To look at a disappearing road is at the same time to see it reappearing again and again. Benjamin’s aura, travel, and the social reproduction of space.
Brian Hand
Capitalism ... is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. ... The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers' goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.
... The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.(r.1)
— Joseph Schumpeter
At the start of the PARTGO international collaboration on Public Art pedagogy in mid December 2019, the partners shared a series of email exchanges in an attempt to reach a definition of the complex term public art. This essay is an attempt to further unpack an element of the final agreed text which refers to the importance of understanding ‘the social construction of space’ in relation to teaching about, critically interpreting and making public art.(r.2) Vito Acconci euphemistically described the function of public art is to make or break space. The difficult challenge though is to make or break space towards what end? Make space for democracy and non violence or make space for further capitalist monopolies and exploitation? Break space of free speech or break space of elite privilege? The concept and reality of space is often confusing to define in terms of its key features, it does not arrive preordained. We are vulnerable bodies of space in the shared sensory and physical space of our bounded life-world (spaceship earth). The capitalist organisation of social relations in this machine age is no longer bound by constraints of the body or topography. We have become spectators in the productive destruction that constitutes the ‘spectacle’, that blockbuster apocalyptic films incessantly celebrate, “where the winning hand in capitalism is about blowing things up with new technologies.”(r.3)
The primary social forces under analysis here are the powerful productive and destructive  forces of capitalism to colonise, shape and define our public life world, our public opinions, public education and our public art practices. Capitalism's relatively humble genesis in the intimate coffee shops of the 17th century has grown to spread its net across all the countries of the world and the reach of global corporations now extends beyond our planet to the moon and within time to Mars. Capitalism, in response to feudal relations ostensibly offers a set of human relations based not on domination and servitude but, as Slavoj Zizek writes:
"a contract between free people who are equal in the eyes of the law. Its model is the market exchange: here, two subjects meet, their relation is free of all  the lumber of veneration of the Master, of the Master's patronage and care for his subjects; they meet as two persons whose activity is thoroughly determined by their egoist interest; each one proceeds as a good utilitarian; the other person is for him wholly delivered of all mystical aura; all he sees in his partner is another who follows his interest and interests him only in so far as he possesses something – a commodity ­– that could satisfy some of his needs." (my emphasis)(r.4)
Capitalist development and ideology was grounded in the relative stability of English agrarian class relations where the commodification of  land and labour was becoming to be understood as contingent and mobile.  The 17th century capitalism aligned with the democratic and protestant revolutions reconceptualised  the public  market as a space/emporium  not only for the exchange and distribution  of use values but “the imagination of a space where an unlimited amount of private use-values became available to the indeterminate needs and lacks of ‘the public’.”(r.5)  Thus capitalism and protestantism propose that the social foundation (of desire, exchange, consumption) begins with the private individual and the shorthand for capitalism remains ‘privatisation’. Typically this individual centred structure is set against collective controls and down the centuries the ideology of capitalism has sought to reject all forms of regulation from parliaments, courts of justice, environmental protections etc, all can be cast as unnecessary public interference in their methods of  operation. The capitalist defends this stance by arguing that ‘free’ markets are fundamentally unknowable and that participants involved in capitalist exchange end up sharing the world’s resources despite their selfish intentions, through the ‘mystical’ intervention of Adam Smith’s invisible hand which it is believed guide the markets to reward efficiency, innovation and specialisation coupled with progress and universal  prosperity for all.(r.6) Defenders of capitalism typically define anything in public ownership as inefficient. Capitalism’s  claim to universality and exclusivity occludes complex demarcations of the planet into temporal zones of non-capitalism and/or  pre-capitalism, a distinction that justified far more ruthless measures than would be tolerated under purely capitalist conditions.(r.7)
In the early seventeenth century people were already learning to value mobile occupational/ professional categories  of manual, entrepreneurial and intellectual labour away from guilds now seen by emerging capitalists as an obstacle to freedoms of movement and opportunity.  The emergent professionalisation (mobile, commodified, quasi autonomous)  disadvantaged women, particularly as the specialisation of the medical profession, for example, sought to remove women's roles as healers, apothocaries and midwives. In late seventeenth century family enterprises “trade tokens used by local shopkeepers  and small masters carried the initials of the man and the womans’ first name and the couple’s surname, but by the late eighteenth century only the initials of the man were retained.”(r.8) The emerging proto-bourgeois order valued female idleness and female accomplishments, as the rise of wage labour occurred, unpaid housework emerged as the exclusive domain of women. As Silvia Federici observed, women’s work was treated like a “natural resource,” freely available “to all no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink” and requiring neither consent nor compensation.(r.9)
In defining the typical spatial distinction between public and private, we commonly encounter the difference in the terms of inside and outside. The Lloyd's coffee house in London on the banks of the Thames has become  the archetypal origin of finance capital where individual merchants, slave plantation owners, entrepreneurs, arms dealers and ship owners rented out boxes to speculate on risk. The public streets outside were host to a variety of social groups and social mixing but it was understood as the place of the commoners- the lowest orders. Political rights were withheld from the multitude because they lacked economic power and were typecast with the  enduring canard that portrayed them as incapable of self-mastery, child-like and prey to irrepressible passions.  The dominant narrative about the linear progression/evolution of this collective from the ‘mob’ via the ‘crowd’ to the ‘public', suppresses the accelerated circulation of a ‘cosmopolitan’ working class experience back then.  Linebaugh and Rediker argue that  “at its most dynamic the eighteenth century proletariat was often ahead of any fixed consciousness. The changes in geography, language, climate and relations of family and production were so volatile and sudden that the consciousness had to be characterised by a celerity of thought that may be difficult to comprehend to those whose experience has been steadier.”(r.10)
The undifferentiated street spaces became, after the great fire of London, an opportunity to imagine/impose what new public spaces, for the dominant class, might look like and how to facilitate this distinction from the more heterogeneous  or collective spaces of before (the markets or places of public executions). So we see streets, walks, squares, parks  and pleasure gardens and “what unites these spaces is the premise of a public occasion that is indeterminate, ongoing and officially unmotivated: the occasion of taking the air, walking the streets, bringing in and out of focus a stranger in the crowd of similarly familiarizable  strangers, a crowd that momentarily embodies a public that is otherwise, and in any case, subliminally but perpetually present.”(r.11) Baudelaire memorably portrays the playful paradoxes of the flâneur and their “immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.”(r.12) For the bourgeois this sense is less euphoric and more bittersweet as the privacy of solitude, of loneliness or anonymity is “experienced no-where so pungently as in a public crowd.”(r.13)
For Marx and Marxist critics, free market economics never united society because it produced, and continues to produce,  accumulations of vast wealth for a few at one pole and vast accumulations of “misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”(r.14) In Capital’s well known section in the first volume dealing with the phenomenon of commodity fetishism, Marx notes the transformation of ‘real’ labour and material conditions into manufactured goods as commodities and at the moment of their arrival as commodities strange new qualities and relations adhere to the objects, displacing their physical characteristics for mental, fantastic, incarnate forms reminiscent of older atavistic and auratic relations in “the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world.”  “Capitalism  is the celebration of a cult” wrote  Benjamin, “there are no ‘weekdays’. There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper.”(r.15)
Capitalist relations are abstract and opaque and Marxist theorists reveal how competitive market forces erected, and continue to erect,  screens to shield theft, oppression and exploitation in the social world. The bourgeois private sphere is such a screen, as Benjamin wrote reflecting on the 19th century, where “the private individual who in the office  has to deal with realities, needs the domestic interior to sustain him in his illusions. The interior is the aslyum where art takes refuge.”(r.16) This interior domestic world of bourgeois life is a theatrical space of arranged objects and ornaments, polished and framed, or objects protected, covered and encased like umbrellas, slippers, watches, blankets and medals, in “velour and plush which preserve the imprint of all contact.”(r.17) Benjamin brilliantly reconstructs the origins and rules of bourgeois spaces to show how the forces of industrialisation, armies of workers, mass entertainment and what today might be called the post humanism of modernity dismantle this fictional interior space and smash the auratic value of singular works of art.
Benjamin's widely known insights into the destruction of the aura of unique original authoritative cultural objects through the inroads of mechanisation and forces of modernization with its myths of progress, link in a consistent way to his concern for the loss or decay of collective social human centred experience in early 20th Century society particularly after the horrendous First World War. Benjamin’s traces a history of the aura, which was born in magic and ritual, and while he accepts that it’s role (when attached to original works of art)  was to  reinforce the dominant political ideology of bourgeois/capitalist truth values, he nonetheless finds in the waxing and waning of  the concept’s strange esoteric properties, a redemptive productive energy that can disrupt or signal a resistance to  the impoverishment and self alienation of modern experience. Benjamin's philosophical method was about reinvesting agency into discontinued or disregarded spaces and forms like the semi derelict early 19th century glass and steel  Paris arcades, 2nd hand clothes, old photographs, the diorama, the flâneur etc to be grasped only through their historical demise.  Miriam Hansen sees his engagement with the aura as part of his effort to “reconceptualise experience through the very conditions of its impossibility, as the only chance to counter the ‘bungled’ (capitalist-imperialist) adaption of technology that first exploded in World War I and was advancing the fascist conquest of Europe.”(r.18)
The illusory aura of art predates modernisation and exists as a bequest from the value system of the nobility and religious powers/rituals of feudal society to the new class in ascendancy, the bourgeoisie.  As Hansen points out, most cursory or reductive readings of Benjamin’s 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction limit his employment of the term aura to aesthetic qualities encapsulated in singular autonomous artworks by individual geniuses for aristocratic patrons/ connoisseurs  that were swept away by the industrialisation of a secular culture.  In contrast, Hansen’s close reading of a number of texts shows how Benjamin wants to recast some facets of the vulnerable aura much broader than just a phenomenon associated with art works. In different essays and fragments he values it as a spatial concept tied to some remote distant  authority  and as a  temporal concept linked  to precarious and fleeting moments of reciprocal identification.  Benjamin writes “the person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in return. To experience the aura of a phenomenon means to invest it with the capability of returning the gaze.”(r.19)
The aura is then for Benjamin a plural concept combining the aura with the disintegrating aura and this duality  operated on many levels of visuality and textuality. In, again, a well known  image he cast the poetic experience of the aura in a quiet peaceful natural outdoor scene when he wrote: “On a summer afternoon, resting, to follow a chain of mountains on the horizon or a branch casting its  shadow on a person resting-that is what it means to breathe in the aura of these mountains, of this branch.”(r.20) What holds the aura in place here, is the embodied observer (also rested in place) who sees and inhales the plural sense of distance and close up, sunlight and shadow. Eduardo Cadava identifies how “Benjamin's description reproduces a scene near the end of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. In other words, Benjamin's definition of aura is already a kind of citation.”(r.21)
The potentially redemptive experience of the aura is when it produces an aporia or  blindspot between the viewer and the viewed, or an undepictable lacuna which Benjamin sees clearly evident in the parallel desires of the masses “to bring things closer spatially and humanly” and to overcome “the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.”(r.22) Benjamin cites Gisela Freund who wrote of the 1855 photographic exhibition in the great exhibition of industry and how “the public at the exhibition thronged before the numerous portraits of famous and noted personalities, and we can only imagine what it must have meant to the epoch suddenly to see before it, in so lifelike a form, the celebrated figures of the stage, of the podium, – in short of public life – who, up until then could be gazed at and admired only from afar.”(r.23)
Public advertising photography quickly emerges to inject a new dissimulating aura into the commodity “easing its passage into the dream world of the private consumer.”(r.24) For audiences in the post human machine world the  closer  the aura  comes the more distant it appears. The power to bring things, places, people, and events close-at-a-distance is really the power to keep them apart.  The aura now  is a singularity that is no longer unique. “The dialectic of commodity production in high capitalism: the novelty of products – as a stimulus to demand – is accorded an unprecedented importance. At the same time ‘the eternal return of the same’ is manifest in mass production.”(r.25) The shock of the new, and its incessant repetition.(r.26)  History is recast as something like a natural cycle, eternal like nature, remote from human agency, the optimum conditions for the status quo of capitalist production. “Never before” wrote Kracauer (in the 30s), “has a period known so little about itself. In the hands of the ruling society, the invention of illustrated magazines is one of the most powerful means of organizing a strike against understanding.”(r.27)
Mass media like film, sound recording  and photography have a unique power to capture all their environments at once so that nothing happens until everything happens. Everything except looking back. They can arrest and reproduce the instant here and now over and over. “The auratic experience is inseparable from a process of reproduction and repetition.”(r.28) To look at a disappearing road is at the same time to see it reappearing again and again. Samuel Weber similarly defines  how the loss of aura  is linked with the impoverishment or devaluation of experience in the modern urban and networked world but also he detects in Benjamin’s discussion,  “what has become increasingly evident ever since, is that the aura thrives in its decline and that reproductive media are particularly conducive to this thriving.”(r.29) For Weber “these are pictures you do not get- you are gotten  by them.”(r.30)  Benjamin wrote in the chapter on the flâneur in the Arcades Project: “Trace and Aura.  The trace is the appearance of nearness, however far removed from the thing that left it behind may be. The aura is the appearance of a distance, however close the thing that calls it forth. In the trace, we gain possession of the thing; in the aura, it takes possession of us.”(r.32)
The diminished/resurgent aura is, as I mentioned above, also a temporal concept, something belated from the past, something buried, a moribund dream wish of escape (for those caught in their own trap), paradoxically “an image we have never seen before we remember it”(r.32) still accessible in the present moment. This sense echoes the elliptical phrasing or advertising speak of Marshall  McLuhan: “The past much like the future is not what it used to be.” So the aura has an uncanny ghostly link between past and future. “The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly.”(r.33)  Stars, stargazing and star light in the night sky further suggest this melancholic dimension to the fading aura, like how a photograph captures the transient moment locked in time but no longer present, the lights in the night sky shine  and “name a  trace of a celestial body that has long since vanished. The star is always a kind of ruin. That its light is never identical to itself, is never revealed as such, means that it is always inhabited by a certain distance or darkness.”(r.34) For Benjamin the destruction of the aura was akin to the loss of a canopy of stars and constellations  in an urban metropolis due to artificial light pollution.
To the extent that in Benjamin the experience of aura is always also an experience of its disintegration-a disintegration in which photography is implicated-we might say that this distance is written into a kind of rhythm or oscillation between a gaze that can return the gaze of an other and one that cannot, between a thing that is becoming a person and a person that is becoming a thing. In other words, what is at stake here is the possibility of our understanding a gaze that both returns and does not return the gaze that comes to it from elsewhere, the process whereby persons and things are both like and different from one another at the same time.(r.35)
For Stephen Greenblatt the overriding interest and investment in travel “is not knowledge of the other but practice upon the other.”(r.36)
In One-Way Street Benjamin presents a montage of spaces and routes to travel. Susan Sontag credits him with “a poor sense of direction and inability to read a street map”(r.37) and how this incapacity stimulated his interest in plural spaces, passageways, detours, dead ends, off the beaten track where he could indulge his “mastery of straying” and appreciation of the improvisatory skills of the  flâneur. In one section on Chinese Curios,  Benjamin wrote about the differing registers of  reading versus  imitation and reproduction of a text through the example of modes of travel:
The power of a country road when one is walking along it is different from the power it has when one if flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text when it is read is different from the power it has when it is copied out. The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and of how from the very scenery that for the fliers only unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front. Only the  copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming whereas the copier submits it to command.(r.38)
Benjamin's observation connected for me to a widely known interview by the minimalist artist/architect Tony Smith with Artforum in 1966 where he recounts an experience from 1951
When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the fifties, someone told me how I could get on to the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings, or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes, and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. (…) Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe - abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. There is a drill ground in Nuremberg, large enough to accommodate two million men. The entire field is enclosed with high embankments and towers. The concrete approach is three sixteen inch steps, one above the other, stretching for a mile or so.(r.39)
For Smith the new unmarked multi-lane turnpike road (witnessed by trespassing on the empty road on a dark night) was part of a wider changing environment of post war America and the infrastructure of functional mass concrete forms which he believed would change/liberate  the social reproduction of cultured bourgeois individualism as if experience was now a new blank slate. The sweep and impact of this enormous technological empty space clearly overpowered him and brought back memories of fascist arenas of spectacle, (in person and in films like Triumph of the Will) where two million became one mass fascist body.  Smith's insights have Benjaminesque qualities of the auratic/dialectic experience of a ruin decaying in Germany and a new structure rising into ruin in the United States simultaneously. “In Smith's astonishing free association, we can see the American landscape give forth involuntarily a ghostly image of its own inner truth.”(r.40)
Martha Rosler’s "Rites of Passage" (1995-98), a photo essay made in the same location decades later, portrays the turnpike congealed with traffic. The myth of the ‘freeway’ choked in the endless traffic jams where “all such freedom of movement, real or conceptual, is blocked: by traffic, by the endless process of roadwork, by deteriorating surfaces and margins, by the inexorable sameness of the modern highway landscape that turns all travel into arrival at the same destination.”(r.41) The frozen time of  photography captures the static flow of modernity. However, rush hour traffic jams remain a premium ritualised time for  commercial radio advertising to a captive audience in their vehicles. In the Covid pandemic lockdowns urban soundscapes were startling without rush hour traffic, animals trotted on empty motor ways, urban rivers were cleaner and contrails absent from the skies. This respite from the hypermobility of sites like Time’s Sq or other iconic capital streets clashed with the public health rhetoric of military language like ‘fight’, ‘at war with Covid ’ or ‘front line’, and vaccination ‘campaign’. On the then deserted shopping thoroughfares of Dublin numerous tents appeared for homeless citizens who had the place to themselves with no place for themselves.
Modernisation’s annihilation/compression of space and time is characterised by increased mobility through ever more sophisticated travel and transport infrastructure. The experience of travel had auratic dimensions to Benjamin, the sense of tension and a strange weave of space and time  between distance and close up haptic environments. An example from him in the 1920s was driving on the autobahn in a car rapidly approaching a billboard.(r.42) Earlier Marx and Engels had proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto the power of roads and railways to extend the rapid development of unbridled industrial capitalism and shatter the ‘aura’ of the slumbering, static rural landscape. The older sense of travel with a fusion of nature and contemplation of the ‘aura’ of a sublime panorama was over, replaced by the new sublime of the dream-wish billboard on the autobahn. Railroads demanded a transformation of property relations because the capital finance costs involved far exceeded the traditional proprietorial business model and was a violent contrast to what the conservative bourgeoisie were used to, hence the dispersion of stocks and shares dematerialised property relations to just a piece of paper as an index of investment but with often unpredictable and volatile returns. The banks and capitalists were now the apex of power, “feudalism was reborn from its own ashes.”(r.43)
The romantic critique of industrialism and mourning of the loss of aura projected demonic characteristics onto steam trains; the devil’s mantle (Carlyle), demonic power (Marx and Engels) and for Lord Shaftesbury for whom ‘the devil if he travelled, would have gone by train.(r.44) The Victorians, who created this industry, looked like “a race imbued with some daemonic energy.”(r.45) The devil of course is an evil character or force filled with powerful occult and auratic power. So one destructive auratic form liquidates another auratic phenomenon.  “Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”(r.46) “A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air , amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny fragile human body.”(r.47) The moving steam train, as a place in itself, was suggests Foucault, a sort of deterritorialized nowhere or in between place, a limbo which he called heterotopia. A train's capacity for passengers far exceeded the stage coach, occupants with their tickets were a new anonymous asocial collective or congregation. “ It is not by chance that the word ‘class’ entered the lexicon of ordinary people with the diffusion of train journeys.”(r.48)
Publicly funded infrastructural projects of the 19th century like railway stations, canals, roads, bridges and tunnels  were technocratic, rational and witnessed the consolidation of the new professions of engineers, surveyors and architects who behaved as Hobsbawn observed, as professional rather than temperamental geniuses. The real problem, wrote Hobsbawn “was that of the artist cut off from a recognizable function, patron or public who was left to cast his or her soul as a commodity upon a blind market, to be bought or not.”(r.49) Wordsworth  liked the metaphor of the road builder when he thought about this new problem of art’s disconnection  from an audience. “Every author” he wrote, “as far as he or she is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed … for what is peculiarly his own, he will be called upon to clear and shape his own road.”(r.50) Investing in road building became a key function of the bourgeois state around the lifespan of Wordsworth in the late 18th and early 19th century. The road network in Britain extended in density across the landscape through landowners operating turnpike trusts, new financial liquidity and speculation and new laws of enclosure and compulsory purchase orders from state bodies. The construction of roads was now being led by scientific principles of engineering formulated by John Louden McAdam (from whose name we get tarmacadam and tarmac). The productive goal was uniform smooth surfaces, from uniform granite chips (the stone breakers used their mouths as a gauge reference) on solid foundations to equal degrees impervious to seasonal variation of weather. The rapid extensions of the public road network supported the increased circulation of goods, labour and communications as well as the organisation of ‘new’ social relations into a standardised social space designed by laws and regulations.(r.51) MacAdam marked a shift of changing the road to suit the wheel not vice versa; hoof and foot users were demoted in importance despite the fact that 75% of the users were people on foot. The colonisation of foot space by the wheel long antedates the arrival of the motor car and the motor bus.(r.52)
MacAdam’s  methods of building  took account of the role of heavy goods traffic to assist in consolidating the foundation and surface alike. Thus the users were participant makers in the enterprise. Soon to be gone were the unpopular turnpike gates and tickets, sometimes through the disruptive actions of gate breaking by secret societies like the Daughters of Rebecca in West Wales.(r.53)
In time a new open uninterrupted space/time overlaid on the British landscape, a system to incorporate all (in a variety of vehicles) who now paid centralised ‘state’ road taxes. The post roads of England were, for the most part, paid for by the newspapers. The rapid increase of traffic brought in the railway that accommodated a more specialised form of wheel than the road. Road improvement  engendered  faster transport and brought insular  though self-sufficient rural spaces into contact with urban centres/markets and vice versa as the countryside opened as a place of leisure consumption through tourism. Communication traffic along the roads/carriageways made senders and receivers interchangeable and with increased acceleration of exchange, disintegration of vertical hierarchies was and is a constant risk.  As McLuhan has famously written “if  we understood our older media, such as roads and the written word, and if we valued their human effects sufficiently, we could reduce or even eliminate the electronic factor from our lives.”(r.54)
Passenger travel grew rapidly in the years of the Great Irish Famine making Ireland one of the most railwayed countries in the world by 1860. Railways and their infrastructure are significantly over designed for human passengers, their original function was for the shipping of heavy goods and minerals. The railroad timetables demanded a universal time system to coordinate traffic on single rails. This imposition of a uniform public time forced new definitions of private time and its often recalcitrant relationship to World Standard Time. As Michel de Certeau observed, train travel incarcerated the passengers who were; “pigeon holed, numbered and regulated in the grid of the railway car.”(r.55) De Certeau’s passive commuters peer through glass and steel at the flow of passing landscapes and towns  under the spell of “a closed and autonomous insularity” in tow to the objective rationality of the steam engine machine.(r.56)
The modern public street brought about a new space for interaction, encounters, commerce, entertainment, discrimination, exclusion, protest and solidarity. Moving through the streets on horseback or by carriage was for the wealthy elite of both sexes, the pavement area was down the social ladder because it had so many diverse functions. The raised curb and footpath became common after the introduction of macadam paving and the side walks allowed for lighter footwear and in wealthier districts there emerged new practices of public performative display in promenading and people watching through quick glances and superficial scans. Attention to clothing, posture, accessories in well heeled public space created new micro codes of non verbal communication, an optical montage of affect and eroticism. This heightened sense of diverse visual display combined with bourgeois virtues like civility, self restraint, sobriety and decorum. “City sidewalk etiquette made women in public as invisible as possible. To abide by these standards women walking on city streets had to detach themselves from the surrounding environment by avoiding the gaze of other pedestrians (particularly men) dressing inconspicuously, talking in low voices, and not laughing in public.”(r.57) Pavements  also produced restrictions on access to newly gentrified areas of the 19th century city with bans on disabled people, vagrants, sweeps, peddlars, and male and female prostitutes. Taxes were raised to fund a constabulary ‘on the beat’ to patrol, police and regulate new public spaces. Men and women inhabited public spaces in the 19th century city in radically different ways and men almost exclusively had the right to the city of the night. Women alone, day or night in these new public streets were highly vulnerable to verbal abuse, intimidation, assault, and rape. Misogynistic behaviour by men today, especially at night time, is not that dramatically different. Early cinema theatres were a haven for the leisure time of working women and middle class women shopping in the city and early film seized on the pleasure of mobility and their programmes of shorts extended female orientated nomadic journeys of the city with films about travel, or just fixed cameras recording people in motion forward and backward towards the lens. As Bruno writes “cinematic pleasure belongs to the range of erotic pleasures of the nomadic gaze first known to the traveller and the flâneur and then embodied by way of panoramic spatio-visuality, in the modes of inhabiting space of transitorial architectures”.(r.58)
The old and historic bourgeois public sphere that wrested power from feudal pre capitalist regimes in Europe, built and created new 18/19th century inventions like public libraries, museums, newspapers, pamphlets, cafes, theatres, parks, men’s clubs and societies that were to play a vital role as  intermediary spaces between private dwellings (near) and the sovereign state machine (distant), regulating (initially mostly for men) normative public communication, public opinion, public good, public morality, critique, satire, humour and above all fostering civilising, disinterestedness as a consensual ground for democracy. The masculine bourgeois public sphere was a world of repeated crises followed through with negotiation and compromise especially from weaker and excluded members of the society. Elite practices like opera, orchestras, dance companies, natural history museums, and sculpture gardens evolved to become public resources supported by public finance/taxes.  The public sphere was about embodiment; aesthetic feeling and responses became key registers in the development of this new zone, an experimental space of discursive exchange, consensus building, refined habits, pieties and sentiments. For Terry Eagleton the bourgeois revolution, “ breaks decisively with the privilege and particularism of the ancien régime, installing the middle class, in image if not in reality, as a truly universal subject, and compensating for the grandeur of this dream for its politically supine status.”(r.59) The middle class inheritance of the aesthetic from its superiors notes Eagleton, while it may have bound bourgeois subjects to new values of differentiation, fellowship and altruism, it also created a divisive legacy at once cultivating/ constructing an internal appropriation of controlling abstract laws of subjectivity and simultaneously proving something of an embarrassment to a class made powerful by violent dehumanisation and the destruction of nature.
When we read newspapers we assert our autonomy as individuals free to endorse or dispute the version of things presented . However we also absorb the categories of analysis proffered by the paper and affiliate ourselves with the normative view it purveys. As a result of such social confirmation of autonomy and deference, we sort ourselves out, in Ray's words, becoming aware of where we stand by sensing that position as a consequence of our own cognitive decisions and feelings. One might say that the public discursive transaction enlists us in the process of our own social distribution.(r.60)
In theatre an imaginary space is opened up, where repressed desires and drives are permitted to triumph; though they might be condemned in the end, they have at least made their appearance. Bourgeois theatre displays repeated opportunities for breaking free of bourgeois society; it lets the mind play out scenarios of escape from the bourgeois world - potential scenarios, sanctioned only in the world of the imagination.(r.61)
This escape arguably takes different flight paths, one in the direction of a more advanced form of capital accumulation the other towards the recognizable privileges of status existing in feudalism and probably coveted by the emerging bourgeoisie.(r.62) An abiding legacy of these flights of imagination is timidity and deference, a taught numbness and passivity which the subject is witness to their agency absorbed into a system of public representation that is typically opaque.  The indoor theatre space immobilises and divides the audience. The dark gloom of the space conceals our bodies as if we have to hide from one another? Or perhaps, hide from ourselves? Atomised in the aura of theatre, the play on stage is all we have in common. “Scenic, staged action brings everything to us by distancing everything from us.”(r.63)
The difficulty for the bourgeoisie was finding an aesthetic form or symbolic system that represented themselves and their dominant position. If you are the inventor of the class system, capitalist production, modern slavery, imperial militarism then you aim to make your role as neutral, invisible, natural and as compartmentalised as possible. Bourgeois aesthetics invents new autonomous art practices, decoration, veneers, still life painting, the serialised novel, innocuous, charming and useless. Any imaginative representations that might show hostility to the class system etc can be called out as vulgar, propaganda and inartistic. Artists as singular geniuses, while originally an aristocratic notion, is a helpful concept/role for the bourgeoisie because it allows a shift away from an emphasis on public reception as a decisive component in aesthetic merit and the "elevation of the artistic creator  to the status of genius simultaneously loosens the connection which binds him to the needs of the public."(r.64)
The cultural influential leadership/domination of the bourgeoisie was identified by Gramsci as hegemony or the means by which subordinate groups grant their consent to be governed and how capitalist, patriarchal, technological and imperialist ideas/ideology ‘constructs’ circulate and are viewed as ‘inevitable’, ‘normal’ and ‘commonsensical’ to many.  Of course there are many counter hegemonic moments as dominated and oppressed groups meet their own needs first, attempt to improve their lives in more democratic ways, come together in solidarity to defend civic and social resources, and push back (unplug) against the consolidation of power/knowledge amongst the minority elite in charge (as well as their followers).
The public sphere evolved through class struggle in competition with the life worlds of peasants, their fêtes and rituals and family led agricultural practices. In new powerful urban centres and towns  the small scale artisan guilds, combinations, and local enterprises dissolved in the solvent of the social engineering of the bourgeois lead industrial revolution where the relationship of public and private in the cultural and educational spheres was to become increasingly controlled, atomised and represented  to governments in service to patriarchy, state formation and capitalist relations. ‘Progress’ in Britain was the unrolling of ‘benevolence’ in the acts of enclosure, the factory acts, sanitation acts and education and prison reform.  In the new bourgeois age of consumer orientated individualism, community, as Bhabha reminds us, was something you develop out of or were to be educated out of. Thomas Hodgkin, the influential early socialist and critic of the social reproduction of state education argued  200 yrs ago that “men had better be without education than be educated by their rulers ; for then education is but the mere breaking of the steer to the yoke; the mere disciplining of a hunting dog which, by dint of severity, is made to forego the strongest impulse of his nature and, instead of devouring his prey, to hasten with it to the feet of his master.”(r.65) William Cobbett, another radical pamphleteer from that time echoed Hodgkin “ you would educate us, not, as you sometimes pretend, to fit us for the exercise of political rights but to make us indifferent to the rights.”(r.66)
Community, Bhabha continues, is synonymous with the territory of the minority and the discourses of community are themselves ‘minority’ discourses incommensurable with the discourse of civil society as defined by colonialist, landowners, philanthropists and middle class educators. Community is the antagonist supplement of modernity resisting ‘being represented’ as an alternative to ‘representing themselves’. It becomes the border problem of the diasporic, the migrant, and the refugee. Community in this sense almost has an atavistic resonance because it predates capitalism and modern society and leads a “subterranean, potentially subversive life within [civil society] because it refuses to go away.”(r.67) In this sense the experience of (intergenerational) community is at once a togetherness and paradoxically an estrangement from, or antagonism to, the public sphere and regulated bourgeois civil society and the aesthetic establishment. Benjamin's ambivalent investment in the phenomenon of the aura (as old photographs, 2nd hand fashion, bourgeois interior design, Parisian shopping  arcades etc) shares some of these resistant qualities of community or the elusive experience of intergenerational memory of community. “In the precolonial era”, argues Tharoor, somewhat fondly and with an idealised view “community boundaries were far more blurred, and as a result these communities were not self-conscious in the way they became under colonial rule. In the absence of the ‘focused and intense allegiances’ of the modern era, precolonial groups were less likely to be antagonistic to each other over perceived community or communal differences. They have become so only as a consequence of their ‘definition’ by the British in mutually exclusive terms.”(r.68) In the fourth Thesis on the Philosophy of History Benjamin articulates how class struggle can shift from a conflict over resources, spoils and material things which are really the ground rules of the capitalist/ colonialist world view to a new field  or set of relations where the struggle is defined by dematerialised subaltern forms of cunning, courage, fortitude, memory  and humour. These low brow, episodic and fragile gifts of the non-elites have “ a retroactive force” that can “constantly call into question every victory past and present, of the rulers”.(r.69) Benjamin’s thinking was not particularly concerned with colonial struggles so a question might be, can the occulting light of auratic power have value as an approach to some of the challenges to both ‘reading history against the grain’ and framing sustained and intergenerational forms of resistance in colonial/post colonial contexts?(r.70)
The political power of the State is only secondarily the power of a class organised for the oppression of another, more materially, it is the polis, police, that is to say, roads.
— Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics 1977
For Ireland and India the social function of roads and transport had an invasive, coercive and destructive/productive nature. Marx, a Eurocentric thinker unsympathetic to agrarian peasants,  describes the rescrambling of social formations through deindustrialisation in India as vandalism not proletarian development. Colonial capitalist expansion in space is fundamentally predatory.(r.71) It is, as Mbembe claims, the rewriting on the ground of “a new set of social and spatial relations.”(r.72) Under the plantation system certain roads were constructed and maintained by the military to control remote territory.(r.73) The colonial transport infrastructure was a concerted attempt to reshape the ‘confusion’ of Irish and Indian spaces, based on the logic of resource extraction. The design of routes was to follow the quickest path from resource to ports, often ignoring population centres and the ‘throughother’ spatiality of roads and paths.(r.74) It was also a site of brutal forced labour by persons cast as innately inferior by colonial overlords. Durrant in his study of the story of civilisation  accused  Britain of consciously and deliberately bleeding India, and denounced British rule in India as the “greatest crime in all history” where an enormous country and its collective customs were destroyed without “scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, overrunning with fire and sword…bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing and beginning that career of illegal and ‘legal’ plunder which has now (1930) gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years.”(r.75)
British cartography became a key deterministic instrument of colonial control in both Ireland and India. “Colonialism was made possible, and then sustained and strengthened, as much by cultural technologies of rule as it was by more obvious and brutal modes of conquest.”(r.76) Military might underwrote a superstructure of colonial bureaucracy and administration that emerged in the late 18th century. This regulatory environment/maze of letters, ledgers, account books and unrelenting data collection constructed a world of distant and remote control which in turn buried/inhibited/ruined public civil society  and public spaces where reciprocal relations between colonial subjects and the imperial state might have taken hold. “The public display of the rulers’ authority was replaced by the private circulation of incomprehensible paper. Decisions were being made by people who were out of view of those impacted by the decisions. As the public places where Indians could hold their rulers to account were out of bounds, so the scope for intrigue and corruption expanded.”(r.77) “Between 1800 and the outbreak of the Great Famine, for instance, no fewer than 114 commissions and 61 special committees were instructed to report on Ireland.”(r.78) This paper landscape was an index of new systematic uses of informational technologies about natural and social processes firstly to deepen the power of the British government in the everyday lives of colonial subjects and secondly to cohere, modify and engender new ‘desirable’ subjects.
In remote parts of Ireland  can also be found ruined  sites of walls built around barren land,  roads that go nowhere and abandoned mounds of stones that were broken for road building, all indices of public  works that served no function except to give minimum relief to a category of citizens defined as ‘able bodied paupers’ in the colonial poor law system. The walls and roads are sometimes located beside more littered ruins from earlier confiscations. Colonial relief work on roads in Ireland and India was aimed at tackling a perceived idleness amongst the destitute stricken poor by inculcating Victorian values of ‘honest hard work’. The model of ‘improvement’ in the colonial context is consistently a subtext for violent compulsion, suppression and social ruination of colonised peoples' lives. Adherents of the free market ideology of the bourgeois public sphere who detested ‘paternal government’ paradoxically endorsed rigorous state led regulation in moralising  and supervising the right to life and death of poor and colonised subjects. These abandoned roads still bear witness to this bureaucratisation of space/ remote killing yet as an index of trauma they are sadly unmarked on official maps, unprotected by legislation,  overlooked or subsumed in rewilding and then lost in space.
Every county in Ireland has mass communal graves and once off burial grounds from the famine of 1845-50, many are now small unmarked hills, some have a few covering of flagstones, at one site in Tuosist Co Kerry near a roadside the flagstone is inscribed “1847 LET NONE MEDDLE HERE.”(r.79) In one unmarked burial ground discovered in 2006 when excavations were happening for a shopping mall adjacent to a train station in the town of  Kilkenny, over 1000 bodies were discovered, half of them children. Following a careful but controversial excavation  in order to continue the commercial project on recently privatised land that was once the site of the Kilkenny Union Workhouse, the human remains were reinterred in a specially constructed ossory located near the shopping centre entrance. The documentation from the excavation reveals that there were only four sets of rosary beads, four medallions and two finger rings discovered with the bodies. All the individuals were carefully buried in groups of 9-25, all in individual coffins, and traces of lime and sulphur were recorded in the soil.   The appalling irony of the necessity to remove and rehouse the inconvenient obstruction of the hidden burial ground of possessionless famine dead to make way for consumer retail shops and food courts speaks to the ongoing impoverishment of experience in our ‘lets get back to business as usual’ contemporary moment.(r.80)
In 2012 I worked with a group of art students to make a public art project with a series of temporary exhibitions, memorials and inscriptions into the newly built shopping centre and apartment complex. The complex was and is unfinished as the financial crash of 2008 put the property developer out of business which is another irony as the concealed famine graveyard might never have been ‘discovered or disturbed’ if the shopping centre had a more modest footprint at the outset. Students really engaged with the project because I suspect it was so live and real,  with a tangible sense of field work on a privately owned site combined with a large footfall of shoppers on site.(r.81) It was a challenge to look beyond commemoration and also resist the sentimentalising of a past tragic event that seemed so distant to their lives. But when the students learned that photography, sound, universal time systems, newspapers, novels, tarmacked toll roads, railways, post offices, police stations, tourist breaks in the local hotels were all from the same time as the ‘hidden’ 1000 famine dead it opened up more complexity around  the causes of the famine and in whose interests does it serve to cast it back further in chronological time than it actually was. The fact that the ossory was unmarked and located beside a chrome rubbish bin also animated the students' creative interventions. The infrastructure of the famine was not primitive, haphazard or chaotic; it was a Famine in the territory of the United Kingdom, then considered to be at the height of the Industrial Revolution and ‘the workshop of the world’.  “The Famine is one of those singular accidents that seem to reorganise the preceding and subsequent constellations of events into a predetermined pattern, thus coming to appear the only possible occurrence. The force of verisimilitude of such an event endows it with the power to seize hold of the field of probability and to impose a unique sense on history. It becomes all the more important to reopen painstakingly the indeterminate constellations of discourse and practice out of which the event condensed, constellations in which there lurked and are still discernible, the spectres of other possibilities.”(r.82)
The spectres in this specific project/situation were and are quite literally real, their place of rest, its spatial temporality now a disturbed and empty space. The presumed authority of the living to violate the rights of the dead by forensically examining their bones and relocating them in a sterile preserving ossory in order to build more retail experiences sets a very low bar for the justification of the entire archaeological project.  Clearly the dead are not safe. We now hold their memory image, as something we have never seen before we remember them, their dying wish to be left in peace heard and ignored, their posthumous autonomy set aside into another place. The practice of trying to understand the social phenomena of capitalist space and time in this situation needs some way of trying to understand the public interest of the dead. The range of complexities here invite the engagement of artists, art educators and students  in similar ways to how artists and other intellectuals have looked at the grotesque colonial  collections of human remains in museums and universities, and the dynamics of power that present this form of collecting and display as axiomatic.
Image for PartGo essay to look at a disappearing road, this image I made comes from the book Thug siad oíche ar guairdeall dom (They left me wandering all night), 2016, in collaboration with Orla Ryan and Alanna O’Kelly