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

1

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.

2

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.

3

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