Habermas’ Public sphere: from the 18th century to today societies
Public sphere is a necessary concept to understand our connected world. All the more today with new technologies, we are inter-connected and share a lot through Internet.
Jürgen Habermas has conceptualized the public sphere as a place where debates take place and ideas are shared. It is useful in understanding our very connected societies. The question is to acknowledge how to apply his theory to social media. Internet changed citizen’s relationship with the media and created a new way of doing what the author thought of as a principle of democracy: rational-critical debate. How relevant is the public sphere concept in today societies?
We will expose Habermas’ concept and critic it, and then see how we talk about public sphere in a hyper connected world.
In feudal world, debate was a private affair for nobility and church (Curran, 1997). There was no need for any public sphere. Habermas saw its emergence in the second half oh the 18th century, principally in France, Britain, and Germany. He said that it is due to four big factors. First the appearance of the “printed world” (McLuhan,1995) leading to reading pamphlets or newspapers that gave the possibility to have an opinion easily. Then a growing trade and commerce created more social interactions between the citizens. The early forms of representative government were also a determinant, bringing people to discuss politics through a public sphere. But for Habermas, the principal element is the emergence of an independent middle class, discussing (amongst themselves) “independent of government [areas] and also enjoying autonomy from partisan economic forces, which is dedicated to rational debate” (Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 1962).
The public sphere is based on a “rational-critical” possibility ( Karl Popper, 1971). That means for citizens a freedom of speech and assembly, a free press and the right to participate in political debate and decision-making. With the 20th century industrialisation process, the public sphere became eroded, and citizens less educated.
According to Habermas, the rational-critical debate has been replaced by leisure and consumption – principal of the mass culture. That is what he called the “refeudalization of the public sphere”. Powerful corporations now manipulate the media, the tool of the rational-critical debate in the 19th century. Citizens are only consumers, and do not participate anymore in decisions about the common good. Here we can see an anti-democratic principle: citizens are now passive in the face of media (radio, cinema, television) and no longer active as they were before, sharing their ideas in public areas.
Media has now a function of a “tranquilising substitute for action” (STPS: 164). That means they create not-important subjects and debates to limit the power of thinking of citizens about real issues. Actually, we...