Public sphere theories revisited

The following is excerpted from my forthcoming monograph (2015).

Michael Warner has referred to the “endlessly repeated discovery that public politics does not in fact conform to the idealized self-understanding which makes it work.” Jürgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere which was first published in German in 1962 has been central to the literature on public spheres. It was, of course, a Gibbonesque narrative of the rise and decline of the bourgeois and liberal public sphere in Europe.  Habermas’ thesis concerns the structural transformation of the public sphere from ‘critical participation’ to ‘consumerist manipulation’. As Eley (1992: 292) notes, Habermas was “less interested in the realized political dimension of the public sphere” than in “abstracting a strong ideal against which later forms of the public sphere can be set.”

We now know that in tracing the emergence of the public sphere in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe and in imposing his own normative ideals of universal access, rational discourse, and dominance-free communication on his analysis, Habermas made numerous omissions. He “missed the extent to which the public sphere was always constituted by conflict” (Eley op. cit.: 306). He ignored the fact that “the very inception of the public sphere was itself shaped by a new exclusionary ideology directed at women” (ibid.: 311). He neglected to reflect on the fact that “the claim to rational discourse” was “simultaneously a claim to power in Foucault’s sense” (ibid: 331). He failed to examine other, non-liberal, non-bourgeois, competing publics (Fraser 1992: 115) in as much as his conception constitutes a bourgeois, masculinist conception (Fraser op. cit.: 117); and he consigned to historical oblivion women’s exclusion from the bourgeois public sphere by virtue of “their ideological consignment to a separate realm called the private” (Ryan 1992: 260). Furthermore, Habermas has often been accused of developing a unitary conception of the public sphere (cf. Calhoun 1992, Fraser 1992) (a misplaced critique, according to Warner (2002)); of locating identity formation entirely in the realm of private life, and therefore outside of politics and public discourse (Calhoun 1993: 275). He is charged with taking this to such an extent that it “represses difference” and “undermines the capacity of a public sphere to carry forward a rational-critical discourse” (Calhoun op. cit.: 279). By providing a definition of public spheres that limit them to rational-critical discourse (Calhoun 2002: 162), his formulation is inadequate for conceptualizing the role of public spheres in creating social solidarity (Calhoun op. cit.: 159). Fraser (1992) proposed the concept of subaltern counter-publics to describe “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses [in order to] formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, needs and interests” in the case of “stratified societies…whose basic institutional framework generates unequal social groups in structural relations of dominance and subordination” (Fraser 1992: 123, 122). Warner makes the salient point, however, that to see subaltern counter-publics as operating according to different logics of power and in isolation from mainstream publics is to miss the point of their co-imbrication.

As Fraser (2007) has recently pointed out, the Habermasian concept of the public sphere was linked to a particular social imaginary, namely that of deliberative democracy for a territorially bounded polity, or in others words, to the democratization of the modern Westphalian territorial nation-state (Fraser op. cit. 10–11). The theory of the public sphere, in historian Harold Mah’s apt phrase, “is inscribed in a discourse of modernity” (Mah 2000: 180). Charles Taylor refers to the public sphere as a meta-topical space (or a non-local common space) “in which people who never meet understand themselves to be engaged in discussion and capable of reaching a common mind” (Taylor 1992: 228-229). In a similar argument, Calhoun (1993: 269) notes that “an effective rational-critical discourse aimed at the resolution of political disputes” is central to the concept of the public sphere. Two caveats may be offered here. It is, of course, entirely possible that the notion of reaching “a common mind” was central to the ideal of the classical bourgeois and liberal public sphere, but to the extent that this was ever so (and Eley et al. 1992 are among the Habermasian critics who give us reason to doubt this), the proposition is no longer tenable in a media age in which polarized and polarizing opinions are central to the functioning and legitimacy of the modern media. And even if the public sphere is a placeless place in which those who express their views never actually meet, it does not follow that they may not meet in real life. This is particularly so in relatively small and homogeneous societies, such as Norway. Central to Habermas’ notion of the public sphere was his emphasis on the potential of the public sphere to function as the arena for the articulation of a critique of a corrective to the power of the state. The modern public sphere is, in Taylor’s words, “a space of discussion which is self-consciously seen as being outside power” (Taylor 1992: 232). It is extrapolitical “as a discourse on and to power, rather than by power.” But here, one runs into another difficulty, because “there has never been a state without some influence upon the character of its citizens” (Appiah 2005: 154),  and because the ability of the modern state to shape the character of its citizens, and to enable, regulate and delimit the public sphere has vastly expanded in the modern era.  It might be that “the sovereign state cannot (never could) contain all the practices, relations and loyalties of its citizens” (Asad 2003: 179),  but to think of modern public spheres as separate and distinct from state power, rather than in various ways suffused by it, risks idealizing and essentializing them. As Calhoun points out, the latter sections of Structural Transformation foreshadows Habermas’ later work by describing the (late) modern public sphere as “a setting for states and corporate interests to develop legitimacy not by responding appropriately to an independent and critical public but by seeking to instill in social actors motivations that conform to the needs of the overall system dominated by […]states and corporate actors.” (Calhoun 1992).

By the 1990s, many writers became inspired by the Habermasian framework and by the apparent prospect of democratizing processes across the world. Consequently, public sphere theory went global and was applied in a wide variety of societal contexts. Eickelman and Anderson’s 1999 volume New Media in the Muslim World (Eickelman and Anderson 1999) appears to have introduced the concept of a distinctively “Muslim public sphere” in which the “mediated character of fluid identities” (Eickelman and Anderson op. cit.: 6) and the “re-intellectualization of Islamic discourse” leading to “basic configurations of doctrine and practice” (ibid.: 14) were supposedly central. Thereafter, theories of the public sphere in Muslim societies expanded promiscuously, both temporally and geographically. Readers were duly informed that the idea of the public sphere in the Muslim world “is not recent” (Eickelman and Salvatore 2002: 92) and told of the existence of a “pre-modern public sphere” (in Morocco and elsewhere) (Eickelman and Salvatore op. cit.: 94) and that “the public sphere is…not limited to ‘modern societies’” (ibid.). Habermas’s original formulations about the emergence of European public spheres had apparently been “a powerful token of Eurocentrism in social theory” (Habermas never pretended to write about the public sphere anywhere else either – much like his contemporary Charles Taylor, Habermas has always stuck to his metier) (ibid.: 95), and Habermas had furthermore “neglected the role of religion in the development and expansion of the public sphere (ibid.: 96) (true enough), even if he had admittedly in more recent writings “made a major contribution in showing that there is no inherent reason why the notion of public sphere has to be restricted to an idealized European bourgeoisie (Salvatore and Eickelman 2004: 6). I am leaving aside here the question of whether the very translation of Habermas’s original term Öffentlichkeit (publicness) into the English term “the public sphere” forms a causative part of the misapprehension of Habermas’s work on the theme by an academic audience largely using the English version of Habermas’s 1962 book.

Faced with the burgeoning academic literature on “Muslim public spheres”, “Islamic publics” and “Islamic counter-publics” one could perhaps be forgiven for subscribing to Jon W. Anderson’s call for a “thick description” of the Muslim public spheres “now” (Anderson 2003: 901).

In an attempt to move beyond the classic formulations of the public sphere, which in a post-colonialist and poststructuralist framework are often seen as too Eurocentric, Hirschkind (2006), Mahmood (2005) and others have taken to analyzing forms and modalities of public religiosity that are marginal, or even counter-posed to, classical formulations of the public sphere. Rephrasing Fraser’s concept of counter-publics, Hirschkind takes this to mean “a set of discursive practices founded on a very different conceptual articulation of the public than that provided by liberal-democratic traditions” (Hirschkind op. cit.: 232).Hirschkind’s own work focuses on Islamic cassette sermons among Salafi Muslims in Cairo, Egypt, whereas the work of Mahmood (2005) focuses on embodied expressions of Islamic piety among Salafi Muslim women in Cairo, Egypt.

Another trend, present in such work as Bowen (2004), and Mandaville (2001), concerns itself with transnational Muslim public spheres. Hirschkind and Larkin (2008: 1)  complain of “the intellectual habit of not taking religion seriously.” But as conceived by the bourgeoning academic literature on “Muslim public spheres”, “Public Islam”, “the public sphere of Islam” and “Islamic counter-publics”, the problem would rather seem to be that this literature does not engage in a sufficiently detailed and thorough manner with the intersections between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ (Asad 2003: 25)  in the different societal contexts in which Muslims live. For, as nuanced and rich as this literature is, it seems to have a clear tendency to conflate “Muslim” and “Islamic” and to define the new public spheres, whether localized or transnational, primarily as religious ones. Rather unwittingly then, much of this literature would seem to reproduce what anthropologist Magnus Marsden has referred to as “[the] lingering notion in the anthropological study of Muslim societies that the daily thought and actions of Muslims are best understood in terms of what falls within the domain of the Islamic and the domain of practical reason (Marsden 2005: 53).

This is, as I have argued elsewhere (Bangstad 2009) a particular problem in the context of the anthropological study of Muslims living in some of the most secularized societies in the world, namely those of Western Europe.

Fraser (2007: 7-8) cautions against the de-politicization entailed in the proliferation of different and contradictory usages of the concepts of the public sphere in academic theory. She is of the opinion that unless the concept correlates with a sovereign power (public efficacy) and with a notion that publicity is supposed to hold the state and its officials accountable (normative legitimacy), the concept “loses its critical force and its political point” (Fraser op. cit.: 8). Fraser furthermore argues that “it is by no means clear what it means to speak of a ‘transnational public sphere’” (ibid.) She nevertheless accepts the idea that the present configuration of “transnational publicity” is new (Fraser op. cit.: 15) and that public spheres are increasingly transnational or postnational with respect to the constitutive elements of public opinion (Fraser op. cit.: 19). For Fraser, a post-Westphalian concept of the public sphere in which public opinion is legitimate must be based on inclusiveness and participatory parity, regardless of (actual) political citizenship (Fraser op. cit.: 20, 22).

But to what extent would this ideal seem to be realizable in contemporary Europe? Charles Taylor defined what he referred to as “radical secularity” as a second facet of the newness of the public sphere (Taylor 1992: 235). By “radical secularity” Taylor refers to a notion of the public sphere as standing “not only in contrast with a divine foundation for society, but with any ideas of society as constituted in something that transcends contemporary common action.” Similarly, in his monumental A Secular Age (2007) Taylor defines “secularity” as referring to “…public spaces [which] have allegedly been emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality” (Taylor op. cit.: 2).

It is quite clear from the delimiting ways in which Taylor defines the public sphere here that he has Europe or perhaps Euro-America foremost in mind, since this way of defining the newness of the public sphere would make the concept inapplicable to most Muslim societies at present. Sociologist of religion José Casanova would seem to share a concern over exclusivist and exclusionary definitions of public spheres; he cautions that “to guarantee equal access to the European public sphere and undistorted communication, the European union would need to become not only post-Christian but also post-secular” (Casanova 2006: 82).

This brings us to Jürgen Habermas’s own partial and contested revisions of his classic views about the place of religion in European public spheres. After September 11th his thinking about the public sphere has been framed with reference to the need for post-secular and post-metaphysical conceptualizations of the public sphere. Habermas now argues for a greater role of religious arguments in the public spheres of European societies. It is still a sine qua non for Habermas that the liberal state be secular (Habermas 2008: 120) in order to guarantee equal religious freedom for everybody. But he now conceives of cultural and societal secularization as “a double learning process that compels both the traditions of the Enlightenment and the religious doctrines to reflect on their own respective limits” (Habermas 2006: 23).

Habermas’ argument for a greater role for religious arguments in European public spheres is, as many have noted by now, largely a functional and instrumentalist one. He notes that “liberal societal structures are dependent on the solidarity of their citizens” (Habermas op. cit.: 22). And, furthermore, “it is in the interest of the constitutional state to deal carefully with all the cultural sources that nourish its citizens’ consciousness of norms and their solidarity” (ibid.: 46). “The expectation that there will be continuing disagreement between faith and knowledge deserves to be called ‘rational’ only when secular knowledge, too, grants that religious convictions have an epistemological status that is not purely and simply irrational” (ibid.: 51). “In short,” Habermas argues, “post-metaphysical thinking is prepared to learn from religion while at the same time remaining agnostic” (Habermas 2008: 143).

There are, however, valid reasons to doubt that Habermas has offered the religious citizens of European states a satisfactory compromise in presenting the contributions of religious arguments to the public sphere as functional, for even though they create bonds of solidarity between citizens, they do little else. For Habermas retains a great deal of his previous normative framework in arguing that the only political decisions that count as legitimate are those that are motivated by “generally accessible reasons” (Habermas op. cit.: 122) and that “every citizen must know and accept that only secular reasons count beyond the institutional threshold separating the informal public sphere from parliaments, ministries and administrations” (ibid.: 130). However there is no insistence on Habermas’s part that religious citizens translate their religion-based arguments into generally accessible and secular reasons if this is seen as an infringement of their personal identity (ibid.: 130). Habermas holds that these requirements do not impose asymmetrical cognitive burdens on religious citizens (ibid.: 143), but it is hard to see that these requirements do not in actual practice lead to asymmetric and unequal treatment of religious citizens in a liberal and secular constitutional state (Yates 2007).  And so inevitably we return once more the question of the myriad ways in which power structures and suffuses the mediated public spheres and contributes to determining who and what gets to be heard – and for what purposes.

For the public spheres in contemporary Norway constitute an impure place: some individuals are by virtue of their background more likely than others to be rendered silent, and that likelihood is not randomly or evenly distributed.

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