No 11 - 2001
Formulary for a New Globalism
1 Manners & the map: the discourse of power
"At different scales, spatial relationships can be said to mask, naturalise or mystify contradictions either between social groups with different interests or between the forces and relations of production."
from Landscape and Culture, JM Wagstaff (ed),
Language is the matter of discourse and it reflects the social and political transmission of power as it develops. The symbolic values that denoted property and propriety before the Puritan revolution in England were religious as well as secular. The holding of secular power by a social elite was underpinned (explained) by self defining systems of religious power that deferred and upheld the claims of royalty and aristocracy. There may have been a constant struggle within these pre-capitalist states - and those struggles at times revealed gaps in the armour of state through which the revolting peasants could invade, killing those unlucky (or already politically defeated) members of the state they pulled from their towers - but no plausible discourse of revolution emerged because there was no language available within which it could develop. God, who was absent at the execution of Charles I, had been present as a policing principle within language up to that point.
The element that removed God from language was trade. Slowly but steadily, as a new class of traders built up their wealth they constructed a new power: capital (yet to become an 'ism') 'killed' God. Since then we have seen language become increasingly secularised. So far there is no language of revolution. Words have not become matter. There are only theories and theorists, the sons and daughters of the middle classes and discontent, anger: from these things new words will form. Within the discourses of the liberalised global market new kinds of power and new kinds of words flow. The faultlines are already there. In adapting the meanings of words to their own needs within discourse, the capitalists admitted their inability to fix meanings onto words and made discourse absurd. The lexicon is laissez-faire. The dominant cultural erection is 'refurbished', but also unfixed. We can all grasp it. As the words and meanings of power shift, language becomes increasingly subversive. Even containment theory is relative. As each word is re-enclosed the shift in power becomes absorbed within the state that creates again an effective containment but also an effective, ideological monkey wrenching of meaning. The faultlines open. It's up to us to exploit them. Increasingly - perhaps temporarily - attempts at linguistic enclosure work against established Power. Thus, in the realm of poetry, 'closure' is the new 'radical gesture.'
Ontologically speaking, to embody the concept of place as property we have to divide. Undifferentiated aspects of the self become the property of unknown others. Spatial exclusion means exclusion from an aspect of the notional 21st century self. The process of the division of the self is achieved by the creation and maintenance of the ideology of the ownership of land. In its extreme form - consumerism - the partial self must attempt to buy back its mystified parts in the form of products and services. This recuperation treadmill - a truly vicious circle - includes 'work'. The worker - paid only a fraction of the value they create - loses when they produce and when they consume, thus the 'self' becomes more fractured as the individual attempts to achieve 'wholeness'. There are no wholesome products. Capitalism offers a historically enhanced version of Plato's notion of 'person' as half a sphere. In this version, the desire of the 'person' for unity of being is routed away from the affective sphere and into the economic sphere. Universal duality becomes 'slave' and 'ideal', or objective and subjective selves. The mysteries obscured are now the mysteries of economics rather than the mysteries of Lord and Lady, but the function is the same; to make the unequal distribution of power seem natural, so the powerless, or less powerful, accept it. The division of the self into discrete realms is a superstructure built on the sound capitalist base of the division of the land into discrete or 'private' plots.
2 Spatial transgression: the machine breaking of the early 21st century.
"...as the poet's grasp on a common human world has loosened so he has sought to replace it with special relationships, with place in particular, and has come to stress the specialness of other poets, above all in their relation to place. This is... part of the movement by which the English poet has become a specialist talking to specialists..."
Jeremy Hooker, from The Poetry of Place, Essays
and Reviews 1970-1981, Carcanet (1982)
Systems of ownership imply systems of identity; as with the land, so with the self. During the reign of Margaret Thatcher the self was increasingly privatised and responsibility for social inequality was presented to the poor as a kind of inverse achievement. This colonisation of the person occurred against a discourse that gave 'individualism' a high value, presenting it as the source and goal of identity. So, as the person became less actual or social and more virtual or individual, so the notional self became less powerful, had more loss to compensate for. So losers consume, hoping to replace or recuperate the feeling of emptiness. The affective shopper replaces content with style.
Systems of ownership are fragile, despite the great show of power every time such systems are threatened. In fact the 'might' put on show of by the state during the miners' strike and its brutal reaction toward the so called Peace Convoy in the 1980s shows just how threatened the state felt by those disruptions to its order. If it can be taken that the reinforcement of a faultline indicates that the line in question is weaker or more unstable than usual, then a major vulnerability within the structure of the state at the moment must focus on the concept of identity. Never has identity been so mysterious and lost (or 'private'). To put it another way, never has the concept of individual and collective identity been so unstable or threatened.
'Globalisation' - capitalism's current representation of itself - calls into question all notions of identity, both the discrete identities of persons and the mapped identities of so-called nation-states. It is all to do with what is shared with whom. The suggested 'becoming' of a truly liberalised global market - within discourse at least - creates a cultural, social and political - if not economic - undermining of the concept of place upon which the nation-state was founded. Such entities cannot continue indefinitely. Happily, England's bourgeois victory - won in the 17th century against the god-like power of an overdrawn quasi-absolute monarchy - has seen the destruction of the reality of 'England' as a meaningful political territory as its most recent outcome. Agency is held by corporations, often based elsewhere, more likely based nowhere. In this circumstance the notion of national or human rights becomes laughable. We do not have rights, we have contracts.
3 England bewildered: a landscape with knobs on
When the first rude boundary was drawn, the first 'alien' head placed on a pole, so the processes that created property, religion, agribusiness and romantic love began. When the first visionary saw the vision lost within conceptual enclosure and sang of loss as a journey into an underworld, art was born. That first song has been re-enacted in the dance of the trespasser, in the imagery of homelessness, the story of the refugee. It has been remade in every art form. It is represented within every technology. It is sung to Eurydice, with a backward glance. So the owners of land have made land into art - placing it within their possessed and broken territories - and we have looked back.
Chaz Mintern, from Women Have Orgasms, Men Write Poems, Rune Wurzel (1999)
The political control of capital has moved from the nation-state to a shifting cartel of transnational companies. Redundant nation-states may be retained as facsimiles and displayed for sentimental reasons, so that boards of directors can whip up 'nationalistic' feelings - a form of 'brand loyalty' - when they want cheap idealists to fight in wars against other brand names. There is no loyalty except to profit. The remnant nation-states can only offer themselves as clients in 'partnerships', willing to sell 'rights' to their 'populations'/markets in a desperate effort to raise capital.
As borders and boundaries come under stress and are reinforced the capitalists create anxiety about the various brand names of people. We are encouraged to believe that our now virtual borders are about to be stormed by Africans, Arabs, the Hong Kong Chinese, Gypsies, eastern Europeans, etc.. Responsibility for 'our' 'loss' of national sovereignty is shifted away from an economic system and onto other people, ones who are presented as poorer than us (and thus in need of our support). 'England' is a soft touch. 'They' could come at any time, demanding our help: it is almost as if hordes of swarthy foreigners were about to come on some demonical day trip, with buckets and spades, to dig up our notional and sacred landscape and then run off with it. Perhaps they will tip it in the sea and make Albion (or Albania) next to Ireland and we shall have lost something? You would think so, as moral panic about refugees revives good old-fashioned racism. So the notional border of the state is extended exponentially, reaching France, Italy or "countries close to the zone of conflict" in the absurd and injurious form of the immigration official, ex cathedra, 'abroad' but not 'playing away'. As the power of the nation-state subsides, the fantasies of power become ever more fantastic. The world writ small. It is a harmless new imperialism? A strap on territory. A new imperative for the penetration of 'darker' continents, for the rendering of 'other' skins.
4 A conceptual debt: we are all 'foreign' now
It left me rather unmoved, although this may be my own geographical influence; when you live in a country whose biggest problem is too much geography, it's hard to take seriously the tiny European countries like England where every feature in the countryside is manmade.
Dale Speirs ('USA'), reviewing The Listening Voice 4
in Opuntia 44.1B (January 2000)
As borders and boundaries break up, with each of the territories they contained releasing its assets into the primal flow of market forces, the state lifts from the ground, like a nation-sized bubble, floating upward to connect with the under-belly of the global economy. Beneath it all things are virtualised. As 'nation' vanishes we experience disintegrating territories. Great Britain, the nation-state, collapses into England, the virtual nation; England falls into the south, the south into Hampshire which quickly shrivels into Southampton/wherever. A masturbatory dream in which some look back to 'heritage', the product called 'our living past' in which 'we' are 'rooted'. So the petty fascism of the regionalists compensates them for their lack of charisma and their slighted cultural erections. They dream big dreams but fill only their navels. A nation lifting easily into the air, like a net curtain floating in an open window. A castle on a cloud, an authentic archaeology. A small grey puddle. You cannot reclaim something that has not vanished around you.
Places are altered by the alienation of people whose psychic participation had enabled them to be 'reified'. As the subjects of economic liberalisation mount in number, as their misery increases in intensity, so 'place' gradually becomes no-place, projected 'communities' become increasingly unreal. Britain (TM) - the pork sward of the English - has been imagined by people all over the world. Globalisation both increases the enclosure of persons and - as revolutionary gymnasium - it educates them. All over the world landscapes are becoming absurd. In Britain asylum seekers are being brutally helped in detention centres, prisons, privately run 'hostels' and in the very worst housing available. They learn lessons they did not expect to learn. Education should surprise us. Perhaps they regret the peeling falsity that is 'England' even more than the English? It must be so. The market demonstrates how prized cultural installations - whether a Buddhist statue or a 'natural' wilderness - are no longer able to withstand the forces of the contradictions that created them and are/were contained within them. As identities become increasingly unviable they become more extreme. There is no complete image to project, just fragments of splintered narrative. Nothing you could identity with. Places are unmade and myths are degraded; an established order becomes an established order, even as the falling tower falls. So, out of the cultural collapse the political prisoners are stumbling free? Some, maybe, but not the asylum seekers, despite the gifts they bring.
Postscript, 4 April 2001: SIRE, I AM FROM ANOTHER COUNTRY
For the past five months I have been writer in residence at HMP Haslar, a jail in which the Prison Service 'holds' around 150 men detained by the Immigration Service. I have been asked not to refer to it as a prison, although that is what it is. I have been asked to call it Home Office Holding Centre Haslar. The semantic slippage demonstrated in these two names - the one an 'actual', the other an expediency - places a fig leaf over a faultline in an otherwise total act of enclosure. What Haslar is about is poorly concealed. The effect is merely Orwellian. As a 'holding centre' it can be presented as a place where refugees, asylum seekers, victims of torture and abuse are being helped. Indeed, is it not a crime that such help is given whilst - as the newspapers tell us - our older people are denied such resources?
HMP Haslar is a place where the human rights of already abused people are abused. Its very existence is an act of abuse against individual, isolated and 'voiceless' human beings. In the 'debate' about asylum and immigration, have you heard an asylum seeker speak? Despite the fact that many detainees are far better educated than I, they are not yet worthy of free speech? 'Free' speech implies participation, I think, and responsibility. 'English' is an enclosure, an imparkment, it says Keep Out. The detainees are mostly 'held' pending enquiries into their identity (sic) and 'place' of origin. They have no idea how long this caring act is to take; one week, two, 3 months, a year, two years, more? "I am not a criminal, why am I in prison?" I have heard this so many times. Bewilderment. They worry about their children. They go through phases of bafflement, depression, acceptance, frustration, heroic good humour and resistance. They fear many things, including what might happen if they complain. I have seen it done though, the person is 'dispersed' as a 'troublemaker' - sent away to Belmarsh, Rochester, where-ever, to be isolated amongst criminals. I would imagine that teaches them. This is even done to the most vulnerable. It even happened to a solitary hunger striker, a very fragile man, because - well - not eating is against the rules. It is a form of autonomy and thus of rebellion. Haslar is very proud of the low number of complaints.
So, coping with unbearable anxieties, they wait and wonder at the Immigration Service documents they are sent, documents which make little sense, even to someone to whom 'English' is a 'native' tongue. Page one: we do not believe you come from country X, we think you come from country Y (no explanation as to Y). Page 4: if your final appeal fails the country we will deport you to is country X. Neat trick. From administrative detention to the administration of irony; in this world language is a discrete official code. I do not speak 'English', I am not a bastard, it is not my tongue. These official letters must be easy to type but they are impossible to understand. The circle refers only to itself. But then a prison is necessarily a totalitarian place and in such a circumstance it is necessary that words mean other things? So, those who have suffered arbitrary detention and torture in country X come here to suffer arbitrary detention and the torture of wondering if they will be sent back to a terrible fate in country X. The pall of pain that hangs over the place is a suffocating thing. If you work there every day it is necessary to ignore it. If you are a visiting artist you might become part of the silence. When you speak it is in an odd dialect.
"My hope coming to England was that I'd be safe to claim asylum and for the government to accept me so I could work and contribute... I was not being treated as an asylum seeker but a criminal."
Gabriel Nkwelle, Human Rights Campaigner and ex-Haslar detainee Quote from the Portsmouth News, 19/3/01: the report concerned Mr Nkwelle's complaints to the Home Office, Amnesty International and the UNHCR about his arbitrary detention at Haslar. He was sent to Belmarsh high security prison after complaining whilst in Haslar.
The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (110 Hamstead Road, Birmingham, B20 2QS) publishes monthly statistics on the detention and deportation of asylum seekers, plus info on meetings and demonstrations.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: http://www.ncadc.org.uk/
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