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The public sphere is a concept in continental philosophy and critical theory that contrasts with the private sphere, and is the part of life in which one is interacting with others and with society at large. In Civil Society and the Political Public Sphere, philosopher Jürgen Habermas defines the public sphere as "a network for communicating information and points of view" which eventually transforms them into a public opinion. Much of the thought about the public sphere relates to the concept of identity and identity politics.
Overview and historical development
The concept of Public Sphere was first introduced by Jürgen Habermas, in his book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (originally in German and later translated into English). Through this work, he gave a historical and sociological account of the rise and decay of the bourgeois public sphere. The German term Öffentlichkeit (Public Sphere) encompasses a variety of meanings and it implies to a spatial concept, the social sites or arenas where meanings are articulated, distributed, and negotiated, as well as the collective body constituted by, and in this process, "the public". (Negt and Kluge 1993).
The public sphere denotes specific institutions, agencies, practices; however, it is also a general social horizon of experience in which everything that is actually or seemingly relevant for all members of society is integrated. Understood in the sense, the public sphere is a matter for a handful of professionals (e.g., politicians, editors, union officials) on the one hand, but, on the other, it is something that concerns everyone and that realises itself only in people’s minds, in a dimension of their consciousness." (Negt and Kluge, 1993)
The concept of public sphere as expressed by Habermas (1989) has existed in its true sense in the UK since the 18th century. The coffee houses in London society at this time became the centres of art and literary criticism, which gradually widened to include even the economic and the political disputes as matters of discussion. In French salons, as Habermas says, "opinion became emancipated from the bonds of economic dependence". Any new work, or a book or a musical composition had to get its legitimacy in these places. It not only paved a forum for self-expression, but in fact had become a platform for airing one’s opinions and agendas for public discussion.
The development of capitalism paved the way for a new kind of public sphere with its changed institutional forms of political power. With the emergence of civil society and modern government, the privatised economic relations were brought under the area of public authority. The private realm comprised both the public economic relations and the private intimate relations and to negotiate between these two there emerged a new bourgeois public sphere. It comprised groups of individuals who would debate and discuss and regulate the civil society through constructive criticism.
The emergence of bourgeois public sphere was particularly supported by the 18th century liberal democracy making resources available to this new political class to establish a network of institutions like publishing enterprises, newspapers and discussion forums, and the democratic press was a main tool to execute this. The key feature of this public sphere was its separation from the power of both the church and the government due to its access to a variety of resources, both economic and social.
As Habermas argues, in due course, this sphere of rational and universalistic politics, free from both the economy and the State, was destroyed by the same forces that initially established it. The growth of capitalistic economy led to an unfair distribution of wealth, thus widening the economic polarity. This resulted in limiting access to the public sphere and the political control of the public sphere was inevitable for the modern capitalistic forces to operate and thrive in the competitive economy.
The rise of advertising and public relations has made it vital for the government to control public information in the interest of the market forces. As Garnham says, (1990) "the space between the civil society and the state which had been opened by the creation of the public sphere was squeezed shut."
Public opinion is formed with the help of institutions like the media, publicly accessible courts, elections, etc. The main concern of Habermas is to ensure "undistorted communication’ as he identifies it as a critical tool for human emancipation. He says that the ideal speech situation has four validity claims; comprehensibility, truth, appropriateness and sincerity, and claims to these have a social context in which they have to be justified. In idealistic situations, claims to the above are rationally debated and consensually agreed but in reality the differential power relations and resource distribution inhibit them and this leads to ‘distorted communication". Garnham (1990) further argues that in order to retain the public sphere in its holistic sense we need to revalue the modes of public communication and utilise it rationally.
In this context it is relevant to refer to Hartley (1982), who identifies speech to be governed by two forces, i.e. the language system and a discourse, and that "news comes to us as the pre-existing discourse of an impersonal social institution which is also an industry". Thus Habermas says that "the public was transformed from participants in political and cultural debates into consumers of media images and information" (as quoted in pg 26, Hoynes, 1994,). The electioneering process in the modern democracy is another channel through which the pseudo public sphere is spearheaded where the voices of the public are used merely to suit the political agenda of the powerful rather than for the constructive democracy.
But as Thompson (1995), says, Public Sphere in its true sense existed only in the idealistic sense of Habermas. Even in the 18th century, Public Sphere was used more to make the power visible and the real decisions were invisible. With the emergence of media in the modern world, the nature of Public Sphere has widened its scope to such an extent that events and acts are made public even to those who are far away from the places of their occurrence.
The modern means of mass communication through their transnational agents has brought the range of the Public Sphere to the international arena. For the modern media corporations like the BBC, and CNN, issues range from the most local culture specific contexts to the global political arena transcending the national boundaries. The 50 year-old current affairs magazine programme, Panorama on BBC one, gives evidence that public need not be seen as mere consumers.
But the role of these corporations in the modern democratic government in maintaining the Public Sphere in its true spirit is debatable because of the obvious political and economic stakes of those behind them. The Kilroy epitimises perfectly the public sphere. According to Dahlgren, affective communication is more influential in spearheading popular culture and the television, as a medium, uses both cognitive and affective elements of communication. Hartley believes that media is public and is an effective public domain. But media in the modern days is another weapon of the ideology for its propagandist interventions, and in order to restore the autonomy of the media, both in an economic and cultural sense, and ensure rationality rather than power to operate, democratic processes have to be revitalised in both political and cultural spheres.
Of course media now extends to the internet, and this new extension challenges the thought of the public sphere. Mark Poster argues in Wired magazine that if identity (an essential element of the public sphere) is determined by contact in the physical, and people online are not afforded this, then the net is not considered the public sphere. He also finds that the internet lacks compromise and points that it also decentralized discourse. The dichotomy is that the internet does enhance democracy by bringing more information to public scrutiny.
Martin Heidegger claims that "Dasein" (existence) must balance its activities in the public sphere with its private, authentic activities, but believed ultimately that engagement in the public sphere was necessary to truly be Dasein. Hannah Arendt inverted Heidegger's claim, arguing that in fact the only true and authentic self was the self in the public sphere.
Frantz Fanon discusses the way in which one's identity in the public sphere and one's identity in the private sphere can become dissonant, leading to what he calls dual consciousness. His examples deal with issues of colonialism, and the way in which a colonized subject is forced to publicly adopt a foreign culture, while privately they maintain their identity as their own culture.
In contemporary thought, informed by the rise of postmodernism, questions about the public sphere have turned to questions about the ways in which hegemonic forces dictate what discourse is and is not allowable in the public sphere, and in turn dictate what can and can't be formulated as a part of one's identity. For example, the concept of heteronormativity is used to describe the way in which those who fall outside of the basic male/female dichotomy of gender or whose sexual preferences are other than heterosexual cannot meaningfully claim their identities, causing a disconnect between their public selves and their private selves. Lauren Berlant has gone so far as to argue that there is in fact no public discourse about sex/gender or sexuality whatsoever, leaving all sexual identity or gender identity in the realm of the private sphere, where it is, in her view, deadened and powerless.