ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

The materiality of metaphor: tensions between landscape and ‘landscapelessness’

Convenor: Laviolette (UCL)

Panel abstract

The notion of placelessness has become broadly normative in the social sciences. Yet the idea of an absence of landscape, of a sense of ‘landscapelessness’ has gone widely un-discussed amongst scholars, political thinkers and others engaged as environmental practitioners for instance. Is this because such a term is so obviously an oxymoron? Or alternatively, is it that when we relate to concerns about spatial exclusion and alienation as well as to the loss of homeland or even to issues about the topographical imagination, we are conceptually bound? That is, tied to a paradigm in which we cannot but think in terms of the more narrow small-scale dichotomy that exists between place vs. placelessness.

Looking at metaphor in its material dimensions, this interdisciplinary panel will address the tensions between place and placelessness. But in particular, the panellists shall attempt to stretch such tensions. Hence, they will take into account whether or not whole landscapes can be arenas that become -- or have always been -- denied, completely inaccessible, forgotten or dead. By considering what might perhaps be a more existential unease about the state of the environment, our anthropological reflections on the ‘field’, or the more general spatio-temporal positioning of Being in the World, the contributors to this panel will assess the relevance of a material approach to metaphor in the anthropology of landscape. We will do so by navigating between theoretical, ethnographic and material culture interpretations. This will therefore allow us to investigate a variety of perceptions for culturally formulating both the meanings of landscape and the senses of ‘landscapelessness’.

Landless villages in a landless state: Meskhetian Turks without post-Soviet homelands

Kathryn Tomlinson, National Foundation for Educational Research

While public discourses continue to assert the ‘rootedness’ of refugees and their associated longing for homeland, anthropologists have profitably questioned the emplaced nature of forced migrants. Meskhetian Turks present an interesting case of a group perceiving itself in terms of location-based metaphors with little relationship to the landscape from which these are derived. While their rightful place is seen – by national governments and international actors – to be Meskhetia in post-Soviet Georgia, I argue that the Meskhetian Turks ‘displaced’ across the former Soviet Union conceive of their homeland as a landless state rather than a geographical place. Moreover, although their key social groupings draw their names and members from villages in Meskhetia, Meskhetian Turks show little interest in the physicalities in question, and do not, as land-labourers, draw meaning from their relationship with the land. Political tensions have left many Meskhetian Turks in southern Russia stateless and landless, but most do not use metaphors of place or land to attempt to resolve this plight.

Commercial-scapes, material culture and lived identity on the Mexico-United States border

Mélissa Gauthier, Concordia University, Montreal

Mexico-United States border cities are some of the fastest growing urban places of the world. Rapid growth has meant accelerated change in the urban landscapes of theses places. The commercial landscapes first and perhaps best reflect the contemporary dynamism of the border cities. Focusing on the twin cities of Ciudad Juarez-El Paso, this paper explores the diversity of their commercial landscapes through analysing the phenomenon of crossing the Mexico-United States border for shopping, trading and smuggling. By focusing on border landscapes as socially constructed spaces that both mirror and reinforce group identity, this paper brings out some interesting parallels between the material culture of commercial landscapes, as places of exchange but also of interaction occurring in space, and the varied repertoire of social categories and metaphors that inhabitants of the Mexico-United States border region use to define their group identity and distinguish themselves from ‘others’. Indeed, one of the aspects of the border landscape that makes it an ideal setting for reflecting upon the social construction of identity is that daily life there requires residents to routinely move back and forth between two societies that feature very different systems of classification of people. It is through this idea of moving back and forth between one side of the Mexico-United States border and the other that this paper shall scrutinise the meanings of boundaries and explore the senses of ‘landscapelessness’ in a border region. This paper, then, discusses the emphasis on hybridisation and ‘border crossing’ in contemporary border studies and theory and tends toward a critique of the all too ‘literary border representations’ often portrayed by cultural studies.

'People alone': Sri Lankan Tamils in Colombo

Sharika Thiranagama, University of Edinburgh

In the Sri Lankan civil war, ranging now for over two decades, there has been mass displacement from the North and East of the country. This paper will focus on the experiences of some Tamils, from the Jaffna peninsula which has one of the key battlefields for much of this conflict. Displacement of Tamils from Sri Lanka has happened both internally and externally with huge diaspora communities being formed all across the world. Yet the current focus on diaspora communities and migration as a trope of departure and arrival has to a large extent ignored the particular experiences of those who are internally displaced as well as the various places they inhabit.

I focus here on the experience of people living as transients in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, waiting to obtain a way of leaving for abroad or going back home. One cannot build a life there in security; it is a space of waiting. Within the imagined Sri Lankan nation, minorities cannot appropriate the space of the city. Their spaces are continually open to invasion by state forces.

This paper looks at how nations and states can dis- accommodate minorities through the very structure of everyday life and how this in turns shapes and creates a desire for a home imagined as ‘refuge’ and ‘being with one’s own people’. The idiom of place and placelessness becomes here not just a discourse about geographical dislocation but ultimately about political dislocation.

What makes a mountain?: Knowing, placing and destroying the highest peak in Spain

Katrin Lund, Queen's University Belfast

This paper examines the concept of place as a locality. To do so I bring into perspective the interplay between the residents in a village in Southern Spain and the local mountain, Mulhacén, which is the highest peak on the Iberian Peninsula. By doing so I show how places as features in the landscape are always subjects to mobility. I thus agree with Ingold (2000) where he argues that places are not situated as fixed entities but should rather be examined in relation to their histories. Augé’s (1995) definition of certain places and non-places, however, can push the argument further and it becomes evident that many places are situated although not on the earth’s surface. My argument is thus that places do not only have histories but are also situated in histories that move with their owners across space and time where they intersect and change directions.

Located in the Natural Park of the Sierra Nevada and the Alpujarra, Bubión is a village that has in the past thirty years been experiencing rapid economic changes through the introduction of tourism as its main economy. When living off the land people had moved seasonally between the village and the mountains but with tourism life has become more permanently based in the village. At the same time the composition of the village population has also changed drastically. Since the 1970s foreigners and people from other parts of Spain have been settling in the village. It is through the movements of these different groups, how they intersect and head in different directions, that I want to examine how the mountain peak, Mulhacén, can move and appear in various ways. What is important to note is that this transience depends on how and where the mountain is metaphorically and materially situated -- how the landscape of the locality takes on different shapes -- shrinks and expands within ever changing temporal and spatial boundaries.

Anthropologies of ‘invisible’ people and processes: recalcitrant 'Weltanschauungen' in an age of globalisation

Stephanie Koerner, University of Manchester

In the last decades the humanities and social sciences have experienced a 'crisis of representation' whose causes and effects are examined in diverse interdisciplinary areas of research and literature. Benjamin’s (1925-1939) expression crisis of representation works together with arguments about the 'state of emergency' of contemporary social strife so that it is not actually an anomaly for Enlightenment and Romantic paradigms but a ruling principle. The task, he said, was to use this insight to challenge images that render 'invisible' the barbarity of the 'civilising' processes they legitimise. Benjamin was particularly concerned with the impacts of Kant's (1781, 1788, 1790) framework for illuminating the questions: (1) What can I know? (2) What should I do? (3) What dare I hope? (4) What is it to be human? For Kant, these questions related to one another and the fourth was crucial for understanding why. Paradoxically central to Kant's iconoclast theory of knowledge and history was his image of the sort of Weltanschauung required for a 'Copernican Revolution.' Likewise paradoxical has been the importance of this icon to the most influential caricatures of contrasts, especially between supposedly 'disenchanted' modern western and 'other' modes of thought for over two centuries.  

Benjamin's argument was too early and too late. Recent attention focuses on images that envisage 'globalisation and multi-culturalism' as a necessary, core periphery, homogenising process (cf. Inda and Rosaldo ed. 2000). A crisis of representation is felt by those recognising features which these images share with their predecessors. The most influential hinge on treating (a) the categories, perceiving things, time-space distanciation, pre-modern/traditional, face-to-face, local spaces, and particular activities; and (b) the categories, de-territorialised extended things, time-space compression, modern, relations between absent others, global spaces, systems, and long-term processes as systems of synonymous opposites. Striking too is how these images distribute the global and multi-cultural, place and placelessness, certitude and incertitude, ought and is. No wonder that the implications for rendering disenfranchised so-called ‘minorities’ invisible to the ethical faculties of franchised majorities (cf. Buchli and Lucas 2000) are giving rise to crises of representation and concerns with the ‘materiality of metaphor’. This contribution engages the recalcitrance of images of the sort of Weltanschauung required to envisage the world as a unified totality. It traverses interstices of disciplinary boundaries between historical writing on art and science, in order to illuminate the background, lasting impact and material consequences of this metaphor. Emphasis falls on materials bearing on challenges facing anthropological inquiries into hitherto 'invisible' people and processes. I conclude with some suggestions concerning the metaphor, 'hybrid identities.'

"Home is where the heart is”: placelessness, statelessness and the transient landscapes of an asylum-seeker community in North East England

Colin Clark, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

This paper results from ongoing empirical work with an asylum seeker community in North East England (2001-). As fieldwork intensified during the summer of 2003, it appeared that the multi-dimensional and often contradictory ways in which the transient ‘here and now’ was being understood by the community was changing. Tensions were becoming critical, panic evident. The central issue for (largely male) informants, is one that could best be described as ‘belonging’ and where, in particular, their family and children ‘fit’. Landscapes in such a political context were becoming material metaphors, more than symbols or even fading picture-postcards. Hence, both place and space have become regarded by sections of the community as anchors that embed them to a geography that it does not want to leave. With deportations occurring on a weekly basis, claims for asylum were found to be wanting: ‘white list’ means safe, safe means democratic, democratic means ‘go back to where you came from’. This is a peopled landscape coloured with a sense of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’. The tiny, squeezed, ‘landscapeless’ spaces between 1) arrival -- 2) dispersal -- 3) settlement -- 4) removal, are guarded heavily, internally, and seem almost like a time/space enclosed, partially ‘frozen’ and potentially capturing a permanent state of being. A landscape made of dreams, leading to a better life, if only.

This is largely, of course, an emotionless, bureaucratic decision that is out of the communities hands. Claims rejected, citizenship denied, another supposedly ‘free and democratic’ landscape will welcome them back, one once known. Before this final phase, however, is the management of temporary settlement: the ‘arrived’ landscape is creatively constructed by a distancing from a place once called ‘home’ to which most will return, by force. In this case, this is an area within central and eastern Europe (Slovakia) and largely concerns the sizeable ethnic minority who are the neighbours no one wants to live beside and the employees no one employs (the Roma). For willing exiles, the ‘other’/former ‘home’ is projected as the (reactionary/racist) dark, contrasted with the (progressive/democratic) light of the ‘new Island home’. The world spins but some things remain constant, not in motion but in a perpetual state of repetition. Stateless, placelessness, and living within transient landscapes of a new ‘home’, has a high price. How big is the (mental? physical?) space and how long does it last? Removal, the final point, comes to all but the few. A moment in time vanishes, the space is closed.