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

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Kith

Kith originally meant native land or country, not just in the sense of one’s place of birth or ancestry, but in the sense of a loving, intimate, friendly relationship with the landscape of home, the place you come from and the people and things that share it with you. Kith is not only the place you know and love, but the place that knows and loves you back.

Susan Beal, A Place of Love

We’re watching the UK election, and my daughter says: can you still vote there? It’s been so long, I’m not sure. I don’t think so.

Home 2017, image by Kate Bowles

But I know that in the background of every news shot, I’m watching the summer light in the sky and thinking about long evenings, and chalk and flint farmland. This is the practical condition of homesickness: at the sound of a thrush or the thought of a real beer in a proper pub, it flares up like a headache.

In the small community where I live I can drive past three homes I’ve lived in as an adult, and the ghost of another. Above the surf club there used to be a rundown weatherboard beach house that has been replaced by a showy oceanfront mansion. It was the first house I stayed in when I came here to work. It was rambling and unrenovated, filled with someone else’s Australian childhood furniture. I could walk out in the morning and drink a mug of coffee sitting on a low wall watching the sun come up over the ocean. I really loved it.

Since then we’ve moved around within a very small area, street hopping, trying to stay close to the ocean. Each of our three daughters was brought home from the local hospital to start life in a different house; finally when the older ones were very little, one and two, we stopped rolling and settled in the home where we now live. They all learned to ride scooters and bikes in this street, and then skateboards, and now two of them drive cars, more or less.

Our street, 2011, Kate Bowles

This morning I drove my daughter to her work, and then dropped off a friend of hers who had stayed overnight. We talked about how we each appreciate living in this place. She’s 17, she’s been away for six months and come back, and can’t believe her luck at still living here. I drove and listened, and didn’t say: I remember you when you were five years old. But what I was really thinking was that I didn’t grow up here. This is not my home. And everyone who was a child here, learned these streets by walking with small feet, will have a different way of seeing the big sky and the escarpment and even the wide Pacific ocean, than I do, because I still see it with a shock of not belonging, every day.

I have no kith here, and I shouldn’t. It’s not my place. It’s not my place to love, to ask it to love me back.

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In March 1797 at Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria, five British and 12 Bengali seamen swam ashore after their longboat was ripped apart in a storm.

Sydney, a town of barely 1,500 people, was over 700 kilometres to the north. Meanwhile, their fellow-survivors from the wreck of the Sydney Cove were stranded further south, on a tiny island in the Bass Strait.

I listened to historian Mark McKenna tell this story on the radio as I was driving through this country that I see as beautiful, and where I didn’t grow up.  The seventeen sailors washed up on a stretch of coastline still described today as “untamed”, and set off to walk. They walked for two months, running out of food and leaving people behind. On May 15, three survivors were seen from a fishing boat, crawling along a beach just north of here. They had walked 800 km. One was from Scotland, and one was Bengali. The other, I don’t know. They had foraged and swum and climbed and been poisoned by eating the wrong things, and interacted regularly with Aboriginal people without whose help and guidance and foodsharing they would not have survived.

What did they make of any of it? When they were rescued and made it to Sydney Cove, how did these three sailors feel about where they had arrived, where they had been? How did they come to terms with the fact of the people who had shared resources and knowledge with them, who had showed them where to go and what to eat and how to overcome their own fundamental unfitness to be in this country?

What did it mean to each of them, different as they were, to be so far away, to be so kithless?*

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This week I’m part of a rolling conversation on digital citizenship as a metaphor for thinking about how we manage our aspirations, responsibilities and resources in creating an online environment that works. It’s an annual conversation curated by people who think and care about citizenship, and this year it’s run into trouble with the idea of citizenship as a metaphor for anything, in these times of walls and borders and sinking boats and offshore processing centres of astonishing cruelty and even, really this is a thing now, calls for a return to internment.

I’m one of those who feels that citizenship can’t work as a benign metaphor now, and perhaps it never could. I hold two passports and I can only see citizenship as a bureaucratic exercise in which I don’t know if I can vote in one place, but voting is compulsory in the other. I have bank accounts and pay tax in both; I have healthcare rights in both, just about. The apparatuses of both states treat me well, and recognise my children as connected to me. But none of this suggests to me that citizenship is anything other than the grounds of our refusal to care for others as we’d like to be cared for if misfortune tore us from our homes and threw us onto the mercies of others.

I’ve been helped in my thinking about belonging and statelessness by Amy Collier’s recent post on the hidden immigrant, the immigrant who passes in two places but is at home in neither. Amy asks whether this idea of belonging and not belonging helps us get beyond the difficulty of applying citizenship as a metaphor for what we do online (especially as this is far more obviously regulated by capital than by any state). At the end of her post, Amy raises the question of digital kinship, a term I’m drawn to because of the way it sits with ideas about kindness. Kindness (kin-ness) has ancient origins that connect us both to nature and to relationships, and took me back to kith (as in “kith and kin”), and the importance of knowing the place where we are, the way that knowing place nourishes our capacity to belong.

Where can we experience anything like kith online? Are there places that we love online, environments where we feel at home, that seem to love us back? Is this about user experience, or ethos? Is it about the trust we’re willing to place in design, in what data is kept and what is done with it? Can we feel at home under conditions of continual digital surveillance? Can we love a place that is manipulating us for business or political gain? Is it ever possible to experience kith when the whole thing is set up, controlled, regulated and organised in service of values we don’t share?

For the moment, it seems to me that these questions are worth asking, and move us beyond a narrow dispute about citizenship as a metaphor.

#digciz

Last week’s #digciz conversations came to rest on the question of belonging, and next week with my colleague Maha Bali I’ll be taking up the organisers’ invitation to think about what comes next. There’s a separate post coming about that. But in the meantime, we both hope you will join us next week on Twitter and other places where you feel at home online. You can read some of Maha’s thoughts on citizenship here.

*(kithless: not knowing anyone, having no acquaintances or family.)