Feb 262013

Ugo Perone (ed.), Filosofia e spazio pubblico. Bologna: il Mulino, 2012; 290 pages. ISBN 978-88-15-23701-9.

Review by Antonio Calcagno, King’s University College at Western University

Filosofia e spazio pubblico [Philosophy and Public Space] is a collection of essays written by philosophers invited to participate in a colloquium on the relation between public space and philosophy. Ugo Perone, the editor and a contributor, remarks that public space is fundamental for both politics and how we dwell together (convivenza). His introductory essay, “Re-Thinking the Foundations of a Political Theory,” argues that our contemporary Western form of politics is in crisis. There is, he claims, little possibility for genuine engagement, especially as global economic systems as well as technology have transformed the way we practise politics. Drawing inspiration from Kant and Arendt regarding the nature of the public and publicity, Perone maintains that we must think anew the notion of political space. He uses the metaphor of the piazza to show how space and those who dwell in it contribute to our understanding of the nature of the political. More importantly, he shows how public space must entail what Claude Lefort describes as “empty space,” a condition for the possibility of politics. In the “Introduction,” Perone also lays out the three principal parts of the book: “Thinking Public Space,” “Thinking in Public Space: Philosophical Practice,” and “Further Investigations and Considerations.”

Part One opens with Maurizio Pagano’s essay, “Crisis and Perspectives of the Public Sphere.” The author reads Habermas’ philosophy of singularity and universality, arguing that it can account, in part, for the viability of an intersection between communal and individual space, a space that is for everyone and for me. (45) He goes on to say that this intersection is not a purely formal condition, but is inscribed ontologically in our very structure as human beings. Pagano sees in this structure possibilities that can help us navigate shifts in our understanding of the relation between the individual and community brought about by globalisation. Enrico Guglielminetti’s essay, “Saturation versus Distribution: Toward a Politics of the Supplement,” examines the concept of the political. He describes saturation as a space that is completely full and where distribution is no longer possible; this space, however, still requires filling, but not in the same way. (49) This means that a new kind of distribution would be required. For Guglielminetti, saturation represents totalitarianism, distribution coincides with democracy, and the supplement refers to the peace that is the originating desire for democracy. (50) The democratic models in place today (e.g., the overlapping consensus of liberalism and the consensus through conflict of republicanism) have failed. A new way of distribution is necessary. An ethics of alterity, where the other is allowed to go before me, will create space insofar as the individual cedes her space for another. This ethics of alterity would create a new space, so says the author of this chapter.

“Globalisation and Constitution: The Question of the Partisan,” written by Luca Bagetto, looks at the effects of the globalised economy on the notion of the res publica, ultimately arguing that the law is no longer distinct and separate from markets; rather, the markets have appropriated the law for their own ends. The recent financial crisis of 2008 serves as evidence of what Bagetto entails by the appropriation of the law. One could easily see here echoes of both Carl Schmitt’s and Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the state of exception, where the sovereign is exempt from his or her own laws, but the author also maintains that we find resources in both Schmitt and Benjamin to counteract this appropriation of public space by the markets: he invokes the later work of Carl Schmitt on the partisan—the partisan is seen by Bagetto as opposing the hegemony of the markets. The question for the reader remains, however: what kind of public space emerges from the interaction between the partisan and the dominant markets? The role of the partisan in the global market is a very creative intervention, but it needs to be further developed in order to tap its full potential.

Graziano Lingua’s “Religions, Secular Rationalities and Public Space: On the Role of Religious Conviction in Contemporary Political Debate” explores the possibility of reinvigorating the notion of public space by exploring, through Habermas’ essay “Religion in the Public Sphere,” communifying discourses that are also faithful to a plurality of differences that constitute a genuine public space. Lingua argues that though Habermas successfully traces the limitation of religion in public discourse in modern thought, exposing some of the public benefits of doing so, our author feels that Habermas does not go far enough. For Lingua, religions still ask important, universal human questions that can guide ethical and political action. He notes that religions have “a capacity to ask meaningful questions, even if they do not express them within the framework of secular language.” (109) He also sees in religions deep mediations on reason and how it can be shared: religions help construct “common human reason,” and the combination of a common human reason and the quest for meaning, Lingua believes, can help us rethink and live once again a healthier sense of public space.

The last essay of Part One is by Ugo Perone. “Beyond Communal Space: A Proposal for Redefining the Political” opens with a brief discussion of invention, understood both as finding but also as creating anew, bringing forward. Public space, for Perone, is experienced as something we find but also something we create. After distinguishing the Greek sense of public space from the modern one, he argues that space, especially understood as making possible intersubjectivity, must be understood in a transcendental sense. He remarks that

Public space is, above all, a configuration of space and not simply the inauguration of a time. Dwelling-together is a concrete con-temporality or even a simultaneous sharing of a space. We are only contemporaneous when we share a space together.…Coexistence in space inevitably produces the encounter, or the conflict, between social matrices, even when these, because of historical economic difference and cultural differences, ideally encapsulate a certain time. (114)

Perone concludes by arguing that his transcendental view of intersubjective space emphasises relationality while advocating for a post-personalism that does not advocate for a subjectivity rooted in identity, but the person understood as an open horizon or project.

Part Two of the book focusses on the philosophical practice of thinking and existing in a public space. The first essay here is by Luciana Regina and is titled “Defining as the Right of Citizenship.” Starting with a discussion of management, Regina argues that the role of management in today’s globalised economy is to direct resources and staff in a certain direction to achieve a certain economic end. But she also notes that the best forms of management study and ask the important question concerning what management ought to be. In other words, the best kind of management is conscious of itself and its power to define itself through conceptual analysis. If public space is something that is to be managed using today’s models of business practices, then one must not close off the practice of managing public spaces from the deeper, conceptual questioning that conditions these practices.  Regina makes the case that management practices are in no way fixed because they are dependent upon a deep conceptual apparatus of decision-making. Though a public space may be managed, this does not mean that the same public space cannot serve to foster rethinking and redefining the pubic space in other ways. In fact, she sees this critical conceptual undertaking as vital for democracy and the fruitful use and creation of new public spaces. Monica Gargano’s essay, “The Status of Knowing Today: On Knowing and Practice, A Brief Discussion,” rereads Plato’s Symposium in order to discuss how the notion of atopia (without-place) may serve to strengthen the notion of being in space, especially through a revitalized approach to Platonic dialogue and desire. The last essay in Part Two, “Fleeing, Masking, Forming: Between Private and Public Space,” is by Daria Dibitonto. The essay argues that public space is where the individual can exteriorise herself, and this exteriorisation is not only personal but also contains within it a deep search for what is communal. The author conceives of this double act of exteriorisation and search for community as a practice. This essay shows how patients suffering from various forms of mental illness can take advantage of a philosophical practice of dialoguing in a communal, public space in order to help them either alleviate suffering or manage better their pain and suffering caused by their respective mental illnesses. This article is fascinating for philosophers because it moves away from classical notions of clinical intervention and defends a philosophical approach consisting of dialogue and discussion in a public, communal setting revolving around deeply philosophical questions.

Part Three contains essays that do not revolve around one unifying theme. They are to be read as independent discussions of the notion of public space. Iolanda Poma’s essay, “Virtue from Necessity,” maintains that public space cannot be thought without the private sphere. These two realities can coincide but they are also sometimes in conflict. According to Poma, one must conceive of herself as being a citizen in both worlds. She also highlights that in addition to playing attention to Modernity’s insistence on the rationality at play in both spheres, one must also allow the life of sentiment to take its place as it can guide us in how we are to navigate our dual citizenship. Alessandra Cislaghi’s “Nature and Artifice or Public and Private” looks at Greek and modern notions of nature and the respective development of a notion of ownness (idion) and the self that emerge within nature.  Given changes in technology and given recent global changes, the author challenges us to rethink the category of being that we all share as well the notions of the individual that dwell in this new understanding of being brought on by changes in technology and history. Claudio Fiorillo’s essay “The Value of the Useless: Metaphor for Fragility” reads various moments in literature, philosophy, and history to discuss the role of the I and its negation within these public moments. “Urban Parks and Gardens or Nature Made Public (through Hannah Arendt)” contains Silvia Benso’s subtle and beautiful argument concerning the role of urban parks and gardens in constructing a public space that is political. Looking at public spaces like Central Park and employing the thought of Hannah Arendt, Benso demonstrates how pubic spaces like parks and gardens demonstrate how communities can be born and embodied by taking action to preserve, revitalise, and extend their public urban spaces. Drawing further on Arendt, Benso shows how such collective action becomes political as an embodied politics of speech and deeds, to borrow an expression from Arendt. The final two essays of Part Three and the final two essays of this collection focus on critical analyses of two major thinkers of public space and community, namely, Paul Virilio and Jean-Luc Nancy. Nicolò Seggiaro’s essay shows us how Virilio can give us an account of public space in real time, whereas Marco Severino’s essay reads Nancy’s work as opening up a possible discussion of public space as free space. He also examines how this free space can be understood as political. Both of these essays are very useful for scholars interested in exploring applications of the works of Virilio and Nancy.

Ugo Perone’s accomplishment in this volume consists in providing a multi-perspectival approach to the discussion of public space, from an understanding of the concept or nature of public space to the question of practice in as well as the critique of it. What is also valuable in this collection is the mining of various sources within the history of philosophy, including Greek, Hellenistic, medieval, and modern ones. This book opens up the philosophical imagination and allows us to linger awhile in the various and richly presented layers that constitute the question of public space and its social and political possibilities.