In Renaissance Venice, officials kept a record – the Libro Ceremoniale – of exactly how each visiting dignitary was received so that each future visitor might be received appropriately, with more or less or exactly the same degree of elaboration, just as was due to them. This was a question of how many senators must go out into the lagoon to meet the visitor and how far; whether the Doge should get up from his dais in order to greet an ambassador, how valuable a gift should be given, and what other officials should wear. All this mattered, because it was a way of expressing Venice’s understanding of its relation with the state represented by the visitor. Officials’ positioning in ducal processions mattered in the same way, for it expressed their place in the current political hierarchy.
When we go to a meeting for the first time, how do we know where to sit? Where we choose to sit is a function of where we think we belong in relation to others in the meeting, as well as our best guess at where others think we belong. Whether we know them or not, we form an immediate sense of who is there. We must literally situate ourselves somehow in relation to them, just as they, too, will be trying to make some assessment of who we are and where we belong. Only by calibrating our sense of ourselves and others in the room with what we think those others’ sense of us and themselves might be can we decide where to sit.
Something of this kind takes place wherever and whenever people gather, and we might think it happens more consciously – and that its implications are more significant – when those gatherings or meetings have some avowedly political function or purpose. That is to say that the meeting is necessarily how we work out relations with one another, implicitly, subtly, intuitively, even before anything is said, and that these relations are constituted and signified in space. The meeting is an enclosed space, because it encloses space. It creates an inside and an outside: even if there are clerks and observers also in the room, everybody knows who is in the meeting and who is not.
A Ladies’ Gallery was incorporated into the Commons chamber when Parliament was rebuilt after a fire in London in 1834, allowing women – mostly friends and acquaintances of MPs – to watch proceedings from behind a grille. On the evening of 28 October 1908, suffragettes Helen Fox and Muriel Matters of the Women’s Freedom League unfurled a banner calling for votes for women, padlocked themselves to the grille and threw leaflets from the gallery into the chamber. Similar actions followed: in April 1909, women handcuffed themselves to statues in St Stephen’s Hall, then the main entrance to Parliament; in June, Marion Wallace-Dunlop stencilled graffiti on its walls; in April 1910, Emily Davison hid out in a ventilation shaft, though she was discovered before she could get into the chamber; the following year, she hid in a cupboard on census night in order to be able to give her address as the House of Commons.
Doing politics in this way is transgressive: that is its point. It breaks the rules by which certain kinds of distinction and differentiation are maintained. Women wrote and tied themselves into the fabric of the parliament building precisely in order to expose and override the differences, exclusions and privileges designed into it previously.
On 24 April 1932, ramblers embarked on a mass trespass of Kinder Scout, an area of high moorland in England’s peak district, as a way of claiming access to open country, an expression of ‘working class struggle for the right to roam versus the rights of the wealthy to have exclusive use of moorlands’.
Between Tijuana and San Diego, parts of the US-Mexico border cross canyons running south-north, which means that drains must be built through the border fence to carry rainwater. Some of this is contaminated as it runs through slums on the Mexican side. On 4 June 2011, 350 people crossed the wall through a drain, against the flow of wastewater, and had their passports stamped at a temporary control on entering Mexico. This was to expose a set of tensions the wall creates between the demands of security, ecology and citizenship.
Naisargi Dave tells the story of the emergence of a lesbian movement in India. It’s bookended by two actions: the first in 1987, when two policewomen wed each other, were fired and subsequently disappeared; the second in 2008, when India’s first Gay Pride march took place.
It’s a story of the formation and transformation of groups: informal gatherings of same-sex desiring women in living rooms and cafes took place in New Delhi; in 1989, a more identifiable Delhi Group formed; two years later, some left to form Sakhi, an explicitly lesbian organization with political aims, from which two others separated to form the support group and helpline Sangini. In 1999, the lesbian-themed film Fire provoked a right-wing backlash: counter-protests led to the formation of CALERI, the Campaign for Lesbian Rights; as this dissipated, three members of Sangini left to form PRISM, an autonomous collective of People for the Rights of Indian Sexual Minorities. When the march took place, it was protected by lines of policewomen, while members of Sakhi, Sangini and PRISM each held a piece of a rainbow flag.
This politics took place in different spaces, each of which becomes a ‘space of appearance’: the bed, the home, the shared space of meeting, and the public space of the street. These were differentially bounded spaces, each protected and protecting, allowing new forms of sociality to emerge; each in turn generating new kinds of difference, new boundaries to be crossed. They mark a trajectory, from the sexual and marital dyad to the plurality of the group, then to a plurality of groups, and then to the multiplicity of the march.