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Week 7 Critical Theory and the Public Sphere

Comm 5537 Critical Theory and Public Sphere

Giles Dodson

on 18 August 2014

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Transcript of Week 7 Critical Theory and the Public Sphere

Week Seven
Critical Theory and the Public Sphere
Critical Theory
Frankfurt School/ Critical Theory is a critical approach that attempts to account for the perpetuation of the capitalist system and the failure of Marx’s predicted utopian communist revolution.

The focus of the Frankfurt School moved from the economy to the realm of culture and ideology in order to explain capitalism's perpetuation

As Europeans in the US, the Frankfurt School scholars discovered that capitalist democracy also had a sophisticated system for repressing public freedom and dissent- But without the need for an openly oppressive political apparatus like the Gestapo or KGB:

The Culture Industry
The industrial production of culture - music, radio, film, advertising, later TV
Critical Theory argued that cultural practices and forms of expression (traditions, arts/ literature/ music and even human identity/ social relationships) had become subordinated to capital accumulation (money/commerce).

The ‘Culture Industries’ (mass media) promoted consumerist ideology and co-opted human drives and needs to the consumption of commodities (stuff!)

'New' Media are both hailed as offering radically democratic media, outside of the commercial logic of the "Culture Industry" AND criticised as being simply the latest technologically driven version of the culture industry
Public Sphere Theory
Jurgen Habermas developed the work of the Frankfurt School. He explains that his concept of ‘Public Sphere’ (Offentlichkeit) can be understood as:

“ a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed”

But the Public Sphere is not a particular 'place' - it is a metaphorical realm; the 'space' between the political world, the economic world and the private world.

The “Public Sphere” is therefore a theoretical construct, not an 'objective' place
The Public Sphere was theorised as a 'location' where full, free and fair discussion can take place - leading ultimately to progressive social change - which other 'critical' or 'progressive' theories have had difficulty conceptualising.

(there's no escape from the culture industry!)

Democracy - the involvement of citizens in government and public administration fundamentally depends on being informed - in modernity - the role of the news media!

The media should foster and facilitate good quality democratic debate - but do they?.....

A theoretical understanding of what the public sphere consists of will help us answer this question.
Theory of Communicative Action
Habermas's Public Sphere based on a theoretical 'ideal speech situation': a conversation or dialogue between equals in which truth, ethics and sincerity were communicatively demonstrated (means best possible democratic outcomes result when all are given equal opportunity to speak, to be heard and when trust and honesty prevail)
For Habermas face-to-face dialogue was the optimum form of communication, leading to mutual understanding and promoting progressive social change through 'communicative action' - communication may have the power the change society.

The use of POWER (political,economic, social etc) to distort or prevent communication is considered contrary to the principles of the Public Sphere.

Thus Public Sphere Theory has been central to debates and conflicts over public broadcasting, minority rights, social justice movements, corporate media and media industry conglomeration.

But is the Public Sphere purely theoretical, or empirical?
The "Ideal" Public Sphere
1) The Public Sphere should be inclusive of all
members of society, not restricted to the elite, wealthy or powerful.

2) Within the Public Sphere, all people are considered equal: Rational Debate and Informed Argument over-rules any rank or privilege held by any individual.

3) All members of society should have the opportunity to engage in dialogue - To hear and to be heard- without any constraint or censorship.

4) The Public Sphere should be independent of both State and Market (private interests), no government control nor dependent on private wealth.

5) The Public Sphere should empower society by freely promoting the information and knowledge that people needed to be active and engaged citizens.
The 'Bourgeois' Public Sphere
Habermas based his theory on an historical study of the early modern period - in particular the 'coffeehouse' and 'political salon' culture of the 17th and 18th century.

These were important spaces where the merchant classes and the aristocracy mixed to share news and debate the political, economic and social issues of the day.

In this era public opinion began to form independent of the established institutions, aided by the early newspapers and growing continental and international commerce.

Habermas argues that calls for democratic rights and civil freedoms had their origins in this early Public Sphere
However critics have pointed out Habermas' historical research has weaknesses and also that his 'Public Sphere' was a highly elitist realm, from which common, working people, women, non-European and other marginal groups were excluded.
Habermas nevertheless regarded this period as significant because it symbolised the emergence of democracy at a time when government was still absolute and non-democratic

However, he was concerned that developments in the 20th century, including mass media systems, threatened to reverse this progress.

For Habermas the emergence of the Culture Industry was harmful to the Public Sphere and to democracy
The 20th Century
The development of mass media systems, particularly in the 20th century, suggested that there was enormous potential to expand the public sphere.

The media could play an important role in informing civil society about politics and business and expanding democratic norms and values and helping people understand the forces and events shaping their lives.

However, Habermas was concerned that political intervention and increasing commercialisation were undermining the potential for the media to serve public sphere principles.
Commercial pressures (advertising and ratings) result in media organisations entertaining audiences/readerships, rather than informing them - a focus on scandal, sleeze, personality politics, lifestyle and entertainment

The 'commodification' of news - 'dumbing down'.

A disengagement from politics - voter turn outs....

New technologies have both increased competition between media orgainsations and fragmented markets - print journalism in the digital age; audiences online

Deregulation has resulted in hugely concentrated media markets - in NZ, AU, CA, UK, US etc
Commercial media may provide us with a lot of choice and entertainment, but do they provide us with sufficient and diversity of information, so to fulfill our obligations, and enjoy our rights as citizens?

Critical public sphere thinkers argue that the proliferation of commercial media forms is just one example of how commercial logic is extended into the civic/ cultural system at the expense of the 'public good'

(often meaning an increase in the 'private good' for some people - media entrepreneurs; the young and affluent - who is excluded or poorly served? - did you ask your grandparents what they like about contemporary TV?.....)

This process of commercialisation includes many public goods and services - not just media

Education, health care, infrastructural services , legal services, recreation activities and many forms of information that used to be provided free as a civic right are increasingly becoming private goods available only to paying customers.

How much does this semester at Unitec cost YOU? How much did education cost your PARENTS/

In the media context the debate over 'Public Sphere' media often focuses on the need or otherwise for high quality, non-commercial Public Service Broadcasting (a bit like Māori TV)

Should we see news, information and cultural life as a 'public good' to be provided to all without commercial influence, or something we should purchase privately in the market?????
What about the internet, I hear you ask...
Is the Internet a new Public Sphere?

As the Internet emerged in the late 1990s as an extremely powerful communications tool, there was much celebration and hope that a 'new era' of democratic, public engagement was beginning

It certainly has the potential to make knowledge accessible to civil society and allows people to share information and engage in debates.

Although many civic groups and NGOs have taken advantage of the internet to keep themselves informed about governments and corporations, the majority of people in the world have no or very limited internet access.

the digital divide

The Internet has also become increasingly commercial in orientation, and many online services are driven by retailing, advertising and data gathering.

Google; Facebook; Amazon; YouTube; Apple

Social networking sites like Facebook may offer new ways to communicate but they also provide marketers with huge amounts of personal data used for commercial purposes and are designed to get you to disclose, rather than not disclose

The internet also fragments the public and allows people to insulate themselves from other, dissonant points of view.

In conclusion...
Habermas' theory and Public Sphere theory generally suggest that control of the Public Sphere - mass media and digital communications -by political and economic elites consititutes a takeover/domination of the Public Sphere.
In this view, the culture and communications industries serve the interests of the political and economic elite - in Marx's terms the "class interests of capital" - and the masses are kept docile and entertained - that's US - watching Reality TV every night on the couch....addicted the Facebook...etc
There is certainly evidence to suggest that contemporary democracy is not as robust as its ideals suggest - the political influence of the economically powerful; declining voter participation and disillusion.

We have witnessed the expansion of the media market, increasing levels of commercialisation and the rapid commercialisation of the Interne
Is our media system the modern equivalent of Plato's cave???
On the other hand, new media forms, such as ICTs/social media, do offer an incredible capacity for political dialogue, critical debate and alternative viewpoints...however, is this potential being realised?

Or, do we have a personal responsibility to actively search out high quality content - especially news and current events to keep ourselves informed, rather than relying on the public provision of media information....

Is it a case of lazy habits, or is it commercial logics producing a homogenous, uncritical web and media experience?
A very influential way of thinking about the changes
that have taken place in public life due to the influence of the "culture industry" is the theory of the Public Sphere
Freedom of choice and the market, versus
public sphere freedoms - access, communication, debate
Full transcript