In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas traces the history of the concept of the “public sphere” – its rise and its decline. He argues that the “literary public sphere” (which arose thanks to a newly well-read bourgeois) eventually brought the rise of the “political public sphere” (a true public opinion sprouted from “rational-critical debate” amongst citizens), which eventually brought its own decline as it helped define an era where “public” and “private” were redefined in a way that brought back the bonds of feudalism. It is key to understand both “political public sphere” and “rational-critical debate” as defined by Habermas to understand what they have become in modern definition – and if they may ever return, as Habermas hopes they will.
Habermas defines the “political public sphere”:
“The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public[...] The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without precedent: people’s public use of their reason.” (27)
This leads to the next important definition – that of “rational-critical debate”. This characterized the public sphere and originated, according to Habermas, within a reading, property-owning bourgeois society. It is critical use of reason in debate. The bourgeois would gather and discuss first literature, later politics, with appeal to reason.
Then enters “structural transformation” of the public sphere. Habermas argues that ….
So why so pessimistic about our free society? Now, more than ever, more people can vote on their political representation, and in first-world countries, most anyone can say what they choose to with little consequence. Habermas asserts that the public sphere has become something that only references a true public sphere. Public opinion is now fabricated and molded by the media and politicians, and we are expected (and, indeed, this is definitely most convenient) to open our mouths and let ourselves be fed this concoction.
We have little choice but to accept that the goo being shoved down our throats is an organic mixture of peas and carrots, fortified with vitamins, which is best for our health. We have no way of knowing the peas are from starving farmers in Lebanon and the carrots came from Wal-mart’s subsidized and heavily treated factory farms. Get it?
So maybe Habermas is right; maybe there is no true public sphere withing the context of mass media sponsored public opinion. What about on the web? It’s the ultimate free society (except in China, Egypt, Iran… oh, wait, it’s not free at all. That’s another blog for another time). At least to those with access, it would seem that anything is available on the web and we are free to discuss what we choose. The argument could be made that the internet is re-treading the path that was blazed by the public sphere in its infancy. When people once gathered in coffee houses to discuss common concerns, it was not dictated by the aristocracy or religious structures. They were free to develop their own thoughts and ideas based on reasonable discourse with others. It would appear the web provides the same structure to those who seek it, especially in the light that coffee houses drew people of either like mind or like social stature. One can seek out only opinions reinforcing his own and completely filter out opinions challenging his own, even if rationally challenging them (this would lead to a gross misrepresentation of one’s perception of public opinion). It could also be argued, however, that the manufactured public opinion we are fed is so pervasive that it invades not just public air waves, but our own minds. Are we really thinking our own thoughts? It’s a valid question, even if somewhat science-fiction-dramatic. Even big government and corporations are infiltrating places we see as the public sphere, like Twitter and especially Facebook. We get tweets from @BarackObama and “like” posts by major corporations like Coca-Cola. Does the internet reflect our concept of a true democracy? Maybe. Does it reflect our reality of democracy? More likely.