Following on from my last blog post, something that I’ve been thinking more about is the Public Sphere and what constitutes it. Is it a semi-mythical space or can it actually exist?
Firstly, what is the public sphere. The German writers Hannah Arendt and Habermas both placed the public sphere at the centre of their conception of politics. It is difficult to understand how Arendt understood the public sphere without first understanding how she conceived of the private sphere. The private sphere is that which is concerned with housekeeping and privacy. In other words the concern of the private sphere is in the management of one’s own household, and also in having a space where one is protected from the public sphere. It is, if you will, a negative space, a space of darkness.
“A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden if it is not to lose its depth in a very real, non-subjective sense. The only efficient way to guarantee the darkness of what needs to be hidden against the light of publicity is private property, a privately owned place to hide in.”
For Hannah Arendt, there is a dichotomy between the public sphere and the private sphere. In some ways it is similar to the dichotomy between light and darkness, the positive and the negative. The private sphere is the space where the ‘life processes’ take place. Eating, shitting, fucking, dying, all take place behind private walls. The management of the private sphere is then the management of the life processes. To put that another way, the management of the private, housekeeping in other words, is all to do with the survival of the species. However, it is within this private sphere that one has protection, has the space to develop as a subject outside the glare of the magnetism of the same which always threatens the burgeoning subjectivity.
The private realm then is always about self preservation. It is never about world building. World building should be the domain of politics. It is the creation of a common world that holds an objectivity that the private realm does not have. The private realm can only be taken care of once the bare necessities of life have been dealt with.
“Private wealth, therefore, became a condition for admission to public life not because its owner was engaged in accumulating it but, on the contrary, because it assured with reasonable certainty that its owner would not have to engage in providing for himself the means of use and consumption and was free for public activity.”
The public sphere then is noted for being exclusionary, one cannot enter without having risen above the base economic means that concerns humans. Therefore, whether it is ancient Greece or the salons of the 17th and 18th century, the public sphere is based on firstly having overcome the worry of the reproduction of one’s self, to in the communion with others, having to concern oneself with the building of a world. And the building of a common world comes from all having different locations/perspectives within that world and therefore due to these manifold positions and “innumerable perspectives.. no common measurement or denominator can ever be devised.”
The public sphere fundamentally is marked by a different conception of time. Where the private sphere is always marked inwardly by staving away from death and therefore is more concerned with life in its short term, the public sphere is concerned with a ‘history’, of immortalising, of the creation of a common world, the world of manmade appearance. It is the space where humans constitute their reality and create it together. The public sphere then should be concerned with the immortal, with past, present and the future. While the private is concerned with the present.
In Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas identifies the rise of the bourgeois public sphere with the initial need for merchants, proto-capitalists to share vital and accurate information about foreign markets, political strife and its effects on business, etc. Thus the “public sphere” for the bourgeoisie was a necessary focal point to ensure the survival of their class. In other words, to know that a monarchy or political authority in say Singapore is assassinating merchants is good information to have if one is doing trade in that region. The emerging bourgeois public sphere is a class based public sphere, one that is antagonistic to both the aristocratic authority that limits capitalistic expansion, women and the working class.
“The traffic in news that developed alongside the traffic in commodities showed a similar pattern. With the expansion of trade, merchants’ market-oriented calculations required more frequent and more exact information about distant events.”
The traffic information that accompanied the increasing traffic in goods is worth further investigation, as as capitalism became more complex, so too did the information. Where once letters were the primary mode of merchants to circulate information, letters became more and more complex becoming pamphlets, newsletters and eventually journals. As they became more complex they became absorbed into a state administration that could communicate through these proto-newspapers and, in doing so, a new culture was formulating, one primarily based on the written word. The novel then becomes the cultural expression of the bourgeois society, a culture radically different from the ‘classical’ tradition that the aristocratic authorities espoused.
The salons, coffee houses, newspapers could then be viewed as the space of mediation between the public realm and the private realm. As one analyst of Habermas’ public sphere stated:
The principles of the public sphere involved an open discussion of all issues of general concern in which discursive argumentation was employed to ascertain general interests and the public good. The public sphere thus presupposed freedoms of speech and assembly, a free press, and the right to freely participate in political debate and decision-making.
However, as both Arendt and Habermas note, the ‘literate’ and ‘rationalist’ element that was a necessary benchmark on understanding the discourse of bourgeois enlightenment was replaced by a more systematic approach to state administration, one that moved toward mass entertainment and the creation of the ‘masses’, a body politic that was granted equality under the law, rather than a bourgeois class that reigned its influence through debating its limited ideas in the public sphere.
Such is a bit of a ramble through a summary of some of the demarcations of what other writers have recognised the public sphere is. In its idealised form it seems the public sphere has never existed, however, and what I want to look at in the next blog post is, has the public sphere returned in the guise of social media/ the internet etc. Evidently, for Habermas, the exchange of information was not only vital to the existence of a public sphere, it was intrinsic to the development of capitalism as a secure economic system. As disinformation i.e. Fake News is the hot topic of the moment, are we looking at the return of the public sphere in a mutated form after its disappearance a century ago?