Habermas: How the Media Murdered Our Ability to Be Critical

Before diving into the dark abyss that is The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere , some background about Habermas, this text and his general theoretical trends. Jurgen Habermas is a German theorist/philosopher who came out of the Frankfurt School of Max Horkeimer, Theodor Adorno. This group/school came in response to the first half of the 20th century—an attempt to determine what happened in history/the world to result in such a separation from rational thought. Habermas’s main work focuses on the public sphere and issues of rationalization, increasingly separating himself from the works of his mentors throughout his career. Habermas wrote this text as his habilitation—or essentially his book to obtain tenure (obscenely high standard: set). He’s still chugging along as an intellectual and theorist.

For this post I will provide a short outline or discussion of the text in hopes to pull the main points out of a lot of detailed and complex analysis, then present some questions to chew on before class. In all honesty, many of these questions and concepts I am still trying to sift through and make sense out of, so hopefully some of this discussion will help provide a base for Tuesday’s probably snow-ridden discussion.

Habermas splits his text almost neatly in two: first half discussing the trends of public sphere prior to the modern day (which seems to be around WWI for him) and then after the 1920s to his present day. He is guided by the questions: what is the public sphere, how did it come about, who takes part and what is its purpose? His framework for inquiry is Western and Central Europe and at times America. He does not discuss Eastern Europe, Asia or any of what could at his time be considered the ‘third world’. His time frame is from around the time of the reformation to the late 1960s (which is really quite a lot for a 250 page text). There are many answers to his stated questions, with a marked break in the 20th century.
Prior to the 20th century, the public sphere, according to Habermas, had a fairly stated purpose: political engagement. This was done in a number of theaters and through a number of approaches, but the main goal was for the literate, politically knowledgeable populous (the bourgeoisie) to influence and engage (parliamentary) government actions through law, discussion, texts, and actions outside of the private sphere of some economic activities and parts of the home. He traces this shift through the advent of stable parliamentary governments throughout Europe, through the industrial revolution. In his discussion of the 19th century he begins to analyze the effects of various political theories, such as liberalism and Marxism, on his concept of the public sphere and its purpose. I hope to discuss these particular chapters and theories more in class, so I have a number of questions that I will pose at the end of the post.
Habermas’s discussion turns more critical with the advent of the 20th century. He is increasingly skeptical of the role the public sphere takes on in citizenry’s lives, noting a distinct 180-degree shift in the purpose and expression of the public sphere. With the advent of mass media, Habermas questions whether the public sphere is fulfilling its role in tempering the political world or whether it is simply being used as a sounding board after private decisions have been made. Essentially, he feels the power relationship between private and public spheres has shifted. Tim chewed through many of these issues in his post, and I once again have questions to on which to further ruminate. However, in all honesty as I was reading the section on advertising (specifically 193-195), all I could think of was whether Matt Weiner had read this while writing the last season of Mad Men or whether Habermas really hit the nail on the head with his analysis of advertising.

So here are some questions to think about (or not, whatever you would like) for Tuesday:

-When, according to Habermas, did the public sphere come about? What happened in those decades/centuries that propagated its growth? (pg 5-30, most of the first half of the book)

-What is the Bourgeoisie? Who are they, what are their characteristics and why are they so apt to participate in the public sphere? (72, chapt 1).

-What is the role of the family and home? How does this change over time and what impact does it have on the role of the public?

-What is the driving force for the public sphere? What does Habermas believe is absolutely necessary to bring about this change in human interaction? What happens in instances of Marxism and Liberalism when this force is taken away (pg 57-79, chapter 4)

-What is the role of the public sphere? How has it changed in the 20th century? (Chapter 3, 81-84. 232, 190-201*, 206

-What is the role of reason in the public sphere? Why is it necessary, what happens when it goes away? (135-137, 203)

-What brought about the change in the structure of public sphere? Who is included now and what approaches are taken to the public sphere? What are the dangers of the transformed modern public in Habermas’s eyes?

(Tim already provided some good questions on media, so I will refrain from adding more)

-How can we use this text? What do we get out of it that is helpful for framing this course?

Happy reading!