Salons are Considered Potential Instances of the Public Sphere (A painting by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnie)

How It All Began

It was in the late spring of 2016 when I received an email from an unknown group of young enthusiasts regarding their endeavour to create a new website. Their own introduction to their proposed website educated me that it would be an open platform for extensive and intensive discussion on a myriad of topics related to the contemporary society. Several emails were exchanged between us and the obscurities were cleared up into the lucidities. Once I arrived at the understanding of what this group of young enthusiasts intended to deliver, there arose two questions in my mind: 1. What did they expect from me? 2. How did they get to know me?

I learnt what they expected from me was the linguistic and philosophical assistance in the development of their website. I had no reason to turn down their request since they have clearly stated that their proposed website would not be affiliated to a specific political ideology and they would adhere to non-aligned policy regarding the content, which would be contributed mostly by the readership.

I was so much intrigued on how they had got to know me as I do seldom publish my writings for public reading outside the academic milieu, of course that was also several decades back before my retirement into solitude. I was surprised to learn that they had noticed my commentaries at various symposia and thought of contacting me via my most underused email address, which was published somewhere in an online journal. I was requested to contribute to their proposed website with my articles, if I do not maintain my own weblog. It has been quite a while since I departed from the blogosphere as a blogger and I have no intention of resuming my own weblog, which I have given up due to a host of intrinsic as well as extrinsic factors. Thus, I agreed to give my recent commentaries, which were written in detail on various themes at various symposia of polemics. I tried to blue-pencil those old articles to free them from ad hoc references in order to yield a more common reading, a task that was more hectic than I ever thought at the beginning. In fact, it took me several months to amend my articles before they were published in the new website. 

A Name for the New Weblog

Let me discuss briefly about the name of this website as well. I think I can comment on the name “The Public Sphere” since I made a contribution to the adoption of that name. When I first read the introduction to this proposed website written by the group of enthusiasts who were later to be the board of editors, my mind took me back to two great contributions by two great intellectuals:

Civil Society & Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

One was the great Italian neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci who conceptualised the term “Civil Society” as a set of institutions such as the family, the trade unions, the (so-called) intellectuals, the educational bodies, the cultural bodies, the religious institutions etc., through which society organises and represents itself independently from the state. Gramsci identifies the political and constitutional institutions such as the legal system, the police, the army etc. as “Political Society”. The state refers to the total of civil society and political society, so that the state does not refer to the government per se. Civil society positions itself between the economic structure (that organises the production) and the state (that possesses the powers of legislation and coercion). Gramsci argued that the state functions through force, which is accomplished via political society and consent, which is accomplished via civil society. Civil society, indirectly supports the solidarity of the bourgeois state by two major obligations: 

1. By confronting the bourgeois state (“passive revolution”) with amenable demands that can be fulfilled by the bourgeois state. This ensures that the social voracity is down regulated to a level that can be brought to satiety by the concessions from the bourgeois state. 

2. By moulding (shaping up) of ideas and beliefs through the institutions (such as the religious, cultural, educational bodies) of civil society in order to legitimise the bourgeois state, which in turn “manufacture” the consent. This is how the much cherished Gramscian concept of “Cultural Hegemony” is created in civil society.

Thus, Antonio Gramsci described civil society as counter-revolutionary domain although the later movements such as the New Left pioneered by the scholars of the Frankfurt School considered it as a key domain for social betterment. With that reference to the Frankfurt School of Philosophy, let me come to the other great contribution by a great intellectual to whom I was taken back. 

The Public Sphere & Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas is a great contemporary German philosopher who belongs to the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. Habermas conceptualised the term “The Public Sphere” with more positive aspects than the GramscianCivil Society”. Habermas developed his concept of the public sphere in a very interesting historical sequence: 

The Private” refers to the interests of the individuals and “The Public” refers to the interests of the society. The society is not merely the sum of the individuals but a distinct entity with its own characteristics, objectives, obligations, responsibilities etc

Prior to the 18th century, the public culture was representational as the public were just passive observers. The public interests were entrusted on the state and the state decided what was due to and apt for the public. The feudal leader itself was “the public” as long as the opinion was considered. There was no power in the public, by which they could influence or make an impact on the state. Thus, the public were not organised as a public sphere. The term “sphere” refers to an arena where a certain power exists i.e. a realm

However, the development of the bourgeoisie, a host of historical events such as the advent of and the advancement in newspapers, journals, coffeehouses, salons, reading rooms, Masonic lodges etc., changed the role of the public from mere passive observers to active participants. The individuals (the private) started to discuss, debate, deliberate, discourse on the individual (private) matters that has an essential societal (common) bearing, not as isolated individuals (the private) but as a collective society (the public) at common (public) places. Such a development of the public sphere transformed the public culture from a passively representational form to an actively participatory form. 

Reading Rooms are Considered Potential Instances of the Public Sphere (A painting by Johann Peter Hasenclever)

The rational-critical debate that took place in the public sphere was initially on the topics related to literature and arts. But later the focus had spread over a wide range of topics that have political bearing. The opinion of the public that arose during the activities of the public sphere, termed as “the public opinion” became a formidable force that shapes up the conduct of the state. According to Habermas, through the vehicle of public opinion the public sphere puts the state in touch with the needs of society. In effect, the public sphere acts as a regulatory institution against the authority of the state. Thus, the public sphere enriches the democracy from passive representation to active participation as well. 

Jurgen Habermas in his own words described this phenomenon as follows:

The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatised but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labour.

The public sphere is thus characterised by several features viz. the formation of public opinion, the freedom of access for all citizens (cf. inclusiveness), the freedom of conference and the engagement in a debate over the general rules governing social relations (cf. common concern).

The Decay of the Public Sphere

Jurgen Habermas has elucidated that the public sphere, which had developed gradually since the 18th century is in decay at present. He attributes this decay of the public sphere primarily to the overwhelming ascent of the commercial mass media, the social welfare initiatives and the non-governmental organisations. The agenda of the commercial mass media does not always represent the need of the society. Rather than being a channel for transmitting the public opinion, the commercial mass media has acquired not only the role of shaping up the public opinion but also the crucial role of creating the public opinion. Today, it is the commercial media that decide the needs of the society; it’s the commercial media that formulate the public opinion regarding the state. People do not decide what they need and what they stand for anymore. The public sphere is rapidly losing its importance as the germinal realm of the public opinion i.e. a decay in the public sphere. The contribution of the non-governmental organisations are also not much different to that of the commercial media in the decay of the public sphere. The nominal social welfare initiatives also undermine the importance of the public sphere by suppressing the true demands of the public with mere concessions. 

The Need for Resurrecting the Public Sphere

The loss of capacity of the public sphere to form its own public opinion (i.e. the decay of the public sphere) is not a progressive development at all. Such decay takes the society regressively back to the representative culture of the feudal era. Today, the public has transferred its role to the commercial social media and non-governmental organisations etc. so that the public has become a passive observer again and the other institutions mentioned earlier has become the sole representative of the public. This development undermines the value of participatory democracy in place of representative democracy as well. There is a significant danger that the newly emerged representative institutions functioning as representatives of the state at the end.  

The public sphere needs to regain its full authority once again in order to influence the state to adapt itself to fulfil the genuine needs of the people conveyed in the genuine public opinion. Jurgen Habermas believes that the public sphere will revive and resurrect to its original full potential and authority in the due course as the public realises that the genuine needs of the public cannot be represented via agents. 

The modern advances in the communication technology had contributed immensely to the decay of public sphere via commercial mass media. The interesting fact is that we can utilise the advances in the communication technology to revive and resurrect the public sphere as well. That is where the Internet and the social media can be considered paramount as alternatives to the commercial mass media. The public can unrestrictedly deliver, discuss, debate, deliberate and discourse their opinion on the matters of common concern using an array of social media. 

“The Public Sphere” & Its Future

Let me come back to this proposed new website after our lengthy discussion on civil society and the public sphere. I mentioned earlier that I was taken back to those concepts when I first read the introduction of the proposed new website by the group of young enthusiasts. Their objective that it would be an open platform for extensive and intensive discussion on a myriad of topics related to the contemporary society could be best represented in the concept of Habermasian Public Sphere than Gramscian Civil Society. Thus, I suggested the name “The Public Sphere” for this new website.

In order to live up to the potentials of a true instance of the public sphere, “The Public Sphere” should inherit and exhibit the essential characteristics of the public sphere viz. the formation of public opinion, the freedom of access for all citizens (cf. inclusiveness), the freedom of conference and the engagement in a debate over the general rules governing social relations (cf. common concern).

Since the board of editors have published a collection of articles written by myself and Dheerananda Gunaherath at the beginning, “The Public Sphere” would quite deceivingly appear as meant for linguistic and literary themes (written by myself), and left-wing political themes (written by Dheerananda Gunaherath). However, it is not and should not be the case in the very objectives of “The Public Sphere”. I hope and wish that there will be a heterogeneous collection of articles on a spectrum of themes, authored by the writers of different thoughts. I have already been informed by the board of editors that they have received a diverse collection of articles written by liberalist interpreters, nationalist interpreters etc. I hope that there will be a great diversity in the themes in the very future.

Ours is an era that really needs a genuine public opinion, which voices so loudly the genuine needs of the society in order to shape up the structure and the function of the state. I firmly believe that “The Public Sphere” would surely make a stern contribution in the formation of the public opinion in the due course. I wish “The Public Sphere” and its board of editors a bright future with every success!

Bandula Kudalagama,