Habermas and the mediated public sphere

The critical analysis of Jurgen Habermas, dropped nonchalantly into a variety of conversations, seems little understood, even by academics. The public sphere at the centre of his thesis was by definition inclusive, but entry depended on one’s education and qualification as a property owner.

The idea of a neutral social space for critical debate among private persons is a wonderful ideal, but it is not as it seems, or as routinely presented, anywhere available. To test this, try avoiding marketing, or any publicity via advertising, for even one day.

Q&A simply does not qualify except as a street market of second-hand views, shopped by disingenuous hucksters and self-interested parties, keen to sell their opinions and boost their brand. For some strange idea of balance, dumb ideas are casually represented as viable alternatives next to brilliant ideas. No wonder the “public” are often represented in qualitative research as confused.

Many comments, to articles on the power relations of the media, do however, perhaps more by instinct and intuition, get Habermas’s point regarding the manufacture of consensus by media institutions functioning as publicity machines for this or that powerful interest group. This is particularly true when people say how much they seek to avoid the mainstream media. This is the only attitude to have: avoid it, it is bad for you.


Media cut-up courtesy Metta Bhavana. Created in GIMP.

Habermas argues that mass media is sublimely powerful. It attempts to manipulate and create a public where none exists, and to manufacture a consensus that “this” is what is real and on your mind, beyond anything else “you” could invent for yourself.

The sincerely believed nonsense spoken in the UK by Murdoch editors, that they were merely doing what their readers wanted, is the clearest recent example of the all-pervading invisible veil that sits over and obscures this manufacturing process. It even fools those who work within the factory. The recent knee-jerk reaction from local media landlords to mild alterations to media oversight is a further example of the self-made concept that they know what we want and are defending something precious, namely our right to swallow what they consider public opinion.

As nice bourgeoisie, we would like to see ourselves as open and benignly public, and would hope our opinion is well-considered and personal. Yet the central takeaway from Habermas is that “public opinion” is difficult to define or measure. All the group behaviour methodology in the world cannot nail it down, except as a series of possibles, not any exact thing.

One thing is certain, it is being made for you, if you cannot think of it for yourself. This does not mean humans are dumb agents, incapable of original thought, but it does mean the manufacturers of consensus are gifted manipulators. Do not look into their eyes.

Published in: on March 19, 2013 at 3:43 am  Leave a Comment  

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