Whither the Public Sphere:
Prospects for Cybersphere

Circumscribing the public sphere

The public sphere "was intended to subject persons of affairs to public reason, and to make political decisions subject to appeal before the court of public opinion," Habermas said (1979, p. 200). But perhaps it would be better to talk in terms of a public sphere, because the public sphere can be defined not only by a physical location but by points of interest, according to Habermas. For instance, he explicated distinctions between the political public sphere, the proletarian public sphere and the bourgeois public sphere. Others (Negt & Kluge, 1993) make further subdivisions such as the public sphere of knowledge production, the public sphere of the factory, the public sphere of the student movement, and the public sphere of children. Still others (Dahlgren, 1987; Arato, 1981; & Jakubowicz, 1994) make distinctions between the official public sphere and independent or emancipated public sphere in nondemocratic countries, which parallel alternative or oppositional public spheres in emerging democracies such as Russia and Eastern Europe.

The public sphere also can reside in institutions. Jakubowicz (1994, p. 79) ties public sphere to the concept of civil society, which is defined as "a social space providing freedom for whatever forms of active self-organization of pluralistic society [are] necessary to secure its independence of state power." Public sphere in this context is defined as "media, educational, knowledge- and opinion-forming institutions whose operation is conducive to the emergence of public opinion as a political power."

In a truly democratic society, the public sphere would be a "space for rational and universalistic politics distinct from both the economy and the state," said Garnham (1986, p. 41). One final aspect of the public sphere -- consensus building -- was emphasized by Dahlgren (1987, p. 25), who said, "All voices have equal access to a neutral public sphere, where their unfettered rational discourse ... culminate[s] in the articulation of popular will." But if public spheres potentially are so varied and unfettering, how come they are so few and seldom seen in modern America? That is the subject of the next section.

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