Monday, 28 January 2008

Notes on Nomadic Structures

I. If we understand nomadism as de-contextualisation from space and structure as (re)contextualisation in space, we can draw a time line from one term to the other: starting with mobility, a concept that integrates nomadism as constant movement, then slowing down to locality, the perception of space by mapping its structure and finally the reflection of its context.
The operation of creating a (thematic and chronological) distance between both terms opens a territory that might expand its central spots (mobility, locality, mapping, context) to connected regions. There are (at least) two binoculars to look onto these regions: using the concept of agency (the act of creating structures) or structure/disposition (the state of being structured by space)
At the first glance nomads enter a kind of “terrain vague” as soon as they step on new ground. As locality cannot be fixed but seems to be as transitory and imaginary on the surface as translocality, it offers new experiences – a “space of flows” - when being crossed for the first time(s). If the nomad maps the new terrain by walking, (s)he can be drawn into urban dynamics easily: a visual series of buildings, streets and squares creating expectations, the imagination of another scene beyond sight, the contrasts of elements and impressions… in short: space as experience, as stimulus for a “rite de passage” that strengthens the individual powers by disturbing them temporarily. The “geographical imagination” (Harvey) that arises with linking local details in our memory provides us with a sensual knowledge of space and place linked to our biography. As the nomad’s biography follows the line of movement, the act of entering a “terrain vague” might be crucial for re-constructing and reaffirming his/her identity. At the same time nomads know that the new terrain they arrives at will be only of temporary use. To use the space efficiently as resource it is important to analyse local elements along a horizontal line (visual and functional elements) as well as vertically (historical and social layers of meaning, the “depth structure”) – interpreting the local just like interpreting a written text in a structuralist way.
Edward W. Soja calls this immediately perceived and analyzed space the “firstspace” in contrast to the mental “secondspace” that refers to images and representations ( Edward W. Soja: Thirdspace. Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places, Oxford/Cambridge 1996. Quoted from sculpture projects muenster 07.) If nomads have access to the first and the second, are they also able to enter the “thirdspace”, the lived space, stage of political praxis? Regardless nomadic movements like the alterglobalist that transform space into a stage of political and symbolic battle for a short period of time, nomads often enter a system as newcomers without being involved in local dynamics, without knowing too well local power structures and alternative networks. Is it possible to link experiences gained elsewhere with observations and interactions “in situ” in order to create a new embedded and at the same time translocal knowledge? Does this knowledge have the power to lead to an action, a transformation of ground, even if it is neither the own nor the only one? What kind of impact do nomads want to achieve on the ground they temporarily use, and how big is their radius of action if this ground is already taken literarily and politically by the residents themselves?
This first desillusion (of the structure around being taken by local forces) is followed by a second, third, fourth one if we change our perspective from agency to structure: the kinetic self (after Sloterdijk) that followed the drive of progress in modern times soon entered the vicious circle of constituting itself only via movement, in other, again Sloterdijk’s words: the modern active became (second illusion) a postmodern passive, trapped in the necessity to continue its nomadic life; even if it feels like leaving a system when leaving a local context there are, third, no exit signs for leaving the own professional system (as an artist or cultural agent), that means: the way values, nods and positions in a network are created does not change with changes the place, even worse: nomadic movements have a direct impact on the “transnational capital” (Christine Nippe) of an artist. Fourth: Contemporary nomads are not really following nomadic structures. What?
Nomads (in the classical as well as in the contemporary, symbolic sense) challenge the project of state sovereignty by neglecting borders and by creating an alternative system of power and hierarchies based on relations in their community. They are often described as symbol of freedom and subversion. Yet, their way of life strongly depends on economic exchange with the settled population. They are half in, half out. They are always inside their community (“tribe”), based on mobility in-group by definition. The contemporary character of “the nomad” is nourished by stories of travellers and migrants, by the individual liberating itself from the social corset whereas nomads in the classical sense can only exist within common rules. Their deep knowledge of a specific region is crucial for the a system based on subsistence and natural cycles whereas nomads in a symbolic sense do not need to get in touch with the ground as deeply. On the other hand, their physical effort and sensation of movement and adjustment might even be bigger as there are no common tracks and experiences; it might even exceed their mental effort to create a biographical line, a translocal belonging. Becoming a nomad means to make a constant effort to move, hide, reappear, restructure, remember, react, translate, transfer the material base into a symbolic one (even if nomads own objects, these objects will be transferred into symbols of daily need and belonging when carried from one place to another). Nomads in the traditional sense are carried by cycles that have been opened, closed and re-opened in the past. Their twisted steps follow a pragmatic pattern, structured by a sustainable vision of exit and return.

Comparing two types of nomadism it seems that the perception of traditional nomadic life that led to the symbolic key figure of the contemporary nomad is focussed on mobility and opposition to state control, that means: taking the outer image as the new core of identity, claiming the consequence of action as its condition. Nomads in a symbolic and a literary way seem to be “false friends”, like words in neighbour languages that finally have a completely different meaning. Should these false friends separate or become real friends again?

The original disposition of nomadic life based on a micro system of community, cycles, sustainability, (trans)local knowledge and exchange might serve as blueprint for a new kind of contemporary nomadism. Incorporating freedom and subversion of the individual as basic structure of identity, but creating a new sense of belonging and responding to local contexts by reflecting one’s movements on shifting grounds. If we were able to read the lines of our movements, we could discover crossing points with the lines of others, stabilising circles, effects on the surroundings, a structure, an alphabet of lines and signs that are understood elsewhere; leaving traces of lived experiences in the space before moving on.

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