Thursday, 3 February 2011

Mobility and politics: notes on Sheller & Urry

I'd like to make a short note about Mimi Sheller and John Urry's “Mobile Transformations of `Public' and `Private' Life” (Theory, Culture & Society 20:3, 2003). I read this text because I was interested in how it would treat the relation between public sphere and public space. 

The authors discuss various meanings of public and private - public and private interest, public and private sphere, public and private life, public and private space, and publicity and privacy - and argue that none of these conceptions is suited to capturing the mobility and fluidity of political action today, the age of automobility and electronic communications. To support their claim that these conceptions are "static" or linked to space they refer to a few examples, such as Habermas' discussion of coffee houses and Arendt's of the agora (p.114). Instead of thinking "in terms of ‘spheres’ or ‘spaces’, concepts that are often static and ‘regional’ in character”, the authors emphasize "the increasing fluidity in terms of where (or when) moments of publicity and privacy occur” (p.108). Along with the rejection of static conceptions, the authors also reject the complaint among thinkers like Habermas or Sennett that the boundaries of public and private are being eroded, “colonized” etc.
We show that cars, information, communications, screens, are all material worlds, hybrids of private and public life. Despite the heroic efforts of 20thcentury normative theorists to rescue the divide, the various distinctions between public and private domains cannot survive. The critical theorists reviewed above each in different ways diagnosed the erosion of boundaries between public and private as the cause of democratic decline; maintaining or restoring the boundary, they imply, is crucial to the continuance of democratic citizenship in the contemporary world. We argue, in contrast, that the hybridization of public and private is even more extensive than previously thought, and is occurring in more complex and fluid ways than any regional model of separate spheres can capture. Any hope for public citizenship and democracy, then, will depend on the capacity to navigate these new material, mobile worlds that are neither public nor private. (p.113)
In order to stress the political potential of mobility, the authors mention examples such as Reclaim the Streets. The “proliferation of anti-capitalist, anti-globalization social movements emerged within the context of new mobilities of bodies, capital, objects, money, information and images. Such fragmented and fluid temporalities of public and private exceed any simple notion of boundary erosion or colonization - if anything it is more like ‘creolization’” (p.121). 

A summary of the argument might look like this. The authors attempt to reduce the public sphere to static public space in order to more efficiently criticize it by directing attention to spatial processes that dissolve static space. They then try to suggest a new notion of the public more in tune with these processes.  

I have two criticisms.

Firstly, it strikes me as rather curious that the authors claim that all the conceptions of the public mentioned above are static and linked to space. This is a bit surprising, since the "public sphere" is usually thought of precisely as a despatialized concept. Arendt is explicit in pointing out that the public realm is not place-bound. "The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958:198).

Habermas, to be sure, talks of coffeehouses as places where the bourgeouis public sphere once took form. It is quite clear, however, that the public sphere cannot be reduced to deliberations going on in public space. It can occur in a lot of places, some of them private - at the breakfast table, for instance. "Every encounter in which actors do not just observe each other but take a second-person attitude, reciprocally attributing communicative freedom to each other, unfolds in a linguistically constituted public sphere" (Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, Polity Press 1996:361). In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas explicitly states that only certain publics are placebound (distinguishing between episodic publics that can arise anywhere, occasional publics that arise when people gather together in certain institutionalized contexts such as concerts or political meetings, and abstract publics that are held together by mass media). It seems strange to claim that cars or the Internet per se are enough to upset a public sphere conceptualized in this fashion.

Secondly, I don’t agree that all “static” or “place”-bound concepts of the public must be discarded. Here I agree with Don Mitchell – what is necessary for public visibility is often "static" public space. If homeless people about to be evicted from a park want to make a public issue of their struggle, they usually do better by staying put in the park and refuse to move than go for an Internet campaign. The uprising in Egypt today may have begun with mobile and elusive gatherings springing up in the alleyways and disappearing just as quickly when the police arrived, but as soon as the protesters grew in strength they started gathering at Midan al Tahrir, occupying the square and guarding it by staying there night after night. Not everyone is mobile, and not everyone wants to move. That's the problem with building a politics only on the idea of mobility and ignoring the importance of sometimes being stationary. What is needed is a combination of both. Politics is about friction. Where capital is already hypermobile, isn’t the most effective way to offer resistance often simply to stay put, to hold on to space, to refuse to go along and escape though the lines of flight? To say “no” when welfare is being cut or the homeless evicted? Isn’t the “public” often what flares up, like fire, through the friction created when capital or authorities encounter resistance?

So the authors are clearly at least half wrong: the idea of “navigating” mobility risks becoming a justification of those who want to obliterate public spaces or the public sphere, an ideology neglecting those who are not or do not want to be hypermobile.
But perhaps they are also at least a little bit right. The categories of public and private are problematical. There does exist a realm that is admittedly difficult or perhaps even impossible to theorize in the old terms, something like Deleuze’s nomadic “smooth” space and the new modes of politics that such a space would offer, or the half hidden network “hinterland” that Bey or Negri mention as an indispensible base for revolts. By trying to approach this realm, they sketch a politics for a possible future in which public spaces or static spheres have vanished, and instead everywhere has become a potential point where politics may again flare up on the global “public screen”. 

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