An Attempt to Exhaust Public Space
by Chris Sharp
Democracy is inherently agonistic, conflictual, unstable and contingent. Like the public square, it is essentially empty, constantly awaiting content and meaning
This short text draws its title from Georges Perec’s short novella, Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien (Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris). Perec’s novella consists of a registration of the most banal activity that could be observed while sitting at different cafeÅLs over the course of three days at the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris in October 1974. What is curious about his text is that, given he concentrates on the banal, it is not actually exhaustive, which in turn renders the evocative title he appended to it actually quite interpretable. Perhaps it had less to do with a commitment to describe everything that took place than with how much banality he could actually endure before moving to a different square? Whatever the case may be, the title takes on a certain and potentially useful salience when thinking about the argument regarding the origins and nature of public space in Rosalyn Deutsche’s historic essay “Agoraphobia” (for the record, this essay will be less an argument than a speculative observation).
In this brilliant essay, Deutsche draws upon a group of radical democratic or agonistic philosophers (Claude Lefort, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, EÅLtienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe) to evaluate the origin and nature of urban public space, as well as its use. Basically, she argues that in a democratic paradigm, public space is an essentially empty space. Which is to say, the moment a specific use is assigned to public space, it forfeits its public nature. In order for this space – a park, a square, and so on – to remain public, it must be able to host any given activity at any given moment, even at the risk of hosting conflicts between the inhabitants of the space. According to Deutsche, and the group of thinkers she draws on, democracy is inherently agonistic, conflictual, unstable and contingent. It, like the public square, is essentially empty, constantly awaiting content and meaning, which it will always and invariably subsequently liquidate.
Considered even for a moment, such a perspective of public space is immediately, if beautifully, beleaguered by paradox. The first one of such a radical democratic position is that while it is predicated on the ideology of democracy (power to the people) it is also pre-ideological in that it is fundamentally resistant to the permanent residence of any given ideology. Akin to Giorgio Agamben’s characterisation of ‘movement’ as pre-ideological, insofar as for a movement to be a movement, it must not have yet congealed into the hard (and slippery) stuff of ideology. Public space, in its refusal to contain meaning with anything but brevity, is equally pre-ideological.
The second paradox that issues out of this is perhaps more literary than practical, in that it brings to mind Borges’s library of Babel and classical structuralism. Given its intrinsic power of tabula rasa, public space is, like Perec’s tentative attempt, inexhaustible, and yet, by the same token of its tabula rasa nature, everything has always already happened within it. It is at once inexhaustible and exhausted – at once totally empty and totally full. In essence, it is like the alphabet that engenders Borges’s famous library. And yet, if it has a commitment to anything, if its nature could be characterised by any single quality, it would be emptiness. In its commitment to always representing the interests of the people, it must always return to its most fundamental state: emptiness.