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Renewed Spaces of the Re-Public

Since March 2020, Covid-19 induced lockdown has led to forced human enclosures with highly regulated and restricted spaces or assertive mobility in India. Therefore the ‘social animal’ became ‘caged’ in a space, in related mobility. The television visuals of millions of migrant workers travelling back via National Highways or Indian Railways to their ‘own spaces’ or rural societies are still fresh in our memories. Indian diaspora frantically urging Indian Government for liaising with foreign country governments for their safe return to their ‘own space’ or India could be remembered with visuals of news clippings showing Vande Mission flights chartered by Air India. However in both of these visuals one thing which sought my attention was the spaces and mobilities that constituted what India is i.e. Highways, Railways and Airways all managed and governed by the Republic of India. And for the same reason the ‘Public’ could be seen using the spaces and mobilities of the ‘Republic’ that have been created by them and for them. The ‘public-ness’ rests upon the spaces of the re-public. Hence the lockdown phase created a social phenomenon that paved way for a renewed debate on the question of the public-ness of the geographies and associated spatial mobilities that have been, over the years, contested for altered and mediated governance.

Spaces and spaces led mobilities owned by and for the public have always played an important role whether in social emergencies or in daily rituals of the society. Whether accommodating millions of children as their playground or providing crucial spaces of earning their livelihoods for millions of street vendors. These public spaces are also home to unaccounted animals, indigenous flora & fauna who do not have access to any formalized and institutionalized care. The public spaces in cities have played an important role in providing that ‘personal space’ to some members of the society who have been left out of the progression of the urban development which Whyte termed as the Street Corner Society (1955). These public spaces have been also instrumental in developing the sense of ‘Indian-ness’ during India’s independence movement when political public meetings and rallies developed ‘Indian Public-Political Consciousness’. Therefore if we are living free in an independent country, one should also remember the role of such public spaces and the related mobilities i.e. peoples mobilization towards attaining freedom.

However these spaces are larger public spaces for example cities, railways highways and airways and related mobilities. Many sociological studies have been done on these spaces. Varied social relations among social institutions and the people have been studied in the backdrop of these public spaces. However none of these studies have been done during the Covid-19 lockdown or similar social situations. There have been no such study on the formation and sustenance of public spaces in the absence of the public. Many of the practicing sociologists could argue that such studies cannot take place due to highly restricted movements during forced state governed shutdown. Yes I agree that such large public spaces could be difficult to study in a lockdown, however a microcosm of such large spaces could be studied during the lockdown i.e. a neighbourhood.

Public spaces have been developed for the public and its use therefore a space is socially produced (Lefebvre 1974). However if people are not using these large public spaces during the lockdown, the relevance of these social spaces diminish temporarily, and spatial mobility is confined to a smaller space i.e. neighbourhood. Therefore the large public spaces and its forms were seen to be reproduced in the neighbourhood during the lockdown phase. As a sociologist I am interested in identifying these processes of formation, any rupture in the existing spatial value of semi-private, semi-public space (neighbourhood) and the response of this space-using people to a renewed form of public space within the realm of private space.

During the initial lockdown phase, when the physical movement was highly restricted, the sense of our regular mobility was felt more of a repetitive linear dimension like movement from home to space of work and back, from home to school/university and back. Such a cartographic imagery also forced us to ponder over our repetitive daily spatial transitions in our daily lives. This could be similar to mathematical construction of spatial meaning. (Bochner 2014). Such a geometric or calculative understanding of a space as mere geographic in nature was Platonic in concept i.e. separation of space (forms) from objects (space using people) as an ‘other worldly’. And the same sense of mathematical understanding of our ‘social’ space could be seen transformed into social media memes depicting micro forms of maps of our homes (private spaces) and these visual media contents did not take much time to become viral on social media platforms. Therefore with such perspectives and virtual realizations it seemed that space truly had produced society.

However I would not completely agree with this ‘renewed’ sense of spatial determination. In fact I would seek help of the successor of platonic understanding of space, i.e. Aristotelian perspective of space, which posits, the production of objects (people & social relations) and production of space is a parallel process. Aristotelian framework critiqued Platonic conception of space of ‘sensible world’ (world perceived through senses) as a ‘replica’ of the world of ‘forms’ (social structure) only and thus Aristotle emphasized on the assemblage of forms embodied in particular objects which in turn construct forms. Therefore it would not be right to say people ‘sense’ is just a reproduction of social structures. Therefore ‘people’ or space using people are an important intermediary between forms or social structures and social action. Therefore Aristotelian perspective brings people and social structure at par and brings in the argument of space (space using society) creates social actors and in turn social actors create society and social structures (Ramo 1999). Hence the perception of space something ‘other worldly’ and above social actors could be rejected which also sensed by the people during the lockdown in the process of transforming its neighbourhood as a functional microcosm of large public spaces. Therefore, this realization of spatial-social formation has opened a new array of studying and interpreting society and space especially the epistemological question of do cognitive faculties construct space or space construct cognitive faculties?

Before the lockdown there was a natural emphasis more on defining the existence of the physicality of the space (infrastructural-world) and less on the social space. For the same reason there was a tendency to believe the existence of only ‘one world’ or the physical space that human senses could directly experience and therefore spaces for example in cities were considered to be defined by the master plans and therefore a spatial usage was predetermined and less emphasis or lesser realization was given on the process of production of social space. However contrary to this understanding, it is the space-using people who give real meaning to a space even if the usage has been predetermined. This could be understood from the example of ‘Ghost Cities’ of China. These new cities were planned and space usage was fixed however these urban spaces soon failed due to only few people shifted to these cities, resulting desertions of these urban projects by the people and later by the state as well. Therefore space is socially produced and socially sustained.

Also, it would not be wrong to suggest human senses or cognitive faculties were also facilitated by the existence of ‘socially managed’ physical space around i.e. the world around us. All of the human societies exist on the physical space called earth however it is due to this physical existence of earth further formed into socially managed & people-using societal space that humans carry out their daily life rituals and thus sustain their societies for sensing the world around them. Therefore it could be said that because of this socially managed physical space we could approach the world around us by exercising our senses. Therefore our senses are socially managed space dependent.

When we speak of space we cannot neglect motion. A meaning of space is considered in context of mobility from one point to the other, in that particular space. Thus motion is defined as the change in position of an object over time, or in simple terms mobility. However in initial phase of lockdown, strict measures were taken by the state and local administration to enforce shutdown curtailing mobility of people or mobility enabling spaces like highways, railways and airways. And for the same reason the meaning (value) of these spaces reduced for few months. Value of a public space could be understood as potentiality of the space towards fulfilling social requirements of the social institutions. And these potentialities produce motion (of people). During lockdown when public spaces lost their direct interaction with the people, neighbourhood gained potentiality of sustaining the daily-ness fulfilment of social institutions roles and objectives.

Therefore we could define motion or change (in position of people) as the ‘actualizing’ of any phenomenon which has a potentiality (Kosman 1969) over a space. This is important as potentiality achieves validity till it is been realized into use. Therefore change takes place subject to potentiality of people has been actualized while undertaking change of position in a given space. Once the potentiality is fully actualized the change is over (at least for the expired potentiality and till new potentiality is being produced). The change is the process leading from the beginning to the end, and it takes place only so long as there remains a potentiality to be actualized. In the lockdown phase, people realized the maximum potentiality of the neighbourhood spaces thus producing a semi-private semi-public mobility. With such actualization of objectives of social institutions in the neighbourhood space, social spaces were reproduced.

Thus, Lockdown gave a new way of understanding the concept of change/motion, in the context of potentiality. Change as the actualization of what exists potentially, insofar as (or as long as) it exists potentially. Therefore for a social change depends on the actualization of potentiality (of desired change) exists in the society. Therefore knowing the potentiality of neighbourhood is quite essential for defining change (motion) in a given society (space). This could also mean that any meaning of a space (for people) is generated and sustained (for a particular duration of time) upon actualization of potentiality (of defined usage) of that particular space. Therefore till the potentiality of a given space (in context of its usage as set by people in collective i.e. society) is being actualized by individuals in their individual capacities and the result being similar for majority of that space using people, the meaning of the space remains the same.

For example, reality in Shopping Malls in Noida had the ‘potentiality’ of being the centre of commerce for merchants and centre of cultural production and reproduction and dissemination of market economy. Therefore for the majority of the people were actualizing the given potentiality of the space of Shopping Malls for undertaking their life (Socio-Cultural) objectives. However with the introduction of Covid-19 lockdown and curtailed mobility the potentiality of these place was altered and during lockdown these shopping malls were un-accessible and were non-usable.

Therefore a meaning/ usage of a space depend upon the continuous and common actualization of potentiality of space (not expiration of potentiality in totality) for the majority of people using it. In the backdrop of neighbourhood playing an important space of life activities during the lockdown, in coming days the expansion of potentiality of the space of neighbourhood should increase gradually and a new levels of potentiality (of space) will be created for the people to actualize their potentialities. This continuous process of levelling between potentialities of space and potentialities of people is a sociological question in nature which explains the relationship between a space and people and those forces mediating the two.

Dr. Devanjan Khuntia

Assistant Professor

Department of Sociology

School of Humanities and Social Sciences

G D Goenka University

Gurgaon, Haryana

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