There has been a recent outcry on the Internet after the wide spreading of a series of photographs showing metallic/concrete spikes on stone thresholds, planters and other surfaces that could potentially be used by homeless people in order to sleep. Judging the motivations of people who have been part of this outcry is not my place here; however one cannot help but to notice the hyper-punctuality of this kind of conversations on the Internet that, too often, restraint themselves to 140 characters of indignation with no subsequent political traction. The very fact that many people seem to have just discovered this anti-homeless material device for the first time in these coming weeks is telling of the triviality with which they consider the public space of the cities in which they live. The problem here is not as much the evanescence of this outcry — after all, it could have sensitized a few people — but, rather, the way it embodies one more proof that a wrongly asked question can implicitly legitimize that against which the question had been asked. In other words, by targeting the spikes, rather than homelessness itself, this outcry is considering the fact that our societies count a multitude of homeless people as granted.
When children, we are being told that there is no such thing as a “stupid question,” and that there are only “stupid answers.” This would be too easy if it was true. I would actually argue that only questions can be stupid and answers are only as pertinent as the questions that triggered them. I wrote a few weeks ago about the deceptive question “what should we do with the European immigration problem” that the xenophobic movements have succeeded to have moderate parties systematically answered forgetting that there may not be any “immigration problem” to begin with. I also recently discussed with Derek Gregory about the deceptive questions that legitimatize American drone attacks: “can the US Army assassinate an American citizen without due trial?” or “can the Obama administration release the procedure used in the context of this kind of attacks?” All these questions are asked in the belief that they will help prevent what they actually implicitly legitimize (xenophobia, drone assassinations, homelessness, etc.) by bringing the point of attention to an effect of the problem, and not the cause of it.
In the case of the anti-homeless spikes, we can either applaud the hyper-local intervention of activists dropping cement on the spike in order to (unsuccessfully) reproduce a surface where a homeless person will be able to sleep as it has been the case this week, or, instead, we can start asking why so many cities of the world are populated by precarious bodies — many of them die during Winter — who often have lost everything they materially and emotionally owned in only a few weeks and have lived in the street since then. When someone finds him/herself in the street, (s)he looses all status that would allow him/her to ‘reintegrate society,’ from the address to the access to hygiene, which has direct incidence on what we call “dignity” for reasons that would deserve to be studied.
Homeless bodies are literally imprisoned outside. This phrasing could appear as strange if one narrates the “natural condition” — always dangerous as a notion — of all animals (including humans) to live outside that, through history, has been augmented by the construction of individualized shelters. However, this narrative, often used by capitalism — it always have something to say about “natural conditions — does not consider that society is organized around normative expectations that actively marginalized and/or excludes bodies that do not meet them. Homeless bodies are therefore not only locked outside physically — we can talk again of the walls enforcing the exclusivity of bodies authorized to live inside of them — but also locked outside of society itself. The reason why a body finds itself locked outside of society reveals the absurdity of the societal scheme: when a body attempts to integrate society (thus gaining access to a home, to hygiene, to clothing, to food, etc.), it finds itself paradoxically required to have what society provides (a home, hygiene, clothing etc.). Facing this malicious absurdity, we can either continue to “look at the finger that shows us the moon,” or start asking questions such as the necessity of a legal right to housing as organizations like Take Back the Land in Florida has been consistently posing in the past (see past article).