Synopses of the Articles
The Public and the Private
The first four articles of this anthology problematize Habermas’s analysis of the public and the private spheres, whose differentiation and structure he argues, are essential to the character of modernity. This distinction between public and private parallels, but is not identical to, the distinction he draws between system and lifeworld. On the one hand, action in the modern world is coordinated by systems which function according to an internal logic of means-end rationality; the market is a paradigmatic example of such a system. Choices and outcomes of action are primarily dictated by market imperatives, and only secondarily by the desires and intentions of social actors. The administrative-juridical institutions of the state functions as another system determining social action and structuring choices and modes of interaction. On the other hand, actions are coordinated primarily by communicatively mediated norms and values, and by the socially defined ends and meanings which constitute the fabric of the lifeworld. It is from an analysis of this kind of socially coordinated action that a normative model of undistorted communication, which achieves its telic end in understanding, can be derived. The public form of such communicative action occurs and is made possible by the public spheres of participatory democracy which Habermas calls “public space.”
Fraser, Cohen, Fleming, and Landes make it clear that they are persuaded of the importance of the theoretical framework Habermas develops, and they acknowledge the usefulness of his distinctions between system and lifeworld, public and private. While their criticisms and the directions of their arguments differ, all agree that inasmuch as Habermas’s account suffers from a gender blindness that occludes the differential social and political status of men and women, his model of modernity falls short and needs revision and reconceptualization.
Nancy Fraser argues that while Habermas’s model of classical capitalism clarifies the inter-institutional relations among various spheres of public and private life, in failing to thematize gender issues his model fails to realize its full explanatory power. While linking the relations between the economic sphere and the family, for example, he does not recognize that this relationship is affected as much by gender as it is by money, for the capitalist role of the worker is a masculine one reflected in the identification of the male as breadwinner and in the historic workers’ struggle for a “family wage.” If capitalism has assigned the role of the “worker” to men, it has assigned the role of consumer, which links economy and family, to women.
In addition to the role of consumer, capitalism has assigned women the tasks of child rearing and household maintenance, as well as other repetitive and unpaid tasks involved in the reproduction of daily life. Because Habermas’s analysis does not consider the gendering of these role assignments, he fails to recognize and explore gender as an “exchange medium” and thus misses this gendered division of roles, in addition to failing to recognize the extent to which the role of the citizen, figuring in his scheme as the participant in political debate and in the forming of public opinion, is configured as male. Consent and public speech, prerequisite for the exercise of citizenship, are historically the prerogatives of men and have often been viewed as at odds with femininity. Thus, Fraser argues, the gender-blindness of Habermas’s model occludes the subtext of masculine and feminine identity in the arenas of paid work, state administration, and citizenship as well as in the domain of familial and sexual relations. Fraser concludes her essay with the insistence that since gender cannot be assumed to be incidental to politics and political economy, the practice of good critical theory requires an integrated analysis of gender, politics, and political economy if critical theory truly is to be “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.”
Jean Cohen finds Habermas’s political theory enormously important as well, and is particularly interested in his analysis of contemporary social movements, though like Fraser, she argues that Habermas’s analysis suffers from a gender blindness that fails to differentiate the social and political status of men and women. This leads to a failure to appreciate a certain fluidity between the public and the private spheres, which in turn leads to his dismissal of many contemporary social movements as particularistic.
Cohen argues that Habermas’s characterization of most contemporary social movements (including feminism in some of its moments) as purely defensive and particularistic responses to the encroachments of the market, media and power, and thus as not furthering the universalistic emancipatory goals of modernity, fails to recognize that these movements also generate new relations of solidarity, alter the nature and structure of civil society, and revitalize old public spaces and create new ones.
While Habermas views the feminist demands for rights, equality and participation as emancipatory, he holds other demands on the feminist agenda while important for social learning and for identity formation, to be particularistic and thus not “emancipatory” in the fullest sense. Cohen insists that the particularism Habermas identifies in the feminist movement is, like that of other contemporary movements, part and parcel of the universalistic demand for institutional change. The feminist struggle to reconfigure identities and gender relationships is an essential moment in the reconstruction of the institutions of civil and political society. Such institutional reconfigurations arise from these changes in concrete forms of life that derive from the particularistic politics Habermas dismisses as unemancipatory. Indeed, conventional gender roles are so deeply entrenched in our identities that they blind us to political injustices which are only graspable with shifts in these roles. Before one can join the struggle, one has to be able to see that there is one. Thus “consciousness-raising” becomes a crucial strategy which precedes and makes possible the universalist demands for equal rights.
Joan Landes also finds Habermas’s discussion of the public sphere rich and interesting, but she argues his estimation of the liberatory potential of the public sphere is too sanguine and his description of its emancipatory mechanisms too narrow. Describing the public sphere as one in which private people come together as a public in and through the use of reason, Habermas locates its obstacles in the slippage between the actual and the ideal, and not in the notion of the public sphere itself. But Landes argues, the parameters of this public sphere include only the disembodied subjects of discursive reason and the texts which embody that reason. The exclusion of the private sphere of emotions and of the personal relations in which they are initiated and sustained constituted the de facto exclusion of women as well as a privileging of the literary institutions of the press and literature. In identifying “publicity” with universality, truth, and reason, Habermas fails to address discourses and interests associated with women. Echoing the positions of Cohen, Fleming, and Fraser, Landes argues that Habermas “… misses the masquerade through which the (male) particular was able to posture behind the veil of the universal.” The Habermasian public sphere, identified with equality and reason, favors certain abilities and interests over others and in effect, if not in intention, excludes the problematization of the gender-determined power differential in the intimate sphere, insuring that male subjects would be its dominant inhabitants. Landes argues that Habermas’s idealization of the public sphere conceals the extent to which the exclusion of women is constitutive of it and undercuts the legitimacy of particularity in which concrete differences between citizens are lodged and actual life forms are realized. Landes concludes her discussion with a series of reflections on action, the spectacle, the body, and style. Arguing that there are compelling reasons to accept Habermas’s claim that textuality is modernity’s dominant form of representation, she points to empirical evidence that textuality is not the only form of representation possible in the modern public sphere, and argues that attention to other forms of representation reveal inadequately reflected upon avenues for non-discursive forms of critique and subversion. Landes concludes that in the contemporary world where politics and style are inextricably tied, there is play in politics, and in play there lies a potential for political performance and gesture.
Like Fraser, Cohen, and Landes, Marie Fleming assesses Habermas’s account of the structure of the private and the political, specifically focusing on Habermas’s account of the emergence of the public, private, and intimate sphere as he elaborates it in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society. She argues that Habermas is wrong to see the exclusion of women from the bourgeois public sphere as simply the failure of the bourgeoisie to realize its own normative ideals. For in fact, this exclusion was actually constitutive of the institutionalization of that sphere.
Fleming notes that, according to Habermas, deep structural changes taking place at the level of gender relations were essential to the development of the bourgeois public sphere. As the patriarchal conjugal family became the normatively dominant type, a space for “intimate,” non-economically ruled relationships was carved out in the private sphere. This experience of intimacy was essential to the construction of the bourgeois concept of “humanity” which served as an ideological norm in the expansion of rights
of citizenship, for it was in the sphere of the intimate that the individual knew himself as bourgeois—i. e. as property-owner—but also as a man like any other. Fleming argues that while Habermas thematizes the false universality of a citizenship which in actuality was and is structured by property ownership, the gross inequities constitutive of gender relationships in the patriarchal conjugal family remain invisible in his account and the false universality of the rubric “humanity,” which in essence and in actuality was and is male, remains unchallenged.
Fleming examines Habermas’s failure to consider the extent to which the protection of the basic rights and personal freedom of the intimate sphere of the patriarchal conjugal family from legal and political intrusion functioned to reinforce the rights of the male head of household, leaving women and children vulnerable, their lives invisible, and their rights unrecognized. The thrust of her argument, however, is directed at revealing the extent to which the patriarchal conjugal family is essentially tied to the institutionally separate public sphere, insofar as the bourgeois family is at the core not only of notions of citizenship defined in terms of rights to property, but also of the political ideal of autonomy itself.
While Habermas clarifies the extent to which the private is political and the political is private, Fleming urges us to consider the gendered structure of the sphere of intimacy which would reveal the extent to which the personal is political and the political is personal. She believes that despite limitations in Habermas’s work, feminists can use his distinctions between the public, the private, and the intimate since distinguishing between the private and the public allows us to theorize a wide range of issues and would be especially helpful in examining modernity’s social-sexual gender arrangements. Recognizing a distinction between the private and the intimate does not, she assures us, deny a connection between the family and the state and the economy, but allows us to assess that connection. If Habermas is right, as Fleming believes, to locate the genuine site of humanity in the intimate sphere, and if the intimate sphere can only be fully articulated when it is conceptualized in terms of gender, then the category of gender must become central to the philosophical discourses of modernity.