A wanderer and a fugitive shalt thou be on the earth

On mobility and identity - Spoken World 2010 (Im)mobile identities

Kaaitheater bulletin Jun 2010English
Kaaitheater season programme 2010-2011

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In the myth of Cain and Abel, the conflict between migrating and settled tribes becomes palpable. ‘And Abel became a shepherd, Cain a farmer.’ The territorial conflict ends in murder. The point of this story is to show that he who has settled after having murdered the nomad will himself be driven away: ‘A wanderer and a fugitive shalt thou be on the earth.’

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, The Great Migration (Die Grosse Wanderung), 1992


The transition from a primarily nomadic to a sedentary or semi-sedentary way of life which took place at the beginning of the Neolithic era, some 3000 years before Christ, is possibly one of the most momentous transformation processes in human history. ‘A wanderer and a fugitive shalt thou be on the earth’: the authors of the Old Testament, written before the beginning of the Christian era, and even Hans Magnus Enzensberger in the year 1992 of that same era, could not have imagined how universal and abundant this human condition – that of a wanderer and a fugitive – would be in 2010.


1. A world on the move

An evolution is currently underway which may one day become as far-reaching as the one that occurred in the Neolithic era. There have always been migrations: just as there is constant movement of clouds and winds in the heavens, so people and animals have always moved in great numbers across the earth and the oceans. However, thanks to unprecedented technological developments in the fields of transport and communication, the masses which are currently moving ceaselessly from one place to another on our increasingly overpopulated earth are of unprecedented size, beyond comparison with any migrations that have ever previously occurred. The traditional relationship between the nomadic and the sedentary is today being turned on its head. It now seems as if nobody is standing still, as if everybody on earth is on the move.

   The Earth itself is also constantly in motion. Not only is nature undergoing major and alarming changes – even the clouds and the winds are no longer doing what they usually do, but also, and above all, the way we, mankind, are arranging, organising and exploiting the world is being turned upside down at an ever greater speed. And it is precisely because of this that nature is experiencing such damaging consequences. Markets, nation states and technologies are being ‘integrated’ and riveted together into a single overarching whole: we call this dynamic, unstoppable process ‘globalisation’. A new world order is emerging based on the all-encompassing economic system of the free market and a worldwide network of technological communication and mobility: everyone in the world is potentially in contact with everyone else and everyone is dependent upon everyone else. By removing the distances in time and space, globalisation brings us closer to one another, but at the same time it also divides and polarises us. The gulf between rich and poor has never been as wide as it is now, and this contrast coincides with that between those who have access to the free market and its means of communication and transport and those who remain deprived of it.

   The maximisation of the free market has resulted worldwide in a social form that takes consumerism as its cornerstone. We are apparently no longer consuming in order to live but living in order to consume. The relationship between supply and demand and between needs and their satisfaction is being inverted. We are being swept along at the speed of the economic competition in this race to always produce more and something new so that consumption can continue unabated. Furthermore, the satisfaction of our creative needs must take place immediately. We run from one to the other and then again to the new other, until the stock market crashes, economic growth declines and unemployment increases. And when things have recovered, we immediately start all over again.

   It is therefore not surprising that ‘mobility’ is held in such high regard in an existence where restlessness and speed set the tone. ‘Mobility climbs to the rank of the uppermost among the coveted values. … Immobility it is not a realistic option in a world which is constantly on the move.’ (Zygmunt Bauman)


2. Travellers and wanderers

One of the most important current social stratifications in post-capitalist society is the degree of mobility which people can permit themselves, the freedom someone has to choose where he or she wants to be. On the whole, the mass of people moving over the earth can be divided into two categories which we might describe as ‘the travellers’ and ‘the wanderers’.

   On the global level, tourism has become the largest economic sector. Going on holiday and travelling occupies a leading place in the consumption pattern of the ‘average well-to-do’ Westerner. After all, the world is at our feet: borders are disappearing, visas are being done away with and customs inspections reduced. Only the danger of terrorist attacks by members of non-Western groups of all manner is forcing us to open our suitcases, let ourselves be frisked and our shampoo bottle inspected...

   The true crossroads of globalisation is no longer located in the heart of major cities but – except for shopping centres and amusement parks – primarily in the airports, stations, hotel chains and ports of this world. Under the motto ‘we travel to learn’, tourists roam the world looking for exotic delights and these days even exotic misfortune in the form of picturesque poverty. When they have just only arrived somewhere, they are already on their way to the next sensational experience. However, there are other world travellers in addition to the tourist: business people, academics, scientists, politicians, sportsmen and women, artists.... all those whose field of work, contacts and networks are spread across the whole planet. They seem to feel at home anywhere in the world and also ‘travel to learn’. After all, travelling in whatever form has an exciting aspect to it: discovering worlds, making contacts, getting to know different cultures and so on. Both today and in the past, the value attached to the emancipatory power of travel is increasing sharply, certainly in the artistic field. The increased mobility of artists and their works played and still plays an extremely important role in the development of those artists and their audiences. How can we find a new balance between this gain, so important from an emancipatory perspective, and our responsibility as world citizens with regard to climate change, energy consumption, waste production, etc?

   The second category – the wanderers, the homeless – have less luck at the borders: they are stringently screened and are often not allowed into our world, but are sent back, or forcibly repatriated later. They are therefore not travellers, but refugees. They were forced out of their homeland or decided to emigrate for political, economic or climate reasons. Nobody leaves his home for good unless it is a matter of life and death. Going away and leaving everything behind is an act of despair. Or an act of hope, out of a blind faith in the promise of a more dignified existence far from what is dear to oneself. Those who do manage to cross the forbidden borders will from that time on belong among the ‘immobilised’, because they are compelled to go into hiding in the urban jungle, doomed to a clandestine existence without the hope of ever being able to make the return journey home to the country of their birth.

   Where the monitoring of the borders is no longer sufficient to discourage these sorts of travellers, we build walls around our territories, such as that between the USA and Mexico or that which surrounds the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in Morocco. Alternatively, we deport the wanderers or lock them up to safeguard our own territories and rights. The world is littered with ‘temporary prisons’: from refugee camps to closed reception centres. In the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, people have been waiting to return to their own country for more than sixty years. In Darfur (Sudan), 2.5 million people are living in refugee camps. The ‘case’ of Katrina/New Orleans is one of the clearest and most harrowing examples of how access to mobility divides society into rich and poor. In this case, rich and poor means those who have a chance of surviving and those who ‘have the misfortune’ to perish. When the hurricane was approaching, everyone who possessed a means of transport or had money to afford one left the city; those who had nothing stayed behind, drowned, were washed away and/or were ‘taken care of’ in the Superdome. Just as in New Orleans, there are thousands of permanently ‘immobilised’ people living in all the large cities of the world: the poor, the underprivileged, the illegal immigrant, the homeless... all those who for one reason or another have fallen ‘out of the system’.

   As early as 1943, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt described refugees, those who were constantly being expelled or deported on their way from one country to another, as the ‘avant-garde of their people’. A visionary proposition which was later supported by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in the light of the disappearance of nation states as we are witnessing today: ‘the refugee is perhaps the only category which allows us to form a picture of the contours and the limitations of a future political community, at least while the process of the dissolution of the nation state and its sovereignty is not yet complete.’Whether ‘the wanderers’ are indeed the ‘vanguard’ that will shape the utopia of a genuine global community depends on how we all position ourselves in that future life. Two paths are open to us. Either we continue to lock ourselves up in self-made prisons, from ghettos to gated communities, and close our doors to the influence of ‘the other’ or we have the courage to open up what we call our individuality to the changes taking place and no longer shield ourselves anxiously against ‘infection’ based on a foolish and unattainable desire for purity.


3. Identity

What influence do the enormous global movements, the accelerating pace of life and increased mobility have on the way we experience our existence and the way we see ourselves functioning within it?

   ‘Never before’, wrote the French anthropologist Marc Augé, ‘were individual lives influenced in such a pronounced manner by collective history, but the reference points for a collective identity were never so unstable. The individual production of “meaning” is therefore more necessary than ever.’ If the 20th century is to go down in history as the ‘century of ideology’ – as predicted by the French geopolitical thinker Dominique Moïsi, the 21st century will become the ‘century of identity’: ‘The quest for identity by peoples who are unsure about who to be, about their place in the world and about their prospects of a meaningful future, has replaced ideology as the motor of history, with the result that emotions matter more than ever in a world where the media are once again playing the role of sounding board and magnifying glass.’

   It is beyond doubt that the major and rapid changes in society bring with them an enormous uncertainty which leads to profound crises of identity. The cultural and psychological consequences of the new polarisation can be felt daily. Today, nobody is immune to the mass of stimuli and influences we are exposed to as a result of the opening up of the world.

   Our relationship with ‘the Other’ has to be continually adjusted and this increases our need for self-definition. We all have an intense desire to ‘belong somewhere.’ There is therefore an urgent need for a new interpretation of the notion of identity. The individual uniqueness of a person has never been less static and monolithic than it is today. What we call our identity consists of a whole series of sub-facets. We simultaneously belong to ethnic, territorial, national, religious and linguistic entities but we find it difficult to deal with this complexity and all too often we reduce ‘the Other’ to a single one of these facets: we talk of the Muslims or the Moroccans. Those who feel reduced by others to a single facet of themselves or feel one of their traits to be under attack often identify with, accentuate and defend that very trait as a counter-reaction. What we urgently need to learn is to deal with our own complex diversity and with that of ‘the Other’.

   However, it is not just a confrontation with other cultures that makes us uncertain about our own individual identity. The public, equalising, homogenising force of consumption creates tensions and evokes a counterforce: a fundamental need for individuality, intimacy and differentiation. The increasing need for flexibility in the world of work – a hurried jumping from one experience to the other – makes us yearn for the continuity of old, for a story where the one thing can grow from another, for the values that can give our life this continuity, for the dignity we can derive from taking pleasure in our work, for relationships with people that last longer and go deeper than the interpersonal quicksand on which companies and social associations are today built. ‘From a mental perspective, we are all immigrants...’ (Walter Lippmann, quoted by Richard Sennett).

   Although they seem to be taking place a long way off, major economic and political shifts on a global level are bringing just as much unrest into our lives: certainly into the lives of Westerners and to an even greater extent into those of scared, white Europeans. With the rise of China and India as new economic world powers, the centuries-long supremacy of the West – old Europe and the seemingly inevitable world ruler, the United States of America – is under threat. Indeed, the world appears to be rolling over: from west to east, to Asia. For Europeans, this is a new and unknown sensation, difficult to accept for those who have for so long regarded their culture as the centre of the world. This is also sowing fear and unrest, it makes us vulnerable, plunges us into crisis and forces us to reconsider such questions as ‘who were we?’, ‘who are we?’ and ‘who will we become?’


4. Time and imagination

‘The first form of hope is fear. The first appearance of the new is terror.’ (Heiner Müller)

   Our fear of all these changes is initially a fear of the unknown, based on the preconception that the future can only be worse than the present. The changes taking place in the world can no longer be reversed. We must go in search of a way of dealing with them. The accomplishments of technological progress are irreversible, but they can be adapted and changed. If we want to. In order to rediscover ourselves – in whatever sphere and at whatever level – time is needed, time on a human scale, time for reflection, for introspection, for projection. Time and imagination. Learning to imagine what the other is like and how he lives. Learning to imagine how our own lives can change. Learning to imagine how we can organise the world in a way that is as yet unknown. With a great deal of self-criticism and a new way of looking at things, we will be able to see what exists now and what we are doing to ourselves, the other and the world today.

   ‘I cannot help feeling that the imagination is of critical importance’, wrote the theatre director Lotte van den Berg in a recent piece on her work. Artists can make an important contribution to this vital use of the imagination: the testing and crystallisation of inspiring thoughts, the clarification of discourses, the unravelling of complex emotions, the creation of sketches, blueprints, models, the creation of images in which a new world becomes visible....

‘It is the irrationality of the progress that I am critical of. ... Until now, we have studied the achievements, and the progress is extraordinary, nobody can deny it, but now we must examine the damage caused by this progress ... not to turn the clock back, but to go forward in a different way. ... It is not about stopping progress, but about guaranteeing its continued existence.’ Paul Virilio