PLACE, AND RELATIONS AGAINST THE GRAIN
– Doreen Massey
Over the last few decades the air has been full of promises of a new dawn, a new way of being. The new world, sometimes under the sign of postmodernity, ridiculed the old claims to authority, its persistent hierarchisation of voices, its tendencies to rigid structures and bureaucracy. In their place was promised a flattening of hierarchies, a decentralisation of voices, a world of jostling multiplicity.
In my own sphere of work, the academy, we challenged ourselves as to the basis of our claims to ‘knowledge’ (as opposed, for instance, to the knowledge of those ‘on the ground’ or ‘on the margins’, who might carry the real truth of what was going on). In both academe and parts of the arts there was talk of the death of the author. We challenged the status of those Grand Narratives, of Progress, Development, and so forth that implied that there was only one way – that, for instance, what were called ‘developing countries’ were developing towards our state of ‘development’ – that they were not different, nor trying an alternative model. They were just behind. History was like a long queue, with some at the head and others working to catch up.
Instead of structures and hierarchy we were entering, it was said, a networked society of multiple criss-crossing relations. A world of complexity and difference: horizontality in place of the vertical. In politics, the old solidarities, of trades-unionism for instance, were characterised as lumbering. Instead, new forms would be developed, constantly shifting, fleet-of-foot, complexly networked. Participatory democracy would/should replace ‘old fashioned’ parties and systems of representation, argued some. It was a promise of complexity, multiplicity, and a greater equality of voice.
So what happened? Well, to begin with it should be said that some of the criticisms of the past and the promises for the future were and still are to be welcomed. The Grand Narratives that assumed (and thereby through their formation of the social imagination
helped impose) only one-way forward absolutely needed challenging (although the current mantra of There Is No Alternative is hardly an improvement). Some of the big hierarchical structures had indeed become sclerotic. Things did indeed need shaking up. And there is indeed today more networking, a greater acknowledgement of difference and complexity, and a feeling of a greater (and indeed sometimes overwhelming) multiplicity. In lots of ways things feel freer, and somehow looser.
And yet. In my own field of human geography, I have watched as in this ever-moreinterconnected world the human race has become more and more concentrated into mega cities. I have analysed, and pondered, the fact that not only population but many kinds of power too seem to have been drawn into, and woven together in a handful of global cities. Global cities – where different forms of power intersect, form constellations and reinforce each other – are a product of the very same period that proclaimed the horizontality of networks. The geography of people and of power seems to have become more centralised.
Likewise, the academic world has never been so structured around mega stars who fly about the world broadcasting their messages (frequently, ironically, proclaiming the pending horizontalism). What on earth happened to the death of the author or to the need to value knowledge produced on the margins?
The examples could be multiplied. The internet’s promise of a democracy of voices is threatened by corporate control and harvesting, and by centralised surveillance.
In some ways this apparent contradiction mirrors, indeed is a part of, the more general socio-political shift that has taken place since the 1970s. In Western Europe social democracy (with its big battalions, its commitment to a measure of redistribution and equality, and its veneration of notions of the public and the abilities of the state) was undermined, and in both Western and Eastern Europe the tenets and practices of neoliberalism won the battle for hegemony. The stress on individuals and markets might seem to be absolutely a piece of a world-view that promises democracy and equality. And yet, of course, what neoliberalism has in fact delivered is a sharp increase in inequality on almost all dimensions.
In many ways, the geometries of power have become even more concentrated than they were before. The centres seem to have become more central even while, undoubtedly we live in an age of networks.
Moreover, this has further ramifications as the process feeds upon itself. In the United Kingdom, London is increasingly dominant, and the terms of this dominance only further reinforce it. So professional workers find themselves inexorably drawn to the capital city. This is where the jobs are; where the wages are higher (though costs are too); most certainly it is where you have to go to climb the greasy pole, to be closer to those with power within your chosen field. But the loss of these social strata can make it even more difficult for any project to achieve economic growth in the regions they leave behind. And being the global city attracts further advantages to London. Virtually all the ‘national’ cultural institutions, for example (museums, galleries, sports stadia), are in the capital. National funding for the arts is grossly unequal, per capita funding in London is far higher than that begrudgingly given to other regions (‘we have to support our global city’). And so the centrality is reinforced.
And so too is the inequality of daily life among the denizens of this country. A class of children in a school in London can easily visit, say, the National Gallery in the space of an afternoon. For a school in a small town in the north of England, the same access to the arts would cost a fortune in train fares, time, and possibly even accommodation. It is in these ways, in terms of how things are played out in disparities of opportunity and the richness of daily life, that the current geographies can seem so vicious. The unequal geographies of cultural access; it is because of this, as well as and because of the conundrum of such steep hierarchy in a world that once promised dispersal (remember, we were all going to work from a cottage far from the city), that I was drawn to contribute to this important project.
However, the situation is, interestingly, more complex than this; for although these centres of power have undoubtedly been reinforced (in general inequality and the rise of the super-rich, in the international dominance of a few global cities), it is very difficult to locate a
single centre of that power. There is, as has often been remarked, no Winter Palace any more as the obvious place to storm. Mark Fisher in a chapter of his book Capitalist Realism, entitled ‘There’s no central exchange’ writes insightfully of the ‘centrelessness of global capitalism’ and ‘the closest thing we have to ruling powers now are nebulous, unaccountable interests exercising corporate irresponsibility’ (p.63). He argues that ‘Kafka is poorly understood as exclusively a writer on totalitarianism; a decentralized, market Stalinist bureaucracy is far more Kafkaesque than one in which there is a central authority’ (p.64). The ‘centre’ itself is networked and somehow cannot be found. And its very dispersion can increase the sense of powerlessness of those beyond the bounds of the charmed circle.
On the other hand, in these areas beyond the bounds (what are often called ‘the regions’, ‘the provinces’, ‘the periphery’) other things have been happening. One of the most interesting things going on in global economic and politico-cultural relations is the enormous flourishing of South-South relations. Solidarities between Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, trade and intense competition between India and China, the enormous expansion of South-South trade in general, the growing joint power of the BRIC countries, and so forth. A proliferation, in other words, of relations that by-pass the global North, the old ‘centre’. To some extent, that centre is irrelevant to them. Given political courage and the right conditions, relations do not have to follow the classic route between centre and periphery with all the spatiality of dominance and subordination that has historically been implied. Hints here, then, of parallels with Locis?
There is an analogous story going on at the moment about the railway network in the UK. It is currently remarkably centripetal – the structure is focused on London. It is also the case that there is, as hinted at above, a marked and intensifying economic, social – and
cultural – divide between the south east corner of the country and ‘the rest’ (it even has its acronym – RUK). One proposal to remedy this divide is to invest in railways (a proposal which it is hoped at the macro-economic level would also kick-start the economy, generate jobs, etc). But consider the geography of this investment. The official proposal is to link north and south with a high-speed connection. It is a knee-jerk, London-centric response. Of course, the argument goes, the periphery would be better off were it to be more closely tied to the centre. Would it? There seems to be little evidence for this assertion. An alternative proposal is to improve the railway connections within the (so-called) periphery itself. From Liverpool to Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, for instance. (At the moment the trains here are not so much high-speed as trundling, though I have to confess that, not usually being in a hurry, and the landscape being so interesting and beautiful, I love them. But that’s another matter.) The aim would be to enrich connections within the north itself, to weave together something alternative, more of its own.
This draws us into recent debates about the nature of place. In contrast to a more traditional view of places as almost bounded things, drawing their unique character from deep internal historical roots, it is now widely recognised, not only that places are inevitably
open, in constant contact with the wider world, but also that the very specificity of each place is in serious measure a product of its articulation within those wider relations, and of what is made of those relations (Massey, 2005). This further implies that places are not necessarily internally coherent, that they always need to be negotiated and – the really important point here – that places are things we make, not just things that we inherit.
A parenthesis is in order here, which takes us back to the opening scene and the promise of a world of interconnection, network, and flow. As in other spheres, so too in relation to place, there were those who took this position to extremes. If places are products of relations, and if we live in a world in which relations (networks etc) are dominant, then ‘places’ cease to have any meaning. All is dissolved into the wider global interconnectivity.
I have to say I disagree thoroughly with this argument. In the end it is an argument that does battle with the old notion of place, as fixed and stable and bounded. It sets up ‘place’ and ‘flow’ as opposites, whereas in fact each is necessary to and formative of the other. What we have to do instead of abandoning place is reconceptualise it – each place a particular constellation of relations within the global world.
So, if places are made, and if the structure of relations within which they are embedded is an important part of that making, then it follows that a creative attention to a place’s wider connections is crucial. It also follows that forging new relations will, however subtly, shift the identity of a place. On the world scale, current governments in Latin America are trying to do this; to forge a collective identity that is no longer merely the ‘backyard’ of the global centre to the north but which asserts, precisely through the building of connections both among themselves and with the rest of the world, a character that they have built themselves. Think too of the contrasting implications for the sense of place in/of the north of England, of the different geographies of proposed railway investment. Building new relations, especially against the grain, is a real challenge, but in a sense it is about no more than taking.
Doreen Massey, Emeritus Professor of Geography, Open University, Milton Keynes, England