Who we are to each other

We are not in a place the way a tree or a rock is in a location.

David Kolb, Sprawling Places


I’m at Heathrow, standing in the line of non-EU nationals with my EU passport in my pocket because my daughter is only Australian, although I’m a dual national. I’ve filled out the arrival form with my usual sense of awkwardness about what I do, and as usual I’ve said it’s “academic”. Academic, as in moot. Academic, as in “the rest of the world thinks we are complete wankers.”

Here I am, home/not home.

Welcome to Terminal 3 (2015), by Michael Summers [details below]
Marc Auge describes airports as non-places, transactional zones in which we’re stripped down to function: arriving passenger, Australian, academic, travelling with child, visiting family, two weeks, nothing to declare, no stowed fruit or live birds or more than $10,000 in cash. In his maze-like hypertext/book on contemporary place making, David Kolb recasts Auge’s idea in relation to roles. For Kolb, non-places are thin, not in the Celtic sense, but thin in that they are the places in which our roles are made thin. We become what we are reduced to by the function of the space. He quotes this passage from Auge:

A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer, or driver. . . . The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude. There is no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. (103)

But it’s not that simple. Like every other person in the line, I’m shawled in my own history of standing exactly here, over many years: coming home for the first time, coming home after a break-up, visibly pregnant, pregnant without knowing, coming home to surprise someone, coming home for a funeral.

And just ahead of us in time is that other part of the airport story: friends and kin and professionals with signs, the whole Love Actually  of the arrivals hall. They’re fidgeting, slumped, waiting to perk up at the sight of the person they’ve come for. Everyone who’s ever stood there for me is there, but not now. And when we all finally make it into the same zone of being together in time, place is remade, thinned out roles thicken into human form again, citizenship falls back into its latent state.


Just before travelling, I participated in a week of talking about digital hospitality, across Twitter, mastodon and blogs. I was invited to do this by Maha Bali as part of #digciz, a month long online event curated by Sundi Richard and Autumm Caines. (Read their concluding reflection here.)

I went in with misgivings. In airports, citizenship is not a language game, or a virtue, or a goal of being a better person; it’s not a state of mind or a way of acting towards others. Before any of these metaphorical layers can be added, citizenship means belonging to a limited-membership group, being subject to its laws, gaining access to its conditional privileges. Alan Pelaez Lopez writes about citizen privilege in the US, that critical attention to citizenship is not aimed at better understanding citizenship or addressed to the hope that citizenship can be made just. The goal of rebuking citizen privilege is to put an end to citizenship itself, because the functionality of “citizen”, in both its emotional meaning and practical application, is fully shaped by the existence of the non-citizen—the alien, the undocumented, the stateless, the refugee. The experience of belonging is given meaning by those from whom the privilege of belonging has been withheld.

This is why I still can’t work with citizenship as a metaphor for way we are with others online. But we shouldn’t stop thinking about this being together just because it’s difficult to name. Something is trying to get heard among the metaphorical limitations of language and its tethers, an appeal for better ways of treating friends, strangers, fellow travellers, when we meet them online. And to do this, in a world of talk, we need words for common places and shared hopes, for ways of bettering the world, as Kevin Hodgson puts it.

Ideally, a word for citizen-ness might do this well. But it can’t while it also has to delineate our fraught and exclusionary political relationship to the states that have us as members, shaped by the violence those states impose on those they force out, subdue or incarcerate. For me the usefulness of digital citizenship is only that it keeps in view our equally fraught dependencies on the real gatekeepers of our relations with each other: Silicon Valley’s data mining corporates, who will always design the platforms that connect us for maximum extractive value. Citizenship as a metaphor for digital engagement reminds us how flawed things are, not how good they could be.

So what else could we say? Lora Taub shared Kate Reed Petty’s article in the LA Review of Books on retiring the word “citizen” where she notes the tendency for citizen to be used generically to mean something like person to whom we have some sort of relation of obligation. For Kate Reed Petty, who works with a wide range of organisations, the word is “difficult to give up”, precisely because of this more elastic meaning, that applies regardless of “technical nationality”. But replacing it (subject? resident? person? human? denizen? denizen, really?) without changing the intended function of setting up a category of actors that can be interpellated into acting well, doesn’t address the primary problem of regulating membership. And it certainly doesn’t address the issue of what happens when implicit membership expectations aren’t met.

Thinking about alternate words asks us to think hard about what we are trying to say, and this is really about what we are trying to do, or change. This doesn’t have to be about setting up ground rules, of sorting out who belongs and who doesn’t. This will lead us again and again to the cul-de-sac of group norms. In the end, we can only decide how to take responsibility for ourselves and how we choose to act; and try to do this personal thing in a way that acknowledges something like a relationship to a common place, a place we make by the way we meet one another there.


During this week, I also learned that sometimes talk looks like a failure to act, even on the internet where talk is both the currency and medium for action of any kind. This is not my view. I believe we have to champion dialogue, and trust each other also to be acting, based on what we learn from listening.

But the belief that talk is just talk has to do with a resonant stereotype, that’s making things worse. Academics have a public reputation for self-interested, obscurantist talk. It’s not helpful to respond defensively to this: #notallacademics. In his blog on not being an academic jerk, James Arvanitakis gets stuck in to why we should acknowledge it instead:

Seriously most of them see us as a bunch of privileged, spoilt brats swanning around the world attending talkfests. They have the right to think that until we show them otherwise: so what are we doing to change that?

And if this stereotype isn’t deserved individually, the institutional context that generates academic talk really needs calling out: impact gaming, rankings chasing, productivity measures that lead to vanishingly unproductive outcomes in any real sense, vanity careers (and travel) for the few, and precarity for most. These are the conditions that many people outside academia don’t see, and the expansion of talk is their symptom.

What are we doing to change that?

Image credit: Welcome to Terminal 3, Michael Summers, shared on Flickr CC BY-ND-NC 2.0


8 thoughts on “Who we are to each other

  1. Hey Kate – I love the titles of this post and so so so much to unpack here, so much resonates. So so much.

    One thing I wanted to reflect on immediately is your call at the end there. My immediate reaction was “gosh. I am doing nothing”. But then I wondered if maybe I am. Kind of. But it involves more talking. I thought about how YES Virtually Connecting is about talking to each other (not AT each other – the default mode in conferences) and how it’s about distributing that beyond the most privileged voices. So I guess that’s part of my activism.

    I was also thinking over the past few weeks about something. About like a test we should give ourselves to know if we are truly listening to diverse/marginal voices. And you know what I have decided? I think if you feel completely comfortable with a voice that’s very different from your own, it’s either you have become v close to it that you understand it (I used to find blogposts by you difficult at first, challenging ; same of Bonnie, Simon Ensor and a few other ppl).. Or you’re not really listening properly. Or you think you understand but you don’t. Or the person different from you has taken 9/10 steps to make u understand them and u have taken maybe 1 step. I say this for many reasons, including how much more difficult it is to peer review articles by ppl v different from me culturally and contextually, and then I realize that my online life is completely w ppl like that, but we have a history of steps taken towards each other. Sometimes i take 9, but now there are enough people who take a few and I can take just 5 or 6 steps.

    But occasionally, I don’t get it. And occasionally they don’t get it. And most of what we have going for us is talk. And maybe action is what will help bridge the gap there.
    A big but is coming. Action WITHOUT dialogue is almost as bad or worse than action without reflection. This isn’t to say Freire didn’t ignore this. But I don’t think he framed it this way. To Freire, Praxis = action + reflection in a symbiotic relationship. I’m thinking of how dialogue, central to Freire, is essential for collective or collaborative action. And that sometimes we need to hold back action as we dialogue, let it all sink in. Check in with each other. This process may be worth so much more long-term than the actions/products themselves. Because that’s where “who we are to each other” blossoms. I think!

    1. Maha, so much to think about here. But just briefly I’m really drawn to this idea of checking ourselves, especially in relation to why we don’t get things, or why others don’t get what we said. And checking in with each other, openly and with a view to the possibility that we have generated the misunderstanding and need to back up a step.

      Here I agree: what we have then is talk. Online its often all we have. Mostly we can’t see each other, we can’t share food, or go for a walk together, or do those mundane silent useful things that sometimes humans do when they’re thinking what to say next.

      And there are days when this is why online communication truly does not work. But the thing I keep coming back to: without these networks of exchange and ideas, we would not have this at all. So many of us are not available to each other in any other format.

  2. I have floated around the margins of #digciz, what with an election and a (lovely) 3 week motorhome holiday touring the coast of Ireland with very variable but mainly dodgy Internet access (a learning experience in itself). I don’t have a problem with using the term digital citizenship, as long as we deal with its meaning in context and question what it might be covering up.
    I’m with you on championing dialogue and trusting each other to be acting – that’s very important. But of course, those other actors, the non-human ones, are also acting and they don’t always want us to see what they are doing. I’m always aware that a lot might be going on beyond my perception, and not just because of my dodgy Internet access. Discussion of topics goes on across multiple platforms or private/public within the same platform, and I think this can make dialogue much more challenging. I saw references to Mastodon (that I haven’t used) and, on a blog post/comments, a suggestion that there might have been a tiff on Facebook. This intrigued me (but not enough to become a detective) because of research I’d done with others on a cMOOC where the discussion on a Facebook group took on a life of its own but seemed to also impact on discussions on other platforms. It seemed clear that the affordances of Facebook, designed to encourage (hyper-connectivity and sharing), were shaping discussions, even if the mechanisms of exactly how this happened were concealed by Facebook (coz Intellectual Property and ‘privacy’). I think that this shaping phenomenon can get in the way of dialogue and the concealment can interfere with our capacity to make informed choices to conduct effective dialogue in public spaces online.
    I wonder how much academics who are in the vanguard of talking in public spaces think about those non-human actors like platforms, corporations, Internet access, devices. If they don’t, I think they should. And that’s not to mention the other, structural inequalities.
    When the few talk loudly and frequently (and in include myself in this though not in #digciz), I always worry a bit about the quiet, the silent the hidden, and of course what is not talked about. To link that back to the citizen/ non-citizen issue, the experience of being ‘other’ can help us ‘see’ that experience when we are not ‘other’, if we have dialogue.

    1. Hi Frances

      I’m so used to being Not On Facebook that I’ve become really used to seeing only a corner of what is happening in any situation. I think this has generally made me more relaxed about keeping up or feeling like something somewhere is going on without me. But I think that’s because being Not On Facebook was such a personal choice for me, that honouring it doesn’t feel like being shut out at all. So I think it does really matter how we talk about the various places that a conversation might have wandered off to, to be careful not to make it sound like the real party is in the kitchen while you are sitting here in another room.

      I think this is one of the primary problems that we create when we try to think about space, community and belonging online. Following this discussion I’ve come to wonder about a model of belonging that is simply myself, belonging to myself, responsible for myself, in whatever parts of the online world I go to — not in terms of what I ask of others in that world, or what that world does to me.

      And hidden in this idea is a huge trap for the unwary, which is the failure to see that my experience of being able to choose where I wander, and choose how I respond to what that other world does to me, is the core of the privilege of my personal experience.

      This stuff is really complicated. Two quick thoughts: I don’t think academics in the main are in the vanguard of talking in public, but those I come across online think about the gatekeeping, the structure, the power, a lot. That’s possibly new, and a plus of sorts.

  3. Thomas Merton had a name for his fellow self-satisfied monks. He called them “cozy cheesemakers”, about as caustic a condemnation this gentle man could make. There really aren’t many incentives in academia to not behave like a jerk. Just look at how the adjunctified are treated. I am super grateful for you and folks like James Arvanitakis calling this out, but in the end you were invited to #digciz, I only participated. One of us is a citizen and the other a denizen.

  4. Hi Terry, welcome to the deckchairs.

    This isn’t quite how citizen and denizen separate for me. I didn’t think (don’t think) that there is a stable community to belong to in this case, although I’ve seen long term hashtags that have worked that way (mostly around health or politics). And going way back I’ve seen all sorts of online communities take up a fairly defensive approach to membership. I’ve always found this troubling. Very early feminist IRC channels and usenet groups, for example, often tried to make sure that boundaries were carefully controlled, and I remember thinking: I get why this might be happening, but it’s really not workable, because no one is ultimately identifiable here.

    But #digciz seems to me not to be a community in any stable way. It’s a pop-up conversation supported by intermittent care taking and guesting. I learned this month that it’s also just two people who started a conversation together and wondered if other people would join. That seems OK to me, but it might well be frustrating to others. I’ve seen enough of these things from the outside to know that what feels exclusionary to me might be the core home place for someone else. But I often join brief discussions like this where people have some prior history with each other—and I’m usually the person with the least history with anyone.

    So I don’t think we’re either citizen or denizen of this thing because there is no there, no place, no stable community. It’s already rolled up its tent and gone. (But now you’ve got me thinking about temporary structures, like Burning Man or festivals like Glastonbury, and whether we really do need to think more about events that have some ongoing sense of shared something).

    On academics, what I’m calling out is the structure and business model. I don’t think individual academics are more or less jerk than any other profession, I truly don’t. Individuals have blind spots or behave badly in a wide, wide range of jobs. I know and care about too many academics who are being crushed by the experience of trying to hang on to precarious, adjunctified work; and equally too many who are being crushed by the experience of trying to hang on to the vanishing number of salaried jobs. But I think my mileage on this stereotype varies because I come from a system without tenure (as does James). So the assumptions, risks and challenges that shape our work are really different.

    So what I’m calling out is the career structure that disproportionately rewards actions I find uncollegial, disrespectful, and harmful; and that has installed a business model that treats adjunctification as a disruptive bit of genius. My despair and anger at this is really what this blog has been about for a long time.

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