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.
The debate about the public sphere has been oriented by Habermas: “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 traced the history of the phenomenon from the eighteenth-century salons to the contemporary physical or virtual spaces where citizens 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.