Toward a Critique of Systematically Distorting Communication Technology

Social Philosophy Today 22:89-102 (2006)
Abstract
Since seminal essays like Adorno’s ‘The Culture Industry’ and Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ the mass media has been of central concern for Critical Theory. Yet Critical Theorists have produced relatively little in the way of systematic analysis of the concrete institutions of mass communication. Early on, Habermas seemed to be headed in this direction, especially with the publication of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. However, in Habermas’s later years, this concern is eclipsed, on the one hand by an ideal theory of communication which says relatively little about non-ideal institutions that “systematically distort” communication, and on the other hand by an increasing focus on properly “political” institutions and the formal structure of law, exemplified by his later work Between Facts and Norms. In this essay, I will show how the colonization of public space by private interests, via technological media, remains sorely under-theorized in Habermas’s work, and that this is not just a peripheral oversight but a central problem that Habermas fails to resolve. I will then give some preliminary suggestions as to how one might expand and develop the critique of systematically distorted communication in more fruitful directions by developing the idea of a politics of meaning. My argument is located within the extensive discussion generated by the relatively recent translation of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere into English, which has produced many useful and important criticisms
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