Questioning Habermas

Over this summer, I was fortunate enough to do some preliminary ethnographic research in Marquette, Michigan. This research is part of a broader project investigating use of digital technology by LGBT people in rural Michigan. Inspired by the works of scholars such as Mary Gray and Michael Warner, Silvia and I began thinking through how the social networks created in these areas, and specifically Marquette, can be framed and explicated using concepts such as publics, counterpublics, and boundary publics. Though I felt like I had a handle on these concepts and could apply them to my research, my knowledge of what these were based on, Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and Fraser’s “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” was very limited. In this post, I’d like to speak briefly to bias in Habermas’ description of the shifts and decline of the bourgeois public sphere. For a more complete review of the text, check out the Wikipedia article or Spark Notes.

I received my copy of Habermas through our university’s Interlibrary Loan and opened it up to see pages covered in large exclamation points, check marks, and circled X’s in the margins. Right away I could tell that previous readers of this book had felt and reacted strongly. Like many others, maybe even some of those that read this exact copy, I continually asked myself questions such as, “What was the public sphere for the poor and the illiterate?” Habermas is clear that the basis for the public sphere and publicity was a class of people who visited salons and coffee houses. These people were moneyed, middle class, shopkeepers, or intellectuals (and men). Through an evolution of architecture after the 17th century, the members of the bourgeois public sphere often also had access to a formalized individual private life in their own homes. It seems like these folks had the best of both worlds: spaces outside of the home to come together and discursively create and produce media and texts, in addition to areas in the home that allowed these same individuals access to what are now modern interpretations of a private life.

It is also interesting to note that in Habermas’ analysis, the most dramatic shift (section 18, the shift from a culture-debating public to a culture-consuming public) is caused by a mass democratization of economic culture in the 19th century. Essentially, because more people were engaged in media at a mass scale, including those who had not formerly been included in categories that fell under the bourgeois public sphere, a “world of letters” lost its dominance and was replaced by a society of consumption. Though this transition makes sense and I see a valid argument for this shift, my mind was racing with exclamation points going off in my head as often as they appeared on the pages of my worn copy of this book. Is access to mass culture more important than holding up a specific privileged notion or process of cultural creation? I would argue that yes, it is, and I want to know why Habermas wasn’t asking these kind of questions.

Fortunately, many have come after Habermas and tried to answer these, expanding on what it might mean when poor people, women, and other classes of people not included in the bourgeois public sphere come together to discursively create material and digital spaces. I am happy to report that I can now continue my work, building on those that have built on Habermas, and say that I’ve actually read the damn thing.