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Over the past two decades, rhetorical scholars have debated the merits of the public sphere as articulated by scholar Jürgen Habermas. While the concept of the “public” has enthralled scholars interested in public communication, public policy, and democracy, scholars also have debated the viability and wisdom of Habermas’s vision, have questioned his understanding and respect for a vibrant conception of rhetoric, and lamented what some characterize as a view that offers few real possibilities for democratic engagement by disenfranchised groups. Concerns about the viability of Habermas’s views has given way to alternative modeling, under the label “counterpublics,” with a greater focus on the plight of the marginalized who seek inclusion in and acknowledgement by state actors (who are often conflated with the public).
In an essay published in the latest issue of the well respected journal Philosophy and Rhetoric, Wabash College Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric Jeff Motter, and his co-author Melanie Loehwing (Indiana University Bloomington, Department of Communication and Culture), revisit theories of publics and counterpublics and their relationship to democracy while advancing an intriguing reading of Habermas that advocates the potential benefits of his vision for democratic practice. Starting with Habermas’s works on publics and Nancy Fraser’s work on counterpublics, Loehwing and Motter argue “for a return to the original point of theoretical contention [between Fraser and Habermas] in an effort to specify the different normative commitments of the two perspectives and reevaluate the role each envisions for rhetoric as a potentially democratic praxis” (p. 220). In doing so the essay is concerned with the implications of adopting one view of (counter)public-democracy relations over the other (p. 221) and, perhaps even more interestingly, the “kind of function each imagines rhetoric to serve in the creation and maintenance of democratic culture” (p. 221).
While the essay begins by examining Habermas’s seminal work in the area, The Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere, and how it has been critiqued in an extensive body of scholarship, the central idea of the essay is the advancement of a unique reading of Habermas that is interested more in the democratic potential of his vision than becoming mired in the particulars of his specific historical example of structural transformation (p. 226). More specifically, of fundamental interest to Loehwing and Motter is the sense of democracy entailed by theories of publics and/or counterpublics. They contend that the distinction in how democracy is viewed in the two perspectives is rooted in the contrast between a “Habermasian perspective [that] understands democracy to thrive as the ongoing constitution of democratic culture from public spheres’ rational-critical debate” and the view of counterpublic studies that sees “democracy both as the setting in which counterpublics operate (actually existing democracy) and at the level of optimally universal access to participation (democratic treatment of publics)” (p. 231).
Ultimately, Loehwing and Motter favor seeing public spheres as a “revitalizing force” in democratic culture, which means pursuing how democracy can be a product of civic rhetorical action rather than focusing on how relationships might be reformed via a counterpublic perspective. This view is developed out of a concern that counterpublic studies advocate a substituting of one power interest for another. This, then, is a project that seeks to reclaim power rather than enriches democratic practice itself (234). In contrast, the authors contend that the perspective offered by Habermas “features the sort of civic discursive engagement, identification, and judgment central to our notion of rhetoric as (democratic) praxis” (p. 239).
The implications of the investigation are significant for rhetorical studies as the discipline seeks to make increasing contributions to multi-disciplinary conversations of democratic theory and culture, contributions that are also sought by the Wabash Rhetoric Department in its Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts project that is revising the department’s Public Speaking course.
For further reading see Melanie Loehwing and Jeff Motter, “Publics, Counterpublics, and the Promise of Democracy,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 42 (2009): 220-241. The journal is available in print form in the Lilly Library and also accessible through Communication and Mass Media Complete and Project Muse.