Habermas and the public sphere

The critical analysis of Jurgen Habermas, dropped nonchalantly into a variety of conversations, remains little understood, even by academics. The public sphere at the centre 0f 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.

Television formats such as Q&A simply do not qualify as a public sphere, except as a street market of second-hand views, shopped by disingenuous hucksters and self-interested parties, keen to sell their opinions or build 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, found tagged 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.

RUPERT RULES OK2vintage

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. 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 same can be said for the knee-jerk reaction of local media landlords to planned media oversight rules. They sincerely believe they have our interests at heart. In other words, they know how we feel.

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.

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Published in: on March 19, 2013 at 1:22 pm  Comments (1)  

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