Sunday, February 15, 2009

Autonomy vs. Empowerment

Do you have a "right" to privacy?

Well, sure, you do... haven't we interpreted the 14th amendment to say that you do (see Roe v. Wade, 1973)?

But that "right" actually requires a fair amount of "privilege" to access. Privacy is often spatially located -- it is perceived to be strongest on "private property" which indicates a need for economic privilege to acquire such a space. Consequently, Nancy Duncan ("Renegotiating Gender and Sexuality in Public and private Space" 1996) calls privacy a "contingent right" rather than an absolute right. Furthermore, privacy is something you can attain only if you can maintain independence. Anyone needing help has proven their dependency and therefore trades away their right to privacy... anyone who requires public assistance, for example.

Can you take privacy out of private space? Well, we certainly have tried to construct a world where you can. You can drive to work in your "private" automobile, you can pee in a private stall or restroom, there are dividers around desks in library study spaces, etc... We also have a host of behaviors (flying under the flag of "good manners") that encourage us to give other people their privacy in public ("don't stare, Johnny").

Privacy is a goal for us because we link it to autonomy. If we can maintain our privacy, we think we can choose our circumstances, control our actions, determine our fate. In order to create a zone of privacy and allow ourselves to think we are autonomous from those around us, we gravitate toward homogeneous, sanitized, exclusionary spaces (in that sense, the more "private" a public space, the more comfortable we feel). They feel orderly and clearly bounded. And the less we encounter the unfamiliar, the disorderly, the heterogeneous, the less likely we are to feel our privacy has been challenged. When our privacy is not intruded upon we feel powerful -- we won't need to ask for anything, we are (we think) autonomous!

This is a rather individualistic approach to life. It is also one that we potentially need to trade away in order to reach a state of actual "empowerment" in the public sphere. To be empowered, to actually participate in democratic decision making, we need to get messy. We need to expose the parts of ourselves and our identities that we hide behind the veil of "privacy" and see these things in others. That means we need to be in messy spaces, where boundaries are challenged -- because it is only when boundaries are crossed that we can clearly see where they are. And it is only when we recognize the boundaries that we can see (and potentially change) how hierarchies of power have been built (and naturalized) into our social spaces.

I'm going back to a familiar theme: Let's degender "public" bathrooms, give up some precious privacy in order to see gender in a new way.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Pink Chaddi

It's time for the annual hubbub over Valentine's Day in India. I'll be wearing my pink knickers on the 14th and hoisting a pint for "hoydenish" women everywhere, how about you?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Theorizing Social Space (week 4)

This week's grad class on "Women and Public Spaces" was pretty cool. The students struggled to get through Hiller and Hansons' The Social Logic of Space (2003), but with a whole lot of prompting/leading/interpreting on my part, they finally got it:

“The global form has not been conceived of or designed by any individual: it has arisen from the independent dynamics of a process that is distributed among a collection of individuals, ” (i.e. a “local rule”). (p. 36) So basically societal rules (etiquette, manners, tradition, custom) followed by discrete entities (individuals) ultimately create the structure of space because those rules are acted out in space.

The example that made it finally work for the students was the cloud of midges.... midges don't have some overarching entity that creates the cloud, rather it is created by each individual in their little space following shared rules (specifically to always keep another midge about so close). But that the midges on the other sides of the cloud are following the same rule creates the physical shape/space of the cloud. That means that the midge on one side is in a spatially concrete and socially bounded relationship with the midge on the other side, even though the two may never meet face to face. The model suggests that there is some coherent whole to social space… a knowable pattern (H & H call this a "morphic language"), a system in which all are connected.

I'm pretty sure our discussions for the next ten weeks are going to include the behavior of little bugs. Time to get out my fly swatter, lest the students wed themselves to this relatively simple and orderly model. Time for them to get good with multiple social systems, transpatial elements, conflicting categories, and other sources of messiness!

Time to revisit Elizabeth Grosz, methinks. Grosz suggests the connection of intersection or space and society is "a fundamentally disunified series of systems and interconnections, a series of disparate flows, energies, events or entities, and spaces, brought together or drawn apart in more or less temporary alignments." ("Bodies-Cities," in Sexuality and Space, Beatriz Colomina, ed., p. 248)