norms (1992 in German, 1996 in English) is an excellent synthesis and refinement of his work in the 70s and 80s. I think section 8.3 contains the best and most concise depiction of how Habermas himself conceptualizes the public sphere, and it looks like someone has all of chapter 8 up. Again, I don’t defend it, but let’s just say that it comes a long way.
To ignore these later works is just intellectually lazy, and for those of us perfectionist academics who endlessly struggle with getting the argument right (i.e. all of us), the only way we manage to push it out the door is to tell ourselves that we’ll always have the ability to further refine our works in response to criticism. In fact, this is precisely how all of academia — or even all of culture, art, politics, you name it — progresses. I’m recalling my senior thesis, the very first work I published on Wikipedia: even though I still believe I got most of the facts right and that the argument remains coherent, I’ve realized that there were many issues and have a more sophisticated framing. And that was just five years ago. I can’t imagine how I’d react if it was still happening on the eve of 2055.
Now, with regards to critics of Habermas, I do have to give credit to scholars like Nancy Fraser, who keeps up with his more recent works and repeatedly shows how, for example, how his analysis of gender is still inadequate as he reframes the concept. But this is only the case with dedicated readers of Habermas, and it’s a lot easier to repeat the claim that ‘Habermas’s conception of the public sphere (Habermas 1962) subordinates women (Fraser 1990)’ without skimming more than the first few pages of either citation. However, as Fraser and others understand quite well, swap that 1962 citation for 1981 or 1985, and it is a radically different argument, which I’ll get to below. (But already, I should note that we’re twenty years in the past with a statement like that, and both Habermas and his Anglophone critics have undergone a very fascinating, dare I say dialectical, co-evolution over the past 20 years).
Problem two: There is no theory of the public sphere in Structural Transformation
The second problem is worse, because it involves what I see as a misreading of his famous 1962 book, which, despite my last argument, I still believe stands coherent (even with significant issues) after nearly 50 years. The full title is The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, and many people don’t really acknowledge that subtitle. In my reading, Habermas doesn’t set out to define what he thinks the public sphere is and ought to be, as if he were constructing what many have called ‘his’ concept, theory, or ontology of the public sphere. In the tradition of critical theory since Hegel — and in stark opposition to the tradition of philosophy since Aristotle — he seeks to understand how bourgeois society thinks of itself.
And as he rightly identifies, a certain kind of idea of the public sphere became a fundamental category of bourgeois society starting in the 18th century, in the sense that society couldn’t think of itself as not having a relation to it. A side note: in this critical tradition, such a move is necessary with philosophy of society and impossible with, say, philosophy of action or perception because society is entirely self-constituted by its understanding of itself. The critical move then comes from holding up a mirror to society and seeing if this concept of the public sphere, which is conceptualized and instantiated in certain ways, lives up to what we claim it does. He doesn’t do that in Structural Transformation (it was his first book, after all), which is why I think he gets a lot of undeserved criticism.
Now, Habermas and his translators definitely didn’t do a good enough job expressing this intention, but it continually frustrates me to see critiques that “Habermas’s public sphere” is a bourgeois fiction which never truly realized its ideals of universality, systematically excluding along lines of gender, race, class, status, and more. Now, I think that all the accounts of such exclusion which have emerged are necessary, because Habermas does not devote that much time to such issues, and does not give accounts of various ‘counter-publics’ which we now know emerged in opposition to the exclusive salons and coffeehouses. But this is not the goal of Structural Transformation, which is an account of how bourgeois society came to see and legitimize itself through the concept of the public sphere, which he repeatedly describes as a fiction.
The concept of the public sphere described in that book, even in its ‘ideal’ formations, is not one that Habermas himself necessarily advocates. His fault is perhaps in taking society at its word, in effect arguing something along the lines of: this is how you think of yourself, and let us see if you even live up to that. Again, in the tradition of critical theory, the point is precisely to not come up with some universal, neutral, objective standard and then see if society measures up to it; it is to unravel the internal contradictions within society. But people like grand, unified theories and system builders from Kant to Castells are popular for a reason, and he has become one of them with his later work. Now, Fraser and others rightly call him out on this, and their critiques are explicitly focused on whether he does jettison the bourgeois concept of the public sphere when he starts developing his own conception.
Habermas’s fault is perhaps not understanding the massive impact his first book would have, and how bourgeois society, woefully lacking a solid concept of the public sphere, would come to take its fictional depiction of itself as a theory of itself. With this in mind, it makes sense how someone trained in the critical tradition like Habermas could become someone who created an entire theoretical system that he then uses to externally understand society. The way I see it, he inadvertently tapped into a vacuum with the concept of the public sphere, and has since had to serve two audiences, critical/cultural theorists and social/political scientists. I have my own critiques of both Structural Transformation and his later works, and again, really can’t believe I’m defending Habermas of all people, but you’ve got to get your target right.