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Rites of Way

The Politics and Poetics of Public Space

edited by Mark Kingwell & Patrick Turmel

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art & politics, urban, aesthetics
list price: $36.99
also available: eBook
category: Social Science
published: 2009
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There are many ways to approach the subject of public space: the threats posed to it by surveillance and visual pollution; the joys it offers of stimulation and excitement, of anonymity and transformation; its importance to urban variety or democratic politics. But public space remains an evanescent and multidimensional concept that too often escapes scrutiny.

The essays in Rites of Way: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space open up multiple dimensions of the concept from architectural, political, philosophical, and technological points of view. There is some historical analysis here, but the contributors are more focused on the future of public space under conditions of growing urbanization and democratic confusion. The added interest offered by non-academic work—visual art, fiction, poetry, and drama—is in part an admission that this is a topic too important to be left only to theorists. It also makes an implicit argument for the crucial role that art, not just public art, plays in a thriving public realm.

Throughout this work contributors are guided by the conviction, not pious but steely, that healthy public space is one of the best, living parts of a just society. The paths of desire we follow in public trace and speak our convictions and needs, our interests and foibles. They are the vectors and walkways of the social, the public dimension of life lying at the heart of all politics.

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Excerpt from Rites of Way: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space edited by Mark Kingwell and Patrick Turmel

From Masters of Chancery: The Gift of Public Space by Mark Kingwell

Public space is the age's master signifier. A loose and elastic notion is variously deployed to defend (or attack) architecture, to decry (or celebrate) civic squares, to promote (or denounce) graffiti artists, skateboarders, jay-walkers, parkour aficionados, pie-in-the-face guerrillas, underground capture-the flag enthusiasts, flash-mob surveillance-busters, and other grid-resistant everyday anarchists. It is the unit of choice when it comes to understanding pollution, predicting political futures, thinking about citizenship, lauding creativity, and worrying about food, water, or the environment. It is either rife with corporate creep and visual pollution, or made bleak by intrusive surveillance technology, or both. It is a site of suspicion, stimulation, and transaction all at once. For some, it is the basis of public discourse itself, the hardware on which we run reason's software. Simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, it is political air.

Given the seeming inexhaustibility of the political demand to reclaim public space, what is stranger is that nobody admits they have no idea what it is. Most of us assume we know, but more often the assumption is a matter of piety rather than argument–and confused piety at that. 1 . ..

As with the court, so with a just society. There can be no useful recourse to public space unless and until we reverse the polarity of our conception of publicness itself. It is sometimes said that the threshold between public and private must be a public decision. True, but go farther: the public is not a summing of private preferences or interests, nor even a wide non-rival availability of resources to those preferences or interests. It is, instead, their precondition: for meaning, for work, for identity itself. We imagine that we enter public space with our identities intact, jealous of interest and suspicious of challenge, looking for stimulus and response. But in fact the reverse is true. We cannot enter the public because we have never left the public; it pervades everything, and our identities are never fixed or prefigured because they are themselves achievements of the public dimension in human life.

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Editorial Reviews

"Containing fiction and visual art in addition to more conventional essays, this book is a lively discussion of the role that public spaces play--or could play--in modern cities."

— Research Book News, February 2010

"The collection soon departs from its foundation in urbanism and takes a provokative, interdisciplinary turn, offering work by a rich assortment of voices, including a political theorist on subversive public spaces conducive to play and social deliberation as work, by a philosopher on how the city is public by definition, a novelist on characters struggling with a city's overlapping physical and social conventions, a new-media artist on the transformative effect of street festivals, and an art historian on the resurgence of outdoor art. Lisa Robertson's blending of poetry, urban geography, social history, and the arts in her excerpt, 'Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture,' provides a fitting conclusion to a collection that will prove of interest to anyone concerned with what she calls the 'spiritual domain'—as much the land stretching out from our persons, as our immediate surroundings that contain the mutable threshold between within and without (170). It is up to us to rap on the glass."

— Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 17:4, Autumn 2010

"To most familiar issues of public space and its fate, this collection brings insights that should be fatal to naive assumptions."

— Public Art Review, Spring/Summer 2010
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About the Authors

Mark Kingwell

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is the author of eleven books of political and cultural theory, including most recently, Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City (2008) and Opening Gambits: Essays on Art and Philosophy (2008). He is the recipient of the Spitz Prize in political theory, National Magazine Awards for both essays and columns, and in 2000 was awarded an honorary DFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design for contributions to theory and criticism.

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Patrick Turmel

Patrick Turmel is an assistant professor of philosophy at Université Laval. His main research interests are in moral and political philosophy. He has published articles in ethics and on issues pertaining to cities and justice. He is also co-editor of Penser les institutions (Presses de l’Université Laval).

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