Staying Together Apart: The public sphere, pandemic and home

A blurred and washed-out photograph of a person in winter clothes standing by a lake-side

by Shane Finan

1. Home is the pivot of life

We create our places by giving them identities. We know the shop on the corner, and the family that has run it for generations. We remember the cracked paint on the footpath outside. We love the smell of the flowers on the windowsill of our neighbour’s house. We recognise the tree with the twisted trunk that we used to climb when we were children. These elements help to create our sense of ‘place’, or how we understand the world around us.

A home-place is a particularly important place in every person’s life. Home, whether it is a house, an apartment, a tent or just a marker in the ground, is a “pivot” of life: ‘We go to all kinds of places but return home’ [1]. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been asked to stay home. For those of us lucky enough to remain healthy, this is an opportunity to gain a better sense of our places. Regardless of where we find ourselves, in an urban or rural area, at home or stuck on a terminal holiday, a sense of place can be formed by becoming familiar with the sights, sounds, smells and patterns of the place we find ourselves in.

With the strange, subdued chaos of the pandemic, the security and refuge of home has new importance. Theorist Maria Lewicka describes home as ‘a symbol of continuity and order, rootedness, self-identity, attachment, privacy, comfort, security and refuge’[2]. Home is the first and most central place that we come to understand. We form our understanding of all other places from this one: by going from and returning to home. The continuity and order of home contrasts with any chaos, disorder or unknowns in the outside world.

Other places can also create a sense of coherence and order. Public places, like parks and libraries, can be meeting points for people to share ideas and information. They are expected to work for public benefit. During COVID-19, much of this information sharing has moved online, but people still stay connected.

Exploring the idea of public space in a time when the public are restricted is a strange thing to undertake, but it is also a good reminder of the importance of a life-after-pandemic, of the reopening of public spaces, and of why we should value them. So I introduce the third video from this project, about the public sphere and private land, and how we are better together than apart:

2. Places as Connectors

In a network, a node connects two points. In a forest,  “maternal” or mother trees are central nodes. These trees are generally large, old growth trees connected under the soil to a huge arrays of nearby plants and fungi, through the wood-wide web (see my previous post/video).

In the public sphere, nodes are people.  The central node is the place (the liberty tree, the café, or another site). The place provides the possibility of flow of the message, just as the mother tree receives a message of warning then divvies it up between nearby plants. In a society enabled by Zoom meetings and Facebook groups, the idea of public space may seem diminished, but public space is more important than just being a meeting point – it is a central node.

If the chain of nodes is broken, issues can occur. A loss of a mother tree in a forest leaves other trees disconnected and therefore vulnerable to disease or starvation. A loss of a public sphere has similar effects for people. After the 2008 financial crash, when the Occupy movement began, people spread messages through online media and organised in physical places; when the places were removed, the groups dispersed. Similarly, when Facebook first became the phenomenon of the Web 2.0 world, people flocked there for information, sharing, and collective unity (including helping to organise the Occupy movement). As Facebook gained more data on users, the algorithms that were built by the company became more astute at directing advertisements to specific people, creating echo chambers [3].

The forest is divided.

The people are divided.

The trees compete for growth.

The people compete for growth.

The public sphere is far from a perfect idea. But it does support the idea of nodes, the transfer of information, and a maintenance of collective action. Two nodes do not have to agree, but by bringing them together, they can at least understand.

Networks are based on place. This is true of forests and of communities of people. People bring ideas to central places, and without the available places, people can become disconnected

3. Private Land and Commonage

After World War II, private ownership of land was touted as an idea of freedom, and public spaces began to disappear. Purchase of public spaces by private bodies (companies, individuals) led to an erosion of the public sphere. News began to be directed from centralised sources (newspapers, television, radio).

Commons are spaces that are owned publicly, where people are free to use land as they wish. However, commons need rules. Problems can surface in commons like over-grazing of land when individuals had too many animals [4][5]. Systems of rules have been proposed to ensure commonage is not misused, and in some places have been applied successfully, albeit this requires all people using the commons to agree on the specified use [6][7].

A clever rethinking of an old saying was proposed by lawyer Janelle Orsi: ‘ Social movements benefit from slogans, so I’ll offer one to the next economy: “Trees don’t grow on money.”’ [8]. Orsi proposes a three-tier legal structure for a new commons: caring, sharing and sufficiency. Just as with the healthy forest:

  • Caring: Looking after the young and sick.
  • Sharing: mutualism between species and creatures.
  • Sufficiency: working from a basis of needs, not desires.

In an interesting connection between people and forests, much of what we know about commons law dates to the Magna Carta and its companion document, the Charter of the Forest. An emphasis in these documents was placed on need, not desire, on sustainability, not growth [9]. These principles are important factors in encouraging common participation and citizenship, as well as in ensuring sustainable stewardship of forests and other lands.

Participation, citizenship and stewardship are all key to retaining forest and community. The Church Forests of Ethiopia is a recent video and essay in Emergence Magazine that illustrates this connectivity of people and nature. It shows the maintenance of forests in Ethiopia through how the community maintains forests as part of the sacred church-land. The film and essay illustrate the stewardship of the commons, particularly when the stark surrounding arid farmland is revealed in the footage.

The division of public land creates patterns of difference, separating people and places out from one another

4. Latent Commons and the Global-Local

Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing proposes the idea of the ‘latent commons’ as a part of the world driven on “progress” in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World [10]. The latent commons provide a possible concept for communities that want to build projects beyond the negative impacts of climate change or industrial capitalism. The activation of these latent commons are an essential factor in any future that we can perceive – without activating people we risk a type of grassroots activism that remains grassroots, that cannot grow into forests.

Tsing saw how the latent commons were operating in the international trade of matsutake mushrooms. She shows how, despite contributing to a pseudo-capitalist economy, the forest-based economy of matsutake trade owes as much to “gift culture” as to international economic trade. The matsutake market is simultaneously commonage in action and mock capitalism, something she presents as a type of proof against the material aims of a progress-driven society.

One potential way of developing commons is to activate people in an attachment to place. The relationship between people and place forms a bond that heightens personal involvement in one’s own environment, and understanding of the environment as a connected whole. By taking responsibility for local environmental restoration, for example, a farther reaching goal of activation of people is possible. Former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson chose to write about different but connected community activations in local regions in Africa, Canada and Europe, showing how local action can lead to global participation [11].

Viewing both global and local together is the only way to view either commonage or environment. Any belief that an area can be ‘fenced off’ or privatised in any way is fraught with contradiction – it is only through the complex frame of a local/global worldview that a public sphere, or a healthy ecology, can work.

To recognise that we are part of a connected network will help with engaging, or re-engaging with place

5. Art and Place-Making

Art has been used to make connections with place in the past. Art provides a base level of cultural togetherness that forms connectivity and creates an identity of place [12]. Artworks and artists can inspire rural populations in particular to reach toward collective goals [13].

There has been recent research showing how community development can be spearheaded by artistic projects. For example, art can inspire a type of collaborative governance that re-engages the idea of the commons [14]. Like the historical liberty trees, art can provide a space for engagement and conversation, opening up opportunities for networks of people who live in broad but similar areas. Like the forest networks, these collaborative and symbiotic relationships are based on familiarity of place, and can result in better communication and happiness through a sense of place.

Artists can contribute to this creation of commons, and do, through community-based interventions that develop a sense of place [15]. One example, Grizedale Arts, are an ‘experimental organisation, generating cultural activity of all kinds at a local, national and international level’. They follow this line of community intervention in local and international workshops promoting self-sufficiency. They tour their artistic practices to different spaces, creating a sense of global/local by showing how engagement in self, and creation of a place (such as an artwork or a community garden) can together create a more coherent and collaborative community.

Other major projects see this from top-down. The Art Ii bienniale in Finland encourages carbon neutral artworks that respond to the environment at a local and global level. The Kielderhead Wildwood Project recognise the benefits of engaging in a residency programme with artists, writers and designers. Artist in residence programmes can benefit communities by providing the experienced perspective of an artist as place-maker offering new perspectives on a community or place.

The final piece in this puzzle is public engagement. How can commons be built by citizens: place is not enough. There has to be a forum or platform for direct public engagement. Here, technology can play a leading role. We have already learned to communicate through technology, but our methods of communication have taken some turns over the past thirty years. To restore digital platforms of communication to user control is one way of encouraging a type of commons-based democracy.

But the choice of technology, and how it is used, is important. We cannot produce more echo chambers, more disconnected nodes. We have to stay home right now, but we can also communicate away from home; how we choose to do that might influence everything after the pandemic.

I will explore this more in the next post, on technology networks.



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