Ten Dispatches About Place
by John Berger
Somebody inquires: are you still a marxist? Never before has the devastation caused by the pursuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than it is today. Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible not to heed Marx, who prophesied and analyzed the devastation? The answer might be that people, many people, have lost all their political bearings. Mapless, they do not know where they are heading.
Every day people follow signs pointing to some place that is not their home but a chosen destination. Road signs, airport embarkation signs, terminal signs. Some are making their journeys for pleasure, others for business, many out of loss or despair. On arrival they come to realize they are not in the place indicated by the signs they followed. Where they now find themselves has the correct latitude, longitude, local time, currency, yet it does not have the specific gravity of the destination they chose.
They are beside the place they chose to come to. The distance that separates them from it is incalculable. Maybe it’s only the width of a thoroughfare, maybe it’s a world away. The place has lost what made it a destination. It has lost its territory of experience.
Sometimes a few of these travelers undertake a private journey and find the place they wished to reach, which is often harsher than they foresaw, although they discover it with boundless relief. Many never make it. They accept the signs they follow and it’s as if they don’t travel, as if they always remain where they already are.
The details in the image on this page were taken by Anabell Guerrero in the Red Cross shelter for refugees and emigrants at Sangatte near Calais and the Channel Tunnel. On orders from the British and French governments, the shelter was recently shut down. Several hundred people were sheltering there, many hoping to make it to Britain. The man in the photographs—Guerrero prefers not to disclose his name—is from Zaire.
Month by month millions leave their homelands. They leave because there is nothing there, except their everything, which does not offer enough to feed their children. Once it did. This is the poverty of the new capitalism.
After long and terrible journeys, after they have experienced the baseness of which others are capable, after they have come to trust their own incomparable and dogged courage, emigrants find themselves waiting on some foreign transit station, and then all they have left of their home continent is themselves: their hands, their eyes, their feet, shoulders, bodies, what they wear, and what they pull over their heads at night to sleep under, wanting a roof.
Thanks to Guerrero’s image we can take account of how a man’s fingers are all that remain of a plot of tilled earth, his palms what remain of some riverbed, and how his eyes are a family gathering he will not attend. Portrait of an emigrant continent.
“I’m going down the stairs in an underground station to take the B line. Crowded here. Where are you? Really! What’s the weather like? Getting into the train—call you later…”
Of the millions of mobile telephone conversations taking place every hour in the world’s cities and suburbs, most, whether they are private or business, begin with a statement about the caller’s whereabouts. People need straightaway to pinpoint where they are. It is as if they are pursued by doubts suggesting that they may be nowhere. Surrounded by so many abstractions, they have to invent and share their own transient landmarks.
More than thirty years ago Guy Debord prophetically wrote: “the accumulation of mass-produced commodities for the abstract space of the market, just as it has smashed all regional and legal barriers, and all corporate restrictions of the Middle Ages that maintained the quality of artisanal production, has also destroyed the autonomy and quality of places.”
The key term of the present global chaos is de- or relocalization. This does not only refer to the practice of moving production to wherever labor is cheapest and regulations minimal. It also contains the offshore demented dream of the new ongoing power: the dream of undermining the status of and confidence in all previous fixed places, so that the entire world becomes a single fluid market.
The consumer is essentially somebody who feels or is made to feel lost unless he or she is consuming. Brand names and logos become the place names of the Nowhere.
Other signs announcing FREEDOM or DEMOCRACY, terms plundered from earlier historical periods, are also used to confuse. In the past a common tactic employed by those defending their homeland against invaders was to change the road signs so that the one indicating ZARAGOZA pointed in the opposite direction toward BURGOS. Today it is not defenders but invaders who switch signs to confuse local populations, confuse them about who is governing whom, the nature of happiness, the extent of grief, or where eternity is to be found. And the aim of all these misdirections is to persuade people that being a client is the ultimate salvation.
Yet clients are defined by where they check out and pay, not by where they live and die.
Extensive areas that were once rural places are being turned into zones. The details of the process vary according to the continent—Africa or Central America or Southeast Asia. The initial dismembering, however, always comes from elsewhere and from corporate interests pursuing their appetite for ever more accumulation, which means seizing natural resources (fish in Lake Victoria, wood in the Amazon, petrol wherever it is to be found, uranium in Gabon, etc.), regardless of to whom the land or water belongs.
The ensuing exploitation soon demands airports, military, and paramilitary bases to defend what is being siphoned off, and collaboration with the local mafiosi. Tribal war, famine, and genocide may follow.
People in such zones lose all sense of residence: children become orphans (even when they are not), women become slaves, men desperadoes. Once this has happened, to restore any sense of domesticity takes generations. Each year of such accumulation prolongs the Nowhere in time and space.
Meanwhile—and political resistance often begins in a meanwhile—the most important thing to grasp and remember is that those who profit from the present chaos, with their embedded commentators in the media, continuously misinform and misdirect. Their declarations and all the plundered terms they are in the habit of using should never be argued with. They have to be rejected outright and abandoned. They will get nobody anywhere.
The information technology developed by the corporations and their armies so they could dominate their Nowhere more speedily is being used by others as a means of communication throughout the Everywhere they are struggling toward.
The Caribbean writer Edouard Glissant puts this very well: “the way to resist globalisation is not to deny globality, but to imagine what is the finite sum of all possible particularities and to get used to the idea that, as long as a single particularity is missing, globality will not be what it should be for us.”
We are establishing our own landmarks, naming places, finding poetry. Yes, in the Meanwhile poetry is to be found.
As the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey
as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind
as the thin birches whisper their stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks
as the leaves of the hedge store the light
the day thought it had lost
as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a sparrow in the turning air
as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark
hold everything dear
Their Nowhere generates a strange, because unprecedented, awareness of time. Digital time. It continues forever uninterrupted through day and night, the seasons, birth, and death. As indifferent as money. Yet, although continuous, it is utterly single. It is the time of the present kept apart from the past and future. Within it, only the present is weight-bearing; the other two lack gravity. Time is no longer a colonnade, but a single column of ones and zeros. A vertical time with nothing surrounding it, except absence.
Read a few pages of Emily Dickinson and then go and see Lars von Trier’s film Dogville. In Dickinson’s poetry the presence of the eternal is attendant in every pause. The film, by contrast, remorselessly shows what happens when any trace of the eternal is erased from daily life. What happens is that all words and their entire language are rendered meaningless.
Within a single present, within digital time, no whereabouts can be found or established.
We will take our bearings within another time-set. The eternal, according to Spinoza (who was Marx’s dearest philosopher) is now. It is not something awaiting us, but something we encounter during those brief yet timeless moments when everything accommodates everything and no exchange is inadequate.
In her urgent book Hope In the Dark, Rebecca Solnit quotes the Sandinista poet Gioconda Belli describing the moment when the Somoza dictatorship was overthrown in Nicaragua: “two days that felt as if a magical, age-old spell had been cast over us, taking us back to Genesis, to the very site of the creation of the world.” The fact that the U.S. and its mercenaries later destroyed the Sandinistas in no way diminishes that moment existing in the past, present, and future.
A kilometer down the road from where I’m writing, there is a field in which four burros graze, two mares and two foals. They are a particularly small species. The black-bordered ears of the mares, when they prick them, come up to my chin. The foals, only a few weeks old, are the size of large terriers, with the difference that their heads are almost as large as their sides.
I climb over the fence and sit in the field with my back against the trunk of an apple tree. The burros have made their own tracks across the field and some pass under very low branches where I would have to stoop double. They watch me. There are two areas where there is no grass at all, just reddish earth, and it is to one of these rings that they come many times a day to roll on their backs. Mare first, then foal. The foals already have their black stripe across their shoulders.
Now they approach me. They smell of donkeys and bran—not the smell of horses, more discreet. The mares touch the top of my head with their lower jaws. Their muzzles are white. Around their eyes are flies, far more agitated than their own questioning glances.
When they stand in the shade by the edge of the wood the flies go away, and they can stand there almost motionless for half an hour. In the shade at midday, time slows down. When one of the foals suckles (ass’s milk is the closest to human milk), the mare’s ears lie right back and point to her tail.
Surrounded by the four of them in the sunlight, my attention fixes on their legs, all sixteen of them. Their slenderness, their sheerness, their containment of concentration, their surety. (Horses’ legs look hysterical by comparison.) Theirs are legs for crossing mountains no horse could tackle, legs for carrying loads that are unimaginable if one considers only the knees, the shanks, the fetlocks, the hocks, the cannon bones, the pastern joints, the hooves. Donkeys’ legs.
They wander away, heads down, grazing, their ears missing nothing; I watch them, eyes skinned. In our exchanges, such as they are, in the midday company we offer one another, there is a substratum of what I can only describe as gratitude. Four burros in a field, month of June, year 2005.
Yes, I’m still among other things a marxist.