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Reimagining the space between - Laura Burns

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.



I moved to London a year ago, and experienced a profound sense of disconnection from the city and people within it. An acute rift between my awareness that I could no longer depend on kinds of security around which previous generations had built their lives, and a societal pressure to continue living as though I could believe in these things. The moments of connection came when I left London and lived in Spain with a community on an organic olive farm: here I felt connected to place, land, people and, ultimately, my self.

These two extremes of experience were troubling, because they existed as polar opposite entities. I couldn’t imagine how the two could meet in a common body. My bodily ‘place’ held a rift inside me; my external ‘places’ were disconnected in themselves, relegated to a different time and space, and invested with different virtues, possibilities and inherent or non existent meaning. My actions within these places were dependent on a perception or projection of my own disconnected selves onto my environment and its relations. Paradoxically, perceiving my disconnection from certain places closed the possibility of imagining myself as being connected, or imagining anyone else being connected to and within those places. I began to wonder if I was looking down the wrong avenues for seeking meaningful relations with the world around me, if such meaning was more about myself than the opportunities for connection open to me in each place?

Looking at the projects I have been involved with over the past year, I see an emphasis on reconnecting to ‘place’ and community. This is positive and entirely necessary. However, two things concern me about this focus of attention: first, the assumed need for unity; and second, the emphasis on external connection, rather than on questioning our ways of seeing.

One of my favourite poets, the Native American Joy Harjo, states beautifully that:

separation is both real and illusory: We are not separated from anything else;…nothing [exists] outside of nature and its processes. On the other hand, when humans behave as if we are isolated from each and the rest of nature, the losses people and non-people suffer because of it are very real.[1]

I think this is hugely important, both in understanding our disconnection and in working towards reconnection. Separation is both real and illusory. We move into consciousness through separating ourselves from others as small children; we move into adulthood by separating ourselves, most significantly from our parents, and we spend our lives contemplating our ultimate separation from this life altogether. Meanwhile, we are connected as sensory beings in a sentient world: by the laws of quantum physics we are connected, by the ways we interact we are connected, by the repercussions of our actions in a global world we are connected, by energies inexplicable to us and unperceived by many, we are connected. The element that changes our perception of our own connection and separation is ourselves.

When the London riots erupted last August, many people were deeply shocked by the ugly possibility that we just might all be individualistic beings governed by desires and uncaring to our effect on others. Interestingly, out of this came many acts of communal spirit, people seeking connection amongst the rubble. However, was it really connection people sought, or are the roots of many of our projects about denying separation altogether, about seeking ultimate unity? My feelings of disconnection were confusing to me because I could not pinpoint what it was I might have been losing, or might have lost. Do we feel something similar, collectively? How can we mourn, how can we collectively understand this separation and imagine anything different, if we don’t really know what it is we are disconnecting from, what it is we have lost?

In my work on ecopoetry, I came across the writer Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, who has written about melancholia in the work of two writers, both of whom weave their observation of nature’s destruction with their experience of AIDS.[2] In dealing with the trauma of an illness that was, for such a long time, neither politically, socially nor culturally accepted, let alone acknowledged, mourning in the sense of moving on from loss was denied; how can we collectively mourn something that is not acknowledged as being lost? Their work and journeys out of trauma became more about keeping the past open, and allowing it to constitute the present and, ultimately, themselves. Instead of seeking new objects of meaning or love in the world, and seeking the implied progress of mourning, they participated with loss and focused on the internal - the subject - their own constitutions of self. If we think of loss as absence, we can draw parallels with Sartre’s idea that in perceiving the ‘other’, we can understand our own absence, and move towards perceiving ourselves. Again, in the works of Heidegger we see a similar impulse: in acknowledging difference, and the rift of separation, we can begin to be in the world. In opening up our sensing bodies to the sentient world, we do not experience unity, but a profound noticing of the ‘other’, an overwhelming multiplicity, difference and diversity.

I pondered this on a recent walk with a friend. As we became increasingly lost, she whipped out her iphone and located us in Dalston’s back alleys, a blue pulsating blob on google maps. During the time it took us to walk around the block we had passed many people and the thought hadn’t crossed our minds to ask them for the way. I was struck with a feeling of overwhelming loss at being the independent 21st Century human that we seem to strive to be: where was our interdependency? Where was our reliance on the hospitality, generosity, surprise of strangers? In turn, where was my hospitality or generosity for others, if never called upon, never sought? The answer, I realised, was that it was and always would be present; the question was only whether I would act as though it was, whether I would realise my independence and my interdependence in equal measure. Moreover, what gave our location meaning was the point at which my friend and I spoke our way to each other, literally telling the story of where we had come from, and where we were going, thereby giving meaning to the location the map was indicating to us. It was through imagining our journey to and from each ‘place’ that we were able to find meaning, to find our way.

Many of the projects and discussions I have participated in this year have, similarly, questioned how we arrived here, and where we are going; yet there seemed to be less reflection on what it means to be both connected and separate individuals. This dilemma may be imagined in the relationship between individual and community, which in itself can be seen as a relationship between two parts of the self: connected and separate.

I am reminded of a trope that has come up in many discussions this year: Joseph Campbell’s model of ‘The Hero’s Journey’, an archetypal story which he identifies in epic mythology across the world and over the millennia.[3] It is the story of the individual leaving the community, seeking knowledge, and ultimately returning again. While it is an enormously useful template, and I understand why it grabs people’s attention as a way of thinking about incorporating old and new, I wonder if we can think about storytelling, and this journey in particular, in slightly new ways.

The hero’s journey is less about acquiring knowledge, more about altering perception. What the hero undergoes is an ultimately internal, often spiritual, transformation that not only allows him/her to see the world differently, but most importantly allows disconnection to be acknowledged. For me, one of the crucial elements of the hero’s return is the acknowledgement that there is a rift between the new, internal change that has occurred, and the external world to which the individual returns. What the hero does in returning is not merely impart new knowledge and weave it into the old; the hero acknowledges separation and disconnection, something he/she was unable to do before setting off on the journey. It is not unity that we seek in returning, but an openness to the ‘other’ that allows our perception of ourselves, and our worlds, to participate with and sense the living and inanimate world around us. The hero’s journey has echoes in the coming of age ceremonies of indigenous cultures, such as the vision quest or dream quest of Native American tribes; here the individual goes on an internal journey of consciousness, so that he does not return to a world that he left, but returns to a completely changed world - a ‘place’ completely new, in the light of his altered perception. Return is not a backwards movement, as we may perceive it within the context of Western linear time, but another route, a changed state of being, that allows the individual to conceive of his/her connectedness and separateness simultaneously.

Whilst the focus has often been on the hero’s incorporation of new knowledge into old community, I wonder if this really holds meaning for many of us today? I do not know where I would return to, if I were to return; I do not know which community is mine, where my ‘place’ might be. We don’t have vision quests in our busy lives, nor do we all have opportunities to travel, leave our homes, our environments, seek new knowledge, etc., so there is a more and more vital need to ask questions that will lead us to these internal journeys. The stories depicting these journeys would have been told orally, the listeners embarking on the journey to alter their own perception, in much the way the protagonist does. The changed ‘place’ is that within the hero him/herself, the changed perception of what it is to be connected and separate at the same time. It is not unity that the returning hero enables, through reintegrating with the community, but the possibility of not knowing. I am reminded of a tribe called the Huna, from Hawaii, who do not answer anything other than the question that was asked; in this way each individual receives only the knowledge that they seek. This year has seen people challenging previous ways of being, but do we, as individuals, really ask ourselves the important questions?

I see many people upset about the imbalance of values in our capitalist society, yet doing nothing about it, and it strikes me that one of the questions we avoid asking is: why don’t people want change? In 2011, we saw the divide in the things people were protesting for: many people seemed to be protesting for change, yet many more seemed to be protesting for things to stay the same, for security, money, jobs, and consistency - something to believe in. Just like the (often unwanted) transformation of the hero, change is unnerving, daunting and challenging. At the end of this year, I want to ask: what are we genuinely scared of, if we push things to change? What do we really feel we have to lose? There is a danger, in seeking reconnection, to fear those questions that might just reveal our disconnection, our selfishness, our individuality; this is a side of ourselves that we can only move forward with, if we first begin to accept it, listen to it and ultimately question it. This is just as important, if not more so, than many of the questions I have heard this year, and it comes down to each individual looking closely at themselves and their relationship to the world around them.

I feel as though many of the impulses to reconnect that I see in art, literature, community projects and protest movements revolve around an understandable desperation to attain unity. This is perhaps most apparent in many attempts to reconnect to nature, or the land, as in some way returning to a previous state of unity, a unity that would ultimately deny our inherent separation. It is through acknowledging our separation that we can begin to perceive ourselves and the ‘other’, begin to allow for difference, for multiplicity, and most importantly, can begin to reconcile that internal rift within us: a rift cleaved open from the day we leave the womb, and propelled dramatically from the moment we begin to use language.

It is through language, and its existence in that strange gap between our selves and our words, our speech and our meaning and the external world, that we can acknowledge our disconnected selves, whilst making possible the imaginative act of reconnection. In acknowledging the rift between word and meaning, we acknowledge separation, we make space for multiplicity, difference; we seek not unity, but open and changeable meanings. Predetermined meaning is often a precursor for stasis, a fixity that tells us what to value, how much and when, etc., but open-ended possibility allows for imaginative language and vice versa, a language that does not represent, but brings the world into being. We are living in the wake of Enlightenment thought that has made the primary function of language representational: a way of explaining the explicable world around us, a way of colonising, a way of denying our own ‘otherness’ by subjugating others, and ultimately a way of determining value and meaning by using language as the tool to describe those provable, ‘real’ things. Language, in its most fundamental capacity, was participatory; art was ritualistic. These were ways of bringing the world into being, not ways of explaining it, but of opening up ourselves to the ‘other’.

Just as the iPhone disguised the fact of our continuing interdependence, similarly we have only recently forgotten a vital truth: we are co-creators of our own reality, not as God-like entities, but as… listeners. We are, all, listeners. Some of us, among those listeners, are storytellers. When I say storytellers, I do not mean people who narrate something that has happened to them - these are speakers - or people who explain what they want to see happening - these are visionaries; I mean those who do what we all did as children, who make the AS IF become the IS, who journey to imaginary ‘places’, blur the boundary between real and imaginary, and remind us as listeners that language is ritualistic, not representative. This was our fundamental way of learning for thousands of years, this was our way of journeying; we carried knowledge, perception and imagination orally and communally through storytelling. And our bodies hold the memory of how to do this, how to be alive to the realisation of ourselves through language. This ability has, in recent years, been misdirected onto celebrity, stories which become fantasy, not imagination. Imagination is about realising oneself, realising the possibility of creating oneself, of imagining the connections inherent in the world around us. When we listen and go on a journey with a storyteller, we are co-creators of this journey. We are participatory, and we are at that precise bodily moment both inherently individual - active in creating our internal imaginings of the story - and simultaneously connected by time, place, sensory perceptions, to the community listening with us. This is the crux of our human existence: balancing the individual desires, wants, needs, impulses, with those of the community, and we have been telling stories about this since time beyond time. The only thing that may have changed is that lately we have been listening less, imagining less. We know how to deconstruct the stories, to use them as templates, explain their significance, their symbolism. But we have forgotten how to imagine ourselves as creatures, constantly perceiving the ‘otherness’ of the world around us, of each other, and constantly incorporating this disconnection, this difference, into our selves, to better understand our selves and our ‘others’ in all their disunity.

When I look at the profound changes taking place in our world, I feel both excitement and anxiety. I am excited that people are questioning value systems that have shaped our society for hundreds of years. I am hopeful that people will continue to challenge these things. Yet I am also anxious that the focus of this questioning may be directed onto external events, ‘places’ or communities, without digging into the fundamental questions we must ask ourselves as individuals within those communities. I am anxious that, in this time of change, we desperately seek unity: either in nostalgia for what we perceive as past connection, or in projecting difference onto those outside our communities, or those who think or feel differently to us about these changes. I am anxious that we say we want change, but actually we want to protect our stability, our security. I am also anxious that, even as we recognise and critique the myth of progress of capitalism, we will create new myths of progress towards unity or connection: new myths that will seek to deny our disunity and the authenticity, the connectedness, that can be re-imagined when we come to terms with our own separation. In always seeking for new pathways, I am nervous that we will mourn what is lost, yet fail to realise what we are even now losing in our attempt to replace and progress.

We have the powers of empathy inherent in our sensing bodies, enabling us to perceive others and the earth in all its aliveness; we have storytelling in our bones. We don’t need to seek new ways all the time; sometimes it is enough to remember, to remember that the possibility of being connected is always present, we just have to become present to it, re-imagine our connection by delving deep into what it means to be communal individuals. The culmination of the hero’s journey is that he/she never seeks unity, only learns to open him/herself to the surprise of the ‘other’, to other ways of being that bring possibility - not ultimate meaning, but possibility. We cannot adopt indigenous ways of reconnecting to land; we live in new times, changed times. Instead of re-storying the world around us, we need to re-story ourselves, our ultimate connection and separation to ourselves. We need to be, in all our disunity and difference, and remember that connection is always there; the challenge, both individually and communally, is to re-imagine.

  1. Joy Harjo, ‘Ancestral Voices’, Interview with Bill Moyers in The Spiral of Memory, Ed. Laura Coltelli (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996) p.40.
  2. C. Mortimer-Sandilands, ‘Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies’ in Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, Ed. Mortimer-Sandilands, Erikson (Indiana University Press, 2010) p.340.
  3. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Foundation, 1949).