Habermas’ Public Sphere


The claim that the Internet can lead to a greater democratization of society is founded on tenets of unlimited access to information and equal participation in cultural discourse. But will this inundation of texts and voices lead to anarchic, rather than democratic, forms of communication? To put it another way, does discourse on the Internet lead to a completely postmodern world in which multiple centers compete with one another in a debate which can only lead to complete divergence and fragmentation?

Like the postmodernists, Jurgen Habermas hopes to create a dialogue which occurs outside of the realm of government and the economy. But Habermas’ public sphere model attempts to thwart postmodern, chaotic dissipation by reinstalling Enlightenment values of reason and freedom into a modern discourse which aims at pragmatic consensus. In the public sphere, Habermas says, discourse becomes democratic through the “non-coercively unifying, consensus building force of a discourse in which participants overcome their at first subjectively biased views in favor of a rationally motivated agreement (Public Discourse 315).” By looking to rationality, he hopes to produce democratic judgements which can have universal application while remaining anchored within the practical realm of discourse among individuals.

Habermas posits that the participants in his political sphere shall share shared assumptions about communicative practice. These assumptions are produced by an Enlightenment notion of reason which is characteristic of democracy- it is this rationality which makes decisions formulated in discourse binding .(Ess 240) In addition, Habermas lists certain criterion of freedom and equality which are necessary for an “ideal speech situation” to occur in a democratic polity.

For Habermas, the public sphere is “a discursive arena that is home to citizen debate, deliberation, agreement and action (Villa 712).” Here individuals are able to freely share their views with one another in a process which closely resembles the true participatory democracy advocated for electronic networks.

Members of the public sphere must, however, adhere to certain rules for an ‘ideal speech situation’ to occur. They are:

1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.

2a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.

2b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.

2c. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires and needs.

3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (1) and (2). (“Diskursethik,” 86)

These rules reflect the emancipatory potential of the autonomous individual since institutions like government and business cannot affect what one posits or questions. The openness of expression which ‘the ideal speech situation’ demands can be applied to Internet, where rapid exchange of dialogue and production of information take place unchecked. Indeed, government regulation of electronic communication raises enormous outcries from those who claim that free speech is the essential component of democracy.

By allowing every person the same opportunity to participate in discourse, Habermas hopes to eradicate the prejudices which limit marginalized groups from fully attaining their rights in democracy. But since society holds onto physical classifications for defining individuals, virtual spaces may provide the best practical equivalent to the public sphere. Since the Internet de-emphasizes the body as a characteristic for social evaluation, users are able to interact on an equal level. Furthermore, because members of the public sphere are rational beings, the basis for establishing consensus is on the strength of argument, which comes from within the self, as opposed to material power defined by certain groups from the outside.

Yet though particular interests are respected in the ideal speech situation, participants also give attention to the concrete, practical needs of their fellow human beings. The ‘solidarity’ which springs from this attention to one another “concerns the welfare of consociates who are intimately linked in an intersubjectively shared form of life and thus also to the maintenance of the integrity of this form of life itself (“Justice and Solidarity,” 47).”

The public sphere, therefore, manages to generate a political space which respects the rights of the individual and strengthens community. Because the communication which takes place in the ‘ideal speech situation’ is free of institutional coercion, dialogue in the public sphere can “institute democratic discourses on the grassroots level (Ingram 155, quoted in Ess, 245).” If the rules of Habermas’ ‘ideal speech situation’ can be transferred to current electronic networks, the possibility arises for a democracy which can truly represent both citizen and community interests.

Despite Habermas’ rules of discourse, however, Lyotard criticizes the conditions of the public sphere. The move toward consensus, he says, re-establishes the dominant Enlightenment ‘metanarrative’, a story which claims to include all reality, but which instead only advocates a monolithic viewpoint. Any debatethat occurs under these Enilghtenment conditions is only meant to reify the metanarrative as the only representative stance on life. Habermas’ desire to reach consensus through dialogue decided by the most persuasive argument, neglects the plurality of voices inherent in democracy.

Lyotard doubts that “a reasonable consensus like the one in force at a given moment in the scientific community could embrace the totality of metaprescriptions regulating the totality of statements circulating in the social collectivity (Lyotard 87).” Smaller, more local stories, like the ones told by society’s marginalized groups, are ultimately forced to remain silent in a final consensus which excludes minority opinion. Thus, from a postmodern viewpoint of the world, Habermas’ public sphere fails in one of its primary tasks: to give all individuals an equal say in the discursive process.

Lyotard’s critique raises an important question in regards to electronic technologies as well. If electronic networks are to serve the purpose of creating a more inclusive and participatory democracy can (or should) accord be the final goal of discourse? Or is an open discourse itself the sign of pure democracy?

The Future?
Electronic networks will neither completely democratize nor completely limit discourse in the future. Inherent within the nature of technology are means for liberation and means for restriction, which hinge on the motives of those who have communicative power.

A ‘cyerdemocracy’ which opens speech to all parties needs a guiding model which stresses freedom and equality, because institutional forces threaten to use electonic networks for their own gain. A framework, then, like the one outlined in Habermas’ public sphere can serve as an alternative to institutional coercion in the Age of Information.

Yet with the pervasiveness of electronic networks in every phase of life, it becomes much more difficult to create a public sphere distinct from government or commerce. Indeed, technologies can reinforce traditional hierarchical structures as easily as they can subvert them.

The key to resistance lies in the formation of virtual communities on the grassroots level, where real and virtual communities can validate the voices of their members. If participants in electronic networks adhere to the guidelines set forth by Habermas, an ideal speech situation can take shape in which the Internet becomes both an instrument and a space for retuning democracy to the people.

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