Remotes Homes: Towards a Nomadic Urbanism?

Presented on The Mediated City Conference, Ravensbourne University, London (April 2014).

If home is not necessarily a spatial concept, it is nonetheless often lived out as if it where such.” David Morley, 2000.

The question of home placement is relevant to our contemporary structures since two important phenomena have destabilized the traditional notions of home and identity: mainly globalization and the Internet. Contemporary western society is fluid; institutions and a teleological construction of meaning have been diluted to open the door to always-movable structures. Thus mobility and virtuality are one of the key components of social configuration.1 If we take these ideas into consideration the following interrogations arise: How do virtual reality affects the notions of identity restricted to space? How is identity structured in a highly virtualized and mobile society? Are we obliged to transform our identities constantly as modeling clay figurines?

Of Homes and Islands

My enquiry regarding “home” began after reading the novel Mundo del fin del mundo2, which depicts the voyages of three nomadic travellers through the inhospitable islands of Chilean Land of Fire. All have lost their homes; all seek for them in their past. One of these anecdotes especially caught my attention, the story of a seaman whose home was a sunken boat in the middle of the sea:

“The Paso del Ona3 was a low keel cutter that my father had bought after a storm had destroyed the Fiona against the reefs of Punta Diego. I was born in the Paso del Ona and until now I fell it as the closest idea of home. But this boat does not exist anymore. When my father died, I did as I should: respecting his manners and myths, I tied the body to the rudder and I sunk the boat in the deep waters of the Gulf of Sorrows”.

The notion of home can be comparable with that of a remote island; since they are both entities created from narratives. Islands are locations into which we project our fantasies, places that are better dealt through literature than through science4; the same could be said about home. Home can never be defined as a unique and stable entity; it is movable, remote, ungraspable. What is home for the one is not home for the other. There are almost as many notions of home as people on this planet.

The Migrant, the Exiled and the Traveler

I suggest that there are three utmost personae of contemporary society: the migrant, the exiled and the traveler. These three figures are axial points when talking about distribution and conformation of space, especially in urban contexts. Many factors have lead to the exponential growth of people inhabiting places that are “not their own” – from where they are “not natives”. Namely, world politics issues (dictatorships, wars, civil-wars, …) for exiled people; world economic issues (poverty, lack of opportunities in education and work, dangerous environment, …) for immigrants and faster means of communication (Internet, airplanes, English as a “global” language, …) for travelers. These three figures open questions wherever they are and challenge the notions of identity and nation. How do the 200 million immigrants in the world5deal with their “foreignness” and how do they settle in new environments? As quoted by Morley from a Turkish migrant in Germany “Home is wherever you have a job”6. Normally families move to richer countries to provide their children the opportunities they didn’t have: education, health services and proper nourishment.

The radical situation is the one of the exiles, they don´t have the opportunity to return to their place of origin; it could be thought that for them home –when thought of as the national space of birth – is as well a sunken boat. It is mandatory for them to reformulate their identity and notion of belonging. Home is banned for them, necessarily replaced in the land of nostalgia and memories. And whenever something irreplaceable is forbidden it becomes an intricate part of your daily life: the pursuit for the lost home. In most cases, exiled people and refugees leave their places of origin in an abrupt manner, leaving them without any belongings from which to start their new settlement. Refugees, asylum seekers and exiled people are forced to find a new place of residency and make it livable. Entire villages/cities of people in precarious situations is one of the new ways of living, temporal accommodations that turn into normal living settlements.7

Finally, the traveler, the so-called perpetual tourist, who is always on the road, visits new countries/new cities and works in temporary jobs to continue the journey. The traveler holds a passport and makes profit out of it by gaining stamps on its pages, does not pay taxes due to its continuous movement. The boom of fast speed means of transport, virtual communication, possibility of communicating with people from different cultures and languages in one “common” language, the so to say “broken English”, have contributed to the consolidation of this figure. These travelers also contribute to new distributions of space such as hostels, restaurants and pleasure/party facilities in places that up until now were “closed” societies such as remote beaches in South-East Asia and Latin America. Along with them, the boom of international food and culture has spread through out the world. A sort of “exotic home” that is repeated in different extravagant places has been established, in what possibly could be named the tourism gentrification.

Virtuality and Simulacrum

We live in a fluid society were social institutions such as “home” have become elusive due to many factors, amongst them high-speed and low-cost communication means and continuous mobility8. Furthermore, post-modernist and post-structuralists thinkers have highlighted that all these new technologies (e.g. Internet) have destabilize the paradigm of representation.

In modern times (1789-1914) knowledge was based on a subject-object relationship where science and evidence played an important role in the construction of “reality”. In the so-called post-modern times9 the subject-object relationship was challenged/fractured and now the only thing that there is are signs that refer to other signs, no utter reality. Jean Baudrillard notes that we live in a world were there is only simulacrum. He argues that the subject tries to understand the object, but since the object can only be understood through signs, the object can never be fully attained. Instead, the subject is seduced by the object. Seduction in terms of its Latin origins: to move away. Therefore, when attempting to understand human life we end up seduced by it, drawn towards a simulation, a state of hyperreality:

“Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory […] It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the desserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”

To further explain the concept of simulacra; he distinguishes between simulation and dissimulation. Dissimulation supposes a presence that needs to be covered/falsified; simulation supposes an absence that needs to be simulated/created. How can the “true” simulated features be distinguished from the “true” real ones? Simulation implies production, falsification and, above all, replacement. Can the “simulated” – virtual – home can be replaced by the “real” – material – home?

How does virtuality configures home spaces nowadays? Simulation of togetherness is part of our new notion of home and space? Let´s take a look at this analysis of communication habits in private households in Europe, within this study it was interesting to observe the attitudes that Skype users undertake:

“While the phone call often required the narration of events and was therefore focused on past events that were not necessarily shared by the two speakers, the Skype sessions are focused on the present. They allow people to be together in the present and often collectively, a few people on either side of the webcams. The change of time frame supported by the webcam and the low cost of long connections, modifies the sense of participation. By enabling people to go on doing things at home without being uniquely focused on the conversation, people rekindle the sense of intimacy that is created by sharing a space with someone you care for.”10

If we take into consideration these ideas we come to the question, how are strategies of home developed in a “hyper-real” world? The concept that seems appropriate is the one of the hologram, also addressed by Baudrillard11. He details that holograms destroy the game of illusion through the game of reproduction; it represents the destruction of the “real” by the creation of its double (stand-in). Could we say the same about Skype-talks? Do the simulacrum (hologramatic image of the other) of sharing the same space could create a notion of a “hyper-real” home?

Conclusion: Nomadic Homes?

We live in a world affected by fast means of communication and constant social and economical mobility. These new conditions have contributed to a new view of the world in which the modern subject-object relationship has been jeopardize to give place to a post-modern paradigm where signs only refer to other signs without a “reality” (in hard terms). This new representational paradigm and world conditions have lead to a destabilization of notions of identity and home; and since there are millions of people that now reside in localities outside their places of origin (immigrants, exiles and travelers) the question regarding home settlements strategies is becoming more and more relevant.

Knowing that home is an elusive and, at some extent, fictional term that involves cultural practices and which cannot be enclosed into one definition. It becomes problematic to question the possibility of a new, and fixed, notion of home. Living in a liquid society has transformed the pursuit of happiness from an enlightened wish of humanity to be an individual desire. The anchoring of the individual as the primary social unit has forced into him/her the necessity to formulate and transform his/her life into his/her wishes. Individuals are forced to create their surroundings and adjust them to their desires. Territorial displacement calls for new adaptability tools and skills.

For example, communication means such as Internet enables virtual coexistences like long Skype calls to create intimate atmospheres for people living in different places of the world. Could we consider these forms of communication and adaptability nomadic?

If we take a close look on a nomadic people per excellence such as the Mongolic we can find some interesting means on how to approach physical/virtual creation of space for elusive identities and roaming fixing spaces12. Parts of the Ulaanbaatar urban landscape to the date still depicts ger districts, where grids and basic supplies (such as water and electricity) have been installed in some parts of the city. These grids match the nomadic behavior of ger districts since they can be modified as they remain when the gers are no longer there in order to receive settlements again next year. These nomadic settlements question the traditional notion of home as a constant place. Refugee camps, migrant districts, hostels and virtual realities do the same. “[…] ‘there’ (where you are not) has ceased to exist in a planetary scale and we now inhabit a massive ‘here’ that we inevitably and without alternative share with the rest of humanity.”13

The issue of nomadism has not yet been solved in our society since nomadic behavior is seen as outcast behavior which defies notions of property, nationality, belonging and citizenship. Often nomads are seen as homeless and uncivilized (when taking an extreme position); but more and more nomadic behaviors are the strategies of many inhabitants of cities and towns around the world.

To categorize nomads as homeless seems to reflect an outside view on nomadism. It has also traditionally been thought that nomadic peoples do not own their land, a view that has not been shared by the nomadic people themselves. To understand nomadism as homelessness and landlessness is constructing the ‘nomad’ as the other to the settled people and the culture that staying put creates.14

Self-made and improvised homes can be seen everywhere: slums are chaotic, undefined grids that emerge out of necessity in a very fast manner (e.g. Mumbai, Calcatta, Mexico City, Manila, Lagos); refugee camps also are implemented in question of days out of emergency.

It is important to analyze these structures and learn from them, also to observe the appropriation of places and the development of rituals to settle “homes”. These home-making rituals could be the placement of belongings in the same manner; long-intimate skype calls with the beloved ones, community settlements of people with the same or similar cultural background, among others.

Are we as individuals (citizens) forced to elaborate, create and simulate our own “homes” and identities permanently? And if yes, as it can be (for)seen, can architecture be the one to suggest new practical/hyperreal structures for making the world livable? Will physicality continue to be the uttermost premise when planning the distribution of spaces in cities? Should emotional relation to the place of residency be taken into account when envisioning new neighborhoods? Furthermore, can we truly imagine a non-physical placement of our emotions? Is nomadism the new form of living, and if yes, how will contemporary society and urbanism adapt to it?

The afore-mentioned questions refer to the basic inquiry of space construction; time will display the impact of virtual space in the spatial one in relation with the production of identities and homeliness.

Bibliography / References

Baudrillard, Jean: Selected Writings, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1988.

Bauman, Zygmunt: Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000.

Broadbent, Stefana. “Transforming the Home” in L’intimité au travail, Fyp Editions, 2011.

Harman, Graham: Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, re-press, Melbourne, 2009.

Hegarty, Paul. Jean Baudrillard: live theory, Continuum, London, 2004.

Morley, David: Home Territories, Media, Mobility and Identity, Routledge, London & New York, 2000.

Sepulveda, Luis: Mundo del fin del mundo, Tusquets, Madrid, 1994.

Schalansky, Judith. Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, Penguin Books, 2009.

Standford Enciclopedia of Philosophy, Metaphysics Research LabCSLIStanford University. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard/, 2007.

Wilneius, Annu: “In Search of the City / Nomad / Understanding Freedom” in Essay for the Mongolia: Perception and Utopia Publication, 2008.

1 Zygmunt Bauman was born in Poland in 1925; in 1971 he had to fled his country of origin due to anti-Semitic policies. Now he lives and works in England. Bauman is a recognized sociologist who coined the terms “liquid” and “solid” modernity to describe nowadays society. Liquid modernity refers to the lack of ulterior meaning of structures and the end of a belief in progress and closure of human development. On the book Liquid Modernity, Bauman reflects upon identity: “The search for identity is the ongoing struggle to arrest or slow down the flow, to solidify the fluid, to give form to the formless. Yet far from slowing the flow, let alone stopping it, identities are more like the spots of crust hardening time and again on the top of volcanic lava which melt and dissolve again before they have time to cool and set.” p. 82 Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000.

2 Luis Sepulveda was born in Chile in 1949. Since young he travelled as much as he could, always taking a notebook with him. In his youth he was a leader of the student movement in his home country and in 1973, after the coup d’état lead by Augusto Pinochet, he was imprisoned for two and a half years. Thanks to the help from the German branch of Amnesty International he was relocated in home arrest which he manage to flee and went underground for one year after. International entities again help him and he was sentenced to eight years of exile in Sweden. He took the plane to Europe but on the first layover in Buenos Aires he managed to escape and remained in Latin America until 1979 when he changed his residency to Germany. He has lived in Europe for over three decades, he regularly writes about Latin America. The book quoted here narrates his first journey back in Chile since his departure in 1977. Mundo del fin del mundo, Tusquets, Madrid, 1994.

3 The Ona People was one of the last aboriginal groups in South America to be reached by Westerners. They were located in the now-called Land of Fire of Chile and Argentina. The mother of this seaman was part of the Ona people.

4 Judith Schalansky was born in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in 1980. When she was a child she spent hours looking at maps and fantasizing about going to “exotic” faraway places. She now lives, write and is an artist in Berlin. “An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated, fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned to fact.” Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, Penguin Books, 2009.

5 Information retrieved from the International Organization of Migration, http://www.iom.int/.

6 David Morley was born in 1964 in England; he still lives there. He narrates that during his childhood his home turned around the television; it was the instrument that kept the family spatially together and the means to bring the external world in the privacy of their lives. He is an anthropologist and a poet and has focused his attention on the phenomenon of home placement and identity. Home Territories, Media, Mobility and Identity, Routledge, London & New York, 2000.

7 According to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) currently there are 42.5 million of forcibly displaced people, thus refugee camps are sprawling across the world, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c11.html.

8 Bauman, Zydmunt: Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000.

9 Numerous thinkers have criticized the notion of “post-modernism”; one of them was Zygmunt Bauman who defied it with his notion of “liquid modernity” afore mentioned.

10 Stefana Broadbent, digital ethnographer, has made different studies of how new technologies affect human behaviors. “Transforming the Home” in L’intimité au travail, Fyp Editions, 2011.

11 Standford Enciclopedia of Philosophy, Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard/, 2007.

12 Annu Wilenius born in 1974 in Finnland; has made different analysis on some urban strategies developed in Mongolia, especially in its capital city Ulaanbaatar. Mongols have been closely thought of as stereotypes of nomadism, since the Mongolian Empire lead by Genghis Kahn adopted many of the nomadic tactics of their people to attack and conquer its opponents. In 2008, as Wilenius notes, 57% of Ulaanbaatar’s population lived in ger districts (31% in self-built houses); this is an indicator of a highly nomadic behavior. The Mongolian ger is a traditionally used structured used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia; it is made out of a wooden circular frame with a wool felt cover which resists the harsh climates of the region. These structures can be transported and its construction takes about 2 hours. Ger districts are settlements (communities) of people that arrive and place their nomadic residences in the peripheral areas of the city. “In Search of the City / Nomad / Understanding Freedom” in Essay for the Mongolia: Perception and Utopia Publication, 2008.

13 Wilneius, Annu: “In Search of the City / Nomad / Understanding Freedom” in Essay for the Mongolia: Perception and Utopia Publication, 2008.

14 Wilneius, Annu: “In Search of the City / Nomad / Understanding Freedom” in Essay for the Mongolia: Perception and Utopia Publication, 2008.

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