Freedom in Public Spaces

The present work intends to analyse the issue of freedom in public spaces through a philosophical perspective: what types of actions are actually acceptable to be performed in the presence of others? Why do some societies seem more inclined to behave in an ordered, community driven way? Ultimately, is there a natural tendency for this to happen or are we only as good as our set of rules tells us to be? I picked Hannah Arendt as a reference for what a public space means to our intrinsic human condition and related her ideas to the concepts presented by Deleuze in his reflections of a controlled society and how this can affect the current state of public interaction.

At the core of the choice of analyzing this question there is a personal process of experiencing the rules of interaction in public spaces of many different cities with very specific mindsets, and a self questioning of why these perspectives of public spaces are so contrasting nevertheless. I experienced my first shock on how people behave publicly when I moved to Rio de Janeiro, having to adapt to a completely different environment from the little countryside village where I was born. The rules of public engagement at the Brazilian metropolis were chaotic, borderless, and intrusive. Eventually I experienced even more contrasting experiences through my academic track, visiting China, a few European countries like Germany and France, and ultimately Canada. From the levels of respect to the individuality of others, to the effectiveness of existing laws, and even minor details — like the toleration of alcohol consumption — these conflicting experiences of how behavior in public spaces is addressed throughout the world influenced my choice to take on this theme.

Such a brief work on this complex subject needs a very precise time extract in order to achieve some accuracy, therefore the chosen period is the current one – what can be simplistically called contemporaneity. But how did we get here? The primary form of what we know as public space is the Athenian Agora, a blend of square, open market, and religious ground where all opinions and differences took ground simultaneously, a place suitable for the respect of divergence, clearly divided from the confinements of the private space, where an “outlook favorable to discussion of differing views and conflicting interests” (Sennett p.18-20) should be maintained. The agora evolved through western societies as a place of discussion and coexistence, and the set of rules running these sites became a reflection of those running societies themselves. Public spaces were used as a display of power over totalitarian regimes throughout the 20th century, and ultimately survived the extreme functionalism and rationalization imposed by modernist development, albeit their public dimension can coexist within a privatized realm as of now (Németh).

This work begins from the referential frames of two main philosophers. First, Hannah Arendt’s works on the basic meanings of freedom in open spaces — working over the edges of philosophy and political theory, Arendt’s reflections provide a critic tone on modernity as she evaluates the totalitarian dimension of politics and the privatization of the public sphere accompanying technological advances. A victim of the Nazist persecution hence her Jewish origins, Arendt’s trajectory crosses with some of the most important thinkers of the 20th century including Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, also standing as a fundamental scholar on political thinking herself. According to her, both the transition to mechanized societies and the establishment of totalitarian atmospheres caused a deep breakage in western society (d’Entreves), leading to an irreparable loss of referential and moral sets and a much needed reconstruction of history itself. Ultimately, the concepts she presents in her Theory of Actions and the arguments displayed in “The Human Condition” book are the most important for understanding the dynamics of agency and freedom in public spaces.

Arendt analyses the human condition as composed of two basic concepts: “natality” and “plurality”, meaning respectively that we are only born to build something new and by doing so we are able to be free; and that we are different by nature and coming to terms with each other’s singularities is a requirement to the condition of living.

“The new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the ability to beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities” (Arendt 9)

Being composed by our own inherent nature of creating new beginnings, doing the unexpected, and evaluating each other’s differences, human action should take place at the public realm, also called “the common world” by Arendt, and this public stage of actions is what “gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other” (Arendt 52). Human life cannot accomplish to be fully realized by transiting only in the private realm in any case. These shared spaces are ruled by a set of agreements that can act as an “institutionalized freedom” (Thuma), however it is still the stage where we show up to be recognized by others and reciprocally recognize them in a “space of appearance” (Arendt 199). Arendt also believes that at the core of “Agency” (that is, to promote action) lies the very necessity to be seen and recognized by others: without recognition, action would be emptied from its meaning, and recognition cannot take place in isolation, once again reinforcing the social character of human existence.

The importance of public spaces for our human condition to be validated by others and by ourselves goes even further according to Arendt’s writings: “the man, however, who is in love with goodness can never afford to lead a solitary life” (Arendt 77); she approaches the question of goodness and enlightenment through a straight critique to any type of contemplative or segregated way of live, meaning that social existence not only validates our humanity but our capacity promote good actions as well. It is also possible to address the question of ruling and freedom in the public space by a specific aspect of the Arendtian speech: “power” (Arendt 202), which arises whenever humans gather freely, is necessary to maintain the right to gather itself, as an accordance of rules and etiquette established by a commonly developed sense of what’s good or bad to a specific subset of people — what she ultimately calls the “materializations of power” inherent to the institutionalization of freedom.

Power (in the strict sense of control) is a strong theme in the works of the second chosen philosopher, Gilles Deleuze — more specifically in the reflections of his and Foucault’s ideas present in Michael Hardt’s text “The Global Society of Control”. The Arendtian vision of the materializations of power is a mirror of her position in the flow of history, experiencing the drastic changes in a transitioning German society — from an industrializing nation passing through the tunnel of a totalitarian regime to the concretization of a fluid system of institutions. It is plausible to infer that her body of work hover exactly between the transitions of a Foucauldian vision of discipline to the Deleuzian approach of control.

According to Hardt, the Society of Control as defined by Deleuze is characterized by the lack of divisions between inside and outside, bringing a fundamental problem to the applicability of the Arendtian vision of private (closed) and public (open) to this new society; that is, if the borders between in and out have been breached, where do private and public life stand then? Hardt also affirms that “the public spaces of modern society, which constitute the place of liberal politics, tend to disappear in the postmodern world” (p. 141), increasingly limited by the design of the cities themselves, but also by the enclosure of public domain into the shells of the private realm. It hard to say, accordingly, where the aforementioned space of recognition and political expression lives now: somewhere between those two opposite spheres, or nowhere at all? It is not clear whether this new condition of control has diffused the idea of public throughout this “continuous, uniform space” (Hardt 143) or if it dismantled the concept definitely in favor of alienation and dominance. This idea of nowhere, non-places, is also present in the ideas of Marc Augé’s “Non Places” — which I had the opportunity to read some time ago — describing this new fluid condition through the analysis of the airport as an abstract space of eternal, endless transition, with no clear beginning or end to be found, something that can be directly related to the concept of a controlling society in the sense of fluid, eternal transitions.

The problem here lies in the contradiction that in order to find any answers to the initially described issues (of why individuals seem to behave better in the presence of others in determined societies), public spaces should preserve some level of feasibility. Considering that Deleuze, Hardt, and Augé make a strong point about how unsure we are about any definition of the public realm, it is very hard to define a solid pattern for people to behave on a ground that is so theoretical now. However, if it were to suppose that the public space still does exist as a crucial point of our society — even though extremely weakened and reshaped now — we can then go back to Arendt’s ideas to look for an answer.

Arendt believes that our entire society and even the political dimension of humanity is completely artificial, a man-made machine developed to support our search for freedom, human interaction being a component (not a driver) of this reality. Considering her thoughts on agency and public space, it is possible to infer that the ongoing tendency to promote extreme control of the public realm (Benton-Short) is diminishing our possibilities to act and be recognized in relation to others, a fundamental activity to our human condition accordingly — nonetheless, it is also possible to argument that the public character of our society is progressively transitioning to the digital space, the new space of appearance, something that Arendt could not predict but makes perfect sense nowadays. The role of physical public spaces is still very relevant, however it seems much more symbolic now than ever before; it is decentralized, fragmented, globalized. The public realm now acts as an abstract set of rules in many different clusters (in the Deleuzian sense of networks), and we need to follow a very specific set of codes and passwords to move between each of them, with few to no awareness of the whole picture.

If we try to figure out whether individuals are naturally inclined to live and behave in community and respect, the Arendtian perspective would clearly say no, that is, we are shaped by a much needed set of democratic rules; moreover, the idea of a society of control indicates that the current set of rules has grown exponentially in complexity. Arendt’s ideas, although categorically valid, are bracketed inside the concept of an entity, a defined instrument of power, whereas in our current society this power is scattered everywhere, making it hard to even define the mechanisms by which it works through. We may take as a practical example the escalator etiquette: there is no formal institution or authority saying that one should keep on the right side while giving space to the rushing others by the left: it is a collective construct with no acknowledgeable fines. In some countries, violating this rule is taken as rudeness and carelessness, whereas in others the individual trying to advance by the left side will have a frustrating experience. Surely that are some indicators of how this behavior should be executed, including signs and plates, but in some cultures the fact that these are not chargeable rules protected by law is enough for them to be completely neglected. Another examples would be the politeness to say “sorry” eventually ( more an acknowledgement of not intending to bother others than actual apologies), holding the door open to the next person, giving away your place in a line to a person who is clearly hurried, avoidance of speaking loudly, etc. This list could go on forever, and I do not analyse those examples as simple measures of politeness, but indicators of a constant awareness of the spaces of others instead — rules that are built in an ultimately abstract sphere.

Except for the criminal aspects of violating moral and ethical conducts, we now behave according to the set of passwords and codes established in our own clusters (enclosures, either physical or purely abstract, digital). Our behavior in the presence of others is not driven or dictated by a strong public institution of power anymore, but by a fluid system of individual codes and transitions. Our societies might as well be only as good as the possible fines and charges over them anyway, but now they are translated between an extremely complex and diffuse space of differently encoded languages.

Cited Works

·Augé, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. New York: Verso, 2009.
·Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
·Benton-Short, Lisa. “After 9/11, Public Spaces No Longer Represent Freedom”. 09 Sep. 2016. (16 Mar. 2017)
·Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control”. October, Vol. 59. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
·d’Entreves, Maurizio Passerin. “Hannah Arendt”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (14 Mar. 2017)
·Hardt, Michael. “The Global Society of Control”. Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture, Vol. 20: Iss. 3 , Article 14.
·Németh, Jeremy. “Controlling the Commons: How Public is Public Space?”. Urban Affairs Review. University of Illinois, 2012. (15 Mar. 2017)
·Sennett, Richard. “1998 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture”. Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Annette Lecuyer (ed.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998.
·Thuma, Andrea. “Hannah Arendt, Agency, and the Public Space”. Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, Junior Visiting Fellows Conference. (18 Mar. 2017)