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Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

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Social Structures of the Public Sphere

Summary Social Structures of the Public Sphere

The second key structure is the literary public sphere. It acts as a bridge between representative publicity and the bourgeois public sphere. The literary public sphere prepares people for political reflection by giving them the chance to discuss art and literature critically. The political public sphere, where the public challenged and criticized state authority, developed from its literary predecessor. The public discussion of literature and art is promoted particularly by critical journals and periodicals, but also by the emotional experience of the conjugal family. The shift away from representative publicity towards a literary public sphere is paralleled by the decrease in importance of royal courts and a related rise of towns. The various social institutions and structures that develop within towns promote critical debate and the use of reason. Coffee houses were enormously popular in eighteenth century England; customers could read newspapers, debate and hear the latest news. The quality of debate found in coffee houses led one writer to refer to them as "penny universities"; a cup of coffee usually cost a penny in the seventeenth century, and all social classes mixed there. Various attempts were made to close down London coffee houses by the government.

Salons were a Continental invention, and perhaps more socially exclusive than coffee houses. French writers and intellectuals met at the homes of other society figures to discuss and debate. The salon is traditionally located within the home, in the domestic sphere. Similarly, the German reading clubs were restricted to a slightly more narrow bourgeois reading public. In all these institutions, the key theme was critical debate about literature and reading material. Habermas argues that all were unconcerned with social status, addressed "unthinkable" questions and were by principle inclusive. This is largely true, but it must be remembered that he is still talking about a literate, bourgeois public, and not about the mass of society.

The final, and perhaps most important, element is the transition from the literary public sphere to a political one. The public formed in coffee houses, salons and reading groups shifted to discuss directly political questions. Habermas sees the roots of this political discussion in traditional questioning of absolute sovereignty and the power of kings. The political public sphere is not merely discussion about politics, which presumably occurred before the eighteenth century, but a concerted, rational discussion about political questions that affect a particular section of society. Habermas sees this discussion as the ideas and needs of civil society being represented before the public authority.

The public acts in the political sphere to secure own demands, but also creates itself as a powerful force. This force is "public opinion". As its demands are based on rational argument and criticism, public opinion can claim a kind of authority; Habermas calls this both "moral authority" and "the authority of the better argument".

The key agent in transforming the literary public sphere into a political force is the press. Critical journals began to carry political articles, and eventually specifically political newspapers and journals emerge. Habermas's insistence on the power of the press as a force shaping the transformation of the public sphere remerges later.

Habermas recognizes the extent to which this new public sphere excludes people, and the essential fiction that it is built upon. Women contribute to the literary public sphere, but cannot exercise their reason about politics because they lack the economic "qualifications". Similarly, the sphere that excludes them depends upon a link between property owners and people as "human beings" that Habermas claims is a fiction. In claiming the moral authority to speak for all people, the bourgeoisie performs a clever sleight of hand and excludes many groups.

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