A Meditation on Nativity and Globalization
By Megan Townsend
Clare Island, Co. Mayo, Ireland. Photo courtesy of the author.
I spent most of the summer of 2018 in Ireland. In 2007, when I had last been there, I was eleven years old, and made the trip with my céilí band to compete in an international music competition called the Fleadh Cheoil. Then, I would have said I had a good idea of who I was and where I came from. The following eleven years would lead me through adolescence and young adulthood and I would question my stability in those identities, most of all my idea of where I come from and to where I belong. As a second-generation American, I had a tendency to romanticize my grandparents’ country and its culture. But when I visited again after so much time, and as an adult, I realized that I could not have overestimated what it means to grow up and live on the land where you are meant to. I have never had a reciprocal relationship with the land where I come from, so I cannot understand what it means to have a rooted connection to a place. Though many of my reflections this summer were sentimental ones on the romantic notion of having a “homeland”, they took shape in a conclusive belief that there is a spiritual cost to the modern erasure of nativity. I grew up with all of my material needs met and still feel this subtle loss. A crucial historical distinction I want to emphasize in the separation of nationality from nativity is choice: though my grandparents chose to immigrate, many people do not. However, across social classes and nations I believe I am not alone in my feeling of placelessness, a feeling that is enabled by globalization and colonization, forces that will continue to displace people from their native land and erase the idea of home.
The 2012 essay by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, Decolonization is Not a Metaphor, explores the implications of taking the concept of decolonization seriously, something that makes many people who consider themselves American uncomfortable. They explain that,
“Indigenous peoples are those who have creation stories, not colonization stories, about how we/they came to be in a particular place – indeed, how we came to be a place”.1 I think it is easy for the descendants of colonizers, or the descendants of immigrants, to feel that the United States is their home. It is the only home we have ever known. It is also easy to think that the work of our ancestors was a long time ago, and that we are not personally responsible for it. But it is not our home, and we are personally responsible for the violent displacement and genocide of the Indigenous peoples to whom the land we occupy belongs. If this is our story, of how we came to be this place, then the violent history that connects the beginning of the United States with its present is no surprise. And I believe that there is a spiritual burden to be carried with that story, one that runs parallel2 to the spiritual loss of Native Americans who have been forced to live apart from the land of their ancestors. Those who are the descendants of settlers can never have a truly reciprocal relationship with the colonized land they live on, because theirs are colonization stories, not creation stories. This reality haunted me as I grew up in the United States, and led to the dreamy projections of my trip to Ireland, the place where I thought I might experience what it feels like to be in direct relationship to land. But there I felt a separate alienation, another place where I was not necessarily meant to be. It was another place where I did not feel a kinship to my surroundings, a place whose creation story I could not find my place in. I believe that this lack of connection to place is purposeful and carefully designed by global capitalism. It is remaking the world in its image and making the experience of detachment from one’s natural environment increasingly common.
Marc Augé, the French anthropologist, introduced the term “non-place”, defining it in contrast to “place”:
“If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place. The hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which…do not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of ‘places of memory’, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position.”3
Is there a better way to define the United States, or any colonial power, than as a place which does not integrate its earlier places? The knowledge, culture, and existence of Native Americans are taught in US schools as pieces of a memory. This is a purposeful colonial tactic to divorce history and people from place. If the creation story of Native American lands is not a memory, but a living reality, than what legitimacy does the United States have as a sovereign nation? Non-places, in my interpretation, are meant to make people forget there was something there before.
It is also important to mention the non-places operating at many nation’s borders, literally denoting placelessness for those who are held in between the nation they have fled and the nation they are trying to, and may never, safely reach.
When reading Augé’s Introduction to Supermodernity, I felt I had been given the words to express what I felt was amiss in my relationship with the land and world around me. The idea of a place as relational, historical, and concerned with identity had no personal meaning in my life. I live in the non-places. People of the global first world are made to feel comfortable wherever they go, surrounded by the familiar franchises and marketplaces of foods, clothing, coffee, etc., that they are used to lining their streets, whether at home, school, or work. I feel immensely stuck, as a member of the social class for whom the world is being reshaped, and as a person who notices the absence of place in my life. While the world around me continues to shift in order to mirror the one to which my preferences, tastes, and habits are supposed to be aligned, I have spent my adolescence and young adulthood attempting to comprehend the simple concept of a home-place, a concept that I should have understood from birth, as easily as my native language. But neither my first language nor my place of birth align with what was indigenous to my ancestors, an experience that I am arguing is shared among many and that capitalism is attempting to make universal.
This feeling, this spiritual yearning, can be understood in multiple histories, as it is experienced by those whose ancestors left their place of origin to colonize, those who left to attempt to participate in the wealth of the colonizers, or those who were taken by force to be exploited for the needs of the colonizers (as were African slaves, kidnapped from their native land for slave labor to build the US economy). Though the presence of this loss of home-place is attributed to many historical backgrounds, with varying levels of privilege and culpability, I am attempting to argue that there is a need for all people who have lost their nativity and indigenous understanding to mourn. I believe that this hurts everyone and therefore even the benefactors of this global system of domination and displacement must mourn what has been lost through a history of capitalist violence. I believe that mourning would be the beginning of atonement for those who, like me, were welcomed into the opportunity of the colonial First World and led to believe that we are home, wherever we are.
Silvia Federici, in her book Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, explores the ongoing process of capitalist accumulation through enclosures, or the displacement of native peoples from their lands and means of subsistence in order to force them to participate in a wage economy while freeing up their land for exploitation. She writes,
“The new enclosures make mobile and migrant labor the dominant form of labor. We are now the most geographically mobile labor force since the advent of capitalism. Capital keeps us constantly on the move, separating us from our countries, farms, gardens, homes, and workplaces, because this guarantees cheap wages, communal disorganization, and a maximum vulnerability in front of the law, the courts, and the police”4
Throughout history, land seizure and displacement has been used as a colonial tool because once people are separated from the land which they know, they are more easily subjugated. Therefore, this feeling of placelessness is not a coincidence. To rip people from their land is to attempt to kill a communal identity, one of the only defenses we have for caring for each other and our planet. This identification of the loss I feel is not the loss of a national identity, but the loss of a truly collective one. It is a loss of a way to live in communion with my surroundings, to relate to the world around me as if I were part of its creation story.
During that summer trip, the background to my reflections was a rare Irish drought, one which everyone told me they couldn’t remember experiencing before. When my mind was addled with thoughts of how I could possibly amend my life to be in right relationship with the land, the Slieve Bloom Mountains, a mountain range in the midlands of Ireland that I could see from my cousin’s kitchen window, were on fire. After weeks without rain, the grass was burning up and leaving farmers without feed for the coming season. I was confronted with the truth that the warming of our planet, though exclusively carried out by people who do not rely directly on the land, is first harming those who do. In addition to the spiritual price we pay when separated from the land, we are also paying one that is even greater, as the detachment from our physical surroundings enables the destruction of our planet.
In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate5, Naomi Klein writes,
“This is a crisis that is, by its nature, slow moving and intensely place based. In its early stages, and in between the wrenching disasters, climate is about an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird – noticing these small changes requires the kind of communion that comes from knowing place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next. How many of us still live like that?…Indeed Western culture has worked very hard to erase Indigenous cosmologies that call on the past and the future to interrogate present-day actions, with long-dead ancestors always present, alongside the generations yet to come”
If we cannot look around us and see, or remember, how the land has always taken care of us, then what duty do we feel to protect it? I, like many of my peers, was born in a hospital, in a town with no personal significance to me other than that my parents happened to live there at the time of my birth. I will probably die in a hospital as well, and I don’t know where it will be. There is no place in the world where I can stand and see the linking of my past and my future. I have close to no knowledge of what the migration patterns of New York City birds are, and must use my imagination to think about what plants might grow if my backyard weren’t a square of cement.
To treat the places around us as life-giving, “Not just as scenery but also as sustenance”, is indeed antithetical to the way many members of the global First World currently interact with their living environment. Capital is meant to be our sustenance. Instead, it has succeeded in making us dependent on the very things that are destroying our ability to sustain ourselves. Throughout that summer of 2018 and afterward, I spent a lot of time thinking of what I could do to correct the absence of a homeland in my life. It did not take much time for me to realize that this was the wrong question. Anything I could do would, at best, change only my life in a temporary way. Capitalism will continue to exploit the natural resources of colonized land and displace its people until there is nothing left, an end toward which we are rapidly approaching. This is well put by Bruno Latour in his essay, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, when he writes, “Now if there is no planet, no earth, no soil, no territory to house the Globe of globalization toward which all these countries claim to be headed, then there is no longer an assured ‘homeland,’ as it were, for anyone”. Therefore, the loss of homeland, which is for me, primarily spiritual, is not unique. For many it is material and life-threatening. It will worsen as the number of climate refugees grows, pushed out of their homelands by disasters linked to First World consumption habits.
As I’ve said, I believe affording all people the right to mourn the loss of their homelands and communities might be a good first step toward atonement, namely for those who belong to the colonial First World and are both directly and indirectly continuing to destroy communities, farmland, and habitats around the world. I recognize that it is very, very hard to mourn something that one did not lose in one’s lifetime, or maybe not even in the previous generation’s lifetime. It is even harder to mourn something that one does not know one has lost. If we are to stand up to the giants of globalism and capitalism that created and continue to enable climate change, we must do so in a way that grounds us to the land and its knowledge, and in a way that does not incite further nativism and closed borders. The only way I can see this happening is by acknowledging the collective loss of homeland and restoring indigenous sovereignty over homelands that have been seized. For me and many around the world, homeland is a metaphor, or a memory, or a dream. We are standing at a moment in history when home and place must be reestablished as the foundation of our shared life, before it is rendered immaterial for everyone.
1Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1, no. 1 (2012).
2By parallel, I do not mean equal. It is necessary to point out the disparities that exist between many settler communities and Native communities, disparities that are a direct result of settler theft of land/resources.
3Augé, Marc. “Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, trans. John Howe.” London and New York: Verso (2008).
4Federici, Silvia, and Peter Linebaugh. Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. PM Press, 2018.
5Klein, Naomi. This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster, 2015.
6Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the new climatic regime. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.
Megan Townsend is a Cofounding Editor at the The Flood.