An empty square

In his ‘theses’, Jacques Rancière describes the spatial aspects of the police regime in the following way:

The essence of the police lies in a partition of the sensible that is characterized by the absence of void and of supplement: society here is made up of groups tied to specific modes of doing, to places in which these occupations are exercised, and to modes of being corresponding to these occupations and these places. In this matching of functions, places and ways of being, there is no place for any void. It is this exclusion of what ‘is not’ that constitutes the police-principle at the core of statist practices. (Rancière 2010: 36)

When Rancière speaks of ‘statist practices’, he is referring to the use of public power that takes place within the perimeters of a particular sensory space hosting actors, roles, places and modes of being. Because the dimensions of public power as government are defined in constitutions, that sensory space can be described as the ‘space of constituted power’ or ‘constituted space’. Branches of government, public authorities and state administrators all exercise the powers that are constitutionally assigned to them as competences within that space, that is, the space that the constitution has created for the state’s use of public power. The state’s use of public power – that is, Rancière’s ‘statist practices’ – is equivalent to what he terms the police.

As such, the partition of the sensible that is characteristic of the police is, as Rancière above notes, marked by the absence or lack of void. The partition covers the space completely making it a space that leaves no room. The space is ‘full’ or, to be more precise, ‘complete’ in the sense that even any existing emptiness is already accounted for. This completeness of space symbolises the totalitarian nature of the police regime, or, in other words, of ‘statist practices’ that are not, in Rancière’s terms, properly political, and certainly not democratic.

Constituted space has both a physical and a figurative dimension. Physically the completeness of constituted space can be illustrated through the spatial solutions that have been adopted in cities specifically designed as seats of power, usually as capital cities. I’ll try to expand with an example closest to home.

Soon after Finland became the Grand Duchy of Russia in 1809 after centuries of Swedish rule, tsar Alexander I moved the administrative capital from Turku on the western coast of the country to Helsinki which was closer to Saint Petersburg, the imperial capital. At the time, Helsinki was a small and insignificant town, so the tsar’s decision also required an urban upgrade including a plan to build a new administrative centre. The new centre was to be built in a neoclassical Empire style that echoed the architectural fashion prominent in Saint Petersburg at the time, and its design was commissioned to German-born architect Carl Ludwig Engel (1778-1840) and city planner Johan Albrecht Ehrenström (1762-1847).

From C L. Engel’s letter to Carl Herrlich, dated 4 June 1822 (draft of Helsinki town plan by Ehrenström). Source: City of Helsinki Archive.

The centrepiece of the new capital was to be a city square around which the capital’s main administrative buildings would be built. The sketch above reflects Engel’s interpretation of Ehrenström’s vision. The ‘Grand Square’, as it was known at the time, can be seen in the sketch as a white rectangular area. A red cross to the north marks the place where a new cathedral would be built (Helsinki Cathedral, originally St Nicholas’ Church, completed 1852), while the large red hollow rectangle to the east marks the place of a new government building that would house the Senate (Government Palace, originally Senate House, completed 1822). Finally, a smaller red rectangle to the southeast marks the former home of a wealthy merchant that would be enlarged and redesigned in the Empire style including a new facade with Ionian columns to serve as the residence of the Governor General (originally Bock House, a.k.a. Old Rathaus, redesign completed 1819). In addition to these three original components, the plan also included the enlargement and redesign of several other merchant homes on the south side of the square (e.g. Houses Burtz, Hellenius, Sunn and Kiseleff, redesigns completed in the mid-1830s) as well as the completion of the new building on the west side of the square for the country’s only university that was relocated from Turku at the same time (University of Helsinki, originally Imperial Alexander University in Finland, completed 1832). According to the city plan, the University building’s neoclassical facade would symmetrically reflect the Senate House on the opposite side of the square. A monumental statue honouring the ‘progressive tsar’ Alexander II in the middle of the square was finally added in 1894.

After the north, east and west sides of the square had been completed, the five former residential buildings on the south side would be gradually occupied by key representatives of state power. Bock House on the southeastern corner of the square soon became Helsinki City Hall, and in 1913, soon after the city administration relocated to a former hotel on the south end of the same block, the Helsinki Magistrate’s Court moved in. At about the same time, the four remaining buildings on the south side were transformed into government offices and would mainly house the regional Crime Police Centre and units of the Helsinki Police Department.

The Senate Square. Source: Helsinki City Town Plan.

The south side of the square has since been assigned other functions related to culture, retail and tourism. But this was the design of the square by the time of Finnish independence in 1917. There are eight buildings in the same neoclassical Empire style situated on the four sides of the square, and they all represent some aspect of state power: the executive, the judicial, public security, the ecclesiastical, and the epistemic. In addition to the architectural uniformity of the neoclassical style, the plan of the square reflects an ideal of balance in which the different powers are set to oversee and temper each other. As an image, it resembles the figurative organisational charts that are used to depict constitutional designs in which even hierarchically layered state powers are balanced against each other. There are two curiosities in this seemingly harmonious plan. First, the statue of the tsar in the centre of the square can, perhaps, be interpreted as a conduit that facilitates the balancing relations between the main institutions. But second and more importantly, the House of the Estates (completed 1891), the only democratic element of the larger constitutional design, and precursor to the post-independence Parliament, was built further away and is only partly visible at one-o’clock on the city plan above.

What about the supposedly empty space that makes up the square itself? In what way does the empty square contribute to the completeness of the partition? In this partition of the sensible, emptiness merely accentuates the power of the institutions on the four sides of the square by allowing the buildings and what they represent to stand out. In this sense, the aesthetic function of the empty space is to remain empty, and so it is not initially available for other uses. This may change temporarily or over time as the partition takes on new characteristics. A common feature of such squares is, for example, to occasionally fill in as parade grounds that frame choreographed troop assemblies with nationalistic and/or military significance. The police-nature of a feature highlighting the coercive infrastructure of statist practices is obvious.

Parade of the Finnish Civil Guard (White Guard) at Senate Square, 1920s. Photo: Olof Sundström. Source: Helsinki City Museum.

In liberal democracies, another common feature of squares is to provide a background for civic action such as demonstrations and rallies. Fitting masses into a confined area signifies the strength and democratic value of popular rule.

Demonstration at Senate Square during the general strike of 1917. Source: The Labour Archives.

But even civic action fails to break the ‘completeness’ of the partition as Rancière understands it. It merely provides a justification for the apparatus surrounding the square, perhaps even suggesting that such action can only take place under the auspices of statist power. In Rancière’s scheme, only politics succeeds to intervene and to oppose this ‘completeness’ and to cater for ‘those who have no space’. So a trade union demonstration may simply highlight a public square’s alternate role as a civic forum legitimising the police partition of which it is part. But the 2017 ‘Ni una menos’ demonstration in Buenos Aires where over 100 women stripped naked on the Plaza de Mayo as part of a flash mob ‘screaming protest’ against gender-based violence may include the level of contestation that politics requires. To oppose violence with public nudity is an exceptional aesthetic statement that certainly intervenes with the monotony of police-based government (see also Hermansen – Fernández 2018). 

Photos: PM
An analysis of the partition of the sensible that applies to constituted spaces in contemporary police environments would have to account for the other ways in which such squares are today both used and experienced. The buildings on the south side of Senate Square have since been renovated into shops and restaurants mainly for the tourism industry. Indeed, the square and its surroundings have been branded as the ‘Historic Centre’ making it the most popular destination for the on-average four million tourists visiting the city annually. Especially during the holiday season, the physical presence of visitors, as well as of the coaches carrying them parked on all sides of the square, add a commercial and consumerist dimension to the constellation of powers included in the partition.

Hermansen Ulibarri, Pablo, and Roberto Fernández Droguett (2018) ‘La foto-etnografía como metodología de investigación para el estudio de manifestaciones conmemorativas contestatarias en el espacio público’, Universitas Humanística, No. 86: 167-196.

Rancière, Jacques (2010) ‘Ten Theses on Politics’, p. 27-44, in Jacques Rancière, Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics. Trans. Steven Corcoran. London: Continuum.

Scheppele, Kim Lane (2004) ‘Constitutional Ethnography: An Introduction’, Law and Society Review, Vol. 38, No. 3: 389-406.

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