Feature article for the Arts Institute, University of Plymouth, April, 22, 2016.
Have you ever felt that your right to a parking space has been violated when another driver decides to drive the wrong way down a one-way lane and occupies it before you can get there yourself? If yes, then read on. When it happens to me, I feel like doing this but I’d have to be driving the right car.
Joking aside, this notion of the right to space has led me to ask the following question: is there just one correct way to interpret this right, or is the truth more ambiguous? Fundamentally, this is not just a political or a spatial question but rather one about the possibilities of contradiction and ambiguity: a question of marginality.
Questions of right to space and marginality have a particular current importance due to their relationships to notions of identity, mobility, and displacement manifested in the current socio-cultural and geopolitical situations seen in the refugee crisis, conflict/war zones, and wider issues of immigration, equality and race.
The slogan the right to a space, is a take on the idea of the right to the city first introduced by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (in the early 1960s). His Writings on Cities have been interpreted by anthropologist and geographer David Harvey in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, while Harvey’s work has been critiqued by the geographer Marcelo Lopes de Souza in an attempt to clarify the real meaning behind the expression coined by Lefebvre.
De Souza argues that Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city, which has recently become fashionable, does not only mean the right to a better life on the basis of improved and/or reformed democracy but also means the existence of new possibilities and new worlds, constantly negotiated, reinvented, and articulated with strategies such as mutual aid, free association, networks and confederations that are seen as tools to overcome class exploitation and oppression with local actions for a global impact. Such possibilities have been more successful in some cases than others. This can be seen in the influence of the Arab Spring (2010) across the Arab world on the Occupy movement in New York (2011), later in London (2012), and then Hong Kong (2014).
This constant negotiation of possibilities is what urban theorist Edward Soja calls Thirdspace. For Soja, the third in Thirdspace refers to spatial otherness, beyond what is lived and what is conceived, real and imagined (referring to Lefebvre’s conceptual triad between spatial practice, representation of space and spaces of representation). “Third-as-Other” is an open spatial and social system with an expansion beyond permanent constructions.
Soja refers to bell hooks’s work, specifically where she talks about marginality as a space of openness and a chosen site of resistance not imposed by oppressive structures, to explain the possibilities of the notion of Thirdspace. hooks rejects binary oppositions of race, gender and class. Instead she talks of marginality as multiplicities of other spaces of difference and new sites for the construction of interconnected and inclusive communities of resistance. Fundamentally, this openness of real-and-imagined other spaces of marginality, is what Soja refers to as Thirdspace.
While Soja refers to spaces of marginality and their new possibilities as Thirdspace, Victor Turner, a cultural anthropologist, defines marginality or liminality in societal terms as in between states of being. Thirdspace provides alternative readings of spatial otherness and becoming in the world, while liminality explains social conditions of being in the world.
When combined, the theories of liminality and Thirdspace provide an alternative way to analyse contested urban spaces. This is exactly what I have done for a paper recently published on the impact of Baghdad’s walling strategy on the urban context of the city and how new social and power structures are emerging in response to this urban intervention. The deployment of blast walls began immediately after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and till this day continues to disrupt and fragment the urban and social contexts of the city.
I have explored the notion of conflict, instigated by the installations of the blast walls, as a catalyst for the emergence of new urban structures and how it can be seen as a generator of new possibilities for a new way of life. Instead of looking at the negative aspects of conflict and its effects on the urban context (while of course not denying their existence), I have explored the effects of conflict and the consequent changes to urban spaces on the generation of new power and social structures in the city, a subject that has received little discussion considering the colossal impact that these walls have had on the everyday lives of communities and existing social structures.
To return to the question posed earlier, examining the ambiguity of the right to space can be seen as a generator of new possibilities, new worlds and new cities, which is of critical importance for those on the margins (by force and not by choice) of society. Something to think about the next time your space gets swiped!
Reference to Paper:
Murrani, S. 2016. ‘Baghdad’s thirdspace: between liminality, anti-structures and territorial mappings’, The Journal of Cultural Dynamics 28 (2), 189-220.