Thursday, 31 December 2009

The etymology of no-man's-land

A friend asked me about the origin of "no-man's-land". Let me quote an explanation I found here:

The term 'No man's land' appeared in the Doomsday book - namesmaneslande - and referred to any unclaimed land in the town or countryside. It has also been written as: 'No Man's Land', 'No-man's-land', 'Nomansland' and almost every combination of the three words one can think of. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) unequivocally spells it as 'No man's land'. The OED describes it as: a medieval a piece of waste or unwanted land; a plot of ground lying outside the north wall of London used as a place of execution in the Middle Ages; a space amidships used to hold blocks and tackle in the time of sail; and, in a military connotation, an unoccupied space between fronts of opposing fortresses. No date or reference is given by the OED for the etymology of the latter term, but it is quite evident that it was not widely used by the British Regular Army when the BEF first arrived in France in 1914. The terms most frequently used by the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 were: 'between the trenches' or 'between the lines'. However, the future innovator of the tank, Ernest Swinton (later Major General), certainly used the term as a war correspondence on the Western Front, with specific mention of the terms with respect to the 'race to the sea' in late 1914. However, it was the famous Anglo-German Christmas Truce of 1914 which brought the term into common use, and thereafter it appears constantly in official communiqués, newspaper reports and the journals and letters of the members of the BEF. ("No Man's Land and the Western Front in the Great War")
So the term didn't originate with the First World War. It was also used in old times for dumping groups for refuse, execution grounds, contested or unoccupied land between fiefdoms etc.

I then looked up "common" ("commons") and "no man's land" in a few dictionaries and it turns out that the terms overlap even more than I thought. Both, for instance, mean waste or unused land.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica defines commons as an “area of land for use by the public” and adds: “The term originated in feudal England, where the ‘waste’, or uncultivated land, of a lord’s manor could be used for pasture and firewood by his tenants” (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 3, 1987)

For "common", the Oxford English Dictionary lists, among other meanings, the following: “A common land or estate; the undivided land belonging to the members of a local community as a whole. Hence, often, the patch of unenclosed or ‘waste’ land which remains to represent that”. It also quotes Eben William Robertsons Historical Essays from 1872: “In England, we are now accustomed to give the name of 'common’ to a tract of uncultivated waste land alone, but at a comparatively recent period the name, as opposed to ‘close’, still continued to be applied to fields, pastures, meadows and indeed to every description of land held in joint-occupation and not in ‘the lord’s domain’” (The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. III, 2’d edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

Here's from the entry for “no man’s land”, referred to in the text above (just for the record): “A piece of waste, or unused, land; in early use as the name of a plot of ground, lying outside the north wall of London, and used as a place of execution”. The oldest example quoted in the OED is a text mentioning “nonesmanneslonde” from 1320. Judging from the examples, the word only somewhat later came to be used for unclaimed land generally. In In 1719 Daniel Defoe writes in Robinson Crusoe about “a kind of Border, that might be called a no-Man’s Land”. In the 19th century, the word is used more or less as we would today (Thus we find a "small lot of noman’s land in the woods”, an area “sandwiched as a kind of no man’s land" between Afghanistan and India etc). During the first world war, it acquires is famous military connotation: “The terrain between the front lines of armies entrenched opposite one another” (The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. X, second edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

Love of ruins / picking up things / ghosts

Utopia and the uncanny – on picking up things

In my previous entry I described the anime Beautiful Dreamer as suffused by a love of ruins. Later I learned from the DVD commentary that Oshii Mamoru, the director, used to imagine town or school as lying in ruins during his time as a school dropout in junior high. This certainly explains part of the utopian luster that simmers over the sunlit landscape of the empty town and especially over the haunting image of the abandoned school, half sunk into a lake.

That ruins can be the locus of utopian imagination may seem strange. Aren’t ruins usually said to inspire fear, a feeling of the uncanny or creepy? (This aspect of ruins can also be seen in the anime. We see it in the motif of Doppelgängers, in the sense of damnation expressed by one of the teachers, and in the desolate night streets where eerie music is suddenly heard). How can we explain that uncanny ghostly things can also make us feel free, as if bringing with them an air of utopia?

Let’s recall what ruins are: part of the realm of no-man’s-land. It is garbage writ large, an abandoned object which no-one wants or needs anymore. Recently, perusing one of the old copies of Ningen kaihô (Dameren’s old minikomi, of which I now have a complete set thanks to a helpful former participant), I came across an interesting essay by Kikuchi Hisahiko. Referring to what Kashima Jûichi had called the “strange pleasure of things being for free” (Kashima had proposed a “free price market” in an earlier essay and also used the volunteer activities in Kamagasaki or in Kobe after the earthquake as examples of this pleasure), Kikuchi suggests that this pleasure doesn’t stem only from the feeling of having gained something or made a “bargain”, but rather from the liberation from the very idea of gaining things, of profit. Kikuchi observes that free things seem to break with the very logic of money, being things that escape the “general equivalent”. Since the market is a place for exchange, the very idea of things being for free is an anomaly. To children, a garbage station can be a treasure mountain. As they grow up, however, they learn not to pick up things, but to shun them.
Things ‘not belonging to anyone’ are indeterminate. We usually think of such things as ambiguous and suspicious, as lacking substance. Maybe behind that image is the train of thought that discarded things are unnecessary and therefore worthless. In any case, discarded things stir up feelings of anxiety, compared to commodities that instead provide relief by virtue of being universally determined [through the price] […]. But if something is indeterminate, what stops us from determining it ourselves? We can accord it value to us, even if it is unnecessary and worthless to everybody else. To put it somewhat exaggeratedly, this is an act of creation. In this lies the pleasure of picking up things that are for free. (Kikuchi 1996:20)
Here’s an important clue to the ambivalence of ruins. Things that are abandoned or discarded are uncanny and inspire anxiety – until we pick them up! Abandoned and unwanted by others, we can give them value. Giving value to something is, as Kikuchi points out, a form of creation. By picking a thing up, we single it out, we redeem it.

Come to think of it, aren’t the best and most memorable things in life almost always things we’ve gotten without paying for them? Wonderful meetings, revelations, splendid ideas, love?

Yes, this is creation. That is what many artists do: they pick up a thing, and it becomes art. Photography turns sights that are for free into art. Ogawa Tetsuo published a magazine consisting of the scraps he found in garbage bins.

There is a whole long tradition linking rag-picking to happy endings. Think of the fairytale youngest brother who succeeds in his task only thanks to the useless things he picks up on the way. Think of Pippi Longstocking.

The precondition of rag-picking is the existence of a realm of abandoned and unwanted things: things lying around in no-man’s-land, litter, uncanny ruins, the abject refuse of humanity, rejected – yet for that very reason part of the commons.

Until now I have portrayed no-man’s-land in bright colors, as the locus of a utopian imagination. Yet it is clear that not only ruins, but the entire realm of no-man’s-land partakes of the uncanny. The word itself evokes horror: the hell of war, execution grounds, wasteland, armies of dead. The fear of no-man’s-land is the fear of conditions in which civilization is gone, where rules no longer apply and murder is no longer a crime.

By picking a thing up, we redeem it. But who could redeem all the dead? Not even Benjamin’s new angel.

Murakami Haruki, ghosts, and the solidarity with the dead

However, there is a way of solidarizing oneself with junk and refuse which does not depend on the ability to "pick up" and give value to it. Lets look at the following passage from Murakami Haruki's Hardboiled Wonderland, where the protagonist compares his life to a beach where junk is washed ashore by the waves and then washed back into the sea.
When I look back over my life so far, I see all that junk on the beach. It’s how my life has always been. Gathering up the junk, sorting through it, and then casting it off somewhere else. All for no purpose, leaving it to wash away again.[…] This is all my life. I merely go from one beach to another. (Murakami 1993:375)
Here the uncanniness of junk is superseded, but in another way than that described by Kikuchi. "Picking up" and redeeming things by giving them value seems to presuppose the unimpaired agency of a fully "living" person who through his act of creation is capable of suspending and abolishing the "death" or fallen condition of junk. In Murakami we see something else: a subjectivity that is powerless to create value, which is itself part of the fallen condition and which seems to feel at home among the junk precisely because it is not fully "living" itself.

There is what I would like to call a "solidarity with the dead" that suffuses Murakami Haruki’s fiction and gives it its famous "dark" coloring. The city wanderings of his heroes often lead them down to dried out wells, moist cellars, damp attics, long labyrinthine corridors, subterranean passages and the like - all with a distinctly sepulchral air. It has often been pointed out that these typically cold, dark and lifeless places represent an “other world” mirroring the unconscious of the narrator.
Saying this perhaps I will be misunderstood again, but I feel an immense sympathy for the dead. When all is said and done, my sympathy for the dead is stronger than for the living, and my sympathy for the non-existent stronger than for those who exist. (Murakami, in Murakami & Kawamoto 1985:67)
Not only junk, but ghosts too lose their uncanniness in Murakami's fiction. Although many of the people who populate his fiction are ghost-like, they are hardly “uncanny” in Freud’s sense of the term. Freud defines the uncanny as something familiar that has been repressed, as “something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light” (Freud 1990:364). As I once wrote:

In the Hades described by Murakami, ghosts are part of the trivial everyday. The reason for this is simple. Ghosts are only uncanny to those who identify with the living. By contrast, Murakami’s heroes are themselves “ghosts”, i.e. traumatized survivors, and tend to assume the perspective of the dead. The “other” world in his fiction is in fact not radically other, but comes forward as a place where the protagonist feels comfortable. This can be seen in “end of the world” narrative in Hardboiled Wonderland, in which the old Town where the narrator lives is clearly modeled on Hades. Although some of the “phantoms” inhabiting the town - such as the librarian - seem to be “doubles” of people met by the narrator in his conscious life, there is nothing frightening or vengeful about them. Rather they comfort the narrator and try to help him. (Cassegard 2007)
Murakami carries his solidarity with the dead to the point where the narrator or main protagonist almost seems to turn into a ghost himself. In The Wind-up Bird, Okada Tôru thinks of himself as a deserted house (akiya) or ruin somehow able to sense the movement of visitors inside it, yet unable to interfere with them. When a woman caresses his cheek, he imagines her touching its walls and pillars, and adds that there is “nothing he can do about it” (Murakami 1997:68). This state of passive acceptance and openness recalls the standpoint of an invisible ghost, unable to do anything by passively observing the visitors to whom he is incapable of communicating his presence. Think also of the strange vantage point of the narrating voice in his 2004 novel After Dark. To whom could such a voice belong, if not to a ghost?

Let me briefly mention another example of this solidarity with the dead. The central trauma of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990) is the American betrayal of the ideals of the 60’s. The image of Hades is centrally present - both as an implicit metaphor of “the spilled, the broken world” of the late 80’s America and in the form of Shade Creek, the village of the Thanatoids. The Thanatoids are people who are physically dead, yet for some reason - some grudge they bear because of wrongs suffered in their lives - are unable to die completely. Some of them are radical students killed in the violent suppression in the late 60’s of the “People’s Republic of Rock and Roll” at the University of the Surf in California. What is interesting here is how differently the two characters who are most directly responsible for the clamp-down are portrayed: the FBI-boss Brock Vond and Frenesi, a hippie who betrayed her comrades. While the former - the embodiment of the fascist desire for authority - identifies with the living, Frenesi is a kind of ghost, living “between the two deaths” just like the Thanatoids and symbolically dead after her betrayal. That the Thanatoids are depicted with more sympathy than Vond is not surprising, but so is Frenesi. Like her victims, she too is dreaming of recovery - in what she calls her “Dream of the Gentle Flood” in which divers descend into the water, which has flooded California, and bring back up for us “whatever has been taken” and “whatever has been lost” (Pynchon 1991:256). What we find here is again that the writer assumes the perspective of the “ghosts”, of the victims of the “living”. Just as in Murakami, there is a solidarity with the ghosts, who tend to appear reassuring and familiar rather than uncanny.

In my dissertation, I suggested that Murakami’s sympathy for lost and discarded things and his solidarity with the ghosts might be connected to a quest for resurrection, that it might be related on some level with Benjamin’s search for “rags and refuse” in the Paris passages. If Murakami’s point of departure is the Hades of lost things, Benjamin’s was the “hell” or “inferno” of modern capitalism, with its ever recurrent shocks and remythologizations.
Just as for the Jews “every second was a small gate through which Messiah might enter”, so for Benjamin every piece of rags or refuse was a potential “dialectical image” which might trigger the sudden flash of recognition, the involuntary memory, which would help dispel the nightmare. (Cassegard 2007)
In both Benjamin and Murakami we see, I think, a subject that recognizes its inability to achieve the creation of value by itself, and which therefore waits for it, or only half consciously gropes for it, in what may appear to be a passive fashion, in the manner that a believer might wait for grace or a traumatized patient for recovery.


Ruins, discarded things and ghosts all seem to partake of a strange ambivalence, oscillating between the uncanny and the redemptive or utopian. The hinge, or fulcrum, where one swings over to the other is the moment when some form of creation occurs - for such moments can occur, even when we feel too powerless to aspire to be its "subjects" or agents.

This helps us understand a curious phenomenon: that no-man’s-land often serves as a place for recovery. Ueyama Kazuki, a former social withdrawer (hikikomori) writes that the Great Hanshin Awaji earthquake in 1995 helped him to break out of his own isolation. He too joined the volunteers and helped remove rubble together with everyone else. A neighbor offered him juice.

People who until then had been strangers not knowing each other’s name or face despite sharing the same neighborhood helped each other naturally. Money was of no use. All that mattered was to share if there was need, to help one another. (Ueyama 2001:76)

Exhilarated, the describes how the fact that there was no running water in the taps appeared to him as a symbol of “freedom” and “evidence of the fact that the invisible ‘everyday’ had collapsed”, which had oppressed and plagued him until that day.

To me, it felt as if I was breathing for the first time in my life out of my own power and with my own lungs. (Ueyama 2001:76f).
It is not coincidence that his report resembles the descriptions of life behind the barricades in Paris, May 1968, which I quoted earlier. Durkheim and Simmel too mention the magic of great, leveling crises like wars and catastrophes. Redemption, reset, yonaoshi are a string of words that seem to belong together and echo each other. What Ueyama’s report highlights is that the connection between ruins and new life is not purely imaginary, not limited to popular culture or religion, but often real.

I'm not glorifying wars or earthquakes. No one should try to create ruins on purpose. Even to talk of how people can be helped by such large-scale tragedies sounds perverse. No one can count on recovery, least of all when the semblance of a no-man’s-land is created intentionally.

Ruins are almost always the result of a tragedy, but the life that starts to bud among the ruins is not necessarily a tragedy. It all depends of us, on what we create. That is the touchstone. How will we behave if such a moment comes, and what will we create? This is what demands thought. How do we avoid hurting anyone? Where are the maxims that can withstand the catastrophe?


Cassegard, Carl (2007) Shock and Naturalization in Contemporary Japanese Literature, Folkestone: Global Oriental (based on a PhD dissertation available here).

Freud, Sigmund (1990) Art and Literature, London: Penguin Books.

Kashima, Jûichi (1995) “Tadamono ichi no kokoromi o teiki suru” (Proposal for a free price market), pp 79-80, Ningen kaihô No. 5 (March).

Kikuchi, Hisahiko (1996) “Tada no mono – mono o hirou” (Things for free, picking up things), pp 17-21, Ningen kaihô No. 7 (March).

Murakami, Haruki (1993) Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, New York: Vintage.

Murakami, Haruki (1997) Nejimakidori kuronikuru (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle), Vol. 3, Tokyo: Shinchô bunko

Murakami, Haruki (2004) Afutâ dâku (After dark), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Murakami, Haruki & Kawamoto Saburô (1985) “‘Monogatari’ no tame no bôken” (An Adventure for the Sake of Narrative), Bungakukai 39:8: 34-86.

Pynchon, Thomas (1991) Vineland, London: Minerva.

Ueyama, Kazuki (2001) ’Hikikomori’ datta boku kara (From me, a former hikikomori), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Urusei Yatsura and "1968"

A few days ago I visited an activist in Sapporo, a central member of a group - Hokke no kai - that had become famous in the late 80's for its protests against the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant. I was charmed by house – a huge grey structure made of concrete and filled on the inside with flags, old toys, instruments and other quite quotidian things that for some mysterious reason appeared like wonderful and beautiful decorations. In particular I remember an enormous palm tree whose green leaves together with the light from big windows and the sound of water from upstairs lent the room where we sat a sunken, submarine quality.

But what I want to write about today is neither the house nor anti-nuclear power activism. The members of his group, my host told me, often used to watch anime together, and today I want to write about the anime which we watched together in the evening – Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984, directed by Oshii Mamoru, below Beautiful Dreamer).

First a brief synopsis. It starts off with Ataru’s and Lum’s highschool, where everyone is busy preparing for the school festival. Everything quickly takes an uncanny turn. The overworked teacher Onsen-mark breaks down in a neurosis the day before the festival and deliriously laments to the school nurse (and miko) Sakura that people have always said "until tomorrow", as far back as he can remember. What if time is standing still? What if they are all damned to live like this forever, caught in a time trap, like Urashima Tarô? Soon other strange things start to happen. In the evening they are unable to leave school since all streets lead back to it. A taxi chauffeur suddenly starts to sound like a demon, talking about being a turtle taking his passenger (Sakura) to the Dragon Palace. A terrific scene is when Ataru and a few others are riding through what appears to be completely deserted streets late at night and suddenly hear the eerie sound of flutes and drums, and see some weird musicians parading through one of the streets. “E-he-he, seems the chindonya have started 24 hour service”, Ataru suggests nervously. In a desperate escape attempt involving a jet fighter, they discover that the entire neighborhood around the school is travelling through space on the back of a gigantic turtle, apparently torn away from the rest of the earth.

Life now changes: they relax, drive around in the empty town on a big truck, play and have fun all day. In the background we see that the school has fallen into ruins and sunk into a lake. New life starts in the ruins of the empty city. Time stands still. The convenience store alone is a cornucopia forever filled with new goods. Apart from Sakura, Mendô is the only one who continues to search for a way to get back to ordinary life. Lum feels sorry for him and, carrying a big melon, comes to invite him to play with the others. The only thing she cares for, she says, is to have fun with her friends every day for ever and ever. Finally, however, this world is revealed as a dream created by the comical Kansaiben-speaking demon Mujaki. When Sakura manages to capture him, the dream (after some breathtaking scenes) collapses back into reality, the normal everyday routine of the school.

Who, by the way, is the demon? He is hardly Satan, as Sakura insinuates. His name, Mujaki, is spelled with the signs for dream, evil and devil, but the word is homonymous with the word for innocent. To be sure, he admits that it was he who made Caesar’s and Hitler’s dreams come true, but how the dream develops depends on the human being he happens to possess. Tired of all megalomaniacs he’d encountered through history he actually wanted to retire, but then one day in an aquarium (another allusion to the Dragon’s Palace?) he finally met someone who was different and utterly innocent – Lum, who only dreamed of having fun together with Ataru and the other friends.

How should we interpret the film? We can recall that it was released in 1984. Miyadai Shinji famously claims that popular culture in the 80’s was characterized by two competing eschatologies or visions of the world’s final destiny. One was the “neverending everyday” (owari naki nichijô), which was suffused by the sentiment that “the future will not be different from the present”. Since the future will bring neither “brilliant progress” nor any “terrible collapse”, there is nothing left to do but to take it easy and play about endlessly, as in everyday life in a school or in a junior college. Apocalyptic visions are explicitly and mercilessly poked fun at in manga such as Takahashi Rumiko’s Urusei yatsura. A second eschatological vision was the “post-nuclear war community” (kakusensôgo no kyôdôtai). Its violent message of “redemption through Armageddon” was expressed in smash hits such as Ôtomo Katsuhiro’s Akira or Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaa (Miyadai 1995:86ff).

If we try to situate Beautiful Dreamer in relation to Miyadai’s two eschatologies, we find that neither fits very well. It is true that it no longer has much in common with the “neverending everyday” or the original light and innocent playfulness of the manga Urusei yatsura on which it was based. Takahashi Rumiko acknowledged as much when she unenthusiastically commented that the anime was Oshii’s work, not hers. To some extent, one could perhaps claim that Oshii – famous for anime hits like Ghost in the Shell that belong rather unambiguously in the second strand of eschatology – transformed the work into its opposite, into a “post-nuclear war” work.

Still, this diagnosis is insufficient. The Armageddon-like struggles of the “post-nuclear war” are usually characterized by a paranoiac feel that comes out very well in films like Matrix. In these films, it is taken for granted that the task of the main protagonist is to break out of the “fake” world of simulacra and return to “reality”. The “illusion” or “dream” must be denied. If we look at Beautiful Dreamer, we feel at once that “dream” or “illusion” plays an entirely different role. The Dragon Palace in the sea, which Urashima Tarô visited, wasn’t a prison. It was a place of lost happiness. That’s why time seemed to stand still there. Sure, there are some characters in the film – like Mendô or Sakura, or, finally, Ataru himself – who try to break out of the dream. But these attempts are portrayed as somewhat ridiculous. Especially Mendô, who likes to drive around with a tank, is portrayed as a self-important wanna-be hero and besserwisser who is very much a bother (mendô) to the others. Neither is the demon who created the dream really evil. I feel a lot of sympathy for his attempt to make Lum’s dream come true.

What characterizes the anime’s relation to dream or illusion is neither a whole-hearted affirmation of it, nor a desperate and paranoid attempt to combat it, but rather a form of love for a dream that is not only beautiful, but above all fragile, ephemeral and rare. Time stands still, yet at the same time one knows that the dream may soon be over. One lives in it with all one’s heart, because one knows that life is so rarely visited by moments like this.

Let me return to the film: to the scenes when the young friends drive around lazily in the empty town and the school lies in ruins in a lake. There is a strange bliss in these scenes. A new life starts among the ruins, where everything is for free. Time stands still. Parents and teachers and all authority are gone. There’s freedom in the air. To me this is a fine image of a town that has turned into a no-man’s-land, a commons. There was a memorable monologue here by Megane-san, which was too long for me to memorate, but as I recall it, it blended effortlessly into the lyrical descriptions of the liberated zones behinds the barricades in Paris in May 68.

Behind the demonstrations and riots, the clashes with the police, the wildcat strikes and factory occupations in May 1968, a new everyday unfolded behind the barricades, a life in which ”the uncommon became the everyday”, as Viénet writes (Viénet 1992:72). Participants write enthusiastically about how they experienced this everyday separated from the rest of society: time stopped, as did the metro, the trains, the cars and the workplaces. ”People strolled, dreamed, learned how to live. Desires began to become, little by little, reality.” (ibid 77). Cars were burned. People got used to the disappearance of money, instead they helped each other.
The hierarchical pyramid had melted like a lump of sugar in the May sun. People conversed and were understood in half a word. There were no more intellectuals or workers, but simply revolutionaries engaged in dialogue.... (Viénet 1992:76f)

No one worked. No planes, trains, mail. No gas. No trash collection. Neighbors, who had lived within ten feet of each other for twenty years, became acquainted, strolling and talking in the empty streets. So this is a revolution, they said – not bad. (Feenberg & Freedman 2001: 43)
Life in the occupied parts of town was more or less like a dream. Sadie Plant has described it as “surrealism on the streets” (Plant 1992:101). Lacking newspapers, people chatted with each other. Alain Jouffroy recalled “the great joy that we experienced for the first time in the streets of Paris during May 1968, that joy in the eyes and on the lips of all those who for the first time were talking to each other.” (cit. i Plant 1992:101).

As I have already mentioned (here), this is a state that can be described with Turner’s term "communitas". In contrast to the alienated being of everyday urban life stand the intoxicating moments when the atomized masses seem to melt together in an undifferentiated feeling of universal brother- or sisterhood, when borders dissolve and everything seems possible. The experience of alienation seems, if only temporarily, to be suspended and to revert itself into a feeling of spontaneous belonging together. ”Revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society.” (Vaneigem 2001: 110).

Conversely, the waking up from the dream is the dismal return to order, the retour à la normale, the defeat of the revolutionary movement which the Situationists depicted as a herd of sheep heading back to the fold. As in Beautiful Dreamer, the students return to the school bench, the festival is over, the clocks start ticking again.

"What a master-piece!" (“Kessaku deshô!”), my host said when the film was over.


Feenberg, Andrew & Freedman, Jim (2001) When Poetry Ruled The Streets: The French May Events of 1968, Albany: State University of New York Press

Miyadai, Shinji (1995) Owarinaki nichijô o ikiro (Live the never-ending everyday), Tokyo: Chikuma shobô

Plant, Sadie (1992) The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, London and New York: Routledge

Vaneigem, Raoul (2001) The Revolution of Everyday Life, London: Rebel Press.

Viénet, René (1992) Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May ’68, New York: Autonomedia, London: Rebel Press.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Sociology - a small complaint

Surely, it is one of sociology’s basic duties never to make us more stupid than common sense has already made us. Yet this is what sociology constantly seems to be doing through its crude and insensitive language.

Take a sentence I just came across which summarized a certain theory as claiming that “socially backward areas evince a higher frequency of values that may be in conflict with conventional values”. The source is hardly important, since I think everyone will agree that formulations of this type are very common in sociological texts. Now compare it to the confidential little whisper that we’d better keep away from a certain neighborhood because it’s “dangerous”. Is it more nuanced or more sophisticated than the latter? Nope. Is it better since it is firmly grounded or more generally valid? Hardly, since anything “may” of course be anything anywhere.

Is there, then, any difference between the two statements? There is. The former discourages thinking. The dignity of science invites us to accept it unquestioningly, while the confidential whisper at least makes us react and perhaps even protest since we see it as what it is: a prejudice with no special dignity at all.

This is just one example, but it’s easy to find more. If you’re a sociology student, just look in your textbook.

I’m not asking how we (yes, I am a sociologist) can go about to make sociology intellectually stimulating. But we should at least avoid putting a lid on people’s intellectual creativity, preventing them from exercising their intelligence in trying to come to grips with their social world.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Commons and the Public Sphere: Five Clarifications

Below I clarify how I view the relation between the commons and the public sphere (plus related concepts such as public property, muen and no-man’s-land).

Clarification 1: The relation of the commons to public and private property

The words public and private are used in many senses. Often, they are used to designate ownership (as in “public sector”). In this sense, the words belong to a wholly other dimension than words like commons or no-man’s-land. The reason is that the latter words have to do with usus, not with dominium or formal ownership. The commons does not negate property. A resource is “free”, according to Lawrence Lessing, if it can be used without permission (or if the permission is granted neutrally). The question is thus not who owns the resource but whether it can be used freely (Lessig 2007). A squat house is a house that has been made into a commons despite being privately or publicly owned. What squatters want is the right to use the house, not to own it. In many countries, public or private land such as forests, mountains and beaches approximate commons since they can be used freely by visitors for camping, making fires, or picking berries, mushrooms or nuts. The commons, then, is what can be freely used, regardless of who owns it.

Clarification 2: The difference between the commons and the public sphere

Many who use the word "commons" focus on the economic aspects of the commons, on its opposition to capitalism and private propoerty (e.g. the fine articles by Nick Dyer-Witheford available here). Here I will highlight the political aspect of the commons by focusing on the relation between the commons and the public sphere.

Affirming what I have called commons or no-man’s land is not incompatible with endorsing a public sphere. To a large extent the public is of course a common, since speech and debate is freed up for circulation (as long as it doesn’t come with copyright). More importantly, the commons is what endows the public sphere with its best and most sympathetic trait: the idea of an arena without hierarchies in which anyone is welcome to participate. My argument for that can be read below. This argument also suggests that the commons is what nourishes the public sphere, the source of the constant renewals without which it would stagnate.

The “public sphere” is, however, a narrower notion than that of a “commons” in three respects.

Firstly, the term “public sphere” evokes a specific form of verbal interaction, namely rational deliberation on shared concerns among citizens, the outcome of which is the “general will”. The sphere of work, family and everyday life, by contrast, are consigned to the private sphere, a sphere in which our statements are denuded of general relevance and whatever we do is our business alone. Compared to the “public” the “commons” is a much wider concept, since it includes not only language and discussion but also nature, environment, all kinds of resources that can be used, the items and activities of a shared everyday life, the toil of work as well as that of festivities. It allows for the expression and manifestation of life, whereas the “public” generally demands that we "behave", that we bracket whatever is private and not of common concern.

Secondly, while one of the chief characteristics of the “public” according to Habermas is its opposition to state power, the commons is much more: any form of shared life partakes of the commons. Intriguingly, the commons appears to work as a concept without having to be counterpoised to anything corresponding to the “private”. Indeed, it is often used in ways that suggest that it includes many of the areas of life – daily life, the economic activities of production and consumption – that are usually considered private.

Thirdly, the “public sphere” has never ceased to be accused of foul play: of complicity with order, of reproducing social hierarchies, of excluding women, slaves, the working classes, foreigners, children, all groups considered beneath the dignity of responsible male bourgeois citizens. In short, of being a club for the privileged. Not only are people excluded. We also see an exclusion of “unworthy” topics, of “unserious” media, of dialects and sociolects (and entire languages), of times and places deemed unfit for serious discussion, and so on. These exclusions contradict the universalistic ideal of openness, but ultimately follow from the fact that public sphere is constituted by, or founded on, a distinction between public and private and on an exclusion of the private. Although the content of exclusion is variable, exclusion as such will probably remain endemic to the public sphere as long as it founds itself on a separation from the private.

Oh sure, there has been lots of resistance too towards this exclusion. The “private” has always reappeared with a vengeance, idealized on the one hand as a “sheltered island” and feared on the other as the unruly abode of the excluded. Think of the working class cafés functioning as “incubators of revolt” (Haine 1996) or the “subaltern counter-publics” that so often have provided disgruntled minorities with “bases and training grounds for agitational activities” (Frazer 1992:124). Typically, these resistances have resulted in an expansion of the public, in the lifting up of topics to be treated in public discussion from the private sphere to which they had been relegated (“the personal is political”), in apparently ever closer approximations of the Ideale Sprechsituation. However, although the borderline between public and private has repeatedly been challenged and renegotiated, the distinction as such has remained firmly in place. It is as if, already from the beginning, as soon as we began thinking the notion of a “public”, the stage was set for a dialectics to unfold whereby the subaltern or excluded would take refuge in the private only to return, emboldened and empowered, to claim their rightful place in the mainstream public and thereby expand its limits without ever abolishing them.

This dialectic cannot be found in the commons. The common does not exclude. It’s where you end up after you are excluded. It’s where the zabbaleen are looking for garbage, where the homeless sleep. It’s what’s left. It’s what always accepts you, no matter how poor it is or how poor you are. It’s where you don’t need keys.

Note that many of the things, and activities found in the commons – take sleeping or eating on the street – are not only distinct from what you find in respectable “public” intercourse. They are also liberated from their confinement in the private. Let’s say that you want to be alone: if you can lock the door around you, then that’s private space, but if not, then it’s the commons. So: how do you do to ensure that you’re not disturbed? Either you walk up into the mountains, or else you ask the others to let you be alone for a while. In either case, you’re in the commons. You manage without keys.

Clarification 3: The persistence of the commons within the public sphere

Here the argument is going to be a bit intricate. I mentioned that the commons somehow inhered in the public sphere, as what constituted the core or foundation of the freedom, egalitarianism and openness which we associate with the idea of the public sphere. This openness and egalitarianism is not simply an ideological pretense but also expressive of a certain “truth-content” which in reality is often betrayed.

Here’s the first step of my argument. To put it simply, we need to relativize the usual explanations of why the public would be a well-spring of freedom, egalitarianism or openness. In the canonical account by Habermas, this potential is located above all in the force of reason inherent in language or communication, in the fact that whatever is said will survive critical scrutiny only to the extent that it is supported by good arguments. Whenever we try to achieve understanding through communication, we let ourselves be guided by the ideal of a free and egalitarian discussion in which no-one concerned is excluded. There is thus a tendency in language itself to counteract the distortions of the public sphere. To Habermas, the liberating potential of the public sphere is therefore located in language. The more that is transposed from the realm of unquestioned belief to the realm of communication, the greater the emancipatory effect will be. To Arendt too, the freedom inherent in the political act is inseparable from the word, from public speech. “Only sheer violence is mute” (Arendt 1958:178).

My criticism of Habermas and Arendt here will be very mild. All I want to add to their account is the word “sometimes”. Discussion is the best way to increase freedom and equality, but only sometimes. A very easy way to make this point would be to refer to Albert O. Hirschman: sometimes our freedom is best furthered not by “voice” but by “exit”, by deserting rather than protesting. Here, however, I will try to advance a slightly different argument since I’m more interested in where the emancipatory potential of the public sphere actually originates than in attacking the belief in the benefits of communication per se.

My next step is to make a very simple point: even Habermas, in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, mentions a source of freedom and egalitarianism in the emerging public sphere of the 18th century that has nothing to do with language per se. In the coffee houses, salons and Tischgesellschaften, he writes, status was disregarded in social intercourse. The nobility and grande bourgeoisie “met with the ‘intellectuals’ on an equal footing”, and the “sons of princes associated with sons of watchmakers and shopkeepers” (Habermas 1989:33). Neither social hierarchies nor economic dependencies were supposed to have any influence on the discussions, which at least in principle were left solely to the “authority of the better argument”. This certainly indicates the ascendancy over traditional status of communicative reason, to use the term which Habermas would later make famous. Here we should point out, however, that this semblance of equality was also simultaneously the result of a systematic bracketing of status. Space for rational discussion was created by leaving things unsaid. To put it concisely: an important source of freedom and openness in the public sphere was silence.

The realization that bracketing is crucial for freedom can be found in Arendt too, when she points out that participation in public life requires a form of theatre or play-acting. “Theatre”, she says, is the political art par excellence (Arendt 1958:188). The public is the realm to which people, who are normally deeply embedded in a variety of dependencies, withdraw in order to meet as equals, where they engage so to speak as abstract citizens, stripped of the power-relations in real life. This doesn’t mean that public life is “fake” or divorced from reality. On the contrary, to Arendt play-acting is essential for the constitution of the perhaps most emphatic reality we will ever know, the public realm in which we make ourselves visible to the world. “Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest form of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence...” (ibid 50). Paradoxically, the only way we can become “visible” as political beings, is by keeping our concrete social circumstances and our rootedness in economic and biological necessity invisible.

The public realm is therefore not constituted by communication alone, but rather by a delicate balance between what is said and what is unsaid, by what is visible and what is not.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me underline that the unsaid is not at all mysterious or ineffable. It is silence only from the point of view of the public that excludes it or pretends not to hear it. It is the sound of daily life – the trivial speech that surrounds us like air, the murmur that never makes it to the public, but which nevertheless structures daily life. It is everything said in jest, every irresponsible remark; it is all the speech by which we litter our everyday lives. It’s the criticism that’s too controversial to be “taken seriously”. It can be abrasive speech, garrulous speech, tactless speech, indecent speech, speech with the wrong accent or in the wrong dialect – everything that must be bracketed in order for speech to attain the dignity of public speech.

The best account of this balance between said and unsaid is Georg Simmel’s classical analysis of play and sociability in the salons of the haute bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. In the witty conversations and the coquetry differences in status or wealth were tactfully disregarded. Interaction had a “democratic” character, since everybody behaved as if they were equal. This interaction has the character of play since it aimed at nothing but the success of the sociable moment itself, separating itself from the "objective interests" of the real social world. “Wealth, social position, erudition, fame, exceptional capabilities and merits, may not play any part in sociability”, and “the purely and deeply personal traits of one’s life, character, mood, and fate must likewise be eliminated” (Simmel 1964:46). In other words, the democratic semblance of equality is premised on a systematic bracketing of the real world, on a leaving things unsaid. At the same time, this pretense is fragile. It breaks down whenever social reality reasserts itself - through lack of tact, by bringing up too "serious" subjects for discussion, or by falling in love. It works best when interaction takes place within the same social stratum, and breaks down if class differences are too great.

The democratic semblance is not entirely ideological. As we recall, it is exactly what Habermas extolled as a quality of the early bourgeois public sphere where the nobility would interact with intellectuals and watchmakers on an equal footing. The sociability of salons, cafés or pubs distance themselves from social reality, but at the same time create an atmosphere in which life in social reality can be viewed through a kind of Utopian distortion, as something that can be changed according to the playful imagination unfolding in the public discussions. An inebriated soberness is created in which we get a taste of how human relations without wealth or power might look. The lightness of a sociability divorced from the seriousness of social reality paradoxically means that you are for ever tempted to commit yourself, to fall in love or to become a revolutionary.

Similar mechanisms of bracketing appear to be crucial in all large-scale arenas that have a semblance of egalitarianism. What they all have in common is that they abstract from large areas of social reality, offering at least temporary relief from that realiy. Thus every game creates its own free zones of things it does not thematize. Chess, lottary and soccer allow you to forget about status, wealth or ethnicity. Games creates “equality” in the sense of a separation from the hierarchies of the real or secular order, but can also give rise to new forms of inequality by virtue of their own rules.

We can even generalize a step further: We participate in an arena not only because of what it highlights, its officially stated aim, but also because of what it leaves in the shade. As Simmel points out, the prominent economic role of minority groups like Jews, Armenians or the Parsis can be explained by the fact that the market brackets ethnicity. Karatani Kôjin argues that a similar mechanism holds true for politics. What protects the dissidents and the minorities from the revenge of the powerful, he points out, is not rational debate but anonymity. The “liberal” principle of anonymous voting, along with mechanisms for preventing the concentration of power, are more important than the “democratic” principle of common deliberation. The public is constituted by a freedom to keep silent and not to be a subject, just as much as it is constituted by the freedom of expression and of being a subject (Karatani 1999:128f).

I think the point is clear enough: much of the freedom, openness, egalitarianism and sense of empowerment that can be experienced by participating in the public sphere derives not from the “said” as such, but at least as much from what is “unsaid”. The reason is that a public in which people are allowed to participate on an equal footing can only come into being through bracketing.

What is unsaid is also what is left outside official discourse: unwanted, unidentified, without social definition.

This in turn means that the public sphere itself can only come into being by actively creating socially undefined domains. Such domains are what I have called no-man's-land or commons. They are domains that become off-limits to and unregulated by public speech, and whose fate becomes entrusted to the murmur of daily life.

The commons therefore persists indelibly in the public sphere.

The unsaid is not only the excluded flipside of public communication, but it also a condition and a source of the latter. Excluded, but at the same time reproduced and protected by the public sphere, the common is crucial to the latter’s vitality in two respects. Firstly, creating a commons outside of itself is a precondition of the semblance of openness and equality in the public sphere. As mentioned, this semblance is not totally ideological since it always involves the temptation to realize this equality in the real life of the surrounding society itself.

Secondly, the murmurings of the commons are the seedbed of what may one day become public speech – the speech of subalterns having had enough. This tactless reappearance of the subaltern in public brings about the collapse of the semblance of democratic equality, but also opens up the possibility of political struggle, of a participation in public that is no longer premised on the semblance of equality, and which lifts the reality of inequality up into the realm of the "said" only in order to denounce it. This too contributes to the public, to a better public. The commons is indispensible whenever opposition is to be renewed and counter-publics born. It is what helps turn the public into an arena of political struggle.

Clarification 4: Muen, public, and commons

It is because the commons is so crucial to the public sphere that Amino Yoshihiko can see muen – which I associated with no-man’s-land or the commons in my earlier post – as predecessors of a public sphere in Japan. At first sight this might seem bizarre, since muen didn’t have much to do with public deliberation or rational debate (the practice of kôron, a form of rational debate among monks, was an exception). It did, however, have much to do with bracketing: the cutting off of status relation and all other secular bonds of feudal society, and the semblance of the equality of all living beings in the eyes of Buddha. This bracketing, as I have shown, is just as crucial to the public as communication. Furthermore, bracketing is not only functional for the maintaining a “democratic pretense”, but also for generating movements challenging the established order. Just as salons, cafés and pubs were incubators of revolt, Amino believes that muen inspired the ikki, rebellious federations in late medieval Japan with a strong element of egalitarianism.

Clarification 5: The commons and no-man’s-land

All of what I’ve written so far about the commons also holds for no-man’s-land. However, there may be a point in keeping the two concepts separate. To put it simply, the commons is usually imagined as a space in which the question of sharing is more or less solved, in which people have already agreed, implicitly or explicitly, to let a resource to used freely. I picture no-man’s-land as a slightly wider concept that would also include the wilderness, a space in which nothing is yet resolved. No-man’s-land does not necessarily give birth to a commons. Interaction in no-man’s-land can also take the form of war.


Amino, Yoshihiko (1996a) Muen-Kugai-Raku: Nihon chûsei no jiyû to heiwa (Muen, Kugai, Raku: Freedom and Peace in Medieval Japan), Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick (2006) “The Circulation of the Common”.

Frazer, Nancy (1992) “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, pp 109-42, in Calhoun, Craig (ed) Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Haine, W. Scott (1996) The World of the Paris Café: Sociability among the French Working Class, 1789-1914, Baltimore & London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Hirschman, Albert O. (1970) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: Harvard University Press.

Karatani, Kôjin (1999) Hyûmoa to shite no yuibutsuron (Materialism as humour), Tokyo: Kôdansha gakujutsu bunko

Lessig, Lawrence (2007) “The Vision for the Creative Commons: What are We and Where are We Headed? Free Culture”, pp 36-49, in Fitzgerald, Brian (ed) Open Content Licensing: Cultivating the Creative Commons, Sydney: Sydney University Press.

Simmel, Georg (1964) “Sociability: An example of Pure, or Formal Sociology”, pp 40-57, in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (ed. Kurt H. Wolff), London: The Free Press.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Being born

Now that we have Dan (soon to be 3 years old) I often recall an experience I had in an airplane many years ago. The plane, which was taking me to the inner parts of China, had just taken off from Guangdong and I was looking out through the window at the ricefields, rivers and villages below. Suddenly I was filled with a feeling of great bliss not only at being able to travel but at having been born. Here's what I wrote  in my diary:

"I see all this because I am born. I imagine a mother singing to her not yet born child: 'You will see blue skies, and many foreign lands and cities. You will experience love. I give you all this.' "

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

War or commons: Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

Let me start with a recapitulation. I am interested in what form social relations take in what I call no-man's-lands, spaces that have escaped regulation, usually because they are considered useless or because they have been abandoned or not yet discovered. I distinguish such spaces from "commons", which are never as open to outsiders or unregulated as no-man's-lands. Social relations in a "commons" always rest on an agreement that the commons should be shared. Thus squat-houses can usually be seen as a form of "commons" while abandoned houses or ruins are better seen as no-man's-lands.

No-man's-lands are interesting since they appear so much more unregulated than a commons. The closed nature of the Japanese commons (iriai) was propabably one reason why Amino Yoshihiko was so much more interested in the far more "open" concept of muen. The closure of the commons is also pointed out by many others. ”Historically, common property rights were recognized and enforced for members of a bounded community. Thus, common property is usually distinguished from ’open access’ or unappropriated resources” (Elisabeth Blackmar, "Appropriating 'the Commons'", in N. Smith & S. Low, The Politics of Public Space, 2006:51). Elinor Ostrom too emphasizes how the commons must always have clear boundaries, rules, monitoring, outside recognition, and so on. In other words, a commons is a far more institutionalized space than a no-man's-land. A commons is open to all (defined as the members of a collective), while a no-man's-land is open to anybody.

Being unregulated, no-man's-land will also tend to reset social relations. Norms and status in outside society become bracketed. "Prohibitions are prohibited", as Denis Wood says of what he calls "sheltered spaces". The question, then, is whether the freedom of no-man's-land is compatible with social relations at all. Isn't a Hobbesian "war" the only alternative to some measure of institutionalization?


So what do social relations look like in no-man’s-land? A good starting point is Hobbes's Leviathan, which famously portrays no-man's-land or the condition of statelessness as a state of war "of everyone against everyone" in which the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Before preceding with my argument, it might be useful with a few quotations to remind ourselves what Hobbes is saying.
To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man's that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it.
We can note how great the role of property is in Hobbes's thinking. The state is necessary, not just as a guarantor of personal safety but also as a guarantor of private property, of keeping "mine and thine distinct". The concern with property is also evident in the counterargument which Hobbes uses against those who feel that his portrayal of man is too somber. Don't you too lock your doors, he asks, and does not that mean that you too distrust your fellow men just as much as I do?

Let him therefore consider with himself: when taking a journey, he arms himself and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be laws and public officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall be done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions as I do by my words?
Here, however, we can already see how Hobbes's argument begins to unravel. Isn't he committing the mistake of which Marx accused the economics - projecting a very modern and recent image of man as an egoistic "rational man" onto the screen of the state of nature? Surely, we've all visited rural towns where people don't lock their doors.

If Hobbes's portrayal of man is not universally valid, then we should ask oursevles what kind of society he took as his point of departure, and that, of course, is civil war - a condition where egoistic "individuals" are produced by the circumstances (Hobbes himself suggests as much when he argues that the condition of nature can be glimpsed whenever "the manner of life which men that have formerly lived under a peaceful government use to degenerate into a civil war").

The faultiness of Hobbes's argument about human nature is even more evident when he points to the "savages" of America to counter the objection that no such warlike state of nature ever existed:
For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before.
The "savages" of America of course did not live a life of "war of everyone against everyone". They lived in tribes, in federations, in societies. Hobbes seems to be confusing the condition of lawlessness with a condition of normlessness. This is evident, for example, when he argues that a condition of statelessness is also a condition where there is no "society".

Hobbes's argument almost becomes laughable when he writes that "men have no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all".

Durkheim provides an updated version of Hobbes's argument by taking norms into account. Just as Hobbes deplored the horrors of statelessness, Durkheim deplored the horrors of anomie or normlessness.

However, there are things beyond both the state and the system of norms. Durkheim's mistake is to portray the norms of society as an ordered system that needs to be conserved and regenerated. Norms don't need to be ordered into a system to provide meaning and orientation to human action. Norms can be fluid, negotiated, hypothetical, essayistic. And does anyone really believe that people need a "power to overawe them" to experience pleasure?


So what do social relations look like beyond state and system? Let's turn to Victor Turner’s ideas of liminality and communitas. “Liminality” (derived from limen, border or threshold) is defined as a condition of slipping through the network of classifications – being “neither here nor there” and “betwixt and between” – that normally define states and positions in the social space or “social structure” (Turner 2007:95). We can immediately note how similar the state of liminality is to what I have called no-man’s-land. Used to describe the intermediate stage in rituals of passage, Turner points out that it is frequently likened to death, being in a womb, invisibility, darkness, bisexuality, or wilderness. Furthermore, a person in this state possessing nothing: he or she is near nakedness, with no status, no property, and no rights. He or she is being reduced or ground down to a uniform and helpless condition – close to what Agamben calls “bare life” – in which he or she must obey and accept punishment and humiliation without complaint.

What characterizes human relations among those who share the condition of liminality is communitas, a feeling of universal sisterhood or brotherhood, an unstructured and undifferentiated oneness which is potentially coterminous with humankind and in which everything is sensed to be possible. Turner describes this state as “anti-structure”, a floating togetherness in which people are liberated from whatever roles, statuses, functions or identities they may have possessed in ordinary social life. In later writings, he refers to Czikczentmihalyi’s notion of flow to describe the experience of this state.

We should note that the experience of communitas is not limited to the “liminal” rites of premodern societies. In occurs in modern societies too, but typically in less predictable forms, such as during revolutions. Turner uses the term “liminoid” for these, to distinguish them from the “liminal” forms embedded in rituals. I’ve always thought that the following quote by Bakunin from the February Revolution in Paris 1848 offers a good example of how communitas can be experienced.
It was a festival without beginning or end; I saw everyone and no one, for each individual was lost in the same enormous strolling crowd; I spoke to everyone without remembering either my own words or those spoken by others, because everyone’s attention was absorbed at every step by new objects and events, and by unexpected news. (Confessions, quoted in Viénet 1992:71)
In a more polished form, we can hear the echoes of communitas in Schiller’s "Ode to joy", which was originally entitled "Ode to freedom", in reference to the French Revolution. Examples could be added in infinitum. Take festivals or carnivals, or the spontaneous mutual help one can see in the wake of big disasters, like earthquakes, the networks that are formed, the soup kitchens that spring up like mushrooms…

Despite their ephemerality, moments of communitas offers us hints of an alternative way of organizing the economy that call to mind a Bataillan economy of abundance, a way in which at least briefly private wealth is turned into a source of common use. We can see this in the millenarian movements of the bakumatsu-years in Japan. Famous are the “ee ja nai ka” riots which spread across the country in 1867 and 1868 – incidents in which poor townspeople celebrated the reports of religious amulets (omamori or fuda) falling down from the skies by taking to the streets under wild ecstatic dancing and singing, which was often taken into the houses of the rich or of public authorities where the dancers would demand food and drink. Sometimes they demanded money and clothes, which was immediately thrown away or given to others. Like in the Ise-odori and other earlier millenarian movements the 17th and 18th centuries the dancing was linked to a belief in yonaoshi, an imminent renewal of the world through which old hierarchies would lose force and riches and wealth would be redistributed and circulate freely in society.

The experience of communitas is unfortunately very neglected in sociology. In fact, its striking how many of the classical concepts and distinctions of sociology that cease to be valid for the kind of fleeting and spontaneous togetherness that is characteristic of communitas. Human relations in a mass of people that gathers on the street are neither those of Gesellschaft nor of Gemeinschaft, their sense of universal oneness neither that of organic nor of mechanic solidarity, and the rationality used in street fighting on the barricades is not a reifying “iron cage”. Bakunin’s plans were surely not informed by communicative reason, but neither was it strategic or instrumental in a Habermasian sense (Cassegard 2007a).

We can note the closeness between liminality and what Amino calls muen. As Turner also points out the conditions of liminality and communitas are often considered sacred. This opens up the possibility for conceiving of communitas on the basis of a radically different form of “political theology” than that envisioned by Schmitt (2005) or Kantorowitz (1997), whose works focus solely and one-sidedly on theology of the sovereign, of kingship. Turner helps us to see that that democracy, or the free association between equals, also has religious roots, namely in the experience of communitas. Kingship and democracy represent two forms of religiosity. The idolization of the ruler is the religiosity of worship, or “faith” or “belief” in the power of the other. The experience of communitas is the religiosity of participation in or oneness with the holy, through ritual or meditation.

To return to Turner, his major contribution is that he reminds us that there are two major forms of human interrelatedness: not just “structure” – a differentiated, often hierarchical system of positions, an arrangement of positions or statuses, involving the institutionalization of groups and relationships – but also “antistructure”. It’s all to o common, as he points us, to forget the latter and simply equate the “social” with the “structural” (Turner 2007:96). What this means is of the utmost importance for understanding the human relations of no-man’s-land. Certainly, there is a risk that no-man’s-land will simply degenerate into war and lawlessness, into anomie or a total breakdown of the social as such. But it is by no means necessary. As Turner writes: “Beyond the structural lies not only the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ but also communitas” (Turner 2007:131). We could also formulate this insight in the following way: the breakdown of the social system does not necessarily result in anomie, as Durkheim feared.

Oh, as if that needed any proof! Just think of travel. What happens when you travel? Your brain and heart start to work because they feel that you're alive again. It's good to travel because it's good for your soul to be torn out of the social contexts and the identities in which it always falls asleep when it stays too long. Durkheim is wrong: to be free from society is not always anomie, of – if it is – then all anomie is not bad. It makes us see how trivial our worries are. It makes us come alive.

The emphemerality of communitas

The problem, however, is that communitas is unstable and ephemeral. It constantly balances on a precipice, threatening to revert into social breakdown or anomie. Revolutions, disasters, festivals – surely that’s also where we find the worst egoism: pilfering, murder, atrocities committed with a chilling casualness, for the most trivial of benefits. As Turner points out, communitas arises where there is a sense that everyone is striving in the same direction, side by side, carried forwards or upwards by the same grand wave of history. But for such a "soft wing" of joy or freedom to envelop every single individual is rare. There will always be dissenters, even when everyone is to drunk or excited to notice. And dissenters will grow in number. The festival will end. The wave dies away. Unity always falls apart.

I think it’s time for an example. In my last entry I mentioned Kinji House, and the sense of excitement and exhilaration that participants seem to have sensed in the beginning of the squat. One expression of this appears to have been the cleaning up they started as soon as they had moved in: “A place belongs to the ones who clean it”, Ogawa Kyôhei writes, adding that “cleaning is love” (Ogawa 1997:227f). Another expression was the feeling of new possibilities, an exciting uncertainty about what one earth would become of the project: “Rather than ‘what should we do’, Kinji was ‘what will become of it’”, Ogawa writes (ibid 231). I think there is much here that proves that a communitas arose in the early days of the squatting: the feeling that things that ordinarily appeared self-evident, fixed and natural had become fluid, that ‘anything can happen’. Sure, you are there and can participate, but at the same time, you can’t decide it all. Things have already become too big. Lukács once characterized the mood of the essay as love for an unborn idea. Similarly, the mood characterizing a communitas can be described as a love for what “will become of it”, even though it is wholly unknown.

I also mentioned that one of the participants in a the squat criticized it for having “aimed at a square but failed and ended up as a wasteland”. The reason for this assessment was the sheer diversity of participants which meant that communication broke down and that there was an uncertainty about what rules were in force. Here he clearly seems to be arguing that Kinji House degenerated into a state of anomie. As communitas died away, so did the sense of possibilities. Let me quote Ogawa again.

Some thought that I, who triggered it all, was irresponsible. They would probably not listen if I suggested to them that we should do something together again. For me, I has lost the self-confidence to suggest such things, or rather I’ve lost all desire to do it. This is the biggest problem Kinji House has left behind. But ‘what will become of it?’ ought to be something good. I don’t understand. The only thing I can say is that ‘what will become of it’ and ‘whatever’ are different. The difference lies in curiosity. As Kinji gradually slipped out of control, as it finally overwhelmed me and when it was actually destroyed, I was unable to utter a single word. But in reality it never slipped out of control. What really happened was that it gradually transformed into a ‘whatever’. Curiosity is love. As love waned, cleaning too became scarce and the house became dirty. (Ogawa 1997:231)

Communitas and institutionalization

So the problem is that communitas is unstable and ephemeral. Often it is dangerous. It cannot be made into the foundation of a stable alternative social order. This suggests that a development back towards some form of institutionalization is necessary.

Take sound-demos as an example. In an early report on sound demos in Japan - at the time of the anti-war movement in 2003 - Oda Masanori writes that what made them different from other demonstrations was not just the music and the dancing. It was also a matter of attitude, of not trying to ingratiate oneself with the police or the authorities, of not "doing as one was told". There was an exciting feeling of risk, of ”not knowing what will happen”. The sound-demos, he summarizes, tried to transform the harmless “amusement park” of Tokyo once again into a harappa (field, wild moor, wasteland) (Oda et al 2005:121).

However, organizers of sound-demos soon recognized the need for a minimum of discipline in order to escape police repression. Thus Noiz, one of the organizers of a demonstration at the time of the G8 summit in Hokkaido in 2008, criticizes the participants for having tried to confront the G8 ruling elites with the ideal of muen or the liberation from social bonds alone, while forgetting about the need for social bonds between comrades. The only bonds we reject are the vertical ones, he writes, but we should still strive to preserve horizontal ones. “That is precisely the logic of a group of comrades, i.e. the manifestation of a mutual relation (en). The only relation we reject is the vertical ones pervaded by domination; vertical relations of mutuality, by contrast, should be pursued.” (noiz 2008:61).

We recognize here the problem of no-man's-land: will it lead to a shared "common" or to war?  Let me state here, however, that I don’t believe institutionalization to be the only possible answer to the problem of the evanescence of communitas.

Of course, I fully appreciate the value of institutions that help preserve forms of togetherness in the most egalitarian form possible. Wherever we look at the panorama of historical models for non-state societies or non-state mediated human interrelatedness we discover that it is only thanks to some form of institutionalization that they have been able to subsist: the Ainu society, the ikki federations of medieval Japan, the Kula ring or the intricate songlines of Australia, the Icelandic Thingvellir which – like some contemporary international court or organ of the United Nations – mediated between basically independent local powerholders, the Iroquois league, village democracies, certain monastic communities, or contemporary anarchist spokescouncils. More close at hand, perhaps, we have examples from our own experience of friendship, siblinghood, clubs, circles, networks and so on. Common to all these examples is that they have achieved a measure of stability because of an institutional framework: either an explicit (rules, laws etc) or an implicit (custom, habit, tradition) one. It is clear, then, that if at least something of the egalitarian siblinghood is to survive, there is a need to develop stable institutional structures that might guarantee as much of equality and openness as possible, and prevent the emergence of hierarchies, walls, and war.

However, there is also a danger in relying too much on institutional safeguards. We can look at Karatani Kôjin’s “associationism”, which is an attempt to create an anarchist society based not on the fleeting sense of communitas but on institutional mechanisms. A central project in NAM, or the “New Associationist Movement”, which he founded in 2000, was the establishment of a LETS, or Local Economic Trading System, that would function both as a safety net for those who had dropped out of capitalist competition and as an alternative economic system that would gradually replace capitalism. Not only was interaction in NAM premised on an intricate system of rules meant to prevent closure and the centralization of power, it was even explicitly modeled on the impersonal system of exchange of the market, i.e. a rule-governed form of intercourse which Karatani believed would be able to function even in the absence of any shared solidarity or sense of common purpose among the members. His reluctance to rely on communitas is evident not only in his distrust of “romantic protest” but also in his theoretically central idea of “transcritical space” as a space of Verkehr or intercourse modeled on the market or on associations that were themselves described as market-like in their impersonality (Karatani 2003).

It is easy to see the imprint of liberal ideas of power sharing and checks and balances in Karatani’s conception of social movements. While such ideas are important, market-like exchange cannot be a model of pure “exteriority” – as Karatani tends to portray it – since it is rule-governed, i.e. based on a shared institutional framework. To be concise: the market is not a no-man’s-land (more on this in Cassegard 2007b, 2008).

NAM, as some readers may recall, was dissolved in 2003 – partly because of problems in getting the LETS started and partly because of inner tension and conflicts. I bring this up as a reminder that institutionalization is no guarantee of sustainability. Kinji House may have failed partly because it relied too much on communitas. NAM failed, perhaps partly because of its top-heavy reliance on an institutional framework.

I have already stated that institutionalization alone is not the answer. There is in fact an alternative way in which the egalitarianism and openness of communitas can be preserved. It consists in creating a society in which communitas is easily formed. In that way, even if each instance of communitas is short-lived, new ones will quickly arise to take its place. The advantage of such an arrangement would be that society as a whole becomes porous and more responsive to people's desires. Power and order will never have the time to appear monolithic or oppressive, and inhabitants will feel empowered.

The difference to the strategy of creating durable egalitarian or anarchist institutions is that here the call is for society as such to make more room for non-institutionalized arenas. To use a simile, the call is not for the bubbles or the foam to harden in order to become more stable, but for the water to boil. Communitas needn't be durable: it should be consumed, like a log in a fire, like a rain drop.

The two strategies are not mutually exclusive. The thing is that a society with a lot of bubble is also one in which good institutions are most likely to develop.

In short, we need both institutions and communitas. Institutions are sails. They need wind. Remember that breeze I was talking about?

References (to both part 1 and 2)

Agamben, Giorgio (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Cassegard, Carl (2007a) Shock and Naturalization in Contemporary Japanese Literature, Folkestone: Global Oriental.

Cassegard, Carl (2007b) “Exteriority and Transcritique: Karatani Kôjin and the Impact of the 90’s”, pp 1-18, Japanese Studies 27:1, May.

Cassegard, Carl (2008) “From Withdrawal to Resistance: The Rhetoric of Exit from Yoshimoto Takaaki to Karatani Kojin”, Japan Focus: The Asia-Pacific Journal, March 4.

Graeber, David (2009) Direct Action: An Ethnography, Oakland: AK Press.

Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio (2009) Commonwealth, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hobbes, Thomas ([1651]) Leviathan, The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, Leopold Wilson Foundation.

Kantorowitz, Ernest H. (1997) The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Karatani, Kôjin (2003) Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The MIT Press.

Noiz (2008) “Muen no tôki” (Uprisings of muen), pp 43-65, Anakizumu No. 11.

Oda, Masanori et al (2005) “Tôkyô saundo demo kaigi” (Meeting about the Tokyo sound demonstrations), pp 118-143, in De Musik Inter (ed) Oto no chikara: ‘Sutorîto’ senkyohen, Tokyo: Imupakuto shuppankai.

Ogawa, Kyôhei (1997) “Hiroba to akichi: Bonboyâju to Kinji no tochû hôkoku” (Square and no-man’s-land: halfway report from the bon voyage to Kinji), pp 225-235, Gendai Shisô 25:5.

Schmitt, Carl (2005) Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Victor (1992) From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: PAJ Publications.

Turner, Victor (2007) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, New Brunswick & London: Aldine Transaction.

Vaneigem, Raoul (2001) The Revolution of Everyday Life, London: Rebel Press.

Viénet, René (1992) Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May ’68, New York: Autonomedia, London: Rebel Press.

Homage to great wanderers & restless minds

"Only those thoughts that come when you are walking have any value” (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols)

”Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling. Then, signboards and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its centre. Paris taught me this art of straying...” (Benjamin, One-Way Street)

"In middle age Bob became increasingly eccentric. He dressed strangely, often slept with his clothes on and started to wander around on the streets all alone. He liked to explore socially backward parts of the city, especially ethnic areas where he wouldn't necessarily be recognized. He also prowled around in the wealthy areas of Los Angeles not far from where he was living. One day when Ted Perlman came back home to his house in San Fernando Valley he caught sight of what he thought was a bum sitting on the pavement. Perlman was about to ask him to leave when he realized it was Bob. 'I thought I should drop by and see you and Peggi.’ 'How long have you been sitting here?' Perlman asked. 'An hour and a half maybe. I've been looking around at the area', Bob replied" (Howard Sounes' Dylan biography)

“The world must be known through the legs and the genitals. Friends and lovers are the best media for learning about the world, something money cannot buy. It’s something you create with your lower half.” (Shimada Masahiko)

“It’s good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.” (Anatole France)

Here's to Cisco an' Sonny an' Leadbelly too,
An' to all the good people that traveled with you.
Walter Benjamin, Bob Dylan, Robert Musil, James Joyce, Murakami Haruki, Louis Aragon, Guy Debord, Charles Baudelaire, Jack Kerouac, Rimbaud, Socrates, and Chaplin.
The wanderer as media, the isôrô artist, the marebito, the outsider, the visiting stranger, the disappearing holy man. Yes, here's to your hearts and hands...
All ye who come with the dust and are gone with the wind.

Credits to the owners of the images & thanx to Eva (from whose refrigerator door I stole one of the quotations). And apologies to all you other great wonders & wanderers. I’m sorry for only mentioning celebrities. My homage goes via them to you.

Monday, 14 December 2009

War or commons: Part 1

The mental no-man’s-land

To me, a no-man’s-land is not simply a place. Above all, it is a wellspring. Something takes place there, something which doesn’t happen anywhere else. It’s a place “outside” our quotidian, ordered life – life as ordered by the system of statuses and institutionalized relations. It’s the peace where creation takes place, or, in other words, where we find the peace to create.

Consider this again: it’s where we find the peace to create. This means that to a certain extent, the no-man’s-land is a mental operation. Imagine that you’re drawing a sketch. You shut out daily concerns and focus on what appears. What we shut out or "bracket" is daily business – our appointments and wallets, and the entire ordering of the world in terms of status, identity, or friends and foes that tends to occupy so much of our thinking in everyday life, but which now falls away as something irrelevant.

Let us imagine a person who is able to look at the world with the eyes of a sketcher not just for a limited period of time, but constantly. Such a person is a permanent inhabitant of the no-man’s-land. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to call such a person a saint.

A no-man’s-land is also where we return to recover. It is sleep, death, and rebirth.

A friend of mine once called café conversations a pause or break in social life. I’m not sure this holds for all café conversations, but it certainly does for some. In those, the face and gestures of the person you are talking to, the acquaintances that suddenly arrive, everything including every single little stain of coffee takes on something of the peace of a no-man’s-land.

The spatial no-man’s land

Visiting no-man’s-land usually also involves a physical or spatial movement. The reason is that space – at least social space – tends to privilege certain ways of perception. A super market privileges the vantage point of the consumer (or seller if we are employees), a school that of a pupil or teacher, and so on. A no-man’s-land, by contrast, is a place that doesn’t privilege any particular vantage point over any others. It is pristine in the sense that no particular use or function has been decided for it – perhaps because it’s too barren, distant or inaccessible, or because it has lost its earlier function. In short, it is a place that has escaped social definition. It’s Chuang-tzu’s tree, too big and crooked to be useful.

This, I think, is also why it offers peace – the peace that allows you to feel that rare breeze that only blows there and nowhere else.

Let me return to an example I mentioned in my previous post. Renamed Nike Park and with an entrance fee, Miyashita Park will turn into a space that privileges the vantage point of the consumer, into a consumer’s land that will be part and parcel of the rest of Shibuya rather than desolate but tolerant no-man’s land (akichi, as Ogawa Tetsuo calls it) it has been until now.

Or take the example of university researchers whose creativity evaporates as soon as they arrive at their work-place. The more employees are subordinated to social definitions casting them into certain roles, the less will they be able to feel the breeze of no-man’s-land. Markets and universities are both examples of institutions and needless to say institutions tend to imprison us in parts of ourselves. The name we give that part is role, status, occupation, or – most insidious of all – identity.

The aesthetics of blankness and emptiness in some squathouses has much to do, I suspect, with the preference for spaces lacking social definition. Describing some New York squathouses, David Graeber points out that in many rooms
...everything is empty functionality: empty rooms with often black walls, full of very large objects that are dangerous to move around – booms, trestles, machinery – or, in other rooms, white rooms containing nothing at all. It is radically different than offices, or domestic spaces, where everything is essentially created for comfort or convenience or efficiency. Such spaces already suggest their use to you. These kind don’t. (Graeber 2009:276).
Suggesting that this might indeed be the architecture most attuned to autonomy, he adds: "Everything is what you make of it” (ibid). He also writes that many of these places remind him of construction sites, places that seem only half finished, and that as yet have not been assigned any place in the spectacle. Often they are located in ”the grimiest, most unlovely places”: warehouses, loft apartments over workshops, places that look half like a factory half like a stage set – ”all these are things you’re not normally supposed to remember even exist” (ibid 279).

It's a mistake to believe that society is nothing but institutions. There are plenty of spaces whithout institutions, places that seem by-passed by social definitions and where identities too crumble. I'm not just talking about deserts or squathouses.  I'm talking about the undiscovered Northwest Passages of the city that Debord was looking for during his dérives. I'm talking about "thomassons" (explanation here). I'm talking about alleyways and rooftops, about forgotten nooks and crannies.

And let's not forget that places can be robbed of their social definitions, détourned, turned into completely different things. For sheer pleasure, let me quote Vaneigem:
One evening, as night fell, my friends and I wandered into the Palais de Justice in Brussels. The building is a monstrosity, crushing the poor quarters beneath it and standing guard over the fashionable Avenue Louise – out of which, some day, we will make a breathtakingly beautiful wasteland. As we drifted through the labyrinth of corridors, staircases and suite after suite of rooms, we discussed what could be done to make the place habitable; for a time we occupied the enemy’s territory; through the power of our imagination we transformed the thieves’ den into a fantastic funfair, into a sunny pleasure dome, where the most amazing adventures would, for the first time, be really lived. (Vaneigem 2001:264)

The social no-man’s-land

I’ve mentioned the mental and spatial aspects of the no-man’s-land. A third important aspect is the social. Even a no-man’s-land is inherently social. It may have escaped social definition, but it is still a field for human relations. Of course, somewhere it might still be possible to find a no-man’s-land completely empty of other people – like a desert or an old forgotten ruin, or like the island Robinson Crusoe arrived at. But if you found your way there, others will too. It may function as a hideout for a while, but hardly for long. People live in deserts too, eyes are spying at you in the ruin, and Crusoe will never cease finding traces of feet in the sand. So a no-man’s-land will generally also be a social space. And here we arrive at what I, as I sociologist, find most interesting about no-man’s-land.

What do human relations look like when things are for free, in a “commons”? Is it possible to keep the no-man’s-land open, as a kind of “everyman’s land”, and, if so, how? Or will it turn into a battle-field, an arena of a war of all against all, the result of which will be its transformation into “somebody’s land” or – in analogy with what Hobbes says about the state – into public or state-owned land?

Sure, I know. Difficult questions.

Dominium and usus

The first problem we should look into is of course if what we think is empty land is really empty. When the Japanese authorities opened up the land of the Ainu (present-day Hokkaido) for settlement in 1869, they assumed that the land was an un-occupied “terra nullius” which they sold off to Japanese settlers as private property. The Ainu were stripped of the mountains, rivers and forests which they had used for fishing and hunting for ages. Likewise, the frontier regions of America or Lapland were seen as no-man’s-land despite the presence of Native Americans and Same people who used the land for their living. The fact that native populations were using the land was seen as irrelevant to the question of ownership or property.

To the use the terms of medieval jurisprudence, usus or the actual manipulation or consumption of the land, was separated from dominium, or the rights of ownership. This is noteworthy, since – at least as far as I know – usus and dominium have usually both been considered valid aspects of any claim to control of property in Western legal thinking. Although I’ll have to look into it further, the absolute privileging of dominium over usus probably only comes with the predominance of capitalism in European economies after the end of the Middle Ages.

When Nike buys the naming rights of Miyashita Park and decides to charge an entrance fee it is acting much like the old colonial settlers – totally disregarding the question of usus, or the actual use of the park by the homeless, movement activists and others citizens, and defending itself by referring to the agreement with the ward concerning dominium, the formal rights of property. Nike is of course not alone. The privatization of the common is already a neoliberal specialty, its hat trick for magically producing profit. Referring to David Harvey, Hardt & Negri describe this with the nice term “accumulation by dispossession”: “a form of appropriation that involves not primarily the generation of wealth but rather taking possession of existing wealth, usually from the poor or the public sector, through legal or illegal means, and most often in situations where the limits of legality are unclear” (Hardt & Negri 2009:231).

But we shouldn’t forget that evil multinationals aren’t the only ones guilty of this operation. “This land is your land, this land is my land” – Woody Guthrie’s song would have been wonderful if only the land of plenty which he sang about had really been virgin land. As it is, it’s the only one of his songs I feel uncomfortable with.

Whenever we discover a piece of no-man’s-land we must ask ourselves who else might also be using the land, even if that person or those people don’t stand as its formal owner. In other words, the important question is not only that of dominium, but also that of usus. Are there homeless people or squatters we are driving away by our activities? The decision in 2007 to hold an art exhibition under the R246 overpass in Tokyo that lead to the eviction of the homeless who were living there is a case in point (info in Japanese here). We shouldn’t forget nature either. Animals and plants, rivers and mountains have rights.

This is all the more important in cases of squatting or other forms of inhabiting no-man’s-land. Squatters generally make a point of rejecting the notion that somebody’s dominium or formal ownership of a property prevents others from using it. As long as a property is not used, it is considered free and open, regardless of dominium. If capitalism is a system that tries to base an entire economy on dominium, or the right over the exchange value of goods, squatters can be seen as a movement that tries to achieve the very opposite: an economy based wholly on usus, or use-value. Capitalism wants to own, caring little for use. Squatters want to use, even though they know that others own.

This, however, only makes it all the more imperative for squatters to settle the question of how to regulate or share the use of the occupied land or building fairly. How, for instance, will it deal with newcomers or others who want to join in? In the name of what right does it become possible for inhabitants to say “mine” or “yours”? If new rights are established on the basis of use, how do we prevent these rights from replicating the form of dominium? Or if we choose to regard all of the occupied space as a common, how to we regulate its use, how do we share the burdens, and so on?

Sure, the problem of sharing probably only emerges in acute form when there is competition about scarce resources. In Schlaraffenland, perhaps it would no longer be any point in insisting on dominium. As I’ve stated earlier, much of what constitutes the common or “no-man’s-land” is abundant – things like air, sunshine, language and information – or else so little in demand that there isn't much competition about it. But can we really live on air, information and leftovers alone?

By the way, as far as I know medieval legal thought doesn’t offer any clues to the problem of how to share scarce goods. The Pope Gregory IV declared that the Franciscans, being a mendicant order with poverty as central value, should retain usus but renounce every kind dominium. In reality, however, the things used by the order were not limited to the bare necessities, but included vast possessions over which the order retained dominium-like control in the name of usus. Later Gandhi echoed the pope when he explained that the teaching of nonpossession meant that those who desired salvation “should act like the trustee, who, though having control over great possessions, regards not a iota of them as his own” (See Turner 2007: 151, 198). Like the famous Stoic maxim “habere ut non” – “Have as if you did not have” – these ideas functioned as moral injunctions to people who were more or less secure in their possessions that they should be humble and not take their possession for granted. They say nothing about actually sharing their wealth with others or about what form such sharing should take. Where desire as such is denied, like in Stoicism or monastic orders, the problem of the competition for scarce goods can be circumvented, but the problem of how actual sharing should be done remains.

(To be continued)
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