• Concept of the “Public Sphere”
  • Internet and Habermas’s conception
  • Discussion
  • more Git
  • Brief HTML explication
  • HTML Exercise

Significance and Signification

  • What matters about the web?
  • How does the web create and change meaning?

What matters about the web?

Web has had enormous effects

  • economic
  • political
  • cultural
  • but I want to talk about discursive
  • does the web change what kinds of conversations we can have?
    • for the better, or for the worse?

Part I: The Public Sphere

Authenticity in a media age

Figure 1: Jürgen Habermas

Mid-century anxiety

  • Appearance of new media (radio, TV, new kinds of magazine)
  • Are these “degraded”?
  • Do the media make us stupider?
  • Less critical?
  • More pliable?

Reasons to worry

  • maybe there are material conditions that make this sort of evil possible?
  • perhaps the media of communication have a role?

The Public Sphere

A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.

– J. Habermas

Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929)

  • pre-eminent German public intellectual of 1960’s and 1970’s
  • role of Holocaust/Fascism in all his thinking
  • inheritance from the Frankfurt School
  • search for “authentic” forms of communication

Concept of the Public Sphere

By “the public sphere” we mean… a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed… Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion – that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions – about matters of general interest. (Habermas 1964, p.49[p.2])

Public and Private

Public Private
open to all restricted
accessible for money closed even if you can pay
state-related non-state, civil society
political non-political
official non-official
common special
impersonal personal
national or popular group, class, or locale
international/universal particular/finite
in view of others concealed
outside the home domestic
circulated in print/electronic media circulated orally/in manuscript
known widely known only to a few
acknowledged/explicit tacit/implicit

Concept of the Public Sphere

Strukturwandlung der Öffentlichkeit (1962)

  • Arena ruled by rational argument
  • Freedom of expression prevails (…an unrestricted fashion)
  • Conversations concern common interests (e.g. ?)
  • both ideal and historical
  • arises first in 18th Century
  • flourishes and then withers in 19th
  • at a nadir in 20th; can it be revived?

Before Bourgeois Society

  • There is no “Public Sphere”
  • Instead there are “Public Individuals” with certain powers
    • and Church authorities, empowered to speak on moral matters
  • Opposed to these are “private persons”

Private and Public Persons

A private person has no right to pass public and perhaps even disapproving judgement on the actions, procedures, laws, regulations, and ordinances of sovereigns and courts…. or to publish in print pertinent reports that he manages to obtain. For a private person is not at all capable of making such judgment, because he lacks complete knowledge of circumstances and motives.

– Frederick ’the Great’ of Prussia, 1784

18th Century Origins

  • How do we get from a monarchy in which only ’public persons’ have license to speak on ’public matters’, to a ’public sphere’ which is opened more widely?
  • Rise of newspapers/journals. Intrusion of private commentary on ’public’ matters
    • a new kind of media
  • rise of salons & coffee houses.
    • a new kind of sociality.

Salons and Coffee Houses


Salons and Coffee Houses

  • Salons as the heart of intellectual activity in c. 18
    • ’monopoly on first publication’
    • mixing of classes
    • freedom from patronage
  • Coffee Houses a similar space
    • But no restrictions on topics of discourse
    • matters of politics as frequent a topic as art
  • an ideal of common humanity esp. in coffee houses
    • opinions judged by reason alone
      • no intrusion of ’distinction’ or finance
    • [ but note: imperfection of this vision ]


  • Communication across broad spaces & differences needs something more than conversation
  • need a way get ideas to large numbers
    • news sheets → newspapers
    • letters → journals


  • Through newspapers & journals conversation becomes a commodity
  • Therefore it loses its exclusivity
  • so, in the beginning, commodification is a good thing

The State vs. Society

  • This is all happening in a pre-democratic era (mostly)
  • ’The People’ are a problem for the state
  • growth of ’the social’ a threat to sovereignty
  • ’public sphere’ precarious and subject to dissolution

The Structure of the Public Sphere

Private Realm Public Sphere Sphere of Public Authority
Civil Society (Commodity Exchange, social labour) Political Public Sphere State
Conjugal Family Literary/Philosophical Public Sphere Court
  • the public sphere sits between Private Life and Authority, striving for independence from both
  • it mediates between them and draws its legitimacy from its use of reason
  • note that it presupposes an emergent realm of “privacy” – and so, it is grounded in that notion, like all liberal philosophical constructs

From Debate to Consumption

  • Public Sphere in effect undoes itself
  • success of media dissolves the reciprocal creation & communication of ideas
    • instead we just consume
    • reason begins to vanish
  • Massive growth of media in c.20
    • radio, television, film
  • The Public Sphere: A Hollow Shell?
    • Where is its legitimacy?


  • extremely influential
  • with some questions about both the historical and the philosophical elements of the story.


…some publics are defined by their tension with a larger public… Discussion with such a public is understood to contravene the rules obtaining in the world at large… This kind of public is, in effect, a counterpublic: it maintains at some level… an awareness of its subordinate status. – M. Warner (2002)

One or Many?

  • Habermas sees Public Sphere as necessarily unitary
  • But discourse carves out separate spaces
    • that may correlate with social divides
    • … and where the addressee (“stranger”) is presumed to share a common subordination with the speaker
  • (“Given the fact that almost anyone can contribute to public discourse, the multiplicity of perspectives makes it even more difficult to define public opinion. Any designation of public opinion then becomes arbitrary”)

Disinterested or embodied?

  • for Habermas separation of individual from both “accidental” circumstances and official capacities is paramount
  • Warner: This is fictive
    • and anyway undesirable
      • because some kinds of “argument” are fundamentally corporeal
      • this doesn’t make them less legitimate
      • does it?

Reading or Acting

  • Habermas: the actions of a legitimate public sphere are actions of reading (scrutinize, judge, decide)
  • Warner: in a counterpublic, there may be other sorts of actions (prance, diss, act up, fantasize, mourn)

How this matters for History

  • If there are many “publics”, then working to carve out a particular space for discourse can have salutary effects
  • Modes of address and standards of comportment can differ across ’publics’
  • May even be possible to craft a ’public’ around our work.
    • though “ it follows that the public exists only as long as the text is being engaged with”

Enter the Internet

  • Habermas’ theory revolves around a technology and a social institution
    • enabled by print, threatened by TV
    • can the Internet undo this dissolution? If so, how?
    • if not, is it the apotheosis of that dissolution?

Digital History and the Public Sphere

  • Does the Internet provide a space for authentic public conversatoin?
  • What are effects of the medium on how we pursue knowledge and truth?
  • state and corporate pressures
  • algorithmic actors (!)

Technical Affordances of the web

  • instantaneous distribution
  • distributed production
  • machine-readable text
  • algorithmic sorting

Group Work

  • Groups of ~3
  • Pro- and Anti-
  • 3 strongest arguments for/against Internet as an “authentic” public sphere

Machine-readable Text

On the web, text is “Marked up”

Machine-readable Text

This is the heading

This is a paragraph. It can contain further markup and also more complex content.


  • Programs can scan this text, interpret it…
  • then treat it as data which can be combined, analyzed, etc.
  • point of learning HTML is
  • Understand how to achieve a certain “look”
  • Understand how a complex computer algorithm might treat it as “data”.

Tag Structure


  • tag identifier

A Few HTML tags you should know

Opens/closes every page
<head></head> and <body></body>
two main sections for metadata and display
basic paragraph unit
<a href="http://link.address"></a>
The essential hyperlink tag that makes the web what it is
<img src="http://file.location" alt="text to display for non-visual browsers/viewers"/>
“self-closing” image display tag
semantic tag distinguishing quoted text
often-invisible tag that divides page into “divisions”
<em></em> <strong></strong>, <i></i> <b></b>
emphasized and strong text
<ol>, <ul>, <li>
building “ordered” and “unordered” lists
<table>, <tr>, <th>, <td>
building tables (don’t overuse!)

Group Work 2: HTML, continued

Let’s continue our introduction to HTML via JSBin:

HTML to Markdown

Writing in HTML is distracting and time-consuming!

  • HTML for publication, but
  • Markdown for writing
    • convenient shorthand for HTML which we will often use in class

Markdown cheatsheet

_emphasis and __strong__
single “_” or ““ surrounding words for ital, double for *bold, triple for bold ital
> for blockquotes
just preface your paragraph with an angle bracket and one space to get a quote
Separate paragraphs with an empty line
headings start with one or more “#”
horizontal lines with ----
but be sure to keep one empty line above and below, or will be interpreted differently
links with [Link Text](http://link.address)
images with ![Alt Text](

Practice Markdown on this similar but subtly different page, or edit `` in atom.