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  • Publics, Counterpublics, and the Promise of Democracy
  • Melanie Loehwing and Jeff Motter

Theories of publics and counterpublics remain as contested as the issues, identities, and politics they serve. Across the disciplinary spectrum, scholars turn to publics and counterpublics to help elucidate problems of inclusion and exclusion, projects of social justice, and the waning promise of democratic politics. Such work often enters the scholarly conversation at the points of contestation famously introduced by Jürgen Habermas and Nancy Fraser: publics or counterpublics? While Fraser's influence in rhetorical studies usefully prompts us to think about challenges to dominant discourse, the particular sense in which democracy undergirds projects about publics lingers as a question in need of exploration and clarification. Many take Fraser's intervention as a corrective to the politically insufficient Habermasian theory found in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991). We argue, however, for a return to the original point of theoretical contention 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.

Many critics concur with Fraser in describing the normative commitments of the Habermasian theory of the public sphere as idealized or exclusionary, and as such, "the problem is not only that Habermas idealizes the bourgeois public sphere but also that he fails to examine other, nonliberal, [End Page 220] nonbourgeois, competing public spheres. Or rather, it is precisely because he fails to examine these other public spheres that he ends up idealizing the bourgeois public sphere" (Fraser 1997, 74). However, this position relies on a reading of Habermas that focuses on the particular historical examples he investigates, rather than the democratic potential he extends from such historical practices, however deficient critics may judge them to be. Nevertheless, the intervention initiated by Fraser and elaborated by rhetorical scholars compels us to consider in what ways advancing a normative justification of democracy grounded in specific historical practices asks markedly different questions than pursuing a realist project of scrutinizing "actually existing" political formations.

Further, the role of rhetoric in rejuvenated democratic politics stands as an important component of public and counterpublic sphere scholarship, though little work beyond that of Robert Asen and Daniel Brouwer has been done to articulate the senses of rhetoric embraced by the two perspectives, or their compatibility with contemporary understandings of rhetoric as social praxis that constitutes the communities, ideologies, and citizenship of those it serves (Asen 2003; Asen and Brouwer 2003; Asen 2004; Brouwer 2006). It is our contention that while Fraser's vein of counterpublic scholarship asks how existing and future publics can be treated democratically, Habermasian public sphere theory inquires into the means by which publics create democracy, and this essay represents a first attempt at delineating the implications of adopting one perspective over the other.

To do so, we begin by discussing Habermas's initial assessment of the shifts in political culture that lead to the reconstitution of publicity and authority in the bourgeois public sphere, as well as Fraser's critique of the Habermasian vision of the public sphere and the subsequent development of counterpublic scholarship. A comparison between the two allows us to consider what kind of function each imagines rhetoric to serve in the creation and maintenance of democratic culture. Moreover, the juxtaposition of these two theoretical perspectives prompts us to specify precisely what we refer to when we speak of rhetorical democracy and its relationship to public spheres, and we offer in the final section a preliminary discussion of how the specific problematic of publics and counterpublics sheds light on the broadly relevant theme of the intersections between democratic politics and rhetorical culture.

Before proceeding, however, we want to note the long and troubled relationship scholars of rhetoric have had with Habermas's work. Given his sociological training and identifications with social scientific [End Page 221] disciplines, as well as his stated goal of extending the Enlightenment project (Habermas 1990), it should not come as much of a surprise that many rhetoricians find little reason to comb his vast writings for resources (though for notable exceptions to this tendency, see Goodnight 1992; Farrell 1993; Goodnight and Hingstman 1997; Hauser 1999...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2079
Print ISSN
0031-8213
Pages
pp. 220-241
Launched on MUSE
2009-08-08
Open Access
No
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