notes on sensory exclusion: the two senses of public good

I think a reasonable way to begin is here, right now.  I am sitting in one of the research centres of my university. It is a space for research postgraduate students like me to do their work. It is one of the few places on campus where I am able to do so, but it is far from being somewhere I can do so best. Despite all the emphasis on the ‘facilities’ that are provided for our ‘community’, like a hot water tap and a couple of extra computers, the main aspect of study for me is sensory. What it feels like, literally, to work in a certain space.

Here, the lights are copious and bright, and the white light seems to reflect in depthless white sheets off the white smooth of rounded plastic tables. All the surfaces are smooth and depthless, just like the single-hue sculptures of Anish Kapoor, sharply and economically framed, but concave, convex without end.  The tabletop is brighter, more luminous than my computer screen. There seems to be no meaningful distance between the white light and me. There is no depth to the room. Everything is here, happening – to me – at the same time. I try to imagine a different sensory point of view to mine, what might it be like to work here in a different body and I cannot.

I just left a talk given by Nina Power. She gave a paper on the public, the state, protest, legal subjects. She considered a number of concepts like ‘public space’, ‘public opinion’, ‘public order’, and their relationship with the polis, police, policy. She considered the simultaneity of these fictions and functions. Negatively affected by the state that segregates those it exploits from its definition of ’the public’, negative publics emerge. Refugee and migrant movements, police violence movements, free education movements, Sisters Uncut. Nina talked about the way in which those excluded from the fictional ‘public’ (in the name of which the law acts as such, punishing or permitting X as it sees fit) – whether by virtue of the fact of their documentation and/or dissent – find themselves excluded on all counts. That is, temporally, spatially, politically. Collectivities are constituted in the negative. This is, in a way, the real public, or that pole of ‘the public’ with actual bodies.

The university has its own privatised spaces that are meant to be shared and common. I think of sensory exclusion as another mode of slicing the public into fantasies of the good of the public and the ghosts that are its threat. What kind of body can withstand the private, prestigious, card-access-only spaces of the (public) university? What is the individual body implied? The light is too bright for me means body unfit for the light, unfit for the room or in other words failing of test of fitness, of fitness for academia. I fail the reasonable test for access, I lose my membership to the room, my citizenship of the polis (Goodley et al:20). The university is not a tower but an ivory city-state, and to identify with the polis is to coincide with police, the law of the land, the law of the good proper.

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