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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.1 (2002) 219-236

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Politics, Culture, and the Public Sphere

Geoff Eley

When I rashly agreed to contribute a commentary to this collection, I knew that I would learn far more than I could ever hope to add. But the limitations of my European expertise and modest comparative abilities leave me all the more reticent now that I am actually faced with the scholarly brilliance and quiet authority of these essays. So in pulling a few thoughts together, I would like to reflect briefly on some of the forms taken by the contemporary reception of Jürgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which provides the main referent for this collection's shared if only partially explicated problematic.1 In so doing, I hope to suggest ways in which the existing discussion might be further developed.

For some three decades after its original German edition in 1962, Habermas's book had virtually no impact on historians in any language or national field. Indeed, the international resonance of its author's other works among social scientists proceeded largely independently of the standing of this earlier book. In the English-speaking world his reception was defined [End Page 219] far more by his renewed of critical theory in Knowledge and Human Interests and Theory and Practice (published in English in 1971 and 1973); by his polemic against the West German student movement, Toward a Rational Society (translated in 1970); by his analysis of the state under late capitalism, Legitimation Crisis (translated in 1975); and finally by his mature general theory broached in Communication and the Evolution of Society (1979) and culminating in the two-volume Theory of Communicative Action (1984). These works moved from the original German into English with growing rapidity.2 Thereafter, translations appeared virtually simultaneously, from his disputes with French poststructuralism, an important collection of interviews, and the many volumes of the philosophical-political writings to the major theoretical treatise Between Facts and Norms and beyond.3 Even among the rising generation of historians in West Germany itself, who were self-consciously fashioning a new “historical social science” partly under Habermas's influence, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit also mattered far less than the various works of critical epistemology, which during the 1970s were invoked with talismanic regularity.4

For many years, access to Strukturwandel through the English language was gained mainly via the translation of a short encyclopedia article on “The Public Sphere” in an early issue of New German Critique, a journal which also pioneered the earliest discussions of Habermas's idea.5 In the book-length English commentaries on Habermas's work that began appearing at the end of the 1970s, for example, Strukturwandel remained notable by its absence. Surprisingly, it was no more visible during the 1980s in the flourishing discussions of “civil society,” a concept that in many ways stood in for the idea of the public sphere.6 A French translation of the book was published in 1978 as L'espace public: Archéologie de la publicité comme dimension constitutive de la société bourgeoise, a title that managed to imply both a Foucauldian inflection to the book's intellectual history and a more directly class-based social history than it actually possessed.7 Otherwise, a younger West German historian, Günther Lottes, published an avowedly Habermasian and highly original account of English Jacobinism and its relationship to the “preprocedural” turbulence of the eighteenth-century plebeian public.8 Meanwhile, the appearance in 1972 of Oskar Negt and [End Page 220] Alexander Kluge's New Left theoretical tract, Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung, also established a critical West German counterpoint to Habermas's idea.9

In my own early work on political change in Germany between the 1890s and the First World War, I began using the concept of the public sphere at the start of the 1970s. It proved invaluable for thinking about the changing circumstances of political mobilization during the nineteenth century and for placing the rise of German liberalism and its subsequent crises in a broader meta...


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