Notes towards Writing
It’s been six months since I decided that I should leave the academic job that occupied me for 25 years. A quarter of a century. It’s a long time to be doing something that I never imagined myself doing. I didn’t, as many do now, set out to become an academic. It just kind of happened. I was 8 months pregnant and someone offered me a job teaching radio to undergraduate students. I’d done some secondary and sessional university teaching before this. I quite liked it. Well, I liked the students. But I’d never imagined I’d make a career out of it. I was extremely fortunate that my foray into full-time employment aligned with Paul Keating’s superannuation legislation and that the sector I found myself working paid the equivalent of 17% of my salary into a super account I couldn’t access until now. Extremely fortunate.
Both my partner and I were raised in working class homes. We were taught to value material things. Not in a “I need more stuff” way but in a “this is valuable and I need to look after it” kind of way. People carp on about materialism but really we all need to be more focussed on the material. Throw away consumerism is anathema to the kind of world we need to make – a world that remakes, reuses, recycles and reduces. It was my growing awareness that we need more people on the ground, leading the way towards a more sustainable world that led to my decision to leave paid employment. I already had enough. More than enough. What, I thought, could I give back?
Well, firstly my time. I need to spend (oh, the metaphors) my time doing the most good and the least harm. Live local. Ride my bike. Grow food. Nurture my relationships. I signed up as a volunteer at CERES, in the propagation team, and I love it – helping to grow organic plants that in turn support the work that CERES does in educating people about sustainable energy, community building and organic farming. I also work with a community group who are trying to raise awareness about the importance of composting in reducing the amount of organic waste going to landfill where it contributes to about 50% of the greenhouse gases we need so desperately to reduce. The Compost Depot is made up of 5 women and one man, all locals who met at Darebin Council’s Community Leaders in Sustainability program in 2016.
It’s a new kind of life and I love it.
CERES Joe’s Organic Market Garden on the Merri Creek
Somewhere in this image is my nana – Dot Dummett. This picture was taken in 1966 when she left Melbourne aboard the very first Women’s Weekly World tour cruise ship. Enticed by images of the world that she found in the pages of that venerable magazine – of coronations and castles and exotic locales – she made sure to book her place on the first Women’s Weekly World tour without hesitation. My grandfather, who had seen some parts of the world during his service in World War 2, had no intention of ever leaving Australia again and confined his interest in the world to his own backyard and the pages of the National Geographic.
I found this image while I was scouring old slides that I inherited from my grandfather Fred after he passed away in 2010. What immediately struck me about the image was not the sight of my grandmother riding a camel – though that is quite a striking element in this image. Rather, it was the manner in which she was dressed. A white dress. On a camel. In Egypt in 1966. What was she thinking?
Clearly she had no intention of getting dirty, in a physical sense and a metaphoric sense. She would remain as untouched by her experience as she could possibly manage. She was a true colonial’s colonial whose interest in the geopolitical extended only to the naming of royal children and the live telecast of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
What is also striking about this image is its rarity amongst her collection of slides of her travels. The fact that she is in the image is its first marker as a rare image. The second marker is that it is a snapshot. She did not, in fact, take most of the images she returned home with. Her collection of holiday snaps was predominantly made up of images, in the form of slides, taken by professional photographers.
Again, what is striking about these images is not the images themselves but rather her desire to erase any marker of difference, which might challenge her to see these scenes through other (read ‘foreign’) eyes. Hence, she has scratched out the Italian renditions of the names of these ‘sites’, leaving only the more familiar (and one might argue, in her terms, ‘correct’) English names for them.
It might be tempting to argue that my grandmother’s travel experiences were indicative of tourism at a particular time and place in history. But I think that would be wrong for a number of reasons.
Firstly, I also have my aunt’s diaries from the mid 1950s where she details her travels hitchhiking around Europe with her girlfriends where she muses about this or that lift they have been given and the Iranian student that she tutored in a youth hostel.
Secondly, there are no shortage of tourism experiences on offer now that continue to promise the kind of perfect (and therefore at once removed) experience my nan was seeking.
I think the difference lies in the ways in which space is both conceptualised and produced in and by the different practices and discourses of travel and tourism. And I’m interested in the ways in which this plays out in photographic practices which in turn has implications for the ways in which we conceptualise space and politics and our being-together in the world.
Visitors to the website Googlesightseeing.com are immediately confronted with a question of disarming profundity when they land on the opening screen: Why bother seeing the world for real? The question suggests that there is in fact a ‘real space’ outside of the space of the screen that has been captured and brought to the viewer, in this case through satellite images and grabs from Google Earth and Streetview. These spaces are represented in and by the images that are the main feature of the site. It also implies that ‘seeing the world’ is merely a matter of vision. This way of framing tourism – as sight/site seeing – used commonly in a range of modes and expressions of armchair travel (or the ‘tourism of immobility’), not only undercuts the potentially transformative effects of actual travel experiences by reinforcing an imagination of space as representation, stasis and closure, it also resists an understanding of space (and consequently history and politics) as open, unfolding, becoming and event.
This argument follows on and draws inspiration from geographer Doreen Massey’s articulation ‘of a new conception of space’s potentially disruptive characteristics: precisely its juxtaposition, its happenstance arrangement-in-relation-to-each-other, of previously unconnected narratives/temporalities, its openness and its condition of always being made’ (Massey, 2005: 9). So one might argue that thinking of space as more than simply there but as a product of social relations, as a sphere of a multiplicity of trajectories, allows you to not only experience touristic space as transformative but reinvigorates touristic space as a space of the political. Tourists do not just travel across space to reach a destination, a place, that waits patiently for them to arrive, take their snapshots, and then leave (leaving the place much as they found it). Whether they are aware of it or not, they are a ‘part of the constant process of the making and breaking of links that is an element in the constitution of themselves (ourselves), where they (we) are not, where they (we) are going and thus space itself’ (Massey, 2005: 118). Media representations of travel and tourism work to create touristic spaces while also being a by-product of tourism.
As Massey argues, ‘[c]onceiving of space as a static slice through time, as representation, as a closed system are all ways of taming it. They enable us to ignore its real import: the coeval multiplicity of other trajectories and the necessary outwardlookingness of a spatialised subjectivity…if time is to be open to a future of the new then space cannot be equated with the closures and horizontalities of representation. More generally, if time is to be open then space must be open too. Conceptualising space as open, multiple and relational, unfinished and always becoming, is a prerequisite for history to be open and thus a prerequisite, too, for the possibility of politics.’ (59)
I’d like to tease these ideas a little, and these observations are, I should add, preliminary and part of a larger project on tourism, neoliberal discourses and space that I am currently pursuing that began when I first visited Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, in 2011.
Istanbul is becoming an increasingly important space in the development of tourism in Turkey; it is consistently outpacing the sector’s general growth which is still substantial – Total visitor numbers to Turkey rose from 16.302 million in 2003 to 36.776 million in 2012. While the number of visitors to İstanbul was 3.151 million in 2003, this number hit 9.281 million in 2012.
Alongside this growth in tourism is a massive commitment to unbridled ‘development’ by the Erdogan government. Internal resistance against this was most recently seen in the protests to stop Gezi Park near Taksim Square being turned into a shopping mall and hotel precinct. The response from the Turkish authorities was swift, deadly and well documented. There are ongoing protests against a proposed third bridge across the Bospherus in a part of the city which contains the forests, the ecological reserves, water reserves and water basins of the city. There are also protests against the building of what Erdogan has claimed will be the world’s largest airport on an area of 7,659 hectares in the same area. Some 6,172 hectares of this area is forested land, raising anger among environmentalists about the ecological footprint of the project. More generally, Istanbul is also undergoing the transformation from an industrial city to a finance and service-centered city, competing with other world cities for investment. This means that the working class who actually built the city as an industrial center no longer have a place in the new consumption-centered finance and service city. This can be clearly seen in this documentary
So while these Istanbul spaces are highly contested and politicised, the function of tourist representations of Istanbul, that are created both by and through tourism, empty space out – turning it into a series of ‘time-slices’ that reinforce the idea of space as merely there, eternal, uncontested and depoliticised.
The average length of stay for a visitor to Istanbul is 2.3 days (Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 2007). Tourism activities are heavily focused on two main areas – Sultanamhet and Taksim/Beyolglu. Like many other tourists, my first on the ground experience of Istanbul was premediated by images such as these: show Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Galata Tower, Topkapi Palace.
There’s no doubt that these monuments are historically significant and aesthetically amazing. However, whatever auratic qualities they may have are very quickly displaced when you visit them by a sense that you are a part of a massive neoliberal tourism machine. The lines of tour buses that stretch along the roadside between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia disgorge an endless stream of people and come marked with signs that say things like “The Blue Mosque, The Hagia Sophia and time to yourself”.
What I found most intriguing, however, was the sheer number of screens remediating these premediated images.
I’m not interested in this from the point of view of say Dean McCannell’s concept of staged authenticity (though of course there are interesting trajectories that this might take us on despite the reservations one might have about authenticity in general) or John Urry’s tourist ‘gaze’ – for Urry, the place still precedes the gaze and therefore, for me, works against a reading of space as event – always and ever open and constantly in the process of being made.
What the replication of the representations of these spaces does is work with the monuments themselves to create an illusion of fixity (which in turn reinforces and reifies the historical over the political) in spite of the fact that the monuments themselves show us the marks of time passing and space being constantly remade. These steps from the Hagia Sophia are a startling example of this. Every footstep, every body is in the process of transforming the space even while those same bodies are attempting to capture its enduring thingness in images.
To return to Massey with some remixing: Tourists do not just travel across space to reach a destination, a place, that waits patiently for them to arrive, take their snapshots, and then leave (leaving the place much as they found it). Whether they are aware of it or not, they are a ‘part of the constant process of the making and breaking of links that is an element in the constitution of themselves (ourselves), where they (we) are not, where they (we) are going and thus space itself’ (Massey, 2005: 118).
Even more than this, the event of space-time exceeds any romanticised notion of the eternal essence of place-ness by also reminding us that ‘the hills are rising, the landscape is being eroded and deposited, the climate is shifting, the very rocks themselves continue to move on.’ (141) Because we can’t represent that in images doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
I tried to capture this sense in this collection of images taken on our most recent trip to Istanbul. It falls short of the mark. I’m not sure yet how one might or could represent such a set of ideas in practice but that is the thrust of the research I am undertaking with this ongoing project.
Inspired in part by the work of Massey and film maker but also by the Greek philosopher Solon. Solon was a practitioner of the Greek institution of the theoria. Theoria, or θεωρία in Greek, is the root of both the word theory and of tourism. Interestingly, the word translates to English as “to consider, speculate, or look at.” The theoria was a group of trustworthy people or an individual, theoros (θεωρός), literally “spectator,” who would be dispatched to distant lands by the community, in search of the truth. The theoria’s job was to go to these faraway places, investigate, and report back to the community.
While journalists and the news media rushed to make sense of the uprising in Tahrir Square that ultimately led to the downfall of the Mubarak regime in Eygpt, another kind of sense was being made of these events by artists caught up in the protests. As artists often do, they were tapping into the feeling of the events unfolding in Tahrir Square during the protests as well as the feeling of being Egyptian and watching their world slowly crumble under the oppressive weight of a State out of touch with its people and desperately clinging to power. What artists tap into and through their work pass on when they engage with events such as this is resonance, described by Argentinean anthropologist Gaston Gordillo as the material-affective force that guides, and gives power to, the event of insurrections. Just as the many forms of media, including social media, relay resonance as a force across space both distributing it and reinforcing it, so too does the work of artists. This paper will examine how exhibitions of the work of Egyptian artist, Ahmed Basiony, tapped into the resonance that produced and was produced by the Tahrir Square uprising and allowed its force to continue to be distributed and be affective after the crowds had dispersed. Indeed, the power of Basiony’s work Thirty Days Running in The Place comes, I will argue, from the fact that it acts as a relay for the resonance produced in the Egyptian uprising.
Resonance and revolution
Writing at the time of the uprising in Egypt, Gordillo observed:
What has coalesced as a powerful, unstoppable force on the streets of Egypt is resonance: the assertive collective empathy created by multitudes fighting for the control of space. Resonance is an intensely bodily, spatial, political affair, materialized in the masses of bodies coming together in the streets of Egyptian cities in the past thirteen days, clashing with the police, temporarily dispersed by tear gas and bullets, and regrouping again like a relentless swarm to reclaim the streets, push the police back, and saturate space with a collective effervescence. Resonance is what gives life to this human rhizome and the source of its power. (Gordillo, 2011, npn.)
Building on the works of Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari and Jon Beasley-Murray’s recent book, Posthegemony, Gordillo argues that the events that occurred in Egypt in 2011 are one example of a phenomenon that he describes as ‘resonance’, which is produced when bodies come together in space and share a common rhythm. Spinoza’s view of the body as an outward looking entity tangled with constellations of other bodies, Gordillo argues, challenges the belief that human emotions are inner expressions of an enclosed self. Human emotions are produced, in fact, by the impact that other bodies have on our own.
Love, fear, envy, jealousy, or anger are just different ways in which our bodies are affected by other bodies. Affects, in other words, do not emerge from the inside out but are “incoming”: the product of relations with other bodies. Affect for Spinoza is affectation: a confirmation that bodies exist only in constellations and that societies are spatially grounded attempts to structure these constellations. (Gordillo, 2011, npn.)
Resonance is “intensified affectation” which, “unlike affect, does not simply exist as a given feature of social interactions” but is produced when bodies come together to control space: “bodies and space, modulated by the same temporal pulsation” (Gordillo, 2011). Resonance, Gordillo argues, “reaches political dimensions when the capacity to affect other bodies acquires a higher intensity and an oppositional, critical tone, a negativity that is simultaneously guided by an affirmative will-to-power” (2011). In the case of Tahrir Square, its occupation by demonstrators, bodies in space, was critical to the production of resonance. However, according to Gordillo, the conditions that produced the resonance in Tahrir Square had their origins elsewhere:
The Egyptian Revolution was in fact triggered by the arrival on Egyptian space of prior resonances created by the multitude in the streets of Tunisia, which then blended with localized grievances and patterns of unrest. In turn, the resonance that led to the Tunisian uprising can be traced back farther to the wave of massive anti-elite protests and riots that shook Europe in 2010, which created anti-establishment resonances that have now spilled over across the Mediterranean and onto the shores of Africa and the Middle-East. (Gordillo, 2011, npn.)
The critical question is how does resonance travel across space to affect other bodies in space and thus produce events like the Tahrir Square uprising. Gordillo observes that it is “channelled through a planetary network of instant communications that has reached a density, spatial reach, speed, and sophistication unparalleled in world history” (2011, npn.). However, he is quick to note that it is a mistake to overemphasise the role of social media in this exchange:
The emancipatory potential of the internet does not mean that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are the main weapons of the 21st century democratic rebellions, as the media often simplistically claims. These are important channels, crucial at points, for the dissemination of resonances produced in the streets by bodies that for the most part do not tweet. (Gordillo, 2011, npn.)
What this dissemination of resonance produces is an increase in the spread of “affective empathies” particularly when it is accompanied by media images of the attempted oppression of an unarmed, peaceful multitude by the State through violent means, as was the case during the Egyptian uprising. The creation of “affective empathies” is critical to an understanding of how Ahmed Basiony’s Thirty Days Running in the Place works to transmit resonance through art.
Ahmed Basiony and the dissemination of resonance
Ahmed Basiony, Self portrait with mobile phone, Tahrir Square, 2011.
Ahmed Basiony was shot by a sniper with a bullet to the head on the 28th of January 2011, whilst protesting in Tahrir Square. Following his death, his image became ubiquitous in Egypt and the Arab world. Photos of Basiony were used on posters within the square, in public graffiti, as well as newspapers and magazines internationally, and on numerous Facebook profiles as individuals turned their ‘profile’ photos on Facebook into the popular image of Basiony. As an early casualty of the struggle, Basiony quickly became a martyr figure. Although only one casualty out of an estimated 840 dead and 6000 injured, Basiony’s death was more widely recognised and felt both during and after the event because of his work as an artist.
Ahmed Basiony was a media artist who worked with video, sound and live performance. An assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, his work was not overtly political but instead was focussed on the use of digital technologies and open source software to create works that were interactive in the public sphere. Following his death in Tahrir Square, a reconfigured version of his installation Thirty Days Running in The Place was chosen to represent Egypt at the prestigious Venice Benniale in late 2011. Since that time, Basiony’s work has been exhibited at a variety of international venues including the Abandon Normal Devices Festival at FACT in Liverpool (2011) and at exUrban Screens in Melbourne (2012).
Ahmed Basiony, Thirty Days of Running in Place, Installation Documentation, 2010.
The original version of Thirty Days of Running in Place was presented at the Why Not exhibition in Cairo in 2010.  For thirty days, in a room enclosed in transparent plastic outside the Cairo Opera House and Palace of Arts, Basiony jogged for an hour wearing a plastic suit fitted with digital sensors that gathered and wirelessly transmitted data on his movements and other physiological parameters. The information gathered was then processed and projected onto a large screen as an ever-changing visual and aesthetic reflection of the artist’s physical state. Described by curator Omar Koleif as ‘evidence of the artist’s belief in art functioning as a primal mechanisation of the self’, Thirty Days Running in the Place is an ‘abstract portrait of a body not just in motion, but changing physiologically under the influence of exercise’ (Kolief, 2011).
Following his death, Basiony’s friend and fellow media artist Shady El Noshokaty discovered two files on Basiony’s laptop. One was called ‘the performance 2010’ and the second was titled ‘the performance Tahrir 2011’. El Noshokaty believed Basiony was planning a new version of Thirty Days Running in the Place incorporating images taken in Tahrir Square during the uprisings. As Senior Curator of Egyptian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, El Noshokaty resurrected the work and exhibited it as a five-channel installation. The recording of the original installation was projected alongside videos recorded by Basiony during his participation in the January revolution. According to El Noshokaty,
[B]y presenting performances in two different locations in complete opposition, the work became about exploring human energy in environments. One measured the inner self ’s wasted energy (the first version), and the latter presented the positively utilized energy of the collective revolutionaries, through their sounds and movements during the 25th and 26th of January 2011. (Kolief, 2012: 76)
The rapid dissemination of Basiony’s image and its use on social networks on the ground and online during the Tahrir Square protests led to his identification as a publicly recognisable martyr to the Egyptian cause. It was this notoriety that in part led to the inclusion of his work in the Venice Biennale, a gesture that has had significant flow on effects for the media arts community in Egypt. As Omar Kholeif has noted, “exhibitions of ‘Arab’ art outside of the Arab world often tend to emphasise and fetishize the ‘Arabesque’ qualities often associated with the Islamic tradition, such as calligraphy, painting and craft based arts. Media or digital art conversely has endured its own history – a history that is arguably defined by predominantly American and European lenses. Basiony’s death, however, instigated the most potent validation of new media art practice within Egyptian history” (Koleif, 2012: 75). El Noshokaty has also noted that he has leveraged the public interest in Basiony to initiate numerous free media workshops, creating a generative forum for individuals to use open source and interactive software, which he hopes will change the contours of the contemporary Egyptian art scene. El Noshokaty has said, “I believe that it [Basiony’s legacy] can make a parallel cultural revolution in our country [Egypt] very soon” (Kolief, 2012: 76).
The question relevant to this argument is how the exhibition of Basiony’s posthumous work is able to transmit the resonance of the Egyptian uprising. El Noshokaty alludes to it above when he says that the work “presented the positively utilized energy of the collective revolutionaries” (Koleif, 2012: 76). It may be more cogent to argue that the work does more than present the energy of the revolution – rather, it works to transmit resonance, which both created and was created by the Tahrir Square uprising by engaging the audience through affective empathy. The juxtaposition of the images of a young, healthy Basiony jogging in place alongside the images of bodies and spaces tangled in a vortex of movement, whirlwinds, and flows that characterised the Egyptian uprising produces affective empathy in the audience not only for Basiony but for all of those people who gathered together at that time in that space to try and force change. We are asked to meditate on the once live Basiony’s body while simultaneously being reminded of the scene of his death. Our recognition of the fragility of one body intensifies our perception of the power of many bodies working together in space. The images and sounds from Tahrir Square, even when experienced in the quietness of a gallery space, still resonate strongly partly because of the way in which they were captured, via a hand held mobile phone, but also because of the knowledge that we are experiencing Basiony’s experience of the uprising. We are as close as we can get to inhabiting his now dead body as it was made alive by the resonance around him.
Gaston Gordillo’s exploration of resonance as a force that fuels and is fuelled by conglomerates of human bodies acting together in space is useful for understanding how uprisings in the Arab world in the past twelve to eighteen months have arisen and spread. In his words, “[R]esonance, in short, forces us to look at wider, complex, ever shifting and fluid topographies of unrest that connect and affect distant and seemingly disconnected geographies” (2012). While all forms of media play a role in spreading resonance through the creation of affective empathy in those not directly involved in uprisings like those in Egypt and elsewhere, I have argued, using the case of Ahmed Basiony’s Thirty Days of Running in the Place as evidence, that the work of artists can also act as a relay of resonance through the creation of affective empathy in those who experience the work.
Al Yafai, F. (2012, September 4) As regimes arrest artists, their art explores Arab uprisings The National http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/as-regimes-arrest-artists-their-art-explores-arab-uprisings
Beasley-Murray, J. (2010) Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gordillo, G. (2011) Space and Politics: Essays on the spatial pulse of politics http://spaceandpolitics.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/resonance-and-egyptian-revolution.html
Kolief, O. (2011) Curatorial Statement: Abandon Normal Devices Festival http://www.fact.co.uk/projects/abandon-normal-devices/ahmed-basiony-thirty-days-running-in-the-place/
Kolief, O. (2012) Ahmed Basiony: Media Artist or Martyr? Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism 39(5): 74 – 79.
The Invisible Committee (2005) The coming insurrection Insurrectionary communist call to arms, http://libcom.org
 Rough documentation of Thirty Days Running in the Place can be viewed at Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdZbt_wMqMs
(Paper presented at Memefest Symposium 2014 – in development)
I wanted to start this paper with a personal account. It went something like this.
I am a settler. I try to belong. But I am never quite anchored to the land. I try to find purchase. I plant things. Try to grow them from seeds. Sometimes they take. And sometimes they don’t. This urge to find a place is in my blood. It is my heritage. I am imported. My ancestors were imported, sometimes by choice and sometimes because they were displaced by force. Or circumstance. This lingers in the ways in which I try to find a home, to make it mine, to make it me and me it and to attach my identity to it. But I can never really settle. I will always feel like I am from somewhere else. This is a common experience for those that live in a nation that was formed, built on the displacement of others.
My displacement has no roots. I don’t really understand where I was displaced from. From China, from England, from Poland, from Ireland, I don’t know. I really know nothing about these places – I haven’t experienced belonging to any of them. The displaced should have a sense of where they have been displaced from. But I don’t. I only have Melbourne, Australia. But it is not mine. It belongs to those who were here before me, for thousands of years. I understand this but I have no idea about how it can be restored to them. Or if and where I can be restored to.
So really I am actually unsettled. In so many ways. I always mistakenly thought that this feeling of being unsettled and its attendant anxiety was something produced from my experiences, my life story, my lack of belonging. And that I was attracted to those whose lives had also been unsettled by displacement because I could see my own experiences in theirs.
But there is something wrong with this account of my unsettled self. It mistakenly assumes that this lack of belonging is a personal thing – a product of my individual experiences. This is because, everywhere, our collective experiences are being reduced to individual affect. And this is reinforced through our use of social media, our workplaces, our media and our education. Even in popular representations of family, the nuclear family with its clearly delineated individual roles and responsibilities is still perceived to be what a family looks like despite the fact that, according to government research, couple families with dependent children are no longer the most common family form.
So my sense of not belonging is, I can see now upon reflection, part of a broader social malaise, particularly in predominantly white, colonial, neoliberal capitalist societies like Australia, the US and the UK. New york based trend analysts, K-Hole, put it this way “Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. Today people are born individuals and have to find their communities.” And that’s no easy task, to find out where we belong. But what does belonging actually mean? Do we all understand it the same way?
The word ‘belong’ in English is a tricky word. Other languages have multiple words for belong whereas in English we use this one word in different ways and in ways that are, I would argue, very unlike each other. In Spanish, belong translates into four separate enunciations. In Russian, it is six. In Arabic, there are no less than nine formulations that have to be reduced down to the English equivalents. In English, the word has its origins in the old English word langen, which means “to pertain to, to go along with, to properly relate to”. Our later versions of the meaning of belong – “be the property of” and “be a member of” – were first recorded in the late 14 century.
The timing of this transformation of the word belong is instructive. According to historian Barbara Tuchman in her book Distant Mirror, the 14th Century in Europe was a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions, and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond human control. Events such as The Hundred Year War in France, the so-called Great Western Schism in the Catholic Church, the isolation of China, militant Islamic advances into Europe and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the Bubonic plague, the Great Famine and the Little Ice Age all led to massive social and political upheaval. The Statute of Westminster, passed in 1285, paved the way for the enclosure of public land in England. Questions of how societies should be organised and by whom and in whose interests were at a critical juncture.
What also arose out of this was a deeply symbolic change in the meaning of the word – belong. It’s hardly surprising, that at a time of diminished resources, laying claim to them, making them your property, making things belong to you, would seem to be important. Similarly, the breakdown of relations between communities caused by starvation, war and disease would encourage new affiliations to be forged so that one could join with others and belong in the sense of acquiring membership.
But where did that leave the older sense of ‘to pertain to, to go along with, to properly relate to’? While ‘being the property of’ and ‘being a member of’ signal a kind of enclosure, ‘pertaining to, going along with and properly relating to’ all imply a relation and in that relation an openness. It still manifests itself, for some, as the desire to belong to a time, to a place in space, to a place in the history of time and space. For others, it manifests as a desire to belong with others, with our lovers, with our children and them with us. Under the isolating, alienating, fragmenting tendencies of global capitalism, it loses its communal orientation and is represented to us as an individual desire for belonging rather than an inherited sense of knowing where we belong
And it is the desire for this kind of belonging and our perceived lack of it that makes us vulnerable. Because our desire to belong becomes coupled, in our times, with our individual desires and our individual anxieties about not belonging. Not belonging or not quite belonging means being alone, being without social, material and personal support, being vulnerable to the power of others to determine our fate. It also often means, that in order to belong, we have to subjugate ourselves to power, to being monitored and watched to ensure we are ‘behaving according to the rules’ even though we may not even know what those rules are. All of these things are bound to make us anxious.
Plan C, a UK based activist collective, argue, along with many others, that this generalised anxiety is the dominant reactive affect of capitalism in its current phase. They say
Each phase of capitalism has a particular affect which holds it together. For us the dominant affect is anxiety. The prevalence of a particular dominant affect is sustainable only until strategies of resistance able to break down this particular affect and /or its social sources are formulated. Hence, capitalism constantly comes into crisis and recomposes around newly dominant affects.
One aspect of every phase’s dominant affect is that it is a public secret, something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about. As long as the dominant affect is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies against it will not emerge.
Public secrets are typically personalised. The problem is only visible at an individual, psychological level; the social causes of the problem are concealed. Each phase blames the system’s victims for the suffering that the system causes. And it portrays a fundamental part of its functional logic as a contingent and localised problem.
They go on to argue that today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. “Anxiety has spread from its previous localised focusses (such as sexuality) to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.” This manifests itself in curious ways. In the workplace, it manifests as performance management, where we are asked not just to perform the work we are being paid to do but to be seen to love it as well. In Willing Slaves of Capital, Frédéric Lordon argues that employers now aim for “the ultimate behavioural performance in which the prescribed emotions are no longer merely outwardly enacted, but ‘authentically’ felt.” Employees have to smile and really mean it. “They have to eradicate pretending, eradicate the gap demarcated by the concept of “service” and sell the pretence that customers and the people that ‘serve’ them are equal, only the servant has now graciously and eagerly volunteered to kiss the customer’s ass.” So we are forced into what are, ultimately, intimate relations and dialogues with people, not through choice, but because our ongoing suitability for employment, or very means of survival, demands it of us. And then we are monitored to ensure that we are suitably ‘authentic’ in our emotional displays. What could be more anxiety producing than that. I can’t just teach – I have to be seen to love teaching, or labouring or serving or whatever.
In terms of social media, the double bind continues. We long to feel connected, to alleviate our anxieties about ‘not belonging’ through self expression and identity formation. But as Rob Korning argues, “the social order is protected not by preventing “self-expression” and identity formation but by encouraging it as a way of “forcing people to limit and discipline themselves — to take responsibility for building and cleaning their own cage. Thus, the dissemination of social-media platforms becomes a flexible tool for social control. The more that individuals express through these codified, networked, formatted means to construct a “personal brand” identity, the more they self-assimilate, adopting the incentive structures of the capitalist social order as their own.” But, let’s be clear here, the internet is not the problem; capitalism is the problem and the subsequent commodification of exchanges that take place on corporately owned and controlled media.
As Plan C point out, in order for the public secret, anxiety, to work, people have to be socially isolated. We must be anxious and our lives must be precarious, in order for the secret to take effect. This is true of the current situation, in which authentic communication is increasingly rare. Communication is more pervasive than ever, but increasingly, communication happens only through paths mediated by the system. So, in many ways, people are thwarted from actually communicating, even while the system demands that everyone be in communication. People are made to conform to the demand to communicate and they self-censor in mediated spaces in order to preserve some illusory sense of ‘authenticity’. So the secret remains just that.
This is why new radical forms of intimacy are needed. To break out of this cycle of anxiety, we need to rediscover or invent a new kind of belonging that emphasises connectedness and relatedness, genuine communication and not mere information exchange. We need to expose the ‘public secret’ of anxiety, depersonalise it, analyse it, recognise its systemic nature and then fight it collectively.
“People are paralysed by unnameable emotions, and a general sense of feeling like shit. These emotions need to be transformed into a sense of injustice, a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, a move towards self-determination and a reactivation of resistance.”
As the Plan C collective argue, ‘The situation feels hopeless and inescapable, but it isn’t. It feels this way because of effects of precarity – constant over-stress, the contraction of time into an eternal present, the vulnerability of each separated (or systemically mediated) individual, the system’s dominance of all aspects of social space. But there is hope. Structurally, the system is vulnerable. The reliance on anxiety is a desperate measure, used in the absence of stronger forms of conformity. The system’s attempt to keep running by keeping people feeling powerless leaves it open to sudden ruptures and outbreaks of revolt.” So how do we get to the point where we stop feeling powerless?’
Joining together and sharing our experiences, honestly and without fear, are as good a place as any to start. A better understanding of how our anxieties connect with others and with the political framework in which we are operating needs to be opened up, through dialogue. Some anxieties are the product of deeply personal trauma but this doesn’t mean that the trauma came from nowhere. All trauma comes from somewhere, even personal trauma. And even personal trauma can trace its origins to deeply embedded social injustice, inequality and ignorance. Understanding anxiety, not as a personal failing but as a systemic affect is the first step we need to take in raising awareness of the current situation. But we need to turn this into some kind of action; otherwise it is just frustratingly introspective. It isn’t just my story. It’s our story. “Any process aimed at exposing the public secret of anxiety should establish new propositions about the sources of anxiety. These propositions can form a basis for new forms of struggle, new tactics, and the revival of active force from its current repression: in other words, a machine for fighting anxiety.”
Pret workers aren’t supposed to be unhappy. They are recruited precisely for their ‘personality’, in the sense that a talent show host might use the word. Job candidates must show that they have a natural flair for the ‘Pret Behaviours’ (these are listed on the website too). Among the 17 things they ‘Don’t Want to See’ is that someone is ‘moody or bad-tempered’, ‘annoys people’, ‘overcomplicates ideas’ or ‘is just here for the money’. The sorts of thing they ‘Do Want to See’ are that you can ‘work at pace’, ‘create a sense of fun’ and are ‘genuinely friendly’. The ‘Pret Perfect’ worker, a fully evolved species, ‘never gives up’, ‘goes out of their way to be helpful’ and ‘has presence’. After a day’s trial, your fellow workers vote on how well you fit the profile; if your performance lacks sparkle, you’re sent home with a few quid.
So this is an old post but I am going to try to spend more time here writing than I currently do on Facebook. It’s such a paradox that Facebook seems to provide connection and a way out of social isolation and yet it is a product of the same alienating structures that cause the isolation and lack of connection in the first place.