The role of public space in molding city politics has been extensively theorized and studied. The shaping of citizenship and the establishment of citizen rights have been connected to struggles over and in public space, as well as to discourses that problematize public space as a constituent element of public life. It would be accurate to say that public space has formed the terrain for crises of citizenship more often than it has provided the stable background upon which historically specific forms of citizenship are expressed and enacted.
Public spaces have always been sites of social contention. According to Marcel Hénaff and Tracy Strong, “public space is always a contestation over the legitimacy of what can be brought and what can be excluded from the life one chooses and is required to have in common with others.”1 This perspective figures public space as a dynamic arrangement of public acts and disputes over what should be considered “common.” The very meaning of “common” finds its expression in the constitutive practices of inhabiting, sustaining, or transforming public space; however, common worlds are by no means taken for granted by all. Indeed, public spaces often purported to be common worlds—explicitly represented in and signified by glorious public buildings, squares, or monuments—are challenged through acts of [End Page 77] contestation and social struggle as well as by practices that create other kinds of emergent common worlds in, against, and beyond existing public spaces.
Urban common worlds are always under construction and thus open to various forms of contestation. Modern and contemporary cities appear to be concrete social worlds that shape and express shared universes of meaning and action. No matter how complex and multileveled the spatiotemporal order of such cities might be, such an order aspires to establish a common world that contains recognizable social relations and patterns of social practice. Today’s enclave cities seem to be an agglomeration of self-contained urban worlds that would otherwise distinguish among discrete citizen profiles and urban behaviors. Many people have to inhabit neighborhood enclaves (gated communities or slums), many have to do their shopping in shopping enclaves (malls and large department stores); a more extreme example are corporate buildings that are often fortress-like controlled areas, and public spaces under severe surveillance often end up being restricted areas for those who do not conform to specific behavior patterns. One thinks of sports enclaves (including Olympic facilities) that tend to evolve into exemplary spaces of so-called “crowd management.” Ceremonial public spaces, however, are meant to indicate that an overarching common world can be identified with a specific society and condensed within its state institutions. This world is supposed to be emphatically connected with promises of social cohesion and peace. In urban public space, contemporary forms of domination thus appear as legitimate, productive, and suitable for the reproduction of the corresponding social order.
By this logic, public space becomes a site of contestation over the very possibility of the common. Jacques Rancière writes, for example, that politics “conceives community … as a polemic over the common.”2 In other words, any social contestation that targets the meaning and reproduction of what is considered to be common within a specific society is, essentially, a political act. What reproduces existing arrangements of roles and practices does not deserve to be included as politics, according to Rancière. It is merely the expression of a society that perpetuates itself—a social arrangement that Rancière designates as a “police” order.3 It is questionable, however, to suggest that it might be possible for a society to remain totally stable and beyond internal antagonisms—and thus outside the challenges of politics. Politics is present as long as there are disputes over the meaning, the value, and the form of the common— [End Page 78] no matter how latent, implicit, or even distorted and disguised as obedience those disputes may be.
In point of fact, it seems that we live in a period in which politics, in the form of a polemic over the common, directly upsets the order of contemporary urban common worlds. And this is happening not...