From Open Space to Open Politics

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* Article: On Open Space: Explorations Towards a Vocabulary of a More Open Politics. Jai Sen. Antipode. Volume 42, Issue 4, pages 994–1018, September 2010



"Drawing on my work in and on architecture, urban planning, and socio-political movement including the World Social Forum (WSF), I attempt to critically engage with the increasingly widely used concept of open space as a mode of social and political organising. Arguing that open space, horizontality, autonomous action, and networking are now emerging as general tendencies in the organisation of social relations, and that the WSF is a major historical experiment in this idea, I try to open up the concept to a more critical understanding in relation to the times we live in. In particular, I argue that the practice of open space in the WSF makes manifest three key movement principles: self-organisation, autonomy, and emergence. By exploring its characteristics and contradictions, I also argue that open space cannot be provided and only exists if people make it open, and that in this sense it is related to, but different from, the commons."


"I now attempt to place in a larger context the concept and practice of open space. I start by suggesting that we, following Giorgio Agamben, focus and reflect on openness itself, in relation to humanness. I then present a brief history of open space, go on to discuss some new horizons, and follow this by a discussion of its nature and politics.

On Openness

As Agamben has argued, of all living beings—indeed, of everything that we know in the universe, animate and inanimate—only “man” is capable of seeing the open; and that the open is a key part of humankind's relationship to its environment. Citing Heidegger's discussion of the relation of animal and man to their environment, and carrying on from the thought cited at the beginning of this essay, Agamben (2004:51) explains that this is a uniquely human capacity:

The guiding thread of Heidegger's exposition is constituted by the triple thesis: “the stone is worldless [weltlos]; the animal is poor in world [weltarm]; man is world-forming [weltbildend].” In these terms, the crucial difference that Agamben draws between the animal and the human is that for the former the environment is open but not openable, while humankind has the capacity to open up the world; we can disconceal it (Agamben 2004:55):

The ontological status of the animal environment can at this point be defined: it is offen (open) but not offenbar (disconcealed, lit., openable). For the animal, beings are open but not accessible; that is to say, they are open in an inaccessibility and an opacity—that is, in some way, a nonrelation. This openness without disconcealment distinguishes the animal's poverty in world from the world-forming which characterizes man.

Although Agamben goes into far more detail in his extraordinary treatise, for this discussion it is perhaps enough to simply draw out the conclusion that open space, and the ideas of openness and openability, are thus profoundly, and uniquely, human qualities—qualities that are innate to our nature and immanent in everything that we do.

A Short History of Open Space

The concept and practice of “open space” in social and political movement—and especially in autonomist movement—are not new. There have been similar practices in movements since the 1960s. For instance, in many ways the feminist movement in North America, and elsewhere, practiced something very close to this idea from the late 1960s onwards: a free, unstructured, and non-hierarchical movement (Hayes forthcoming). This attempt, however, became the subject of intense critical reflection within the movement in terms of what one participant, Jo Freeman (nd, c 1970–1971), famously called “the tyranny of structurelessness”. Freeman wrote this essay in response to the frustrations of trying to organise non-hierarchically and as a critique of masculinist forms of organisation (and not to abandon the practice, as the title of the essay might suggest). This social experiment was not restricted to the feminist movement alone, but was part of general articulation of a counter-culture in North America from the 1960s, and also, for instance, in India in the 1970s, although coming from very different roots.

There have been equivalents and expressions of this idea in many parts of the world and in many fields. For instance, as already mentioned, the work of Paulo Freire and his theory of conscientisation and a pedagogy of the oppressed, or the articulation of liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s.

This experimentation continued right through the 1980s and 1990s. In each of these instances the concept of openness was rigorously practiced, debated, and critiqued. The emergence during the 1990s of PGA and of Direct Action in the USA, and of the organisational culture underlying the direct actions at Seattle 1999 and the series of “global actions” that took place during the early 2000s, including the WSF—all of which were manifestations of a new politics founded on ideas of horizontality and open-endedness—was a natural outcome of these stirrings, experiments, and movements.

In other words, the idea and practice of open space is a generalised, widespread, and non-centralised political-cultural phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century, one that is continuing to widen and deepen in our own times. A key issue, however, is how other developments in the second half of the twentieth century have changed the way we relate to each other and to the world around us. To understand what is happening, we therefore perhaps need to think about open space in ways other than those in which its critics are pointing.

As Nunes argues, the recent intensification in social networking and in networked politics as a common social practice is a function of the major changes that have taken place in recent decades—in the same period as the explorations outlined above—in the material means of information exchange and communication and also of international travel. Nunes’ argument is that the “… large scale massification of these media, and [the emergence of] a multipolar medium like the internet in particular, is … the chief material cause behind the “renaissance” of openness and horizontality” (Nunes 2005:301, emphasis added).

Social movement activists have perhaps made among the most active and imaginative use of these new possibilities, but this is a generalised situation and not restricted to social movement and politics. Many fields, including the military, industry, entertainment, and other big business, have also found strategic value in using this approach, and it also fundamentally informs contemporary debate on science, knowledge systems, and intellectual property.

The social and political use of the concept of open space, and the rise of this concept, must therefore be seen as the crystallisation of a new cultural-political practice that has accompanied, synergised with, and contributed to other developments. On the other hand, if the idea is being used equally by those seeking to exercise centralised power, then we need to critically reflect on what, more specifically, its liberationary potentials are and where they lie.

New Horizons of the Open

It is worth pointing out here that the conventional visualisation and conceptualisation of “space” fundamentally changed during the last century in several major ways; that this has especially happened only in the very recent past, in terms of human history and evolution; and that the reconceptualisation is continuing to evolve rapidly.

At one level, this has been simply a function of the popularisation of new understandings of space in many spheres of life—art, music, science, and even everyday consumption. Humans—albeit with variations across contexts—visualise and therefore conceptualise space very differently today from just half a century ago. This is now such an everyday thing that we are barely aware of it. But this is nothing less than an epochal change.

The first major steps were taken in the first half of the twentieth century. In the visual and then the plastic arts, the emergence, articulation, and then exploration of cubism fundamentally challenged all previous and more fixed conceptions of both space and time in western art.2 Similarly, in music, the emergence and articulation of jazz from the early twentieth century onwards opened up new dimensions of time and space. These ideas continued to be developed and explored in literature and art from about the 1940s onwards, perhaps particularly in the course of the school of magic realism which emerged in the 1960s, where through the playing with (or “distortion” of) both time and space, new understandings emerge.

These great developments in art and literature paralleled—and sometimes preceded—developments in science, especially through Einstein's discovery of relativity in the early twentieth century, where time and space were revealed as one. The subsequent explorations and development of these ideas have included theories of uncertainty, indeterminacy, and chaos.

But only in the second half of the twentieth century have we seen the more generalised socialisation of these perceptions; and it is during this same period that the practice of open space in social and political movement emerged. With the launching of the first space satellites and subsequent space missions, and the fairly widespread availability of new images through photographs and television, it became possible for ordinary humans to be aware on an everyday basis of the vastness of space and of our place in the universe, not only in a physical sense but also cosmologically and existentially; and indeed, even as consumers.

While some of this perception was available before this to specialists—adventurers and explorers, astronomers and other scientists, religious thinkers, philosophers, artists, writers, and poets—(Cosgrove 2001) it became a phenomenon, perception, and virtual experience available to the species as a result of rapidly changing information and communication technologies: to humans and cultures all over the world, to be variously comprehended, internalised, imagined, reinvented, and domesticated in terms of humankind's widely varying cultural contexts.

The second development has been in terms of the realisation and articulation of the interconnectedness of everything. As a function of the progressively widening recognition during this period of the earth as one whole—especially, in a state of ecological crisis—we have begun to be aware of the Gaian nature of the planet, as a system and as a living organism (Lovelock 2000).

The recognition of the function in earth's ecosystem of open spaces on the planet—such as the oceans, the Siberian tundra, and the Amazonian basin—as organs that are essential for the life of the planet (an organic conception radically distinct from the colonialist tendency to define the Amazon especially as part of “humankind's patrimony”, thus laying claim to it) has meant that “open space”, locally and globally, has become more than something one can create/enter/use/inhabit; it is now popularly understood as having an organic, ecological, and systemic function, fundamentally interconnected with its surroundings.

Third, our conceptualisation of open space has of course been dramatically expanded by the invention of the worldwide web, with all its apparent open-endedness. Beyond the openness, it is now common to see references to the internet as the model on which social movement organisation is increasingly based. (This despite the known reality of the new disparities that the invention and use of computers and the web have produced; the so-called digital divide.)

Another related new understanding of openness has come about in terms of the fundamental role that systems, networks, and emergence play in all physical, natural, and social processes, where openness and open-endedness are essential and intrinsic qualities and characteristics of these concepts (Capra 1997, 2004; Johnson 2002). This new comprehension is today beginning to inform all sciences, and its popular influence is growing.

Finally, we need to locate “open space” in a longer political history of cyberspace—of so-called “virtual space”. As Shuddhabrata Sengupta (2010) has argued, the invention of the printing press, and with this the invention of the idea of artificial media by which humans could exchange ideas with each other at a mass level (and also create more permanent archival records, ie memory), marked the first radical opening of virtual space in human history. Each successive step in this process—from books and newspapers to television and the web—can be considered to have been steps towards opening new spaces. And significantly, just as with physical space, each of these steps was taken first by individuals, working “locally”, autonomously, and “randomly”, and in each case the steps have been subject to challenge and (en)closure by state or market corporatism, and/or by fundamentalist forces within societies.

All these developments—all during the twentieth century—have intertwined, and have profoundly shaped our thinking and perceptions. Equally, however, attempts at planning, control, and enclosure are as true of these new dimensions of space and openness as of the old and more familiar. Think of the “conquest” of space, the growing attempts by corporations and the military to control the web, and the juggernaut of genetic modification and the control of natural life processes. We must therefore ask the same critical questions as we do of the physically open space, and develop the vocabulary necessary to understand and act on what is happening.

The Nature of Open Space

The question of nature brings up the question of context. At a quite fundamental level, what do open space, and the open, mean to fisherfolk and to sailors; to the Inuit or to people living in deserts? Or to nomadic peoples, for whom motion—through space—is constant? To a sculptor, or a dancer, or a physicist? To the physically or visually challenged, or to someone dying of a terminal disease? Are each of these different meanings? Or is there a common meaning across different subjectivities? Open space seems to exist only when we construct it—and whatever we construct will necessarily be a function of the conditions that prevail at that time.

Partly as a consequence of being a member of a community of like terms and practices with much overlap, and partly because of quite different interpretations and uses of these terms in different fields and contexts, there is perhaps no one definition of open space. As Nunes (2005:302–3) points out in terms of horizontalities, there are many open spaces—and many meanings of open space. This plurality, and the ambiguity that goes with it, is in the very nature of open space, which is essentially a social and cultural construct—in all the fields it is used, and in all its meanings. It is therefore important to root and/or understand the use of the term in particular contexts and conditions.

The concept does not only represent what already is, but is also a symbol of possibilities; a metaphor. The possibilities of its existence are as important as actually practising or experiencing it. For instance, the slogan of the WSF, “Another World Is Possible!”, by its flagging of the possible and therefore of the “Not yet”, points not to an existing reality or definite singular future but to its immanent potential (de Sousa Santos 2004).

It is also crucial to recognise the contemporary political-ideological meaning and potential of open space. Especially in the conditions of closure that have so deeply afflicted the world over the past two decades, as a function of the synergistic interaction of religious fundamentalisms, economic fundamentalisms, and an imperialist power with its so-called “war on terror” post 9/11, every practice of open space and horizontality must be recognised as a significant polemical challenge to empire and to hegemonic politics. In many ways and at many levels, the idea and concept of open space is deeply interrelated with human rights, democratic freedoms, civil liberties, and cultural expression. It is as relevant to science, education, literature, art, faith, and to the conditions of everyday life, as it is to politics and social movement.

The Politics and Meta-politics of Open Space

In order to reveal the politics and meta-politics of open space in the field of movement, I will briefly look here at particular uses of the term “open space” in urban planning. In doing so, I also question the usually implied normative equation of the term open space with the apparently similar and related term the commons—where the commons is a key contemporary symbol in the opposition to capitalism. I argue that the two are similar but not the same. Most crucially, the commons is an alternative; open space is only an instrument, a vehicle, a transitory stage.

In the field of urban planning the term “open space” carries a physical and apparently apolitical connotation, of being a relatively large, open, unbuilt /“undeveloped” space, usually but not always made available either for recreational or (in some particular contexts) agricultural purposes. Like many definitions, this usage sounds universal but is in fact culturally quite specific—and it is significant as much for what it does not say as for what it does. First, by definition, it refers only to urbanised conditions (which means conditions where most land is built upon and “open space” is the exception).

This is radically different from the tradition of a commons, or common property, that still prevails in many rural and agrarian communities in the world. The commons is not residual space but an integral part of the local and wider social ecology and economy, where such property and the rights of access to it are a function of traditional communitarian decision (though also subject to local social segmentation). As Massimo De Angelis (2006) argues, for every commons, there is a community.

Planned “open space”, on the other hand, does not have a single, defined community, but rather is—in theory—a public space, open to everyone. The commons was not and is still not today referred to as being “open”, by locals. Beyond this, planned open space is by definition centrally planned, managed, and owned. The kind of open space that is created through centrally planned intervention is therefore not a commons, and should not be confused with this.

Second, looking at these conditions historically, the “open spaces” that our planners construct refer in fact to contexts where under conditions of both capitalism and state socialism, agrarian or forest land—both private and common—has been “enclosed” and taken over for urban or industrial uses, and its previous occupants or users displaced and scattered. Some of the best-known examples are the great parks in cities of the North (London, New York, Paris, Washington DC). Planned urban “open space” therefore involves appropriation, expulsion, enclosure, exclusion, and control, usually centralised. The tendency in planning to portray them as a commons—which would by definition require local community control—is misplaced and a distortion of reality.

Third, even while planned open spaces in urban areas provide for some relief and the chance of random encounters, it is crucial to be alive to the reality that urban parks were originally created not so much to provide relief and/or recreation but to engineer, plan, control, and give order to societies. Many cities that are famed in planning circles for their seemingly open spaces (Paris, Brasilia) were created in times of—and as instruments of—autocratic and harshly exclusionary politics, and many urban open spaces today celebrated for their civic, and civil, qualities were expressly created for military purposes (for instance, the great Maidan in Kolkata, and once again Haussmann's Paris). This “dark side of planning” continues in our times in the form of Israel's urban planning actions in relation to Palestine and Palestinians (Yiftachel 1998).

To conclude this point, even though the creation of planned open space in urban areas is often seen (and populistically portrayed) as a normative commitment to “the social”, and even to anti-privatisation, a more critical look reveals such space being only a part of larger regimes of centralised control, property, and the State. But if such spaces in the city are in fact neither a commons nor open then this demands that we revisit and critically reflect on the otherwise memorable metaphor used by Chico Whitaker, as one of the founders of the WSF, to explain the idea of open space—the idea of a “square” in a city.

Under contemporary conditions this process of appropriation of what is common is being dramatically widened. It is being extended from a control only of land (including forests) to include water, air, cyberspace, and also—in yet another dimension—genetic knowledge; and under current conditions of neoliberalism, this is no longer a question of expropriation by the state for socially planned use but a process of privatisation and enclosure, for hand-over to private commercial interests.

One more related point. Whereas openness and open space—in cities and in urban planning—are widely associated with grace and beauty, we need to read that these too are socially constructed ideas. Our conditioned notions of what is beautiful are intrinsically linked to the imposition, establishment, and maintenance of centralised order; and conversely, we are conditioned to associate the lack of imposed order—implicitly, “disorder”—with ugliness (Sen 1999). It is therefore not a coincidence that popular spaces—generally more open, random, and apparently unordered—are rarely portrayed as “beautiful”, especially by planners, and are usually deplored.

All this holds lessons for us as we attempt to explore and understand the politics of open space. Planned open spaces are thus not open by themselves; they become truly open only when those who use them take part in decisions regarding their creation, planning, design, maintenance, and use. In this sense then, open space and the commons become, under existing conditions, complimentary concepts and strategies." (