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Connected Consumers

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Modern society is dependent on cultural consumption. We have structured our social and economic relationships around new media platforms that allow freedom of expression and exchange of ideas and information, but are we really connecting?

In “the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” Jurgen Habermas argues that there is no room in modern society for rational debate, modernity has made us all lazy and individualistic with no connections to each other or to the great good, but is this true?

Habermas gives an overview of the development of the separation between public and private spheres in society. He argues that the rise of the bourgeois reading class was the vehicle for public discourse and for the identity of man to become both property owner and human being. Man’s new subjective identity changed his relationship to society, town, and conjugal family.

“In the intimate sphere of the conjugal family privatized individuals viewed themselves as independent even from the private sphere of their economic activity – as persons capable of entering into ‘purely human’ relations with one another. The literary form of this at the time was the letter (48).”

With a sense of independence in station comes independent thought, and the vehicle to express that thought was discourse in the coffee houses and later, writing. But don’t we have these interactions in the modern world? Individuals in modern society pride themselves on independent thought and action.

When I walk into Starbucks (the modern coffee house?) I see a dozen people clicking away on their laptops in a communal space with ambient music, overpriced coffee and comfy chairs. Starbucks in an inclusive space, open for everyone. Wouldn’t this be the ideal place to have a political discourse? To ask the questions unknown?

The people I observe at the coffee house appear isolated at their tables.  They may lean over to talk to their neighbor about the Oscar nominations, but there is no need for them to explore the meaning of life, death and taxes.

And what is it they’re viewing on the laptops? I can’t speak for strangers, but I will admit that my RSS feed contains more websites focused on entertainment and fashion than politics or straight journalism. I’m much more likely to peruse the internet than start up a philosophical debate with gentleman checking MLB stats sitting next to me, which leads me to wonder; if the public discourse that existed in 18th century Europe doesn’t exist in our modern coffee houses? Does it happen in the virtual community?

Habermas says no. He believes that the separation between public and private spheres that existed in 18th Century Europe cannot survive in our illusionary world of a dominate private sphere.

“Leisure behavior supplies the key to the floodlit privacy of the new sphere, to the externalization for what is declared to be the inner life. What today, as the domain of leisure is set off from the occupational sphere that has become autonomous, has the tendency to take palce of that kind of ublic sphere in the world of letters that at on time was the point of reference for subjectivity shaped in the bourgeois family’s intimate sphere (159).”

By this Habermas means that our modern culture of escapist, entertainment-centric conception disconnects us from subjectively viewing ourselves and developing personal relationships with our intimate associations. The separation of public and private spheres (due to free market strategies and other political variables) has caused a shift in the subjectivity of the individual. The space available for critical debate has moved online, but new media platforms provide as much or more opportunities for consumption as they do for enlightenment.

So, is Habermas right in his conclusion that the public sphere is dead because we are now a bunch of consumers with no real connections to each other?


I say maybe because I have an optimistic leaning when it comes to man’s innovation and potential. What strikes me as funny to is that we are all consumers, and the connections we make between each other are mostly based on consumption. This doesn’t mean there cannot be another shift to explore the nature of the subjective individual. I just don’t see it happening yet.

And on that note, I need to add a few books to my Amazon wish-list.

image: Lloyd’s Coffee House, London by William Holland 1789


Written by HiuHiMedia

January 26, 2011 at 5:14 pm

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