7 Spaces 7 Spaces

Political space

In the end, everything in politics turns on the distribution of spaces. What are these places? How do they function? Why are they there? Who can occupy them? For me, political action always acts upon the social as the litigious distribution of places and roles. It is always a matter of knowing who is qualified to say what a particular place is and what is done in it.

Jacques Rancière, ‘Politics and aesthetics: an interview’ 2003

All politics, like all action, happens somewhere. But where, and in what kind of space?

Political space is centred: just as a country may be centred on a capital city, its politics are filtered and focused on parliament, on the council chamber, on a specific room which is itself centred on a table. Indeed, we might say that doing politics centres space on the sites at which it happens. Some spaces become spaces of politics out of custom and routine: people do politics in some place, and that becomes the place where they do politics.

By the same token, space is bounded and bordered, by walls and fences, doors and windows, as well as the work of sentries and guards. This makes the connections between spaces significant, too: roads and railways, streets, paths and corridors. Those connections are material and physical, but also cognitive and communicative: access may be gained to one place from another without moving, by letter, email and phone, by documentary and digital means.

Perhaps politics is a kind of play, like theatre or sport, or a children’s game, an activity embedded in but also separate from the ordinary world.

All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course… The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, ie forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 1944

This shows the extent to which space is relational: just as what we think of as play makes sense only in relation to what we think of as ‘real’, so what we think of as local is ‘local’ only in so far as we also think of the national, or of other instances of ‘local’. It is our spatial imagination which governs what we do in any given location: we do something ‘here’ because we expect something else to be done ‘there’. And this is not least because space is meaningful and metaphorical: some spaces imbue our actions with their significance: they matter not just because they’re done, but because of where they’re done.

A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it… In short, space is a practised place.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984

Some spaces are open, such as those meant for gathering: public squares and meeting rooms, spaces designed to help or make citizens, representatives and officials appear before each other and the world outside. Other spaces are closed, secluded and secret; they are places in which, for better or worse, interaction takes place invisible to and unheard by those not immediately engaged in it. For every space of appearance there is one of disappearance.

For spaces are organised, whether by design or default, to make certain kinds of activity possible or impossible: in a public square, to gather, to constitute a mass, to recognise a leader; in a private room, to see and speak to each other, to be seen and heard. Any space makes certain kinds of communicative practice easier, and others more difficult.

Finally, to the extent that order is spatial, note the way in which it is subject to disruption, invasion and transgression: crossing a line, occupying a building, breaking a window are to make a claim against the prevailing order of things, their physical arrangement.


‘In the end, everything…’: Jacques Rancière (2003) ‘Politics and aesthetics: an interview’, Angelaki 8 (2) 191–211; cit Dikeç M (2012) ‘Space as a mode of political thinking’, Geoforum 43 (4): 669-676; p 674

‘All play moves…’: Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens. A study of the play-element in culture, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949, p 10

‘A space exists…’: Michel de Certeau The Practice of Everyday Life, op cit, p 117, emphasis in original. Most writers distinguish between concepts of space and place, where ‘space’ tends to emphasise the physical and material, and ‘place’ the social and significant.  De Certeau, notably, has these the other way round.