> télécharger l'article

Intimacy and Publicity: productions of a political self

Malcolm Miles

University of Plymouth, UK

SINCE the 1990s, the provision of public spaces has become ubiquitous in urban redevelopment, following a growth in public art in the 1980s. In its preparation for the 1992 Olympic Games, the city of Barcelona created or renewed more than a hundred public spaces, many in residential neighbourhoods. But since then a market-led model has overtaken the city's progressive planning regime to produce, for instance, a new up-market consumption zone in Diagonal Mar - with a high-rise gated compound and the largest mall in the Western Mediterranean. It would be easy to lament the passing of a public sphere where people once freely debated matters of public interest. But this is fanciful because modern public spaces are the legacy of a nineteenth-century public realm composed of grandiose squares and vistas, with public buildings and monuments designed to impress on the citizen the power of the ruling elite. Only in times of insurrection were such spaces sites of social self-determination. The idea of a public sphere in which a society's members determine its values and organisation for themselves remains, nonetheless, an attractive aspiration.

It is necessary, then, to extricate the idea of a public sphere from both the public realm and from public spaces. By a public realm, that is, I mean the institutional structures of policy and decision making, in government, the professions and commerce; the public realm is housed in buildings, usually of grandiose design, which usually dominate city centres, in zones of power and central business districts. I include business districts in this category (often thought of as administrative rather than commercial) because, increasingly since the nineteenth century and especially in the era of globalization, it is where real power lies. A city's public spaces, then, are usually the squares and broad avenues which link and frame those buildings which house the public realm. In the nineteenth century these spaces were zones of male domination, and remain so to a lesser extent today as women contest their previous exclusion from public life. Public spaces were, however, until quite recently, open to a wide range of public uses, including protest. Today they are increasingly privatized as shopping precincts.

And while the encroachment of privatisation on public space requires a defence, the categories of public and private are blurred when private life becomes the material for reality television. Zygmunt Bauman reads 'the colonization of the public sphere by issues previously classified as private…' [1] as an end of politics which accompanies the evacuation of meaning in public spaces. The idea of the public is overcome by individualism, and citizens are 'stripped of the protective armour of citizenship and expropriated of their citizen skills and interests.' [2] At the same time, the nation-state which once regulated private trade in the national-public interest is overtaken by globalised capital, which does not observe national boundaries or public interests. In these circumstances, Bauman argues that the task of critical theory is 'to defend the vanishing public realm, or rather to refurnish and repopulate the public space fast emptying owing to desertion on both sides: the exit of the "interested citizen", and the escape of real power into … [what can] be described as … "outer space".' [3] While respecting Bauman, I would argue that the task is to create a public sphere of citizen interaction and direct democracy. As architecture critic Martin Pawley observes, '… as we toddle like pygmies across the vast public spaces bequeathed to us by the urban planners of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we can reflect on the … force of decompression that was necessary to create such sprawling [sites] …' [4] For Pawley, urban space is obsolete in face of new means of communication: 'The whole world's population could be in a state of global awareness through a network of four billion tubes 300 atoms in diameter - the "aperture size" of the beam of light that will be required by tomorrow's optical computer systems.' [5]

It would be easy to junk the public sphere as an outmoded fantasy, but I want to ask what might be salvaged from it. Before that, I note three cases of urban public space by which to test the categories of public and private.

Three cases

Paley Park in Manhattan is a small urban park with hard and soft landscaping, a water feature, several levels, and moveable tables and chairs. It is privately owned and has a discreet security presence. A small counter sells coffee and bagels. For William Holly White, Paley Park was one of the most densely used, hence successful, public spaces in New York in the 1970s. He attributes this to visual variation and moveable seating: people can sit singly or in groups, reading or in conversation, and can move the chairs to suit themselves (in effect to take emotional ownership of the space). The success of this public space appears to share some characteristics of domestic space, but does so while allowing the company of strangers.

The balconies which overhang the narrow streets of an old city such as Barcelona are private spaces, extending the space of the domestic interior of the apartment. But they overlook the public street; street life can be observed without being in the street, and conversations can occur across it. The balcony is also a place for birds in cages, tins of oil, and washing hung out to dry. It thus transgresses the categories of both domestic and public space. But in the redevelopment of el Raval, the balcony is erased: new, in-fill blocks have clean, white facades resembling those of a northern city more than of a Mediterranean port.

Atocha Station in Madrid was built in the nineteenth century but refurbished in the late twentieth as a public space and botanical garden. It remains part of the station but new tracks for high-speed rail, and new security arrangements, are housed in a new, high-level shed. In the nineteenth century, railway stations denoted modernity as the possibility of movement and migration. Now the red-brick hall with its glass roof is filled with palms and tropical plants; terrapins swim in its pools. There are benches, and cafés where people can linger before departure. The conversations which those who go have with those who stay are essentially private, but can be publicly observed. As in Paley Park, public spaces house private acts, independent of the conditions of property ownership and state regulation. Perhaps this informality is a key aspect of urban space and its occupation, requiring acceptance that in cities part of private life takes place in public, and enabled through the specific urban condition of anonymity.

A Public Sphere ?

Today, links between individuals in cities are city-wide or global, not local. [6] Hence the sense of the neighbourhood as representation of community has declined, leaving a vacuum which modern planning fails to address. A public sphere requires no built space, and would in any case be a site of continuous re-negotiation. But who is the subject who occupies this contingent public sphere? Another contradiction emerges between the unified subject of modernity produced in liberal humanism, and a contingent subject of post-modernity.

The modern subject emerged in the sixteenth century. As Catherine Belsey argues in her study of early modern drama, the proscenium stage is the setting for the subject who 'claims to be the unified, autonomous author of his or her own choices … [and the] source … of speech.' [7] This subject emerges in England in contests over the power of monarchs and subjects but is not entirely free. The world is disenchanted in as much as the subject is no longer ruled by supernatural forces, but power is re-mythicised within the social body. [8] The act of delegating power to the state has undemocratic consequences, even if liberal humanism offers 'autonomy for the subject and control by the social body.' [9] When allegiance to the social body is contested, however, dissent becomes dissent from the social body itself. And, if property is the qualification for the active subject, '… the economic system which promotes the autonomy of the subject' rests on a 'conflict of economic interests which leads to a new form of instability.' [10] Conflict, revenge and instability were the motifs of early modern drama, aesthetically distancing conflict to preserve an image of a unified society in command of its own destiny. Only towards the end of the period did a public sphere emerge - in coffee-houses and clubs.

In London, the circulation of pamphlets in coffee-houses was key to political change in the 1680s. In turn, the coffee-house became the meeting place for those concerned in shaping the political body. By 1700, there were more than two thousand of them in London. [11] Jane Rendell calls them 'arenas for debate, free speech and radical politics during and following the political reforms of 1688,' denoting 'autonomy and independence.' [12] They were, still, male domains, and the object of a women's petition in 1674, that coffee 'made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence the unhappy berry is said to be brought.' [13] In 1675, Charles II called for their abolition as places where the disaffected met. Richard Sennett, however, reads coffee-houses as sites of information exchange rather than politics: 'Talk was the most important means of gaining information about conditions on the road, in the city, or about business.' [14] Differences of class, if evident in dress and diction, were masked by a special form of speaking: ' … the long periodic sentences flow on, the familiar descriptive phrases which everyone has heard. … before are invoked once again … Coffeehouse speech is the extreme case of an expressio15n with a sign system of meaning divorced from … symbols of meaning like rank, origins, taste, all visibly at hand.' [15] A formality of speech persisted in clubs, but the audience there was restricted to the upper classes. Members sat in rooms visible from the street, offering a public view of their verbal exchanges, and gambled in the basement. Coffee houses and clubs are interesting, though, because they housed a collectivity in spaces which were privately owned, where men met outside the family as if in public. The mixing which took place was limited, and the suspension of difference entailed did not apply outside the coffee-house, but the institutional public realm of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries offered debate of a less political kind, limited mainly to matters of professional expertise

Public Spaces / Public Spheres

There is no evidence that public spaces were ever sites of real discursive activity. In the bourgeois city, and in its residual forms today, they are sites of public monuments designed as devices of control. A historical misunderstanding conflates a concept of a public sphere with a public realm given visible form in public spaces, while affirming the public-private dualism which the cases cited above show to be inadequate.

The private realm began as a demarcation of private property and family life in the house. In the bourgeois city it became a realm of property, and in that form encroaches on public spaces today. The public realm is as the not-private. If initially a necessary departure from the ties of family (or rural) lives, it became an idealised site on which a metaphorical idea of society was projected. For Hannah Arendt, the public realm has a special significance as where people emerge to mature selfhood amid the perceptions of others. [16] Arendt defines the term public as where,

… everything that appears …can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance … constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life - the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses - lead an uncertain, shadowy lind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance. [17]

Arendt continues that the most private of feelings, intense bodily pain, deprives the subject of a form fit for public appearance, thus 'of our feeling for reality ..' [18] But this has historically specific - the exclusion of Jews in Germany from public life was a preparation for annihilation. She writes,

Since our feeling for reality depends utterly upon appearance and therefore upon the existence of a public realm into which things can appear out of the darkness of sheltered existence, even the twilight which illuminates our private and intimate lives is ultimately derived from the much harsher light of the public realm. [19]

This goes beyond the exclusion of private interests (those connected, for example, to making a living) from public debate, and is informed by Arendt's reading of the Greek polis, in which the determination of a society's collective actions took place in public.

In a critical commentary on Arendt's political thought, Kimberley Curtis summarises Arendt's position that a denial of political freedom, 'may well undermine our capacity for inner freedom as well.' [20] This would be an erasure of an imaginary of freedom as consequence of a denial of material freedoms, and a state of oblivion from which there is no escape. Publicity, then, is for Arendt the only location in which a mature self can merge in an ambience of mutual perception and unplanned juxtaposition.

Curtis notes, 'In the bright light created by the testifying presence of all, the shock of the improbable can be collectively felt … the capacity to register the elemental impact of existence that arises only in the face of the provoking, even incursion-like presence of others.' [21] She accepts that a capacity for reality can occur in other ways, but,

… the very essence of the public sphere is to arouse the impulse to freedom and to let it shine, and this it does, in contrast to other forms of social existence and private experience, as an open and extended domain of human plurality. As such, it offers a space in which the unrelated, the new, and uncertain events and developments can become relatable, a space in which those who share the public world can take stock, and meaning can be born. [22]

But a direct comparison of the public realm or sphere with an archaic space such as the agora is misleading. First, in the agora, as Sennett notes, many things happened at once and no voice dominated; it was a market and a site of ceremonies, surrounded by public buildings in which men ate, conversed, and had conversations with those whom they knew. Second, although there was informal mixing, then, as Sennett notes, most ceremonial and political events 'were out of bounds to the immense population of slaves and foreigners who supported the economy …' [23] He concludes that no more than five to ten percent of those who lived in Athens, and all men and possessors of a talent of silver (a thousand days pay for a labourer), could participate in politics. It seems a poor model for a modern or post-modern public sphere. But if, today, as Ali Madanipour argues, 'the contours of urban space are being carved out of a constant tension between public and private relationships' [24] perhaps the use of a model for a public sphere is itself inadequate. Undaunted, Madanipour goes on, 'Urban designers can have a significant role in elaborating a public realm which mediates, and promotes a civilised relationship' between private interests and collective needs. [25] I am not sure this is the case. But the dualism of public-private is no help. A tripartite formulation of public-domestic-private would differentiate the personal (private and intimate life) from the private (ownership of property), and leads to another question: whether the realisation of the freedom to which a notional public sphere alludes is possible, or is possible only in certain conditions, in personal and intimate life.

It may seem idiosyncratic to suggest a category of intimate space. But by this I mean more than the bedroom. It includes those spaces in which personal occupation leads to a re-construction of the values a space denotes; this may shift along with personal experience, and layers of past and present meaning overlap. Intimate space is always a palimpsest. It is never obvious to viewers in a position of power. And in certain conditions, perhaps in extreme circumstances or social breakdown, it takes on a heightened coherence when the meanings inscribed on spaces by the structures of power (the public realm) become less credible. It may also be that intimate space is a refuge, where power has less opportunity to intrude.

A Sphere of Intimacy?

In an essay on French literature in the period of the German occupation, dated 1945, [26] Herbert Marcuse argues that, in these conditions, freedom is expressed not in political writing but in a literature of intimacy - love poems and romantic novels. He cites Paul Eluard's poems and the novel Aurélien by Louis Aragon. Eluard and Aragon were, of course, politically conscious writers involved in Surrealism and its ambivalent link to the French Communist Party; both joined the Resistance, Aragon in Vichy and Eluard in the occupied zone. As if to prove the political importance of poetry, specially printed copies of Eluard's poem Liberté were dropped on French cities by parachute by the RAF; [27] and Les sept poèmes d'amour en guerre (dedicated to Aragon under his Resistance name François la Colère) were published clandestinely. Translator Gilbert Bowen reads Liberté as a love poem addressed to a woman whose name the poet says repeatedly but reveals only in the last line, evidence of the relation 'between Eluard's personal lyricism and his political commitment.' [28] Stuart Kendall claims that French schoolchildren still learn Liberté by heart. [29] Perhaps the imagination of joy and a life of ease utterly different from that imposed by the regime is a glimpse of freedom able to remain in totalitarian conditions. But Marcuse also cites Charles Baudelaire's poem 'L'invitation au voyage' reading the image 'Luxury, calm, and sensuousness' as the promise of a life of joy. [30] Eluard re-joined the Communist Party in 1942 and remained a member until his death ten years later, which implies that politics was not out of the question; yet Marcuse's reading of a literature of poetic withdrawal to an imagined realm of bliss is not un-political, particularly when the political is aligned with the personal.

Marcuse introduces Baudelaire's L'Invitation au voyage as a refusal of the bourgeois empire of Paris in the 1850s, 'the utopia of real liberation.' [31] Marcuse concludes that 'love, as an artistic form, becomes a political a priori.' [32] He writes,

Sensuality as style … expresses the individual protest against the law and order of repression. Sensual love gives a "promesse du bonheur" which preserves the full materialistic content of freedom and rebels against all efforts to canalize this "bonheur" into forms compatible with the order of repression. [33]

In Baudelaire, sound quality and rhythm, including pauses, are vehicles of meaning. This is the place for sensuous reality as refusal of the grey, lifeless reality of capital:

Marcuse cites Eluard's 'Les sept poèmes d'amour en guerre' to say, 'love and liberty are one and the same' [34] while resistance is the work's content only as the precondition for fulfilment of a '"promesse du bonheur."' [35] Marcuse adds that the language of Resistance poetry revives traditional forms as 'the classical vocabulary of love …' [36] acting as necessary estrangement, a distancing in the non-routine nature of classical verse form from the speech of ordinary life in a time of terror. He continues,

Aragon himself has explained the return to classical rules by the necessity to rescue language from its utter destruction … The artistic opposition cannot talk the language of the enemy but must contradict … [it] together with its content. The classical system of versification … has perhaps most directly preserved the immediate sensual "order de la beauté", the "promesse du bonheur." [37]

This is enhanced when rhyme transgresses sentence structure. In such formal devices, poetic language states alienation from 'the language of monopolistic capitalism.' [38]

In the later part of his text, Marcuse examines Aragon's novel Aurélien, published in 1945, aligning it with the genre of the epic novel (Gesellschaftsroman) conveying the content of an epoch and a society. I cannot go into that here, but Marcuse's analysis of French love poetry in the early 1940s, tracing a strand of bonheur from Baudelaire, indicates a personal-political axis separated from but more liberating than the directly political in literature. This is significant in this text as a collapsing of the personal-political dualism, alongside that outlined above of the private-public.

Marcuse draws the lesson that the language of politics is alien to that of love, hostile to the promesse du bonheur which is the location of a genuinely utopian vision. It is not entirely far-fetched, either. I end by citing Julia Kristeva's memories of 1968:

… the liberation of social behaviour was an essential experience of '68. Group sex, hashish, etc., were experienced as a revolt against bourgeois morality and family values. … this movement can only be described as political because it began by striking savagely at the heart of the traditional conception of love. [39]

Later in this interview, Kristeva describes May '68 as 'a worldwide movement that contributed to an unprecedented reordering of private life.' [40] This was its legacy, and she adds that 'Infinite jouissance for each person at the intersection of happiness for all … Is it anything but the sacred?' [41] Then, 'Precisely because it is intrinsically impossible, we'll achieve jouissance in a constraining society, provided that we subject it to fervent and sustained disruption.' [42] This is a long way from the public realm, but what Kristeva imagines is the interruption of routine in a way that allows a glimpse of a life which is better because it is more joyful. Hence it is not surprising that free love is practiced in radical communes. In such sites, a new society emerges, in which public and private are no longer useful categories. Beside this, the provision of new public spaces is at best irrelevant, and more often no more than a cultured mask for globalised consumerism.

[1] Zygmunt BAUMAN, Liquid Modernity ,Cambridge, Polity, 2000, p. 70.

[2] Ibid., p. 40.

[3] BAUMAN, Liquid Modernity, p. 39.

[4] Martin PAWLEY, Terminal Architecture, London, Reaktion, 1995, p. 155.

[5] Ibid., p. 163.

[6] Martin ALBROW, 'Travelling beyond local cultures: socioscapes in a global city', in John EADE, ed. Living the Global City: Globalization as Local Process, London, Routledge, 1997, pp. 37-55.

[7] Catherine BELSEY, The subject of Tragedy: identity and difference in Renaissance drama, London, Routledge, 1985, p. 149.

[8] Teodor W. ADORNO and Max HORKHEIMER, Dialectic of Enlightenment, London, Verso, 1997 [first published as Dialektik der Aufklarung, New York, Social Studies Association, 1944].

[9] C. BELSEY, op.cit., p. 125.

[10] Ibid., p. 120.

[11] Jane RENDELL, The Pursuit of Pleasure: gender, space and architecture in Regency London, London, Athlone, 2002, p. 66.

[12] Ibid ., The Pursuit of Pleasure; see also Peter STALLYBRAS and Alison WHITE, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London, Methuen, 1986.

[13] www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.128/Coffee-houses

[14] Richard SENNETT, Flesh and Stone, London, Faber and Faber, 1995, p. 345.

[15] R. SENNETT, The Fall of Public Man, New York, Norton, 1992, p. 82 [first published, New York, Alfred Knopf, 1976].

[16] Hannah ARENDT, The Human Condition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1958.

[17] Ibid., p. 50.

[18] Ibid. ,p. 51

[19] Ibid. ,p. 51.

[20] Kimberley CURTIS, Our Sense of the Real: Aesthetic Experience and Arendtian Politics, Ithaca (NY), Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 73.

[21] Ibid. , pp. 73-74.

[22] Ibid., p. 74.

[23] R.SENNETT, op.cit., 1995, p. 52.

[24] Ali MADANIPOUR, Public and Private Spaces of the City, London, Routledge, 2003, p. 217.

[25] Ibid., p. 217.

[26] Herbert MARCUSE, 'Some Remarks on Aragon: Art and Politics in the Totalitarian Era', in Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers vol. 1, London, Routledge, 1998, pp. 199-214.

[27] Paul ELUARD, Selected Poems, London, John Calder, 1987, p. 16.

[28] Ibid., p. 17.

[29] Stuart KENDALL, Paul Eluard, Love, Poetry, Boston, Black Widow Press, 2007, p. 14.

[30] Douglas KELLNER, 'Marcuse, Art and Liberation' in Herbert MARCUSE, Art and Liberation, Collected Papers, vol. 4, London, Routledge, 2007, p. 35.

[31] H. MARCUSE, 'Some Remarks on Aragon', p. 204.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., p. 205.

[35] Ibid., p. 206.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., p. 209.

[39] J.KRISTEVA, Revolt, she said, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2002, p. 19.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid. , p. 34.

[42] Ibid. , p. 36.


Malcom Miles, « Intimacy and Publicity : Productions of a Political Self », Le Texte étranger [en ligne], n° 8, mise en ligne janvier 2011.
URL : http://www.univ-paris8.fr/dela/etranger/pages/8/miles.html