The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Imagery

Imagery of Coffee House

In his history of the rise of the bourgeois public sphere, Habermas pays special attention to the institution of the coffee house or tea parlor. He thinks that this new institution provided opportunities for members of the bourgeoisie to come together and enter into critical debate. He explains:

Around the middle of the seventeenth century, after not only tea—first to be popular—but also chocolate and coffee had become the common beverages of at least the well-to-do strata of the population, the coachman of a Levantine merchant opened the first coffee house. (32)

Habermas also goes on to describe the people who would come into the coffee houses:

The house not merely made access to the relevant circles less formal and easier; it embraced the wider strata of the middle class, including craftsmen and shopkeepers. Ned Ward reports that the "wealthy shopkeeper" visited the coffee house several times a day; this held true for the poor one as well. (33)

In this image, we see anew coming-together of different groups of people who might not have previously affiliated. This is a precondition of the public sphere, a wider social network and an emphasis on what people say more than where people come from.

The Democratization of the Arts

An important part of the rise of the bourgeois public sphere was the liberation of the arts from the royal courts and religious institutions. Soon, everyday people started to listen to music or go to plays made for them. Habermas narrates:

Composers were appointed as court, church, or council musicians, and they worked on what was commissioned, just like writers in the service of patrons and court actors in the service of princes. The average person scarcely had any opportunity to hear music except in church or in noble society. First, private Collegia Musica appeared on the scene; soon they established themselves as public concert societies. Admission for a payment turned the musical performance into a commodity; simultaneously, however, there arose something like music not tied to a purpose. For the first time an audience gathered to listen to music as such—a public of music lovers to which anyone who was propertied and educated was admitted. (39)

In turn, art provided a sphere carved out from the public authorities of church and state. In consuming art, people were participating in a public sphere along with other private citizens, rather than coming together to praise God or Queen. In many ways, this new audience, with its new purpose, is a model of the public sphere at large.

Imagery of Intimate Seclusion

As Habermas narrates the demise of the public sphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he also explains that the private sphere was encroached upon as well. This was particularly true for families, who no longer had a separate sphere of their own but were open to public monitoring and even state management. Habermas provides an image of the domestic home as a mirror of this change:

This surreptitious hollowing-out of the family’s intimate sphere received its architectural expression in the layout of homes and cities. The closedness of the private home, clearly indicated to the outside by front yard and fence and made possible on the inside by the individualized and manifold structuring of rooms, is no longer the norm today, just as, conversely, its openness to the social intercourse of a public sphere was endangered by the disappearance of the salon and of rooms for the reception of visitors in general. The loss of the private sphere and of ensured access to the public sphere is characteristic of today's urban mode of dwelling and living, whether technological and economic developments have equally adapted the old forms of urban dwelling to new functions or new suburban settlement forms have been developed on the basis of these experiences. (157)

Just as the family is opened up to public scrutiny and influence, so too was the family house.