The Public Sphere, Mass Media, Fashion and the Identity of the Individual

It should have become clear by now that the following discussion will be theoretical in perspective. Historical studies, like any other form of science, cannot be conducted without a theoretical framework. Sometimes, we are unaware of the distinctions we draw before we search for material, select and interpret it; some even think that we should just let the sources speak for themselves. Nevertheless, no material can speak for itself: it can only answer to questions we ask. And these questions we ask are dependent on our present preconceptions of bygone societies and their historical development; as every hermeneutic endeavour, historical studies begins with a Vorurteil (prejudice). Many studies of the eighteenth-century public sphere have started out from those conceptions outlined by Habermas; as mentioned above, most of these studies found fault in Habermas's description of the eighteenth century and revealed his preconception as a prejudice. However, by exposing Habermas's approach as ideological, it seemed easy to claim a common-sense, bias-free position for oneself. I do not think such a position is possible: the hermeneutic Vorurteil can never be overcome entirely; it can only be adequately reflected and adjusted. Rather than claiming to work without all preconceptions, one should, I think, try to explicate one's theoretical framework as precisely as possible. If there really are too many findings that cannot be integrated into Habermas's model, one should look for a new model that might be better suited to give meaning to new historical evidence. It is such a new theoretical framework that I want to propose here. In order to do so, a meticulously detailed examination of Habermas's framework is necessary to find out which theoretical decisions led to the shortcomings of his approach. Following this re-examination, I will try to construct a new framework that avoids Habermas's shortcomings. Of course, this new theoretical framework will only be as good as the extent to which it is able to integrate historical evidence and extricate meaningful answers from these sources. Unfortunately, however, there is not enough space here to put the new framework to the test - that will have to be done elsewhere.


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