Unsettled: History, Time, Space and Belonging

Unsettled: History, Time, Space and Belonging

(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.”

Side Note:

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.