Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Did the public sphere develop out of free space? Notes on Hetherington and Koselleck

A few notes about Kevin Hetherington's 1997 book The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering and Reinhart Koselleck's old classic Critique and Crisis: The Pathogenesis of the Enlightenment (published in German already in 1959) - two books that both treat the Enlightenment and the emerging public sphere in relation to space. 

The central concept of Hetherington's book is that of heterotopia. This is defined as "spaces of alternate ordering". He explains the term by referring to Louis Marin’s concept of utopia. ”Marin’s concern is not with utopia as such, imaginary perfect societies, but with the spatial play that is involved in imagining and trying to create these perfect worlds” (Hetherington 1997:viii). Hetherington’s interest is in this spatial play, or ”utopics”, which takes place in the spaces of modern society, not separated from it or beyond it. Such places are what he calls heterotopias. As examples, he focuses on the Palais Royale, masonic lodges, and early factories.

Shops in the galerie du Palais Royale 1640 (Abraham Bosse)
In particular, his discussion of the Palais Royale is a wonderful example, which vividly conveys the sense of heterotopia with its markets, bazaars, shops, gardens, arcades, bookstores, brothels and coffee-houses. It combined the socially central with the socially marginal; respectability coexisted with the amoral or subversive. Although in itself hardly a model of a new society, it expressed a simultaneously hedonistic and political "utopics" which Hetherington sums up in three words: liberty, equality, and fraternity (ibid 19). Based on this discussion, he criticizes Richard Sennett and Jürgen Habermas, and their "public sphere based on the utopia of reason and civility". The public sphere was never just a républic des lettres, as he claims that Habermas depicts it. What one finds in the Palais Royale is ”not only the mobilization of reason... but also the mobilization of emotion and desire, of the more expressive aspects of social life that have to do with personal freedom, from the clandestinely sexual to the overtly political” (ibid. 13). Hetherington seems to be using the idea of heterotopia here to redefine the public sphere in a manner somewhat similar to what Paul Gilroy does with his idea of the "Black Atlantic". Both focus on in-between spaces in order to detect partially hidden public spheres that break with the model of textuality and emphasize bodily or sensual aspects - as in black music with its "saying, screaming, shouting and singing", as Gilroy puts it.

Hetherington argues that heterotopias are not to be romanticized as places of resistance, counter-hegemonic empowerment, transgression or freedom as he claims that Henri Lefebvre, Rob Shields, Mikhail Bakhtin and Victor Turner tend to do (ibid. 21-35). Heterotopias are no perfect societies or orders; they are themselves processes of ”social ordering”. They generate their own codes, rules and relations of power. They only differ from mainstream society by the fact that these ordering processes are felt to be ”other”, different or inconguous in relation to the socialy sanctioned.

Here I need to add a critical comment. Hetherington's concise definition of heterotopia as alternate ordering is convenient and suggestive, but reducing everything to ordering seems unhelpful. Even if each heterotopic instance represents its own ordering, it often makes sense to speak of a higher or lower degree of aggregate order or disorder (=freedom, openness) in a setting or space. Aggregate disorder increases with the number of separate orderings that such a space contains. At least tendentially, that would seem to be the case in those situations that have been described as liminoid or carnivalesque, where no order is allowed to become dominant. These are situations in which the usually dominant orders are disrupted, suspended or relativized, and that is what creates the experience of freedom. Hetherington's three examples are not situated on the same level: factories and lodges are alternative spaces in which a single principle has become dominant and where it is hard to detect any of utopian "play". The Palais Royale, by contrast, appears like a much freer and stimulating place, precisely because it contained a mixture of orderings. It represented a space with high aggregate disorder. Similarly, moments of what Turner calls communitas are hard to describe as being just as ordered as everyday routine in a factory. Hetherington's criticism of people like Bakhtin or Turner thus seems unfair.

He returns to criticize Habermas again in his discussion of masonic lodges. In his view, Habermas fails to explain how the bourgeois individual is created who steps out into the public realm (ibid. 81f). Hetherington argues that the lodges played a crucial role in this formation. In this, he basically follows Koselleck, to whose work I will now turn.

Camilles Desmoulins at the Palais Royale, urging the masses to storm the Bastille.

Koselleck’s subject is the genesis of the Enlightenment. He quite boldly steps forward as a reactionary thinker in this book - clearly enamored of Hobbes and Schmitt, and a great detester of the Enlightenment thinkers, whom he sees as hypocritical forerunners of the massacres and tragedies of the 20th century. Put simply, his thesis is that the seeds of the Enlightenment were planted by the religious and civil wars of the 16th and 17th centuries - wars that broke out because people believed they could follow their “conscience” in public. The Absolutist state restored order by relegating that conscience to the private sphere. That step - rather than the later Enlightenment critique of church and superstition - was the decisive step towards secularization in Europe. The result of this privatization of conscience, however, was that the absolutist state had to appear as immoral in the eyes of the “private” citizens, as nothing but a neutral and rational executor of raison d’état, operating "without conscience": "now it was the monarch who was guilty from the start, in the measure of the citizen's innocence" (Koselleck 1988:50). Absolutism worked fine as long as the memory of the horrors of the religious wars were still fresh. Unfortunately, these memories soon faded and conscience started to pop up into the public realm again, this time calling itself the Enlightenment. At first, it had to take shelter under ostensibly apolitical pursuits, often in private arenas such as the Masonic lodges, salons or literary societies – places where participants could be “in secret free” (ibid. 75). Koselleck focuses almost all his attention on the lodges, thus conjuring up a rather unflattering portrait of the Enlightenment thinkers as steeped in secrecy and mysticism. Behind their criticism of Absolutism he detects the hypocritical conscience of people free from having to deal with the complexities of the real world, which it arrogantly subjected to its judgements. Their criticism was not only irresponsible but also totalitarian in its impatience with unreason. Its emergence in public triggered a new wave of “civil war”, this time under the name of Revolution.

Freemason initiation - an alternative ordering?

Koselleck's argument is provocative and, naturelly, invites criticism. Was the Absolutist state really so neutral? Is it true, as he seems to imply, that reason or conscience is necessarily divisive and therefore must be kept out of politics and the dirty work of ruling left to machiavellian princes? Koselleck seems to suggest that the only choice is between a despotic Leviathan that is neutral in regard to divisive religious or moral issues, and an unrestricted idolization of ”conscience” in public affairs (whether by religious sectarians or revolutionary zealots) that leads to civil war. Habermas would of course object: there is also the alternative of a civic culture in which citizens learn to respect each others’ good arguments. They participate jointly in ruling the secular state, expressing their “conscience” or religious beliefs in public language, but refraining from superimposing them on others (see his “Religion in the Public Sphere”, European Journal of Philosophy 14:1, 2006).

However, there are also points of interest in Koselleck's argument. One is the suggestive and, I think, fruitful idea that absolutism is established not because people believe in it but because they internalize and privatize their beliefs. Here one might compare to Maruyama Masao's argument about the role of Ogyû Sorai's thinking in Tokugawa Japan, a philosophy which is marked by the near absolutism of Tokugawa rule and in which the idea of privacy as a sphere of freedom appears for the first time in Japanese political thinking.

Even more interesting is the account of how the Enlightenment "bourgeois  public sphere" was born out of what we today would probably call "free spaces". In Koselleck's account this public sphere started out as a kind of underground space in need of secrecy and protection. It survived its fledgling years only by outwardly portraying itself as unpolitical. A crucial part of his argument is that even activities that are not overtly political can have an immense political significance. For instance, by eschewing politics in order to focus on moral perfection, Freemasonry paved the way for a moral absolutism that indirectly put existing politics in question, subordinating it to a moral standard alien to it. It thus put a logic in motion that ended up producing political conflicts of the kind it had started out by turning its back to. This strikes me a being rather similar to how "free spaces" today can have political significance despite seemingly only providing space for apolitical pursuits. For instance, what orthodox political activist may criticize as "merely cultural" forms of activism aiming at nothing but "having fun" can be a political challenge to mainstream society by fashioning a standard by which the dreariness of the latter can be judged. As Matsumoto Hajime (of the Amateur Riot in Tokyo) says, what matters is not to sacrifice outselves for the revolution, but to actualize a post-revolutionary world here and now, and attracting others by showing them how fun it is. Sometimes the term "prefigurative policitics" is used for that kind of activism. Certainly, there are problems with that notion (which I will return to some other day), but what strikes me as interesting is that Koselleck has such a clear eye for the potential political import of such politics.“The Masons have nothing to do with politics directly, but they live by a law which – if it prevails – makes an upheaval superfluous” (Koselleck 1988:84). No matter how one evaluates such a politics, one has to admit that it sounds surprisingly similar to what people like Matsumoto Hajime are saying today. Koselleck also helps throw some suggestive light on the problem about whether prefigurative politics might function as a mere safety-valve, as a harmless substitute for protest. His view is clearly that even groups that claim not to be striving for any revolution and that merely pursue alternative lifestyles can be dangerously subversive. Prefigurative politics  cannot thus be dismissed as a mere substitute for protest, since it can also be a precursor or catalyst of protest.

And to conclude? Hetherington and Koselleck both discuss how space plays crucial roles in the development of the public sphere. Hetherington, I feel, subsumes a little too much under his concept of heterotopia, making it difficult to see how the impulse of resistance and protest might grow out of the spaces he describes, which in his hands become little more than instances of ordering. Koselleck is more helpful in tracing the dynamics whereby the ostensibly apolitical gets political, despite the unfairness and rigidity of his argument and despite his love for Leviathan.


Hetherington, Kevin (1997) The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering, London & New York: Routledge.

Koselleck, Reinhart (1988 [1959]) Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Nobody's dead

Reading the news of the bin Laden assassination I am reminded of Polyphemus. You remember - the gigantic cyclops who was blinded by Odysseus. In the story, Odysseus gets away from the raging cyclops with the help of his cunning, calling himself "Nobody" so that poor Polyphemus makes a fool out of himself when he calls for help. Having escaped out of the cave by trickery, Odysseus sails to safety and new adventures, narrowly escaping the rocks that the cyclops in vain hurls at his ship.

Of course, in the story we've been served in the media the ending is different. The cyclops gets his revenge and justice is done.

Do we feel dismayed or happy? Well, I personally don't feel like celebrating in the street. Nor do newspaper headlines saying "Rot in hell" or "Got the bastard" make me very happy. Frankly, I find it revulsive when presidents or secretaries of state find it in order to sound like boasting maffia bosses: "You won't see him walking this earth again", "You cannot wait us out, you cannot defeat us..."

Incidentally, my first thought when I read the news was that Charles Tilly was entirely right in stating, as he does in several of his texts, that there is a close analogy between state government and organized crime.

What fascinates me - oh yes, I admit that I do find these lurid pieces of news fascinating - is not Mr Nobody (as many have already pointed out, he was already a nobody by the time of his death), but Polyphemus.
What then does the Cyclops symbolize, this one-eyed giant with his terrible caves and his sheep farming? Of course the one-eyed fanaticism and crudely simplistic dominance, which has existed in all times and which is just as strong and one-eyed in our own time. Stupidity's language of power, the dictatorship of narrowmindedness. Truly, we have reason to ask how things will fare. We are trapped in the cave of the Cyclops, now as then. Among wolves we play sheep. Confronted by the threat of the Cyclops' groping hands we hide under the ram's stomach, trying to make the despot believe we are his favorite ram. (Harry Martinsson)
Well, I'm not sure this portrayal of the Cyclops as the stupid despot is all there is to this many-sided creature. At the very least, there is one little bit missing, which I think Adorno and Horkheimer help us to see when they stress the fact that to Homer, the Cyclopses were primitive barbarians unacqainted with laws, agriculture and civilization.
Stupidity and lawlessness share a common definition: when Homer calls the Cyclops a "lawless-minded monster", he does not mean simply that the Cyclops does not respect the laws of morality but this his thinking itself is lawless, unsystematic, rhapsodic (Adorno & Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment)  
Fortunately, there's a neat way to solve the logical conundrum that the Cyclops seems to connote both repressive state power and lawlessness. We only need to recall Schmitt's formula: sovereign is he who decides on the exception. The essence of sovereign power consists in the very power to abrogate the law or the constitution. The state can protect the lawful order only by virtue of possessing the power to set the law aside and create a temporary lawlessness in the form known as a state of emergency or "state of exception". What is revealing and helpful in Schmitt's formula is that it points out that such lawlessness is not so much an aberration but rather the very essence or core of state power.

This power of course also extends over information, over the "truth". The openly admitted logic of state interest that makes Obama withhold the photo of bin Laden's corpse, would indicate that other inconvenient pieces of information are also likely to be withheld the moment they clash with state interest. No problem if the body is too brutally mutilated to be shown - we'll just mutilate the truth as well so that we don't have to show it.

There's no need, however, to interpret this sovereign power as rational, Machiavellian or calculating. Let us recall the blind rage of American politics in the wake of 9.11, a rage that American politicians never made any attempt to hide. In fact, I believe they took pride in it, perhaps even delighting in how mad and barbaric they had become. Let me echo Adorno & Horkheimer here: calling this politics lawless does not mean simply that it lacked respect for laws but that its thinking was itself lawless, unsystematic, rhapsodic. Isn't there even something almost endearingly stupid in the way the Obama administration has gone about the business of the photo? Telling people that they won't be shown it because it will make them hate you really sounds like a very good way to placate them, doesn't it?

The source of my fascination is seeing the face of the stupid Cyclops appear in the raw, in the full, naked and undisguised display of his brutal powers. It's not so often that it happens. Usually it hides away, pretending not to exist, under its much more civilized, lawful, and agreeably democratic and tolerant surface. Even when the traces of barbarism are a little bit too conspicuous to be hidden away - like when things like Guantanamo or the use of torture get a little too much attention - they are usually treated as embarrassing facts rather than things to boast about. I am not just talking about the sycophancy of the present US administration here. I have no doubts that all states possess similar monsters in their caves somewhere, ready to jump out at the slightest provocation, wreak their havoc and dance in the streets when the nobodys that dared to disturb them have been crushed to pulp.

As the dancing stops, however, we will be treated to another macabre spectacle: that of Cyclops' face reverting back into the smiling, familiar and civilized faces of whatever "progressive" politicians happen to be in power and addressing their people through their TV cameras. What interests me is not at all the mutilated face of bin Laden, but the uncanny face of the state. No photos of that, please. It's not a pretty picture.
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