Me-an-ing Mac-hi-nas

A Summary of Public Sphere Theories

There are two major branches of Public Sphere theories based on two intersecting cluster of academic disciplines. What the cluster of spatial disciplines like architecture/urban planning/geography define as “public sphere” and what social science disciplines like sociology/political science/gender studies define as “public sphere” are different even though these definitions to borrow from each other. Spatial disciplines define the physical human interactions in open spaces of the city like parks, recreational areas, festival spaces, streets, playgrounds etc. Through defining and classifying these interactions they also try to increase or decrease certain interactions while planning the space, like decreasing the crime rate (by placing more lights for example) and increasing disabled people’s accessibility (by insistently using ramps and elevators for example). Spatial intervention to public sphere (or “public space” as it is more commonly used in spatial discipline’s terminology) is always an intensely political act, and one needs to keep that in mind in all times when dealing with this side of the public sphere theory. One can look into the body of works of Lewis Mumford, Richard Sennett, Jane Jacobs, David Harvey or Yi-Fu Tuan to have a sense of these spatial theoretical approaches. Spatial planning has always been used as a paradigm shaper. I won’t go into further detail with this side of the public sphere theory since public sphere, as we use it in this project, is more in tandem with the description of the term in social sciences, which theorizes about the platform of communication, and shaping of the public opinion.    
Jürgen Habermas is the most central theorist of the public sphere in social sciences’ literature. Habermas published “The Structural Transformation of The Public Sphere” in 1962, which was actually his post-doctoral thesis[1]. He later returned and revised many of the arguments he had in the first thesis but that book is still the most referred initial source to theorize what possibly a “public sphere” is.  Habermas, in a self-aware academic limitation, describes a bourgeois, male, white, upper-middle class, educated and adult public sphere. He claims that once a person is in that (idealized) public sphere he is allowed to speak, interact and take action in collective decisions or refer to hegemonic structures manipulating the discussion ground to re-set the discussion. The public sphere is a civil arena where public opinions take shape and strong circulation of public opinions can pressure authority groups and limit their actions. That is why, most of the time, public sphere is defined as the place where decisions are made without violence. The discussions are based on “rational-critical argument”, as Kant defines it in the 17th century. And finally, ideal public opinion takes shape rationally, not with negotiation. The most important thing about the Habermasian public sphere is that it is based on discussion, and especially discussion of print material. It is a public sphere founded a priori on words but not actions.
The Habermasian public sphere based on critical-rational discussion has four essential elements:
  1. Every contributer should have an equal chance to start the conversation, ask questions, discuss, examine and propose.
  2. Everyone should have the right to question the determined discussion topics.
  3. Everyone should have equal chance to declare their wants, desires and emotions.
  4. Speakers should have the right to declare their statements on the procedures of discourse and the practice of these procedures, and if they are excluded through the discussions they should have the freedom to express their position and the relations of hegemony which limited their expression. (all four contents directly translated from Özbek, 2004, 62- 3)
There were many critiques of Habermas’ description of the ideal public sphere but majorly, even the initial work of Habermas (“The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”) has smartly framed his case study group (white, upper-middle class, west European, 18th century) without making the colonial assumption that this is a “universal” and “neutral” study group. His framing approach (even though this theory is criticized rightfully from angles of class, race and feminism[2] too) managed to stay as an important source book in social sciences. 
The main wholesale criticism of Habermas’ theory came from his student Oscar Negt[3] and his colleague Alexander Kluge[4] with “Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere” (first published in 1972) and later with “History and Obstinacy” (first published in 1981). Kluge explains their point of departure to re-define public sphere as follows:
                 Our point of departure always remains the public sphere of 1933 that could be conquered by the National Socialists. This must be fortified in different ways so that it cannot be conquered. If the public sphere, that is, the container for the political, was inadequate and therefore conquered by the Nazis, then it is useless to study the achievements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and to repeat and defend the old conception of the public sphere, as Habermas does, for no moral resistance was objectively possible within it.[5] (Alexander Kluge, 42/[6])
What Negt and Kluge did with the theory of “Proletarian Public Sphere” is basically including, non-verbal, non-diplomatic, non-bureaucratic and movement-performance based levels of human life (which they describe as the sphere of production) and define these invisible-to-enlightenment circles of life an essential ingredient of the academic paradigm of the public sphere. Through doing this, they shift the “normalized” division between public and private also. Below is a lengthy quote from opening of “The Public Sphere and Experience” which wraps everything I have been trying to explain above:  

                Federal elections, Olympic ceremonies, the actions of a commando unit, a theater premiere—all are considered public  events. Other events of overwhelming public significance, such as childrearing, factory work, and watching television within one's own four walls, are considered private. The real social experiences of human beings, produced in everyday life and work, cut across such divisions.
               We originally intended to write a book about the public sphere and the mass media. This would have examined the most advanced structural changes within the public sphere and the mass media, in particular the media cartel. The loss of a public sphere within the various sectors of the left, together with the restricted access of workers in their existing organizations to channels of communication, soon led us to ask whether there can be any effective forms of a counterpublic sphere against the bourgeois public sphere. This is how we arrived at the concept of the proletarian public sphere, which embodies an experiential interest that is quite distinct. The dialectic of bourgeois and proletarian public sphere is the subject of our book.

               Historical fissures—crises, war, capitulation, revolution, counterrevolution—denote concrete constellations of social forces within which a proletarian public 1 sphere develops. Since the latter has no existence as a ruling public sphere, it has |l to be reconstructed from such rifts, marginal cases, isolated initiatives. To study substantive attempts at a proletarian public sphere is, however, only one aim I in our argument: the other is to investigate the contradictions emerging with-/' in advanced capitalist societies for their potential for a counterpublic sphere. (Negt and Kluge, 1993, xliii – emphasis original)

I believe the theory of Negt and Kluge is more useful than Habermas’ original theory in a time of uprisings organized horizontally through internet and expectedly create critical masses on streets where the visible or invisible structures of society and state has been keeping the people away from wanting (or noticing) their rights or needs (but again that is a whole other body of academic works).

[1] Habermas’ post-doctoral thesis was rejected by Adorno and Horkheimer because –basically- it was too optimistic, had too much faith in the potential of humanity.
[2] In “Habermas and the Public Sphere”, Nancy Fraser’s “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Exiting Democracy” (109-142) article is on the feminist critique of Habermas’ ideal public sphere.
[3] Negt is a philosopher and social theorist.
[4] Kluge studied history and law with a minor in religious music, and later became a social theorist, author and film-director.
[5] One can find a similar sentiment in majority of the critical fascism/totalitarianism studies, especially in Hannah Arendt’s.
[6] Kluge, Alexander, and Stuart Liebman. "On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere: An Interview with Alexander Kluge." MIT Press 46 (1988): 23-59. Special Issue on Alexander Kluge


Baehr, Peter. Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010.
Calhoun, Craig J., ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT, 1992. Print.
Chomsky, Noam. Occupy. London: Penguin, 2012. Print.
David, Isabel, and Kumru F. Toktam??, eds. 'Everywhere Taksim'. Sowing the Seeds for a New Turkey at Gezi. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2015. Print.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: MIT, 1989. Print.
- -. The Theory of Communicative Action. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon, 1984-
1987. Print. Volume 1 and 2
Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso, 2012. Print.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
Kluge, Alexander, and Stuart Liebman. "On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere: An Interview with Alexander Kluge." MIT Press 46 (1988): 23-59. Print. Special Issue on Alexander Kluge
Kluge, Alexander, and Oskar Negt. History and Obstinacy. Trans. Richard Langston. Brooklyn: Zone, 2014. Print.
Mah, Harold. "Phantasies of the Public Sphere: Rethinking the Habermas of Historians." The Journal of Modern History 72.1 (2000): 153-82. Print. DOI: 10.1086/315932
Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961. Print.
Negt, Oskar, and Alexander Kluge. Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere. Trans. Peter Labanyi, Jamie Owen Daniel, and Assenka Oksiloff. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. Print.
Özbek, Meral, ed. Kamusal Alan. [Public Sphere]. Istanbul: Hil Yayinlari, 2004. Print.
Sennett, Richard. Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.
Tuan, Yi-fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1977. Print.
Werbner, Pnina, Martin Webb, and Kathryn Spellman-Poots, eds. The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest: The Arab Spring and beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP in association with the Aga Khan University (International) in the United Kingdom, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations, 2014. Print.

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