Our Moments and Our Actions, Our Spaces and Times, Our Works, in the Age of Translocalization
by Elisa T. Bertuzzo
If at some time in the near future, the ephemeral becomes more prevalent, which is entirely conceivable, what would it consist of? In the activities of groups that are themselves ephemeral, that would invent and realize various works. Their own. … Those groups, should they come into being, would invent their moments and their actions, their spaces and times, their works. And they would do so at the level of habiting or by starting out from that level (without remaining there; that is, by modeling an appropriate urban space).
Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, 99
For some years now, I have been following people-on-the-move—individuals and groups who move regularly in search of work, as part of circular, often seasonal livelihood tactics—in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. My aim thereby is to trace the shifts emerging in our local economies and histories, modes of association and production, against the backdrop of extreme, if ubiquitous, phenomena: ecocide linked with extractivism, mass-lumpenization linked with deregulation and fluidification of the economy, all leading to a decline of ‘classic’ rural–urban migration and rise of translocal livelihoods. In such circumstances, people are seen leaving their homes, inhabiting many and no social space, returning for brief intervals after variably long periods of time. I call the ensemble of those shifts translocalization, intending, in a Lefebvrian transduction, a virtuality rather than an accomplished reality.
To transduce means to construct a theoretical or possible object “from information related to reality and a [problématique] posed by this reality.”1 While the virtuality, or theoretical object, that Lefebvre eyed half a century ago was society’s complete urbanization, for me writing today it is society’s complete translocalization. My information derives from the reality of people-on-the-move in a densely populated region of South Asia; my problématique, in turn, from the perception that higher geographic mobility facilitated by improved communications and the proliferation of self-invented jobs in ‘new’ sectors—both of which could be interpreted as signs of increasingly free labor markets and ‘urban’ modes of production—are rather resulting in a less free, less emancipated society. Neither is alienation defeated—autogestion, or a self-directed production of space reliant on collectivized means of production, is still the marginal object of intellectual debates and exceptional experiences in either very privileged or very marginalized enclaves; nor is differential space2 on the horizon—instead, identitarian and ethnic-religious-nationalist discourses are gaining momentum.
With globalization affecting all levels of everyday life and movement becoming imperative, the practices which human beings could recur to in order to appropriate, use and produce spaces of their own are challenged. Indeed, if devising tactics to counter capitalist domination has always been difficult, it becomes even more difficult when everybody is on the move. Therefore, the hypothesis of translocalization should inaugurate also an enquiry into the instances, moments, sites, in which people-on-the-move manage to turn their extraordinary mobility, forced or voluntary, in a tool of resistance. Such an endeavor will naturally expand Lefebvre’s theory, as if the norm of the production of space is not the ‘urban,’ but movement, the preconditions, constraints as well as the aims of inhabitants’ struggle are prone to change. Before that, however, this theory, forged on the basis of observations of European, not to say uniquely French, developments, needs to be adjourned. In recent years, the attitude of EuroAmerican academia to the conceptualization of urbanization in the rest of the world has been attacked with compelling arguments. Jennifer Robinson, for example, blamed the ‘parochial assumptions around the nature of urban modernity’ with which urban studies approached non-EuroAmerican and ex-colonial countries.3 Such representations, nourishing dreams that cities like Mumbai, New Delhi or Dhaka would sooner or later become the new Londons or Singapores, have partly prevented the ruling and upper-middle classes of India and Bangladesh (to stick to cases I know well) from acknowledging the real, often banal, problems encountered by their urban governments and administrations in tackling the unacceptable living conditions of millions of urban dwellers. Moreover, as argued by Ananya Roy, the West’s ‘other’ cities aren’t exceptional, perverted, ‘lacking’ or ‘extreme,’ as certain researchers would like to believe. Rather, they mirror the global preconditions of production of space in an increasingly interconnected world.4 Only, which are these preconditions? Are we so sure they’re ‘urban?’
The hypothesis presented here is founded on the acknowledgment of the crisis of the ‘elasticity’ of neoliberalism, and capitalism in general. How many of those who are on the move nowadays are ‘pulled’ to highly attractive regions, and how many are on the contrary fleeing from regions where the very foundations of survival—land, water—have been grabbed away? Hasn’t the labor that many used to subsist on become either obsolete, or discontinuous, or appallingly unproductive due to man’s plundering?5 If on top of that, we consider that automation and digitalization have an adverse impact on the creation of jobs, we come to the conclusion that the alleged elasticity of capitalism is slowly but surely ceasing.6 Lefebvre’s hypothesis anticipated this global crisis, yet by identifying it with ‘urbanization,’ he blinded out the preconditions of production of space outside of EuroAmerica, where the majority of the world’s population happen to live, and where the preconditions of production of space, rather than by ‘urban’ modes of production, are determined by the continual movements of masses of expelled people. In this regard, one metaphor he introduced comes handy. Around the ‘critical point,’ Lefebvre says, strange implosion-explosion phenomena become manifest in physical space. ‘Implosion’ relates to the agglomeration of people, goods, built structures, capital, as well as ideas, trends, aspirations; ‘explosion,’ on the other hand, to the extension of the ‘urban fabric’ over and beyond the boundaries of cities.7 Yet, in physics, implosion and explosion pertain to unleashed forces (so, not to elasticity). And unleashed, and nothing else, are nowadays the movements of millions of people-on-the-move. They extend and progressively loosen, inducing the progressive disappearance of fixed centralities, overcoming the old ‘directions’ of migration (for example, rural-urban), and bringing about the shifts in local economies and histories, modes of association and production, that I subsumed under the term ‘translocalization.’
How will translocalized human beings, how will we, organize and resist in the future? Here, the counter-strategic importance of inhabiting, not only as objet du désir for people who constantly leave their homes and have to fit in new ones, but also as sedimented experience enabling to define common issues and goals, comes to the fore. If I think it is worthwhile to examine and reiterate an understanding of inhabitation on which Lefebvre mused already 40-50 years ago, it is because, at present, additional millions of displaced, dispossessed, expelled, are left with no place to inhabit at all. This is seen to foster a renaissance of protectionist, right-wing and fascist positions; but it is also the best and possibly only way to start thinking of, and more importantly practicing, co-inhabitation. To be sure, ‘inhabiting’ describes a transformative act performed in everyday life, and not merely the home where to be at peace, or the hollowed ‘housing’ to which many planners and technocrats doom specific social groups by ‘accommodating’ them in dedicated dwellings. By inhabiting, we learn what it can be like to appropriate; and by co-inhabiting, we share and shape space collectively—we rehearse utopia. Back then, Lefebvre saw a kindred utopia close to finding its realization in Yugoslavia. For some years, when potentially every citizen-građanin participated in the system of autogestion-samoupravljanje on the level of the neighborhood, when socially owned flats provided the basis for local, or platial, community organization,8 co-inhabitation probably found a beautiful, and joyful, expression. Nowadays, the experiences of temporary habitation that become common in an age of translocalization, the stories, opinions, food, the pain of delays, cancellations, accidents, shared during long journeys, the tactical coalitions adopted by people-on-the-move in order to ensure the maintenance of a common, as well as their efforts to establish relationships with neighbors who might disregard them as ‘strangers,’ have a stake in a similarly utopian project. Its appropriate space is all to be invented. It will encompass ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ areas. The ruling classes will try to grab and control it, once again.
But blocking people-on-the-move, as desperate as visionary, increasingly tech-savvy and connected, should turn unfeasible. •
Bridging the discourses from the fields of cultural and urban studies, Elisa T. Bertuzzo observes everyday life facets of self-organization and -empowerment in order to expose global political and economic relationships. Currently, she is a guest professor at the Masters Program “Raumstrategien”/“Spatial Strategies” at the weißensee academy of art berlin. Monographs: Archipelagos. From Urbanisation to Translocalisation (Berlin: Kadmos Verlag, 2018), Fragmented Dhaka. Analysing everyday life with Henri Lefebvre’s Theory of Production of Space (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009).
1 Henri Lefebvre, ‘The Right to the City’, in Writings on Cities, ed. and transl. by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 151.
2 For Lefebvre, the space in which the contradictions and conflicts inherent to difference boost a continual collective reconfiguration of spatial representations, practices, actions; see Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Malden, Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 1991), 352–401.
3 Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary Cities. Between Modernity and Development (Oxford: Routledge, 2006), 6.
4 Roy also appeals to a ‘worlding’ of cities ‘such that the standard geographies of core and periphery are disrupted and dislocated.’ Ananya Roy, ‘The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory’, in Regional Studies, 43/6, 2009, 828.
5 More on this issue in Saskia Sassen, Expulsions. Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2014). She reminds that currently, the highest number of ‘migrants’ are internally displaced persons from, and within, the African continent.
6 Digitalization and automation can be expected to play a particularly drastic role in populous and still largely manufacture-based countries, such as India or Bangladesh, but the cessation of ‘elasticity’ is sensible also in the so-called industrial countries. More on the topic in Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2017).
7 Let’s remember that for Lefebvre, ‘urban fabric’ describes ‘all manifestations of the dominance of the city over the country. In this sense, a vacation home, a highway, a supermarket in the countryside are all part of the urban fabric’; in Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 4. A ‘critical point’ is reached when a prevalent mode of production makes way for another (e.g. the mercantile city made way for the industrial city) and Lefebvre identified one such crisis with the transition from the industrial to the ‘urban’ in the 1970s.
8 See Uroš Pajović’s essay in this publication.
Cover Image: Arrivals and departures follow the rhythm of the seasons in the island of Bhola, southern Bangladesh. Photo: Elisa T. Bertuzzo