Desktop version

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


Nomos comes from nemein—a [Greek] word that means both “to divide” and “to pasture.” Thus, nomos is the immediate form in which the political and social order of a people becomes spatially visible.

—Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth

From here [the situation in Guantanamo] the borders of the law are redrawn to create a world in which Guantanamo is everywhere.

—Amy Kaplan, “Where Is Guantanamo?”

This latent mapping allows Giorgio Agamben to claim that the camp is not an anomaly belonging to the past but can be regarded as the “hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living” ([1995] 1998, 166). Nomos, Schmitt clarifies, has traditionally been translated as “law,” “regulation,” or “norm” (2006, 70). According to this definition, the camp is a repeated pattern of displacement and coercion that cuts across time and space. This does not mean camps are all the same; death camps are not the same as concentration or internment camps. However, it seems possible to argue that both initially respond to a logic of incarceration that seeks to separate different versions of the Other behind barbed wire. There is, claim Diken and Bagge Laustsen, a mechanical character to the camps, which, in their view, “explains why we are witnessing differing constellations of the dispositifs of discipline, control and terror in each camp.” Different camp-machines coexist, overlap, and collide, “containing within themselves elements of one another” (2005, 149). Discipline, Foucault argues, “sometimes requires enclosure,” as it organizes an “analytical space” ([1975] 1977, 141, 143). This enclosed space, articulated on what Foucault calls “disciplinary monotony” (ibid., 141), is at the heart of the camp as nomos. So is the urge to divide and enclose, what Russeau termed “the territorial mine,” that inaugurated civil society. It is the impulse that reappears periodically

“at the moment of political sovereignty’s dissipation or transformation” (Brown 2010, 43). If Jost Trier posits that “in the beginning was the fence” (quoted in ibid.), Wendy Brown suggests that a similar impulse can mark the end of the nation-state. One of the possible reasons for this process of dissolution is that walling and its multiple variants, such as seclusion or incarceration, change those within as well as those without. Greg Eghigian has given the name homo munitus to the conformist, passive, paranoid, and predictable creature that is the walled nation-subject. Drawing on the Latin munire, which means “to fortify, secure, defend, protect, or shelter,” Eghigian examines both Western mythology and the actual production of East German subjectivity behind the Berlin Wall (quoted in ibid., 41). Walled countries produce their own brand of citizens, a brand of obeisant and de-individuated theocratic subjects that, curiously enough, resemble the profile of the undesirable that civilized countries seek to fortify themselves against. “Thus, the kinds of subjects that Western nation-state walls would block out are paradoxically produced within by the walls themselves” (ibid.). This is, in fact, another way in which the walls inadvertently subvert or suppress the distinction between inside and outside. Homo munitus can also be considered as the citizen of what Paul Gilroy terms “camp nations,” the political entities that resulted from the countries where fascists triumphed. The martial reconfiguration of the national, however, goes beyond fascism. Camp nations exhibit the workings of “camp mentalities” (Gilroy 2000, 83), that is, forms of nationalism that splinter society into distinct and easily drawn categories based on belonging or not belonging to a particular sacred litany, be it race, ethnicity, culture, religion, and so on. Rallied by appeals to “race,” nation, and ethnic difference, by the lore of blood and fantasies of absolute cultural identity, nations herald the value of national or ethnic purity as they engage in protocols of national prophylaxis and hygiene, “as if the (social) body had to assure itself of its own identity by expelling waste matter” (Lefort, quoted in Gilroy 2000, 83).3 This waste matter is generally put out of sight in the wide variety of camps that have punctuated the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries: refugee camps, labor camps, detention camps, punishment camps, concentration camps, death and extermination camps, among others.

As places of exception and massive incarceration, camps have a long history before and after World War II. Camps are intimately related to the era of colonization and its attendant processes of invasion, occupation, disruption, and relocation (Minh-ha 2011, 5; Diken and Bagge Laustsen 2005, 42). Agamben ([1995] 1998, 166) mentions the campos de con- centraciones created by the Spanish in Cuba in 1896, the concentration camps into which the English herded the Boers at the turn of the twentieth century, the camps created by the Social-Democratic governments, which interned thousands of communist militants in 1923 on the basis of Schutzhaft (literally, “protective custody”), also the Konzentrationslager fur Auslander, which housed mainly Eastern European refugees, and the concentration and extermination camps that harbored Jews during World War II, as well as other contingents of “undesirables.”4 Although the series seems to follow a chronological order, there is actually a journey back in the use of control and repression, for, as Foucault comments, colonization transported European models to other continents. In turn, those techniques had “a boomerang effect” on the West: “A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practise something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself” (Foucault [1997] 2003, 103). The camp was thus successfully reintroduced into Europe as a means of repression to be used against its own Others (Diken and Bagge Laustsen 2005, 43). Beyond the World War II rounding up of the different, Agamben ([1995] 1998, 174) states that camp logic is prevalent in the 1991 herding of all presumably illegal immigrants by the Italian police at the stadium in Bari. In the history of the U.S., the philosopher argues, the U.S. Patriot Act issued by the U.S. Senate on October 26, 2002, whereby any alien suspected of activities that endangered national security can be “taken into custody,” exemplifies another instance of camp logic. The order deprives the individual of any legal status, thus rendering “a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being” that is neither a prisoner nor has been formally accused. As a “detainee” suspended in a legal limbo, he/she is “the object of a pure de facto rule.” Detention is “indefinite not only in the temporal sense but in its very nature as well, since it is entirely removed from the law and from any form of judicial oversight” (Agamben 2005, 4). The only other instance comparable with this detention is the legal status of the Jews in the Nazi camps. This detention reaches its supreme indeterminacy in the detainees at Guantanamo (ibid., 3-4), for this open-air prison has turned into a legal black hole, a legal limbo, a prison beyond the law (Kaplan 2005, 831). What all these instances of relocation and incarceration have in common is the state of exception. The juridical regime for internment was not common law but Schutzhaft, a juridical institution of Prussian origin that allowed individuals to be “taken into custody” “independently of any criminal behavior, solely to avoid danger to the security of the state” (Agamben [1995] 1998, 167). Schutzhaft, in turn, was based on the proclamation of the state of siege or exception and the corresponding suspension of the articles of the German constitution. As the state of exception begins to become the rule, the camp opens as a space to host the Other (ibid., 169).5 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. This is the nomos, Agamben cautions, that we must learn to recognize in all its metamorphoses, in the zones d’attente of our airports, already termed “little Guantanamos” (Feldman 2007, 339, 340) and certain outskirts of our cities, among other possibilities.

70 Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture SEBALD’S AUSTERLITZ: A HIGHER FORM OF STEREOMETRY

Any system based on perfect Cartesian logic, which can never be achieved by humans, is bound to fail the more if it is dependent on its own perfection, or will attempt to impose this logic by authoritarian means, thus denying the very freedom it promises.

—James L. Cowan, “Sebald’s Austerlitz and the Great Library”

In effect, there is no place without self; and no self without place.

—Edward Casey, “Body, Self, and Landscape”

As if heeding Agamben’s admonition to identify the structure of the camp, Austerlitz explores the recurrent and latent patterns of incarceration across Europe. The novel unfolds the narrator’s encounters with a meditative Austerlitz in different but symbolic European locations, such as Antwerp Central Station, Paris, Liege, and London. Symbolically, Austerlitz carries the destructive geography and history of Europe in his own name, for his is a place name. Although initially related to Napoleon’s victory in the Battle of Austerlitz, the character will later discover that his name, apart from echoing Auschwitz, is related to a persistent effort to eradicate history. As one of the children who were put on trains bound for England after the Nazi invasion of Prague, Austerlitz embarks on a peculiar voyage of discovery, that of finding or sequencing the foundations of contemporary Europe, the “marks of pain” to use the character’s phrase (Sebald 2001, 14),6 that striate European history. The tracing of these countless historical lines will teach this traumatized fldneur that the colonial slave trade underlying the amazing splendor of Europe7—he specifically describes Belgium and its colonial past—is hardly different from the slave trade established by Germany during World War II. Thus Sebald seems to share Paul Gilroy’s (2000, 60) vision that colonial societies and conflicts provided the context in which concentration camps emerged as places that allowed for a novel form of political administration, population management, warfare, and coerced labor. However, Sebald’s story does not stop at this juxtaposition but stretches into the present as the character reveals the foundations of the new French National Library, a new Babylonian edifice that, like the vertical edifices Austerlitz describes in the novel, rises up into the sky and creates a renewed sense of greatness and progress as it obliterates its spatial contiguity with the labor camp of Austerlitz. What could be a site of memory morphs into a trou de memoire (Dreyfus and Gensburger, quoted in Cowan 2010, 72) that displays its indifference to the past.8 The massive cultural project symbolically buries the premises on which it was erected, for the site used to be a labor camp where goods looted from Jewish apartments in Paris were processed by Jewish prisoners brought in from the transit camp at Drancy.9

These connections between past and present, as well as Austerlitz’s elaborate musings on the tendency towards monumentalism in official buildings as opposed to the rectangular grid pattern meant for the labor force that made those buildings possible, provide insights into the kind of spatial analysis the character engages in. His is no place hunt, where everything about places has been said and seen and where he merely identifies previous usages or forgotten premises; rather he mobilizes space as it opens its contours to explore its inner heterogeneity and the multiple narratives that traverse it. As if testing Doreen Massey’s (2005, 19) hypothesis in For Space, the protagonist demonstrates that space is not “a surface,” it is not closed, coherent, and integrated, but engages a variety of discourses and interconnections with similar sites. The space he is concerned with is not isolated from time but is set within the parameters he lays out at Antwerp Station, where time reigns supreme and occupies the place of the emperor in the Pantheon. Austerlitz thus manages to talk about space and keep that same clock center stage by opening both dimensions. Space opens to heterogeneity, to transit, to change, so that, as Massey (2005, 19) claims, it can have a more productive life in the present. Chiastically, Austerlitz temporalizes space and spatializes time to a persistent duration. And with spatialization comes the setting up of unprecedented relations the novel explores in its wide canvas, from Britain to Belgium to Prague to France. Space and time are set in motion and open to the relational. There are no closed systems in Austerlitz, for, as Massey claims:

The stasis of closed systems robs “relational construction” of the anti- essentialism to which it is often claimed to lead. And the closure itself robs “the spatial” . . . of one of its potentially disruptive characteristics: precisely its juxtaposition, its happenstance arrangement-in-relation- to-each-other, of previously unconnected narratives/temporalities; its openness and its condition of always being made. (2005, 39)

The character’s musings mobilize space through time as a way to reveal the multiplicity of trajectories, as well as the “necessary outwardlookingness of a spatialized subjectivity” (Massey 2005, 59). Space turns away from inwardness and looks out for patterns and shapes that the character fashions as if creating a hypermap of incarceration, from Breendonk to Terezin, from Prague to Paris. Austerlitz opens the contours of these specific places in order to explore their loose ends, as well as the unsuspected relations that they may yield. For, as Massey cautions, “conceptualizing space as open, multiple and relational, unfinished and always becoming, is a prerequisite for history to be open and thus a prerequisite, too, for the possibility of politics” (ibid.). In Austerlitz’s analysis, time and space coordinates create unsuspected connections that allow the character to fashion historical symmetries and unearth the repeated spatial pattern that reticulates Europe. The canvas is huge, and the writer proceeds from the present to the past, from the general to the repeated particular, in order to sequence space and establish the DNA that makes up the deep structures of space in contemporary Europe. Instead of taming space and concretizing it, Austerlitz unleashes space and awakes the dormant spaces of European incarceration. Against the notion of maps as fixed in time, delineated by the discontinuous lines of national borders, Sebald offers a map in progress where previously unknown or forgotten camps gradually emerge in a latent geography of incarceration that disregards national borders.

How can Austerlitz make use of a stretchable sense of space and time that patterns out and generates the hidden landscape underneath the visible? Through visions or “spatial epiphanies” that open up the limits of the customarily real. When he stands in the empty “Ladies’ Waiting Room” at Liverpool Street Station in London, he is literally caught in a vortex of time-space:

I saw viaducts and footbridges crossing deep chasms thronged with tiny figures who looked to me . . . like prisoners in search of some way of escape from their dungeon, and the longer I stared upwards with my head wrenched painfully back, the more I felt as if the room where I stood were expanding, going on for ever and ever in an improbably foreshortened perspective, at the same time turning back into itself in a way possible only in such a deranged universe. (135)

The initial three-dimensional room becomes a matrix, “a locus of the generation of new trajectories and new configurations” (Massey 2005, 141). A limited place expands to incorporate viaducts and footbridges that go beyond customary perception. The physical space of the room goes on forever at the same time that it turns back on itself. It is an oxymoronic vision that chains together “imprisonment and liberation” (135), or rather the intricate liaisons binding one’s freedom and the Others’ fetters. This is the underlying structure of the camp as nomos, as the spatial manifestation of a society that periodically severs and separates. Small wonder that time becomes durational space for Austerlitz:

I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it, the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision. (185)

Against a system based on Cartesian logic, symbolized in the repeated and perfected star-shaped dodecagon surrounded by walls and implemented by authoritarian means, Austerlitz proposes interlocking spaces and times that do not end but are open to one another. This is his personal higher form of stereometry, a particular form of measuring places and times. Underneath the geometry of monumentalism that punctuates Austerlitz’s map of Europe and its string of fortresses, many of which never protected from anything but were transformed into concentration camps, Sebald’s protagonist unveils a strata of mobile palimpsests more akin to an unpredictable, rhizomic morphology. It is this temporal and spatial stasis, only measurable with a higher stereometry, that we would like to tap into in order to explore the similarities between the workings of the visible and invisible camps Austerlitz describes, Okubo’s experience of “relocation” during World War II, and the reservations of Cali-Texas.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics