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Common spaces of urban emancipation
Common spaces of urban emancipation
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Common spaces of urban emancipation

Stavros Stavrides

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📖 eBook - ePub

Common spaces of urban emancipation

Stavros Stavrides

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This is an exciting book, which explores the cultural meaning and politics of common spaces in conjunction with ideas connected with neighbourhood and community, justice and resistance, in order to trace elements of a different emancipating future.




Space as potential

Commoning experience
What this work attempts to establish is a rethinking of the possibility of human emancipation through a rethinking of space: space considered both as a concrete social reality (city, house, public space, territory) and as a form, a pattern, which is employed, along with other forms, to establish and reproduce the contested meanings of social reality. Space is considered both the locus of experience and a powerful means for constructing thoughts on and representations of what exists. In terms of experience, space concretizes relations between actually existing people (“singularities” according to Paolo Virno – we will return to this), which shape the horizon of the sensible. What Jacques Rancière actually suggests is that the “distribution of the sensible” is a socially regulated process which does not simply dominate thought (as in the ideological dressage established by relevant ideological apparatuses) but, crucially, experience, what is to be experienced. Experience may become a social fact only when it is shared, only when it is represented (expressed, narrated, shown through voluntary or involuntary body signs as, for example, in an exclamation or in a cry of anguish). Experience, then, is socially controlled through the distribution of the sensible because it is made a social fact through exchanges of actions and expressions between people. Although the distribution of the sensible tries to limit and arrange the field of possible experiences and thus cripple experience as potentiality, the social life of experiences is a process of sharing, which in principle may escape dominant classifications.
The reasons for this are of two different kinds. The first kind is ontological, as it refers to the very character of the human species. As Virno suggests: “Our species is characterized by its ‘openness to the world’ – if we understand by ‘world’ a vital context which is always unpredictable and partially undetermined” (2009: 98). Openness, according to this view, is caused by the lack of precise instincts and drives which would univocally guide the human animal to construct its habitat.
The second kind of reason is partially the product of the first one. Because the human species is open to the world, it develops a multiplicity of “solutions” to its survival, based on the construction of different forms of social organization. History, then, considered as the temporal canvas on which those differentiations may be projected, essentially opens the field of potential experiences. Different epochs have constructed and de-constructed different patterns of the sensible. The sensible, thus, constitutes a contested terrain, importantly linked to the production and reproduction of a certain social organization.
Virno suggests that this species-specific openness to the world goes hand in hand with a predominant pre-individual reality that precedes the process of individuation. The human individual retains the pre-individual traits of the species (2015b: 224), which are the generic human faculties (language being the most important of them), and is being constructed historically as a singular subject in the context of a specific society.
This approach puts at the very center of the problematization of the common the idea that the process of individuation follows an ambiguous and probably contradictory path, which starts from a condition of commonness: “What is unique, unrepeatable, fragile, comes from what is undifferentiated and generic” (2015b: 224).
On the importance of this pre-individual reality, Virno summons important, albeit diverse, thinkers. Among them are G. Simondon, who identifies the pre-individual reality with nature; M. Merleau Ponty, who considers sensations as anterior and alien to personal life (2015b: 225); and Vygotsky, who insists on the “pre-individual, immediately social nature of human speech” (2015b: 226). What is, however, the cornerstone according to Virno of this pre-individual reality is thought, the shared capacity to think, which is historically mobilized in different societies as shared knowledge and ways to knowledge, a condition that Marx has termed “general intellect” (2015b: 227). What is common to all humans, then, according to this approach, precedes the processes of differentiation which result in historically distinct individuals (and individual trajectories).
A different approach to human ontogenesis also discovers and supports the primacy of the common as compared to individual. One phrase that emblematizes it in J. L. Nancy’s words is: “Being is in common” (1991: 1). Commonness is not something which can be separated from existence. “Being cannot be anything but being-with-one-another, circulating in the with and as the with of this singularly plural coexistence” (2000: 3, emphasis in original).
For Nancy, the ontological primacy of the common does not refer to a generic level of human capacities but it clearly describes the necessary foundation of sense: “any sense is necessarily common sense … with the meaning that any sense is made of communication, of sharing or exchange” (2010: 150, emphasis in original). Singularities exist and are shaped within a shared horizon of being, and they cannot be subtracted from such an inclusive horizon. So, if there are processes of differentiation between and of individuals, these are integral to the essence of being. Being is common, it is being with, it is being singular because of the plurality developed within this “with.”
That is why Nancy openly confronts identitarian policies and discourses on purity (of race, of culture etc.), which essentially cancel the foundational role of the “with.” In his “Eulogy for the meleé” (2000) and with direct reference to the nationalist purisms which destroyed Sarajevo (the city of meleé par excellence) he states: “The common, having-in-common or being-in-common, excludes interior unity, subsistence and presence in and for itself” (2010: 154). Pure “uncontaminated” identity, pure originary identity enclosed in its solipsistic self-affirmation, is really a fantasy. It can become, however, a very dangerous fantasy, a lethal one.
Returning to the problematization of space and its relation to human emancipation, we may suggest that the inherent dynamics of the experience (ontologically and historically potentially open to non-predetermined patterns) makes concrete spatial conditions both the means for and the scope of upsetting any historically dominant “distribution of the sensible.” An obvious way in which unclassified or even “dissident” experiences may arise is by making visible what was not before (and this does not necessarily mean that what was not visible did not exist – making visible means directing experience towards something that becomes, thus, socially meaningful). Spatial arrangements may be obviously used to hide, to reveal, to exalt, and to compare in terms of visible characteristics. Spaces may be concretely employed in producing, enhancing, or destroying visibility (of acts, actors, objects etc.). If emancipation has to do with social relations that are based on equality, justice, sharing, and solidarity, experiences in space, experiences shaped through existing spaces, may concretize such relations in the form of lived conditions. And what is more, the actual unfolding of such relations in space may become the testing ground for their emancipatory potential.
Struggles and representations
Sharing experiences does not simply mean being part of the same event, being “there” and “then” together with others. If experience is not only an individual processing of outer stimuli but a complex form of interaction with human and non-human environment, one needs to dwell on the intricacies of such a process: interaction, when focused especially on humans, has to do with voluntary and involuntary ways of responding to the actions of others. Experience, thus, is shaped in action and is expressed as action. Exchanges employ a whole array of means in which experiences are shared by being expressed and actually unfold by being expressed. In the context of human society, experience is socialized and socialization develops in time and “takes place” in space through shared experiences.
It seems that one of the most important ways in which the sharing of experiences happens is based on space considered as a form. Referring to spatial forms, people may convey experiences of protected life or horrified uncertainty in front of an unfathomable unknown, depending of course on the context of experiences and the conditions of sharing. Experience becomes meaningful but it is actually transformed in the process of becoming meaningful according to the socio-historical framework of sharing. Available spatial forms (presented through stereotypical images, diagrams, photographic snapshots, etc.) are not to be reduced to inert containers which give recognizable form to experience considered as the formless raw material produced by the senses. Available spatial forms, developed through social education, actually interact with experiences while giving them form. Spatial forms in such a context are more like dynamic constellations of spatial relations concertized by being employed in the process of experience sharing.
The distribution of the sensible is based on a set of mechanisms which oversee and control the field of possible experiences as well as the forms of their representation in social interaction. As a complex process of social reproduction it is formed in a field of social antagonisms and it attempts to regulate their outcomes in favor of the existing social organization. We should not understand the distribution of the sensible as an established condition of social homogeneity but rather as an evolving project of social normalization (in Michael Foucault’s understanding of the term, 2009) that necessarily is open to contestation. In order for an imposed horizon of experiences and human relations to be accepted as natural a continuous support from representations of society (including representations of crucial sectors of social life as work, inhabiting, health etc.) is needed, which manages to convince society’s members of its necessity, efficacy, morality, stability etc. In other words, dominant representations of society must naturalize and de-historicize existing social relations.
However, humans are not merely subjected to mechanisms of control which merely produce unavoidable patterns of behavior. Bourdieu insists that it is dispositions that are being inculcated through social training, generating schemes for possible action rather than direct instructions on how to behave and think. Dispositions, thus, mark and seek to define a field of possible actions rather than determine actions and subjects of actions unequivocally.
The fact that Bourdieu recognizes that “a struggle over representations in the sense of mental images” (1991: 221) is unavoidable, actually stems from such a grounding of social normalization on dispositions (rather than on fixed determinations). Representations are, as are actions, the result of inculcated dispositions activated in different life contingencies. No matter how well structured social life aspires to be (or, actually, how well structured dominant elites aspire to keep social life), differing circumstances (including historical crises or discontinuities in the life trajectories of certain individuals) may produce incoherencies between dispositions or abrupt clashes between normalized expectancies and social potentialities. A struggle over representations may be latent, in a status of implicit disobedience, or become an explicit conflict which employs “new” and “old” weapons. Indigenous world-views (“old” weapons) were employed in such struggles in the context of anti-colonial culture wars. Also, innovative representations of gender or work relations have been employed to shake established dispositions in different societies (“new” weapons, as, for example, introducing gender equality images in the patriarchal Kurdish culture in the context of contemporary Kurdish liberation struggles).
Dominant as well as counter-dominant or dissident representations of society as a whole or of specific social relations need to draw their means from social experience. Space as the matrix and shaping factor of social experiences acquires a crucial role both in the establishing of the distribution of the sensible and in the challenging of its premises and its limits.
Thinking through space
Thinking and employing spatial relations in the expression of shared thoughts and aspirations is a way of taking part in “struggles over representations.” One can employ images of spaces to express experiences and to illustrate thoughts. At this level, representations of spaces acquire the power to represent the kind of social life that inhabits them, albeit selectively. Representations of such a kind may become emblematic condensations of exemplary practices contributing, thus, to the corroboration of existing dispositions. Moreover, dispositions themselves may be inculcated in early periods of formative education through spatial representations made available to the new members of a society as a means to shape their behavior and thinking.
A deeper, and thus more crucial, level of implication of spatial representations in social life is that which connects space-as-form with the production and not merely with the expression of thoughts. Maybe Walter Benjamin, more than any other thinker, has understood the importance of this way of thinking; he even made it a generative process in his writings and in the formation of his critical approach to modernity’s emancipatory potential.
Benjamin both practices and philosophically explores thinking-in-images. As Sigrid Weigel formulates it, “thinking-in-images constitutes his specific and characteristic way of theorizing, of philosophizing and of writing” (1996: 53). And, thus, she proposes that “images are not the object, but rather the matrix and medium of his theoretical work” (1996: x).
Thinking-in-images means thinking through images. And this ability is not merely the accomplishment of an idiosyncratic thinker. It is more like a human capacity, developed in different ways and levels according to specific historic contingencies. Scientific reasoning is supposedly devoid of this kind of thinking that may be misleading or even mythologizing. Susan Sontag has shown (to name just one example), how, indeed, such a form of thinking nevertheless controlled both the description of AIDS and of cancer as diseases by medical discourse and how this deeply impacted on the dominant social meaning as well as on the research focused on the treatment of these diseases (1978, 1989). Images of war infest and guide both the understanding of the disease mechanism and its interception (confrontation being one more war image).
Thinking-in-images gives Benjamin the means to criticize modernity by thinking through the images of the modern city. As we know, he was not an urban theorist, and his interest in modernity’s exemplary metropolises (mainly Berlin and Paris) was generated from his aim at unearthing modernity’s potentialities. The modern city, according to him, was not merely reflecting representations of typical modern experiences but was, rather, shaped as a quasi-geological stratified formation bearing witness to the historic potentialities characteristic of modernity’s discontinuous project. The city, thus, was not approached as a stock of images to be employed in order to illustrate a criticism of modernity. Spatial images, spaces-as-images, were considered as the means to think about modernity, as means to develop ways of thinking that ventured to find something new about modern life rather than demonstrate something already well known through images.
Maybe Benjamin, in his way, becomes deeply involved in a specific “struggle over representations” when he questions modern phantasmagoria as projected in the images of Paris “the capital of the nineteenth century” (1983). It is not that he only deconstructs modern phantasmagoria by revealing the ambiguities and distorted promises of the mythology of progress. He actually thinks through the images of urban phantasmagoria in search of “thought-images” which can further explore such a mythology in search of its hidden emancipatory potential. In the images of the great brand-new boulevards or the Parisian arcades Benjamin finds these potentialities (1999, especially Convolute L).
To promote thinking-in-images as a practice that interprets (and thus potentially challenges) firmly established dispositions is indeed a project of so...

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APA 6 Citation
Stavrides, S. (2019). Common spaces of urban emancipation (1st ed.). Manchester University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Stavrides, Stavros. (2019) 2019. Common Spaces of Urban Emancipation. 1st ed. Manchester University Press.
Harvard Citation
Stavrides, S. (2019) Common spaces of urban emancipation. 1st edn. Manchester University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Stavrides, Stavros. Common Spaces of Urban Emancipation. 1st ed. Manchester University Press, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.