I have just finished reading an interesting book, which is called Political Poloverejnosti [translates as Semi-public Politics]. It is, in its core, a case-study done by an anthropologist, which talks about the destruction of one old cultural center in Pilsen. Its main theme, however, is the clash between narratives and ideological perceptions of reality – old Bolshevik, new neoliberal, progressive and regressive, active and passive and many more. The book’s author, Petra Burzova, tries to uncover, how different groups of people perceive public space differently, and how they express their position by constructing their own personal narrative. I cannot go into the detail here, because author works with different theories and uses methods that are not familiar to me, so let me just point out a few points that struck me as a reader.
What came as the most surprising thing to me, is the author’s ability to connect seemingly unrelated things – political ideologies, narratives, buildings, public space, life experiences and so on. Questions that arose were, for example: What happens when we destroy a building which constitutes the public space? How its absence talks to us? Or, why do we connect revitalization of certain public space with its commercialization?
In the book, we learn about the motives of each one of the actors (politicians, architects, bureaucrats, activists). I liked the fact that the author does not exclude ordinary people. On the contrary, author’s notes on the reactions and emotions observed around the destroyed building open even more questions.
One important thing I have learned is that city inhabitants care more about public space than about the city budget. This fact can be easily exploited by active groups that try to convince people to give them trust in reconstruction of certain public areas. It often leads to further commercialization of public space. Neoliberal discourse, as it seems, is the strongest one to be heard, and cities tend to listen to rich interest groups which promote investment. New shopping malls, supermarkets, and other commercial buildings appear everywhere. In many cases, people accept their passive role, and don’t intervene with interests. What happened in Pilsen was thus unprecedented. Activists were able to mobilize enough people to call for referendum, in which activists defeated developers. As a consequence, public debate remains open, while old ruins of the previously demolished cultural center haunt passers by.
In Olomouc, we used to have an old passenger airplane (!!!) parked near the city center. When it was sold to a private collector, it was an event for the whole city, people went to the streets and took photos, I witnessed that they talked about their memories connected to its location. The whole story was covered in-depth by the local media, including interviews with city representatives and new owner.
What really scares me is that it is a common practice to exclude or ridicule narratives constructed by those people. Their own perceptions and histories are homogenized (often expressed as their abstract desires: They do/don’t want…) and expressed by active groups in order to support their claims. In the end, public debate is no longer public, because it does not take place in public or deals with public opinion. Read the last sentence one more. Citizens turn into a yes/no voters, without having a voice in the debate about the options. And that is an underlying problem in many other areas as well (I wrote about it before).