What is the difference between the violent shopping described as riots and the traditional New Year shopping in English cities? Both can be chaotic, threatening and dangerous, but only the former are deemed manifestations of ‘social disorder’. The vast literature devoted to this concept compels us to re-examine categories such as fear, menace, isolation and crime, categories that pervade our perceptions of the urban environment.
‘Social disorder’ is commonly associated with behaviour of potentially threatening strangers, such as verbal harassment on the street, open solicitation for prostitution, public intoxication and rowdy groups of young males in public. Physical disorder, in turn, is typically referred to markers such as graffiti, abandoned cars, garbage and the proverbial ‘broken window’. ‘Social disorder’, however, is a contested concept, and its definition depends on a variety of different concerns. The very notion of disorder, for instance, reflects the blurring of the boundaries between what is considered criminal and what is regarded as tolerable difference. Virtually any activity can be anti-social depending on a range of background factors, such as the context in which it occurs, the location, people’s tolerance levels and expectations about the quality of life in the area. The presence of groups of youths, for instance, is often associated with intimidation, rudeness and general unpleasantness, be it the language of fashion, mannerisms, or the way young people talk – irrespective of actual threat. The perception of behaviour as problematic, on the other hand, can be influenced by cues, or aesthetic, so that some people whose style is judged unpleasant are stigmatised for just being there.
I would like to propose that what is feared is less the criminal capacity of these groups than their indolence, their absence from markets and their relative deprivation.
Shopping is becoming not merely a political, but also a metaphysical issue, in that it helps us map identities, while the space needed by consumers needs to be protected and gated, and requires the eviction of other human beings. Among the evicted are those who pose a threat to the ‘aesthetics of authority’, such as the young, the homeless, street drinkers and street sex workers. These groups constitute a threat to the ‘consuming majority’. It is not by chance that the regeneration of urban centres in the UK, ‘urban renaissance’ and projects revolving around ‘cleaner and a safer’ cities have been accompanied by the invention of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). The process entails the cleansing of difference and the removal of untidiness and dirt.
According to Walter Benjamin, market economies display a pure cult of the useful. It is inevitable, therefore, that uselessness is associated with disorder. Markets enact a constant, dreamless, celebration involving consumers as relentless adorers: they take on the traits of a religion. According to Benjamin, the opening hours of shops remind one of liturgical calendars, in a cult which is more concrete and imperative than its religious counterpart. The circus-like and theatrical elements of commerce become part of a collective celebratory performance, while those excluded stand out as bearers of an inexplicable difference. The visibility of their scarcity (poverty) is threatening.
Cities and their streets, on the other hand, can also provide a stage for rebellions. According to Lefebvre, the street has always allowed groups to take shape, to appear on the scene and appropriate space-time. Generally, revolutionary events take place in the street, showing that what appears to be disorder, in fact, may engender new types of order. The urban space of the street is a place for talk, where the exchange of words and signs accompanies the exchange of things. In such a place, speech becomes writing, and when it becomes “savage”, that is when it escapes rules and institutions, it inscribes itself on walls. Graffiti, therefore, are a response to ‘controlled (imposed) consumption’, to merchandise obsessively displayed. With streets becoming a corridor flanked by stores of various kinds, people are only tolerated if they limit themselves to brushing shoulders with others, if they do not interact. If not devoted to consumption and the celebration of the powerful, conquerors and death (monuments), then streets have to be stripped of their political potential, and turned into ‘blind fields’, areas that we resist, turn away from, and struggle against. Areas of disorder.
Excluded groups are expected to populate the other place, the place of the other, the place of `anomie’. This is Lefebvre’s concept of heterotopy, which should be assimilated to a notion of chaos, formlessness, a menacing site that can explode, whether or not such a possibility is realistic.
We are facing a paradox: excluded from the market and its religion, materially denied the opportunities to develop a form of loyalty for ‘controlled consumption’, banned from collective formulations of political uses of the street, marginalised groups are expected to express a social sensibility that has been taken away from them.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society