The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Summary and Analysis of Part 1

Summary of Part 1 (“Preliminary Demarcation of a Type of Bourgeois Public Sphere”)

Habermas begins The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere with a discussion of the slipperiness of the word “public” itself. He focuses on the French, English, and German languages. Sometimes, the word seems to refer to the state. Other times, it refers to the common man or society at large. Sometimes, it refers to spaces, like a public domain. Other times, it suggest beliefs, as in public opinion. Habermas says that the general confusion of the term today is a result of transformations over time in what the public has meant. Today’s public sphere is the culmination of millennia of shifting definitions of “public.”

For Habermas, modern definitions of the public date to the eighteenth century, which is when phrases like “the public sphere” were first coined. It is when language changes or develops new terms, Habermas argues, that we can witness a change in social structures underlying them. But he says the very beginning of the story of what “public” means goes back to Ancient Greece, which had made a distinction between the polis, or a sphere open to all free citizens, and the oikos, or household over which a citizen had authority. This maps onto a distinction between the public and the private. In Ancient Greece, the private home was a space of necessity, where worldly needs like eating and sexual reproduction were hidden away. In contrast, free men could ascend to a higher plane of free discussion and self-expression in the public sphere.

This distinction between a public and a private space may seem familiar to us today, but Habermas argues it effectively went away, for a time, in the European Middle Ages. This was the time of feudalism, when land owned by a monarch was essentially exchanged for military service and peasant labor. In such a system, there is no public space open to all. Instead, Habermas says the medieval period was characterized by what he calls “representative publicness.” This refers to the public display, or representation, of signs of authority. Think of the noble court with its displays of royalty in different robes, crowns, and thrones, or of the Catholic Church and its own regalia and rituals. These spectacles are public. But there is no public sphere in which people come together for debate or discussion, as in the polis of Ancient Greece.

Over the course of the Renaissance, however, this representative publicness waned. Part of the reason is that the feudal powers whose authority were represented started to move away from one another. The knightly nobility, the royal court, and the Church developed distinct relations to publicness. The domain of the Church, for instance, became private, as evidenced in phrases like “freedom of religion,” which make belief a personal matter of conviction rather than a public matter of organizing society as a whole. In the opposite direction, certain functions of royal and courtly authority started to belong to the state rather than to the figure of the monarch. The military, for instance, became independent, and nobility transformed into relatively more public institutions like Parliament.

Behind this new “polarization” into public and private elements, Habermas argues, was the transformation out of feudalism into capitalism. In capitalism, the economy is controlled by private actors rather than by the state. The first stage of capitalism was characterized by trade and is called “mercantile” after the merchants who moved goods from one place to another. This had a couple consequences, especially by the 1500s. For one, mercantilism led to the development of new centers of power in cities, where markets provided a place for lots of merchants to come together. For another, it necessitated the rise of long-distance journalism and communication, to know what was going on in other cities and markets far away. Notice that neither of these things—markets or the news—were controlled by someone like a king or queen.

This demotion of feudal authority did not immediately bring about the rise of public authority, however. News, for instance, might be exchanged in private letters between merchants rather than publicly circulated in something resembling a modern newspaper. But soon, the 16th and 17th centuries saw the rise of modern states to protect and facilitate markets as well. There are two main signs of this transformation. One is the development of tax systems that are not just a collection of dues paid to a king, but relate to the trade of goods and go to funding public infrastructures. The second is the development of perhaps the most visible sign of public authority, the development of police. Previously, military power had been called upon to fight wars or assist in emergencies. Now, armed power was a permanent authority of full-time soldiers who secured the proper functioning of the citizenry. To manage these new powers and control the city, a whole set of specialized, bourgeois actors also emerged, including lawyers and administrators.

The cumulative effect of these transformations was the birth of civil society: a society of citizens with common interests rather than, say, peasants with a common lord. Such a model cuts across the Ancient Greek lines of private and public. First of all, in the modern order, private citizens must be oriented to the public sphere in order to secure the commodities and goods they wish to consume in their household. Secondly, public markets require the private ambition of entrepreneurs. Rather than a separate private sphere for material goods and public sphere for discussion, the modern, bourgeois public sphere or civil society represents a kind of blending of the two, where private, material interests motivate public discussion.

Habermas introduces another critical element that helped bridge private and public: the new explosion of press that did not just publish the news, but also opinions and criticisms that provide reasons and arguments for how the public should be run. As more and more private citizens began to learn to read, write, and publish, they came together and demanded that public institutions prove they were serving their best interests.

Analysis of Part 1 (“Preliminary Demarcation of a Type of Bourgeois Public Sphere”)

It is interesting Habermas calls this opening Chapter a “Preliminary Demarcation.” He does not mean preparatory, as if the real analysis is coming in later chapters. Rather, he means he is telling the pre-history of the bourgeois public sphere, that is, everything that came before its formation in modernity. In particular, he wants to show how understandings of the public changed from Ancient Greece through medieval Europe and ultimately into and beyond the Renaissance. From the beginning, then, we clearly see that Habermas is interested in Western civilization in particular. This is why he goes back to Ancient Greece, often seen as the birthplace of the West. He does not track possible influences from beyond a strictly Western genealogy.

A few things are worth noting about the kind of history Habermas is telling here. First of all, notice that it is not a teleological narrative. Such a narrative imagines an endpoint and tells us about all the events that built up to it. Although Habermas has an endpoint—the bourgeois public sphere—he does not treat everything coming before as logically marching toward it. History is more meandering and circular in his account, as the Greek public/private division takes on different forms in feudal and Renaissance societies. This is why Habermas says the word “public” itself is so messy. It’s because it has come after millennia of different usages, without a simple concept that is consistent throughout.

Despite the illogical nature of history, how it does not follow a neat or predictable pattern, Habermas clearly thinks history is indispensable. This is why before he theorizes the public sphere in later chapters, he first tells its prehistory. The reasons or this is because only by viewing things in a larger historical frame can we start to question the things we take for granted. This is the second function of history for Habermas, “defamiliarization,” or making what seems natural seem unfamiliar. Sometimes, when we are immersed in our contemporary period, we can assume that the current political configuration is just the way things are and that they can’t be different. Looking at the past, however, shows how things were different before, which may lead us to critique and change the present, rather than leave it unquestioned.

Third, Habermas' choice to begin by discussing the word “public” also suggests the method of his history. He says that the phrase “public sphere” in Germany emerged in the 18th century, which suggests this is when the public sphere itself also began to emerge. Throughout this book, Habermas will continue to look at language as evidence of social change. This is because he thinks the ways we talk about things matter, and shifting social structures are evidenced in shifting vocabularies. But he also balances this essentially etymological or linguistic approach with a real attention to social structural change as well. In essence, Habermas’s method seems to be to look at language as a symptom of an underlying narrative. When you notice language change, then you are invited to go look for the forces behind it.

As this Introduction suggests, the forces that are especially important to Habermas have to do with political economy. For Habermas, capitalism is the primary driving force that breaks up the feudal king’s monopoly on publicity. It is not that there is some great reformer who stood up to the king, or some single revolutionary event. Rather, the “polarization” of the king’s publicity is a natural side effect of the social structures necessitated by capitalism, as people start to trade directly with one another. Throughout The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas will come back to this motif of the economy creating the conditions of politics. Shifting configurations of the public sphere respond to shifting conditions in the nature of capitalism.