Last week I came out of my personal, Corona pandemic-induced paralysis by presenting a paper at the Interpret Europe web conference. My topic was agonistic (third) spaces, and in preparing the presentation, I felt that creating such spaces is now more important than perhaps ever before.
I have already blogged about agonistic interpretation and agonistic spaces here. In summary, an agonistic space is a space in which those views generally obscured and obliterated by the dominant consensus are made visible, and those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony are given a voice .
Through an excellent Erasmus + project that I was fortunate to be part of between 2017 and 2019 I became aware of the concepts of Third Place and Third Space. Third Place is an idea that goes back to American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg. In short, he speaks of our homes as the first place, our work places as the second, and the third place are communal spaces such as cafés. For Oldenburg, those third places are crucial for community cohesion: they are social levellers, where we are all equal and where we can discuss and shape our communal futures together.
Personally, I have always felt that Oldenburg’s idea of the impact of such third places is exaggerated. Although I think that he does have a strong point about the need to create physical spaces that are perceived as generally open to all, I think more needs to happen in those spaces to truly deliver equality and shared agency. This is where Third Space theory comes in. It was Homi Bhabha who promoted the idea of the third space as what I like to describe as a facilitated space. Reminiscent of representation theory, Bhabha argues that in the third space culture is co-created as all involved bring to bear their own cultural concepts upon the conversation and creation taking place. Bhabha comes from post-colonial theory, so an important element of his concept is that in the third space, the past with all its injuries and representations is (I’m paraphrasing here) actualised in the present and thus (now we’re back to agonistic spaces) made visible. Only in pausing and examining the underlying representations and dynamics of the past can true equality and shared agency, and thus co-creation of communal futures happen.
I argue that creating agonistic (third) spaces is the purpose of (agonistic) heritage interpretation. In these spaces, the representations inherent in heritage, their origins, contexts and present-day impacts are made visible. In doing so, we also give a voice to those heritage communities whose heritage values are not part of the dominant consensus. In turn, the performance, negotiation and (re-)creation of heritage in and by diverse communities is made possible. Therefore, an agonistic space is the prerequisite for the democratization of heritage management and interpretation. Considered more widely, agonistic (third) spaces are the prerequisite for a pluralist democracy, of which heritage management is a part.
Regularly, when I speak about the need for agonistic interpretation, that is, interpretation that gives voice to diverse views, some in the audience will raise the issue of ‘hate speech’. This was also the case in the discussion that followed my talk last week. The fear is that an agonistic space may become a platform for extremists and haters. While I understand that fear, I am troubled by the fact that extremism is what we end up discussing – rather than the everyday occurrence of minority views being muted by the dominant consensus. I believe that that, too, is an expression of the hegemonies of which we as interpreters, educators and managers are a part. We know – or could learn – how to respond to hate speech. Hate speech is not the pressing issue in this case. In focusing on hate speech, we are turning a blind eye to marginalisation and the many real ways in which it impacts on our societies. Brexit, Trump – these are all recent examples of the outcome of this process, and Coronavirus may turn out to give rise to yet another. We must become facilitators of agonistic (third) spaces if we want to avoid further splits in our societies.
 Mouffe, C., 2014. Agonistics. Thinking the world politically. London and New York: Verso, p. 93.