Loehwing, Melanie, and Jeff Motter. “Publics, Counterpublics, and the Promise of Democracy.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 42.3 (2009): 220-41. Print.


The article discusses the theories of publics, counterpublics with respect to the issues, identities and politics within the disciplinary spectrum of the scholars. Scholars Jürgen Habermas and Nancy Fraser introduced the public and counterpublics theories to help elucidate problems of inclusion and exclusion, projects of social justice, and the waning promise of democratic politics.  These scholars made methodological interventions to explore and clarify the issues surrounding publics and counterpublics.

Keywords: public, counterpublic, habermas, nancy fraser, public sphere, democracy, democratic praxis, identity politics, recognition, reconciliation


  • While many scholars appreciate Fraser’s corrective of Habermas’ theory of publics found in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, L/M argue “for a return to the original point of theoretical contention in an effort to specify the different normative commitments of the two perspectives and reevaluate the role each envisions for rhetoric as a potentially democratic praxis” (220).
  • The authors argue that while Habermas’ particular investigation might have been exclusionary, the possibilities and “democratic potential” made real by the historical genesis of public spheres are potentially libratory.
  • L/M note that Fraser’s criticisms asks how “existing and future publics can be treated democratically”; however, they return to Habermas’s theory to consider the ways that publics actually cultivate and create democracy.  So, while Habermas’s particular investigation might have been short sighted, his larger project has enormous potential (221).
  • Article trajectory:  Begin by assessing Habermas’s shifts in political culture that made the bourgeois public sphere possible; next, a comparison of public and counterpublic sphere reveals the possible functions of rhetoric in the creation of democratic culture; and finally, a prolegomena to the ways that publics and counterpublics shed light on the intersections of democratic politics and rhetorical culture (221).
  • The authors locate the weakness of Fraser’s criticism thusly: Fraser’s reading critiques Habermas’s particular historical study (the rise of the 18th century critical-rational public sphere in European nation-states); however, her critique fails to account for Habermas’s larger project of tracing the “conceptual shift” across various historical eras (224).  In other words, the authors appreciate Habermas’s argument about the rise and transformation of different forms of publicity in the constitution and transformation of political power.
  • Using Habermas’s work as a guide, L/M argue that the critic must consider what “normative commitments” or popular social positions accompany various iterations of public authority; furthermore, they must also consider how those “commitments” might affect the ability of citizens to operate as democratically informed citizens in the public sphere (226).
  • Habermas is providing, according to L/M, an ideal model of democracy wherein publics are created to respond to moments of crisis or abuses of political offices.  They form in order to revise and “reinvent” political power and authority.  This is markedly different from counterpublic studies because, L/M argue, Fraserian counterpublic theory concentrates specifically on already existing counterpublics to reveal the ways that dominant publics exclude counterpublics.  As a remedy, Fraserian counterpublic theory offers a “more democratic communicative ethic” as a remedy to address these imbalanced power relations.  (227).
  • Habermas’s critique of Fraser goes something (I think?) like this [1. From Between Facts and Norms 1998): counterpublic studies seeks something of an equilibrium wherein public discourse and publics fight for their “piece of the pie” or their ability to receive an equal share of the “political goods” distributed by the state [2. Political goods include recognition, legitimation, and allotment of resources.].  This is not an adequate representation of the power of publics because the standing authority of the state to whom the counterpublic is appealing remains unchallenged; therefore, the “democratic” potentials of the publics (in counterpublic theory) go untapped because the state-domination remains unchallenged. [4. This seems to be another iteration of the recognition/reconciliation or identity politics vs. common politics problem.] (229)
  • Habermas’s characterization of the feudal era power is extra-rhetorical . . . it doesn’t depend on a legitimating discourse or a critical public opinion to function.  The early capitalist configuration is rhetorical – or depends on the “critical publicity” of the public to legitimate itself[5. Social contract and all that jazz.].
  • Habermasian conception of democracy: the space where the “ongoing constitution of democratic culture” occurs through rational-critical debate.  Counterpublic conception of democracy: a setting where counterpublics operate in actually existing democracies and a ideal of universal access to participation (the democratic treatment of publics) (231).  This is important because Habermas’s position, according to L/M, is generative as it points to the creation of new “intersubjectivities” and possibilities of identification that continually revive changing concerns of the common.  In other words, counterpublic sphere theory argues for a reclamation of theory in the face of exclusion whereas Habermasian public sphere theory advocates the transformation of the terrain upon which power is grounded.

Key Quotes:

While Fraser’s influence in rhetorical studies usefully prompts us to think about challenges to dominant discourse, the particular sense in which democracy undergirds projects about publics lingers as a question in need of exploration and clarification. Many take Fraser’s intervention as a corrective to the politically insufficient Habermasian theory found in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991). We argue, however, for a return to the original point of theoretical contention in an effort to specify the different normative commitments of the two perspectives and reevaluate the role each envisions for rhetoric as a potentially democratic praxis. (220)

In sum, a notion of counterpublics challenges Habermas’s evaluation of the bourgeois public sphere by correcting Habermas’s historical account, arguing against his judgment based on this correction, and reorienting public sphere studies to prevent similar oversights in the future. However, we argue that this reading interprets Habermas’s work as a celebration of a particular historical example, rather than a theorization of a conceptual shift across various historical eras. By our reading, the main contribution of Structural Transformation is not the discovery of the bourgeois public sphere, but the argument on behalf of transformed publicity as a key force in the reinvention of political power. (224)

The task of the critic for Habermas, then, is not simply to document the evolution of public authority in diff erent epochs, but to interrogate what normative commitments accompany various conceptions of public authority and how such commitments constrain or enable citizens’ empowerment in the public sphere. (226)

As we see it, the key question to ask is whether we understand public spheres as a means for expanded participation in decision making, or as a revitalizing force for creating a democratic culture in which problems might be approached, understood, and hence judged differently. Choosing Habermas as the point of departure for such inquiry orients us towards the latter view, and compels us to approach the question of democracy in terms of how democracy can result from civic (rhetorical) action, rather than how a democratic institutional arrangement can better accommodate the demands of more individual and group interests. By our account, counterpublic studies makes a much different choice, reformulating culture-constituting public spheres as counterpublics that bear

the burden of mediating between conflicting claims of interest- and need fulfillment. Here, democracy can be recognized and measured by the extent to which citizens are empowered to pursue solutions to problems through existing institutions and successfully petition public authority for both recognition and the fulfillment of their interests and needs. Simply, we are speaking of the difference between a problem-solving model of democracy and a culture-generating paradigm. Since the former cannot incorporate the most vital function of rational-critical debate, the transformation of domination through critical publicity, Habermas pursues the normative justification of the latter. (232)


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