The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Quotes and Analysis

If the public sphere did not require a name of its own before this period, we may assume that this sphere first emerged and took on its function only at that time, at least in Germany.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 3

Habermas dates the origin of the phrase “public sphere” (Öffentlichkeit) in German to the 18th century. In this quote, he suggests that the phrase comes about in order to describe a new phenomenon, which is to say the birth of the public sphere coincides with the birth of this new phrase. This is indicative of a larger trend in Habermas’s writing to look at linguistic or etymological evidence to support his sociological claims. As language changes or words develop new meanings, there is usually an underlying social structural change motivating it.

The staging of the publicity involved in representation was wedded to personal attributes such as insignia (badges and arms), dress (clothing and coiffure), demeanor (form of greeting and poise) and rhetoric (form of address and formal discourse in general)—in a word, to a strict code of "noble" conduct.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 8

In this quote, Habermas describes at more length what he means by “representative publicness.” This is the kind of publicity associated with the Church and the monarchy in the 1600s before the rise of a bourgeois public sphere. Here, the public is not a space of debate or discussion, but a space of displaying authority. The king wears a crown, for instance, to display his authority over the public. It is not until the public sphere of the 1800s that a more reciprocal kind of exchange exists, in which people engage with one another instead of merely displaying proofs of authority.

The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent: people's public use of their reason.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 27

This quote summarizes Habermas’s definition of the public sphere, which is intermediate between the private sphere of economy and family and the public authorities like the government and the courts. At the height of the public sphere, people in the private realm—economic actors and family members—used the public sphere to hold these public authorities accountable. They did so through reasoned arguments, rather than, for instance, displays of physical might or violence. The public sphere is “critical” in this sense of being a space of reasoned critique.

The shift which produced not merely a change in the composition of the public but amounted to the very generation of the "public" as such, can be categorically grasped with even more rigor in the case of the concert-going public than in the case of the reading and theater-going public. For until the final years of the eighteenth century all music remained bound to the functions of the kind of publicity involved in representation—what today we call occasional music.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 39

In this quote, Habermas uses music as an example of the public sphere developing its own autonomy. Before there was a public sphere, the arts were tied to public authorities like the church or the monarchy. They commissioned music and music was performed for their purposes on special “occasions” like religious holidays or coronations. By the 1800s, however, people started going to concerts just to hear the music, rather than to celebrate public authorities. This means the music has entered a public sphere in which it is serving the private individuals or everyday citizens of the nation rather than the government.

In the institution of art criticism, including literary, theater, and music criticism, the lay judgment of a public that had come of age, or at least thought it had, became organized.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 41

Habermas argues that a central step in the formation of the public sphere is private individuals, or everyday citizens, communicating about art. In talking about art, people learned how to have arguments and reasoned debates that were not serving the government or Church directly. In this exercise, the public sphere develops as an autonomous space of discussion that will eventually come to have political effects as well. For once people have developed norms and habits of critical dialogue, they also discuss other topics such as the proper form of government and justice before the law.

The fully developed bourgeois public sphere was based on the fictitious identity of the two roles assumed by the privatized individuals who came together to form a public: the role of property owners and the role of human beings pure and simple.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 56

In the private sphere, individuals both participated in markets and formed families. This created a contradiction. On the one hand, discourses of “true love” made the family seem like a space of irrational freedom: you could choose who you wanted to marry based on who you loved. This expressed a human side of life, the sense of being guided by one’s emotions rather than by external pressures or laws. But the family still depended on the economy to function. People weren’t, in reality, completely free, because they still had to act rationally in an economy. People participating in the public sphere are economic actors and what Habermas calls "human beings pure and simple" at the same time.

In the course of this development, society was forced to relinquish even the flimsiest pretense of being a sphere in which the influence of power was suspended. The liberal model (in truth one of an economy based on petty commodity exchange) had envisaged only horizontal exchange relationships among individual commodity owners. Under conditions of free competition and independent prices, then, no one was expected to be able to gain so much power as to attain a position that gave him complete control over someone else. Contrary to these expectations, however, under conditions of imperfect competition and dependent prices social power became concentrated in private hands.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 144

From the beginning, the bourgeois public sphere was as much an ideal as a reality. But this idea became harder and harder to believe in by the end of the 1800s, when governments had started to intervene into the economy, which was supposed to be a space of freedom and equality among individuals. Now, people began to see that the public sphere, composed of economic actors, was not egalitarian but subject to government coercion and unequal distributions of wealth. This marks the demise of even the idea of the public sphere.

One may speak of a refeudalization of the public sphere in yet another, more exact sense. For the kind of integration of mass entertainment with advertising, which in the form of public relations already assumes a “political” character, subjects even the state itself to its code. Because private enterprises evoke in their customers the idea that in their consumption decisions they act in their capacity as citizens, the state has to “address” its citizens like consumers. As a result, public authority too competes for publicity.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 195

For Habermas, the public sphere of the early 19th century was a rejection of a feudal model in which everything is controlled by the state, originally in the form of the king. But by the beginning of the 20th century, a kind of feudalism had returned, because now the state was entangled with the public sphere once more. In turn, the public sphere became not an autonomous space for discussing and critiquing the state, but rather a space in which citizens come to either approve or disapprove of what the state is selling them. Just like feudal peasants had to rely on the monarchy to meet their needs, now citizens rely on their government to give them services to which they are entitled as customers.

The world fashioned by the mass media is a public sphere in appearance only.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 171

In the 20th century, with the rise of commercialized presses and mass media like radio and television, Habermas thinks the public sphere has effectively disintegrated. The ideal of the public sphere is one of critical dialogue, in which private citizens use reasoned arguments to debate the state of the world. People don’t engage with mass media in the same way. Rather, people watching television, for instance, receive messages without an opportunity to contest or debate them. But the mass media still provide a fantasy of publicness because everyone is watching television or receiving the same message. This is what gives the appearance of the public sphere even though the crucial function, critical dialogue, has gone away.

Before the expanded public sphere the transactions themselves are stylized into a show. Publicity loses its critical function in favor of a staged display; even arguments are transmuted into symbols to which again one cannot respond by arguing but only by identifying with them.

Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 206

This quote summarizes Habermas’s stance on the public sphere in the 20th century, the age of mass media. In this world, people are not invited to participate in argumentation, but only receive and affirm arguments others have already decided for them. This depletes the public sphere of any critical function in which the state could be held accountable for its actions or policies.