This is a review of a book chapter from Jodi Dean (2006) in which she argues for a move beyond the Habermasian notion of the public sphere to a differentiated model of civil society that allows for far greater multiplicity and diversity. Dean argues that clinging to the notion of the public sphere works against the development of new understanding.
Dean refers to an influential work by Cohen and Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory in which they established the concept of civil society as being “institutionalized components of the lifeworld (p. 221)”; and it is through these institutions that individuals mediate their social lives with “state and economic systems.” She proposes that Cohen and Arato establish that the state and the economy are essential for means for integration, organisation, and material reproduction in complex modern societies.
Cohen and Arato establish, Dean believes, a model of civil society based on legtitimised democracy which itself relies on an ethics of discourse and communicative action and a basic set of human rights standards. A concept of a modern, functioning democracy must then include differentiated discursive spheres each with institutionalised procedures for democratically based decision making.
Dean suggests that Cohen and Arato’s notion of civil society “presents itself as a powerful normative ideal” rather than simply a category ready for empirical research. They achieve this through emphasising in their description broad categories that contain general normative appeal in a modern democratic society: “plurality, publicity, privacy, and legality”; with the latter providing the essential protection for the individual right to participate in democratic decision making and the ability for institutions to act independently of both the economy and the state (see note 1).
However, Dean contends that the Habermasian notion of the public sphere, a “communicatively generated space” (p. 221) contained within the institutions of civil society, becomes normative, whilst the notion of civil society becomes merely descriptive, being made up of normative categories. In other words the institutions which make up civil society create the location in which the public sphere may form and develop. Civil society is structural, the public sphere is communicative. Dean argues that the resurgence in the concept of civil society and the corresponding critiques of the public sphere together demand that the concept of the latter must be replaced by the former.
Dean next sets out how she sees Habermas developing the notion of the public shere; a way to describe the most conducive conditions in which private individuals could meet and discuss matters of public interest free from power effects of state authority. She notes the manner in which the concept of the public sphere traces it’s roots from the emergence of the public sphere away from the ruling classes to that of the private forming a public. The formation of the literary public sphere, institutionalised through the “table societies” of France, England, and Germany became spaces in which members of this new public could meet in critical discourse to debate issues previously off limits, reflect on matters of public interest; and the strength of one’s argument contributed to one’s influence, not one’s pedigree. Whilst the literary public formed itself as a public, in turn they were aware of being part of a much larger public of all private people.
Dean demonstrates the genesis of Habermas’s notion of the public sphere observing the importance his reliance on the history of the move away from a public sphere that was representative of the power of the ruling class to a public sphere that formed when private people came together to form a public. It is in these public spaces in which issues of governance, rules, and regulations with regard markets and work were debated. From these publics came self-governance, constitutions that enshrined the notion that power comes from the people, freedom of the press and of property exchange, and the limits of the authority of the state. Additionally, these moves that created Habermas’s public sphere also saw the creation of institutions that formalised the importance of critical debate as an essential part of the organisation of society.
The public sphere, therefore, whilst favouring the economic interests of a class of property owner, creates a protection against the encroachment of the power of the state and also formalise the centrality of “critical-rational debate” for the organisation of society (p. 223).
Dean goes on to explain that much of what us debated in the literary public originates from the very private concerns of the “patriarchal conjugal family” (p. 224). Concerns and ideals of the family become for Habermas ideals for the experience of humanity itself; and as expressed in literary form these ideals took the form of published collections of letters, hence providing the bourgeois public sphere with a subjectivity rooted in the presence of an audience.
Habermas, Dean suggests, outlines the ideals of “equality, reflexivity, and inclusivity” (p. 224) required for the existence of critical-rational debate in the bourgeois public sphere. From the normative basis of these ideals Habermas analyses the infiltration of the public sphere by the power of media manipulated by economic interests and self-interested agenda driven political organisations.
Dean proposes that Habermas refined his analysis by suggesting that the ideals present in the bourgeois public sphere – equality, reflexivity, and inclusivity – were also evident in the background to the communicative practices that give structure to the lifeworld. He also posited, she believed, that the encroachment of power actually occurred through business and governments gradual colonization of the lifeworld. These two refinements allowed Habermas to explain how it was that critical public debate was able to hold at bay the gradual invasion of systems into the lifeworld.
However, Dean is critical of Habermas’s position on the grounds of his over-simplification of the concept of the public sphere and the manner in which he invoked an all pervasive public sphere with highly generalised norms. Citing examples of a black public sphere, Dean claims that many ‘publics’ may exist, each with a different set of norms to the bourgeois ‘public’; and this she believes to be the flaw in Habermas’s notion of a homogenous bourgeois public sphere.
Critising Habermas on the grounds of his failure to recognise the manner in which women have been excluded from a gender biased public sphere, Dean proposes that, despite his explanation that the very nature of the public was that it be able reflexively create its own self-transformation, his conception of the bourgeois public sphere represses sexual difference because of its very origins – the literary public sphere and the patriarchal family – both of which share ideals that tend to exclude women from the discourse.
Flowing from such gender-biased norms come a set of norms which intrinsically favour men she claims. Not only must women struggle to prove themselves in a manner that is often masculine, the rules of the game are set up to favour the male and the masculine agenda, something over which women have had little influence and can have little influence without increasing their felt sense of ‘otherness’.
Dean is keen to labour the point that the literary public sphere, born as it was from sphere of the patriarchal family, created an environment where women were excluded from the process by which these bourgeois public spheres developed, with their primary contribution to society being in the matter of the home. Women had been constitutively excluded and this denies them the opportunity to be involved in communicative action that leads, as it does, to influence in a properly instituted democracy.
Finally, Dean critiques Habermas on the basis of the notion of the subject. She contends that Habermas was far too inclined to imagine the subject being far too audience oriented – a throwback to literary times when men of letters were constantly aware of the audience critique – and this she believes creates a subjugated rather than commnunicative subject. For Dean, Habermas’s notion of the subject misses the complexities of nuance in the creation of any subjectivity.
Dean then moves on to the development of the concept of civil society and suggests that a decentred notion of society becomes possible through the adoption of the notion of the civil society. Again criticising Habermas, Dean believes that his move toward a view of society reliant on the “presuppositions of communicative action” (p. 228) left his theories without a time and place in which necessary discourse might occur; and this she contends despite Habermas’s notion of the lifeworld which she thought was far too reliant on the background of communication to be a support for increased rationality.
Proceeding to the development of the concept of civil society, Dean suggests that Cohen and Arato’s model of civil society, in which allow for the discussion of norms and values through structures of “institutionalized discourses and procedures of democratic decision making” (p. 229). Their model is one that stresses plurality in a multiplicity of possible publics; and this plurality is essential for a working model of democratic society.
Dean believes that, in addition to the institutionalisation of discourse across the many domains, spaces, and locations of society creating a more de-centred concept of society, the notion of civil society also brings with it a move away from the gendered nature of private and public spaces to one that is much more diverse and much less homogenising. In fact, she contends, even the boundaries between what is private and what is public are open for rational debate in this new model. Arising from these constantly shifting boundaries of the private and public, she claims there no longer exists the imperative for the public spaces to repress difference to the confines of the private. Rather, she contends “difference is already assumed as an aspect of institutionalised discourses in civil society and protected via a variety of rights” (p. 231, emphasis mine).
Additionally Dean believes that the notion of civil society points to an environment in which individuals can be expressive of alternate and fragile forms of identity whilst having the support of networks of association able to support their self-conception. Such a belief brings Dean to question why we still require the concept of the public sphere; a product of critical theory which she contends fails to acknowledge the “multiplicity and diversity in postconventional societies” (p. 231).
In answering that question Dean critiques Benhabib who proposes the importance of a strong notion of the public sphere in order to create institutionalised deliberative democracy. Whilst conceding the importance of regulation being not designed to benefit the few, she maintains that Benhabib, in creating a universalistic public space, misses out on the benefits of diverse minority points of view and become tied, once again to top down politics and lose the opportunity for the experience of new forms and locations for debate. Instead Dean prefers to conceive not of defining the boundaries of what is or is not the public sphere through the rigours of the rules of discourse, but rather to encourage the messiness, diversity, and fascination that is the concept of civil society.
For Dean, “simply “[a]dding an “s” to the public sphere” (p. 233) doesn’t cut the mustard. She commends that the concept of ‘a’ or ‘the’ public sphere, by its very nature, excludes some at the expense of others; and this does not match with her conception of a truly multi-variant inter-dependent society of associations and relationships. Suggesting a move away from “a strict focus on communicative rationality” she commends the importance of respect for the many and varied ways humans might chose to identify, and encouraging people to see the disadvantage created by defining and categorising people in terms of already established norms.
The advantage of Habermas’s theory says Dean is that the public sphere provides a protection or barrier against the encroachment of the systemising effects of the state and economy. It’s purpose Dean suggests is to become the last line of defense against the relentless attack of these economic and state institutions against the intimacy of the private moments of the lifeworld. However this position, Dean believes, fundamentally relies on the primacy and importance of the power of communicative rationality, on which she maintains Habermas relies far too heavily, and further, that power comes from without and does not previously exist within “”public” discourses” (p. 234).
Dean is eager to make the point that Habermas’s notion of the public sphere was far too rigid and far too mono-linguistic in its approach to the conception of society. She believes, and states in powerful manner, that his reliance on communnicative rationality created a model of society that failed to incorporate the many and varied means and styles of communication that exist in civil society. For Dean, the danger in following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law was that such a move tends to marginalise some languages, and some forms of communication and could tend to damage and exclude individuals taking advantage of alternate modes of expression.
Queer politics is an example, Dean claims, of people being disaffected by the dominant discourse of society. She refers here to the necessity for lesbians and gay men to “come out” as their only form option in order to achieve recognition, representation, and privacy – a fact clearly disregards their essential human rights. And it is this fight that Dean believes should never be required, rather it is the very discourse of identity creation that should be addressed in order to give minority groups of all forms an opportunity for self-expression without the constraints currently experienced.
Dean concludes her critique of the public sphere with a look at what might be next; and here she sees a notion of civil society “as the site of relationships of recognition” (p. 236). Habermas, through his strict reliance on the rules of rational communication, effectively relagated personal harms, which are usually unspoken, out of the field of rationality to something beyond the public sphere. This for Dean is a problematic position in that it tends to allow injury to another; however, employing the concept of civil society, these unspoken harms can be brought to the surface and be dealt with. Civil society, therefore, “constitutes the wider terrain with which relationships of recognition are situated, institutionalised, and interconnected” (p. 237).
One of the problems Dean sees with the concept of the public sphere is the way in which power was always seen to be external. According to Dean a conception of civil society must include the notion of power as an integral part of the concept, after all relationships, be they individual or association, are never equal.
This inequality leads to a struggle for recognition by people excluded from society or against pre-existing systems that privilege the few. A site of recognition, she suggests, recognise these asymmetries allowing for the creation of new and unique personal identities that might arise from them, and to critique the harms that may arise from them. In this way, she explains, political struggle becomes a representation of the very deepest parts of who we are as human beings and does not require the establishment of minority groups or the all-pervasive power of an ethics of discourse.
Power, Dean believes, is integral to, and flows from civil societies inclusion of difference; and these differences are always indicative of a relationship even where the motivations behind them may be unclear. Differences are the primary characteristic of relationships and therefore something to be valued.
In civil society, unlike the disembodied nature of agents in the public sphere, individuals can suffer physical harm; and it is this risk that behooves all to act in a way that recognises our inter-relationship in order to reduce the possibility of harms to another.
- It may be worth looking at the institutions to which Cohen and Arato refer here to see how their independence from the economy occurs. With so many modern institutions, by which I imagine sporting clubs and social groups, being driven by the dictates of the economy, one wonders how this independence is achieved. Arguably the largest group of institutions of civil society are workplace institutions in which people regularly engage in civic discourse. These organisations are far from autonomous to the economy. That having been said it could be argued that families are an institution autonomous to both the state and the economy; and the protection of human rights and the ability to participate in the democratic process as a result of a legal framework is important for the achievement of “both self-realization and self-determination” (p. 221).
Dean, J. (1996). Civil Society: Beyond the Public Sphere. The handbook of critical theory. D. Rasmussen. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers: 220-242.