Section 12: Democratic Prospects and Possibilities

Susan Saegert “Restoring Meaningful Subjects and ‘Democratic Hope’ to Psychology” [2013]

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari “Rhizome” [1987]

Lila Abu‐Lughod “Living the ‘Revolution’ in an Egyptian Village: Moral Action in a National Space” [2012]

Michael Sorkin “Traffic in Democracy” [1999]

Roger Hart “Containing Children: Some Lessons on Planning for Play from New York City” [2002]

The readings in this volume have looked at many aspects of environmental experience, raising questions about how space and place are produced, and how this can be done in more just and equal ways. When scholars and activists speak, write, and take actions for social and spatial justice, they argue for processes, practices, and places that are more open, accessible, and democratic. Arriving at the end of this book, it is intriguing to think about the future of our social and spatial relationships. What alternatives might exist to the spaces and places we currently experience? What do we believe spaces and experiences should be like?

As the previous section highlighted ways in which we can imagine spatial alternatives, this final section gathers together writings that analyze or suggest ways in which spaces and places may become more democratic and open to transformation. These selections show how space and place are not innate but emerge through contingent ideas, structures, and practices. The process of making and remaking places confirms our agency and responsibility in producing spaces—both material and imagined—that emphasize equality, justice, and democracy. While each of these authors has a distinct point of view, two main threads that tie these readings together are their belief in democratic praxis, and an acceptance of life as an open and dynamic process.

Susan Saegert begins this section by arguing for a pragmatic approach to life grounded in first-hand experience and emotional engagement with the world. As an environmental psychologist and urban scholar, Saegert suggests that individual subjectivity is constructed relationally and serves as the basis for democratic openness. For her, pragmatism, as articulated by the psychologist and philosopher John Dewey, represents an approach to democracy that allows for continual reassessment based on the experiences and interactions of people. Pragmatism indicates a set of values that are not fixed, and a process of living that remains receptive to new information, experience, and knowledge. Tying together the work of Kurt Lewin and Pierre Bourdieu, Saegert looks at how individuals’ lifespace (Lewin’s term) or habitus (Bordieu’s term) shape social situations and experiences of place. She argues that living in a pragmatic way would open up our structured selves to uncertainty, participation, and the cultivation of democratic communities and material worlds.

Similar to the open-endedness advocated by pragmatism, contingent and emergent relations form the crux of the theories of social theorist Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari. Indeed, many scholars place them in a line of thought that extends back to Dewey. They go further to claim that producing true democracy and democratic space necessitates rethinking power relations, and challenge us to consider how society can be reworked without hierarchical relationships. They argue that our current social arrangement is like a tree, or a book, that is uni- directional and fails to account for the multiplicity of connections people make. Deleuze and Guattari’s alternative develops the metaphor of the rhizome, an organism that grows horizontally and sends shoots out in many directions. The authors suggest that rhizomatic assemblages allow for lines of flight—radical leaps that allow escape from confining structures—and moments termed plateaus when and where multiple actors and paths converge to create intensified periods of experience or production. Deleuze and Guattari imagine that these possibilities emerge within the existing social system, and in doing so they disrupt and eventually kill off old systems of capitalist hegemony, allowing for the development of more equal social and spatial relationships.

The revolutions and uprisings of the Arab Spring are examples of what Deleuze and Guattari would call plateaus. Lila Abu-Lughod uses these moments of democratic protest and possibility to trace the implications and hopes in North Africa and the Middle East. Using an anthropological approach to examine the experiences of rural village life in Egypt, she shows how patterns there are tied to national issues being contested in urban areas. Abu-Lughod indicates how the use of social media like Facebook, which was successfully employed in national demonstrations, has other consequences in remote villages. Because people are known personally, they can become victims of brutality or, more positively, they can voice their ideas, establish practical agendas, and ameliorate the conditions of people with whom they are familiar. She cautions that what may seem indirect, anonymous, and philosophical is really personal, local, and lived, and should be taken into account during periods of political change. Abu-Lughod’s analysis is useful in understanding how places and social relations are co-produced, as well as the patterns that may resist or propel social transformation.

Urban planner and designer Michael Sorkin is also interested in the patterns that structure social relations and how they may be undone. He argues that traffic is a good way to understand the landscape as well as social relations in the US under contemporary capitalism. The system of highways and the system of capitalism both benefit from the smooth flow of people, products, and information, and numerous institutions work hard to segregate people and reduce conflict for the benefit of speed. However, Sorkin argues, the human character of places begins with face-to-face interactions, which introduce what he terms friction. Friction, often experienced bodily through accidents and encounters, slows things down and can bring difference into these uniform systems. The friction of difference—extending the work of Iris Marion Young (Section 7)—allows for communities to develop through processes of interaction and engagement. Sorkin suggests that in the construction of cities and spaces, the role of the body in democracy be reconsidered to emphasize experiences that bring people into contact with each other.

To conclude this volume, geographer Roger A. Hart returns us to one of the most basic relationships between people and place: the spaces of childhood play. Hart raises important questions about why people play and argues that providing appropriate space and resources for play is necessary for children’s physical and psychological development. More significantly, he suggests that childhood play is the basis of democratic society. Like John Dewey (1997), Hart contends that democracy develops through social and interactive processes, beginning in childhood. The ability to play freely, finding challenges and negotiating conflicts, is fundamental to a society that wants its citizens to be engaged, thoughtful, and creative participants in that society. Hart leaves us wondering how to support the creation of democracy in the making of spaces and places, and who today’s children will grow up to be.

While spaces and social practices should support and embody democratic openness, there are many forms and directions this may take, and many ways of framing these arguments. In addition to the authors included in this section, and all of those in this volume, there are a variety of research and design projects to guide us toward thinking and living more democratically. Philosophers Suzanne Langer (1942) and Hannah Arendt (1998) have contributed to understanding democracy and meaning-making through processes of public engagement and spatial experience. David Harvey’s work, including the seminal Social Justice and the City, is insightful and instructive for the way in which it spatializes ideas of justice through Marxist analysis. Developmental psychologist Donald Winnicott (2005) and psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton (1981) have looked at play and its physicality in the making of growing selves as well as the transactions with things and places we cultivate to become the selves we strive to be.

Many designers and artists have developed methods and examples that challenge the spatial status quo. Jeremy Till is an English architect who argues for more contingent spatial processes and relations, and has helped put together a very useful book and website of alternative design practices called Spatial Agency (see Awan et al. 2011). Samuel Mockbee was the founder of Rural Studio, an architecture program that advocates for citizen architects and emphasizes a participatory approach to community building (1998; also see Douglas 2010). Nato Thompson (2012) and the Creative Time gallery in New York City have put together exhibitions and publications that highlight socially engaged art projects. This list is by no means conclusive, but perhaps a useful starting point. The writers included here encourage you to look for ways to live and make our world a more open and equitable place, and to find support in the things you have read here.

– reproduced from Gieseking, J.J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, & S. Saegert (eds.). 2014. The People, Place, & Space Reader. New York: Routledge.


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Fine, Michelle. 2001. “Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a Maximum Security Prison.” Available online at

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Ghannam, Farha. 2002. Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Haraway, Donna J. 1990. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, pp. 149–181. New York: Routledge.

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Langer, Susanne K. 1942. Philosophy in a New Key; A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Martín-Baró, Ignacio. 1996. Writings for a Liberation Psychology, edited by Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mockbee, Samuel. 1998. “The Rural Studio.” In The Everyday and Architecture, edited by Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till, pp. 72–79. New York: Academy Press.

Shiffman, Ron, Rick Bell, Lance Jay Brown, and Lynne Elizabeth (eds). 2012. Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space. New York: New Village Press.

Soja, Edward W. 2010. Seeking Spatial Justice. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Thompson, Nato (ed.). 2012. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991–2011. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 2004. Democracy in America. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Literary classics of the United States.

Winnicott, Donald W. 2005. Playing and Reality. New York: Routledge.

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