Space in Political Theory

In chapter 2 of David Fleming’s City of Rhetoric, he contends that contemporary political theory largely ignores physical place in its conception of the Citizen. In this conception, the citizen is viewed as one in a sea of spaceless, homogenous entities. Fleming posits that modern advancement, rather than leading to the rapid de-spatialization of politics, has in fact reaffirmed the importance of space and place in the public. In view of this, past theories must be responded to in order to confront our shifting reality.

Fleming claims that the societies of Athens in its height, Venice, Genoa, and early Rome are the manifestations of Republicanism in its purest practical form. It is a temporal and geographic representation of the State in which the highest virtue and greatest responsibility of the individual is the active participation of the citizen in civic life. In fact, this is crucial as the political arguments of the individual are meant to steer society as a whole in new directions. This theory can no longer be wholly applied to any current society as it largely runs antithetical to what we now identify as the human right to act as an individual rather than a servant of the “common good.”

Liberalism would argue that societal direction and individual freedom comes not from argument and political action, but rather from laws, institutions, and procedures. The most salient objective of the individual is not participation in civic life, but enrichment and happiness in private life. A republican citizen works for the common good while the liberal one works toward their own ends.

Both of these theories maintain the importance of place in society. In a Republic, space is a small community in which all citizens are familiar with their fellow community-members. Life occurs in the public arena of forums, parks, squares, and stages. The conception of individual life is constant public discourse by which to ensure collective self-governing of the society by ethical and interested citizens. The spatial aspect of liberalism is private. It occurs in homes, at jobs, and in the pursuit of personal interests. This means that the places of liberal societies are insulated from its politics rather than guiding it.

Fleming argues that neither of these theories quite explain the postmodern societies in which we now live. Fleming believes that interconnection and intersectionality is the spatial aspect of today. This is the phenomenon of the network, decentralized yet interacting horizontally and vertically in a flexible structure of shifting and changing parts. It is the pivot to the digital age that brings the network into society. Fleming identifies three key spatial features of this new era: globalization, diaspora, and multipositionality. Globalization is the movement of entities across the points of a network. In the physical world this entails the global transfer of information as well as capital, labor, and products. Diaspora is the constant shift in demographics as migrants and tourists attain relative ease of access across the world. Multipositionality is the shift to identity as being varied and contradictory within each individual. This revolution in the components of society requires an equally revolutionary theoretical framework with which to understand it.

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