Sex, Lies, and the Public Sphere: Some Reflections on the Confirmation of Clarence Thomas

Critical Inquiry 18 (3):595-612 (1992)

Nancy Fraser
The New School
The recent struggle over the confirmation of Clarence Thomas and the credibility of Anita Hill raises in a dramatic and pointed way many of the issues at stake in theorizing the public sphere in contemporary society. At one level, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Hill’s claim that Thomas sexually harassed her constituted an exercise in democratic publicity as it has been understood in the classical liberal theory of the public sphere. The hearings opened to public scrutiny a function of government, namely, the nomination and confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. They thus subjected a decision of state officials to the force of public opinion. Through the hearings, in fact, public opinion was constituted and brought to bear directly on the decision itself, affecting the process by which the decision was made as well as its substantive outcome. As a result, state officials were held accountable to the public by means of a discursive process of opinion and will formation.Yet that classical liberal view of the public sphere does not tell the whole story of these events.1 If were examine the Thomas confirmation struggle more closely, we see that the very meaning and boundaries of the concept of publicity was at stake. The way the struggle unfolded, moreover, depended at every point on who had the power to successfully and authoritatively define where the line between the public and the private would be drawn. It depended as well on who had the power to police and defend that boundary. 1. See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger. Nancy Fraser is associate professor of philosophy and faculty fellow of the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern University, where she also teaches in the women’s studies program. She is the author of Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. She is currently working on Keywords of the Welfare State, a jointly authored book with Linda Gordon.
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DOI 10.1086/448646
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