Reading Habermas and lighting up the public sphere
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere does not exactly zip along: few of us had managed to plough through to the end before the Book Club meeting. No spoiler alert needed here: I was entirely befuddled by the time I got to the final chapter, in which Habermas distinguishes various kinds of ‘public opinion’ in terms of their relations to rational-critical debate.
This book is where Habermas unpacks the rise (and fall) of a sphere within which reasoned, public opinion came to both check, and legitimate, the bourgeois welfare State in Europe. The rise is carefully traced across three European countries, through the specific histories of institutions such as coffee houses and reading clubs for the exchange of informed opinion; a free press, which emerged from mercantile newsletters; and a literate bourgeoisie, in which men (at least) had access to a ‘public’ arena in which there was a normative expectation that all could contribute. On the fall, many found Habermas less convincing: more of a a ‘grumpy old man’ complaining about a totalising mass media obsessed with trivia, and globalising corporations, which have eroded the possibilities of critical and reasoned engagement with vapid consumer choices. And all this from 1962: Habermas’s thoughts on, say, the public sphere devoted to Angelina Jolie’s inadequately blended foundation or cute cat videos are, I think, unrecorded.
Yet, for many of us in the discussion, Habermas’ arguments resonated today. The terms of current debates about how social media are blurring distinctions between public and private were set in the historical processes that Habermas delineates. For those working in non-European countries, the specificity of Habermas’s account was a reminder that these processes have a particular political and historical contingency, which belies contemporary post-colonial attempts to ‘export democracy’ as if it had some universal set of meanings. As one member asked, who is writing the histories of the public and private in the global south?
I wanted to re-visit Habermas to shed light on various kinds of ‘public’ that are being evoked in a very applied project. The LANTERNS project aims to evaluate the impact of reductions in street lighting in England and Wales on outcomes such as crime and road injury – and also to study public views about these reductions. It is funded by the National Institute for Health Research, which also require ‘the public’ to be involved in the research, and its dissemination. On the face of it, reductions in street lighting are a rather trivial issue. Yet, when the lights go out, there is huge public concern. The fact that 40% of street lights were not functioning in Detroit in the USA was a widely cited statistic demonstrating the bankruptcy and decline of the city – the fact that a city governance can’t keep the lights is a metaphor for crisis. This is not surprising: from the early days of electrification, the urban realm has been lit at night. Street lights literally enlighten ‘downtown’ –the brightly lit cityscape makes visible the spaces of the public realm, and the public who inhabit them. So street lights make possible, in a very real sense, one public sphere. When they disappear, people lose faith in the ability of the polity to govern in the public interest. That the lights stay alight is a taken for granted of modernity: when they go out, our faith in progress is shaken.
What has been striking about conducting fieldwork for the LANTERNS project is the huge public involvement we’ve come across. In residents’ association meetings, street lighting engineers’ conferences, local councils meetings and research focus groups, diverse members of different publics are engaged in rational and considerate debate about how to improve their local environment – how to balance the need to save money, reduce carbon emissions, maintain safe streets and see the night sky. None of these are trivial issues. They write to local papers about their concerns, and set up blogs. The public sphere is not dead, and democracy and rational-critical debate seem, at least in this arena, to be alive and well.
Our funders were concerned that in recording these views we would generate a ‘biased’ account from those with vested interests or strong opinions: where, reviewers asked, would the voices of the ‘genuine public’ be? This raised issues, in Habermas’ terms, of the representativeness and status of various kinds of opinion garnered. How reasonable is it to deliberately seek the opinions of those with no considered opinion? This is a topic where, in focus groups, the deliberation has changed views as we talk to people: ‘now you mention that’, they say ‘I guess we do need to reduce costs’. It is of course a methodological truism that how you ask about things determines what you find: but on this project, that has been very telling. There are, for instance, ‘private’ opinions people are reluctant to voice in letters to the newspapers or in focus groups – about their fears of the dark, or their concerns about ‘progress going backwards’. These views may shape the more public manifestations of opinion (such as how people vote in council elections). But are they part of the public sphere? As researchers, we bring these private views into the public domain: we reify what may be fleeting concerns, which would not survive any kind of deliberative exchange.
What role do, or should, such views have in forging policy? So, talking about street lights has incited talk about the public and the private: who is the public; the ways in which local governments solicit and respond to public views; what role research has in both constructing various ‘publics’ and the status of their opinions; how their views are and should be canvassed and incorporated into research and policy; how different kinds of deliberation generated different sorts of views (and different sorts of publics).Reading Habermas seemed a good bet to try to impose some rigour to all of this confusion.
I’m still waiting for some rigour to descend. In the meantime, I’m going to revisit Graham Scambler’s excellent blogs on Critical Theory for a more readable introduction to Jurgen Habermas