Habermas and MeFi
December 20, 2005 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Jurgen Habermas and the Public Sphere. Habermas' conception of the public sphere has become increasingly interesting to scholars of internet theory. Any thoughts on what role MeFi plays in creating a public? What about issues of accessibility, autonomy, and quality? Could Mefi be the realization of Habermas' public sphere?
posted by TheRoach (25 comments total)

posted by CynicalKnight at 4:02 PM on December 20, 2005

i got yer public spheres right here!
posted by keswick at 4:27 PM on December 20, 2005

The material of the FPP is good, but it would be better if it wasn't phrased as a set of questions.

To answer the terminal question, no, MeFi is not the realisation of the public sphere. The public sphere is, in a certain sense, an aim rather than a thing - we move towards the public sphere without necessarily attaining it. The public sphere, as an aim, is necessary for democracy - it is, in a certain sense, the norm or set of norms which gives purpose to democracy and democratic claims, and distinguishes them from other claims of a similar sort by a particular group or subset of society for power. Without the public sphere as an aim, democracy becomes just oligarchy by a different name.

Since none of the articles really articulate clearly what is bundled together in the "public sphere" aim, I'll do my best to list the ones I remember (it's been a while).

1) Accessibility by all rational actors to public goods, including political participation

Pretty simple to explain. The public sphere is where all rational actors can and should make their claims about how the world should be. They should all be allowed to do so.

2) Rational justification as the basis of consensus

This means that we rationally debate and offer justifications for claims we make, and we do so towards building a consensus rather than marginalising those who disagree with us. Our decisions, while not necessarily "ultimately true" must be the based on the best justifications we can find.

3) Equality of participation of all rational actors

There can't be hierarchies between rational actors that are not themselves rational in origin (based on access to information, or expertise, etc.), nor can rational actors foist off decisions to others except in limited circumstances (the same as the ones above, really). This one also implies a rule of law, so that decisions are made in accordance with regular principles and a regular methodology.

Those're the big ones. There are a few smaller supporting principles that either develop out of, or pragmatically support, the realisation and continuation of those principles.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 4:28 PM on December 20, 2005

Really interesting stuff. I've always been interested in Habermas and especially Marcuse. I haven't finished reading the stuff yet, but I think that something like Global Voices is far closer to a realization of the ideal public sphere. On the other hand, I don't think MeFi comes even close to meeting any of these criteria...
  • the extent of access (as close to universal as possible),
  • the degree of autonomy (the citizens must be free of coercion),
  • the rejection of hierarchy (so that each might participate on an equal footing),
  • the rule of law (particularly the subordination of the state),
  • and the quality of participation (the common commitment to the ways of logic).
posted by panoptican at 4:30 PM on December 20, 2005

1) Accessibility by all rational actors to public goods, including political participation

Pretty simple to explain. The public sphere is where all rational actors can and should make their claims about how the world should be. They should all be allowed to do so.

You have to wonder if the internet could ever become a truly accessible and open community framework. It's hard to believe that the barriers that the majority of the world face today will be broken down any time soon.
posted by panoptican at 4:31 PM on December 20, 2005

I'm not entirely convinced that the public sphere is possible in a world whose structure is mainly constituted by industrial modes of organisation, if I may use that much jargon.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 4:36 PM on December 20, 2005

I liked the movie but thought the book difficult.
posted by Postroad at 4:38 PM on December 20, 2005

Habermas is nearly unusable as a way to explain publicity/publicness on the internets. Far better to try an application of Michael Warner's work in Publics and Counterpublics.

Habermas has been discussed before on MeFi, and his theorizing suffers from a number of deficits. But fundamentally, it's important to understand that he develops (historically and theoretically) the public sphere out of the traditions and norms of 18th century print-culture, and that those norms have changed radically since then. I admire his project, but it's a square peg through an increasingly round hole, and I'd suggest that those with serious interest look for discussions of the public elsewhere.
posted by hank_14 at 4:45 PM on December 20, 2005

Thanks, panopticon, I hadn't heard of Global Voices before.
posted by tidecat at 5:04 PM on December 20, 2005

Interesting thread with a few brainiac comments and Postroad made a funny. That doesn't happen every day. This excellent post receives my endorsement.
posted by y2karl at 5:16 PM on December 20, 2005

"Could Mefi be the realization of Habermas' public sphere?"

Or could it be a trendy hangout for pretentious wankers?

(No I'm not excepting myself, dammit.)
posted by davy at 5:32 PM on December 20, 2005

It can be two things!
posted by aaronetc at 6:02 PM on December 20, 2005

Hank_18's historical point is an important one that lots of people who get all starry-eyed about Habermas often miss. Also keep in mind that Habermas's public sphere is very much, as he puts it, a bourgeois phenomenon. Obviously, access -- in socioeconomic or class terms -- is very much a problem for the internets, as has already been pointed out. Nancy Fraser, in her essay in the 1993 edited collection The Phantom Public Sphere, offers a really intelligent and useful critique of the concept.
posted by vitia at 6:14 PM on December 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

I like the linked Feenberg piece, BTW. All of his work on technology is well worth checking out, and he's got a bunch of it up on his site. Useful antidote to the know-nothing /.-style fetishization of technology as wholly neutral and transcendent tool.
posted by vitia at 6:19 PM on December 20, 2005

Habermas is why Al Gore invented the Internet!

I know it's OT -- and apocryphal -- I just thought it funny that Gore likes to talk about Habermas.
posted by spiderwire at 7:52 PM on December 20, 2005

Actually, seeing as this thread is kinda dead, I'm just gonna post the quote from Gore's speech and so be it:
The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, describes what has happened as “the refeudalization of the public sphere.” That may sound like gobbledygook, but it’s a phrase that packs a lot of meaning. The feudal system which thrived before the printing press democratized knowledge and made the idea of America thinkable, was a system in which wealth and power were intimately intertwined, and where knowledge played no mediating role whatsoever. The great mass of the people were ignorant. And their powerlessness was born of their ignorance.
I remember reading that and seriously doing a double-take. I read it again. What? I mean, seriously, he used to be VP. I bet Bush can't even spell Habermas.

I miss that man. We used to have it really good.
posted by spiderwire at 8:00 PM on December 20, 2005

Sounds like a lot of lefty utopianist wishful-thinking to me.

As a side note, are there really scholars of 'internet theory' (beside the above guy)? If so, none of them are using wikipedia. Where do I find them?
posted by MetaMonkey at 8:33 PM on December 20, 2005

Having just logged in for the first time, I would like to first point out a few things. Yes Fraser and Warner have interesting and insightful critiques of Habermas and Yes Habermas--in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere--is concerned primarily with a development in the 16th though 19th century. But the question is whether this forum is acting like the one that he discusses.

The question is, as several people have pointed out, hardly new. And usually the answer is no. But I will point out a few things from having to sign up that, perhaps is forgotten once the theory of metafilter is watered down by the practice (something that, whatever the status of ideal Habermas discusses, was surely true of it in practice).

Namely that the guidelines of the forum are based on the use of rational argument and the presentation of evidence.

That, within the forum, hierarchy doesn't exist--this is related to the goal of rational critical dialogue in the first point, but the emphasis in Habermas isn't that hierarchies don't exist anywhere, but within those spaces--in the coffeehouse and the salon--there emerges an idea about what constitutes authority and truth which challenges the notion that these things are constituted a priori by a higher power (like God or God's servant on earth, the King) Now, keep in mind, it isn't that this is prevalent throughout society or even an accepted norm, it is that this space allowed for a non-hierarchical form of interaction where anyone was allowed to speak and their authority would be judged based on the quality of their evidence and arguments. To the extent that this is a norm within this forum, it seems to affirm that one could call MetaFilter a sort of public sphere.

The other thing that is significant about this particular forum, according to its rules, is that it also insists on trust. This is where other people who have asked the question about the internet as a public sphere--like Mark Poster looking at early versions of chatrooms--have answered no. This is because, according to poster, since we can't see one another, since we aren't present in the same space at once, physically, we can't confirm that someone is who they say they are. So the trust is lost. Though, as with rational critical dialogue, that is not always the case in this forum in practice, as a stated value, it seems to be the way the forum is supposed to work.

On the other hand, as many people have pointed out, not all people can be part of this conversatio--I had to have a computer, modum, language skills, and, now $5 to get the opportunity to speak here.

This gets at some of the critiques by people like Fraser who point out that not everyone was allowed--something that several people above have intimated undermines much of Habermas' theory.

But I think this overlooks the significance of Habermas' method and the dialectical approach he takes to this question. One place that he does this is in looking at the policy of only allowing landowners to vote. Here, as Fraser is correct, Habermas doesn't look so much at issues of race and gender--but, in his defense, niether were the people who promoted the ideal of the public sphere. (Though I will note that he has extended sections on the way that women experienced something similar in the salon and that their literary public sphere developed many of the same norms in the political public sphere of the coffeehouse.) But this economic and political contradiction was and is still very central to our time.

Namely, the way that capitalism and democracy conceive of freedom. Politically, freedom means you can do anything--and this is important to the promise of the public sphere--but economically we are restricted by what we can pay or by certain socio-economic barriers. So though we may have nominal political equality (and of course this is only true if it is true: but keep in mind that even once African Americans and "all free white men" got to vote, things like poll taxes and various economic restrictions were the first barriers enacted), it doesn't really count if we are subject to forms of economic coercion. Habermas says that the original public sphere is an ideal in so far as it promises everyone can get to the point where they are eligible economically to participate in the political freedom that they are already guaranteed. But once it becomes evident that not everyone will get land or be able to pay a fee, the bourgeois system faces two choices: you can either make sure everyone is able to overcome economic barriers (land and income distribution) or you can reduce the economic barriers to political freedom. Obviously, they chose the latter, but only until the early 20th century, when the "masses" started to get rowdy, then they called in the PR folks, started propaganda campaigns, etc.

And this is where I think Habermas has value. I can see that several people have somewhat blended his later work on Communicative Action (where the focus was solely on methods of reaching consensus) with this early text.

The focus of this text, however, is relevant today because it looks at the very foundation of modern civilization and asks if it can exist without this category of society. As with other Frankfurt School theorists, he was concerned with the "refuedalization" occurring where powerful interest groups and the state were the only ones making the decisions and part of what he wants to consider is whether this original space can be restored. The response most critics seem to give is tinted in some ways by the identity politics of the 1980s and 90s which found too much concern with issues of economic status instead of race, gender or sexual orientation. Nancy Fraser also participated in a fairly heated debate in the late 1990s on just this called "Representation or Redistribution."

Habermas is certainly not the end all be all, but his method of inquiry and the questions he asks are all still very relevant--especially at a time when the very concepts of secular law, publicity, and privacy are under such vigilant attack (or have yet to be developed).

So, to get back to the original question, whether Metafilter is a public sphere: the more we use it as one, the more it becomes one. I would contend that, though in a very different form, it does have potential.
posted by sandrew3 at 10:41 PM on December 20, 2005

One more thing (sorry if this is a no no) here are a couple of links to longer thought on the public sphere that I wrote a few years ago.

long version
shorter version

reading over them reminds me of one caveat to the above. Namely that even if Metafilter does have the possiblity of acting as A public sphere, it couldn't act as THE public sphere. Perhaps that is the distinction being made by many of the people above.
posted by sandrew3 at 10:51 PM on December 20, 2005

Many thanks for making the argument, sandrew. And yes, I was trying to distinguish between Metafilter constituting the public sphere and Metafilter being a method of participating in it.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:02 PM on December 20, 2005

Wow. Great links everyone. I'm going to be swamped for days!
posted by Freen at 11:02 PM on December 20, 2005

> we move towards the public sphere without necessarily attaining it.

While also retreating from it with increasing desperation, without ever entirely escaping it.
posted by jfuller at 4:07 AM on December 21, 2005

sandrew3 - You expressed what I was thinking. Except, y’know, better.

I’d also add I doubt there will be any shaping of policy from metafilter any time soon.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:11 AM on December 21, 2005

With regards to trust and anonymity, in The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett argues that theatricality is fundamental to the creation of a public sphere, that the formalization of a 'mask' is critical to rational, depersonalized, social interaction.

One does not have to accept Sennett's thesis in order to acknowledge that a community weblog could facilitate an escape from "the tyranny of intimacy" by providing a transformed mask and theatre.
posted by xod at 12:09 PM on December 21, 2005

hah! interestingly, deZengotita occasionally taught philosophy at my high school. he's a GREAT guy and I highly respect and recommend his work, especially his newest book mediated . Thanks to everyone, especially sandrew, for some interesting feedback in this thread. I would say you hit it on the nose with "Metafilter does have the possiblity of acting as A public sphere, it couldn't act as THE public sphere."
I was most interested in how MeFi embodies some of the ideals espoused by Habermas regarding public discourse, and not necessarily in whether or not MeFi constitutes THE public sphere, so sorry if the my wording in the original post was misleading.
and spiderwire: i don't think the gore speech was at all OT and in fact found it a good read.
posted by TheRoach at 6:26 PM on December 21, 2005

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