The Public Sphere: An Introduction

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The Public Sphere: An Introduction

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The Public Sphere: An Introduction What is happening to public debate in Western cultures? Is our public sphere disintegrating? In the face of popular tabloid newspapers, new forms of reality television and an increasing lack of respect for traditional authorities, many critics are concerned that our society no longer has a rational, informed and unified space where everyone can communicate about the issues that affect us all. In this book Alan McKee answers these questions by providing an introduction to the concept of the public sphere, the history of the term and the philosophical arguments about its function. By drawing on many examples from contemporary mediated culture, McKee looks at how we communicate with each other in public — and how we decide whether changing forms of communication are a good thing for the ‘public sphere’. Addressing the questions of commercialisation, trivialisation, spectacle, fragmentation and apathy, The Public Sphere provides a unique overview as it draws together the philosophical perspectives of academic writing with the insights provided by Big Brother, women’s magazines, hip hop, community newspapers and Internet sites to clarify the way our public world works today. Alan McKee is a senior lecturer in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology.

The Public Sphere: An Introduction ALAN MCKEE

cambridge university press Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge cb2 2ru, UK Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York Information on this title: © Alan McKee 2005 This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published in print format isbn-13 isbn-10

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Acknowledgements Preface

page vi vii



1 Trivialization


2 Commercialization


3 Spectacle


4 Fragmentation


5 Apathy


Conclusion Further Reading Notes References Index

204 217 221 230 260



My most profound thanks go to Kath Albury and Catharine Lumby — wonderful scholars, outstanding human beings, and inspirational colleagues. I’m also grateful to Damian Cox, for being helpful and friendly; to Jean Burgess, for ideas; to the readers of the manuscript, whose comments made me rethink the basis of my thinking; and to John Hartley — who got me thinking about this project seven years ago, and continues to inspire. I owe a debt of gratitude to Liz Ferrier and Lisa O’Connell, Angela, Vicki, Sandra and Cathy — they kept me sane in difficult times. I offer my thanks also to Jenny Burton and Jason Bainbridge — without their help there would be no book. And I’m indebted to Mark Downie, Neil Warhurst, and Alison, Bob and Betty McKee — who allowed me to travel, and helped ensure the book had an international focus. Of course, without Marc there would be nothing.



You could write a lot of different books with the title The Public Sphere: An Introduction. The concept of the ‘public sphere’ is a metaphor that we use to think about the way that information and ideas circulate in large societies. It’s a term in everyday use to describe information when it’s made generally available to the public: we say that it’s in ‘the public sphere’ (see, for example, Furedi, 2004: 4). But the phrase also has a more precise meaning in academic writing about culture and politics, where it’s a central and well-developed concept for thinking about how democratic culture should work. This double existence makes it difficult to decide which kind of Introduction to write about the topic. You could, for example, write a description of the public sphere as it currently functions in Western democracies (listing the main institutions, how they work, who are the most powerful figures, and so on). Or you could write a book exploring the current debates about the public sphere that are taking place in public culture itself (tracing the ways that television, newspapers, popular writers and public intellectuals are discussing the public sphere within the public sphere). Or you could write a book that traced the academic history of the term ‘public sphere’ (looking only at academic writing on the topic, surveying the most important academic writers and their contributions to academic debates). Or you could take any of a number of other approaches, any of which could accurately be described as an introduction to ‘the public sphere’. What I’ve done with this book is to try to present a mixture of the first three approaches: to provide an overview of the current functioning of the public sphere, while tracing both popular and academic contributions to discussions about the issue. Such an vii



approach has its risks: most obviously that the book will try to do too many things, and end up doing none of them well. There’s a danger that it won’t have quite enough detail about the functioning of the public sphere for audiences who are only interested in description; that it won’t give enough space to popular thinking about the topic for those who want to trace vernacular philosophy; that it won’t spend enough time explaining academic writing for those who are most interested in that approach. Another risk of such an approach is novelty. The book tries to present academic ideas about the public sphere alongside popular ideas on the topic. In writing about the public sphere the tendency has been to privilege one or the other: either to focus on academic writing with little interest in popular examples; or to explore popular culture in detail using one or two ideas taken from academic writing, but without exploring that academic writing in detail. To try to bring the two kinds of culture into dialogue is surprisingly rare (some impressive exceptions are the works of John Hartley, 1992, 1992b, 1996, 1999; and Jane Shattuc, 1997), and the fact this book doesn’t easily fit into either one tradition or the other might count against it. I’ve taken this risk because it also has potential gains. Such an approach allows me to show how various areas of debate relate to each other. How have academic ideas developed in relation to popular thinking about the public sphere? And how has discussion about the public sphere taken place within — and changed the nature of — the public sphere itself? I’ve also chosen to write The Public Sphere: An Introduction to serve as an entry level text for readers with no specialized training. I could have pitched it at a higher level and assumed a level of expertise in the history of popular culture, or the tradition of political philosophy. Instead, the book aims to be as accessible as possible, to explain the concepts that are used in popular and academic discussions of the public sphere as clearly as I can. This necessarily involves sacrificing a degree of subtlety and detail, and it’s necessary to emphasize this from the outset. Many of the concepts discussed in this book have been on the agenda of philosophy and academic writing for hundreds — or in some cases, even thousands — of years. They’ve been written about by thousands of thinkers. This book doesn’t do justice to such histories: it simplifies concepts, arguments and the



positions of popular and academic thinkers in order to try to engage the reader with the general thrust of the debates. It isn’t a suitable book for a reader who already has some familiarity with debates about the public sphere and is looking for a more sophisticated and detailed account of this area. For the same reason, I’ve chosen to structure the book around a series of debates about the public sphere that are familiar in both popular and academic thinking on the topic. The advantage of this approach is that, by focusing on everyday issues that will hopefully be familiar to all readers, the book can make clear that ‘the public sphere’ is an important issue, both for academics and for people working outside of the university sector. In newspapers, magazines, on television and in everyday conversation as well as in university textbooks, people are concerned about what is happening to our public culture. Again, there are drawbacks to such an approach. In particular, it means that I’ve chosen to refer to popular and academic thinkers only when they have something useful to say about the core issues that I’ve focused on. This means that the book doesn’t do justice to any single writer, in the sense of providing the reader with an overview of their career, their ideas or their changing arguments. Instead I’ve used a methodology called ‘theory shopping’ (Amad, 1994: 13), where you pick and choose from previous writing in order to find the material that’s most useful for the project you’re working on. This has the advantage of allowing the writer to range widely across a variety of popular and academic approaches to the public sphere, without accepting wholeheartedly the approaches taken by previous writers; but it also has the disadvantage that it doesn’t provide the reader with a fully developed intellectual biography of any of the previous writers mentioned. In response to all of the above points, the book closes with some suggestions for further reading. For readers who want to follow up on one particular approach in more detail — finding more detail on popular thinking about the public sphere, or tracing the history of academic writing on the topic — this will hopefully prove useful, allowing you to find more difficult work in the area, or to read the oeuvre of the writers mentioned here. Finally, I should point out that this isn’t an objective book about the public sphere. It doesn’t present all of the positions that previous



thinkers have taken in equal detail or with equal approval. Personally, I don’t think this is a problem — simply because I don’t believe that any piece of culture can ever be ‘objective’, where I take that term to mean ‘presenting a description of something that every informed party would agree to’. No matter how neutral you try to make your language or your argument’s structure, there will always be biases in your writing: ideas which seem marginal to one writer seem to others to be centrally important; previous thinkers whom one person believes make worthwhile points others see as being irrelevant, and so on. So there are writers on the public sphere who would not agree with the arguments made and the descriptions presented in this book. The book takes a ‘postmodern’ approach (see the Introduction) to this issue. My own position, to summarize it briefly, is that there’s no single true representation of any aspect of the world: rather, there are multiple true ways of making sense of the world (McKee, 2003: 9). In the book I survey the work of popular and academic thinkers about the public sphere. Most of the writers in the area, both popular and academic, are in agreement about our basic project — we want to expand democracy, to see a public culture motivated by Enlightenment values (see the Introduction) of equality, justice, freedom and comfort. We agree these are good things; and we’re basically on the same side as we argue for their importance. There are, however, differences between us as well. We often disagree, for example, on what these terms mean, exactly; and on how we might best achieve them in our societies. As I survey popular and academic thinking about how the public sphere functions, I also make an argument for my own — postmodern — way of making sense of it. But I don’t think that this is the single truth about the question. Other writers on the topic, who are at least as intelligent, well-informed and well-intentioned as I am, see a different truth about the functioning of the public sphere. They’re not, in any simple sense, wrong. We have productive disagreements about how to make sense of the societies in which we live. As I explain in the book, because the intellectual differences that we have lie at the level of attitudes rather than facts, we can never prove that one of us is right and the other wrong. We have to accept that we have different



ways of seeing the truth about the issue. As Egon G. Guba puts it in The Paradigm Dialog: Of course I have my own preference . . . I recognize that what I am about to say is my own construction, not necessarily an objective (whatever that may be) analysis. Indeed . . . [I] not only abjure objectivity, but celebrate subjectivity . . . The reader should not, therefore, read this chapter in the mistaken notion that it represents gospel or even a widely agreed to position. I offer it as one way to understand the . . . issue . . . [I]t is quite possible for me to entertain any construction, . . . that is proposed by reasonable and well-intentioned persons. (Guba, 1990: 17–18) This raises the question of how people with different attitudes might attempt to engage in debate with each other — I discuss this in Chapter 4. What I offer in this book is an overview of debates about the public sphere, structured around an argument supporting my own way of making sense of these. It doesn’t prove that my perspective is correct, because, as mentioned above, the differences between myself and writers who disagree are attitudinal rather than factual. The disagreements we have don’t allow for resolution using purely rational forms of argument. So the book explains how I make sense of things, in the hope that for some readers there may be a sense of recognition — that it makes sense to you as well. If it doesn’t, and you’re more interested in the perspective of one of the writers with whom I disagree, then hopefully the book will provide enough detail for you to understand the opposing arguments; and the list of suggested further reading that closes the book will be useful for finding out more about the ideas of other writers.

To the kids of B Block


It’s common, both in everyday conversations and academic writing, to hear people suggest that the public sphere — or ‘the media’ — are degenerating.1 Frank Furedi’s complaint in a newspaper article about politics and the media is typical: The growth of a managerial political style [in Western countries] has gone hand in hand with a shift from politics to the personal. Personalities and individual behaviour dominate the presentation of contemporary politics. As public life has become emptied of its content, private and personal preoccupations have been projected into the public sphere. Consequently, passions that were once stirred by ideological differences are far more likely to be engaged by individual misbehaviour, private troubles and personality conflicts, such as Bill Clinton’s affair. The private lives of politicians excite greater interest than the way they handle their public office. (Furedi, 2004: 4) At the same time, other voices claim that public communication in Western societies is actually improving; as Catharine Lumby argues in her book Gotcha!: The tabloidisation of our media has been accompanied by as many benefits as problems . . . the past few decades have seen an overwhelming democratisation of our media — a diversification not only of voices, but of ways of speaking about personal, social and political life . . . the contemporary media sphere constitutes a highly diverse and inclusive forum in which a host of important social issues once deemed apolitical, trivial or personal are now being aired. (Lumby, 1999: xiii) 1


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The Public Sphere: An Introduction is about these issues and these positions. It asks, firstly: is the public sphere changing in Western countries? If so, should we be concerned about these changes? And if that is the case, should we be fighting against them, or working to support them? There are five major themes common to popular and academic concerns about the public sphere in Western countries at the start of the twenty-first century: that it’s too trivialized; that it’s too commercialized; that it relies too much on spectacle rather than rational argumentation; that it’s too fragmented; and that it has caused citizens to become too apathetic about important public issues. So, taking these in order, some people worry that the public sphere is currently too full of trivia. Consumers, they suggest, are more interested in unimportant news about celebrities, diets, and sex tips than about really important, serious political issues: tabloid media . . . comprises large circulation newspapers and magazines, which either trivialise significant events and give unbalanced and populist treatment to important themes or provide disproportionate coverage to frivolous subjects. (Jabbar, 2003: np) Secondly, there’s a concern that the media don’t care about the quality of material in the public sphere. They simply want to make money, and so dumb down to the lowest common denominator There has been a relentless pursuit of populism and ratings, and the outcome is that TV plays to the lowest common denominator. In a land where [British tabloid] The Sun is the newspaper that sells more copies than any other, TV is becoming increasingly tabloid-oriented. The low, and declining, profile of opera, ballet, music, theatre, world cinema, and the arts generally, is a sign of declining standards. (Birchmore, 2003: np) Thirdly, public culture is too spectacular. Audiences have short attention spans. They only want flashy visuals and superficial distractions — not serious, in-depth discussions about important issues. People do not read enough — they are passive couch potatoes in front of the media:



The bogus, the derivative, and the flashy and gaudy now catch the attention of the mass, who, sans sense, are captive to a superficiality of response based on degraded attentional abilities . . . the audience is only able to take in simple concepts in simple language, the snippets of speech perhaps broken up with pop music to allow the audience a break of attention so that the task of listening is not too arduous. (Birchmore, 2003: np) Fourthly, some commentators worry that public culture is becoming too fragmented. Niche audiences and the demands of various identity groups are breaking up the common national cultures that we once enjoyed. We can no longer be confident that everybody will be interested in, and informed about, the same things: A lot of very smart people see the Balkans in America’s future. They point to the L.A. riots and say race relations are worse than ever. They look at immigrants pouring in from Third World nations and say (on the left) that we must accommodate diverse cultures and (on the right) that we must shut the doors. They worry about a fragmenting nation — too many ethnicities, too many religions, even too many cable TV channels. They’re afraid America will disappear. ‘Unless a common purpose binds [Americans] together, tribal hostilities will drive them apart,’ says liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., neatly encapsulating the centrist position. (Postrel, 1993: np) And as a result of all this, public culture in Western countries is leading to apathy. Citizens no longer engage with politics or their own governance. They become lazy and passive. They don’t care about issues any more: Media [are] to blame for voter apathy . . . The voters blame the politicians. The politicians blame the voters. Nobody takes responsibility for the uninformed, uninterested population. And nobody blames what may be the largest source of voter ignorance yet: the media. (‘Media’, 2002: np) This book discusses each of these issues, looking at the arguments that various commentators have made, and the historical context in which these discussions take place. It argues, agreeing


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with Catharine Lumby, that the changes taking place in the public sphere are actually worthwhile improvements; but this is only one perspective on the issue, and the book makes clear that other thinkers disagree. This isn’t a book that tells you the single truth about the changing nature of the public sphere. It argues for one side of the case, but also shows you what the other sides are saying.

The public sphere This book is an introduction to ‘the public sphere’. This term appears in everyday conversations about society, discussions in the popular media and in the writing of academics interested in political culture. In this last context there’s a history of detailed analysis of the topic, systematically investigating its meaning and importance — and the book will provide an introduction to that tradition as well as to popular thinking on the topic. As defined in the work of German philosopher J¨urgen Habermas (a central figure in these discussions, as I’ll explain below), the public sphere is: A domain of our social life where such a thing as public opinion can be formed [where] citizens . . . deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion . . . [to] express and publicize their views. (Habermas, 1997: 105) The public sphere, is not, of course, a sphere. It’s a metaphorical term that’s used to describe the virtual space where people can interact (see Hartley, 1992: 1). We often use metaphors to make sense of the world around us — particularly when we’re describing abstract things. The World Wide Web, for example, is not actually a web; cyberspace is not a space; and so with the public sphere. Where people’s conversations, ideas and minds meet — that’s public space (Robbins, 1993: xvi). It’s the virtual space where the citizens of a country exchange ideas and discuss issues, in order to reach agreement about ‘matters of general interest’ (Habermas, 1997: 105). It’s the place: ‘where information, ideas and debate can circulate in society, and where political opinion can be formed’ (Dahlgren, 1995: ix; see also Fraser, 1990: 57). It’s where each of us finds out



what’s happening in our community, and what social, cultural and political issues are facing us. It’s where we engage with these issues and add our voices to discussions about them, playing our part in the process of a society reaching a consensus or compromise about what we think about issues, and what should be done about them. As I suggested above, there’s a slight variation in vocabulary between everyday and academic discussions about these issues. While academic writing systematically uses the term ‘public sphere’ to describe the virtual space where communication about public issues takes place, in everyday discourse we often talk about ‘the media’ instead. In the way that they’re used in their different contexts, these two terms refer to similar things: although they aren’t exactly interchangeable. Academics worry that ‘the public sphere’ is becoming too commercialized, just as journalists worry that ‘the media’ is becoming too commercialized. Academics worry about trivialization, spectacle and fragmentation of ‘the public sphere’, while popular commentators say the same things about ‘the media’. The relationship between these two terms is complicated. On the one hand it’s true that the public sphere is a bigger thing than just ‘the media’. If we think about the way that issues are circulated in our culture, processed by individuals and institutions and then recirculated until we reach some kind of agreement about what to do about them, it’s not only the media that are involved in this process. We hear a story on the news, and then we talk about it with friends; we exchange ideas on email groups, down the pub, at the hairdresser; we telephone a talkback radio station, write a letter to a magazine, stop buying a newspaper because we disagree with its political stance. These human interactions are all parts of the public sphere, just as much as the mass media is (see Chapter 5). But on the other hand, the mass media obviously play a central role in the public sphere (see John Hartley’s sophisticated and innovative discussion of the relationship between these two concepts — 1996: 78–81. See also McNair, 2000: 1; Garnham, 1992: 360, 364–365). It’s only in the mass media that vast populations of people can come together to exchange ideas. You can’t fit the entire population of America, or Britain, or Australia, into a town hall where they could all discuss issues that affect them. The media is the place where we


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find out about ‘the public’ — the millions of other people that we share a country with: when the public is large this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence: today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. (Habermas, 1997: 105) The ‘public sphere’ isn’t exactly the same thing as ‘the media’. But these terms are used in two different situations — academic writing and popular discussions respectively — to think about similar issues: how does a large community circulate ideas, discuss possible responses, and come to some kind of agreement on them? For the rest of the book, I’ll use the term ‘the public sphere’ to avoid confusion: but remember that the debates that the book covers are also a part of popular thinking about culture, even if the language used there is sometimes slightly different.

The public sphere and modernity The concept of ‘the public sphere’ is a useful one for thinking about how modern liberal democratic societies function. It attempts to describe the way in which millions of citizens reach consensus about the running of their society. This makes it useful for understanding how political communication works in these countries; for thinking about how wider social and cultural issues are addressed; and for trying to make sense of how agreement about what is acceptable in a culture is reached. I see five main ways in which its usefulness can be explained. In order to understand the first of these ways in which the concept is useful, it’s necessary to look at the background of academic debate about the topic. In this book I explore both academic and popular thinking about the public sphere. Academic writing on the topic isn’t uniformly more intelligent, more informed or more insightful than popular thinking: it is, however, more systematic. It provides a series of useful terms and arguments that we can use to consider the changing nature of the public sphere. One useful perspective that a study of academic writing gives us is an insight into the periods



into which Western history is usually broken down. Most historians agree that during the seventeenth century the nature of Western societies changed dramatically. Before this time Western cultures were organized as feudal systems. They were strictly hierarchical; the monarch was the absolute power, often directly appointed by God. The monarch’s subjects were, literally, ‘subject’ to her or his rule (Lewis, 2002: 78). During the seventeenth century, a radical new set of ideas began to emerge: based around the outrageous concept that every person in a society should be treated equally (Carpignano et al., 1993: 97). Western societies began to enter the period that historians call ‘modernity’: Modernity is a historical period that began in Western Europe with a series of profound social-structural and intellectual transformations in the seventeenth century and achieved its maturity as a cultural project with the growth of the Enlightenment and later with the development of industrial society. Modernity is associated with order, certainty, harmony, humanity, pure art, absolute truth. (Sarup, 1996: 50, citing Zygmunt Bauman) Modernity involved a different way of seeing the world, and of seeing the place of people in it. Thinkers developed ‘Enlightenment’ values (enlightenment coming after ‘the dark ages’ of history) as a guide to organizing society: all citizens were of equal worth and importance (equality); everyone should be treated fairly (justice); everyone should have control over their own lives (freedom); and everyone had a right to a basic level of material welfare (comfort). These ideas have now become common sense across Western societies; because of this, it’s difficult to see that, at the time, they were revolutionary (literally, in America and France; see Hartley, 1996: 8–13). Because the existing societies were feudal and hierarchical, in order to organize them around the idea of equality it was necessary to radically restructure social organizations. Until this point, for example, ordinary citizens had no input into politics: the monarch decided what was to be done, and it was done. When a society embraced the idea of equality, it implied that citizens should somehow have some kind of input into the political decisions made:


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but there was no way of doing that within existing political structures (Habermas, 1989: 26). So citizens had to find ways of exchanging information and ideas, reaching agreement about what they wanted done, and communicating that information to the members of society who had the appropriate power. They had to form public venues and publications to do so. And so the ‘public sphere’ ¨ (in German, ‘Offentlichkeit’) emerges as a vital part of modernity, and its Enlightenment commitment to equality (Habermas, 1989: 2):2 In both Britain and France, from the later seventeenth century, new bodies and organizations, new forms of sociability, as well as new, more pervasive and faster means of communication, did come into being to give more visible form and force to public opinion. (Harris, 1996: 104) From around 1750 ordinary citizens were increasingly involved in discussions — public discussions — about issues of common concern (Habermas, 1989: 43; Baker, 1992). When ‘ordinary’ people were allowed to become involved in making decisions about how the country should be run — that is, when an element of democracy was introduced — a public sphere began to emerge. The power for making decisions moved away from the absolute ruler and towards ‘the people’. ‘The state’ — the apparatus that governs the country — was separated from the ruler. Previously the ruler was the state. Now the state — the system for governing the country — emerged as something separate, of which the ruler was only a part. The state itself was disembodied, it was abstract — and thus everybody could conceivably contribute to it. This was an important political shift, and one that still underlies our current forms of social organization — the state is not the same thing as the individual ruler (prime minister, president, or premier — see Calhoun, 1992b: 8, 14). Many people have an input into deciding how the state is run — not one single person. There’s a system in place that allows input into public discussion. We even have ‘opposition’ parties, who get to speak in public against the current ruler. Before the eighteenth century, this wasn’t the case: ‘Until then political opposition at the national level had been possible only . . . by resorting to



violence’ (Habermas, 1989: 64). We no longer live in feudal political systems. So the concept of the public sphere is useful for understanding how societies are organized in this historical period called modernity; in cultures that are structured by Enlightenment values of equality, freedom, justice and comfort, rather than by feudal values of strong hierarchy, tradition and respect for authority. Secondly, the concept of the public sphere is useful for understanding how ‘liberal’ societies function, rather than totalitarian ones. Liberal forms of social organization are characterized by a commitment to the idea that individuals should have a ‘private’ realm of their life, over which they are allowed some control. This is unlike totalitarian societies in which every element of the individual’s life — how much they are paid, what they eat, what culture they consume — is managed by the state. Again, it’s only in liberal forms of social organization that the idea of a public sphere makes sense (Hohendahl, 1992: 99; Aronowitz, 1993: 91). In a totalitarian society, public opinion doesn’t emerge from individual voices discussing issues: it’s worked out from above by the state itself, and then given back to people — telling them what they will think about particular issues. It’s only if you have a form of social organization that makes the individual the basic source of ideas that a public sphere — a place for individuals to exchange their ideas in order to reach a consensus — is necessary (Gripsrud, 1999: 37). The public sphere is separate from the state. It’s a place where individual citizens work out what the community thinks about an issue — and then turns to the state to deal with it. In the public sphere, importantly, one of the issues that citizens can discuss is whether they are happy with the performance of the state. The public sphere is not set up by government, and not managed by government — it has to be separate in order to provide: ‘counterweights to absolutist states . . . [and] mediate between “society” and the state by holding the state accountable to “society”’ (Fraser, 1990: 57, 58). The public sphere belongs to what political philosophers call ‘civil society’ (Calhoun, 1996: 453). Although this term is ‘fuzzy’ (Hoynes, 1994: 163) in political philosophy, with differing traditions giving it contradictory meanings (see Habermas, 1992: 433; Garnham, 1992: 363; Outhwaite, 1996b: 368), at its most basic the term describes


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those forms of social organization which are not organized by the government — communities, audiences, social groups, and so on. The public sphere is part of this civil society — separate from the state. Thirdly, the concept of ‘the public sphere’ is useful in political thinking because ‘it insists that an ideal democratic polity be defined by features beyond those that formally enable political participation’ (Schudson, 1992: 147; see also Dahlgren, 1995: 9; see also Garnham, 1990: 109). It’s useful for writers who believe that politics is more than simply what happens in parliament, as it makes us think about ‘a broader sense of political practice as the constitution of ways of living together’ (Calhoun, 1996: 451). Fourthly, ‘the public sphere’ is a useful metaphor because it lets us think about the role that ordinary people might play in the creation of public culture, public policy and the running of the state. Alternative metaphors for describing the political work of the media work best for totalitarian societies. Some writers use the idea of ‘ideology’ to describe how the media work. The word means a false view of the world that’s in the interests of powerful groups, which those powerful groups impose on less powerful citizens in order to keep them oppressed. This description of the political work of the media doesn’t allow for the possibility that ordinary citizens may also be involved in producing or circulating ideas. Similarly, the idea of ‘hegemony’ — the process by which the ruling classes persuade oppressed groups to give their assent to an unfair social structure — suggests that powerful groups create and circulate all the ideas in a society (Fraser, 1990: 56; Robbins, 1993: xvii). This is also true of the ‘hypodermic’ model that’s still sometimes used to describe the work of advertising, public relations, and so on — that ideas are created by powerful groups and injected into helpless consumers, who then go out and buy what they are told to. The concept of the ‘public sphere’ is a useful one for researchers who believe that ordinary citizens play a role in the creation and distribution of ideas about how society works. Fifthly, ‘public sphere’ is a useful term because it reminds us that the media aren’t reality — or, in more academic language, that the public sphere is not the same thing as private experience. One of the dominant ways to understand mediated representations in current



Western debates is by getting angry that public representations of groups that we belong to are not the same as our own personal experiences of ourselves. It’s common to hear groups complaining that they are ‘misrepresented’ in the public sphere. Surprisingly, given its prevalence, this isn’t actually a very useful way to think about public representations — because there’s no group that is represented ‘accurately’, if by that we mean represented in the same way that members experience their own lives. It’s common, for example, to read the claim that Black people are misrepresented in the media: ‘apparently well-meaning, racially liberal news professionals generate images of the social world that consistently misrepresent black Americans’ (Muharrar, 1998: np). But some white people also feel that they are ‘misrepresented’: For example, a racially mixed couple will be respected, liked, and socially sought after by other characters [on TV], as will a ‘take charge’ Black scholar or businessman, or a sensitive and talented homosexual, or a poor but honest and hardworking illegal alien from Mexico. On the other hand, any racially conscious White person who looks askance at miscegenation or at the rapidly darkening racial situation in America — is portrayed, at best, as a despicable bigot who is reviled by the other characters, or, at worst, as a dangerous psychopath who is fascinated by firearms and is a menace to all law-abiding citizens. The White racist ‘gun nut,’ in fact, has become a familiar stereotype on TV show. (‘Vanguard’, 2003: np) Muslims are misrepresented in the media: In television, films, books, newspapers and magazines Islam is presented as being a backward and barbaric religion. It is seen as oppressive and unjust; and more than this it is seen as being most oppressive to women. These various forms of media misrepresent Islam in different ways. (Simms, undated: np) But so are Christians: Liberals are more likely to think of a ‘theocracy’ as a state run by the Church, than as a Christian Republic, the form of government


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the founders of our nation intended. They do not understand that our goal is not a state run by the Church, but a nation that accepts and honors Biblical Law. Therefore, liberals (and especially the liberal media) are likely to misrepresent our goals when we speak of building a Christian nation. (Rogers, undated: np) In fact, it’s very difficult to find a group that thinks it has been represented accurately in the media. It’s often argued that it’s powerless groups that are misrepresented — but it seems that even the most powerful groups feel the same way. Politicians, for example, are misrepresented by the media: The Media Often Misrepresent Politicians’ Messages. The goal of campaign strategists, or ‘spin doctors,’ is to get the media to report their candidate’s message in the best light . . . Reporters sometimes use shabby techniques to produce controversy in their stories. Moreover, once they write a story, reporters are reluctant to examine it from a different point of view or even to correct errors in it. (Carville, undated: np) Even big business, often regarded as the most powerful group in society, feels misrepresented: ‘In their rush to simplify issues for 60 to 90 second news stories, broadcast media increasingly misrepresent businesses’ actions and motivations’ (Morris, 1997: np). In fact, being ‘misrepresented’ is actually a quality of being represented in the media at all. A public representation is a loss of control. It’s a consensual representation — how a variety of people agree the world should be seen, not your own vision of it. Thinking about the media as ‘the public sphere’ provides us with a more useful way to make sense of how public representations work. For all these reasons the term ‘public sphere’ has become a common one in many university disciplines: journalism, media studies, cultural studies, mass communication studies, political philosophy and sociology have all found it useful. And the issues that are raised by the term — about the relationship between government and citizens, or between different groups of citizens, about the value of public debate, and how it should be conducted — are issues that



are discussed more widely, in popular culture and in everyday conversations, sometimes using the term ‘public sphere’, at other times discussing what’s wrong with ‘the media’. In this book I’m not going to survey the whole history of hundreds of years of academic writing about the nature and value of public debate (for valuable discussions of this tradition, see Habermas, 1989; Keane, 1991; Eley, 1992; Calhoun, 1992b; Baker, 1992 and the suggestions for further reading that close this book). As I noted above, I’m focusing my discussion here on wider debates about the public sphere — those which are common to academic and popular thinking on the topic. For this reason I’m concentrating particularly on recent developments in the area; and in particular on those that have taken place since the publication of J¨urgen Habermas’s book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere in 1962. Indeed, Habermas is an important figure in these debates. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, translated into English in 1989, has become ‘a sort of textbook’ across many university disciplines, from history and sociology to media studies and political philosophy (Habermas, 1992: 421; see also Calhoun, 1992: viii; Harris, 1996: 3; Bryant, 1995: 261). I’ve already quoted from it several times in this Introduction. Whenever a writer mentions the idea of the public sphere — which many regularly do — it will usually be with a genuflection to Habermas. This is what Martin Matuˇst´ık has referred to as: ‘the Habermas effect’ (Matuˇst´ık, 2001: 237; see also Corner, 1995: 42; Dahlberg, 2001: 2). That book represents something of a turning point in debates about the public sphere (Eley, 1992: 317). Current academic debates about the public sphere tend to go as far back as Habermas but they rarely engage with previous writing (which is not obviously relevant for current debates anyway). But more importantly, Habermas’s thinking and his ideas have spread out beyond academic publications to wider culture. In Time magazine’s 2004 list of the top 100 ‘most powerful and influential people in the world’, Habermas is listed as one of the most important ‘scientists and thinkers’, one of those whose ‘words and deeds have an outsize effect on the rest of us’ (‘Table’, 2004: 5). He is ‘often cited as a sage’, celebrated for having a ‘rationalist system of


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social thought [that] is the most elaborate and methodical in the contemporary world’ (Gitlin, 2004: 109). As this book attempts to map the functioning of the public sphere, the importance of the concept, and everyday and academic discussions of it, Habermas recurs as a key figure. Habermas’s writing provides a vision of the ideal public sphere — a vision that’s common both in academic and popular thinking on the topic. The public sphere should ideally deal only with serious issues of real importance — only party politics, and not celebrity issues, sport or entertainment. It shouldn’t be sensational, easily accessible or commercialized: it should refuse to dumb down to consumers, and rather demand that they work harder to improve themselves. It should only engage in rational, logical argument: not emotional or spectacular appeals. And it should be unified and homogenous, refusing the fragmentation of niche audiences and different kinds of culture. This is his powerful vision of how the public sphere in Western countries should function — and it’s a convincing one for many people.

Disagreements about the public sphere I started this book by noting that in everyday and academic discussions of the public sphere there are disagreements about whether public discussion is degenerating or improving in Western societies. This disagreement structures debates about the issue, and runs throughout this book. The difficulty is that there’s no correct answer to this question. Intelligent, well-informed and well-intentioned people, both in popular and academic culture, disagree about it. This is because, although we can agree on the facts of the public sphere, there remain differences of attitude that cannot be argued out rationally. To try to explain why this might be, it’s necessary once again to provide some background to academic debates on this topic. We need to return to the idea of modernity, mentioned above; and to look at some basic philosophical theories about how arguments should function. At the university where I work, the Equity section publishes pamphlets to try to convince students that everybody should be treated fairly. One of these pamphlets addresses the idea of ‘equality’:



Treating people equitably means treating them all the same, right? Wrong . . . It’s a common misconception that treating people equitably means treating them all the same. However, many individuals and groups of people experience social disadvantage that creates barriers to their success. To give everyone a fair chance to compete and achieve their full potential, QUT provides assistance to some particular groups and individuals . . . including low-income students . . . female staff . . . students from rural areas . . . socioeconomically disadvantaged students . . . Indigenous students . . . students from non-English speaking backgrounds . . . [and] staff and students with a disability. (QUT, 2004)

As I mentioned above, historians describe the period in which Western citizens are currently living as ‘modernity’ (Seidman, 1994: 1), where there’s general agreement on all sides of politics that society should be organized according to principles of equality, justice, freedom and comfort. But despite this, there isn’t a general agreement about what those words actually mean, in everyday practice; or about the best way of achieving them. For example if we’re looking for true equality in society do we get that by treating everybody exactly the same? Or do we get it by acknowledging people’s differences, and working to overcome those so that everybody gets an equal chance? Should we refuse the pleading of special interest groups? Or should we support affirmative action? Both of these are reasonable positions; and there’s no way of proving, once and for all, that one or the other is the only truth (Ashe et al., 1999: 12). This is also true for the ideas of ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ and ‘comfort’ (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 249).3 There’s a general commitment to the Enlightenment project of modernity, of trying to organize society around these ideals. But there’s also ongoing discussion, debate and disagreement about what they mean, and how to implement them. Philosophers trying to understand how human beings argue with each other make a distinction between beliefs about facts on the one hand; and attitudes towards those facts on the other hand (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 110; see also Garnham, 1990: 43, 91).4 When people disagree about facts, they can be checked; but when people disagree


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about attitudes, this isn’t so easily done. In relation to equality, for example, we can find out facts about how various different groups are treated in society; but our attitude towards what counts as real equality isn’t so easily addressed by facts: [D]ifferent kinds of disagreement call for different methods of achieving resolution . . . Disagreement in belief [about facts] can best be resolved by ascertaining the facts . . . [but for] disagreement in attitude . . . to . . . consult documents and the like . . . would be fruitless . . . because the facts of the case are not at issue; the disagreement is not over what the facts are but how they are to be valued . . . persuasion may be attempted, with its extensive use of expressive language. Rhetoric may be effective in unifying the will of a group and in achieving unanimity of attitude — but of course it is wholly worthless in resolving a question of fact. (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 110, emphasis added; see also Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 263) The public sphere is a vital part of democratic societies. In a feudal society, you don’t need a way to find out what ordinary citizens are thinking, because the monarch doesn’t need to know: they make all the important decisions themselves, with the help only of advisors or of God. But a society that wants all citizens to be free, and to be treated equally and justly, needs a functioning public sphere to ensure that their opinions and ideas contribute to the forming of general agreement. And there exists a profound disagreement in attitude among commentators on the changing nature of the public sphere in Western societies: is a trivialized, commercialized, spectacular, fragmented public sphere better able to serve citizens equally? Commentators tend to fall into these two broad camps. The first see in the changing nature of the public sphere: ‘the degradation of a pre-existing bourgeois public sphere by the forces of consumer capitalism’. The second rather see the: ‘emergence of different publics, public spheres and public spaces, each with their own forms of communicative organization’ (Lee, 1992: 416). These groups are commonly labeled ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ respectively.5 These attitudes are held both in everyday and in academic discussions



of the issue. The labels are mainly academic (although the term ‘postmodern’ is now taking on a life of its own in popular culture). Modernity, as noted above, is a name for a historical period which saw the development of a specific set of ‘Enlightenment’ values about how society should be run: equality, freedom, justice, comfort. ‘Postmodernity’ is also a historical period, its emergence often dated from the end of the Second World War — although it doesn’t replace modernity, but exists alongside it. Postmodern thinking offers a slightly different attitude towards Enlightenment values. A postmodern attitude still accepts the importance of basic Enlightenment values — equality, freedom, justice, comfort — but takes a ‘relativist’ rather than a ‘transcendental’ approach to them.6 From a postmodern perspective, different groups think and communicate differently about issues and we should respect that. From a modern perspective, there are certain core truths that transcend difference, that are the same for all human beings, no matter where they come from — and so one correct definition of these terms should be found and applied to everybody. These terms are the focus of a massive amount of academic debate, and have been for decades. Each has a range of meanings that stretches so far the meanings themselves can actually swap places in the course of complex philosophical discussions. Some of the binaries that have been linked to modern and postmodern ways of making sense of the world are: Modern Ahistorical Abstract Abstract Abstracted Ideal Ideal Theory Theory Homogeneity Absolute truth Unified Certainty Universal Transcendent Foundationalist

Postmodern Historical (Nicholson, 1999: 10) Real (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 263) Practical (Baert, 1998: 1) Everyday (Jenkins, undated: np) Reality (Baert, 1998: 148) Empirical (Toulmin, 1958: 10, 254) History (Passerin d’Enr`eves, 1996: 13) Experience (Rundell, 1991: 7) Heterogeneity (Honneth, 1995: 291) Plurality (Sarup, 1996: 50, 95) Fragmentation (Sarup, 1996: 95) Relativism (Sarup, 1996: 50, 95) Contextualist (Ashe et al., 1999: 20–21) Relativist (Ashenden and Owen, 1999: 13) Antifoundationalist (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 3)


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Rational argument Reason Responsibility to act for change Redistribution Critical theory Thinking the unthought Pessimistic

Rational persuasion (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 2) Positionality (Beebee, 2002: 199) Responsibility to respect otherness (Passerin d’Enr`eves, 1996) Recognition (Fraser, 2002: 21) Genealogy (Ashenden and Owen, eds, 1999) Rejecting the desire to make thought completely accessible (David Hoy, cited in Passerin d’Enr`eves, 1996: 13) Optimistic (Beebee, 2002: 201)

Some writers subscribe to traditional ‘modern’ thinking about society; other writers have a ‘postmodern’ attitude. These attitudes are not completely individualistic. Groups have formed around institutions — within universities there are different academic disciplines that tend to favour one approach or the other, and different journals that tend to publish material from one or other perspective. Different combinations of attitudes form into distinct ‘paradigms’ — ‘basic belief systems’ — for analyzing the world (Guba, 1990: 17). Unlike physics, chemistry and biology, whose practitioners tend to broadly agree on how to make sense of the facts they discover, in the social sciences — much like wider culture — ‘several viable paradigms compete unsuccessfully for dominance within a . . . community’ (Masterman, quoted in Skrtic, 1990: 126). Commentators who take a modern approach to the public sphere and those who take a postmodern approach cannot persuade each other rationally to the other’s point of view (Ashe et al., 1999: 12), because the facts are not in dispute. Rather they tend to engage in ‘partisan bickering’ (Conway, 1999: 61) because while they don’t disagree about facts, they disagree strongly on their attitudes towards those facts. We can identify three obvious kinds of attitudinal disagreements that are relevant as we try to make sense of the public sphere in Western cultures: r Disagreement about the importance of things; r Disagreement about the value of things (Copi and Cohen, 1998:


r Disagreement about the reality of things (this may sound a bit

odd, but it’s actually a common part of everyday discussion: one writer will say that there’s plenty of debate in our society; another will disagree, because it isn’t ‘real debate’ or ‘genuine debate’ — see, for example, Garnham, 1990: 125).



And what does all of this have to do with the public sphere? In short, the official public sphere has over the past two hundred years opened up to a greater variety of ways of speaking and topics of interest. For commentators who take a modern approach (both in academic writing and in everyday contexts — although the latter probably wouldn’t use the label ‘modern’), and who are committed to the idea that there is a single best form of public speaking (transcendent of context or location) this change in the public sphere is a bad thing. It challenges Enlightenment ideals because it is only sober rational debate about public issues that allows everyone to express themselves equally (see Chapter 3). Conversely, for thinkers taking a postmodern approach (this term is quite prevalent in popular as well as academic discourse, although outside of the university setting its meaning is even more diverse than it is in academic work), changes to the public sphere are a good thing: they support Enlightenment ideals because they make it easier for people from different backgrounds to access the public sphere. My own position, as will be clear, is a postmodern one. The rest of this book explores this basic dichotomy in detail.

New social movements and cultural difference In evaluating the nature of the public sphere in Western countries, the key attitudinal question is whether cultural difference is something valuable to be embraced; or something distracting to be overcome. Are the differences in the ways that cultures communicate important ones? Are they valuable? Are they even ‘real’ differences, or just superficial ones? The past fifty years have seen a change in the nature of political movements in Western societies. When the public sphere emerged in its modern form, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, only propertied white men were allowed to vote. The working classes (those who did not own property) and women were excluded from official politics and the political public sphere. They had public spheres of their own — their own magazines and public groups — but they were not in the official public sphere. Members of these groups formed political movements to fight for the right to vote. Working-class men formed a Labor movement


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in the nineteenth century (Eley, 1992: 313) and won suffrage (the right to vote) in some American states from the 1840s onwards — although the process was not complete until Rhode Island dropped its property requirement in 1888. In the United Kingdom, workingclass men won the vote in 1884 with the ‘Third Reform Act’ (although even then some people — such as live-in domestic servants — were still excluded); and in Australia all states granted universal white male suffrage by 1900. Women’s rights conventions first convened in the 1840s; in 1902 white Australian women were granted the right to vote. Some American states allowed women to vote from 1869 onwards, and by 1920 all white American women were granted the vote. In 1928 women in the United Kingdom were given equal voting rights with men. Free Black American men were given the vote in 1870. But various states then introduced requirements for voting — such as literacy requirements — in order to stop them from using this right. It was only in 1965, with the Voting Rights Act, that Black people in America were finally guaranteed the right to vote on equal terms with whites. Black Australians were not guaranteed the vote until 1967. Black Britons were never explicitly excluded from voting. Queer citizens have never been explicitly excluded from voting, although if they were open about their sexuality they could be locked up in prison or a psychiatric institution, and thus rendered ineligible. Young people under 18 years of age are still excluded in America, Australia and the UK. In order to argue for the right to vote, these groups had to move from a ‘universalist’ model of society to an ‘adversarial’ one (Hartley, 1992: 175). A universalist model assumed that all people in society had the same needs and wants — and so rich white men could happily have all the power, because their interests were the same as those of everybody else in the country. An adversarial model assumes that different groups in society have ‘a distinct experience’ (Ryan, 1992: 265) and so different groups need to represent themselves — working-class men do not necessarily have the same political needs as rich white landowners, so they need to represent themselves politically. The right for all citizens to vote (with the exception of young people — see Chapter 5) has now been won. That battle is over. However, over the past fifty years Western societies have seen the



emergence of a series of ‘new social movements’: ‘women’s movements, radical ecologists, peace activists, gays, local autonomy groups and various other counter-cultural movements’ (White, 1989: 123). Having won the right to vote, some members of various minority groups now argue that this, in itself, isn’t enough: they also want the right to have (what they see as) their own distinctive cultures recognized within the public sphere. Practising a ‘postmodern’ form of politics (Sarup, 1996: 62), these groups are linked by a: ‘distinctive concern with questions of identity’ (White, 1989: 123). They’re fighting not so much for ‘redistribution’ of material goods as for ‘recognition’ of cultural difference (Fraser, 2002: 22). They don’t seek the ‘compensations that the welfare state can provide. Rather the question is how to defend or reinstate endangered ways of life . . . [and] the grammar of forms of life’ (Habermas, quoted in White, 1989: 123). So some feminists now argue that women’s traditional concerns — about domestic, emotional and relationship issues — should be recognized as worthy of public discussions. In debates about the changing nature of the public sphere this is called ‘trivialization’ (discussing people’s sexual relationships in public). Some working-class citizens now claim that traditionally working-class forms of communication should be recognized as suitable for the public sphere. This is called ‘commercialization’ in debates about the public sphere, for the forms of communication traditionally enjoyed by working-class consumers are the ones that are attacked for being too downmarket and aiming for the lowest common denominator. Some Black citizens fight for Black cultural heritage to be brought into the public sphere. This is a fight for more ‘spectacular’ forms of public communication: Afrocentric writers argue that traditional forms of communication in Black cultures were more oral and embodied than abstract and literate. Some gay men and lesbians want Queer ways of understanding society to be recognized. They argue that it’s possible to have a proliferation of groups and identities within society without losing coherence — a position that seems to champion ‘fragmentation’. Some young people argue that forms of political and cultural involvement developed within youth culture are valuable contributions to the public sphere. They argue that performance and culture jamming are real politics; and


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see a lack of interest in traditional politics as sensible, not ‘apathetic’. Members of all these new social movements want to bring elements of what they see as their own, distinctive cultures into the public sphere. They want recognition that the public is made up of culturally differentiated groups.

Cultural difference: facts This is a key element of this book, and of popular and academic debates about the public sphere. Each of these new social movements is explicitly fighting for a change in the public sphere that writers who work within a modern paradigm think is a negative thing. And from a postmodern perspective, these changes seem positive, as the introduction of cultural difference into the public sphere. The fact that traditionally there have been cultural differences between different demographic groups is not in question. Historically and to the present day, we can state that different demographic groups in every society have developed different kinds of culture. There have been ‘chick flicks’ and ‘men’s magazines’; working-class newspapers and ‘educated’ forms of literature;7 Queer dancing and straight pubs; Black music and white poetry; youth movements and grey hobbies. I have to make three important points about these cultures. The first is that in describing these public cultures I’m making no claims about the individual psychology of any human being (Hansen, 1993: xxxvi; Robbins, 1993: xvii). Some writers believe that there’s a direct biological connection between a person’s biology and the kind of culture they prefer: they claim this is Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps (Pease and Pease, 2001); or why Black people’s IQ scores are lower than white people’s (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994). I don’t accept this argument. In the course of this book, I’ll offer an alternative model for thinking about how a bodily identity — being a ‘man’ or ‘woman’, or ‘white’ or ‘Black’ — can be linked to a public culture without the need to claim it’s determined by genetics. I don’t believe that every woman is biologically programmed to prefer chick flicks, or that all men are inescapably drawn to sport. There are many members of every group



who won’t fit these stereotypes. And nor should they. But that’s not important for this argument — it’s public culture that the new social movements are fighting to change. There does undoubtedly exist a self-conscious and self-aware tradition of ‘feminine’ culture; and a ‘masculine’ one. And statistically, we find that these cultures still serve their audiences to a large degree. This is true whether one accepts or (as I do) rejects the claims that there is some natural, biological component in this link. Secondly, on a related point, this raises the issue about how much one should generalize. Obviously in talking about ‘Black culture’ or ‘white culture’, I’m making sweeping generalizations. Would it be better to refuse to make generalizations, and to talk about every individual as though they were unique? Certainly that would be another approach to writing about people — although it would wipe out the possibility of writing about ‘culture’ per se. You can only discuss things like ‘culture’ or ‘society’ or ‘the public’ by making generalizations. In writing about them you are, by definition, looking for the things that people have in common — even if that means ignoring what makes them distinct. The question of the level at which we should draw the line in defining similarity and difference is a vital one for debates about the public sphere — and it’s discussed throughout this book (see especially Chapter 4). Should we say that everyone in a given country is basically the same, sharing a nationality (all Australians are basically the same; British people; all Americans)? Or should we rather say that people should be identified at the level of class — that working-class Americans are basically the same as each other; and upper-class Americans are basically the same as each other; but working-class Americans and upper-class Americans don’t really have much in common with each other? Or should we break it down more? That working-class Australian women, for example, are a basically similar group? And so on. My own approach in this book has been to assume that the levels of identity that matter most are the ones that the people concerned think matter most, in their own lives. This means that both the national level of identity and other, smaller levels of identity are important. Sometimes people do act as though everyone in the nation has something in common — when we go to war, or to


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the Olympic Games, for example; but sometimes, in other contexts, your class or your race or your gender may matter more than your national identity. (I explore these issues more in Chapter 4.) Thirdly, just because I’m saying that different groups have historically developed relatively distinct cultures, that doesn’t mean that I’m arguing that only women can ever understand women’s culture, or that only men can ever understand men’s culture, and so on. I don’t believe that’s true. It’s certainly possible for researchers to write about cultures other than their own; but in doing so they have to accept that they will need to do research (I discuss this more in Chapter 2). We should not belittl[e] . . . the practice of formal knowledge production . . . researchers need to admit not their identity but their art . . . they are skilled in the use of a particular technology [research] and need to take responsibility for it. (Hartley, 1996: 66) Having said all this, we can then say that there are cultural differences between various demographic groups in Western societies, when we are discussing publicly affirmed and circulated descriptions of culture, and not individual human beings. Feminized culture has traditionally addressed relationships, domestic concerns, family issues, decoration, scandal, and celebrity gossip; and has favoured modes of communication relying on experience, empathy, and process over output (Ussher, 1997). Not all women embrace this as their own culture, of course. Indeed, it may be that not even a majority do so. Nevertheless, it is still named publicly as a feminized culture — with ‘chick flicks’ and ‘women’s magazines’ explicitly linked to this demographic. Masculine culture, by contrast, has embraced public life, sport, public drinking, and casual sex; and forms of communication that are abstract, disengaged, factual and uninterested in empathy (Horrocks, 1995). Not all men belong to this culture. Working-class public culture has for centuries been a vulgar, rude (both terms literally mean ‘of the common people’), sensationalized one, employing forms of communication that are boisterous and disrespectful. Not all citizens from a working-class background embrace such a culture (Hoggart, 1971). ‘Educated’ culture, by



contrast, has included ‘quality’ texts, communicating in restrained, sober ways (Aronowitz, 1993: 88). Not all educated people enjoy this culture. Black cultures have historically favoured oral and performative texts, and embodied approaches to communication (Baker, 1984). Not all Black people, of course, would identify with such a culture. White cultures have been composed of literate and restrained forms of public communication (Dyer, 1997): but not all white people have belonged to such cultures. We can identify a distinct Queer culture that favours ironic and playful modes of communication and an embrace of performance and superficiality (Bergman, ed., 1993). Not all Queer people would embrace this. A straight culture exists in terms of responsibility, a sober lifestyle, suburban nuclear families and the privileging of substance over style (Dunne, 1995). Not all heterosexual people feel that this is their culture. We can reasonably describe a distinct youth culture which is simultaneously passionately political, dismissive of traditional politics, sexualized, and refuses overt seriousness (Mallan and Pearce, eds, 1993). This doesn’t describe young people in general, but a culture which is named as ‘youth’. There also exists a public culture which is mature, sensible, grown-up and responsible, which does not embrace thrill-seeking or childish behaviour (Thompson, ed., 1994). Of course, not all older citizens belong to such a group. Most writers on the public sphere, then, would accept the current existence of cultural difference as a fact. There’s also general factual agreement that cultural difference has been present in Western cultures for as long as they’ve taken their current forms. Feminized, working-class and Black cultures have always had their place in the public sphere, for as long as it has existed in its modern form:8 although they were kept out of the ‘official’ political public sphere until the twentieth century. This is to say that public spheres have always been trivialized, commercialized and spectacular. Historically, we can agree that there never was a ‘golden age’ when public communication was generally ‘quality’, serious and rational. For as long as we can trace the record of a public sphere, it has been too commercialized, too trivial and too spectacular for the tastes of educated commentators (see Chapter 2). In Habermas’s 1962 book The


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Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (mentioned above as a key text in these debates), he did initially claim that there was a ‘golden age between 1680 and 1730’ (Habermas, 1989: 32) when an ideal public sphere existed: rational, serious and of good quality. It’s now generally accepted that this claim was wrong (see Poole, 1989: 16; Baker, 1992; Eley, 1992: 294; Corner, 1995: 42–43), and Habermas himself has publicly accepted this (Habermas, 1992: 430). It seems that the problem was that earlier writers sometimes forgot to compare like with like. They looked at the high culture of a previous age (e.g., quality newspapers, academic books) and ignored its popular culture (melodramatic plays, trashy novels); and they examined the popular culture of today (television, women’s magazines) and ignored its high culture (news magazines, serious radio programs); and concluded that things have got worse (Calhoun, 1992b: 33): Whatever the French read in the eighteenth century . . . it was not what we commonly take to be eighteenth century French literature. We envisage the literature of every century as a corpus of works grouped around a core of classics; and we derive our notion of the classics from our professors . . . [but] . . . instead of pondering arguments about popular sovereignty and the general Will, the French appear to have amused themselves with . . . sentimental novels . . . and . . . adventure stories. (Darnton, 1997: xvii, xviii) This is one point at which popular discussions about ‘the media’ differ from academic debates about the public sphere. It’s still common to find people in popular debates claiming that things ‘nowadays’ or ‘today’ are worse than they were in a previous golden age — the 1950s, or Victorian times, or pre-modern times (‘young people these days . . .’). Such claims are idealistic, rather than historical — they compare the present day with an ideal version of how the world should be. If you remember the table above, I pointed out that academic writers have suggested that a ‘modern’ approach to thinking about culture tends to focus on ‘ideals’ or ‘abstractions’; whereas ‘postmodern’ approaches have argued for ‘history’ or ‘experience’. This again is a difference in attitude that cannot be argued out rationally. Some writers — those whose



focus is on ‘history’ (Garnham, 1992: 374) or ‘actualities’ (Calhoun, 1992b: 39) — argue that the fact that the public sphere has always been trivialized, commercialized and spectacular is an important one — that it tells us something about what we can expect of the public sphere in the present time. Other writers — who are more interested in ‘theoretical ideals’ (Calhoun, 1992b: 39) or ‘normative concepts’ (Holub, 1991: 7) argue that this history isn’t important — it doesn’t matter if there never was a historical period when the ideal public sphere actually existed — what’s important is that we have a vision of the ideal public sphere to strive towards. For these writers, an ideal ‘aims to reach beyond the flawed realities of . . . history to recover something of continuing normative importance’ (Calhoun, 1992b: 1; see also Garnham, 1992: 359). This is an attitudinal difference that can’t be resolved. We can agree that, historically, public spheres have always been too commercialized, too sensationalized, too spectacular: but is this fact important? (see Postone, 1992: 167, 173). Which is more important: the abstract or the everyday? The theoretical or the empirical? The ideal or the historical?

Cultural difference: attitudes A key attitudinal difference, then, concerns the status of cultural difference. How should we value the different cultures of the demographic groups described above? In particular, in relation to the public sphere, how should we judge these cultures in relation to Enlightenment values of equality, freedom, justice and comfort? A ‘postmodern’, ‘relativist’ approach suggests that all these cultures may be as good as each other — that trivial, feminized culture is as worthy as serious, masculine culture; that vulgar working-class forms of communication should be respected as much as ‘educated’ modes of engagement; that an embodied, oral Black tradition has as much right to be a part of the public sphere as the literate, abstract white tradition; that Queer beliefs about the value of fragmentation should be given as much credence as straight culture’s commitment to uniformity; and that youth culture’s new forms of politics should be accorded as much respect as the traditional forms of politics that have belonged to mature culture:


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The issue of ‘democratic inclusiveness’ is not just a quantitative matter of the scale of a public sphere or the proportion of the members of a political community who may speak within it. While it is clearly a matter of stratification and boundaries (for example, openness to the propertyless, the uneducated, women or immigrants) it is also a matter of how the public sphere incorporates and recognizes the diversity of identities which people bring to it from their manifold involvements in civil society. It is a matter of whether in order to participate in such a public sphere, for example, women must act in ways previously characteristic of men and avoid addressing certain topics defined as appropriate to the private sphere . . . All attempts to render a single public discourse authoritative privilege certain topics, certain forms of speech and certain speakers . . . (Calhoun, 1996: 456–457) A ‘modern’, ‘universalist’ attitude, by contrast, sees cultural difference as a problem to be overcome in order to guarantee equality. In order for all citizens to be equal in society, they must all be informed about the really important issues in that society (the public politics that was traditionally a part of masculine culture); and they must all discuss these issues using the form of communication that is best suited to equal public discussion (the form of rationality that was traditionally employed by masculine culture). The rest of this book is structured from the postmodern perspective of the new social movements, discussing the position of ‘modern’ thinkers in relation to their arguments. Before going on to do this, it’s important to take some time to briefly outline the arguments against the new social movements from the perspective of ‘modern’ writers. There are three basic forms of argument against the new social movements. Firstly, some writers are unhappy with the idea of identity politics at all. They argue that it’s a bad thing that women, for example, group together to fight for women’s rights, because it takes away their attention from the rights that every human being needs to fight together for (usually class rights, in terms of access to jobs, pay and material conditions of citizenship). Identity politics promotes divisions when we should be fighting together as human beings for the common rights that we all need (see Gitlin, 1995). Of course, this



is attitudinal, making a claim about what counts as ‘real’: is the desire to have your culture included in the public sphere a ‘real’ need? Or is it only material needs like food and shelter that are ‘real’? There’s no simple answer to this attitudinal question. Secondly, ‘modern’ critics argue that the new social movements pay too much attention to changing culture and not enough to engaging with the state and changing legislation, because for these groups: ‘citizenship is equated with, rather than distinguished from, societal membership’ (Wilson, 1985: 231; see also Calhoun, 1996: 455; and Chapter 5 of this book). Again, this position is attitudinal about what counts as real and as important — those who support identity politics argue that for them, changing culture is just as important as changing legislation (see Chapter 5). The third form of argument against new social movements is the most relevant one for discussions about changes to the public sphere: it’s the argument that the forms of culture that the new social movements want to bring into the public sphere — commercialized and sensationalized, trivial and spectacular — are less worthy than traditionally Western, educated, masculine forms of serious, quality, rational culture; or that they don’t serve the Enlightenment project of modernity as well (see Chapters 1 and 3). This isn’t to say that the ‘modern’ writers who think that working-class, feminized or Black culture are less worthwhile than Western, educated, masculine culture are snobs, or sexist, or racist. Indeed, in the case of academics who feel this way, the opposite is usually the case: they’re strongly committed to modernity and its project of equality, freedom, justice and comfort. They support the rights of women, Black citizens and working-class people to enter the public sphere, even though they argue that their traditional forms of culture aren’t suitable for doing so. Nicholas Garnham, for example, argues that he wants women to be equally represented in the public sphere: but that they should use traditionally masculine forms of public discourse in order to achieve this. The feminist writers who argue that rationality is ‘exclusively . . . male . . . seems to me to condescend to . . . subordinated social groups’ (Garnham, 1992: 369). Is the best way to promote equality in public participation for women, working-class citizens, Black citizens, Queer citizens and young people to establish one universal set of rules for everybody


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engaging with the public sphere? Or is the Enlightenment project best served by recognizing cultural difference, and working with it? That is the question discussed in the rest of this book. It provides an Introduction to five key aspects of popular and academic debates about the public sphere. This is done explicitly from the perspective of the new social movements. In each chapter I discuss the work of one group, showing how they have fought to change our understanding of the public sphere in a particular way, the arguments for and against accepting that change, and my own position on the matter. I illustrate these arguments with examples of minority culture from the public sphere — women’s magazines, the reality television programs preferred by working-class audiences, Black rap music, Queer newspapers and Internet sites that focus on youth culture — showing how these work, and what kind of public discussions they support. The perspective is a ‘postmodern’ one, arguing that the fact that members of these minority groups are arguing for the importance of their cultures means that we must at least take their claims seriously. I should also point out that I have employed a particular rhetorical strategy throughout the book — that of ‘reclamation’. One of the political techniques employed by new social movements is to take words that have traditionally been used in insulting ways, and reclaim them for themselves. Queer Nation, for example, takes the insult ‘queer’ and turns it into a proud celebration of diversity (see Berlant and Freeman, 1993); Niggaz With Attitude angrily reclaim one of the most offensive terms in the American vocabulary. The logic is that by changing the meanings of such words from negative to positive, the vocabulary left for insulting people is diminished (as Homer Simpson sulkily says of Queer politics, ‘That’s our word for making fun of you — we need it!’: Hauge, 1997). In each chapter I’ve deliberately used the ‘negative’ word for describing the kind of culture I’m describing, not in order to insult that culture, but to embrace the negative term and argue that, from a postmodern perspective it is in fact a positive thing: yes, there is more trivia in the public sphere now; but trivia is the word we use to describe what have traditionally been feminine concerns. Trivia is, in itself, a vital part of culture. Yes, the public sphere is full of commercialized culture; but that’s a good thing, if we accept that commercialized



culture tends to work with traditionally working-class forms of communication; and so on. Throughout the book I’ll also present arguments from the proponents of traditionally ‘modern’ ways of thinking about these issues. The different paradigms can’t persuade each other rationally, because attitudinal differences aren’t open to that kind of argument. But hopefully there are still possibilities for communication across different paradigms, when we see members of other groups who are: ‘reasonable and well-intentioned persons’ (Guba, 1990: 17–18). As Linda Nicholson puts it: ‘real-life resources, such as our abilities to be creative and our willingness to keep trying might save us’ from bitter silence between groups with different belief systems and forms of argument (1999: 11–12). In this book, I’m trying to be reasonable, well-intentioned, creative — and I keep trying to persuade the reader that a postmodern approach to judging the public sphere makes sense. Only you can decide whether I’ve succeeded in this aim.

Chapter 1


‘Diana and the doctor: he is my destiny. How their secret love flourished.’ ‘The secret life of a paedophile mayor. How powerbroker Tony Bevan sold young boys for sex.’ ‘Girls who love girls — and have kids. Singer Melissa Etheridge and her lover announce they’re having a baby.’ ‘Total makeovers: how stars are transforming their looks and lives. Then: Ginger Spice. Now: UN Ambassador Geri Halliwell.’ ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! The secrets of women who orgasm easily.’ ‘Should you call him? Reveal your sexual history? Sleep with him fast? Do more in bed?’ Substantial parts of the public sphere in Western countries — and particularly those media that are aimed at women (Hermes, 1995) — deal exclusively in triviality. Magazines like Who, Heat, New Weekly, Cosmopolitan and Cleo, and television programs like E! and Inside Entertainment take issues that used to be private and relentlessly make them public. They deal with bodies — what they look like, how they’re changing, what people do to them, and what they do with them sexually — and make this part of the public sphere. Sometimes they address serious political figures — trumpeting the sex lives or makeovers of politicians. More commonly they deal with ‘celebrities’ — particularly Hollywood, television and music stars — or even ordinary people’s ‘human interest’ stories. It’s not only the lifestyle and gossip magazines aimed at women which trade in such stuff. The more serious areas of the public sphere — including broadsheet newspapers — increasingly contain similar material. Issues that traditionally have been ‘women’s business’ — relationships, bodily beauty and domestic management (Gauntlett, 2002) — are now dragged into the public sphere.




Is this move to be applauded? Condemned? Or should we argue that such a move actually destroys the public sphere — because the issues being discussed are no longer, in any genuine sense, ‘public’? This chapter addresses the content of the public sphere in Western societies, and asks what kind of material should be discussed in public. In academic and popular debates about the nature of the public sphere, many people are concerned about the continuing presence of such trivia in the media. They worry that it’s driving out attention to serious public affairs — the doings of parliament, public pronouncements by official figures, reporting of the passage of legislation. They rue the ‘personalization’ (Habermas, 1989: 172) of serious issues and ‘our morbid interest in private lives, in personal gossip, and in the sexual indiscretions of public figures’ (Daniel Boorstin quoted in McNair, 2000: 52), taking place ‘in an environment of trivialized politics and profoundly corrupting public discourse’ (Boyte, 1992: 353). They worry that the public sphere lacks: ‘substance’ (Hoynes, 1994: 173) and ‘forums for serious debate’, as ‘social issues are personalised, psychologised and trivialised’ (Becker, 1997: 13): the invasion of the public arena by topics, values and actions, once belonging exclusively to the private sphere is said to erode the adequacy of the public sphere and to endanger effective public discourse . . . ‘confusion has arisen between public and intimate life; people are working out in terms of personal feelings public matters which properly can be dealt with only through codes of impersonal meaning’. (van Zoonen, 1991: 228, quoting Kress) Some go so far as to argue that: ‘crimes, accidents, beauty contests, royal weddings and sports . . . rarely have relevance as such to the life of the audience or to intellectual activation’; and that we should make it illegal to publish such trivia because ‘the use of such materials attracts the interest of the audience away from more important issues to trivialities. Therefore there is reason to exclude such items from news broadcasts’ (Nordenstreng, 1972, quoted in Langer, 1998: 4).


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Modern and postmodern paradigms take different attitudes about the usefulness of these trivial, traditionally feminine concerns for the public sphere. But the feminist writers who fought hard in the 1970s to bring these issues into the public sphere did so because they believed that they were important — indeed, that ‘the personal is political’. From this perspective, trivia is important — and fully deserves to be discussed in the public sphere.

The invention of the private and the public The terms ‘private’ and ‘public’ seem to be self-evident. Of course everybody needs their own private space and private life. Of course we need a public space where we come together to discuss common issues. But not all societies divide up people’s lives into the public and private aspects that we’re familiar with. It’s only really liberal democracies that do so. Ancient Rome and Greece developed the ‘separation between the public and the private person’ (McGuigan, 1996: 147). The public aspect of your life was the part where you functioned as a citizen, ‘defined by rights, duties and prerogatives’ (Forrestor, quoted 147) and dealing with ‘politics’ (Wilson, 1985: 5). The private part of your life was that part of it where you dealt with ‘the necessities of daily living (food, shelter, sex and reproduction)’ (5). But in the feudal societies of pre-modern Europe this division vanished. Before the seventeenth century, historians argue, the private sphere didn’t really exist in its current form because, with the absolute power of the monarch and the church, it was impossible to imagine that peasants had total control over any part of their life. Even if they went into their own room and closed the door, they weren’t, as it were, off duty. The king and the church — who were, after all, in a direct line from God — were still in charge of the peasant’s life even when she was in her own house. In fact, the very idea of having ‘private’ space — space where the individual had absolute control over what happened and who was allowed in — only exists after the seventeenth century. Before this, all property in a country belonged ultimately to the king (Habermas, 1989: 5).



Similarly, the idea of the public sphere in its current form — open to everybody, because everybody can take on a public role — didn’t exist either. Habermas argues that the monarch simply was the public sphere in feudalistic social systems. Wherever the monarch travelled, they took the public sphere — their ‘court’ of ‘councillors and retinue’ (Oxford English Dictionary) — with them. Everything that they did was public — that was, it affected wider society. They couldn’t go off duty either. So it was only with the invention of modern, rational forms of social organization that it became possible to think about private spheres and public spheres as being separate from the people who inhabited them — something that you could move into and out of. The invention of the private sphere in its current form involved taking various parts of our social lives and removing them from the control of the ruling powers — the monarch or the state. They were given over to the individual to control — in their ‘private’ life. Most obvious of these was the bourgeois family — intimate and emotional relationships between husband and wife, parents and children. With the emergence of the nation-state, formal political power became institutionalised within the state, while . . . the realm of familial relations was, in theory, situated outside the control of the state. (Dahlgren, 1995: 91; see also Baker, 1992: 184)

The trivial nature of women’s concerns Modern political philosophy has consistently valued public culture over private culture: ‘The virtues, whose catalogue was codified by Aristotle, were ones whose test lies in the public sphere, and there alone receive recognition’ (Habermas, 1989: 4): it is precisely the Greek view of politics as the highest pursuit of which men were uniquely capable which led them to rigidly distinguish it from everyday demands and necessities. It was the thoroughgoing belief in a hierarchy of activities based on what was uniquely human as distinct from what men shared with the rest of animate nature


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which led the Greeks to place politics and the political at the top and the necessities of daily living . . . at the bottom of this hierarchy. (Wilson, 1985: 5) If you were not involved in public life, you were ‘diminished’ (Hearn, 1995: 203). In fact this belief was so strong that: In the classical tradition, the private realm . . . is an object of derision and the Greeks . . . had a word for it. A private citizen who was concerned only with himself . . . and who was therefore ignorant of public affairs, was known as an idiot ([the literal definition of which is] ‘private, own, peculiar’: OED). (Hartley, 1992: 39) This worthless, trivial private realm traditionally belonged to women; and the worthy public realm of politics belonged to men. In 1776, John Adams argued that women’s delicacy renders them unfit for practice and experience in the great businesses of life, and the hardy enterprises of war, as well as the arduous cares of state. Besides, their attention is so much engaged with the necessary nurture of their children that nature has made them fittest for domestic cares. (quoted in Meyrowitz, 1985: 188) This attitude survives to this day (although it is changing at an exponential rate). Public life is still, to a large degree, seen to be a masculine space. It is largely dominated by men (who greatly outnumber female politicians; female prime ministers and presidents are even rarer). Even those women who do succeed in public life tend to display qualities that are more traditionally seen to be ‘masculine’ — strong-minded, fighting down opponents, being hard and rational — rather than ‘feminine’ — willing to listen, communicate, compromise and empathize (Canary and Dindia, eds, 1998). Conversely, women are still seen to be disproportionately responsible for the ‘private’ realms of life — the emotional side of relationships, raising children, keeping households together (Shelton, 1992) — although this is changing as well (particularly with the increasing



visibility of the ‘father’s rights’ movement). Even as recently as the 1960s, female journalists were not allowed to read the news on television (Tebbutt, 1989: 137). It’s still the case that, statistically, men prefer ‘public affairs’, factual culture (news, current affairs, documentaries) more than women do (van Zoonen, 1991: 232): female journalists in training are often amused by the macho rhetoric which permeates newsrooms. Good news is ‘hard’ news rather than ‘soft’ news, reporters talk about ‘getting a good story up’ and feature writing is often maligned as a slightly effeminate ‘fluffy’ practice. There is no question that traditional news values split both format and content along traditional masculine and feminine lines. Facts, objectivity and the public sphere belong to the men. Women line up with feature writing, subjectivity or domestic issues. (Catharine Lumby, quoted in Hartley, 1996: 32) We can demonstrate that there have traditionally been, and to some degree still survive, distinct masculine cultures and feminine cultures. Men are traditionally addressed as people interested in serious politics; women are traditionally spoken to as though they are interested in trivial domestic issues. Against such a background we can understand the struggle of some mid-twentieth-century feminists to claim that ‘the personal is political’, and to drag the private concerns of (what they see as) their culture into the public sphere.1

Fighting to bring the private into the public Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 book Vindication of the Rights of Women is often taken to be a germinal work in the struggle of women to enter the political public sphere. At the time, women in the UK, USA and Australia were not allowed to vote. Wollstonecraft argued that they should have this right. But more than this, she argued that in order to be truly fair to women, the whole way in which society was structured would have to change. The private domestic issues that concerned women had to be brought into the public sphere (as she herself did with her book):


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For women and men to enjoy liberties requires that they enjoy the conditions and opportunities to pursue self-chosen ends . . . What is especially important about Wollstonecraft’s statement of this position is . . . the deeply rooted connections it sets out between the spheres of ‘the public’ and ‘the private’: between the possibility of citizenship and participation in government on one hand, and obstacles to such a possibility anchored heavily in unequal gender relations on the other. Her argument is that there can be little . . . progressive political change without restructuring the sphere of private relations and there can be no satisfactory restructuring of ‘the private’ without major transformations in the nature of governing institutions . . . ‘public virtue is only an aggregate or private [virtue]’. (Held, 1996: 66) Wollstonecraft believed that what happened in private was of public concern: as when she argues of a female citizen that: she must not . . . want individually the protection of civil laws; she must not be dependent on her husband’s bounty for her subsistence during his life, or support after his death: for how can a being be generous who has nothing of its own? Or virtuous who is not free? (quoted in Held, 1996: 67) She argued that trivial matters of domestic arrangements need public discussion. In following this argument it’s important to acknowledge that trivial gossip has actually played an important part in the public sphere since its emergence in its modern form (Connell, 1991: 240). There never was a time when the official political public sphere was purely public: there has always been some element of ‘trivia’ and gossip involved in it. This is most clear in the late eighteenth-century political journalism of the French Revolution — which used sexual gossip and innuendo as one of its main political tools (Hartley, 1996: 116). The historian Robert Darnton has traced in detail the emergence of ‘news’ as a genre in eighteenth-century France. Although ‘“news” papers of the modern kind, the sort that already existed in Britain, the Netherlands and parts of Germany, remained strictly forbidden’ in



eighteenth-century France, the equivalent could be found in the nouvelles a` la main — news-sheets sold by nouvellistes (newsmongers) (Darnton, 1997: 80), which were later gathered together and republished as books — the chroniques scandaleuses (77). These addressed political manoeuvring and policy by means of discussions of private lives, ‘especially that of the king . . . evil ministers, intriguing courtiers, pederastic prelates, depraved mistresses and bored, ineffectual Bourbons . . .’ (77). These news chronicles ‘operated on the principle, still familiar in popular journalism, that names make news, so they concentrated on the most famous figures in the kingdom . . . they sniffed out scandal in high places’ (Darnton, 1997: 156). Popular chronicles included Anecdotes sur Mme La Comtesse Du Barry (1775) (whose authorship is uncertain, but was perhaps written by Mathieu-Francois Pidansat de Mairobert), which was the second most popular of the chroniques scandaleuses of France in the 1780s. This collection of news takes the form of a series of anecdotes: The king brews his own coffee and du Barry makes a vulgar remark when it boils over. The papal nuncio and the cardinal de la RocheAymon come to do business in the royal bedroom and hold du Barry’s slippers for her as she slides, naked and giggling, out of the king’s bed. In order to amuse du Barry, Maupeou presents her black servant boy, Zamore, with a pie. When Zamore cuts into it, a swarm of maybugs flies out. They settle in the chancellor’s wig; and in pursuing them, Zamore plucks the wig off, exposing the bald pate of ‘the supreme chief of the King’s justice to a guffawing chorus of ladies in waiting’. (Darnton, 1997: 157) These trivial, scandalous stories of private lives and sexual adventures had a serious political purpose — to make comments on the natures of public figures in France and the manoeuvring and relationships between them (see also Habermas, 1989: 34). But alongside these discussions of private sexual lives and gossip, we also find public condemnation of such trivia. Writers in the eighteenth century argued that this trivial feminine discourse should be kept out of the public sphere. Women and their concerns belong in the private domestic sphere, they argue — not in public. ‘In the rhetoric


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of the 1780s and 1790s, reason was conventionally counterposed to “femininity” . . .[and] frivolity’ (Eley, 1992: 309). This frivolous femininity was to be excluded from the public sphere: Joan Landes . . . argues that the ethos of the . . . republican public sphere in France was constructed in deliberate opposition to that of a more woman-friendly salon culture that the republicans stigmatized as ‘artificial’, ‘effeminate’ and ‘aristocratic’. Consequently, a new, austere style of public speech and behaviour was promoted, a style deemed ‘rational’, ‘virtuous’ and ‘manly’. In this way, masculine gender constructs were built into the very conception of the republican public sphere, as was a logic that led, at the height of Jacobin rule, to the formal exclusion from political life of women. Here the republicans drew on classical traditions that cast femininity and publicity as oxymorons. (Fraser, 1990: 59; see also Habermas, 1989: 33; Baker, 1992: 199) Women, because they were too emotional, too private, too intimate, too bodily — too much moved by the trivial — had to be kept out of public debate. Let us add that women are disposed by their [physical] organization to an over-excitation which would be deadly in public affairs and that interests of state would soon be sacrificed to everything which ardour in passions can generate in the way of error and disorder. Delivered over to the heat of public debate, they would teach their children not love of country but hatreds and suspicions. (Andre Amar, 1793, quoted in Baker, 1992: 200; see also Landes, 1988; Ryan, 1992) As I insisted in the Introduction, to argue that different groups have different cultural traditions tells us nothing about the psyche of any individual. We can agree that traditionally women’s culture has been associated with ‘feminine’ concerns — the domestic, the familial and care of the body — and that it has been seen as ‘private’ rather than ‘public’. But not all women throughout history have happily accepted this private role.



Some women have engaged in traditional forms of politics in alternative public spaces, even though they were denied the vote and access to public spaces like the parliament and the coffee houses where political issues were discussed. They fought to be included in official politics, lobbying for the right to vote. They formed ‘alternative public spheres’ addressing public issues (Dahlgren, 1995: 11): The techniques they deployed were various, ingenious and indicative of the many ways in which some intrepid women found access to the public affairs of industrial capitalism. Occasionally they held public meetings calculated to influence public opinion on . . . [the regulation of prostitution]. At other times they directly petitioned the state legislature and appeared at city council meetings, arguing their position. In other circumstances they choose to use the private techniques of lobbying legislatures and capitalizing on their personal contacts among public officials. (Ryan, 1992: 280–281; see also Hoberman, 2002: 2; Fraser, 1990: 61) A second form of ‘public’ participation for women was the public circulation of magazines and books that dealt exclusively with women’s domestic and trivial concerns — what might be called a ‘private public sphere’. In the early nineteenth century, a new ‘culture of domesticity’ developed, emphasizing the need for women to be the angelic, demure, sensitive head of the bourgeois family. The proper conduct for wife and mother was discussed in the popular women’s ‘conduct books’ during this period (Bennett, 2002: 8, 9). In the course of the nineteenth century, this alternative, domestic public sphere developed into a: ‘near industry devoted to advice’ (Shattuc, 1997: 27). This part of the public sphere was kept separate from the official political public sphere. But as well as these forms of public life, some women argued that it was necessary to change the official public sphere itself: and that the trivial domestic issues that women were charged with managing should be seen as proper issues for public debate (see van Zoonen, 1991: 228–229). Female activists in nineteenth-century America ‘were innovating, since they creatively used the heretofore quintessentially “private” idioms of domesticity and motherhood


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precisely as springboards for public activity . . .’ (Fraser, 1990: 61). They tried to organize alternative forms of public organization, which emphasized familial qualities such as empathy and inclusiveness, which were ‘non-hierarchical and informal’ (Squires, 1998: 130). They created forms of public life that were not associated exclusively with the state (130). As noted in the Introduction, white women entered the official political public sphere with the right to vote in 1902 in Australia, in 1920 across the USA, and in 1928 in the United Kingdom. But the struggle to change the nature of the political public sphere continued for some women (Bennett and Watson, 2002: xi): to create a properly democratic society, which includes women as full citizens, it is necessary to deconstruct and reassemble our understanding of the body politic. This task extends from the dismantling of the patriarchal separation of public and private to a transformation of our individuality and sexual identities as feminine and masculine beings. (Eley, 1992: 318) In the latter part of the twentieth century, some forms of feminism (though not all — see note 1) continued this struggle to recognize private, trivial issues as suitable topics for discussion in the official public sphere. And there has been some success in this project — serious newspapers now cover more gossip and celebrity scandal than was previously the case. But in deciding whether this should be seen as a good or a bad thing, writers from ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ paradigms take different attitudes towards the facts of this history.

Fighting for the trivial Ms magazine (first published in 1972 and still being produced today) was America’s first mainstream feminist magazine (‘What is a Ms?’, 1972: 4). It has an interesting place in the public sphere: its topics of concern are often the same as other trivial women’s magazines — relationships, body image, sexual health, even celebrity interviews — but Ms makes explicit that bringing these domestic



issues into the public sphere is seen by these feminist writers as a political act. One of these trivial issues was women’s orgasms. The first issue of the magazine brought this topic to the centre of its feminist politics, in the article ‘The sexual revolution wasn’t our war’ (Dell’Ollio, 1972). This piece argues that although the sexual revolution ‘freed women from Victorian morality’ (104), it did so on men’s terms — without paying attention to what women might need to enjoy good sex lives, or: ‘the speed of response differential between male and female orgasm’ (105); and accepting: ‘the fallacy of the vaginal/ clitoral orgasm dichotomy’. The author of the piece, Anselma Dell’Ollio, wants women to have: ‘more pleasure . . . during intercourse’ (105) — and that the fact that women are being denied this is not an accident of individual biology, she claims, but is managed in Western societies through medical advice and expectations. Dell’Ollio argues that sexual health specialists at the time were ignoring women’s sexual needs by telling them that the only healthy kind of sexual practice was penile intromission — which, for many women, didn’t actually give them an orgasm (although men loved it). Women who wanted the kinds of sex that would actually give them orgasms — oral sex or stimulation with fingers — were told by experts that there was something wrong with them: that they were immature: ‘A false distinction has been made between the vaginal and the clitoral orgasm. The vagina is not a highly sensitive area’, wrote Anne Koedt in The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm — ‘one of the most influential Women’s Liberation tracts’ (Anne Koedt, 1970, quoted in Levine et al., eds, 1980: 85). Talking about these private, trivial issues in public was to be a political act in itself. Bringing them into the public sphere was meant to ensure that women would no longer think themselves strange for their lack of sexual pleasure. Sharing experiences would demonstrate that this was a structural problem: ‘In a recent survey . . . [in] Psychology Today . . . 22% of the men and 21% of the women were virgins [but] they estimated that only 1 or 2% of their friends were inexperienced’ (Carol Travis and T. George Harris, 1976, quoted in Levine et al., eds, 1980: 84). At this point, when trivial issues could not be discussed publicly, everybody thought they were unusual for their sexual inexperience. It was


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necessary, for feminist writers, to bring the private into the public sphere: ‘masturbation. For men it is a fact of life. For women . . . it is a newly discovered secret . . . it’s about time we perfected the art’ (Dell’Ollio, 1972: 110). Because, they insist, the personal — even this personal — is political: ‘Next time you’re tempted to fake orgasm, think of the harm you’re doing to the next woman, if not to yourself’ (110). In Ms magazine — and in other publications of the feminist ‘counterpublic sphere’ (Felski, 1989) — writers argued for ‘politics’ to be ‘enlarged by redefinition’ (Steinham, 1980: 21), and refused the binary model that said personal issues were private while political issues were public. One approach they took was to bring trivial issues into the public sphere and argue that it was necessary for the state to intervene — to change legislation — in order to deal with them. Sexuality was rendered into something that the state should intervene in through campaigns for abortion rights. Fights for abortion rights saw sexuality dragged into the public sphere in order to get legislation passed. The first issue of Ms introduced this as an important issue, using cultural politics to try to lead to legislative change. The article ‘We have had abortions’ (Diamonstein, 1972: 34) is simply a list of names of women who have had abortions — a brave move at a time when abortion was illegal in the United States. The aim of this list, says the author (whose name is included), is to take this practice out of the private into the public sphere and thus make it possible for more women to talk about it, to realize how everyday it is, and thus make it easier to push for legislative change. (Ironically, the legislation that campaigners wanted passed was to return abortion to the private realm — as they thought that currently the state, in banning abortion, was interfering in women’s private lives.) The battle (if not the war) was won in January 1973 (Levine et al., eds, 1980: 135). Other legislative demands of the National Organization of Women included an Equal Rights Amendment, Maternity Leave rights in employment and social security, tax deductions for home and child care expenses for working parents (Levine et al., eds, 1980: 26). As we will see below, for some academics this aspect of the feminist argument — where state intervention is sought for private issues — effectively destroys the notion of the public sphere. Habermas, for example, argues philosophically that human beings can only reach



their full potential in a society where the state does not interfere in private issues such as the family and industrial relations. In another complication of the public/private distinction, these feminist writers brought other trivial issues into the public sphere, only to then advocate non-state forms of political activity to deal with them: changing the attitudes of individual women, forming groups to work together, offering practical ideas for change. The completely trivial issue of housework, for example, was one that, for the feminists writing in Ms magazine, was not to be addressed legislatively but through cultural change: Dr Jessie Hartline, a Rutgers University economist, suggests that housewives organize, pay each other the going rate for an exchange of household services, and receive the benefits of being ‘employed’. (Ms Gazette, 1976, quoted in Levine et al., eds, 1980: 50) Other practical strategies for change were offered by women writing to the Ms letters page with practical tips about getting the family to help with the housework (see Thom, ed., 1987: 78–96). Many of the trivial issues that were politicized and publicized in this way related not to official political rights, or to material goods, but to what we might call ‘cultural goods’ — the right to be treated well. This might include the right not to have to do extra work (housework) simply because it was expected of you, with no appreciation. It could include the right not to be sexually or physically abused; or the right to feel good about yourself. One central right — importantly — was the right to understand that what you did was not trivial, in the sense of being unimportant — that housework, family work, relationships, and child-rearing, were all just as important as the traditionally public work done by men. A change in the consciousness of individual women was offered as a suitably political strategy for dealing with these issues. A strong example of this comes in the article ‘The housewife’s moment of truth’, which introduces the idea of the ‘click’ — the moment when a woman realizes that the trivial issue of domesticity actually matters: In Houston, Texas, a friend of mine stood and watched her husband step over a pile of toys on the stairs, put there to be carried up. ‘Why can’t you get this stuff put away?’ he mumbled. Click! ‘You have two


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hands’, she said, turning away . . . On Fire Island my weekend hostess and I had just finished cooking breakfast, lunch, and washing dishes for both. A male guest came wandering into the kitchen just as the last dish was being put away and said ‘How about something to eat?’. He sat down expectantly, and started to read the paper. Click! ‘You work all week’, said the hostess, ‘and I work all week and if you want something to eat, you can get it and wash up after it yourself’. (O’Reilly, 1973: 13) The feminist writers of Ms magazine struggled to bring ‘trivial’ issues into the official public sphere. They fought, quite explicitly, to bring questions about sexuality, about bodies, about personal relationships and the domestic sphere, into the public discussion. They did this because they thought these issues mattered. This was what culture told them was ‘women’s culture’: and if that was the case, then they wanted it to be treated as seriously as the ‘men’s culture’ that traditionally dominated the public sphere. The slew of trivialization in newspapers and magazines, obsessions with celebrity bodies, relationships and lifestyles, can be, at least in part, traced back to the work of these feminist writers.

Why bring the personal into the public sphere? As Kate Millett argued in her germinal 1970 book Sexual Politics: In introducing the term ‘sexual politics’ one must first answer the inevitable question: ‘Can the relationship between the sexes be viewed in a political light at all?’ The answer depends on how one defines politics. This essay does not define political as that relatively narrow and exclusive world of meetings, chairmen and parties. The term ‘politics’ shall refer to power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons are controlled by another. (Kate Millett in Sexual Politics, quoted in Shattuc, 1997: 91) But why did these feminist writers argue that ‘the personal is political’ (Squires, 1998: 128)?



Firstly, there was a sense that many women were treated badly. They were kept in the private sphere, where they were often treated very badly: and they had no way to deal with this because the state would not interfere in a man’s house. By making public issues about marital rape, wife beating and unreasonable domestic expectations, women could share their experiences, argue that this was a problem in society generally rather than just in each individual house, and thus organize to change things. By publicizing trivial issues about abuse they could work to stop the abuse. Whereas before the 1960s there was no such thing as ‘marital rape’ — a husband by definition could not rape his wife, no matter how unwilling she was during the sex act, because she was his wife — this trivial issue has now changed: Masculine dominance and female submission were still defined as ‘natural’; so much so that even violence towards women was accepted as a normal part of sexual life . . . Saturday-night beatings and the idea that women ‘wanted’ to be forced were all accepted to some degree . . . rape was finally redefined in the 1970s, and understood as an act of violence . . . not ‘natural’ sexual need . . . ‘Battered women’ was a phrase that uncovered a major kind of violence that had long been hidden. It helped us to reveal the fact that most violence in America takes place in our homes, not on the streets. (Steinham, 1980: 23) Secondly, these feminist writers argued that domestic issues were not, in fact, trivial — that relationships, child-rearing, housework, and sexuality were in fact important parts of human society, and had to be recognized as such. By publicizing the work involved in the trivial business of child-rearing, for example, it could be made more worthy. This has had some success. Before the 1960s there was no widespread social movement for ‘father’s rights’, suggesting that children needed a close emotional bond with a male parent. This has now changed. Thirdly, some women wanted to be involved in the traditional political public sphere. Although legally there was nothing stopping them from doing so, the organization of society into the woman’s world of domestic concerns and the man’s world of politics made


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it difficult for women to enter traditional politics. On the one hand, they could expect to be mocked by men — and conservative women — for stepping outside of their proper gender role. On the other, it was likely that they would still be expected to do all of the housework and child-rearing — on top of any public duties they might have (Roche, 1995: 49). By publicizing the trivial issue of housework, and discussing why women do almost all of it, alternative practices could be proposed. This is now changing — although not as quickly as we might hope. Fourthly, some feminist writers argued that the personal was already political — that the state was already interfering in our private lives. If we wanted to change the ways it interfered, we had to be honest about what was going on. The law as it stood stated that when women married men they became their husband’s property: ‘The marriage contract in fact legalizes and institutionalizes the rape of women and the bondage of women’ (Robin Morgan, 1970, quoted in Levine et al., eds, 1980: 162): Only one quarter of all sexual molestations are committed by strangers . . . in a full 75% of cases the victim knows her assailant. In 34%, the molestation takes place in her own home. (Ellen Webber, 1977, quoted in Levine et al., eds, 1980: 214) The state was not neutral before the twentieth century — it encouraged the abuse of women, feminist writers argued, and this was already a public policy about a private, domestic — that is, a trivial — issue.

Postmodern and modern responses to these arguments Commentators from a postmodern perspective would accept the arguments of the Ms feminists about bringing private trivia into the public sphere. Thinkers from a modern perspective, hoping for an ideal, unified public sphere of serious, quality, rational discussion, would not. One ‘modern’ tradition of thought reiterates the attitude that has been in place since Greek times: that public life is important; and that personal life is not important:



On the neo-Kantian view (including Rousseau’s, which inspired Kant and connects directly to some of the later theorists of modernity), the personal, that which makes us the distinct individuals we are, was, or should be, of no moral consequence. It was, in Kant’s view, ‘phenomenal’. (Hawthorn and Lund, 1998: 37) In this way, personal issues are by definition trivial, and by definition should be kept in the private sphere. This tradition fits with broader social judgements about the worth of feminine trivia. The 1970s columnist James J. Kilpatrick mocks feminism with the comment that ‘they equate the meaning of high tragedy with the picking up of a husband’s socks. Dear God, the agony of it all! Dirty dishes!’ (quoted in Thom, 1997: 26). Midge Deeter, a conservative female commentator, wrote in her 1972 book The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation that ‘The pursuit of orgasm for a woman is an entirely irrelevant undertaking’ (quoted in Levine et al., eds, 1980: 238). The feminist writers of Ms magazine saw this approach as an attack on equality: [Men] tell us we are being petty. The future impoverishment of civilization could not depend on who washes the dishes. Could it? Yes. The liberated society — with men, women and children living as whole human beings, not halves divided by sex roles — depends on the steadfast search for new solutions to just such apparently trivial problems . . . No, the question of housework is not a trivial matter to be worked out the day before we go on to greater things. Men do not want equality at home. (O’Reilly, 1973: 16, 22) There may well be some commentators, particularly in popular culture, whose refusal to accept the value of trivia comes from a sexist belief that (what has traditionally been thought of as) women’s culture is less important than (what has traditionally been thought of as) men’s culture. But most ‘modern’ writers in the academic arena are not sexist in their refusal of these arguments. Rather, their insistence that trivia doesn’t belong in the public sphere develops from their commitment to the ideal of equality.


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Up to this point this chapter has been argued from a postmodern perspective: by giving over so much time to the arguments presented by this new social movement, and by citing its writers with approval, I have favoured their way of making sense of the expansion of trivia in the official public sphere. It’s important that you understand modern positions as well. Many writers who are committed to traditional modern notions of equality, justice, freedom and comfort believe that the feminist writers of Ms magazine are misguided in their claims for public recognition of feminine culture. One of the most common arguments is based on the importance of different kinds of culture. Writers argue that party politics, because it structures the whole of society, is more important than trivial issues about sexuality and relationships (see, for example, Nordenstreng, 1972, quoted in Langer, 1998: 4). From a modern perspective, with an attitude committed to universalism, there must be an agreed hierarchy of importance in a society in order for common discussion to take place. If different cultures think that different things are important (for example, the Ms feminists arguing that women’s orgasms are an important, or even a political, issue), this is a problem that must be overcome so that everybody in the nation served by a public sphere can agree what is most important to everybody, and then discuss these issues. This ensures that all citizens are then equally a part of the public discussions. These writers usually assume that it is traditionally masculine issues (party politics) rather than traditionally feminine ones (relationships and domestic questions) that should be universally important (see Boyte, 1992: 353; Becker, 1997: 13; and Chapter 4 of this book). A more complex position within the ‘modern’ paradigms, again based on a commitment to Enlightenment values, is given by Habermas in his classic and still-cited book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. There he argues that allowing personal trivia into the public sphere undermines the equal right of every individual to the freedom to develop their own self, individually, without public interference. Habermas does not argue that private trivial matters are less important than traditionally ‘public’ issues per se. Rather, he argues that the two must be kept separate. It’s the clear division between private and public, he says, that makes liberal democracy possible — and which allows us to have a properly functioning



public sphere. Our private lives have been ‘hollowed out’ by the increasing impact of public culture on our personal lives (Habermas, 1989: 162). Habermas’s ideal situation is one where public life — what he calls the ‘systems world’, the world of external, bureaucratized machine life — would have no impact on our private lives — the ‘lifeworld’ (Garnham, 1992: 374). The ‘lifeworld’, or private sphere, is the space of organic humanity, of the affirmation of life, where people develop their personalities, their identities, their opinions and their relationships with their families in a pure situation where there are no power relations, no outside influences — and, importantly, no state intervention. To the extent that we have lost this in our current societies, we are less worthy human beings (Holub, 1991: 6). Habermas is writing here as a political liberal (see Matuˇst´ık, 2001: 248; Outhwaite, 1996: 7; Dahlgren, 1991: 3; Eley, 1992: 307). We now live in Western countries that have some form of welfare states (less so in the USA than in the UK and Australia), and where governments take responsibility for private issues — people’s health, education, a pension should they be unable to work. For Habermas, this is a bad thing. The welfare state ‘gradually destroyed the basis of the bourgeois public sphere — the separation of state and society’ (Habermas, 1989: 142). Letting government into the home, to interfere in people’s private lives by paying pensions, and so on, represents ‘another form of feudalization’ (Garnham, 1990: 18; see also Eley, 1992: 320; Baker, 1992: 187). Habermas lists some of the ways in which the state now takes away the personal responsibilities which the individual should take for himself (and which he thus sees as a bad thing): Collective contracts [i.e., unionized work practices], which took the place of individual ones . . . protected the weaker partner. Protective clauses in the interest of the tenant turned the lease into a relationship restricting the landlord . . . The classical risks, especially of unemployment, accident, illness, age and death are nowadays largely covered by welfare state guarantees . . . Against the so-called basic needs, which the bourgeois family once had to bear as a private risk, the individual family member today is publicly protected. (Habermas, 1989: 149, 155)


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It’s worth noting that in this approach Habermas is far from many other writers on the public sphere — particularly those who take a left-wing approach to the issue (arguing for greater state intervention in order to promote social justice — see Fraser, 1990: 73). In his commitment to equality, freedom and justice, he argues that public responsibility for private affairs (the welfare state) makes people lazy. As he puts it, the welfare state brought about new relationships of dependence. The autonomy of private people now no longer grounded in the genuine control over private property would be realizable as an autonomy derived from public status guarantees of privacy only as long as the ‘human beings’ . . . themselves attained control over these conditions of their private existence . . . Citizens entitled to services relate to the state not primarily through political participation but by adopting a general attitude of demand — expecting to be provided for without actually wanting to fight for the necessary decisions . . . unpolitical and indifferent, yet demanding . . . (Habermas, 1989: 161, 211) This is one ‘modern’ response to the seeping of ‘private’ issues into the ‘public’ sphere: one which is committed to equality and freedom, and worries that letting traditionally feminine culture into the public sphere undermines those ideals by stopping people taking responsibility for their own private lives. Postmodern and modern writers can agree on the facts of the issue: but our attitudes towards what counts as real freedom differ.

Cultural difference, identity and knowledge In the Introduction to this book I emphasized that in arguing for cultural difference I’m not making any claim about biology. We have historical evidence that women’s cultures and men’s cultures have been distinct for hundreds of years. Women have been addressed by texts that assume that they’re more emotional, more interested in relationships, more caring than men; men have been addressed by texts that assume they’re more rational, more disinterested, more capable of abstract thought than women. Some people, both in popular culture and academic research, believe that there’s a biological



connection between bodies and culture: that genetic differences explain why men and women have different public cultures: Testosterone is a fact of life. Men have more of it. It makes them more aggressive, more competitive and more self-confident . . . Women have more oestrogen and more oxytocin, a ‘cuddling’ hormone. We fantasise about closeness, affection and real love. (Gore, 1998: 7) Those people who accept such arguments are called ‘essentialists’: they believe that women, men, Black people and white people, straight people and Queer people, each have a particular ‘essential’ culture that belongs to them (Fuss, 1990: xi). I don’t accept such arguments. My own position is a ‘constructionist’ one (Fuss, 1990: 1). I think that ‘nurture’ is more important than ‘nature’, to use the common language for thinking about this issue.2 To break this down further, within the constructionist position there are two further positions: a belief in absolute agency on the one hand; and a belief in the importance of society in constructing everybody’s personal identity on the other. The first of these positions believes in the idea of a sovereign, unified subject. We might call this the Oprah form of argument, after the driving logic of Oprah Winfrey’s television talk show: follow your dreams and be who you want to be. This approach believes that each individual has absolute control over who they are and what they can become, how they think and how they react. You can do whatever you want to do, be whoever you want to be — just do it. Your sense of self is your own to control, not ultimately managed by external circumstances. If there are unconscious, or contradictory or uncontrolled parts of your character, you can rationalize them and bring them together to make a coherent, sensible individual. This approach believes in the authentic self, in being true to yourself: in academic terms, the attitude that ‘we must be able to state and justify most of our beliefs’ (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 251). On the other hand are arguments that emphasize the role of society in constructing the sense of self — more like the approach to personality we find in a television cop show like the US program Law and Order. These arguments embrace the idea that ‘society is to blame’: that external factors in society, such as the way we are


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treated by other people, genetic predispositions, addictions, and childhood experiences, affect who we are. Our personalities can be fragmented, with different, contradictory elements. We don’t have complete control over them. We behave in different ways with different people, and there is, finally, no authentic core. Our sense of ‘I’ is a bit of a fiction — we pretend that our behaviour is always coherent, that the various roles we play in different social situations all fit together and make perfect sense, but in fact they don’t. In academic terms this can be expressed as: ‘I do not think that we can aspire to the self-transparency of making most of what we believe fully articulate’ (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 251; see also Calhoun, 1996). It turns out that your attitude towards this issue also has important implications for your thinking about the public sphere. Habermas’s position implies the Oprah-approach to subjectivity3 — that if people can be kept away from the contaminating influence of the public sphere and other people’s ideas, then they will develop their own authentic personality: ‘Habermas treats identities and interests as settled within the private world and then brought fully formed into the public sphere’ (Calhoun, 1992b: 35; see also Baker, 1992: 185). For Habermas, in the ideal public sphere, private issues are not discussed and therefore people develop their own thoughts on them unspoiled by already knowing what other people think. So when private individuals do come together in the public sphere they have developed their own opinions in private isolation, without being prejudiced by other people’s ideas. In this sense, paradoxically, the public sphere is actually a ‘private’ space — it’s not created by the state, but it emerges organically and naturally from private individuals coming together (Baker, 1992: 187; Garnham, 1992: 361). However, when private issues are discussed in the public sphere, people have no isolated private space in which to develop their own ideas. In his family home (women are excluded from Habermas’s ideal public sphere) ‘the individual unfolded himself in his subjectivity’ (Habermas, 1989: 48); and that sense of self, ‘originating in the interiority of the conjugal family, by communicating with itself, attained clarity about itself’ (Habermas, 1989: 51). Habermas’s ideal public sphere would involve only private individuals expressing their own



authentic ideas, with no compromises and no attempt to secondguess what other people would like to hear (Calhoun, 1992b: 21). It would only contain art and literature — not mass culture. So long as people read only ‘literary family magazines’ they could remain in the authentic private sphere. But when these are replaced by ‘popular advertiser-financed illustrated magazines . . .’ (Habermas, 1989: 162–163), then the private sphere is exposed to inauthentic ideas that influence the development of the private individual. This is Habermas’s Oprah-style view. By contrast, from the second, Law and Order point of view, if an individual were to be kept away from the contaminating influence of external culture, she wouldn’t develop a personality at all — rather she would turn out like Nell in the Jodie Foster film (Apted, 1994), abandoned in the woods, growing up alone, untouched by human culture, and unable to speak or communicate in any way. This is the constructionist approach that I favour — and the one that has been developed by an important strand of feminist writing.4 When the writers in Ms were arguing that the public sphere needed to include feminized trivia, they were also arguing that we needed to understand that the public sphere had an important impact on the private sphere. From its earliest issues, Ms magazine was concerned about the way that women were represented in the public sphere: because the writers believed that this had an impact on the way that women thought about their own private selves — their own identities. Many articles in the magazine argued that ‘stereotypes’ of women’s work actually affected reality, limiting what women thought they could do and how they felt about themselves. Adverts for household products ‘play on . . . self-hatred’ (Dogrebin, 1972: 28) and attempt to limit the ways in which women think about themselves. Representations in the public sphere, according to these feminist writers, necessarily have an impact on the private sphere, offering individuals tailormade collections of attitudes, interests and ideas: ‘identities’. These feminist writers argued that women are not biologically determined or genetically programmed to like feminine culture; and men are not biologically or genetically predestined to enjoy masculine culture. Rather, as soon as somebody is born as a woman or as a man, they start being introduced to that culture. Girls are encouraged to enjoy traditionally feminine pursuits; boys are encouraged to enjoy


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traditionally masculine pursuits. Girls are told that certain interests are properly feminine: domestic interests, child-rearing, relationships. Certain forms of behaviour are appropriate for women: being demure, putting the needs of others ahead of themselves, listening to men rather than talking over them. Boys are told that certain interests are properly masculine: sport, public issues, politics. They are told that certain forms of behaviour are appropriate for men: repressing emotions, being rational and logical, emphasizing individualism over the needs of others (Dogrebin, 1972). Because an individual is born with a particular kind of body (female or male; Black or white) or into a particular group (working class), they are offered particular kinds of ‘identity’ — ways of thinking about themselves, their bodies, their interests. Of course, not everybody accepts it: there are young girls who dream about growing up to be truck drivers and boys who dream about becoming stay-at-home dads. But these roles are offered to them based on their body: not just in the private sphere, but also in the public sphere (see Shields, 2002). From this perspective, the public sphere isn’t separate from private issues of identity: it’s a vital component of forming identity. Analyzing representation of identities in the public sphere became a vital part of this feminist project. But the aim wasn’t to protect people from the public sphere and retreat into the private: rather, these feminist writers wanted to embrace public representation and change it. The public sphere, they argued, should contain ‘positive images’ that would offer women a variety of identities they could choose between (Artel and Wengraf, 1978). It’s important to note that women didn’t want to retreat into the domestic sphere, because the identities they discovered there were actually less authentic and less real. For many of these feminist writers, the private sphere was actually a place of coercion, repression, and being mocked. The private sphere that was for Habermas a space of freedom from external pressures was, for them, a trap they wanted to escape. For them, public identities were more real, more authentic and offered more freedom. Ms magazine sold out its 300,000-copy print run of its first edition in only a few days (The editors of Ms, 1973: 1). The editors received over 26,000 letters from readers in response to this single issue (a ridiculously large response — a typical magazine selling this number of copies would



expect a few hundred letters at the very most). Their excitement suggests the importance of the magazine’s project — and that the very fact of offering a different kind of ‘feminine’ identity in the public sphere has changed society in some way. ‘Many women . . . said they had felt “crazy” or “alone” until they found Ms on their newsstands; women who didn’t have access to bookstores and the few feminist works that were there’ (Steinem, 1987: xii). In Ms magazine, ‘Letter writers felt a strength in community with other readers. As one wrote in 1982, “In 1972 I asked, What’s wrong with me? Now I ask, What the hell is the matter with them!”’ (xix). Another wrote: I am writing to you because I have no-one . . . to talk to who will not try to push, cajole, threaten, even beg me into accepting my ‘proper’ role and ‘duties’ as housewife and mother. I had started to believe there was something wrong with me, until I began to receive your magazine . . . it has given me the courage to go on. (quoted in Thom, ed., 1987: 28) These letter writers are thinking about the role of the public sphere, and they argue for the importance of making identities available there. The private sphere has not been, for them, a space to develop their true sense of self, away from the contamination of public representation: they argue that the opposite is true. If you think about cultural difference in this way — that it isn’t the natural expression of genetic differences between people, but something that’s created publicly and then offered to people based on their bodies or social position — then it’s possible to recognize that these differences are important without falling back into genetic determinism. I would argue that there’s nothing genetic that makes women interested in domestic and relationship ‘trivia’: but as they grow up, both the public and private spheres insist that this is what they should be interested in. Socially and culturally they’re encouraged to specialize in these topics, rather than in ‘masculine’ topics like public affairs. Not all women accept this: but to refuse to acknowledge this means ignoring an important part of the experience of women’s identities. For the postmodern philosophers Negt and Kluge ‘the real social experiences of human beings, produced


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in everyday life and work, cut across [public/private] divisions . . . the two are not externally related to one another, but rather produce their respective opposite from within themselves’ (Negt and Kluge, 1993: xliii, 57; see also Boyte, 1992: 351; Garnham, 1992: 365). We can argue for the private function of the public sphere itself — where people can actually be changed by public interaction as much as private interaction: Throughout the modern era, social movements have been in part occasions for the legitimation of new voices (by which I mean not just the inclusion of persons previously excluded, but also changes in the identities from which included persons speak). (Calhoun, 1992b: 37) The public sphere can offer not only rational information that changes our view on public issues; but also it can change our private lives, our sense of who we are. The public sphere doesn’t only allow for rational debate — it also provides us with choices about identities, how we think about ourselves and who we are. Of course, ‘modern’ writers will still argue that this is a misuse of the public sphere — that such trivia shouldn’t be part of the public sphere, and that we should develop our identities and personalities in private, only in relation to our families and our friends. For Habermas, although he acknowledges that ‘socialized individuals are only sustained through group identity’ (quoted in Calhoun, 1996: 455), still ‘group identity has not been his interest and he has pursued a theory of communicative action grounded in the universal presuppositions of language and the potentials of individuals’ (455). But from the perspective of the feminist writers in Ms magazine — and from the perspective of a ‘postmodern’ reader of their work — we can argue that the cultural differences circulated in the public sphere have a real effect on the individuals that live within culture. We are offered identities by public communication. If we didn’t have those public identities, it isn’t the case that we would grow up to be our essential, authentic selves: rather, we wouldn’t develop social identities at all. The public sphere impinges on the private, but this isn’t something to be lamented: it’s the only way in which the private can develop.



The importance of trivia If we accept the arguments of these feminists, then the issue of trivia in the public sphere looks quite different. Gossip magazines and women’s magazines are obsessed with trivia about people’s private lives and about their bodies — plastic surgery, diets, hairstyles, make-up, relationships, sex lives. We could say that such things should be unimportant to our society — a modern ‘attitude’. Or we could say that it’s important that our society should discuss them in order to understand the individual basis on which it is built. For example, we could argue that one of the positive effects of trivial reporting in the public sphere is that ‘it causes people to be cynical’ about public figures (Neil Postman, quoted in Corner, 1995: 50; see also Larry Sabeto, quoted in Corner, 1995: 50; see also Chapter 5 of this book). There seem to have been large-scale changes in voter attitudes towards politicians in recent decades: recent Gallup and Harris public opinion polls suggest that many people continue to have faith in social institutions (such as higher education, the military and the medical profession) but not in the people who head them. Between 1966 and 1980 the public’s trust in the authorities who head higher education declined from 61% to 33%; faith in the leadership of organized religion slipped from 41% to 19%; trust in the leaders of major companies fell from 55% to 19%; and confidence in the leaders of medical institutions plummeted from 73% to 30%. (Meyrowitz, 1985: 165) It’s certainly true that much more sleaze about politicians — their immoral behaviour in their private lives — is reported now than was the case in the past. Up until at least the 1960s, the media colluded with public figures in keeping their bad behaviour a secret from the public: John F. Kennedy had many skeletons in his political cupboard, and his private life was a sordid mess of betrayals and deceptions, but image-management (in which journalists at the time colluded)


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ensured that he was perceived as presiding over a squeaky clean ‘Camelot’. (McNair, 2000: 124; see also Connell, 1991: 241) This is now less true of the media. Ian Connell suggests that the value of trivial, private stories is precisely that they make us think about the question of trust, and how private and public behaviours are related. They: can force into the open problems associated with liberalism’s assumption that individual freedom will be tempered with responsibility in private matters, at least among those who can be regarded as civilized. (Connell, 1991: 241) On a slightly different note, trivia about celebrities and other non-political public figures, according to Connell, works as a kind of morality tale, allowing a culture to think through ethical questions (this is not properly a ‘public’ concern, according to the definition, above, which sees only issues related to the state as public; but in the expanded definition of politics offered by feminist writers it certainly would be): [tabloid celebrity gossip] could be seen as performing a kind of cultural police work. Implied throughout all these stories is a . . . perspective on the proper conduct of stars . . . What the papers’ efforts of revelations focus on are those instances where stars have stealthily turned their backs on . . . wider responsibilities. So long as stars behave themselves, acknowledge their responsibilities and act in accordance with the mythology of stardom, their ‘private lives’ are comparatively safe. (Connell, 1991: 251; see also Lumby, 1999: 216) It also seems that, in practice, trivial stories often link to wider public debates, engaging more citizens than would otherwise be the case in traditional political issues: as with coverage of Tony Blair’s hairstyle in 1996 leading to journalistic debate about image management and spin; or the Lorena Bobbit story, with ‘its impact on the domestic violence debate’ (McNair, 2000: 51–52, 60). The



first issue of Ms magazine included an article by Susan Edmiston entitled ‘How to write your own marriage contract’, which used the story of Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis’ marriage contract to illustrate to readers the idea that marriage could be negotiated as legal equals — linking trivia, celebrity gossip and feminist engagement with the state (Edmiston, 1972: 69). Other writers pay particular attention to the fact that it’s the bodies of public figures that are of most fascination to tabloid journalism — whether they’re fat or skinny, what surgery they’ve had, what make-up they’re wearing, if they’re pregnant, which other public figures they’re making love to. These writers have argued that this trivial focus is very important — and it’s perfectly sensible for these journalists to focus on this. John Hartley, for example, considers the royal body and notes that it’s hardly irrelevant to ask where Prince Charles is putting his sperm, when the entire governance of the country actually depends on this issue: the ‘trash’, ‘tabloid’, ‘gossip’ and ‘paparazzi’ media . . . worry and tug incessantly at the most fundamental problem that the incomplete revolution has bequeathed to the British political system — its royal family. Since popular sovereignty and monarchy are mutually exclusive forms of government, the persistence within a ‘parliamentary democracy’ of a form of political legitimacy based on the transmission of monarchical seminal fluid makes the bodies which contain or receive that fluid more than usually anomalous . . . the contemporary popular media are quite right, in straightforwardly political as well as more broadly anthropological terms, to insist on foregrounding the bodies, sexuality and infidelities of those who constitutionally don’t represent but are the legitimacy of the state, and through whose bodies must pass the inheritance of monarchy itself . . . Conversely it has to be said that the ‘respectable’ British media (the so-called newspapers of record and the broadcasters) display a long history of serious bad faith: they have been suppressing information about royal love-lives throughout modernity (from the Prince Regent and successive princes of Wales to Edward VIII, Princess Margaret and Prince Edward) . . . This shows the dangers of loyalty to a crown rather than towards the real — popular — source of both political sovereignty and media readership. (Hartley, 1996: 11, 12)


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For these writers, a focus on bodies, and sex and similarly trivial issues means the public sphere is functioning exactly as it should do — allowing public discussion about issues that are of common concern, and that underlie the social organization of our entire society.

Modernity, postmodernity and trivia This book is written largely from the perspective of the new social movement of seventies’ feminism, and of the postmodern reading that would agree with the arguments of these feminists. I’ve tried throughout also to give a sense of the modern arguments against the positions I’m describing, with quotations so you can check I’m not misrepresenting those who argue for equality, freedom, justice and comfort from within a traditionally modern paradigm. As I noted in the Introduction, the differences between modern and postmodern paradigms for making sense of culture are attitudinal ones rather than factual ones: you can’t prove that one or the other is correct using rational argument. The proponents of both sides are intelligent, informed and well-intentioned, committed to Enlightenment ideals of equality, freedom, justice and comfort. I’m trying to explain in detail why I favour a postmodern approach, not because it’s the only truth, but because I’m hoping that it will make sense to the reader. In the Introduction I noted that previous writers have claimed that a ‘modern’ approach to thinking about culture involves a commitment to ‘absolute truth’ (Sarup, 1996: 50, 95), a belief in ‘universal’ (Ashe et al., 1999: 20–21), ‘transcendent’ (Ashenden and Owen, 1999: 13) truths about human culture. By contrast, a postmodern approach implies a ‘relativist’ approach (Ashenden and Owen, 1999: 13), accepting a ‘plurality’ of perspectives on each issue (Sarup, 1996: 50, 95), and the ‘fragmentation’ (Sarup, 1996: 95) of truths about society. As some kind of evidence to support my own postmodern position it seems to me that Habermas’s arguments in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere — which champions the idea of a single regime of truth about a situation — in fact don’t offer a transcendent truth at all, but are written from



one particular — masculine — perspective. His history of the public sphere is different from that written by feminist historians: which suggests to me that there are multiple truths, rather than one single truth, about this history. In his history, Habermas claims that the official public sphere was better in the eighteenth century, with a ‘golden age between 1680 and 1730’ (Habermas, 1989: 32) (although as I noted in the Introduction, it’s now generally agreed — including by Habermas himself — that this is wrong). During this golden age, women were excluded from the public sphere. Female historians have noted this fact with interest: Even the barest outlines of women’s political history are sufficient to call into question a characterization of the last century as a blanket, undifferentiated decline of public life . . . From a women’s perspective, this history starts out from different premises, evolves through a different and more problematic relationship to the public sphere and presents a distinctive projectory into the future . . . Starting at approximately the same time and place where Habermas commences his story of the eviscerating transformation of the public sphere (Western republics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) feminist historians plot the ascension of women into politics . . . (Ryan, 1992: 263, 262) Habermas’s ideal public sphere excluded not only women, but also feminized topics. In fairness to Habermas it’s important to remember that he was writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when public attitudes towards women were not as developed as they are today: this certainly isn’t a personal attack on him as an individual. But even the fact that public recognition of women’s culture and experiences has come so far in the last forty years suggests — to me — that Habermas’s writing can’t be taken as a universal overview of changes to the public sphere. For example, in the eighteenth century — Habermas writes approvingly — the man was the head of the private household, there was a ‘paternal authority’ and a ‘familial authority structure’


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(Habermas, 1989: 156). But now, he worries, the power structures of personal life have been ‘dragged out into the open’ (Habermas, 1989: 172) into the public sphere. This, he fears, has led to the ‘dismantling of paternal authority’ and the ‘levelling of the intra-familial authority structure’ (Habermas, 1989: 156). By bringing out problems of relationships — marital rape, spousal and child abuse, and so on — into the public sphere, these private issues are no longer discussed and resolved in the authentic space of private life. By offering public solutions and interventions to these problems ‘individual family members are now socialized by extrafamilial authorities, by society directly’ (Habermas, 1989: 156); and the ‘protective’ role of the private familial structure has been lost (Habermas, 1989: 157). But the feminist writers of Ms magazine were the ones who were trying to escape the ‘protective’ role of the private familial structure, and to create extrafamilial authorities to socialize women outside of the domestic sphere. They struggled to drag out into the open issues such as their sexuality, the expectations that could be placed on them sexually, and whether their own pleasures were less important than men’s, precisely in order to break down the power structures that were sustained by being unspeakable, being kept behind closed doors — being kept in private. Those writers see an improvement in women’s situation — a political change, brought about by insisting that trivial issues are political, by dragging those issues into the public sphere. These are different perspectives on the history of the changing public sphere. From a modern perspective, there can only be a single truth about the history of the public sphere: either it’s improving its Enlightenment function of promoting equality, justice, freedom and comfort; or it’s getting worse in this function. Reading the work of these feminist writers suggests to me, given my postmodern attitude, and my acceptance of a plurality of true perspectives, that the public sphere is serving feminized culture and thus (indirectly) women better now than has previously been the case. But as always, I haven’t proved this position in any final sense. From a ‘modern’ perspective, it’s possible to argue that beyond these identities we all have basic universal humanity in common, and we should strive to develop that rather than paying attention to cultural difference. From a postmodern perspective, we don’t know



that there is any basic universal humanity; and in the meantime, insisting that only traditionally masculine issues (organized party politics) should be the concern of the public sphere — while traditionally feminine concerns (domestic trivia) should be kept out — appears unfair to those citizens who have grown up being encouraged to learn about domestic trivia, and who have been systematically discouraged from developing a detailed knowledge about traditionally public affairs. In this case, those women who have accepted any element of the offer of a ‘feminine’ identity then find themselves at a disadvantage attempting to enter the public sphere. I explore this link between body, identity, cultural difference and forms of knowledge in more detail in the next chapter.

Chapter 2


The public sphere has become too commercialized. This is a common complaint about the public culture we now consume in Western countries — that in search of profits, the media no longer care about quality (Thompson, 1990: 112–113). They sell whatever people will buy, without any other considerations. This leads them to produce only what consumers think they want, rather than what they actually need. They aim for ‘the lowest common denominator’; they make ‘trash’; they produce ‘vulgar’ or ‘downmarket’ or ‘Americanized’ or ‘tabloidized’ material (see Lumby and O’Neil, 1994: 151; McNair, 2000: 2). They provide coverage of public events in terms of concrete experiences and individual personalities rather than structural issues and abstract concepts. They don’t use complex language, but ‘dumb down’ their content for uneducated consumers. They use a vocabulary which is vulgar and irreverent. They don’t show respect to experts. They produce material which is easy to consume, not requiring audiences to think at great length about what they’re given; they use lots of pictures and layouts with large headlines rather than relying on the written words to communicate. They avoid serious politics and focus on human interest, sport and celebrities — and they do all this because this is what people buy, and the profit motive is all they care about. In short, in trying to reach large audiences, the public sphere has been corrupted by ‘sensationalism’ — produced to ‘arouse intense interest . . .’ (Shattuc, 1997: 19); ‘subject to the influence of . . . factitious emotion’ (OED) — drowning out serious, detailed, quality discussions (Murdock, 1992: 23). Again we can point to a number of different responses to these changes in the public sphere, from people who accept different 66



paradigms for making sense of culture. In both popular and academic discussions, one group (who accept a traditionally ‘modern’ way of thinking about public culture) are concerned by these changes: they think that chasing after ratings is a bad thing, for it leads to a loss of quality. But for ‘postmodern’ thinkers — of whom I’m one — commercialization is a valuable part of the public sphere: ‘dumbing down’ is another term for ‘making accessible’: and the most trashy culture provides some of the most interesting thinking about the workings of the public sphere. The rise of reality television, for example, has been one of the most obvious changes in recent public culture. This genre, representing ‘the ultimate dumbing down’ of Western culture (Wright, 2003: 43), focuses not on intellectuals or artists or experts, but on ‘ordinary’ people — from a variety of social classes, races, genders and sexualities. Shows like The Real World, Big Brother and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy show no embarrassment about their interest in the very ordinary interactions of very ordinary people — the ‘spent, stilted dialogue of people without souls’ as one journalist described Big Brother’s content (Dowling, 2001: 23), presenting the ‘annoying’ (Johnson-Woods, 2003: 9) accents of working-class citizens as well as ‘educated’ people. One pleasure of these programs is watching people from different backgrounds put together, seeing how they relate and learn to live together. While one strand of reality television is focused on competition and destructive relationships — Survivor, The Bachelor, the US version of Big Brother — another strand shows people learning to understand and support each other and to get on together — as in Queer Eye, The Real World, and the British and Australian versions of Big Brother. I would argue that these programs are an important part of the public sphere, raising the question of how people from different social groups should judge each other’s cultures; and the question of whether it’s possible to find ways to communicate across cultural difference. As the grooming expert Kyan puts it in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: ‘This is what it’s all about guys — everyone getting along: Black, white, gay, straight . . .’ (‘Queer’, 2003). This trashy part of public culture argues for accepting and working with cultural difference. From a postmodern perspective, we can argue that commercialized culture


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is vulgar, trashy and sensational because it’s selling to an audience whose culture is traditionally vulgar, trashy and sensational: that is, working-class audiences. Writers from working-class backgrounds have pointed out that most traditional ‘modern’ thinking about the public sphere has been produced by writers from privileged and formally educated backgrounds; and that this has had an impact on what they think constitutes valuable forms of culture.1 Trashy culture need not be seen as less worthwhile than quality culture; it may simply be the culture of a different demographic group.

A history of sensational culture Modern and postmodern thinkers would agree that, historically, the culture of popular audiences was sensational long before the advent of mass commercialization. The first newspapers in the form that we now recognize them didn’t emerge in Western countries until the eighteenth century, but their ancestors appeared earlier. The seventeenth century saw the appearance and growing popularity in England of ‘chapbooks’ or ‘newsbooks’ (Harris, 1996: 8) — ‘cheap ephemeral booklets’ containing ‘news’, stories and information. These ‘proto-newspapers’ could address serious politics — relating, for example, to the English Revolution — but did so in entertaining and sensational ways (Hartley, 1996: 9). Released as one-offs — not regular publications — they were hugely popular, even with populations who were not highly literate. During the 1660s ‘as many as four hundred thousand . . . were sold in a year’ (Neuberg, 2001: 12).2 These chapbooks contained the romances of knights and maidens . . . tales of giants, monsters and fairies, many of them the residue of an oral peasant culture . . . songs, riddles, jokes, anecdotes of pirates and highwaymen; there was fortune telling, divination, primitive weather forecasting. There were cookbooks and household manuals . . . Many were illustrated with crude though lively woodcuts. (Neuberg, 2001: 13–14)



Tales of vicious and thrilling crimes; stories about the aristocracy; entertainment, lifestyle material and astrology — these chapbooks contained many of the elements we now recognize as part of our ‘commercialized’ public sphere. They also included ‘miracle cures and thunderstorms’ (Habermas, 1989: 21), ‘gory descriptions of war and religious persecutions, reports of sex crimes, horror stories about sea monsters and at least one report of a cow giving birth to human twins’ (Lumby, 2002: 321). Their tone was ‘sensationalising and moralising’ (Stephens, 1985), while at the same time verging on the ‘scatological’ (Harris, 1996: 8) — and all of this highly illustrated throughout. This sensationalist form of news culture continued into the eighteenth century, when the most popular forms of written material were characterized by ‘sensationalism . . . escapism [and an] interest in magic and prophecy’ (Harris, 1996: 107). Mass commercialized culture then went on to develop the kind of downmarket, trashy culture that was already, at that time, successful with popular audiences. In a 1736 weekly news journal the noteworthy stories from around the country included ‘That the young Woman in Prison for the Murder of her Child dash’d her Head against a large Nail she found in the Dungean, which peirc’d her Brain and kill’d her’ and ‘the fine Appearance of Nobility, Quality and Gentry’ (quoted in Hartley, 1992: 158), as well as ‘a royal birth; an overseas ministerial death . . . a summary of the stock market; and juicy titbits from the courts, already a news staple’ (158). In late eighteenthcentury France, the news journals and gazettes ‘were interested in little more than balloon flights, the miraculous cures of Dr Mesmer and American rebels’ (Darnton, 1997: 240). In 1834, the publisher of the popular British Twopenny Dispatch claimed of his paper that ‘It shall abound in Police Intelligence, in Murders, Rapes, Suicides, Burnings, Maimings, Theatricals, Races, Pugilism and all manner of moving accidents by floor and field’ (quoted in Lumby, 1999: 37); while at the same time in America the New York Sun offered ‘political scandals, sensational disasters, titillating stories, even outrageous hoaxes’ (Cullen, 2001: 79). The end of the nineteenth century saw a public sphere in English-speaking countries in which sensational stories of love and crime made the front pages of the best-selling


The Public Sphere

newspapers: the New York World in 1884 included such memorable headlines as ‘A child flayed alive’; ‘A quintuple tragedy — an entire family annihilated by its murderous head’; ‘An assassination foretold’; and ‘Strangled by robbers: a wealthy stockraiser murdered for his money’ (Shattuc, 1997: 18). The first decade of the twentieth century saw the emergence of ‘yellow journalism’ in America — particularly sensational popular newspapers producing ‘the most sensational and emotionally manipulative accounts of crime and scandal in the early twentieth century’ (23), with: ‘provocative headlines about murder, sex, crime and disasters’ (‘A Septuagenarian’s Body Stolen’; ‘Nursing a cold corpse’) (16). Historians of culture agree that trashy sensationalism has been a feature of Western public culture for as long as we can trace its history (seventeenth-century newsbooks took over from preprint news ‘ballads’ which contained similar material — Neuberg, 2001: 12). And we can also agree that the complaints that formally educated members of society have made about the vulgarity and sensationalism of popular public culture have remained consistent over the centuries as well. In 1758, Samuel Johnson was railing against this tendency in the press: It must surely sometimes raise indignation to observe with what serenity of confidence they relate on one day, what they know not to be true, because they hope that it will please . . . how eagerly they accumulate praises upon a name which caprice or accident has made favourite [i.e., a celebrity]. (quoted in Hartley, 1992: 160–161) In the 1840s, preachers organized boycotts against the New York Herald for its use of vulgarity (Shattuc, 1997: 208 n3). In 1892, George Gissing wrote that it was impossible to take up a newspaper without seeing the ‘“extending and deepening Vulgarity” of the great mass of people . . . [and society] being “Levelled down”’ (quoted in Carey, 1992: 94). In 1931, Walter Lippman complained that popular journalism ‘merely amused or excited’ its readers rather than keeping them ‘genuinely informed’ (quoted in Lumby, 1999: 33). We can agree on these facts: but our attitudes towards them, and



their relevance to current debates about the public sphere, might differ.

Sensational culture as popular culture Until the start of the eighteenth century, there was no ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture’ in Western countries: all groups shared the same culture, including the sensational chapbooks mentioned above. ‘In 1500 [the elite classes] despised the common people but shared their culture. By 1800, their descendants had ceased to participate spontaneously in popular culture’ (Storey, 2003: 4; see also Levine, 2001). During the eighteenth century formally educated and popular audiences separated out into distinct cultures in English-speaking countries (although the situation in France was rather different — see Hartley, 1996). Newspapers were an important part of this process of constructing different taste cultures (Sparks, 1991: 63). The earliest official, licensed news periodicals in the seventeenth century had tiny and highly educated audiences of only a few thousand people (Harris, 1996: 7, 10). Throughout the eighteenth century, the number of newspapers sold per day steadily increased (over 25,000 per day in 1760; over 34,000 per day in 1775; and over 43,000 in 1801). The numbers remain quite small (in the modern UK, something in the region of 14,000,000 papers are sold each day — McNair, 2000: 18). This is not just because of literacy rates: for popular audiences were reading — just not these licensed papers. Partly this is because these papers ‘sought to identify themselves with elite culture . . . [and] shared a hostility towards the mob’ (Harris, 1996: 107). Popular audiences didn’t read these quality newspapers (Harris, 1996: 15). Rather, they continued to consume sensationalist material: the demand for printed material other than newspapers among the lower ranks — for example, almanacs and chapbooks — was generally buoyant throughout the [eighteenth] century . . . [and there was] a massive popular printing industry in the later seventeenth century . . . Charles Tias a contemporary London Bridge wholesaler, had


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a stock at his death (in 1664) which included 90,000 chapbooks . . . [and] over 37,000 ballad sheets. (Harris, 1996: 13) Popular audiences also read illegal or ‘pauper’ newspapers (Hartley, 1992: 171) — ‘unstamped’ papers which were not authorized by the government (that is, they didn’t pay the contemporary newspaper tax that kept the prices of newspapers high): One contemporary estimate put the weekly circulation of unstamped papers, which sold at one quarter d [of a penny], at 50,000 . . . The content of the cheap and unstamped papers perhaps provides another clue as to why the legitimate papers never achieved a mass circulation. These papers included material that was aimed at a popular audience — for example, trials of notorious criminals and accounts of murders. (Harris, 1996: 16) The start of the nineteenth century saw popular newspapers reaching increasingly large audiences of ever more literate workingclass readers (Neuberg, 2001: 21). The ‘political scandals, sensational disasters, titillating stories’ in these papers (Cullen, 2001: 79): ‘defined “the news of the day” in ways working people found arresting’ (79) and used ‘sensational reporting’ as a way to bring radical politics to large popular audiences (Michael Vester, quoted in Negt and Kluge, 1993: 190; see also Shattuc, 1997: 16). The New York Sun, debuting in 1833, sold ‘15,000 copies a day within two years’. As well as the usual sensationalist material that sold to popular audiences (including crime and sports), ‘for the first time the press began to focus on the daily lives of ordinary people — a subject which had not previously been considered worthy of detailed comment’ (Lumby, 1999: 36; see also Hartley, 1992b: 54). We find that the division between formally educated audiences who want to consume quality culture and popular audiences who like sensationalist material continues in a remarkably unchanged form today. In Britain, for example, whose newspapers are divided between sensationalist, easy-to-read ‘tabloid’ newspapers and upmarket, quality ‘broadsheet’ papers, readership demographics show that the tabloids are ‘read mainly by C2s and below (unskilled working and underclass)’ (McNair, 2000: 18), while



broadsheet papers are read mainly by highly formally educated and affluent readerships. The disparity is striking when the figures are broken down for the Sun (a tabloid) and The Times (a broadsheet): Demographic A (highest income and level of formal education) B C1 C2 D E (lowest income and level of formal education)

Percentage of the Sun readership

Percentage of The Times readership



6% 18% 35% 26% 15%

41% 26% 9% 5% 3%

(Source: Sparks, 1991: 62, percentages rounded up)

Similarly, in television, the most trashy and sensational forms of broadcasting are liked by popular audiences; while serious, quality broadcasting is generally liked by formally educated audiences. Programs such as the UK’s The World at One and Channel 4 News attract audiences that: ‘tend to be the As and Bs of marketing speak — the most affluent, most [formally] educated . . .’ (McNair, 2000: 23); and in Australia, serious political programs ‘attract elite or AB viewers, which would explain the four wheel drive advertisements’ (McIlveen, 2003: 5). In America, serious, quality news programs like the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour and Washington Week in Review ‘have audiences disproportionately composed of white, college-educated, high-income families’ (Hoynes, 1994: 18). In fact, public television in the US generally serves an audience with ‘a tendency to overrepresent those in upscale demographic groups’ (Hoynes, 1994: 19). This isn’t surprising given that public service television offers ‘twice as many programming hours focused on the “business and social elite” than on all other social strata combined and that “programming about workers represents less than one half of 1% of the total PBS programming hours”’ (Hoynes, 1994: 61, quoting CUNY). British television stations in 2003 reported that they were aiming to provide more quality programming as ‘part of the strategy to get . . . people in the upper socio-economic brackets


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to tune in’ (Bromby, 2003: 14). This is also true of the serious news and current affairs on Australian PBS stations (Lumby, 1999: 245). By contrast, when it comes to the trashiest and most sensational of broadcast programs — the talk shows hosted by Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer, and the like — ‘the lower one’s social class . . . the more likely one is to watch’ (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 45). Indeed, reality television like Big Brother seems ‘designed to offend those who see themselves as possessing “highbrow” or elite tastes’ (Creed, 2003: 30).

Cultural studies and working-class culture Engels argued that the working classes in Western countries had a distinct culture: the working class has gradually become a race apart from the English bourgeoisie . . . The workers speak other dialects, have other thoughts and ideals, other customs and moral principles, a different religion and other politics than those of the bourgeoisie. (Frederick Engels, quoted in Hartley, 1996: 99) Modern and postmodern thinkers can agree that, factually, what now constitutes ‘commercialized’ culture — trashy, sensationalist, downmarket — has traditionally been the culture of popular audiences. But whether recognizing such forms of culture within the official public sphere represents a win for equality in our societies, or a strike against it, is an attitudinal question that cannot be proven either way. Working-class audiences fought during the nineteenth century for the right to vote, to participate in official public culture (during the eighteenth-century period that Habermas describes as the ‘golden age’ of the public sphere, working-class citizens didn’t have the right to vote or participate in parliamentary politics). Sensationalist, commercialized culture was an important part of the working-class struggle for the right to vote. Radical newspapers such as William Cobbett’s Political Register (1802–1835) and the Poor Man’s Guardian (launched in 1830) formed a ‘plebeian’ (working-class) public sphere alongside the educated ‘bourgeois’



public sphere of the time. They took a trashy, downmarket tone to reach and politicize a working-class audience and lobby for enfranchisement (Hartley, 1992: 172, 174). Winning the right to vote was not the same thing as winning the right to have the culture of popular audiences recognized as worthwhile in the official public sphere. As with the feminist writers in the previous chapter, some thinkers from working-class backgrounds began another struggle, during the twentieth century, to have working-class culture included in official public culture. This struggle took place not within a new social movement, but within the university system; with a movement called ‘cultural studies’. These writers argued that being born into a particular social class is linked to being offered particular attitudes towards knowledge, and particular kinds of knowledge: with implications for how a public sphere should function in order to include all citizens equally. Nicholas Garnham argues that the ‘class origins of ideological workers [such as academics] remain an important but neglected aspect of media analysis’ (Garnham, 1990: 33). Traditionally, humanities academics have come from privileged backgrounds, with formally educated views on culture (Turner, 2003: 35). This is still disproportionately the case. But increasing numbers now come from working-class backgrounds. After the Second World War, in the UK, education was systematically expanded and ‘adult education’ was promoted as ‘a means of postwar reconstruction’ (35). For the first time, ‘scholarship boys and girls’ from working-class backgrounds were admitted to universities ‘on merit, regardless of income or background’ (35). When academics from working-class backgrounds — such as Richard Hoggart, E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams — began to gain prominence in universities in the 1950s, they produced a different approach to the study of culture: ‘cultural studies’. This approach to the study of culture suggested that the downmarket, trashy, sensationalist culture of popular audiences, although different from the quality culture favoured by formally educated audiences, is still worth studying. Hoggart, for example: did the working classes the honour of treating them in exactly the same way that critics have traditionally treated the aristocratic and


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leisured classes . . . His critical but mild-mannered conclusions were not directed against popular culture, but towards engaging with it in a practical way; towards understanding it from within, in common with the population whose culture it was . . . He addressed the common reader as . . . ‘we’ . . . (Hartley, 1999: 15, 27, 28) Similarly, Raymond Williams’ ‘view of film, radio, TV, popular fiction, popular music, and so on, is far removed from the Frankfurt School’s [a group of German cultural analysts, with which Habermas is associated] critique of mass culture and popular taste via the notion of commodity fetishism’ (Eley, 1992: 295). Rather, Williams’ analysis of mass culture is based on the assumption that ‘there are no essentially “ordinary” activities if by “ordinary” we mean the absence of creative interpretation and effort’ (quoted in Hartley, 1999: 113). Writers in the humanities who come from working-class backgrounds have continued this tradition. John Hartley has written about his upbringing in a ‘charity family’, in a flat that: had no ceilings, no electricity . . . very large, gurgly water tanks, built to serve the whole house and . . . big beams traversing the middle of the main rooms, sticking up about a foot, presumably holding the rest of the building rigid, but just the right height to crack even habituated shins on a regular basis . . . Cooking was done on a primus and on an oil stove heater called an Aladdin, on which a kettle always simmered . . . (Hartley, 1999: 191) This background, he argues, gave him a perspective where the world of mass culture was something ‘to which we aspired’ rather than something to be viewed ‘with lofty metropolitan disdain or artful critical contempt’ (Hartley, 1999: 199). It’s still the case that: ‘[e]ven now, many of those working in cultural studies tend to foreground their origins as being in some respects from outside the mainstream’ (Turner, 2003: 36). Writers from working-class backgrounds have argued that their experiences, their background, give them a particular standpoint, a perspective on culture. This is a ‘postmodern’ position. It refuses a universal truth about the value of different



kinds of culture, but rather suggests that one’s experiences will play at least some part in how one makes sense of the public sphere: as in the work of the writer Hans Georg Gadamer, who ‘disputes the possibility of being able to develop an ideal speech community in which people become free of their historical experiences, roles and cultural contexts’ (Wuthnow, Hunter, Bergesen and Kurtzweil, 1984: 19).

Arguments that all commercial culture is less worthwhile I explore the relationship between experience, background and perspective further below. Firstly, it’s important to understand the arguments that writers employing a ‘modern’ paradigm make against the validity of downmarket, commercialized culture as part of the public sphere. Again, bear in mind that most of these academic writers are committed to an Enlightenment project of extending equality, freedom, justice and comfort across society, and their critiques of popular culture are based on their desire to improve the public sphere to the benefit of everyone. From this perspective, some writers argue that all commercial culture, whether quality or trash, is bad because it’s produced under capitalism, and thus supports capitalism: which is an undesirable form of social organization that inevitably leads to inequality. The term ‘capitalism’ is used to describe forms of social organization where the ultimate level of decision-making in society rests with the individual, who chooses what is best for herself or himself. In everyday language this is ‘right-wing’ politics. By contrast, many academic critics of the current public sphere are more attracted to ‘socialist’ politics, where the ultimate level of decision-making is the state, informed by experts, which works out what is best for the community as a whole rather than for any single individual. This is called ‘left-wing’ politics.3 For these critics, only state-funded culture can be truly ‘public’ (see Hoynes, 1994: 172). All culture that’s produced commercially — whether it’s serious newspapers, paperback versions of Karl Marx’s books, or reality television — promotes individualism by asking people to think only about themselves as they choose what to buy. Only culture that is made for non-commercial reasons, and which people do not individually choose to buy, allows people to be truly


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‘public’, to think about the good of society rather than the good of the self. You can either be a ‘consumer’ (of capitalist culture) or a ‘citizen’ (of the state) (see Dahlgren, 1995: 148; Keane, 1991: 153; Garnham, 1990: 110; Murdock, 1999: 10, 19; Roche, 1995: 55). You can’t be both.4 This argument is perfectly reasonable. I don’t agree with it (which isn’t to say that it’s wrong) simply because it relies on the assumption that economics determine culture — that the circulation of all culture produced under capitalism will be, in some sense, capitalist. Personally, I don’t agree with this axiom, although this is a question of attitude. I tend to agree with Habermas’s ‘radical liberal’ (Matuˇst´ık, 2001: 99) position: that it was capitalism itself that made the emergence of the public sphere possible. Habermas argues that early ‘mercantile’ capitalism was ‘good’ capitalism. It allowed citizens to imagine themselves as having the right to think about things and make choices for themselves rather than simply assenting to the divine will of the sovereign. It was the ‘commodification’ of information — turning it into an object that anybody with money could buy, rather than something owned by the church or the state which could only be accessed by authorized people — that made the modern public sphere possible (Habermas, 1989: 36; see also Garnham, 1990: 106–107; Eley, 1992: 291; Baker, 1992: 184–185). But for those writers who see capitalism as necessarily individualistic, this is not the case. Other writers argue that all commercial culture is bad because it is biased by the views of whoever owns it — as with newspaper magnates (see Garnham, 1990: 110, 122; Murdock, 1992: 23; Curran, 1991: 46; Keane, 1991: 69). It’s usually assumed that the positions presented in the media will therefore always be right-wing, since the owners are rich, and rich people will, by definition, want to support capitalism. Again, this argument is perfectly sensible. I disagree with it for two attitudinal reasons. The first relates to the extent to which one believes that the degree that media owners interfere in publications is large and important. Even if we had evidence of how much interference actually takes place (and this isn’t commonly researched), your response to this depends on whether you feel that ‘any interference is too much’, or not. The second reason is the question of whether bias towards an owner’s views is a bad



thing. Many writers say yes; but others don’t mind bias in the media. Habermas, interestingly, is in this latter group (unusual, given his ‘modern’ leanings). In fact, what upsets him about contemporary media is that the owners don’t impose their personal politics on the media enough. Habermas’s argument runs as follows: the point of the public sphere is for competing voices to come together presenting different positions, expressing their own private thoughts: the voices heard in the public sphere must be those of individual ‘private people’ (Habermas, 1989: 30) — not organizations or large bodies. By discussing their personal positions in the public sphere, these individuals reach a consensus about what is the best course of action. So the more private — that is, personal, biased — voices that can be heard in the public sphere, the better. When owners use newspapers to express their personal viewpoints, then they have real ‘conviction’ (Habermas, 1989: 183). Habermas thinks that when the media fail to present the viewpoints of their owners there is a less vibrant public sphere: the media tend to become more homogenous, ending up at a middle ground that audiences are generally happy with, and fewer points of view are given public coverage. Still other ‘modern’ writers argue that all commercial culture is bad because it doesn’t allow for ‘diversity’ (Murdock, 1990: 81, 93; Keane, 1991: 154; Curran, 1991: 30): that is, access for all viewpoints in a society to be heard. Again, although we can map factually how many viewpoints are presented in our current public sphere — and we can compare this with the number of viewpoints allowed in the public spheres of other forms of social organization — whether or not you think that our current public spheres have enough diversity depends on your attitudes — whether what we currently have is ‘genuine’ or ‘real’ diversity (Garnham, 1990: 124). For many writers, the apparent diversity of current public spheres isn’t real: they argue that it’s only if Marxist positions are presented in the mainstream that it’s genuinely diverse (Keane, 1991: 87). Another attitudinal difference is whether diversity in public culture is actually a good thing. Once again, Habermas argues strongly against this — his ideal public sphere is homogenous. I won’t go into this here, but it’s a major topic in Chapter 4. In making all of these points, the ‘modern’ writers who condemn capitalism are working from a position of genuine concern that our


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current public sphere is promoting inequitable relations between people: because capitalism itself always promotes individualism and thus inequity. They condemn commercial culture from a deep desire to increase the equality of our societies by introducing some form of socialist politics.

Arguments that working-class commercial culture is less worthwhile However, despite the fact that many writers use the binary of consumer-versus-citizen, it’s actually relatively rare for people to follow this position through to its conclusion of condemning all commercially produced culture (Garnham is an honourable exception here — 1990: 132–133). It’s more common for academics writing about the commercialization of the public sphere to divide commercial culture into two kinds. In his analysis of the public sphere, Habermas divides society into two broad groups: the ‘masses’ and ‘educated’ audiences (Habermas, 1989: 166–167). This binary schema is followed by other writers on the topic (see, for example, Gitlin, 1991: 131). Habermas then divides the cultural output of capitalist systems — ‘commodified’ culture — into two types. There’s ‘commercial’ culture — the term he uses to describe the ‘quality’ culture of formally educated audiences, of which he approves. But there’s also ‘commercialized’ culture, the word he uses for the ‘trashy’, sensationalist culture of the working-class ‘masses’ — which he sees as worthless (Habermas, 1989: 183; Habermas, 1997: 107). He judges the health of a nation’s public sphere by the relative amounts of each of these that are present at any given time. ‘Commercial’ culture uses the commodity form as a way to distribute high culture to formally educated audiences, caring not about how many people it reaches (and thus about the profit that gets made) but only about the quality of the art being produced. In this form of commercial culture, ‘the function of the market was confined to the distribution of cultural goods’ (Habermas, 1989: 165, emphasis added) — not to the production of them. So there was no thought about the audience for culture — the texts were still produced as ‘works of



literature and art’ and the ‘quality’ of them was not compromised by trying to reach large, uneducated audiences (Habermas, 1989: 165). Habermas argues that such good ‘commercial’ culture still exists in Western societies, as in the case of new editions of classic literature: Through paperback series printed in large editions, a relatively small stratum of readers educated or ready to be educated . . . have high quality literature made available to them . . . [and] in this case the market preserves the emancipatory function . . . (Habermas, 1989: 166–167) So long as capitalism is only used to distribute high culture to formally educated people, with no aim to make a profit, it’s not a problem for Habermas (Habermas, 1989: 184). It’s only when cultural producers start trying to reach large informally educated popular audiences — producing trash — that they become ‘commercialized’ and unworthy. There are two reasons for this judgement. Partly this is because what is produced is no longer authentic culture. In quality culture, artists produce genuine statements of what they really believe, and thus allow us to have contact with another individual’s psyche. They don’t think about the audience at any stage. But creating culture for a mass audience, the producer works with ideas of what the audience thinks — and so what is produced is always a compromise, not showing us the truth of the producer’s own mind. Whether or not one agrees with this vision of the self is an attitudinal question (see Chapter 1 on the Oprah versus the Law and Order models of the self). More importantly though, for Habermas, commercial culture also tends to serve the tastes of popular audiences, which are degraded. Bear in mind that he makes this claim not because he dislikes working-class citizens, or thinks they are less worthy as people: indeed, his position is the opposite. Because he believes that the quality culture of formally educated audiences is better than sensationalist popular culture, he thinks that working-class audiences have just as much right to access that high culture as formally educated people do. He is arguing for what he sees as greater equality when he claims that:


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Mass culture . . . achiev[es] increased sales by adapting to the need for relaxation and entertainment on the part of consumer strata with relatively little education, rather than through guidance of an enlarged public towards the appreciation of a culture undamaged in its substance. (Habermas, 1989: 165) Whereas ‘commercial’ (that is, his word for ‘quality’) culture serves the tastes of a formally educated audience — it’s serious, engaged, difficult and challenging — ‘commercialized’ culture addresses a popular audience — it’s designed to offer pleasure to its consumers. Popular culture, Habermas argues, is ‘degenerate’ (Habermas, 1989: 246) because it: lower[s] ‘entrance requirements’ . . . in such a way that the literature itself has to be tailored to the convenience and ease of reception with fewer requisites and weaker consequences . . . [this results in] a destruction of the public sphere. (Habermas, 1989: 167) At one time, Habermas argues: ‘The [working-class] “people” were brought up to the level of [high] culture: culture was not lowered to that of the masses’ (Habermas, 1989: 166); whereas now ‘commercial’ ‘culture [is] emptied of elements whose appreciation required a certain amount of [high-culture] training’ (166). Entertainment is bad for two reasons, from this modern perspective. Firstly, it’s trivial and unimportant (see Chapter 1) and distracts working-class consumers from what’s really important — that is, serious party politics: the tabloid’s fascination with the world of entertainment and with the actions of the jesters to the court of capitalism . . . add[s] to their crimes by distracting potentially revolutionary groups. (Connell, 1991: 250) But more than this, entertainment destroys the public sphere because it encourages intellectual laziness:



enjoyment is . . . entirely inconsequential. Serious involvement in culture produces facility, while the consumption of mass culture leaves no lasting trace; it affords a kind of experience which is . . . regressive . . . (Habermas, 1989: 166) Habermas isn’t alone in this feeling. We often encounter this binary approach in thinking about public culture. On the one hand is ‘quality’ culture,5 aimed at the formally educated groups in society. This is ‘worthier’ (Woods, 1995: 41, 42, 43), with an ‘educated tone’ (Gitlin, 1991: 131). It deals with ‘traditional politics’ (Woods, 1995: 41) and is ‘deliberately educative’ (Groombridge, 1972: 146), ‘cultivating political discernment’ (Gitlin, 1991: 131) with ‘social goals’ (Groombridge, 1972: 137). It’s difficult to understand, and demands ‘serious involvement’ (Habermas, 1989: 166), requiring the ‘public use of reason’ (Habermas, 1989: 170). It’s formally ‘innovative’ (Murdock, 1990: 83) and ‘experimental’ (Hoynes, 1994: 179), ‘deconstructing established forms of presentation’ (Murdock, 1990: 84). On the other hand, there’s ‘commercialized’ media aimed at popular audiences. This is ‘second-rate’ and ‘cut-price’ (Keane, 1991: 81), ‘low-minded’ and ‘sensational’, ‘lurid’ and ‘apolitical’ (Gitlin, 1991: 131; see also Madden, 1972: 5), or ‘depoliticized’ (Hansen, 1993: xxv). It’s ‘cynical’ and made purely for profit (Woods, 1995: 42). It’s ‘entertainment’; easy to watch, aiming to keep ‘gullible’ (Woods, 1995: 43) ‘viewers . . . switched on’ (Groombridge, 1972: 137) by offering them ‘satisfaction’ (137) and ‘pleasure’ (Keane, 1991: 155) and keeping them ‘amused’ (Postman, 1985); ‘serving the ‘cheapest emotional responses’ ‘at the lowest level’ (F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, 1933, quoted in Hartley, 1999: 67), which ‘appeals to impulses and weaknesses in human nature’ (Madden, 1972: 5). The culture it produces is ‘bland’ (Curran, 1991: 47), ‘the kind of programming that has already proved popular’ (Murdock, 1990: 82). For many formally educated writers, culture that’s easily accessible is, by definition, worthless, because it doesn’t require audiences to make an effort to understand it (see Bryan Turner, quoted in Storey, 2003: 69). This position makes sense from within a ‘modern’


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paradigm, and I’ve spent some time explaining this position at length because this is one of the issues about the public sphere that ‘modern’ writers have spent most time engaging with.

Is downmarket culture working-class culture? Writers within ‘modern’ paradigms favour ‘universal’ judgements about the worth of culture; while ‘postmodern’ writers favour cultural relativism, suggesting that each culture should be judged on its own terms. Generally, the culture that ‘modern’ writers tend to favour as being the best — universally — is the quality culture of formally educated audiences, rather than the popular culture of working-class audiences — although some ‘modern’ writers would disagree even with this statement. They argue that popular culture isn’t really working-class culture. It doesn’t really express what working-class people like or are interested in. It’s a false culture imposed on them by the cultural industries. Until recently — maybe fifty years ago — it was acceptable for academics and intellectuals to be quite upfront in stating that working-class culture was worthless because the working classes — the peasants, the uneducated masses — were stupid. In 1948, for example, T. S. Eliot wrote that: To aim to make . . . the ‘uneducated’ mass of the population . . . share in the appreciation of the fruits of the most conscious part of culture is to adulterate and cheapen what you give. For it is an essential condition of the preservation of the quality of the culture of the minority that it should continue to be a minority culture. (quoted in Storey, 2003: 26) You can’t say that kind of thing anymore. The ‘modern’ writers who have the attitude that popular culture isn’t genuine workingclass culture don’t take this perspective: their opinions rather emerge from their commitment to equality in culture. When Habermas says that for the mass of working-class audiences, their ‘state of mind is symptomatically revealed, according to survey researchers, in terms of an average vocabulary of five hundred words’ (Habermas, 1989: 217), he does not mean that these people



should not be an equal part of society — although he does think they should become more formally educated in order to achieve their full potential: Public opinion originated from those who were informed and spread ‘chiefly among those classes, that, if they are active in large number, are the ones that matter’. Of course, the ‘lowest classes of people’ . . . did not belong to them, because under the pressure of need and drudgery, they had neither the leisure nor the opportunity to ‘be concerned with things that do not have an immediate bearing on their physical needs’. (Habermas, 1989: 102, quoting Wieland) For these ‘modern’ writers, working-class audiences should be treated equally in the sense that they should have equal access to the culture of formally educated audiences. They would genuinely prefer this culture. The only reason that popular audiences currently consume downmarket, trashy culture — from this ‘modern’ perspective — is because that is what is forced on them by producers in the culture industries. As Habermas argues, the working classes have an ‘inarticulate readiness to assent’ (Habermas, 1989: 201) to whatever they are told. They do not have ideas of their own, so: the stream of political opinion flows in a vertical direction, from the higher status groups down to the ones just below — the ‘opinion leaders in public affairs’ are usually wealthier, better educated and have a better social position than the groups influenced by them. (213) In this model, working-class people are ‘influenced’ by formally educated people — but not the other way around. They’re easily ‘manipulat[ed]’ into thinking what educated people want them to think (178, 190). They’re ‘infected’ with ideas (suggesting that the ideas physically enter their bodies without any thinking involved — 211). The working classes are ‘intellectually lazy’; they accept whatever they are told so they can ‘avoi[d] the labor of thinking for themselves’ (F. von Holtzendorff, cited with approval in Habermas, 1989: 240). Ideas are forced into their minds by formally educated people ‘by some . . . pressure of the mind . . .[they] penetrate men’s very souls’ (De Tocqueville, cited with approval, 134). Because of all


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this, the masses suffer from ‘false consciousness’ (215). This term suggests that a person has been brainwashed, deluded into thinking about the world in a way which is contrary to their best interests (if you haven’t encountered the concept before, the most common example in everyday culture is the belief of Christians that everybody really wants to know God — but Satan tricks us into thinking that we’re happy when really we are not. The Christian knows better than we do what we really think, deep down). ‘Postmodern’ writers wouldn’t agree with this formulation: embracing pluralism, they would argue, with Hoggart, Williams and other cultural studies writers, that the culture of popular audiences is as valid as that of formally educated audiences, so we don’t need to come up with any explanation of ‘false consciousness’. The key attitudinal difference here is about the reality of comfort: what are real needs in a culture, and what are merely artificial wants created by the culture industries?6 ‘Modern’ and ‘postmodern’ writers are both committed to the Enlightenment ideal of material comfort for all citizens: but they draw the line differently on what should be included in that category. For ‘postmodern’ writers, it’s possible to imagine that there’s a real need for popular culture that fits into the long-standing tradition of vulgar, sensational downmarket representation. But for ‘modern’ writers, assuming that the masses are passive, it’s possible to argue that the reason the public sphere is currently full of sensational, trashy material is because that is what producers provide. If, for example, producers were to put more quality material on television, of the kind aimed at formally educated audiences, then working-class audiences would watch that instead, for they will watch what they’re given: ratings do not suggest . . . what kind of programming [such as ‘conferences’ and ‘lectures’, Hoynes suggests] the public would prefer if given the opportunity to participate more fully in a decision making process. (Hoynes, 1994: 36, 27) Are the masses intellectually passive? Are they unable to make ‘real’ choices for themselves? Is trashy culture, after all, not workingclass culture, but capitalist culture imposed on the working classes? These are attitudinal questions, and your response depends on



which paradigm you find more convincing — ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’. For myself, I believe in the ‘reality’ of working-class intellectual activity, and choices made by popular audiences. It’s suggestive to me that empirical research into popular audiences suggests they don’t passively accept what they’re given. They interpret it in their own ways and make unexpected uses of it (see, for example, Ang, 1985; Jenkins, 1992; Murdock, 1990: 77; Thompson, 1990: 116; Curran, 1991: 42; Golding, 1995: 29; Lumby, 1999: 7; Bonner, 2003: 105) — but bear in mind that ‘modern’ paradigms favour ‘theory’ over empiricism (Passerin d’Enr`eves, 1996: 13). It seems they’re relentlessly critical of what they consume (McNair, 2000: 156; Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 71). They’re ‘fickle’: it’s difficult to keep their attention and persuade them to consume anything (McIntyre, 2003: 11; Hartley, 1992: 97). They will stop buying a newspaper if they don’t like its content (McNair, 2000: 18, 44, 151). The producers of popular culture put a lot of effort into researching, and even physically meeting and talking with their audience (Wells and Meek, 2003: 9). My own commitment to the development of equality in culture, because I believe that commercialized popular culture is in some sense really working-class culture, leads me to see the increasing visibility of this vulgar, sensationalized culture in the official public sphere as a hopeful sign of increasing popular access to that public sphere. But for ‘modern’ writers whose attitude is that commercialized culture isn’t really workingclass culture, their commitment to equality leads them to wish that popular audiences could be brought into the quality culture that formally educated people have realized is the best, have equal access to that, and through it, to the public sphere in its traditional ‘quality’ form.

Perspectives, experience, background, standpoint I argued above that I think that commercialized popular culture ‘is in some sense’ a real working-class culture. But in what sense? What’s the link between someone’s identity, the culture they belong to and the kinds of knowledge they possess? In Chapter 1, I followed the arguments of the 1970s feminists who argued that people learn about themselves and their own


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lives — their identities — from the public sphere. The writers in Ms who challenged stereotyped and negative images of women in the media did so because they believed that gender roles were offered in the public sphere, and that individuals who belonged to the social group ‘women’ learned from these how they were meant to behave. Whether they took these lessons to heart or whether they rejected them is a separate issue: but in the passion of the feminists’ writing on this topic I see just how much they thought these images could impact on an individual. In relation to classed culture, we can extend this argument and say that different public cultures are offered to popular audiences and to formally educated audiences; part of each of these cultures is an identity that includes particular kinds of knowledges, and particular attitudes towards different ways of learning. We can discuss the ‘background’, the ‘perspective’, the ‘standpoint’ – ‘experience’ — of individuals without making any claims about genetic programming or biological determinism.7 Traditionally, working-class people have grown up in cultures that value spontaneity, disrespect, vulgarity and interactivity; formally educated people have grown up in cultures that value restraint, rationality, silent appreciation and inaccessibility. But there’s nothing genetic in any member of either group that forces them to like one kind of culture or the other: When we speak of . . . a working-class idea, we do not mean that all working class people possess it, or even approve of it . . . We mean . . . the working class movement, rather than all working-class people as individuals. (Raymond Williams, quoted in Gorak, 1988: 56) This is a ‘postmodern’ proposition, supported by new social movements such as feminism: Many feminists have defended some version of a ‘standpoint’ theory of knowledge. This holds that knowledge is always produced from a specific social position exhibiting particular interests, values and beliefs . . . (Seidman, 1994: 10)



From a modern perspective, committed to a ‘transcendent’ (Ashenden and Owen, 1999: 13) idea of knowledge, the opposite is true: people should be able to overcome their backgrounds in order to read the single truth about any given situation, no matter where they come from: Reason in modern Western societies has been understood as a faculty exercised only by some, some of the time, when achieved by proper training, disciplining of the emotions and exposure to specific kinds of information. Ideally, an individual who is trained, disciplined and appropriately informed could practice reason in its pure form. This individual would then be in a position to access truth or to attain, at that point, ‘a God’s eye view’. According to this understanding of reason, that which distinguishes human beings from each other, the specificities of historical location that lead us to see the world differently, operate as an impediment toward attaining such a position. (Nicholson, 1999: 10; see also Iris Marion Young, in Outhwaite, 1994: 11) Factually, it’s a common belief that the ideas people hold are in some way related to their biography. Marxist thinkers were among the first to explain this belief — that: theories emerge in historical forms of life rather than through valuefree transcendental justifications . . . [in the] deeply motivating existential beginnings and defining historical situations, in which one’s thinking emerges and is continually formed. (Matuˇst´ık, 2001: 190). The materialism of Marxist thinkers led them to reject ‘traditional theory’ — that is, an ‘intellectual indifference to the social circumstances that form the basic situation of one’s thinking’ (Matuˇst´ık, 2001: 51). Our ‘experience’ (Matuˇst´ık, 2001: 209) informs our ideas:


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People’s experience does not unfold as a mere appropriation and accumulation of knowledge . . . a person is appropriated by objects in the same way in which he appropriates them. (Negt and Kluge, 1993: 27) One’s thinking is formed in part not only by rational arguments and information, but by ‘key formative events of [one’s] intellectual biography . . . [and] formative situations’ (Matuˇst´ık, 2001: xv), by ‘all sorts of contingent circumstances — who teaches us, how and where, what we read, when and with what resonances in our memories, senses of experience and identity’ (Beilharz, 1991: 9; see also Ingram, 2003; Bernstein, 1985: 1–2): as one commentator puts it in relation to Habermas: ‘One simply cannot understand [his] work as a whole without attending to this historical rootedness’ (White, 1995: 6). And so it’s possible to argue that working-class citizens have: shared histories of oppression and shared modes of life . . . what Dewey was to call experience. Theirs was the experience of exclusion by the higher orders, including intellectuals, from processes of public life. (Aronowitz, 1993: 89) Factually, both ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ writers would agree that people from different backgrounds are exposed to different kinds of information and different ways of dealing with information. For ‘postmodern’ writers, this is to be accepted and worked with. For writers committed to a traditionally ‘modern’ paradigm, by contrast, one set of knowledge and approaches to knowledge — that of formally educated culture — is the most valuable and, in the name of equality, all citizens should communicate using it. One element of a difference between formally educated cultures and popular cultures is the kinds of media that they favour. Statistically it’s still the case that formally educated cultures consume disproportionate numbers of books; while popular audiences favour television:



Dr Jocelyn Scutt [is] a prominent Australian feminist barrister and an opponent of degrading images of women in the media. Dr Scutt has spoken and written so frequently on the subject of sexism in the media she is often invoked as an expert on the media by the media. So it came as something of a shock to learn she didn’t own a television set. (Lumby, 1997: ix) Indeed, many members of the formally educated cultures try to raise their children without, or with very limited access to, the medium: ‘The daughter of a professor of philosophy and a schoolteacher [Sophie Lee] went without TV throughout her childhood’ (Hartley, 1996: 174). The academy is one of the few workplaces where this can be seen as normal behaviour: teaching in a ‘good’ (i.e., elite) small college, I found a cordial reception . . . A moment of crisis came when we received our first TV set from a well-meaning relative. This was quickly consigned upstairs, to a back bedroom. The Dean was known to be unalterably opposed to the boob tube; and, after all, with promotions coming up in spring . . . (Fishwick, 1972: 58) By contrast, popular audiences watch much more television than do formally educated audiences (Bennett, Emmison and Frow, 1999: 71), and have a more awkward relationship with books. One academic from a working-class background argues that: Literature had always been the domain of the upper and middle classes who wrote for their own kind. That is, who wrote about a minority experience. Little wonder then that the working class, by and large, ignored books which were foreign and irrelevant in their lives, and rarely wrote themselves. (Gray, 1973: 21) He argues that for people growing up in working-class cultures, there were forms of informal policing that ensured that they knew that books were not meant for them:


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If you think the same as the man next to you, you’re all right. But if you don’t, if you’re seen bringing in a book [into work], or anything like that, you’re not. It’s difficult to stand up to ridicule. (Richard Hoggart, quoted in Gray, 1973: 204) Those writers who have grown up consuming popular culture can have a different attitude towards it: I’ve been thinking about the place TV occupied in my own personal (social) formation . . . Television was one of the ways I explored my early sexuality. I certainly looked out for bodily shapes and movements in variety shows like Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and I can remember getting a dreadful crush on one of Fred McMurray’s ‘sons’ in My Three Sons. Then there was Cilla Black, Susan Maugham, Herman’s Hermits (Peter Noone?), Dusty Springfield — I fancied them all. (Hartley, 1992b: 141) An increasing number of writers find that they are also part of the masses. Jane Shattuc writes that talk shows still engage me emotionally, intellectually, and politically. I am part of a community of talk show watchers and I am often addressed as one: ‘Girl, you like Oprah!?! Oh, my!’ (Shattuc, 1997: 11) The masses: ‘may be just like’ us (Hartley, 1996: 239); they may even be us: Although my status as an academic defines me as a member of an elite group . . . I am at the same time a fully paid member of the mass audience . . . and I treat its patterns of media consumption with appropriate respect. (McNair, 2000: 3) This fact changes the ways in which it is possible to talk about mass culture. It



has altered the entire tone of the debate as a sense of liking for, and often deep involvement in the forms studied has replaced the aloof and distant approach ‘from above’. (Bennett, quoted in Turner, 2003: 36) We can trace links — never automatic, never determining, but real — between the experiences and social locations of writers, the kinds of knowledge they possess and the attitudes they hold. Formally educated audiences are more exposed to Classical culture, to ‘high culture’, to art; popular audiences have a better understanding of television, entertainment and vulgar modes of communication. As described by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, this means that certain kinds of culture are more accessible for people who have grown up in one or other of the cultures. Members of formally educated audiences often (although, and importantly, not always — see below) find themselves unable to access popular culture, as they are not familiar with its form and function; and members of popularly educated audiences often (although, and importantly, not always) find themselves less able to access ‘high culture’. Bourdieu mapped and described the existence of something he called ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu, 1984). This term describes the kinds of knowledge that you need in order to appreciate particular kinds of culture: in order to attend an art gallery, or a greyhound race, you need not only the money to attend, but also the knowledge of what to wear, how to behave, and what to say in order to fit in there. Bourdieu’s research suggested that such cultural capital is distributed differentially across different cultures. This means that using cultural capital from one culture in the public sphere can make it easier for one group to understand something; while at the same time making it harder for other groups to do so: [v]ocabulary [is] a class barrier, [that] cuts off the less educated from the political arena. For as long as writing has existed, the literate classes have attempted to preserve a closed shop through exclusionary languages . . . Since the Lollards [who argued for the Bible to be available in English] the working classes had seen through this game. (Rose, 2001: 223)


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Quality newspapers historically have ‘been written for a readership who . . . boasted at least some familiarity with classical literature and history’ (Harris, 1996: 16). This reliance on classical literature, for example, makes them less accessible to popular audiences. By contrast, when the revolutionary writer Thomas Paine wanted to reach popular audiences, he ‘purged his writing of the classics, used as reference primarily the Biblical tradition, and sought “language as plain as the alphabet”’ (Schudson, 1992: 151). A similar theoretical approach informed the political journalists of the French Revolution, who wanted to find ways to reach mass audiences. Journalist Jacques-R´en´e H`ebert, for example, wrote that: You must swear with those who swear . . . Anyone who appreciates frankness and probity . . . Will not blush at the fucks and buggers that I insert here and there with my joys and angers. (quoted in Hartley, 1996: 118) I’ve done little more in this section than to argue for the fact of cultural difference, which most writers in both ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ paradigms would agree with. But our attitudes towards this fact will differ. For some ‘modern’ writers, the fact that formally educated texts in the public sphere will be inaccessible to many (but not all, of course) citizens from working-class backgrounds is not an argument for allowing more popular forms of culture into the official public sphere. Rather, for these writers, their commitment to equality means that they believe that all citizens, no matter what their background, should have equal access to the best kinds of culture — those which have traditionally belonged to the formally educated. From a ‘postmodern’ perspective, embracing relativism, more commercialized trash in the public sphere is a good thing: for it makes ideas and debates accessible to those citizens who are trained in popular forms of culture.

Learning across cultures I would argue that cultures aren’t biologically determined. There is no mystery to understanding cultures other than your own; whether that is masculine culture or feminine culture, formally educated



or popular. It simply requires the skills that one would employ in learning about any other culture: research, open-mindedness, a willingness to learn. I quoted John Hartley in the Introduction: [We should not] belittl[e] . . . the practice of formal knowledge production . . . researchers need to admit not their identity but their art . . . they are skilled in the use of a particular technology [research] and need to take responsibility for it. (Hartley, 1996: 66) The writer Raymond Williams — one of the most prominent of the first generation of working-class ‘scholarship boys’ in the UK, and ‘one of the first writers to suggest that cultural criticism could be written from a working class perspective’ (Gorak, 1988: 122) — had a difficult time fitting into Cambridge University because of his background and the identity it had offered him: ‘it was not my Cambridge . . . I have . . . made some kind of settlement. But this has always, even in the longest period, felt temporary’ (Williams, quoted 2). Gorak argues that ‘his working-class status in an emphatically middle-class university marginalized him . . . [because of] his personal insecurities as a teacher from the wrong side of the class line’ (10, 11). But Williams himself argued that it was possible to learn about other cultures, and to understand their perspectives. In his book on Eric Blair (who published under the pen name of George Orwell) Williams argues that this is precisely what the writer did. Blair worked hard to understand a working-class culture in the UK. And through the ‘making of a new set of social relationships and the creation, in an important sense, of a new social identity’ (Williams, 1971: 8), ‘Orwell tried hard and seriously to reject the thinking of the social class in which he was educated. In a number of ways, and at great personal cost he succeeded’ (37). We can see an example of this learning process in discussions about the worth of working-class culture in public sphere debates. As I noted above, in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas argued that working-class audiences have an ‘inarticulate readiness to assent’ (Habermas, 1989: 201) to whatever they are told. He thought that working-class individuals were ‘intellectually lazy’ (Habermas, 1989: 240). Compare this description


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with that of working-class intellectual life from an academic who grew up in that culture: I was brought up in working class neighbourhoods of Philadelphia . . . [and] I have always been skeptical of the academy’s easy conflation of genteel cultural style and intellectual skills. Not all the sharp minds get to college and not all the theorists are in the academy . . . theory is not the elite activity that both its enemies and defenders claim it to be . . . When I encountered literary theory in the sixties it seemed to me I was finding in the academy the kind of skeptical intelligence I had learned in the kitchen. Instead of running problems through unquestioned machines of interpretation, someone was questioning the machines themselves, arguing that the premises you start with produce the results you get. Fucking A right. My friend from a similar neighbourhood who became a historian of religions told me that he worked on the premises that (1) everybody lies and (2) follow the money and he didn’t learn those lessons from poststructuralist theory. (McLaughlin, 1996: 29) Many years after writing The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas wrote that he had now changed his mind about the intellectual capabilities of working-class audiences: At the time I was too pessimistic about the resisting power and above all the critical potential of a pluralistic, internally much differentiated mass public. (Habermas, 1992: 438) At the time of writing the earlier book he had no personal experience of working-class culture or people: At the time I had to rely on the results of the research tradition established by Lazarfeld . . . [which is an] individualistic-behaviourist approach . . . (Habermas, 1992: 438, 439) He has now gained more knowledge of working-class culture and changed his opinion:



I must confess, however, that only after reading Mikhail Bakhtin’s great book Rabelais and His World have my eyes become really opened to the inner dynamics of a plebeian culture. This culture of the common people apparently was by no means only a backdrop, that is, a passive echo of the dominant culture . . . (Habermas, 1992: 427) Habermas’s background and experience meant that he had little knowledge (direct, or otherwise) of working-class culture. When Thomas McLaughlin or Raymond Williams write about popular audiences they’re writing about their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, friends and partners. Richard Hoggart ‘addressed the common reader as . . . “we”’ (Hartley, 1999: 15, 27, 28). John Hartley insists in his writing that popular audiences are not ‘an interchangeable, undifferentiated mass’; but are rather individuals, every one ‘all as weird . . . as the weirdos they and you are watching’ (Hartley, 1999: 202–203). These writers have gained this insight from their own backgrounds and experiences. Habermas has gained it from his book research. Both are reasonable ways to gather knowledge. All of the arguments made above will sound hollow to a writer working within a ‘modern’ paradigm. The arguments rely on the assumption that popular culture is as worthy as formally educated culture: an attitude about value that can be neither proved nor disproved through rational argument and the provision of proof. As I suggested above, from a universalist ‘modern’ perspective, a commitment to equality demands that all citizens be equally addressed in the best form of public culture — that is, the culture traditionally belonging to formally educated audiences. From my ‘postmodern’ perspective, commitment to equality demands that the public sphere be opened up to the forms of culture with which different members of the public are familiar. Writers on both sides are committed to the Enlightenment project of modernity: spreading equality, justice, freedom and comfort. For some, seeing more commercialized culture in the official public sphere represents a loss of those values; for others, it’s a gain.


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‘Trashy’ thinking If we accept a relativist ‘postmodern’ view that commercialized, sensationalized culture is as valuable as the quality culture of formally educated audiences, then we can approach trash television not symptomatically, in order to understand what it tells us about the failure of the public sphere, but exegetically, in order to see what worthwhile ideas it offers about the functioning of the public sphere. From this perspective, it’s trash television’s commitment to the tolerant and inclusive possibilities of a public sphere consisting of diverse cultures that strikes me as most heartening. In early seasons of The Real World, early Big Brother in the UK and continuing in the Australian Big Brother, and in other programs such as the UK’s The Salon and Wife Swap, we find commercialized elements of the public sphere publicizing a relativist approach to culture. They show people from different backgrounds tracing out the differences between their cultures, while refusing to claim only one as the best form of culture, and encourage participants to find ways to communicate and relate across cultures. We can see this, for example, in the first season of The Real World, which is explicitly cast to bring together housemates from different class, racial, gender and sexual groups. Kevin — who comes from an underprivileged Black household — finds it difficult to get along with middle-class white boy Eric. Kevin writes a letter to Eric: ‘I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, nor do I have a father who is a doctor.’ The two of them eventually sit down and discuss their different ways of expressing themselves: ‘trashy’ and emotive versus ‘educated’ and repressed. Kevin asks Eric: ‘How you gonna ever be happy? . . . How you gonna walk round your whole life with it [your feelings] just bottled up within you, man, you can’t even express yourself to people?’. Eric responds: ‘That’s the way I was brought up . . . I got a lot inside, man.’ Eric suggests that a middleclass upbringing has encouraged him to be decorous and polite; Kevin suggests that his working-class upbringing has pushed him towards more open and less restrained forms of communication (Fox and Richmond, 1992a). In another reality show, the British Edwardian House, we hear working-class voices arguing that the culture of formally educated



Britons is similarly too repressed; or even that it’s based on a fantasy of how the world works. In Edwardian House, a group of twentyfirst-century Britons agree to live for three months as though they were in the early years of the twentieth century — a few as the masters, the majority as the servants. As the experience progresses, the servants realize that there’s nothing in contemporary Britain to match the almost-slavery in which servants existed at that time; and the masters realize that their lives nowadays are not as good as they would have been a hundred years ago. We hear the family talking about the situation — but then the butler undercuts their privileged insights into how the household is going: ‘The family, they understood that we did work hard — but maybe not quite as hard as we worked. Maybe it is my fault for having shielded them, not telling them the unpleasantness of life. But wasn’t that what butlers had to do? Shield them from reality . . . the nitty gritty of life?’ (Murphy, 2002). As these working-class voices speak, they give us an alternative perspective on these value judgements: the possibility that working-class — vulgar and sensationalist — forms of discourse can be valued for being more honest, open and informed of the realities of life than the restrained tone of ‘quality’ media (ironically, the mistress of the house, playing a Lady, laments at the end that she is losing this privileged aristocratic life of ‘quality’). It’s also notable that in this experiment the workingclass citizens who take on the roles of the servants quickly develop a raucous subculture of loud laughter and entertainment, while the educated upper classes above floors rarely laugh, or have an obvious good time, remaining calm and rational at all times. But having offered evaluations of the value of formally educated and popular cultures that are quite different from those offered from the perspective of academic writing, these reality television programs go further, to suggest that, by gaining experience of other people’s experiences, and attempting to communicate across different forms of expression, translation is possible. Again in The Real World ’s first season, the middle-class girl Julie ‘meets a homeless woman’. Kevin notes that ‘Julie’s sincere about trying to understand people’, and when she comes across a site where homeless people sleep rough, she gets talking to Darlene, one of the homeless women, about the reasons for her homelessness (drugs, not getting on with


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her mother). Julie spends a night talking with her, comfortable with a culture that isn’t her own, interested in it — playing a role as a translator, as it were, between these distinct cultures (Verschoor and Fox, 1992). This acceptance that members of different cultures can have different experiences and communicate in different ways — and a desire, having accepted this, to find ways to communicate across them — informs this program. Julie goes to an art show, which is the natural culture of another housemate, Norman — and although it’s not her culture, she talks about becoming ‘friends’ with Norman through this. Rich girl Becky and artist Norman go to rock bloke Andre’s band performance — and again, although it’s not their culture, they get to understand it more and are ‘glad they came’ — for, as Becky says, ‘it means so much when your friends come’ (Fox and Richmond, 1992b). The housemates find differences in their experiences and understandings, and attempt to translate for each other; at one point Kevin (from a disadvantaged Black family) and Becky (from a rich white one) argue about racism — and whether it’s just a problem with prejudiced individuals (as Becky says) or whether there’s a structural problem with society as a whole (as Kevin says). Kevin tries to explain to Becky how his own experiences have led him to think the way he does: ‘Can you understand having a college education and still thinking about selling drugs cos I can’t get a job?’ Becky replies: ‘How can you expect me to? I didn’t live your life!’ To which Kevin states, as the point of this reality television genre: ‘I’m telling you now’ (Fox and Richmond, 1992c). These programs put together people from different backgrounds, who have different experiences, identities, and forms of communication, and see if they can come to understand each other. In The Edwardian House, the butler comments on social organization in 1914 compared with that of the twenty-first century: One of the things I’ve learned for myself is that hierarchy and discipline does work to a point. But what you lose is communication. The family are divorced from the servants; and that’s terrible. You don’t feel that you can speak the truth in front of them. Without truth, a society is sick. It can’t really survive. (Murphy, 2002)



Queer Eye for the Straight Guy makes the same point in relation to other identities. In this show a group of gay men mediate between straight men and the women in their lives — and build their own bridges between sexual identities. When Kyan Douglas — responsible for ‘grooming’ straight man Andrew — takes him for a manicure, he comments: ‘Isn’t it funny the conversations you have with gays are so different from the ones you have with straight friends? It’s fun. Building bridges. One manicure at a time’ (‘Queer’, 2003). In a later episode, he watches a group of people socializing and states explicitly: ‘this is what it’s all about guys — everyone getting along: Black, white, gay, straight . . .’ (‘Queer’, 2003). Often the ordinary people in the public sphere thanks to reality television do manage to build bridges; and in doing so on-screen, they open the possibility that viewers might learn the same lessons. As I suggested above, there’s nothing to stop people from one background attempting to understand the cultural differences between them and people from a different social class. All it takes is some work, some research and an open mind. Trashy television can play a vital part in this process, showing the lives of people from many different backgrounds to cross-demographic audiences (Meyrowitz, 1985: 135–143). David Aaronovitch — a self-proclaimed ‘middleclass’ writer — explains his own reaction to the British show Wife Swap. The program works by exchanging the wives of two families, who have to live each other’s lives (minus the sex) for two weeks: The battlefields here are the kitchens and living rooms, not the boudoirs. It is the quotidian of chores, child-rearing, personal habits, taste and personal space that are under review. (Aaronovitch, 2003: 23) The producers deliberately choose people from different identity groups — different classes, races, cultural backgrounds — to see how they respond to each other, and how they learn about each other. Aaronovitch describes the experience of watching a


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working-class and a middle-class family getting to understand each other’s lives — and the effect that watching it had on him: Part of the problem with being a bourgeois: it becomes difficult to imagine an alternative to the way we choose to live. We study the manuals on the places to go, the healthiest things to eat, on the needs of our children. We attend child-birth classes, buy selfhelp tapes and are terribly aware of what constitutes good manners. What we do is the normal thing, the way we speak is the way normal people speak. We create patterns for our lives and maintain them, as though there were no other possibilities. (Aaronovitch, 2003: 23) Aaronovitch finds it ‘subversive’ watching a program where people from his culture are swapped with an ‘underclass’ (unemployed) couple, where ‘Every third word is “fook”’. He has just seen a middle-class family where the father had no time for his children revolutionized by a working-class woman who came in and forced him to spend time with them. It changed the father’s life as he realized what he had been missing: ‘And if it all ended a bit “Boy, take the turkey to the Cratchits’ house”, then even so there must have been hundreds of thousands of viewers out there, sitting and thinking “that’s me!”’. For him, this trashy reality television is important because ‘it constantly reminds you of that most easily forgotten thing of all; the possibility of something else. The chance that there is, after all, an explanation’ (23) for the behaviour of people from backgrounds different from your own.

Rational voices In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas is nostalgic for the early eighteenth century (Dahlgren, 1991: 5). At that time the ‘masses’ were not allowed to vote: although their ‘plebian’ public sphere of sensationalist, trashy newspapers existed, it was excluded from the official political public sphere. For Habermas, the situation begins to degenerate from the 1830s onwards, because of ‘the occupation of the political public sphere



by the unpropertied masses’ (Habermas, 1989: 177; see also Postone, 1992: 165). At this time, informally educated working-class people began the process of fighting for the vote, and entering into public discussions. They brought their own commercialized and sensationalized forms of culture with them (Habermas, 1997: 107): the first newspaper with a mass edition of over 50,000 copies was, significantly, the organ of the Chartist movement — Cobbett’s Political Register . . . The same economic situation that pressured the masses into participation in the public sphere in the political realm denied them the level of education that would have enabled them to participate . . . on the level of bourgeois readers . . . [and] . . . the sensationalist press of the eighties . . . [used the] techniques of the cartoon, news picture, and human-interest story . . . [presenting] its news and fictional stories in a way that was as optically effective as it was undemanding on the literary level . . . (Habermas, 1989: 168) Habermas is genuinely committed to full equality of political participation for all citizens: from his ‘modern’ perspective, this isn’t possible unless all citizens have equal access to the best forms of public communication: the ‘quality’ culture of formally educated citizens. Without this they cannot participate on an equal ‘level’ with the formally educated citizens. From a ‘postmodern’ perspective, commercialized popular culture is as worthy of a place in the public sphere as ‘quality’ forms of communication. These differing attitudes towards the Enlightenment project cannot be finally resolved. One of the key issues here for writers within the traditionally ‘modern’ paradigm is that the commercialized forms of culture preferred by working-class audiences do not employ ‘rational’ forms of argument, as that is understood in the tradition of Western philosophy. This term has been a key one in the culture of formally educated audiences. While popular audiences have been among those who have favoured culture that provokes ‘emotional responses’ (F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, 1933, quoted in Hartley, 1999: 67), philosophers within formally educated culture have taken an


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attitude of valuing formal, logical rationality as the key to fully civilized behaviour. In the official public sphere at the moment, there is more non-rational than rational communication. Once again, what attitude we take towards this fact depends on the paradigms we work within. In the next chapter we investigate this topic with reference to another new social movement: Black civil rights and Afrocentric thinking.

Chapter 3


Popular and academic writers on the public sphere agree on another problematic issue: there’s a problem, they argue, not with just the kinds of topics that are currently discussed, but also with the way in which they’re discussed. From a modern perspective, it seems that the public sphere promotes a ‘short attention span’ in consumers. Ideas aren’t explored in detail or at length; they’re packaged as thirty-second grabs. We’re suffering from a plague of ‘soundbites’ (Slayden and Whillock, eds, 1999). As academic writers put this, the public sphere contains too much ‘spectacle’ (Kellner, 2003: 1). The media favour ‘showy’ (Jacoby, 1987: 223) presentation. Appearance is more important than substance, and ‘representation and appearances outweigh rational debate’ (Holub, 1991: 6). The detailed and rational presentation of information through the medium of the written word is vanishing, faced with media where ‘speed and intimacy prioritiz[e] trust and credibility over critical thought’ (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 163). Politicians become ever more powerful, putting on a ‘staged form of publicity’ (Habermas, 1997: 108) and audiences are encouraged into passive forms of ‘spectating over real individuation’ (Wilson, 1985: 205). In such a public sphere ‘Politicians appeal to potential voters not as rational beings concerned for the public good, but in the mode of advertising, as creatures of passing and largely irrational appetite’ (Garnham, 1990: 111). What has been lost is rational, logical, literate debate. In place of politicians reading out long, fact-filled and densely argued policy proposals, we have politicians who are coached by stylists and managed by spin doctors.



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Alongside television, one area of culture which is given as a prime example of the triumph of spectacle over rational, literate debate is pop music — including rap music: Geoff Ross has spent his entire childhood living in the Midwest. Raised mostly on video games, television, rap music and the occasional parental intervention he developed a very short attention span. (Ross, 2003; see also ‘Themselves’, undated: np) Many rap artists have a political intent in their songs. Not all rap music is political — gangsta rap is often accused of forgetting rap’s political and social roots. But much of it, including the work of many of the most popular rappers, is explicitly so. The songs of groups like Public Enemy, Run DMC, NWA, and KRSOne are political both in the traditional sense of critiquing government policies, and in the expanded sense discussed in the first chapter of this book, of addressing power relations between white and Black Americans. But this isn’t traditionally rational political communication. The rappers don’t draw on the Western tradition of political theory. They don’t communicate in a restrained and unemotional way. They don’t claim to be objective. They don’t follow the sentence and argument structure of written logic. Rather, they make their political points in emotional, embodied and spectacular ways. Public Enemy’s song ‘By the time I get to Arizona’, for example, is a protest against the State of Arizona’s refusal to recognize the birthday of Black civil rights hero Martin Luther King: ‘why want a holiday Fuck it ’cause I wanna’ (Ridenhour et al., 1991). Complete lyrics of all Public Enemy songs are available at This song is a performed piece. Unlike traditional rational communication, it’s embodied and its argument consists of more than just these words read out. It’s rapped, offering the visceral pleasure of rhythm and performance. It comes with a music video that uses visual techniques to add to the message: it shows politicians being shot, and ends with a massive explosion. ‘By the time I get to Arizona’ is a contribution to political discussion in the public sphere, but it uses forms of communication far outside the official and respectable forms of rational political philosophy. For



commentators working within a traditional ‘modern’ paradigm, such forms of public communication are problematic: they work against a project of rational communication, and thus against equality and democracy. But for the new social movement of Black civil rights, and particularly those thinkers who want to recover ‘Afrocentric’ ways of thinking about culture, the forms of communication which modern thinkers dismiss as ‘spectacle’ — visual, aural and bodily — are as important to them as written rational modes of communication are to traditional Western philosophers. As British band Asian Dub Foundation claim: ‘You could have a seriously political album with not one word on it . . . The politics, challenging people, is built into the structure of the music as well as the lyrics’ (Street, 1997: 41). And for writers who employ a ‘postmodern’ paradigm, accepting the arguments of new social movements, the appearance of such forms of spectacular communication about politics, playing to ‘short attention spans’, is a positive development that adds to equality of the public sphere.

Historically spectacular The terms ‘soundbite’ and ‘short attention span’ are common in popular discussions about the public sphere. More common in ‘modern’ academic writing on the same issue is the word ‘spectacle’. Often drawing on the 1972 book by French philosopher Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, the term is used with three broad implications (see Debord, 1994). Firstly, it suggests that citizen-consumers are being given flashy, showy forms of communication; visual presentations in particular, rather than detailed and difficult written forms of communication. Spectacular communication offers ‘affective’ (bodily) pleasures — visual pleasure and aural pleasure — which distract from the workings of mental processes (Habermas, 1989: 208). Habermas, for example, believes that: ‘[p]rint is the ideal medium for political communication’ (Corner, 1995: 43). Secondly, spectacles are ‘entertainment’ (Kellner, 2003: 4) — they’re easily consumed, undemanding and ‘distract’ (2) citizens from real politics and action (as with ‘easy’ entertainment in Chapter 2) (see also Groombridge, 1972: 71).


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And thirdly (because of their ease of consumption), spectacles encourage passivity in spectators — who watch for easily consumed pleasure. Bodily and concrete pleasures (rhythm, movement) are privileged over difficult abstract and mental work. In the case of a newspaper that is laid out to be visually pleasurable and comprehensible, Habermas argues that through ‘variegated type and layout and ample illustration reading is made easy . . . serving up the material as a ready-made convenience, patterned and predigested’ (Habermas, 1989: 169). The result of this is that: ‘individuals passively observe the spectacles of social life’ (Kellner, 2003: 2; see also Groombridge, 1972: 71); culture that is easy to understand makes consumers passive because they don’t have to work hard to understand it. Once again, we can agree factually that we’re not talking about a recent decline in the public sphere. For as long as the modern public sphere has existed, formally educated commentators have complained that it’s been too spectacular. Politically marginalized groups have consistently favoured easy visual and aural pleasure in their public culture. Habermas notes that in the seventeenth century ‘domestic servants, soldiers, apprentices, young clerks and [the] lumpenproleteriat . . . were always ready for a “spectacle”’ (Habermas, 1989: 38). Popular audiences have traditionally ‘made sense of the worlds of nature, society and personal relationships using the oral, dramatic and spectacular institutions of story, song drama, myth, symbol, image, picture’ (Hartley, 1996: 82). For hundreds of years these audiences have consumed the visually and aurally pleasurable spectaculars of ‘music hall and vaudeville, the fair-ground, the circus and pantomime, the melodramatic theatre and the literatures of crime and romance’ (David Chaney, quoted in Storey, 2003: 70; see also Cullen, 2001b: 130; Darnton, 1997: 239). Political communication for working-class audiences has traditionally taken place through posters, ballads, gossip and popular songs (Darnton, 1997: 159). Working-class political culture has always been: ‘raucous, deceptive, giddy, shallow, sloganeering and demagogic’ (Gitlin, 1991: 129; see also Carpignano et al., 1993: 94). This fact, of course, doesn’t prove that such forms of communication are worthwhile. But it’s interesting that in new social movements, numbers of marginalized groups are



explicitly fighting for recognition of the worth of spectacular forms of communication.

Black spectacle Arguing for the worth of spectacle in public communication has been an important part of the social movement of Black civil rights and Afrocentrism. Civil rights campaigners and Black ‘Afrocentric’ academics have argued for distinctively Black cultural histories. African cultures, these writers argue, are traditionally oral and embodied rather than literate: ‘The black cultural aesthetic is essentially both oral-aural and motor, focusing on action, performance and expression’ (Rainwater, quoted in Gaunt, 1997: 146). As with every chapter in this book it’s important to emphasize that to say this is to say nothing about the abilities of any individual white or Black citizen to be literate or performative. Rather it’s to say that some Black writers claim that there are Black cultures that are historically different from white cultures. Some histories of Black culture emphasize a heritage of ‘Melodies sung like speech . . . overlapping . . . call and response patterns . . . discrete musical events . . . and the inseparability of music and dance and/or stylized movement’ (Gaunt, 1997: 152). In Black Australia as well as Black America (the groups are different but also exchange elements of identity and culture — McKee, 1997) writers are insisting on the worth of ‘performance’ as a form of political communication: Performances therefore represent an important form of cultural production and constitute one of the primary means by which [Black Australian] peoples negotiate and circulate their contemporary cultural constructions of identity. (Kleinert, 1999: 354–355) Many Black writers value spectacular forms of communication in the public sphere because they draw directly on Black history and cultural traditions. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write in the antebellum USA — the worry was that this would encourage them to get ideas above themselves, perhaps even organize to revolt. In such a context, Black Americans drew on African cultural traditions to develop musical and performative


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forms of political communication and resistance — with the ‘vernacular’ politics of the blues, for example (Baker, 1984). Many Black writers argue that spectacular forms of communication such as hip hop are part of this same tradition — a distinctively Black form of public culture.1 ‘Rap is a direct extension of African-American oral, poetic and protest traditions’, drawing on a strong Black ‘oral tradition’ including ‘griots’ (praise singers), ‘toasts’ (narrative poems) and ‘signifying, jiving and dozens’ (verbal jousting) (Eisworth, 1996: 14). It ‘borrows from Black people’s culture’ (Kwame Toure, quoted in D, 1997: 258). Hip hop’s ‘styles and themes share striking similarities with many past Afro-diasporic musical and cultural expressions’ (Rose, 1994: 73; see also Gaunt, 1997: 161). This Black culture has survived periods of appalling dispossession and struggle. These spectacular forms of communication ‘speak of pain, struggle and survival despite periods of hopelessness’ (Washington and Shaver, 1997: 167; see also Potter, 1995: 9). For this reason, these writers argue, they must be preserved and valued as a worthwhile part of the public sphere: the role of popular music is, of course, central to any discussion of the black Atlantic. It has been suggested by Gilroy, Kobena Mercer and others that the various streams of black music running through Western and, indeed, global popular culture represent a particular kind of public sphere . . . Rooted in the cultural rhythms of slavery and suffering, and infinitely productive of new combinations, black popular music, the modes of speech and the styles of dress and deportment associated with it carry the sign of ‘authenticity’ . . . As Douglas Kellner quite rightly says: ‘[R]ap itself is best seen as a cultural forum for urban blacks to articulate their experiences, concerns and politics . . .’ (McGuigan, 1996: 143, 145; see also Dawson, 1995: 219–220; Herbst, 1994) Tricia Rose argues that ‘Political interpretations of rap’s explosive and resistive lyrics are critical to understanding contemporary black cultural politics’ (Street, 1997: 43); Julian L. D. Shabazz calls rap ‘a growing political force’ (1992: 6). Michael Warner claims that:



In recent years graffiti writing has taken a new form. Always a kind of counterpublicity, it has become the medium of an urban and mostly black male subculture. (Warner, 1992: 397) These writers claim that rap music is ‘a form of communication for a socially and politically voiceless segment of American society . . . [which] also communicates the methods by which young Blacks can combat social dislocation’ (McDonnell, quoted in Eisworth, 1996: 3). For these writers, spectacular forms of public communication are important, political and worth preserving. We can agree factually that different cultures have traditionally employed different kinds of public communication: but what cannot be agreed upon — because it is a difference of attitude between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ writers — is whether we should respond to this fact by accepting that all cultures’ forms of communication are equally good; or by arguing that some are better and that, in the interests of equality, all citizens should have equal access to the better ones.

Rational academics The concept of rationality is key to the two-thousand-year history of Western academic philosophy: Since Plato, philosophers have held that the distinction between correct opinion and true knowledge hinges on the role of reasoned justification in permitting us to hold a belief with confidence. (Ingram, 1987: 19; see also Holub, 1991: 152; Habermas, 1996: 154)2 More than this, academic philosophers have accorded rationality a special place in the work of democratic societies: Reason is the instrument upon which we humans must depend wherever it is our object to reach judgements upon which we can rely . . . [for] non-rational grounds for judgement may prove catastrophic . . . the success of democracy depends, in the end, upon the reliability of the judgements we citizens make, and hence upon our


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capacity and our determination to weigh arguments and evidence rationally . . . where judgements that must be relied upon are to be made, it is correct reasoning that will in the long run prove to be their most solid foundation. (Copi and Cohen, 1998: xix, xx, 5) Within ‘modern’ philosophical paradigms, Enlightenment values of equality, freedom, justice and comfort have been joined by rationality: truth has been imagined as liberating. Whereas myth and ideology promote ethnocentric interests masquerading as universal, science uncovers truths which mark a path of enlightenment and social progress . . . (Seidman, 1994: 8; see also O’Neill, 1999: 2–3) The flip side of this position is that academic writers working within the ‘modern’ paradigm are distrustful of forms of argument that appeal to people’s emotions. One of Aristotle’s classical ‘fallacies’ in argument (incorrect forms of argument) was: the appeal to the emotion: argument Ad Populum. This common fallacy . . . (literally ‘to the people’ and by implication to the mob’s easily aroused emotions) is the device of every propagandist and demagogue. It is fallacious because it replaces the laborious task of presenting evidence and rational argument with expressive language or other devices calculated to excite enthusiasm, excitement, anger or hate. (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 169) Academics worry that forms of argument that replace logic with emotion can have disastrous political effects in a culture: Popular rhetoric is argument designed to persuade a target audience or readership. The objective is to build a personal bond with this audience, to establish a personal link between the arguer and the recipient of his message. The successful building of this emotional relationship invites the person to whom the argument is directed to trust the person who addresses him, to give him loyalty, and to suspend the queries and criticisms characteristic of argument and reasonable dialogue. Personal rhetoric is therefore directed more to the instincts than to calculative reason. The emotional appeal targets the person’s unthinking reactions and so attempts to bypass the



critical questioning and logical assessment normally characteristic of reasonable dialogue. (Walton, 1989: 82) A demagogue was ‘In ancient times . . . a popular leader or orator who espoused the cause of the people’, or, in a negative sense: ‘a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Looking at the issue historically, it’s easy to see why academic philosophers place so much emphasis on rational argument in the public sphere. In feudal systems there was no need for public discussions to work out public opinion. It’s only when democracies emerge that rational public debate appears (Eley, 1992: 290). Absolute rulers don’t have to explain their decisions; they don’t have to try to persuade the populace to see things as they do. When the king decides to do something, the reasoning can be as simple as a ‘revelation’ from God, that neither needs nor can have any explanation beyond: because God said so (Kramer, 1992: 246). Subjects are made to accept these decisions not by persuading them to agree, but by the imposition of physical violence. If we accept that ‘burning is not an argument’ (Rousseau, quoted in Heller, 1982: 27), we can see that the move to public rationality is a move from ‘sovereign authority’ to ‘reason and persuasiveness’ (Le Harpe, quoted in Habermas, 1989: 96; see also Negt and Kluge, 1993: 9). Rationality can be ‘critical’ — it doesn’t have to accept unchallenged the statements of those who are in power: ‘the best argument was decisive, rather than the identity of its proponents’ (Calhoun, 1996: 453). Any citizen’s position can win out, if they have the best arguments; rather than the most powerful person automatically winning (Habermas, 1989: 36). Indeed, in his writing, Habermas often brings together the terms ‘rational’, ‘critical’ and ‘public’, as though none of the three can even exist unless it is linked to the others; only critical discussion can really be rational; only critical rational discussion can really be public (Habermas, 1989: 248; Habermas, 1997: 106). Academic philosophers writing from within a ‘modern’ paradigm are often worried that if our public debates are managed by spectacular forms of communication — visual, emotional, personal — rather than by rational modes — logical, restrained, literate — then the way is open for a return to domination. Copi and


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Cohen, discussing the use of emotional rather than logical appeals in public debate, worry that this enables propagandists and demagogues — ‘the speeches of Adolf Hitler . . . may be taken as a classic example’ (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 169). Hitler is a common example in such arguments (see Nicholson, 1999: 124); academic philosophers working within a ‘modern’ paradigm, genuinely concerned for democracy, equality, and Enlightenment ideals, are worried that emotional arguments, if not controlled by logic, can lead to a world of inequality, oppression and domination (see Hartley, 1996: 128, 137). Interestingly, popular philosophers run exactly the opposite line: whereas modern academic writers look at Hitler and see a warning about the dangers of emotional forms of public communication, popular philosophers look at the Nazi regime and see a warning about the dangers of logic untouched by human feeling. The most common genre for popular philosophy is science fiction, from Brave New World (Huxley, 1937) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell, 1984 [1949]) to the parables of Star Trek and Doctor Who. In these texts the danger of genocide is more likely to come from enemies who are purely logical at the expense of feelings than the other way around. In the British science fiction series Doctor Who, the main villains are the Daleks — a race of murderous robotic conquerors who are characterized as having no feelings and being dominated entirely by logic: and they are explicitly modelled on the Nazis (see Nation, 1975). While academic philosophers worry that control of public policy by emotions leads to domination by fascists, popular philosophers worry that, conversely, it’s the control of public policy by logic that leads to fascistic oppression.

Modern and postmodern rationality The official public sphere is increasingly making space for public discussion about politics conducted in genres like rap music which are spectacular rather than logical, in the traditional sense described by Western philosophy. Members of new social movements such as Black civil rights and Afrocentric campaigns argue that this is a good thing, promoting equality of access to the official public sphere. Academic commentators working within a traditionally ‘modern’ paradigm refuse these arguments, worrying that this



leads to a reduction in equality in society as it can lead to oppression. Academic commentators working within a ‘postmodern’ paradigm accept the arguments of these social movements. Indeed, it’s possible to go even further. We can argue, perfectly rationally, that spectacular forms of communication such as rap music are, in fact, themselves completely rational. It’s possible to make this argument because of the complex philosophical debates that still take place about what the word ‘rational’ actually means.3 A broad definition of rationality is ‘the use of reason’; which itself is: ‘the intellectual ability to apprehend truth cognitively’ (Kemerling, 2002: np). But when we explore what this means in practice, it gets complicated. Using the taxonomy I’m following in this book, we can split the debates about the meaning of rationality into a simplistic binary. On one hand we can trace a ‘modern’ definition of rationality, characterized by a universalist commitment to the idea that there can only be one single correct form of rational thought and argument. On the other hand we can find a ‘postmodern’ definition of rationality, based on a contextualist approach which accepts that different cultures have different kinds of rationality.4 Your attitude to the increasing presence of spectacular forms of political communication like rap in the public sphere will depend on which of the paradigms — ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ — seems more convincing to you: modernity left us with an ambiguous legacy concerning . . . the meaning of Reason. [Within a modern paradigm, r]eason in modern Western societies has been understood as a faculty exercised only by some, some of the time, when achieved by proper training, disciplining of the emotions and exposure to specific kinds of information. Ideally, one individual who is trained, disciplined and appropriately informed could practice reason in its pure form. This individual would then be in a position to access truth or to attain, at that point, ‘a god’s eye view’. According to this understanding of reason, that which distinguishes human beings from each other, the specificities of historical location that lead us to see the world differently, operate as an impediment toward attaining such a position. So too does the influence of any non-rational part of the psyche, such as the emotions. At the other end of the continuum exists a


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[postmodern] view of reason as a much more mundane faculty, as that which like the lungs or heart, is exercised not all that differently by most human beings most of the time. According to this view, the biases that reflect the specificities of our respective locations, . . . can sometimes function as a resource, providing a diversity of perspectives . . . the other non-rational parts of the psyche, such as the emotions . . . at times . . . even improve us. (Nicholson, 1999: 10–11) In a ‘modern’ paradigm, rationality involves ‘universalistic’ judgements (White, 1989: 21): it can be measured against a single ‘extra-historical universalistic set of criteria’ (Rorty, 1985: 165). A ‘postmodern’ paradigm by contrast works with an idea of ‘contextual rationality . . . taken to mean “conformity to norms”’ (White, 1989: 10, quoting Peter Winch). On the contextual account, what counts as rational action ‘will vary with the social context’ (10). Modern rationality Universal Universal Emotions must be disciplined Single norm Objective: God’s eye view Transcendent

Logic only acceptable form of persuasion

Rationality Courteous Urbanity and moderation Rational argument Critical theorists Logical theory: ‘centrally concerned with the propositions that make up an argument’

Postmodern rationality Contextual (White, 1989: 21; Nicholson, 1999: 10; O’Neill, 1999: 20–21) Plural (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 3) Emotions are a resource (Nicholson, 1999: 10, 11) Multiple norms (White, 1989: 10) Subjective: specificity of location (Nicholson, 1999: 10) ‘positionality’ (Beebee, 2002: 198); ‘conducted in the terms and according to the practices of a given community at a given time’ (Rorty, 1985: 165; see also Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 134–135) Logic ‘one discursive practice among many’ (Beebee, 2002: 198); also allowing for imagination, experience, passion or faith: ‘emotion, desire, the body, personal relations’ (Felski, 1989: 71) Rhetoric (Warner, 1989: 354) Not courteous (Habermas, 1989: 131) Excessive performance (Harris, 1996: 93) Rational persuasion (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 2; see also Warner, 1989: 353–354) French poststructuralists (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 2) Logical pragmatics: ‘concerned with the reasoned use of those propositions in dialogue to carry out a goal’ (Walton, 1989: 1)



The debates between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ attitudes cannot be resolved simply by adding more and more facts. Writers on the ‘modern’ side argue that it’s necessary for people to be speaking the same kind of language in order to engage in meaningful debate: ‘genuine discursive disagreement is not possible unless the parties are rationally aiming at agreement on the one, right account’ (Hoy, in McCarthy and Hoy, 1994: 249); and so it’s necessary to have a single favoured version of rationality that every culture has to use in public debate. Writers on the ‘postmodern’ side, by contrast, argue that because different cultures do in fact already use different forms of reason, a focus on a single universal version of rationality has a ‘repressive dimension, which might lead minority parties in a discussion to feel that their views are adjudged deviant’ (Christopher Norris, quoted in Davey, 1998: 183). Whether one favours the universalist or the contextualist version of rationality will depend on one’s attitude towards two questions. The first: what’s the better form of public communication? Is it a traditionally Western form of rationality, based on logic; or is each culture’s form of communication equally as good? The second: what’s real equality? Is it an equality of access to the best forms of rational public communication (in which case we should be fighting for improved educational opportunities so that all citizens, regardless of background, can be properly trained in Western philosophy). Or is it an equality of access to the public sphere based on recognizing cultural difference (in which case we should celebrate the increasing visibility of forms such as rap in the official public sphere). From a ‘modern’ perspective, Nicholas Garnham accepts the fact of different traditions — but his genuine hopes for greater equality lead him to argue that the best response to this is to try to overcome cultural difference: if we don’t accept the superiority of the Western forms of logic, he worries ‘we will remain in large part enslaved to a system outside our control’ (Garnham, 1992: 370). Similarly, Habermas worries that the move by new social movements to revalue traditional cultural forms: ‘could be . . . merely cloaking their complicity with the venerable tradition of counter-Enlightenment in the garb of post-Enlightenment’ (Coole, 1998: 109, quoting


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Habermas; see also Squires, 1998: 138). The two paradigms can agree, factually, that there has traditionally been ‘cultural difference’ in forms of rationality (O’Neill, 1999: 18). The ‘modern’ paradigm goes on to argue that Western culture has produced superior forms of rationality to the ‘mythopoeic modes of thought’ (Ingram, 1987: xv) of other cultures. Championing ‘rationality and morality’, modern writers such as Habermas ‘claim that the modern West . . . best embodies these values’ (White, 1995: 9; see also Jameson, 1993: 65; McCarthy, 1982: 69; Baert, 1998: 147). A ‘postmodern’ attitude argues rather that ‘This sort of universalism . . . functions merely to blind the West’ to the way that it excludes members of other cultures from public debate by claiming its own standards as being universal (White, 1995: 9): the danger of making quick judgements about the irrationality or non-rationality of unfamiliar actions or beliefs . . . has often manifested itself in Western judgements about both primitive societies and contemporary non-Western societies . . . the fact that Western societies tend to accord a privileged status to the rationalization of action in terms of abstract universalisable principles is to be explained as simply one possible way of creating a hierarchy of types of normative justification . . . (White, 1995: 19, 21, citing Peter Winch) From a postmodern perspective: It seems to me [the author Hohendahl] that a weaker claim of rationality might ultimately be more fruitful for a highly pluralistic world where differences of race, class and gender cannot be overlooked. (Hohendahl, 1992: 107; see also Hohendahl, 1992: 107; Keane, 1991: 172; Heller, 1982: 31; Fraser, 1990: 68–9) It isn’t possible to prove that either paradigm is correct; for both are reasonable ways of making sense of the world. In the next chapter I’ll explore possible ways in which the paradigms of different cultures can attempt to engage in dialogue. Before I go on to look in this chapter at the ways that Black civil rights campaigners and Afrocentric writers have argued for the validity of spectacular forms



of public communication, it’s worth taking a little time to explore further the academic thinking about rationality that informs much intellectual work on this aspect of the public sphere: and some more aspects of the differences between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ attitudes towards reason.

Reason, truth, ideals and persuasion It’s important to understand first of all that rationality isn’t the same thing as truth; nor does it make any claim to be. It’s possible for an argument to be completely rational, and completely wrong: truth and falsity apply to statements about the world, while validity and invalidity apply to arguments . . . some valid arguments [can] contain only false propositions . . . the logician is not so much interested in the truth or falsehood of propositions as in the logical relations between them. (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 29, 30, 32) The rules of rationality apply only to how people use facts to make arguments — they have nothing to say about whether the facts themselves are correct (Guttenplan, 1997: 307). Rather, the ‘propositions’ upon which arguments are based are ‘affirmed (or assumed)’ (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 7). This idea has been picked up in popular philosophy, as it argues for the need to temper rationality with human feeling. In the science fiction television series Doctor Who, the hero argues with Davros, leader of robotic, logical villains the Daleks: THE DOCTOR: All elephants are pink, Nellie is an elephant, therefore, Nellie is pink! Logical? DAVROS: Logical. THE DOCTOR: But a human would say . . . TYSSAN: Elephants aren’t pink! DAVROS: Humans do not understand logic! (Nation, 1979) Or as the character puts it in another context: ‘Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority’ (Whitaker, 1968).


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Secondly, it’s important to note that the form of rationality favoured by modern writers — which draws on the rules of logic developed within Western philosophy — is an ideal to which we could aspire, not a reality describing how any culture functions. Nobody — including the most highly trained philosophers — ever actually reaches the ideal of conducting fully rational arguments (van Zoonen, 1991: 232; Ryan, 1992: 286): ‘Theoretically, you can never prove anything’. Deductive certainty is, indeed, too high a standard to impose when evaluating our knowledge of facts about the world. (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 470, quoting Bert Vogelstein) As Samuel Guttenplan puts it in his introduction to logic: you might have the impression that logic consists in the study of how human beings actually think . . . seen this way, logic would be descriptive of human reasoning . . . this . . . is misleading . . . we would do better to think of logic as a morality of thought . . . The laws of thought which show us how to distinguish good from bad arguments . . . set a standard or norm of what constitutes good reasoning . . . a faulty argument is something like sinning. (1997: 9–10, 11) Indeed, Toulmin argues that: the science of logic has throughout its history tended to develop in a direction away from [everyday] issues, away from practical questions about the manner in which we have an occasion to handle and criticise arguments. (1958: 2) So, for example, the forms of logic developed by classical philosophy have a standard set of ‘fallacies’ — unacceptable forms of reasoning. These include: r argument ad verecundiam: appeal to inappropriate authority; r argument ad populum: the appeal to the emotion;



r argument ad hominem: making a personal attack on your


r argument ad misericordiam: appealing to pity; r argument ad baculum: using force to win an argument (Copi and

Cohen, 1998: 165–169). These fallacies provide us with ideals — if you wish to practise Western logic properly, you should strive to avoid these forms of argument. But in practice, nobody does live up to these ideals. Even the people who are most rigorously trained in the Western tradition of philosophy can’t avoid these fallacies: academics still use these forms of argument in writing about the public sphere. For example, it’s common to find academic writers appealing to the authority of a previous writer in order to ‘prove’ something which the previous writer didn’t actually ‘prove’, using phrases like: ‘As Hegel has shown . . .’ (Owen, 2002: 22; see also Davey, 1998: 183; Habermas, 1989: 144, 196, 215; Wilson, 1985: 203). This is argument ad verecundiam.5 It’s also common in academic writing to find argument ad hominem – attacks on the person of your opponent. Todd Gitlin, for example, at one point claims of his own insights that ‘[t]his is an observation only a fool would deny’ (Gitlin, 1991: 120). Nicholas Garnham says of an argument with which he disagrees: ‘Such idiocies need detain us no further’ (Garnham, 1990: 29; see also McNair, 2000: 54; Garnham, 1990: 91; McGuigan, 1996: 78). A similar approach suggests that the people putting opposing arguments forward are intellectually incompetent in some way. David Owen claims, for example, that his interpretation of a book is ‘a careful reading’ (2002: 179); while those who disagree with him are only making a ‘superficial reading’ (179). Other writers argue that those who disagree with them have ‘mischaracteriz[ed]’ (Garnham, 1990: 7) an argument; that they have only a ‘basic’ understanding of a piece of writing (Outhwaite, 1996: 19); or that they’re not ‘sensitive’ enough to the meaning of the writing (Kramer, 1992: 252; see also Habermas, 1989: 196; Habermas, 1982: 219–220). Remembering the binaries laid out in the Introduction to this book, ‘modern’ paradigms tend to favour ideals; while ‘postmodern’ ones tend to favour everyday practice; the ‘modern’ attitude looks to abstractions, the ‘postmodern’ to concrete realities. Neither is


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the single correct way to think about culture; and we can’t prove conclusively which is more important. Finally, it’s vital to understand that, following on from the previous point, when commentators argue that the public sphere should contain more rational argument, in the ‘modern’ sense of using the philosophical rules of logic, they don’t say this because these forms of communication are more effective for persuading people about a point of view. In fact, they aren’t: ‘it can happen that an argument which we use is a good one in one sense, but is not good as an instrument of persuasion’ (Guttenplan, 1997: 12). Indeed, we can agree factually that logical forms of argument are often much less effective for persuading people than other approaches: but whether you think this is relevant or not depends on whether you accept ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ attitudes about what’s important in the public sphere. I noted above that Hoy and McCarthy make a distinction between ‘rational argument’ and ‘rational persuasion’ (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 2). There’s a tradition in Western philosophy, going back to the trial of the Greek philosopher Socrates, of being suspicious of using persuasive forms of argument. Charged with leading the young men of Athens astray, Socrates was found guilty and claimed that: I have been convicted through want indeed, yet not of arguments but of audacity and impudence, and of the inclination to say such things to you as would have been most agreeable for you to hear, had I lamented and bewailed and done and said many other things unworthy of me, as I affirm, but such as you are accustomed to hear from others . . . But I should much rather choose to die having so defended myself than to live in that way. (quoted in Thompson, 1998: 4) This tradition — which is favoured by ‘modern’ writers — sees any attempt to persuade an audience about a position by using all the tricks at your disposal as being slightly immoral (Guttenplan, 1997: 11). Habermas, for example, draws an explicit distinction between ‘the better argument’ on one hand, which he favours; and ‘the argument which convinces a given audience at a given time’, which he



argues against (for being ‘context-dependent’ — Bernstein, 1985: 30). Indeed, the fallacy of argument ad populum literally means appeal ‘to the people’ and by implication to the mob’s easily aroused emotions (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 169); it’s wrong to use it, within a ‘modern’ paradigm, because it’s too successful and persuades people too well. Douglas Walton similarly claims that rational argument works best with ‘the intelligent consumer’ (1989: 86), while ‘an appeal to popular sentiment’ works better for informally educated audiences (85). Martin Warner notes that: many rhetorical procedures are concerned to handle audiences less principled than . . . the ‘elite’ audience which is partially defined . . . by its preparedness to assess the strength of arguments on [rational principles]. (1989: 354) A ‘modern’ approach argues that traditional Western rationality should be used in public debate because, even though it may not be very effective, it’s the best form of communication (for reasons of equality and freedom as discussed above). Indeed, the fact that rationality isn’t very good at persuading people might even prove its worth as: the fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a wide-spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible. (Bertrand Russell, quoted with approval in Copi and Cohen, 1998: 171) We know that, empirically, if you want to persuade a popular audience it’s necessary to do much more than simply present logical and rational arguments (although you might also do that). You also need to draw on the skills of persuasion that have classically been called ‘rhetoric’. This offers five key principles for persuasion. The first of these is ‘invention’: . . . identifying the central question . . . and marshalling the most persuasive argument to answer it . . . from direct evidence . . . and


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through ‘artistic’ devices . . . . Based on ethos or character, logos, or reasoning, and pathos, or passion. (Thompson, 1998: 5) The second principle is ‘arrangement’ — how to structure the argument. The third is: ‘style’; ‘choosing the most persuasive and evocative language to make your case’. The fourth principle is ‘memory’ — not using notes when talking. The fifth is: delivery . . . aligning your voice and body language with your message. It is not just what you say and how you express yourself that count, but also how you express yourself non-verbally . . . control of voice and gestures. (Thompson, 1998: 6) Experimentally it’s been shown that in order to persuade popular audiences it is necessary to draw on these skills: It has been proven time and again by educational researchers that . . . people take in about 80% of their information visually, about 11% aurally and the remainder through other senses such as touch and taste . . . The person delivering the material is the key to the success or otherwise of [a] presentation. They must be armed with verbal skills such as clarity of speech; a measured but not too slow delivery speed; and enthusiasm . . . It is also essential that they do not read the presentation, as this is guaranteed to lose the audience . . . ‘body language’ requires a lot of planning too . . . key non-verbal techniques [include] . . . maintaining eye contact with the audience. (Ewart, Sedorkin and Schirato, 1998: 156, 158–159) If you want to persuade a popular audience you can use logical forms of argumentation, but it’s also necessary to pay attention to your body — where you’re looking, what expressions are on your face when you talk, and how you hold your posture (Argyle, 1988: 1). It’s essential to smile at people while you talk to them (135, 255). Vitally, you should also listen seriously to what the people you are trying to convince have to say to you, and seem to be taking that on board (260). You should take care to dress in clothing that supports your message (Gass and Seiter, 1999: 173); and work to make yourself as physically attractive as you can (175). You should



try to personalize arguments; and when structuring them, ensure that you establish some basis of shared agreement — whatever that might be — early on, as this will predispose your audience to agree with your later points (232). If your most important aim is to convince an audience, it’s also necessary to take account of who you’re talking to, and to tailor your persuasion accordingly. Empirically, different audiences respond differently to a variety of forms of argument, due to ‘cultural differences’: ‘Cultural differences play a major role, both in terms of how people fashion influence attempts and how they respond to them’ (Gass and Seiter, 1999: 99). So, for example: research shows that men and women attempt to persuade in different ways. Compared to females, males tend to be more verbally aggressive and more likely to use coercion and threats. (Gass and Seiter, 1999: 97) A ‘modern’ paradigm favours the ‘ideal’, whereas a ‘postmodern’ paradigm favours the ‘empirical’ (or ‘experimental’) (Toulmin, 1958: 10, 254). So we can agree factually that if you want to persuade an audience of your argument, empirically it’s best not to rely on the emotionless presentation of logical rationality as your only tool. But this doesn’t mean that ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ thinkers agree on the best forms of public communication. For ‘modern’ thinkers, convincing the audience isn’t actually that important — what is important is to try to encourage audiences to use the rules of logic derived from Western philosophy, because this is an ‘ideal’: it’s a better kind of communication and one that protects democracy, freedom and equality. But for ‘postmodern’ thinkers, convincing the audience is important: and if we use the forms of communication that we know ‘empirically’ those audiences have developed within their own communities in order to convince them, that’s acceptable. Indeed, from within the ‘postmodern’ paradigm, using all of the rhetorical strategies for persuasion — body language, smiling at people, dressing well, appealing to emotion — is indeed a perfectly rational approach: following a ‘postmodern’ definition of rationality:


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Grounds are established not by logical principles but by according to the varying conventions for appropriate evidence used in different types of argument. (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 134–135) The official public sphere is increasingly including multiple forms of rationality that have been developed in different cultures — such as the oral and embodied forms of argument employed in rap music. None of these represent a simple ‘truth’ — rationality is about the rules of argument, not about whether individual propositions are true or false. From a ‘modern’ perspective, there’s only one acceptable form of rational argument in a democracy: the rules of logic which have been developed in Western philosophy, which are the best for ensuring that everybody involved in a debate is equally heard, even though those rules are not particularly effective for persuading people of your argument. To use emotional fallacies or other kinds of rhetoric is dangerous, because it can lead to demagoguery: another Hitler. From a ‘postmodern’ perspective, different cultures have different forms of rationality; it’s rational behaviour to speak to any given culture using the rules of logic it has developed. From this perspective, equality is better served by allowing members of different cultures to speak in the public sphere using the forms of argumentation with which they’re most familiar: so rap artists should be allowed to use their form of embodied and aural persuasion, rather than classical logic, in presenting their arguments in the public sphere. Both of these positions are completely reasonable and internally coherent. Neither is the only truth.

Equality and sameness In the Introduction to this book, I mentioned the leaflets published by the Equity committee at my university: they raised the question of whether, if you want to support equality, it’s better to treat everybody exactly the same; or to pay attention to the differences in people’s backgrounds and take account of these. There’s no correct answer to this question: and it structures all of the debates about the public sphere between writers working



with ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ paradigms. The new social movements of Black civil rights campaigners and Afrocentric writers have argued strongly for the latter position: they believe that treating everybody exactly the same in the public sphere can result in unequal outcomes. There are historical reasons for this belief. Historically, the concept of literate rationality has been used to keep Black Americans out of official politics. After the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) made it illegal to stop people voting in the US ‘on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude’ (Justice, 2000: np), many Southern states found ways around this. They introduced a ‘poll tax’ that had to be paid before you could vote (so poor Americans — including a disproportionate number of Black Americans — were excluded); and they imposed ‘literacy tests’ as a requirement for voting: During slavery, Blacks were never taught to read and write. Yet in order to exercise their right to vote, they had to prove that they could read and write by passing a literacy test. Some of these tests were extremely difficult and usually involved reading or ‘interpreting’ sections of the Federal or state constitution. (Anthony, 2003: np) As a result: The net effect of these efforts was the disenfranchisement of nearly all black citizens and the removal from office of nearly all black legislators in the former Confederate states by 1910. (Justice, 2000: np) In this instance, treating everybody the same — white people as well as Black people in the US had to pass the literacy test in order to vote — resulted in severe inequalities of outcome. The Black civil rights movement was as much about culture and recognition as it was about the material reality of legislative change. Technically, Black citizens already had the right to vote: what was needed was a change in public culture that would recognize their distinctive cultural differences. Without this, they couldn’t really use their right to vote. The history and traditions of Black cultures meant that many


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African-Americans were less book-literate than white Americans. This was one of the central issues of the Black civil rights movement in the twentieth century (Aronowitz, 1993: 89) in its fight to gain equal access to the vote and remove the literacy test. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which suspended all literacy tests (Justice, 2000) is now seen as a breakthrough success for Black civil rights activists in the USA: ‘Black voter registration began a sharp increase’ (Justice, 2000b: np). Afrocentric writers still argue that due both to African cultural traditions and the history of slavery, Black Americans have a form of public culture quite distinct from that of Western forms of culture (all of the writers on rationality cited above engage with and come from a Western philosophical tradition stemming back thousands of years). As noted above, Black cultural heritage includes forms of public culture that have been oral and performative. Afrocentric writers argue that asking Black citizens to speak the language of Western rationality in public culture is asking them to speak in a foreign language, while citizens with Western heritage are allowed to speak in their own language.6 Black Australian academic Marcia Langton has noted that: Aboriginal people have invented a theatre of politics in which selfrepresentation has become a sophisticated device, creating their own theories or models of intercultural discourse such as land rights, self-determination, ‘White Australia has a Black history’ and so on . . . [but s]ome intellectuals . . . demand that the Native answer back in a refereed journal, say something about the French intellectuals, Jacques Derrida or Jean Baudrillard, and speak from the hyperluxury of the first world with the reflective thoughts of a well-paid, well-fed, detached scholar. (Langton, 1993: 84) Again, we’re talking here about cultural differences; not individual psychology. Marcia Langton is perfectly able to publish about Derrida in a refereed journal. But her point is that, coming from a Black background, she has to step outside her formative culture in order to do so, in a way that is less true for citizens from formally educated Western cultures. In the first chapter of this book I argued that we can agree that individuals who are brought up in different



cultures are offered different identities, whether or not they ever take those up. In the second, I argued that those identities involve an interest in different kinds of knowledge, and in particular ways of learning. We can see that a person born into one culture is more easily able to find, or be given, information about the everyday practice of that culture than somebody born outside of it (although it’s not difficult for somebody outside that culture to gain that knowledge — it simply involves doing the work). In this chapter, I would argue that people from different cultural backgrounds may be trained in different forms of argumentation. This says nothing about their ability to learn other forms of argumentation: again, we’re talking only about what is offered to people as part of their identities, what’s everyday, familiar and accessible to them. There are distinct cultural histories. As Langton puts it, the ‘particularities’ of Black and Western history and culture are the stuff of cultural production . . . Our different stance in history shapes the models we use . . . From inside a culture is ‘felt’ as normative, not deviant. It is European culture which is different for a [Black] person. (Langton, 1993: 36) For example, explaining why she finds rap’s spectacular forms of communication quite rational, Black writer Tricia Rose suggests: I suppose I learned about hip hop the way most kids from the Bronx did at the time; it was the language and sound of our peer group . . . Rap’s sound, power and style had been one of my greatest fascinations . . . Speaking from my positions as a pro-black, bi-racial, ex-working-class, New-York based feminist . . . adds even greater complexity to the way I negotiate and analyze the social world . . . I believe that my peculiarly situated identities have been immensely productive. (Rose, 1994b: xii, xiii) From a ‘modern’ perspective, the fact that there are cultural differences in forms of argument leads to a call for better education. As noted above, writers in the modern paradigm, championing


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‘rationality and morality . . . claim that the modern West . . . best embodies these values’ (White, 1995: 9; see also Jameson, 1993: 65; McCarthy, 1982: 69; Baert, 1998: 147). In their genuine desire for greater equality in Western culture, these writers would wish that all citizens — regardless of their race or cultural background — would be equally well-trained in the tradition of Western rationality. This is an ‘ideal’ solution to an ‘empirical’ problem, where neither approach can be proved as the right one. Currently, part of the difference between Black and Western cultures in the West rests around schooling: with writers within Black culture describing a resentment that Western culture is being forced upon Black schoolchildren at the expense of Black history and traditions. The failure to learn Western traditions of argumentation, they suggest, is as much due to the principled refusal of Black Americans to learn them as it is to failings in the school system per se. Many Black Americans, these writers claim, grow up to be suspicious of a literate culture which is seen to be white and oppressive: Why do certain American minorities — in particular, American blacks — for the most part do so poorly in school? John U. Ogbu, a Nigerian-born anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has spent more than 30 years addressing this question . . . [and] his 1986 Urban Review article . . . popularized the expression ‘acting white’ as an explanation of the poor performance of blacks in school. Reporting on his discussions with black students in a 99-percent-black high school in a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Ogbu concluded that one reason for blacks’ educational failures was ‘a kind of cultural orientation which defines academic learning in school as “acting white,” and academic success as the prerogative of white Americans.’ This orientation viewed academically successful black students as turn-coats of a sort, who mimicked white attitudes and behaviors and rejected authentically black ones. (Schwartz, 2003: 129) It’s against such a background that we find some Afrocentric writing is explicitly hostile to the demands of ‘courteous’ rational presentation:



the author couldn’t care less about following the guidelines of the Chicago Manual of Style, the APA Manual, or any other so-called ‘proper’ writing format. Common language is used so that anyone can understand. (Shabazz, 1992: 8) The new social movements of Black civil rights campaigners and Afrocentric writers argue strongly that, because of histories of cultural difference, it’s necessary for the public sphere to expand to include forms of communication beyond the logical rationality of Western philosophy. For writers from a ‘modern’ perspective, such arguments are misguided because they fail to realize that the Western tradition of logical rationality is in fact the best one, and that Black students should be striving to learn it in order to enter the public sphere on equal terms with other citizens.

Spectacular rationality For Afrocentric writers, a spectacular form of communication like rap music can be an important form of public communication for Black Americans.7 Michael C. Dawson traces a Black American public sphere consisting of ‘rap music . . . black fiction . . . politically oriented community based cable TV shows . . . and Black movies . . .’ (Dawson, 1995: 219–220; see also Herbst, 1994). B-Real from rap group Cypress Hill claims that ‘we’re journalists . . . I’ll take an experience that involves one of us . . . and I’ll explain what happened and why’; while Chuck D calls rap music ‘Black America’s TV station . . . Black Life doesn’t get the total spectrum of information from anything else’ (both quoted by Eisworth, 1996: 33). Rose agrees that rap music ‘is Black American TV, a public and highly accessible place, where black meanings and perspectives . . . can be shared and validated among black people’ (Rose, 1994b: 17). Julian L. D. Shabazz believes that ‘Rap artists like Public Enemy . . . are not public office holders, but they carry more political clout than a lot of politicians currently occupying a seat on Capitol Hill’ (1992: 6; see also Rose, 1994b: 122). The genre provides ‘the national forum for Black youth concerns and often impetus for discussion around those issues’ (Kitwana, 2002: 201):


The Public Sphere

Many young adults do not have access to traditional media to discuss issues of concern to them. Rap music provides them with access to media . . . the words of their music and the images in their videos are usually stark urban landscapes that paint a desolate picture of the world they inhabit. (Washington and Shaver, 1997: 173) Not all Black writers agree with this analysis, of course. Paul Gilroy, for example, worries that this Afrocentric approach to culture is too tied to tradition (Gilroy, 1995: 79); Boyd argues that it distracts us from the reality of material oppression, and that capitalist culture will always oppress Black people (Boyd, 1995: 298). But we can, nevertheless, identify a distinctive Afrocentric tradition of writing which sees in the spectacular forms of hip hop a successfully Black form of public communication.

Lyrics in rap music It’s ironic, given all the arguments above about oral and performative traditions in Black culture, that rap, more than most forms of popular music, puts an emphasis on lyrics. We can start an analysis of how this area of the public sphere works by returning to the detailed analysis of written words, for these are in fact an important part of rap music for many of its listeners (Eisworth, 1996: 48). Not all rap music is celebrated for its political insight. Gangsta rap concerns many Black writers for its ‘impulses toward misogyny, homophobia [and] corporate greed’ (Marable, 2002: np). But many rap artists are explicitly political in their work. Public Enemy were ‘rap’s first superstar group’ (Rose, 1994b: 4). The lyrics on their albums Yo! Bum Rush the Show, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet, Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Back, Greatest Misses, and Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age express their ‘radical politics’ (Dyson, 1996: 166). Their work: ‘has confronted . . . most of the conflicts faced by young Blacks over the last decade. Racist white media and sellout Black bourgeoisie’ (165). They discuss ‘social dilemmas . . . economic problems, violence, social alienation, polarization of social units, and cultural and social deprivation’ (Washington and Shaver, 1997: 174) — but



they don’t do so using Western philosophy’s rules of what counts as rational argumentation. Public Enemy challenge urban black youths to fight social injustice, economic loss, police brutality and urge them to value themselves, have positive self-perspectives, to be revolutionaries and to make changes. The images and lyrics direct youths to specific behaviours and beliefs. (175) Their lyrics explicitly instruct listeners not to take their music as pure entertainment, but to: ‘Listen for lessons I’m saying inside music/that the critics are blasting me for/they’ll never care for the brothers and sisters’ (Ridenhour et al., 1988b). They tell stories of the American government being ‘deceitful’, the media being ‘absurd’, of Black ‘pride and unity’ and of ‘antagonist’ whites (Eisworth, 1996: 52–59): By looking critically at the institutions that purportedly exist to help them [education, police, government] Black youths can prepare themselves to understand and change the forces that threaten their future. (Washington and Shaver, 1997: 172; see also Rose, 1994b: 105) Public Enemy write alternative histories of American culture, where the ‘red, white and blue’ stand for bloodshed, the blues — and ‘white is for the obvious’ (Ridenhour et al., 1994). They suggest that the current system of racial discrimination and the effects of history result in a situation in the United States which is still equivalent to slavery: ‘Four of us packed in a cell like slaves’ (Ridenhour et al., 1988). They accuse the mainstream media of presenting a white version of stories: ‘that flip the way the story goes’ (Ridenhour et al., 1994b). The lyrics of Public Enemy offer political responses to structural issues of racism. They comment on the use of Black superstars to promote sportswear by companies whose profits rely on exploiting Black workers and consumers: ‘the neighbourhood supports so put some money in it’ (Ridenhour et al., 1991b). They draw attention to the way that Black culture is used to make profits for white


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executives, with Black radio stations programmed by ‘suckers’ who ‘don’t even live here’ (Ridenhour et al., 1991c). They encourage Black listeners to challenge the destruction of Black communities by alcohol, asking listeners how often they’ve seen ‘A Black fight a Black’ after ‘drinking down a bottle’ (Ridenhour et al., 1991d). Public Enemy want to ‘persuade Blacks to unite and act against injustice brought on by institutionalized racism and self-destruction’ (Eisworth, 1996: 59). They offer a ‘concrete political agenda’ (Kitwana, 2002: 178) — struggling for education, workers’ rights, reparations, urban infrastructure, addressing youth poverty and anti-youth legislation, and engaging with foreign policy (178–182). They have reveal[ed] the process of civilization, which is the story of dominance . . . they have a powerful political statement . . . the music . . . can help to unite . . . [and] help someone say ‘Fuck off’ to the oppressor. (quoted, D, 1997: 58) They have ‘mobilized the minds of the youth to turn against the evil things that destroy their lives’ (quoted, D, 1997: 257). Tricia Rose gives an example of seeing a Black youth who has learned from rap to stand up to authority. Watching a white cop harassing a Black boy for no reason, she sees the boy respond with ‘Who protects us from you?’ (a Public Enemy line): ‘the officer expected submission; instead he found contemptuous indifference . . . I could sense the tables being turned on the officer’ (Rose, 1994b: 110). Eventually he gave up and left the boy alone.

The propositionality of spectacular media But for new social movements — and for the ‘postmodern’ thinkers who accept their arguments — it’s not only written or spoken words that can function as part of the public sphere. Rap music is more than just its lyrics (Rose, 1994b: 124; Eisworth, 1996: 10, 35–50). It also involves rhythm, performance and visuals. In part these are important simply because they allow rap’s messages to reach its audience. The consumers who enjoy rap might not read a



philosophical textbook that raises issues about structural racism, but ‘Rap music reaches young people in ways not approached by . . . authority . . . through the use of humour . . . defiance and hostility’ (Eisworth, 1996: 1; see also D, 1997: 5, 242–243). And there’s also the possibility that the forms of Black music themselves communicate a message. Philosophical debate continues about how visual and musical texts communicate (Dahlgren, 1995: 104; Hartley, 1996: 178, 202; McGuigan, 1996: 178; Lee, 1992: 411). Do they supply only pleasure and feelings, or can they offer ideas? Do they make ‘propositions’ — ‘claims to truth’ that can be tested (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 160)? Can music or visuals make statements? Although there’s no philosophical agreement on this, some writers on Black culture make explicit that they see Black dance and music making propositions: as one commentator puts it: ‘The Laura [Indigenous] Dance Festival is a public statement of the continuity of cultural transmission’ (Henry, 2000: 322; see also Kleinert, 1999: 345). Black forms of dance can be a ‘critique’ (Turner, quoted in Kleinert, 1999: 347); they can ‘spea[k] with an ancient yet completely contemporary voice’ (Bangarra, 2003); and ‘giv[e] voice to social and political issues’ (Bangarra, 2003b). They can be ‘a new language’ (Stephen Page, quoted in Bangarra, 2003c; see also Hartley, 1996: 178). For many writers on Black culture, the forms taken by the music in rap make a number of propositions. The first of these is an insistence on the importance of Black cultural traditions and their importance. Rap artists often demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the history of the form: The knowledge which rappers draw on is not only their own day to day experience but also the entire recorded tradition of AfricanAmerican music. (Potter, 1995: 22; see also Dyson, 1996: 162) Rose argues that rap’s musical form, in its awareness of and use of its ‘forebears’, makes a proposition that heritage is important: Through disco, street funk, radio DJs, Bo Diddley, the bebop singers, Cab Calloway, Pigmeat Markham, the tap dancers and comics, the


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Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Muhammad Ali, a capella and doo wop groups, ring games, skip rope rhymes, prison and army songs, toasts, signifying and the dozens. (Rose, 1994b: 85) Similarly, Rose identifies the importance of rhythm in rap music: Rap’s rhythms are its most powerful effect . . . the use of repetition and musical breaks are part of a rich history of New York black traditions and practices. Rap music centers on the quality and nature of rhythm and sound, the lowest, ‘fattest beats’ being the most significant and emotionally charged. (Rose, 1994b: 65) In this, rap music draws on Black musical traditions, where ‘complexity’ is found in ‘the rhythmic and percussive density and organization’ — in contrast to white Western musical traditions, where complexity is found in ‘tonal . . . harmony’ (Rose, 1994b: 65–66). A second statement that some commentators find in rap’s musical form asserts the constructed nature of language. For many fans of rap music: ‘[i]t is without question the rhymes that come first’ (Rose, 1994b: 81) — showy language, showy performance, a use of language that is not neutral or transparent but draws attention to itself, using extensive ‘metonymy, metaphor and homophonic slippage . . . to establish multiple and overlapping streams of association’ (82). Rap music is ‘[t]he home of innovative uses of style and language, hilariously funny carnivalesque and chitlin-circuit inspired dramatic skits and ribald storytelling’ (19). It draws on ‘black poetic traditions and the oral forms that underwrite them . . . collage, intertextuality, boasting, toasting and signifying’ (Rose, 1994b: 64). Verbal playfulness has been a central part of Black American culture since the experience of slavery. Black Americans could not speak out explicitly against their enslavers, but developed a ‘vernacular tradition’ (Potter, 1995: 9) of ‘verbal play’ — the ‘ludic’ (playful) as a ‘mode of resistance’ (15) that allowed ‘struggle and survival despite periods of hopelessness’ (Washington and Shaver, 1997: 167). By saying things without explicitly saying them, it was possible to talk back, to resist and to survive as a community.



Visuals and music: the statements of Public Enemy music videos Perhaps the most controversial of Public Enemy’s music videos was that for ‘By the time I get to Arizona’, which featured politicians being shot and ended with a huge explosion — spectacle to rival teen action films. The ‘message was that Dr King was our hero’ (D, 1997: 195) — the song was written to protest Arizona’s refusal to acknowledge Martin Luther King’s birthday with a public holiday — and this message was communicated by visual as well as lyrical means. Some Black commentators suggest that this visual element is an important part of rap’s communicative form: Not only rappers’ lyrics but also graphic images emphasize the outlaw as a major figure . . . various cinematic devices [include] . . . mixing color video with black and white images . . . detailing messages in background signs . . . interrupting noises (eg . . . crashes . . .) videos provide a variety of presentation styles that are designed to present their messages through channels easily understood by listeners and viewers . . . fast-paced, mixed-style. (Washington and Shaver, 1997: 175) Public Enemy’s music videos use several visual elements to communicate political messages. The simplest, and perhaps the most powerful, is the use of actuality footage in the music videos. In the video for ‘Incident at beach state’, images of police attacking black partygoers is intercut with docudrama footage of white residents of the area saying ‘It’s their own fault’ and ‘I think the police did a good job of keeping violence to a minimum’ (Edinborough, 1991). ‘Get the fuck outta Dodge’ includes footage of cops and black men fighting: ‘there you have it’, comments T-Money, ‘unprovoked violence and assault’ (Edinborough, 1991). The political potential of such spectacular footage is clear in Black culture — we have the case of Rodney King to remember. It’s not logical argumentation, in the ‘modern’ sense, but it is persuasive.


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The videos also use humour: in ‘911 is a joke’, as the lyrics suggest that 911 emergency services don’t come promptly or provide good service in Black neighbourhoods, the video shows ambulance workers carelessly dropping the body of a Black man, eating a sandwich as they drag his body (Edinborough, 1991). Another video employs a parody of news formats, with Sister Souljah as the news presenter of PETV (parodying the middle-class BET — Black Entertainment Television) (Edinborough, 1991). As the song about war continues, Chuck D and Terminator X stand on the back of a moving truck, explosions overlaid on the image. This is a metaphor made visual — made spectacular. We are at war. The videos also edit images together to suggest links between them. They put together recreated footage of a slave auction with shots of modern factory workers; Black slaves being raped with shots of a white boss sexually harassing a Black secretary; images of a lynching with apparently actuality footage of cops beating a motorist (Edinborough, 1991). None of these techniques are rational, in the ‘modern’ sense. But they are persuasive: and so rational within a ‘postmodern’ paradigm. They work to communicate political propositions and ideas for action to an audience who don’t engage with the quality, serious media of the bourgeois public sphere. And they use spectacular means to do so.

Don’t matter if you’re Black or white From a ‘modern’ perspective, this argument is misguided. It’s actually an argument against equality and democracy, because it’s championing a form of spectacular public argumentation which is dangerous and can lead to domination by demagogues. By promoting popularly persuasive forms of argument, through emotional and bodily appeals, such an argument opens the floodgates to oppression. It may be necessary to recognize cultural difference, modern thinkers would argue, but it’s also necessary to draw the line somewhere: there have to be certain things in a nation that are universal, that everybody, no matter what their cultural background, agrees on. The form taken by public debate is one of these.



From a ‘postmodern’ perspective, however, this argument is convincing. In order to promote equality in a democracy, cultural difference must be respected. Rap music, drawing as explicitly as it does on Black cultural heritage and traditions, is an important part of opening up the public sphere to citizens who identify with that culture. Once again, both these responses are correct. We can agree factually that traditionally Black culture has relied more on spectacular — oral and performative — forms of communication than has educated white culture. But we can’t agree on the correct attitude towards this: whether this should be regarded as valuable. There may be many forms of rational communication in a variety of cultural contexts. But if we allow different groups to communicate in different ways — abandoning the ideal of a single form of universal rationality that everybody has to employ — will that lead to fragmentation of our public life? If we imagine many distinct and overlapping public spheres, involving different people communicating in different ways, do we end up with a kind of Babel where society falls to bits? These questions are examined in the next chapter.

Chapter 4


If you visit any major city in Australia, the UK or the USA, you’ll be able to find a community newspaper directed at gay men and lesbians. The Pink Paper, The Sydney Star Observer, the Dallas Voice, Boyz and hundreds of others provide a space where gay men and lesbians can find out what’s happening in their area, follow public debates of relevance to their community, and develop a distinct public sphere for their culture. These community newspapers include stories about individual gay men and lesbians, discussions of legislation relevant to sexuality, reports on research into gay and lesbian issues, reviews of Queer culture and interviews with its producers. Queer newspapers, magazines, videos, public meetings and television programs contribute to a ‘Queer public sphere’; one of many distinct public spheres which are addressed to a particular culture in Western countries. As I’ve discussed in this book, we can also find Black public spheres (Dawson, 1995: 219–220) and feminist public spheres (Felski, 1989). In the first three chapters I’ve argued that different cultures offer different identities to participants, including different kinds of knowledge and different ways of communicating about that knowledge. Is it a good thing that different cultures have their own public spaces, addressing issues that are supposed to be of interest to them, using their own culture’s forms of communication? Or is it rather another sign of the degeneration of the public sphere? Some popular and academic writers worry that the public sphere in Western countries is fragmenting. There’s too much choice. These writers are concerned that increasing numbers of niche audiences, more television channels, radio channels, magazines and Internet sites mean that the public is no longer coherent. There’s not enough 140



common culture where all of the inhabitants of a country can come together to discuss the issues that affect everybody: developments in media technology and media markets . . . are moving us toward interpersonal systems of communication at the expense of mass communication and toward a highly segmented media market place made up of interest-specific market niches at the expense of a more generalized media . . . (Garnham, 1992: 369) We need to have a single public sphere, they say, in order for democracy to work: the problem is to construct systems of democratic accountability integrated with media systems of matching scale that occupy the same social space as that over which economic or political decisions will be made. If the impact is universal, then both the political and media systems must be universal. In this sense, a series of autonomous public spheres is insufficient. There must be a single public sphere, even if we might want to conceive of this single public sphere as made up of a series of subsidiary public spheres, each organized around its own political structure, media system, and set of norms and interests. (Garnham, 1992: 371) ‘Modern’ writers worry that abandoning a commitment to a single, unfragmented public sphere leads to ‘depoliticization’ (Wilson, 1985: 211). Todd Gitlin, for example, believes that if we abandon the idea of a single public sphere, we then lose the idea of a common interest among all people, and so face ‘the irretrievable loss of elements of a modernist public commonality’ (see Sinclair and Cunningham, 2000: 28). Once again, there’s another position on this issue, argued by new social movements in Western countries. Some Queer, feminist and Black writers have argued that these niche audiences and interpersonal systems of communication are important for the Queer, feminist and Black communities; that they allow these communities to develop their own ideas and public positions. A ‘modern’ approach, favouring unity and transcendence, will refuse these arguments in


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favour of an equality of everybody being treated the same. A ‘postmodern’ approach, favouring plurality, will accept these arguments, promoting equality of access to the public sphere. Once again, both of these positions are correct, and both are equally reasonable ways to make sense of the cultures in which we live.

Historically fragmented Until this point in the book I’ve been using the term ‘public sphere’ as though it described a singular entity — that there’s only one public sphere in each country. Although I’ve used this term for convenience, it might be misleading, as I discuss below. As I suggested in the Introduction to this book, and have illustrated in each chapter, when we discuss the current nature of the public sphere in Western countries we’re not looking at something that’s only happened ‘nowadays’ or ‘in today’s world’. The nature of the public sphere has been remarkably consistent historically over the past three hundred years: and the public sphere has always been fragmented. Distinct classed and gendered public cultures have existed since the emergence of the modern public sphere. Habermas notes: ‘. . . the coexistence of competing public spheres . . . from the very beginning’ (Habermas, 1992: 425; see also Eley, 1992: 306; Fraser, 1990: 61; Boyte, 1992: 344; Garnham, 1992: 359; Dahlgren, 1995: 11; Habermas, 1989: 29; Zaret, 1992: 23; Harris, 1996: 19). Historically there have been distinct public spheres organized around different political beliefs and geographical locations; and public spheres for other identity groups (such as Black, Spanish and Jewish people) have existed in Western countries at least since the nineteenth century (Hutton and Reed, eds, 1995). There remains a sense, though (articulated in many of the writers quoted in this book), that although these public spheres have existed throughout modernity, something about their status is changing in recent times. I suspect that what’s happening currently is that the various public spheres which have always existed are now more visible to each other than has been the case in the past. In the eighteenth century only educated men were allowed to vote in Western countries. This meant that the public cultures of women and working-class people simply didn’t matter. They didn’t



have the vote. It didn’t really matter what they were thinking — because they couldn’t do anything about it. The white educated male public sphere was not the only public sphere — but it was the only official public sphere. It was the only one concerned with ‘state policy’ (Outhwaite, 1996: 7). Only educated men belonged to what we might call the ‘national public sphere’ (Dayan, 1999: 28) or ‘the public sphere at large’ (Dayan, 1999: 29) or ‘the political public sphere’ (Dahlgren, 1995: 9).1 As Habermas puts it, discussing an eighteenth-century novel: ‘Of Richardson’s Pamela it could be said that it was read by the entire public, that is by “everyone” who read at all’ (Habermas, 1989: 174). In the eighteenth century, a white propertied man only had to worry about his own public sphere because ‘everybody’ — that is, everybody who mattered, who had the vote, who was actually engaged in public life — was in that public sphere anyway. This is no longer the case. Women and working-class people (and Black people and openly Queer people) now vote. Their public spheres become important because they are part of the official public sphere. It’s necessary now for educated men to know what workingclass audiences are debating, because it might affect legislation that will then apply to them. There may also be a technological element to this increased visibility of multiple public spheres. Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) has argued that television has changed the relationship between different group cultures. He suggests that before broadcasting, distinct public spheres were spatially separated — if you wanted to listen to women’s after-dinner conversation, you would have to go into the room with them (in Victorian times, men and women conventionally retired to separate rooms after dinner to have separate conversations — the men about politics and business, the women about domestic and cultural issues). If you wanted to hear Black music, you would go to a club that played Black music. If you wanted to see what kind of drama the working classes were watching you had to go into a working-class area and visit a vaudeville theatre. Even buying a gay magazine required you to go into a newsagent and make a public pronouncement about your sexuality. It was difficult to cross between public cultures. But broadcast media, Meyrowitz argues, are different. Radio and television are sent out widely for domestic


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consumption. It’s easy to watch a program aimed at women (soap operas) or Black or working-class audiences (certain talk shows) or Queer audiences (some magazine programs and drama shows), no matter which culture you personally feel most comfortable with. You can learn about different public cultures without making any potentially dangerous investment in them.

Is a homogenous public sphere desirable? The official public sphere has now changed: working-class and female audiences are now allowed to vote: and they have brought elements of their traditional culture with them. Whether we view this as a gain or a loss depends on our attitudes towards cultural difference. The important questions here are about a central issue that has concerned political theory — in order for public debate to exist, do we need everybody to think of themselves as basically the same (we’re all human); or do we need people to think of themselves as basically different (I’m an educated man first, and human second)? Should we look for similarity with other people, or for difference from them? (see Benhabib, ed., 1996). The ‘modern’ tradition of academic writing on this topic has tended to favour similarity — that people must believe themselves to be basically the same in order to have reasonable public debates. Whether in Kant’s critical philosophy, or in political practice, [critics] argue, the bourgeois public sphere is founded on an abstract principle of generality, deployed in the fight against any and all particularity. (Hansen, 1993: xxvii) This commitment to a ‘homogeneous public’ (Iris Marion Young, quoted in Matuˇst´ık, 2001: 263) continues in the work of writers like Todd Gitlin and Nicholas Garnham, who insist that: it is impossible to conceive of a viable democratic polity without at the same time conceiving of at least some common normative dimension . . . cultural relativism and a democratic polity are simply incompatible. (Garnham, 1992: 369)



This is also Habermas’s position on the issue. He argues strongly that society was better off when only one group was allowed access to the vote — because when other groups began to be admitted, the public sphere began to fragment. He’s quite explicit in his argument that historically the public sphere was better when the working classes, women and Blacks were excluded. He argues this not because he’s a snob, a sexist or a racist. He genuinely wants equal access to the public sphere for all citizens. But he doesn’t want those citizens to bring their distinct cultures and identities with them, for he thinks this works against equality. In order for everybody to be equal in public debate — which is his ultimate goal — they must leave their differences at the door and agree to all speak the same language. And historically, he concludes, the working classes and women have been unable to do this. In the eighteenth century, the public sphere was dominated by people of a particular cultural background — formally educated white men. Because of their common background, it was possible for these men to reach agreement on issues. They really did have a ‘general interest’ (Habermas, 1989: 223); and they really could reach decisions that meant that everyone’s ‘needs’ were being met (Habermas, 1989: 234). We can say that the eighteenth-century official public sphere ‘disregarded status altogether’ (Habermas, quoted in Calhoun, 1992b: 12), because it wasn’t an issue. Everyone who could vote was roughly equal — all were property owning and affluent. Because everybody was basically the same, ‘the public could . . . be interpreted as composed of free individuals’ (Habermas, 1989: 131). This meant that in public debates it was possible to reach consensus — a position that everybody actually agreed with.2 And, Habermas argues, this public sphere managed to maintain a commitment to ‘the principle of universal access’ because, even though most of the population was excluded, they weren’t citizens — they didn’t have the vote — and so they weren’t actually members of the public. So this public sphere offered universal access to the public — although it did exclude most of the people living in the country at the time (Habermas, 1989: 85). However, when the public sphere began to open up, and other demographic groups (working-class citizens) were allowed to vote, the situation changed. It was no longer the case that everybody


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in the public sphere was speaking from the same position, with the same experiences and same interests. The working classes were ‘systematically disadvantaged’ (McCarthy, 1989: xii) by the freemarket forms of economic organization that were in place at the time, and so they sought major changes in social organization — in the form of ‘state regulation and compensation’ (McCarthy, 1989: xii). Because people from different backgrounds — rather than the same background — were now involved in the public sphere ‘it lost . . . coherence’ (Habermas, 1989: 131–132). The public sphere had to deal with ‘irreconcilable interests’ (Habermas, 1992: 440). It was no longer possible to reach consensus — where everybody believed in the final position: The public sphere was burdened with the tasks of settling conflicts of interest that could not be accommodated within the classical forms of parliamentary consensus and agreement. Compromise literally had to be haggled out. (Habermas, 1989: 198) Rather than consensus, it was now possible only to reach ‘compromise’ (Calhoun, 1992b: 22) — where none of the groups involved actually believed that the final position was the best possible one, but they accepted it was the best they were going to get: having to deal with other people who had conflicting interests.

Against homogeneity This position is still generally accepted by academic writers within the ‘modern’ paradigm. By contrast, the Queer activists of that new social movement, and the ‘postmodern’ writers who accept their arguments, disagree. They argue for the importance of diversity rather than uniformity: and they argue that it’s possible to have real debate even if people are speaking from within different paradigms and different demographic cultures. Gay men and lesbians have never officially been excluded from the political public sphere. It’s never been directly illegal for them to vote. It was illegal for gay men to have sex with other men for most of the twentieth century in the UK, USA and Australia



(and still is in some states of the USA). If caught, they could be imprisoned or locked up in psychiatric institutions — which would mean that they then wouldn’t have the vote. But so long as they kept themselves ‘closeted’, never told anybody about their sexual desires and did not attempt to bring their culture into the public sphere, they would have an equal right to vote. So when the gay and lesbian rights movement took off in the 1970s, it was in the form of a new social movement — fighting not for the right to vote, but for the right to recognition: for the right to have their culture publicly acknowledged, and not to have other rights taken away because of it (see Altman, 1972). They didn’t want the ‘compensations that the welfare state can provide. Rather the question [was] how to defend or reinstate endangered ways of life . . . [and] the grammar of forms of life’ (Habermas, quoted in White, 1989: 123). They fought for public life to recognize cultural diversity. Queer activism is a variant of the gay and lesbian rights movement (see Seidman, 1997) that continues the fight for public recognition of cultural diversity: Queer is by definition, whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant . . . a positionality that is not restricted to lesbians and gay men, but is in fact available to anyone who feels marginalized because of her or his sexual practices: it could include some married couples without children, for example, or even (who knows) some married couples with children — with, perhaps, very naughty children. (Halperin, 1995: 62) Indeed, some Queer writers say that the desire for everybody to be the same — for culture to be ‘homogeneous’ (‘consisting of parts or elements all of the same kind’ – OED) — is a ‘straight’ vision (which isn’t the same thing as ‘heterosexual’, but can overlap with it). They explicitly define their own Queer culture as promoting difference and diversity, against the ‘staid, predictable and boring’ (Dunne 1995: 59), ‘respectable . . . boring [and] stupid’ (Viegner 1993: 117) mainstream of ‘straight’ culture. One of the key terms of Queer theory is ‘heteronormativity’ — the impulse of ‘straight’ culture to


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try to make everybody fit into the same norms of behaviour — not just sexually, but culturally (see Ryfe, 2003: 560; Pearson, 2003: 93). Queer activists argue that straight culture tries to impose itself on all other cultures; and it argues against this attempt.

Does the official public sphere deal with the most important issues? From a ‘modern’ perspective, the recognition of cultural diversity in the official public sphere is problematic for three reasons. Firstly, ‘modern’ writers are concerned that by allowing a variety of public spheres to exist, discussing different issues, we draw attention away from the official public sphere, which is where the really important issues of material redistribution managed by the government of the nation-state are discussed: ‘material and structural questions of equal jobs, pay and citizenship’ (Coole, 1998: 118). Secondly, allowing cultural difference into the official public sphere, argue ‘modern’ writers, encourages people to be selfish, only thinking about people in their own social groups rather than about society as a whole. Thirdly, as mentioned above, it isn’t clear just how different groups can communicate with each other in the official public sphere, where national politics is discussed, if they have their own distinct public spheres, drawing on different paradigms to discuss different issues in different ways. I’ll discuss this further below. To take these points in order: the question of which is more important — the issues discussed by the Queer public sphere (some aspects of national politics, but also local community politics, Queer art and representation, and so on) or those discussed by the official public sphere (official parliamentary politics) — is obviously one of attitude rather than fact. ‘Modern’ and ‘postmodern’ writers will have different answers to this question. Nicholas Garnham represents the ‘modern’ paradigm when he argues that discussion ‘of national issues must take place at a national level and is undercut by a multiplication of simultaneous viewing and listening options’ (Garnham, 1990: 113).



The new social movements which have caused this disruption don’t agree with this characterization of the public sphere. For them, their own local interests are just as — if not more — important than official national politics. Most of the marginalized demographic groups discussed in this book have at some point declared themselves to be a nation — a Women’s Nation (Herman, 1995: 179, 180), Black Nation (Dyson, 1996: 113; Gregory, 1970[1972]: 120) or Queer Nation (Chee, 1991: 15; Lane, 1999: 259) — thus claiming that they see themselves as sovereign, establishing their own laws and rules of conduct for the lives of their citizens. Many gay men and lesbians in the 1990s and the twenty-first century have argued that the ideological and repressive apparatuses of the Queer community actually impinge on their everyday lives more than the laws of the state do. ‘Postmodern’ academic writing provides a political theory paradigm that supports this claim. Some recent work has emphasized the fact that nations can exist separately from states (Gottlieb, 1994; Held, 1996; Keating, 1996, 2000; Hardt and Negri, 2000). Historical accounts point out that the nationstate, although currently the predominant form of political and social organization, has not always been so (commentators often cite as the moment of its birth the French Revolution; Torpey, 2000: 20), nor has it ever been universal (Dolivet, 1946: 4; Torpey, 2000: 72, 127). When the corollary of the ‘state’ is removed from ‘nation-state’, the remaining ‘nation’ can be described as a ‘cultural artefact’ (Anderson, 1991: 4): ‘an imagined political community — imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’ (Anderson, 1991: 6). A nation is a body of people who see part at least of their identity in terms of a single communal identity with some considerable historical continuity of union, with major elements of common culture, and with a sense of geographical location at least for a good part of those who make up the nation . . . all of these criteria may be false in any set of examples . . . nations can exist despite extensive dispersion geographically — there are very many Chinese outside of China . . . whilst Poland continued to exist as a nation throughout the several lengthy periods when it had no official political existence on any map of Europe . . . (Robertson, 1985: 223)


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There remains a question of sovereignty: that a nation must be recognized as being, to some degree, independent in its selfmanagement. However, even this need not be a stumbling block for ‘postmodern’ thinking about a Queer Nation. As Keating points out (2000), nation-states have always — and nowadays more than ever do so with the increasing importance of supranational constructs such as Europe — existed as part of stacked hierarchies of legislation and control. Queer Nations are not free of levels of sovereignty above them: but neither is Scotland in the United Kingdom; and neither is the United Kingdom in Europe. There is unquestionably a degree of sovereignty within a Queer Nation. Under international law, nationhood is judged in two primary ways: the possession of land; and adherence to laws and customs of a community (Reynolds, 1996: 10, 17, 27, 31–37). In at least one sense, the Queer community not only controls land but also controls entry to it. In one way this is no more than the ownership of ‘private property’; but it can also bear comparison, if you accept ‘postmodern’ attitudes of plurality and contextualism towards nationhood, with passport control. One writer tells how ‘a male friend was interrogated by the bouncer on the names of several gay porn stars before he could gain admission [to a Queer bar in New York]’ (Chee, 1991: 17). The Queer Nation also clearly has customs and laws that ‘affect the members of the community . . . in such ways as to make their general conduct conform to certain standards in their mutual arrangements’ (Lindley, quoted in Reynolds, 1996: 57; see also Latham, 2001: 7). This is made clear in the publications of Queer dissenters. These writers critique Queer citizenship, examining the ‘absolute dut[ies]’ of being gay; ‘the dictates of gay and lesbian pride’ (Eadie, 1996: 68), the danger of being branded a ‘traitor’ (Patterson and Le Bl´e, 1996: 118); and facing the ‘gay artillery fire of reverse moralism’ that such traitors should expect (La Bruce and Belverio, 1996: 156). The customs and laws of this nation include: r Taxation: there’s a requirement for Queer citizens to ‘contribut[e]

to AIDS charities’ (Sinfield, 1998: 192)



r Cultural observance: one must ‘attend earnest Queer movies’, for

example (Sinfield, 1998: 192; see also Rich, 1999: 83; Simpson, 1996c: 8) r Body management and public health: one must attend a gym; take recreational drugs; go to dance parties; and have meaningless casual sex (Crain, 1997: np; see also Sinfield, 1998: 192; Simpson, 1996b: xv) r Public comportment and correct behaviour: there are duties in regard to: ‘wearing the same jeans, haircut and . . . facial expression’ (Simpson, 1996c: 7) r Political participation: one must partake in the politics of spectacle by shopping, dressing, fucking and living with style (see Chapter 2 on the possibility of consumption being a part of citizenship) (Berlant and Freeman, 1993: 208). A political imagination is required, with a commitment to a vision of: ‘turning the whole world into a gay disco . . . [and awaiting] the Coming of the Kingdom of Kylie [Minogue] . . .’ (Simpson, 1996c: 10); we even have a Queer national anthem: ‘the People’s liberation anthem “Go West”’ (Tierney, 2003: 45) There is even, perhaps, a Queer State underlying this nation, for: [m]ainstream gay culture is a monolith, with clearly defined ideologies and goals, the product of three key institutions — gay political organisations, gay media and gay business. (Manning, 1996: 99; see also Williams, 2003: 34) For writers within a ‘modern’ paradigm, these arguments are unconvincing because of a different attitude about what is really important. These Queer writers argue that, for them, Queer culture is important, political and impinges on their lives. Academic writers in a ‘modern’ tradition would argue that what’s really important is the politics of the nation-state. A ‘postmodern’ attitude, agreeing with some Queer writers, argues that what’s really important for a group is what that group thinks is really important to it: and that for many Queer citizens, the Queer nation addressed by the Queer public sphere is as central to their political concerns as is the nation-state.


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Does recognizing cultural difference make people selfish? Secondly, writers within a ‘modern’ paradigm argue that in politics each individual should be fighting for, not what is best for them and their own kind, but what’s best for all the citizens in the nation — even if that’s not as good for them personally. When Queer citizens, for example, fight for Queer rights, they’re fighting only for their own group — a selfish orientation — and not thinking objectively about what’s good for everybody. Just because the outcome is a progressive one for Queers doesn’t mean it’s a good one for society. For writers taking this position, new social movements have a tendency to confuse the legitimate right of access of these groups [to the public sphere] with the enactment of policies conducive to their best interests even when they conflict with a broader public interest. (Wilson, 1985: 46) These writers argue that: ‘universality’ is a ‘key moment . . . in any democratic political practice’. We must, they argue, hold out: ‘a proper resistance to the reduction of politics . . . to the clash of power, in particular class interests’ (Garnham, 1990: 109). They argue that if we’re rational and serious, we can think beyond our own experiences and positions to a universal position, and genuinely understand what is best for everybody living in our country. Writers from new social movements, and the ‘postmodern’ academics who accept their arguments, disagree. They argue that everybody’s knowledge and thinking comes from some perspective, a background informed by their own experiences (see Chapters 1 and 2). Mary Ryan is typical when she claims that: ‘historians of the early republic and feminist political theorists have amply demonstrated [that] the universal citizen was not genderless but male’ (Ryan, 1992: 266–267) — that is, she thinks, when men claimed to represent everybody’s interest, it often turned out that they were in fact representing men’s interests. Habermas’s position on this question is interestingly ambivalent. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas



insists that the educated white men who formed the official public sphere in the eighteenth century never actually managed to transcend their class identity as educated white men — but because their interests were rational and educated, they did, in a way. That is to say, they did what was best for themselves — but this also turned out to be what was best for everybody. The eighteenth-century public sphere relied on ‘a series of fictions’ (Habermas, 1989: 117), a ‘false consciousness’ (124), an ‘ideology’ (130), which equated ‘bourgeois class interests’ with ‘public opinion’ (124). This version of the public sphere insisted that what was best for educated men was best for all human beings. But, says Habermas, even though this was a fiction — it also turned out to be true: ‘the objective function of the public sphere in the political realm could initially converge with its self-interpretation . . .’ (Habermas, 1989: 56); and ‘the liberal model sufficiently approximated reality so that the interest of the bourgeois class could be identified with the general interest . . .’ (Habermas, 1989: 87). Citizens cannot really escape the interests of their own group — but educated white men’s interests were good for everybody in the eighteenth century.3 The ‘postmodern’ attitude leads writers to argue against this idea. Some feminists and Queer activists have claimed that supposedly ‘universal’ struggles (such as socialism, for example) have tended to ignore the needs of straight women, lesbians and gay men: we know from the scholarship of the last two decades, [that] the socialist tradition’s official supportiveness for women’s rights usually concealed a practical indifference to giving them genuine priority in the movement’s agitation. (Eley, 1992: 316) Socialist men might claim to be fighting for everybody; but in practice, those members of new social movements who are fighting alongside them claim that this isn’t really the case: in the early 1970s . . . [w]omen in the civil rights and anti-war movements and in the New Left found that while their male colleagues were fighting to reorganize society, many of the men wanted some


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things to stay the same. They expected their women to cook, clean and keep the kids out of their way. The division of labour among the sexes was taken for granted. (Meyrowitz, 1985: 190; for a similar argument from a Queer perspective, see Edge, 1995) Accepting cultural difference, and that different groups might therefore have different, specific needs, Nancy Fraser argues that without the limited public spheres of particular identities, those groups cannot work out what their interests are, in order to bring them to discussion in the national public sphere. Allowing alreadydominant groups to decide what everyone has in common tends to exclude the cultures of less-powerful groups from the official public sphere. Excluding the discussion in smaller public spheres: works against one of the principal aims of deliberation, namely, helping participants clarify their interests, even when those interests turn out to conflict . . . the less powerful may not find ways to discover that the prevailing sense of ‘we’ does not adequately include them . . . the existence of a common good cannot be presumed in advance. (Fraser, 1990: 72) For ‘modern’ writers, the interests identified within formally educated white masculine culture are universal; for ‘postmodern’ writers, they’re not.4 There’s no way to provide factual data to convince either group to change their attitudes on this question. ‘Postmodern’ writers also argue that the presence of distinct public spheres for different cultural groups isn’t necessarily the end of the process of public discussion: it can rather provide safe spaces for members of disadvantaged groups to work out what their culture thinks about an issue: before taking this idea into larger public spaces for debate with other groups. Nancy Fraser, for example, challenges the underlying evaluative assumption . . . that the institutional confinement of public life to a single, overarching public sphere is a



positive and desirable state of affairs, whereas the proliferation of a multiplicity of publics represents a departure from, rather than an advance toward, democracy . . . I contend that in stratified societies [where various groups are recognised and not all are equal] arrangements that accommodate contestation among a plurality of competing publics better promote the ideal of participatory parity than does a single, comprehensive, overarching public . . . [W]here there is only a single, comprehensive public sphere . . . members of subordinated groups would have no arenas for deliberation among themselves about their needs, objectives and strategies. They would have no venues in which to undertake communicative processes that were not, as it were, under the supervision of dominant groups. In this situation, they would be less likely than otherwise to ‘find the right voice or words to express their thoughts’ and more likely than otherwise ‘to keep their wants inchoate’. This would render them less able than otherwise to articulate and defend their interest in the comprehensive public sphere. (Fraser, 1990: 66; see also Poole, 1989: 22; Calhoun, 1992b: 38) But how could different publics engage with each other in debate across their differing paradigms of public debate?

Can different cultures communicate with each other? This is the third concern raised by ‘modern’ writers: if we allow members of different cultures to discuss their own issues in their own forms of public language, will it be possible for these groups to talk to each other? If we enshrine cultural difference in the official public sphere, how will debate take place? ‘[W]ithout an overarching set of rules defining rational argument, how are disputes to be ultimately mediated?’ (Nicholson, 1999: 11). Can people speak to each other from within different paradigms? For after all: paradigms are incommensurable. There can be no compromise between Copernican astronomy and the Ptolemaic paradigm it replaced. The sun could not be the centre of the universe if we assumed the Earth was. (O’Neill, 1999: 11)


The Public Sphere

How can voices from different paradigms try to convince each other about what public opinion should be, if they don’t even speak the same language of debate? Or if they have different rules about what is to count as a convincing argument? (Baert, 1998: 148). It’s not surprising that academic thinkers worry about this issue of communicating across paradigms, as we have a particularly bad track record ourselves for trying to talk across different paradigms. The ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ thinkers I’ve been discussing in this book have tended to insult each other more than they’ve tried to understand each other, ‘talking past each other . . . in mutually selfrighteous terms’ (Pickering, 1997: 1), having ‘vitriolic exchanges’ (21), ‘medieval jousting tournament[s]’ (Tomaselli, 2004: 3) and ‘partisan bickering’ (Conway, 1999: 61). ‘At present, unfortunately, relations between the two camps are quite strained’ (Fraser, 2002: 21). Nevertheless, it is possible for people not only to make sense across paradigms of cultural and theoretical difference, but to convince people from different backgrounds of their views. This doesn’t happen with rational argument about facts, though. As noted in the Introduction: different kinds of disagreement call for different methods of achieving resolution. Disagreement in belief [about facts] can best be resolved by ascertaining the facts . . . [but with] disagreement in attitude . . . to . . consult documents and the like . . . would be fruitless . . . because the facts of the case are not at issue; the disagreement is not over what the facts are but how they are to be valued . . . when disagreement is in attitude rather than in belief, the most vigorous — and of course genuine — disagreement may be expressed in statements all of which are literally true . . . when two persons disagree about whether one thing is ‘better’ or ‘more important’ than another, they are both likely to think that there are differences of belief [in facts] that divide them . . . But a dispute whose superficial form is that of a difference about alleged matters of fact may in some cases really be a dispute — a genuine dispute — about attitudes. This is especially true when what is at dispute are the values of things or acts. (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 110–111)



Habermas also accepts that ‘not all types of disagreement are capable of resolution through adherence to an overarching set of principles of rationality’ (Nicholson, 1999: 124). And when people change their paradigms — from ‘modern’ to ‘postmodern’, or from one cultural background to another — they often describe the experience in religious rather than factual terms. Academic paradigms — like all belief systems — are ultimately based on attitudes, and thus on faith: we’re all ‘true believers’ for various positions (Holub, 1991: xii). For a ‘modern’ attitude, for example, you must have ‘faith in reason’ (Holub, 1991: 152). A change in paradigm is ‘a radical transformation of thought akin to a religious conversion’ (O’Neill, 1999: 11); ‘it is perhaps a “leap of faith” that Habermas both makes and offers’ (Davey, 1998: 184); like a ‘near-conversion’ (Keat, 1981: vii). But how can members of different cultural groups attempt to make such conversions happen if rational discussion of facts doesn’t do the job? Copi and Cohen, as I noted in the Introduction, argue that in trying to get people to change their attitudes (rather than their beliefs about facts), ‘rhetoric’ — that is, the strategies of persuasion described in the last chapter — can be used (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 110). This brings us back to the same difficulty described in that last chapter: from a ‘modern’ perspective, to use persuasive strategies other than logical rationality is undesirable, for (‘modern’ thinkers believe) other forms of argument are more likely to favour leaders who want to treat people unequally (the example of Hitler appealing to emotion). So we can identify many strategies by which members of different cultural groups might try to understand each other: but these will only be acceptable to thinkers in ‘postmodern’, rather than ‘modern’, paradigms. In practice, as Rita Felski notes, feminist public spheres (and it’s also true of Black and Queer public spheres) always try to talk to other public spheres, as well as to members of their own groups (Felski, 1989: 167). They don’t segregate off into discrete ghettos. Rather, they find forms of ‘cross-demographic communication’ (Hartley, 1999: 31): ‘the way in which different populations with no necessary mutual affinity do produce and maintain knowledge about each other, communicate with each other, stay in touch’ (32).


The Public Sphere

The mass media regularly communicate across demographic boundaries, finding ways to speak to men and women, formally and informally educated, Black and white citizens all at the same time. In finding ways to communicate across paradigms, it’s necessary to take an empirical rather than a theoretical approach — that is to say, cross-cultural communication is necessarily a ‘postmodern’ rather than a ‘modern’ project. I’ve tried to illustrate, in the first three chapters of this book, that the universalist commitments of a ‘modern’ paradigm mean that the idea of learning the language of another group in order to communicate with them is seen to be an undesirable project — because new social movements like feminism and Afrocentric writing are misguided. The cultures they represent — the trivial interests of what has traditionally been seen as women’s culture, the spectacular forms of communication that Afrocentric writers claim as their Black cultural heritage — need to be kept out of the public sphere. Even allowing them into the public sphere in order to communicate across cultural difference would result in a loss of equality, justice and freedom. From within a ‘modern’ paradigm, the possibilities for communication across cultural boundaries are limited. Within a ‘postmodern’ paradigm, however — with its acceptance of plurality — such communication is easier. The first requirement if you wish to conduct a debate across cultural difference is the need to learn, understand and use the language of the culture to which you’re talking. Each such conversation is an act of translation: When adults talk with their teenagers about the drug scene, the success of the discussion will depend greatly on the adults’ ability to talk about drugs in a way that carries meaning in terms of adolescent concerns and experiences — and vice versa . . . The dictionary meaning is of limited use: ‘A substance with medical, physiological effects’. This does not take into account the fact that adults and teenagers bring their own world of experience and association into the meaning of the word . . . The meaning of the word is determined in large part by each person’s characteristic frame of reference. (Szalay and Fisher, 1987: 167)



If we just get angry at people because they refuse to see that our facts are better than their facts, there’s little chance of successfully persuading them to change their views. Communications research usually starts with an emphasis on accepting the different ways in which cultures make sense of the world as a prerequisite to successful communication: A word is only a label or symbol for a thing . . . Because individuals experience the world in ways that are never identical, the meanings we attribute to words and the emotions we attach to them may be markedly different. In addition, words are often inadequate themselves as tools for describing complexity fully and clearly . . . Differences in life experience, age, ethnic origins, values and [a] myriad [of] other factors . . . all contribute to problems in . . . communication. (Tyson, 1998: 80) Secondly, you must make clear that you like the other culture, and that you understand and respect the attitudes of its members as you hope they will understand and respect your own. You must, metaphorically and (in visible and personal dealings) literally smile at people. Empirically, ‘the most important interpersonal attitude’, when trying to persuade or teach someone, is ‘liking or attraction’. This ‘is expressed in exactly the same way [physically] as happiness’ (Argyle, 1988: 135): ‘Many experiments have shown the powerful effects of head nods, smiles, gazes and leaning forward on conversation and on learning’(Argyle, 1988: 255). It’s no surprise that the mass media, who are the most successful exponents of cross-demographic communication, use smiling as one of their central practices: smiling has become one of the most important public virtues of our time, a uniform that must be worn on the lips of those whose social function it is to create, sustain, tutor, represent and make images of the public — to call it into discursive being . . . Smiling, in fact, is now the ‘dominant ideology’ of the ‘public domain’. (Hartley, 1992: 121–122)


The Public Sphere

Thirdly, in attempting to communicate across cultural differences, it is necessary to take seriously the possibility that you might learn something from the group that you’re talking to: that you might find that their way of seeing the world, or thinking about what counts as rational argument, might change how you think about these topics. You can hope that they understand what you are saying, without insisting that they have to take on that attitude themselves: ‘an interpreter can offer an interpretation to others and expect them to find it reasonable and insightful without also expecting them to drop their differing interpretations’ (Hoy in Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 264). You must enter into public debate across boundaries of cultural difference aiming at: ‘enlarging one’s interpretations and enriching them by holding them open to other interpretations’ (264). It’s thus possible that by using such rhetorical tricks as learning about the culture, smiling and remaining open-minded that you might persuade members of different cultures to think as you do: or that they might persuade you to think as they do; or even that you might create a new hybridized paradigm between you both (Alasdair Macintyre, cited in O’Neill, 1999: 20). And in all of this, you can’t know in advance what the rules of dialogue are going to be: whether Western academic logic, or spectacular logic, or another form of argument, or a hybrid of existing paradigms will prevail: I claim that although argument does require some points of agreement, these points can be understood as local and contingent — as themselves potentially debatable when other sources of agreement can be called on . . . even if one acknowledges the possibility of scenarios without agreement . . . this can be understood as a description of a real-life possibility from which only real-life resources, such as our abilities to be creative and our willingness to keep trying might save us. (Nicholson, 1999: 11–12) The key skills for this kind of public debate are no longer training in formal or informal academic logic, but ‘real-life resources, such as our abilities to be creative and our willingness to keep trying’ to



communicate with people whose languages of argument we might not at first understand. This makes sense within a ‘postmodern’ paradigm: but of course, for ‘modern’ writers this is no answer. Within a ‘modern’ paradigm, there can only be a single truth, a single correct form of rational argument, a single form of public debate that best promotes equality, freedom and democracy. This is the form of public life traditionally associated with Western, formally educated masculine culture. The problem for ‘modern’ writers is how to make the members of new social movements who argue against this idea stop arguing and accept that they’re wrong. We can offer empirical answers about how best to persuade people: but a ‘modern’ paradigm favours theory over empiricism (Rundell, 1991: 7). Theoretically, ‘modern’ writers need to persuade other groups that they’re wrong: and there’s no simple resolution to this quandary.

Fragmented discussion In conducting debate across cultural difference, the role of translators becomes extremely important — people, institutions or texts who communicate in the argumentative languages of more than one public sphere. In Australia, the UK and America the Queer public sphere is relatively distinct from — but not completely cut off from — other, wider and more official public spheres. It consists of elements of public culture which are more or less addressed to Queers. It includes, for example, pornography for gay men — which tends not to cross over and is largely consumed by gay men — including videos, magazines, books and Internet sites. Gay and lesbian community newspapers and magazines are again largely consumed by Queers. The Queer ‘scene’ — bars, pubs, clubs and coffee shops, with their associated public culture of drag queens, performances and community announcements — contributes. There are some Queer radio programs — they might be specifically named and aimed at Queers, or they might simply be loved by Queers (see Doty and Gove, 1997: 84). Some television programs are explicitly aimed at Queer audiences (such as the British magazine program Out on Tuesday). Some speak to Queer and straight audiences


The Public Sphere

simultaneously — like Queer as Folk and Will and Grace. There exist musical performers and television programs aimed at straight audiences which are also enjoyed by Queers — Britney, Madonna and Kylie, Melrose Place and Footballers’ Wives. In this Queer public sphere, issues of interest to a Queer public are discussed — sexuality and the practice of sex, Queer lifestyles, Queer cultures, Queer politics, problems of discrimination and oppression. The question of identity itself is discussed — whether we are all one, or all different, the place of diversity in a Queer community, whether you can be older or younger, black or white, rich or poor, and still claim to be ‘Queer’. A distinctly Queer form of communication — ‘camp’ — structures the public discourse of this sphere. It’s not quality, serious or rational; it’s playful and only ever half-serious. It’s a form of public engagement which instructs Queer citizens to worship ‘our Glorious LeaderTM ’ Madonna (‘Who’s that boy?’, 2003: 16). It invites you to ‘Test your Queer history’, examines your knowledge of symbolic politics (‘The pink triangle was adopted as a symbol by gays and lesbians because . . .’); members for the Queer nation (‘Which of the following people were gay? Oscar Wilde; King Louis XII; Peter Tchaikosky [sic]; Errol Flynn; Florence Nightingale’); and political history (‘The first country to give gays, lesbians and bisexuals specific protection in the Constitution was . . .’) — and then, if you manage to answer every question correctly does not congratulate your attention to civics, but tells you to ‘Get a life’ (‘Quiz’, 2001: 12). There is a Queer public sphere. And we can show that it’s not hermetically sealed from other public spheres. It even links to the official public sphere. Nancy Fraser argues that: Members of subordinated social groups — women, workers, people of colour and gays and lesbians — have repeatedly found it advantageous to constitute alternative publics . . . subaltern counterpublics . . . . Perhaps the most striking example is the late twentieth century US feminist subaltern counterpublic . . . In this public sphere, feminist women have invented new terms for describing social reality, including ‘sexism’, ‘the double shift’, ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘marital, date and acquaintance rape’ . . . the concept of counterpublics militates in the long run against separatism because



it assumes an orientation that is publicist. Insofar as these arenas are publics they are by definition not enclaves . . . to interact discursively as a member of a public . . . is to disseminate one’s discourse into ever widening arenas in stratified societies . . . counterpublics have a dual character. On the one hand they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics. (Fraser, 1990: 67, 68; see also Poole, 1989: 22; Dayan, 1999: 29) Specifically, Fraser shows that ideas that were generated in the feminist public sphere were then taken out to the official public sphere (see Chapter 1): until quite recently, feminists were in the minority in thinking that domestic violence against women was a matter of common concern and thus a legitimate topic of public discourse. The great majority of people considered this issue to be a private matter between what was assumed to be a fairly small number of heterosexual couples (and perhaps the social and legal professions who were supposed to deal with them). Then, feminists formed a subaltern counterpublic from which we disseminated a view of domestic violence as a widespread systematic feature of male-dominated societies. Eventually, after sustained discursive contestation, we succeeded in making it a common concern. (Fraser, 1990: 71) Similarly, Jim McGuigan argues that it was ideas generated in working-class public spheres (see Chapter 2) that passed into the official bourgeois public sphere in the nineteenth century and resulted in working-class people being given the vote (McGuigan, 1996: 26). And we can see that ideas generated in the Queer public sphere have spread out into wider public cultures: as in the case of gay marriage. The idea that gay and lesbian couples should be recognized by the state as legal partnerships in the same way that heterosexual couples are can be traced in the Queer public sphere for at least fifty years. It was initially discussed in a very hermetically sealed area that was not


The Public Sphere

even properly ‘public’ — gay and lesbian publications which had tiny circulations, were supplied only to the members of private lists and were not generally available. Magazines like Friendship and Freedom (from 1925) and Vice Versa (from 1947) circulated to gay and lesbian readers and discussed issues of relevance to them (Kepner, 1998 [1954]). But the history of gay and lesbian/Queer publications is one of increasing publicity — increasing availability, increasing visibility and increasing crossovers with other public spheres; the Mattachine Review (from 1953); The Ladder (from 1953); Citizen News (from 1961); Vector (from 1964); Free Press (from 1969); and Gay Sunshine (from 1970) were increasingly visible and public. In early magazines, we find discussions aimed at Queer readers of whether gay men should aim to have monogamous, marriagelike relationships; or whether they should celebrate their difference and freedom with lots of casual sex. In One magazine in 1954, Jim Kepner asks: ‘Are homosexuals different in any important way from other people? . . . Most become inured to breaking the rules . . . thus homosexuals are natural rebels’ (Kepner, 1998 [1954]: 13, 14). He celebrates this, and worries about what he sees in the 1950s as ‘the desire to make the world believe they are no different . . . [and the use of] popular slogans about . . . “sanctity of home, church and state”’ (15–16). These debates continue in the Queer public sphere during the 1960s and 70s. In 1974, Charles Shivley writes in Gay Sunshine about recent: ‘denunciations of one-night stands’ in the gay community, including ‘an Advocate [gay magazine] poll [which] asks the question: “Do you think that tearoom [casual sex] . . . ‘queens’ are a disgrace . . . to Gays?” [and] a recent front-page story in the Boston Gay Community News [which] condemns such sex because it might alienate the Massachusetts state legislature’ (Shivley, 1991 [1974]: 259). In the 1970s these Queer community newspapers were still relatively cut off from other public spheres. There’s little sense that straight public spheres before the 1970s were discussing the most appropriate forms of gay relationships; or considering the possibility of gay marriage. But during the 1980s this became more the case. As soap operas like Number 96 in Australia, Dynasty in the USA and EastEnders in the UK introduced gay characters, their relationships



became a matter of public discussion: ‘I was told that little old ladies on the buses were all talking about whether [gay character] Don [in Number 96] would stay with his boyfriend’ (Sale in McKee, 2001: 112). In the 1990s, Andrew Sullivan’s book Virtually Normal: an argument about homosexuality (Sullivan, 1995), written by a gay man addressing the issue of gay marriage, was part of the Queer public sphere (reviewed and discussed in Queer newspapers and magazines) but also a part of a public sphere of educated political philosophy — and through that to a straight ‘quality’ public sphere. Reality television has become a part of the Queer public sphere as it shows gay men discussing their lives — from Norman in the first season of The Real World onwards. When the first season of the US version of Survivor was won by openly gay man Richard Hatch, this became an opportunity for a mainstream public sphere to be exposed to the possibility of gay families. Hatch later fought to adopt a son, and his celebrity status guaranteed discussion of this issue in straight newspapers and magazines: ‘if people did not know that a single gay man might have the desire to adopt a child . . . they knew it now . . . [and] a powerful message was broadcast’ (Wright, 2003: 44). The hit US show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (from 2003) shows five gay men making over a straight guy each week, usually so that he can win the girl of his dreams or do something nice for his family. The show ‘influenc[ed] acceptance of gay marriage’, argues Michael Alvear by ‘subverting the stereotypes that support the arguments against it’ (Alvear, 2003: 10) — showing gay men to be fatherly, supportive and able to support familial relationships that don’t rely on sex. And so we reach a stage where a concept that was developed in a rigidly segregated, not even fully public Queer sphere has now passed over into a number of other public spheres — and has become of official concern. It’s reached the state, and issues of policy. In 2004, San Francisco began issuing marriage licences to gay men and lesbians. George Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard had to speak out against gay marriage in the official public sphere — forced to enter into debate with voices from what was previously one of the most marginalized and excluded public spheres.


The Public Sphere

Rainbow alliances The new social movements of gay and lesbian, and Queer, activism provide a concrete example of ‘real-life resources such as our abilities to be creative and our willingness to keep trying’, the willingness to hybridize (compromise) and learn from those who disagree with us. These resources provide the possibility for discussions between the public spheres of different demographic groups. Queer public spheres have even developed a concept to describe this process: the idea of ‘rainbow coalitions’. Queer communities since the 1970s have been negotiating the question of where the boundaries of cultural difference lie. Gay and lesbian activists fought as ‘homosexuals’ in the 1970s — but it was always an uneasy alliance between men and women. Were gay men and lesbians the same — all ‘homosexuals’ — or different — ‘men who liked men’ being very different from ‘women who liked women’? Were the oppressions faced by the two groups the same — all homosexuals were despised and ostracized — or different — men were still dominant in society? Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, smaller identity groups flourished within these original groups. Firstly, there was a need to deal with the implications of pre-existing identities overlapping with sexuality — were Black lesbians the same as, or different from, white lesbians? Were middle-class gay men different from, or the same as, working-class gay men? Secondly, there was also the issue of new sexual identities gaining community status. Were bisexuals the same as homosexuals? Should ‘bears’ (large, hairy gay men) form their own community, or be part of the wider gay and lesbian community? Should people who were into kinky sadomasochism be included in the gay and lesbian community? What about transsexuals and transvestites? One solution to this question was the idea of a rainbow alliance: a community that’s formed of people who acknowledge individual and minority difference; but at the same time accept a common overarching — ‘rainbow’ — identity: The Rainbow Alliance is an organization of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Heterosexual individuals who have joined



together to create an online community of mutual affection and respect. Rainbow Alliance is a diverse group of people holding many beliefs, from all walks of life, joined in a spirit of global unity. The members of the Rainbow Alliance celebrate the birthright of all human beings: to be treated with dignity and equality. We are committed to building a worldwide community based on individual well-being, compassion, and generosity. (‘Alliance’, undated: np) Within such alliances, different groups, with their own cultures, interests, commitments and differing forms of public communication, are recognized: but there’s no sense that this is a problem, or that it makes the overarching grouping any less workable or coherent. The process works by discovering ‘common goals and interests’ (‘Orange county’, undated: np) which hold the alliance together. These common goals and interests aren’t set in advance. No one group gets to decide what are the universal interests that everybody in the coalition must have. The common goals are found experimentally, not theoretically. Similarly, the question of who belongs in such a rainbow alliance isn’t set. It can include gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals. It can include people who are ‘questioning’ which culture they belong to (‘St Louis’, undated: np). ‘[I]ntersexuals’ (‘La Verne’, undated: np) can be nominated as a distinct identity. Outside of specific sexual identities, such an alliance can include those people who relate to other member groups as: ‘their allies’ (‘St Louis’, undated: np). Within the Queer public sphere, the question of what constitutes a cultural group, and of how those groups relate to each other, is being constantly worked out; and although it’s continually in process, the ‘gay and lesbian’ community hasn’t collapsed. At the most ‘local’ level are publications aimed at relatively discrete and homogenous communities: for example, the London Spades Newsletter, for ‘Leathermen, Bears and their admirers in London’; it ‘hopes to foster a sense of community among the Leathermen and Bears in London and surrounding communities through social gatherings and events’ (‘Spade’, 1998: np). Even at


The Public Sphere

this most local level, identities are separated out and articulated — ‘leathermen’ and ‘bears’. At a larger level, the readers of London Spades Newsletter might also read a publication aimed at all gay men — a wider category that addresses them as leathermen as part of a wider spectrum of other kinds of gay identity. The British gay magazine Attitude addresses issues of different gay identities and how they exist together within the overarching identity of ‘gay’. Raced gay identities, for example, are an issue: Why is it that the gay scene suffers from racism? I’m sick to death of gay men who proclaim [themselves] to be open-minded . . . but are still prejudiced . . . it’s no fun being a minority within a minority. (Garth, 1996: 10) Age can become an important component within gay identity: If representations in the media are to be believed, all gay men are under 25, tanned and buff. But what happens to these toned Adonises as the years pass and their six packs wilt? . . . older gay men are . . . a silenced minority with a wealth of knowledge and experience to impart. (Williams, 2003b: 69) The magazine explores the distinctiveness, and the commonality, of gay fathers (Lutyens, 1997: 59), gay sportsmen, gay Christians, and gay students to name only a few groups that have claimed the existence of a distinct culture (‘Attitude’, 2003). Attitude is happy to acknowledge that distinct cultures exist within gay culture — but also believes that there are commonalities that make it sensible to address a ‘gay public sphere’: a sexual interest in men; a common experience of oppression; a shared history of gay culture (Judy Garland, opera, Oscar Wilde), even if not all of its readers personally like it. The gay men who read Attitude might also read a newspaper aimed at the wider Queer community — like Melbourne’s Brother/Sister — where ‘gay’ becomes one category within a wider spectrum. Here, the relationship between various Queer identities



is discussed. The paper’s masthead in 1997 states that it includes ‘lesbian and gay news, entertainment, culture and clubbing’. By 1999, it has evolved to ‘Lesbian, gay and bi . . .’. By 2000, it is ‘Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’. In these community newspapers, articles discuss whether bisexual people are part of the gay and lesbian community, or a threat to it; aiming to shatter ‘myths about bisexuality’ (Velonis, 1997: 11). News stories report community discussions about the inclusions of ‘trannies’ in ‘gay and lesbian’ organizations (‘Council’, 1996: 5). Again, these publications continually work out if these groups have anything in common — focusing on the experience of being sexually marginal, facing ridicule and oppression by the mainstream. And then, of course, many of the readers of these publications will go on to read newspapers like the New York Times, the Sun or the Sydney Daily Telegraph. They will then find themselves functioning as part of a larger community — as an American, a British person, an Australian. They may even, at times, join the largest possible community — humanity — to campaign for environmental or anti-war movements that rely on a shared feeling of identity with all other members of the human race. As Nancy Fraser puts it: ‘people participate in more than one public’ (Fraser, 1990, quoted in Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 26; see also Hartley, 1999: 158, 159). The presence of multiple public spheres: need not preclude the possibility of an additional, more comprehensive arena in which members of different, more limited publics talk across lines of cultural diversity . . . The question is: would participants in such a debate share enough in the way of values, expressive norms and therefore, protocols of persuasion to lend their talk the quality of deliberations aimed at reaching agreement through giving reasons? In my view, this is better treated as an empirical question than as a conceptual question. (Fraser, 1990: 69) And as an empirical question, it suits a ‘postmodern’ paradigm: but still will not satisfy a ‘modern’ one.


The Public Sphere

Conclusion The Queer media, as one level of public sphere, are involved in a constant process of trying to work out what people have in common. There’s no answer yet to the question of whether members of gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersexed, transgender, transvestite, and so on, communities all have something in common. The question ‘Do we have anything in common?’ continues to be raised; and ‘If we do, what might it be?’ is discussed. And as cultures and communities change, the answers themselves change. At the simplest level, the answer might turn out to be ‘We share an interest in talking to each other to find out if we share any common interests.’ In contrast, the ‘modern’ writers who believe — for the sake of equality — that everybody taking part in a public sphere should think of themselves as being basically the same, don’t pose this as a question. ‘Modern’ paradigms favour theoretical approaches — to say what should be universal, rather than empirical ones — What, if anything, is universal? For those feminist, Black, and Queer writers who argue for the importance of multiple public spheres, they provide a safe and accessible place in which citizens from different backgrounds can express themselves: public spheres are not only arenas for the formation of discursive opinion; in addition, they are arenas for the formation and enactment of social identities . . . participation is not simply a matter of being able to state propositional contents that are neutral with respect to form of expression. Rather . . . participation means being able to speak ‘in one’s own voice’, thereby simultaneously constructing and expressing one’s cultural identity through idiom and style. (Fraser, 1990: 68–69; see also Chapter 2 on identity) Having established a position within ‘the Queer public sphere’ or ‘the Black public sphere’ or ‘the feminist public sphere’, it can then be taken to other public spheres. As noted above, the idea of gay marriage passed from a Queer into an official public sphere. Members of ‘minority’ groups often have ‘multi-cultural literacy’



(Fraser, 1990: 69). They understand their own communities; and mainstream communities. As one Black writer states: ‘I have learned to speak in many tongues’ (Dyson, 1996: xiv). The resulting fragmentation of the public sphere isn’t a problem for these new social movements, or for writers within a ‘postmodern’ paradigm. Rather it’s an opportunity, allowing more people to develop their ideas in public, before going on to access the official public sphere. But from a ‘modern’ perspective, to speak in many tongues is to fail democracy: for there can only be one correct form of public debate.

Chapter 5


The Internet has changed the nature of the public sphere in Western democracies. It’s revitalized traditional grass-roots political involvement, for example (as with the ultimately unsuccessful Howard Dean presidential campaign in the USA in 2003–2004). But more than this, it’s become part of an important rethinking of what actually constitutes politics. The emerging ‘anti-globalization’ movement brings together the medium of the Internet with a primarily young demographic, and a rethinking of the nature of activism — through ‘culture jamming’ — to create a new version of politics. Culture jamming attempts to change the way that people think about the world by playing with existing culture, and thus introducing new ideas into the public sphere (Kerr, 2002: 1). It’s been most visibly applied in campaigns against globalization and bigbusiness capitalism. In 2000, Andrew Boyd, a ‘grass roots publicist from New York’, designed the ‘Billionaires for Bush’ campaign, to draw attention to the fact that mainstream politicians were being bought off by massive campaign donations from corporations: We created a stylish logo . . . . [and r]iffing off slogans like . . . ‘Corporations are people too’ and ‘We’re paying for America’s free elections so you don’t have to’ . . . we created bumper stickers, buttons, a series of posters and a website . . . The media were all over us . . . it was a feeding frenzy . . . It took ingenious ‘viral design’ to get our message through the corporate media’s editorial filters and out into the datasphere at large . . . The protein shell of our virus: ‘Billionaires for Bush’ . . . Our . . . hidden ideological code: ‘Big Money owns both parties; both parties are roughly the same.’ (in Kerr, 2002: 2–3) 172



By creating a funny campaign, Boyd tried to change the way in which Americans understood political culture — and thus their behaviour towards it. Culture jamming is motivated by the idea that you can make important political changes by changing how people think about things, rather than by following traditional political methods of engaging with the government: ‘the government is not the state, and what is needed to transform the state goes beyond getting control of a few levers of power’ (Russell, 2002: 2); ‘[y]ou change minds much faster by celebration and smashing people’s sense of reality’ (Kate Evans, quoted in Fraser, 2003: 19). Culture jamming has reached its potential due to the technology of the Internet, which offers ‘new possibilities for political participation and direct action’ (Peretti, 2001: 7). As culture jamming lives or dies by its abilities to spread ideas and information, the Internet is the perfect medium for its success. The web has ‘extend[ed] the reach of social action’ (Kerr, 2002: 1). It distributes information more effectively than any previous domestic technology: ‘Through the [Billionaires for Bush] website’, Boyd notes: activists could download all the materials they needed to do actions in their own communities . . . Our website traffic shot up to 200,000 hits per day . . . we’d get emails and calls every day from people across the country, raving about the project and eager to start local Billionaires chapters. (in Kerr, 2002: 2) Jonah Peretti — who accidentally started a global instance of culture jamming when he engaged with Nike’s refusal to customize a pair of sneakers for him with the word ‘sweatshop’ — notes that: I sent the Nike Sweatshops email to a dozen friends and immediately it began racing around the world like a virus . . . I began to receive thousands of emails . . . from people living on all seven continents . . . sending one email to a few friends could launch a global campaign . . . Without modern communication technologies [it] would never have existed. Email, personal web sites and blogs enable the digital equivalent of word of mouth. (Peretti, 2001: 2; see also Dery, undated: 16)


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Culture jamming is a ‘postmodern’ movement. Linked to the new social movements I’ve been discussing in this book (Dahlgren, 1991: 13), it aims to change culture rather than legislation, and hopes for recognition rather than redistribution (Fraser, 2002: 21). Feminist, Queer and Black groups have aimed to change the ways in which culture is used (for example, reclaiming words like ‘Queer’ or ‘Nigger’ — see Berlant and Freeman, 1993). But the most visible public cultures associated with this ‘postmodern’ form of politics are those that are associated with youth. Traditional forms of politics are ‘not mobilizing youth activists the way the anti-globalization movement is’ (Russell, 2002: 3). Postmodern politics is a ‘younger movement that celebrates the possibility of ironic, humorous and contradictory political actions’ (2). Some activists are even proud to claim that their culture-jamming politics are ‘immature’ — but only: ‘in the sense that the intervention is antithetical to the old ideological rallying cries of the political movements of the 1960s and 70s’ (Peretti, 2001: 2). Indeed, culture jamming is often understood as part of a history of specifically youth-oriented forms of political participation, including the work of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippie movement (Russell, 2002: 3; Dery, undated: 8). As in the other chapters of this book, we can say that, factually, there exists a distinct public ‘youth culture’ that’s recognized by many popular and academic commentators: The language and cultural barriers between politicians and the under25s are greater than ever . . . Young people (those 18 to 24) are the great unwashed of the electorate — ignored, rarely spoken about and never, ever spoken to . . . [A]n aging population . . . [is] shouting ourselves silly about real estate, retirement, superannuation plans and issues as grey and lifeless as a politician’s suit. I mean, c’mon, did you care about superannuation when you were 18? . . . Our leaders talk about . . . real estate [and so on] . . . with little or no concern that young voters are . . . not particularly interested . . . [they’re not] attempting to engage with young people about issues they are facing now . . . [or] having the imagination to picture the world through the eyes of an 18 year old. (Castles, 2004: 13) One element of this youth culture (which tells us nothing, of course, about the personal feelings of any particular individual) is



a different understanding of politics, one that links youth with a kind of performative radicalism: a tradition which generated the massively popular catch phrase ‘Never trust anyone over thirty’ (Sengupta, 2003; Trannyland, 2003). Anti-nuclear protests, peace protests, environmental activism and anti-globalization events provide evidence of the continued politicization and mobilization of young citizens around the world. Anti-war protestors ‘liste[n] to literally hours of political address’ (Schudson, 1992: 146). Protests for ‘nuclear disarmament . . . led in 1982 to the largest protest rally in American history’ (Meyrowitz, 1985: 142), and in 1983 the ‘biggest anti-nuclear demonstration ever seen’ in Western Australia involved a massive human chain (Hartley, 1992b: 58). ‘[E]nvironmental groups . . . experienced a dramatic increase in membership in 1988 and 1989’ (Simmons, 1995: 151); and the anti-war marches before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 were the largest public protests ever to that point in Australia, America and the UK. But, as noted above, these forms of political protest are largely aimed at cultural change — changing the way that events are represented. The protestors don’t involve themselves in local party politics. They don’t respond to issues that anger them by lobbying for party nomination and attempting to join parliament. The kinds of politics they practise are not traditional. They’re ‘postmodern’. And because of this focus on recognition rather than redistribution, they aren’t — from the perspective of a ‘modern’ paradigm — doing real politics. All the hours spent by protestors organizing stunts, marches and culture jamming don’t count as political involvement: real political involvement involves engaging with politicians, with political parties, and with the structures of official government in a party. And because of this, many writers worry that ordinary citizens — and in particular young citizens — are less involved in the political public sphere now than they previously have been. ‘There is some evidence of growing public apathy’ (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 12) in a political system that leads to ‘passivity, apathy and deference’ (Wilson, 1985: 99). Popular and academic writers often argue that ‘Media [is] to blame for voter apathy’ (‘Media’, 2002: np), as: ‘mass media . . . turn politics into a spectator sport or a consumable commodity . . . [with the] passivity endemic to such “participation” by the public . . .’ (Wilson, 1985: 209). If the media were not allowed to produce such distracting trivia, if it were forced


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to be quality, serious and rational — argue some writers — then people would become more involved in politics. This is another key point of disagreement between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ assessments of the current state of the public sphere. For a ‘modern’ paradigm, committed to the idea of a single truth about the world, changing how people think about things is a waste of time: it doesn’t address the material inequality of ‘equal jobs, pay and citizenship’ (Coole, 1998: 118). From a ‘postmodern’ perspective, accepting a plurality of different ways of seeing the world, attempting to change how people think about things is a real political aim. Representations aren’t secondary to the realities of the world: in themselves they are one of the realities of the world. As in each chapter, both of these positions are entirely sensible. As in each chapter, the adherents of both are motivated by the best intentions: the desire to increase equality, freedom, justice and comfort in Western societies. And, as in each chapter, there is no way to finally prove that one position or the other is the only truth (O’Neill, 1999: 12).

Apathetic history The traditional idea of what counts as politics is the work of political parties and the government of the state. We can agree that, factually, citizens are currently no less active in traditional politics than has been the case historically (Robbins, 1993: viii). In fact, they’re currently better informed about traditional politics than has ever been the case.1 Until the late 1960s, many citizens were still systemically excluded from the political process in the USA and Australia. If we examine historically how well publics have been informed about politics we find consistently low rates of being informed for the majority of the population from the eighteenth century onwards in Australia, Britain and America (Schudson, 1992: 157; Walter Lippman, quoted in Robbins, 1993: vii). For example, in 1942, during the Second World War, when you would expect citizens to be more engaged than normal with official politics, research found that only 22% of working-class people in the UK could identify the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the Treasurer), 14% the Minister for War, and 16% the Minister of Information (Rose, 2001: 222).



However, there’s a continuing trend towards a slow improvement in citizens’ levels of information, as Joshua Meyrowitz suggests in his analysis of voter surveys from the 1950s and 1960s: Studies of voting behaviour in the 1950s reveal a very stable picture of politics . . . Most voters were only ‘mildly involved’ in politics . . . they were ‘remarkably unsophisticated’ in their view of political matters, and . . . they demonstrated very little consistency among their attitudes about different issues . . . Studies since the 1960s, however, reveal an entirely different scenario: voters who are deeply involved in political issues, and largely alienated from political parties and the political process . . . by the mid 1960s the average citizen demonstrated a more coherent structure of political opinion than even the most educated political elites had done ten years before . . . the largest proportional increase in ‘sophisticated political evaluation’ occurred among people with less than a high school degree . . . (Meyrowitz, 1985: 164) More citizens are now better informed about official politics than they have been at any time in the past. But there are a number of different responses to this issue, depending on your attitudes and the paradigms they favour. Some writers in a ‘modern’ paradigm think that voters are still not informed enough. Nicholas Garnham, for example — wondering if, for true equality in the public sphere, all citizens should have a full understanding of traditional state politics — suggests (albeit ambivalently): Now while it would clearly be both impossible and undesirable to require all citizens to participate in a minimum amount of political information consumption and debate, or to make electoral participation dependent upon such participation, in principle it is a mere corollary of a requirement to vote. (Garnham, 1990: 113) Another response is to argue that too much information about official politics is in fact detrimental to equality in society, as it makes voters ‘cynical about, and indifferent to, the political process’ (Neil Postman quoted in Corner, 1995: 50 — see Chapter 2); or that it actually paralyzes voters because we’re overwhelmed with


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information: ‘the act of receiving information . . . become[s] a substitute for genuine democratic participation . . .’ (Groombridge, 1972: 113): The mass media infinitely heighten the knowledge people have of what transpires in the society, and they infinitely inhibit the capacity of people to convert that knowledge into political action. (Sennett, quoted in Hoynes, 1994: 161; see also Paul Lazarfeld and Robert K. Merton, 1948, quoted in Groombridge, 1972: 72–73; Wilson, 1985: 209) For these writers, there’s currently either too much or too little political information in the public sphere: obviously these are value judgements, not positions of fact. From a historical perspective, using traditional measures of political involvement — whether people vote — there has been no decline in voting rates over the period of modernity. Current voting rates in the USA and the UK continue to attract attention in academic writing, and in the ‘quality’ public sphere of formally educated culture, for being too low (in Australia the situation’s a bit different, since voting is compulsory by law). In the UK 2001 election only 59.1% of eligible voters actually took part, for example (Tutor2u, 2003: np); in the USA in 2000, it was only 51.3% (Infoplease, 2003b: np). These numbers are obviously low: and they’re also skewed towards white, formally educated voters, so the percentage of Black voters and those from underprivileged backgrounds who vote is even less. The question of why these groups are less interested in traditional politics than are Western, formally educated demographics continues to be debated. But it’s important to notice that these rates have been remarkably stable for over a hundred years (Franklin, 2002: 7): ‘voting rates were just as miserable in the 1920s as in 1984 and were worse in the 1790s’ (Schudson, 1992: 144): In revolutionary America, 10 to 15 per cent of white adult males voted at the beginning of the Revolution, 20 to 40 per cent during the 1780s. In Massachusetts, the first Congressional elections of



1788 and 1790 brought out 13 per cent and 16 per cent of eligible voters. The high point of turnout in state elections in the decade came in 1878 after the ‘near civil war’, of Shay’s Rebellion — a 28 percent turnout . . . Ronald Formisano’s analysis . . . [is that] ‘[i]n the 1820s the vast majority of citizens had lost interest in politics. They had never voted in presidential elections anyway, and now they involved themselves only sporadically in state and local affairs’. (Schudson, 1992: 149) It’s also worth remembering that these are only percentages of white adult men who voted — not even of the entire population (Schudson, 1992: 147). There was a short period in America’s history between 1840 and 1900 when voter turnouts boomed: before the 1820s . . . ‘few men were interested in politics, and fewer still actively participated in political affairs. Politics simply did not seem important to most Americans’. With the rise of mass-based political parties in the Jacksonian era, political participation took a new turn. Voting rates shot up dramatically. For example, the percentage of the potential electorate that voted in Connecticut was 8 percent in 1820 and 15 percent in 1824. By 1832 this rose to 46 percent and by 1844 to 80 percent . . . (Schudson, 1992: 149, quoting William Gienapp) Historians suggest as the most likely cause for this increase in voting the fact that political parties became deliberately downmarket and sensationalist at this time, so that: ‘[p]olitical campaigns were, in a sense, more religious revivals and popular entertainments than the settings for rational-critical discussion’ (Schudson, 1992: 144–145). In this sense, although voting levels were high in the mid-1800s in the USA, there’s little evidence that this was linked to a public who were informed about the political decisions they were making: People did not normally choose a political party or political philosophy any more than they chose a religion. On election day, most


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voters did not conceive of having a choice between alternatives any more than the Methodist imagined he had a choice Sunday morning. (Schudson, 1992: 155) In the early twentieth century, reform groups were set up which ‘decried “spectacular” politics and sought to replace it with “educational” politics. Pamphlets, not parades, was their idea of the rational way to run a campaign . . .’ (Schudson, 1992: 158–9). As Schudson points out, as these reformers succeeded in moving towards a more serious, rational form of politics, voter rates declined again (160). Even if we accept that voting rates before the twentieth century aren’t comparable — given that large sections of the population were still legally excluded from voting before then — we find that there’s no consistent downward trend in either the USA or the UK over the twentieth century either. In the USA from 1904, voter turnout has fluctuated regularly between about 50% and 65% (Infoplease, 2003: np) with lows of 49.2% in 1920, 48.9% in 1924, 49.1% in 1996, and 51.3% in 2000 (Infoplease, 2003b: np). The UK has mainly varied between 70% and 85% during the twentieth century. The highest election turnout since 1900 was 86.6% in January– February 1910, followed by 84% in Feb 1950. The lowest was 58.9% per cent in 1918. The turnout in 1906 and 1910 was over 80%. It fell to 58.9% after the First World War, and then stayed in the 70s until 1945. It then increased again to over 80%; and then fell again to the 70s (regularly going from the low to high 70s and then back again. In May 1997, the turnout was 71.5% (Johnston, 2001: np). The 2001 election dipped to 59.1% (Tutor2u, 2003: np). There’s no long-term trend to decline (Lyons, 2001). Indeed, after analysing international voter turnout data from the 1940s onwards, Mark Franklin states: ‘the question we should be asking is not why is turnout declining, but why is turnout so stable?’ (Franklin, 2002: 7). This isn’t to suggest that current rates of voter turnout are ideal. Large numbers of citizens in the UK and USA choose not to vote. The situation is even worse for many of the groups discussed in this book: the least privileged members of society, Black citizens and young people have substantially lower voting rates than educated



white middle-aged citizens. This is worth investigating: but factually it isn’t a new situation.

Youth movements Young people are the only group discussed in this book who are still systematically denied the vote in Western countries (please forgive the use of this appalling phrase, ‘young people’, with its patronizing connotations. I’m talking about a group of people including older children and young adults). Nobody under the age of eighteen can vote — no matter how well-informed, politically active and intelligent they may be (while by contrast, anybody over the age of eighteen is allowed to, no matter how uninterested or ill-informed). And some of these young people are very aware of this fact: Adults need kids, they just don’t realize it . . . so . . . we are going to create a country in cyberspace, not defined by geography or race, but by technology and age: Nation.1 a country populated and run by kids. (quoted in Hartley, 1999: 177) Young people are among the most disillusioned with official politics: an April 1994 poll among young people gave between 78 per cent and 93 per cent responses for various negative statements about politicians and showed that a quarter of 18 year olds failed to register to vote . . . [and that] young people placed greater trust in musicians. (Hartley, 1996: 73n3) We can identify a relatively distinct youth public sphere (Negt and Kluge, 1993: 283) where a community can exchange information and develop identities relevant to its members: In a comparative study of America and Denmark, adolescents aged fourteen to eighteen were asked on whose opinions they would rely for various things. In both countries the advice of peers on what to read was more important than that of parents . . . Danish youth get


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considerably more useful advice from peers than from parents in the realm of values and personal problems . . . processes within the family have been largely irrelevant to the formation of specific . . . political . . . opinions . . . youth are switching from parental guidance to the tutelage of an adolescent subculture . . . (Shorter, 1977: 266, 268, 264–265) Youth audiences consume demographically distinct forms of culture — clothing based around sportswear; pop music; soft drinks; fast food; action films; prime-time American soap dramas; and computer games (Canning, 2003: 11). Note that this list contains almost all of the forms of culture that are most despised by cultural commentators. When people condemn ‘mass media’, they often mean ‘youth culture’. This young people’s public sphere isn’t apolitical. Rather, it has supported the development of particular kinds of radical political initiatives: ‘a youth-centred and -directed cluster of interests and practices around green radicalism [and] direct action politics . . .’ (George McKay, quoted in Hartley, 1999: 188). Let anyone who says that today’s youth lack political commitment forget for a moment what their own brats are failing to achieve and read through the pieces on the Seattle protests to disrupt the WTO in 1999 or those in Prague against the meetings of the World Bank and the IMF in 2000. (Fraser, 2003: 19) But the form of politics associated with youth movements — for several decades now — isn’t the traditional one. It isn’t the world of political parties, general elections, door-knocking and lobbying. It is, rather, the politics of new social movements: recognition, not redistribution. It’s cultural politics — attempts, as with culture jamming, to change the world through performance, theatre, entertainment and ideas. Julie Stephens notes that the youth protest movements of the 1960s — the hippies and the yippies — explicitly tried to ‘redefine the very meaning and character of “politics”’ (Stephens, 1998: 22). They believed that you didn’t have



to deal with politicians to change the world — you could cut out the middle man. They employed theatrical performance: [a]ctions such as in the ‘levitation’ of the Pentagon . . . marching in demonstrations holding signs which, instead of a slogan, had a piece of fruit represented on them, throwing money on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, nominating a pig for President of the USA, or dressing in a guerrilla uniform complete with a toy M-16 while chanting ‘OM’ in a Chicago courtroom. (Stephens, 1998: 23) If you could challenge the way people thought about the world, you could change how they saw it, then how they behaved — and thus the world itself. These protestors moved politics outside the traditional political domain by collapsing the distinction between politics and art, politics and culture, politics and everyday life . . . the theatrical and the spectacle . . . books, pamphlets and poems . . . were privileged over the politics of State policy (such as the allocation of public goods, or political-economic structure) and totalities like socialism, society and in some cases even objective reality itself were parodied and dismissed. (Stephens, 1998: 5, 22, 96) Such cultural politics has inspired later generations of activists. The anti-nuclear protestors at the ‘peace camp at Greenham Common’ in the 1980s used ‘theatre, song and dance to avoid any resemblance to the culture of militarism being opposed’ (Stephens, 1998: 122). Similarly: The German Greens . . . generated a vigorous and influential style of party and non-party politics in Europe by directly emulating aspects of the American counterculture. They tried to fuse a New Left commitment to participatory democracy . . . with countercultural small-scale community initiatives . . . (Stephens, 1998: 123) The anti-globalization movement — a political movement created and sustained by young people — continues such a logic: as


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noted above, one organizer points out: ‘You change minds much faster by celebration and smashing people’s sense of reality’ (Kate Evans, quoted in Fraser, 2003: 19). I’m giving space in this book to the arguments of these new social movements because I find them convincing. Within a ‘postmodern’ paradigm, I’m convinced that this should count as genuine political engagement. But, as I noted above, from within a ‘modern’ paradigm, such escapades seem to be not only misguided, but actively dangerous. Not only do they fail to change the world; they also distract people from the realities of material inequality (Fraser, 2002: 21). The attitude of those writers who accept this ‘modern’ paradigm is that the only ‘real’ politics (Holub, 1991: 93) is ‘official’ — also known as ‘disciplinary’ (Stephens) or ‘high’ — politics (Hartley, 1992: 22) — that is, what parliamentary politicians do, resulting in legislation. ‘Modern’ writers, committed to ideals of equality, justice, freedom and comfort, believe that traditional politics is the central and most important way to achieve this. New social movements and ‘postmodern’ thinkers, by contrast, believe that culture is a key part of the process of achieving these Enlightenment ideals. This explains why public representations of young people are so contradictory. On the one hand, youth culture is often represented as the ultimate face of political apathy — young people fail to register to vote, they fail to take an interest in official political discussions, they fail to know who senior political figures are. At the same time, youth culture is shown to us in the media as the source of the most extreme forms of political activism — selling socialist newspapers, organizing anti-globalization movements and protests, originating in the original anti-disciplinary protest of hippiedom. Such youth movements do not distinguish between real political action and the merely cultural . . . hippies turned to spectacle and performance ‘as ways of subverting the accepted forms of rhetorical practice, thus creating a unique basis for their own rhetoric of protest’. (Stephens, 1998: 39, quoting Brjoke and Twigg). They take a ‘postmodern’ line of the reality of cultural politics.



The Internet and cyberdemocracy The Internet has a reputation as a youth medium, young people are disproportionately large users of the medium (GVU, 1998); and it has become an important part of cultural politics, anti-globalization movements and culture jamming. It has also provoked a new wave of academic philosophy — much of it utopian, some of it dismissive. Some writers have become excited about the ways in which it could be used to do traditional politics. For example, it could be employed in order to have ‘constant electronic referenda’ (Garnham, 1992: 367; see also Hoynes, 1994: 175). People could vote on their opinions every day on every issue before parliament, so the government could then use this information to pass suitable laws. This is an ideal hope; the reality of current Internet use is rather different: Information seekers are mostly after porn . . . Even on the handful of ‘serious’ sites . . . what is available is mostly superficial . . . with little in the way of real [sic ] facilitation, discussion or persuasion. (Barber, quoted in Dahlberg, 2001: 2) There are also more complex arguments in academic writing about political participation. Political philosophy engages in complex debates about what counts as real political participation. Even within the ‘modern’ camp that believes that only engagement with traditional politics and legislation is real, there are disagreements about what form this participation should take. Some academic writers in this camp argue that even if citizens were involved in constant voting on topics, this would still be a bad thing because ‘greater political inclusion and participation does not necessarily signify a greater degree of democracy’ (Postone, 1992: 169). Indeed, if the Internet were used to have regular plebiscites (votes on issues), for some modern writers this would actually make people more passive. This argument suggests that voting itself is actually a ‘passiv[e]’ form of ‘consumption’ (Wilson, 1985: 89) — people simply respond to the options given to them, without generating ideas for themselves. As Habermas argues, it’s public discussion itself, and not just voting, that’s important for a democracy — where citizens get to put


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forward their own suggestions and opinions rather than just voting yes or no to somebody else’s: there may actually be circumstances under which a direct widening of the formal opportunities for participation and involvement in decision making [that is, granting the vote to groups who didn’t have it] only intensifies ‘generalized particularism’, that is the privileged assertion of local and group-specific special interests. (Habermas, 1992: 451) Wilson similarly believes that ‘polls . . . short circuit process . . . their purpose is to avoid the kind of discussion and deliberation which might release the public from its position . . . as respondents’ (Wilson, 1985: 238; see also Calhoun, 1992b: 28; Habermas, 1989: 212). For these ‘modern’ writers, public debate is more important — more really political — than voting. Other ‘modern’ academic writers go even further. They don’t like ‘representative’ democracy but support ‘radical democracy’. They think the very idea of voting is a problem because they don’t believe a society should be organized around political parties run by professional politicians, Rather, everybody should be a politician, and be directly involved in the running of the country: A conceptual severance of debate from responsible action corresponds in formal ways to political experience in modern republics, where political representatives make the formal decisions about public affairs and political authority is delegated, not practised directly by the citizenry as a whole. (Boyte, 1992: 345; see also Hoynes, 1994: 173) Habermas is also sympathetic to this argument: the advent of equal citizenship rights for all altered the structures of parties . . . loosely knit voter groups had increasingly given way to parties in the proper sense — organized supralogically and with a bureaucratic apparatus . . . aimed at the . . . political mobilization of the broad voting masses. (Habermas, 1989: 203)



I noted in the Introduction that although the terms ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ are commonly used to describe the two dominant paradigms for making sense of the public sphere, this is also a simplification. There exists a whole range of positions on the issues discussed in this book, and they don’t fit neatly into two boxes. What I’m describing here is a difference between various kinds of political commitments in the ‘modern’ camp. All these writers agree that traditional forms of politics are more real than cultural politics; but in thinking about the potential of the Internet, they disagree about what are the best kinds of traditional politics. These are, once again, attitudinal differences about what is real and what is important; they can’t be resolved factually. By contrast, the new social movements, and youth activism in particular, see the Internet rather differently — through its potential for extending the reach of the cultural politics developed by youth movements in the 1960s. In the examples of the ‘Billionaires for Bush’ campaign and the Nike sweatshop emails that opened this chapter, challenging ideas could be circulated around the world in a way that wasn’t possible with previous technologies of cultural production. Printing presses, television cameras and broadcasting equipment — even early computers — were all massively expensive pieces of technology. Now computers are so cheap in Western countries that they can be bought second hand for a few dozen dollars; and public libraries can own dozens of them for the use of those citizens who can’t afford to buy them for themselves. Of course, despite the fact that the situation is so good in America, Britain and Australia ‘[f]or the foreseeable future most of the world’s population will not have easy access to a telephone, let alone digital ´ services’ (Ray Thomas, quoted in McGuigan, 1996: 184; see also O Baoill, 2000: 6). And as many writers have noted, access in Western countries is not yet universal. It’s still most restricted for people living in remote rural areas, where basic telecommunications facilities ´ Baoill, 2000). And we mustn’t forget that as well as are lacking (O access to the equipment, you need to have certain cultural skills in order to use the Internet — including literacy, and not being afraid of computers (Dahlberg, 2001: 11). But as Mark Poster points out: ‘there does exist a vibrant and growing grass-roots participation in [the Internet] organized in part by local public libraries’ (Poster, 1995: 2). In such a situation, it’s now possible for citizens to become


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involved in cultural politics in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. By producing a text for the Internet, a single citizen can change the way a country sees itself and its political system: ‘A telephone or computer in a ghetto tenement or in a suburban teenager’s bedroom is potentially as effective as a telephone in a corporate suite’ (Meyrowitz, 1985: 169–170). Millions of ordinary citizens now have their own websites, where they can publish, talk in the public sphere, as mass media. And, from a postmodern perspective, what they say, the culture they produce, can make political changes (both in the cultural, and in the traditional sense): the story of Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinksy originated in allegations published in The Drudge Report, a gossipy Internet site run by a thirty year old out of his Los Angeles home. US Newsweek was the first major news organisation to investigate the story, but ultimately decided not to publish it. (Lumby, 1999: 157) OneWorld, a website of human rights politics, has been hugely successful. Established in 1995, it grew within six months from two to twenty full-time staff. It has become ‘a dominant voice in the global human rights movement’ (Creed, 2003: 199). It offers ‘a citizens’ space . . . where readers from NGOs, research bodies, schools, universities, journalists, broadcasters, or people who are just casual surfers can speak, or listen, seriously to their fellow human beings on issues of global justice’ (co-founder Anuradha Vittachi, quoted in Creed, 2003: 199). In Korea, a freelance journalist named Oh Yeon Ho started an independent news website — OhmyNews — which has become ‘the most influential online news site in Korea — a national forum attracting around two million readers a day’ (Nguyen, 2003: 2). The site works on the premise that ‘every citizen is a journalist’, and invites stories from anyone in the country. It now has nearly 27,000 ‘citizen-journalists ranging from housewives and schoolkids to professors’ (2).

What counts as ‘real’ political participation? The disagreement between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ paradigms as to what counts as real politics is merely the latest stage in a



long-running debate in academic circles about what counts as genuine political engagement: ‘[t]he nature of “the political” has long been subject to dispute within political theory’ (Squires, 1998: 126; see also Hartley, 1996: 84). Traditional ‘theor[ies] of democracy’ demand a lot of ‘the ideal . . . sovereign . . . citizen’: ‘to know what is going on and to have an opinion worth expressing on every question which confronts a self-governing community’ (Walter Lippman, quoted in Robbins, 1993: vii). Brian Groombridge worries that some ‘modern’ commentators expect ridiculous extremes from citizens: they believe that: the psychic health of each one of us depends on our being cardcarrying members of a political party, out on the knocker four nights a week, at meetings two nights and collecting dues on the seventh. (Groombridge, 1972: 43) There’s a tendency in some writing about public culture to define what counts as real politics in such precise ways that they exclude much of what might be thought of as being political in an everyday definition. For example, in a study of the political behaviour of Americans in relation to a media story about a New York senator who was charged with corruption, citizens were asked about the event several weeks later: The memory of the hearings had certainly survived . . . more than half this sample distinctly remembered the shock and anger they had felt at the time . . . [but] it turned out that 81% of them had done nothing except talk to friends and neighbours, while 6% had not even done that. Seven per cent wrote to their congressmen, which was indeed a political reaction but only one [out of 260] had discussed the hearings with the committee men of his party (probably the most appropriate reaction of those made). (Groombridge, 1972: 125) Even writing to a politician isn’t an ‘appropriate’ political action. For Brian Groombridge, the only fully political response is to go directly to ‘the committee men of his [sic] party’ and discuss it. In this traditional approach, it’s only when you address material realities through political parties which are involved with government


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redistribution of scarce physical goods and of money that you’re really being political. To try to change how people think and behave by organizing a performance or culture-jamming a ‘Billionaires for Bush’ campaign is not really to be political in this sense. The ‘modern’ writers who take such a line are almost always writing from a left-wing perspective, and are strongly committed to the Enlightenment ideals of equality, justice, freedom and comfort. They’re genuinely worried that democracy is a fragile state of affairs, and that it’s necessary for every citizen to work hard to protect it. This is also the case for most ‘postmodern’ commentators: but their attitudes towards the kind of activity needed are rather different. Again, this isn’t a simple binary. Many ‘modern’ commentators accept that there’s a necessary cultural component to even the most stringent materialist definitions of politics. Talking is obviously a part of the political process — even if the end point is the passing of legislation about material resources. Legislation can’t be passed without discussions, ideas, persuading people of the rightness of a position — that is, establishing the cultural context in which the law can be passed. As Street notes: politics refers not only to the process by which . . . scarce goods are distributed — but also to the values that inform arguments about how such goods should be distributed. This account of politics incorporates the constitutions, institutions and ideologies that are the traditional fare of political studies. But the dimensions of politics can be made to extend further. Since political processes involve competing perceptions of what is ‘good’ — for individuals or for groups — definitions of politics include the ways in which the ‘good’ is conceptualized . . . How such claims are conceived, recognized and legitimated . . . depends on how social groups are organized . . . The ability to do this is a product not simply of formal political mechanisms, but of the way images and ideas are produced, reproduced and circulated. Such processes affect the way people think of themselves and their interest . . . (Street, 1997: 42) This is the position taken by Habermas. He supports public discussion, but believes that in itself it’s worthless. It only completes its



political nature when it results in legislative change. Otherwise, for him, it’s just talk: Hoisting a red flag at the right moment can engender a new thought process, but it should not deceive students into thinking they are storming the barricades . . . [it is a] confusion of reality and wish . . . [and] real institutional limits on activity are ignored. (in Holub, 1991: 93) ‘A new thought process’ is not ‘reality’: ‘the change of normative structures remains dependent on evolutionary changes posed by unresolved, economically conditioned systems problems’ (101). Indeed, Habermas argues that people who think that such cultural change is real need to grow up: the sort of behaviour preferred by demonstrators is an outgrowth of protests specific to certain age groups and . . . a continued adherence to such activities is evidence of infantilism . . . (96) Habermas sees ‘the political function of the public sphere primarily in its ability to challenge, “determine or inflect the course of state policy” ’ (Hansen, 1993: xxx–xxxi). Within this ‘modern’ paradigm, though, he insists that cultural change is vitally important. It allows citizens to work to set their own agendas: and, more than this, it even makes it possible for legislative change to take place. For example, Habermas argues that it wasn’t possible for the working classes to be given the vote in the seventeenth century, when a feudalistic mindset was still in place. It was literally unthinkable — the formally educated classes at that time had no model, no way of imagining how such a system would work. But when the idea — the ideal — of a modern, democratic society was introduced to the public sphere it was then possible to make that a reality. These ‘progressive ideas’ could be ‘incorporated and subsequently realised . . . resulting in suffrage reform’ (McGuigan, 1996: 26). The cultural change — the idea — made the political change possible: ‘the political public sphere was thus culturally prefigured’ (McGuigan, 1996: 24, his emphasis; see also Hartley, 1996: 79; Negt and Kluge, 1993: 176; Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 154). The words that we use for our


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political debate — like ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ — are developed in wider culture (Street, 1997: 145): When Aristotle wrote his Ethics and Politics, when he constructed his concepts of the polis, of the constitution, the citizen, the various forms of government, of justice, of happiness, etc, he did not invent these terms and endow them with arbitrary meanings: he took rather the symbols which he found in his social environment, surveyed with care the variety of meanings which they had in common parlance, and ordered and clarified these meanings by the criteria of his theory. (Eric Voegelin, quoted in Wilson, 1985: 50–51) This is one possible ‘modern’ position: that changes in culture make political change possible, but are not in themselves political: ‘televised debates provide no real answers, no solutions, no follow up to legislation’ (Anthony Sampson, quoted in McNair, 2000: 116). If a protest group manages to change the way members of society think, that doesn’t really become a political change until legislation is enacted in the area. So ‘[t]he “turn to culture” which characterises recent postmodern theorising’ has, for many writers ‘represented a turn away from politics’ (Squires, 1998: 126). The focus moves away from ‘real social mobility’ to cultural representations of: (unreal) ‘status’ (Wilson, 1985: 86). There’s a problem, for ‘modern’ writers, that these groups can end up ‘valuing expression for its own sake’ (Robbins, 1993: xii). This is a problem because: there is still no a priori guarantee that cultural self-expression will spill over into further categories of political change, even (what cannot be equated with collective self-expression) into collective empowerment. (Robbins, 1993: xx) By trying to change culture, youth activists and other identity groups forget about: ‘the more material and structural questions of equal jobs, pay and citizenship’ (Coole, 1998: 118). For these ‘modern’ academics, culture — ideas, representation, ways of thinking — is less real than material issues (the distribution of wealth).



Arguing for cultural politics From a ‘postmodern’ position, though, it’s possible to argue more strongly that a cultural change — like the culture jamming that’s become such a visible part of youth politics — is, in itself, a real political act. For many activists involved in new social movements — including youth movements — cultural restrictions are just as ‘real’ as material ones. From this perspective, the very act of talking can itself cause political change: acts of political resistance are commonly played out within popular culture, in the way figures of authority are mocked in satire and comedy — from The Simpsons to Spitting Image. They are not just statements or suppressed emotions, they are a kind of action. (Street, 1997: 13) This approach ‘adopts J. L. Austin’s insight that by speaking with another human being we are not just using words . . . but we are doing something in the world’ (Matuˇst´ık, 2001: xvii), drawing on a philosophical tradition dating back to Plato where ‘speech itself [is] a deed’ (Wilson, 1985: 6). From such a perspective we have to ‘wide[n] . . . the definition of civic culture . . . to include attitudes to the economic and social order; economic equity, civil liberty and law and order’ (13); and ‘conceive of politics . . . as . . . consolidated in the circulation of discursive practices rather than formal organisations’ (Carpignano et al., 1993: 119; see also Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 28–29; Hansen, 1993: xxx–xxxi; Coole, 1998: 119). Such a ‘cultural politics’ covers a variety of approaches; they are linked by a refusal of the most straightforward versions of materialist politics — refusing the idea that it is only ‘jobs, pay and citizenship’, the managing of scarce material resources in a culture, the work of the state and its legislature, that counts as real politics. John Street has drawn out a sympathetic and detailed taxonomy of the different positions one might take in relation to this question: r ‘materialist explanations . . . culture has an important role in pol-

itics, but only as an intermediary. The key divisions and interests


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derive from elsewhere . . . the real material contradictions’ (Street, 1997: 133); r ‘idealist explanations . . . place culture at the head of the explanation . . . the “Cultural Theory” school . . .’ (Street, 1997: 134–135); r ‘individualist explanations . . . Culture . . . acts to expedite the underlying interactions; it does not create them . . .’ (Street, 1997: 137); r ‘interpretive explanations . . . culture constitutes political thought and action rather than explaining them. It treats seriously the idea that cultural symbols have the power to motivate action, but it does not regard them — as the idealist tends to — as absolutely powerful. Their effect is determined by their context and the constraints imposed by it’ (Street, 1997: 140). Some ‘postmodern’ writers argue that culture creates intangible resources that can lead to more obviously political actions — but still bypassing the space of official politics. For example, culture can create a sense of group identity, create ‘connections’ between ideas and groups (Hansen, 1993: xxxviii). It can ‘legitimate . . . viewpoints’ (Dahlgren, 1991: 15), giving them ‘recognition’ (Street, 1997: 121), thus changing ‘the sense we make of . . . the world’ (Street, 1997: 121): No individual can bring about a desired change; it requires others to act as well . . . the adoption of a political ideology cannot be explained simply by reference to people’s interests . . . The idea of ‘having an interest’ itself depends . . . on the prior existence of an identity, to which the interest can be attributed. (Street, 1997: 138, 142) Similarly, John Hartley suggests that television might have changed the way that people treat the environment, by changing their thinking about it — without the need for legislative intervention: television showed the domestic audience something of ‘nature’ as it was innocently called in those far-off days . . . Now we have environmentalism, eco-warriors and the million-strong RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) – ‘nature’ with political teeth,



backed up by quite unusual public tolerance for activism, by such groups as Greenpeace, ‘Swampy’ and others, and unprecedented dialogue between governments, corporations and activists in the formulation of public policy . . . Of course, David Attenborough didn’t ‘cause’ all this, but it is my belief that year after year of Anglia’s Survival, Oxford Scientific Films and the Nature Unit productions of BBC Bristol . . . have done just what [Richard] Hoggart said they would; they’ve ‘ameliorated our manners’, in this case persuading millions to tread more lightly on the natural environment and to temper production with conservation. (Hartley, 1999: 180; see also Meyrowitz, 1985: 140–141) For other ‘postmodern’ writers it’s enough to change the way that people think. For example, feminist and other identity movements have championed concepts such as self-esteem and the importance of feelings (see Chapter 1). Changing the way that women or Black people think about themselves becomes the end point of a political struggle which includes: ‘the struggle over . . . the interpretation of black expression’ (Rose, 1994b: 145). From this point of view, the resources that politics distributes include not only physical things, but also immaterial but real, things — feelings, self-worth, interpersonal relationships. The strongest statement of such a position comes from those ‘postmodern’ writers who insist that the material world is culturally created — that the way we make sense of the world has an impact on how we experience the reality of it: while physical objects are real enough, their reality is a product of knowledge. The world goes round whether we know it or not, but the idea that the world goes round (historically a relatively recent one) is still an idea. Indeed, it is the knowledge of the earth’s rotation that has material effects on human society, not the rotation itself, which went on unnoticed for aeons without troubling anyone . . . discursive knowledge is precisely what is real for our species, and reality is what we imagine. (Hartley, 1992: 31) From this position, to change culture is to change reality: traditional, official, disciplinary, high politics is only a small subset of political change:


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discourses organize practices . . . the real is constructed . . . reality is affected by media discourses . . . there are direct political consequences of apparently immaterial and supposedly ahistorical phenomena like feeling, style, suggestion . . . (Hartley, 1992: 20) These are positions within a ‘postmodern’ paradigm. They are all sympathetic to the cultural politics of youth movements like antiglobalization and environmental campaigns, which use participatory media like the Internet to attempt to change how people think about things, rather than joining political parties to try to make legislative change. And still, against this position, writers employing a ‘modern’ paradigm argue that reality is not constructed (although some ‘modern’ writers would agree that our understandings of it are): that it is possible to represent reality, as Habermas puts it, in a way that isn’t ‘distort[ed]’ (Wuthnow et al., 1984: 223), while other points of view are ‘biased, unrealistic, delusional’ (223). Within the ‘modern’ paradigm there’s only truth, or bias. There’s no point in trying to change representations in themselves: only to reveal the single truth about a situation.

Viewing as politics Youth movements, as with other new social movements, have argued that cultural involvement can in itself be an important form of political activity. If we accept this proposition, then we can return to the mass media which opened this book and view it from a new perspective. If the changing of culture is a political act, then could we argue that the audiences of mass media are involved in politics every time they pick up a newspaper, switch on the television set or listen to a pop song? Could the very act of watching The Simpsons be a contribution to the political process? If we accept the arguments made by new social movements that cultural politics is real, then it makes sense to argue that the consumption of culture is part of the political process. And ‘postmodern’ thinkers, far from seeing an apathetic population, passively consuming the public sphere, in fact see the most informed and engaged political citizenry that has existed in the recorded history



of humanity. Because from this perspective, even ‘participation in the mass media as an audience . . . may count as acting as a public . . . and hence as political participation’ (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 19; see also Dahlgren, 1991: 17; and 1995: 120). The argument rests on the position described above — which crosses ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ paradigms — that public discussion about public issues is in itself a contribution to the process of politics. People discuss issues in order to work out what their general position is — public opinion. Once that’s known, society can change its behaviour accordingly — by changes in the public mood, standards of accepted behaviour or legislation. In Habermas’s account of the eighteenth-century public sphere ‘a portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public’ (Habermas, 1997: 105). People talked to each other, and thus gave each other a sense of how they were thinking. And those people talked to other people; and they talked to other people; and so discussion spread throughout society, and eventually a sense of public opinion was developed through the process of all these individuals engaged in overlapping discussions with each other. Some of those discussions were virtual — one person would tell lots of people what he thought through a newspaper. Other discussions were physical — individual people would get together to discuss what they had read in the newspaper. Through these ongoing conversations a general consensus was formed. This was an important part of the political process. But in all conversations, you sometimes have to listen. If everybody spoke all the time, it wouldn’t be a conversation: it would be a shouting match. And if you’re listening to what somebody is saying, that’s not passive — it’s a vital part of the process of conversation: it is impossible for all citizens simultaneously to be full time senders and receivers of information . . . at any point in time and space some citizens will normally choose to remain silent and only certain other individuals and groups will choose to communicate with others. (Keane, quoted in Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 35) Listening isn’t a passive activity, in short. Listening can be ‘keeping informed’, ‘broadening one’s mind’ — even ‘studying’:


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influential modernist writers like Marx and Mao were also compulsive readers (their books are readings of other’s theories and of social circumstances) whose own formal readerships (Marxists) clearly have had some effect on the materialities and practices of modernity. (Hartley, 1996: 50) So for Habermas, the process of listening to someone talking in a coffee house, or of reading a newspaper, was an important part of the public conversations that were part of the political process. Consuming the media was itself a political act (although, as noted above, he thought this was only true of ‘quality’ media; and that it was only completed when legislation was passed by the state). Do the consumers of mass media ever stop listening and start talking? This is probably the point where ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ thinkers would disagree. Obviously media consumers can’t directly and physically talk back to the producers. The consumers of mass media today are not physically gathered in an agora like the Ancient Greeks had, or a forum like the Romans — a physical space where all citizens gathered to discuss issues. But many writers, both ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’, argue that virtual communication — taking place through mediated texts like letters, newspapers and television — is still real. Even Habermas — although he sometimes shows a nostalgia for ‘face to face’ conversations (1989: 190), and fantasizes about the ‘unencumbered flow of communication’ they allowed (202) — admits that the modern public sphere has always been virtual: When Addison and Steele published the first issue of Tatler in 1709, the coffee houses were already so numerous and the circles of their frequenters already so wide that contact among these thousandfold circles could only be maintained through a journal. (Habermas, 1989: 42) Obviously there are differences between virtual conversations and physical conversations. There’s no body language in virtual conversations (whether in letters, newspapers or on television).



There can be long gaps between each side speaking, rather than instantaneous responses. But there are also similarities. For example, in a physical conversation — such as the Greek agora, or a town hall meeting — where hundreds of people are involved, not everybody will get a chance to speak. This is similar to virtual mass media: There is a danger of idealizing everyday conversation and comparing that idealization to the realities of mass communicated communication . . . In many conversations the roles of sender and receiver may be unbalanced . . . Conversations where participants are differentiated by gender, generation, status or power all place different demands on the participants, who speak with different voices reflecting a variety of subject positions. (Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 163–164; see also Garnham, 1992: 365; Carpignano et al., 1993: 114) I noted in the Introduction that although popular debates about the public sphere tend to use the term ‘the media’ to describe what they’re talking about, the public sphere in fact consists of more than just the mass media. For example, in the circulation of public ideas consumers of media speak back to other consumers. To have a political conversation in a coffee shop — or a hairdresser’s (Hartley, 1996: 58 — for if a conversation about the organization of society in a coffee shop is political why would the same conversation in a hairdresser’s not be?) — is to contribute part of the public sphere. Consumers pass their opinions on to others, who then pass them on to others, who then pass them on to others: the space of the public sphere . . . also include[s] sociocultural interaction . . . the realm of people’s encounters and discussions with each other, with their collective sense-making and their cultural practices . . . Even if television viewing in many cases is a totally individual affair, the experiences gained from viewing are carried over into social interaction. And where viewing is a social activity, done together with others, talk about the programming can take place simultaneously with the transmission as well as directly afterwards. Thus, while most viewing still takes place in the home, which


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is traditionally seen as a private space, this domestic site of ‘mediated publicness’ is where talk about public matters may begin . . . interaction has to do not only with what gets said between people, but also the processes of intersubjectivity and identity which arise in this interaction. (Dahlgren, 1995: 18–19)

Habermas insists that the educated men reading newspapers in the eighteenth century were part of the public sphere because they would then respond critically to what they consumed, think about it for themselves, and discuss it with others. This would create a feedback loop where ideas were put forward by the mass media of the newspapers, and then reworked by these formally educated audiences, who would decide what they found acceptable and what they found unacceptable. The difference between modern and postmodern thinking on whether this is still true today seems to lie in the question of whether the mass media of today still encourage consumers to really think critically about political issues; or whether they simply render them passive. As I argue in the first three chapters of this book, ‘modern’ writers tend to think that the current media doesn’t deal with what’s really important (it’s too trivial); doesn’t challenge consumers to think hard (it’s too easy, downmarket, commercialized); and doesn’t challenge all participants to use logical, rational forms of argument (it’s too spectacular and full of soundbites). So although citizens still consume the media and then talk about it, this isn’t real political participation: not because people aren’t doing it, but because they aren’t doing it properly. Habermas (in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, a work still current and cited in the twentyfirst century although his thinking has moved on), as discussed in Chapter 2, doesn’t think that current popular audiences have any input into the media, or think about what they see in it. They accept ‘uncritically’(Holub, 1991: 80) what they’re given by the powerful elites who make the media. It still seems counterintuitive to many thinkers — both academic and, ironically, popular — that popular audiences might have some control over what’s said in the media — that they might have some contribution to public, mediated conversations about what society in general feels. But if you accept



the ‘postmodern’ attitude that popular audiences are intellectually capable and critical (as argued in Chapter 2), then it becomes sensible within a ‘postmodern’ paradigm to argue that virtual conversations take part within the public sphere, with consumers speaking back in a number of ways. The simplest form of communication comes in choosing to consume or not to consume media texts. If consumers disagree with a newspaper and stop buying it, sales figures fall. This message will be heard by producers. The commercial media in particular (much more so than public-service media) are interested in the views of consumers, simply because they want to make money. The way they make money is by getting consumers to consume. Here we find ourselves back at Chapter 2, with the question of whether working-class audiences will watch whatever they’re given. Many academics say yes; the people who make popular media say no. The latter see their job as trying to find out what consumers want, and giving it to them. Although we can’t say which attitude is correct, we can say that the producers of popular media spend more time, money and effort trying to find out what popular audiences want (through ratings, focus groups and market research) than academics do. Producers of popular media pay close attention to a variety of ways in which popular audiences can communicate their thoughts on the media they are consuming (Hartley, 1992: 87) (indeed, this is precisely what makes popular media so worthless for Habermas in Structural Transformation — see Chapter 2). A single individual writing to the Sun newspaper in the UK is relatively powerless; but as a mass audience, we communicate our thoughts on positions presented in the mass media. In popular thinking about the media we use metaphors like ‘media effects’ and ‘media influence’: metaphors that place the entire transnational media machine against individual viewers. But tens of millions of viewers together form immensely powerful audiences: If you look at a very complex piece of communicational machinery — a truck, say — whose intricacies you admire but whose power you fear, and then you look at a laboratory mouse, and you ask: if I put this mouse on this road in the way of this juggernaut, how is the mouse going to interact with it — the answer is going


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to be obvious but not worth listening to. Wrong comparison. Silly question . . . Readerships are part of the intricate communicational machinery [of the public sphere]. (Hartley, 1996: 234) Consumers can also speak back by writing letters or calling in. If enough complaints are received, again, the message will be heard by producers. In the UK in 2003, a famous retired boxer, Frank Bruno, was taken to a psychiatric facility. The tabloid Sun newspaper led with the headline ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up’. The paper’s readers expressed extreme disapproval at this characterization of mental illness — by calling up the paper and complaining. Later editions of the paper changed the headline to: ‘Sad Bruno in Mental Health Home’. The next day, the Sun announced that it was setting up a charity to support mental health. Obviously this was a cynical piece of marketing: which is kind of the point. Readers of the paper had contributed to the public sphere — Britons in 2003 do not feel that mocking mental illness is acceptable. Viewers can also make complaints to legislative bodies about the ideas presented in the mass-mediated elements of the public sphere. They can set up campaigns to boycott advertising. They can march on the streets. And they can culture-jam, creating and distributing their own texts. And this can be done particularly successfully on the Internet.

Postmodern politics ‘Know the media. Change the media. Be the media’ (Adbusters, 2004: np). Adbusters is a culture-jamming organization. Its slogan suggests that technological developments have made cultural participation a real possibility for all citizens: and that such participation is, in itself, a political act. I haven’t proved in this chapter that cultural politics is real. What I have shown is that the people involved in the new social movements of marginalized groups in society — groups of young people, some feminists, some Queer and Black activists — believe that it is. Given my own attitude that knowledge is always produced from a particular standpoint, and that our experiences inflect what we



learn (see Chapters 1 and 2 of this book), I find it suggestive that the public cultures of these groups argue strongly in the importance of an expanded definition of politics; while the defenders of traditionally Western, masculine and formally educated forms of politics tell them that they’re wrong. From a ‘postmodern’ perspective citizens are more strongly involved in the public sphere than has previously been the case. ‘Postmodern’ writers, hoping for an expansion of equality, justice, freedom and comfort in Western democracies, see it spreading further as citizens take part in the political conversations mediated by newspapers, magazines, pop music and television. The politics of youth movements using the Internet to promote change through culture jamming provide a hopeful sign of the participation of citizens in the political process. But for writers within a ‘modern’ paradigm, the situation is somewhat different. Because of attitudinal differences about what counts as real politics, these writers see a public sphere where commitment to equality, justice, freedom and comfort is being lost. Hoping for an increase in these Enlightenment values they see instead a distraction by trivia and entertainment, and fights for recognition that forget the need for redistribution. New social movements like youth activism argue that cultural politics is real: they put their time and energy into a serious commitment to this attitude. But this only makes sense if you accept a ‘postmodern’ paradigm about the nature of politics.


The public sphere is ‘a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed’ (Habermas, 1997: 105). It’s a metaphor for thinking about how individual human beings come together to exchange ideas and information and feelings, about how large-scale communities manage themselves when too many individuals are involved to simply list the issues that affect them all and have each one explain, face to face, their position. It’s a metaphor which keeps us focused on the distinction between individual, personal forms of representation — over which we have a large degree of control — and shared, consensual representations — which are never exactly what we would like to see precisely because they are shared (public). It’s a liberal model which sees the individual human being as having an important input into the formation of the general will — as opposed to totalitarian or Marxist models, which see the state as ultimately powerful in deciding what people think. This is the public sphere. With this framework in place, you can then go on to conduct your own research and thinking into what’s happening within, and to, the public sphere. You can examine how these ideas, identities and emotions are generated, where they come from, who’s listening to them, and who’s talking back. You can do so without assuming as your starting point that the powerless masses, women, children or Black people are being manipulated by the formally educated elites of society. And you can avoid the paralyzing discovery that every single identity group thinks they are inaccurately represented — or misrepresented — in the media. We already know this. It’s the condition under which a public sphere functions. 204



Neil Postman, author of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), is one of the most well-known popular writers about the changing nature of the public sphere. His work is cited widely across popular and academic writing to explain what’s happening in our cultures (see, for example, Mullarkey, 2004: np; Anderson, 2003: np; Rheingold, 1999: np). Postman believes that the public sphere is degenerating and democracy itself is in danger: When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture death is a clear possibility. (Postman, 1985: 5–6) As I’ve argued throughout this book, worries about what is happening to the public sphere (or ‘the media’, in popular terminology) are common in Western societies, both in popular debates and in academic writing. Commentators are concerned that the public sphere is becoming filled with trivia; too downmarket and entertaining; not logical or rational enough; too fragmented; and that it’s thus creating a population who are apathetic and disengaged from politics. But at the same time, as I’ve also tried to explain in some detail, another set of commentators takes a very different position. For these writers, the trivialization of the public sphere is a good thing: it’s what some feminists have been fighting for since the 1970s — the introduction of what have traditionally been ‘women’s issues’ into serious public debate. They see the move of public culture downmarket as being a positive one: for the term ‘downmarket’ describes the forms of culture traditionally consumed and appreciated by working-class audiences whose education has been informal. For these writers, the presence of spectacle in the public sphere is an important and necessary part of any attempt to conduct public debates that are accessible to citizens whose public cultures have traditionally been neither literate nor relied on Western logic. Fragmentation is seen as an important step in allowing citizens from multiple backgrounds to develop their ideas in public. And these


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writers don’t see apathy when they look at the public: they rather see citizens who are more informed than any previous population, and who are happy to engage in cultural politics — even if traditional forms of politics seem increasingly to alienate them: For me [the American academic Henry Jenkins], the study of media and the study of politics are inextricably linked. My approach, however, contrasts sharply with writers like Noam Chomsky or Robert McChesney who understand popular culture primarily as a distraction from political participation. I see our relationships to popular culture as shaping our political identities in profound ways and am interested in the ways that people mobilize the contents of popular culture to understand the stakes in political struggles. Popular culture often expresses ideas or perspectives that are outside the consensus framed by the news media and are allowed to be expressed here precisely because popular culture is not taken seriously. Many subcultural communities draw on those resources to inspire their own acts of political resistance or to shape their own understanding of citizenship. This approach represents a movement away from a traditional notion of public sector politics and towards an engagement with the more domesticated conceptions of citizenship that emerged through feminism, queer activism, and other identity politics movements. I believe firmly that one reason why fewer and fewer people are voting is that the realm of governance and elections has remained too abstract and removed from the realm of their everyday lives. Increasingly, we are getting our knowledge about the world around us from nontraditional sources and we are expressing our political concerns outside the realm of government. (Jenkins, undated: np) I’ve used two convenient labels to name these sets of attitudes to the changing nature of the public sphere: ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ responses. Although these labels have been developed primarily within academic writing on the topic, they’re also applicable to the kinds of debate that take place in popular media (sometimes the labels themselves are even used — see for example Entertainment Weekly’s use of the term ‘postmodern’ — Sauter, 2004: 146). As I’ve argued throughout the book, neither of these positions is the correct



one when making sense of the world around us: or, rather, both of them are correct. Both are perfectly reasonable ways to make sense of the changing public sphere in Western countries. The differences between commentators who work within a ‘modern’ paradigm and those who favour a ‘postmodern’ one aren’t differences of fact that could be resolved with rational argument: they’re differences of attitude about issues that are necessarily subjective. What is really important in our lives? What’s really important in our societies? What are the best forms of public communication? What counts as real politics? (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 110, 111). In the book, I’ve spent time explaining in some detail both modern and postmodern responses to the public sphere; as I made clear at the beginning, my own sympathies are postmodern. The arguments made by the new social movements, about the need to recognize cultural difference and incorporate it into public debate, seem to me to make sense. If you don’t agree with me — if a ‘modern’ paradigm seems more attractive to you — then hopefully you will at least understand the ‘postmodern’ position, and see that it’s taken in good faith by people who aren’t trying to promote ‘evil’ (Calhoun, 1992b: 40–41); who aren’t actually fools (Gitlin, 1991: 120) or peddling ‘idiocies’ (Garnham, 1990: 29). And hopefully I’ve given enough detail so that the ‘modern’ arguments are clear as well (see also the suggestions for further reading that follow). Hopefully the reader can also see that whichever position she personally favours, people on all sides are generally motivated by goodwill, decency and a desire to contribute to the progress of equality, justice, freedom and comfort. The battle for Enlightenment values has pretty much been won in Western cultures: a commitment to equality is now a dominant ideology, although we continue to fight about what it means. On all sides of politics and academic debates it’s rare to find somebody arguing explicitly for inequality: whatever position a commentator takes on any social issue, they’ll usually argue that it increases equality.1 As I suggested in the Introduction, it seems to me that our key disagreement is ultimately about the nature of equality: do we measure equality by input (treating everybody the same); or by output (taking account of differences so that everybody has an equal chance)? This debate continues in popular discussions as much as in academic philosophy (should we support


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affirmative action? Do special interest groups in our societies get too much?). There’s no correct answer — just two different perspectives, each of which is perfectly reasonable. And we can’t persuade those who think differently to agree with us simply by adducing more facts — because the facts aren’t in question. In Chapter 4, I suggested some of the ways in which people working with different paradigms could attempt to debate with each other, even if their rules for what count as convincing arguments are different. Some groups favour statistical arguments and quotations from political philosophers; others favour tales of personal experience. For some people, a speaker is more convincing if she can construct an argument following academic Western rules of logic; for others, the argument is more convincing if it draws on traditional Black public forms such as ‘signifying, jiving and dozens’ (Eisworth, 1996: 14). For thinkers using ‘modern’ paradigms, there can only be a single truth about any situation; for ‘postmodern’ thinkers, there are many. But members of these groups can conduct debates across cultural difference — and indeed do so in everyday practice — using our ‘real-life resources, such as our abilities to be creative and our willingness to keep trying’ (Nicholson, 1999: 11–12) to find ways to talk to each other and learn from each other. What I haven’t suggested in this book is exactly how individual people end up with the attitudes that they hold. If it isn’t a matter of facts, then how do individuals choose to hold ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ attitudes? This brings me back to a key issue at the centre of this book: what is the relationship between the different public cultures I’ve been describing — Black and white, formally educated and popular, feminine and masculine, youth culture and grey culture — and the individuals who live within or without them? I’ve insisted throughout the book that in describing public cultures I’ve got nothing to say about individual people. We’re offered identities associated with cultures that we’re born into, but some people refuse those identities. Some men grow up discovering that their strongest desire is to have children and become a stay-athome father; some women want to become Prime Minister. Some white people become rap stars; some Black people become Republican politicians. There is, I believe, no biological link between our



bodies and our identities. And in explaining why some people hold ‘modern’ attitudes and some hold ‘postmodern’ ones, I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer. In the academic writing on these topics, there’s little insight into this, beyond a vague suggestion in some writers that this can be explained by ‘psychology’: ‘[a]ctions often have very complex causes. Motivation is more properly the study of the psychologist than the logician’ (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 93). There’s a sense for some writers that personal experiences have a role to play in which arguments will be acceptable to an individual: ‘Kierkegaard rightly [sic] argued that no matter how well built the argument, it will remain unconvincing until it strikes a particular resonance within the individual’ (Davey, 1998: 183). But beyond a vague suggestion that ‘personal experiences’ and ‘personal psychology’ have some explanatory role, there’s little investigation in academic or popular writing in this area as to why some commentators accept a traditionally logical view of rationality, for example, while others favour a more inclusive relativist one. In the Introduction I noted that one of the binaries that’s often mapped onto modern/postmodern is ‘pessimist’/‘optimist’ (see, for example, Calhoun, 1996: 454; Beebee, 2002: 201; Felski, 1989: 166; Kramer, 1992: 252; McNair, 2000: 10; Sinclair and Cunningham, 2000: 28; Gitlin, 1991: 134; Eley, 1992: 290; Outhwaite, 1996: 17). The interpretations made of culture within ‘modern’ paradigms are, strangely, usually pessimistic ones: things are getting worse, human stupidity and triviality are taking over. By contrast, ‘postmodern’ paradigms lead to optimistic conclusions: the public sphere is improving, there are more opportunities for democratic participation. Although in one way using this binary only pushes the question of where ideas come from back a stage — still without answering it (Why are some people pessimistic? Why are some optimistic?) — it does at least serve the useful function of making clear the possibility that maybe people reach the conclusion that things are getting worse, not because they use the ‘modern’ paradigm to make sense of culture; but because of a predisposition to a pessimistic interpretation of the world around them, which then leads them to choose the ‘modern’ paradigm simply because it allows them to explain this rationally. Similarly, those who choose ‘postmodern’ explanations may do so because it best fits their optimistic view of how the


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world is changing. This is the argument of Oliver Bennett’s book Cultural Pessimism: narratives of decline in the postmodern world (2001), where he claims ‘whether or not we become attached to these narratives will ultimately be as much a matter of psychological or biological disposition as of intellectual judgement’ (17). Todd Gitlin’s comments support this view when he says that ‘Some day the grants may flow for the research obligatorily called for. But pending research, one still feels entitled to the pessimism which one must then work to forget’ (Gitlin, 1991: 134). We can’t prove logically whether optimism or pessimism is the best approach to the study of culture. So why am I optimistic? Firstly, it may be that my own experiences lead me to a ‘postmodern’ paradigm: as with those academic philosophers who write of Habermas in terms such as ‘One simply cannot understand Habermas’ work as a whole without attending to this historical rootedness’ (White, 1995: 5–6). Recognizing myself in a Queer culture, I’ve been fighting for many years for public representation and recognition, because it really did matter to me. The experience of being ignored or ridiculed in public was very real — and I don’t like the argument made by people who have never experienced such a situation that I’m misguided in this, that in fact material deprivation is more real and I should be focusing on that rather than the politics of recognition. I find it hard to accept that my perspective — because I’ve experienced this — is subjective, whereas theirs — because they have experienced a different relationship with the mainstream of culture — is objective. Coming from an aspirational family, with parents who were self-made middle-class with a wider workingclass extended family, has also been formative in my intellectual career, leading me to recognize something of Raymond Williams’ concerns at Cambridge (see Chapter 2): ‘it was not my Cambridge . . . I have . . . made some kind of settlement. But this has always, even in the longest period, felt temporary’ (Williams, quoted in Gorak, 1988: 2). Even, perhaps, the fact that, as a Scotsman growing up in a Britain dominated by England, I was aware that the universal norms that governed the country weren’t my own had some influence. But then, having said that, not every gay man grows up to accept ‘postmodern’ ideals — some reject everything to do with



Queer culture and find that traditional intellectual paradigms suit them best. Not everyone from an aspirational background feels out of place among people from privileged backgrounds. Not every Scotsman is alienated by English culture. So perhaps I’ve just failed to explain my optimism as much as I failed to explain my ‘postmodern’ attitude. The second reason I can at least suggest for my ‘postmodern’ orientation is my concern that there’s still a link between identities and cultures, even if it isn’t biological. The new social movements have been mostly started, driven and inhabited by people of marginalized social groups, fighting for what they think is important. Secondwave feminism, although it also included men, was mainly driven by women. True, many women were not feminists, and didn’t accept the arguments of feminists, but there was a movement generated by women, to address women’s issues, and to fight for the importance of what traditionally had been thought of as women’s culture. Similarly gay and lesbian, and later Queer, activism doesn’t include all gay men and lesbians (see Bawer, 1994); but it was created by gay men and lesbians to fight for what they strongly believed in as their culture. This is also true for Black civil rights and Afrocentric movements; and for youth activist movements. None of them represents everybody in their culture; and none of them excludes everybody from outside their culture. But all of them retain a link, historically and statistically, between that culture and the marginalized group in society. Given all this, it concerns me that most of the prominent writers fighting for ‘modern’ ways of thinking about Enlightenment values — at least, in academic writing — are heterosexual white men. Indeed, I suspect that traditionally ‘modern’ paradigms might be described as the identity politics of formally educated Western masculine culture. When these ‘modern’ voices try to silence the voices of other new social movements, telling them that they’re wrong about what’s really important to them, or about how they should be speaking, I can’t prove that they’re wrong: but I do worry that there’s a lack of respect for the voices of other groups. A ‘modern’ position requires a belief in false consciousness: that ‘modern’ writers know better than the members of marginalized groups what is most important for those marginalized groups. Although it’s impossible


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to prove that false consciousness doesn’t exist (Christians may indeed be correct, and we are really all being duped by Satan — the proposition doesn’t admit of rational refutation), I worry that it is all too easily used against marginalized groups who’re finding their public voices for the first time. But, of course, to be fair to writers in the ‘modern’ paradigm, if they’re correct that they’re the only group that knows the truth about culture, it is indeed their responsibility to ensure that they don’t compromise and lose this truth in a relativist babble. Thirdly, it bothers me that, as with Habermas writing about popular audiences, much of the modern writing about other forms of culture is written from a position of, what seems to me to be, ignorance. Writers condemn popular culture, Black culture, feminized culture, Queer culture or youth culture without actually being able to give examples of how it works or explain the trends in its forms of representation — because they don’t know much about it. Again, from a ‘modern’ point of view there isn’t any need to know much about these forms of culture, because they’re homogenous: all popular culture, for example, is imposed on the masses by culture industries, so there’s no need to study in detail how particular reality television shows, women’s magazines or rap artists differ from, or are similar to, each other. If ‘modern’ writers are correct, and only the forms of serious, quality, rational culture traditionally consumed in formally educated Western masculine cultures are worth looking at seriously, this makes perfect sense. But I worry about a form of argument that means you don’t have to be familiar with your object of study (popular culture) in order to be an expert on it. None of these points, as I say, constitutes proof that a ‘postmodern’ paradigm is more convincing than a ‘modern’ one. But they may at least make clear why I take the optimistic position I do. And from that position, it looks to me as though the public sphere has improved massively over the last fifty years; and continues to do so. As I argued in Chapter 4, it appears to me that the public sphere isn’t fragmenting: rather the different public spheres that have always existed — and been more fragmented in the past because they didn’t interconnect regularly or strongly — are becoming ever



more visible to each other. When only formally educated white men had the vote, they really didn’t have to care what feminized public culture, or popular public culture, or Black public culture was doing. It was irrelevant to the running of the country. As more and more of these groups have been enfranchised, their public spheres have been linked to the official public sphere. When radio began broadcasting in the United Kingdom, the only people allowed to speak on the medium were formally educated white men. Women were not allowed to read the news because audiences wouldn’t take it seriously. Only ‘received pronunciation’ (posh accents) was allowed because the accents of working people weren’t comprehensible to the formally educated men running the broadcasting institutions. This is no longer the case: female newsreaders are now common (and trivial and entertainment news is now a regular part of nightly news bulletins); and regional accents are more common, certainly on British television, than has ever previously been the case. When this movement is linked with communications technologies which carry information more quickly than before and which allow more people than ever before to communicate in public (see Meyrowitz, 1985), and with social mobility which allows more people from different backgrounds into positions of cultural power than ever before, we see various cultures meeting in public and becoming ever more visible to each other — and, I suspect, ever more ordinary and acceptable. As I mentioned in Chapter 2, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu discussed the idea of cultural capital — that certain kinds of knowledge are valued more than others. Traditionally everybody in every demographic group has known that the kinds of cultural knowledge that were really valuable were those held by the most formally educated groups in society: knowing lots of details about Shakespeare and literary novelists was ‘really’ valuable; knowing lots of detail about The Simpsons and Stephen King novels somehow wasn’t. There still lingers a strong element of this prejudice in everyday culture, in popular debates about the schooling system, where popular newspapers write horrified stories whenever a school or university course teaches about popular soap operas; but nod in satisfaction at the fact that Shakespeare is taught in the same places. However, even this is now changing; the most important form of cultural capital in Western cultures is


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increasingly cultural omnivorousness (Peterson and Kern, 1996) — being an omnivore, consuming all kinds of texts. It’s no longer impressive just to know about Shakespeare — it’s more impressive now to know about Shakespeare and Public Enemy and Cosmopolitan magazine and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. To me, the fact that knowing about a variety of public cultures has become trendy can only point towards a positive future for a public life which allows for difference, but also wishes for communication across that difference.

Global public sphere As well as the increasing cross-visibility of already-existing public spheres we can also see the emergence of new public spheres. We can see two new kinds of public sphere emerging — those that are smaller than traditional examples, and those that are larger. On the one hand, new identities emerge — transsexual, grey power, disability rights — and form geographically dispersed public spheres in ways that have not previously existed. That’s not to say that small public spheres are new things — as James Curran points out, workplaces in the nineteenth century often constituted their own public sphere, where issues of concern to the workers could be worked out in face-to-face interactions, noticeboards, and so on (Curran, 1991: 31). But these new identities form small, physically dispersed public spheres across nations or even internationally, in ways that are new. And at the other extreme, beyond familiar identity politics, and then familiar national public spheres, we’re now seeing the emergence of the largest forms of public spheres — global public spheres. In the Introduction, I noted John Hartley’s distinction between ‘universalist’ ways of thinking about human civilization — where we think that all people are basically the same, and we can find common interests and beliefs — and ‘adversarial’ ones — where we believe that humanity is made up of irreconcilable groups whose interests will always be opposed. While identity politics and national politics continue to include an adversarial element, it’s notable that the most powerful new political movements of the last fifty years have been universalist ones — which work at a global level to



imagine a common human interest. The anti-war movement argues that killing the citizens of another country is not made acceptable simply because they’re not the same nationality as ourselves. The anti-nuclear movement insists that it’s fighting for the survival of humankind — who, for the first time, could conceivably wipe ourselves out: a potential for self-annihilation on a global scale has called forth risks so total that in relation to them divergent interests can be relativized without difficulty . . . the standard of a universal interest everyone can acknowledge. (Habermas, 1989: 235) Members of the human rights movement Amnesty International (over 1.5 million members in 150 countries) explicitly do not investigate their own countries — they’re forbidden to do so. The motivating logic of the organization is a concern with humanity as a whole, across national boundaries. And the ecological movement is similarly a humanist movement: we may have different national boundaries, and different political systems, but we all need a planet on which we can live, oxygen we can breathe, and water we can drink. Alongside a common interest in biodiversity and natural beauty that appeals to increasing numbers of human beings in distinct political systems, there’s once again a concern for the survival of humanity as a whole. And, ironically, the most visible example in recent years of this new globalized identity and globalized public sphere is the antiglobalization movement. Exchanging information about transnational companies in order to take a global perspective (you wouldn’t even see globalization if you only saw your own country’s experience of it — you wouldn’t know what was going on), anti-globalization protestors organize globally and mobilize globally in order to fight for the interests of a common global humanity — the need to fight globalization and protect cultural diversity. Cultures which are embracing difference, but still finding ways to remain remarkably cohesive. The introduction of elements of traditionally feminine culture, working-class culture, Black culture, Queer culture, youth culture into official public spheres, which still continue to function. A greater understanding on all sides of the


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variety of cultures which surround us, and a greater familiarity with their content. An environment which supports the development of ever more nuanced forms of culture. And yet, against this background of diversity, the fact that this is precisely the context which has allowed for the most generalized, the most universal, the largest scale publics that the human race has ever produced.2 ‘This is what it’s all about guys — everyone getting along: Black, white, gay, straight . . .’. This is how the changing public sphere looks, from the ‘postmodern’ perspective of an optimist.

Further Reading

J¨urgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (1962, English translation published 1989) represents the starting point of recent debates about the public sphere. It’s relatively accessible, and includes a useful overview of philosophical thinking about the nature of the public to that point. Habermas has developed his position over the years, proving unusually receptive to criticism; but the original book is still his most cited piece of work in relation to the public sphere. For a discussion of Habermas’s early work, see David Held’s 1980 book Introduction to Critical Theory. For a sense of critical responses to him see John B. Thompson and David Held’s edited collection Habermas: critical debates (1982). Craig Calhoun’s Habermas and the Public Sphere (1992) also gathers a number of interesting pieces from writers engaging with Habermas’s work on the public sphere. Habermas’s later writing is notoriously difficult to understand (Adams and Dyson, 2003: 235); but Michael Pusey provides an invaluable introduction to his work called ‘How to read Habermas’ (1987: 124–125). William Outhwaite’s Habermas: a critical introduction (1994) is also helpful, presenting a detailed chronological exegesis of his work. Maurizio Passerin d’Enr`eves and Seyla Benhabib’s edited collection Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: critical essays on The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1996) engages with the normative nature of Habermas’s theories of the public sphere. For readers interested in wider academic debates about the public sphere, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s response to the original Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is entitled Public Sphere and Experience: toward an analysis of the bourgeois and 217


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proletarian public sphere (1972, English translation published 1993). This is important for raising the idea that there are multiple public spheres serving multiple cultures with different forms of public communication. This debate — about whether the public sphere should ideally be imagined as unitary or as heterogenous — has structured academic debates on the issue to the present day. Rita Felski’s Beyond Feminist Aesthetics (1989) is an often-cited book that argues for the existence of a feminist counter-public sphere. Nancy Fraser is probably the best known exponent of relativist arguments about the public sphere. Her key contribution, written from a feminist perspective, is the 1990 article ‘Rethinking the public sphere: a contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy’, first published in the journal Social Text. The volume Redistribution or Recognition: a political-philosophical exchange (Fraser, with Axel Honneth, 2003) lays out Fraser’s thinking on new social movements and claims for cultural recognition; issues that have been central to debates about the nature of the public sphere. Written by two authors, it’s useful for presenting both Fraser’s relativist account and Honneth’s more normative one. Similarly, David Couzens Hoy and Thomas McCarthy’s book Critical Theory (1994), in the ‘Great debates in philosophy’ series, is written by a foundationalist and a relativist author, presenting a dialogue about many issues relevant to discussions of the public sphere. It’s useful not just for explaining ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ positions on public culture, but also for showing how academics from different paradigms try to convince each other of their differing positions. The work of Nicholas Garnham is very important in the history of academic writing on the public sphere: it was he more than anybody who bridged disciplines and brought the language and debates from political philosophy into media studies. His 1990 book Capitalism and Communication presents the fullest account of his position on the mediated public sphere, which has remained stable over time. Debates about the public sphere have continued in a number of disciplines. Bruce Robbins’ collection The Phantom Public Sphere (1993) gathers writers from a number of disciplines to present a wide-ranging set of approaches to the issues raised in debates about the public sphere. In media studies and cultural studies, writers have attempted to match an understanding of the political philosophy

Further Reading


of the public sphere with a detailed knowledge of popular culture. The most important books in this project have been John Hartley’s Popular Reality: journalism, modernity, popular culture (1996); and Jane Shattuc’s The Talking Cure: TV talk shows and women (1997). For readers interested in examining how popular publishing has discussed the public sphere, Ms magazine includes some useful articles that explicitly argue for the importance of a public space for the discussion of traditionally feminized issues. Francine Klagsburn’s 1973 collection The First Ms Reader includes much interesting material; as does The Decade of Women: a Ms history of the 70s in words and pictures (1980), edited by Suzanne Levine, Harriet Lyons, Ellen Sweet and Mary Thom. Contemporary women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Cleo provide useful source material for thinking about the kinds of public debate in which their young female readers are interested, and how they relate private to public. It’s worth watching a good amount of reality television in order to understand the ways in which it proposes citizens from different cultural backgrounds should understand and communicate with each other. Programs such as Survivor and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fianc´e propose individualistic and adversarial versions of society. More interesting are programs that emphasize communication and community. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and the British or Australian versions of Big Brother, for example, are valuable intellectual resources for thinking about ways in which cultural differences can be recognized, not in divisive ways, but as part of a larger strategy of amelioration of manners. Chuck D’s Fight the Power: rap, race and reality (1997) is a passionate and insightful book arguing for the need for a distinctively Black form of public communication, including the political potential of rap. Missy Elliott’s recent work, including This is Not a Test (2003), similarly proclaims the importance of rap as public culture, as well as commenting on the usefulness of ‘vulgar’ forms of communication. The most interesting example of Queer thinking about the relation between a variety of nested public identities is the British magazine Attitude. This offers intelligent and often very funny negotiations of identities running from ‘British’ to ‘British Queer’ to ‘British Queer men’ to a variety of British Queer male cultures,


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including younger and older, more transgressive and more conservative, more political and more sceney, and of a variety of races, sexual preferences and geographical locations. A number of websites provide interesting ideas and insight into the politics of culture jamming. Adbusters is an important culture-jamming organization; its website explains their philosophy and the projects in which it’s currently involved ( The website of the organization Abrupt (‘Apocalyptic optimism for the end of history’) also explains culture jamming, and offers numerous examples of the practice (


Introduction 1 ‘The public sphere’ and ‘the media’ are not exact synonyms: see the discussion of this issue below. 2 There is a prehistory of public spheres in Ancient Rome (which had the ‘forum’ from the sixth century BC onwards) and Classical Greece (which had the ‘agora’ from the fifth century BC onwards) (Hartley, 1992: 33, 35; Habermas, 1989: 3; Dahlgren, 1995: 7). Both of these systems operated with a form of democracy — rule by ‘demos’, that is (in Greek) ‘the people’ — although they were somewhat different from our current political systems in that they excluded women, slaves, and foreigners. The Roman Republican system elected two leaders at a time for one-year terms, supervised by a senate of prominent citizens. The Greek democracy of Athens did not elect politicians (which we call ‘representative’ democracy) — all citizens were personally involved in running the city — that is, in ‘participatory’ democracy. 3 David Owen writes of ‘freedom’: To be sure, the idea of freedom is fraught with misunderstandings, misuses and abstraction. Critical theorists do not understand freedom in the colloquial and liberal sense of freedom from external constraint. The conception of freedom as being able to do what I want to do without anyone or anything interfering or constraining me from doing so is far too thin a conception . . . (Owen, 2002: 1) Thomas Osborne notes that Foucault thinks that any form of justice that could be ‘proven’ . . . is not really worth the candle. We strive for justice because we find things intolerable; justice is its own end. (Osborne, 1999: 57). And in relation to comfort, there’s an ongoing debate about what constitutes a real material ‘need’ and what is only a ‘want’ — see Wilson, 1985: 203. 4 Of course it isn’t that simple in real life. Even facts are never objective — they’re always coloured with attitude. Take the example of trying to describe what happens during an abortion: is it ‘terminating a foetus’? Or ‘killing an unborn child’? Both are factual descriptions. The first is less emotive — but that very



Notes (pages 16–37)

fact in itself makes it biased by an attitude. If you choose to say ‘foetus’ rather than ‘unborn child’, this suggests you think that this is a subject that shouldn’t be treated emotively — and that puts you on one particular side of the argument (see Copi and Cohen, 1998: 117). We can never fully separate facts from arguments. Nevertheless, this is a commonsense distinction, and one that we use in our everyday sensemaking practices, so I’ve chosen to use it strategically in this book. 5 This is of course a massive simplification. We could break down writing on the public sphere in many different ways — for example, we could point out that there are three broad traditions, of liberals, socialists and radical democrats/utopians (Curran, 1991: 27; Eley, 1992: 317–318). But the modern/ postmodern binary is undeniably a central one that people use for understanding their own positions and describing the debates that take place about the public sphere. 6 Once again I’m simplifying here. The debates about the nature of modernity and postmodernity, and of the relationship between them, continue to rage in academic writing. In claiming that postmodern thinking is still based on Enlightenment values of equality, justice, freedom and comfort I’m following writers such as Daniel W. Conway, who says of Habermas (modern) and Foucault (postmodern): both wish to extend in some sense the project of enlightenment . . . to explore the limits of the prevailing regimes of power . . . to cultivate alternatives to subject-centred reason . . . to restore the centrality of practical reason to political discourse; and in general to take the measure of modernity itself. (1999: 63) See also Richard Rorty (1985: 167); Michael Walzer (cited in White, 1989: 22– 23); Rita Felski (1989: 70); David Hoy (Hoy and McCarthy, 1994: 263); Steven Seidman (1994: 1); Nicholas Davey (1998: 181); David Bogen (1999: 144); Linda Nicholson (1999: 10); Samantha Ashenden and David Owen (1999: 15); Thomas Osborne (1999: 55); Martin Morris (2001: 197); and Oliver Bennett (2001: 13). Other writers would disagree that this is the case. For a detailed exploration of modern and postmodern approaches to thinking about culture, see Hoy and McCarthy, 1994. 7 This is an awkward binary, but one that is used in much academic writing about the public sphere — see Chapter 2. 8 This is less obviously true of Queer and youth cultures, although this may be because the historical work on these public spheres is less developed.

1 Trivialization 1 It’s important to note that not all feminists argue for the importance of traditional women’s culture. ‘Equality feminists’ like Susan Moller Okin (1989) would not agree with the arguments of the feminists presented in this chapter. Nevertheless, an important part of twentieth-century feminism has

Notes (pages 53–55)


been an argument for the recognition of a distinctive traditional feminine culture. It’s also relevant that these feminist writers have argued for other changes to the public sphere, and not just for the need to publicize ‘trivial’ issues. For example, there is a strong feminist tradition arguing that we shouldn’t privilege ‘rationality’ as the best mode of public communication — see Nicholson, 1999. In this book, I’ve chosen to focus on one aspect of the arguments presented by each new social movement, and in Chapter 3 I’ve used the work of Afrocentric writers to challenge the dominance of rationality in the public sphere. It should be noted, though, that this is as much an aesthetic decision as anything else, to try to ensure that a range of voices from different social movements have a place in the book. 2 Interestingly, this is another issue where we can agree on facts, but our attitudes divide us. Both essentialists and constructionists agree that gender roles, for example, have changed dramatically over time. At the end of the nineteenth century, scientists believed that women were unsuited for higher education, because the stress involved would make their wombs dry up — make them, literally, ‘hysterical’ (see, for example, American Association of University Women, undated). Yet at the start of the twenty-first century, the majority of university graduates are women. For constructionists, the fact that the dominant social roles for women have changed so much suggests that there is no ‘essence’ to women’s characters; whereas for essentialists this fact can be interpreted as showing that there is still an essence of femininity hidden under the changing social roles; or that women who challenge traditional gender roles are being ‘unnatural’ and refusing the roles they should take up. The difference rests in attitudes towards what is real — the empirical surface details, or the abstract, hidden essence. 3 Although it does seem that Habermas wants to have his cake and eat it too. Outhwaite points out that Habermas says ‘thinkers such as Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault are right to reject the philosophy of consciousness centred on the subject’ (Outhwaite, 1996: 16) — that is, he rejects the Oprah idea of the sovereign subject. And Habermas himself points out that the idea that authentic identities are developed in the private sphere is a historical, rather than an absolute one, pointing out that for Greek philosophers it was the public that was ‘humanity’s genuine site’ (Habermas, 1989: 51). And he makes clear that the ideal private sphere where people could develop their own authentic identities was always public as well: ‘Subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was always already oriented towards an audience . . . the subjectivity of the privatized individual was related from the very start to publicity’ (Habermas, 1989: 49, 50). But having said all of this, Habermas still wants to insist that there is some way in which, in his idealized society, the private personalities that would develop are somehow more full, and more authentic, than the ones that are developed today in relation to the public sphere. 4 Another important tradition of feminist writing agrees with the essentialist thinkers mentioned above, claiming that men’s and women’s bodies do indeed


Notes (pages 68–78)

biologically predispose them to have certain interests and attitudes — see Irigaray, 1985; Cixous, 1988.

2 Commercialization 1 In this chapter, I use the binary ‘formally educated’ versus ‘popular’ to describe distinct cultures linked to class. This is obviously a simplistic approach to thinking about how culture is organized: even if we think only of class as the main form of identity in a culture, we could build much more complex models including middle class, upper class and a number of striations within these — see Hartley, 1996: 161. However, much academic writing about the public sphere — not least the work of Habermas — uses just such a binary structure. Habermas refers to these two cultures as those of ‘the masses’ on one hand, and ‘educated’ culture on the other. I’ve chosen to describe the first group as a ‘popular’ audience rather than ‘the masses’, in order to be less condemnatory of the individual intellectual abilities of the citizens in question; and to use the term ‘formally educated’ rather than just ‘educated’ for the second group, in order to make clear that people without university degrees are also ‘educated’, although not within an institutional system — see McLaughlin, 1996: 28–29. It’s particularly confusing to note that, despite using this binary, Habermas’s ideal form of the public sphere is the ‘bourgeois’ or ‘middle-class’ form of debate — in opposition both to working-class culture and upper-class culture (Burger, 1989: xv). 2 Cultural historians continue to debate literacy rates in Western countries over the past few centuries, and the effect this has had on the consumption of public culture. Such information is notoriously difficult to recover. However, the following might be marked as points of consensus. Firstly, the populations of Western countries are currently better educated than they have been at any other point in history; secondly, even in the comparatively illiterate populations of earlier centuries, printed forms of public culture spread out to working-class and peasant populations, as ballads were sung, newsbooks or papers read out in public places, information from them passed on informally from person to person, and so on (Carey, 1992: 6). 3 This is incredibly oversimplified, and is provided only as a guide for those readers who aren’t familiar with political theory. For a much more complex and nuanced account, see Offe and Ronge, 1997. 4 This is a massively simplistic account of this argument. The original draft of this chapter was three times as long as the current one. If you would like to read a full account of these issues, please email the author on [email protected] and I’ll send you a complete version. This is one point where popular and academic discussions of the public sphere part company. Although it’s common to find accusations in everyday discussions that the public sphere is currently too commercialized, downmarket, or ‘dumbing down’, it is rare to find popular commentators extending this argument to claim that the problem is capitalism itself. This is, however, a common argument in academic writing on the topic.

Notes (pages 83–115)


Indeed, it’s probably the single most common topic in the genre of academic writing in the public sphere. An extended and detailed discussion of this case can be found in Garnham, 1990. I’ve chosen not to explore this at length because to do it justice I’d have to devote a third of the book to the issue, and I feel there are other points about the public sphere which are more common to both popular and academic debates on the topic that need to be covered as well. 5 Although this word is common in discussions about the public sphere, and about the media generally, it has a confused set of meanings, including: ‘. . . [1] the ability of the media to bind together . . . audiences . . . [2] technical qualities such as superior camerawork . . . [3] [the ability to] stand the test of time . . . [4] the degree of popularity’, and so on (Keane, 1991: 120–121). Here I use the term as it’s most commonly used in debates about the function of the public sphere. 6 This longstanding Marxist idea was originally proposed in this form by Hegel in 1821 (Wilson, 1985: 203). Although Habermas’s political position is more of a liberal than a Marxist (Hohendahl, 1992: 100) his cultural theory in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is traditionally Marxist (Holub, 1991: 7; Thompson and Held, 1982: 2, 9). This approach is common in discussions about the commercialization of the public sphere. The masses — working-class consumers — are ‘passive’ (Boyte, 1992: 343); they are ‘inert’ (Groombridge, 1972: 42) and ‘uncritical’ (Holub, 1991: 80). Their minds can be ‘engineer[ed]’ (Calhoun, 1992b: 24) to produce ‘false consciousness’ (25). 7 As with all philosophical terms there is disagreement about what the term ‘experience’ actually means — see Wilson, 1985: 255 for discussion of this. Some writers criticize the concept for its over-reliance on the Oprah model of subjectivity — that whatever sense people make of their own lives automatically becomes ‘the truth’ (Scott, 1993). But other writers argue that the term ‘experience’ is useful for thinking about the everyday gathering of knowledge, and doesn’t have any necessary implications of authenticity (Pickering, 1997: 13).

3 Spectacle 1 Although, as Paul Gilroy points out, hip hop culture is not purely Black. It draws on a number of cultural traditions in its development (Gilroy, 1995: 56). 2 For useful overviews of the place of rationality in the history of Western philosophy, see Warner, 1989 and O’Neill, 1999. 3 Ren´e Descartes commented four hundred years ago that philosophy ‘has been cultivated for many centuries by the best minds that have ever lived, and . . . nevertheless no single thing is to be found in it which is not subject of dispute, and in consequence which is not dubious’ (quoted in Warner, 1989: 4). 4 Once again, I’ve simplified this argument for the sake of the introductory reader. There are many more complex distinctions about the nature of rationality laid over this simplistic binary. For example we can make distinctions between ‘instrumental reason’, ‘means-end rationality’ (Outhwaite, 1996: 7), ‘scientific


Notes (page 115)

rationality’ (Garnham, 1992: 375), ‘functional rationality’ (Dahlgren, 1995: 99; McGuigan, 1996: 320; Wilson, 1985: 78), ‘practical reason’, ‘pure reason’, ‘calculating reason’ (Rundell, 1991: 133, 134), and so on. Ironically, given the focus in this book on his writings, I don’t talk much in this chapter about J¨urgen Habermas’s ‘distinctive’ (White, 1995: 5) thinking about rationality, which doesn’t fit easily into this taxonomy — mainly because although his thinking on rationality is popular within political philosophy, ‘none of his critical theoretical ¨ terms has become part of the critical vocabulary to the extent that Offentlichkeit [public sphere] has’ (Beebee, 2002: 187). In popular debates about the changing nature of the public sphere it’s common to find worries about the forms of debate — in terms of ‘short attention spans’ and ‘soundbites’ as mentioned above; and I think that most of the debates about rationality in this chapter would make sense in the popular context. Habermas’s approach, however, is a little too idiosyncratic for this to be the case for his thinking on the issue. In his early career, Habermas argues for the importance of universal rules for dialogue in the public sphere: in his later work he develops a complex theory of ‘communicative rationality’ to explain how this is possible (see Chapter 4). In Habermas’s ideal rational public sphere, knowledge and argument are dominant, rather than ‘violent conflict’ (Habermas, 1989: 132) or the use of ‘power’ (Habermas, 1992: 451) or other non-communicative forms such as ‘hypnosis . . . deception, or perhaps by appealing to authority’ (Outhwaite, 1996: 11–12). But in his definition of what counts as rational, Habermas fits neatly into neither the ‘modern’ nor the ‘postmodern’ paradigms. He rejects some traditional forms of rationality as being repressive and destructive: ‘strategic rationality’, for example, which is a means-end way of seeing the world where individuals are sacrificed to a mechanistic notion of doing what is best for society. But he champions what he calls ‘communicative rationality’: ‘For Habermas, an action or a statement is rational if it can, in principle, be justified on the basis of an open debate with equal participation for each individual’ (Baert, 1998: 142; see also White, 1989: 10; Craib, 1984; Bausch, 2001: 68–91; deHaven-Smith, 1988: 84–117; H´enaff and Strong, 2001: 25; Felski, 1989: 12; Holub, 1991: 8). This could be interpreted as ‘postmodern’ to the extent that rationality is defined in terms of aiming to find some way to connect with other minds (Habermas, 1996: 133; see also Dahlgren, 1995: 99; Wilson, 1985: 273; Habermas, 1996: 151; Habermas, 1982: 227; Horkheimer, quoted in Calhoun, 1996: 455; Corner, 1995: 47). In this model rationality is a quality that doesn’t belong to individuals, but is grounded in ‘interactions between human subjects’ (Outhwaite, 1996: 15; Poole, 1989: 20). On the other hand, it can be interpreted as ‘modern’ because Habermas establishes that in trying to communicate with other people, only logical forms of argument should be allowed (Poole, 1989: 19); that emotional forms of information gathering or communication can never be rational (Habermas, 1989: 195, 217; see also Wilson, 1985: 276–277; Dahlgren, 1995: 17; Ingram, 1987: 20), and thus are never public because they don’t really involve an attempt to communicate:

Notes (pages 121–143)


nonpublic opinion . . . lack[s] the attribute of rationality . . . Publicity . . . could only be realized in the measure that . . . personal opinions could evolve through . . . rationalcritical debate . . . opinions . . . remained private in the sense that they were not exposed to correction . . . [by] a critically debating public. (Habermas, 1989: 219, 221; see also McGuigan, 1996: 4; Murdock, 1999: 11–12) 5 Douglas Walton notes that ‘some . . . appeals to authority . . . can be reasonable and legitimate in argument’ (1989: 173); but the decision about what is a reasonable appeal to authority is a subjective one (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 165). 6 I hope it’s obvious here that the term ‘Western’ refers only to one tradition of Western culture — a masculine, formally educated Western culture. Neither feminine nor working-class cultures have traditionally employed the formal logic of Western philosophy, and so these citizens are in a position more akin to Black citizens in these arguments. 7 See note 3 for a discussion of why Habermas would disagree with this position.

4 Fragmentation 1 Academic writers on this question argue about whether we should recognize a number of distinct ‘public spheres’ in culture — feminist public sphere, Black public sphere, proletarian public sphere — or rather describe our current official public sphere as a single entity with ‘sub-regions’ (McNair, 2000: 106), ‘sphericules’ (Gitlin, 1998) or ‘micro public spheres’ (Dayan, 1999: 29). In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas envisaged the public sphere as a singular entity with separate sections, relying on the: notion . . . that society and its self-organization are to be considered a totality. The society that administers itself, that by means of a legal enactment of plans writes the program controlling all spheres of its life including its economic reproduction, was to be integrated through the political will, of the sovereign people. (Habermas, 1992: 443; see also Dayan, 1999: 29) But other writers are happy to accept that: ‘there really is no public but only specialized publics . . .’ (Wilson, 1985: 210), ‘counter-public spheres’ (Hartley, 1996: 68, quoting Felski), ‘alternative public spheres and counterpublics’ (Robbins, 1993: xvii), and ‘minoritarian public spheres’ (Sinclair and Cunningham, 2000: 27). They believe that we should ‘reconceive’ of the public sphere as a: ‘plural, provisional and multi-layered concept’ (Robbins, quoted in Livingstone and Lunt, 1994: 94): there is no such thing as the public interest. There are class interests, individual interests, fluctuating groups interests. But to suppose that there is such a thing as the public interest is to suppose that there is a single ‘public’ with a unified set of interests which somehow override conflicting and varying individual class and fractional interests. (Bonney and Wilson, quoted in Poole, 1989: 6)


Notes (pages 145–154)

Habermas himself moves towards this position in his later writing: the presumption that society as a whole can be conceived as an association writ large, directing itself via the media of law and political power, has become entirely implausible in view of the high level of complexity of functionally differentiated societies. (Habermas, 1992: 443; see also Hansen, 1993: xxix, Negt and Kluge, 1993: 13, 56) I tend to agree with Peter Dahlgren that it may be in part a semantic question whether one argues for a single large pluralistic public sphere which connects many smaller discrete arenas or whether one posits that a multiplicity of many smaller public spheres is what constitutes the public sphere as a whole. (Dahlgren, 1995: 18) 2 Not all writers accept this argument. Some of them argue that historically even the eighteenth-century public sphere wasn’t really homogenous — not all of the educated white men were equal or came from the same culture. Rather, they formed ‘small, highly differentiated audiences’ based on political affiliations and geography (Curran, 1991: 42–43; see also Harris, 1996: 11); and in fact the public sphere was ‘always constituted by conflict . . . among a variety of publics’ (Eley, 1992: 306). 3 Other writers disagree with Habermas’s claims that bourgeois men in the eighteenth century believed they were working for the good of all people: In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bourgeois public sphere did not, in reality, develop at the level at which Kant conceived of it. The bourgeois property owners . . . were not interested in the formation of public experience . . . their prime interest is in the possible countereffects of this public sphere on their private interests . . . (Negt and Kluge, 1993: 11) Also, as noted in the last chapter, in his later philosophy, Habermas turns away from the idea of universal political ends, and instead looks for ‘procedural’ universality in the structure of communicative practices; the ‘shared discourse rules’ that make communication possible (Garnham, 1992: 368) — ‘communicative rationality’. He argues that it is possible to find universal rules for public communication, even across all the different public spheres discussed in this book — working-class, Queer, Black, feminist and youth public spheres. These rules are abstract — they consist of a belief in the possibility of communication; that other human beings can understand what you are saying; and that you and the people you’re trying to communicate with can reach agreement about the rules by which you will judge the statements you are making. This is a slightly different argument from the one about whether particular political desires can be understood as being universal (see Habermas, 1996). 4 There’s another response to these claims of universalism, one which perverts ‘modern’ arguments. This position argues that ‘modern’ thinkers are wrong, not in claiming the existence of universal needs and desires — but in what they think

Notes (pages 176–216)


those universal needs and desires are. There may indeed be universal needs — but these include the needs to be freed from sexual repression and from the tyranny of gender roles as much as from wage slavery. From this perspective, Garnham and Gitlin are correct in their focus on universal needs — but what everyone in fact needs is to be freed from restrictive masculine and feminine gender roles, and straight sexual practices. They need to see beyond the masculine public sphere of ‘jobs, pay and citizenship’ and learn to express their emotional needs and sexual desires to connect with other human beings. This is what is really universal. Feminist, Black and Queer groups must ‘represent [their] interests as the common interests of all members of the society’ (Zerilli, 1993: 160) and appropriate the idea of ‘the universal’ (Monique Wittig in Zerilli, 1993: 142).

5 Apathy 1 This might seem surprising, as in popular discussions about this issue the impression is often given that in the past every citizen read quality newspapers and discussed macro-economics (Boyte, 1992: 340, 348–349). But historically it’s agreed that this isn’t the case. This is an example of the kind of nostalgic history I described in the Introduction, where we think that people in the past read only Shakespeare and difficult poetry, because that’s the only culture from that period that’s been kept in the archives. By contrast, the vast majority of the everyday culture that the majority of the population actually spent their time consuming — trashy story papers and downmarket vaudeville shows — has been forgotten by archivists.

Conclusion 1 Religion, a pre-modern institution, is the only real exception to the rule — it’s the only place where it’s possible to argue explicitly that equality is a bad thing: ‘A Belgian cardinal . . . [has] ridicule[d] the principle of one man, one vote . . .“Politics? Democracy? Don’t make me laugh . . . the right to vote, what is that all about? I find it strange that a snotty-nosed 18-year-old has the same vote as a father of seven. One has no responsibility whatsoever; the other provides tomorrow’s citizens”’ (Evans-Pritchard, 2004: 8). 2 You could argue that religions have existed as globalized, transnational public spheres for many centuries. Your attitude to this argument depends on whether you think that religious debate can be truly ‘public’ or not — see Zaret, 1992: 23.


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Aaronovitch, David 101 abortion 44 abrupt 220 Adbusters 202, 220 Advocate magazine 164 Afrocentrism 107, 127–132, 211 agora 198 Alvear, Michael 165 Amnesty International 215 Anecdotes sur Mme La Comtesse Du Barry 39 anti-globalization movements 172, 183, 196, 215 anti-nuclear movements 175, 215 anti-war movements 175, 215 Aristotle 35, 112, 192 Asian Dub Foundation 107 Attenborough, David 195 Attitude magazine 168, 219 Austin, J L 193 B-Real 131 The Bachelor 67 Baker, Houston 110 Bakhtin, Mikhail 97 Bennett, Oliver 210 Big Brother 67, 74, 98, 219 Billionaires for Bush 172, 187, 190 black aesthetic 109 black culture, see culture, raced black public sphere, see public sphere, black


Blair, Eric 95 blues 110 Boston Gay Community News 164 Bourdieu, Pierre 93, 213 Boyd, Todd 132 Boyz 140 Brother/Sister 168 Bruno, Frank 202 Bush, George 165 ‘By the time I get to Arizona’ 106, 137 Calhoun, Craig 217 capitalism 77–80 celebrity bodies 61–62 celebrity gossip 32–33, 38, 39, 42, 59–62, 69, 70, 82 Channel 4 News 73 chapbooks 68 Chroniques scandaleuses 39 Citizen News 164 civil rights movement, Black 127–131, 211 civil rights movement, gay and lesbian 147 civil society 9–10 Cleo magazine 219 Cobbett, William 74, 103 ‘commercial’ versus ‘commercialized’ culture 80–84 common culture 141 communication across paradigms 155–161

Index communicative rationality 226, 228 Connell, Ian 60 consciousness raising 45–46 consensus versus compromise 145–146 constructivism 55 conversion, religious 157 Conway, Daniel 222 Cosmopolitan magazine 214, 219 cross-demographic communication 157–161 cultural capital 93 cultural difference, see difference, cultural cultural politics 175, 182–183, 190–202 cultural studies 75–76 culture, aged 25, 174–175, 182–183 culture, classed 24–25, 71–74, 90–94, 98–100, 101–102, 108 culture, gendered 24, 36–37, 40 culture, raced 25, 109–111 culture, sexual 25 culture jamming 172–174 Curran, James 214 cynicism towards politics 59–60 Cypress Hill 131 D, Chuck 131, 219 Dahlgren, Peter 228 Daily Telegraph 169 Daleks 114, 119 Dallas Voice 140 Darnton, Robert 38 Davros, leader of the Daleks 119 Dawson, Michael C 131 Dean, Howard 172 Debord, Guy 107 Dell’Ollio, Anselma 43 democracy, radical 186 Descartes, Ren´e 225 difference, cultural 22–30, 67 difference and similarity 144–148 Doctor Who 114, 119


domestic public sphere 41 Douglas, Kyan 67, 101 Drudge Report 188 ‘dumbing down’ 66 Dynasty 164 EastEnders 164 Edmiston, Susan 61 The Edwardian House 98, 100 Eliot, T S 84 Elliott, Missy 219 emotions, as bad 112–114 Engels, Frederick 74 Enlightenment values 7, 15, 17, 19, 27, 29, 30, 50–52, 62, 64, 77, 86, 97, 112, 114, 184, 190, 203, 207, 211, 222 entertainment 82–83, 107 Entertainment Weekly 206 environmental politics 175, 196, 215 equality 14–15 essentialism 53, 223 experience 90–93, 210, 225 fallacies in argument 112, 120 false consciousness 86, 211 family, invention of 35 Father’s rights movement 47 Felski, Rita 157, 218 feminism 42, 43, 44, 211, 222 Footballers’ Wives 162 forum 198 Foucault, Michel 221, 222 Frankfurt School 76 Franklin, Mark 180 Fraser, Nancy 154, 162, 169, 218 Free Press 164 French Revolution 38, 94, 149 Friendship and Freedom 164 Furedi, Frank 1 Gadamer, Hans Georg 77 gangsta rap 106, 132



Garnham, Nicholas 75, 117, 121, 144, 148, 177, 218, 229 gay marriage 163–165 Gay Sunshine 164 gendered culture, see culture, gendered Gilroy, Paul 110, 132, 225 Gissing, George 70 Gitlin, Todd 121, 141, 144, 210, 229 golden age of the public sphere, historical lack of 26–27, 63–64, 108, 142–144, 176–181, 229 Greece, Classical 34, 221 Greenham Common 183 Greenpeace 194 Groombridge, Brian 189 Guttenplan, Samuel 120

identity politics, see New social movements Internet 172–173, 185–188

Habermas, J¨urgen 4, 6, 13, 25, 26, 50, 51, 54–55, 62–64, 76, 78, 79, 80–83, 102, 107, 108, 113, 117, 122, 143, 145–146, 152, 157, 185, 186, 190–191, 196, 197, 198, 200, 217, 222, 223, 224, 226–227, 228 Hartley, John 5, 61, 76, 95, 97, 159, 181, 194, 214, 219 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 225 hegemony 10 Held, David 217 Hippies 182 Hitler, Adolf 114 Hoffman, Abbie 174 Hoggart, Richard 75, 86, 97, 195 Honneth, Axel 218 Hoy, David and Thomas McCarthy 122, 218 Huxley, Aldous 114

Ladder 164 Lake, Ricki 74 Landes, Joan 40 Langton, Marcia 128, 129 Law and Order 53, 55 Lifeworld 51 Lippman, Walter 70 London Spades Newsletter 167 ‘lowest common denominator’ 66 Lumby, Catharine 1, 4

ideals versus history 26–27 ideology 10 identity and culture, relationship between the two 22–24, 52–56, 58, 87–94, 129–131, 208–212

Jenkins, Henry 206 Johnson, Samuel 70 Kant, Immanuel 144 Kennedy, Jacqueline and Aristotle Onassis 61 Kennedy, John F 59 Kellner, Douglas 110 Kepner, Jim 164 King, Martin Luther 106 King, Stephen 213 Klagsburn, Francine 219 Koedt, Anne 43 KRS-One 106

Madonna 162 Mao Tse Tung 198 Marxism 79, 89, 198, 225 Mattachine Review 164 Matuˇst´ık, Martin 13 McGuigan, Jim 163 McLaughlin, Thomas 96, 97 MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour 73 media and the public sphere, relationship between the two 5–6 media diversity 79 media misrepresentation 10–12 media ownership 78–79 Melrose Place 162

Index men’s culture, see culture, gendered Mercer, Kobena 110 Meyrowitz, Joshua 143, 177 Millett, Kate 46 Minogue, Kylie 151, 162 modernity 6–9, 15, 17 modernity and postmodernity, relationship between the two 17–19, 62 modernity and the public sphere, relationship between the two 7–9, 16 Ms magazine 42–49, 50, 55–57, 61, 64, 219 My Big Fat Obnoxious Fianc´e 219 nation, Black 149 nation, Queer 149, 150 nation, women’s 149 National Organization of Women 44 nations without states 149 ‘needs’ versus ‘wants’ 86 Negt, Oskar and Alexander Kluge 57, 217 Nell 55 new social movements 21–22 new social movements, modern attitude towards 28–29 New York Herald 70 New York Sun 69, 72 New York Times 169 New York World 70 Nicholson, Linda 116 Niggaz With Attitude, see NWA Number 96 164 NWA 106 OhmyNews 188 Okin, Susan Moller 222 One magazine 164 OneWorld 188 Oprah 53, 54, 92 optimism and pessimism 18, 209–210


orgasms, women’s 43–44, 49 orgasms, fallacy of vaginal/clitoral distinction 43 Orwell, George 95, 114 Osborne, Thomas 221 Out on Tuesday 161 Outhwaite, William 217, 223 Owen, David 121, 221 Paine, Thomas 94 Pamela 143 Passerin d’Enr`eves, Maurizio and Seyla Benhabib 217 PBS 73 personalization 33, 125 persuasion 16 pessimism, see Optimism and pessimism Pink Paper 140 Plato 111, 193 Political Register 74, 103 politics as gendered culture 37 Poor Man’s Guardian 74 ‘popular culture’ versus ‘working class culture’ 84–87 pornography 161 post-Enlightenment 117 Poster, Mark 187 Postman, Neil 205 postmodernity 17 postmodernity and Enlightenment values, relationship between the two 17, 222 Prince Charles 61 propositionality of spectacle 134–138 public and private, relationship between the two 34–35, 50–52 public and private, relative value of the two 35–36, 48–50 Public Enemy 106, 131, 132–134, 137–138, 214 public sphere, Black 110, 157 public sphere, feminist 163 public sphere, global 214



public sphere, Queer 148, 157, 161, 162 public sphere, youth 181 public sphere and democracy, relationship between the two 113 Pusey, Michael 217 ‘quality’ culture 83 Queer, definition of 147–148 Queer activism 146, 153, 166, 211 Queer as Folk 162 Queer culture, see culture, sexual Queer Eye for the Straight Guy 67, 101, 165, 214, 219 rainbow coalitions 166–169 rap music 106–107, 110–111, 131–138 rap music and Black cultural heritage 135–136 rape, marital 47 rationality, definition of 111–126 rationality and democracy, relationship between the two 111–114 rationality and persuasion, relationship between the two 122–126 rationality and truth, relationship between the two 119 rationality, modern and postmodern versions of 115–119 The Real World 67, 98, 99, 165 reality television 67 reclaiming offensive terms 30–31 religion 229 rhetoric 123 Robbins, Bruce 218 Rome, ancient 34, 221 Rose, Tricia 110, 129, 134, 135 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Royal Society for the Protection of Birds 194

Run DMC 106 Russell, Bertrand 123 Ryan, Mary 63, 152 The Salon 98 salon culture 40 Schudson, Michael 180 Shabazz, Julian L D 110, 131 Shakespeare, William 213 Shattuc, Jane 92, 219 Shivley, Charles 164 signifying 136 similarity and difference, see difference and similarity The Simpsons 193, 196, 213 Sister Souljah 138 smiling 124, 159 Socrates 122 ‘soundbites’ 105 sovereign, unified subject 53 sovereignty 150 Spears, Britney 162 Sphericules, public 227 Spitting Image 193 Springer, Jerry 74 Star Trek 114 Stephens, Julie 182 straight culture, see culture, sexual standpoint theory Street, John The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 13, 25, 50, 62, 95, 102, 152, 200, 201, 217, 225, 227 suffrage, Black citizens 20 suffrage, Queer 20 suffrage, unpropertied men 19–20 suffrage, women 20 Sullivan, Andrew 165 Sun 73, 169, 201, 202 Survivor 67, 165, 219 Swampy 195 Sydney Star Observer 140 systems world 51

Index Tatler 198 Thompson, E P 75 Thompson, John B and David Held 217 The Times 73 toasting 136 translators 161–165 ‘trash’ culture 83, 98 Twopenny Dispatch ‘universalist’ versus ‘adversarial’ approaches to culture 20, 214–215 Vector 164 Vice Versa 164 voting rates 178–180 voting rights, see Suffrage Voting Rights Act 128 Walton, Douglas 123, 227 ‘wants’ versus ‘needs’, see ‘needs’ versus ‘wants’


Warner, Martin 123 Warner, Michael 110 Washington Week in Review 73 welfare states 51–52 white culture, see culture, raced Wife Swap 98, 101 Will and Grace 162 Williams, Raymond 75, 86, 95, 97, 210 Wilson, H T 186 Wollstonecraft, Mary 37 women’s culture, see culture, gendered working class culture, see culture, classed The World at One 73 yellow journalism 70 Young, Iris Marion 144 youth culture, see culture, aged youth activism 211 Zerilli, Linda 229