The Quality of Publicness

I had been hoping to find time to develop some of the ideas presented in Roderick Long’s essays on public space ( A Plea for Public Property & In Defense of Public Space). Now, in the wake of the 2013 Cape Argus Cycle Tour, the route of which ran past the vehicular entrance of the small block of flats where we live, leaving us effectively stranded for the day, I find a moment at last. This is not least because the vociferous nocturnal construction of a temporary pedestrian bridge outside our bedroom window had kept me awake all night, which caused me to sleep all day despite the incessant cries of “slow down!” at the corner. It is appropriate, as this suspension of the publicness of our street quite underlines what I had had brewing on the subject.

If anything I am even more strongly in favour of the preservation of public space, as a precondition to the privacy of private space, than Roderick Long is. As an architect I ever lament the desire of the rich to be architecturally faceless. My impulse is to endow a dwelling with an entrance, a face to the outside world, which for whatever excess of ostentation I might care to pile on cannot fail by its mere existence to affirm the existence of an outside world, that is, a public realm. There is in the attitude of the wealthy client a shadow of that disrelational insular irrelevance which is to me the failure of Randian Objectivism: not only arrogance but consequent utter pointlessness.

Thus the public sphere is an idea constantly present in the discourse on architecture and urban design as much as in political economy, but in none of these have I encountered a satisfactory understanding of publicness as a quality. Prof. Long’s distinction between the organized public and the unorganized public may be roughly restated in other terms, i.e. publicness in origin v. publicness in orientation. We may call a thing public because it belongs to the public and thus in a sense proceeds from the public; or we call a thing public because it is intended for the public. It is generally in the latter class – imperfectly analogous to the “unorganized public” – that I am here interested.

But what, or who, is the public? Are we concerned here with the thing Søren Kierkegaard called, “a monstrous nothing”; “a host, more numerous than all the peoples together, but […] a body which can never be reviewed; it cannot even be represented, because it is an abstraction”? It might be surprising that Kierkegaard’s analysis in The Present Age might be quite useful in defining what we do not mean by “public” for our present purpose. The idea of the public as a fictitious personification of bourgeois values does not help us in understanding the qualities that make for good public space, or good public facilities. I like to think that Kierkegaard might have approved of the alternative conception that would help us in this, as it echoes his Christian embrace of the outcast. For to understand publicness as a quality we must understand the public not as a class, nor even as a specific concrete group of people; nor yet as the universal group, “everyone”. The public, for our present purpose, is not everyone. The public is anyone.

The idea of the public as this undefined but emphatically individual “next person who comes around the corner” is the key to understanding the qualities that are common to all the public spaces and facilities that we have all personally experienced as both good and definitely public. From this conception we can proceed to derive a faintly Ruskinian catalogue of qualities:

  1. Robustness. It is difficult for something flimsy to be successfully public. Flimsy things need to be policed lest they be broken; and once this relation is allowed the essential indefiniteness of the public is lost. Public things have to be proof against “anyone”. This is most graphic in the case of public statuary, which should never be erected for the people’s adulation but rather placed at the mercy of “anyone”. J.G. Strijdom’s eerie floating head should have kept a place in public Pretoria, the better to throw eggs at it.

  2. Blindness. This rather underlines the quality of robustness with the addition of a certain blunt stupidity. Properly public things tend not to be “smart”: the “smart highway” is possibly the perfect antithesis of publicness. The public is fundamentally anonymous and, for that reason, dynamically equal. It has to include the limitations not of everyone but of anyone: in anticipating the tall it must allow for the short; anticipating the thin it must remain suitable for the fat. One size has to fit all – but it really has to fit and fit well. And this is no limitation but the mark of a public facility at its best: affordable to the poorest (ideally free) and simultaneously delightful to the wealthiest. As soon as a facility seeks to identify its custom and conform uniquely to it, it ceases to be public.

  3. Passivity. Properly public things do not seek one’s custom; in so far as they do anything they do it with a pig-headed disregard for anything else, all in the interest of being available to anyone at any time. There are obvious inefficiencies implicit in this, e.g. buses stubbornly sticking to routes and time-tables whether full or empty, which ought to delineate the scope of what might appropriately be endeavoured as a public facility. It also limits the degree of publicness that can be achieved in certain types of facility: it should be obvious that a public street is fundamentally more public than a public library. In the same way a more thoroughgoing publicness can be achieved where facilities are capable of simple, inherent self-correction than where they need external management.

  4. Constancy. To be properly public, a thing must always be public. The indefiniteness of the public has a temporal aspect: it is anyone, at any time. Hence a street, like the pedestrianized part of Parliament Street in Cape Town which is closed with an iron gate at 6pm, is not properly public even when it is open. Likewise the chain-link gate that closes off the V&A Waterfront at Ebenezer Road at night sees early-morning pedestrians clambering underneath: in being inappropriate to the capabilities of the infirm and the dignity of the elderly it is inappropriate to both the capabilities and the dignity of “anyone”, and therefore fails as public space. So, too, Victoria Road outside my garage is 1/365 less public all the time for being closed to me on the day of the Argus Tour. Above all, sporadic publicness implies a power to suspend publicness which is at odds with the notion of it being either “owned” by the “unorganized” public or unowned.

I think most anarchists like the street, for its very unownedness, that is, its publicness. There are regions near the borders to vulgar libertarianism and Objectivism where dourer eremitic aspirations are entertained, but to most the street’s flavour of stigmergy carries appeal. Where the public realm is disliked it is usually not for a surfeit of publicness but because the public realm has deteriorated to the private domain of the state and its beneficiaries. Where the public realm offends it is where publicness, as above understood, is lacking.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory