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Public and Common(s)

January 29, 2013

Two terms, or really, two groups of terms, seem to gather competing ideas as to how we might conceive anything like a collective, collectivity, or collective space today. The city figures prominently in both. On the one hand we have the set of concepts assembled around the term “public,” as in public realm, public sphere, public space, public sector, and “the public” itself. On the other we have the set of concepts associated with the term “common”: the common(s), common sense, and common wealth. The latter set resonates with communism, communal, and the like. But neither should its usage by environmentalists to debate an oft-misunderstood “tragedy of the commons” be overlooked; similarly, as the recent controversy over a potential “public option” in American health care reform showed, conventional Anglophone usage associates “public” with the welfare state and with liberal/progressive political reform more generally.

Circulating between these two sets of terms is the category of the “social,” as in socialism, but also as used by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition (1958), to differentiate the modern managerial sphere, including both state- and market-based social or behavioral management, from the classical res publica. According to Arendt, modernity is characterized by the preponderance of managerial practices — “housekeeping,” as she puts it — that have emerged from the classical domestic sphere, the oikos, to organize and dominate the life of the polis, or city. These practices take as their field of activity a newly constituted object — society — thereby blotting out the distinction between public and private life, or the distinction between household management and political life, on which city-states were founded in classical times. Many commentators have pointed out that in accepting uncritically this division of labor, Arendt idealizes the Greek polis, in which only male citizens participated in “public” (i.e. political) life, with women and slaves confined to the household (the “private” realm, or oikos) and its internal, domestic economy.

Excerpt from an essay by Reinhold Martin at Design Observer. Continue HERE

Image above: Occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol Rotunda, 2011. [Photo by Peter Patau]
Image below: Top: Étienne-Louis Boullée, Bibliothèque du Roi, 1785. Bottom: Henri Labrouste, reading room, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1868. [Photo by Vincent Desjardins]

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