Rethinking the Public: Space, Sphere, Subject

Over the past few years, one component of my field research has been tracing discussions of (free) public transportation in Luxembourg through local news and social media outlets. Frequently, I find that transit is constructed in these writings as a subject of knowledge or debate – something about which one can report and express (or refute) ideas. Often, as I have noted before, public transportation serves as a proxy for other concerns, whether social, environmental, or political. And every once in a while these discussions turn vitriolic, as one news story I encountered last week illustrates.  

In this particular case, a local news outlet reported a mugging which took place on public transportation and posted a link to the article on social media. In response, several readers commented publicly on the probable “origins” of the perpetrators – essentially implying that they must be non-national and non-white. At least one other commentor implied that fare-free transit is to blame for this incident, an argument which recalls widespread concerns expressed prior to fare abolition that the policy would invite criminality.

My first (and still strongest) reaction to these comments was a sense of anger and sadness, blended in my mind with similar feelings engendered by recent debates about “crime” in Luxembourg which have also been laden with racist, xenophobic, and anti-poor discourse.[1] All too often, such expressions of fear about “criminal activity” seem to both invoke and connote fear of an externalized “other”. 

These cases point to critical problems with systemic racism and discrimination that must be recognized and actively countered. But they also raise important questions in the scope of my research about how to understand publicness, in mass transit and beyond.

There is a lot to be learned and gained, from analytical, managerial, and social standpoints, from thinking of public transit as a form of public space. Public transportation stations, stops, and vehicles themselves often constitute places where people from diverse backgrounds can meet and interact. Throughout my ethnographic research in Luxembourg and in the US, transit workers and users have often emphasized this dynamic. In a sense, fare-free transit further contributes to this sense of a public space, as legitimacy of use or entrance is no longer regulated by payment. 

Yet while sharing spaces creates the possibility for encounter or relationship formation, physical proximity doesn’t necessarily entail or produce dialogue or a sense of community – and on the other side of the spectrum public spaces can also be sites of antagonistic social interactions (like thefts, disputes, or harassment). In other words, interactions in public spaces reflect the range and complexity of human social relations.

Looking beyond these physical spaces, it is also important to consider the publicness of virtual spaces where transit and other issues are discussed. Increasingly (both preceding the pandemic and accelerated by it), public debate of such topics takes place in the immaterial spaces of the internet, where interaction is mediated by screens, usernames, and virtual avatars. 

Such online arenas may be seen as expansions or variations of the “public sphere” as defined by Jürgen Habermas – discursive spaces where “private people come together as a public.” Yet online interactions are all too often antithetical to the notion of “rational-critical public debate” that Habermas describes.[2] Just consider the twenty-first century tropes of “the comment section” where users exchange vicious barbs while categorically rejecting any conflicting point of view. While these notoriously volatile virtual spaces cannot be taken to represent any society or community as a whole, it’s worth considering what happens when our “public debate” increasingly migrates into them. 

These tendencies, too, have been exacerbated with the pandemic. COVID has ushered in a period of heightened physical and social isolation which risks the side effect of increased polarization and entrenchment of ideas and biases. With fewer opportunities for in-person encounter in public spaces and pervasive fears of face-to-face interaction, we have few other places to go, discursively speaking. Habermas’ image of a “coffee house” where ideas and respiratory droplets are freely exchanged feels more illusory than ever.

What do we do in the face of such antagonism and vitriol? It seems to be up to us as the public, as a subjective and collective political entity, to remake our public spaces and spheres. We need a revitalization – not in the gentrifying sense used by urban planners but in the sense of renewal and strengthening. This involves rethinking public spaces, including public transit spaces, not just as sites of proximity where encounter is possible but as places of togetherness where solidarity is fostered. As for the spheres of public debate, it entails a rejection of fear-mongering and hate-speech and an active prioritization of inclusivity and dialogue.

[1] See, for example, recent debates about the use of racist stereotypes in the casting call for season 2 of Capitani and the deployment of private security forces in the Gare and Bonnevoie neighborhoods. 

[2] Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp. 27-28. For a contemporary sociological take on the internet as a public sphere, see Rasmussen, Terje. 2014. “Internet and the Political Public Sphere.” Sociology Compass 8 (12): 1315–29.

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