Public Sphere in XIX and XX Centuries Research Paper

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The closely related concepts of public sphere and public space are rooted in ancient Greek distinctions of public and private and developed in early modern Europe through changing ideas of citizenship, civil society, and republican virtue. They refer first and foremost to settings for political discussion among citizens about the order of their lives together, and secondarily to a much wider range of public culture including art, literature, and popular discourse on a host of subjects.

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1. Publicness As A Modern Concern

New ideas about public discourse were complemented by development of new communications media, especially those dependent on print; rising literacy and education levels; growth of the state; and expansion of popular political participation. In this process, the distinction of public and private took on new importance and complexity. On the one hand, the realm of public interaction expanded; cities were the primary setting for this, especially cosmopolitan trading and capital cities. Public spaces appeared literally with coffee houses, parks, theaters, and other places where people who were not bound by private relations gathered and communicated. They also grew metaphorically with printed sermons, pamphlets, newspapers, books in vernacular languages, journals that reviewed them, and other media of public communication. On the other hand, the state also expanded and with it the range of res publica, public things which included property held in common and matters of concern to the whole polity. Publicness took on a dual sense, referring both to openness of access and interaction and to collective affairs as managed by the state. The public referred both to the collective subject of democracy—the people organized as a discursive and decision-making public—and as its object—the public good.

The two dimensions were linked in the notion that political debate among responsible citizens was a way to arrive at sound understanding of common affairs. This depended on notions of participation in debate that developed in the realms of science and religion (Ezrahi 1990, Zaret 1999) and literature (Habermas 1962, Hohendahl 1982) as well as politics. Processes of rational-critical debate were held to form educated public opinion as distinct from other forms such as the ‘representative publicity’ of monarchs appearing before their subjects or the ‘mere opinion’ of uneducated masses. Interest in such public opinion grew alongside civil society as a self-organizing realm of social relations, and especially with the rise of democracy.

Complementing the growth of the public realm were new senses of the private. The ‘privacy’ of the family was more sharply affirmed. Women and children were increasingly sequestered in private homes, especially among the bourgoisie; the modern idea of the individual included the notion of nurturance and maturation in private as preparation for action in public, but this applied in the first instance to men. At the same time, economic activity was increasingly moved out of the household. In one sense, then, going to work meant going out into public, being exposed to the public gaze. In another sense, however, property relations continued to be understood as private in the sense that they were to be managed by individual persons and not the state. The eventual rise of business corporations further complicated the distinction, since these held property as artificial private persons but operated as collective, public actors, especially when shares of ownership were openly available on the market rather than closely held within families.

As the example of corporations and private property suggests, the distinction of public and private was sometimes difficult to sustain. This undermined the classical notion of the public sphere: ‘The model of the bourgeois public sphere presupposed strict separation of the public from the private realm in such a way that the public sphere, made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state, was itself considered part of the private realm’ (Habermas 1962, pp. 175–6). As corporations became public actors while still claiming the status of private property, states began to intervene ever more into civil society and even intimate life. These trends joined with the rise of mass media, and especially professions and institutions devoted to the manipulation of public opinion through mass media (advertising, public relations) to undermine the conditions for the effective operation of the public sphere as a source for educated public opinion.

2. History As Decline

For many later analysts, the eighteenth century was a sort of ‘golden age’ of modern public life. Hannah Arendt (1958) theorized ‘public’ in terms of creative action, the making of a world shared among citizens, and saw the founding of the USA as a crucial example. Jurgen Habermas (1962) idealized eighteenth century English parliamentarianism, newspapers, and coffee house conversation. He presented the public sphere as a realm of civil society in which private citizens could communicate openly about matters of public concern, transcending their particular statuses and addressing the state without becoming part of it. Others have focused on Parisian clubs in the Revolution of 1789 (Amann 1975) or the literary journalism of the German Enlightenment (Hohendahl 1982).

Idealization of the eighteenth and sometimes the early nineteenth century public sphere underwrites explicit or implicit narratives of decline. In Habermas’s classic Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, for example, nineteenth and twentieth century public discourse is analyzed in terms of the loss of rationalcritical capacity attendant on expansion of scale and the rise of public relations management that incorporated the public into the realm of administered society (see also Horkheimer and Adorno 1944). Such accounts reveal that the notion of public is not only basic to democracy, but linked to an apparent contradiction in democratic ideals. At least in its most prominent modern, liberal forms, democracy seems to promise both a politics based on reason rather than power, and the inclusion of all adults in the political process. The latter, the classic accounts of the public sphere suggest, undermines the former. The nineteenth and twentieth century history of democratic politics is taken to demonstrate this. Public opinion is increasingly ‘managed’ on the basis of research and manipulation rather than developed in open, rationalcritical discourse.

Already in the nineteenth century itself, political theory of many persuasions emphasized the fragility and limitations of the liberal democratic conception of the public. Tocqueville, most famously, argued as early as the 1830s that the democratization of society tended to eliminate the intermediary public bodies which had traditionally refined opinion and furnished the individual a collective social identity outside the state. Engaged, politicized publics composed of distinct views and interests could be reshaped over time into mass publics—passive, conformist, and atomized before the state. Tocqueville’s fear of the unmediated state would resonate with generations of critics of mass society.

Central to the analyses of historical decline in the public sphere is the idea that as its scope expanded, it was unable to sustain a high level of rational-critical debate. This happened with the rise of various sorts of opinion managers, from pollsters to public relations specialists, and with the institutionalization of political parties as products of negotiations among interest groups rather than arenas for debate about the public good in general. A key phase in this, accordingly to the critics, was the institutionalization of class politics during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Habermas treated this in terms of negotiation among interests, as distinct from reasoned debate about the public good. Negt and Kluge ([1964] 1993), however, famously emphasized the existence of a proletarian public sphere, rooted in distinctive experiences, and productive of reasoned internal discourse. Indeed, the German Social Democratic Party, like successful workers organizations elsewhere, created a parallel public sphere to that dominated by the bourgeoisie (Eley 1992, see also Katznelson and Zolberg 1987). This faltered principally because of a nationalization of popular politics, not class politics per se (Mosse 1975, 1987). Such nationalization was often accompanied by mass spectacle and reliance on mass media. Both did frequently collapse the distinction of public and private, especially in emotive appeals to national unity. Equally important was the rise of two-party electoral systems. Rather than being able to participate activity in public life, late twentieth century citizens of democratic societies were reduced to being invited to respond to plebiscites (Lowi 1985, Ginsburg 1986).

Historical research on the public sphere has questioned both the accuracy of the late eighteenth century ideal and the narrative of subsequent decline. Schudson (1998), for example, has argued that active participation of citizens in public discourse and politics has ebbed and flowed without linear trend. The ideal of the good citizen as an active participant in the public sphere has long been contrasted with the failings of actual citizens. A substantial line of research on ‘civic culture’ shifted the emphasis away from the problematic of public debate and towards a more general idea of participation and incorporation into civic life, for example, in voluntary associations (see, in particular, Almond and Verba 1966 and critical analysis in Somers 1993, 1995). This, most researchers argued, grew through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More recently, however, critics of late twentieth and early twenty-first century democracies have emphasized a decline in civic participation (e.g., Putnam 2000).

3. Participation And Exclusion

Although openness was basic to the ideology and theory of the public sphere, various forms of exclusion were basic to actually existing publics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Women, for example, had been prominent in late eighteenth century salon society and elite public spheres, but were widely excluded from nineteenth and twentieth century public space; this was mirrored by a commensurate bias in political thought (Landes 1988, Elshtain 1993). Feminist struggles made gender a basic political issue in new ways (Ryan 1990, 1992). In addition, women were prominent in other movements, such as abolitionism in the USA, and may have figured less in subsequent historical accounts than in actual nineteenth century social movements. This may be partly because of different styles of address in the public sphere, including a greater emphasis on narrative and less on argumentation (Lara 1999). Similarly, Blacks were largely excluded from the US public sphere, even after abolition. This encouraged a similar duality: struggles for inclusion and development of parallel public discourse marked by distinctive communicative styles (Diawara 1995).

This has occasioned more general inquiry into ‘counterpublics’ which contest the apparently neutral dominance of more mainstream publics (Fraser 1992, Warner 2001). This argument is rooted in Negt and Kluge’s ([1964] 1993) account of the proletarian public sphere. Members of religious communities, ethnic groups, and the women’s movement have been among the many who have constructed counterpublics. During the classic heyday of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century British public sphere, thus, many artisans and workers were denied participation in the public sphere. They were not simply and unambivalently members of a proletarian public sphere, though they did develop their own media and/organizations and to some extent constitute a counterpublic (Gilmartin 1999). They claimed the right to participate in the dominant, unmarked public sphere and challenged those who introduced restrictive measures to make it a specifically ‘bourgeois’ (or more generally, propertied) public sphere (Jones 1983). The same people who excluded those with less wealth from the public sphere nonetheless claimed it in unmarked form as simply the British public.

Accounts of the public sphere by both contemporaries and historians have been tacitly linked to the idea of nation, since nation defined the range of citizens entitled to participate in public affairs and the basis for legitimacy of modern, especially democratic, states (Calhoun 1997). In liberalism’s triumphant early phase, experiments in republicanism and constitutionalism placed these issues squarely on the table. They asked how new political structures were to acquire legitimacy and how, within those structures, the plurality of opinion was to be represented. Defenses of free speech and the press, too, signaled an appreciation of the importance of venues in which views could be widely and, in principle, freely circulated. At the same time, the rhetoric of nationalism typically presented the nation not as creature of public discourse but as pre-existing unity, commonly on ethnic or cultural grounds. This is true even, if ironically, in the USA, the nation quintessentially created through the public action of its citizens. A tension running through American history has pitted the capacity for creation of a new political order exemplified by the founders against claims that the defining national essence is already in place and needs only defense from the loyal.

Notions of a vital republican public sphere have been influential especially in American historical studies, visible in the work of J. G. A. Pocock, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and more recently, Michael Warner. Here the focus, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, is on the capacity of action in public not only to define individual identity but to create the world citizens share in common. Republicanism, implied several things: (a) a concerted effort to reach agreement about the public good, as distinct from the attempt to find the net balance of private, individual goods—the essence of utilitarianism; (b) a sense of politics as a work in progress regarding the appropriate structures and limits of the political, as opposed to a hallowed set of procedures for achieving particular ends—such as the cult of the constitution; and (c) a belief that individuality and identity are only fully expressed and enjoyed through engagement in public life, rather than constituted beforehand in the private realm. These writers emphasize the ephemeral nature of republicanism and the rapid emergence in the nineteenth century of a variously liberal, national and representative (rather than participatory) model of the public sphere. In American Studies, as in Frankfurt School critical theory, this decline is commonly associated with the rise of mass culture—and the blurring of divisions between reasoned political discourse and other social processes of opinion formation.

4. Cities And Media

Transformations of public life were also shaped by the ways in which communications media and the physical public spaces of cities changed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Richard Sennets (1977) The Fall of Public Man, for example, contrasts a vibrant and highly varied eighteenth and nineteenth century urban life (especially among the bourgeoisie) to a reduction in both the occasions for interaction across lines of difference and the psychological ability to manage open relations with strangers well. Citizens retreated, Sennett suggests, into both privacy and the conformity of mass culture.

Urban public spaces anchor face-to-face interaction, which was basic to the classical image of the public sphere, conceived of largely in terms of direct interaction. This is important for a sense of serendipitous contact among people of diverse backgrounds. Parks, cafes, and theaters all inform this. Many of Europe’s cities, especially older ones, were distinctive in their pedestrian character and their scale. From the mid-nineteenth century, however, this began to shift. Hausmann’s post-1848 construction of the Paris boulevards and destruction of some of the local quartiers is taken as emblematic (e.g., by Harvey 1985). Both suburbanization and less pedestrianfriendly, larger-scale designs for newer cities have changed the character of public interaction in Europe, largely in ways familiar earlier in the US Commentators throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been concerned for the implications of this for democracy. As Mumford (1938, p. 483) wrote, ‘One of the difficulties in the way of political association is that we have not provided it with the necessary physical organs of existence: we have failed to provide the necessary sites, the necessary buildings, the necessary halls, rooms, meeting places … ’

This has been linked to a huge increase in scale. One crucial result is that directly interpersonal relations organize proportionately less of public life; mediations of various kinds have become increasingly important (Calhoun 1988, Garnham 1992, Keane 1991, Thompson 1995). This is partly a matter of communications media per se; it is also a matter of growing importance for bureaucracies and other formal organizations. The eighteenth and early nineteenth century public sphere was closely tied to the spread of print media. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the heyday of great urban newspapers; after this, media that transcended locality became increasingly important. First radio and then television fundamentally altered the public sphere. They contributed to a shift in what was publicly visible as well as in how public discourse was organized (Meyrowitz 1985, Thompson 1995). New media shared both information and emotionally powerful images widely. Broadcast media are often charged with furthering the debasement of reason by substituting powerful images for sustained analysis, by appealing to a lowest common denominator in audiences, by blurring the lines between entertainment and critical discourse, and by centralizing control over messages in the hands of a few corporations. Some caution is in order about generalizations from medium, though, as newspapers produced their own mass forms, with broadly similar if perhaps less extreme effects.

Crucially, the changes in scale and media forms of the twentieth century challenge the classical eighteenth century model of the public sphere, which was grounded in readership on the one hand and directly interpersonal discourse on the other. Any account of contemporary public life must deal with a dramatic increase in indirect, mediated relationships. Transformations of media continue, of course, and the implications of the Internet and computer-mediated communication are important topics of contemporary investigation (Rasmussen 2000). Relatedly, the dominant approaches to the public sphere have emphasized domestic politics within nation-states. Especially during the last years of the twentieth century, however, communications media and the rise of transnational organizations have facilitated growth of an international public sphere (Thompson 1995, Held 1995, Calhoun 2002). To what extent transnational public opinion can steer global society directly, and to what extent only through the agency of state structures, remains a crucial question.

Finally, though this research paper concentrates on the public sphere in Western European and American history, it is important to note that the nineteenth and twentieth century also saw dramatic and transformative growth in public discourses elsewhere. In late Imperial and early Republican China, for example, the category of ‘public’ became influential and both directly inter- personal and mediated public spheres were created (Wakeman 1993, Rankin 1993). This was basic to development of the idea of citizen, as distinct from subject, to constitution of notions of public welfare, and to cultural transformations such as the introduction of new vernacular writing. It also contributed to the growth of both nationalist and class politics in the twentieth century. Further transformations followed, attendant on changes in media, politics, and culture, and creating important linkages within the Chinese diaspora as well as with the West.

An unusually vital print-mediated public sphere developed in India. The early history of this is closely interwoven with the history of British colonialism and opposition to it. The history of Indian public life has been an important setting for examining the role of both international power relations and issues of domestic diversity. Not least, questions like the claims of nonreaders in a public sphere dominated by print media have surfaced and shaped not only Indian but international discussions. Broadcast media have played an important role recently in the constitution of a new Hindu nationalism (Rajogopal 2001). In many settings, including in the European countries and the USA as well as both India and China, the development of a public sphere has been closely related to the development of national consciousness, identity, and political contestation.

5. Conclusion

Growth and transformation of public spheres has been a major theme in nineteenth and twentieth century history. It is crucial to the history of democratic politics, including not only electoral and parliamentary regimes, but also broader struggles in civil society and beyond national borders. A dominant historical theme is the inclusion of a broader range of participants in public discourse. This has been coupled with analyses of the implications of growing scale, including mismatch between local— especially urban—public spaces and enlarged range of potential participants, dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, and changing roles of media. A prominent line of analysis suggests a concomitant decline in the rational-critical capacity of public discourse. This is challenged by both research on the limits of earlier public spheres and the strengths of later counterpublics. The importance of the public sphere is in any case not limited to argumentation but includes also the formation and spread of culture, as in the development of national identity.


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