‘tear this shit down completely and build something new’

Back before the Current Era when my workplace and homeplace were different places, I would stay over two, three, very occasionally four nights a week at a friend’s house in Southsea just a 15 minute walk from the University of Portsmouth where I work. She in turn lived midweek at a colleague’s home in Reading where she works while he lived elsewhere again: a merry-go-round of academics displaced in each other’s homes.[1] I rarely had time to visit nearby Southsea Common, but it was a formidable, even if invisible, presence just a couple of streets away.

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Battle of Southsea 1874 E. Dugan originally was fixed to the ceiling of the Barley Mow public house, Castle Rd, Southsea. © 2020 Portsmouth Museum Service. Portsmouth City Council.

I had lived from the age of 14 until about 21 on a street which ended abruptly at Streatham Common in south London and I remember and recognise that feeling of living in proximity to something big and somewhat untamed: fun, beautiful, by day, disreputable, even threatening by night, “a wild place that is not simply the left over space” as Jack Halberstam describes, in a very different context, the “undercommons” of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “that limns real and regulated zones of polite society; rather, it is a wild place that continuously produces its own unregulated wildness.”[2] Sublime, I guess. It is a central contention of our Wastes and Strays commons project that what marks commons from, say, parks is their fractious pasts, feral presents and contested futures.

Jody Doherty-Cove_03-06-20The Level, Brighton Jody Doherty-Cove, 3rd June 2020
Hants Response Cops_20-5-20Hants Response Cops [Southsea Common], 20th May 2020

Because Valley Gardens in Brighton is one of our project case-study urban commons I’ve been keeping an eye on it, virtually, as it perhaps inevitably becomes a site of demonstration especially at the height of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. But I’ve also taken, out of curiosity, to ‘visiting’ Southsea Common. It was a little saddening to see it become, as lockdown eased, litter-strewn and dangerous in terms of the lawless disregard for social distancing rules. At least that was my first reaction. Perhaps we get, I wondered, the city we deserve or, more accurately, the city we need and I was reminded, then, of this often-quoted passage of David Harvey’s

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.[3]

Using the city makes a kind of pact with it, a fluid pact which changes both through action and reaction. If resistive acts of barbecuing or frisbee-throwing attract acts of policing, then perhaps Henri Lefebvre’s warning is also apt here, “segregation is inclined to prohibit protest, contest, action, by dispersing those who protest, contest and act.”[4] he argues. The singular failure of the police to control resistance to social distancing brought to mind another of Lefebvre’s observations:

[This] solitary cop induces the discourse of Order, more and better than the façades of the Square and the junction. Unless he also induces an anarchic discourse, for he is always there and of little use. The fear of an accident maintains the order at the junction more efficiently than the police, whose presence gives rise to no protestations, each knowing beforehand the uselessness of it.[5]

On Southsea Common, and currently everywhere like it, the futility of hierarchical Order and the power, not of fear in this case, but of pleasure is laid bare. Who is to say that these small acts of ‘vandalism’ or ‘thoughtlessness’ as they are often characterised are not also a protest, however inchoate, at repressive conditions imposed by bankrupt power structures? The fact that they, if they do, also repulse us, should give us pause to consider our own positions in that power structure. Perhaps “the only thing we can do is tear this shit down completely and build something new.”[6]

____________________________________________________________________________

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study.  Wivenhoe : New York : Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013.

Harvey, David. “The Right to the City.” New Left Review II, no. 53 (2008): 23-40.

Lefebvre, Henri. “Elements of Rhythmanalysis.” Translated by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. In Writings on Cities, 219-41. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

———. “Right to the City.” Translated by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. In Writings on Cities, 63-177. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Walters, Joanna. “Degrees of Separation.” The Guardian (online), March 2010.

____________________________________________________________________________

[1] The issue of mutually displaced academic couples was a long-recognised phenomenon even when The Guardian wrote about it 10 years ago: Joanna Walters, “Degrees of Separation,” The Guardian (online) March 2010.

[2] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study  (Wivenhoe : New York : Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013), 7.

[3] David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” New Left Review II, no. 53 (2008): 23.

[4] Henri Lefebvre, “Right to the City,” in Writings on Cities (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 163.

[5] “Elements of Rhythmanalysis,” 224.

[6] Harney and Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, 152.

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