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.

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