Friday, 31 December 2010

Public space and public sphere: notes on reading Don Mitchell

A curious shift, which could perhaps be referred to as a spatialization of radical politics, has been taking place for some time now. More and more the idea of public space seems to be taking the place of the idea of the public sphere as a focus of radical political action. To put it simply: defending public space sounds more radical and less conservative than defending the public sphere. Why has this come about?

This shift has largely - but not entirely - gone unattended by theoretical attention. Many writers simply use one or the other of the two terms, leaving it to the reader to make inferences about the relation to the other term. Others who use both terms have often treated the relation between them as unproblematical. I myself (in a text soon to be published in Japanese in Impaction) recently wrote that the politics of public space more or less corresponded to participation in the public sphere (unlike the politics of other spaces, such as "autonomous spaces" or "no-man's-lands", which I claimed demanded a quite different conception of politics). However, I now realize that the relation between public space and public sphere is more complicated. The idea of a simple identity between the politics of public space and that of the public sphere is probably mistaken. What, then, is the relation between public space and public sphere? Is there a separate politics of public space and how would it differ from that of the public sphere? Is public space more favorable to radical politics than the public sphere, and, if so, why?

Let me start with clarifying roughly what I mean by "public sphere". When we use this concept we usually have in mind a sphere of social life, distinct from the state and the official economy, in which citizens deliberate on their common affairs, often in a conflictual tension with the political system, and bracketing circumstances deemed to be of only “private” relevance. Such a definition would, I believe, accord more or less with classical thinkers of the public sphere or public life such as Jürgen Habermas or Hannah Arendt. An implicit ideal for participating in these deliberations has often been that of the "responsible" citizen who adopts the viewpoint of the whole, aiming for consensus by arguing from the point of view of what is best for all. It has often been pointed out that the "public sphere" is a despatialized concept - space is not a necessary ingredient in it. What matters in public deliberations is primarily what is said by whom, but not so much where.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two factors that might explain why public space is increasingly seen as a more promising ground of a radical questioning of the established order than the public sphere. The first explanation has do do with historical conjuncture. The public sphere is often said to have followed a trajectory of increasing inclusivity. Although exclusive and elitist, the repeated challenges to it by various "counter-publics" (Nancy Fraser) have contributed to its gradual expansion. Public space, by contrast, seems to have followed a different trajectory, with recent decades witnessing a tightening of controls and surveillances that have made public space more inhospitable and exclusive. This divergence of trajectories is almost certainly part of the background to the fact that public space today seems to attract more radical energies than the idea of a public sphere.

The second factor has to do with the differing content of the politics of the public sphere and that of public space. To illustrate this difference, let me introduce the philosopher Jacques Rancière and the geographer Don Mitchell.

I will start with Rancière. Although he doesn't use the term public space (as far as I can recall), his idea of publicness is akin to such a conception. His belief in disagreement or dissensus as constitutive of politics doesn't sit well with the idea of a "public sphere" as developed by Habermas, but it doesn't imply a rejection of publicness per se. To Rancière, politics no longer rests on any faith in rationality or hope of consensus, but it does involve making oneself heard and visible in public. "There is no consensus, no unmutilated communication, no final settling of accounts of injustice. But there is a shared polemic place for treating injustice and demonstrating equality". The "public" defended by Rancière in formulations like these is not the idea of a "public sphere" so much as a "place" or public space where disagreement can be publicly manifested.

People's Park, 2008
Now over to Mitchell, whose The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (The Guilford Press, 2003) I've been reading during the vacation. This is a forcefully argued, persuasive and well written book. Using examples such as the struggles around homelessness in the contemporary USA or the struggles around People's Park in Berkeley, he shows that public space often plays a role that is far more central and essential in politics than can be conveyed by despatialized concepts such as public sphere. But what does he mean by public space? Although the concept is itself contested and political, it is possible to discern at least three usages in Mitchell's text.
To begin with, the term public space sometimes appears in what could be called the conventional sense of public grounds such as streets, parks or city halls. Public space in this sense corresponds more or less to what is designated as public by authorities. With Lefebvre we could call this a "space of representation".

Mitchell also uses the term in a second, more emphatic sense. Elaborating on Lefebvre's terminology, he calls public space in this sense a "space for representation". What really makes a place public in this sense is the presence of struggle. Public spaces are not simply given; they don't consist simply of the places designed or planned to be "public". As examples such as the struggle around homelessness or the free speech movement show, public visibility for disadvantaged groups can often be achieved only by taking a place and making it public (Mitchell 2003:35). Like Rancière, then, he shows that politics in an emphatic sense arises only when people appear in places where they are not meant to be and put forth their claims in an act which upsets the order. This, he argues very persuasively, has practically always been the only way disadvantaged groups have been able to make people listen.
“Being ‘unruly’ often is a prerequisite for getting heard at all” (ibid 54) 
“Without the occupation of the space, without taking it... the kinds of protests that came to a climax in Tiananmen, Leipzig, Seattle or People’s Park would have remained invisible. The occupation of space is a necessary ingredient of protest” (ibid 148f)
Space itself, then, is often crucial for politics in a way that falls out of view with despatialized concepts like the public sphere. Hopes for "immaterial" spaces like the Internet to develop into an alternative route to public visibility have been overblown. “What is remarkable about the web... is just how little public visibility it has” (ibid 147).

There is, in addition, also a third and more subdued sense in which "public space" appears in Mitchell's book, namely as an everyday and very material arena for daily life. Here the public space is not identical to officially designated public space (space of representation), but neither is it a place for struggle or the visibilization of disagreement (space for representation). It is simply a space to be, to relax, to sleep or take care of other bodily needs, which can be very far removed or even hidden from any public eye - one thinks of parks or empty buildings, where homeless people or squatters manage to find shelter. One could describe it as space appropriated for material living (a kind of mix between Lefebvre's spatial praxis and representational space) rather than for visibilization. The value of public space in this third sense is particularly great for homeless people, since it provides a place to be and live for people lacking private housing. Again it is the materiality of space is crucial. Against those who would point to cyberspace as a new form of public space, he points out what would be lacking in such a space, namely that we wouldn't be able to live there: "there is literally no room in the internet’s ‘public space’ for a homeless person to exist – to sleep, to relax, to attend to bodily needs” (ibid 147).

Whichever of these three senses one looks one finds a political significance different from that of the public sphere. Public space in the first sense is not necessarily political at all since it corresponds to an image of urban life preferred by authorities and planners in which subaltern groups will largely be invisible. Politics in a limited sense - for instance, campaigning by professional politicians or orderly demonstrations by established and recognized actors - can of course be permitted, but that is hardly enough to produce a vibrant public sphere. To become political in the more emphatic sense, public space will have to be turned into a space for making oneself heard or visible. Neither in that sense, however, would publicness necessarily have much to do with rational discourse or the search for consensus. It could be a scream.

In the third sense, publiness consists in keeping spaces open for people to use and make a living - activities close to what Braudel called "material life" that often take place in comparative silence and outside the public spotlight. This aspect of public space too is of political significance, although it has not much to do with either visibilization or deliberation. Raymond Williams helps us bring out this significance. Although we should be wary of romanticizing pre-enclosure villages, he writes that nevertheless "when the pressure of a system is great and is increasing, it matters to find a breathing-space, a fortunate distance, from the immediate and visible controls. What was drastically reduced by enclosures was just such a breathing-space, a marginal day-to-day independence, for many thousands of people” (The Country and the City, 1975:134).

Rancière and Mitchell suggest at least two explanations of what might make "public space" more attractive to a radical politics than the "public sphere". Firstly, participation in public space entails no aspiration for consensus. Its publicity often consists in visibility rather than the practice of common deliberation, and its aim is often to upset order rather than to communicate.

Secondly, public space does not exclude the material and bodily aspects of life. In public space a coexistence of different forms of life is possible despite the fact that bodily or material aspects of life - aspects often excluded from view in the "public sphere" as belonging to the "private" realm and lacking public interest - are kept in full view. It arises between people of flesh and blood, not between abstract citizens (cf Mitchell 2003:134). The freedom opened up by a fully open public space would approach that freedom to difference which Lefebvre set up as a goal of urban politics rather than the freedom to deliberate, criticize and make decisions in common envisioned by Habermas.

I passing, perhaps I should point out that classical thinkers of the public sphere like Habermas and Arendt are fully as appreciative of the possibility of an opening up of politics or of the "public" in undesignated places as Mitchell or Rancière (Arendt, for instance, writes in The Human Condition that the agora shouldn't be confused with a particular place but is something that arises anywhere that people speak up for a common cause). What matters, however, is that the "public" that opens up is clearly a space in the case of Mitchell: by speaking up in a certain place, one is not merely making a claim in the abstract but also claiming a right to be where one is and use that space.

Let me end with two critical comments to Mitchell. Firstly, I wonder if he is not overtaxing the idea of "public space" somewhat. Can public space in the three senses above - as institutionalized space, as a space of struggle, and as a space for the survival of homeless people - really be subsumed under the same concept? Isn't the relation between the different kinds of politics associated with them at least as problematical as that between the politics of public space and that of the public sphere? Here I can't help thinking that my attempt to distinguish public space in a limited sense from "autonomous zones" (corresponding to spaces for struggle) and "no-man's-lands" (corresponding to spaces for living) might be useful since it would make the concept of public space a bit less unwieldy.

Secondly, I wonder to what extent "public space" is free of the drawbacks of "public sphere". Mitchell argues that material space is essential to politics since disadvantaged groups have no other way to make themselves visible than to intrude in or occupy space where they are not meant to be. But visible to whom? Isn't the answer - "the public sphere"?  If so, isn't the politics of visibilization dependent on or part of the politics of the public sphere? Couldn't one say that public space is simply one of the imput-channels into the deliberative processes of the public sphere? This seems to be especially so to the extent that the aim of visibilization is to claim "rights" that can be guaranteed by courts or state authorities, as Mitchell emphasizes. To this, Mitchell could of course reply that public space is not just one imput-channel among others, but essential for politics since many struggles that don't take place in public space won't be given attention at all. In that sense, the relation of dependency would be inverted: the public sphere would depend on well-functioning and open public spaces.

Despite this rejoinder, the fact remains that public sphere and public space are entwined in each other. Mitchell is right that aspiring for participation in the public sphere through, say, the Internet won't be enough for visibility in many cases. But conversely, participation in public space will clearly also not be sufficient by itself. The "street" is not in itself enough to ensure visibility. Just think of how common it is to hear protesters complain about the lack of mass-media attention!

To the extent that visibility is the aim, I see very little prospect for any neat separation of the politics of public space from that of the public sphere. The emphasis on visibility and representation almost by necessity presupposes a public sphere. This is not to say that all kinds of politics of public space do. As mentioned, there is also a kind of politics related to public space that doesn't necessarily aim for visibility or representation. What Hakim Bey calls a "temporary autonomous zone", for instance, is not necessarily established for the purpose of representation. Space can also be occupied for realizing different ways of living, a "prefigurative politics", in which the exercise of autonomy might be just as important or even more important than visibility. Such a politics would also be freer of the entwinement with the politics of the public sphere.

I really should stop my criticism here. My aim hasn't been to find any faults with Mitchell or Rancière - if anything, I feel a deep sympathy for their writings - but rather to clarify to myself why I don't feel persuaded by the ideal of public space which I read into their writings. In another entry, perhaps I will have reason to return to them and give them the praise they deserve.  

1 comment:

  1. Nice Article. Its Very Helpful. I want you to continue your work.public space


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