Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Toward a Normative Conception of Difference in Public Deliberation

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Toward a Normative Conception of Difference in Public Deliberation

Article excerpt

A growing, interdisciplinary literature has developed around the theme of "the end of the public sphere." Pursuing the historical and normative claims suggested by the phrase, scholars have asked whether the public sphere continues to function as an opinion-forming realm and - in any case whether it ought to be employed as a critical concept for understanding public discourse. Recalling John Dewey's 1927 observation that "optimism about democracy is to-day under a cloud" (1954, p. 110), contemporary commentators have advanced qualified, sometimes dialectical claims for and against the view of a public in eclipse and a corollary decline in its members' abilities to make judgments about practical, public affairs (e.g., Aronowitz, 1993; Goodnight, 1982; Habermas, 1974, 1962/1989; Rodger, 1985; Schudson, 1995). These and other writers also have considered what principles, if any, ought to structure the public sphere. Some accept the basic premises of a deliberative public sphere, but have called for the inclusion of less familiar, often marginalized voices in conceptual models of public discourse (e.g., Fraser, 1989, 1992a; Benhabib, 1992, 1996; Mansbridge, 1996). Others have held that the public sphere ought to be rearticulated fundamentally, if not supplanted. Various reasons have been offered in support of this position: the public sphere is an integral part of a mass media spectacle that misdirects public attention towards issues of political intrigue while occluding the socioeconomic inequities that affect the everyday lives of citizens (Edelman, 1988); the exclusions that characterize the historical practice of the bourgeois public sphere are constitutive of the concept itself (Griffin, 1996); and the public sphere assumes a self-conscious subject whose speciousness has been demonstrated by developments in poststructuralist theory (Reddy, 1992; Villa, 1992).

The emergence of difference as a key concept in social and political discourse has attached an unusual sense of urgency to these already lively debates. The demands made by new social movements and long-suppressed groups for recognition from social orders - described by Charles Taylor (1995) as the "politics of recognition" - engender an additional set of questions for those who would advance a critical conception of the public sphere. To questions concerning the values and aims of the public sphere, theorists and advocates alike now must append questions that seek to elucidate how diverse participants may be included in public debate as diverse participants rather than (as assumed by the bourgeois public sphere) universal citizens (Zarefsky, 1996; Chesebro, 1996). The issue of democratic inclusiveness is not simply a quantitative matter of the scale of a public sphere or the proportion of members of a political community who may participate in it (Calhoun, 1993, p. 279). The dilemmas entailed in these questions become clear when one considers the history of the bourgeois public sphere told by Habermas. As the "public body expanded beyond the bounds of the bourgeoisie," its new-found heterogeneity produced a fractious rather than an interactive public sphere (1974, p. 54). Habermas recounts this past not to endorse social privilege, but to point to the complexity of the questions identified above. Confronted with the legitimate demands for inclusion by marginalized groups, the bourgeois public sphere could not sustain itself. To be sure, we ignore at our peril the questions that emerge in the interstices of history, norms, and difference.

One way to solve these dilemmas might be to abandon all talk of normative frameworks with respect to the public sphere. In slightly attenuated form, some theorists - most prominently Jean-Francois Lyotard - have adopted this perspective. This movement away from legitimacy arises partially from an awareness of the ways in which norms subject people to established social orders. Foucault (1980), for instance, writes of the triangle of power/right/truth that operates through discourse and prescribes (among other things) who may speak and what may be addressed. …

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