The personal, technical, and public spheres: a note on 21st century critical communication inquiry.

Author:Goodnight, G. Thomas

Inevitably, any theory of communication addresses the contexts of its times. The public sphere essay was written in 1982. Then, the world was on the edge of a Reagan-Thatcher revolution that would loose neo-liberalism and begin to dismantle the welfare state. The United States was enduring a deep recession due to efforts to control inflation brought about by the debt-financed Vietnam war and careless energy policies. The Cold War held sway. Apocalyptic rhetoric from the Oval Office called for new, computer-guided smart weapons. The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment fingered, as did issues of race and class left unaddressed by the Great Society. Mass media ruled the airwaves. Television and newspaper companies converged. Stylized political news turned sampling data into horse race thrills ramped up with sexy sound bites. Matters did call for national debate. However, little meaningful public discussion ensued. The linguistic turn, postmodernity, culture wars, migration, AIDS, globalization, and the explosion of digital media--all elements of a coming communication revolution--were readying in the wings. This essay revisits the beginnings of studies in the public sphere, initiated among these circumstances, as critical communication inquiry. Such inquiry identifies communication as symbolic interaction and offers contextual approaches to questions of language, society, and social change (Littlejohn, 1983, pp. 45-73). The essay proceeds to compare Jurgen Habermas's neo-Kantian euro-centric declinist thesis against the notion of pluralistic argument spheres. A brief discussion of the prospects of 21st century studies of the public, technical, and personal spheres of argument is offered in conclusion.


My experiences with debate, graduate studies, and communication research had led me to believe that argumentation always, though unevenly, has fueled American democratic practices. Wil Linkugel introduced me to the study of public address at the University of Kansas through his ground-breaking courses in African-American rhetoric and in women's movements. In the discipline I knew, the key moments in the formation of publics featured insurgency, opposition, and sometimes revolutionary contestation (Holland, 1973). Indeed, colonists learned debate from The Columbian Orator (Bingham, 1797/1998) which offered diverse training in argumentation through reading and performance in classical literature and in the public disputes of the bustling multi-racial, multi-ethnic, garrulous young United States of America. The tradition of argumentation and debate as a form of practice continued through the 19th century in boisterous parades, public assemblies, civic performances, and oratorical addresses. Debate and interpretation were present in university life, too, changing over time to meet interests of emergent generations within and against the confines of university administration. In realizing ambitions to become a discipline, the study of communication performed a modern turn, too. Theory was brought on board to enable researchers to classify types or dimensions of communication and, thereby, to measure effects. Similarly, argumentation was theorized as a perspective taken on communication that could be analyzed by modeling practical reason (Brockriede, 1992).

The turn I made in 1982 was to read the boundaries of communication in acts of argument. Such critical communication inquiry holds that any particular act of argument, custom of practice, or institutional convention carries with it expectations--which themselves could be granted and extended or disputed and taken to task. The test of taken-for-granted rules for communication is whether they are necessary or sufficient for the communicative work of agreement or disagreement. As a project, public sphere studies was a turn to keep in mind the argumentativeness of argument, the contingency of human cultural creations which define reasonableness or take exception to the unreasonable--always with an uncertain risk of being misplaced or simply wrong. This reflective turn, as it may now be called, requests critical intervention into the constitutive makeup, contingent relationships, and contested boundaries of publics, professions, and social practices--in the United States and around the globe.

The modern idea of spheres is initiated by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (1953) who deployed the concept for reading social contexts. Expectations are set and disappointed in the constant exchange and interaction among actors who are engaged in the day-to-day social practices, politics, and business of communication. The results are ambivalent, Gerth and Mills observed. Facility with conventions enables individuals to act with greater scope on the one hand, but such generalizations may engender stereotyping on the other. Thus, at the outset the spheres idea creates a contextual understanding of the world where misexpectations open opportunities for social change and risk attaches to all communicated anticipations and interpretations of words and deeds. No matter how well successful practices are imitated, adjusted, and the probabilities assessed, symbolic action cannot take away uncertainty as its basic enabling and constraining condition. The spheres model of argument thus grounds communicative argument in what Stephen Pepper (1942) identifies as a contextual root metaphor (p. 99).

The discovery of argument spheres is announced by Kenneth Burke's jostled epiphany in Attitudes Toward History (1937/1984). He comes to see the institutional systems of arguments underwritten by a field, like the law, as "merely a set of interrelated terms" (Burke, 1937/1984, p. 293). Thus, the crafting of an argument is always a cooperative exercise in the convertibility of agreed-upon terms to a claimed event. Most simply, to word a claim is to perform an act. In its issue, an argument finds "resistance or acceptance" which in turn coaches further development in lexicological (definition) or polemical (advocacy) fashion (Burke, 1937/1984, p. 293). Arguing as an action has in its potential an as-it-turns-out quality--where in issue, response, and development, the context that appears to be guiding or grounding responses to the claim emerges and becomes clear. Thus, Burke finds his own arguments playing out within "three different 'spheres' of action": "intimate relations (processes of development in different stages of the individual's development, in personal contacts)"; in "public relations (as exemplified in the processes of past and contemporary history)"; and, within the "processes of engrossment whereby works of art are organized" and so bureaucratized (p. 294). In the Rhetoric of Motives, Burke (1969) extends the contexts of spheres to the communicative work of identification: consubstantiality grounding personal relations; autonomous identification underwriting technical, role-defined practices; and, partisan identification comprising the very stuff of public argumentation and debate. Further, just as Burke identified any symbolic act as opaque, so too arguments are, arguably, capable of being themed in a single site of authority or mixed in complex cases of agreement.

The 1982 argument spheres piece sustained this active sense of communication. Spheres offer a pluralistic view consistent with symbolic interaction and Chicago School pragrnatics (Blumer, 1969, 1971, 1986; Dewey, 1927; Duncan, 1968; James, 1918, 1936; Mead, 1934). Each sphere appears to offer an assortment of spaces and styles of circulation that suit the communicative activities of assertion and doubt, belief and skepticism. Extension of these expectations may vault into unreasonable demands, however, when conditions of reasonability for one context are unjustifiably expected of another. Personal arguments are marked by dialogue where relationship hangs in the balance; technical arguments are stamped with procedure and rule where state of the art practice is always at issue; and public arguments are marked by partisan gestures of alliance and opposition which stress lines of cooperation and division among the polity. Tests of...

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