Garnham and Habermas

Joseph Reagle Jr. <


Nicholas Garnham provides an extraordinarily complete survey of media theory and while he characterizes his own work as a polemic, his actual arguments are nuanced adjustments among the many “on the one hand . . . and then on the other” discussions within his exposition, including that of Jürgen Habermas. While Garnham relies heavily upon his work, he challenges Habermas on subtle points that tend to differ according to the hues of their respective philosophical traditions. Yet I do not mean to portray these points of disagreement as peripheral with respect to Garnham's thesis, since they are exemplars of his argument; instead, simply, they do not seem scandalous with respect to the over-all utility of Habermas' theories. In the following text I attempt to elicit differences in Garnham and Habermas by examining Garnham's critiques of Habermas, as well as considering topics upon which both of our readings touched.

What then is this philosophical difference between the two authors? Habermas is of the “second generation” of the Frankfurt School within the Marxist tradition. And while following the second generation is a substantive qualification upon the Frankfurt School, which itself was an important “neo” turn within Marxism, Garnham's conception of society is influenced by Darwin, Kant, and Durkheim. Garnham's basis for understanding human society is to take “the findings of evolutionary biology extremely seriously” (Garnham 2000 22): human societies develop via the evolutionary development of ever more complex systems of social coordination, including the development of symbolic communication.

How does such a difference come to show itself with respect to Habermas? Garnham presents two specific criticisms against Habermas. The first is found in the opening pages of the book and pertains to the natural state of the human with respect to society:

The problem with this [Habermas] perspective in my estimation is that it is built upon an ahistorical theory of alienation which in its turn it based upon and a historical theory of human essence which is in some way lost either, depending upon a theory, and the process of labour or in the process of linguistically based communication or through repression within the unconsciousness. (Garnham 2000 35)

Garnham's concern is that we are social creatures, this is our essence. Marx day-dreamed of solitary pursuits, “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner,” and developed a critical theory of modern social organization that left productive social interactions under-specified – placed on the distant horizon of the communist utopia. While Garnham says nothing of capitalism specifically, he cautions that the general form of modern social organization is not necessarily bad: it is of inter-related gains and losses, it includes the necessary condition for greater ranges of social possibilities and difference, and while it might be associated with higher levels of “social discipline” there is also a higher level of individuality and reflexivity. Modern organization should not be accepted uncritically, but it should not be rejected out of hand. Instead, Garnham encourages us to push onward with the Enlightenment Project. Consequently,

... the problem with Habermas' theory of communicative action and the historical account of the development and the re-feudilization of the public sphere on which it rests, is that, in spite of this attempt to escape from the problematic of alienation and ratification of the a theory of communicative rationality and the life world, the language of colonization and a distorted communication so reproduces the original way of setting up the problem. (Garnham 2000 36)

Habermas coined the term “re-feudilization” to describe a return (via contemporary political/corporate pageantry) to a time when rulers performed for the public but did not otherwise engage in public discourse. And while I do not share the same sensitivity to the term, its articulation still manages to reek of a Marxist “pre-social” essence to Garnham.

The second critique resulting from this difference over the individual/social character of man manifests itself is in the closing pages of the book. Garnham criticizes Habermas' view of conduct within the public sphere by praising Leon Mayhew's concept of “rhetorical tokens,” a tool of persuasion redeeming bonds of “kin, clan, and local community” (Garnham 2000 81, quoting Mayhew). Mayhew, and Garnham, characterize Habermas' view of solidarity within the public sphere as being based on something that is “purposively willed”, whereas their conception would find people “naturally inhering in primordial groups.” The consequent is that Habermas's social integration is, “'constructed by a community engaged in rational, unconstrained dicussion, without retoric', thus 'subsuming freedom of speech under an individualistic rather than a communal version of liberalism'”(Garnham 2000 181, quoting Mayhew).

These two critiques exhaust the direct engagement of Garnham on Habermas, what other interesting differences or similarities might the reader discern from our two texts (Garnham 2000, Habermas 1991)? Candidates of analysis include the role of mediating institutions, the role of the life world, and the role of the press.

Habermas notes contemporary institutions have descended from the feudal powers of the church, the prince, and nobility. By the end of the 18th century each of these disintegrated into public/private forms. For example, the church largely fell into the private sphere of personal faith and private community; many functions of the prince have become those of the state. While Habermas notes that Hegel, in his Philosophy of Right, assigned the corporation the important task of mediating between civil society and the powers of the state, this is not his own view. Instead, Habermas prefers that civil society interacts with the state through the operation of rational discourse in the public sphere. Yet, Habermas' public sphere is not simply a vacuum in which to speak, he provides complex models of discourse flows borrowed from Bernhard Peters, but in any case corporations can, perhaps, be a malignant presence contributing to the re-fedualization of the public sphere. Garnham does not speak directly on the role of corporations but his use of Adorno's and Horkheimer's “culture industries” indicates a possible sympathy for their view of the market as problematic; though Garnham is more concerned with the structurally determining and path dependent characteristics of the market rather than a normative critiques of aesthetics that is more characteristic of the Frankfurt School.

To Habermas, the life world is a reservoir of authentic generative power; Garnham simply does not concern himself with this topic – and to look at his chapter on the audience for any similarities as I had considered would be a mistake in that context. Fortunately, both of our texts do concern themselves with the role of the press. For Habermas, the “use” of the public sphere is offered to the press, among others, only insofar as they “make convincing contributions to the solutions of the problems that have been perceived by the public . . .” (Habermas 1991 379). A list of such contributions are cited from Michael Gurevitch and Jay Blumler and include such tasks as meaningful agenda setting, platforms for intelligible advocacy, holding officials accountable, etc. Garnham is seemingly of a like mind in his consideration of the roles of the intellectuals as members the press, which can act as a “tribune of the people holding power to account” (Garnham 2000 102). (While Garnham does not advocate the press as such, as is his subtle style, the amount of text he dedicates to the question leads me to assume he does!)

Finally, I would like to conclude with a concise declaration of the authors' differences with respect to their conceptualizations of the private and public, but I'm unable to do so. My sense after reading Granham's discussion of the different approaches to this problem, (i.e., the integrationst communitarians, the participationist communitarians and their modern and post-modern variants), is that many conversations on this question are based on differences of diction and perspective. To what name do we affix a single venue with multiple constituent spaces, or many venues spheres federated within a super-structure? In fact, these might be the same structures with different labels! Instead, in my continuing study, I will try to put those labels aside and grapple with an understanding of autonomy, commonality, shared values and symbols, and their translations across boundaries (including the personal and social), with the additional understanding that this is an over-constrained problem. While both authors speak of systems theory, in the branch with which I am familiar there is the concept of the “pareto optimal” region: a frontier of variable allocation (i.e., autonomy and identity) such that no individual could be made better off without making another individual worse off. This then, is perhaps how we should think of the emancipatory project: attempting to identify and prioritize common values via a public discourse, and then trying to avoid the “inefficient” solutions.


Garnham, Nicholas. 2000. Emancipation, The Media, And Modernity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Habermas, Juergen. 1991. "The Public Sphere." Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson (ed.) . Pp. in Rethinking Popular Culture. Berkeley, CA: UC Press.