Cluster 2: Can there be dissensus in a vacated public realm?

by evaminoura

Mêsentente according to Ranciere means both ”the fact of not hearing, of not understanding” and ”quarrel, disagreement”. If the latter is captured in the concept of dissensus, the former might be said to be captured in the concept of complacency. I find it interesting that the focus of these three readings is very much on the dualism between consensus and dissensus, leaving out what I find a far more pressing problem of our times, namely complacency. If the quarrel is politics, as Rancière believes, then the antithesis I would consider to be this complacency, i.e. antipolitics. I find this a far more frightening prospect since it implies that the act of contesting is dead. If we live in apolitical times, how do we reinstate dissensus? If we take the commons as an example, what does it say about a society when the commons often is left vacant, uncontested – reminder of this state of not hearing or understanding one another? Richard Sennett attributes the withdrawal from a public role or persona (ie. protected by a formal manner) to the lack of barriers between public and private – calling this the ”tyranny of intimacy.” I’m inclined to think that this state of affairs is reflected quite literally in our built environment. We can see in architecture as in art the ”production of relationships (particularly social relationships) through our environment” (Bishop). By what means then does a collective social entity form with the ”wherewithal to create a community, however temporary or utopian this may be” (Bishop)?If ”meaning is established collectively” as Claire Bishop argues, a look at current urban development indicates a proliferation of ”the privatized space of individual consumption”. To illustrate, here are some recent excerpts in DN Bostad and Hemnet valorizing the private outside terrace as amenity. An affordance for those with adequate purchasing power, that is. Is this the utopia of a complacent, apolitical society?

Recent (2012) lifestyle marketing in the media(left, Hammarbyhöjden on Hemnet; right, Farsta in DN Bostad)

Recent (2012) lifestyle marketing in the media(left, Hammarbyhöjden on Hemnet; right, Farsta in DN Bostad)

Here one might argue (at least in the image on the left from Hammarbyhöjden) that the spaces are overprogrammed to the point of seeming to parody the modernist design, to paraphrase Bishop. But is there meaning on a larger collective scale or is this simply a manifestation of an individualist approach, like Wittgenstein’s concept of chosen loyalties based on ’family resemblances’? I would propose that the ”perpetual open-endedness” (Bishop) transferred to urban design practice in the form of an excess of fluid, continuous and accessible publicly (perceived) open space undermines use value and denies agency, leading to confusion and disuse. The communicative potential of space is stripped away and there can be no dissensus or even consensus in the vacated public realm. No wonder then that the market liberal solution of dealing with this urban design question is to manifest a withdrawal from the public realm.  And ground-floor apartments which used to have a lower market-value now boast private terraces! But alas no collective open space. . .unless the vast green areas in abundance (for now) qualify as commons, but do they function as such?

Chantal Mouffe defines the social as the realm of ”sedimented practices”, inherently unstable since order excludes other possibilites. Thus, it is in being precise, in articulating an identity that meaning and order become something which there is a point to contest. Vacated public space must be described as uncontested, thus creating different forms of articulation of public space are perhaps neccessary to invite/incur dissensus. If our objective is to occupy the public space, not by intervention as in art, but by architecture which performs it’s task well, then reintroducing social arenas between the scale of the public realm and the familial ought to be considered. A ”production of knowledge towards new practices of living, consuming and collective appropriation of common spaces” ie.  formulating a vision for these common spaces, essentially repoliticizing the utopian (or microtopian) idea of living together is needed.

Emmashof Community Garden, Den Haag

Sequence of spaces at Emmashof Community Garden, Den Haag

Fortunately, ”politics is a local, precarious, contingent activity – an activity which is always on the point of disappearing, and thus perhaps also on the point of reappearing” (Ranciére, italics mine). Can architecture enact that change? The images above are from a community garden in Den Haag in the Netherlands called Emmashof. An interior courtyard of a terrace-housing block was reappropriated by the neighborhood who created a commons in the place of a run-down building housing a boxing school. The garden is a discrete space and a haven for local residents in an area with few parks and green areas. Local engagement showing the potential for self-governance, of taking matters into their own hands, citizenship awakened from complacency. The garden is closed to the outside world, you enter through a gate and portal into a small oasis in the relatively dense neighborhood. Even residents living around the courtyard must enter through the same gate since walls and fences surround the garden. But anyone may enter, the gate is only closed at night. This is what a discrete space, imbued with meaning and sedimented practices can look like. . .