Sunday, December 05, 2010


Again let me point to my friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo's excellent blog, "Space and Politics". And particularly to his recent entry "Una historia espacial del Kirchnerismo, 2001-2010", which is essentially an outline of the movements of the Argentine multitude over the past ten years.

I do wonder, however, about the declaration with which he begins this entry, that "politics takes place fundamentally in the streets, in the struggle for the control of public space." I wonder about it for a number of reasons:

First, and most banally (but not the less significantly), we have over the past few years seen significant public demonstrations, not least the million-person march against the Iraq war in London, which had almost no visible effect. Indeed, they were cynically used by the likes of Tony Blair as further argument for the war, with the notion that if so many people were against it then the so-called coalitions post-imperial adventures were clearly not merely opportunistic pandering to the people.

Or to put this in more theoretical terms, I fear as I've noted before that there's a temptation to indulge in a spectacular politics (that very much includes an attempt to "take" the streets) when perhaps politics is really not (any more) about spectacle at all.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, not only does that assertion that all politics is fundamentally about the control of public space ignore the politics of the private sphere (to which feminism, for instance, has always pointed), it also passes over the homologies between private and public space noted by anthropologists such as Pierre Bourdieu in his analysis of the space of the Kabyle House. Control of public space is very often rooted in patterns established in what is apparently "private" space, in spaces that seemingly don't count as political precisely because they are bracketed off as private.

Third, then, surely a still more fundamental political practice is the demarcation of the distinction between public and private. In other words, there is a prior (and still eminently political) struggle over the distinction between the two, and over who decides which spaces are public (and so, supposedly, political) and which spaces are "merely" private.

One of the distinguishing features of both neoliberalism on the one hand and the multitude on the other (and so one of the points of convergence between the two; let's say for the moment that neoliberalism follows or reacts to the multitude in this) is that both tend to erase this mooted distinction between public and private. With the rise of biopolitics, and the society of control replacing that of discipline, all spaces are now equally and immediately political, not merely the traditional public spaces of the street or (archetypically for populism) the plaza. The plaza is empty, as Maristella Svampa observes, but politics continues.


Gaston Gordillo said...

Thanks Jon for your kind words. I agree with your critique, which tackles that in these blogs entries I aim for the big picture and leave the conceptual fine-tuning to astute readers such as you. But the spatial pulse of politics is still fundamental to any type of social interaction, be that in the "private" space of a home or in the streets of Buenos Aires. And I don't think that the millions of people who took to the streets to oppose the Iraq war in 2003 had no political impact, even if they could not stop the war. The impact of the multitude on the streets cannot be measured only through its short-term effects, and I hope to write about this on the blog. And I think I disagree with Svampa. In Argentina the plaza may be empty sometimes, but never for too long. And politics may continue when that plaza is empty, but as soon as the multitude takes over that particular space politicians and officials stop and listen, sometimes in fear.

Jon said...

Gastón, thanks.  This was meant to be a friendly critique, of course.  I look forward to reading more on the long-term effects of the multitude on the streets.