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Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas

Social Structures of the Public Sphere


Social Structures of the Public Sphere, page 2

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The bourgeois public sphere was the sphere of private people who have come together as a public. It claimed the public sphere against public authorities, and engaged in debate over general rules in a privatized but public sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. The medium of this political confrontation was the public use of reason. Traditionally, power was balanced and regulated between the estates and the prince, or through a parliamentary system. This division was not possible in a commercial economy because control over private property was apolitical. The bourgeois did not rule. Their claims to power undercut existing rule. Public understanding of the public use of reason grew out of the subjectivity of the conjugal family's domestic life, the traditional source of privacy. Commodity exchange burst out of the family domain and the conjugal family was separated from the sphere of social reproduction. The polarization of state and society was repeated within society itself. A private man was head of a family and the owner of commodities; he was both property owner and human being.

The subjectivity of the conjugal family created its own public before the public assumed political functions. A precursor of the public sphere operating in the public domain emerged. It acted as a training ground for critical public reflection. The public sphere in the world of letters was similar to representative publicity; the court was an important influence. Towns were also important. Institutions such as salons and coffee houses shaped the literary public sphere. The literary public sphere was a bridge between representative and bourgeois public spheres. The state-society divide separated the public sphere from the private realm. The public sphere contained the state and court; the private sphere contained civil society as the realm of commodity exchange, and the family. The public sphere in the political realm evolved from the literary public sphere. It put the state in touch with the needs of society through public opinion.

As towns took over the functions of the medieval court, the public sphere was transformed. The institutions of the coffee house and salon strengthened the role of towns. They were centers of literary and political criticism. Coffee houses emerged in seventeenth century England, and were very popular in the eighteenth century. Writers patronized various coffee houses, but the coffee house also brought culture to the middle classes. In French salons, aristocrats, bourgeois and intellectuals met on an equal basis. Writers first had to legitimate themselves in the salon before publishing their work. German literary and "table" societies were institutions of the public sphere; people of unequal social status met there. Masonic lodges represented the secret use of enlightenment and reason. These movements needed to be kept secret because they threatened the relations of domination. Reason had to become public slowly. Secret societies eventually developed into exclusive associations that separated themselves from the public sphere. All these types of society had certain institutional criteria in common. 1)They ignored status in their social relations; all that mattered was the authority of the better argument. This idea was important despite never being realized. 2) They discussed previously unquestioned areas. 3) The public became in principle inclusive. Everyone had to be able to participate. The composition of the public changed, however.

People became able to express their opinion about art for the first time. The profession of art critic developed. Critical writing about art and literature emerged, as did critical periodical journals. Coffee houses continued the discussion begun in their pages.

The "great" public that formed in concerts and theaters was bourgeois. The concerns of the public sphere stemmed from the subjectivity of the conjugal patriarchal family. This type of family emerged from capitalist economic transformations. The family was dependent on labor and exchange, but people had autonomy as economic agents and property owners. The conjugal family's self- image collided with the real functions of the bourgeois family. It played a key role in the reproduction of both capital and social norms. The householder had autonomy in the market and authority in his house.

Ideas of conjugal freedom and love sometimes conflicted with economic realities, but they did have some objective reality. Privatized individuals saw themselves as capable of interacting in a purely human, non-economic way. This interaction occurred through letters. Letters, diaries and first person narratives were all experiments with subjectivity, oriented towards and audience. The relationship between author, work and public became intimate.

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