March 3-5, 2005

The public sphere in Jurgen Habermas’ original use of the term refers to the arena of discursive interaction that arose in bourgeois society of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain, France and Germany. More than four decades after the original publication of Jürgen Habermas’ Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere), and sixteen years since its translation into English, the concept of the “public sphere” remains central, albeit controversial, to contemporary accounts of the sociological conditions necessary for the growth of a democratic polity. According to Habermas, the bourgeois public sphere developed in tandem with the rise of the modern state and with the growth of capitalist economies. For him, this public sphere provided a forum distinct from both the state and official economic activity - a space apart where citizens could participate politically in their community through rational-critical discourse.

In its ideal form, the public sphere had the power to affirm or challenge state authority through the self-generation of public opinion and attitudes. Over time, this sphere, according to Habermas, was undermined by the introduction of a series of social conditions that blurred the distinctions between public and private and transformed the notion of an objective general interest, generated by rational-critical debate, into a practice of negotiated compromises among special interests. Mass consumer culture and the competition among social institutions assumed primacy within the public sphere signaling its segmentation and transformation into an arena for advertising. For Habermas, the public sphere of the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first century, was and is merely the illusion of its former self; in the current ‘welfare state mass democracy,’ it has lost its critical function.

The Structural Transformation has received, particularly since its English translation, copious amounts of attention by political and social theorists and scientists, much of it critical on both practical and theoretical levels. The narrow perspective adopted by Habermas in his definition of the public sphere (e.g. bourgeois male) has instigated a rethinking of that arena in an expanded discourse, one that includes both closer historical attention to post-bourgeois models of the public sphere and accounts for alternative public spheres, or ‘subaltern counterpublics.’ Issues such as nationalism and globalization, notably absent from Structural Transformation but crucial for an understanding of contemporary politics, have sparked new fields of critical inquiry into the notion of what constitutes ‘the public.’

This seminar will revisit Habermas’ text in an effort to both investigate the historiographical circumstances in which it was produced and to explore its impact on subsequent social and political theories. Furthermore, the seminar will seek to posit new questions in relation to Habermas’ claims and to explore alternative frameworks to allow for new channels to examine and problematize the public sphere. Can the public sphere exist under vastly different cultural, socioeconomic and political conditions? What power does ‘the public’ really have in a postmodern democratic society? How can public debate be reanimated through new forms of ‘opinion-forming associations’?