Let’s not be poetic. Public space in capitalist culture is that which has no profit potential because it is not privately owned.
“Public” and “space” both come from the Latin of the Roman Republic. Men gathered in a public space to express their sovereignty by debating issues and voting.
Public means “of the people.” Space is more amorphous. It implies just “there,” an area or extent, but also a stretch of time. Limits are embedded in the idea of space. It is provisional—it is only so large; it doesn’t last forever.
Public space is especially provisional in capitalist culture. As an ideal, it is core to democracy. In reality, it is external to the system of value, constantly vulnerable to conversion to profitable use.
But public space still plays an essential role in capitalism. Because it is external to value, public space becomes the repository of all things that the actors of capitalism consider worthless—what they want removed from their equations. In other words waste, pollution. Economists call these “externalities.”
The open ocean is public space. The air is public space. The climate is public space. See how they are all trashed?
The medical profession considers the human digestive tract from mouth to anus to be external. It takes in the outside world. You have a tube of public space running through the center of your body.
You also have police. The tiny universe of bacteria swirling in your guts makes sure that bad stuff doesn’t cross the border into your body.
But isn’t it clear that borders are porous? The limits of space are illusion. Space itself is an abstract concept, developed to handle other abstractions like public and private, property and ownership.
In the world where we live as organisms, abstractions melt with the increasing heat of our climate. Where will you live besides here?
Your police cannot protect you. Bacteria recognize threats they evolved with, not substances created in the last sixty years. The outside floods in—through your lungs, your gut, your skin.
Wealth also cannot protect you. Certainly, the wealthy have always channeled their waste toward the bodies of the poor. But industrial chemicals touch every corner of the planet. You probably have a few hundred of them circulating through your bloodstream—gasoline byproducts, pesticides, plastic additives.
No high enough fence exists. But I could think about a different response. Public space is where revolutions happen—the streets of Paris, the march on Washington, Tahrir Square.
I could start here, at the center of my body. What if I understood myself, and everyone I love, as part public space? A dumping ground for the externalities of capitalism?
Doesn’t that make me grounds for a revolution? Wouldn’t I want to transform the very concept of value, which means “price equal to the intrinsic worth of a thing,” but comes from the Latin word for strength and well-being? Wouldn’t I want to take the most radical care of everything we share?
ALLISON COBB is a poet and writer working on a book called Plastic: an autobiography that involves collecting and labeling plastic she finds in public spaces.