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  • The Public Spaces of Contemporary Literature
  • Lionel Ruffel (bio)
    Translated by Matthew H. Evans

Very few concepts are transparently transhistorical, or globally global in a transhistorical sense. None of those that I commonly use, in my professional setting, are. Literature, the author, the text, the work—all these concepts are dated and situated. Moreover, only very few concepts cut across planes of existence as diverse (although related) as politics, culture, urbanization, territorialization, or domesticity. Public space, however, is one of those concepts that, although unqualifiable as “universal” in the sense of an anthropological structure, could be described as transhistorical, as global, and as traversing almost all planes of existence. The last fifty years have continuously attested to its importance. I say “fifty,” because in 1962 Jürgen Habermas proposed an archaeology of modernity around the conceptualization of public space.1 “Fifty,” because for fifty years all revolutions, all political upheavals have expressed themselves via the occupation of public spaces, up to and including Tahrir Square, Zucotti Park, and the Puerta del Sol. Because we are continuously reminded that the global network represents a new agora, a term for which “public space” might read as the modern translation. Because our hyper-urbanized world has come into being alongside spaces other than those places of privatization: parks, gardens, and what anthropologist Marc Augé terms “non-places” [End Page 101] such as airports or shopping malls. And lastly, but for our purposes certainly not leastly, because one part of contemporary artistic production (and I refer specifically to those arts that modernity has habituated us not to see as public performances—notably literature and the visual arts, painting and sculpture) massively invests in public spaces, as in the case of performances in the literary field or in that art sometimes called relational, sometimes contextual.2

One might point out that I seem to be confusing two distinct things: public space and the public sphere: on the one hand, those material spaces subject to privatization and open to use by one or many publics; and on the other, that immaterial arena of debates bearing on the res publica—in short, that I’m confusing the garden and the agora. But this assimilation is quite intentional, for the radical distinction between the two reveals an idealized conception inherited from modernity (and described by Habermas) that completely prevents us from contemplating what I ultimately propose to analyze, the link tying contemporary literature to those spaces we call public. Pluralization is important here, since I no longer want to differentiate a magnificent and imposing public sphere from the contemptible and troublesome world of the concrete, but instead envisage a plurality of oppositional public spaces.

The Idealization of Contemporary Literature in the Habermasian Theory of Public Space

It’s quite difficult today to discuss public space without appealing to Jürgen Habermas’s theory, whether by extending or opposing it. As one of those theories that has profoundly disrupted our contemporary approaches to political and cultural representation, it is worth taking into account. In theorizing contemporary literature, we must recognize how seductive Habermas’s history can be, since it effectively places contemporary literature and the problem of contemporaneity at the heart of its system.

The objective of Habermas’s book is nevertheless to analyze the emergence of a new, foundational political ideology in modern European societies. To do this, he establishes a distinction between the public domain (that of the State and power) and the private [End Page 102] domain (that of individuals). To be brief, let’s just say that in pre-modern, absolutist regimes, the public domain is entirely privatized by a caste whose private domain is in and of itself public. Hence the famous phrase of Louis XIV: “L’état, c’est moi!” Meanwhile, the rest of the population is confined to a form of existence that is strictly private, deprived notably of the right to participate in the public domain. As Habermas has it, in Germany, England, and France, during the development of bourgeois society the private domain split up into a private sphere and a “political public sphere,” by means of which private persons could come together to debate subjects of public or common...