OVERDONE CITY. A voice that has not died away

> Bartek Lis


The category of health began to gain importance in the late 18th century, and in the 19th century it assumed the formula of a large-scale plan of monitoring and improving the society (the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics referred precisely to this phenomenon). Agreeing on a certain norm or matrix of socially acceptable and ‘healthy’ behaviours made it possible to devise an entire complicated system of the organisation of Western societies. Isolating the individuals who failed to comply with a precisely defined correctness (corporeal and moral) was supposed to keep cities pure and free from perils of “the human plague.” The newly-established or increasingly professional institutions enabled the selection of ‘the sick’ from ‘the healthy.’ The sick, the tainted, the weird or the abnormal were supposed to be either corrected (by means of eliminating the features that made an individual different) or annihilated (eradicated, made invisible, exterminated).

Stratification, both symbolic and practical, was and still is perceptible on the city map. Urban architecture quickly started to be composed in a way that facilitated the regulation or implementation of legitimate (i.e. approved by the Authorities) ideas. Suffice it to mention Haussman’s reconstruction of Paris, to which today’s tourists owe Champs Elysees and the Communards – the swift defeat of their urban revolution.

Health and sickness, purity and filth, normalness and madness, the city salon and the dangerous outskirts – the hotbed of prostitutes, criminals, rogues and deviants: the city has always been an arena of differentiating and judging. Institutions such as a (psychiatric) hospital, prison, homeless shelter or ghetto that were built within (or on the margins of) the city segregated the social space of the city. They symbolically cleansed it. A sick city, in the opinion of privileged groups that arbitrarily defined normativity, is a city that lacks order, a city in which ‘weirdoes’ abandon their peripheral Wagenburgs and begin to enter the city salons. They become noticeable, they arise anxiety and make our ‘pure cities’ ‘sick.’ These inhabitants, who used to be excluded and / or pushed to the margins of our attention, gradually start to organise themselves and demand their right to the city. Rebel cities – this is the increasingly more visible reality of European metropolises. Is it possible that in Poland the nascent urban movements will pose a ‘threat’ to the well-established way of thinking about the ‘common’ space? This question was one of those that captured our attention during the 12th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review. The phenomenon of Polish and European urban movements is increasingly more often discussed by our columnists, sociologists and activists. Our world is more and more centred on the city. We are becoming one grand polis. Revolutions have almost always exploded in cities. As urbanised societies become more reflexive, we become more aware of the problems and limitations of contemporaneity. The level of Polish urban activism is still far from satisfactory and all too often associated with a passing ‘hipster’ fad, a whim of the alternative ‘gilded youth.’ Although our internal drive is still unsatisfactory, it seems that actions such as the opposition of the inhabitants of Cracow against the organisation of winter Olympics in their city, or the protests of the dwellers of Wrocław against mass chopping down of trees, articulated by NGOs, demonstrate that as a community we are able to display civic involvement in important problems that concern our habitat and our level of comfort in it.    Unfortunately, there was no room during SURVIVAL to talk about yet another aspect of urban citizenship – the right to the city of people from moral/ sexual margins (who are symbolically on the margins, but sometimes also literally, not because of their conscious decision, but due to a certain kind of policy and normativity). I personally consider this issue extremely important and I would like to highlight it in my text.

The city is invariably and ubiquitously sexualised in one way or another (Bech, 1998). Gill Valentine (1993, 397) argues that the participants of everyday interactions in the metropolis are not asexual individuals but people with certain sexual identities, and the interaction is taking place in sexualised locations. Various spaces may either by sexualised or de-sexualised by means of human experience of anonymity, loneliness, fear, anxiety, the need for voyeurism or exhibitionism. While venturing in the urban jungle, we come across strangers, we send signals and collect the responses – glances, fleeting smiles and uncontrollable gestures. The city is an arena of various actions and practices, which perform, shape, (re)produce and institutionalise sexuality. By being present in the anonymous and crowded cityscape, sexuality becomes liberated. There exists a German saying that “urban air makes free” (“Stadtluft macht frei”). In these circumstances, sexuality is endowed with new possibilities of implementation, and thus turns from an accidental and episodic experience into a practice embedded in a concrete context. It become a process, an incessant and quite coherent narrative immersed in the maze of streets, parks and squares. By being embedded in the cityscape, demonstrating sexual gestures, thoughts and desires has been intensified and assumed the form of sexual identity. The emergence of identity as we know it has been largely possible thanks to the ‘city.’

Apart from being a sexual laboratory or an identity factory, the very same city, however, can become a machine of normalisation and a space for taming the unquenchable, ‘immoral’ or incorrect/evil sexuality. The urban environment is not just passive background to identity-shaping processes, but it is also an active player in building the identity. The project of ‘realising’ the newly-invented (self-) identifications became a fact the moment huge agglomerations emerged. The Foucauldian genesis of sexuality (Foucault, 1978) and the resulting identities are tightly correlated with the functioning of the entire urban apparatus, whose lack would have surely made the plan unfeasible. Universities, hospitals, prisons, psychiatric wards, orphanages, dark alleys, main squares – without these institutions, and many others, sexuality as we understand it following in the footsteps of Foucault would have never been born, or it would have emerged much later.

The notion of citizenship is closely connected with the city. It was within the Greek polis where the idea of citizenship and democracy developed. An agora, a forum, the main square were meeting places where the eligible member of demos debated, argued, voted, and made decisions. Every citizen (in practice, every free man) was assigned certain rights and duties. Had it not been for the city, the contemporary democracy and the idea of a civic society would not have emerged. The English words ‘citizen’ and ‘citizenship’ still retain their original connection with the city. Although sexuality is a complex combination of corporeal potentialities, desires, practices, conceptions, beliefs, identities and institutions that emerge somewhere at the intersection of the body and the mind, it has rarely been included as part of the notion of citizenship. As Jeffrey Weeks proves (1998, 36), the separation of sexuality from the public sphere has only intensified our interest in it. Irrespective of how strongly this sphere of our activity resonated in the public sphere, we always knew that the only arena suitable for erotic adventures and experiences was the private, individual space of one’s home. Citizenship is only manifested externally, in public contact with other citizens and the community. The conception of sexual citizenship is a peculiar hybrid that overcomes the division into the public and the private.

In Hubbard’s opinion (2001, 53), the single mother, the prostitute, the spinster, the pervert or the pornographer (not to mention lesbians, bisexuals and gays) have been all demonised as ‘bad citizens’ in different ways at different times to define what is considered normal and desirable behaviour. Questions concerning sexual morality are crucial when defining citizenship. Failing to meet specific requirements results in treating the misfits as second-class citizens who are denied certain rights (e.g. to legalise their relationships or adopt children), although they are still expected to fulfil all the duties imposed on them by the law.

Carol Pateman (1989) argued that the notion of the civil society is a patriarchal construct that limits the participation of women in the public sphere. The social contract that was supposedly made to ensure the human right to freedom, equality and justice, concerned exclusively men. The father, the brother, the husband – these were the heroes who laid the foundations for modern democracy. Women as well as all those who abandoned the heteronormative path were excluded from the political community. Hubbard (2001, 55) wrote that “civil society can be conceptualized as a hetero-sexual (as well as patriarchal and racist) construction that serves to make entry into the public realm very difficult for those whose sexual lives are judged ‘immoral’.” Space faithfully mirrors the opinions about ‘immoral’ sexuality. The social perception of what is good and what is evil is legitimised and institutionalised in the city streets, junctions, poster pillars and walls. That which can be represented in public spaces, which is visible, must be somehow morally justifiable.

The most prominent historical places that are vital for the functioning of a democracy, e.g. because of the symbolism attached to them, are reserved exclusively for depictions of norms and behaviours that are associated with heterosexualism, although officially they are presented as neutral and de-sexualised spaces. Califia (1994, 205) claimed that the city is “a map of the hierarchy of desires”, from the valorised to the stigmatised. If the misfits are to sustain and highlight their dissimilarity, they ought to do so in places allocated especially for this purpose; in places where the eye cannot see, and only our insatiable curiosity compels us to wail about them.

The notion of citizenship should be sensitive not only to class, racial and gender issues, but also to sexual ones. Irrespective of the importance we attach to the last-mentioned component of our existence, citizenship as a term will always be exclusive to a certain degree. It is only by broadening its meaning and overcoming the liberal public/private binarism that we may succeed in better understanding the idea of citizenship. Then Lech Kaczyński, still as Mayor of Warsaw, would not have resorted to absurd justifications of his decision to ban the Equality Parade by saying that he would have allowed it if the gays had organised it as citizens and not as homosexuals. Certain rights stem from our sexuality; for a long time, it has been the subject of political debate and legislation. How is it then possible to perceive this sphere of our lives as something unconnected with the idea of citizenship? The conception of sexual citizenship calls for broadening the sphere of personal liberty and safety by coming out to demonstrate one’s dissimilarity. The process of queering the space – manifesting one’s non-normative identity – is also, paradoxically, a means of protecting the possibility to make private choices that are free from conventions and traditional ethics, and to live a life according to one’s own script. Among the actions intended to achieve this means are protest marches (e.g. Equality Parade in Warsaw or the Tolerance March in Cracow), artistic events held in public spaces (e.g. poster actions, murals, graffiti, performances of street artists and theatres, the “Let Them See Us” campaign), parades (Gay Pride), or so-called kiss-ins, i.e. organised actions of public kissing of homosexual couples. Of course, gay quarters also play an important role in gaining visibility and full citizenship. However, the point is to go beyond such enclaves and manifest one’s dissimilarity in places that have so far been reserved exclusively to propagating and depicting heterosexuality. It is thought that queering the space reminds the heteronormative majority of the existence of sexual dissidents next to them, who have identical needs and deserve all the benefits stemming from being a legitimate citizen. If a person is publically non-existent – which happens when they are invisible – he or she is also invisible to the state and the ‘decent citizens.’ Equally invisible become his or her dreams, needs and desires. His or her rights. This is why some authors, e.g. Nancy Duncan (1996, 43), call for “radical openness” of the public sphere so that it would become accessible to all people, thoughts, words and actions. Otherwise, the marginalisation and privatisation of sexuality will only deepen, and the notion of citizenship will continue to be incomplete and false.

Rob Kitchin and Karen Lysaght (2002) claim that space is always malleable and constantly reproducing itself. As such, it is what it is only because of this reproduction; however, it can be easily veered off in another direction and tinged with other colours by interfering with its existing order. Actions of queering the city demonstrate that space is liquid reality. Kitchin and Lysaght (ibid.) also prove that hegemonic heterosexist relations and space are constantly being challenged. Sexual dissidents subvert and parody it, endow it with new meanings and thus reveal its temporariness and hence its inherent queerness. An overdone city is a city of all styles, values, opinions, corporealities, dreams and desires. It is an egalitarian city devoid of its predictable rhythm, shunning boredom. This is an urban revolution that we face in Poland. Who will light the match?



Henning Bech, “Citysex: Representing Lust In Public” in Theory Culture Society 15 (1998), pp. 215 – 241.
Pat Califia, Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex (Pittsburgh, 1994).
Nancy Duncan, “Renegotiating Gender and Sexuality in Public and Private Places” in Bodyspace: Destabilizing Geographies of Gender and Sexuality, edited by Nancy Duncan (New York, 1996).
Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, an Introduction (New York, 1978).
Philip Hubbard “Desire/Disgust: Mapping the Moral Contours of Heterosexuality” in Progress in Human Geography 24 (2000), pp. 191 – 217.
Philip Hubbard Sex Zones: Intimacy, Citizenship and Public Space” in Sexualities 4 (2001), pp. 51 – 71.
Rob Kitchin and Karen Lysaght, “Queering Belfast: Some Thoughts on the Sexing of Space” in Working Paper Series 19 (2002).
Carole Pateman The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory (Stanford, 1989).
Gill Valentine “Hetero-sexing Space: Lesbian Perceptions and Experiences of Everyday Space” in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 11 (1993), pp. 395 – 413.
Jeffrey Weeks “The Sexual Citizen” in Theory, Culture, Society 15 (1998), pp. 35 – 52.