I’m sitting here racking my brain attempting to figure out how I can make a comment on Jodi Dean’s scholarly critique of Jurgen Habermas’s theory/notion/concept of the public sphere interesting, readable, and enjoyable. I sense the task is simply not possible. So rather I’ll attempt to boil Dean’s work down to something that’s brief.
As I see the public sphere after reading Dean is that it’s a way of conceiving how life works in democracy. Habermas modeled his concept of the public sphere on the ‘table societies’ of France, England, and Germany. These were groups of literary elites – writers and publishers of letters – who sat around drinking coffee and talking about the concerns of the day. As I read Dean, their concerns were twofold. First, being they were blokes, what was going on at home, and secondly, being they were supposedly intelligent debaters, what was going on with the state and the economy. Because they were also writers they concerned themselves with holding at bay the power of the state – a bit like a bunch of bike riders sitting around debating whether the state can tell them to wear helmets. They were also worried about the encroachment of the economy on their lives, kind of like the way people get passionate about the merits of extended trading hours or developing the foreshore.
Dean saw this model of society as problematic. For a starter, you’ll notice that there were no women mentioned in the examples given above. That’s the way the table societies started. Blokes talking about blokey things. As the years progressed these gender-biased discourses became institutionalised in a way that not only was it difficult for women to be involved in the debate without becoming ‘blokey’, it became almost impossible to even question what subjects were worth debating and how they should be debated in the first place. For Dean, Habermas’s reliance on rational debate and critical dialogue was simply too stifling, too restrictive, and too dull. It had to be thrown out.
So Dean, along with other scholars, proposed the notion of civil society. Rather than seeing power coming from outside, as in the way the public sphere tries to keep the power at bay, she sees power, with all its messiness, coming from inside civil society. She sees civil society (and Dean would probably kill me for this) as a great big melting pot of difference, and diversity, and styles of self-expression, a site of “relationships of recognition” (p. 236).
If I’ve butchered Dean’s critique in these few words, or made light of it, I don’t mean to; her work provides promise and hope for the future of democracy and society. And if I have provided a misguided understanding of these important concepts, please feel free to make a comment.
After all, this very forum is civil society.
Footnote: this post was originally published on Curtin’s webct.