“This modest title belies an extraordinary collection. Featuring not only leading but founding scholars in the interdisciplinary field of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Critical Terms for the Study of Gender provides sophisticated genealogies of concepts that have transformed scholarship in the humanities and social sciences over the past four decades. Illuminating conceptual limitations of traditional approaches to these topics, this volume demonstrates the importance of feminist and queer scholarship to an adequate understanding of the complexities of contemporary life.”–Mary Hawkesworth, Rutgers University
An Excerpt from
Critical Terms for the Study of Gender
Edited by Catharine R. Stimpson and Gilbert Herdt


Public/Private by Michael Warner


Public and Private in Feminist Theory

Any organized attempt to transform gender or sexuality is a public questioning of private life, and thus the critical study of gender and sexuality entails a problem of public and private in its own practice. Both the contemporary women’s movement and gay liberation took shape as social movements in the 1960s, when counterculture had begun to imagine a politics that would transform personal life across the board, giving public relevance to the most private matters. Other social movements — temperance, abolition, labor, suffrage, antiracism —had also challenged prevailing norms of public and private. A leading defense of racial segregation in the American south, for example, was that private owners of property or businesses had the right to admit whom they chose, just because it was private property. To fight such arguments, it was necessary to advance a strong vision of the public relevance of private life, a vision expressed in the phrase “civil rights.” Even more, though, the women’s and gay movements represented groups who were by definition linked to a conventional understanding of private life— gender roles, sexuality, the home and family. They were public movements contesting the most private and intimate matters. Their very entry into public politics seemed scandalous or inappropriate. An understanding of public and private was implied not just in their theories and policy platforms, but also in their very existence as movements.

In second-wave feminism at the height of identity politics, many took a fairly radical— even draconian—solution to the problem of public and private. They argued that the distinction was virtually synonymous with patriarchy. Male was to public as female was to private. In an essay titled “Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview,” Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo claimed that the gendering of public and private helped to explain the subordination of women cross-culturally. In this context, private meant domestic spaces and functions, and public referred to contexts in which men spoke and made decisions for the community (Rosaldo 1974).

There has been much debate about how widely this pattern holds. The women’s rights movement had come into being against an especially rigid version of this spatialized and gendered scheme, the separate-sphere ideology of the nineteenth century. But Rosaldo’s theory laid it at the origins of masculinist culture. Jean Bethke Elshtain, concerned with the normative development of terms in Western thought, was critical of the oversimplifications in this argument. Yet she traced the endurance of a gendered opposition of public and private from Plato and Aristotle to modern thought (Elshtain 1981). Either way, the scale of the problem was enormous. Carol Pateman was able to claim that “the dichotomy between the private and the public is central to almost two centuries of feminist writing and political struggle; it is, ultimately, what the feminist movement is about” (Pateman 1989, 118).

One consequence was to see domestic and private matters, normally outside the public view, as now being a legitimate area of common concern. In practice, this meant not just public opinion but also state intervention in things like marital rape, spousal abuse, divorce, prostitution, and abortion rights. Encountering male domination mainly in the spaces usually called private, notably the home, women could only struggle against that domination by seeing it as a kind of politics. In the words of Catharine MacKinnon:

For women the measure of intimacy has been the measure of the oppression. This is why feminism has had to explode the private. This is why feminism has seen the personal as the political. The private is the public for those for whom the personal is the political. In this sense, there is no private, either normatively or empirically. (MacKinnon 1987, 100)

This is a fairly extreme formulation, and to some degree a contradictory one, since one meaning of privacy is bodily autonomy and its protection from violence; MacKinnon draws on this normative ideal even as she claims to “explode” privacy. She does so because she is writing in the context of Roe v. Wade, criticizing what she sees as the inadequate liberal logic by which abortion is legitimated only as a private privilege rather than as a public right.

Other feminists put a different emphasis on the critique of public and private. Pateman argued that the practical consequence of the feminist critique would be much broader than women entering public areas reserved for men, the way Fanny Wright tried to do in the 1820s; rather, it would be an entire transformation of gender roles, for men as well as women, leading to a world in which the differences between women and men would be systematically uncoupled from the divisions between home and public, individual and collective life, personal and political. Most immediately, “If women are to participate fully, as equals, in social life, men have to share equally in child- rearing and other domestic tasks.” More generally, “Equal parenting and equal participation in other activities of domestic life presuppose some radical changes in the public sphere, in the organization of production, in what we mean by ‘work’ and in the practice of citizenship” (Pateman 1989, 135).

These arguments in feminist scholarship are related to the political strategy declared in the famous slogan “The personal is political” (for the context, see Echols 1989). This slogan can be taken to mean many different things. The most basic is that the social arrangements structuring private life, domestic households, intimacy, gender, and sexuality are neither neutral nor immutable, that they can be seen as relations of power and as subject to transformation. The implications of this insight, I hardly need to add, are still unfolding. In the words of one scholar, it is the “unique and world historical achievement” of the women’s movement to have laid bare “the social nature of the family, the ‘public’ nature of the ‘private,’ the internal connections that exist between the family and the economy” (Zaretsky 1994, 206).

For others, “the personal is political” means not that personal life could be transformed by political action, but that politics should be personalized; that is, everyone’s political views should be read as expressing his or her particular, subjective interests —identities of race, class, gender, and sexuality inevitably color everyone’s perspective. This second interpretation of “the personal is political” leads to a sometimes disabling skepticism about any claim to transcendence or any appeal to universal ideals or the common good. Both of these views— the political critique of personal life and the identitarian critique of political life—are often described, confusingly enough, as identity politics.

The very success of the feminist critique of public and private has led to new questions. If the personal is political, is a distinction between public and private always to be rejected, or exploded, as MacKinnon puts it? The slogan requires a relatively broad sense of “political,” to mean contested or shaped by domination; it leaves vague the question whether inequities in “personal life” are to be redressed through private action, nonstate public action, or state intervention, all of which can be political in this broad sense. For many, it has been understood to mean that these distinctions should no longer matter.

Perhaps rhetorically, Joan Wallach Scott claimed in Gender and the Politics of History that the politics of gender “dissolves distinction between public and private” (Scott 1988, 26). Such rhetoric lumps together the enormous range of meanings of public and private, and it has therefore been blamed for everything from the rise of confessional memoirs to political correctness and the totalitarian tendencies of some legislative reform programs (hate-speech laws, antipornography statues, and such). MacKinnon’s legal programs, in particular, have been seen as justifying an authoritarian style of state regulation in the way they lead to the criminalization of pornography and sex rather than of domination or harassment per se. Should nothing be private? Or, on the other hand, should everything be privatized? Should the state intervene to transform gender relations in the workplace and household?

The answers to these questions have consequences for matters of equity, affirmative action, abortion, birth control, rape, adoption, divorce and child support, palimony, sexual harassment, welfare, health care, day care, segregated education, and so on. In many of these areas, feminism encouraged an activist state to assert the public relevance of private life. Yet the effect was not, as some feminists had hoped (and others feared), to eliminate or “dissolve” the boundary between public and private. Often state action was justified in the name of private right. Ironically, in the United States, it was largely in the contexts of feminist agitation —especially over birth control and reproductive freedom— that privacy came to be fully recognized as a domain of constitutional law. Some distinctions have eroded, or changed; at the very least, these initiatives of the women’s movement, and the understanding of public and private implied by them, enabled a significant expansion of the liberal welfare state into new areas of social life.

Nancy Fraser, for one, has pointed out that some feminists’ insistence on an oversimplified distinction between public and private blinded them to these consequences. By using “the public” or “the public sphere” to mean everything outside the home, they blurred together official politics, the state, the market, and other forms of association. Making these distinctions among different meanings of public and private has practical advantages, Fraser writes, “when, for example, agitational campaigns against misogynist cultural representations are confounded with programs for state censorship or when struggles to deprivatize housework and child care are equated with their commodification” (Fraser 1992, 110). In other words, while the personal is “political” in a broad sense, state regulation may not always be appropriate. And while the private realm of the home should often be a matter of public care and concern, the market—like the state and like the majoritarian public of mass media—has its own destructive tendencies and may be a bad model of “the public.”

Scholars have also argued that public and private have always been more than a dichotomy. Some feminist scholars have shown that women have been involved in both public and private realms in most historical periods, often to a surprising degree (for example, Ryan 1990). Women’s networks—of gossip, kinship, affect, and countereconomies—have had important public aspects even at the height of Victorian ideology. We have seen, for example, that while Catharine Beecher was criticizing Fanny Wright for violating a boundary between public and private, Beecher was herself pursuing an active and innovative career in the public sphere. Recent versions of feminism, stressing the diversity of women’s positions in different contexts of class, race, religion, or locale, have emphasized that the dominant dichotomies often fail to account for these variations. Other feminists, elaborating deconstructive readings of gender categories that emphasize their uneven deployment or internal incoherence, have tried to conceive public and private in less spatializing, hypostatized ways (on this history within feminism, see the excellent account in Dietz 1995).

It may be doubted whether any group, even in the most restrictive contexts of power, has been able to monopolize all dimensions of publicness or all dimensions of privacy in the way MacKinnon suggests men have done. At any rate, the distinction is never drawn solely in one way or solely as an antinomy. The gendered division of labor, for example, is a classic and seemingly clear instance of the ideological distinction between public and private—in this case, between public work and private labor. In this system, as many feminists have noted, gender, labor, and publicness are so closely aligned that they seem synonymous. Public work is paid, is performed outside the home, and has long been the realm of men. Private labor is unpaid, is usually done at home, and has long been women’s work. Far from being symmetrical or complementary, this sexual division of labor (and division of sexual labor) is unequal. Public work, for example, is understood to be productive, forming vocational identity, and fulfilling men as individuals; private labor is understood as the general reproduction of society, lacking the vocational distinction of a trade or a profession, and displaying women’s selflessness. This gendered difference in callings persists, with its unequal mapping of public and private, though the entry of women into trades and professions has weakened it somewhat.

Yet the same separation of spheres has always had other, more complex meanings of public and private besides this direct correlation in gender domination and economic systems. Even the most extreme separation of spheres turns the home and its adjunct spaces into a functional public for women—spaces that can be filled with talk and with the formation of a shared world. There are normative countercurrents as well. In capitalism, paid work came to be understood as private economic life. The workplace lost some of the publicness that had been the hallmark of the guilds and trades. So while men were marking their workplace off more sharply from the increasingly female domestic space, they were also marking it off from the public. Professionalism recuperated some of that publicness for its highly trained classes in a new rhetoric of expertise —but not for wage labor. Male workers, in other words, underwent a loss of public life as artisanal household economies yielded to new, more modern separations of workplace and home life (this history is traced for an American context in Wilentz 1984; Johnson 1978; and Zaretsky 1986). The domestic and reproductive functions of the family, meanwhile, acquired ever greater public significance as reform movements made them the objects of so much discourse and as nationalism came to be symbolized through them. Many women, like Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet, found an entry into public life exactly through these discourses about privacy in reform, in nationalism, in evangelical Christianty, and in antislavery. They could do so in large part because private markets for print linked women as readers and writers (see esp. Kelley 1984 in the large and growing literature on this topic). Women in many places also elaborated parallel or informal economies— private, but public in the sense that they lay beyond the home. These developments were simultaneous with the rise of separate-sphere ideology, not simply later reactions against it.

The economic separation of the male public from the female private, in short, was never a static system. It was one normative strand among others in the elaboration of public and private. To say this is not to minimize its power or to underestimate the degree of male domination that it represented. In fact, because the interweaving of gender, labor, and publicness was indirect rather than definitional, it could often go unrecognized—and still does. To see this might help us to understand why inequality persists despite the apparent breakdown of the most static forms of the gendered division of labor— why, for instance, so many of the publics of women’s culture continue not to recognize themselves as publics because they think of their authenticity and their femininity as rooted necessarily in private feeling and domestic relations; or why so many men failed to understand the privatization of economic life as a loss because they thought of their work as having an extradomestic, vocational publicness.


The Liberal Tradition

Given these complexities, how did the notion of public and private come to be imagined as a binary in need of demolition? The answer lies in the way a whole set of distinctions were powerfully aligned in the liberal tradition, reaching back at least to John Locke, but widely institutionalized in politics and law by the nineteenth century. This tradition began as a critique of patriarchy, and one of its unintended consequences was the development of modern feminist thought in the eighteenth century. But by the time of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, this liberal tradition had come to pose serious limitations to both feminist and gay movements.

In liberal thought, private persons, no longer defined by privation or powerlessness, had become the proper site of humanity. They possessed publicly relevant rights by virtue of being private persons. Rights meant no longer the privileges that went with various public legal statuses— fief owner, copyholder, husband, lord of the manor, chief eunuch, citizen, princess —but rather claims that all persons could make on the basis of private humanity. The public, no longer understood as the audience or subjects of the ruler, became a community with independent existence, even sovereign claims and the ability to resist or change rulers. Both public and private were redefined, and both gained enormously in significance following the conception of state power as limited and rights as vested in private persons (Skinner 1978; Macpherson 1962).

This language for politics also gained in forcefulness from the use of similar terms in arguments for capitalism (Hirschman 1977). The motto of Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714) is a famous example: “Private vices, public benefits.” According to Mandeville, the competitive pursuit of self- interest (“private vices”) could be counted on to yield good effects (“public benefits”), counteracting mere selfishness through the interactions of the market. Such thinking, as later developed by Adam Smith and others, lent powerful support to the idea that economic life, as a realm of private society, should be kept free from state or public interference. In time, capitalist culture would give this distinction between public power and private economy an additional dimension, remapping social life into distinct arenas of work and “personal life,” including the intensified privacies of intimacy, friendship, and the domestic (see the multivolume history edited by Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, esp. vol. 3, Chartier 1989).

Meanwhile, the state was evolving into a modern bureaucracy, with its normative distinction between the public function of office and the private person of the officeholder. And as private persons came to be seen as driven by self- interest, the public came to be defined as disinterested. Those aspects of people’s lives that particularize their interests came to be seen as inappropriate to public discussion. To be properly public required that one rise above, or set aside, one’s private interests and expressive nature. This notion of a separation between public voice and private selfhood is often called “bracketing”; a closely related idea in John Rawls’s liberal legal theory is called the “veil of ignorance” (on “bracketing,” see Fraser 1992; on the “veil of ignorance,” see Rawls 1989).

All of these characteristically modern developments made possible a vision of freedom as negative liberty, inherent in private persons, and a vision of political life as the restraint of power by a critical public. In these respects, they lent great resources to the development of a critique of gender and sexuality. Early feminism, in writers such as Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft, Judith Sargent Murray, and the Grimké sisters, was articulated through the normative language of the liberal tradition. They were especially enabled by its vision of the rights- bearing private person, its role for a critical public, its principled skepticism about power (Scott 1996). Sarah Grimké, for example, in Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1837), was able to take the universal self of reason as an argument for women’s access: “When human beings are regarded as moral beings, sex, instead of being enthroned upon the summit, administering upon rights and responsibilities, sinks into insignificance and nothingness.” Having bracketed sex in this way, Grimké goes on to argue for a thorough degendering of social relations: “We approach each other, and mingle with each other, under the constant pressure of a feeling that we are of different sexes; and, instead of regarding each other only in the light of immortal creatures, the mind is fettered by the idea which is early and industriously infused into it, that we must never forget the distinction between male and female” (Grimké and Grimké 1989, 217). Grimké longs to transcend sex, and in order to do so she declares it irrelevant, something “infused” into the individual, something to “forget.” The ideal of the universal voice of reason has allowed her a kind of public participation. But the price she pays is that differences of sex have been ruled out of consideration as merely private.

In this respect, the same liberal tradition that enabled the first wave of the feminist movement also posed immediate obstacles to it as a movement, as it would later to the gay movement. Women such as Wollstonecraft and Grimké argued that their rights as individuals needed new respect. In doing so, they appealed to the ideal of a disinterested, abstract, universal public —just the kind of public in which particularized views and the gendered body would always seem matter out of place, like Fanny Wright’s mannish impudence or Diogenes’s masturbation. This tension was felt subjectively by many women, including Sarah Grimké’s sister, Angelina, who braved the denunciation of relatives, friends, and strangers, as well as the occasional violent mob, in her willingness to appeal to “the irresistible torrent of rectified public opinion,” but whose scandalous appearances in public caused her, as she confessed to her diary, great shame and self- doubt. When she married abolitionist Theodore Weld, her public speaking tours ended (Grimké and Grimké 1989, 217).

This subjective anxiety over the public display of the body and the gendered norms of comportment also has a direct equivalent in liberal notions of what is appropriate for public discussion and political action. Because the home was the very realm of private freedom that liberalism had wanted to protect from state intervention, it was off- limits to politics. And the rights of women, seen as an issue internal to the home, were therefore best left to the private judgment of each family. They were inappropriate to politics. Women would have to deal with men in the privacy of their own families, not in public. But of course the private context of the family was just where men were thought naturally to rule. As Eli Zaretsky puts it, “The separation between public and private occluded the perpetuation of relations of domination—those beyond legitimate authority—into modern society. It did this politically by rendering those relations ‘private’ ” (Zaretsky 1994, 201). The curbing of the state, in the name of private liberty, had entailed a curb on politics as well, freezing in place all those for whom the private was the place of domination rather than liberty.

This side of the liberal tradition continues to limit the transformative ambitions of feminism, and the gay movement as well. For example, the gay writer Andrew Sullivan ends his book Virtually Normal with an appeal to the liberal distinction between public and private, arguing for a politics based on “a simple and limited principle”:

that all public (as opposed to private) discrimination against homosexuals be ended and that every right and responsibility that heterosexuals enjoy as public citizens be extended to those who grow up and find themselves emotionally different. And that is all. No cures or re- educations, no wrenching private litigation, no political imposition of tolerance; merely a political attempt to enshrine formal public equality, whatever happens in the culture and society at large. (Sullivan 1995, 171)

Everything else, “whatever happens in the culture and society at large,” is private, and therefore off- limits to politics. But that includes almost the entirety of homophobia and sexism and the countless daily relations of privilege and domination they entail. Any political attempt to change those conditions is seen, in Sullivan’s scheme, as an illegitimate attempt to get government involved in private life, a “political imposition of tolerance.” Although this conception of politics is often called neoconservatism, its core ideas derive from the heyday of nineteenth-century liberal thought. (For the vicissitudes of this political tradition, and the ironies by which its central ideas have migrated from right to left and vice versa in twentieth-century politics, see Brinkley 1998.)

In fact, the liberal distinction between public authority and private freedom has always been in tension with other views, notably with civic humanism since Machiavelli. The indispensible reference here is J. G. A. Pocock (1975), who has been criticized by many historians for overstating the incompatibility of republican and liberal traditions (for recent treatments and somewhat different views, see Appleby 1992 and Kramnick 1990). Liberalism still has powerful contemporary exponents, such as Rawls (1989, 1996). But most of the major figures of our time on the subject of public and private have reacted against the liberal tradition. Feminist such as Pateman and MacKinnon, for example, point out that the liberal protection of the private from public interference simply blocked from view those kinds of domination that structure private life through the institutions of the family, the household, gender, and sexuality. Arendt tried to show how many of the strongest conceptions of humanity had been lost or forgotten when freedom was identified with the protection of private life rather than with the give- and-take of public activity. Habermas showed that modern society is fundamentally structured by a public sphere, including the critical consciousness of private people, but that these public ideals and norms are betrayed by modern social organization. And Michel Foucault rendered a strong challenge to the liberal tradition almost without using the terms public and private, by showing in great detail how its key terms and immanent values—public, state, private, freedom, autonomy —fail to account for power relations.


The Public Sphere

A rather different face of liberalism’s distinction between public and private can be seen in Kant’s celebrated 1784 essay “What Is Enlightenment?” “The public use of reason,” Kant writes, “must at all times be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men; the private use of reason, however, may often be very narrowly restricted without the progress of enlightenment being particularly hindered.” Kant’s has been called a “two hats” theory; he imagines men (not women) moving constantly between these two contexts, having different freedoms and different relations to power in each (Laursen 1996). But the surprising turn comes in his definition of public and private uses of reason: “I understand, however, under the public use of his own reason, that use which anyone makes of it as a scholar [Gelehrter] before the entire public of the reading world. The private use I designate as that use which one makes of his reason in a certain civil post or office which is entrusted to him” (Kant 1996).

To most readers, this will seem counterintuitive. The holder of a civil post would in most senses be a public figure —paid by the state, working for the common good, accountable to the community, acting in full view. The scholar or writer would commonly be thought of as private — unofficial, not supported by the state, speaking on behalf of no one but himself, perhaps unknown except through this writings. Yet to Kant the telling fact is that the holder of a civil post cannot simply follow his own will; he must obey rules established by his role. He may disagree with something he is required to say, but his thoughts remain private, whether he agrees or not. The scholar or writer makes his views known as widely as possible. He is not limited to his role but speaks “as a member of the entire commonwealth, or even of cosmopolitan society.” He can freely criticize church or state. Kant makes it clear that this reasoning takes place in a print public, “the entire public of the reading world,” and that it is more than national; but a clergyman speaking officially to his congregation addresses “only a domestic assembly, no matter how large it is; and in this respect he is not and cannot be free, as a priest, because he conforms to the orders of another” (Kant 1996). (For a useful discussion of this passage, see Chartier 1991, 20–37.)

A striking feature of this account is Kant’s emphasis on the different publics to which thought can be relevant, ranging from inner freedom to domestic assemblies, commonwealths, cosmopolitan society, the transnational public of scholars, and even “the entire public of the reading world.” Some publics are more public than others. They give greater scope to criticism and exchange of views. But by the same token, they may be less directly political, perhaps not anchored in a state or locality.

With this conception, Kant articulates a key distinction— though one that continues to be confused or overlooked even in sophisticated theoretical accounts—between public and political. These are often thought to be synonymous. They are very nearly so, for example, in Arendt, where the model of the public is clearly the polis (the Greek city-state), and equally (or oppositely) in the slogan “the personal is political.” What belongs to the polity is by definition of public relevance. But Kant recognizes that there are publics, such as the reading world, that do not correspond to any kind of polity. They enable a way of being public through critical discourse that is not limited by the duties and constraints of office or by loyalties to a commonwealth or nation. These critical publics may, however, be political in another or higher sense. They may set a higher standard of reason, opinion, and freedom—hence the subversive potential in his picture of enlightenment. In later years, Kant was forced to hedge on this implication; as he ran afoul of the censors, he narrowed the definition of Gelehrter to the scholar per se rather than the reader in general (Laursen 1996, 258– 61). Locke, too, had recognized the existence of a critical public not limited to the official politics of the state and having all the freedom from authority of private right. But in Locke this public tends to be imagined as the national people, endowed with the sovereign ability to change rulers. It is in this sense a back- projection from the state. Kant’s publics, though less literally revolutionary, range more widely, at least in print.

The difference between the public and the political has been taken up, closer to our own day, by Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas [1962] 1989; see also Habermas 1974). Subtitled “An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society,” the book reflects the Frankfurt School tradition of “immanent critique”; Habermas does not set out to invent or celebrate a putatively lost idea of the public (though he has sometimes been read this way); he wishes to show that bourgeois society has always been structured by a set of ideals that were contradicted by its own organization and compromised by its own ideology. These ideals, however, contained an emancipatory potential, Habermas thinks, and modern culture should be held accountable to them. But far from moving toward a more radical realization in practice, modern culture has compromised the ideals further. “Tendencies pointing to the collapse of the public sphere are unmistakable,” Habermas declares at the beginning of the book, “for while its scope is expanding impressively, its function has become progressively insignificant” ([1962] 1989, 4).

The main structural transformation of the title is the historic shift that Habermas assigns to the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Habermas begins with an aristocratic or monarchical model that he calls the “representative public sphere,” in which power is displayed before a public (and in which Louis XIV was able to say “L’état, c’est moi”). The publicity of the court was embodied and authoritative. The monarch’s presence was always public, and courtliness always had an audience. This kind of publicity yielded to a newer model of publicness in which the public is composed of private persons exercising rational-critical discourse in relation to the state and power. (The “sphere” of the title is a misleading effect of English translation: the German Öffentlichkeit lacks the spatializing metaphor and suggests something more like “openness” or “publicness.” The French translation, L’espace public, is worse.)

This shift came about, Habermas claims, through a wide range of cultural and social conditions that developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including the rise of newspapers, novels, and other private forms of print; coffeehouses, salons, and related private contexts of sociability in which argument and discussion could take place; the rise of critical discussion of art, music, and literature; the reorientation of domestic architecture; the development of an idea of the family and intimate life as the proper seat of humanity, from which persons could come together to form a public; and the development of a notion of the economy, beyond the household, as a realm of civic society that could be taken as the object of discussion and debate. Through these developments, a public that “from the outset was a reading public,” became “the abstract counterpart of public authority” and “came into an awareness of itself as the latter’s opponent, that is, as the public of the now emerging public sphere of civil society” ([1962] 1989, 23).

The public in this new sense, in short, was no longer opposed to the private. It was private. As the self-consciousness of civil society, it was opposed to the state:

The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of the private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent: people’s public use of their reason. (Habermas [1962] 1989, 27)

The public sphere in this sense is “a category of bourgeois society,” as the subtitle maintains, not just because its members are mostly bourgeois but also because the reorganization of society around the institutions of public criticism was one of the means by which bourgeois society came into being, conscious of itself as “society.” Habermas cites Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?” and its ideal of a private citizen as a scholar “whose writings speak to his public, the world.” This “world” is both broad, stretching notions of cosmopolitanism and world progress to include “the communication of rational beings,” and particularized, being grounded in “the world of a critically debating reading public that at the time was just evolving within the broader bourgeois strata. It was the world of the men of letters but also that of the salons in which ‘mixed companies’ engaged in critical discussion; here, in the bourgeois homes, the public sphere was established” (Habermas [1962] 1989, 106).

As Craig Calhoun points out in his introduction to Habermas and the Public Sphere, a radical reversal has taken place between the bourgeois conception traced by Habermas and the Greek conception of public freedom: “Unlike the Greek conception, individuals are here understood to be formed primarily in the private realm, including the family. Moreover, the private realm is understood as one of freedom that has to be defended against the dominion of the state” (Calhoun 1992, 7).

Habermas shows that this understanding of the public sphere had its early critics. Chief among these was the young Karl Marx, who objected to the nature of this new private freedom leading “every man to see in other men, not the realization, but rather the limitation of his own liberty” (quoted in Habermas [1962] 1989, 125). Noting the contradiction between the universal claims of public reason and its particular basis in bourgeois society, Marx wanted to imagine “the social conditions for the possibility of its utterly unbourgeois realization” (Habermas [1962] 1989, 128). Indeed, workers and excluded groups of many kinds were beginning to grasp this possibility, as the explosion of nineteenth-century social movements makes clear. Labor, Chartism, temperance, and other movements were enabled by the new conditions of the public sphere. But liberal critics, such as Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, saw this expansion of critical discussion as a threat to the public sphere and began to treat the public as a force of unreason. Habermas thinks that at this juncture liberal thought began to betray its own best ideals:

The liberalist interpretation of the bourgeois constitutional state was reactionary: it reacted to the power of the idea of a critically debating public’s self- determination, initially included in its institutions, as soon as this public was subverted by the propertyless and uneducated masses. (Habermas [1962] 1989, 136)

Habermas does not here mention the playing out of the same contradiction regarding gender, an omission for which he has been taken to task by feminist critics and which he has since acknowledged. The important point for him is that the emancipatory potential of the public sphere was abandoned rather than radicalized and that changing conditions have now made its realization more difficult than ever. Habermas stresses especially two such conditions: the asymmetrical nature of mass culture, which makes it easier for those with capital or power to distribute their views but harder for marginal voices to talk back, and the growing interpenetration of the state and civil society, which makes it harder to conceive of the private public sphere as a limitation on state power. These tendencies amount to what Habermas calls a “refeudalization” of the public sphere—in effect, a second “structural transformation.” They produce a public that is appealed to not for criticism but for benign acclamation. Public opinion comes less to generate ideas and hold power accountable and more simply to register approval or disapproval in the form of opinion polls and occasional elections. “Publicity once meant the exposure of political domination before the public use of reason; publicity now adds up the reactions of an uncommitted friendly disposition,” Habermas writes. “In the measure that is shaped by public relations, the public sphere of civil society again takes on feudal features” (Habermas [1962] 1989, 195). Even the bourgeois conjugal family, which had in theory served as the basis of private humanity (an appearance that, according to Habermas, had always been contradicted by its real functions), now finds most of its functions taken over by mass culture and by other institutions such as schools. As a result, it “has started to dissolve into a sphere of pseudo- privacy” (Habermas [1962] 1989, 157).

Habermas’s analysis has been the subject of a voluminous debate, much of it marred by reductive summaries and naïve confidence that highly capitalized mass media can be defended and celebrated as “popular culture.” Three themes from this debate are important enough to warrant some comment here. First, the public-sphere environment Habermas describes can be seen as the context of modern social movements, including identity politics. Social movements take shape in civil society, often with an agenda of demands vis- à-vis the state. They seek to change policy by appealing to public opinion. They arise from contexts of critical discussion, many of them print- mediated. The question for debate, then, is to what extent the environment for critical social movements is becoming more undemocratic, “refeudalized,” or colonized by changing relations among the state, mass media, and the market. This is not a simple issue. It has to do with the increasingly transnational nature of publics, of civil-society structures such as corporations or nongovernmental organization, and of interstate regulatory apparatuses (see Negt and Kluge 1993, esp. the introduction by Miriam Hansen; Berlant and Warner 1994). It has to do as well with the apparently conflicting trends of an every higher capitalization of media, which are increasingly controlled by a small number of transnational companies, and the apparent decentralization of new media.

Second, movements around gender and sexuality do not always conform to the bourgeois model of “rational-critical debate,” especially as that model has been subsequently elaborated by Habermas. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas speaks of “people’s public use of their reason.” But what counts as a use of reason? In later works, he put forward a highly idealized account of argumentative dialogue (for a critique of this turn, see Lee 1992). But movements around gender and sexuality seek to transform fundamental styles of embodiment, identity, and social relations— including their unconscious manifestations, the vision of the good life embedded in them, and the habitus by which people continue to understand their selves or bodies as public or private. Because this is the field that people want to transform, it is not possible to assume the habitus according to which rational-critical debate is a neutral, relatively disembodied procedure for addressing common concerns, while embodied life is assumed to be private, local, or merely affective and expressive. The styles by which people assume public relevance are themselves contested. The ability to bracket one’s embodiment and status is not simply what Habermas calls making public use of one’s reason; it is a strategy of distinction, profoundly linked to education and to dominant forms of masculinity.

Just as the gendered division of public and private kept women from challenging their role in any way that might have been political, public interactions are saturated with protocols of gender and sexual identity. Just as Diogenes’s masturbating in the market will be seen by some as philosophy, by others as filth, the critically relevant styles of publicness in gay male sexual culture are seldom recognized as such but are typically denounced as sleaze and as crime. For modern gay men and lesbians, the possibilities of public or private speech are distorted by what we call the closet. “The closet” is a misleading spatial metaphor. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has shown so well, it is a name for a set of assumptions in everyday life as well as in expert knowledge: assumptions about what goes without saying; what can be said without a breach of decorum; who shares the onus of disclosure; what can be known about a person’s real nature through telltale signs, without his or her own awareness; and who will bear the consequences of speech and silence (Sedgwick 1990). Speech is everywhere regulated unequally. Yet ironically, common mythology understands the closet as an individual’s lie about him- or herself. We blame people for being closeted. But the closet is better understood as the culture’s problem, not the individual’s. No one ever created a closet for him- or herself. People find themselves in its oppressive conditions before they know it, willy- nilly. It is experienced by lesbians and gay men as a private, individual problem of shame and deception. But it is produced by the heteronormative assumptions of everyday talk. It feels private. But in an important sense it is publicly constructed.

In such a regime of sexual domination, publicness will feel like exposure, and privacy will feel like the closet. The closet may seem to be a kind of protection. Indeed, the feeling of protection is one of the hallmarks of modern privacy. But in fact the closet is riddled with fear and shame. So is publicity under the conditions of the closet. Being publicly known as a homosexual is never the same as being publicly known as a heterosexual; the latter always goes without saying and troubles nothing, whereas the former carries echoes of pathologized visibility. It is perfectly meaningless to “come out” as a heterosexual. So it is not true, as common wisdom would have it, that homosexuals live private lives without a secure public identity. They have neither privacy nor publicness, in these normative senses of the terms. In the United States, the judiciary, along with the military and its supporters in Congress and the White House, has gone to great lengths to make sure that they will have neither (Halley 1999). It is this deformation of public and private that identity politics—and the performative ritual known as coming out—tries to transform.

In some ways, a more daunting version of the same problem faces the transgendered, who do not always wish to appeal in the same way to a private identity as the basis for a public revaluation. Often, it is the most private, intimate dimension of sex assignment and self- understanding that must be managed at the same time with the public and social presentations, though these may move at different rates and to different degrees. The task of managing stigma may often present itself as being like the closet, and it may display a similar inequality in claims to knowledge. The epistemological leverage of medical experts, for example, appears as a very public kind of knowledge and authority, objective and neutral where the patient’s claims are understood to be subjective and interested, perhaps even pathological. Transgendered people typically have to struggle against that superior claim to know what’s good for them or what their true nature is, even while they are dependent on those same experts for assistance, care, and public legitimacy. But of course, a sex transition is not something that can be managed privately, and because it is a transition rather than a newly revealed prior condition, “coming out” is not an entirely helpful analogy.

A notion of privacy as a right of self- determination may prove in many contexts to be extremely valuable to the transgendered. A merely naturalized privacy, on the other hand, might block access to the health services and other kinds of publicly available assistance that self- determination might require. The private facilities of public institutions— locker rooms, bathrooms, and such—can be the most public of battlegrounds, especially for female-to- male individuals. And the transgendered routinely have to cope with the public, institutional, and state dimensions of such otherwise “personal” and private issues as naming, sex classification, health, and intimate associations. Transgender activism continually points to the public underpinnings of privacy, and probably nowhere more so than in its own practice, which seeks to put into circulation a new publicly available language for self- understanding.

As these examples illustrate, the meaning of gender and sexuality in dominant culture is only partly determined in domestic or familial life. It is also constantly being shaped across the range of social relations, and perhaps especially in the mass media, with their visual language of incorporation and desire. The public sphere as an environment, then, is not a place where one could rationally debate a set of gender or sexual relations that can in turn be equated with private life; the public sphere is a principal instance of the forms of embodiment and social relations that are themselves at issue.

This is a reason for skepticism about the reigning protocols of what counts as rational-critical debate, including the idea that one needs to bracket one’s private self in order to engage in public discussion. But the same reciprocity between public and private is also an advantage to public-sphere analysis in relation to some other critical methods, notably psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis as a cultural phenomenon, as Zaretsky points out, has contributed profoundly to the twentieth-century revaluation of personal and private life. But as a method, psychoanalysis has been limited in its ability to deal with issues of public and private. Most psychoanalytic analyses of gender and sexuality focus on intrasubjective dynamics and familial relations, generalizing from these to abstract levels of culture, such as the Symbolic and the law of the father. In so doing, they methodically embed the equation of gender and sexuality with the realm of the family and the individual—blocking from view the mediation of publics and the multiple social, historical, and political frames of privacy. Freud himself struggled to overcome this limitation in group psychology, and some later reconstructions of psychoanalytic method, from Frantz Fanon to feminist film theory, have further revised his vocabulary with the aim of incorporating social contexts of domination into our understanding of psychic life, and vice versa. Yet the distance between psychoanalytic generality and the complex histories of public and private remains great (Zaretsky 1994; Brenkman 1993).

Finally, there is some tension between the publics of gender or sexuality and the public sphere as an ideal. On this point, there has been some confusion; critics commonly accuse Habermas of having adopted a false ideal of a unitary public. But Habermas does not imagine a public unified in reality, as a constituency or a single media context. “Nonpublic opinions,” he writes, “are at work in great numbers, and ‘the’ public opinion is indeed a fiction” (Habermas [1962] 1989, 244). From the beginning, his account stressed many different kinds of public discourse, from tavern conversation to art criticism. The ideal of unity of the public sphere is best understood as an imaginary convergence point that is the backdrop of critical discourse in each of these contexts and publics— an implied but abstract point that is often referred to as “the public” or “public opinion” and by virtue of that fact endowed with legitimacy and the ability to dissolve power. A “public” in this context is a special kind of virtual social object, enabling a special mode of address. As we saw in Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?” it is modeled on a reading public. In modern societies, a public is by definition an indefinite audience rather than a social constituency that could be numbered or named (Warner 1990). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere can be read as a history of the construction of this virtual object and its mode of address, where a key development is the fiction of “public opinion” as the ideal background of all possible publics. Habermas did not describe it in these terms, and in later work on communicative rationality he increasingly collapsed public reason into the model of face-to-face argumentative dialogue—thus making the special context of publics disappear from the analysis. But there is no necessary conflict between the public sphere and the idea of multiple publics.


Catharine R. Stimpson
© 2014,
Paper $32.50 ISBN: 9780226774817 E-book $10.00 to $32.50 ISBN: 9780226010212

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