New Working Paper: After the post-public sphere

CREATe presents the ninth entry into our series of working papers released in 2020: “After the post-public sphere” by Prof. Philip Schlesinger (Professor in Cultural Theory, Centre for Cultural Policy Research and Deputy Director of CREATe, University of Glasgow).


Sometimes, the purport of what you’re writing becomes increasingly clear in the process of composition, writes Philip Schlesinger. That has been the case for this Working Paper. I began by revisiting the public sphere, a topic I had set aside for well over a decade. In the present paper, I argue that in capitalist democracies we find ourselves in a transitional phase of indeterminate duration, in an increasingly significant break with earlier conceptions of the public sphere. The best way of describing the present state of affairs, therefore, is as an unstable ‘post-public sphere’. To name something ‘post’-this or -that often reflects our perplexity rather than offering a good analytical solution to a problem. Although we know a given social formation has largely disintegrated, we don’t yet know what the future will bring, although there may well be intimations.

My earlier interest was connected to the possibility of supranational communicative space for deliberation in the European Union, a topic at one time extensively debated and, for some naively invested with excessive ambition. When, in a comity of the states, the supranational level makes demands for its own distinctive legitimacy, reactions at the national level are likely to be engendered, and in that case questions about national identity and state sovereignty are unavoidable. These tensions were reflected in the book on the European Union and the public sphere that John Erik Fossum and I published in 2007 (Fossum J E and Schlesinger P, The European Union and the Public Sphere. A Communicative Space in the Making?, Routledge 2007). Subsequently, contradictions identified there really have taken centre stage. The debate about the public sphere is now quite different, shaped by sharper geopolitical tensions, profound and long-running economic crisis (extended by the Covid-19 pandemic), increasingly unbridled xenophobia, the intensifying affordances of communications technologies and, a particular challenge, the deliberate legitimation and fostering of irrationalism by political leaderships in many democracies. This takes us directly to discussion of the post-public sphere – as a way of designating the present transitional phase in the recomposition of communicative space. The outcome remains unclear and there are many factors in play. Where we are now is best described as in an unstable ‘post-public sphere’.

The debate about the public sphere has rested on assumptions derived from the enlightenment, where the conduct of politics is, in the end, conceived as an endeavour supported by rational deliberation. This looks particularly fanciful at present, indeed it has always been fanciful, but it remains normatively crucial. I have aimed to provide an entry-point to a number of current debates that provide a framework for present-day understanding of the state of play: the revived categorisation of globally competing media systems, which is highly pertinent to the new cold wars under way; the definitive shift from mass media to the digital age and its institutional consequences; the pertinence of populism (that questionable category) for the present crisis of capitalist democracy; the need for a sense of historical development in grasping the mutations of the public sphere; and finally, how the regulation of internet platforms has assumed growing relevance. This last theme connects directly to our work under way, here at CREATe: Platform Regulation Project resource page.

As with the public sphere, the legitimation for rule-based regimes appeals to an ideal. Public regulation involves – in principle – the setting up of a system able to identify infractions to the rules, with the capacity to impose sanctions in the public interest. As with all institutional systems, we can readily spot the gaps between the ideal and the real, and when we talk about regulation within state systems, we must acknowledge that regulatory fields are always structured in power. This means that systems of regulation invariably reflect the forces in play, and they are driven by how contending interests continually strive to shape the process of framing that defines the very rules of the game. The present crisis has pitched the regulation of communications into the front line, and increasingly, the debate is about the regulation of platforms. How this next plays out, I think, will be central to the development of the post-public sphere.


The full paper can be downloaded here.

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