Urban space and the transformation of society

Potentialisation is a dynamic, contingent process that transforms habits and not the restoration of an unpolluted, ontologically different beyond.

Stavros Stavrides, The Potentialities of Space Commoning

Worlds of commoning are worlds in movement.

Stavros Stavrides, Common Space: The City as Commons

On the occasion of a 2019 edition of Stavros Stavrides‘s work Towards the city of thresholds (there is a 2010 edition – available on line -, published by professional dreamers), Roarmag published part of Stavrides’ “Introduction” to the essay.

With the events of Exarchia in the immediate background, but also that of the city or the metropolis as the territory of contemporary politics, looking back at Stavrides’ essay is fruitful.

At the heart of Stavrides reading of contemporary radical politics in city or urban space is the concept of “threshold”. Simplifying his analysis considerably, we may state that what characterises a radical politics is the opening up of and the keeping open of threshold spaces within the context of boundary making territorialising politics of control and exploitation. In sum, freedom comes with the profanation of spatial borders or is lived in the openes to the permanent potentiality of spatial relations: the contaminating everyday normality by what may not be the case, always.

Urban space and the transformation of society

Stavros Stavrides (Roarmag 02/09/2019)

In his latest book, Stavros Stavrides outlines the radical potential of cities and lays bare all that must be done in order for us to realize their potential.

While attempting to consider the role space has in the potential emancipatory transformation of society, radical thinking and action tend to take for granted that space contains, delimits, and thus identifies social life. Spaces of emancipation are mostly envisaged either as freed strongholds to be defended or as enclaves of otherness. It is important, however, to think of space not as a container of society but as a formative element of social practices. Imagining a different future means trying to experience and conceptualize spatialities that may help create different social relations.

People experience space but also think through space and imagine through space. Space not only gives form to the existing social world (experienced and understood as a meaningful life condition), but also to possible social worlds that may inspire action and express collective dreams.

Seeking to explore, then, the ways space is potentially connected to processes of emancipation we cannot be satisfied with the discovery of alleged “spaces of emancipation.” If emancipation is a process, it has to generate dynamic transformations and not simply institute defined areas of freedom. Spatial characteristics rather than concrete spaces become the focus of such an exploration. It is exactly at this level that the idea of threshold emerges to convey the spatial dynamics of emancipation. As will be shown, thresholds mark and give meaning to the act of crossing as productive of change.

This book’s main argument is that emancipatory spatiality emerges in the creation and social use of thresholds. Social struggles and movements are greatly influenced by the formative potentialities of thresholds. Fragments of a different life, experienced during the struggle, take form in spaces and times with threshold characteristics. When people collectively realize that their actions are becoming different from their usual collective habits, then encountering boundaries becomes liberating.

It is in everyday encounters with otherness that people develop an art of negotiation based on the collective creation of in-between spaces, i.e., thresholds. During periods of liberating change, this art is practiced to its maximum potentiality. Struggles that implicitly or explicitly aim at changes in common life may merely create temporary enclaves of otherness. However, otherness may also be experienced as the inhabiting of in-between spaces and times, i.e., thresholds. In a self-organizing neighborhood these spaces and times are created in assemblies, demonstrations, or common meals. In a rebellious Zapatista municipality, thresholds become the means to invent new tactics of collective self-determination.

Encountering otherness can be potentially liberating as long as it invents passages from self to other. This means approaching otherness as a process rather than a state. Movements need to investigate an “art of doing” that helps people discover, create, and appreciate otherness. We can think of the city of thresholds as the always-emergent work of a collective effort to create a liberating future. An emancipated “public culture” will hopefully be created out of these thresholds to otherness, bonds of solidarity, and new forms of common life.

Beyond Borders

Many assume the imposition of boundaries in human settlements is a natural phenomenon. Observing animals in the process of defining their territory, some suggest that a kind of natural will compels marking boundaries of an area where a single being or group reigns supreme. Territoriality appears as a natural need arising from the urge to survive while fighting against enemies or rivals. Thus, the demarcation of an area goes hand-in-hand with its description as a potential site of fighting. Although the act of marking out an area seems to be an attempt to ward off a fight it necessarily constitutes a declaration of war.

However, humans create settlements not only to define boundaries in order to secure a community that senses the hostility of the surrounding environment; boundaries are also crossings. An often-complicated set of ritual acts, symbolic gestures, and movements accompanies the crossing of boundaries. Invasion is only one among many other possible ways to cross the borders. So we could agree with Georg Simmel that man is not only “a bordering creature” but also the “creature who has no border,” as he writes in Bridge and Door.

The creation of an enclosure, in Simmel’s words, contains the “possibility at any moment of stepping out of this limitation into freedom.” If the bridge and the door materially exemplify this ability to separate and connect at the same time — since “the human being is the connecting creature who must always separate and cannot connect without separating” — then we must begin to understand bordering as an act that contains many possible meanings. It is not only the declaration of war on otherness but also the possibility of crossing the bridge towards otherness. It is not only hostility but also, perhaps, negotiation.

An exile, always feeling away from home, would probably describe an emphatically characteristic border consciousness. In the words of Breyten Breytenbach, an activist who was forced to leave South Africa: “Indeed, the experiences and products of exile could be a dissolvent of border consciousness. It could be a way of reconnoitering, shifting and extending the limits.”

An exile understands that borders possess the power to cut people off from the places that define them, their history, and their identity. But while away and not permitted to come back, the exile realizes that identity is not a totally circumscribed area marked by a permanently identified structure of characteristics.

Identities constructed in exile assimilate new experiences, discover new criteria, and check new targets. Identity thus becomes not an area defined by a boundary, but — to use a Bakhtinian term — it assumes a “chronotopic” quality (since it is being shaped inseparably by spatial and temporal indicators). Identity in exile is not only open to otherness, it is forced to face otherness.

Of course, the opposite experience is also possible. In a foreign land, an exile might attempt to seal off their identity. This attitude will freeze their identity in an imagined state of unpolluted innocence. Traveling mentally towards an imagined homeland, this exile is always absent, creating around themself boundaries even more rigid than those they have escaped or been expelled from. Fighting to preserve this small imaginary enclave of sameness from imaginary or real invasions, an exile of this mindset may thus strengthen the idea of borders as a site of clashing forces — forces that at the same time define and exclude.

What is it that the experience of an exile could reveal about border consciousness? Mainly that social identity is constructed through a process radically influenced by what could be called “the borderline of identity.” This borderline can be permeable or extremely controlled, can be a limit or a starting point, a place to inhabit or the entrance to a no man’s land extending between two opposing worlds that do not share common spaces, even when in contact.

The use of differing borders constructs the character of identity. A fixed and unambiguous identity is a closed identity with rigid borders. An open identity is one that that is enclosed in flexible borders offering meeting points with otherness. This kind of identity could, as we shall see, be described as possessing a threshold quality. Spatiotemporal thresholds would be the places where identities may negotiate encounters with otherness.

This line of thought would give new meaning to the words of David Harvey in his book Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference: “The relations between ‘self’ and ‘other’ from which a certain kind of cognition of social affairs emanates is always . . . a spatiotemporal construction.” Indeed, not only because identities are understood as circumscribed areas defined by the quality and the specific place of their borders but also because concrete space and time relations make identities visible and materially effective. That is why the identity of persons or peoples can be forced to change via modulations of their spatiotemporal awareness.

Thresholds as Social Artifacts

As social constructions, different ways of defining and controlling space not only mirror different social relations and values but also shape them. Identities are not only sets of beliefs or ideas but are embedded in the social environment, influencing different practices and different ways of life, therefore producing material results. Studying different spatial arrangements as characteristics of specific societies one can discover not only the uses and meanings of space but also the logics of creating and sustaining different social identities.

Pierre Bourdieu observed in his Outline of a Theory of Practice that in societies lacking “the symbolic product-conserving techniques associated with literacy,” social dispositions “are inculcated through an interaction of inhabited space with the bodies of societies’ new members.” Space then becomes a kind of “educating system” that creates what we have so far been referring to as social identities. But it is important to realize that such identities are the product of a socially regulated network of practices that weave again and again distinct characteristics.

So when Bourdieu studies the Kabyle house in 1960s Algeria, he does not study it as the material index of social symbols but rather as the sum of the possible practices that produce a world of values and meaning. The Kabyle house is a series of spatiotemporal conditions that define the meaningful movement of social bodies. The house endlessly teaches the body and is erected again and again as a universe of values by embodied performances.

To prove this double relation of the body with inhabited space in the creation of space’s symbolic attributes, Bourdieu chooses to observe the symbolic function of the house’s main door. This threshold is the point where two different worlds meet. The inside is a complete world belonging to a distinct family, and the outside is a public world where the fields, the pastures, and the common buildings of the community lie. The threshold acquires its meaning as a point of both contact and separation through the practices that cross it. These practices create the threshold as meaningful spatiotemporal experience, depending on who crosses it, under what conditions, and in which direction.

In Bourdieu’s example, men cross the threshold of the main door only to leave the house, to go to the fields where they belong, facing the light of daybreak as the door faces east. Women cross the main door only to enter the house facing the wall opposite the main door called the wall of light. Both men and women perform their acts “in accordance with the beneficent orientation, that is from west to east.” And this is possible, as Bourdieu demonstrates in The Logic of Practice, because the threshold establishes a symbolic change of the orientation of the house; that is, in its relation to the outer space. The threshold then “is the site of a meeting of contraries as well as of a logical inversion and . . . as the necessary meeting-point and crossing point between the two spaces, defined in terms of socially qualified body movements, it is the place where the world is reversed.”

As in the case of the Kabyle house, the spatiotemporal experience of the threshold is produced by this potential communication between two different opposing worlds. Existing only to be crossed, actually or virtually, the threshold is not a defining border that keeps out a hostile otherness, but a complicated social artifact that produces, through differently defined acts of crossing, different relations between sameness and otherness. If inside and outside communicate and mutually define each other, then the threshold can be considered as a mediating zone.

The anthropologist Victor Turner, following Arnold van Gennep, has described these in-between lands as possessing the status of liminality (from the Latin word limen = “threshold”). The condition of liminality is characterized by the construction of transitory identities. In Turner’s words, “liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial.”

Every passage creates the conditions of a threshold experience that is essentially the suspension of a previous identity and the preparation for a new one. Passing through a threshold is an explicitly or implicitly symbolic act. It is, therefore, also a gesture towards otherness: not only spatial otherness, as in the case of emerging from a house into the outside world, but also temporal otherness, as in departing from the present for a more or less unknown future.

“Rites of passage,” as van Gennep has named them in his 1960 classic carrying the same title, accompany the passing of initiands from one social identity to another, and most of the times are connected with a ritually executed crossing of spatial thresholds. If this act of venturing towards otherness is performed in and through thresholds, couldn’t we assume that thresholds are the place of negotiation with otherness? Thresholds can be the schematic system through which societies symbolically construct this experience of negotiation and, at the same time, materially allow the negotiation of identity to take place.

Approaching Otherness

Approaching otherness is a difficult act. In all societies, it is represented as full of symbolic and material dangers. But approaching otherness is also a constitutive act of every social encounter. Every society or social group would appear to be characterized by the ways it controls and formalizes these acts of encounter. If the encounter is considered only as a necessary step to verify and deploy hostility between groups of people, then the act of crossing borders will only be an act of symbolic or actual war. This form of encounter characterizes communities that describe everything outside of them as potentially hostile. It is not by chance that these communities build shelters protected by material or symbolic walls with drawbridges that are drawn most of the time. Contemporary gated communities are an obvious example of such an attitude.

If, however, the encounter is part of an effort to embrace otherness without an intermediary phase of mutual recognition and negotiation gestures, we may end up with a virtual extinction or assimilation of otherness. In contemporary consumer culture everybody is forced to be on the move, chasing ever-new products, ever-new sensations. As Zygmunt Bauman points out in Globalization: The Human Consequences: “Consumers are first and foremost gatherers of sensations.” What appears a new desirable sensation is a kind of fabricated otherness. Fabricated by the continuous, consumer-oriented education of the senses in the media and advertising images. Towards such an otherness, the citizen-consumer is all too eager to cross the borders. And with a similar attitude, guided by desire-propelling exoticism, the consumer assimilates otherness while touring in a foreign land, only to add new sensation-trophies.

In order to approach otherness in an act of mutual awareness, one needs to carefully dwell on the threshold. In this transitory territory that belongs to neither of the neighboring parts, one understands that it is necessary to feel the distance so as to be able to erect the bridge. Hostility arises from the preservation and increase of this distance while assimilation results from the obliteration of distance. Encounter is realized by keeping the necessary distance while crossing it at the same time. The wisdom hidden in the threshold experience lies in the awareness that otherness can only be approached by opening the borders of identity, forming — so to speak — intermediary zones of doubt, ambivalence, hybridity, and negotiation. As Richard Sennett remarks in The Conscience of the Eye: “In order to sense the Other, one must do the work of accepting oneself as incomplete.”

These zones may require gestures that are not performed as indices of identity characteristics but mainly as acts of approaching. Therefore, the gestures will have an equally hybrid status, describing an intermediary identity offered as meeting place. This intermediary identity is perhaps what results from the “subjunctive mood” that Turner connects with liminality. Intermediary identities are performed only to test the other’s will of contact. They are performed not to hide or to deceive but to offer ways to depart from a fenced-in self towards a self constructed through the encounter.

In The Fall of Public Man, Sennett describes civility as the “treating [of] others as though they were strangers and forging a social bond upon that social distance.” If we understand civility as part of an art of building thresholds between people or social groups, then we can agree with Sennett and his defense of a new public culture. This culture would be characterized by this continuous effort to preserve otherness and to create in-between areas of negotiation. And a curious, difficult-to-define theatricality seems to be performed in such gestures of reconnaissance and mutual approach. Brechtian theatricality seems to dwell in thresholds. One departs from themselves to be an other. This temporary transformation is seen as a gesture — a Gestus, in Brecht’s vocabulary — of seeking to understand what is other than him or herself. Theatricality is the common element in the behavior of liminal actors during rites of passage and contemporary strangers groping their way towards each other through a modern version of civility.

The human ability to become other is at the foundation of such an experience of a “subjunctive mood.” This socially constructed ability helps people to meet others without forcing them into precast identities. Being able to become other, even if one returns again to one’s former self, is being able to accept otherness and, potentially, a position from which to construct a relationship with the other as other. Isn’t imagination after all this curious staging of reality that creates thoughts and feelings out of nonexistent happenings that are actually performed in the mind? And isn’t this an exploratory encounter with otherness in its purest form?

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