The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Symbols of Authority

Habermas discusses publicity in historical periods before the bourgeois public sphere of the 1800s. In particular, he pays attention to the Renaissance period immediately prior. In this period, publicity belonged to the Church and the state, which expressed their authority through symbols:

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. (8)

This is Habermas’s description of “representative publicness,” or a type of publicness that is not about people exchanging opinions, but about powerful entities displaying, or representing, their power in public. The value of symbols like the crown is in communicating authority to the wider public.

Symbols of Politics

Just as Renaissance authority relied on symbols to represent power, Habermas thinks the political parties of the 20th century also invest in symbols to communicate through the mass media. Habermas explains:

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. (206)

In this situation, people do not engage or debate politics. Rather, they consume politics like they do brand news and logos. This is not a public of rational conversation, but of customer satisfaction.

Politics and Advertising (Allegory)

In his analysis of the 20th century, Habermas argues that politics has become like advertising. This is an allegory that suggests many different characters:

[T]he 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. (195)

Political parties become public relations firms and citizens become customers. Political messages are advertisements rather than ideas. Now, it doesn’t matter who has the best argument, but who has the flashiest commercial. This is a sad allegory for the state of contemporary politics.

Feudalism (Motif)

A frequent motif throughout The Structural transformation of the Public Sphere is feudalism and feudalization. Although feudalism itself belongs historically to the Middle Ages, it keeps coming back as a characterization of the state’s relation to society. A feudal society is one in which the state—or the king in charge of the state—has completely saturated society, controlling everything from property to relationships between individuals. The bourgeois public sphere at first emerges in sharp contrast to such a system, because there is a separate private realm in which individuals and families participate in commerce and intimacy without interference from the state. But Habermas shows that this period, which is simultaneous with the bourgeois public sphere of the early 1800s, is short-lived. By the end of the 1800s, states begin to intervene in the economy and to manage families through public assistance policies, all of which shows that the state is once again involved in private matters. This second wave of state control is what Habermas calls “refeudalization.”