A literary critic buys a house for a particular amenity it offers, namely the sublime experience of walking through a former quarry/rubbish tip near by. On discovering that it is being developed through a community-based design process, he organizes a doorknock petition to oppose the proposal. He is unsuccessful, and concludes that there is no place in local politics for aesthetic discourse. This critique of the design process is shared with what is assumed to be a rather narrow audience. I will assume a broader one for this rejoinder.
I enjoy what I know of Simon During’s work, and I have found him an incisive voice in a time of fashionably unfathomable writing. His essay ‘Clifton Hill: Aesthetics and Local Politics’ raises important questions about the relationship of intellectual discourse to everyday practice and the politics of place. What are the obligations of an intellectual who not only tries to ‘theorize difference’ from an academic enclave, but also engages with the real differences that constitute the politics of place? During’s conclusions have disturbing implications for the role of the intellectual in public debate. But first I must address a few logical and factual problems with his critique of the design process.
I am not in a position to judge whether the community-based design process was successful in this case. That will be decided, in time, by the Clifton Hill community. I don’t live in Clifton Hill, but I have done some enquiring, and there are problems with During’s critique of it. He entered the process at what he calls a ‘sausage sizzle’. The sausages were marginal to this event, which was entitled ‘View the Design Options’. It was the culmination of four months of consultation. The landscape architects for the project are largely blamed for the development, despite the fact that the ‘agents’ of development were the council. The community-based design process was undertaken at the designers’ initiative (and at their expense).
During rather curiously theorizes the design process according to what he asserts are inadequate ideas, which he links to the ‘1960s’ and ‘early cultural studies’. He rightly perceives that politics consists of competing claims by those purporting to speak for the public interest. He quotes a typically convoluted sentence from Habermas, who calls for a ‘critical publicity’ that brings private opinion into the public domain, where the public interest can be debated and defined without the short-circuit of quasi-public opinion (my translation). If During finds such theorizing inapplicable, then why does he define his own opinion and criticize the work of the landscape architects according to it? He accuses the designers of imposing a preconceived image of the Clifton Hill community onto the process, short-circuiting any development of genuine community interest. This charge appears to be based on two quite unsupported assertions.
The first is that ‘no Vietnamese people or members of other migrant groups were involved in discussion over the site’. There is always a danger that certain agents will claim the right to speak for minority groups, so what is the evidence? While I hesitate to speak for the designers, they publicly displayed twenty pages of notes on consultations undertaken in the months prior to the Options Day when During entered the fray. There was an impressive range of consultation with groups of different ages and ethnic backgrounds. There was a workshop with Vietnamese people, and pamphlets included translations in three languages other than English. A good community designer does not wait for marginal voices to be heard at a public meeting, and there are dangers in assuming anything from their absence. Indeed there are dangers in any discourse about ethnic difference; the Council was called by at least one person complaining that the wrong type of people would be attracted to the community gardens. No-one is responsible for the motives of those who might agree with them, but the sign did say ‘Beware of snakes’; they also like the wild grass. During appears to have been engaged in the politics of division. He shares with us his unsupported fears of tyre-slashing, when the only vandalism was enacted by one of his supporters.
The second assertion is that the designers imagined and then ‘retrieved’ a community composed entirely of ‘families’. While academics try to deconstruct our stereotype of a ‘family’, here it is reasserted without comment. ‘Families’, it seems, have children and eat sausages. Against this imaginary community During posits an ‘actual community’ composed of singles, gays, lesbians and retired people. Do these people not have familial ties? There is even the accusation (delivered via the voice of the other) that the design represents ‘heterosexualism’. Does not this only reinforce further stereotypes? Should gays and lesbians not have children? Are all children heterosexual?
Children are an interesting case in the politics of place. They are at once marginal to the dominant discourse, yet central to the use of neighbourhood space. They need their parents to speak for them, although in innovative cases like this one they are encouraged to find their own voice. On the other hand, children’s actions constitute a rather loud voice in everyday life, be it noise, visibility or vandalism. And the opportunities for learning, action, encounter and adventure in their neighbourhood play a crucial role in childhood development. Neighbourhood space is a primary site of social reproduction. Children are the social glue of most neighbourhoods; less constrained by social codes, they bring alienated parents together.
Children also have a healthy disdain for imposed images of childhood, often preferring the untamed landscapes of the rubbish tip and riverbank to the formal playground. It is interesting in this regard to point out that the playground as designed is not really an ‘adventure playground’. Ironically, this phrase originally referred to playgrounds designed to emulate the sense of adventure and contact with nature that children find in wilder locations, where there is the capacity to construct an imaginative world out of a variety of ‘loose parts’.
If During had chosen to join rather than oppose the participatory process, he might have discovered more allies than by knocking on doors. Children do have aesthetic discrimination, but it is more one of action than of visual contemplation. Indeed, it is possible to construe the hedonistic play of children as aesthetic behaviour. In this sense aesthetics was always at the heart of this design process, almost the opposite of the dull rationality that During implies was the driving force.
Having completed his attack on the design process. During retreats to what he is good at, literary critique. Here he contextualizes his own position, motives and failures rather well. And there is much in the parallel critiques of the two Clifton Hills that would be of interest to the local community.
Turning to the broader issue of the relation of aesthetic discourse to local politics, During argues the growing importance of local politics as a part of the politics of difference and identity and declares his motive: to ‘help members of my profession to orient themselves to polities’. He offers readers his distilled experience in the form of a ‘rule of thumb’, which is that it is almost impossible to bring aesthetic subjectivity to bear in local politics. The paradoxical message seems to be ‘do not enter this realm of growing importance’.
I am rather interested in the fact that a former quarry and rubbish tip can become a place that a literary critic will fight to preserve. But I am disturbed that he finds himself ‘without much capacity to enter into dialogue’. He says he was not stupid enough to use the word ‘sublime’ in public. But how has it come to this? Is this ‘stupidity’ or timidity? Is it that the sublime is too difficult to understand, or have we permitted public debate to become impoverished? While the sublime is not a form of rationality, it is clearly available as a subject for reasoned debate. Reluctant to raise the level of public debate. During has privately reserved some words for academic use only. But if that leaves him without a public voice, whose problem is that? During concludes, in a self-deprecating turn, that it is not the community’s problem, but I think he is wrong again. We are all the poorer for a weak public discourse.
What During seems to me unwilling to do is to make language speak to a wider audience. Everyone is interested in the ‘sublime’, even if they do not use the same word. Being awestruck in the face of the sublime is indeed one of the few experiences that has the power temporarily to erase differences of class, culture, gender and so on. But when someone talks about their view being blocked it is unlikely that they are interested in anything more than protecting property values. Perhaps if a poem had been written, or even if parts of his essay had been read to a community meeting. During would have been more successful.
In my view this is part of a larger collective failure of academic nerve. We enter public debate at our peril, but we should do it more often. It would help our theorizing and our teaching. Academics are paid out of the public purse because the university in turn serves the public interest; this should not stop at the campus gates. And in my experience the tactics in the public realm are no less civilized than in academic politics. In order for the intellectual to be heard in public debate, it is necessary to speak an everyday language and have faith that the issues one is dealing with are important to everyone.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that During’s real objection to the design process is that he felt unheard. He discovers that ‘Because self-recognized yuppies don’t form a majority … their views are suspect and do not usually win political debates’. This is both an obvious democratic principle and somewhat irrelevant, since we are then told that most yuppies wanted the playground. The politics of voting prevails once you engage in a politics of division and take a petition to Council, but the design process in this case was oriented towards negotiating a win/win result where marginal interests could be recognized.
Do we detect a desire to be free from difference in everyday life while rigorously theorizing it in an academic enclave? One of During’s key insights is that different aesthetic tastes may be in contradiction rhetorically, cultural-politically or logically, but not as they are lived. This has a collective parallel in that individuals, classes and cultures in our community embody varied aesthetic tastes, but they intersect, as lived, in shared space. And it is quite possible for different people (children and academics, for instance) to enjoy the same place for different reasons, and even because of its differences (as with bohemian streetlife). It is the task of community design to deal with such differences, and it is most successful when it draws upon the human capacity to enjoy difference.
We inhabit a stratified, gendered, classified, fragmented world where we read different journals and newspapers, watch different TV shows and speak different languages. Public space (or what remains of it) is a key locus for the intersection of these diverse and conflicting values. Places become sites of ideological change. A community design process problematizes this intersection of values; the alternatives are much more likely to repress it. Community design comes with the spread of democracy, and suffers from the problems of democracies everywhere. It is easily misused as a panacea or a form of manipulation. Like democracy, it is an imperfect idea that looks much better when judged against its alternative — the reproduction of dominant ideology as embedded in professions and councils.
During argues that ‘both sides constantly appealed to a more or less imaginary community will’. But there is no ‘community will’ separate from issues such as this one. Community identity is being constructed and contested in local politics. It is imaginary because design is the task of imagining the future. The ‘community’ does not simply exist with a pre-formed ‘interest’ waiting to be consulted. And there are many communities of interest, not all of whom are able to see these interests clearly. Community design is about identifying, defining and, if possible, reconciling the differences of interest that coexist in a given place. The politics of place is a form of community development, and community design is designing with difference. If there is a rule of thumb about the politics of place, it is that those who rule leave the thumbprints. It will always be a discourse of power; the question is whether such power enables or represses.
During concludes by asking whether a discourse on cultural heritage holds promise, a politics of place informed by an articulation of the manner in which places house memory. The answer is a clear yes, but this cannot be achieved without the very kind of process that During has already condemned. And here we find a further blindness: discussion of the origins of this landscape (as a native site, quarry and tip) was part of the design process from its inception. A community artist is currently working on a paving design that incorporates memories of the tip.
What are the lessons in all this? One is that the politics of place in a diverse community are indeed difficult, and require new forms of practice and theory. Another is that marginal voices in such a process often have their own fields of power to which they may retreat in order to be heard, be it vandalism, graffiti or the literary essay. Finally, cultural studies, or its more recent versions, may have developed a problematic relationship to the lived world. At least it would appear to offer little protection against political blindness. Theorizing difference and living with it are different things, but there are both moral and intellectual imperatives to reconcile them.