Sunday, February 20, 2011

Contested Public Space: A Contemporary Extension of Mitchell's discussion of the Public Sphere

 "Identifying the use of space in any given moment--the occupation of space in any given moment--provides the opportunity to reveal contrasting, contradictory uses of space, to identify the ideological struggles that look to inscribe meaning" --Sid Dobrin, "The Occupation of Composition"

In the second half of Mitchell's book, Mitchell takes on the problem of public space, art, and representation. Clearly, we have not moved beyond this important debate about public space. While so many things have overshadowed it, who could forget the fiery debate about the plan to build a mosque at ground zero in New York? 

Rather than take one side or the other--particularly because the debate seems to have calmed down or simply been forgotten by the media and the American public--I would like to look at why people care so much. First, as many have pointed out, the "mosque" is actually a community center. Furthermore, this center is two blocks from ground zero itself. So why the contesting of the mosque?

Well, I would say that even though I agree that they have the right to build there--it IS a big deal. And it is not because, as the firefighter in the above youtube video proclaims, that we don't want the dead's families to suffer more. Its not the families independently that will suffer (unless they are told that they should be suffering by the media). This argument focuses on the "private" reasons for not building a mosque. We might ask, why the hell do we all of a sudden care about people's private suffering, when we usually pass it by (myself included)? I would argue that people are trying to express a concept of space that will confuse our conceptions of a rational democracy. The space is not only "symbolic" either. . .it is even more than that.

Allow me to digress: a lot of Americans don't understand the significance of the Israel-Palestine debate over the gaza strip. I myself have once said--"its just a piece of land." To our christianized nation--yes--its just a piece of land, but for these people the land is sacred.

But how would we (the educated mostly left leaning academics at UF) react if Sarah Palin or any of the right called the space "sacred"? This would only be one more reason for us to argue that the right is once again confusing religion and politics. The very word 'sacred' echoes in our head as a religious battle--a battle between the Christian West and Islam--with Islam occupying the space of the Other. 

While I think we are correct in criticizing the critics of the community center as coming dangerously close to denying a core American value of freedom of religion, I think that rather than dwell on that issue we need to understand that we cannot just get rid of a space that has been claimed 'sacred'--that if we admit that space is never innocent or neutral, that we cannot always uphold this illusion of religious freedom.

I turn now to an excerpt from Henri Lefebvre on monuments to elaborate on the connection between the sacred and what we now know as 'ground zero'.Ground Zero has already become an American Monument (albeit a negative one) indicated by the eventual building of a memorial/museum where the WTC stood (on a side note, its interesting to note that we have transformed the event to 'ground zero' rather than the WTC, eliminating the crucial context of the WTC as the hub of global capitalism). Lefebvre claims that a monumental space, as opposed to a mere 'building' "is determined by what may take place there and consequently by what may not take place there  (prescribed/proscribed, scene/obscene). A memorial and museum can take place there, because these are (without using the words) 'sacred' objects in our culture (indeed, the connection between the sacredness of museums and monuments in contrast to 'public art' may be a fascinating study--or rather, a fascinating career). An islamic community center cannot take place there, because to our Christianized nation in the wake of islamic terrorism, Islam is a profane religion--even, to some, a religion of hate and violence (in other words, no religion like me know).

Another short digression, while above I argued that we need to focus on the public meaning rather than the private meaning (the families of 9/11 or firefighters of 9/11) Lefebvre does claim that "monumental space permits a continual back-and-forth between the private speech of ordinary conversations adn the public speech of discourses, lectures, sermons, rallying cries, and all theatrical forms of utterance" (355). Though I'm not quite sure what to make of this, I suspect that it complicates my above claim.

This final quote from Lefebvre is important for understanding why the monumental space of 'ground zero' is so sacred to Americans:

"Thus each monumental space becomes the metaphorical and quasimetaphysical underpinnings of a society, this by virtue of a play of substitutions in which the religious and political realms symbolically (and ceremonially) exchange attributes--the attributes of power; in this way the authority of the sacred and the sacred aspects of authority are transferred back and forth, mutually reinforcing one another in the process [. . .] The famous bar which, according to the followers of Saussure, separates signifier from signified and desire from tis object, is in fact transportable hither and thither at the whim of society, as a means of separating the sacred from the profane and of repressing those gestures which are not prescribed by monumental space--in short, as a means of banishing the obscene" (356).

I hope that my brief comments are not taken as support for the Right's Islamophobia. Rather, I want to ask how monumental space confuses American so-called separation between church and state as well as freedom of religion.

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