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Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas

Important Quotes

On The Concept of Public Opinion

Key Facts

This investigation aims to analyze the type "bourgeois public sphere". Its particular approach is required, to begin with, by the difficulties specific to an object whose complexity precludes exclusive reliance on the specialized methods of a single discipline.

Here, Habermas explains his particular methodology, which he feels is justified by the unique nature of the concept he is studying. As the public sphere is both a social reality with a history, and a theoretical concept, he needs to use tools taken form political theory, sociology, and history to examine it.

This publicness of representation was not constituted as a social realm, that is, as a public sphere; rather, it was something like a status attribute, if this term may be permitted.

This quote is Habermas's clearest explanation of the concept of representative publicity. Representative publicity involves the display of status before an audience, rather than rational-critical debate by a public. Therefore it does not exist as a social construction, because concepts of the social and private did not yet exist, but merely as an action or quality associated with status. Representative publicity was associated only with higher status levels. Only the King and nobility displayed themselves before the people.

The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public.

This is perhaps the most important quotation in the entire work, and sums up Habermas's idea of the public sphere concisely. Private people are those whose status comes from their ownership of property and their status within the family in the private realm. These conditions allow them to enter the public realm as private people, in order to debate rationally and engage with public authority. As they enter the public realm, they are joined together as a larger, powerful group called the "public". Many political philosophers, such as Hobbes, have argued in a similar way about how people come together to form states. Habermas applies a similar process to the creation of a force that challenges and checks the power of the state.

Representative publicity of the old type is not thereby revived; but it still lends certain traits to a refeudalized public sphere of civil society whose characteristic feature…is that the large-scale organizers in state and society "manage the propagation of their positions".

Here, Habermas argues for the return of certain historical traits in modern society. A representative style of publicity is evident in the way modern politicians relate to the public; they do not argue and engage, but merely present themselves and the image of their party before the voters. Not only politicians, but also the other "large-scale organizers" such as non-overnmental pressure groups, bureaucratic structures and lobby groups, practise this kind of manipulation. This deterioration in the quality and nature of publicity is part of a wider process that Habermas calls refeudalization, by which state and society, private and public merge again. This process does not involve the return of medieval social structures, merely the appearance of some aspects of a feudal system.

Although objectively greater demands are placed on [public opinion], it operates less as a public opinion giving a rational foundation to the exercise of political and social authority, the more it is generated for the purpose of an abstract vote that amounts to no more than an act of acclamation within a public sphere temporarily manufactured for show or manipulation.

Modern politics is a sham, according to Habermas. It is in many ways a poor replacement for the vibrant political and social discussion of a true public sphere. Although public opinion is called upon more and more frequently to legitimate state power in democratic systems, in practise it does not exist continually. Instead, "the public" is created at election time by the technicians of public opinion, in order to give a simple endorsement of state power. Instead of criticising and examining the government, this manipulated public is meant merely to agree. Habermas makes it clear that a successful democracy needs a vibrant, critical public sphere instead of this fake publicity.

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