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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment


Colum McCann’s funambulist does not need to go anywhere to create a new spatiality, for when openness turns inward and the outside is brought inside, the urge to explore new territories appears neutralized. Thus the novelist seems to explore, to use Trinh T. Minh-ha’s (2011) apt expression, an “elsewhere, within here.” Walking on the wire, the funambulist “felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake” (McCann 2009, 164). Significantly, he does not follow a long tradition of heroes who explore the elsewhere outside, who become voluntary exiles from society. For George Lipsitz, the white spatial imaginary “promotes the quest for individual escape rather than encouraging democratic deliberations about the social problems and contradictory social relations that affect us all” (2011, 29). We only have to think of Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond, Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, among many other frontier heroes, to assess the deep roots of the tradition of leaving versus living. Similar nomadic ideas have imbibed the American popular imagination, with hobos and the hippies, and characters such as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and mottos such as “Go West, Young Man.” All these heroes break free from the demands of society and social life, and presumably also escape from the ideological inscriptions of place by moving out, by running away from what Deleuze and Guattari (1988) term “striated places” into “smooth spaces.” Deleuze’s theorization of nomadic space might be seen to elicit a romantic predilection for the outside, the external, alternative, nonauthoritative spaces. The nomadic space promises the possibility of insurgency, of a life beyond the confines of the law, beyond long-established routes and roots that predetermine mobility. As smooth spaces of fluctuation, nomadic spaces take shape beyond the realm of the state, beyond hierarchies and striated spaces. Especially in the American experience, the nomadic space was regularly projected onto the outside, beyond the spatial geography of the state itself. The escape from state frameworks and categorized thinking became inexorably linked to the experience of pioneering mobility, of opening up alternative spaces for individual self-realization.5 The issue is what happens when smooth spaces become striated and part of a similar cartography of domination. For Slavoj Zizek, changes to the state categories and structures must come from a questioning of the dominant cartographies, rather than from an escape from them. If “one follows a direct call to act,” claims Zizek, “this act will not be performed in an empty space—it will be an act within the hegemonic ideological coordinates” (2008). Zizek’s is a powerful corrective to the gospel of expansion. The open road is rerouted within, and the nomadic hero becomes inexorably engaged in striated spaces, for he is the representative of the same mapping he is trying to leave behind, and he carries with himself, among others, the quintessentially American ideologies of the Virgin Land and of Manifest Destiny. In a heterotopic simultaneity, the striated space is within the smooth, but the opposite is plausible, too. This is the rethinking of the nomad hero and his/her traditional smooth space that this volume brings to the fore. The new nomads that the volume identifies negotiate the complex layers and interconnected vectors of their assigned social space. Their spatial practices take place under authorities’ noses, within tightly controlled spaces. Theirs is the skill that de Certeau locates in the drivers in the streets of Rome and Naples, “a skill that has its connoisseurs and its aesthetics exercised in any labyrinth of powers, a skill ceaselessly recreating opacities and ambiguities—spaces of darkness and trickery—in the universe of technocratic transparency” (1984, 15). The new nomads locate and occupy “spaces of dissensus” (Ranciere 2006) that emerge in the interstices of regulated space and interrupt, even if only briefly, the prevailing social order to create what Ranciere calls “a political moment.” For, as Dikeg maintains (2005, 172), space becomes political when it “becomes an integral element of the interruption of the ‘natural’ (or, better yet, naturalized) order of domination through the constitution of a place of encounter.”

All spaces “have an element of heterotopia,” Massey (2005, 116) claims. This volume traces this instability of the spatial as it moves from Petit’s aerial occupation of the World Trade Center to Bartleby’s emptying out the premises of Wall Street to finish with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Bartleby’s occupation of the spatial and ideological premises of Wall Street echoes in Petit’s walk and reverberates in Zuccotti Park. In between, the volume traverses a wide geography of visible and invisible occupations: homeless and neo-homeless characters roam around the cityscape in Kennedy’s Ironweed and DeLillo’s Cosmopolis as they reveal places of eviction and places of self-exemption. The first group belongs to the brotherhood of the discarded, to the socially dead, the latter to an imagined community that seeks refuge in purified spaces, glassy towers, or metastasizing limousines. In contrast to this self-imposed gatedness, this volume explores one of the most characteristic and repeated spaces of exception during the twentieth century: the internment camp. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Mine Oku- bo’s Citizen 13660, and Rosaura Sanchez and Beatrice Pita’s science fiction novella Lunar Braceros 2125-2148 reveal the prevalence of camp logic and the periodic weeding out of the different from the national body politic. Like the rest of Japanese Americans relocated to internment camps during World War II, Mine Okubo was rendered homeless by the state itself and forcefully relocated to internment camps, the alleged liberating cities that allowed those deemed deviant to undergo a process of Americanization. This process of gatekeeping and relocation had been fully tested before, among other instances, in the setting up of the reservation system and the corralling of Native Americans. These instances of relocation illustrate how the state protects at the same time that it excludes and respond to the oxymoronic logic of a dislocating localization. The allegedly smooth spaces mutate into striated spaces that harbor unwanted guests, the raced body that needs to be excluded from the national body. However, nothing is fixed in the anatomy of space, and there may be a constant internal irruption that illustrates the impossibility of closure. Japanese American internment camps can be repossessed to claim a different kind of citizenship, just as the liquid national borders separating the U.S. from Canada, as in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, or France from England, as in Philippe Lioret’s Welcome, can be un-drawn and un-nationalized to reclaim the unplace. Both cases of recasting space chime with Melville’s Bartleby and his reinscription of space. His “I would prefer not to” inevitably punctuates the Occupy Wall Street movement and the ensuing emptying out of the physical and ideological premises of the contemporary U.S.

“To dwell,” from the Anglo-Saxon wuon and the Gothic wunian, means “to remain, to stay in a place.” This remaining in one place, Heidegger adds, implies remaining in peace, to be preserved from harm and danger, to be safeguarded ([1971] 2001, 146). Wunian, from this perspective, coincides with Bachelard’s ([1958] 1994) vision of the home as shelter. What happens, one may wonder, when there is no home to claim as one’s own, and instead of dreamers seeking refuge in a home we find what Bachelard terms “dispersed beings” occupying a variety of spaces? Places of eviction, the un-home, the office of law, the weeds, or the fugitive city of the jungle may become rerouted forms of home, a home not to be safeguarded against but to safeguard others. Chapter 1, “Emptying Out the Premises: Static Heroes Reclaiming Space,” explores Bartleby’s paradigmatic occupation of the offices of law on Wall Street. If the funambulist in McCann’s story makes a place by defying gravity, by occupying the open air between the towers of the World Trade Center, Melville’s Bartleby occupies the rigidly gridded space of an office of law in the neighboring vicinity of Wall Street. Bartleby, a character who also “carries his life” along like the funambulist on the wire, has no place to call home; his open-air space is limited to “the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft.” As a “singularly sedate . . . quiet man,” Bartleby’s life trajectory naturally leads to a corner in a particularly “decorporealized” space. The reduced texturology of his little cubicle as a law-copyist is composed of linear intersections of vertical and horizontal vectors. These vectors bespeak the dual nature of spaces, in that they can converge and create stability, but they can also be nomadic lines of flight that refuse stasis. Like Petit, Bartleby comes to occupy the center of another imaginary X, the encounter between the horizontal continuity of language, visually represented by the lines on the page that he must tirelessly copy and the hierarchical verticality of the walls that delimit and emplace him. By occupying the intersection of both axes, a metaphorical ground zero, he drives the linguistic and spatial coordinates of the office to their own cancellation. Bartleby’s refusal to copy, together with the celebrated “I’d prefer not to,” arrest the inertia of language, bringing it to a silent standstill, to a void. Letters, indeed, go dead. Simultaneously, the hierarchical verticality of walls, screens, and barriers erected in and out of the office is metaphorically flattened. Under Bartleby’s intervention, if we paraphrase Massey (2005), space is “under de-construction” or “in the process of being un-made.” The spatial striae represented by walls are smoothed over as Bartleby cancels authority, hierarchy, as well as private property and ownership. Bartleby’s spatial occupation undoes the sedimented social practices in the office, setting the space in motion again, a motion that paradoxically springs from his own immobility.

In Chapter 2, “Places of Eviction and Places of Self-Exemption: The Homeless in William Kennedy’s Ironweed and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopo- lis,” neither Francis Phelan nor Eric Packer has a place to call home. Like Bartleby, they carry their lives wherever they go, creating their own spaces of enunciation as they roam around Albany or are driven through Manhattan. The weeds are Phelan’s most frequented bed, while Packer roams the rooms of his New York apartment unable to conjure up sleep. Phelan inhabits Albany’s spaces of eviction, while Packer proudly occupies the metastasizing spaces of self-exemption, a composite of tower, limo, and virtual reality. From Francis Phelan’s entourage, a particular brotherhood that hangs around the mission, the weeds, and abandoned houses and shacks, the chapter moves to Packer’s exclusive and presumably liberating gated existence; from the indistinguishable mass made up of social outcasts and indistinguishable rubble to the slick cyber capitalist that orchestrates the metanarrative of money; from the vision of the residual that has been remaindered by capitalist modernization, and that has no place in contemporary society, to the abstraction of the real as delivered on crystal screens; from the homeless that, ejected by the system, bear the mark of social dissolution and carry around their own coordinates of exception and abjection, to the homeless that bears his own coordinates of self-exemption. The exploration of these two sets of homeless characters, however, does not stop at the description of their spatial practices. Bearing in mind that “you can’t hold places still” (Massey 2005, 125), the chapter reroutes the traditional assumptions attributed to particular places to claim that it is Francis Phelan that finally achieves a home in the nonhome and the nonspatial, whereas the thirsty-for-the-real Packer is finally unable to claim such an abode. The chapter further argues that Ironweed, as a dark preview of the 2008 crash, anticipates the financial meltdown at the end of Cosmopolis. According to the figure of speech that structures DeLillo’s novel, Ironweed can be considered as a hysteron proteron of Cosmopolis, as the eviction and the fall before the rise of cyber capitalism. DeLillo’s novel, on its part, creates its own hysteron proteron in relation to the real, for it chronicles the fall of a cyber capitalist and the fall of the financial market at the same time that the demonstrators’ storming of the NASDAQ building effects their own emptying out of economic and ideological premises. Their protest is pivotal, for it allows us to go back to Bartleby’s disinscription as it anticipates OWS.

Chapters 3 and 4 anatomize the word territory and its double as terra, the land that may sustain and nurture, and terrere, the kind of place where terror and violence are routinely exercised. Such is the inner contradiction Stuart Elden presents in Terror and Territory (2009). Violence, if we follow Lefebvre ([1974] 1991), is concomitant to nation-building, and nation-states are built on what he calls a “founding violence” that needs to be periodically exercised. Such are the hallmarks of the state; such is the imprint of the national. The nation-state may exercise this violence in different ways. It may expel those deemed irrevocably different or removable from the body politic, or it may expel and coerce within the alleged realm of the domestic. For those bounded within this topography of power, terra is still similar to terrere. Chapter 3, “Circling the Alien: Camp Logic in Austerlitz, Citizen 13660, and Lunar Braceros 2125-2148,” inflects terrere with one of the paradigmatic spaces of the twentieth century: the internment camp. This is, for Giorgio Agamben ([1995] 1998, 166), the hidden matrix of the political space in which we are still living. This is also the nomos, Agamben cautions, that we must learn to recognize in all its metamorphoses. Heeding Agamben’s admonition, the chapter anatomizes this nomos in three apparently disparate instances: Austerlitz’s discovery of the mobile palimpsests underlying the geography of Europe, Okubo’s experience of “relocation” during World War II, and Sanchez and Pita’s fictional, future reservations in Lunar Braceros. Acknowledging that these camps are essentially different, the chapter suggests that the alignment of the (in)visible Nazi camps that striated Europe and the internment camps that proliferated in the American West, as well as the reservations where the poor and the unemployed are dumped, allows us to arrange previously unconnected narratives and temporalities that resituate the camp as relational and unfinished, always morphing into new forms of barbed wire. Although they might be initially presented as liberating smooth spaces, the camps soon reveal themselves as deeply striated locales, as abstract spaces, to use Lefebvre’s terminology, that are actual tools of domination or extermination. These are lethal spaces that destroy difference in order to impose an abstract homogeneity. Not in vain, abstract spaces generate a particular kind of occupier, the homo sacer, the individual that is deprived of rights by the state itself. The camp establishes the particular terms of this hostile hospitality, one that responds to the oxymoronic logic of a dislocating localization where the forced guests are transformed into bare life. There is always a layer of “common sense” that accompanies the removal, a process of national consolidation and authoritarian reintegration that Paul Gilroy terms “camp-thinking.” Within the parameters of camp-thinking, citizenship degenerates into soldiery, and heterogeneity is transmuted into homogeneity (Gilroy 2000, 82). However, camps are not static, and stand as the kind of place that harbors not only the notion, but also the motion of the homo sacer and the zoe in camp. The mobilization of the category of the homo sacer implies the questioning of the alleged citizen on the other side. The barbed wire, as the analysis shows, cuts both ways and is always ready to reproduce itself in another location. The exploration of these strata of visible or invisible incarceration will hopefully show how, to use Gilroy’s phrase, we find ourselves between camps, between the “epiphanies of catastrophic modernity” and the camps that “are being prepared” as we speak. There will always be a camp and a District X that connect previously unconnected narratives in a new geography of incarceration.

Chapter 4, “Between Border and Dwelling: The Divisibility of the Line in Frozen River and Welcome,” furthers the encounter with the Other across infinitely divisible lines as it explores the possibility of un-nationalizing geopolitical boundaries. Barbed wire, the violent marks of a state that fails to provide sustenance as it imposes fear, is nowhere to be seen in the bor- derscapes of the movies. Instead, the chapter presents two liquid lines that refract and reflect multiple divisions. Following Derrida in Aporias and Levinas in Totality and Infinity, the chapter explores how any unit, when apprehended or examined, will fail to meet the requirements of sameness and will present itself as already related or influenced elsewhere. In Frozen River, this definition of the self across national or racial lines undercuts not only the encounter between Ray and Lila, but also the contact between the two women and the migrants they illegally introduce into the U.S. as part of their smuggling operations. The crux of these sets of relationships is the lost baby lying on the frozen river, the illegal cargo that becomes a matrix of relations and exchanges. By recovering the baby and bringing it back to life, the two women exercise responsibility towards the Other for the first time in the movie. Following Levinas’s premise that relation presides over identity, the chapter explores how neither Ray nor Lila becomes a full subject until they commit themselves and show their responsibility towards the Other. This going outside the self, the chapter argues, is at the heart of Philippe Lioret’s Welcome. The movie chronicles a seventeen-year-old Kurd’s efforts at crossing the liquid line that separates him from Dover and Britain. This liquid line is just one of the stretches of what Etienne Balibar terms the “Great Wall of Europe” (2006, 2), a bounded space that performs a violent act of exclusion and inclusion. If, as Lefebvre comments, every country is born out of violence, maintaining its physical and political integrity requires constant vigilance, as well as the mobilization of threat along its borders. Far from welcoming the guest or newcomer, Fortress Europe delineates the place, the spatial practices, and the status of the migrant in one single stroke. Bilal, like Lila Littlewolf and the hundreds of refugees in Calais, is the mark of a “shifting boundary,” as Bhabha would put it, that is never going to be admitted to the Heim of the country. Fortress Europe, the border without, has its own internal counterparts, a geography of control and incarceration that is part and parcel of the making of contemporary Europe and its liberal democracy. Although Calais may seem to be a translocality that goes beyond the traditional isomorphism of common territory, language, and culture, the French city is a locality where migrants always walk in groups and carry a portable border wherever they go. This boundary momentarily opens when Simon, a laconic swimming instructor, opens his home to Bilal, his new student, and extends the gift of hospitality. Hospitality rewrites the discourse of the border, and the line is temporarily deactivated. The outside becomes part of the inside and vice versa. Like Ray and Lila in Frozen River, Simon will not become a full subject until he commits himself to this Other outside himself. The line surrounding the subject, the liquid line of the pool, like the boundary separating France from England, is fluid. Both lines drawn in the water become “un-national” in the face of ethics and the relation to the Other.

In Chapter 5, “From Bartleby to Occupy Wall Street: The Politics of Empty Spaces,” the volume circles back to lower Manhattan and Bartleby’s disinscription of striated spaces on Wall Street. Like Melville’s character, a series of occupiers managed to cast a shadow upon the premises, physical and conceptual, of Wall Street in the late summer of 2011. As with Bartleby, the call to challenge categories and structures did not imply a “lighting out for the territory” but rather the questioning of dominant cartographies and the opening of a space of dissensus. The camping in Zuccotti Park as well as in many other public spaces across the U.S. brought the nomadic within, as it carried out a new mapping of space. Echoing Bartleby’s response from within the office, the demonstrators became “occupied” as they engaged in a political activity that, to follow Jacques Ranciere, shifted their bodies from the places assigned to them, at the same time that they altered the places’ destination. Their physical occupation correlated with the forging of another occupation, that of building a community. They created a heterotopic blank page that harbored an updated version of the Greek agora, where citizens discussed the issues pertaining to the res publica. For some analysts, the empty space of the agora was an indication of the emptiness of the encampment, for no political message or campaign transpired after the protesters were evicted. This volume claims, however, that, as with Bartleby, the absence is the message. At a time when, as Zizek comments, people are urged to participate all the time, to engage in dialogue, “to mask the Nothingness of what goes on” (2006, 334), the protesters evidenced the fact that for the protest to become truly significant, it was essential not to fill the void, but to open what Ranciere (2010) terms a space of dissensus that interrupts the naturalized order of things. Like Bartleby, OWS did not occupy the already assigned—and desired—place of resistance but opened a third position beyond both. Like McCann’s tightrope walker, OWS tiptoed between power and resistance as it looked into the void. Its ultimate “whyness,” like Petit’s walk, is beyond the point, for, as the funambulist felt, the occupation allowed for rewriting everything up in the air: “New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.” This going beyond the calculated forces of power can be, in fact, the imprint of the new utopia, as Zizek argues: “The true utopia is when the situation is so without issue, without a way to resolve it within the coordinates of the possible that out of the pure urge of survival you have to invent a new space. Utopia is not kind of a free imagination; utopia is a matter of innermost urgency. You are forced to imagine it as the only way out, and this is what [is needed] today” (Taylor 2005). Naturally oxymoronic, this utopia needs a new space. This space, this volume argues, is not based on some kind of “outthereness” but on the premises of the given.

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