The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Challenges to the Public Sphere in the 21st Century

In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas argues that the bourgeois public sphere was a brief and ideal construction that is no longer even an ideal in the 20th century. This is because of the expansion of the public to include more and more previously excluded members and because of the rise of the manipulative mass media. Nonetheless, Habermas seems to hold on to the possibility of resurrecting a public sphere by universalizing interest and decreasing bureaucracy. More recent critical theorists, however, have been more skeptical of the possibility of the public sphere in the 21st century.

At least three reasons are typically provided for why a Habermasian public sphere can be no longer even an aspiration. The first deals with geography. In Habermas’s theory, public spheres are ideally positioned between private citizens and public authorities of a state. Today, though, communication cuts across national borders and this “national subtext” of Habermas’s theory, as Nancy Fraser calls it, is no longer tenable. Second, there is a crisis in rationality. As Craig Calhoun glosses Habermas, the public sphere “represents the potential for the people organized in civil society to alter their own conditions of existence by means of rational-critical discourse.” But today, there are different regimes of rationality, and there is no consensus over which one is “right.” Science, art, and law each provide modes of rationalizing action, but any given action can never be reduced to just one of those discourses. Without consensus over what justifies action, how can there be consensus on which argument is right? Societies lack universal criteria for determining the best ideas.

The third reason for why public spheres cannot be idealized today, according to some theorists, is the rise of private interests or communications that are not directed to a public at all. Central to this issue has been the rise of the Internet. Does the Internet provide a universal democratic space, like the cafes of earlier public spheres, in which people come together to discuss the state of the world? Manuel Castells thinks so, calling the Internet “The New Public Sphere.” But some worry that the Internet actually privatizes political speech, because people go off in their Twitter hive, Facebook bubble, or their blog world to argue, rather than entering into a real political forum publicly open to all. For his part, Habermas himself saw electronic communication as both promising and problematic: “[w]hereas the growth of systems and networks multiplies possible contacts and exchanges of information, it does not lead per se to the expansion of an intersubjectively shared world and to the discursive interweaving of conceptions of relevance, themes, and contradictions from which political public spheres arise. The consciousness of planning, communicating and acting subjects seems to have simultaneously expanded and fragmented” (Habermas, Inclusion of the Other, 120).

Whether the public sphere is possible or even desirable today remains an open discussion in critical debate. In either case, it raises new questions for anyone who wants to study the possibility of democracy in an increasingly globalized, digitized, and fragmented world.