Open doors in Paris: when the private becomes public

hashtag-portes-ouvertes
sebastiendubey.com

By Lucrezia Giordano

Home is the private space par excellence. It is a place where people can develop their own micro-society, based on the relationship with a space they feel as familiar and intimate, and whose access is usually permitted to a few people only. Nevertheless, there are some exceptional cases where homes can become public spaces; public arenas where strangers meet and interact.

During the recent attacks in Paris, many people responded to the emergency by offering their houses as safe shelters for people in the streets. By using the Twitter hashtag #Porteouverte (‘open door’, in English) people in danger managed to retrieve a sense of security by entering somebody else’s private realm. I would like to propose, here, an analysis of the temporary use of private space as a public one. Using solidarity in Paris during the attacks as a case study, my goal is to focus on those situations where the interior, to which only close friends and family members are invited, is exposed to the view of all, as argued by Ariella Azoulay in her research about Palestinian houses. Unlike Azoulay though, who refers in her work to an involuntary invasion of the private space, I address here the voluntary opening of people’s homes to strangers.

Public and private spaces are separated entities that interact, in a necessary relationship of mutual definition. As Azoulay argues, there is no form of human coexistence not based on distinctions and differentiations allowing people to congregate and separate by various criteria of limiting and enabling entry, exit and accessibility. Differences between public and private places reside in the way people can access them, and in the different codes of behaviour that are enacted by social actors in a particular place. Public spaces are social arenas characterised by an open participation: as Richard Sennett states, they are places where strangers meet. In this sense, public spaces are connoted as realms of possibility. The openness of such spaces allows them to be defined as structures of opportunity for people who participate in making them meaningful. It is my opinion, in fact, that public places are not fixed entities: rather, they are made and modified by the actions of those who use them as social arenas. On the other hand, private spaces are characterised by a limited access. Despite the existence of different kinds of private spaces, it is my intention here to focus on the realm of intimacy only. In this sense I address buildings such as houses, where the access is not only limited, but to which people also develop a deeper and closer relationship. I believe this depends on the fact that people act on private spaces in order to make them more familiar: as argued by Daniel Miller, people who engage with a particular object tend to use it as a basis to identify themselves. However, the attacks in Paris created an exceptional situation that denied the roles of public and private spaces as described above. The attacks were what Azoulay defines ‘acts of destruction’- where what is destroyed is the essence of shared public space. Norms regulating social coexistence in the public realm are denied: a violent, unexpected attack to the public space in fact generates confusion and insecurity among all those people who shared and accepted the same regulations and standards of behaviour. In such situations, the nature of public and private spaces changes temporarily. Insecurity reshapes the perception of a particular public place, which is not seen as ‘known and safe’ anymore, but rather as ‘unknown and dangerous’. In the same way, the offer of private homes as shelters from people living in Paris modifies the essence of private spaces, by making them openly accessible. To connect to what Azoulay states, the exceptional situation generates ways of ‘acting-together’ that would not be accepted in other occasions. If we apply Sennett’s distinction here, we could argue that private places change from being ‘boundaries’ to being ‘borders’ – from limited spaces, they become areas of interaction between strangers.  The personal knowledge of people is not important anymore: what matters is the shared feeling of solidarity. This way, the unknown becomes known through the mutual understanding of a situation.

Thanks to the ‘open doors’, private houses in Paris temporarily change to public spaces. I believe this demonstrates that private spaces are not necessarily closed systems, as argued by Sennett: in fact, they can change their structure in response to changing conditions. Strangers get to meet in these private spaces that become temporarily public, making the distinction between the two realms more blurred than ever. In this sense, walls are not ‘keeping out’ anymore, as stated by Azoulay when describing her own perception of safety inside her house: they are, on the contrary, taking people in. The collective response of people living in Paris is the denial of what Tocqueville defines ‘social indifference’. With this term Tocqueville addresses the way people behave as they are strangers to the destiny of all the others, denying as a consequence the existence of a ‘sense of society’.  Nevertheless, such a temporary use of a private space as a public one is, in my opinion, the demonstration that a sense of society can still exist. That, even when the outside is experienced as unbearable, as argued by Azoulay, we are not going to lock ourselves behind our safe walls. When insecurity takes over, people are still willing to open their door.

Lucrezia Giordano is a master student Social and Cultural Anthropology in our department.

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