Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.

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The Public Sphere — Part 2 The Decline of the Public Sphere in the 20th (and 21st) Century

In our last episode, the bourgeois public sphere had taken shape as a continuous public discussion among white, male property owners, a discussion where the best idea stood on its own merits and one which penetrated to the core of major economic and political organizations.  In the 1700s, this discussion took place in coffee shops, salons and dinner parties, in the reading rooms of private libraries and in the halls of parliament.  Modernity promised that an ideal world was possible and that reason was the way to find it.  As a result, in all these public and quasi-public spaces, there was a sort of gentleman’s agreement to truly listen, an openness to new ideas regardless of who spoke them.  In practice, the bourgeois public sphere was elitist and discriminatory, but whenever it could be held accountable to its own principles, real progress could be made.  In the 1800s, in much of Europe and North America, property restrictions on voting were removed.  The opinions of working class white men could no longer be ignored.  But they were not necessarily respected either.

When compared with feudalism, the workings of the ‘free’ market had seemed rational and liberating.  Democratic notions of freedom of speech and economic ideas of free trade had appeared to be two sides of the same coin.  But the rise of monopolies and millionaires in the 1800s demonstrated that an unregulated market tended towards inequality rather than equality.  In the 1700s, property ownership had been seen as a guarantee of autonomy, a way of freeing oneself from the old social order.  The general opinion was that merchants had competing, but equivalent interests, and they could discuss policy as equals.  As wealth became more concentrated and economic relationships became more vertical, it became clear that the market was a new social order.  Even successful businessmen were dependent on their suppliers and distributors.  Today, the average property owner lacks meaningful autonomy.

Ideas of economic and intellectual freedom, which had once seemed so closely linked, were becoming distinct, and perhaps even antagonistic.  It was obvious to many that the market was not a level playing field.  Some people could not participate properly in the public debate because their parents had been unable to educate them or because they themselves had neither the money to afford books nor the time to read them.  For the public sphere to continue to function, it would be necessary to make knowledge equally and freely available to all outside of the market.  There was however, a certain ambivalence in early efforts to incorporate the working class into the public sphere.  Public schools and public libraries both arose at this time, as ways of ushering new participants into the market and the political conversation.  The debate was ongoing and there was much important material to catch up on.  As far as the participants in the bourgeois public sphere knew, these really were the best ideas and one ought to know them in order to either acclaim them or disagree with them — but education can be a double-edged sword.  With an organized schooling system, certain ideas are amplified by the state and the currently dominant ideas tend to drown out new perspectives.  Some of the ‘horizontality’ of the ideal public sphere is lost and, more insidiously, the ‘best’ ideas often justify the current economic and social arrangements — they were, after all, the result of a debate that had previously included only wealthy white men.  As a result, in the late 1800s, the existing elite saw teaching these ideas as a useful form of indoctrination.  In North America at least, public libraries were seen by many as a way of preserving the status quo and promoting a specific vision of economic and political freedom over the socialist ideas of Karl Marx and others.¹  Joseph Carnegie, for example, prized economic freedom above all else, and saw it as a sufficient method of ordering society (Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth).  Competition in the market annointed the best among men as leaders and blessed them with great wealth which they were obliged to use to shape society as they saw fit.  The market itself was a sufficient test of intellect and there was little need for public debate.  Such a view dismissed the opinions of not only the working class, but even modest property owners.  Carnegie chose to invest much of his money in public libraries, not to help the poor to understand and discuss their world, but in order to nourish the minds of the next generation of economic competitors.

Both conservatives who wanted to keep things the way they were and those who truly believed in the superiority of the best idea had reason to share contemporary thought.  Schools and libraries were embarking on two somewhat contradictory missions at once.  Using the power of the state to amplify and echo the best ideas in the public sphere can reinforce the status quo, but it also spreads the skills and knowledge needed to shape and redefine those ideas to people who might never have been part of the debate at all under other circumstances.  As Foucault has said, If power only ever said no, why would we obey it?²  In order to understand whether education is truly designed to strengthen the public sphere, we can try to discover whether its promoters expect new readers to pattern their lives upon what they learn or if they are genuinely training new participants to enter into an ongoing debate with their own opinions and perspectives.  Those with knowledge should share that knowledge, but they must be careful to listen as much as they speak.



This is of course something of a caricature of a more complex process -- perhaps it is better to say that people begin to speak without even claiming or pretending  to listen.

This is of course something of a caricature of a more complex process — perhaps it is better to say that people begin to speak without even claiming or pretending to listen.


Amidst all this turmoil and difference of opinion about education, the public sphere itself begins to change around the turn of the century.  Not all participants continue to play by the same rules.  More and more, certain powerful individuals, confident in their own opinions, publicize their ideas not to test them, but simply to make them heard.  These people are essentially speaking without listening — a privilege which once belonged only to the king.  Habermas calls this the ‘refeudalization’ of the public sphere.  Others, seeing money to be made, begin to publish not the ideas that they believe in, but the ideas that the average person wants to hear.  Astrology, get-rich-quick schemes, sensational romances — publishers promote these books based on their marketability, not their intellectual or artistic value.  This does not mean that popular works cannot also be genuine or valuable, because they can — the problem is that books that have been primarily shaped by economic considerations no longer record real opinions.  The food that feeds the public sphere is becoming tainted.

The rise of advertising is obviously significant here, but, for Habermas, the worst offender is the practice of ‘public relations.’  Unlike advertising, which puts biased ideas into the public sphere, PR actively seeks to control and respond to public opinion.  PR is an effort to enter the public debate, not as part of one’s personal quest for truth, but in the interest of a specific individual, company or organization.  Large organizations circle the wagons and produce positions and statements internally (in their own private spheres) without allowing themselves to be affected by public debate.  Pomp and reputation, rather than facts, are once again the building blocks of public opinion.  Political parties have done the same — they hire permanent, professional staff and use advertising and PR techniques to make statements about internally-crafted positions rather than forming their policies within the crucible of the public sphere.  Habermas is also critical of the caucus system because it draws such a sharp distinction between internal and external debate.  In fact, real policy debate has so totally moved within parties that it is necessary for parties and the media to organize a temporary and artificial public sphere for party leaders to debate within in the lead up to each election.

At the height of the bourgeois public sphere, political debate and artistic critique were part of culture and socialization, but that is less true today.  Cultural production, which once emerged from private homes in the form of letters or the essays and artistic products of individual artisans, is increasingly mass-produced.  Even in science, which was once the domain of amateurs, we see a rise of large laboratories and extensive training regimes.  Producers and consumers of culture are no longer on equal footing.  As a result, while socialization still revolves around music and books (and Netflix) it is more about consumption than critique.  We discuss our ‘preferences’ rather than engaging with artists’ ideas.  Habermas’ position on socialization is supported by Robert Snape who has written on ‘leisure’ in the United Kingdom.³  Snape points to a shift from the Victorian (think bourgeois public sphere) idea of recreation — which was about the restoration and improvement of the self — to modern leisure which is about relaxation and defined in contrast with ‘work.’  At first glance, there is no good reason why our hobbies and passions cannot also be active and productive — except our exhaustion.  ‘Recreation’ was never properly available to the working class.  It may also, however, be that this cultural shift is a rational response to the public’s realization that those with power aren’t really listening anyway.  Amateur scientists and armchair critics are not usually well-received.  Though the maker movement and some trends within social media may signify a turn for the better.

In our third and final episode, we will take a look at what we can do to revive the public sphere and what role indoor public spaces can play in this project.



1 — For an academic paper on this theme, please contact me.

2 — This is a pretty close paraphrase from Truth/Power in The Essential Foucault, eds. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (2003)

3 — Snape, R. (1995). Leisure and the rise of the public library. London: Library Association Publishing.


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The Public Sphere — Part 1: The Early Development of the Public Sphere

Jürgen Habermas is a contemporary theorist who has struggled valiantly to salvage truth and reason from the moral (and factual) relativism that is so dominant today.  His key concept is the idea of the public sphere — a social space in which anyone and everyone can test their ideas and engage in debate in order to produce a reasoned public opinion which will then, hopefully, drive politics and social change.

The ideal public sphere is a continuous public discussion among free individuals who read and think in the privacy of their homes — a discussion that is open to all, where the best idea stands on its own merit, where listening and speech are equally important, and one which penetrates to the core of major economic and political organizations.

ideal public sphere color

The core of this concept was developed in a book published first in German in the 1960s.  The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is a historical review of the birth and eventual disintegration of public opinion.  One of the most interesting things about the book is the way in which Habermas teases out the complexities in our understanding of public and private and their interrelations.

Our modern idea of public and private didn’t exist in the middle ages.  Habermas traces its roots to the 1500s.  Before then, art existed exclusively to indicate rank and the meaning of words was shaped by the status of the person who spoke them.  In particular, Habermas looks at the ‘dignity’ of kings and nobles.  Dignity was a blending of power and culture, produced by heredity, military might and the rituals of the court.  The court was a form of government, but it was also a cultural show performed for the lower classes.  Without onlookers, this sort of dignity wouldn’t really exist and the pronouncements of the king would lose their significance.  As members of the court, the life and actions of a nobleperson were always under the eye of the entire society.  The word ‘private’ was first used to describe an individual who was not part of the state, who did not have a role to play in courtly life.  They lacked a certain amount of dignity, but they also had more freedom to conduct themselves as they saw fit, without being obliged to retrace the footsteps of ritual and tradition.  The first ‘private’ individuals to gain some social standing were merchants who amassed private fortunes and gained influence through their wealth.

By the 1700s, these private people had gained considerable power.  They owned property and could afford to commission art and music.  They were creating culture and meaning outside of the social traditions of the court.  For Habermas, this is the type of person who populates the early public sphere; his wealth allows him to influence the behaviour of others without relying upon aristocratic ‘dignity’ and the intimate space of his private home gives him the time and breathing room to reflect and develop personal opinions outside of the pressures of the court.  Reading at home is very important for Habermas.  ‘Novels’ in the modern sense of stories about the subjective thoughts and feelings of individuals arise at the same time, amplifying the idea that a person can have an individual personality which is different from the role they play in society.  This is also approximately the time that modern governments appear.  Keep in mind that democracy did not yet exist; first came a new idea about how royalty should handle its subjects.  In theory at least, a modern government is supposed to treat all individuals equally, rather than basing their treatment on their cultural or social position.  This new equality before the state is also important in shaping the idea of private individuals as equivalent, but distinct — unique atoms forming the molecules of different social groups.

For Habermas, the meat of the public sphere is the written word.  Books are now produced en masse.  Newspapers are emerging.  The rule of law means that power itself has been written down, rather than being determined by the role and personality of the king.  In the 1700s, the well-to-do consume culture privately — they read newspapers and novels and musicians perform in their drawing rooms — but they then gather in the public spaces of coffee shops and formal dinner parties to discuss what they have experienced.  The public sphere existed everywhere that private individuals met and conversed.  Public opinion was beginning to take shape.  Debate and discussion was a testing of ideas, a process of determining the best ideas, just as the market was a way of finding the best products and evolution was a way of finding the best genetic arrangement.  But for it to be a real competition — ideas had to enter the fray in isolation, they could not be weighed differently based on who spoke them.  Habermas says that “critical debate took place in principle without regard to all preexisting social and political rank and in accord with universal rules” (p.54).  For the best results, ideas should compete against all other ideas.  The public sphere existed in different places and on different scales, but it was continuous; writers and musicians tested their ideas or melodies before the smaller public of the salons before ‘publishing’ them to the broader public.  Debate in the coffee houses produced letters to the editor, which, once published, entered back into the coffee houses for a new round of debate.  Habermas makes a distinction between the ‘political public sphere’, which was situated in coffee houses and populated exclusively by men, and the ‘public sphere of the world of letters’ which focused on arts and culture and also included women, but these spheres also overlapped and influenced each other.  Though each coffee house or salon was small, participants went from one to another and ideas traveled with them; this broader level of exchange is the real public sphere.

To be effective, this public discussion can’t be just a sort of peanut gallery, it must be continuous with the debate in the halls of power.  Politicians and amateurs must influence and be influenced by one another.  Habermas sees the battle to publish the debate on the floor of the British parliament as a crucial part of this process.  Once parliamentary debate was available in print, it too became meat for the coffee house discussions and all this interweaving talk helped to ensure that politicians remained part of the ‘public’ and protected against corruption.  The people were talking and what they were talking about was democracy.  At this point, the public consensus was that laws should be determined by public opinion and that public consent was the only real legitimacy for power.  This sort of public opinion arose before the formal institutions of democracy and is arguably the real substance of democracy.  Habermas argues that ideas of equality first arose from the practices of the public sphere where individuals emerging from their private homes confronted each other as equals.

Of course, in its early days ‘democracy’ was very exclusive.  In part, this had to do with the way in which the public sphere was initially conceived.  In the 1700s, people still thought that only those with a certain net worth could properly participate in public debate. These people were the ‘bourgeois’ — property owners without an aristocratic title. Owning property guaranteed that a person was autonomous and had freely developed their own ideas.  It seems odd, but, as a break from feudalism it makes some sense.  A property owner was not as tightly embedded in a social role.  A servant in the court didn’t have a ‘private life’ in the same way that a bourgeois merchant did.  This limit on participation was further justified, in theory at least, by a sense that anyone could gain access to the public sphere by competing in market.  This then, gives us a complete picture of what Habermas calls the ‘bourgeois public sphere.’  It is a sort of working prototype of the ideal public sphere.  It is founded in the written word, it operates based on rational debate and it has a real influence on politics — but it is certainly not accessible to all.  Over the coming decades, rational analysis would begin to conclude that limiting participation to property owners was in itself irrational, little by little the vote would be expanded to include more people in democracy, but wealth and power were also being concentrated in new ways.  In part 2 of this blog post, I will look at Habermas’ analysis of the 20th century and his disappointment with the effect that the rise of PR and political parties have had on rational public discussion.


Now let’s take one last look at our notion of ‘public.’  With the birth of democracy, and especially after the expansion of the vote to those without property, something strange happens to the word ‘public.’  Under government by the people, the government, the people it employs, and the things it owns are all referred to as ‘public.’  Public servants, public parks, public schools.  Habermas highlights the oddity of this dual meaning of public.  ‘Public’ can refer to either the state or to precisely that segment of the population — as in the case of public opinion — which either criticizes or acclaims the state.  It is this second meaning of public — the coming together of free individuals — that interests me and it is this distinction between two ‘publics’ that has led to the Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces’ focus on grassroots community spaces rather than community centres and public libraries.  In fact, public libraries — because of their focus on silent reading — are perhaps better understood as a state-funded private space (a socialized version of the bourgeois home) than as a part of the public sphere proper.