The public sphere is seen by modern thinkers as a fundamental pre-requisite for a functional democratic state. One of the most renowned philosophers to contribute on the subject of the public sphere is German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, whose work on modernity and the transformation of the public sphere, is widely regarded as a benchmark when discussing the subject. But what the public sphere is, and how it comes to take form, is itself a subject of deliberation with varying points of view. Habermas describes the basic principle of the public sphere as,
“that principle of public information which once had to be fought for against the arcane policies of monarchies and which since that time has made possible the democratic control of state activities” (1974: 50).
In practical terms, Habermas states that for the public sphere to come to be, citizens must rationally confer in a public forum, and in an unrestricted fashion. He goes on to state that this body should enjoy
“the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions – about matters of general interest” (1974: 49).
But the theories he put forward that receive the most critique are specifically those on the bourgeois public sphere, which Habermas describes in reference to the media ownership:
“The bourgeois public sphere could be understood as the sphere of private individuals assembled into a public body, which almost immediately laid claim to the officially regulated ‘intellectual newspapers’ for use against the public authority itself” (1974: 52).
These theories are of particular interest for the purposes of this study because they are partly set in the early nineteenth century, and it is at this particular moment in time that in Great Britain, France, and the United States, the media industry started to become a commercial entity dictated by the monetary interests of the bourgeoisie. Habermas establishes this eventual transformation of the public sphere when he states:
“the way was paved for this sort of transition from a press that took ideological sides to one that was primarily a business. The advertising business put financial calculation on a whole new basis” (1991: 184).
Nancy Frazer, one of the most prolific writers to critique Habermas and his theories on the public sphere, draws attention to this bourgeois public sphere becoming almost contradictory to its original concept because bracketing, hegemonic dominance and exclusion are inherent in its construction. For her,
“the problem is not only that Habermas idealises the liberal public sphere but also that he fails to examine other, non-liberal, non- bourgeois, competing public spheres” (1992: 115).
By the late-nineteenth century, with a mass media totally controlled by the bourgeoisie, and it being predominantly monological by nature, the question of whether the interests of the general public were satisfactorily reflected in the forming of modern societies (as highlighted by Frazer), becomes one of primary concern.
Mass Media and the Public Sphere
The implications of bourgeois control over the mass media are profound when considering how the mass media operates. In “Media and Modernity”, John B. Thompson describes the interaction between modern societies and the mass media as being “mediated quasi-interaction”. He states that:
“It is a structured situation in which some individuals are engaged primarily in producing symbolic forms for others who are not physically present, while others are involved primarily in receiving symbolic forms produced by others to whom they cannot respond” (1995: 84).
Thompson establishes the characteristics for mediated quasi-interaction by breaking it down into three constituting factors, space-time, range of symbolic cues, and action orientation. A more detailed analysis of this breakdown can be used to determine the effects of mediated quasi-interaction on the viability of the public sphere.
Space-time constitution: in mediated quasi-interaction, media products (or symbolic content), are made available to global audiences for a prolonged period of time. If we consider Frazer’s exclusionary interpretation of the bourgeois public sphere to be an accurate account, and keeping in mind that the modern bourgeoisie had established control of the mass media by the early nineteenth century, it necessary follows that news reports and articles of that said time would only express the views of a select minority. And with those views published in a permanent form (or at least with a high degree of fixation), and made available to a large multitude of recipients, the influence of bourgeois ideals on those excluded from the deliberative process becomes almost absolute (since one can not respond to them). This is a characteristic of the media that still applies today, as Thompson suggests,
“the extended availability of symbolic form becomes a much more significant and pervasive social phenomenon” (1995: 30).
With bourgeois interests eroding the concerns of other classes and marginalised groups through the sheer proliferation and consequent appropriation of media texts, and the extended availability of such texts also having a normalising effect on the current state of affairs, the mass media ultimately renders the public sphere unsuitable as a forum for debate on issues that concern the general public.
Range of symbolic cues: another feature inherent to mediated quasi-interaction is that the range of symbolic cues is narrowed significantly. The producer of media texts would not require (and does not usually receive) symbolic cues (facial expressions, gestures, etc. from recipients) as would be the case in face to face interaction (and as would have been the case in the bourgeois coffee houses from which a liberal public sphere emanated). Thompson describes the narrowing of symbolic cues as not having “the degree of reciprocity and interpersonal specificity of other forms of interaction” (1995: 84). This lack of reciprocity is fundamentally conducive to the media text reflecting the interests of the ownership of the media with, a complete disregard for the opinions and reactions of the general public on matters of interest as if without concern, and a dilution of the public sphere as a viable forum for constructive debate.
Action orientation: mass media products are not intended for specific others sharing a co-presence, but rather for a multiplicity of potential recipients in distant locations. With the production of media texts that support bourgeois interests produced from a distant location and in a different context to that of reception, it then comes to bear that “the flow of messages is a structured flow in which the capacity of recipients to intervene in or contribute to the process of production is strictly circumscribed” (Thompson 1995: 29). Left to their own interpretation of the message, and notwithstanding the possibility of a miscommunication taking place, the recipients are deemed “unequal partners in the process of symbolic exchange”, and furthermore, they have “relatively little power to determine the topic and content of communication” (Thompson 1995: 29-30). This altogether foregoes one of the most basic pre-requisites for a viable public sphere to take shape, the ability for the public to transmit its demands to the authorities or state. And with its recipients being so widely dispersed, the mass media inadvertently also practically hinders the formation of a public sphere.
All these characteristics inherent in mediated quasi-interaction contribute to the post-modern mass media being fundamentally monological by nature, or predominantly a one-way flow of communication – arguably its most significant attribute in the context of this study. This only adds to the tensions that lie between the mass media and a truly viable public sphere since the viewpoints expressed on matters of general concern can only; go by un-debated, remain unchallenged, be deemed un-challengeable by those excluded from the production process. And in a modern day, western, consumerist society, matters are exasperated; there is only commoditisation of media products – there is nothing being discussed – only a constant distraction. As Professor Marty Kaplan said when being interviewed by American journalist and liberal political commentator Bill Moyers:
“We have unemployment and hunger and crumbling infrastructure and a tax system out of whack and a corrupt political system – why are we not taking to the streets?…The problem is that we have been taught to be helpless and jaded rather than to feel that we are empowered and can make a difference” (2013).
It is clear that with the advent of a post-modernist mass media and its mediated quasi-interactional characteristics, the public sphere as a viable forum for public debate has been hugely eroded. But today there is a new hope; new forms of digital and internet based communications technologies are in constant development, and together with media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, they propagate a more prolific form of the public sphere for the future. Professor Rodger Payne (2003: 215-231) argues that such developments in communications technology might open the door for the meaningful participation of marginalised groups in public discourse.
There is clear evidence to support the idea and rationally argue that mediated quasi-interaction has had profound, negative implications on the sustainability of a viable public sphere. Furthermore, we have seen that its inevitable decline has also been brought about by the private interests of the globalised media institutions’ ownership, leading to its loss of critical function, as has been demonstrated. Globalisation of such media institutions (Comcast, Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, News Corporation, etc.) would suggest that this loss of critical function is not exclusive to western societies, and that we can therefore examine other poorer, developing countries of our time to study the public sphere’s erosion and the formation of counter-publics as it happens. Dr. Josée Johnston corroborates these findings when writing about the Chiapas (Mexico) revolution of 1994; she states that when only a single public sphere exists, it becomes less likely,
“a space for open, democratic interaction and more like an arena where hegemony is enforced, where dominant powers make their own interests appear like common sense, and where the architecture of domination comes to rely less on coercion and more on public means of consensus production” (2000: 482).
But as negative as this view is, we have also seen that we will imminently see the re-emergence of a viable public sphere through technological developments in digital communications. In furthering this argument, Professor Rodger Payne quotes Jean-Francois Rischard to establish that a globalised digital communications infrastructure, (which can only be truly global when developing countries acquire the same level of communications technology as that of advanced, western societies), will “serve the planet some twenty years from now” (1996: 94). Professor Payne adds that,
“If this estimate proves to be anywhere near accurate, the development could undergird potentially unprecedented participation by individuals and groups in global politics” (2003: 222).
He follows this up by stating that:
“The new technologies encourage instant and relatively inexpensive communication, meaning that inclusive and open, deliberative ideals are made possible” (2003: 228).
Although this argument is not strictly relevant as to how the mass media and mediated quasi-interaction has had a negative impact on the public sphere, it serves a plurality of purposes in this study. In the first instance, it does support the argument that the public sphere as it stands is in dire need of restructuring to improve viability of its critical function. In the second instance, it exposes the post-modern mass media’s choke on public debate as a passing phase in the history of humanity, and brings renewed hope that counter-public spheres will merge to become a strong forum for debate. Finally, and to end with a more positive outlook, that humanity itself will always lay claim to emerging possibilities in its quest to exercise its democratic rights.
Christian Gadd (1909 words).
Semester 3 (September – December 2014) : Politics and the Media.
Habermas, Jürgen, (1974) “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article”, New York: New German Critique.
Habermas, Jürgen, (1991) “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Frazer, Nancy, (1992) “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy” in Calhoun, Craig (ed.), (1992) “Habermas and The Public Sphere”, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Thompson, John, B., (1995) “Media and Modernity, A Social Theory of the Media”, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kaplan, Marty, “Marty Kaplan on the Weapons of Mass Distraction” Moyers and Company, 12th July 2013 (accessed 13th December 2014)
Payne, Rodger, A., “Can New Information Technologies Promote Democratic Deliberation?” in Harper, Joseph, and Yantek, Thom (ed.), (2003) “Media, Profit and Politics; Competing Priorities in an Open Society”, Kent OH: Kent State University Press.
Johnston, Josée, “Pedagogical Guerrillas, Armed Democrats, and Revolution Counterpublics: Examining Paradox in the Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas, Mexico”, Theory and Society Vol. 29, Issue 4, (August 2000), pp. 463-505.
Rischard, Jean-Francois, “Connecting Developing Countries to the Information Technology Revolution”, SAIS Review Vol. 16, (1996), p94.
Milord, Joseph, “The World’s 10 Largest Media Conglomerates” in Elite Daily, 2nd July 2013 (Accessed 15th December 2014)