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.”