Monday, January 30, 2017

Go Ape with style: From tourist leisure to securitisation

Image: 'Roundhay Park', by Rodanthi Tzanelli (May 2014)

Leeds is experiencing its own evolutionary moment on the Darwinian scale of global urban development and competition, and its City Council is not taking a back seat on this front. The ‘Go Ape’ tree top adventure centre is advertised as a forthcoming development in the expansion of leisure at Roundhay Park, one of the biggest urban parks in Europe. The Park, which is the leafy pride of North Leeds, is bordered by the suburb of Roundhay to the west and Oakwood to the south, two affluent areas of the city. Stretching across about 700 acres, including two lakes, two adventure playgrounds, two cafes, a skate park, sports pitches, and the famous Tropical World with its surrounding gardens (all owned by the Leeds City Council), Roundhay Park is visited weekly by tourists and schools as an educational and tourist attraction.

‘Go Ape’ is an exciting project that bears the potential to put Leeds - a Northern English city too far from the capital that gets all the glamour of creative industrial development, and yet close to some of the most physically beautiful parts of the country -  on the map of global urban retreats. But we should also read the smaller letters in this enterprise, to realise how it may alter balances between technocratic, social and environmental complexities in the area. Technocratically, the project hits all the right strings when it comes to lifting the city out of recession traps and an impeding ‘hard Brexit’ that threatens whatever tourist profile it managed to acquire next to the historic city of York – an old domestic and international cultural tourist destination. The three planned ‘Go Ape’ entertainment sites compensate for any lack of historic interest with innovative leisure close to nature – a revamped eco-friendly touristic experience. Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, Leeds City Council’s Executive Member for the Environment and Sustainability, stated:

Due to ongoing significant reductions in government funding, we are always looking for new ways to be enterprising and the work that we plan to undertake at the three sites underlines our ongoing commitment as a council to help ensure that each attraction continues to thrive and offer visitors from the city and beyond a great experience for many years to come. Our recent investment in Tropical World which has seen visitor numbers rise by 45% compared to pre-development is a great example of what can be achieved by investing in one of our sites to raise the quality, boost income and in the long-term save money for the council. This is something that we now want to replicate again at Tropical World, Lotherton Hall Bird Garden and Home Farm, Temple Newsam.

No such ambition can evade criticism - including reactions from those it claims to benefit in the long term. Different interest constituencies will read different things into such initiatives. A recent petition appeared on to stop this project from going ahead because of its potential to destroy what Roundhay Park represented for many decades: a haven from the noisy urban life of Leeds and a little Paradisiac escape for families and other groups seeking respite from busy mid-week environments. Framed as the potential loss of a real, earthly utopian spot to the demons of business-orientated development, the petition gathered over 3,000 signatures and is about to be sent to Councillor Yeadon. A relevant article on Yorkshire Post (13 October 2016) had previously initiated a vivid conversation amongst readers over the benefits and problems of having such a multi-sited development in the area, including risks for its potential users. Plans to build a high-wire adventure course featuring aerial zip wires and rope walks raised concerns about noise and traffic problems. A BBC report featured Richard Critchley, Chair of Friends of Roundhay Park saying: ‘We are frightened that we are commercialising and selling off the park bit by bit’.

With 29 locations in the UK and 12 in the United States, Go Ape, which promises to generate about 30 jobs in Roundhay, Leeds, is the business venture of the Mayhews family. Set up in 2002, with inspiration from the couple’s holiday in France, it grew as a theme park enterprise so much, that today it can be associated with other touristic ventures we find in remote countries such as Japan, where artificial islands serve as leisure zones next to overpopulated urban centres. The benefit of the ‘Go Ape’ project is that, unlike artificial resorts, it is based on the reorganisation of natural landscapes, thus prioritising the user’s imaginative connectivity to nature. The idea is to allow visitors to activate the inner child in them, to be a carefree tourist for a few hours in a day, before becoming worrisome urbanites again. Proof that this is amongst the objectives is that, in addition to expanding ‘Go Ape’ into the US, the couple also launched in 2014 ‘Air Space’, an indoor trampoline business in two locations (Wolverhampton, West Midlands, and East Kilbride in Scotland). More explicitly orientated towards combinations of sports activities with childhood memories, trampoline gaming engages visitors in adrenaline-pumping rituals usually reserved for children.

There are issues to address here, especially with regards to the Ram Wood development of ‘Go Ape’ resorts. Yes, most of the development will upgrade empty grounds visited only by hard-core walkers. But concerns over of sound pollution or environmental modification, though the easiest to capture the public imagination (it certainly attracted my attention as a peace-seeking adult) are probably the least damaging to consider (and did Roundhay Park not commence its life as modified landscape, after all?). More important is the intrusion of business into the community’s common space, where environmental heritage with a social angle is concerned. Roundhay Park was created in an Act of Parliament, which was obtained on 21 June 1871, passing the land on to the City Council. Part of the Park’s public inauguration was to donate to localities a gift of leisure, thus designating a few square miles as common space for free walks and family or friend gatherings. The commercialisation of parts of this space redefines this history, thus taking away from locals what they thought of as part of Leeds’ autonomous autobiographical record.

There are even more pressing concerns to address. Some surviving Yorkshire Post readers’ comments suggest, for example, that there are risks involved in turning an area neighbouring ‘disreputable’ Harehills into children’s playground. Add perhaps to this the uses of ‘Go Ape’ by teenagers, young women and other ‘vulnerable groups’ to complete a picture of environmental racism. By this I refer to the designation of whole territories as leisure enclaves in need of segmentation, not only on the basis of ‘race’ or ‘class’ (an obvious connection, given the mention of Harehills resident profiles in Yorkshire Post), but also of age and gender. The securitisation of leisure zones in the developed world is now a common occurrence, where independent business casts its promising and much-needed nets. This involves surveillance run by corporate agencies and barely controlled by local authorities. We can just cast a look at the proliferation of contemporary phobias and philias (Islamophobia, paedophilia and the likes) across the world today to consider where this is going, if left unattended at this early stage. If newspaper readers point to ‘risks’ of this type at this stage, then we may not be talking about leisure innovation but about the militarisation of a once common space. And these are just the thoughts of a concerned citizen before any expert auditing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Popular culture and populist pedagogy: The re-making of Ed Balls

Image: 'Strictly Come Dancing Judges. In Cake', by RachelIH_,       3 December 2008 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

‘Edxit’ does not mean ‘Edxit’
Let’s say many of us will miss Ed Balls’ idiosyncratic dancing in Strictly Come Dancing every Saturday evening. Still, I cannot but be amazed at the rising popularity of an ex politician, whose career ended on a very low note. Is it that the same voters who turned their back on him less than two years ago are plagued by amnesia? Is popular culture turning, on the back of a lingering recession, once again, into the maiden of populist propaganda? Ed Balls himself did not validate the speculations of Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two presenter, Zoe Ball that he might return to politics after his tear-induced ‘Edxit’ from the show on Saturday 27 November.  So, is there anything left to discuss here?

Perhaps we approach the ‘Ed Balls phenomenon’ from the wrong perspective. Guardian journalist Zoe Williams’ suggestion that we live in an era of renewed interest in retro nostalgia that reinforces social conservatism from the back door is certainly intriguing. The whole Strictly craze certainly thrives in stylistic reproductions, now complete with ‘short journeys’ back in time through various dance genres, costumes, music and songs. Yet, if not careful, one may ‘ditch’ the fun/leisure element of such trends out of the door together with any suspect political propagandism: art and its political uses do not always coincide because of the former’s ubiquitous (digital and televised) mediation. Still, let us keep popular retrospectivism in sight for a while, as a way into the hearts of national and international audiences. If retro does something well every time is that it speaks to the hearts of the people. Right: the people. Strictly Judge Len Goodman called Balls a ‘champion of the people’ a couple of times during the ex-politician’s ten-week appearance on the show. There is depth in such a nomination: the public voted Balls several times over more able fellow celebrity dancers, sending them out before him. As his appeal rose to ‘mini star’ levels, video clips of his dancing began to accumulate on You Tube more and journalistic analyses began to populate both the mainstream and tabloid press. Perhaps we should begin then from there: why would damning, frivolous and speculative political commentary produce novel discourses on a post- New Labour persona? Above all, how?

Hero to zero, to hero (Gangnam style)
It may be wrong to consider Balls’ Strictly participation as a one-purpose strategy: for a super-active public figure that shaped national politics for a long while, to be demoted ‘from hero to zero’ is not fun. Ed Balls himself stressed the fun and endearing elements of his involvement in what might have commenced more as a risky activity or a chore, but had turned into a community-building project, however fleeting and shrinking, every week. But have a careful look at Ed’s dance routines, cleverly choreographed by his professional partner Katya Jones; examine the audience of the live show, the reactions and comments of the Strictly Judges or Balls’ very own life partner, Yvette Cooper, in the auditorium’s ‘back benches’. Week after week, the widely anticipated ‘Balls event’ was staged (dance moves, camera angles and even the dance couple’s facial expressions) as a sort of comedy, subversive of social mores (Ed riding Katya Gangnam-style) but faithful to audience entertainment. Watch carefully and take notes.

After closer inspection of all these details we are getting somewhere: for decades, Balls built his public persona around an ennobled, yet clearly discernible habitus involving soft machismo (Balls would notoriously take seriously his play in the annual journalists v. MPs football competition), confrontational performance in the House of Commons and carefully orchestrated movement and intervention in the country’s commons spaces (notably we hardly read anything about his party-going habits or intimate social skills until his Strictly ascendance). His Strictly biographical record acted like an onion-peeling process: it stripped the first and very thick layer of alleged masculine decency off his being, leaving Ed completely naked in front of a national audience alternating between tears of elation and sadness (for his departure). The ‘Strictly Balls’ constructs by default a surgical gaze, willing to cut more slices off the ex-political ‘object’s’ public (in)decency, ever hungrier for more of this ‘object’s’ slapstick, theatrical-like dance-acting. Couple this now with the persistence of retro routines in the show and the ex-politician’s pronounced, carefully crafted, if natural, ‘campness’ (fish-mouth faces, wide eyes staring at cameras, waving hands and attempted hip action) and what you get is the emergence a deliberately feminised public actor. I stress the term ‘camp’ rather than ‘kitsch’ here, for reasons pointing to the inglorious passage of ‘retro’ from style to populist propaganda befit for the lower, less literate social orders: ‘campness’ is befit for conscious display as a sort of symbolic capital by the ‘knowing’ middle classes, whereas ‘kitsch’ is cheap unreflexively reproduced ‘high culture’ by the working classes (see on this Holliday and Potts 2012). The cute and camp Ed is not an idiot but a playful public persona emerging out of the ruins of a glorious political career. It may be true that Ed Balls has no plans to return to politics, but his political past will always haunt public discourse about him at least at a symbolic level. Anne Widdecombe’s Strictly appearance in 2010 (with  Anton du Beke) is a different but comparable case in point. Widdecombe was not queer however, nor was she camp and her presence faded away within weeks after her early exodus from the show. Balls’ long reign was marked by the fact that his campness is also queer through and through, but his queerness is not a trait based exclusively or primarily on gender or age.

Forerunners of queer theory such as Teresa de Lauretis (1987) were concerned with how Western social orders deploy rigid standards of gender and sexual intelligibility as a method of social regulation: we all have to comply with them (nay, visually display them), or we are socially criticized and/or excluded. But these days, much like ethnicity and race, gender and sexuality function as mobile goods in regional, national and global markets. To appear to be ‘somehow’ (Asian, black, sexy, hyper-feminine, gay or macho) successfully and with a difference guarantees one a glamorous place in the market – a perfect neoliberal ‘exit route’ from economic deadlocks espoused by New Labour in the 1990s, when Balls was at his professional apex. To be queer a-la Ed is to be everything and nothing, confusing enough to ‘pass’ as a novelty but replete with emotional depth and breadth for which we can easily vote in a post-democratic fashion. This does sound a bit like politics beyond politics, an apolitical stance that celebrity politicians cannot afford but fallen political stars can use. In 2016, just after the release of his ‘crafted’ intimate voice, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics, Balls’ queer Strictly appearance advertised his new meta-political persona and (deliberately or not) confused former angry voters: he was not a fierce bull in the Commons’ china shop, after all, but a home-maker, a father, a loving spouse, a sensitive writer and now an aspiring, if adorably clumsy, dancer.

Retro: the return of the popular (or populist?) repressed
This is Ed Balls’ new queer identity: indecisive towards the past, experimental about the future, uncompromising about his commitment to his family, openly emotional in discussions about the Strictly camaraderie – above all, pliably vulnerable. Proof of its success is an astute but equally inconclusive analysis of Ed’s optional future careers (ranging from Great British Bake Off host to Pantomime Dame and Political pundit for Hire, amongst other things) on the BBC News.  It is as if, in the ‘New Ed’ we discover a version of the new ‘Public Man’, who is not afraid of emotional exposure.  And yet, one wonders whether this is a Man comparable to Sennett’s (1977, 2011) gloomy human portrait of impartial indifference to democracy in favour of self-gain on the global neoliberal stage. One also wonders whether Ed Balls the real human has anything to do with his expanding fame at all, which is managed by media networks. Perhaps the guy just wanted to have some fun – don’t we all?

De Lauretis, T. (1987), Technologies of Gender, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Holliday, R. and Potts, T. (2012), Kitsch! Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Sennett, R. (1977) The Fall of Public Man. New York: CUP.
Sennett, R. (2011). The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. New York, WW Norton & Company.

Monday, October 31, 2016

On (giving and taking) money

Image:'Money' by Kyrill Afonin 13 September 2011
(Flickr/Creative Commons)

I am fond of Georg Simmel’s formal sociology: his notion of ‘forms’ as separated from ‘content’ in the increasing rationalisation of social life. More recently, I took an interest in his approach to money to consider the issue of economic quantification of social interaction. This is peculiar for someone primarily interested in cultural productions of togetherness, if one does not know that I explore utopian visions of the future. Unfortunately, most would see money (or, rather ‘wealth’) as integral to productions and destructions of hope. Hence my interest: in reflecting on the ways money passes hands in everyday life; how different cultures conjure up different transactional rituals; and, more specifically, what ‘rationalisation’ might mean in contemporary contexts of association. I forgive Simmel’s absence on the last point, as he is not our contemporary, but wonder if treating money as ontologically exterior (to us) ‘things’, or if bracketing exchange as rational action would address issues of culture. Simmel himself admitted in The Philosophy of Money (1900) that ‘the possibility of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning’ is possible. For me culture is not structure but an interplay between structure and agency – which is why Simmel’s generic conclusion on ‘rationalisation’ is not enough. Nor is the treatment of ‘money’ as objects excised from performances of giving-and-taking.

OK, maybe I am more interested in philosophies of giving and taking. But Simmel is still to be considered. I am only interested in offering vignettes and ‘glimpses’ at a programmatic statement on money as the gift encompassing the donor’s essence. Holders and recipients of money are, for me, part of a system not exactly ‘autopoetic’ in form.  On this, I remain incurably Maussian, tracking the notion of monetary exchange back to so-called ‘primitive’ reciprocal cycles (of material and immaterial things commonly recognised as ‘gifts’). Anthropologists have furthered Mauss’ (1954) work in the most intriguing ways - amongst them, we can count Sahlins (1965, 1972, 1976, 2013) and Gudeman (1986, 2001, 2008, 2015) for a start. So I wish to observe on form that conceals variations in content (of monetary exchange).

 Image: 'Transaction' by Erwin Schoonderwaldt 12 February 2012 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Cultural fast-tracking: in British society money changes hands in everyday settings in such a tactile style that one wonders if we got the stereotype of the ‘cold Englishman (or woman)’ all wrong. English people are not afraid to fondle money when they give them away – in fact, pointing them to customers in an exaggerated manner seems part of the professional etiquette (of a seller). Not a problem if hands touch or fondle either. Once I held a note at the tip of my fingers to pass to a bus driver, and he responded in the grumpiest manner by refusing to return coins to me (he placed them on he till). Brits are virtuosos of tactile connectivity when it comes to returning coins – a phenomenon one never encounters in some Mediterranean countries. Greeks slam coins on the tray they have in front of them, often counting them for you in disdain (amusingly, if you thank them, they may think you mock their custom). Counting change (in your palm) is popular amongst Pakistani taxi drivers, in a public display of honesty. Often, however, the same drivers adopt the ‘middle ground’ approach between the direct British touch with the customer’s hand and the distance of a Greek ‘cash dispensing’ attitude. Other Asian cultures, such as the Indonesian, might favour touch but react to visual directness – there are less limits to accidental bodily connectivity and many to its visual measurement and apprehension. So, even though the content of transaction remains the same, the form changes. But variations in form may also have a story to say about differences in content: what the/form act of giving/returning/receiving stands for in culturally specific human interactions.

The global advent of Westernisation-as-modernisation counters a neat separation of ‘things’ to use in transactions, transactional networks and global (within a society) socialisation patterns. Money can become an actant in human interactions, mediating affect, emotion and reason in various combinations. And if we want to understand its place in a culture, we must consider relationalities between the form and content of transactions – their performative patterns in everyday life.

Gudeman, S. (1986) Economics as Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Gudeman, S. (2001) The Anthropology of Economy. Malden: Blackwell.
Gudeman, S. (2008) Economy’s Tension. New York: Berghahn.
Gudeman, S. (2015) ‘Piketty and Anthropology’, Anthropological Forum, 25 (1): 66-83.
Mauss, M. (1954) The Gift. London: Free Press.
Sahlins, M. (1965) ‘On the sociology of primitive exchange’, in M. Banton (ed.) The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology. London: Tavistock, 139–236.
Sahlins, M. (1972) Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine.
Sahlins, M. (1976) Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sahlins, M. (2013) ‘On the Culture of Material Value and the cosmography of riches’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 3 (2): 161-95.
Simmel, G. (1900) The Philosophy of Money. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lifting the market’s scene: Burkinology and the right to be otherwise

Image: 'Burkini not allowed' by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño (Flickr/Creative Commons) 

I promised myself not to do too much computer work on my holidays, but felt compelled to take an hour or so to provide this note on the circus ‘controversy’ of the ‘burkini ban’. Interestingly, this controversy stemmed from a digital ‘rumour’, a privately video-recorded encounter of local police with a bathing Muslim woman in the new swimming clothing. The police was caught on camera asking the woman to remove the clothing – a humiliating demand for anyone rejecting the Western cult of Western holiday (s)exposure. Several places proceeded to bar clothing that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks”. The Nice ban in particular referred to the truck attack in the city on 14 July that claimed 86 lives, as well as the murder 12 days later of a Catholic priest near the northern city of Rouen.

How can a woman with her children on the beach pose a threat or insult the memory of violence? Please note that I have little interest in defending religious pleas for respect of a custom that has been publicly discussed as conservative and ‘patriarchal’ in its proclivity to endorse the treatment of women as ‘human property’ on the one hand, and a ‘means of resistance’ towards Western imperialist hegemony on the other. It all depends on the Western or Eastern perspective you adopt, so you are bound to be on someone’s losing end and target range. Let us consider instead for a while, how several media conduits ‘framed’ (after human rights and feminist activists) the issue as a violation of women’s control over their own body.

Undoubtedly, there is something about this line of argumentation we cannot forgo. But its unmistakable racial blindness, the replacement of a taboo in global politics (an attack on the non-Muslim ‘Other’s’ right to self-presentation) with a ‘progressive’ statement on gender inequality is as scandalising as it is peculiarly comical. The slippage has been picked up upon by Muslim and non-Muslim women protesters outside London’s French Embassy, who, in bikinis and burkinis sat on spread sand to play with their children and display their banners. ‘The war on terror does not begin inside a woman’s wardrobe,’ one protester noted.

Hence my opening reference to the ‘circus’: although public debates on gender rights take for granted all women’s integration into consumer circuits (it is no problem to discuss the advertising or distribution and purchase of burkinis as such), they might condemn individual (and by extension collective) displays of the fashion by their users, if they do not conform to given Western norms. I wonder if what is debated is actually understood or merely ‘modified’ to placate the audience – a bit like Mohammed Farah’s customary genuflection after his victories, which always lacks religious interpretation by commentators. Where there is a taboo, there is silence – and so is the case with the obvious insertion of the new Muslim femininity’s public display in contemporary global markets.

 Image: 'Burkini' by Cabellmon (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Once you considered this perspective, you open one of Pandora’s Hidden Boxes. The Box talks about the ways popular cultural representations serve as an uncomfortable reminder of our inability to think in and act on the other’s terms. But this exceeds the contours of anti-Islamophobic debates: it took several decades for the bikini to be established as the symbol of female emancipation from patriarchal control – a victory achieved only thanks to the prevalence of market imperatives. As uncomfortable as this realisation may be to critics of capitalism, it helps to put things in new perspective. In the alleged burkini ‘clash of civilisations’, we could potentially encounter a re-negotiation of global market hegemonies that can decide to support or reject cultural inclusivity. The French decision to ban the garment from public spaces can thus be construed as retrogressive and parochial in the language of fashion only under certain conditions. ‘Fashion’ is, after all, a path to Western civilisation, a way to tame the savage body and tailor the alien soul to the demands of industrial production and consumption. It is telling that a relevant widely circulated ‘joke’ on ‘Burkinology’ figures a photo in which two motorbikers in full gear, suit and helmet, sunbathe among half-naked holiday makers. In case one presumes this is a creative protest, it must be stressed that the true meaning of the image is lost. A quick reverse image search for the photo on Google shows that it was uploaded to this French motorcycling forum in 2014 and on as far back as 2012. Yet, the photo’s new viral spread in recent days via Twitter and Facebook has been firmly connected to the burkini clashes. The revamped ‘joke’ in the social media is titled ‘Motokini’, cleverly suggesting in my humble opinion that the adoption of culturally inclusive swimwear is just a subcultural craze, akin to those maintained by motobikers’ clubs.

It must be getting hot with all this stuff on you. As holiday day draws to a close for many of us, the Burkini Controversy seems more like a painful reminder of what will be (imminently) lost for a good few months: the idea and experience of sun-kissing relaxation on the coast of some beautiful seaside resort. Perhaps this harbours the domination of Western logic in the controversy: to ‘enjoy’ you must shed your everyday constraints and have a dip in the water carefree. The idea of holiday as entertainment or recreation is bound up with this lack of restraint – and how a Muslim woman, ‘bound and gagged’ in a burkini, as it were, enjoy her bathing and let others enjoy it too? Here, the French motto of equality, fraternity and freedom takes a hard punch in the stomach, for those set to digest the heritage and right to be human on one’s own peaceful terms.

I am supposed to on cybernetic holidays, so I leave the rest of you ponder on all these issues.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The return of philoxenia? Mediatised worldmaking and thanatourist imaginaries in Greece

Edinburgh Napier University

Image: Ardvreck, 'Project 404' (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Presenter: Rodanthi Tzanelli
School of Sociology & Social Policy, University of Leeds
The presentation interrogates the rationale of contemporary Greek hospitality through two types of tourism imaginaries in the context of the current European economic crisis. A radical change in the ‘picture’ of the country circulates in global media conduits that connects to past and present conceptions of philoxenia: the love of strangers, who can nevertheless be both tourists and refugees for Greeks. More specifically, I detect the emergence of a new dark and slum imaginary, which is propagated by both native and global intellectuals-activists and artists and globally disseminated in the blogosphere, the press and via other new media formats. I argue that the new imaginary of darkness, which is not dissociated from the gentleness and aesthetic-cum-emotional engagement with the other/stranger, bears the potential to re-invent Greece as a tourist destination. The change, which is informed by the European histories of art, slum and dark tourism, draws on middle-class refinement and philanthropy. But it also has its by-products in the domestic public sphere, which attains a revamped cosmopolitan ethos. This is so, because such blended foreign and domestic activist participation promotes a heroicised native ethos of salvation, closer to native histories of uprooting and forced relocation. The impoverished Greeks are recognised in this new imaginary as welcoming, empathic hosts (phíloi tõn xénõn) for the new non-Greek refugees from war-trodden world zones, and not just for affluent tourists. The paper interrogates the axiological basis of such ‘worldmaking processes’ that exceed but do not eliminate the monetary rationale of hospitality, as this is fed back into dark travel. Fusing cognitive/strategic, aesthetic and emotional motivation, these processes bear the potential to bring together tourism and wider global social imaginaries not in spite of, but in coordination with new neoliberal imaginaries of mobility.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On how to attain a passport (but still lose your citizenship)

I came to the UK some 16 years ago. An old saying at the place I grew up in, one of the provincial backwaters of Greece, has it that ‘where you hear about many cherries, take a small basket’. The idea that big promises are often inflated and opportunistic is common sense, but my basket was big and I was much younger some 16 years ago. Also, the native certainty that where I was going, I would meet civilisation, was indisputable – the cherries would be many, no doubt.  Sure, I wanted education I could not get in Greece for a variety of reasons, and a job, but above all, I wanted freedom and respect. Over the coming years, my basket filled half or more: I attained some moderate recognition by peers, my new friends and family; also, I became an academic and preserved most of my beliefs and values in a culture that promised more tolerance, more openness to difference and more social opportunity.

As of 23 June, my basket started hosting some rotten fruit, even though I am still who I more or less wanted to be at a younger age. After being granted British citizenship rights last year, I could, at last, feel relief to not have to deal with Greek bureaucracy any more. I have outlined this dreadful journey to renew my passport in 2011 (unsuccessfully) elsewhere, so I will not dwell more on this unfortunate incident. Here I want to conclude with some reflections on the current state of my adopted country in the aftermath of the Brexit; and my own current state!

Few would disagree at this stage that the outcome of the referendum was a travesty of democracy, dressed in the clothes of due, decent process. The overall rhetoric of the pro-Brexit Tory and extreme right, the mediatised propaganda, matched the expectations of a demoralized and disenfranchised working class (by the self-same propagandists, who would constantly tarnish others or erode the country’s welfare support and proceed to blame it all on migrants), with few educational capital to assess the consequences of withdrawal from the EU, and the nebulous, backward-looking ethos of a third age with little interest in the future (and no personal future). The investment by the right was made in the politics of death: the working class saw the eradication of their social rights and access to a better life as a symptom of foreign invasion (by migrants of all kinds). The older voters, facing physical finitude anyway voted for the recovery of heaven in a green (non-European!) England before their own death. Death all-around became a safe bet for those political circles wanting to seize power, but the right excelled in such thanatological mantras. On their part, both the old and the working classes were investing in a better aftermath, constructed by political lies, inaccuracies about the economic benefits of the exit and a grotesque xenophobic celebration of future ethno-national purity for England. An intelligent scriptwriter could have made an acclaimed horror parody out of this mess – but of course, interesting cinematic variations on such British cultural pathologies have been cast by a mature Danny Boyle and a young Peter Jackson.

Next to these hallucinating social groups, we can find those plagued by total indifference to their future. More correctly, I would not attribute nihilism but plain indifference-as-stupidity to such socially heterogeneous groups: as an amusing article in Washington Post noted, on the day of the referendum, the top question on Google’s search engine from UK users was ‘What is the EU?’ (Or some variation of it anyway). The metropolitan press and the Anglophone media flooded with reporting on how people regretted casting a negative vote, how they want to ‘take it all back’ now (it is not that easy, Tory spokesmen retort). Disorientated old women appeared on the news explaining that they do not really know why they voted for Brexit, or what it really means, but they hated Cameron anyway.

After this circus of (suggestive, by all means) impressions, came more organised cries for help: the realisation that London and the country’s large peripheral cities will be stripped of their European status, but also of their cosmopolitan atmosphere – so important for the maintenance of their global economic networks and their all-essential creative industries – suggested that it is not just money that will go away, but also the culture of which Brits are admired abroad. Mourning the loss of glamour was followed by a panic over the preservation of intellectual capital in the country – the reality of a brain-drain in the British Higher Education’s international profile of employees. The consternation pointed to the loss of a more enlarged notion of civic participation, so essential for the maintenance of the country’s migrant makeup (often integral to its international reputation and achievements). An electronic petition to Parliament to consider a second referendum started on 24 June from half a million signatures, only to climb up to 3,459,624 on 26 June as I write this – and it is still climbing in numbers, a heavy traffic that crashes the Government website. Those who voted to remain in the EU, but especially academics, also sign another petition, addressed to the EU, with a plea to retain their European citizenship: ‘this may take the form of a European Passport, or a fast-track to citizenship of a nation within the EU’, the petition helpfully suggests (I smile bitterly as I read this). 

I have signed both petitions, and will sign more, as there is hope things might improve. Hope resides in pressure (by educated or not people who ‘want back in’, by media networks and organised bloggers, by those celebrities willing to help in achieving the country’s reversal of fortunes) but also in the realisation in London’s political headquarters that a conservative volte-face may actually save face for those careless politicians of all constituencies. And what I say ‘save face’, I mean it in the strictest anthropological sense - for, these political figures that pushed Britain down this cliff, with their lies, egotistic ambitions or silence, are male in their vast majority and adhere to a misogynistic and racist conduct that reigned (or still reigns) in fascistic regimes.  

 My basket is not empty, but it has some inedible cherries. I said good bye to Greece with the intention to become full citizen in both social and political terms elsewhere. Now I find myself in the most peculiar position: circumstances (including physical constrictions and a commitment to equality the Greek state refuses to show to women and the disabled) make it difficult to renew my Greek passport; the acquisition of a British passport granted me again with legal cross-border mobility, but the Brexit stripped me of my European citizenship. The only proof of my European-ness now is a piece of laminate paper I detest, a document born out of Greece’s authoritarian past adhering to the strictest biopolitical principles: my ID. Which is why I signed the petition to the EU to acquire a European passport. So, to answer the question with which I closed the post ‘On how not to renew your passport’: I do not belong to a country beyond my official documents and credentials; I belong to a transnational group of people who observe the principles of dignity, peace, equality and freedom; altogether, we sign a plea not to destroy a decades-long project that has given us legislation on welfare and protected our basic human rights. I do not wish to sing EU’s praises – it is a politico-economic formation that has harmed and benefitted. Nor do I claim expertise on European affairs. But the right to transnational connectivity, inclusion and mobility should be for all, and at the moment, the incompetence, lack of intelligence and misguided ambition of some, damages the prospects of others. If something has to change, the Brexit is not the obvious answer.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Remembering John Urry (Leeds to Lancaster)

John Urry, 1946-2016

I have devised these two presentations as a response to a call Chia-ling Lai made to former students (in the broadest and narrowest sense) of John to participate in a collated video of recollections from encounters with this great scholar. Chia-ling primarily wanted us to discuss our intellectual relationship with John – how our own research connects to his and how we engaged with his multiple projects. I gather that I do more than that in the longer presentation, where I say a few things about who I thought John was as a scholar and a public intellectual as well as a person. In the shortest presentation I specifically respond to Chia-ling’s invitation to make a collective picture of John in relation to his colleagues, interlocutors and students.

My experience with new media is still limited. But recording myself externalizing thoughts about someone who stands as one of my significant others (my list is growing with new living colleagues all the time), then watching the complete narrative, I realized how uncomfortable I found the process. This becomes obvious in kinaesthetic aspects in both videos. I decided to leave them unedited – I am unable to participate in commemorative events in person, so this is my small, if insignificant, contribution. Some clips will appear in a relevant event in the 2016 ISA Forum in Vienna.

Click hereto watch the longer clip
Click here to watch the shorter clip

2 June 2016