Is the public sphere a useful concept in communication and media studies, where it often used as a short hand to describe deliberative spaces (both online and offline) or should it be regarded as an anachronistic and utopian idea of democracy that never was? The public sphere as conceptualized by Habermas and updated by countless others describes the public (open, free, equalizing) space where citizens come together from all sectors of society to contest matters of the state separate from the parliamentary apparatus itself and create “public opinion.”
The modern public sphere as understood by Peter Dahlgren (2005) functions much closer to a ““a constellation of communicative spaces in society that permit the circulation of information, ideas, debates— ideally in an unfettered manner—and also the formation of political will (i.e., public opinion)” (148).” Dahlgren argues the public sphere concept is being destabilized along multiple vectors – the increasing (or rather legitimation) status of heterogeneous groups, non-political uses of the sphere (or rather the opening up of private spaces to political deliberation) and the blurring of national projects (what could be said of an international public sphere/s?).
Fraser (1990) preceded Dahlgren in her critique of the Habermasian public sphere. She additionally approximated what the public sphere (could) look like in actually existing democracy. She posits the ideal utopic public sphere concept makes four fundamental assumptions; 1. participants will exchange ideas and debate each other as though they are equals, 2. multiple publics are a move away from a functioning democracy, 3. A clear divide between public and private issues is present and 4. civil society (the public) is clearly divorced from the state. From these four assumptions, Fraser constructs a public sphere concept more viable in a heterogeneous society. Her contribution here is the idea of subaltern counterpublics, spaces in which non-dominant, oppressed groups can also come together and deliberate matters. She argues the overarching public sphere must be found at the nexus of the constellation of multiple spheres.
The critical tension in the public sphere is what type of rhetoric, spectrum of ideologies and tones are considered “reasonable” to discuss among reasonable people. Kohn (2000) argues, “reasonableness is itself a social construction which usually benefits those already in power.” Habermas’ legacy of the bourgeois public sphere carries on in the imagination of current democratic deliberation – where certain voices are privileged to discuss what is in the best interests of the “we.” Think of immigration protestors dismissed at campaigns rallies and told “there will be a time and place” for their concerns to be heard or “if they would just sit down and talk like us” their concerns would be taken more seriously. Fraser identifies this tension when she says “discursive interaction within the bourgeois public sphere was governed by protocols of style and decorum that were themselves correlates and markers of status inequality.”
My own work challenges the forces of political assimilation U.S. Latinos undergo in order to participate in the American conception of the public sphere. Indeed, there are significant interactional barriers (see Dahlgren) to full participation including language, perceptions of foreignness (Chavez in the Latino Threat Narrative) and the limiting of debate to “citizens” (Amaya in Citizenship Excess). U.S Latinos form multiple counter publics in the United States - Spanish language journalism primary among them. However despite the existence of these counter publics, the hierarchal positioning of the “true” public sphere pressures U.S. Latinos to abandon their spaces (through discursive formations of internalized racism and the delegitimization of Spanish) for the mainstream.
Amaya, Hector. Citizenship Excess: Latino/as, Media, and the Nation. New York City: New York UP, 2013. Print.
Chavez, Leo. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2013. Web.
Dahlgren, Peter. “The Internet, Public Spheres, and Political Communication: Dispersion and Deliberation.” Political Communication 22.2 (2005): 147-62. Web.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): Web.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1991. Print.
Kohn, M. Language, power, and persuasion: Towards a critique of deliberative democracy. Constellations, 7, (2000) 408–429.