Vandalism and Solitude

Apparently two men were locked in a cage for 20 hours because they put up posters saying “Disrupt G20”. Police have charged them with mischief, more specifically a sort of ‘vandalism’, and were worried about “whether the individuals are a threat to community safety.”

If it’s true that putting up posters is a form of vandalism, there’s a remarkable amount of vandalism that goes on where I live, especially by people driven to crime by lost cats or their need to make sure people know how to learn better Spanish. And if we abstract from the question of legal ownership, it’s largely impossible to stand anywhere without seeing some sort of message or image plastered onto the environment for public viewing.

And by and large, this seems to me like a positive thing. It makes places feel more lived in – it lets you know that the strange shapes moving out of your way in the street are actually people, who have things they want other people to know about. Even when the message is ugly, or offensive, there’s something worthwhile about knowing that someone nearby has a divergent opinion.

Of course like all good things it can be dysfunctional, especially if some messages or sorts of messages predominate too much (legal advertising seems like the biggest example though). But that seems like the sort of problem that requires a ‘virtue’ response rather than a ‘rule’ response: that people may do X better or worse, and should be induced to do it better in whatever way is most appropriate in a given case, rather than that there should be strict rules to prevent people from doing X at all.

I think a neighbourhood with widespread ‘vandalism’, i.e. people changing and re-creating public spaces to express themselves or communicate certain things, seems like a nicer image than one without any such ‘vandalism’, and I think that’s one expression of a more general truth about human life.

We want to be in control of things, to have security against unwanted or risky events, to acquire power – but we want to acquire power over something real and meaningful. And one of the biggest influences on what feels real and meaningful is whether it resists our power. What makes us interested in understanding and influencing something is that it does things we don’t expect, or don’t want.

If things are too under control, or too predictable, or too easy, we find ourselves dissatisfied. And it’s in other people that this ambivalence comes out most clearly.

Imagine you’re going out for dinner with a friend and ask them what sort of food they like, but they say only “I don’t mind, I’ll eat whatever you choose”, however much we might enquire or insist that we want to know their preference. In one sense, they’re simply deferring to your wishes, trying not to impede or conflict with what you want – and yet you end up feeling very frustrated, because they deprive you of the opportunity to ‘make contact’ with them. What you most want is ‘something that might conflict with what you want’.


This is relevant to vandalism because it’s relevant to private property in general. The essence of private property is to move from “I have some claim to control what happens to this item, because I need it/I made it/I can make best use of it/some other reason”, which carries no implications about what claims other people might have, to “I, or some other person, have exclusive, total, and permanent control over what happens to this item”.

It’s a process of extending power, and thereby creating solitude: the individual owner becomes more secure by being able to exclude the claims others might have over their property, and in doing so establishes a sort of artificial symbolic ‘solitude’.

One consequence is then that the symbolic presence of others in public spaces becomes ‘vandalism’, a violation of the ‘private’ rights of whoever owns the material components of the public space.

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2 Responses to Vandalism and Solitude

  1. Phil says:

    This is really good. It bears on something that’s bugged me for several years now, the physical erosion and conceptual annulment of public space. The idea that people should have the use of spaces which aren’t under anyone’s active control – let alone spaces which aren’t under surveillance – seems more and more foreign to the way we’re encouraged to think. If you want freedom from interference, go behind closed doors – your own closed doors.

  2. lukeroelofs says:

    “go behind closed doors – your own closed doors.”
    I love this line! Glad you liked the post.

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