Private and Public

Before the digital media revolution, communication articulated itself into two domains, interaction and organization. If one understands society from the perspective of the theory of communication, this distinction can be considered the foundation for the important distinction between private and public. The one-to-one communication of interaction produced a private domain in opposition to a public domain of cooperative action that was structured by hierarchical, one-to-many communication. Private and public are dependent upon each other. The one-to-one communication of interaction characterized by freedom of expression and egalitarian turn-taking in which everyone has a chance to express their opinion became the basis for economic activities in a liberal capitalistic society. In the liberal view, business takes place in a realm not directly under government control. From Luhmann’s perspective this marks the differentiation of the functional sub-system of business in distinction to the political system. From Habermas’ point of view, the realm of free and unrestricted interaction became the basis, at least in theory, for legitimating political power. It was supposed that if anyone was to take on the role of speaking to the many, then this had to arise from out of and in continuity with one-to-one communication in which everyone had a chance to speak freely. Interaction, although only possible for small groups, came in modern bourgeois society to mediate a “public sphere” in which, as Habermas has pointed out, large numbers of individuals could openly and freely discuss not only their business plans, but also criticize government policies and power. In modern democratic societies the legitimation of government power and policy, as well as hierarchy of any kind, is based upon communication in what has come to be known as the public sphere.

The continuity between one-to-one interactions and the public sphere, which of course consisted of very many people, was fragile and uncertain. The constraints on communication in large groups tended to force interaction into a dimension that was foreign to small group communication. What became of interaction when the small group turned into a large public? One possible answer is to say that it was forced out of the public dimension altogether. But if there was no room in the public sphere for intimate and private interaction, where did interaction go? What became of the social status and function of interaction? These questions arise from the contradictory and paradoxical character of the public sphere. The public sphere was a public space for private individuals. But what is left for individuals and small groups to talk about, when all important matters such as business and politics required the participation of many people and therefore could not be settled in spatially and temporally limited face-to-face interactions? These tensions led to the emergence of what has come to be known as “privacy.” Beneath the public sphere there arose a deeper form of privacy in which those matters were communicated that had no place in the public, those matters that one wished to hide from public scrutiny as well as from government sanction. There arose a specifically Western form of individuality coupled with the concept of privacy. Privacy can be considered a byproduct of the contradictions implicit in the idea of a public sphere.

The public sphere of bourgeois modernity was presumably based on interaction – “private people came together as a public” (Habermas). This required that there be private individuals who somehow existed apart from being part of the public, apart from their families, their villiage, their region, etc. The public of modern bourgeois society needed private individuals. The emergence of the public sphere was accompanied by the emergence of privacy. What does privacy mean?

Privacy was constituted as a purely personal identity and as a privileged space in opposition to social or cultural identity, not accessible to public discourse. The model of privacy was the dialogue of the soul with itself (Plato), a “back stage” (Goffman) where the social actor could take off the mask, where the rules and sanctions of social performance did not apply.  Privacy is like a secret room with all doors closed and the drapes drawn, a room no one can look into, free from the scrutiny and sanctions of others. Coupled with the idea of the autonomous, rational subject, it became that place where reason could form its own judgments on the basis of its own laws and not on the basis of the external influences of tradition, authorities, priests, and kings. Reason saved the private individual from irrational idiosyncrasy and a-social barbarism by transforming individuality into universality. The Hobbesian war of all against all was ended by the unifying power of reason and the social contract. Idiosyncratic, irrational, emotional, and even perverse or barbarous individuals were magically transformed by reason into a body politic. The Leviathan that Hobbes so eloquently described was conceived of reason. But when the Leviathan arose private individuals were transported out of interaction into hierarchical, one-to-many communication. The Leviathan wasn’t satisfied with being merely public. In opposition to both the exclusively private and a-social space of individuality and the paradoxical private/public sphere, there arose the domain of power politics. In the political domain, government, administration, the so-called public services, organizations, and institutions communication was indisputably hierarchical and took place in the mode of one-to-many.

Habermas admits that attempts to coordinate action among large numbers of people “’overburden’ the communicative resources of the population and so some form of ‘relief mechanism’ must be found.” The mechanisms that relieved one-to-one communication of the burden of the many in the public sphere took the form of mass media communication and the development of symbolic generalized media. For Luhmann symbolic generalized media are codes structuring communicative action within the different functional sub-systems of society. Political communication is selected, related, and steered by the binary code of power/non-power. The economic system is structured by the code of buying/non-buying. The legal system is structured by the binary code of legal/illegal. The educational system is structured by the code of certification/non-certification. The science system is structured by the binary code of truth/falsity. Each functional sub-system of society excludes all communications that cannot be selected, related, and steered by its unique code. These “relief mechanisms” are problematic. Neither the mass media nor symbolic generalized media such as money or power could bridge the gap between unconstrained one-to-one communication among free individuals and hierarchical one-to-many communication that inevitably took over as soon as the social group became large. Luhmann solved the problem by banning psychological systems into the environment of the social system. Individuals were simply no longer a part of society. Habermas warned that free and unrestricted communication in the public sphere is in danger and spoke of a “colonization of the life-world” by functional rationality. It seems that modern social theory offers only two solutions: the free individual somehow searching for order or the autopoietic social system that constructs individuals as functional elements for its own sake. Maybe its time we simply dropped the discussion of private and public and begin to follow the actors in their networking activities. This could lead to the discovery of a new form of the social, what Bruno Latour calls the “collective.” Perhaps those who lament the loss of privacy in the digital age are right. Privacy is gone. But the old public sphere made up of the silent majority and the masses are also gone. Instead of thinking in terms of “privacy” and a “public sphere,” why not talk about a “socio-sphere” in which there are neither private individuals hopelessly attempting to keep their secrets, nor public authorities who are also hopelessly attempting to gain some kind of legitimation from the silent majority.


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