Anonymous-Democratic Public Sphere (Sitting at the DMV)

A couple of weeks back, I spent about three hours at the DMV renewing my driver’s license. I could have gone out, gotten an eye test, and renewed by mail. But why wouldn’t you want to go to the DMV? I was on spring break and wanted to take a walk. Anyway, in this line of work you can bring a book with you. I was into Daniel Matt’s God and the Big Bang and the DMV seemed as good as anywhere to sit and read a popular book about Kabbalah and cosmology. A public place, the DMV is more interesting a place than the private space of my apartment. A clerk told me that every once in awhile there’s a fight here at the DMV on E. 125th St. But what’s remarkable is that for the most part, people are generally relaxed. The place is public in a special kind of way. It’s anonymous and democratic. There’s nothing, however, at all dehumanizing about the DMV. You enter a mental zone that is unique to these kinds of places. I liked the low hum, the massive crowd of people sitting, standing, reading, milling, texting, talking, minding their own business. No one at the DMV is there to talk at you, sell you something, preach something, or entertain you. No one wants anything from you. Talk with a stranger or sit there with your own thoughts. It makes no bit of difference. What would Levinas say? To be sure, you go up to the counter after “the other,” but then “the other” also goes up after you. Watch your number. It works like a clock. Everyone bides their time. You’re no better than anyone else.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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