Taken as a whole, Jürgen Habermas’s work displays a peculiar ambivalence toward literature. In his early Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere1 Habermas had stressed the central historical role that the literary public sphere had played in the development of a political public sphere. There Habermas describes the development of the modern public sphere as a result of the becoming independent of capitalist economy from state authority. The beneﬁciaries of this development inhabited two spheres: the public and private spheres, respectively. The private sphere was centered on the institution of the bourgeois family and was secured by the economic independence of its patriarch. In the public sphere, diﬀerences in the social status of its constituent members (ideally) were irrelevant, and their interaction consisted in the unrestricted and reasoned discussion of matters of general concern. The political aspect of the public sphere lay in the rationalization of political domination by making the state accountable to (at least part of) the population. Habermas is careful to note the constitutive role that literary circles, in the form of coﬀeehouse literary discussions and literary journals, for instance, in the formation of the modern public sphere. Extending Habermas’s account, Peter Uwe Hohendahl argues that the
eventual formation of an explicitly political public sphere relied, historically, on the “sublimated” political aspect of the earlier literary public sphere. Subject to the strictures of censorship, the interrogation of stereotypes and identities within the early literary public sphere had constituted a discreet negotiation of otherwise explicitly ideologically charged issues and cleared the way for later oﬃcial institutions of public political discourse.2 More recently, Habermas has cited and endorsed Leo Löwenthal’s thesis that the institution of bourgeois literature was, by virtue of its utopic content, and from its beginning, a central mode of normative public discourse.3 Finally, in an essay published in 1998, Habermas argues for the understanding of particular Germanist conventions (Germanistenkongresse) as vital contributors to the political public sphere in the years before and after 1848.4
This positive appraisal of the societal role of literature seems to stand in contradiction, however, with the account of literature found in Habermas’s theoretical work. In TCA, Habermas develops a theory of society in which literature, as an aesthetic practice, belongs foremost to the sphere of expressive rationality. Habermas considers aesthetic practice and aesthetic criticism in the modern age as concerned primarily with the genuineness of subjective self-representations. In TCA Habermas essentially reduces aesthetic, and hence literary, rationality to expressive rationality. This reduction is a consequence of Habermas’s reduction of the claim of aesthetic validity to a form of the truthfulness claim. Such a line of argumentation has serious consequences for the societal role of literature, as I later demonstrate. It is surprising that Habermas gives the account of aesthetic practice and criticism in TCA that he does. Given his earlier emphasis of the historical role of the literary public sphere in the development of a political public sphere, why does he now restrict literary rationality to the realm of autonomous art and a concern for the truthfulness of subjective self-expression? I maintain that this restriction is an eﬀect of oversystematization in Habermas’s tripartite model of communicative action. Given the normative basis of his work taken as a whole, Habermas clearly endorses the central role of the literary public not only in the cultural but also in the political public sphere. The inconsistency of these positions in Habermas can be particularly well
illustrated, and resolved, against the background of German uniﬁcation and German literature since and about uniﬁcation. Although Habermas does not directly address post-uniﬁcation German literature, two aspects of his publications since uniﬁcation make evident the need to reconsider his account of the relation between the literary and political public spheres: (1) his exchange with and remarks on literary ﬁgures; and (2) his more recent political essays. Habermas’s dialogue with Christa Wolf, a writer from the former
German Democratic Republic (GDR), is representative of the ﬁrst of these aspects.5 In their exchange of letters, Habermas disagrees with what he sees to be Wolf’s dangerous drawing of continuities between the situation of intellectuals in East and West Germany as a common bias in their respective intellectual traditions. In her reply, Wolf concedes the importance of diﬀerentiating between the cultural and social conditions under which intellectuals in East and West lived. Wolf understands Habermas’s critique as a useful point of departure for further discussion and is most interested in Habermas’s account of his own intellectual development in West Germany. Wolf views such telling of personal stories as vital to the dialogue between East and West. In essays and interviews Habermas often refers to Christa Wolf in the context of the German-German literary controversy (the so-called deutsch-deutscher Literaturstreit) of 1990,6 and in his general remarks on her status as a public intellectual it is clear that he holds the interrelation between literary and political public spheres as a considerable and productive imbrication, particularly in post-uniﬁcation Germany.