FAU Counter-Publics Discussion
Robert Asen warns us not to see “a particular person, place, or topic as necessarily defining the limits of a counterpublic” (“Seeking the Counter” 426). Yet over the last several weeks, we have looked at counterpublics that seem focused on either categories of people or particular issues. Does that make us guilty of “reductionism”? That is, have we overlooked important aspects of what makes a public “counter” in order to fit them into categories? Is there a difference between counterpublics that focus on people and counterpublics that focus on issues? What particular challenges do counterpublics that form around the exclusion of research and dicussion of medical issues from larger public spheres?
Remember, you can discuss any or all of the questions posed in the module or you can discuss something else that you found interesting in the reading. Discussion posts should be your original ideas that identify important concepts from the readings. You shouldn’t quote or paraphrase extensively, except to point out what aspect of the articles you are commenting on. Discussion posts should deal with the course reading for each week, and not general observations on the public sphere or material you have read in other classes. Material quoted from the readings should total no more than 10% of a discussion post and should include an accurate reference to the source (author and page number). Original posts should explore an issue in some depth, so they should be at least 200 words.
Seeking the “Counter” in
As conceptual models of the public sphere have moved toward multiplicity, “counterpublic” has emerged as a critical term to signify that
some publics develop not simply as one among a constellation of discursive entities, but as explicitly articulated alternatives to wider publics
that exclude the interests of potential participants. This essay attempts
to forestall potential reductionism in future counterpu blic theory by considering through 3 “ominous examples” how the “counter” in counterpublics may be reduced to persons, places, or topics. Instead, this essay
seeks to orient critical attention to the discursive quality of counterpublics.
It argues that the ways in which counterpublics set themselves against
wider publics m a y be most productively explored by attending to the
recognition and articulation of exclusion through alternative discourse
norms and practices.
Recent theorizing in the interdisciplinary study of the public sphere has
pushed the literature in the direction of multiplicity. Scholars have rejected in large measure the bourgeois notion of a singular, overarching
public sphere into which all citizens potentially enter as private persons
who form a public that, acting in an advisory capacity, debates the activities of the state (see Habermas, 1962/1989, 1974). In her oft-cited
critique, Nancy Fraser ( 1992) discerns an underlying assumption structuring this bourgeois public that regards the circumscription of public
deliberation to a single, encompassing arena as “a positive and desirable
state of affairs, whereas the proliferation of a multiplicity of publics
represents a departure from, rather than an advance toward, democracy” (p. 122). Scholars have reversed this conceptual ordering. Seyla
Benhabib (1996)rejects the notion of a singular, overarching public sphere
in favor of a “plurality of modes of association” that constitute a medium of mutually interlocking and overlapping networks of opinion formation and dissemination. Charles Taylor (1995) proposes a model of
“nested public spheres” in which smaller public spheres nested within
larger ones feed into the agenda of a national public sphere. Jane
Copyright 0 2000 International Communication Association
“Counter” in Counterpublics
Mansbridge (1996) envisions persons oscillating between “protected
enclaves” to explore ideas in an environment of mutual encouragement
and broader surroundings to test ideas against the reigning reality. Gerard
Hauser (1998, 1999) describes the public sphere as a “reticulate structure” in which discursive practices form a lattice of spaces with boundaries of variable permeability.
This movement toward multiplicity has been spurred by recognition
of social complexity and sociocultural diversity. A single, overarching
public sphere ignores or denies social complexity insofar as it invokes a
notion of publicity as contemporaneous face-to-face encounters among
all citizens potentially affected by issues under consideration. Attempts
to simulate such wide-scale communal presence through nationwide electronic town meetings confront substantial logistical obstacles and stumble
on grounds of economic stratification (Barber, 1997). Moreover, these
electronic “agoras” threaten to eclipse the deliberative functioning of
the public sphere and reduce citizen participation to registering unreflected
preferences through a vast telecommunications network (Schudson, 1992;
Fishkin, 1995). A singular public sphere also suppresses sociocultural
diversity in constituting an arena inimical to difference. As Foucault
(1980), among others, has argued, norms always already operative in
discursive encounters implicate relations of power. Thus, the often-implicit norms regulating discourse in any one sphere at one time are likely
to advantage some participants and to disadvantage others. Iris Young
notes that participatory norms are “powerful silencers or evaluators of
speech in many actual speaking situations where culturally differentiated and socially unequal groups live together” (1996, p. 124). If hypostatized in a singular public sphere, these norms link up with similarly
reified, already established notions of the common good to function as
complementary exclusionary mechanisms that restrict discursive engagement and undermine the interests of oppressed groups. In this way, actual exclusions belied the claims of open access and debate that legitimated the historical bourgeois public sphere.
Counterpublics emerge as a kind of public within a public sphere conceived as a multiplicity. They illuminate the differential power relations
among diverse publics of a multiple public sphere. Counterpublics signal that some publics develop not simply as one among a constellation
of discursive entities, but as explicitly articulated alternatives to wider
publics that exclude the interests of potential participants. Counterpublics
in turn reconnect with the communicative flows of a multiple public
sphere. Counterpublic theory discloses relations of power that obliquely
inform public discourse and, at the same time, reveals that participants
in the public sphere still engage in potentially emancipatory affirmative
practice with the hope that power may be reconfigured. Such disclosure
and revelation indicate the utility of “counterpublic” as a critical term.
Serving in conceptual models and criticism of discourse in the public
sphere, the term foregrounds contest among publics, exclusions in the
discursive practices of publics, and attempts by some publics to overcome these exclusions. Counterpublic signals critical awareness that
participants in the public sphere sometimes join with others and set themselves against wider publics and their discursive exclusions. That some
publics articulate a counter status to others intimates that engagement
among publics sometimes involves struggle and that counterpublics encounter resistance in their efforts t o reconfigure the discursive practices
of wider publics. These qualities of discourse in a public sphere and
relations among publics may be deemphasized or left unattended if critics and theorists cease using counter as a prefix to describe some publics
in a multiple public sphere.
Yet, the important contributions of work in counterpublic theory leave
unanswered (and, for that matter, unasked) a significant question: What
is counter about counterpublics? Reformulations of the bourgeois public sphere highlight the interactions and permeations of publics in a
multiple public sphere, but only allude to the qualities of their differential relations. Counterpublics have been studied in various contexts, but
these insightful investigations have tended to focus on discourse within
a counterpublic (see, e.g., Maguire & Mohtar, 1994; Gregory, 1995).
Perhaps such neglect is not surprising, for public itself is a polysemous
term that denotes something accessible, relevant, or known to all. Still,
scholars ought to seek the counter in counterpublics because multiplicity has come to typify theorizing about the public sphere and counterpublic has emerged as a critical term in this theorizing. Moreover, pursuing this question directly may forestall reductionism in future scholarship. Reductionism is likely to stem from explicitly fixing or implicitly
relying on persons, places, or topics as necessary markers of counterpublic
status. That is, though counterpublics emerge in constellations of these
three elements, reductionism manifests if theorists and critics regard a
particular person, place, or topic as necessarily defining the limits of a
counterpublic. All three potential reductions portend unfortunate consequences for studies of a multiple public sphere.
Directly seeking the counter in counterpublics may itself lead to reductionism insofar as the effort produces a binary opposition of counter
and public.’ This outcome would commit in bifurcated form errors excavated in the bourgeois public sphere: a binary opposition of counter
and public would replace a putatively undifferentiated bourgeois public
with a single “main~tream”public and its corollary counterpublic. This
danger may be averted by emphasizing manifold relations among multiple publics, some of which may articulate an explicitly counter status.
More pressing is the perspective that may be gained by disclosing possible sites of reductionism in future scholarship by making problematic
assumptions explicit. Descriptively, seeking the counter in counterpublics
permits critics and theorists to consider how well we convey in our work
the texture, dynamism, and multidirectionality of public discourse in
moments of social dialogue and episodes of controversy, debate, and
contestation. Prescriptively, this pursuit may lead to conceptual models
that anticipate the overcoming of exclusions in the “actually existing”
public sphere by bringing into clearer view aspects of public discourse
informed by the differential relations of interlocutors in the public sphere.
In this essay, I argue that public sphere scholars ought to seek the
counter of counterpublics in participants’ recognition of exclusion from
wider public spheres and its articulation through alternative discourse
practices and norms. After a brief explication of the dialectical movement of counterpublics amid the multiple publics of the public sphere,
this essay develops through two main sections. The first cautions against
reductionism that fixes or relies on counter as necessarily constituted in
particular persons, places, or topics. In amplifying this caution, I offer
examples of how reductionism along these lines might occur. My examples add a further dimension to the possible pitfalls already mentioned by exhibiting, in turn, a potential problem of reading, criticism,
and theory. Thus, the examples of persons, places, and topics also serve
as varied instances of how reductionism might proceed through misreading, critical valorization, and theoretical blindness. The second main
section attempts to orient o u r critical vocabulary and t o draw
multidisciplinary attention to the communicative processes of recognition and articulation of exclusion and resolve to overcome it. Focusing
not on exclusion per se but on the recognition of exclusion avoids essentialist understandings of difference and situates counter as a constructed
relationship. This perspective calls attention to the collectives that emerge
through recognition-collectives that emerge in our multiple everyday
identifications and affiliations and through coalitions and assertions of
identity that acknowledge dilemmas of difference. The aim of this second section, then, is not to undo current theorizing but to build upon
and orient counterpublic theory. The conception of counter proposed in
this essay seeks to account for social complexity and sociocultural diversity that have motivated movement toward multiplicity in public sphere
Emergence of Counterpublics
Critical attention to counterpublics has emerged in efforts to rethink the
bourgeois public sphere more inclusively without abandoning its prom-
ise of a critical publicity. In this respect, Fraser holds that “no attempt to
understand the limits of actually existing late-capitalist democracy can
succeed without in some way or another making use of [Habermas’s
early conception of the public sphere explicated in Structural Transformation]” (1992, p. 111).Fraser and Rita Felski (1989)have been prominent proponents of counterpublic theory. Their explications of counterpublics and counterpublic spheres have introduced the terms to many
and have informed explorations of engagements of counter with public.
Fraser argues that the need for counterpublics arises from the ways in
which social inequalities in stratified societies can “infect” deliberation
even in the absence of formal exclusions. The historical bourgeois public sphere required from participants a bracketing of status inequalities.
This requirement called upon participants to address each other as if
they were social and economic peers. Fraser counters that inequalities
should be unbracketed in public discourse and thematized as topics of
deliberation. Thematization, however, does not insulate discursive arenas from the distorting effects of social inequalities. Deliberative processes in public spheres tend to advantage dominant groups and to disadvantage subordinate groups. In this context, Fraser advocates
counterpublics so that members of subordinated groups may engage
in communicative processes beyond the supervision of dominant
Fraser defines counterpublics as “parallel discursive arenas where
members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities,
interests, and needs” (1992, p. 123). Counterpublics respond to the exclusions of dominant publics and, in the process, help to expand discursive space. They manifest a publicist orientation and aspire to wider
circulation of counterdiscourses. Counterpublics have a dual character:
“ O n the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and
regroupment; on the other hand, they function as bases and training
grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics” (p. 124).
Fraser explains that emancipatory potential resides in the dialectic between these two functions. Through wider engagement, counterpublics
may offset-but not overcome entirely-discursive privilege.
Felski describes counterpublic spheres as critical oppositional social
forces that assert distinctiveness against the homogenizing, critically
denuding tendencies of the “global megaculture of modern mass communication as a debased pseudopublic sphere” (1989, p. 166). Counterpublic spheres articulate oppositional needs and values not addressed by
this global megaculture. Felski situates counterpublic spheres as multiple and heterogeneous social forces that do not converge to form a
single, coordinated revolutionary movement. The emancipatory projects
“Counter” in Counterpublics
of counterpublic spheres do not appeal to an ideal of universality (as did
the historical bourgeois public sphere) but, rather, advance affirmations
of specificity in relation to gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and other
axes of difference.
Appeals to difference constitute a “partial or counter-public sphere”
(Felski, 1989, p. 167). Partiality enables the formation of a common
identity among participants in a counterpublic sphere. This common
identity unites participants beyond their individual differences. Participation in counterpublic spheres relies not on an acceptance of a “clearly
delineated theoretical framework, but on a more general sense of commonality in the experience of oppression” (p. 167). Felski holds that
“the experience of discrimination, oppression, and cultural dislocation
provides the impetus for the development of a self-consciously oppositional identity” (p. 167).Partiality, however, does not signal separatism.
Counterpublic spheres maintain their public character by directing their
arguments outward to society as a whole. In this way, they serve a dual
function. Referencing the feminist counterpublic sphere, Felski explains
that, “internally, it generates a gender-specific identity grounded in a
consciousness of community and solidarity among women; externally, it
seeks to convince society as a whole of the validity of feminist claims”
(p. 168).2Felski regards the outward extension of feminist discourse as
a necessary corollary of its claims to represent a catalyst of social and
Though they employ different modes of counter-counterpublic and
counterpublic sphere respectively-Fraser and Felski’s formulations reveal important similarities. Both focus on subordinated or oppressed
persons and groups as likely constituents of counterpublic arenas. Both
highlight counterpublics’ dual function of withdrawal and reentry into
the wider communicative flows of the public sphere. This dual functioning underscores the publicist as opposed to isolationist orientation of
counterpublics. Fraser ( 1992) addresses this issue directly. Opposing a
separatist reading of counterpublics, she asserts that “insofar as these
arenas are publics, they are by definition not enclaves, which is not to
deny that they are often involuntarily enclaved” (p. 124). In engaging
publicity, counterpublics affirm a belief in the transformative power of
discourse. Their publicist orientation suggests that the consequences of
exclusion-suppression of identities, interests, and needs-can be overcome. Yet, both Fraser and Felski recognize struggle and contest among
publics. The effort to publicize alternative interpretations of identities,
interests, and needs is not a unidirectional process of wider and wider
circulation. These alternative interpretations enter into the turbulent flow
of discourse as counterpublics seek wider engagement. The dialectical
movement of counterpublics and their struggles with wider publics over
discursive circulation intimate the fluidity of counter and the limitations
of fixing counter in persons, places, or topics.
Potential Reductions of Counter to Persons,
Places, and Topics
In this section, I consider potential reductions of counter to persons,
places, and topics to forestall such reductions in future counterpublic
theory and criticism. In exploring how these reductions might unfold, I
simultaneously consider how reading, criticism, and theory may be implicated in reductive moves, as my examples successively demonstrate
potential problems arising from these three modes of inquiry. However,
my layering of this conceptual dimension onto potential paths of reductionism should not be taken to indicate a series of couplings, as if reductions to people occur only in misreadings, reductions to places only by
critical valorization, and reductions to topics only through theoretical
blindness. Reductions to people, for instance, may proceed by reading,
criticism, or theory. However, the aims of this section do not call for
such exhaustive schematization, as the three potential paths of reductionism that follow may best be regarded as “ominous examples” rather
than as efforts to survey widespread developments in scholarly literature. As these comments suggest, my purpose is not to offer a typology
of alternative discourse forms. The cautionary tales told here are recounted for their analytic and heuristic value. The point cannot be overemphasized that counterpublics as discursive entities emerge in a multiple public sphere through constellations of persons, places, and topics.
Moreover, my outlining of three potential paths of reductionism ought
not foreclose investigatior, of people, places, and topics as elements of
Before attending to a potential reduction of counter to people, it is
important to affirm the value of studying the advocates who engage one
another in the “actually existing” public sphere, especially those who
act as participants in counterpublics. Focusing critical attention on persons excluded from or disadvantaged in wider public spheres illuminates the experiences and struggles of individuals and groups harmed by
putatively disinterested rules of discourse and deliberation. Such harm
has not been suffered randomly. One need only be reminded of the
struggle for civil rights in the United States to recognize that certain
individuals and groups historically have been more likely to be excluded
from or disadvantaged in public forums than others. In this respect,
critics have faulted Jurgen Habermas’s widely known history of the bourgeois public sphere, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
(1962/1989), for neglecting the exclusion of women and laborers (see,
“Counter” in Counterpublics
e.g., Eley, 1992; Landes, 1988). Critics argue that women’s exclusion
from the historical bourgeois public sphere was constitutive in that bourgeois notions of reason and universality arose in contrast to the subjugation of women in the domestic sphere (Pateman, 1988). In more recent
reflections on his earlier work, Habermas (1992, p. 428) concedes that
women’s exclusion structured the historical bourgeois public sphere by
determining its relationship to the private sphere in a gender-specific
Yet, seeking the counter of counterpublics in persons undermines the
public quality of counterpublics. If counter and “group” are coextensive, then counterpublics transfigure into enclaves-not involuntarily
through discursive struggle among publics informed by relations of power,
but at the moment of critical identification. My example for this potential path of reduction comes from a surprising source: the work of Nancy
Fraser. Her description of counterpublics admits at least two possible
readings, each with decidedly different conceptual consequences. The
first reading asserts a view of counterpublics as social, discursive entities
that may not be reduced to the identity of their participants. Indeed,
Fraser’s definition of counterpublics, quoted in the previous section of
this essay, begins by describing them as “parallel discursive arenas” ( 1992,
p. 123). A focus on discourse appears at various moments in her essay,
perhaps most explicitly as she recounts the conflictive historical relationship between bourgeois publics and other publics. She notes that
“virtually from the beginning, counterpublics contested the exclusionary norms of the bourgeois public, elaborating alternative styles of POlitical behavior and alternative norms of public speech” (1992, P. 116).
This focus on discourse persists as Fraser elucidates the emancipatory
potential and the widespread benefits counterpublics offer the public
sphere generally. Namely, they may assist in expanding discursive space
for all participants in the public sphere. When they respond to the exclusions of dominant publics, counterpublics may contribute to discursive
expansion because “in principle, assumptions that were previously exempt
from contestation will now have to be publicly argued out” (1992, p. 124).
Another reading may be gleaned from Fraser’s (1992)work, however,
a reading that locates the counter of counterpublics in the subordinated
status of participants. In this reading, dominant groups battle subordinate groups in opposing publics and counterpublics. This reading emerges
as Fraser asks, “What institutional arrangements will best help narrow
the gap in participatory parity between dominant and subordinate
groups?” (p. 122). Here, the impression arises that counterpublics may
be institutionally secured measures for the greater participation of subordinated groups. This impression sharpens as Fraser holds that the deliberative processes of unequal societies tend to “operate to the advan-
tage of dominant groups and to the disadvantage of subordinates” (pp.
122-123). Counterpublics appear in these societies as a needed remedy.
Were deliberation in unequal societies to proceed in a singular public
sphere, “members of subordinated groups would have no arenas for
deliberation among themselves about their needs, objectives, and strategies. They would have no venues in which to undertake communicative
processes that were not, as it were, under the supervision of dominant
groups” (p. 123).Under these circumstances, subordinate groups would
be “less able than otherwise to articulate and defend their interests in
the comprehensive public sphere” (p. 123). In this second reading, the
alternative quality of counterpublics emerges crucially from their population by members of subordinated groups.
Critiques of identity politics undermine efforts to identify any particular group as a counterpublic, insofar as the identification necessarily
arises from the common identity of the participants. Though she wishes
to employ difference as a resource for public discourse, Iris Young (1997)
argues that identity-based conceptions founder against the dilemmas of
difference. She maintains that these conceptions of group difference invoke an essentialism that coagulates fluid social relations by constructing rigid inside-outside distinctions among groups. Such conceptions
imply that all members of a group have the same interests and agree on
strategies to promote their interests. Further, Young asserts that identity-based conceptions of group difference deny differentiation within
and across groups. She explains that “everyone relates to a plurality of
social groups; every social group has other social groups cutting across
it” (1997, p. 388). This does not mean that identity is irrelevant to
counterpublics. To be sure, social inequality is pervasive and adversely
affects the lives of citizens simply because others perceive them as belonging to a particular group. Such belonging, however, which oftentimes
cannot be disavowed, is by itself an insufficient and sometimes unnecessary marker of counterpublic status. A reductive reading fixed on group
identity compounds this problem by foreclosing emancipatory possibilities: It reifies an often-imposed group identity and denies diverse coalition building as a source of counterpublic participation. These potential
consequences recommend a reading of counterpublics that emphasizes
discursive engagement within and across publics.
A second possible path of reduction consists in viewing particular
places as necessarily counter. Possible reductionism, however, does not
diminish the value of studying the varied forums in which the public
sphere manifests. Inquiry into these forums offers to further studies in
the public sphere in two important ways. First, these investigations may
illuminate changing historical conditions that invite the expression of
alternative perspectives. Second, such attention may bring into sharp
“Counter” in Counterpublics
relief the unstated rules that operate in a particular, wider forum at a
particular historical moment to disadvantage some potential participants.
Yet seeking the counter of counterpublics in particular places risks fixing them as productive of only one kind of discourse. Though some
forums may be more receptive more often than others to the expression
of alternative perspectives, any forum at a particular moment may host
a variety of discourses. Moreover, viewing particular fora as necessarily
counter discounts the possibility that discursive engagement may disrupt operative norms and engender counterdiscourses in ostensibly wider
public spheres. My example of this second possible reduction concerns a
specific case of critical valorization. In this instance, critical appreciation of a cultural artifact-the television talk show-extends beyond an
appreciation of the artifact in its historical context to assert the claim
that the site of the television talk show (indeed, the television studio
itself) necessarily produces counterdiscourse.
Lauding a new cultural formation, Paolo Carpignano, Robin Anderson, Stanley Aronowitz, and William DiFazio (1993)view the television
talk show as a site of critical oppositional discourse. Carpignano et al.
argue against a view that attributes a decline in politics to its descent
into spectacle. They insist that spectacle has always informed politics,
but that political elites have maintained their prominence by enforcing a
structural separation between themselves as message sources and the
public as docile audience members. Carpignano et al. welcome what
they regard as a crisis in the spectacle form itself that undermines the
separation between performance and audience and calls into question
“the very structure of the separation between production and consumption of cultural products” (p. 96).
Outlining a typology of publics on television, Carpignano et al. (1993)
discern empowerment in the public of the television talk show. In this
role, the public casts off its status as passive witness and gains full recognition as protagonist. The talk show enacts a public rite of hospitality
that links participants together through conversation. It invites audience members to participate in a communal event. The television frame
of the talk show presents a spatial orientation not confined to the visual
space of the camera but occupied by the physical space of the show.
Editing strives to reveal rather than narrate the place of the television
studio. Developments in the talk show format have augmented the shared
presence of the genre by situating the public “literally on center stage.”
Though the audience-as-public does not appear in a “starring role,” the
“show is constructed around the audience” (p. 111). The studio audience participates in writing the show’s script.
The talk show produces a new kind of common sense as a product of
an electronically defined common place that serves as a public. The talk
show format eschews the structure of formal debate. It offers “not a
balance of viewpoints but a serial association of testimonials”
(Carpignano et al., 1993, p. 115).The electronic space of the television
talk show enables
the empowerment of a n alternative discursive practice. These discourses d o not have to
conform to the dictates of civility or the general interest. They can be expressed for what
they are: particular, regional, one-sided, and for that reason politically alive. (p. 116)
Carpignano et al. hold that the commotion created by the talk show
format does not indicate a trivializing of intellectual discourse. They
retort that “what is expressed is not a refusal of knowledge but of expertise” (p. 117).The common sense of the television talk show rejects the
authority of the expert and replaces this authority with the narratives of
Carpignano et al.’s (1993)celebration of the television talk show as a
site for alternative discourse practice neglects the ambiguities of any discourse venue. Common sense, which they contrast with elite knowledge, is an important practical knowledge that may spur ameliorative
social action, but common sense also may serve as a source of racism,
xenophobia, and other prejudices. Moreover, Carpignano et al.’s
unnuanced defense of television talk shows elides discursive justification and recognition of diverse views among participants. Referencing a
show denounced by some for its Rabelaisian themes, they celebrate its
audience contributions as “simply asserted, commonsense, based on their
own experience” (p. 118). This endorsement of simple assertion situates
audience participation as deeply authentic discourse and relieves participants of any obligation to explain their views to others with regard
for others’ interests and experiences. As Lisa McLaughlin (1993)notes,
in valorizing the television talk show, Carpignano et al. ignore the ways
in which these sites recreate the unequal conditions of the bourgeois
public sphere by, for example, enacting a machismo that represents the
exclusion of women as an expression of working-class interest. She holds
that Carpignano et al.’s approach fails to account for the tendency of a
representational apparatus to inscribe dominant discourses alongside
alternative ones. In this respect, Carpignano et al. dismiss potentially
disempowering tendencies of the television talk show. They insist that
the authority structure of the talk show embodied in the host “is not
different from that of any informal group” (p. 114). Carpignano et al. engage in reductionism by valorizing the talk show format as a realization,
enacted in the place of the television studio, of the electronic medium’s
capacity for dissolving distinctions between producers and consumers.
“Counter” in Counterpublics
A third possible path of reduction lies in topics, but here too it is
important to affirm the value of studying how topics enter and circulate
within the public sphere. Focusing on the topics that counterpublics have
injected into wider public agendas reveals transformations in collective
understandings of public and private as well as of the common good.
Topics mark movement and engagement and signal the processes through
which transformations occur. Moreover, attention to topics discloses a
historical record of concerns and interests of persons on the margins.
Such attention may discbse various regimes of marginalization. Yet seeking the counter of counterpublics in particular topics commits errors
paralleling a priori distinctions of public and private (this time through
an opposition of counter and public) that have functioned historically to
exclude from public life the needs and interests of some groups. That is,
fixing a topic as necessarily counter functions to marginalize interests in
a way similar to that by which a “rhetoric of privacy” (Fraser, 1992,
p. 131) has functioned historically to exclude the interests of women
and laborers. Further, this sort of reduction ascribes a unidirectionalityfrom margin to center-to public discourse that discounts how topics
may emerge as concerns of counterpublics only after discursive engagement with wider publics. Engagement may engender the articulation of
previously unknown or unrealized interests and issues. To illustrate a
potential topical reduction, I evoke as an example the political philosophy of liberalism and attempts to accommodate diversity in a liberal
A principal concern of liberal political philosophy is the question of
legitimacy, that is, how citizens may justify to one another the installment of a political regime and the exercise of power, which entails some
coercion. The question of political legitimacy is especially acute in contemporary diverse societies, for citizens hold varied and often competing visions of the good life. A liberal model of the public sphere responds to this situation by positing a principle of neutrality: In legitimation discourses, citizens ought not to advance reasons that assert the
superiority of one particular conception of the good over another. Neutrality imposes a moral duty of civility upon citizens that obligates them
to conduct their discussions through areas of agreement (Rawls, 1993/
1996). Theorists have offered different renderings of neutrality. Bruce
Ackerman posits a “supreme pragmatic imperative” by which citizens
must be willing to engage in dialogue about their views of the good with
other citizens whose views may differ. When citizens in dialogue discover disagreements regarding dimensions of moral truth, they ought to
pursue a path of “conversational restraint.” Keeping to this path prescribes that
we should simply say nothing at all about this disagreement and put the moral ideals
that divide us off the conversational agenda of the liberal state. In restraining ourselves
in this way, we need not lose the chance to talk to one another about our deepest moral
disagreements in countless other, more private, contexts. (1989, p. 17)
Rawls approaches the principle of neutrality through the idea of public
reason. The content of public reason consists of a political conception of
justice that identifies and assigns special priority to basic rights, liberties, and opportunities. The method of public reason entails rules of
inquiry that identify principles of reason and standards of evidence in
accordance with which citizens determine if substantive principles apply
and which laws and policies may best satisfy these principles. Public
reason applies to matters of constitutional essentials and basic justice.
Legitimacy requires that on these fundamental questions citizens explain
to one another how the laws and policies they favor may be supported
by the values of public reason. Rawls (1993/1996) instructs that “in
making these justifications we are to appeal only to presently accepted
general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the
methods and conclusions of science when these are not controversial”
(p. 224). Citizens may not appeal to nonpublic reason, which precludes
appeals to comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrines, or “to
what we as individuals or members of associations see as the whole
truth” (p. 225). Though citizens hold diverse comprehensive views, they
are able to reason together through an overlapping consensus of beliefs
A major limitation of the liberal model is that it assumes a priori
distinctions of public and private, understood respectively as questions
of justice and visions of the good. Public and private are not fixed, content-specific categories that structure the public sphere prior to discourse.
Boundaries between “public” and “private” are drawn through discourse
even as previously held views of each shape the conditions of their emergence. Public deliberation, in important respects, consists of challenging
and redefining accepted notions of the common good. For counterpublics,
redefinition is especially important. Benhabib ( 1992)maintains that “all
struggles against oppression in the modern world begin by redefining
what had previously been considered ‘private,’ non-public and non-political issues as matters of public concern, as issues of justice, as sites of
power which need discursive legitimation” (p. 100; see also Cohen, 1988).
Fixing an already established ordering of public and private often advantages those in power by silencing the concerns of excluded persons
Liberalism’s defenders attempt to counter this disabling potential
consequence by admitting the overlap in public and nonpublic reason as
well as shifts in conceptions of public and private. In this admission the
indistinct figure of a possible liberal counterpublic emerges, but any such
entity seems plagued by the liberal commitment to neutrality. In the
introduction to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism, Rawls
(1993/1996) reformulates his idea of public reason to permit the
expression of reasonable comprehensive doctrines at any time “provided
that in due course public reasons, given by a reasonable political
conception, a r e presented sufficient to support whatever the
comprehensive doctrines are introduced to support” (pp. li-lii). Others
insist that public reason is not inconsistent with shifts in understandings
of public and private. Evan Charney (1998)contends that “when matters
once viewed as ‘private’ come to be seen as proper objects of legislation,
such legislation is itself generally justified in terms of public-political
values” (p. 99). Problems persist in these acknowledgments. Both
responses are silent on the question of how public values themselves
undergo transformation. Public and private still appear as discrete and
unitary categories. What is missing in each response is a recognition of
process, of discursive engagement and struggle among participants in
the public sphere. A considerably more fluid model of topical shifts has
been developed by G. Thomas Goodnight (1982,1987),who elucidates
how argumentative practices and grounds construct topics as personal,
technical, and public as well as enact shifts in understanding among
these argument spheres. In contrast to the theorists cited above,
Goodnight focuses on the communicative qualities of public spheres.
Recognition of Exclusions and Articulation of Resolve
I have outlined herein possible paths of reductionism in counterpublic
theory and criticism. In this section, I discuss how reductionism might
be avoided by focusing critical attention on the discursive norms and
practices through which participants in the public sphere articulate
recognized exclusions. My position is not that discursive norms and
practices are the only qualities of counterpublics susceptible to scholarly
inquiry. Nor do I wish to provide an ontological basis for counterpublics.
Rather, my references support the position that critical attention is most
productively focused on the discursive qualities of counterpublics when
considering how they set themselves against wider publics or, as my
illustration at the end of this section demonstrates, the state.
Proceeding not from exclusion but the recognition of exclusion situates counter as a constructed relationship. Foregrounding its construction offers some critical resistance against explicitly fixing or implicitly
relying on particular persons, places, or topics as necessary markers of
counter status. Framing relations this way evokes an early exploration
of the public, John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems, first published
in 1927. Dewey did not discern the public as a pregiven object grounded
in the aggregated physical bodies of citizens. Rather, Dewey regarded
the public as an emergent body formed through the perception of indirect consequences of human actions and the recognition by affected persons of common interest. The public organized as a state to protect its
interests. Dewey defined the state as “the organization of the public
effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its
members” (1927A9.54, p. 33). Yet, the organization of the public as a
state established political institutions that persisted of their own momentum and prevented the re-formation of publics and their reorganization in new forms of state. For this reason, “to form itself, the public has
to break existing political forms” (p. 31). Of course, Dewey worried
that contemporary society suffered the problem of a public in eclipse.
He attributed this condition in large measure to the challenges of “the
machine age,” which “has so enormously expanded, multiplied, intensified and complicated the scope of the indirect consequences, [has] formed
such immense and consolidated unions in action, on an impersonal rather
than a community basis, that the resultant public cannot identify and
distinguish itself” (p. 126). Dewey’s worry persists in the observations
of present-day commentators who warn of the public’s decline amid
increasing social complexity. The significance of Dewey’s public for this
essay, however, is its emergent quality.
As a critical term, then, counterpublic signifies the collectives that
emerge in the recognition of various exclusions from wider publics of
potential participants, discourse topics, and speaking styles and the resolve that builds to overcome these exclusions. The advantage of a focus
on recognition appears when one compares this concept of “emergent
collectives” to the subordinate groups that appear in the second, reductionist reading of Fraser’s (1992) description of counterpublics. At first
sight, this comparison seems superfluous, for Fraser offers a retort to
reductionist readers when she identifies “subordinate social groups” as
the participants in the “parallel discursive arenas” of counterpublics (p.
123).The “social” in “subordinate social groups,” however, may be too
easily elided and its constructed character obfuscated. Moreover, “SOcial” is no guarantee of recognition, as reification may mask social relations as natural. Emergent collectives fit less comfortably in a conception based on essential group identity.
In contrast to subordinated groups, the concept of emergent collectives does not invoke essential identities or the physical bodies of participants in a counterpublic. This concept takes into account that not all
members of a subordinated group may be aware of exclusions (especially in cases of unstated rules that disadvantage participants in public
“Counter” in Counterpublics
deliberation) or committed to overcoming exclusions. Some ostensible
members of a subordinated group may have attained positions of privilege in relation to their cohorts. Other people may dissociate their interests from their identity. Black conservatives, for instance, respond to
accusations of betrayal by insisting that their identity does not determine their political views. For various reasons, not all members of a
historically excluded group may affiliate with counterpublics. Additionally, emergent collectives are not necessarily composed of persons excluded from wider public spheres. This quality facilitates critical attention to coalitions built across difference. Further, emergent collectives
account for the circumstance that people may participate in multiple
and potentially conflicting publics and counterpublics. Individuals are
not always constituents of counterpublics. The associates with whom
participants form counterpublics in regard to one episode or controversy may confront them as antagonists on other issues at other moments. Felski (1989) describes the adjudication of difference as a lingering tension for counterpublic assertions of identity. For example, women’s
consciousness of membership in an oppressed group “is often attained
by a suppression of other forms of difference, an erasure felt most painfully by those whose unequal status and particular needs are suppressed
by the fiction of a unifying identity” (p. 168). The concept of emergent
collectives permits appreciation of affirmative and potentially
emancipatory formations of identity that acknowledge the dilemmas of
The articulation of exclusion informing the discourse of counterpublics
enables the thematization of functioning yet unstated norms and practices regulating discourse in wider public spheres. The discourse of these
wider public spheres may engender processes of reification: The norms
and practices that sustain such discourse may be viewed by participants
(if reflected upon at all) as natural restrictions. Habermas (196211989,
p. 56) explains that the historical bourgeois public sphere perpetuated a
fundamental conflation of bourgeois and homme: The bourgeoisie in
their role as property owners saw themselves standing in for humanity
pure and. simple. The bourgeoisie countenanced the equation of these
two identities by presupposing that social and economic conditions offered excluded others an opportunity to attain an autonomous (i.e., propertied and educated) standing. Bourgeois ideology situated the bourgeoisie
as best able to advance the interests of the “public.” This ideology supposed that “only they [property owners] had private interests-ach
own-which automatically converged into the common interest in the
preservation of civil society as a private sphere” (p. 87). Critical attention to the articulation of exclusion may reveal how counterpublics contrast bourgeois self-satisfaction by taking up exclusion and the practices
that sustain it as explicit themes of discourse or imagine themselves explicitly as alternative collectives. Counterpublics may self-reflexively set
themselves against some other, wider public. In her discussion of
counterpublics, for example, Fraser references the efforts of participants
to respond to the neglect of women’s interests in wider public spheres by
inventing such terms as “sexual harassment” and “the double shift” and
struggling to circulate this discourse among wider publics. In setting
themselves against wider publics, participants in counterpublics specify
the substance of their relations to these publics.
This process of explicitly setting oneself against another recalls scholarly work on the power of discourse to constitute its audiences (see
McGee, 1975). In an exploration of the processes through which discourse asserts an oppositional public, Maurice Charland (1987) considers the constitutive rhetoric of the peuple que‘be‘cois.For Charland, the
actions of the Que‘becois to gain independence from Canada reveal the
existence of social subjects as rhetorical effects. To assert the rhetorical
construction of a peuple and its boundaries, however, is not to deny
material consequences for those who identify with the peuple. Charland
describes “the ideological trick of such a rhetoric” as presenting “that
which is most rhetorical, the existence of a peuple, or of a subject, as
extrarhetorical” (p. 137). He employs Althusser’s notion of interpellation to explain the power of a constitutive rhetoric: “acknowledgment
of an address entails an acceptance of an imputed self-understanding
which can form the basis for an appeal” (p. 138). In the case of the
peuple que‘be‘cois,Charland examines a 1979 Quebec government white
paper that outlined a proposal for Quebec sovereignty while in economic alliance with Canada. The white paper reached back into history
to recount a narrative that identified contemporary citizens with the
original French settlers of the province as a transcendent collective subject. The white paper unfolded a narrative of historical struggle for selfdetermination repeatedly frustrated by British power and subjugation
of the peuple. However, the white paper told a story that remained unfinished: “Within the context of contemporary attempts to secure
Quebec’s independence, the White Paper offers a condensed historical
narrative of the peuple que‘be‘coisas teleogically moving towards emancipation” (1987, p. 144).
Evoking work on constitutive rhetoric as a critical backdrop, my references to exclusion as articulated through discursive practices and norms
call attention to the discursive constitution of counterpublics and, more
generally, the public sphere. In his recent work, Habermas (1992/1996,
pp. 308-314, 360-366; 1992, pp. 442-452) presents a model of a multiple public sphere as the social space generated in the communicative
action of widely diversified and relatively autonomous public spheres.
“Counter” in Counterpublics
Habermas notes that persons engaged in communicative action “encounter each other in a situation they at the same time constitute with their
cooperatively negotiated interpretations.” Interlocutors’ reciprocal attribution of individual integrity and freedom proceeds in a “linguistically constituted space.” As a fluid realm, “this space stands open, in
principle, for potential dialogue partners who are present as bystanders
o r could come on the scene a n d join those present” (p. 3 6 1 ) .
Counterpublic spheres, then, signify the social spaces generated in articulations of recognition and resolve. Habermas, however, ascribes an
enduring quality to abstracted forms of larger publics. My formulation
resists attempts to envision public and counterpublic spheres as entities
that sustain themselves beyond particular discursive engagements. Regarding a counterpublic as continually active beyond the discursive engagement of its participants risks reducing the concept to these
nondiscursive activities. As a dispersed ephemeral phenomenon, the public
sphere manifests in moments of social dialogue and discursive engagement among and across constructed boundaries of social, cultural, and
political affiliation. Though particular political arrangements may be
more hospitable to the emergence of publics and counterpublics than
others (see Schudson, 1994), the public sphere cannot be institutionally
secured in any particular governmental chamber or public medium. The
multiplicity of the public sphere frustrates efforts to provide it a
nondiscursive substance or to locate it in particular institutions. Along
these lines, Benhabib (1992) holds that “there may be as many publics
as there are controversial debates about the validity of norms” (p. 10.5).
The movement toward multiplicity in models of the public sphere recognizes simultaneity, permeability, overlap, diverse affiliation, partiality,
and contestation among publics and between publics and counterpublics.
Manifest in engagement with wider publics, the resolve of counterpublics to overcome exclusion emphasizes their dialectical movement in
the public sphere. Both Fraser and Felski highlight the dual functioning
of counterpu blics in their formulations. Engagement of counterpublic
discourse with larger audiences constitutes counterpublicity-an activity akin to “going public.” Resolve to overcome exclusions does not
indicate a teleology toward recovery of a single, overarching public sphere.
The structural inequalities that impact public discourse are far from
having been overcome, and the absence of formal exclusions in wider
public spheres does not necessarily eradicate varying advantage. Even if
one could imagine a genuinely egalitarian society, recognition of sociocultural diversity calls for multiplicity. As Fraser (1992) observes, restricting deliberation in an egalitarian but diverse society to a single,
encompassing sphere “would be tantamount to filtering diverse rhetorical and stylistic norms through a single, overarching lens” (p. 126).
Moreover, discursive contestation undermines teleological aspirations.
Counterpublic gains are not permanent. Their successes may be partial
and subsequently undone. Just as counterpublics seek wider circulation
of discourse, so t o o may wider publics attem pt t o contain
counterdiscourses. Fraser invokes this possibility in her caution that
counterpublics are not enclaves but they may be enclaved involuntarily.
Emergent publics cannot articulate all possible perspectives in public
debates without asserting a dubious discursive totality that presumes
knowledge of the needs and interests of others prior to discursive engagement. Exclusion thus appears as a recurrent feature of public discourse, in that new formations of publics engender new exclusions.
A brief illustration completes my explication of a discursive orientation for investigating how counterpublics set themselves against wider
publics. My example is drawn from the consistently contentious realm
of U.S. welfare policy debate. Specifically, I reference testimony given to
the Senate Finance Committee regarding provisions of the 1988 Family
Support Act. The Act codified a mid-1980s welfare reform consensus
that mandated work requirements for some adult Aid to Families with
Dependent Children ( AFDC) recipients while offering support services
such as job training, day care, and transitional medical care to these
recipients. I consider the testimony of Margaret Prescod, who, accompanied by a few members of her organization, represented Black Women
for Wages for Housework. Prescod’s name did not appear on the scheduled witness list, but she announced her presence after the statements of
a group of witnesses:
Senator Moynihan, I would like to, if possible, register a protest on behalf of women all
across the country. We feel that this is legislation that will affect women, for the most
part, and women who are housewives, women who are on welfare. And women have
not had adequate time to testify. (Welfare, 1987, p. 44)
Noting her objection, Moynihan, the Finance Committee chair, permitted Prescod to speak after the scheduled witnesses had completed their
testimony. Her intervention is especially instructive, given the claims of
this essay, for her testimony and the counterpublic it manifests resists
reliance on a particular person, place, or topic as a necessary marker of
counter status. Prescod, the person, explicitly complicated labels and
identities that might categorize her or the persons she represented. The
place, a congressional committee hearing room, hardly stands out as a
supportive site for counterdiscourse. The place is illustrative as well for
exemplifying an important point, but one that has not been discussed
directly in this essay: Besides wider publics, counterpublics may engage
“Counter” in Counterpublics
the state as i desired audience. The topic, welfare reform, is one with a
long history of marginalizing its subjects, especially as welfare policy
discourse has regularly impugned the character of poor persons. Yet, in
these ostensibly unfavorable conditions, one encounters the discursive
articulations about which I have written.
Having called attention to the exclusionary qualities of the hearings
in requesting to testify, Prescod explained at the beginning of her testimony that the members of her organization represent an alternative perspective-a counterdiscourse-to the testimony heard by the Finance
Committee so far. She instructed the committee that “we are a different
kind of expert than you have heard from so far. We are expert in caring
for people, in keeping our communities going through volunteer work’’
(Welfare, 1987, p. 64). She characterized the emphasis on paid employment as deceptive, for this requirement identified mothers as nonworkers:
It is said again and again that women should be working, that we must earn our way. We
don’t hear as much being discussed that women are already working, that homemaking
and child rearing is a full-time job, that those of us in waged jobs are doing the double
shift, and that workfare would in fact be a second job for welfare mothers. (p. 6 5 )
Prescod challenged the diagnosis of dependency in poor persons that
informed the hearings. Welfare dependency did not name a disabling
physical or mental condition, but a social hierarchy that positioned some
recipients of government benefits as independent (e.g., retirees) and others as dependent. Prescod contended that “our unwaged work helps keep
this country going. We are not dependent on the state; the state is dependent on us, as a matter of fact” (p. 65). She explained women’s entry
into the paid labor force as a matter of necessity and desire: necessity to
recover family incomes lost as earning power has declined, and desire to
attain the dignity society has reserved for paid workers. She concluded
her testimony by exhorting policy makers to recognize in their reforms
the contributions women make to society outside the market economy.
This brief recounting demonstrates the usefulness of a critical focus
on articulations of recognition and resolve by counterpublic participants.
Prescod engages welfare policy makers in this manner quite explicitly.
She bases her appeal for a hearing on the exclusive composition of the
committee’s witness list. She describes her perspective as contrary to the
expertise offered by the officially prescribed witnesses, and she attempts
to undermine key values and hierarchies, which in this instance operate
as discourse norms and practices, guiding the hearings and welfare reform debates generally. Prescod’s intervention embodies the hope of
counterpublic participants that power may be reconfigured.
In the movement toward multiplicity in public sphere studies, scholars
have conceptualized counterpublics in order to disclose relations of power
that obliquely inform public discourse and to reveal potentially
emancipatory practice that participants nevertheless undertake, hopeful
that they may reconfigure power by reformulating discourse. To further
this project, I have sought the “counter” in counterpublics. My aim has
been to forestall potential reductionism in future scholarship by explaining
how it might proceed through fixing or relying on particular persons,
places, or topics as necessary markers of counter status. In the process, I
have demonstrated how reductions may occur in reading, criticism, and
theory. I also have sought to orient scholarship to the communicative
qualities of counterpublics, to the articulation of alternative standing in
setting oneself and one’s associates against another. Proceeding in this
manner draws critical attention to emergent collectives constituted neither necessarily nor exclusively by actually or potentially excluded individuals, but formed by participants who recognize exclusions in wider
public spheres and resolve to join together to overcome these exclusions.
If this essay offers reasons for approaching counterpublics as discursive entities, then an appropriate concluding point may be to situate my
discussion of the articulation of recognition and resolve within ongoing
debates in the field of communication regarding the status of the public
sphere. To be sure, interest in the public sphere from scholars in a range
of fields has grown recently, arising in significant measure from the 1989
English publication of Habermas’s Structural Transformation. As
Goodnight and Hingstman ( 1997) explain, this interdisciplinary interest has developed into an important line of inquiry. Debates in communication have been lively and, at times, fiery. These qualities were displayed recently in the publication of and responses to an article by Kendall
Phillips (1996) purporting to discern a universal and debilitating reliance on consensus in public sphere theory. Yet, if a contribution of
Phillips’s essay is to remind scholars of the value of dissent, then Phillips
errs in setting dissent against a singular, consensual public sphere. As G.
Thomas Goodnight, whom Phillips regards as a prominent protagonist
in a consensual public sphere, notes, “gestures of consent and dissent
are contingent inventions spun from human conditions of uncertainty.
Differences that make a difference sometimes emerge from rhetorical
engagements because, and in spite of, attributed C O ~ S ~ ~ S U(1997,
270). Goodnight’s response is included here not to inaugurate a new line
of inquiry in the concluding paragraph of this essay, but to underscore
my cautions against fixing relationships among publics and spheres.
Consent versus dissent, public versus counter-fixing these terms as binary oppositions restricts theory and criticism. The movement toward
“Counter” in Counterpublics
multiplicity in public sphere theory belies such binaries. Theorists and
critics would do well to seek out relations among publics, counterpublics,
and spheres as advocates in the “actually existing” public sphere construct these relationships through discursive engagement.
Robert Asen is an assistant professor in the Communication Arts Department at the University of
The possibiliry of conceptual reductionism constitutes one horn of a dilemma confronting theorists seeking the counter in counterpublics: Drawing scholarly attention to qualities of counterpublic
discourse risks reducing such discourse to these qualities, yet advancing a conceptual definition
that highlights no qualities in particular risks conflating counterpublics with other publics in a
multiple public sphere. This essay highlights participants’ recognition and articulation of exclusion
from wider public spheres in order both t o retain the critical purchase of existing work in
counterpublic theory and to appreciate the multiform emergence of publics that set themselves
Felski employs the term “feminism,” which Fraser cites similarly, to signify both a collection of
ideas and beliefs and a coordinated movement to enact social change. References to the latter
broach the question of the relationship between counterpublics and social movements. Though this
line of inquiry is important, it is beyond the scope of this essay. For an engaging exploration of this
relationship, see Palczewski (in press).
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