Public spheres are sites of communicative interaction that feature citizens turning their attention to collective problems and democratically legitimate solutions. Closely associated with German critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, the idea of public spheres constituted by a range of publics and counterpublics animates a broad array of interdisciplinary scholarship relating to democracy and political theory, argumentation and deliberation, citizenship and civic engagement, media ecologies and the press, and institutions and power relations. Habermas originally theorized the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere as a counterpoint to the aristocratic regimes of early modern Europe, aiming to rescue select democratic practices from an otherwise flawed ideology. Critics of Habermas’s early formulation of the bourgeois public sphere have noted the presence of a multiplicity of public spheres, rather than a single public sphere, the problem of the public/private divide that is definitive of the public sphere, the role of bodies and emotions in addition to language and reason in the formation and operation of publics and counterpublics, the role of media technologies in sustaining and expanding critical publicity, and the difficulties in extracting knowledge claims from the power relations that constitute them. The idea of public spheres has remained resilient despite these criticisms, as any functioning democracy requires a space between the family, the market, and the state to thematize, problematize, and address the challenges of life in groups. Strong public spheres are characterized by hospitality to counterpublics, groups that distinguish themselves from the rational-critical debate of dominant publics through different dispositions, styles, and strategies for steering public attention. Scholarship on public spheres, publics, and counterpublics continues to proliferate, with new directions accounting for the increased prominence of visuality, ecology, digitality, and transnationality in deliberating bodies.
Damien Smith Pfister
While the periodizing concept “post-truth” (PT) initially appeared in the United States as a key word of popular politics in the form “post-truth politics” or “post-truth society,” it quickly appeared in many languages. It is now the object of increasing scholarly attention and public debate. Its popular and academic treatments sometimes differ in respect to its meaning, but most associate it with communication forms such as fake or false news, rumors, hoaxes, and political lying. They also identify causes such as polarization and unethical politicians or unregulated social media; shoddy journalism; or simply the inevitable chaos ushered in by digital media technologies. PT is sometimes posited as a social and political condition whereby citizens or audiences and politicians no longer respect truth (e.g., climate science deniers or “birthers”) but simply accept as true what they believe or feel. However, more rigorously, PT is actually a breakdown of social trust, which encompasses what was formerly the major institutional truth-teller or publicist—the news media. What is accepted as popular truth is really a weak form of knowledge, opinion based on trust in those who supposedly know. Critical communication approaches locate its historical legacy in the earliest forms of political persuasion and questions of ethics and epistemology, such as those raised by Plato in the Gorgias. While there are timeless similarities, PT is a 21st-century phenomenon. It is not “after” truth but after a historical period where interlocking elite institutions were discoverers, producers, and gatekeepers of truth, accepted by social trust (the church, science, governments, the school, etc.). Critical scholars have identified a more complex historical set of factors, to which popular proposed solutions have been mostly blind. Modern origins of PT lie in the anxious elite negotiation of mass representative liberal democracy with proposals for organizing and deploying mass communication technologies. These elites consisted of pioneers in the influence or persuasion industries, closely associated with government and political practice and funding, and university research. These influence industries were increasingly accepted not just by business but also by (resource-rich) professional political actors. Their object was not policy education and argument to constituents but, increasingly strategically, emotion and attention management. PT can usefully be understood in the context of its historical emergence, through its popular forms and responses, such as rumors, conspiracies, hoaxes, fake news, fact-checking, and filter bubbles, as well as through its multiple effects—not the least of which the discourse of panic about it.
Catherine Chaput and Joshua S. Hanan
Depending on how you approach it, economic justice is either an extremely old intellectual tradition or a relatively new one. From the first perspective, economic justice is part and parcel of classical political philosophy—Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s The Politics, for instance, both discuss property distribution in an ideal society, emphasizing the philosophy of justice over economic precepts. From the second perspective, the one we embrace, economic justice is a uniquely modern inquiry that emerged with the writings of Karl Marx and his revolutionary critique of the capitalist political economy. For Marx, economic justice can be understood as a critical enterprise that attempts to locate contradictions between universal and particular conceptions of human freedom and intervene politically into these contradictions with the aim of creating a more just, equitable, and egalitarian society. So conceived, economic justice liberates the collective potential of humanity from its exploitation and degradation by capitalism as well as the various legal institutions it develops to control human behavior for the purpose of extracting of surplus-value. It is this Marxist perspective and the various historical reformulations that it has authorized that influence the way rhetoricians and scholars of cultural studies conceptualize economic justice in the discipline of communication. While not all of these scholars endorse an explicitly Marxist line of thought, they all attempt to conceptualize economic justice as a normative political category that influences various models of rhetorical agency and social change.
The public sphere is a social entity with an important function and powerful effects in modern, democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere rests on the conviction that people living in a society, regardless of their age, gender, religion, economic or social status, professional position, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or nationality, should be able to publicly express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about issues that matter to them and impact their lives. This expression should be as free as possible in form and function and should operate through means and methods that people themselves deem suitable, so not via channels that are official or state-sanctioned. The classic Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it is used by private individuals (not officials or politicians) who should be able to converse with each other in a public-spirited way to develop opinions that impact state or public-body decisions and policies. Also contained within this classic idea is the conviction that public sphere conversations should be rational (i.e., logical, evidence-based, and properly motivated and argued using an acceptable set of rhetorical devices) in order to convince others of the usefulness of a position, statement, or opinion. In commonsensical, political, and journalistic understandings, the public sphere is a critical component of a democracy that enables ordinary citizens to act as interlocutors to those who hold power and thereby hold them to account. As such it is one of the elements whereby democracy as a system is able to claim legitimacy as the “rule of the people.” Journalism’s imbrication in the social imaginary of the public sphere dates back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe when venues like coffee houses, clubs, and private homes, and media like newspapers and newsletters were being used by a mixture of gentry, nobility, and an emerging middle class of traders and merchants and other educated thinkers to disseminate information and express ideas. The conviction that journalism was the key vehicle for the conveyance of information and ideas of public import was then imbedded in the foundations of the practice of modern journalism and in the form exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world. Journalism’s role as a key institution within and vehicle of the public sphere was thus born. Allied to this was the conviction that journalism, via this public sphere role and working on behalf of the public interest (roughly understood as the consensus of opinions formed in the public sphere), should hold political, social, and economic powers to account. Journalists are therefore understood to be crucial proxies for the millions of people in a democracy who cannot easily wield on their own the collective voices that journalism with its institutional bases can produce.
Matthew Bost and Matthew S. May
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are among the most powerful theorists of communication and social change under present-day global capitalism. In their Empire trilogy and other individual and collaborative works, Hardt and Negri argue for the fundamentally communicative nature of contemporary power. Their analyses demonstrate the ways that media technology, global flows of finance capital, and the contemporary shift to economies based on information and affective or emotional labor create new, more complex networks of oppression and new possibilities for more democratic social change. Hardt and Negri’s work, therefore, shifts the focus of critical communication and cultural theory from attaining or challenging political power within the nation-state and invites scholars to rethink sovereignty as empire: an interconnected global phenomenon appertaining to capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They furthermore reimagine dissent as a constitutive process of resistance and mutual aid through which the multitude simultaneously withdraws from empire and composes itself through the social communication of struggles across time and space. Hardt and Negri’s work has been taken up in communication studies to theorize the materiality of communication; the labor performed in cognitive, communication, and service industries; contemporary media audiences and reception; and historical and contemporary social movements, from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.