The orientational transformations in any public sphere: Deweyan thoughts on Habermas, habits, and free communication.

Author:Stroud, Scott R.
Position::FORUM: ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF HABERMAS'S STRUCTURAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE PUBLIC SPHERE - John Dewey's The Public and Its Problems
 
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Jurgen Habermas's conception of the public sphere has been of doubtless importance for those interested in the intersection between communication, argument, and the ideal sort of community we ought to form. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas (1962/1989) recounts the devolution of the public sphere from free-wheeling and politically important coffee houses, salons, and reading societies to the highly mediated and money-saturated form evident in the mid-twentieth century west. Habermas's theme seems to be one that many might agree with. The ideal public engages freely in rational-critical debate over vital political issues of the day, and such an ideal can be thwarted by the presence of money, staged politics, and manipulative endeavors such as political advertising and spin. Habermas's (1962/1989) story presents as the main villains "parties and special interest associations" (p. 209), who tend to use the mass media to one-sidedly present attractive slogans and arguments, but not to discuss them in the maximally public sense of reasoned debate that Habermas (and many of his detractors, I might add) would find ideal. His account effectively ends with the decline of the public sphere, and with the hope of its revival lying in the actualization of two conditions: (a) "the objectively possible minimizing of bureaucratic decisions" and (b) "a relativizing of structural conflicts of interest according to the standard of a universal interest everyone can acknowledge" (Habermas, 1962/1989, p. 235). If we agree with Habermas's idealization of free communication, the stage is set for us to do something about it by challenging, critiquing, and reconstructing the form of the public arena so as to reduce distorting forces (such as money and ideology) and structural conflicts of ends and goals. In other words, Habermas's payoff seems to be a focus on reforming the material organization of society.

As a pragmatist in the Deweyan spirit, I do not wholly disagree with the value of such a view. Yet I must demur as to the one-sided reading of the public sphere, its problems, and the paths to its melioration that such a common reading of this work might encourage. Lenore Langsdorf (2002) has espoused a similar worry over the lack of meliorative resources in Habermas's privileging of the representative in his communicative theory. Pragmatists will demand that any reading of the ideal of the public sphere provide a workable and comprehensive account of how the actual present situation can be meliorated. John Dewey, a figure Habermas did not read until later in his...

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