Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Contestation and Bracketing: The Relation between Public Space and the Public Sphere

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Contestation and Bracketing: The Relation between Public Space and the Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Abstract. In this paper I seek to clarify the relation between the notions of public space and the public sphere by distinguishing between two dimensions of publicness--contestation and bracketing--in the classical notion of the public sphere as developed by Jurgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt. By clarifying this relation I aim to bring out how public space can be seen as the site of political practices distinct from those usually associated with the public sphere. That in turn will facilitate an understanding of why the idea of public space has been resorted to by activists and scholars to overcome limitations of the public sphere. On the basis of the two dimensions, I propose a distinction between two notions of public space, one centred on contestation and another on bracketing. I argue that both conceptions help articulate political practices that go beyond what is customarily allowed for in the deliberations of the public sphere: on the one hand, practices that visibilize dissent and expose inequalities and, on the other hand, practices that construct alternative arenas where marginal or subordinate people's self-confidence as political actors can be strengthened.

Keywords: public sphere, public space, contestation, bracketing, Habermas, Arendt

1 Introduction

From the iconic congregations at Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol, and Zuccotti Park to the recent mass protests in Bangkok and Kiev, protests in recent years have often involved the occupation of public space. Despite the growing importance of digital, 'disembodied' communication to mobilize, coordinate, and publicize protests, occupying physical space has been central to protests--not only as a means of appropriating symbolic loci of power, but also as a way to safeguard an urban commons open to all, including to those who do not normally experience themselves as able to participate fully in the mainstream 'public sphere'. What does it mean that space has assumed such a central place in processes whereby populations seek to reassert themselves in public and create room for new and 'alternative' forms of togetherness? How does the 'publicness' of occupied spaces differ from that of other forms of public space, and how does it relate to the general public sphere constituted by debate and deliberation among citizens? Is there a distinctive politics of public space at work in these protests, and if so, how does it differ from that of the public sphere?

The aim of this paper is to make a few preliminary theoretical moves which, 1 hope, will facilitate an answer to these questions. Above all, I wish to contribute to clarifying the relation between the notions of public space and the public sphere. (1) This relation has often been pointed to as insufficiently researched (Amin and Thrift, 2002, page 135f; Barnett, 2008; Goheen, 1998; Henaff and Strong, 2001, page 35; Howell, 1993; Parkinson, 2012, page 6; Smith and Low, 2006; Tonkiss, 2005, page 66). As Neil Smith and Setha Low (2006, page 5) point out, part of the explanation is that they belong to different intellectual traditions, the concept of the 'public sphere' being popular among philosophers and political scientists, that of public space among geographers, urban sociologists, planners, and legal experts. In this paper I wish to shed light on this relation by disentangling two dimensions of publicness which I refer to as contestation and bracketing. Although this is primarily a theoretical paper, I will also make use of empirical material collected during my research on homelessness in Japan to flesh out some of the abstractions and illustrate how the distinctions 1 bring forward can be made fruitful.

A substantial body of research already exists in regard to why a well-functioning public sphere requires open and accessible public spaces (eg, Low, 2000, page 240; Parkinson, 2012). My primary intention is not to add to this literature, but rather to highlight why public space can be invoked to challenge or articulate resistance to the mainstream public sphere and its limitations. …

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