Event as process

Spatialities of Emancipation and the “City of Thresholds”

Stavros Stavrides

Perhaps one of the dominant modern images of emancipated communities presents them as barricaded in a liberated stronghold, always ready to defend themselves. This image, embedded in the collective imaginary of the oppressed, tends to construct geography of emancipation as a map clearly depicting free areas defined by a recognizable perimeter. Either as islands, surrounded by a hostile sea or as continents facing other hostile continents, these areas appear as spatially definable and traceable.

Utopias described through extensive plans of ideal cities are only the most consistent versions of such an imaginary geography of emancipation. There is however nothing inherently emancipating in a well-defined area declared as free. Modern utopias, starting from those of the so-called utopian socialists, were conceived as harmonious communities inhabiting well-ordered cities with regulated mechanisms of production and distribution of goods. As Foucault remarks, considering Godin’s familistere, there is no architecture of freedom, as there are no liberating machines (Foucault 1982). Familistere could become a well intended, however terrifyingly effective panopticon. Conceiving emancipation as being contained in specific spaces and attempting to imagine emancipatory mechanisms through spatially embedded regulations, eventually reduces emancipation to a localizable essence. True, emancipation has to do with a radical transformation of the existing social worlds. To locate it however in the image of a totally absent site (absent spatially as well as temporally) means to accept a kind of spatializing ethics: What is outside of the evil existent is by definition unpolluted, purely “other”.

Emancipation however, is a process not an essence, if we find it crucial to differentiate it from the religious image of a happy afterlife. Emancipation is the ambiguous actuality of spatially as well as historically dispersed struggles. There may be potentially liberating practices, however there can be no fixed areas of freedom.

Could we then perhaps visualize spatialities of emancipation by considering those appeals for social justice which focus on the use of space? Spatial justice, in this context, could indicate a distribution principle that tends to present space as a good to be enjoyed by all. Accessibility can become one of the most important attributes of spatial justice. Any division, separation or partitioning of space appears then as obstructing this kind of justice. True, an emphasis on spatial justice may establish the importance collective decision making has for the social as well as the physical definition of space. This imaginary geography of emancipation however, has to understand space as a uniform continuum to be regulated by common will rather than as an inherently discontinuous and differentiated medium that gives form to social practices. In a somewhat crude form, this imaginary could end up completely reducing space to a quantity to be equally distributed. And accessibility might end up being some kind of distributing mechanism. We can actually connect this way of understanding spatialities of emancipation with contemporary discourses on human rights or human communicability. More often than not, these discourses presuppose some kind of transhistorical and trangeographical human figure. The same kind of human figure becomes the subject of spatial justice, only this time such a figure is not viewed as the inhabitant of an ideal city any more but rather as the free-moving occupant of a homogeneous spatiality.

A different kind of geographical imaginary has emerged out of a criticism for this idealized view for a just city (or a city of justice). Sometimes drawing images from contemporary city-life, this imaginary focuses on multiplicity and diversity, as well as on possible polymorphous and mutating spaces, as a means to describe a spatiality of emancipation. Strong roots support this view. A critique of everyday life and everydayness, already put forward during the 60’s, has provided us with a new way to deal with the social experience of space. If everyday life is not only the locus of social reproduction but also contains practices of self- differentiation or personal and collective resistance, molecular spatialities of otherness can be found scattered in the city. As de Certeau has put it, “a migrational, or metaphorical, city slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city” (de Certeau, 1984:93). True, this image contains a view of inhabited spatiality as a process rather than as a condition. Spaces of otherness proliferate in the city due to diversifying or deviating practices. Spatialities of otherness thus become inherently time-bound. At the same time, space is neither reduced to a container of otherness (idealized in utopian cities) nor to a contestable and distributable good. Space is actually conceptualized as a formative element of human social interaction. Space thus becomes expressive through use, or, rather, because use (“style of use” as de Certeau specifies) defines users. If an idealized version of spatial justice tends to invoke common rights in order to define space as common good, an emphasis on spatialized molecular otherness tends to posit space as dispersed and diversified therefore not common. Emancipating spatialities, in such a view, would be dispersed spatialities of otherness. Discontinuous and inherently differentiated space gives ground to differing social identities allowed thus to express themselves. Essentially connected with identity polities this geographical imaginary “tends to emphasize situatedness” (Harvey 1996: 363) as a prerequisite of identity formation.

Identities, however, may rather be the form that social discrimination actually takes. A social inculcation of human interaction patterns is always the scope of social reproduction. Inhabited space, in societies that lack “the symbolic-product-conserving techniques associated with literacy”, is, according to Bourdieu, the principal locus of this inculcation of dispositions (Bourdieu, 1977:89). Inhabited space though, seems to have resumed this role in post-industrial societies, not because people have become less dependent on formalized education but because city life has become the educational system par-excellence. A wide variety of em-bodied reactions are learnt through using metropolitan space. Identifying oneself means being able to deal expressively with the risks and opportunities of city life. Where someone is allowed to be and how he or she confirms to spatial instructions of use is indicative of his or her social identity. Space identifies and is identified through use.

A contemporary liberating effort may indeed seek “not to emancipate an oppressed identity but [rather] to emancipate an oppressed non-identity” (Holloway, 2002:156). If social reproduction is enforcing identity formation, an emancipating struggle might be better directed against those mechanisms that reduce humans to circumscribed and fixed identities. Spaces of emancipation should then differ from identity-imposing and identity-reproducing spaces. Space as identity (and identity as space) presupposes a clearly demarcated domain. Space as the locus of non-identity (which means relational identity, multifarious identity, open identity) has to be, on the contrary loosely determined space, space of transition.

Societies have long known the ambiguous potentialities of these spaces. Anthropologists have provided us with many examples of spaces that characterize and house periods of ritualized transition from one social position or condition to another. What Van Gennepp has described as “rites of passage” (Van Gennepp 1960) are ritual acts connected with spaces that symbolize those transitions (from childhood to adolescence, from single to married life, from the status of the citizen to that of the warrior or the hunter). Ritual acts aim, above all, to ensure that an intermediary experience of non-identity (Turner 1977), necessary for the passage from one social identity to another, will not threaten social reproduction. Through the mediation of purification rites or guardian gods, societies supervise spaces of transition, because those spaces symbolically mark the possibility of deviation or transgression.

Liminality, however, this experience of temporarily occupying an in-between territory as well as an in-between non-identity, can provide us with a glimpse of a spatiality of emancipation. Creating in-between spaces, might mean creating spaces of encounter between identities instead of spaces characteristic of specific identities. When Simmel was elaborating on the character of door and bridge as characteristic human artifacts, he was pointing out that “the human being is the connecting creature who must always separate and cannot connect without separating”(Simmel 1997:69). This act of recognizing a division only to overcome it without however aiming to eliminate it, might become emblematic of an attitude that gives to differing identities the ground to negotiate and realize their interdependence. Emancipation may thus be conceived not as the establishing of a new collective identity but rather as the establishing of the means to negotiate freely between emergent identities (‘freely’ only means without corroborating pre-existing asymmetries). Difference thus is not connected to privilege but to potentiality.

In-between spaces are spaces to be crossed. Their existence is depended upon their being crossed, actually or virtually. It is not however crossings as guarded passages to well-defined areas that should interest us. More it is about crossroads, thresholds connecting separated potential destinations. The spatiality of threshold can represent the limit of a spatiotemporal experience that becomes the operating principle of a network of places. A “city of thresholds” might be the term to describe such a spatial network that provides opportunities of encounter, exchange and mutual recognition. Those spaces of encounter are the alternative to a culture of barriers, a culture that defines the city as an agglomeration of identifying enclaves. Thresholds, by replacing check points that control access through interdictions or everyday “rites of passage”, provide the ground for a possible solidarity between different people allowed to regain control over their lives.

Those spaces essentially differ from the non-places Auge describes (Auge 1995). No matter how temporary or general, the identities imposed in non-places are effective in reducing human life to the rules of contemporary society. “Transit identities” are nonetheless identities. And, most importantly, these identities do not result from negotiations between equals. Intermediary spaces can be the locus of an emancipating culture only when people assume the risk of accepting otherness as a formative element of their identities. Social experiences of this kind have been actualized in various social and historical settings. Carnivalesque transgressions flooding the streets of a city have sometimes resulted in carnival riots: social acts of appropriating the city as a network of passages belonging to nobody and everybody. During the short-lived Paris Commune or the days of Chile’s Unidad Popular we had acts of establishing public space as space of encounters between emancipated otherness. Communards or Chilean pobladores as today’s Argentinian piqueteros or anti-global demonstrators actually produced threshold spaces and not only strongholds to be defended. Zapatistas, in their long march for dignity, were also creating intermediary spaces of liberation, spaces temporally inhabited by those invisible and suppressed others. Their acts might point to an emerging historical awareness that could even redefine historical time as “homogeneous, empty time” (Benjamin, 1992:252) but as full of ruptures and turning points, thresholds representing opportunities of radical change.

W. Benjamin has well understood the power thresholds have to compare differing adjacent areas as well as different adjacent periods in history. His liberating profane Messiah was to appear in those thresholds in historic time. And his redeeming of modernity’s liberating potential was connected with the illuminating knowledge of thresholds embodied in the flaneur as a metropolitan archeologist. A redeemed potentially emancipating metropolis emerges as indeed a city of thresholds. Paris Arcades, those ambiguous spatial passages were to become, in Benjamin’s thought, emblematic of a collectively dreamt future trapped in modern phantasmagoria.

Indeed, emancipation as a process and not as a state is potentially emerging in spaces and times opened towards radical otherness. After all, what we need is bridges, crossings, passages to a different future. And if spatialities of emancipation may be envisaged as thresholds to otherness, then it is by inhabiting and creating thresholds that, to use Benjamin’s words, “revolution will disenchant the city” (Benjamin, 1999: M3,3).


Auge, M. 1995 Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso.
Benjamin, W. 1992 “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Illuminations, London: Fontana Press.
Benjamin, W. 1999 The Arcades Project, Cambridge Ma.: Belknap Press.
Bourdieu, P.1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge U.P..
Certeau, M. de 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, M. 1982 “Space, Knowledge and Power” (interview with P. Rabinow), Skyline.
Harvey, D. 1996 Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, Oxford: Blackwell.
Holloway, J. 2002 Change the World Without Taking Power, London: Pluto Press.
Simmel, G. 1997 “Bridge and Door” in Rethinking Architecture, N. Leach (ed.), London: Routledge.
Turner, V. 1977 The Ritual Process, Ithaka: Cornell U.P.
Van Gennep, A. 1960 The Rites of Passage, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Paper presented at the 4th International Conference of Critical Geography, Session 2 Geographical concepts in action, City of Mexico, 2005.

Dr. Stavros Stavrides is associate professor at the School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens Greece, where he teaches a graduate course on social housing, as well as a postgraduate course on the meaning of metropolitan experience. He has published five books (as well as numerous articles) on spatial theory:
The Symbolic Relation to Space (Athens, 1990), Advertising and the Meaning of Space (Athens, 1996), The Texture of Things (Athens, 1996), From the City-as-Screen to the City-as-Stage (Athens, 2002 National Book Award), Suspended Spaces of Alterity (2010) and Towards the City of Thresholds (In English, 2010).

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