What is the public realm and how can it be defined? Multiple visions and theories have been provided on this issue but I bet none of them ever included Batman. This article instead takes advantage of the Gotham City superhero to provide an active critique on the public realm and its contemporary interpretation, through its relation with capitalism and modern media communication. Batman is the hero the public realm deserves, but not the one it needs right now.
Definition of Public Realm
Before Batman jumps in, it is essential that we provide some kind of definition for the public realm. We can identify three major schools seeking to make sense of the public realm and their theories are hereby briefly explained.
The first can be linked to the book of Hanna Arendt “The Human Condition” (1958). The German-American philosopher adopted an Aristotelian distinction between two forms of activity, to directly relate them to public and private conditions. The private sphere is in fact connected to the activity of labour, and therefore to necessity and compulsion, while the public is a dimension for freedom, action and self realization. In the private sphere, I am an individual, with focus on my own needs, while in public, I am part of a collectivity, and I actively participate in the common good. The space Arendt associates with the condition of publicity is the Agora, the marketplace of the ancient Greek polis, as a place where people in their diversity can and must be seen and heard. Arendt’s notion evidently relates to a specific political vision, where the public is more valuable than individuals and freedom is therefore meaningful only when it is used to engage the public activity.
A second theory is the one developed by Jurgen Habermas in his early work “Knowledge and Human Interest”. Habermas shares Arendent’s almost idealistic point of view, but enriches his vision of the public realm with the inclusion of the private sphere, hence introducing in the working activity an actual ground of self-realization and freedom. As a consequence, he extends the limits of the public realm to the media, considered in his view as tools for communication and confrontation. While the public realm for Aredent was an actual place, it now extends in Habermas definition to newspapers, television and radio.
The last approach is represented by the so called “performative school”. This includes the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, sociologist Erving Goffman and writer and sociologist Richard Sennet. Their approach is less political than the previous ones, and it focuses more on cultural issues, raising attention on how the people “perform” in the public realm. In their vision, the more people can psychologically appropriate a space, the more they are free to act, turning architecture into a stage for freedom to be exercised. As a result, smaller scale spaces, with a more private dimensions, are the ones where people are more likely to express themselves freely.
“The public realm can be simply defined as a place where strangers meet. The difference between public and private lies in the amount of knowledge one person or group has about others; in the private realm, as in a family, one knows others well and close up, whereas in a public realm one does not; incomplete knowledge joins to anonymity in the public realm.”
Short history of public and private
To better explain the position of Batman on this very specific topic, it is also crucial to understand how the very notion of private and public have been often reconsidered in history. Major steps have been taken with time and the rules that define our world might not be the ones our ancestors used to have. Apparently, public and private are dynamic concepts.
The feudal economy for example, was based on the system of the commons. The American economist Geremy Rifkin explains it in its book “Zero marginal cost society”.
“In this schema (the feudal economy), property was never exclusively owned, but rather divvied up into spheres of responsibility conforming to a fixed code of proprietary obligations.”
As stated by the Harvard historian Richard Schlatter:
“no one could be said to own the land; everyone from the king down through the tenants and sub-tenants to the peasants who tilled it had a certain dominion over it, but no one had an absolute lordship over it.”
Such a system lasted for more than 700 years, till 1500, when the Enclosure Movement was carried out, enclosing the land and finally turning millions of peasants into free labour agents. Property became exclusive. The causes of this forced privatization of land can be reconnected to the rising demand for food in the expanding cities and the consequential inflationary spiral. Following that, a new wave of enclosures occurred with the beginning of the industrial revolution, between 1760 and 1840. From that specific point, the market economy turned masses of unemployed farmers into industrial workers, and similarly one’s labour became a form of property, to be sold and bought. That process gave rise not only to the modern notion of private property relations operating in the market, but also to a legal system that oversees it. Capitalism and mass society were born.
Another relevant step was taken with the creation of mass communication, which, as mentioned before, can be considered a mean of formation of public opinion, and therefore an active part of the public realm. With mass communication, a transmission of ideas and confrontation was activated into a system that has been empowered and brought to its maximum potential with the creation of social media. Within social media, public life has been transferred into a non-space – a cyber world, where both political act of free confrontation and cultural expressions are empowered.
“The public realm is, more over, a place. Traditionally, this place could be defined in terms of physical ground, which is why discussions of the public realm have been, again traditionally, linked to cities; the public realm could be identified by the squares, major streets, theatres, cafes, lecture hall, government assemblies, or stock exchanges where strangers would be likely to meet. Today, communications technologies have radically altered the sense of place; the public realm can be found in cyber-space as much as physically on the ground.”
What about Batman ?
You might have been wondering for a while now what Batman has to do with this specific topic. The time for answers has come.
First of all Batman is extremely cool and I bet many of you wouldn’t have read this article without him being mentioned.
Secondly Batman in himself is quite a controversial figure. During the day, he’s a rich billionaire, owner of one of the biggest companies in the country. During the night, he fights crime as a super hero, making his city a better place. So on one hand he is an agent of Capitalism, with profit as his only agenda, and on the other, he risks his life for the only purpose of the public good. As Batman, he takes money and resources that were created by the Waine enterprises for a completely different purpose (related exclusively to the good of a few). Using the idealistic approach shared by Habermas and Arendt, as a capitalist, he endangers the most valuable aspects of our society, but at the same time he fights to save them as a hero. Something extremely similar is happening to the public realm.
Let me attempt to explain this better. In the year 2000, Jeremy Rifkin published his book “The age of Access”. In his work he theorized the advent of the Hypercapitalism, a new form of capitalism based not anymore on property and acquisition, but instead on the market of the experience, where temporary access to a wide range of goods is more convenient than possessing just some of them. In other words, you don’t buy CDs anymore, instead you subscribe to Spotify, so you can potentially access all the music available. In the same way, DVDs have been replaced by services such as Netflix and other on demand platforms, which provide a much wider range of choice. The same phenomenon it is happening with cars, clothes and even houses.
It is crucial to understand that such systems work only because there is an enormous amount of users involved. They virtually renounce to possess a certain good in order to share it with others, and at the same time they gain access to goods shared by other users. This process has been proved to be extremely valuable, and moreover is increasing and leading major economic trends, so we can easily assume that it will be even more successful in the future.
Imagine such a condition developed to its extreme potential, where every aspect of our life is shared with different number of users. What would be private at that point? And what would be public? What is happening is that capitalism, brought to its degeneration, it is actually bringing us back to a feudal condition, in which everyone is involved in certain degrees of ownership and usage, but no one is actually owning anything anymore. Capitalism is killing itself; Batman is fixing Bruce Waine’s mistakes. So at this point, more than being distinctively public or private, we should start reconsidering life as a multi-layered entity, where different degrees of publicity are merged together. Therefore, our freedom in performing life (according to the performative school) and our role as part of a community can’t and mustn’t be seen anymore as fixed conditions. They are blurred and temporary, such as they used to be 1000 years ago.
In other words, Batman is saving our ass. Again.