London: Nowhere in Particular
Daniel Miller, 2008
What kind of geography do we want for anthropology? There is a long tradition in anthropology of challenging more or less any way of thinking about the world that is seen as generically Western. The classic challenge comes from a whole swathe of approaches influenced by phenomenology and associated philosophy which tends to propose that there is a place called the West under a condition we call modern that uses a geography based on Euclidean or generally scientific principles and tends to be associated with lots of bad stuff like capitalism. Against which there is some kind of anthropological relativism which allows us a sense of place that is more like tribal, or generic non Western peoples, and is nice rather than nasty either holistic or at least not scientific. Personally I have always seen this as nonsense, in daily life we use a variety of ways of thinking about space, and people in other countries where I have worked seem perfectly proficient with science and the Euclidean if they have a reason to be so. In fact phenomenology is just as much a Western philosophical tradition as is Euclidian geography. It is a long standing internal dispute within which one side has exploited gullible anthropologists to make other people stand for its position against its opponents. Its one of many examples of what is see as a tendency by anthropologists to let themselves be exploited by philosophy which we constantly look up to, for no good reason. We are just used to represent some kind of authentic marginality. If you read treatises on phenomenology they are just as Western and abstract as their rivals.
This is not I believe the dispute over geography that anthropology should have been having, instead I would much prefer something quite different. One that really does take its orientation from the people we work amongst, and allows us to acknowledge what matters to them today, not just project upon them our academic disputes. As it happens I want to argue that for many people today it is not some anti-western or anti science geography they are looking to, but something very contemporary and urban that reflects the actual disruptions and problems of daily life in our contemporary world. One that relates to people in massive urban conditions, specifically London and that comes from the predominant concerns of the people I work with rather than my desire to support or contest any particular academic position. Point one - I want to take my geography from ethnographic involvement rather than initially philosophical involvement.
My title actually comes from a discussion with a student at the department. I knew that this student came from Denmark. Now the problem is that almost every paper that is given at an anthropological conference such as this insists on the significance of such knowledge, a person is defined largely by the culture or at least the identity with which we identify them. But for this student the only important thing about Denmark was that she hated the place and wasn’t too keen on the people, she didn’t want to be Danish at all. So she left Denmark. But it wasn’t that in not being Danish she wanted to be something else. She hadn’t come to London in order to be British or a Londoner. This was not the point, she came to London in order not to be anything in particular, as an escape from such identity by origin rather than to replace one with another.
But if that is what you want, then London is not just one other random place you can come to. London it probably unique at this point. It has a greater capacity to be nowhere than probably anywhere else. So the contradiction of my title is deliberate. Not just anywhere can be nowhere, it takes a very particular set of conditions, so London is nowhere in particular. One of these factors is the current demography and geography of London. It is a place that has transcended the early condition of what were seen as significant ethnic minorities. A few decades back we could see London as a more typical metropolitan situation, with a dominant society of the English and then as a result of colonialism a few significant minorities such as Caribbean and South Asian living in particular areas such as Brixton and Southall.
This is no longer London, firstly there have been now many many immigrations many of them totally unconnected with colonialism, whether Somali or Kurdish or the biggest in the history of Britain which was from Poland and Eastern Europe. But equally significant people have moved from original places of settlement, so that now Brixton has as much a mixture as anywhere else. And because of the way housing tenure operates, most of this mixing takes place within individual streets. So that we find rented accommodation, gentrified accommodation, local housing estates all next door to each other. It is therefore as difficult to simply associate a geography of class as one of point of origin. Less than 3% of minorities live in areas where that minority has a significant population. So as several papers by demographers and geographers have argued, there are no ghettos in London. This is completely different from some other equally cosmopolitan cities such as New York and for that reason, for example Caribbean immigrants report an entirely different experience of living in London as opposed to New York
This is one of several factors why this student finds it possible to come to London in order to be nowhere as opposed to other places such might have come to. Now if this was just an issue for a student, I would not want to make much of it, but in fact it has become an increasingly important aspect of my ethnographic fieldwork and relates I think to a much wider trend. It can indeed apply to whole populations. Another student, Ivana Bajic who I supervised for a PhD found this central to her whole thesis. She wrote her thesis on the relationship between Serbian children in London and their parents back in Serbia. In this case a great many of her informants, were concerned for all sorts of political and other reasons to distance themselves from being Serbian, but once again had no particular affinity or allegiance to being Londoner either. Once again London was simply an excellent opportunity to be nowhere in particular. Now the problem with this is that we are unhappy with such lack of identity, we have developed instead alternatives such as the term cosmopolitan or globalised identity. But I think there is something more profound here. I want to suggest that the problem is that anthropology and most especially US anthropology has developed an identity politics analogous with the identification with culture that is traditional to the discipline, but my evidence suggests that we are doing so when in practice many more people are actually going in the opposite direction, they are trying precisely not to identify with identity, or be identified by others with identity.
The reason I suspect I come to very different conclusions from most anthropology has to do principally with the methodology of my ethnographic encounters. I am currently conducting my fifth ethnography in London. Two of there are more conventional, on the lines of other papers at this conference. One meant looking for au pairs that came from Serbia, another is looking for Filipino and Trinidadians who keep in touch with their families back in the Philippines and Trinidad respectively. Ie in both cases my informants are derived from a projected identity with which I choose them to be participants. But I have three other ethnographies that derive from a quite different methodology. Based on selecting people who just happen to live on particular streets in London.
Briefly the three ethnographies were on the following topics. The first was a study of shopping, how relationships are created in acquiring objects. The second was the opposite, a study of loss and how relationships are dissolved in the way we divest ourselves from objects, the third is a current study of peoples relationship to denim. In each case I decided I didn’t want to select people on the basis of a category or identity that I projected onto them, I wanted to see how they presented themselves to me. Its not just that I wanted to prevent myself seeing them as Somali, or English or Argentinean. I also didn’t want to select them as working class or middle class, or even as women as against men, or young against old. I wanted to practice something I call radical empiricism, and try and see how far I could understand them from their perspectives rather than my own.
The best representation of what I found comes in my most recent book, The Comfort of Things, this derives from the study of loss. In which we were fortunate enough to end up with a hundred informants, nearly all from the same street, of which thirty are described in that book. Firstly only 23% of these were born in London, so not coming from London is not a minority position it’s the majority position, most people are not Londoners. But secondly there were no ethnic minorities, no group that had more than 2 or 3 persons represented, Equally important was that this lack of grouping was not replaced by a locally based grouping, most people on the street didn’t mix with others on the street. A recent survey suggests that most people in London do not even know the names of their immediate neighbours let alone mix with them, so this is not a new community or neighbourhood replacing others.
At the most radical I did indeed find people that matched my student or the Serbs. For example one of the portraits in the comfort of things is of someone who comes from Brazil, but does not see himself as particular Brazilian, one reason he came was that the music he listened to as a child, much of his culture was british, but then he doesn’t see himself as british either. He finds that people in London constantly want to link him up with other Brazilians, but as he puts it, if he wanted to be Brazilian he would stayed in fucking Brazil wouldn’t he. He does make a Brazilian meal of rice and beans occasionally to entertain people, but the being Brazilian is simply not very important. Of course as anthropologists we could dispute this, demonstrate a Brazilian habitus he denies but still exhibits, but much of the evidence in the comfort of things is about the habitus that people create not the one that is pre-given. Furthermore I found much the same with other aspects of identity, it is becoming quite hard to label people by class, and even gender is more flexible, with people who are very female, quite female and where being female really is important for sex but not for much else. So there is at least a potential trend for people to identity less with identities and for that purpose London is a particularly important nowhere. This varies, Jamaicans know other Jamaicans, middle class Trinidadians don’t. The problem is that we simply cant know these things if we are selecting them by identities in the first place. One of the problem of putting this under the label of migration studies, is that many people I work with simply don’t know if they are migrants. Sure they are in London, but they may not stay, then again they may stay, depends mainly on whether they fall in love, and who with. Calling them migrants just doesn’t mean very much, we have to go back to a more sophisticated sense of what Simmel saw as metropolitanism.
This is not some free choice of identity, the Serbians are responding to war and politics factors they would much rather not have happened, there are cases in the comfort of things, such as Marcia where she would like to retain a Caribbean identity but this has been a disaster for her in a number of ways, so London can be chosen as nowhere in particular, but it can also just become nowhere in particular by default reflecting a lack of power. Sometimes its part choice and part power. One of my recent fieldworks was on the topic of Slovak au pairs, do not intend to fall in love with someone whose place of origin places particular difficulties in terms of their mutual future. But the men they tend to meet are commonly from Morocco, or Turkey and the couple may decide they are in love and want to be together, but have barely started to come to terms with the consequences of this partnership. They may end up in London now because they cant be either Slovak or Moroccan, and their children need to be nowhere in particular.
But so far the point is more negative what people are not, and I want now to turn to the positive. Since otherwise this would lead us to a kind of post-modernist perspective on increasingly fragmentation and isolation, in which people are merely fragments of a now disrupted whole with nothing much in general that we can say about them, the emphasis is on loss, such as loss of identity and authenticity, and we would expect anomie and alienation. But I do not find such alienation and I do not find such anomie, in fact in general I find populations that are probably a good deal more contented if not complaisant than my studies in village India or Melanesia. I don’t agree with much of the literature on cosmopolitanism as a lack of identity, it is the decline of one kind of identity and the rise of something else, Because what matters for these people is a very different geography, one that emerges by listening to them rather than projecting upon them.
I don’t want to pre-empt the results but my current ethnography is closely related to this positive side. My reason for studying denim is I think it is one of the most profound substances in the modern world, something people choose again in relation to my title of a nowhere in particular. Denim like London is something which allows you a kind of sartorial nowhere, but it can’t be just random material it has to be denim. I believe material culture is often more eloquent about such profound shifts than what people are able to say in language, and this project is going to examine precisely how denim reflects this relationship to a new kind of ordinariness, but I am not yet ready to talk in any detail about this, since the fieldwork is not yet complete.
Instead I would rather take something that I think is now becoming established. The reason people are not simply in a state of alienation or anomie is that while they may have loosened their identification with place to particular designated areas such as the ethnicity of food or the support for a team in the Olympics, they do have other relationships that if anything are strengthened and central to their sense of themselves. Curiously one of the main things I find myself returned to is an anthropology that predated this concern with identity. Before we did identity, what we tended to concentrate on in anthropology was kinship. The assumption was often that kinship was central to small scale more tribal populations, less important to cosmopolitan metropolitans. But perhaps this is not the case, perhaps kinship is in some ways strengthened rather than reduced in importance with globalisation.
What strikes me again and again in carrying out fieldwork in London is that people are generally very very clear about what matters most to them, what they care about, not identity, or class but mainly about a few core relationships that are the differences between a fulfilling life and an empty one. I have always insisted that these relationships can be with objects not just people, a pet cat, a football team, indeed it can be a place, though people are the most common, and they are mainly either kin, very close friends, or lovers. The state of these relationships are what counts most, as indeed any half decent novel would have confirmed, whether written in Japan, Ancient times or wherever, which is why whatever the apparent topic, shopping, jeans, most of my work is actually about relationships.
So for me a geography that is respectful, that is empathetic of my informants is not one concerned with phenomenology or Euclidian issues, it is this geography of core relationships, lets call it a relational geography. And this is something where I think we have a long way to go before it is fully developed. Indeed the way people use spatial metaphors for relationships gives us a clue, they are quite clear that people are more distant or more close, and they don’t mean physical distance. I find in London many young English people are remarkably distant from their family even though they live just a few miles away, but then in some cases they seem to have been pretty distant when they were living in the same house, or even sharing the same bed. So distance is relative to cultural norms and expectations, it is still in that sense traditional relativistic cultural anthropology. Highly variable, working with Slovak au pairs, some concentrated upon friendships in London, some ignored London and concentrated on those back home, some only with Slovak au pairs, some only to men etc. Some find London free and liberating, others more claustrophobic than Slovakia since spend all their time in a boring suburb with 3 other au pairs they hate.
The final of my fifth fieldworks in London is directly concerned with this issue, being carried out with Mirca Madianou of Cambridge University we are currently looking at the use of new media in kin communication for divided families. The current emphasis is on Filipino mothers working as domestics and nurses in London who have children back in the Philippines. Many of them are separated from their children for ten years and more with only occasional visits, There has been a massive transformation in their ability to communicate. A few years ago there were only letters that took weeks if not months, now they can text or skype or email ten times a day, they may even have webcams so that they can in effect eat together, or attend a funeral. As most students on facebook know, social networks brings social life to your desk in different ways, you may experience the same every day quarrels etc of face to face life, and the Filipinos have their own social networking site in Friendster. In december we go to the Philippines to work with the children of these parents, But one of the most interesting preliminary results, is that closeness in media does not necessarily translate as closeness in the subsequent relationship. The children who are now in touch with mothers much more often, in our preliminary analysis may become more resentful and more distant from their mothers as a result, for various reasons.
This relationship geography is going to be a good deal more complex. But the point I am making is that it is a genuinely anthropological, rather than philosophical geography, one that emerges directly from the experience of fieldwork. For many of these people London is simply where you could get a visa, where pays the best. How people see places is changing, in portrait three of the comfort of things is called starry green plastic ducks, it is about a gay couple who live in London, but are needing to move to a cheaper suburb, but they also consider a cheaper small town in the UK or most likely they will move to Tallin in Estonia, but the comparisons they make, the gay clubbing scene, the cost of renting etc, all treats this like a very outer London suburb.
This situation of nowhere in particular is hard to acknowledge, both for anthropology and politics. I find in London we have a good tradition of multiculturalism and ethnic politics, but only in as much as people agree to be ethnic, or cultural, it doesn’t respect the new London where most migrants come from a much wider range of places not the tradition key ethnic minorities and it doesn’t respect their ability in London to privilege other relationships not necessarily that to designated cultural categories. Similar this screws up the way anthropologists traditional designated people, determined who to study, generalised about them and so forth. But it is possible, I still find massive generalisations, and many things that can be analytical, it is not a postmodern free for all. Its just that we need to respect what is actually changing in the people we work with.
So to conclude, I have a negative point and a positive point. The negative is to get away from typical associations anthropologists make between people and geography, and to note how London typifies a new possibility of being nowhere, but because this is still a nascent emergent possibility it remains nowhere in particular, a still unique nowhere, though one I think will spread increasingly to other places. But secondly I do not see this lack of identification as necessarily a form of alienation, simply because most peoples significant relationships remain, they are simply not to place or culture in a traditional form, but they matter hugely so the positive side is to start to conceive of an anthropological geography that moves us closer to our informants, that respects what matters most to them, this is not to detract from the political economy of geo politics, the issues behind migration and power etc, but this analytics needs to be complemented by something else if we are to also engage with the consequences as well as causes of international mobility.