What does it mean to be “in your place”? Perhaps, we can discern the fear of migrants by understanding how and why the society designates a specific place for each of us.
by Elise Billiard
Artwork: Juan Gris, Breakfast (detail)
Displacement has nowadays been almost entirely associated with migration, generally forced. This reduction, I thought, could only be detrimental and I endeavor to rescue the various signifieds [*] of the sign “displacement” which have drowned deep in the sea. Was there a common node toward which all these semantic uses were gravitating? And if there was one, what was it? Could I uncover the unthought core, “l’impensé”, of displacement? This atomic explosion would probably enrich our understanding of Europeans’ deep-rooted fear of migrants, but it was a tall order.
I chose to start with a detour to physics which usually provides a fresh perspective on critical issues.
How did physicists look at the displacement of objects? First, Isaac Newton established that all bodies travel in space at a constant velocity. Practically, this means that in space, if you throw a ball in the air it will continue to travel at the same speed and never fall down because all bodies continue travelling endlessly as long as nothing stops them. The consequence of the Newton law was even more interesting. Indeed, only when subjected to an external force, did bodies slow down and eventually stop. So movement, or displacement, was a matter of force and place. In order to stop, an object needed to be stopped; and to move, an object also needed to be pushed to move. This was true for objects but equally for persons. Physically and philosophically, one can ask then, what came first: place or force?
Different languages have given more prominence to one or the other.
In German, the different translations of the term displacement refer to force more than place. The terms verschiebung (shifting) and verdrangung (repression) differ by the type of force exerted. Here the force goes from a gentle push to an authoritarian expulsion.
In psychology, displacement also refers to force. Freud defines it as either the repression of tragic memories and emotions in the depth of the unconscious or, the transfer of such emotions onto another object as a way to displace the trauma. For example the hatred towards one’s own father is not acceptable (for the son), and therefore is displaced onto another man, an authoritarian figure, like the son’s professor.
In fact, our brains are constantly placing, displacing and replacing things. Memory is a formidable travel agent — it instantly transports us to faraway places. The place where memories are anchored is, therefore, essential. For example:
When you hear a long-forgotten melody, and you instantly remember where you heard it for the first time. Even if it was decades ago.
You might also be surprised by a new smell while walking on the street, and wonder where this fragrance is suddenly taking you? At this moment, you are literally displaced at the speed of light to a faraway land.
Our thinking process can be playful. Isn’t it amusing to change the place of things? … and create in this way a new order of things! Indeed, such transfers are common and are often at the source of creativity. Does not fashion, as well as poetry, thrive on displacement? But the replacement of items from one category to another, like when stylists associate grungy denims with a Louis Vuitton bag, is not always considered chic or smart. It is a dangerous game and can lead to harsh disapproval.
In a matter of etiquette, the French term “déplacé” refers to this “misplacement”. It can be a gesture or a word that is inappropriate, not politically correct, and sometimes offensive. Society is imposing a strict order of things in which they do not travel from one category (place) to another without being subjected to either praise or rejection. Applied to society, this revealed that the reproduction of social hierarchy indubitably owned a lot to this implicit taboo on displacement. Similarly, speaking about art, it confirmed Rancière’s idea that artworks can be recognized by their capacity to displace our sensible expectations.
This leads me to focus my attention on the relation between the words displaced and misplaced. The two words are almost homonyms and their definitions are also very close. To define something as displaced is to imply that it does not belong to its new place. In fact, the emphasis is on the place of origin, as though something displaced could only fit in its original context. The question then is: are displaced things or people automatically misplaced?
In her book “Purity and Danger”, the British anthropologist Mary Douglas explains that every society promotes a particular order of things, in which everything has a definite place. For instance, if hair can be a source of pride and aesthetic satisfaction, once one hair is found in your soup, it becomes disgusting.
Similarly, in Maltese, we use the same semantic root to speak about putting things in their place – “f’posthom”, and to speak about displaced people – “spostati”.
Or again, in English, we feel reassured when “everything falls into place”.
In brief, to behave is to behave according to the place. To be clean and proper is to abide by the norms of the place and have “everything in place”. Therefore, place defines the identity of things and people.
Douglas argues that, since each society has its own order of things, it follows that each society has its own definition of dirt, but that the universal principle remains the same: “dirt is a matter out of place”. This is not only true for things, but also for actions, as we have seen, or even for people.
In this light, I find it striking that, repetitively, “migrants” are portrayed in the media as “matters out of place”: they are “lost” at sea, they are made to sleep in forgotten spaces, and they live in makeshift huts, garbage… The traces they leave are recurrently portrayed in the same manner: dirty baby nappies, broken phones, single shoes, useless things… objects that have irrevocably crossed the categories that structure the order of things. We are shocked by images of half undressed corpses piled up on the bottom of boats. Migrants today are portrayed as intrinsically misplaced. This is their sole identity.
Every day, the figure of the migrant as a “matter out of place” is told. To counteract this sad image, NGOs like JRS or ADITUS promote communication campaigns to show the “integration” of migrants in strong networks of relationships and portray them as “in place”. And why isn’t more attention given to the hundreds of Maltese individuals who came from third (non-EU) countries and who are living peacefully in Malta for decades?
To conclude, I will mention another definition of displacement pertaining to physics. According to Archimedes’ law of buoyancy, displacement is the volume taken by an object immersed in water. Here we see that displacement automatically implies that a space is left empty when the object is removed, and that an equal space is taken by the same object in its new location. The transposition of this law onto human displacement illustrates the void left by the emigrant in his or her place of origin. It also reminds us that an immigrant always takes space in his or her new location. Since each of us needs space, we must be prepared to leave space for the newcomer to co-exist, to exist alongside us.
Alas, we have seen that our thirst for order, our obsession to assign identities according to the place of birth or the skin color does not follow laws of physics. Let’s not forget that since, as we have seen with Mary Douglas, the identity of someone is to a large extent redefined by the place s/he is in, the social dynamics do not follow the law of Archimedes. When a European immigrates to an African country s/he is considered an expatriate, or conversely, when an African immigrates to a European country s/he is considered a migrant.
The acceptation to integrate newcomers within society requires, therefore, an effort of imagination and a critical analysis of our cultural automatisms. Migration in this respect represents a chance to critically rethink Europe and citizenship for the better. Let us not be the external repressive force that pushes strangers in corners — away to become the Other, the matter out of place, the filth that must be washed out.
[*] The word signified refers here to Saussure’s two-part model of the sign. Saussure defined a sign as being composed of: a ‘signifier’ (signifiant) – the form which the sign takes; and the ‘signified’ (signifié) – the concept it represents.
This text was first written to be read as an introduction to a debate with artists and anthropologists around the notion of displacement. The debate was part of the first Utopian Night, organized with the support of the Valletta2018 foundation. It took place in Valletta and Floriana on the 29th July 2017.
From the 30th July to the 5th August 2018, another Utopian Night will held in Mdina on the topic of encampment and borders.
The Utopian Nights are aimed to be a place for dissensus, a place to replace the displaced. The idea is that maybe, for a night at least, equality could rise, and in this new order of things and people, categories could be rethought.
Elise Billiard is an anthropologist. She is a visiting lecturer at the Department of Sociology and at the Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of Malta. She is also Strand Coordinator for the Valletta2018 Foundation. She has published in peer reviewed as well as in online journals. Finally, she is a member of the Institute of Utopian Studies.