Preparing for occupation: Harvey, Lefebvre, & Debord on public space

September 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Public spaces, perhaps more than private, have a powerful capacity for signification. This is where market & cultural exchanges happen & where the international image of a city or country is represented. It is also the stage of news, history & — sometimes — demonstrations. That is certainly the ideal of a democratic space at least: creating public space socially through the means of using public space.

Yet distinguishing between private & public space today is very difficult. For example, although anonymous, all ventures into virtual space are traceable so they cannot be said to be properly private. The internal happenings of a household too, most people are aware, are not necessarily as private as was once assumed: in the security states of today, not only are people aware that they might be monitored but they are often very willing to sacrifice privacy for security.

What we treat as public spaces or services — parks & squares, transport & security — have, in fact, usually been privatized: the legal reality of which is that use is at the whim of owners, not rights, & certain groups are more likely to find themselves excluded. Particularly vulnerable are the lower economic class & ethnicities that happen to be associated with the lower economic class. Ownership of space implies the right to distribute the resources of that space, including the physical space itself as a resource. Ownership is a form of unkempt individualism.

David Harvey points out that everyone can make a claim to the city — he lists the homeless & sans-papiers alongside financiers & developers — & that all contribute importantly to building & continuing urban life (Rebel Cities xv). People confuse this fact of cross-class contribution, the argument continues, because they treat the right to private property [&, thereby, the rights of property-owners] as superior to other[s’] rights (3): it is against this conviction that Harvey has made an important academic career. One of the many definitions he gives of the city is “democratic control over the deployment of the surpluses through urbanization” (42). With his Marxist education, he asserts that the restricted use of urban spaces & capitalism cannot be separated; &, indeed, any claim to the city will be a threat to the established politco-economic system.

While Harvey says everyone can make a claim to the city, Henri Lefebvre believes that everyone should. Both are against the conception of urban space as private property. As Lefebvre sees it, the city is not just an instrument of control but also a book with all the class oppressions written into it; aristocrats & oligarchs “justify their privilege in the community by somptuously [sic] spending vities. It is important to emphasize this paradox, for it is not a very well understood historical fact: very oppressive societies were very creative & rich in creating oeuvres” (Right to the City 67). Lefebvre challenges the continuation of such control & oppression with the notion that citadins [inhabitants of a particular city] have the rights to participate & appropriate public spaces — this includes the right to modify public spaces to better suit their needs. The right to the city was imagined to be a continuous exercise in democracy that

should modify, concretize & make more practical the rights of the citizen as an urban dweller (citadin) & user of multiple services. It would affirm, on the one hand, the right of users to make known their ideas on the space & time of their activities in the urban area; it would also cover the right to the use of the center, a privileged place, instead of being dispersed & stuck into ghettos (for workers, immigrants, the ‘marginal’ & even for the ‘privileged’). (The Production of Space 34)

An urgent need to change the intellectual approaches & tools is vouched for in The Right to the City, where Lefebvre proposes transduction as such a tool for experimenting with new utopias. “Transduction elaborates & constructs a theoretical object, a possible object from information related to reality & a problematic posed by this reality” (151) — it is a methodology practiced by city-planners, architects, academics, philosophers, & the like. Transduction is not absolutist.

Transduction is, in fact, how the philosophy of the city has been practiced long before it became a subject to write about. Guy Debord, who made his name with The Society of the Spectacle where he argues that the commodification of desires has led to a serious degradation of humanity, is the prime twentieth century example of this. Debord initiated the Situationist International who, in their own words, aimed “To transform our desires into reality is a precise task, precisely the contrary of the intellectual prostitution that grafts its illusions of permanence onto any reality that happens to exist” (Situationist Times #12, 1969, ‘The Beginning of an Era’). Situationists were interested in exploring how urban objects influence social relations as a way of demystifying them to give life to more authentic exchanges & desires.

Instead of concentrating on a theory that would post factum be applied, they jumped straight into the practical implications of claiming space: anti-capitalism, anti-authoritarianism, & the inversion of hegemonic ideas & language. Instead of writing books, they published a critical magazine, The Situationist Times, in which ideas could be explored without being treated as doctrine. The movement strongly criticized those who practiced a more eschatological methodology, including Lefebvre for advocating transduction without practicing it.

The three theories briefly introduced here, in spite of their distinctions & disagreements, together depict the social zeitgeist that leads into [or precedes] a reclaiming of public space by the people. Is there a city today that cannot relate to them? Is it any wonder that occupations & protests have become a global phenomenon?  What else can we learn from Harvey, Lefebvre, & Debord? They do not offer an alternative society but a mode of resistance, after all. How should we reorganize conduct in public spaces? These are the questions that need to be taken to the next plenums, to the streets. & only then will we start to use public space in the manner of active citadins who practice democracy in the only space it is conceivable: in public.


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