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Contestation and bracketing: the relation between public space and the public sphere.

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. By clarifying the relation between the notions of the public sphere and public space I hope to bring out how public space can be seen as the site of political practices distinct from those usually associated with the public sphere. This will facilitate an understanding of why the idea of public space has been resorted to by activists and scholars to overcome limitations of that sphere. Indeed, while the public sphere has long been criticized as being complicit with order and characterized by exclusion, there has been an upsurge of research in which the idea of public space is used to articulate political practices at odds with those believed to be sanctioned as proper in the mainstream public sphere. (2)

This paper is divided into five parts. I start by briefly reviewing how spatiality has been treated in public sphere theory (section 2) before turning to two dimensions of the classical notion of the public sphere as developed by Jurgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt: namely, contestation and bracketing (section 3). On the basis of these dimensions, I propose a distinction between two notions of public space, one centred on contestation (section 4) and the other on bracketing (section 5). I conclude by returning to the suggestion that the idea of public space is more suited to a less exclusionary politics than is the idea of the public sphere (section 6). As I will argue, both the idea of public space as a space for contestation and that of public space as an arena of bracketing provide crucial room for the articulation of political practices that go beyond what is customarily allowed for in the deliberations of the public sphere. They do so through the crucial role such spaces play in visibilizing dissent through provocative acts that challenge mainstream norms and in furthering processes of empowerment: ie, the strengthening of marginal or subordinate people's self-confidence as political actors.

2 The spatiality of the public sphere

It has often been pointed out that the concept of the public sphere is despatialized--a state of affairs that has been both criticized (eg, Mitchell, 2003, pages 32, 134; Stallybrass and White 1986, pages 80ff; Howell, 1993) and defended (eg, Barnett, 2008). When we use the concept of the public sphere we usually have in mind a sphere of social life, distinct from the state and the official economy, in which citizens deliberate on their common affairs, often in a conflictual tension with the political system, while disregarding matters and circumstances deemed to be of only 'private' relevance. Space is not a necessary ingredient in it, since what matters in public deliberation is primarily what is said by whom, but not so much where. That does not mean that the classical thinkers of the public sphere have ignored spatiality. (3) Habermas, for instance, is conscientious both in his classical treaty The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and in his more recent Between Facts and Norms about accounting for the various places or arenas in which the public sphere evolved and where it takes places today (eg, Habermas, 1989, pages 27-56; 1996, page 374). (4) That it nevertheless makes sense to talk about his concept of the public sphere as despatialized is because he conceives of it as relatively independent of place. This is so partly because it can take abstract or mediated forms that are disembedded from local social contexts, and partly because the possibility of dialogue can arise anywhere. As he explains, "Every encounter in which actors do not just observe each other but take a second-person attitude, reciprocally attributing communicative freedom to each other, unfolds in a linguistically constituted public space" (Habermas, 1996, page 361). While Arendt tends to be more sensitive to locality, and while she privileges the local scale as a favorable condition of publics (Howell, 1993, pages 314ff), she too emphasizes that the public is not necessarily bound to any particular place. The Greek may have conceived of political life as situated in the polls, outside private life centered on the home, and as epitomized in the meeting of citizens at the agora, but the polis itself was not place-bound. "The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be" (Arendt, 1958, page 198). Neither Habermas nor Arendt thus conceives of a specific politics of public space separate from that of the public sphere.

In recent decades the reconfigurations of the political arena attendant on globalization and the emergence of new forms of media have led to further questioning of the spatiality of the public sphere, as reflected in the emergence of ideas of 'diasporic public spheres' (Appadurai 1996), global or transnational public spheres (Castells, 2008; Fraser, 2007; Olesen, 2005; Sparks, 2001; Thorn, 2007; Volkmer, 2003), or 'global public sphere moments' (Eide and Kunelius, 2010). This questioning has promoted a further decoupling of the public sphere from fixed localities in favor of notions of mobility and fluidity (Sheller and Urry, 2003). In line with this, the overwhelming majority of definitions of the public sphere stress its mediated character and its ability to circulate and reflexively integrate discourse translocally (eg. Barnett, 2008; Emirbayer and Sheller, 1999, page 156; Ferree et al, 2002; Lee, 2002; Warner, 2002). Against this tendency to emphasize an increasingly elastic and abstract notion of a public sphere, concern has been raised that it is exactly more attention to concrete location that is needed. One possible drawback of diluting the concept of the public sphere in order to accommodate public sphere theory to globalization is that we are left with a picture of multiple publics in relationships so complex and variable that the problem of exclusion from public arenas becomes blurred. One way of dealing with this problem has been by stressing the element of theatricality in the public sphere and the way it is dependent on physical locations that can function as the stage for dramatizing important political activities and conflicts (Henaff and Strong, 2001; Low, 2000, pages 238ff; Parkinson, 2012; Villa, 2001). Another way of bringing questions of locality and exclusion back into view has been to focus on the body. No matter how decoupled concrete public space has become from a public sphere increasingly identified with the flow of mediated information and communication, it is still possible to claim that public space is important as an arena of life and sustenance for the homeless and as a space where people gain access to a sensory-bodily togetherness of which they are increasingly deprived in other areas of life (Mitchell, 2003; Waldron, 1993). Criticism has thus mounted not only against the exclusive nature of deliberation in the public sphere, but also against the fact that it is often premised on the idea of disembodied interaction. The focus on more local, physical space has been one way of bringing these issues back into view.

The main point I wish to make here is not that public sphere theorists need to devote more attention to the physical places where public discussions are located or to the physical infrastructure through which it is mediated. Such attention is already present in the work of the theorists mentioned above, from Arendt and Habermas onwards. What is needed is rather to clarify in what sense space is seen as playing a crucial role in particular political practices and whether or not an idea of a public sphere can be articulated in which such practices are recognized as legitimate. These are questions that require a clarification of the relationship between public sphere and public space.

3 Contestation and bracketing in the concept of the public sphere

Inquiry into the relation between public sphere and public space is complicated by the fact that this relation is variable and contested. The best way to clarify it is, I suggest, to delve further into the concept of the public sphere itself and investigate two dimensions of publicness. These dimensions--which I will refer to as those of bracketing and contestation--are not necessarily incompatible, but they exist in a certain tension and it is important to keep them apart. (5) In one conception, publicness arises when egalitarian arenas of interaction are created by a systematic bracketing of inequality. Publics, in other words, arise when participants systematically disregard real differences and relations of dependency in order to create a semblance of equality between participants. In the other conception, it is rather by contestation, by openly challenging exclusion and inequality, that genuine publicness can occur.

Both of these dimensions are central to classical thinkers like Habermas and Arendt. Both put particular stress on the public sphere's function as an arena for verbal contestation, deliberation, and debate. For Habermas the public sphere is a sphere in which validity is constituted by "people's public use of their reason" and in which citizens come together for the purpose of political will-formation through debate and the manifestation of arguments, standpoints, and claims (Habermas, 1989, pages 24-28; see also 1996, pages 359-367). Arendt, too, sees political action as intimately linked to public speech. The public realm arises whenever people gather to decide on common affairs through the medium of speech, persuasion, and 'acting in concert'. "Only sheer violence is mute", she claims, while "most political action" is "transacted in words" (Arendt, 1958, page 26).

This idea of political will-formation through debate and discussion is informed by the idea that the public sphere must be an arena of free and open contestation; publicness requires that no issue or argument is banned. However, a careful reading of Habermas and Arendt shows that their idea of the public sphere also involves a sense of distance or detachment from preoccupations of everyday life, which is made possible through a temporary bracketing of dependencies and inequalities in wealth and status that define our position in society. Only through a bracketing of real differences and relations of dependency can the semblance of a public in which participants are equal come into being. Thus Habermas (1989, page 36) stresses that the birth of the public sphere in the cafes and salons of the 18th century was possible because participants could interact on an equal footing, at least in principle. What this implies for concrete interaction is illustrated by Georg Simmel in his discussion of the playful sociability in bourgeois salons. The interaction in these salons is playful and pleasant because participants engage in it for its own sake, disregarding matters concerning status as well as the material interests or personal problems that burden interaction in everyday life. Such interaction has a 'democratic' character because all participants, within certain boundaries, behave as though they are equal (Simmel, 1964, page 47). In similar vein, Arendt (1958, page 188) argues that the political significance of the Greek polis consisted in that it functioned as an "artificial institution" that made men equal who by nature were not. "Equality existed only in this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons" (Arendt, 2006, page 21).

In Arendt's or Habermas's conception, the public sphere is thus not only a realm of free and open communication or debate, but also an arena in which parts of social life are bracketed in order to create a semblance of equality among participants. Apart from by debate and verbal contestation, it is also constituted by a systematic bracketing that is needed to prevent it from dissolving back into the 'real' world of power and dependencies. However, while bracketing creates a democratic or egalitarian semblance, it also prevents real inequalities in power, wealth, and status from being challenged. Habermas is explicit about the twisted ideological foundation of the 18th-century bourgeois public sphere--a sphere constituted by people belonging to a privileged stratum of society who nevertheless felt entitled to claim that they were representing man in general (1989, page 56). Arendt too stresses that the public realm of the Greek polis was limited to free men possessing wealth, health, and courage (1958, pages 131, 186). Her pluralist conception of the public as constituted by "the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives" (page 57) thus hardly implies radical openness. Public life was premised on a bracketing of the world of work and labor, and in particular of the private life of the household, which was the realm of slaves, women, and children. Therefore it was also threatened by the 'rise of the social' in modern societies--the process whereby political participation is extended to socially disadvantaged classes who start making their 'private' economic grievances public (pages 28ff, 38-49, 59, 134, 322ff). (6)

Against the inherent elitism and constricting norms of the classical concept of the public sphere, activists and critics have stressed the right to political participation of the masses, the marginalized, and the excluded (for an overview, see Dahlberg, 2003).(7) As Nancy Fraser (1992) points out, disadvantaged groups, such as women, gays or lesbians, ethnic minorities, or the working class, have established 'subaltern counterpublics': competing publics where they are able to circulate counterdiscourses that challenge the exclusionary norms of the dominant bourgeois public sphere. (8) To such groups, she points out, the bracketing typical of the mainstream public sphere is constraining rather than enabling. The strategy they employ is one of 'unbracketing', of making the inequality visible rather than playing along with the pretence that all are equal. What is important here is the spatial dialectics she detects between the mainstream public and the subaltern counterpublics. As a first step, such groups may need spaces for 'withdrawal and regroupment', where the stigmatization can be shared and discussed without fear of discrimination. Their retreat from the bourgeois public sphere, however, can only be partial and temporary, since ultimately they return to the mainstream public and "help expand discursive space" (Fraser, 1992, page 124). The characteristic motion she describes--withdrawal followed by empowerment as such groups return to the mainstream public to insist on their right to visibility and to protest against discrimination--is propelled by the tension between the mainstream public's semblance of democracy on the one hand and continuing real exclusion on the other. Through this dialectical process the mainstream public is continually challenged in the name of its own ideals and pressured to become more inclusive.

On the one hand, then, we have the emphasis on contestation, debate, and deliberation, and on the other, the stress on creating a semblance of equality through bracketing. An important point is that both of these dimensions can be understood as indicating publicness. Recognizing their distinctness makes it easier for us to grasp ideas of publicness where the two dimensions have parted company. This in turn will be necessary in order to demonstrate how the public sphere relates to notions of public space.

4 Contestation and counterspaces

Theorists like Habermas and Arendt have contributed to the consolidation of something like a classical notion of the public sphere, but notions of public space are far less uniform. Here I choose to focus on two currents of scholarship on public space which seem to me to be particularly important in view of the preceding discussion. The two strands put the notion of public space to work in opposite ways--one stressing contestation, the other bracketing--but both also suggest the possibility of a form of politics that is more open to the participation of disadvantaged groups than that of the public sphere.

In one current, public space is seen as a space for manifesting dissent. (9) Publicness is seen as the very product of dissent, as something that would dissolve and disappear without it. Thus, Jacques Ranciere (1999) sees democracy as an interminable work of creating polemical situations where power is challenged in the name of everybody's equal worth. For him, democratic politics hinges on the possibility for subordinated groups to visibilize dissent, a visibilization that usually takes the form of a breach of "the distribution of the sensible" (Ranciere, 2004) or, in other words, of an upsetting or shattering of the discursive field. The space where dissent can be manifested is different from the Habermasian public sphere, which rests on faith in rationality and consensus orientation, but it is nevertheless a public space. "There is no consensus, no undamaged communication, no settlement of a wrong. But there is a polemical commonplace for the handling of a wrong and the demonstration of equality" (Ranciere, 1992, page 62). In a similar vein, Don Mitchell argues that it is often the presence of struggle that makes a place public. As he points out, the public sphere has often been an arena characterized by exclusion, where "rational 'free' discourse is protected by excluding irrationality" and which is limited to an "appropriate public" (Mitchell, 2003, pages 51, 122). People have reacted against this exclusion by taking to the streets, plazas, or parks to win the right to political participation, turning these places into stages for visibilization and representation. The idea of public space "has never been guaranteed. It has only been won through concerted struggle, and then, after the fact, guaranteed" (page 4f).

"What makes a space public--a space in which the cry and demand for the right to the city can be seen and heard--is often not its preordained 'publicness'. Rather, it is when, to fulfil a pressing need, some group or another takes space and through its actions makes it public" (page 35).

The forms of dissent highlighted by Ranciere and Mitchell go beyond the ideal of bracketing and often explicitly involve what Fraser calls an unbracketing: a polemical visibilization of inequality which at the same time functions as an accusation against existing forms of the public sphere and which disrupts and challenges the bracketing on which it is constituted. For simplicity I will use Lefebvre's (1991, pages 381ff) term "counter-space" to refer to spaces used for visibilization of things normally bracketed. In a counterspace, space is used in ways considered transgressive and contrary to the officially approved norms, and the very right of activists to use the space is often contested.

In counterspaces, space is occupied not just to defend it against, say, evictions or renovation plans, but also strategically and proactively, to make a symbolic statement. The occupations of Tahrir or Zuccotti Park are cases in point. For another example we can turn to the Japanese homeless movement, in which theatre, music, and poetry have been spectacularly deployed on several occasions in recent years to stop the evictions of homeless people from parks and riverbeds. Probably the best-known example so far is the struggle to defend the homeless community in Tokyo's Miyashita Park, during which a group of artists and activists calling themselves Artists In Residence occupied the park for six months in 2010, squatting in the park with the remaining homeless and using it as an arena for art workshops, concerts, karaoke, rave parties, and poetry readings and as a base for rallies and demonstrations in the vicinity, including 'homemade sound-demos', a form of street parties to which participants brought frying pans, metal cans, and other things that make a noise. In the course of the occupation, it quickly became evident that the activists and artists were using the park not only as the locus of protest activities aimed at reaching out to the authorities, but also to express an alternative way of life and to defend the autonomy of the park and its community. Among the art objects on display along the fence was a large piece of cloth on which someone had painted an 'ideal image of the park': a big verdant oasis where people sleep under the trees and relax. Next to the trees are big houses with free rent. On a bridge one sees a father taking his son to the park: "Come, let's go to the park. It's so free!" As one activist explained, it was a matter of 'prefigurative politics', that is, of creating here and now the ideal society they were striving for. The point was not just to participate in the public sphere, but to create room for, and defend, the alternative life made possible in the park (Cassegard, 2013, pages 167-179).

5 Bracketing and empowerment

A different concept of public space predominates in the second current of scholarship, which is represented by the works of Erving Goffman, Richard Sennett, Jane Jacobs, and Lyn Lofland, among others. (10) Typical of these works is that they focus on urban spaces where action takes place in the presence of strangers and that publicness is conceived of as resting on norms governing the interaction between strangers (eg, Lofland, 1973, page 18; 1998, page 9). Space is crucial in this conception, since it brings strangers into a relation of mutual visibility. What distinguishes public space from formal organizations or private domains is the presence of a specific form of sociability which is both fluid and governed by norms. These norms include what Goffman (1963) called 'civil inattention'; that is, helping each other move uneventfully through the streets or acting as each other's audience in the 'city theatre'. As Sennett (1986, page 264) put it, the civility typical of public interaction "protects people from each other and yet allows them to enjoy each other's company". Bracketing also underpins the peculiar sense of freedom of streets and roads. Lofland (1998) in particular is keen to bring out how ordered, civil, and pleasant this realm is, pointing out that it offers pleasures such as public solitude, people-watching, sociability, and playfulness. The function of public space in this conception, to borrow Jeff Weintraub's (1997, page 17) words, is "not so much to express or generate solidarity, as, ideally, to 'make diversity agreeable'". Where everyone is a stranger, there is no high or low, no status hierarchy, and very few dependencies. In contrast to in the previous current, here it is bracketing rather than contestation that is constitutive of publicness.

These theories of urban sociality in which bracketing is central can easily be criticized for leaving out the contested nature of public space. As in theories of counterspace, they link publicness to visibility and acting in the presence of others. Unlike in theories of counterspace, however, it is the maintenance of the public order and the bracketing on which it rests that are identified with publicness. Being identified with a civilized code of behavior between strangers, publicness can also 'decay' if the norms for such behavior are challenged. (11) This is evident in Sennett's The Fall of Public Man, which portrays the vibrant public life of the 18th century as resting on norms of formal civility that enabled strangers to interact with one another. Such civility implies a masking of self and hence 'theatricality'; it thus started to break down in the course of the 19th century, as such norms were increasingly undermined by the pressures of industrial capitalism and challenged in the name of authenticity (Sennett, 1986, pages 19f, 298f). Publicness is similarly portrayed as a fragile construction in Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1992), where the image of public space is that of a lively street, full of strangers, yet jointly policed by residents (pages 230, 257ff, 263, 334). For her, public space rests on what Ranciere would call a 'distribution of the sensible' that can be upset by the public visualization of the 'uncounted part', of those who are not supposed to be there. According to Jacobs, this ordering must be intact for publicness to occur. To maintain the security of the street, the private must be relegated to a sphere where it will not disturb or scare away people or make them feel unsafe (pages 30-39). A street or park rife with criminality, prostitution, or 'perversion', or with homeless people sleeping in 'public', would hardly be public in her sense of the word. In Mitchell's (2003) study, by contrast, public space arises precisely when this ordering is challenged and upset through the provocative visibilization in public of things, people, or behavior that is usually relegated to the hidden, private sphere.

Despite the tendency in this current of scholarship to see norm-transgressive behavior as a threat to publicness, the emphasis on the role of bracketing in urban sociability helps bring into view a particular function of public space which is important for furthering the empowerment of disadvantaged groups: namely that of providing protection. (12) This empowering aspect of bracketing is especially evident in alternative spaces set up by subaltern groups. As Nels Anderson shows in his classic The Hobo, subaltern publics too are constituted by norms of bracketing. Describing the 'jungles' set up by itinerant hobos on the outskirts of cities or close to the railroad--temporary or permanent camps where they pass time, camp, cook food, and wash clothes--he emphasizes their hospitable and democratic character as well as their function as a shelter from molestation. Here the hobo "turns his back on the world and faces his fellows, and is at ease" (Anderson, 1962, page 19). The rule, however, was never to inquire too deeply into each other's personal background.

"Every new member is of interest for the news he brings or the rumours that he spreads. Each is interested in the other so far as he has something to tell about the road over which he has come, the work conditions, the behaviour of the police, or other significant details. But with all the discussion there is seldom any effort to discuss personal relations and connections. Here is one place where every man's past is his own secret. Only in the case of the very young boys or sick men and sometimes old men is there any effort to learn something of the individual's past. Men will brush elbows in the jungles for days and even weeks without ever learning one another's names. They live closed lives and grant others the same privilege" (Anderson, 1962, page 19f).

What Anderson describes is remarkably similar to what Simmel claimed governed the sociability of bourgeois salons: an encouragement of pleasant interaction that goes hand in hand with a bracketing of the participants' personal backgrounds and circumstances. What distinguishes the jungles from the salons is not the presence or absence of bracketing, but rather two factors. Firstly, the jungles offer an alternative norm for bracketing to that of mainstream society. The shared experience of belonging to a disadvantaged group means that certain things, such as the group members' pariah status or experiences of police harassment do not need to be bracketed. In these spaces hobo life is temporarily freed from its stigma, since the social norms that underlie stigmatization are suspended. Secondly, interaction in the jungles is not divorced from the material concerns governing the 'reality' of the surrounding society. Unlike the salons, coffee-houses, and the agora, the jungles play a vital role in the daily life of the hobos--providing access to protection, company, and information, and a place to sleep and cook.

Common to these spaces is that they feed on the inattention or neglect by mainstream society (unlike counterspaces, which publicly proclaim their existence). I will use the term 'no-man's-land' to refer to them. (13) The term is broader than similar terms such as 'dead zone', 'wasteland', 'terrain vague', or 'urban voids'--which have been used for places such as derelict harbors or train yards, abandoned barracks, empty lots, spaces below bridges, or next to highways (Doron, 2008; Franck and Stevens, 2007; de Sola-Morales, 1995)--since it may also include spaces officially intended to be public, like parks, streets, or riverbanks to the extent that they allow for activities that escape the attention of mainstream society. Although the word may suggest spaces devoid of habitation and use, no-man's-lands are seldom empty. Often people live there, creating spaces for their own lives through scavenging, barter, and partial participation in the official economy. What characterizes these spaces is not the absence of human interaction, but the fact that this interaction lacks official recognition. Although seemingly unrelated to politics, no-man's-lands have a central place in homelessness activism. As Gil Doron points out, what is liberating about them is "the absence of recognition and the subsequent indifference toward it", which allow for activities that deviate from or transgress mainstream norms (2007, page 10). Such freedom is not merely a matter of lifestyle, but is also essential to the survival of homeless people, helping them build resilience in the face of oppressive conditions. It is here that they develop the alternative economies that are necessary for them to make a living--economies depending on scavenging and collecting cans, cardboard, and other recyclables--and it is here that they find access to spaces for basic needs, such as sleeping and attending to bodily needs, for which most other people rely on private spaces.

The idea of this freedom can also function as a magnet for activists who are keen to explore new ways of living beyond the confines of capitalism and mainstream hierarchies. In the struggle over Miyashita Park, activists were explicit in stating that they were attracted by the idea of no-man's-land. One of them--an artist and activist who normally lives with the homeless in a tent village in another park in Tokyo--states that he likes Miyashita Park because "it is more like a vacant lot than a park" and explains that it is because it has remained a vacant lot so long that the homeless have been able to build their huts there. The high regard in which activists hold the idea of vacant lots appears to be born of a discontent with the exclusionary and unresponsive nature of the mainstream public sphere. What they tried to build in the park was something else: a non-man's-land where nothing was decided in advance and everything was tried out and decided on by the participants themselves (Cassegard, 2013, pages 171ff).

What gets lost from view if we understand contestation or the activities of counterpublics merely in terms of unbracketing is that principles of bracketing are not uniform for society as a whole, but plural, and that they vary depending on context. Next to the mainstream public arenas--characterized by the codes for civilized behavior mapped by Goffman, Sennett, and Lofland--there are alternative publics where things are tolerated that would have had to be bracketed in the mainstream public or that would have been condemned as shameful in 'private' areas such as the family (eg, Cassegard, 2013, pages 181-213; Evans and Boyte, 1992; Gamson, 1996; Polletta, 1999). As mainstream public spaces or the mainstream public sphere become viewed as unresponsive arenas in which disadvantaged groups only have limited chances of participation, such zones can easily be seen as offering the possibility of new and more open public areas where communication, action, and a recovery of political commitment are again thought to be possible. It would therefore be a mistake to see counterpublics as rejecting all forms of bracketing. It is by providing their own alternative principles of bracketing that counterpublics can create a semblance of equality among their own participants--a semblance which helps them to function as places of refuge.

To grasp the political importance of bracketing, it is essential to grasp its ambivalent nature. Bracketing can be restrictive and obstruct the questioning of inequality, but it may also have an empowering function for disadvantaged groups to the extent that it contributes to the creation of alternative arenas for interaction where they are freed from stigmatization, arenas which in turn are often the soil from which more openly political counterpublics may spring.

6 Overcoming the limitations of the public sphere?

I have pointed to two concepts of public space, one in which bracketing and another in which contestation is central. If we try to relate the various ideas of publicness mentioned so far to the two dimensions of bracketing and verbal contestation, we get figure 1. The horizontal axis shows the degree to which interaction is characterized by contestation, while the vertical axis shows the degree to which norms of bracketing conform to those perceived to be mainstream or predominant in society. The further one goes to the right along the horizontal axis, the more space is conceived of as a space for contestation. Contestation is an important part of the deliberations or public discussions seen as central in the classical concept of the public sphere represented by Habermas and Arendt. When the norms of mainstream bracketing are turned into objects of contestation, we get the counterspaces theorized by Mitchell and Ranciere. The higher one goes along the vertical axis the more space is seen as a space governed by mainstream norms of bracketing--a conception of space underlying interactions in the classical public sphere as well as the urban sociability portrayed by Goffman and others. However, subalterns can form zones of interaction of their own that rest on alternative norms of bracketing, either in spaces neglected by the mainstream public (no-man's-lands) or in spaces created to visibly and openly challenge mainstream norms (counterspace).

The figure helps us visualize that while the two dimensions of contestation and bracketing coincide most fully in the classical concept of the public sphere represented by Habermas and Arendt, they do not necessarily go together. That bracketing can signal publicness wholly in the absence of verbal interaction is exemplified by what Goffman (1963, pages 83-88) calls civil inattention and other forms of tactful interaction taking place between strangers in public places. By contrast, Ranciere and Mitchell stress that prevalent norms of bracketing need to be disrupted through highly visible and polemical acts of confrontation for genuine publicness to occur.

What does the figure tell us about the relation between public sphere and public space? Firstly, it brings out that the notions of public space mentioned above fall into two distinct groups which have very little in common. Secondly, it shows that the classical notion of the public sphere is not sharply delineated from either of the two ideas of public space. The two dimensions that are constitutive of the idea of the public sphere in Habermas and Arendt are not unique or exclusive to that sphere. Bracketing is central in the idea of public space as a space for urban sociability, while contestation is central in the idea of public space as a space for manifesting dissent. Typical of the idea of the public sphere is not the presence of these two dimensions, but their coincidence, the fact that they are brought together in a relation in which they balance and moderate each other and thus give rise to the peculiar form of public deliberation or debate stressed by Habermas and Arendt--a form in which bracketing is employed in order to facilitate communication, while at the same time contestation tends to be contained by being limited to things not considered disruptive of the norms of public communication itself.

Conceiving of deliberation as a form of public debate in which the confrontational element is moderated by the requirement of bracketing makes it easier to see why people have often experienced it as insufficiently radical--as a form of interaction in which power inequalities are hidden under the cloak of equality and which often produces disillusionment and resignation among subalterns rather than empowerment.

This also makes it easier to understand why public space can be seen as a more promising ground than the public sphere for a radical questioning of the established order. Part of the answer appears to be that theories of public space have radicalized tendencies within public sphere theory itself. That some theories of public space stress bracketing while others stress contestation has to do, I suggest, with the fact that these theories are not merely theories of space, but also attempts at actively overcoming limitations in the notion of the public sphere by groping for an idea of arenas more open to difference and to the participation of others than the 'appropriate public'. The impression that their notions of public space are full of radical potentiality is thus created by the fact that they stress radical versions of dimensions which are also part of the notion of the public sphere.

However, a legitimate question is to what extent the politics of public space can disentangle itself from the drawbacks of the public sphere. It should be noted that even the most radical manifestations of dissent at least indirectly seem to depend upon and connect up with the deliberative practices typical of public spheres, since strategies of visibilization are usually directed at the general public sphere (Barnett, 2008, page 408). The emphasis on visibility and representation, so stressed by Mitchell, almost by necessity presupposes access to a larger public. If that is true, even radical attempts to challenge the norms of the mainstream public would sooner or later have to follow the trajectory outlined by Fraser, reconnecting to the public sphere in order to expand its discursive space.

That, however, does not mean that public space lacks a political significance independent from that of the public sphere. Firstly, the tactic of visibilizing dissent through public space is not just one of many ways to influence deliberative processes of the public sphere, but may well be essential for certain groups or topics that would otherwise not be given any attention. As Mitchell points out, material space is essential to politics, since disadvantaged groups often have no other way to make themselves visible than to intrude in or occupy spaces where they are not meant to be. Rather than saying that the politics of public space relies on the existence of the public sphere, we could invert the relation and say that the capacity of the public sphere to include such groups depends on well-functioning and open public spaces. There is thus an irreducible element in the politics of visibilization, which means that such a politics, even as it reconnects to the mainstream public sphere, is crucial to making this sphere more open for the excluded.

Secondly, public spaces constituted through alternative forms of bracketing may be crucial in providing spaces for recovery and empowerment. The activism of the homeless includes not only visibilizing dissent, but also the maintenance of no-man's-lands. Apart from the idea of public spaces as spaces for visibilizing dissent, there is a second and more subdued sense in which 'public space' appears in Mitchell, namely as an everyday arena for daily life--parks or empty buildings, for instance, where homeless people or squatters manage to find shelter. The value of public space in this very material sense is particularly great for homeless people, since it provides a place for them to be and live, a place for living rather than for visibilization. (14) Since these are spaces where they can find shelter from discrimination, they are also important for empowerment, ie, the recovery of self-respect and self-confidence in the ability to shape their lives. This is a politics that does not necessarily aim for visibility or representation in the wider public sphere and which may therefore also be freer of the entwinement with the politics of that sphere.

To a politics geared to counteract exclusion, public spaces created through contestation can play just as crucial a role as public spaces constituted for the excluded through alternative forms of bracketing. At whichever of these two senses of public space one looks, one finds a political significance that is particularly great to those excluded from or disadvantaged in the politics of the public sphere.

Can we then conclude that 'public space' is more suitable as a focal point of a radical politics than the 'public sphere'? The correct way to put it is surely that public space is not inherently radical, but a crucial and irreducible element in all politics--including that of the public sphere. The public sphere takes place in a variety of spatial settings and mediums, which condition its specific mode of interaction, namely deliberation or public discussion. Public space, however, also exists in forms--such as counterspaces or no-man's-lands--in which the dimensions of publicness that constitute the public sphere are radicalized to the point that space potentially becomes a locus for questioning the public sphere itself. What goes beyond the regular politics of the public sphere is therefore not so much space itself as acts that use space to unbracket or visibilize inequalities or to construct arenas based on alternative forms of bracketing. Just as the public sphere arises and dissipates depending on discursive practices and their material underpinnings, so a variety of public spaces can emerge, depending on how they are used, that offer a place to live and be heard for those who experience themselves as excluded from the public sphere.

doi: 10.1068/d13011p

Acknowledgements. I am grateful to everyone who has contributed comments on the various occasions when this paper has been presented, including the valuable and helpful comments by the anonymous referees. I also gratefully acknowledge support by the Swedish Research Council.


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Carl Cassegard

Department of Sociology and Work Science, University of Gothenburg, PO Box 720, Gothenburg SE 405 30, Sweden; e-mail:,

Received 19 April 2013; in revised form 28 January 2014; published online 19 June 2014

(1) I should point out that by public space I do not refer to public space as a legally defined category, but to space as a physical site of social interactions--a site defined as much by norms, expectations, and perceptions as by the reference to material settings.

(2) For an overview of criticism against the 'public sphere', see Lincoln Dahlberg (2003).

(3) Clive Barnett's (2008) sharp criticism of the 'geographers' is understandable as a reaction to their unfair complaint that the Habermasian public sphere is despatialized, but he goes too far in claiming that publicness should be conceptualized only as a circulatory process without spatial components. While I agree with Barnett that the public sphere can be defined without reference to space, 1 do not agree that there is no legitimate political role for public space as well.

(4) In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere Habermas points out that the social interaction typical of 18th-century coffeehouses and salons played an important role in the formation of the bourgeois public sphere, although this sphere also took place in a wide variety of other arenas--in the medium of print, in state institutions like courts, and also largely in private spaces. Spatiality is also foregrounded in Between Facts and Norms, where he distinguishes between the "episodic publics" of encounters on the street or in taverns; the "occasional publics" of performances, concerts, or assemblies taking place in concrete locales like forums, theatres, arenas or galleries; and "abstract publics" that rely on mass media to link "isolated readers, listeners, and viewers scattered across large geographical areas" (Habermas, 1996, page 374).

(5) The reason for focusing on these two dimensions is that it is here that I see the greatest possibilities for identifying a political significance of public space distinct from that of the public sphere. Needless to say, many other dimensions have been identified by scholars discussing the public. 1 make no attempt in this paper to discuss the institutional (eg, Benson, 2009; Crossley, 2004) or technological (eg, Dahlgren, 2001; Dayan, 2001) infrastructure of public spaces or the public sphere. Nor do I discuss the relation to the state or political system [central to classic accounts such as Dewey (1954)], the way public spaces are increasingly subjected to surveillance and control (eg, Banerjee and Loukaitou-Sideris, 2013; Davis, 1990; Sorkin, 1992) or turned into one-dimensional places for consumption (Barber, 2001), the question of the self-reflexive constitution of the public as a social imaginary through the circulation of discourse (eg, Lee, 2002; Taylor, 2004; Warner, 2002), or the way publics can vary along the axes of scale or content (Butler Breese, 2011). While these approaches address important features of or tendencies in the public sphere or public space, I am interested in dimensions of publicness that can be evoked to point to the public nature of spaces perceived to be at odds with the mainstream public sphere.

(6) As Seyla Benhabib (1992) and Dana Villa (2007, page 999) point out, the fact that Arendt's conception of politics is agonistic and pluralistic does little to prevent exclusion. In fact, it often exacerbates it, since it is coupled with competition and a struggle for attention. In the public realm, "only what is considered to be relevant, worthy of being seen or heard, can be tolerated, so that the irrelevant becomes automatically a private matter" (Arendt, 1958, page 51).

(7) For Habermas's clarifications and responses, see Habermas (1989, page xviii; 1996, pages 329-387). In recent formulations, he is careful to recognize the plurality of publics and counterpublics.

(8) For counterpublics, see also Michael Warner (2002, pages 117-120) and Catherine Squires (2002). For the similar idea of 'radical democratic spaces', see Margaret Kohn (2003). Among the first to direct attention to the 'proletarian' and other public spheres existing next to or outside the bourgeois one highlighted by Habermas were Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge (1972). Apart from Fraser, other prominent exponents of the idea that publics can arise from pressing concerns that divide us include Bruno Latour (2005) and Chantal Mouffe (1999). I focus on Fraser since she explicitly highlights the need to challenge mainstream norms of bracketing (unlike, for instance, Mouffe who follows Habermas in emphasizing the role of civilly conducted deliberation).

(9) That is, as what Bruce D'Arcus (2004) refers to as 'dissent public space'. Kohn appears to have a similar notion of public space in mind when she describes 'populist' public space as "a place for staging polemical scenes, a site where the conflict between opposing interests is made visible and subject to dispute" (2013, page 107).

(10) This current largely coincides with what Weintraub (1997, pages 17ff) calls the "field of discourse" that focuses on the "public life" of sociability and which is exemplified by scholars such as Jacobs, Sennett, Philippe Aries, or Goffman. In this current I would also include Iris Young's discussion of 'city life' (2011, pages 226-242).

(11) Anxiety about the fragility of public space and a desire to protect it against decay is a noticeable trait in many writers in this current of scholarship. Simmel (1964, page 47) as well as Goffman (1963) stress the fragility of sociability or public performances, which easily break down on contact with 'reality'. Lofland's (1973) study revolves around the problem how urban life can be affirmed despite the permanent presence of strangers. Both Sennett (1986) and Aries (1962) depict a public that in their view has already decayed.

(12) Fran Tonkiss for instance stresses the liberating and positive aspects of anonymity, safety, and indifference for women and other vulnerable groups (2005, pages 23, 103).

(13) The term highlights the fact that these spaces often arise in places unclaimed or unused by their formal owners. It has been questioned whether it is appropriate to refer to such spaces as 'public' (eg, Henaff and Strong, 2001, page 4). However, as open spaces for social interaction, I find no particular problems with referring to them as public. Furthermore, to the extent that "Accessibility is part of what usually is understood as public space" (Kohn, 2008, page 480) no-man's-lands too are clearly public space.

(14) Against those who would point to cyberspace as a new form of public space, he points out that one cannot live there: "there is literally no room in the internet's 'public space' for a homeless person to exist--to sleep, to relax, to attend to bodily needs" (Mitchell, 2003, page 147). That the materiality of space is crucial in this sense is overlooked by Barnett (2008).
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