Departmental Papers (ASC)

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Journal Article

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Ethical Perspectives





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By now, everybody has heard of the `bourgeois public sphere,' that moment in history when a rising merchant class felt empowered enough to deliberate public policy rationally and universalistically, and to transmit its conclusions to the powers-that-were with the expectation of being taken seriously. By academic standards Habermas's (1962/1989) thesis has become a household word, perhaps because it offers a nostalgic reminder of a lost utopia of participatory democracy, or because it offers hope of what yet might be — if we could only learn to translate the seventeenth century into the ostensibly compatible conditions of a modernity in which widespread education, universal suffrage and the new communications technologies would seem to invite such translation.

But this is not the whole of Habermas's thesis, nor its most original part. The rest of it revolves around the `representative public sphere' which refers both to the period that preceded, and the period that followed, that of the newly autonomous bourgeoisie. In the earlier period, it refers to the person of the monarch, to the dazzle and charisma of his regalia, symbols of the legitimacy of his rule and the unity of his realm. That's not such a new idea either.

What is new is Habermas's suggestion that the period following the `bourgeois public sphere' — that is, our here and now — is essentially a return to the charisma of the `representative public sphere,' not that of the absolute monarch to be sure, but of a political and economic establishment that has armed itself with image makers and spin doctors who dazzle and charm in the name of the legitimacy and prerogatives of their clients. As Calhoun (1992) puts it, summarizing Habermas, “By means of these transformations, the public sphere has become more an arena for advertising than a setting for rational/critical debate.



Date Posted: 25 February 2010

This document has been peer reviewed.