Starbucks as the Habermasian Public Sphere?

October 23, 2006
Posted by: Yasemin Besen

This weekend New York Times had an interesting article on the new marketing of Starbucks coffee chains as coffeehouses. The stores are marketed not as uniform, standardized assembly lines of coffee, but as local and community based cultural spaces, where books, movies and music are discussed. Recently, they have sponsored the “Salon events”, where community based, not so mainstream authors, musicians and artists read their books, sang and talked while sipping coffee (I can’t deny enjoying Jonathan Lethem’s book reading). This new positioning of Starbucks as a local, cultural space, where intellectual rational conversation takes place reminds me of Habermas.

A student of Frankfurt school and a critique of capitalism and its discontents, Jurgen Habermas, he developed the concept of public sphere in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), where he explores the role of individuals in the practice of democracy and social change. He defines public sphere as "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state." People conglomerating in pockets of society, through dialogue and discussion, have the power through discussion, to critique, mainly the discontents of capitalism and voice their opinion. This rational, critical discourse is the very essence of democracy. Public sphere, in the Habermasian sense, started to emerge in the 18th century with voluntary associations, literary groups and organization and most importantly coffeehouses.

Now we see a very different form of the coffeehouse: a national chain of “coffeehouses” that market the public sphere as a consumption item to be enjoyed with a tall, skim, no foam latte. I wonder if Habermas could predict the public sphere of cool discussion would itself be commodified, packaged and sold along with the music, books and the coffee that makes the public sphere possible.

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