Cultural Transformations of the Public Sphere

Contemporary and Historical Perspectives

by Bernd Fischer (Volume editor) May Mergenthaler (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VI, 348 Pages


The last decade has seen renewed interest in political theories of the public sphere, reacting to new challenges posed by globalization, communication technology, and intra- and international conflicts. However, the role of culture and aesthetics in the formation of the public sphere has received insufficient analytical attention. The essays in this volume explore different strategies for enriching the ongoing debates on this issue, ranging from historical case studies to theoretical examinations of cultural interdependencies and the aesthetic potential of literature and art. The contributions implicitly challenge Jürgen Habermas’ assumption that the public discourse about art and literature should be seen as a mere precursor to the emergence of the public sphere in the eighteenth century, which, from his point of view, is best discussed in the terminology of political theory.
Topics range from the French Revolution’s exclusive social metaphors to Herder’s anticipation of virtual publics, from the distortions of public communication to revolutionary potentials of popular taste, and from postcolonial feuilletons to the global bio-political imaginaries evoked by mobile communication. The essays are intended for scholars and students in political theory and philosophy as well as in German, Latin American, and Modern Hebrew literature and culture.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I Historical Perspectives: Real and Imaginary, Inclusive and Exclusive Public Spheres
  • Public Space and the Public: Johann Gottfried Herder’s Approach to Real and Imagined Communities
  • Fraternity as a Social Metaphor
  • Part II Cultural and Theoretical Transformations I: The Limits of Public Representation
  • Repressive Democracy: Pathological and Ontological Distortion in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action
  • Political Autonomy and the Public: From Lippmann to Luhmann
  • Constitutionalizing the Public Sphere? Habermas and the Modern State
  • Part III Cultural and Theoretical Transformations II: The Aesthetic Potentials of Public Spheres
  • Mass – People – Multitude: A Reflection on the Source of Democratic Legitimacy
  • A Different Taste: Neither Autonomy nor Mass Consumption
  • Biopolitical Reflections: Cognitive, Aesthetic and Reflexive Mappings of Global Economies
  • Part IV Three Case Studies: From Postcolonial to Global Literary Public Spheres
  • National Novels and the Emergence of the Public Sphere in Latin America
  • Gendering the Public Sphere: Literary Journalism by Women in Mexico and Brazil
  • Totalizing Imaginaries: Collectivity and Utopia in Modern Hebrew Fiction from Altneuland to Neuland
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index



The idea for this volume developed during a larger interdisciplinary project on ‘The Public Sphere and Modern Social Imaginaries’, a lecture series and a conference that took place at The Ohio State University between 2009 and 2012. We invited those participants and several additional colleagues, who were particularly interested in conceptual work on the cultural implications and aesthetic formations of the public sphere, to contribute to this volume. Our thanks go foremost to the authors, who responded so convincingly to our invitation; to the participants of the conference and the lecture series; and to the colleagues from OSU’s departments of Comparative Studies, History, Political Science, Spanish and Portuguese, and Germanic Languages and Literatures who participated in the conception and organization of the larger project. Special thanks are due to Alice Schlingman, who helped with the editorial work that fell largely into May Mergenthaler’s hands. Finally, we would like to thank the College (now Division) of Humanities for generously supporting the lecture series, the conference, and the publication of this volume.

Pondering the potentials, limits, hopes and hazards of expounding the role of aesthetics and culture in the formation of public spheres and social imaginaries, it is perhaps helpful to search for possible beginnings. When Immanuel Kant, in his ‘Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ (1784), introduced his notion of a public [Publikum] that has the potential to enlighten itself, his anticipated model was a yet to be established uncensored intellectual exchange of ideas and arguments. Reason alone was to determine the validity of any published argument, and in the process of its quasi-scholarly self-enlightenment, the public would not only debate innovative and diverse ideas, it would also learn how to reason. Culture and aesthetics did not come into view. For Kant, gratuitous rhetorical devices, polemical structures and aesthetic embellishments were, as he ← 1 | 2 → pointed out throughout his work, warning signs for a cautious and sceptical reception, signals that the presented argument might somehow be insufficient or faulty. If at all, culture is in this essay revealed as the history of political and religious indoctrination that has kept the public in a state of immaturity and servitude, incapable of overcoming the convenience of being told what to think and too gutless to use its own capacity for reason. It is not until Kant speculates on the possibility of his political telos, the (ultimately world-encompassing) republic of republics, that culture raises its (still) ugly head again. By the time he writes Perpetual Peace (1795), he concedes that the public does not seem to want such a world state, because it (stubbornly) insists on difference and wants the particularity of its languages and religions to be recognized in political structures and societal formations. At least for the time being, Kant is forced to dismiss, as he says, ‘in hypothesi what is right in thesi’ and replace his vision of a world republic (including the utopian notion of world citizenship rights) with the much weaker proposal of an alliance, at best a federation, of autonomous states.

Aside from the (French) politics of the day, it was, no doubt, Johann Gottfried Herder’s alternative conceptualization of history that must have convinced Kant to scale back his political project: primarily Herder’s ethical demand for the recognition of the world’s cultures or civilizations by the unique standards of their own inherent measures and, following from this, their right to find their own political (national) structures and build their own unique societies. Herder – this point is often neglected – was less interested in sub-national cultures, such as sociolects, dialects, and cultural or religious regionalisms. Quite to the contrary, in order to develop (and educate) a national German public, he felt it quite imperative to enforce a standard German language and to build a common national canon for a reading public to come.

While Kant leaves no doubt that in his political model it is the (republican) constitution that eventually transforms people into a nation (and not the other way around), he was also quite aware of the challenges that sub-national cultural orientations could pose to his vision of a national and latently cosmopolitan public. In September 1784 (a few months before Kant), Moses Mendelssohn had published his essay ‘On the Question: What does it Mean to Enlighten?’ If Kant and Herder, in the context of their ← 2 | 3 → divergent political ambitions, converge on employing the term ‘public’ – a term that allows for connotations of a reading and viewing public in the communicative and commercial sense of an audience – rather than Habermas’ abstract notion of a public sphere, Mendelssohn’s pragmatic Enlightenment is deferential to an abstract concept of Bildung and operates in a political sphere, where philosophy stands ready, as he says, to cover its mouth in the face of political atrocities and inequalities, for it is all too familiar with its own political limitations; and one of his primary appeals is that it ought to be equally aware of its own potential for inadvertently wrecking established cultures and societies when it is tempted to confront them with an unprepared and unrehearsed bout of knowledge. For Mendelssohn, a people’s enlightenment and its culture ought to develop in lockstep. But Mendelssohn does not stop there and proposes that a nation that approaches the pinnacle of its potential Bildung is already in danger of falling ill from an overdose of national intemperance and overindulgence. Healthy nations, Mendelssohn seems to imply, need the spike of inner struggle and strife, of claims for divergent particularities. While philosophy may have no option but to imagine one public for itself and address humanity as such – for ‘man as man is not in need of culture, but is in need of enlightenment’ – it must in Mendelssohn’s concept become aware that it has, in turn, a much harder time reaching man as citizen, as a member of a particular nation, religion, language, estate or profession. This is, of course, the reason why Kant divides man into two personas, private and public, whereby it is the individual’s role in society that is public, while his role within a self-enlightening public is private, in the sense of free.

Kant’s answer to these challenges can be found in his attempt to get to the heart of culture via a rigorous analysis of the individual aesthetic experience and the commonality of taste. His critique of aesthetic judgement uncovers metaphysical assumptions of the dominant discourse on the educational and social value of art and attempts to offer a new foundation by acknowledging the autonomy of an individual’s pure experience of beauty and her coinstantaneous desire for its societal recognition and universal approval (resulting in a latent discourse on taste that forcefully wants to unfold). Kant shied away from attempting to integrate his analysis of aesthetic judgement into his political deliberations, but – as is ← 3 | 4 → already evident with Friedrich Schiller’s notion of aesthetic play, which, in itself, is conceivable as an aesthetic sphere of private/public cultural and political formation – he has opened a barrel that remains far from being drained.

Terminologies have evolved and political expediencies have changed, but we believe that many of these fundamental tensions between philosophical, cultural and aesthetic formations of the public (and their eighteenth-century conceptualizations) are still with us today, and some are explored and often radically reconfigured in the essays collected in this volume. In particular, the contributions by Emden, Rebentisch, Menke and Shapiro are, in one way or another, indebted to Kant’s conceptual universe. Herder’s legacy can be studied primarily in the essays by von Mücke, Lüdemann, Unzueta and Nir. And some of Mendelssohn’s conceptual concerns are newly explored by Schiff, Landgraf and Corona.

In the first section, the chapter ‘Public Space and the Public: Johann Gottfried Herder’s Approach to Real and Imagined Communities’ by Dorothea von Mücke explores Herder’s changing views of the public, from a historical – before and after the French Revolution – as well as contemporary – after the media-fuelled uprisings in the Middle East – perspective. In the two versions of his essay ‘Haben wir noch das Publikum und Vaterland der Alten?’ [Do we still have the Public and the Fatherland of the Ancients?] from 1765 and 1795, respectively, Herder conceives of the public in two distinct ways that both present potential alternatives to the model of a deliberative and liberal public sphere as developed by Habermas, finding its origin in eighteenth-century bourgeois society. While Habermas’ public sphere is a descendent of the ancient Greek polis and exemplifies Kantian principles of critical and rational thought, Herder, in the first version of his essay, extols the public institutions in a monarchy as places where all subjects can gather and benefit from services directed toward the common good, like law, education and social welfare. He wrote the second version in reaction to the terror regimes following the French Revolution with an elaboration on how different realms of society invoke different kinds of publics, viewing not Greek politics but art as capable of appealing to and helping to bring about an ideal public – one that is neither submissive as in religion, nor ideological as in philosophy, but imaginative, self-reflexive ← 4 | 5 → and critical. Herder, von Mücke maintains, reminds us of the importance of both real spaces and the freedom of aesthetic realms for the emergence of thriving civic societies.

The French Revolution stands at the centre of Susanne Lüdemann’s essay, ‘Fraternity as a Social Metaphor’, which confirms the critical view of the revolutionary public at play in Herder. Yet, Lüdemann, like Herder, locates the dangers of this public not in being manipulated by political leaders, but precisely in what he suggests as a remedy: social imaginaries. She analyses the exclusive and ultimately destructive role that the social metaphor of fraternity played in the aftermath of the Revolution and the foundation of France’s First Republic. In Lüdemann’s view, social bodies need embodiments and affective bonds, so that after the beheading of the King of France, Louis XVI, a vacuum emerged that had to be filled. The republican constitution with its abstract guarantees of freedom and equality did not suffice to hold together a polity and hence, these ideals were supplemented by the political imaginary of a universal fraternity. However, as Lüdemann shows, the notion of fraternity led in the end – perhaps unavoidably – to its opposite: universal distrust and a regime of terror. She argues, with Jacques Derrida, that fraternity is marked by a paradox: it must be politically constructed and upheld by rituals, like the citizens’ oath, while at the same time presupposing its existence as natural. The revolutionaries promised that all humans were brothers, but very soon, women and foreigners were excluded from the republican band of brothers, which ultimately dissolved violently, through rising internal strife and suspicion of secession. Lüdemann thus invites us to reflect on the possibility of creating political imaginaries that avoid both exclusion and self-destruction.

The positive potentials of aesthetic imagination for the public sphere are discussed in the third section of our volume. The second section, ‘Cultural and Theoretical Transformations I: The Limits of Public Representation’, lays the theoretical groundwork for this section by presenting critical analyses of and supplements to Habermas’ notion of the public sphere. The included essays point out the gaps in the concept of the public sphere and already suggest that these gaps may perhaps be filled with the help of imagination and art. ← 5 | 6 →

Jade Larissa Schiff argues in ‘Repressive Democracy: Pathological and Ontological Distortion in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action’ that the theory of communicative action underlying Habermas’ notion of the public sphere, with its presupposition of transparent and rational communication, neglects what Schiff calls ‘ontological distortion’: ‘reciprocal misunderstandings, not of meanings, but of lifeworlds, of whole conceptions of how the world is and ought to be.’ Such distortions are necessary for a functioning liberal, democratic public sphere, according to Schiff, because they provide citizens with the – at least in part illusory – assumption that they share the same lifeworld and subscribe to the same norms, allowing them to exchange ideas and form shared opinions. These misunderstandings of lifeworlds are, however, also dangerous for the pluralistic character of a democracy, since they exclude, even repress, in a Freudian sense, other, competing worldviews. Schiff develops her argument on the basis of Habermas’ own discussion of distorted communication [verzerrte Kommunikation] and his use of Freudian psychoanalysis. In her view, Habermas does not distinguish between pathological and ontological distortion, which results from his falsely understanding all repression and distortion as pathological, while Freud believed that a stable collective existence needs some basic – ‘ontological’ – forms of repression.

Edgar Landgraf’s essay ‘Political Autonomy and the Public: From Lippmann to Luhmann’ calls into question the fundamental assumptions underlying Habermas’ view of the relationship between the public and the state. The author bases his discussion on Lippmann’s belief, formed in response to the rise of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century, that public opinion can never be representative and finds expression only in general terms (‘yes’ or ‘no’), and on Lippmann’s proposed remedy: the decoupling of ‘the political decision-making process from public opinion’. According to Landgraf, Lippmann pointed to a crucial feature of political systems that Niklas Luhmann later elaborated: the systemic autonomy of government and administration with respect to the public, which Luhmann conceived as a Publikum, an audience. In his view, the public and public opinion do not really legitimize the decisions of the government, but merely serve ‘as communication devices for its [the government’s] self-legitimization’. Public opinion, furthermore, does not express a majority view, ← 6 | 7 → but acts as a ‘communication filter’ that determines and excludes what is private. However, for Landgraf, the paradox, described by Luhmann, that the public is simultaneously excluded and – in a highly mediated and limited fashion – included in the political process, is not detrimental to democracies and other forms of government. Rather, it is the only way these regimes can maintain stability, while adjusting to the unpredictable changes of modern societies. To illustrate this flexible structure, Landgraf compares it to theatre and improvisation.


VI, 348
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VI, 348 pp., 1 coloured ill., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Bernd Fischer (Volume editor) May Mergenthaler (Volume editor)

Bernd Fischer is Professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University. His specializations include literature and thought from the eighteeenth to the twenty-first century, nationalism, transculturality, and aesthetics of recognition. May Mergenthaler is Associate Professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University. Her specialities are Romanticism, contemporary poetry, and theories of literature and poetic language.


Title: Cultural Transformations of the Public Sphere