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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