Symposium 05

From a culture-debating to a culture-consuming public


Developmental Pathways in the Disintegration of the Bourgeois Public Sphere

Along the path from a public critically reflecting on its culture to one that merely consumes it, the public sphere in the world of letters, which at one point could still be distinguished from that in the political realm, has lost its specific character. For the "culture" propagated by the mass media is a culture of integration. It not only integrates information with critical debate and the journalistic format with the literary forms of the psychological novel into a combination of entertainment and "advice" governed by the principle of "human interest"; at the same time it is flexible enough to assimilate elements of advertising, indeed to serve itself as a kind of super slogan that, if it did not already exist, could have been invented for the purpose of public relations serving the cause of the status quo. The public sphere assumes advertising functions. The propaganda, the more it becomes unpolitical as a whole and pseudo-privatized [.].

The model of the bourgeois public sphere presupposed strict separation of the public from the private realm in such a way that the public sphere, made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state, was itself considered part of the private realm. To the extent that the public and private became intermeshed realms, this model became inapplicable. That is to say, a repoliticized social sphere originated that could not be subsumed under the categories of public and private from either a sociological or a legal perspective. In this intermediate sphere the sectors of society that had been absorbed by the state and the sectors of the state that had been taken over by society intermeshed without involving any rational-critical political debate on the part of private people.

The public was largely relieved of this task by other institutions: on the one hand by associations in which collectively organized private interests directly attempted to take on the form of political agency; on the other hand by parties which collectively organized private interest directly attempted to take on the form of political agency; on the other hand by parties which, fused with the organs of public whose instruments they once were.

The process of the politically relevant exercise and equilibrium of power now takes place directly between the private bureaucracies, special-interest associations, parties, and public administration. The public as such is included only sporadically in this circuit of power, and even then it is brought in only to contribute its acclamation. In so far as they are wage or salary earners and entitled to services, private people are forced to have their publicly relevant claims advocated collectively. But the decisions left for them to make individually as consumers and voters come under the influence of economic and political agencies to the same degree that any public relevance can be attributed to them.

To the extent that social reproduction still depends on consumption decisions and the exercise of political power on voting decisions made by private citizens there exists an interest in influencing them – in the case of the former, with the aim of increasing sales; in the case of the latter, of increasing formally this or that party's share of voters or, informally, to give greater weight to the pressure of specific organizations. The social latitude for private decisions is, of course, predetermined by objective factors like buying power and group membership and by socioeconomic status generally. Yet the more the original relationship between the intimate sphere and the public sphere in the world of letters is reversed and permits an understanding of the private sphere through publicity, the more decisions within this latitude can be influenced. In this fashion the consumption of culture also enters the service of economic and political propaganda.

Originally publicity guaranteed the connection between rational-critical public debate and the legislative foundation of domination, including the critical supervision of its exercise. Now it makes possible the peculiar ambivalence of a domination exercised through the domination of nonpublic opinion: it serves the manipulation of the public as much as legitimation before it. Critical publicity is supplanted by manipulative publicity. How the idea as well as the reality of a public operating in the political realm were transformed simultaneously with the principle of publicity is demonstrated by the dissolution and obsolescence of the link – still pretended to by liberalism – between public discussion and legal norm.

Since the separation of state and society was overcome and the government intervened in the social order through advance planning, distribution and administration, the generality of the norm could not longer be maintained as a principle. In the same degree to which this kind of mutual penetration of state and society dissolved a private sphere whose independent existence made possible the generality of the laws, the foundation for a relatively homogenous public composed of private citizens engaged in rational-critical debate was also shaken. Competition between organized private interests invaded the public sphere. If the particular interests that as privatized interests were neutralized in the common denominator of class interest once permitted public discussion to attain a certain rationality and even effectiveness, it remains that today the display of competing interests has taken the place of such discussion. The consensus developed in rational-critical public debate has yielded to compromise fought out or simply imposed nonpublicly. The laws that come into existence in this way can no longer be vindicated as regards their elements of "truth", even though in many cases the element of universality is preserved in them; for even the parliamentary public sphere – the place in which "truth" would have to present its credentials – has collapsed.

The original connection between the public sphere in the political realm and the rule of law, so clearly formulated by Kant, is captured by neither of these conceptions of law. The altered structure of the law brings out the fact that the task of providing a rational justification for political domination can no longer be expected from the principle of publicity. To be sure, within an immensely expanded sphere of publicity the mediatized public is called upon more frequently and in incomparably more diverse ways for the purposes of public acclamation; at the same time it is so remote from the processes of the exercise and equilibration of power that their rational justification can scarcely be demanded, let alone be accomplished any longer, by the principle of publicity.

What in this way only intimates itself in the daily press has progressed further in the newer media. The integration of the once separate domains of journalism and literature, that is to say, of information and rational-critical argument on the one side, and of belles lettres on the other, brings about a peculiar sifting of reality – even a conflation of different levels of reality.

Under the common denominator of so-called human interest emerges the mixtum compositum of a pleasant and at the same time convenient subject for entertainment that, instead of doing justice to reality, has a tendency to present a substitute more palatable for consumption and more likely to give rise to an impersonal indulgence in stimulating relaxation than to a public use of reason. Radio, film and television, by degrees reduce to a minimum the distance that a reader is forced to maintain toward the printed letter – a distance that required the privacy of the appropriation as much as it made possible the publicity of a rational-critical exchange about what had been read.

With the arrival of the new media the form of communication as such has changed; they have had an impact, therefore, more penetrating (in the strict sense of the word) than was ever possible for the press. Under the pressure of the "Don't talk back!" the conduct of the public assumes a different form. In comparison with printed communications the programs sent by the new media curtail the reactions of their recipients in a peculiar way. They draw the eyes and ears of the public under their spell but at the same time, by taking away its distance, place it under "tutelage".

The critical discussion of a reading public tends to give way to "exchanges about tastes and preferences" between consumers – even the talk about what is consumed, "the examination of tastes", becomes a part of consumption itself. The world fashioned by the mass media is a public sphere in appearance only. By the same token the integrity of the private sphere which they promise to their consumers is also an illusion.

In the course of the eighteenth century, the bourgeois reading public was able to cultivate in the intimate exchange of letters (as well as in the reading of the literature of psychological novels and novellas engendered by it) a subjectivity capable of relating to literature and oriented toward a public sphere. In this form private people interpreted their new form of existence which was indeed based on the liberal relationship between public and private spheres. The experience of privacy made possible literary experimentation with the psychology of the humanity common to all with the abstract individuality of the natural person.

Inasmuch as the mass media today strip away the literary husks from that kind of bourgeois self-interpretation and utilize them as marketable forms for the public services provided in a culture of consumers, the original meaning is reserved. On the one hand, the socialized patterns of eighteenth-century literature that are used to serve up twentieth-century affairs for human interest and the biographical note transfer the illusion of an untouched private sphere and intact private autonomy to conditions which have long since removed the basis for both. On the other hand, they are also imposed on political matters of fact to such an extent that the public sphere for the publicizing of private biographies, so that of systematically managed stars attain publicity, while publicly relevant developments and decisions are garbed in private dress and through personalization distorted to the point of unrecognizability. [.]

This phenomenon once more sums up the disintegration of the public sphere in the world of letters. The sounding board of an educated stratum tutored in the public use of reason has been shattered, the public is split apart into minorities of specialists who put their reason to use nonpublicly and the great mass of consumers whose receptiveness is public but uncritical. Consequently, it completely lacks the form of communication specific to a public.

Extracts from: Jürgen Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.