I came here to discourse civilly and chew bubblegum…and I’m all out of gum.
John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live is memorable for many reasons; firstly, it memorializes a place in time in popular culture when an iconic wrestler could get a leading role in a horror movie. It also features one of the most oft-quoted lines in movie history. What has solidified its place as a cult classic, however, is its timeless commentary on the media as a corporate tool, limiting public discourse and encouraging civil complacency.
As much as it pains me to say it, John Carpenter will not be remembered as a poignant sociological theorist. A year later in 1989, sociologist Jurgen Harbermas would expound on similar concepts in his piece The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (the piece itself was first published in 1962, but was translated into English in the late 80’s). Habermas described the emergence of a space between private life and political powers, which he coined the Public Sphere, where individuals could come together to freely discuss and identify social problems. First emerging in the 18th century with the collapse of feudal structures, Habermas viewed the public sphere as an arena for individual opinion to evolve into public opinion, free from the influence of government entities.
In a perfect democratic society, according to Habermas, media such as newspapers would serve as a conduit through which the public opinion would proliferate; the media could allow for asynchronous discussion of public issues, and allow for more than just the wealthy and educated to engage in these debates. As it stands, however, the movement from simple media to mass media instigated the “re-feudalization of the public sphere”; participation of the masses has become commodified, and political discourse displaced by entertainment and consumerism. As media proliferates, it becomes less about communicating public opinion, and more about shaping it.
“Editorial opinions recede behind information from press agencies and reports from correspondents; critical debate disappears behind the veil of internal decisions concerning the selection and presentation of the material.”
Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
Habermas’ deductions may paint a grim picture regarding the public sphere and open discourse, others say the public sphere has moved, and perhaps grown, beyond the printed page. Sociologists such as Manuel Castells argue that the public sphere isn’t eroding, but has merely shifted to a global scale rather than a local one. For Castells, public society is not just a venn diagram between the private sphere and government entities, but a network society, in which information is processed and managed using digital technologies. In a network society, individuals are not reliant on institutions to obtain information, and can engage remotely to influence the political sphere.
Castell’s theory is corroborated by a body of work focusing on the counter-public sphere, in which marginalized communities can organize around their shared identities. Drawing on Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, counter-public spheres help form political opinion by allowing the marginalized to reframe what it means to be “hegemonic”. One example of the counter-public sphere in action can be seen in the case of Oscar Grant. Grant was shot and killed by Bay Area Transit officers in 2009, when an officer claimed that he thought he intended to fire his taser. Following the incident, videos were uploaded to Youtube, inciting public outrage and demonstrations (x). Using digital media, the witnesses were able to capture the attention of many beyond the scope of the Bay Area, turning an event witnessed by a few individuals into a public discourse.
Perhaps Habermas, and John Carpenter, are correct in lamenting the commercialization of the media. However the public sphere is not dying; it is thriving. New media has moved political opinion beyond the scope of the town pub and onto a digital stage. Digital networks allow the marginalized to create new organizational structures that go beyond the hegemony they experience on a daily basis, reframing public opinion beyond that which is portrayed in popular media. Moreso, a digital network society allows for a public opinion that can put pressure on the political sphere from beyond the walls of a town hall. And in the event that the ruling class is in fact a race of aliens bent on subduing the masses, maybe we can revisit John Carpenter’s theory.