The Prison of “Public Space”

Before we take to the streets, this pervasive concept needs rethinking.

Public space is the age’s master signifier, a loose and elastic notion variously deployed to defend (or attack) architecture, to decry (or celebrate) civic squares, to promote (or denounce) graffiti artists, skateboarders, jaywalkers, parkour aficionados, pie-in-the-face guerrillas, underground capture-the-flag enthusiasts, flash-mob surveillance busters and other grid-resistant everyday anarchists. It is the unit of choice when it comes to understanding pollution predicting political futures, thinking about citizenship, lauding creativity and worrying about food, water or the environment. It is either rife with corporate creep and visual pollution, or made bleak by intrusive surveillance technology, or both. It is a site of suspicion, stimulation and transaction all at once. For some, it is the basis of public discourse itself, the hardware on which we run reason’s software. Simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, it is political air.

Given the seeming inexhaustibility of the political demand to reclaim public space, what is strange is that nobody admits they have no idea what it is. Most of us assume we know, but more often the assumption is a matter of piety rather than argument—and confused piety at that. Consider the text of a recent open letter to the mayor of Toronto from the Toronto Public Space Committee, an activist group concerned about surveillance cameras: “The proposed police cameras will be surveying public spaces throughout the city. We feel that it is reasonable to assume that law-abiding citizens should be free to walk the streets and enjoy the public spaces without being monitored by the police. The very act of continuous monitoring reduces the freedoms we all value within our public spaces. It puts into jeopardy our rights to privacy, and anonymity, on the streets of our city.”

Even opponents of the surveillance society can see that something has gone wrong in this form of thinking. What, exactly? To find out, I want to raise two rude, basic questions that nobody seems to ask: Is public space actually a public good? And if so, what kind?

First of all, let us understand public goods as a subcategory of goods in general. In classical economics, a good is public when access to it is not gated by ownership, so that its benefits—what make it a good—are available to everyone, and one person’s use of the good does not diminish another’s ability to use it. In the jargon, such goods are non-rival and non-excludable. Public goods come in different forms: they may concern “tangible” things (grazing land, fish in the sea, the air we breathe) or intangible ones (education, cultural identity, political participation). Since they are non-rival, public goods are theoretically unlimited by definition; in fact they often become scarce as a result of use.

How? Well, imagine the public good is a natural resource, such as potable water, whose supply is limited even as its value to everyone is obvious. Access to such goods is supposed to be of common interest. Unfortunately, when unmanaged, even abundant public goods are frequently subject to what the economist Garrett Hardin called “the tragedy of the commons.” It is rational for each one of us to take advantage of a public good, but, to the extent that we all do, and we increase our advantage as interest dictates, the ultimate effect is the destruction of the resource. Hardin’s common grazing land example makes the point vivid: each one of us has an interest in feeding as many of our livestock as we can, but as more and more people do so, the common land is soon brought up to its limit, and then, as quickly, passes that limit. Result: everybody loses for winning.

The typical responses to this threat are regulation or privatization. Neither is without cost. Privatization of some goods—air, for example—is economically untenable as well as offensive to the common need (although privately supplied water, sold in bottles for profit, is now widely accepted: a red flag). Regulation, like all law, is difficult to enforce at the margins. It also risks what economists call the ratchet effect: the more law you have, the more you will need, and you can’t go back once you’ve begun. (To be sure, depletion of the resource is also subject to ratchet effects: use begets more and greater use, to the point of failure.)

Other problems afflict non-material public goods. Take education, which most people like to consider—and all politicians claim to be—a public good. In theory, there is no reason why it should not be: my enjoyment of the benefits of education should not hamper yours, after all; there is more than enough to go around. But in practice, education is structured in the form of institutional access, and the competition for that access generates a zero-sum game—my having the good means you cannot have it. We find education quickly sliding into the paradoxical category of a positional public good: something that in principle is universally available but that nevertheless falls prey to rivalry and exclusion.

In the ideal theory, positional public goods are a contradiction in terms because anything zero-sum is not public; in reality, the hybrid of publicness and exclusive competition is unfortunately common. And that is much harder to regulate than ordinary goods. Environmental quality or beauty in a landscape are other positional public goods: in theory open to all and non-rival, in practice they are frequently gated by access and opportunity costs. The given landscape view may be obtained only from a private house, for example, or the university place may be preferentially available to the child of a graduate. Theoretical general access is almost always unevenly distributed in fact. Here we have only to think of the alleged public goods known as equality before the law and the rightful pursuit of happiness. The latter tends to generate the competitive equivalent of a commons tragedy, a race to the bottom. Ever struggling to establish position against their neighbours, individuals compete so hard that everyone ends up spending more than they have. Once more working in ratchet, they progressively price themselves out of their own happiness market, but on a wide social scale.

Since happiness is not itself subject to political regulation, at least in liberal states, and because the public good of status lies beyond their ambit, governments tend to manipulate the competition instead, using regulation, taxation or reparation to express a common interest in the distribution of public goods. In an ideal world, the income produced by regulation can end up managing the first kind of public goods, such as scarce land or fresh water, so that they survive commons tragedies, or maintaining a vigorous public interest in goods that tend toward competition, such as education, to avoid unequal use or races to the bottom.

Is public space one of these goods? Framing an answer to that question is difficult in part because space falls somewhere between the tangible and the intangible. It can mean material facts such as right-of-way easements on private fields, or the sidewalks and parks of a city. These are there for everyone’s use and enjoyment and, absent vandalism or overuse, they remain non-rival and non-excludable.

But public space can also mean something larger and looser: the right to gather and discuss, to interact with and debate one’s fellow citizens. Indeed, the first definition is too narrow for most activists because, even if material facts and built forms are crucial to public space, the merely interstitial notion of public space is too limited. This larger notion of public space brings it closer to the very idea of the public sphere, that place where, in the minds of philosophers at least, citizens hammer out the common interests that underlie—and maybe underwrite—their private differences and desires. Here we seek to articulate, according to an ideal theory, the common good, not just a bundle of specific ones. Public space enables a political conversation that favours the unforced force of the better argument, the basis of just social order.

This notion of a singular public good bears a semantic and justificatory affinity with Rousseau’s distinction between the will of all (mere aggregation of interest) and the general will (what is actually good for everyone), and also with the liberal claim that what interests the public is not identical with the public interest. The trouble here is not that rational-public-sphere versions of public space are romantic fictions, although they may well be that. Ideals and romances can be powerful political levers, after all, just as reason’s normative power can be effective even amidst widespread irrationality. No, the real problem is that these ideals clash at base and in principle with the presumed authority of private appetite operating in economic reason, where goods are understood as things to be used, enjoyed or consumed.

A different sort of tragedy of the commons obtains when the order of priority runs from private to public, from individual to social. Instead of the destruction of a public resource from overuse by individuals, we observe the conceptual negation of publicness itself because of presuppositions of propertarian individualism. A shopping arcade or street is a public space only in the sense that in it each one of us pursues our own version of the production of consumption. Note the two crucial ironies of this clash.

First, private individuals enter into the so-called public space as floating bubbles of private space, suspicious of intrusion by strangers and jealous of their interests. On this model, “public” space is not public at all; it is merely an open marketplace of potential transactions, monetary or otherwise, between isolated individuals. Contracts are engaged, sometimes generating negative externalities—noise, crowding, traffic—that are shouldered as opportunity costs for the general activity. Here the ongoing concern with surveillance, which is often deployed as a concern over public space, really entails an obliteration of it. “It is fashionable to complain how, today, when one’s extreme intimate personal details, right down to details of one’s sex life, can be exposed in the media, private life is threatened, even disappearing,” Slavoj Žižek notes in The Parallax View. “This is true, on condition that we turn things around: what is in fact disappearing in the public display of intimate details is public life itself, the public sphere proper in which one operates as a symbolic agent who cannot be reduced to a private individual, to a bundle of intimate properties, desires, traumas, idiosyncrasies.” The recent spectacle of French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his supermodel wife, Carla Bruni, may be taken as a case in point: in the past, this private matter, staying private, would have bolstered Sarkozy’s public role as a man of both passion and discretion. “This time the media is not trying to pry into the private life of a public man,” David Remnick commented in The New Yorker. “This time, a public man is trying desperately to parade his private life in front of the media.”

Second, and as a direct result, any porousness of public and private, say from technological change, generates a confusion that is invariably resolved in favour of the private, as in the protest letter from the Public Space Committee, which confuses public space with individual extension of private space. Social networking websites, to take another example, are sometimes praised as a form of public space; but they are invariably defended by users as, in the breach, private. Narcissistic, competitive and isolating, these systems leach interest and energy away from the real world even as, user by user, they work social interaction free of actual spaces.

Fearsome stories of coordinated harassment and suicide are avoidance rituals that keep the confusion active. The only occasion, or response, to the issue is a legal presumption of individual rights; only their violation prompts regulatory interest in the “electronic commons”—and it is doomed to failure anyway, since transnational networks supporting such websites are impossible to control with traditional mechanisms. Touted as freedom, these networks are in fact no more than unsupervised orgies of self-interest and self-surveillance, vast herds of humans indulging the evolutionary aping behaviour philosopher René Girard labels mimetic desire—and that some of us call lemming behaviour. Even Charles Taylor, who saw that, absent any other values, individual freedom invariably gives way to vanity and relativism, could not have predicted the sad, aimless, antidemocratic reality of Facebook, where friendship is a commodity.

Thus the strange case of unpublic public space. Even when nobody in particular owns a given area of a city, concrete or virtual, it doesn’t matter. That space is, conceptually speaking, owned by the dominant rules of the game, which are hinged to the norm of private interest—notwithstanding that they may destroy privacy at the very same time. Conceiving ourselves as individuals, the great gift of modern political thought reveals itself as a kind of booby prize, because the presumption of clashing private interests everywhere suffuses the spaces, all spaces, of life. Typical arguments for safeguarding public space, inevitably phrased against this background and so in its terms, are always already lost. For illustration of this point, consider one haunting narrative of that dominance, from a century and a half ago.

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”—significantly subtitled “A Story of Wall Street”—has for generations offered readers the unsettling spectacle of a man who appears to refuse to live. Bartleby, the mysterious copyist who appears one day in the “snug” chambers of a smug, well-to-do Manhattan lawyer, at first takes hungrily to the objectively dispiriting job of hand-copying legal documents: “As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion.” Bartleby’s craving is all for work, and he takes to the task of copying with an aura of perfect mechanical efficiency, a pre-facto Xerox machine in—albeit somewhat cadaverous—human form. “I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious,” the lawyer admits. “But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.”

The lawyer, who narrates the tale of that “singular set of men,” the copyists, writes as one recalling a surreal turn of events. He does not lack for self-knowledge, noting how he liked to follow the dictum that “the easiest way of life is the best” and repeating his association with John Jacob Astor, whose name “hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion.” The plaster bust of Cicero on his desk is an ironic tribute to eloquence from a man whose entire legal practice is without litigation or courtroom appearance. The narrator is a master of chancery, an office that provides him a comfortable and untroubled livelihood. Readers will not need to be reminded that chancery is the court of law concerned with wills and estates. The lawyer is a man who makes his living at the transactional margin between life and death—especially in dispute. (Dickens’s tragic and interminable Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House is a chancery case.)

Bartleby, that paragon of biddable labour, soon reveals new depths. First he refuses to check over his work. Then to fetch a document for the lawyer. Then to join an office conference with the other copyists, Nippers and Turkey—the latter a man of uneven temperament and the former a man who “knew not what he wanted,” forever adjusting his work table in search of optimum height. Then to speak, move or eat.

And yet, refuse is not quite right, because Bartleby’s notorious expression of non-cooperation, the phrase that irks the narrator even as his other underlings begin subconsciously to echo it, is “I would prefer not to.” This is not refusal in the sense of active objection, but neither is it the expression of an active desire, the way we might speak of a voting preference or a preference among offered goods. Bartleby’s progression is one of staged nullification, as he moves from not-working to not-answering to not-moving to, finally, not-living. He dies in prison, removed there from the lawyer’s former offices when, in a panic of frustration, the lawyer has uprooted his practice rather than continue to confront immovable Bartleby and his “dead-wall reveries,” so different from daydreaming or wool gathering. Cajoling him with promises of comfort and food even in prison, the lawyer receives the story’s most affecting line: “I know where I am,” Bartleby says to him, and turns his face to the final wall.

Bartleby’s is a story of walled streets and walls, as well as of Wall Street, the “cistern” of the lawyer’s office and the blank wall of emergent skyscrapers blotting the sky from Bartleby’s window view. But it is also the story of a wall of peculiar resistance to the logic of capitalist presupposition, expressed in the norms of work and pleasure, office and home.

Elizabeth Hardwick, in her perceptive 1981 essay, “Bartleby in Manhattan,” notes that the existential generality of the story is in tension with the specificity of its historical setting, which is less the gloried Manna-Hatta of Whitman’s ecstatic songs than it is the violent near-slums of Five Points, main site of Gangs of New York. (The story was published in 1853, ten years before the New York Draft Riots that feature in the climax of Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film.) From this perspective, Bartleby’s not leaving the office at the end of the day highlights, if only negatively, that which he prefers not to do. “It is very easy to imagine from history where the clerks, Nippers and Turkey, are of an evening,” she writes. “They are living in boarding houses, where half of New York’s population lived as late as 1841: newlyweds, families, single persons. Whitman did a lot of ‘boarding around,’ as he called it, and observed, without rebuke, or mostly without rebuke, that the boarding house led the unfamilied men to rush out after dinner to the saloon or the brothel, away from the unprivate private, to the streets which are the spirit of the city, which are the lively blackmail that makes city citizens abide.”

Lively blackmail and the unprivate private are the two poles of the commercialized social order. Inside, space is private in name but subject to crowding, density, stacking and endless subdivision. Outside, rescued from the “third place”—not home or office, is at best double edged. “Bartleby is not a true creature of Manhattan,” Hardwick goes on, “because he shuns the streets and is unmoved by the moral, religious, acute, obsessive, beautiful ideal of Consumption. Consumption is what one leaves one’s ‘divided space’ to honor.” This phrase “divided space” is central for Hardwick: it means the way space is divided between public and private, but also how private space itself is always divided, between apartments or houses, the thin, contested thresholds of private property and privacy. It recurs in two subsequent Hardwick essays, those on Edith Wharton and Henry James, whose New York characters typically had less first-hand experience of it.

Bartleby will not play the game of capital by the rules of general economy—rules that demand, first, the production of consumption and then, as a consequence, the production of excess, paroxysms of luxury. Bartleby’s course is itself excessive, however, a luxury of not-doing. He prefers not to work. He prefers not to eat. He prefers not to leave work for the sake of either an unprivate private or an unpublic public. And although his preference ultimately means death, he lives on as a challenge to the accepted order of things—what Althusser calls “the problematic,” that realm where problems and solutions alike are delineated under the rubric of the possible.

This is not an overtly political act—there is no call to arms—but it is one with political significance. Just note how the otherwise comfortable lawyer cannot shake off his sense of responsibility and confusion in the encounter, which begins to resemble a capitalist reprise of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. The lawyer is beholden because Bartleby is infinitely withdrawing from care and sense, without actively resisting anything and certainly without being infinitely demanding. His is not a utopian gesture; rather, it is a gesture of refusal to engage. His “resistance to amelioration,” to use Hardwick’s phrase, together with his refusal to enter the accepted lists of consumption—in all senses—make of Bartleby the endgame example of critique. With this “gesture of subtraction at its purest” (Žižek), where “body and statement are one” (Hardwick), Bartleby challenges the very idea of making sense according to the terms of sense that are presumptively accepted. “This is how we pass,” Žižek argues, “from the politics of ‘resistance’ or ‘protestation,’ which parasitizes upon what it negates, to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation.” In other words, his withdrawal is not an objection, which might be taken over and nullified by power’s dominant play; it is, rather, a refusal to play the game at all as currently ruled—thus creating the possibility of a new game altogether, albeit one with a grim end.

“At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” Bartleby tells the lawyer in response to one especially desperate charitable offer. With this, he gently rejects—note that oddly formal mitigation of “at present”—the basic tenet of all private-to-private exchange, the very foundation of a liberal public sphere and public goods: the norm of reasonableness. Once situated, Bartleby will not submit to the ironies of public space structured by consumption. He will not be reasonable. Result: prison, starvation, death. But Bartleby is not Kafka’s hunger artist, baffled by his own refusals; he knows, to the end, exactly where he is—and how he got there.

Can we say the same?

In addition to the realm of wills and estates, chancery law was historically concerned with matters of bankruptcy and confession. Let us confess, as Melville does in his story, the bankruptcy of our current notions of public space. We are all masters of chancery in the sense that we profit to varying degrees from the current arrangement, but in the end, as for Melville’s lawyer, the inequalities and contradictions of that arrangement will not be resolved by more pious gestures in the direction of revitalized or reclaimed public space. What is needed is a more radical reorientation.

On the prevailing view, public space is a public good at worst of the positional sort, where enjoyment is a competition, and at best of the simple sort, available for everyone’s selfish use. Nowhere does it manage to evade or transcend the presuppositions of the property model. In the collective unconscious public space is leftover space, the margins that remain between private holdings and commercial premises, the laneways and parks in which we negotiate not our collective meanings but our outstanding transactional interests, the ones not covered by production and consumption. Even nominally public institutions, such as the large cultural temples of museum or art gallery—artifact-holding artifacts of a democratization of aesthetic experience—do not outpace this unconscious diminution of meaning. They are beholden to private donors, their architecture decided by opaque competition, the curation a matter of esoteric intimidation.

None of which is to say that there is not much enjoyment to be had in these spaces, even as there surely was in the saloons and brothels of Melville’s New York. Arguments that remain engaged with the enjoyment question leave the larger presuppositions unquestioned. The suspicion of surveillance, though similarly mired, contains a kernel of awareness. The non-private streets and parks are still under the eye of the state, which monitors the presence of individuals via its monopoly on “legitimate” use of force. Each one of us is made forcibly aware of the traces we leave whenever we traverse these spaces, the swirl of bodily fluids and DNA as well as sheer visibility that is the stock-in-trade of forensic evidence. It is not a coincidence that cultural glamour currently attaches to the details of the forensic mechanism, technologies of visual spectacle celebrating the technologies of criminal localization. You are always present in the trace of potential guilt, the collar you cannot remove: in English sporting slang, a boxer or wrestler is in chancery when he is pummelled repeatedly while his head is locked in the opponent’s crooked arm.

Such pre-controlled public spaces are precisely what Althusser predicted as the final victory of ideology under conditions of individual interest. Being seen means being called: the “Hey, you there!” call of the state that Althusser labelled interpellation, carried within each one of us as expectation. In public, we are always in the grip of the state, and it is the state that controls the exception as well as legitimate force. Contemporary western societies remain an uneasy hybrid of associational and authoritarian social forms: democracy is a confusion of claims for individual liberty made among state-controlled structures of order and security that may, at any moment, revert to violence.

The salvation of this state is, theoretically, that we the people are the sovereign power, and that its mechanisms are thus always subject to our public decision and consent. And yet, the structural irony is that the mechanisms for exerting this mechanism control are themselves subject both to the state’s regulation and the de facto trivialization and commercialization characteristic of the private-public order: consider the vast war chest needed to contest an election, or the distorting feedback effects of exit polling and media saturation. The rational public sphere remains a chimera—albeit an essential one for the current arrangement to gesture toward—as long as the actual public spaces of our polity are merely public goods in the use-value sense, and the public interest reducible at any instant to the sum of what interests the public.

There is one further resonance to be recalled about the chancery court, the unspoken centre of Bartleby’s demise. In English common law, chancery court accepted claims made in excess of the strict text of the law. That is, equity or fairness arguments could be levelled there, against the black-letter application of statute—a nuance that saves common law from the tyranny of bureaucratic heartlessness. Chancery recognizes that justice is not achieved simply by mechanism, however efficient.

As with court, so with society. There can be no useful recourse to public space unless and until we reverse the polarity of our conception of publicness itself. It is sometimes said that the threshold between public and private must be a public decision. True, but go farther: the public is not a summing of private preferences or interests, nor even a wide non-rival availability of resources to those preferences or interests. It is, instead, their precondition: for meaning, for work, for identity itself. We imagine that we enter public space with our identities intact, jealous of interest and suspicious of challenge, looking for stimulus and response. But in fact the reverse is true. We cannot enter the public because we have never left the public; it pervades everything, and our identities are never fixed or prefigured because they are themselves achievements of the public dimension in human life.

So conceived, public space is not interstitial, marginal or left over. It is contested, always and everywhere, because identity is ever a matter of finding out who we are. Not a public good so much as an existential one: one without which democratic politics is impossible. On the reversal, the feared call of the state becomes the unsettling but necessary call of the other, without whom I am nothing.

Hey, you there.