30(4) 238 –262
© American Sociological Association 2012
2467012Sociological Theory XX(X)Adut
A Theory of the
The dominant approach to the public sphere is characterized by idealism and normativism.
It overemphasizes civic-minded or civil discourse, envisions unrealistically egalitarian
and widespread participation, has difficulty dealing with consequential public events, and
neglects the spatial core of the public sphere and the effects of visibility. I propose a
semiotic theory that approaches the public sphere through general sensory access. This
approach enables a superior understanding of all public events, discursive or otherwise.
It also captures the dialectical relationship between the public sphere and politics by (1)
specifying the mechanisms through which visibility and publicity become resources or
constraints for political actors, (2) explaining the political regulation of visibility, (3) showing
the central role that struggles over the contents of public spaces play in political conflict,
and (4) analyzing the links among social structure, social norms, and political action in the
transformation of the public sphere.
public sphere, publicity, visibility, political action
“The concept of public sphere is morally admirable but analytically useless.”
The public sphere is a key concept in contemporary social science. We also observe a robust
consensus among scholars and other intellectuals that a vibrant public sphere is a sine qua
non of liberal democracy. Yet the dominant approach to the phenomenon, suffering from
idealism and normativism, neglects the spatial core of the public sphere. As an alternative,
I develop in this article a realistic and positive theory based on general sensory access.
Responding to Tilly’s brutal assessment, my objective is to theorize and operationalize the
public sphere in a way that is morally void but analytically useful. To this end, I emphasize
the spatial dimension of the public sphere, examine the semiotics of general visibility along
with the logic of publicity, and show how these impinge fatefully on all political behavior.
This approach enables a superior understanding of public spaces and events, including the
communications privileged by the dominant approach. It also captures the dialectical rela-
tionship between politics and public spaces. The public sphere can both enhance and derail
1University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA
Ari Adut, Department of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78705, USA
liberal democracy, and the article specifies the mechanisms through which publicness and
publicity become resources or constraints for political actors. At the same time, content
regulation of the public sphere is an integral, yet understudied, part of politics, and struggles
around the contents of public spaces are central to political conflict. Finally, I analyze the
causal links among social structure, social norms, and political action in the transformation
of the public sphere.
THE DOMINANT MODEL AND ITS LIMITATIONS
The debate about the public sphere has been oriented by Habermas (1997:105): “By ‘public
sphere’ we mean first of all a realm of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion
can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens. Citizens act as a
public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion.” The
Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1989) traced the history of the phenomenon
from the eighteenth-century salons to the contemporary physical or virtual spaces where citi-
zens partake in conversations regarding the common good. In such communications, the
particularities of the speakers need to be bracketed out, and there should be widespread and
informed participation. Most sociologists deploy an analogous conception: Oliver and Myers
(1999:38), for instance, call the public sphere “the abstract space in which citizens discuss
and debate public issues.” The emphasis is on discursive civicness among citizen groups in
public spaces (e.g., Eliasoph 1998; Emirbayer and Sheller 1999; Ferree et al. 2002; Koop-
mans 2004; Lichterman 1999; Somers 1993; Soysal 1997).
Habermas’s book also set off criticisms. Historical research has questioned its timing
(e.g., Zaret 1999) and class analysis (e.g., Baker 1990). Calhoun (1992) has compellingly
argued that identities, excluded by Habermas from the public sphere, are often formed in the
course of public debates. Feminists have pointed to the gendered nature of the private and
public distinction and to female forms of public action (Elshtain 1981; Pateman 1983; Ryan
1990). Against Habermas’s unitary public sphere, scholars have called attention to conten-
tious counterpublics formed by subordinate groups (e.g., Eley 1992; Farge 1992; Fraser
1992; Landes 1988; Negt and Kluge 1993; Warner 1990).
These criticisms yielded important insights about public debate in civil society. Never-
theless, Habermas and his critics all operate within the same paradigm, which is characterized
by these idealist and normative elements: (1) the condition of civicness or civility, (2) the
conflation of the public sphere with citizenship, and (3) the ideal of widespread, egalitarian
participation. Some scholars have addressed these problems. But studies that escape one
problem are usually undermined by others.
The Condition of Civicness or Civility
Barring important exceptions (e.g., Schudson 1998), the public sphere is typically seen in
this literature as contingent on the normative orientation of its occupiers. Baiocchi (2003:55),
for example, calls the public sphere “an instance of open-ended and public-spirited com-
munication.” Eliasoph (1998:16) writes that it “comes into being when people speak
public-spiritedly.” Alexander’s (2007:31) “civil sphere”—a notion that resembles the public
sphere—is also defined by a universalistic morality, as it is “a solidary sphere in which a
certain kind of universalizing community comes to be culturally defined and to some degree
But concern for the common good is difficult to establish objectively. The public-spirit-
edness that we find in the world often reflects our biases: hence the propensity of public
sphere scholars to focus on left-leaning movements and their silence on nonprogressive
240 Sociological Theory 30(4)
groups.2 And one can have sundry self-serving interests while marching in demonstrations,
participating in parent-teacher association meetings, signing petitions, or writing op-ed
pieces. Of course, from the NRA to the ACLU, those who intone in public do so using uni-
versalist nomenclature like equality or freedom, and few would write a letter to a newspaper
without a pretension to speak in the name of some general, grandiose principle. Yet high-
minded rhetoric in public is frequently found by its addressees to be ritualistic, hollow, if not
devious. It rarely goes without instigating debunking attempts. What if we say that the
public sphere emerges whenever people engage in civil debate regardless of their inten-
tions? But then we are left with very little: it is hard to find engrossing and consequential
public events or communications that do not feature disruptiveness, ad hominem attacks, or
The Conflation of the Public Sphere with Citizenship
The dominant approach identifies the public sphere as the site where citizenship is exer-
cised. Yet, while analysts privilege studying collective actors discoursing in the open, the
defining act of citizenship, voting, is an individual one, carried out in secret. Furthermore,
there is much elevated public discourse (about truth, God, art, etc.) that is irrelevant to citi-
zenship. Finally, even though public sphere studies are usually about organizations in civil
society (the social realm outside the ambit of the state), there are no differences in content
or apparent motivation that warrant treating the discourses of regular politicians separately
from those of entities such as Moveon or the Tea Party—their windy rhetoric and alpine
pretensions to be above the profane realm of institutional politics notwithstanding. There
are, moreover, strong financial, ideological, and organic links between civil society actors
and institutional politics.
The Ideal of Widespread and Egalitarian Participation
The dominant approach envisions the public of the public sphere as an engaged community
acting in a given space and not, more realistically, as an audience of what is happening in
that space. This is because it assumes the possibility of—in effect, prescribes—widespread
and egalitarian dialogical participation. Such a stringent proviso is, however, all too often
not obliged by reality, and public sphere studies frequently turn critical, if not condemna-
tory. Habermas, for instance, argues that the public sphere degenerated thanks to industrial
capitalism, mass democracy, welfare state, and sensationalistic media. Others claim that
capitalism, racism, and patriarchy make the public sphere exclusionary. But the assumption
is that absent systemic domination and exclusion, egalitarian civic dialogue in public spaces
would flourish. For some, the public sphere is the very locus of emancipatory struggles
between hegemonic and contentious publics, which are seen as groups both consisting of
Inactivity in social and political life is, however, widespread, and it is hard to chalk this
up to domination or exclusion. Participation in public affairs is sheer drudgery for many;
others often steer toward such activity only because of disappointments in their private lives,
and only temporarily so, as the public arena will never fail to eventually engender frustra-
tions of its own (Hirschman 1982). In any case, deliberation about public issues requires
knowledge, and ignorance is rampant (Neuman 1986): in 1964, at the height of the Cold
War, only 38 percent of Americans knew that the USSR was not a member of NATO (Somin
2004:4). And ignorance erodes interest; hence the low levels of civic participation in con-
temporary and nineteenth-century America (Altschuler and Blumin 2001; Putnam 2000).
Public communication rarely involves widespread, egalitarian participation. A few
professors dominate faculty meetings; others remain bystanders. Turnout was very low in
the colonial New England town meetings, where the agenda was set and discussions led by
local notables—more comfortable with and more keen on public speaking (Mansbridge
1983). Most putatively civic discourse is produced by ambitious types in front of nonpartici-
The dominant approach is therefore blind to, reluctant to acknowledge, or prone to
denounce away the inevitable, constitutive asymmetry of the public sphere between the few
who receive attention and the numerous who give it. There is such an asymmetry in all the
spaces where the dominant approach studies public-spirited discourse, such as the media or
neighborhood meetings. The asymmetry will be sharp to the extent that attention from others
is profitable—hence scarce and subject to fierce competition. And those who seek attention
are not only out to convey ideas but also to acquire fame and reputation—which are at once
gratifying to those with a penchant for public life and essential for all effective political
action, putatively civic or not.3 The more important and interesting a public event, the more
skewed the ratio of the spectators to participants will be—especially when information tech-
nology is involved. By seeing the public as an engaged community, the dominant approach
ignores not only that most people are willing spectators but also the way spectatorship
affects participation in public.4 Events are public only to the extent that they are watched by
an audience, and, as we will see, spectatorship has constitutive effects on their making.
Scandal and the Dominant Approach
Consider how, due to the aforementioned problems, the dominant approach has difficulty
making sense of the quintessential public event, scandal. Scandal is an episodic event that is
occasioned by the publicization of a real or alleged transgression to a negatively oriented
audience. Whether they are about abuse of power, heretical ideas, adultery accusations,
financial skullduggery, aesthetic novelties, organizational intrigues, or celebrity fandangos,
scandals rarely entail civic or civil debate, but rather nasty public wrangling. Those who
take part in them are at least apparently self-interested. Scandals are often unrelated to citi-
zenship. They contaminate public life with sordid stuff, discredit institutions, divide
societies, and degrade public morale. They involve a sharp discrepancy between participa-
tion and spectatorship: it is the elite who take in part in them (Adut 2008; Lang and Lang
1983; Thompson 2000).
Take one of the most outstanding and momentous public events in French history, the
Dreyfus affair. The scandal broke with the conviction of a Jewish captain, Alfred Dreyfus, in
a court-martial for espionage and metastasized when evidence suggested that the officer had
in fact been framed. The Dreyfus affair divided the elite into two camps that attacked each
other for willfully ruining France. The scandal formally ended with the pardon of Dreyfus in
1899 and his reinstatement seven years later, but its repercussions reached well into the twen-
tieth century. Vichy was, in part, the revanche of the anti-Dreyfussards. The Dreyfus affair
was an episode marked by calumny, distrust, deception, and violence (Griffiths 1991). The
J’accuse of Zola engaged in sexual libel even as it was denouncing a genuine miscarriage of
justice (Sennett 1977:239-51). The Dreyfussards and anti-Dreyfussards—both members of
the elite—were not parties in a civic or civil dialogue but factions in a ferocious fight. Most
French people were the spectators of the scandal, not its participants.
If we abide consistently with the assumptions of the dominant approach, we would have
to leave out of the public sphere not only the Dreyfus affair, but also the Watergate and
Lewinsky episodes, the revolt of the Impressionists, and the sexual abuse scandals that
recently roiled the Catholic Church—in fact, any public event that transcends sedate, seemly
discussion à la the Charlie Rose show. Or we would have to classify such events (given the
242 Sociological Theory 30(4)
moral distemper and contamination they breed, the vitriol and prurience they unleash, and
the apparent opportunism that frequently characterizes their protagonists) critically as symp-
tomatic of a degraded public sphere.
The difficulty in dealing positively with scandal as an event in the public sphere is a lia-
bility for the dominant paradigm. Scandals are engrossing. They are ubiquitous, too:
competition in politics and art is frequently conducted through scandal, by public denuncia-
tions or commissions of transgressions. In effect, much of moral conflict in public stems
from or morphs into scandal, and it is through scandal that norms are solidified and trans-
formed in politics, art, and society (Adut 2008). But most consequential public events
registering significant interest, such as scandals, do not hew to the moral and formal stric-
tures of the dominant approach.5 Finally, as I show later, scandal cannot be adequately
understood unless we understand the logic of publicity—something that the dominant
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH
The communications that the dominant approach focuses on (1) are hard to establish, (2)
constitute a tiny fraction of significant public events, (3) are a problematic way to study citi-
zenship, (4) are not qualitatively different from communications by institutional political
actors, (5) rarely involve egalitarian and widespread participation, and (6) are governed by
the dynamics of spectatorship that public sphere scholars ignore.6 There is an even bigger
problem, however. The public sphere is essentially some sort of a space for the dominant
approach: it is where certain communications happen. But this space is a black box; atten-
tion is devoted not to it, but, idealistically and normatively, to the civic or civil communications
that are supposed to be undertaken in an egalitarian fashion by a collectivity in it.
The dominant approach is not only available one. The term public sphere is often used in
everyday language as well as scholarly contexts to refer to physical or virtual spaces to which
there is general access, regardless of whether public-spirited communication happens in them
by a collectivity. Urbanists and others designate streets as part of the public sphere (e.g.,
Glazer and Lilla 1987; Jacobs 1961; Lash 1979; Sennett 1977); media scholars do the same
for television (e.g., Dahlgren 1995). When we divulge something in the open, we say that we
have made it public. According to legal scholars, when information is available for general
scrutiny, it is in the public domain. When feminists write about how women have been his-
torically enjoined from the public sphere, they mean spaces like streets and the workplace.
Hannah Arendt’s understanding of the phenomenon entails an exposed area where one is
seen and heard by unspecified others and submitted to their judgment (Arendt 1958).7 The
civic speech of the dominant approach also occurs in spaces characterized by general access:
the agora, town hall meetings, Internet, and so on. The dominant approach envisions an ideal,
often normative relationship between public spaces (areas characterized by general access)
on the one hand and public-spirited and publicly created action in those spaces on the other.
It thus adds stringent conditions to the public sphere and become critical when they do not
obtain. But there is no necessary relationship between these things. All kinds of selfish, elite
behavior occur in public spaces. And a couple can discuss world peace in bed, and unless they
are John Lennon and Yoko Ono with cameras glued on their naked bodies, it would be absurd
to talk here about a public sphere. We must dispense with the idealism and normativism of
the dominant approach while retaining the spatial core of its object.
Access is central to a realistic account of the public sphere. But those who approach the
public sphere through access mean different things by it and rarely engage in theoretical
reflection. So we should first theorize access and its modes. In doing so, we can come up
with a general model that would capture the common logic of the spaces designated as
making up the public sphere.
There are three forms of access to a public space. One can access a public space physi-
cally—for example when we enter a street in person. By contrast, representational access
involves one’s name, image, sounds, or words appearing in a public space—such as a news-
paper or unclassified governmental records. Finally, we have sensory access to a public
space when its contents are available to our senses.
Some urbanists use the physical access criterion. This is, however, unduly restrictive as it
would exclude many spaces (e.g., open archives and the media) the contents of which consist
of images and words—not people per se. There can be no physical access to these spaces, but
they are commonly denoted as public sphere not only in ordinary language but also by the
dominant approach scholars. In all these instances, we are dealing with representational access.
But we would be equally wrong by defining the public sphere with this form. First, even
though representational access implies will, those who appear in the public sphere through
their representations may not have desired to do this. Take a hitherto obscure citizen whose
foibles are being trumpeted out on national television. It would be uncontroversial to say that
the details of this person’s life have been shoved onto the public sphere. Second, even though
the public sphere implies general access, there are many public spaces that allow severely
constricted opportunities for being seen or heard—especially if they obtain a lot of publicity.
The Op-Ed page of the New York Times is such a space. Physical access is impossible. Repre-
sentational access is precious: anyone who speaks English can send an opinion piece to the
New York Times, but few will see their names printed in that hallowed forum, entry to which
is strictly controlled by finicky gatekeepers. Nevertheless, few would deny that the New York
Times Op-Ed page is public sphere. The page does admit of general access, but the access at
issue here is sensory access—by readers. Streets are both sensorily and physically accessible
to citizens, as long as they are decently attired and not too disruptive, but many public spaces—
usually those whose contents receive routine attention from multitudes—are accessible to us
only as spectators. The flip side of this logic is that the spectators need not themselves be in the
public sphere: one can watch television, look out of the window, or search governmental
records through the Internet in the privacy of one’s house.
The public sphere is thus a generic term denoting all virtual or real spaces, the contents
of which obtain general visibility or audibility. These spaces are public spaces—space
meaning any container of signs that can be sensorily accessed with or without mediation. It
is general sensory access to it that makes a space public. By general, I mean access by those
who are strangers to each other and to those who are physically or representationally in the
public space—even though there may be restrictions as to which strangers can have sensory
access to a given public space, such as age restrictions for R-rated movies or citizenship
restrictions for access to the national archives. Even spaces designed explicitly to create
public opinion can only do so to the extent that their content is generally visible—and not to
the extent that all participate in these spaces with civic intentions or civility. And since the
communications that public sphere scholars study occur in spaces characterized by general
sensory access, even if we wanted to study exclusively ostensibly civic or civil discourse,
this would require understanding the logic of visibility and audibility.
The Semiotics of General Visibility
The public sphere involves a space, but not necessarily a physical one, and it is public only
insofar as it contains signs that are generally accessible by spectators. Hence, the public
sphere is a space of signs, and its theory must be semiotic. Public spaces differ in terms of
their primary function. Some of them, such as streets, permit physical presence; while their
raison d’être is not providing semiotic phenomena, once one physically accesses them one
cannot help giving off signs. Other public spaces (for instance a museum or the Internet)
244 Sociological Theory 30(4)
mainly exist to provide signs to strangers who have sensory access to them. Another distinc-
tion is whether access depends on technology. Public spaces also vary in terms of their sign
content (visual or auditory) and those who usually have access to them.8 Regardless, all such
spaces have common semiotics shaping the relationship between their contents and those
who see or hear them.
First, the governing principle of the public sphere is that its contents are subject to spec-
tatorship.9 A spectator is someone who does not have to be involved in what he sees; even
when that happens—as when the spectator reacts with indignation to a wrongdoing—he acts
as an outsider. Such spectatorship is frowned upon in the private world, where we are
expected to be subjectively, personally involved in others. This is antithetical to the objec-
tive, distant attitude that we have a right (and are normally expected) to adopt with strangers
in the public sphere. The gaze of strangers can compel us to be civilized and altruistic; it can
equally falsify our conscience and behavior.
Second, the public sphere is the realm of appearances: in public, we are simply what we
seem to be. Since we interact repeatedly with intimates in the private sphere, we do not rely
on impressions. Contrarily, spectators’ judgment is based on appearances; internal states
matter less. The role of intentions in liability correlates negatively with the social distance
between an actor and his audience (Black 1993). The dependence on appearances stems in
part from high information costs. Moreover, the opinion of our audiences, once formed, will
fast become obdurate. We thus discipline our appearances in public spaces, where action
and speech call for formality and etiquette (Fisher 1981; Goffman 1963; Lofland 1973)
along with a continual effort to be not misunderstood.
Third, people who appear in the public sphere instantiate types or represent groups for
spectators—this synecdochic tendency being the stronger, the more social distance there is
between those who appear and those who watch. In the private sphere (as at home or in a
personal letter), per contra, we delve deep into each others’ souls. And we relate to intimates
in singular terms: they are not fungible, and it is cognitively and morally hard to reduce them
to a type (Boltanski 1990). The tendency to make generalizations stems in part from a ratio-
nal reaction to imperfect information and from availability heuristics. Profiling is rife in the
interactions and assessments among strangers. Consider the visceral inclination of frustrated
drivers caught in L.A. traffic to relate to each other in ethnic stereotypes (Katz 2001).
These semiotics have complex moral implications. Action geared toward the welfare of
strangers usually requires public spaces. Yet the public sphere is a superficial world: it
reduces singular beings to appearances and types. There is an elemental inauthenticity to it,
for publicness transforms all action into performance: insofar as it is public, all purportedly
civic-minded action or talk can seem staged (Arendt 1958:74). All virtues displayed in
public, except courage, are inherently disputable.
Another way to define the public space is to say that it is any area the contents of which can
be subject to publicity. In effect, publicity is what most makes the public sphere sociologi-
cally relevant: consequential events in public usually obtain publicity, and publicity
momentously impacts the events themselves. But we should not confuse publicity with
communication, as the dominant approach does (e.g., Emirbayer and Sheller 1999:733).
Publicity is not the serial transmission of information or something being known by a lot of
people. It is also different from publicness—simply being in a public space. By publicity, I
mean attention on a focus by a public—a collectivity consisting of strangers who realize
each other as the spectators of the same thing: for example, the members of a crowd watch-
ing an accident on the street or readers who read about a controversy in the newspaper.
Actual publicity does not always occur in a given public space. Unless they are famous,
exceptionally important, or eye-catching in some respect, the contents of a public space will
receive little or no publicity. Information in government archives is rarely widely publi-
cized, because there is so much of it and because it is not attention-grabbing enough.
Moreover, most of us abide with norms that discourage looking too conspicuous to strang-
ers, and those who notice untoward attire or comportment may exercise civil disattention.
Still, the contents of a public space can always ipso facto be subjected to publicity. In some
spaces, which are explicitly designed with publicity in mind, such as television or Congress,
things appear as a matter of course to an already constituted audience. And the more public-
ity a public space is expected to receive, the more central that space within the general
public sphere will be. An event, by prompting collective attention, can construct a public,
too: an accident will transform pedestrians into a public, however fugacious and contextual.
In contrast with spaces with an ongoing audience, publicity in some areas is in posse, diffi-
cult to attain due to coordination problems. Many other public spaces, such as suburban
streets or sylvan spots, are typically deserted. But even there we may still control our appear-
ances because we are timorous of publicity—always a possibility in the public sphere, this
possibility indeed being its very quiddity.
Publicity in actual spaces, such as a court, is direct; in virtual places like newspapers, it is
mediated. Publicity also varies by audience size, organization, and interest. It varies by dura-
tion. Despite all these variations, publicity has two general and interdependent elements: (1)
common knowledge—the situation where everyone knows that everyone knows that every-
one knows . . . —among spectators and (2) the asymmetry between the focus and spectators.10
Even when publicity does not reveal new facts, the common knowledge that it generates
imparts facticity and unavoidability to what each spectator privately knows, while asymme-
try can erect a sharp inequality between the focus and others. Thanks to these two elements,
publicity accentuates the semiotics of visibility—the spectatorship effects, the reduction to
appearances, and the tendency to generalize. But publicity has autogenous effects, too: it can
make and unmake groups just as it can increase or decrease social standing.
The Collective Effects of Publicity
Publicity can create groups by transforming isolated individuals into a public—a collectivity
united by a common focus. The relationship between the rise of print capitalism and nation-
alism (Anderson 1983) is probative of this. Attention on the same thing can also strengthen
commonness and solidarity in existing groups, especially through collective emotional
entrainment (Collins 2005). Publicity is thus a core ingredient of rituals. Knowing that
others are experiencing simultaneously the same emotion intensifies our own experience
when we are listening to a joke or participating in a lynching. These mechanisms are opera-
tive in mediated publicity, but they take on full force in face-to-face contexts. Mimesis and
collective effervescence among the audience will be stronger the more homogenous the
audience is, the more visible its members are to each other, the more simultaneous their
exposure to the focus is, and the more affectively powerful their attitude to the focus is.
Publicity can also enhance collective action by solving coordination problems, such as the
assurance game, a situation where a group member will only act if she knows that other
members will do the same (Sen 1967).
Yet collective action spurred by publicity is not always beneficial to the group. Consider
how, when publicized, alarming information about imminent danger would actuate a panic—
a situation where the common knowledge of the shared focus incentivizes individual actions
whose sum makes the group worse off.11 Publicity can also reveal, and increase by this
process, fears and uncertainties in a group and generate a self-defeating collective stance.
246 Sociological Theory 30(4)
Ermakoff (2008) finds such processes at work in two tragic events: the March 1933 bill that
allowed Hitler to amend the Weimar Constitution and the transfer of plenary political
authority to Marshal Pétain in July 1940. Moreover, publicity can undermine an existing
group if internal divisions are revealed unavoidably in the publicization process. For
instance, when there is some preference falsification vis-à-vis an officially upheld norm, the
publicity of its transgression can weaken the norm and the group, especially if there is no
punishment and if the act encourages open disapproval of the norm. This is why transgres-
sions committed in public are particularly troublesome for authorities. In Victorian England,
even though homosexuality laws were underenforced as long as transgressions remained
private (Greenberg 1988), the deliberate or negligent publicization of one’s homosexuality
was punished with extra ferocity (Adut 2008). If a transgression of any kind is repeated in
quick succession with significant publicity and impunity, it will end up being normalized,
especially if the audience is normatively heterogeneous.
The Status Effects of Publicity
Publicity can also significantly alter the social status of an individual by making him or her
the focus of attention and by granting him or her opportunities to perform. The parity
between a sole actor and a multitude of spectators aggrandizes: the bigger one’s audience,
the bigger one’s importance—especially when attention is positive. It is, in effect, only
through positive and widespread publicity that individuals will attain mythical, sacred
powers. But attention is enhancing in itself. Public recognition is a signal yet oddly under-
studied asset in life, no less weighty than economic, political, cultural, or social capital.12
Scholars want to be cited, presidents are preoccupied about their legacy, athletes seek fame,
and marginal groups desire media representation. And recognition feeds on itself. Boorstin’s
(1961:217) quip that a celebrity is “a person well-known for his well-knownness” does not
only apply to Paris Hilton. Any celebrity, from Einstein to Mozart to George W. Bush, will
also be known for being known, since laymen will be hard-pressed to ascertain for them-
selves whether the famous deserve the attention they get. Their being known will always
give us a reason to take note of people.
What if the attention is negative? Negative publicity can humiliate the focus—especially
those with fiduciary pretentions. Even when the evidence is scant regarding a person’s
wrongdoing, those who watch the focus can still act on the assumption that he is guilty—
especially if the watchers are visible to each other—to signal rectitude to each other. The
assumption of guilt is often less risky than the assumption of innocence. Moreover, due to
the semiotics of general visibility, which are amplified in situations of publicity, the accused
party will often represent a negatively stereotyped group—this further lowering evidentiary
standards. But while he is being damned, the focus is also getting attention. If the focus has
been an unknown entity, if the consensus regarding him is due to preference falsification, if
his act seems courageous, or if he is shameless or has the gumption to make hay of his noto-
riety, the pros of attention can trump the cons of disapproval.
In many instances, attention is neutral in the beginning, and publicity offers performance
opportunities whereby the focus can acquire honor by signaling rectitude or courage. One
signals rectitude by following a norm in public at a visibly high cost. We can equally mor-
ally upgrade ourselves by successfully attacking a higher-status person, for publicity would
allow us to signal courage to spectators. Furthermore, to the extent that our public challenge
is recognized, the attention that spectators accord us lets us effectively establish equivalence
with our opponent—in addition to leaching onto his fame. For obscure artists and marginal
political actors, simply being known—amid the multitudes of anonymous competitors—
confers great advantages. The lower the level of normative consensus in a social field, the
higher the level of competition in it and the vaguer its criteria of success are, the more being
noticed by multitudes will be arduous and essential to success, and the more likely that
actors will seek notoriety through provocative moves in public. But performance in public
is risky: publicity will degrade the focus if he acts in a way that bespeaks of cowardice or
lack of control—things that publicity will itself make more likely.
PUBLICITY AS RESOURCE AND
CONSTRAINT FOR POLITICAL ACTORS
Like most significant social practices, art, politics, and justice take effect partially in the
public sphere, with varying levels of publicity. These practices retain their proper logics.
And they are not completely public: artists paint in private, politicians cut deals behind the
arras, and prosecutors cannot leak certain information during their investigations. Yet artists
enter the public sphere when they exhibit, prosecutors when they plead in court, and politi-
cians when they appeal on the stomp to their constituencies. To that extent, their words and
deeds (both in their production and interpretation) will be overdetermined by the semiotics
of general visibility and the dynamics of publicity. The relationship between politics and the
public sphere is particularly complex: not only publicity can be an invaluable resource or a
redoubtable constraint for political actors, but the public sphere is also the object of political
action. It is in part through political action that public spaces are regulated, and it is in part
through politics that the visibility rules in society change. First, let us consider the uses and
pitfalls of publicity.
All political actors from community organizers to presidential candidates seek publicity
and exploit its collective and status effects. Publicity is obviously good to communicate
ideas. But there is more. Political actors scramble for attention, chase after fame. They try to
form groups around themselves. They strive for selfless reputations by concocting civic nar-
ratives, for courageous reputations by lacing into prominent Goliaths. Those who receive
wide, constant, and favorable publicity are turned into quasi-sacred beings, representing
ideals and groups.
Displaying courage or civic-mindedness is vital to attain power. Once one has power,
however, holding onto it requires the actor to signal that he is indeed powerful by perfor-
mances—demonstrations, royal progresses, perp walks, Roman triumphs, gay pride parades,
and so on—designed to draw maximum publicity. Such performances do not necessitate
physical presence; it suffices that power is represented in some way to the public. And these
events are not always refulgent. Consider the public executions of early modern Europe,
which, as spectacles inscribing the might of the avenging king on the body of the gibbeted
convict (Foucault 1979), underscored the brawn of the central authority against peripheral
rivals—as leviathans parceled the continent among themselves and monopolized the use of
violence within their borders (Spierenburg 1984).
The opportunistic use of publicity in effect frequently combines self-aggrandizement
with the derogation of others. One way to do this in the political arena is through scandal.
Political actors try to undermine rivals by publicizing their wrongdoings with the hope that
the event will generate widespread publicity. If the exposure seems courageous or if the
denouncee is of higher status, the scandal will also elevate the scandalmonger. One can also
cause a scandal through provocative transgressions in public, as in civil disobedience. Such
acts can yield recognition and courageous reputations. Outsiders or lower-ranking actors are
more likely to resort to this scandal type, even though the provocations of low-status people
are less likely to be noticed.
A great deal of political competition—to the extent that it involves moral attacks—adopts
the form of scandal, even when it is not explicitly named as such. And we cannot make sense
248 Sociological Theory 30(4)
of scandal independent of the semiotics of general visibility. First, actors gain or suffer in
scandals because of the way they appear. Second, apparent offenders, because of their pub-
licness, stand for groups and categories. They can be discriminated based on their
associations, or their disgrace can be extended to their groups. Political actors (from whistle-
blowers to congressmen) who resort to scandal exploit these characteristics: they publicize
legally substandard evidence, they tarnish their rivals with the guilt of their groups, and they
attack groups through their high-status members. Moreover, the logic of publicity is central
to political scandal. Reactions to offenders are governed by how the publicity affects the
meaning of their acts. Widely-known and tolerated things may pique harsh reactions once
they are made common knowledge through publicity. For example, political finance in
France during the twentieth century was mostly illegal yet accommodated. It was only when
their financial dalliances were successfully publicized in the 1990s that French politicians
suffered opprobrium (Adut 2008).
Publicity is a scarce resource. Access to its channels is unequally distributed and corre-
lated with status. The more effective a channel, the less carrying capacity it will have. At the
same time, publicity can prove a stumbling block for political actors.
First, the more political actors are getting publicity in the public sphere, the more their
activities are transparent, and the more they will be judged by their appearances—over
which they may have limited control. Because of their fiduciary pretentions, political actors
need to appear uncorrupt because their audiences lack full information or expertise to con-
firm whether they have committed an offense and because appearing to do wrong can corrupt
others. One’s appearances should not “give scandal”—defined in Thomist ethics not simply
as perpetrating a sin but as providing occasion for another’s fall (Thompson 1995:227n–
28n). Political actors may be stumped, frequently unfairly, by how their appearances are
interpreted by audiences. The size and heterogeneity of the public that they are dealing with
will call for prudence from political actors: the larger and the more diverse their public, the
harder it will be for them to stabilize the meaning of their utterances. Hence their discourse
will be vague, prosy, if not claptrap. Electronic media will further undercut political actors
by rendering it hard to segregate audiences and say different things to different groups
(Meyrowitz 1985). Thanks to innovations like YouTube, political actors cannot know for
sure whether the performance they give in a public space to a certain public will not be
reproduced in another public space, to a different public. But actually all performances are
chancy, even for grandees. One reason why European authorities discontinued public execu-
tions is that the attending rabble could turn rampageous and barrack for the convict. In
effect, public torture proffered the prisoner the possibility, if he exhibited mettle on the gal-
lows, to reclaim his honor and even to become a martyr glamorized by broadsheets (Foucault
1979:67). While the spectacle was designed to underscore royal omnipotence by debasing
the criminal, the ordeal could also make a hero of the latter (Masur 1989). Similarly, any
whistleblower or congressman who denounces an alleged evildoer in public risks a come-
down if he unwittingly reveals ill intentions or if the denouncee can retaliate with his own
Second, the publicity that a political actor enjoys, while potentially glorifying and immu-
nizing him in the short run, will also ultimately saddle him with unrealistically high
expectations from the audience. This will often eventuate in dissatisfaction and distrust. And
the less the public trusts a political actor (or his office), the more transparency will be
imposed on him, the less control he will have over his appearance, and the more he will need
to appear authentic. All political movements thus contend that they are artless, spontaneous
grassroots occurrences, and all presidential candidates play the undesigning, idealistic out-
siders against the cynical, malevolent Washington types. But authenticity is elusive.
Appearing authentic requires much effort, which, when uncovered, vitiates the appearance
itself. In any case, all political actors—whatever their professed sentiments and rhetorical
acuity—can always be suspected of showboating and harboring selfish agendas under virtu-
ous veneers. And since politics, because of its highly public nature, selects for and fosters
narcissism among its practitioners, audiences will frequently find their misgivings
The Case of American Presidents
The public sphere and especially publicity are hence inherently ridden with paradoxes for
political actors. Publicity accompanies and is essential to power, but under certain condi-
tions it can also transmute into a cause of profanation. An example is the American
presidency. Except extraordinary circumstances such as the Civil War, the presidency was a
relatively weak office until the early decades of the last century (Lowi 1985). Most gover-
nance was state governance, and the federal government was indistinguishable from
patronage politics. Presidents had little independence from the party machines. They had to
make do with a meager staff, and executive departments reported to Congress. Relative
isolationism further diminished the role of the president in the general polity. These factors
made the presidency a not very visible office: only 20 percent of the political reporting in
Washington was devoted to the presidency in the nineteenth century (Kernell 1997:70). And
presidents were not allowed to go over the heads of the Washington elite to directly appeal
to the people. When he barnstormed across the country during his impeachment trial to
glean support against his congressional detractors, Andrew Johnson was widely slated as a
demagogue (Tullis 1988:87–93).
Yet the American presidency eclipsed the political parties and Congress during the first
half of the twentieth century, especially with the New Deal and the Cold War. Economic and
administrative modernization coupled with the rising importance of foreign affairs increased
the public’s dependence on the presidency. Armed with expanded powers, the White House
became the most prominent facet of government with the incumbent emerging as the unify-
ing figure of the nation and the cynosure of public attention (Brace and Hinckely 1992). The
percentage of reporting on the presidency soared to 80 percent in the early twentieth cen-
tury. As they attained far-flung and intense publicity, presidents routinely circumvented
Washington. The presidency now thoroughly plebiscitary, the incumbents’ positive public
image—measured and publicized continuously by polls—became the wellspring of all exec-
utive action. The high level of publicity that the presidency obtained sacralized the institution
and redounded to the clout of the presidents in their dealings with the Washington elite.
Despite heightened attention, presidents could largely control the way they appeared in
public. The moral integrity of the presidency was seen as a public good, and the press was
fairly procumbent until the late 1960s. The private lives of presidents were presented in a
flattering light; journalists kept silent about the mistresses of Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt,
and Kennedy (Summers 2000). Presidential withholding of information, in the form of exec-
utive privilege, became increasingly frequent especially after the Second World War
(Schlesinger 2004). Since the Constitution does not make unambiguous stipulations regard-
ing the confidentiality of executive documents, this issue has a strongly political component
(Rozell 2002) and is closely linked to the general standing of the office of the presidency.
From June 1955 to June 1960, Congress was denied information 44 times by the executive
branch officials; the entire nineteenth century had witnessed fewer such cases than those five
years had. The presidency ascendant, braced by strong public confidence, allowed the presi-
dents to keep information from Congress. Both Truman and Eisenhower could, without any
fuss, assert privilege against the House on Un-American Activities Committee on the issue of
congressional access to executive information regarding the security files of government
250 Sociological Theory 30(4)
employees. Even when a president grew unpopular, as in the case of Truman whose approval
ratings plummeted to 20s at the end of his last term, the institution of presidency still com-
manded awe (Neustadt 1997:194–97) and retained its confidentiality prerogatives. Truman
could claim privilege in 1952 even for those executive officials considered as security risks
by his own administration (Schlesinger 2004:153–55). While presidents obtained high levels
of publicity, many of their activities remained safely outside the public sphere.
But what served presidents until the late 1960s undermined them later. High publicity
eventually led to high expectations, so presidents increasingly commenced their terms with
high approval ratings and left office with low ones (Lowi 1985). An asset in a time of high
confidence, high publicity became a liability with the burgeoning anti-authority ethos of the
1960s, which radicalized with Vietnam and Watergate. The percentage of those who reported
to be trusting government officials all or most of the time dropped from 76 percent in 1964
to 53 percent in 1972. In 1958, 24 percent of Americans believed that the government was
run by crooks; this figure rose to 32 percent in 1970, 36 percent in 1972, and 45 percent in
1974 (American National Election Studies). As a result of declining trust and increasing
suspicion of wrongdoing, more and more of the operations of the presidency were pushed
onto the public sphere. The White House was subjected to intensified surveillance and sub-
poena powers from independent counsels (Garment 1991), and Congressional oversight
activity escalated (Mayhew 2005). The Supreme Court waxed disrespectful of White
House’s privacy claims. The presidential efforts to assert executive privilege, regarded by a
leery Congress as deceitful maneuvers, failed. Some presidents felt compelled to disclose
even personal documents: Reagan voluntarily turned in his diaries during the Iran-Contra
investigation. Clinton was forced to testify about his sex life. The exigency of transparency
extended to all executive officials with the 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act and the
1978 ethics legislation.
Presidents found it increasingly difficult to master their appearances. Transparency,
resulting from distrust, led to further distrust. As confidence in their office cankered after
Vietnam and Watergate, presidents were impelled to invest in impression management
(Maltese 1992): the only job of more than 30 percent of the White House staff during the
Carter administration was dealing with the media (Grossman and Kumar 1981). Constant
polling to monitor the image of the president became part and parcel of executive gover-
nance (Edwards 1996). All this, however, not only deprives presidents of resources that
could otherwise be expended to govern. The imperative of impression management in a
miasma of distrust also renders presidents susceptible to inauthenticity accusations (Heclo
1996) and encourages them to resort to deceit, which, when uncovered, only confirms public
distrust. The more one is forced to manage one’s impressions, the less one can deliver, and
the more inauthentic and deceitful one risks looking.13 The percentage of those who had a
great deal of confidence in the White House fluctuated between low teens and mid-30s from
1972 to today, with the exception of 2002 and 2003—50 and 40 percent, respectively, thanks
to 9/11 (Harris Poll).
THE POLITICS OF THE PUBLIC SPHERE
The public sphere is not only the semiotic container of political activity. Insofar as their con-
tents are concerned, public spaces in society are also both the objects of state regulation and
stakes in political conflict—matters overlooked by the dominant approach. Political activity
thus shapes the public sphere through and through. Interest and ideology affect the behavior
of states and other political actors as they fashion the contents of public spaces. But these
actors are also constrained by visibility norms, which themselves are in part the products of
large-scale structural and cultural transformations.
The State Regulation of the Public Sphere
All governance entails censorship. The potentially disruptive effects of audibility, visibility,
and especially publicity prod states to restrict the sensory contents of public spaces such as
streets, newspapers, national archives, parliaments, strip clubs, prime time television, and
courts. Consider American laws regarding privacy, public decency, defamation, fraudulent
advertising, broadcasting, suggestive material in the workplace, crying fire in a crowded
theater, flying the Confederate flag, public advocacy of imminent lawless behavior, restric-
tion of speech in airports, or testimony. As a result, political actors cannot seek and exploit
publicity completely as they please.
Laws curtailing the contents of public spaces are often propped up by utilitarianism: cer-
tain images or words are deemed harmful to specific audiences (e.g., minors) or individuals
(e.g., defamed citizens)—this exceeding their benefits (Posner 2001). Spaces obtaining
extensive publicity (e.g., primetime television) are more regulated to protect vulnerable
audiences (e.g., children). By contrast, pornographic Web sites, being subject to audience
restrictions, suffer minimal regulation. Harm is often a product of publicity. Shouting fire in
a crowded theatre is unprotected because it is an instance where common knowledge, instead
of solving a collective action problem, engenders an acute one, a panic. Harm can even be
quantified: in libel cases, public falsehood is assigned monetary value.
But utilitarianism is inadequate in accounting for censorship. The issue is often symbolic
or emotional—as in publicly denying the Holocaust in Europe, uttering coarse words on
American radio, or sunbathing nude. The differential regulation of public spaces is also
shaped by the meanings and prestige of public spaces in society. The confederate flag cannot
be flown from public buildings but can be displayed in front of one’s home; profanity and
even informal speech are banished from high-status media. Peripheral, lower status spaces
are, however, not always laxly regulated: a parochial private college will have an easier time
restricting hate speech than a prominent state university will. Similarly, libel laws are inop-
erative in Congress. Artistic public spaces like museums enjoy high symbolic legitimacy,
and it is there where content too scabrous for lower-status spaces, like subway walls, can be
There are also properly political factors underlying the regulation of the public sphere.
Political philosophy matters. Nonliberal regimes naturally regulate more: medieval European
governments controlled urban visibility by sumptuary codes, and the Elizabethan Star
Chamber abrogated all public criticisms of state officials—the veracity of the utterances
exacerbating their criminality (Riesman 1942:735). Heresy was a crime in premodern times.
By contrast, liberal states are more latitudinarian of appearances on the streets (even though
streaking is actionable and red light districts are demarcated) and of dissident speech. Some
transparency is obligatory for legitimacy in constitutional regimes, but we also find signifi-
cant variations among liberal democracies regarding the extent to which state operations are
in the public sphere. These stem from political and legal traditions. States with deeper
bureaucratic pasts, such as France, are more opaque than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
The United States and the United Kingdom, both common law countries, treat libel dispa-
rately. Public figures have little protection in the first country: after the Supreme Court’s
1964 decision New York Times v. Sullivan, plaintiffs have to prove malice on the part of
defendants. While racist speech is protected in the United States, it is not in Germany, and
those who gainsay publicly the Holocaust in France bear penalties. There are international
differences regarding the classification of official documents: the British Official Secrets
Act authorizes more secrecy than what is enjoyed by the American government (Posner
2006:108). To prevent a “prior restraint on speech,” the New York Times was given impri-
matur to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, even though the documents were classified.
252 Sociological Theory 30(4)
We find variations within individual countries, too. The disclosure rules in politics change:
dissident speech is less countenanced wartime, and military conflict boosts deference to
institutional authority among the citizenry, which then translates into heightened accom-
modation of the privacy claims of public institutions (Stone 2004). Consider how presidential
privacy distended after September 11. The Harris poll recorded that trust in the White House
climbed from 21 to 50 percent; shortly after, Bush signed an executive order that authorized
former and sitting presidents to claim executive privilege over their own papers and those of
a past administration. Thanks to signing statements, Bush could also constrict the inspectors
general’s reporting to Congress on the Iraq war (Drew 2006).
Political Struggles over the Contents of the Public Sphere
The more the harms of publicity are indirect and not across the board, the more the content
regulation of the public sphere will be fraught with politics. Political domination is often
achieved through controlling the visibility of groups, as it is the case in gender control in
parts of the Muslim world. In some Middle Eastern societies, women are sequestered to the
private sphere and coerced to practice purdah in the public sphere (marketplace, streets, etc.)
so that they do not appear to male strangers unless veiled. Veiling is underpinned by dis-
courses that either impute perturbing powers to the public appearance of femininity or
sanctify a womanhood that cannot be but defiled by the lustful gaze of the male stranger.
Women may voice such arguments, too, and veiling can ironically enable some of them,
who would otherwise be cloistered to domesticity, to venture into the public sphere and even
into political action there (Göle 1997) with their virtue intact. Nevertheless, for many women
veiling is oppressive. It can have a class component, too. Polygamy, which is common in
many Muslim countries, reinforces the dominium of affluent men by allowing them to
monopolize women and thereby the means of reproduction. It also, however, yields a surfeit
of sexually frustrated low-status men without the wherewithal to get married and high moni-
toring costs for husbands with multiple wives. Thus purdah, by desexualizing women,
mitigates the perils that polygamy induces for magnates.
Political actors of all hues clamor for changes in visibility rules to secure access for them-
selves and their groups to spaces that enlist large publicity. They demand to be seen and
heard, and those who are thus represented acquire confidence and strong identities. Strug-
gles for attention are the hallmark of contemporary identity politics. The spokespeople of
minority groups in the United States protest their invisibility in central public spaces such as
television, Congress, and elite universities. Gay and lesbian groups, by making their life-
styles more visible, endeavor to legitimize what was previously deviant. High visibility can
normalize if the public space where it happens is a central one—due to high publicity or
symbolic prestige. Increased visibility can also signify enhanced power for authorities or
social actors with political aspirations.
But the relationship between power and visibility is complex and nonlinear, not just for
high-status political actors like presidents but also for social groups. Even though marginal
groups in contemporary democracies often demand visibility in the public sphere for
empowerment, in more repressive contexts visibility can undermine already stigmatized
groups. Anti-Semitism, for instance, rose in nineteenth-century Europe as Jews became
more visible in the public sphere with urbanization and emancipation (Friedlaender
Political conflict often involves the visibility of things as much as of people. And it is
often through political conflict that the visibility or audibility of something in a public
space is defined authoritatively as a benefit or a harm. In effect, conflicts over what should
and should not be seen and heard in public spaces are central to politics. Some
conservatives and feminists, for example, denounce pornography, whereas liberals lament
the omnipresence of violence and discriminatory language in the movies and other loci.
Most crusading entails pushing for censorship in a public space. Raunchy literature about
contraceptive devices circulated freely in much of the nineteenth century (Starr 2004: 236)
until the Comstock Act of 1873 prohibited the mailing of such material and ushered in
widespread, state-enforced censorship. Or consider how the progressive movement helped
establish the secret ballot, driving voting out of the public sphere.
But political actors do not only restrict visibility. Sexual politics, for instance, has greatly
expanded the content of the American public sphere. Since the seventies, a passel of actors—
feminists, gay and lesbian activists, avant-garde artists, and mainstream politicians—have
been politicizing sexual matters. But sex can only be properly politicized if it is already
public. Sexual politics has therefore assaulted the conventions that had formerly kept sexu-
ality out of public view. At the forefront of the struggle, feminists placed the public
expression of sexuality at the heart of women’s liberation. Their watchword “personal is
political” was oriented to neuter the shame shrouding sexuality so that women could openly
discuss their biology. Privacy norms were decried for sheltering enormities like marital rape
and sexual harassment. Moreover, feminists averred that interpersonal and domestic issues
were categorical and public ones (MacKinnon 1987). Since a man’s domination over a
woman in the private sphere simply instantiated men’s domination over women in general,
interpersonal and domestic life could claim no exemption from public scrutiny. Sexual
harassment laws thus retrenched the privacy protections of erotic encounters—much to
Clinton’s dismay when he was dragooned to testify about a workplace affair, his prevarica-
tion eventuating in his impeachment. Gay rights groups further sexualized the public sphere
with practices like coming out, which is not only the emancipatory act par excellence for the
individual homosexual, but also aims to normalize, and even celebrate, homosexuality. Such
publicization can be waged aggressively, too—as in the outing of homosexual politicians
who do not endorse gay marriage. Sexual politics has not only been deployed by anti-estab-
lishment forces: countless politicians have exploited the atrophy of modesty by publicizing
their private lives to humanize themselves or assert moral superiority over rivals.
How Visibility Norms Can Constrain Political Action
Political actors attempting to change the contents of the public sphere are constrained by
modesty and reticence norms. These are particularly strong in puritanical cultures and mold
political activity. Victorian modesty trammeled moral crusades: the anti-prostitution cam-
paign that the irrepressible William Thomas Stead embarked upon in Pall Mall Gazette was
lambasted by the London establishment as shameless (Terrot 1979). Even though Victorians
condoned underground pornography (Marcus 1975), both Shakespeare and the Bible had to
be expurgated of their crudities, elite newspapers were discrete about carnal matters, legal
officials underenforced sex laws to forefend scandals, and adultery scarcely figured in the
English novel (Adut 2008; Leckie 1999).
Such norms can even constrain states: one reason for the disappearance of public execu-
tions in modern Europe was the attitudinal change toward the publicity of suffering (Gatrell
1994; Spierenburg 1984). A master process within the Western modernization was the grad-
ual elimination of death, violence, and pain from the public sphere, especially from spaces
receiving high publicity (Ariès 1976; Elias 1982). The feudal Europeans were much less
squeamish than us (Huizinga 1954); public executions in the sixteenth and early seventeenth
centuries were festivals featuring disfigurement and mutilation. But with modernity the
bourgeoisie grew fussier: cemeteries migrated to the outskirts of cities, and death became a
private event. Public punishments from executions to the pillory were now perceived as
254 Sociological Theory 30(4)
antithetical to a dignity that even the most horrific criminals had a right to. Sloughed off its
truculent trappings, punishment eventually disappeared out of sight.14
How Visibility Norms Change
Political actors cannot change the visibility norms at will; audience attitudes need to be
favorable, and attitudes themselves are in part the products of organizational and cultural
transformations. We see this again in the rise of sexual politics. The sexual liberalization of
the 1960s, which set the stage for the victories of sexual politics in the subsequent decades,
stemmed from macro developments: young demographics, increasing female participation
in the labor force, and the ideology of expressive individualism came together in the 1960s
to weaken the traditional sex norms. Only less than a quarter of Americans approved of
premarital sex in late 1950s; by the late 1970s, this was the percentage of those who found
such activity to be wrong. Marriage age rose; fertility rates tumbled down; divorce and
cohabitation rates skyrocketed from the sixties onward, debilitating marriage as the normal
living arrangement. A far-reaching, albeit not always recognized, upshot of the growing
autonomy of sexual activity from the nuclear unit was the hiking demand for sexual content
in the media (D’Emilio and Freedman 1988). Sexual liberalization also commenced to
enfeeble the modesty and reticence norms, which had hitherto kept high- and middle-status
media with high publicity by and large innocent of explicit material. Sexual politics would
radicalize the carnal content of the American public sphere from the 1970s onward, but the
sexualization process had already made major strides by then; it was in the course of the
1960s that sexual material started to flood the American media. As late as 1962, one could
not say “venereal disease” on national television (Sabato 1993:82). By contrast, the Ameri-
can media furnished a smorgasbord of racy material from the second half of the 1960s
onward. The mainstream press abandoned circumlocution in sex talk, and popular music
sprouted out explicit lyrics. A rarity in the twentieth century prior to the Chappaquiddick
affair of 1969 (Collins 1998; Summers 2000), sex scandals regarding political figures came
to gut the front pages of newspapers. Nudity became common staple in Hollywood. Com-
mercials turned ever more suggestive, and television followed suit (Lichter, Lichter, and
Rothman 1994). American law gave the go-ahead to the sexualization of the public sphere.
Even though the Supreme Court had continually contracted the scope of obscenity from its
Ulysses decision in 1933 until the early 1960s, the legitimation of the public representation
of sexuality was contingent on artistic intent. But as the Warren Court asserted the apposite-
ness of sex for general consumption, what was formerly restricted to fringe, infra dignitatem
precincts (underground pornography, red light districts, etc.) diffused into the center of the
American public sphere. It was the attenuation of modesty and reticence, caused partially by
the organizational and cultural factors discussed previously, that enabled the unfettered
politicization of sexual matters in the public sphere during the 1970s. Sexual content had to
have already made significant forays into public spaces, as a result of changing public atti-
tudes, before it could be successfully politicized by norm entrepreneurs. But, of course,
politicization quickened the erosion of modesty and reticence. The sexualization of the
American public sphere was further hastened by technological innovations in the following
decades that decreased publicization costs and facilitated access.
The semiotic theory presented here has both phenomenological validity and social scientific
utility. It is realistic. Unlike the dominant paradigm, it is not predicated upon imponderable
motivations or habitually breached dialogue etiquettes. It conceives the public as a collec-
tion of strangers whose attention is fixed on the same thing, emphasizes the activities of the
elites, and corresponds to a real and well-demarcated object. It brings to the fore the essen-
tial spatial dimension of the public sphere, which is assumed but inadequately analyzed by
the dominant approach, while showing that the space in question is a semiotic one—propos-
ing thereby a unified framework for understanding all kinds of significant events and
communications in a wide array of public spaces. This framework, based on the semiotics
of general visibility (with its tendency to reduce the world to types and appearances) and
publicity (with its constitutive elements, common knowledge and asymmetry, generating
various collective and status effects), allowed us to derive many causal arguments regarding
political behavior in and about the public sphere.
Many scholars within the dominant paradigm collapse the public sphere with the civil
society. A few make a differentiation, such as Calhoun (1993:273), who, in a very sophisti-
cated analysis, conceptualizes the public sphere as the “operationalization of civil society’s
capacity for self-organization.” But even then the public sphere is subsumed within the
parameters of civil society. The result is that the public sphere risks being reduced to another
phenomenon; visibility and publicity, things that affect and concern all political actors and
communications, are ignored. I have uncoupled civil society from the public sphere in this
article, because Congress, a municipal park, national archives, and a court of law—which
are obviously not civil society—are all unambigiously public spaces. This uncoupling also
enables us to not conflate two important and independent types of conflict: those among
groups in civil society and those around visibility in public spaces by all kinds of actors.
Further work on publicity would add to our understanding of norms. The strongest pre-
scriptive norms involve taboos, very important phenomena curiously ignored by sociologists.
Anthropologists have usefully argued that a taboo is a dangerous entity to be avoided
(Douglas 166; Frazer 1994) that can be sacred as well as profane (Steiner 1956). The name
of God is, for example, indicible for Jews. Nevertheless, theorists have not been sufficiently
cognizant of a key difference between taboos and other prohibitions: even a sensory encoun-
ter with the representation of a taboo can be hazardous. And many acts interdicted by taboos
can be committed in private, as it is the case with those pertaining to nudity and the use of
profanity. Malinowski (1926:80) reported that Trobrianders could brook even incest as long
as it was not openly denounced. Taboo is therefore intrinsically linked to publicity. It is after
all the most vital functions routinely discharged in private (e.g., defecation) that are sur-
rounded by the strongest taboos, which severely restrict their publicization. Sex taboos also
differentiate between the proper and improper public representations of sexuality, and their
contravention is often equally shameful for audiences. This reveals another characteristic of
taboo: inasmuch as the violation is public, the intention of the violator becomes immaterial.
Take, for instance, “nigger,” a contemporary taboo word, which cannot be uttered in public,
even to condemn its racist use, unless one is black. These properties of taboo suggest that
theorizing publicity is pivotal to an adequate sociology of norms.
The theoretical stress on visibility and publicity also enhances our grasp of culture. Many
sociologists of culture, justifiably, study signs organized in texts or systems. But meaning
often transcends discursive or paradigmatic structures. The publicity of a transgression, for
instance, will transform the meaning of that transgression and often make it seem far more
serious. Before his trials, Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality was a much bruited open
secret during the early 1890s, was the beloved of London society; afterwards, he became an
outcast (Adut 2008). According to the theory advanced here, whether a sign is publicly
available, whether it is successfully publicized, as well as the specific space in which it is
displayed will significantly affect its signification and effects. This is a correction to the
usual semiotic theories, which, by focusing either on the relationship between a sign and its
receiver or on the relationship among signs, ignore the role of visibility and publicity in the
production of meaning.15
256 Sociological Theory 30(4)
The semiotic theory captures a crucial yet understudied component of any society: the regu-
lation of visibility and audibility. Political power shapes the public-private distinction by
determining the contents of public spaces. And much of political conflict revolves around the
contents of public spaces, especially those receiving high levels of publicity. The theory thus
brings censorship to the fore both as a signal mechanism through which public spaces and their
audiences are regulated and as a tool in political conflict. It also makes a contribution to work
on symbolic politics. Scholars in this field are often content with studying how powerful
groups make authoritative, performative definitions of things. What is missing is how censor-
ship—struggles over the contents of public spaces—is a central element of symbolic politics.
We need more research on censorship, a social fact usually neglected by sociologists that is
central both to symbolic politics in civil society and to political governance in general.16
Sociologists often emphasize the constitutive power of language. But when they write
about language, sociologists usually refer to ideology and not to concrete speech acts enunci-
ated in particular circumstances. Reduction of language to ideology prevents us, however,
from determining when words matter and when they do not. By contrast, a good way to find
this out is to study when collectivities sanction utterances. Censorship reveals much about the
power of language and the culture of a group. But censorship can only be understood by
understanding the semiotics of visibility and audibility and the effects of publicity.
The framework adopted here empowers us to tackle many focal and understudied issues in
public life by stressing the complex, contradictory, and nonlinear effects of general visibility
and publicity on political actors, social groups, and institutions. I tentatively proposed some
mechanisms, but more work especially on how and when visibility can degrade and victimize
or enhance and empower individuals and groups is a desideratum. So is further research on the
different forms of representational (indexical, iconic, or symbolic) access to the public sphere.
I have in this article focused on general visibility at the expense of general audibility. Future
research should, however, emphasize the differences between audible and visual access, espe-
cially with regards to censorship.
The effects of visibility and publicity on institutions are also understudied but central issues
in public life. The perspective adopted in this article underscores that the public sphere is not
always good for liberal democracy.17 Full-blown transparency discourages bold decisions and
fosters formulaic deportment among state officialdom and politicians (Anechiarico and Jacobs
1996). It makes it harder for political actors to strike bargains and achieve compromises (Gar-
ment 1991). The highfalutin discourse of democracy with openness as its sacrosanct value is
incongruent with the hole-and-corner wheeling and dealing that democratic politics cannot do
without. Moreover, legislators who vote in public—by acclamation, roll call, or show of
hand—will also be especially susceptible to special interest pressures. High transparency can
profane political institutions—instead of dispelling doubts about their activities—by decreas-
ing politicians’ vulnerability to scandal. The proliferation of scandals will weaken public
confidence, which can harm the public itself as some trust in government is a public good. It
is not a fluke that the two public institutions still enjoying high prestige, the Supreme Court
and the military, are the very ones that have had more success in keeping their operations out
of the public sphere and that the most transparent branch of government, Congress, is also the
one with the lowest social esteem.18 This article proposed various mechanisms through which
transparency fosters distrust, but the evidence provided was decidedly limited. More research
on the structural conditions under and processes through which transparency will generate
distrust is salutary. Another issue that calls for additional scholarship is when authenticity
becomes a concern in public life and how it can be signaled convincingly by political actors.
Politics is not the only activity molded by visibility. Consider also law. Much of the judi-
cial process is public in Western democracies. Visibility ensures the rights of the accused,
checks the illegitimate politicization of the judicial process, and renders legal actors account-
able. It makes it difficult for authorities to burke the misprisions of the high and mighty. But
the public sphere is not an unalloyed blessing for justice. The more publicity a trial gets, the
more it risks transmogrifying into a circus where appearances trump actual evidence and
social types individuals. More research is necessary to understand how visibility affects
practices like law, art, justice, and economy.
Finally, the semiotic public sphere theory contributes to the study of citizenship. The
dominant approach to the public sphere is either silent or sanguine about the effects of vis-
ibility on citizenship. This is problematic. Circulation of information and access to public
venues where one can criticize government officials are vital for liberal democratic gover-
nance. But intensified citizen activity in public can intensify polarization (Sunstein 2001).
In states that allow public registration of party affiliation, rates of partisanism are higher
(Harvey 1999). Michael Young (2003) shows that the golden age of American associational
life touted by Tocqueville had a dark side: the antebellum conflict between the evangelical
sin societies and fraternal associations was a key cause of the Civil War. Compulsory pub-
licness of citizenship activities smothers dissent, too. It is the hallmark of authoritarian
governments that they require their citizens to vote in public and engage in civic participa-
tion. It is because the public sphere can make the voter knuckle under social pressure or
allow her to commodify her vote that we have the secret ballot. Transparence is a control
technique used both by governments and forces in civil society. For instance, as the French
Revolution radicalized, show of hand supplanted secret voting. Mandatory participation in
ceremonies along with public confessions and purges further publicized citizenship during
the Terror. These examples suggest that citizenship can be adequately explained only if we
consider its spatial context and visibility.
The author is grateful to Ivan Ermakoff, Michael Young, Ezra Zuckerman, and anonymous
1. Quoted in Emirbayer and Sheller (1999:45).
2. Alexander’s civil sphere is, for example, monopolized by progressive movements
3. Baiocchi (2003:65–66) notes that community meetings can be used for reputational
ambitions. But he sees this as antipodal to the essence of the public sphere, which,
according to him, is “public-spiritedness.”
4. Alexander (1989) should be commended for studying performances in the “civil
sphere.” His focus is nevertheless the civic-minded discourse (especially its moral cat-
egories and heroic narratives) that undergirds performances. Moreover, performances
that change society are very often uncivil.
5. Some public sphere scholars have written on scandal, but usually by purging the phe-
nomenon of its unsavory nature. Consider Alexander (1989) who argued that Watergate
was a ritual of renewal in which the moral categories of “American civil religion” were
reaffirmed. This perspective glosses over the self-interested, partisan, and uncivil
actions and reactions by everybody during the scandal. Watergate was lived as a disrup-
tive, sordid affair: Ford took office by saying, “Our national nightmare is over,” and
most Americans agreed. Far from renewing civic values, confidence in public authority
declined both during and after Watergate (Adut 2008:99–128).
258 Sociological Theory 30(4)
6. Despite these issues, some dominant approach scholars have nevertheless produced
extremely insightful work. Take, inter alia, Lichterman’s (1999) trenchant analysis of
discourse in identity politics. There are also many excellent works on civil society that
occasionally borrow dominant approach terminology. Consider Ikegami’s (2005) won-
derful analysis of aesthetic networks in premodern Japan, Cohen and Arato’s (1992)
sophisticated theorization of civil society, Mische’s (2009) brilliant study of youth
activism in Brazil, and Benson and Saguy’s (2005) remarkable comparison of the
American and French media.
7. As Benhabib (1992) points out, Arendt (1958) works with two models. The first is topo-
graphic, conceptualizing the public sphere as an agonistic space where greatness is
achieved and displayed. My theory has affinities with this model—even though I argue
that political competition is not the only activity that can be undertaken in the public
sphere. Arendt’s second model involves an associational space—any place where citi-
zens act in concert. This republican model, a cognate of the Habermasian one, is
fashioned after Ancient Greece. But it minimizes the insidious side of publicity: there
was intense pressure for conformity among the Greeks, for whom ostracism was a
common punishment (Finley 1983)—this not comporting with Arendt’s claim that the
public sphere is the realm of diversity. The Greeks were themselves acutely cognizant
of how agoristic politics fostered temporizing and demagoguery.
8. One is more visible than audible in physical public spaces. We are audible only when
we speak, whereas we are visible when we just are—even though speech produces more
direct and less equivocal meaning than visual signs (Barthes 1967). We can thus have
an intimate conversation in a café, provided that we do not shout; it is harder to appear
in intimate get-up in the same space. The expectation of privacy in the public sphere
therefore applies to our voices, not appearances, as we are entitled to pockets of private
verbal spaces within larger visual public spaces.
9. Because the content of most public spaces is at least partially visual, and for simplicity’s
sake, I will hereafter use the terms spectatorship, spectator, and visibility, when audi-
torship, auditor, and audibility are also involved. My general claims would, on the
whole, also apply to public spaces that only admit of auditory content.
10. Excellent work on common knowledge includes Centola, Willer, and Macy (2005);
Chwe (2002); Collins (2005); Correll et al. (2012); and, in particular, Zuckerman’s
(2010) ingenious account of the recent real estate market bubble.
11. A similar dynamic often occurs in scandals. We may all prefer to ignore a well-known
transgression. Yet blinking at it will be difficult once the transgression is made public as
this could now make each of us look bad in the eyes of the others. One therefore displays
zeal toward the offender only to signal resolve or rectitude to others—this ratcheting up
reactions through a self-feeding process. The more homogeneous the public, the more
visible its members are to each other, the more potent this propensity will be.
12. An important exception is Gamson (1994).
13. See Kurtz (1998) for anecdotal evidence.
14. This process was helped by the successful centralization of political authority, which
rendered violent displays of power to internal contenders, a potential stimulant of urban
disorder, less necessary.
15. An important exception is Swidler (2001:168–169).
16. An important exception is Beisel (1997).
17. Important work eluding facile correlation of the public sphere with liberal democracy
includes Koselleck (1988) and Wickham (2010).
18. See figures in http://www.pollingreport.com/institut.htm.
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Ari Adut is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of On
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book on the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.