CONSIDER AGAIN the experience of someone sitting on a bench at a bus stop. Imagine that this person waits at this same bus stop each morning as part of a daily commute and today is a day like any other. Imagine as well that the bus stop has been built with some of the antihomeless designs we’ve reviewed. The bench has been fit with partitions that discourage sleeping. Beside the bench is a small garbage can constructed in such a way that it discourages picking. Imagine that the commuter in our example is not herself living unhoused and rarely, if ever, thinks about things like trash picking, sleeping on benches, or navigating antiloitering ordinances.
Despite using this bus stop every day, it is possible that this person will at most times be barely—if at all—aware of the antihomeless agenda built into this setting. In fact, one reason this person may not notice the politics of this situation is exactly because it is all so routine. The utter normalcy of the experience itself keeps the politics occluded from view. In this way, there is a political dimension to what gets noticed and what goes unseen. There is a politics to perception itself. We can turn again to the philosophy of technology to help develop what could be called a phenomenology of political occlusion.
Phenomenology excels at providing deep descriptions of our experience of the everyday world and following out the philosophical implications. One fundamental contribution is Martin Heidegger’s account of “tool use.” Heidegger considers the experience of someone using a hammer. He writes, “The less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment.” What he’s saying here, at least in part, is that when someone is using a hammer and is engrossed in hammering, the thing that is most present to this person is not the hammer itself but the work being done. Heidegger follows this example further and considers what happens when the hammer suddenly breaks in the user’s hand, what is sometimes referred to in this literature as technological “breakdown.” In such an event, the hammer would be once again experienced as a significant presence, an object, in this case now a broken object that stands in the way of the work that had been getting done just a moment ago. Where the hammer in use is barely present in this experience at all, the broken hammer instead itself stands forward, and this person now has a more explicit awareness of its meaning and its various associations, such as the nails and workbench, all sitting there unable to be used.
Another fundamental contribution to phenomenological thought is Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of bodily experience. Whereas Heidegger’s account of tool use had centered on presence, Merleau-Ponty explores the bodily aspects of technology usage. As we go on about our day, and as we grow accustomed to our surroundings and to the technologies we commonly use, we develop bodily perceptual habits. Our bodily awareness is subject to change and can become altered and extended across the technologies we use. As Merleau-Ponty puts it, “habit expresses the power we have of dilating our being in the world, or of altering our existence through the incorporation of instruments.” We live through our habits. They prime our perception and shape our bodily awareness. And we experience normal technology usage through bodily habituation.
Merleau-Ponty gives the example of using a typewriter. He writes, “Knowing how to type, then, is not the same as knowing the location of each letter on the keyboard, nor even having acquired a conditioned reflex for each key that is triggered upon seeing it.” Like the hammerer who thinks about the work and not the hammer itself, someone typing thinks about the content of what he is writing and not about each individual keystroke. Only someone still brand-new to typing will be preoccupied by his own fingers and the arrangement of the keys. Merleau-Ponty continues, “The subject who learns to type literally incorporates the space of the keyboard into his bodily space.” Through learned habituation, a person’s bodily awareness can be understood to extend through the keyboard.
Following Merleau-Ponty, Don Ihde refers to this as our capacity to “embody” technology. When we become accustomed to embodying a technology, it takes on a kind of experiential “transparency.” Ihde says that when it comes to our technologies, we have a “double desire that, on one side, is a wish for total transparency, total embodiment, for the technology to truly ‘become me.’ . . . The other side is the desire to have the power, the transformation that the technology makes available.” Our technologies sometimes greatly change our abilities and our experience. Yet through our design practices, and through the ways we as users become acclimated to our devices, we may in many moments remain barely aware of those changes and, indeed, sometimes barely aware of the device itself.
My suggestion is that these aspects of learned bodily habituation are a crucial part of political occlusion. We can come to overlook the politics of our technologies and our surroundings as we develop habits of perception. Despite using the bus stop each day, our commuter does not need to think consciously about the bus stop itself very often. Indeed, it is exactly because the bus stop is used routinely that its specifics can go unnoticed. If, through long-developed perceptual habits, our commuter is not noticing the bench or garbage can, then this person is also not noticing the politics of antihomeless design built into those devices. And as we’ve noted, antisleep benches and antipick cans are designed so that the dominant “sitting” and “garbage depositing” usages remain easy and uninterrupted. My contention is that antihomeless politics in particular, and other political aspects of our technologies and our environment more generally, can become occluded within the normal bodily perceptual habits that we develop with our technologies and our material surroundings.
Contemporary theorist Linda Martín Alcoff notes that despite the fact that our perception itself is deeply set with politics, we are not helpless in these matters. She writes, “Perceptual practices are dynamic even when congealed into habit, and that dynamism can be activated by the existence of multiple forms of the gaze in various cultural productions and by the challenge of contradictory perceptions.” Put into some of the vocabulary reviewed earlier, part of her point here is that it is possible to experience a kind of perceptual breakdown, one that can help to disrupt the habits of our everyday perception and call attention to them. Like the way the breakdown of the hammer shatters its experiential transparency, making it an explicit object of attention and revealing its associations, perhaps we can similarly attempt to draw out the occluded political associations of our built environment. This could help us to evaluate the politics of how we see the world and also the politics of what we have learned to fail to see. Alcoff continues, “To put it simply, people are capable of change. Merleau-Ponty’s analysis helps us to provide a more accurate understanding of where—that is, at what level of experience—change needs to occur.”
What would it mean to break the habits of our relations to antihomeless design? We can imagine instances in which the bus stop bench fails to function as expected in its dominant sitting affordance because of an antihomeless feature. Perhaps one day our daily commuter is wearing a big backpack, or holding a child, or lugging a grocery bag, and a bench divider makes it difficult to sit. Maybe this person watches someone else inconvenienced by the dividers, such as someone with a physical disability. Perhaps this person accidentally drops something into the garbage can and then has trouble retrieving it because of an antipick measure. These experiences may alert this person to the presence of the antihomeless design features around him, and such a realization might make him consider the political implications. That is, these moments of breakdown might disrupt habits of everyday perception and reveal the bus stop’s normally unnoticed political dimensions.
Perhaps instead it is the presence of someone living unhoused that breaks these perceptual habits. Maybe an unhoused person attempts awkwardly to rest on the bench despite its antisleep design, and this awakens our daily commuter to the surrounding politics. I have often suspected that one of the things that makes panhandling such a striking experience for the person being panhandled is its breakdown character—an encounter with a panhandler doesn’t simply present someone with an instance of homelessness; it breaks down the everyday habitual forgetting about the entire problem and, indeed, about the politics of our everyday surroundings in general. Perhaps our commuter watches an unhoused person being harassed at the bus stop by the police. Maybe our commuter talks with this person about the experience.
This brings us to the epistemological aspect of political occlusion. Part of what may prevent us from seeing the politics built into the world around us is the basic fact that we are each limited by our own personal history of experience. We may not notice the politics of our built environment because we have never learned to look for them. We don’t know that we don’t know what we don’t know; and what we don’t know, we’re not prepared to see.
We can turn to feminist standpoint theory for insight into how this works. A central idea in this line of thinking is that each person perceives the world from his own epistemological standpoint. That means that what each person knows is limited by the fact that she is an individual body in the world with a particular vantage point and a particular restricted set of life experiences. Any community will have limits on its perspective, and the dominant community will have its own pervading biases, biases that could be involved in the practices that contribute to the marginalization of those less advantaged groups. As Patricia Hill Collins explains, “in brief, insiders have undergone similar experiences, possess a common history, and share taken-for-granted knowledge that characterizes ‘thinking as usual.’” The dominant community will remain largely unaware of these biases, even as it benefits from them.
Standpoint theory goes further to claim that these biases can be routed out by incorporating marginalized people into the dominant conversation. The point is not that those in marginalized societal positions have a better view of the truth; all standpoints are limited and, as such, are inherently biased. But because they are specifically disadvantaged by the biases of the dominant perspective, these marginalized positions do have a special vantage point on exactly those biases, a vantage point that the dominant position distinctly lacks. This is in part what Alcoff is talking about in the preceding quotation in which she urges us to bring together “the existence of multiple forms of the gaze in various cultural productions.” We have a lot to learn from one another precisely because we come from different limited perspectives, and the dominant perspective in particular can learn about its own biases through conversation with the people who are marginalized by those biases. Sandra Harding goes so far as to claim that including the perspectives of marginalized people has the potential to make the dominant discussion more objective. She writes, “In order to gain a causal critical view of the interests and values that constitute the dominant conceptual projects, one must start one’s thought, one’s research project, from outside those conceptual schemes and the activities that generate them; one must start from the lives excluded as origins of their designs—from ‘marginal lives.’”
We can bring these insights from feminist standpoint theory into our account of technological multistability, perceptual habit, and political occlusion. Insofar as one belongs to the dominant community, one will often take up technologies in terms of their dominant stability. We see this in our example of the commuter who uses the bus stop in its dominant stability, the stability for which the bus stop was designed and installed. And through normal usage, this commuter has developed perceptual habits with regard to the dominant stability, barely noticing most features of the bus stop as he travels each day.
This commuter’s experience living through the dominant standpoint is set within bodily perceptual habit. The unhoused are an example of a marginalized standpoint in this case, disadvantaged by the bus stop designs and the larger network of antihomeless design and policy. Our commuter goes about a normal day unaware of these dynamics, these politics occluded from view by the limits of his life experiences, by the normalcy of the experience set within perceptual habit, and by the effectiveness of the design that has pushed the problem of homelessness from view. But this could be changed if this person were to interact with and take seriously the experiences of unhoused people. And this could be changed if the dominant perspective itself were to be transformed. This would involve a change to what is widely considered normal. It would involve turning to the marginalized people themselves, unhoused people, to learn about their experiences.
The antidote to political occlusion can thus involve more than simply waiting around for Heideggerian breakdown. It can involve taking seriously the experiences of those who are systematically disadvantaged and otherwise typically ignored.
Artist Sean Godsell has designed a bench that transforms into a covered shelter. The plank where one would normally sit can be lifted up to reveal another fixed plank underneath. The upper plank is attached to the fixed plank by a hinge, so it can be lifted to create a space under it. Rods can be used to keep the upper plank in place as a kind of roof. Thus, someone who would like to sleep on the bench can unfold it into a kind of sheltered bed.
The work of Godsell and others can be understood as a form of protest art. It has the potential to raise consciousness on issues of homelessness and public-space design and point creatively toward new possibilities. In can thus be broadly understood as a kind of “unrestrictionary” modification, that is, one that counters a restrictionary feature, making formerly “closed-off” possibilities for usage available once more. Perhaps the most straightforward example would be if someone were to forcibly remove an armrest to make an antisleep bench once again into something on which a person could lie down. Whereas the armrest or seat partition is an example of a restrictionary modification that closes off a stability of a multistable technology, the forcible removal of the antisleep feature works to “reopen” that stability. Consciousness-raising artwork can also be a part of unrestrictionary efforts, working to call out restrictionary designs, advocate against them, and offer alternatives.
Design theorist Carl DiSalvo looks at technology through a political perspective called agonism, which understands democracy always to involve disagreement. He explains, “For democracy to flourish, spaces of confrontation must exist, and contestation must occur.” DiSalvo claims that this disagreement occurs not only through verbal and written argumentation, debate, and protest but also through design. He uses the term adversarial design to refer to objects, products, services, and other things made specifically to challenge prevailing political forces. He writes that designs are adversarial when they “enact the political conditions of contemporary society and function as contestational objects that challenge and offer alternatives to dominant practices and agendas.” I suggest that the line of protest art that criticizes antihomeless design is a useful example of this idea.
As discussed previously, it can be easy for the politics of our everyday world to go unnoticed. We can connect these art projects with the ideas of the previous chapter, in which we considered the phenomenological dimensions of occluded politics. Insofar as the dominant perspective fails to notice the pervasive antihomeless agenda set in policy and design, and insofar as that failure to notice is embodied in our habits of perception, these kinds of adversarial art projects have the potential to incite a kind of perceptual breakdown. By calling attention to otherwise often unnoticed antihomeless designs, by highlighting the unchosen possibilities for the design of public space, and by spotlighting their politics, these kinds of artworks challenge the antihomeless agenda.
Take the Archisuit project. Sarah Ross has designed a series of bodysuits called Archisuits, each fit with large and oddly shaped foam pieces attached to the wearer’s back. Each suit calls out different antihomeless designs by revealing what strange and elaborate outfits would be required to lie, sit, or otherwise rest on a variety of common surfaces, including slopes, thin ledges, and antisleep bench designs.
Another example is Michael Rackowitz’s paraSITE designs. Each paraSITE is a custom-made inflatable tent. Every unit is specially built to attach to a particular building’s heated air exhaust vent. The warm air simultaneously keeps the tent inflated and creates a warm, livable space inside.
There’s also the Pay & Sit bench, an incisive design satire created by Fabian Brunsing. When not in use, the Pay & Sit bench features a series of sharp spikes poking upward from the sitting surface, reminiscent of the kinds of antihomeless spikes sometimes found on ledges. The device is coin operated. When money is inserted, the spikes retract into the bench for a set amount of time. A noise sounds when that time is almost up to warn the sitter to stand before the spikes reemerge. The Pay & Sit bench thus calls attention to a number of themes of contemporary public spaces, including their increasing regulation, the way this regulation is delegated to hostile architecture, and the increasingly pervasive strategy of excluding the riffraff with an entrance fee (such as in the privatization of public restrooms).
Although the claims have been difficult to confirm, a number of news outlets report a wicked irony: inspired by Brunsing’s model, a city in China has installed coin-operated and spike-studded benches of exactly this design in one of its parks. If this is so, then the development of this device has progressed from ironic commentary to chillingly sincere implementation; first as farce, then as tragedy.