Jun 13, 2019

public things

It’s thanks to my friend and (and Vassar colleague this past spring) Lisa Brawley that I’ve come across Bonnie Honig’s book, Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair. Honig has some of the best language I’ve seen for understanding the work of material objects and structures as necessary for democratic imagination, and re-imagination, even if the things themselves will never be sufficient for the full conditions of human flourishing. Here’s Honig on Frederick Law Olmsted’s design of Central Park:

Olmsted saw building Central Park as a way of proving the aristocrats wrong. It was built by a democratic society for a democratic society—for the people—and was incredibly beautiful. His bet was that people would be drawn to it. And they have been. At their best, public things gather people together, materially and symbolically, and in relation to them diverse peoples may come to see and experience themselves—even if just momentarily—as a common in relation to a commons, a collected if not a collective, to redeploy Michael Oakeshott’s distinction.

“Public things”—infrastructure at all scales—are, for Honig, the sites and objects with and within which people negotiate their collective need for an ever-new iteration of what political common goods might look like. Things like parks, pay phones, slow farming, and more provide “orientation and cause” for refusing the entrepreneurial efficiency now mapped onto every feature of human life as a neoliberal fait accompli. It’s not a fetishizing of the things themselves, though—not a worship of design as design. Instead:

Democratic sovereignty is an effect, I want to say; public things are its condition, necessary if not sufficient. They are the basis of democratic flourishing, prods to action in concert.

And here’s Honig’s departure from the object-oriented philosophy that’s been trendy of late:

This way of thinking about public things is different from (though indebted to) the varieties of vitalism and thing theory that attribute agency to things and decenter the human. Here the human remains the focus, but things have agency enough to thwart or support human plans or ambitions, and we do well to acknowledge their power and, when appropriate, to allow that power to work on us or work to lessen or augment it.

To put it another way:

It is not that the object exerts a personal magic on all of us in common, but that all of us in common get our very sense of commonness from the object.

We may think this happens in relation to objects like the iPhone, and it may; we cannot rule that out. But the consumer need for such commodities—the fetish—is more like the ruin, the remnant, of the democratic desire to constellate affectively around shared objects, public things. The ruin testifies to a not quite lost past; might it also bode a possible future?

Sometimes the ruin speaks. The desire for a democracy of public things has been in recent decades rechanneled into commercial formats, but it is not extinguished. The signs are there: The desire remains, the aspiration is alive, but they require redirection and sustenance.

[…] as long as we have a public thing, the space is arguably open for the return of other public things. In the ruins of public things, the return of public things remains imaginable and realizable. Almost.