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  • Author or Editor: Hans-Jörg Trenz x
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From Dystopia Back to Utopia

From fake news to infringement of privacy in digital spheres, the changing landscapes of media and public communication have completely transformed contemporary democracies in recent decades.

Disruptions of media functioning can be seen as evidence for a transition from democracy to post-democracy, but how plausible is this scenario? Using empirical evidence, the author asks how imminent the threat of the end of democracy is, and how it can be restored.

Exploring the creative and destructive ways individuals and groups make use of new digital and social media in democratic societies across the world, the book presents a much-needed critical theory of the public sphere as we enter the new digital age.

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This chapter delivers an empirical account of ongoing public sphere transformations. I will recapitulate the stock of knowledge about media and public sphere disruptions and their devastating effects on democracy. Within critical media studies, analytical knowledge about media malfunctioning and failures is, however, concurrently taken up by various social carriers and translated into forms of public critique and political mobilization. I distinguish between the critique of instrumental and functional performance and the normative critique of media. Both have developed in parallel, establishing rituals of media critique that are internal to the discipline of media studies (in the tradition of what is called critical media studies), transdisciplinary (in the tradition of cultural studies, as well as approaches of political economy), or external, as a universal template for the critique of media content and performance that is applied by public intellectuals and political actors as well as by audience members.

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This chapter turns to contemporary public sphere struggles as resilience and resistance to democratic backlash. I will identify the critical voice of citizens and progressive movements by looking at manifestations of public sphere resistance and resilience in the context of digitalization and globalization: first, the rebalancing of private–public relationships; secondly, the populist backlash and the struggle over political representation; and thirdly, the COVID-19 pandemic public sphere. Selected examples of public sphere resilience refer to: (1) the rebalancing of the public–private relationship with regard to the power of digital industries and the emergence of what is called ‘surveillance capitalism’; (2) the populist and anti-populist backlash, and the struggle over political representation as exemplified in the 48 per cent anti-Brexit mobilization in the UK, the ‘Popolo delle Sardine’ mobilization in Italy, the Yellow Vest Movement in France, and the #FridaysforFuture international mobilization of the younger generations; and (3) resilience and resistance during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown of the public sphere. This detracts attention from considering the new media as an arena of claims and strategic political mobilization to the digital public sphere as the principal arena for the contestation of democratic legitimacy.

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This chapter turns to the dynamics of public sphere criticism as a field of political struggle in the digital age. The tense relationship between dystopian and utopian elements as a driving force of public sphere conflicts is traced along three lines: (1) the post-truth challenge in the truth orientation and rationality of public debate, (2) the privacy challenge in the balancing of private and public use of digital media content and platforms and (3) the populism challenge in the contested modes of empowerment of the will of the people. By raising this research agenda of the social and political fields of public sphere criticism, I depart from the narrow confines of media research and its emphasis on media effects to explore the full potential of public sphere research as a theoretical foundation of digital society and its rapid transformation. Instead of focusing on media audiences simply as receptacles of media content, I reintroduce the notion of the public, which is distinguished by critical reflection, and, as such, is norm-guided and reunited to a utopian vision of society and democracy.

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This chapter traces the ideational dimensions of the public sphere. To validate the evolving form of public sphere criticism, and to find evidence for how it relates back to the utopia of a possible new beginning, I will systematically approach the notion of the modern public sphere and trace its transformation. This requires us, first, to engage with the key texts of Jürgen Habermas and to reconstruct the legacy of the European Enlightenment that formulated the linkage between publicity and reasoning. Secondly, I will identify the core normative dimensions of the public sphere and their interlinkage with democracy. Thirdly, I discuss degrees of erosion of democratic norms and public sphere principles. I investigate these accounts of democratic decay not as an empirical diagnosis but as a form of normative critique. As such, I am interested in what facilitates critique, who promotes it and what the cognitive prerequisites are for expressing critique in the form of specific knowledge about empirical facts and causalities. I call this a sociology of knowledge of public sphere critique.

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The last chapter critically reassesses and ultimately rejects the notion of post-democracy. Mirrored through the critical eye of the public sphere, the world after disruption most likely takes shape as one of renewed democratic forms and practices. When facing the challenges of digitalization and transnationalization, the democratic public sphere will undergo profound transformations, but it will still be populated by critical citizens and progressive social movements. The notion of public sphere resilience is introduced precisely for this purpose, to refer to the everyday practices of critical citizens who might not heroically fight for the reclamation of democracy but will still work tirelessly towards reclaiming their rights, call for trustworthy information and seek alliances to challenge the power of states and industries.

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Several books have appeared since the early 2000 forecasting the erosion of liberal democracy in connection with what is identified as deep disruptions of media and communications. Much collected evidence suggests that the best days of democracy are over, and that democracy might soon come to an end. But what binds democracy and the media so closely together? Why is the destiny of democracy so intimately related to the health of public communication and the media? This chapter proposes a research framework that locates spaces of democracy within the ongoing ‘structural transformation of the public sphere’ in the digital age. According to this account, public sphere transformations are driven by internal critical forces of disruptions and renewal. With its emphasis on the linkage between the identification of public sphere disruptions in the digital age and critical forces of public sphere renewal, the chapter contributes to our understanding of digital society as a space for the contestation of democracy.

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