Politics and public space

DSCF1014If you are stuck for holiday reading, perhaps a short debate on how best to theorise the relationship between public space and politics is what you are looking for? If you have access to the journal Policy and Politics, you will find a couple of responses in the current issue by myself and Quentin Stevens to a short provocation in the previous issue by John Parkinson entitled ‘Political public space: what it is, why it is special and why standard spatial nostrums mislead’. My contribution is really an elaboration of some aspects of Parkinson’s argument, an appreciation, just to show I am not only ‘critical’ when writing in critique-mode. To cut a long story short, Parkinson’s argument is that the ‘big-P’ political significance of certain sorts of public spaces is dangerously sidelined by arguments about the ‘little-P’, or shall we say, ‘cultural politics’ significance of public space understood as a field of broad, dispersed sociable encounters. I think he might be right. What is interesting about the ‘debate’ is that it does underscore the degree to which the precise relationship between political-politics uses of public space and cultural-politics uses of public space, to make a simple distinction, remains poorly theorised and difficult to investigate empirically in interesting ways (I think the significance of Parkinson’s argument, in his work on public space and democracy, lies precisely in focussing clear attention on the Big-P political relevance of uses of public space, something which is often taken for granted in more or less dismissive ways by arguments which are keen to claim ‘political’ relevance for any and all uses of public space).

The same issue of the journal also has an interesting collection of essays exploring the theme of Reconfiguring the Local Public Realm, which comes out of a workshop held in Bristol a couple of years or so ago, which I did attend and present a paper at, but was unable to contribute a final paper towards. It includes a range of pieces from planners, political scientists, and others – I would recommend the paper by Jeremy Seekings in particular, on the question of ‘Is the South Brazilian?

Is politics an enigma?

Via Derek Gregory at geographicalimaginations, I’ve just come across a short essay at Adbusters from Andrew Merrifield diagnosing the ‘spatial’ lessons of Occupy, which he presents in terms of the challenge of linking a clear and adequate Marxist theory of capitalism to the rather elusive practical challenge of doing politics in light of that sort of analysis. I guess the ‘engima’ that Andrew identifies might not be so puzzling if one did not imagine that the theory was quite so adequate, and if one did not suppose that ‘revolt’ was the only plausible model for thinking about politics. Oh well.

The essay does contain a nice description of what’s ‘public’ about occupied spaces, one that punctures the romance of ‘real’ spaces of assembly – publicness turns out to be about both situated encounters as well as catching the attention of more dispersed, disseminated audiences. A nice image, certainly, developed more fully in John Parkinson’s recent book which I mentioned a while back, for example, or in Kurt Ivesen’s work on spaces of public address , or various other places in which a stretched-out notion of public space is developed . It’s not really a terribly ‘revolting’ idea at all.

New book: Democracy and Public Space by John Parkinson

I have just begun reading a new book by John Parkinson, Democracy and Public Space (I came across it here). It combines theorising about key concepts – democracy, public space – with comparative analysis of the quality of democratic public spaces in major cities around the world. Parkinson argues that “democracy depends to a surprising extent on the availability of physical, public space, even in our allegedly digital world. It also argues that in many respects the availability of space for democratic performance is under threat, and that by overlooking the need for such space – or arguing against that need – we run the risk of undermining some important conditions of democracy in the modern world.”

That might not sound like an unusual argument to geographers and urbanists – it is common enough to find people in these fields arguing about the continuing importance of ‘real’ physical space for democratic politics. Parkinson’s argument is directed at democratic and political theorists, but opens up a dialogue with spatial disciplines too. He has some insightful comments about the limits of spatial theory when it comes to thinking about public space and democracy – he identifies two blind spots:

“The first is that all sorts of public activity are often treated as categorical and normative equivalents: that encountering members of the public in playful settings is normatively the same as engaging in binding collective decision-making, for example. The second is that the idea of democracy is either taken as a background assumption not worth exploring or is taken to be something roughly equivalent to freedom. In some work, this generates unintended irony. There are writers who decry the privatization of public space on the grounds that people can no longer ‘do what they want’ in it, which merely pits one liberal individualist claim against another without providing any reasons to choose between them. I shall spend some time in this book providing reasons – liberal reasons – to choose between some competing claims on the use of space but also argue that, for the most part, democracy is the means we use to make such choices, not something to which we can appeal to make the choice for us.”

I think he is pretty much spot on in both respects. His book also spends some time thinking through just what is ‘public’ about public spaces, what sort of value it is that defines publicness – it might be accessibility, or use of common resources, or common impact, or public role performance.

It will be interesting to see if the book gets any traction in geography-land – Parkinson’s conception of space is probably not wobbly enough, his mode of theorising about democracy and public space probably too ‘liberal’, his use of comparative empirics a little too conventional. These are all things I like about the book. Above all, it is a slow exposition of a performative theory of democracy that centres on practices, and spaces, of claim-making, and it takes time to think through the meaning of concepts and how they can be cashed-out empirically.