Motion fearness

BY Nikos Papastergiadis

THEME LEADER National Gallery of Victoria

SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.

Nikos Papastergiadis on the challenges of global mobility and hospitality.

In the aftermath of September 11 world leaders addressed their respective nations as if they were bodies under threat, and hastened in new laws to bolster border protection and ‘securitise’ immigration. Terrorist attacks and the risks posed by mobile agents were constantly being mentioned in political speeches. This century has, in large part, been defined by the link between national security and regulating migration. Despite the persistent anxiety about the social impact of migration and the status of people on the move, a more general understanding of mobility has been missing in public debates. What is mobility? Does it define a state of being? I am who I am because I chose to be on the move. Does it presume a specific force that displaces an entity across time and space? – I am who I am because I am moved by an external force. Or, is it an ambient cultural value that is framed by a set of shifting co-ordinates and goals. Look at the signs around me that show that I am either upwardly or downwardly mobile, I am who I am due to the myriad of internal and external forces that are in constant motion. How do these three perspectives on mobility shape social attitudes and personal experiences? Such questions resonate with the ancient philosophical questions on the relation between motion, matter and media that are still being debated by the most brilliant cosmologists of our time. There is still no consensus on what makes things move; is it a force? Is this force internal and singular, or external and multiple? Does the resulting trajectory follow a fixed line, or will it split and swirl in turbulent flows? In short, there is still a debate as to whether we should think of motion as either a series of linear trajectories or ambient flows.

In the twenty-first century more people are on the move than ever before. They are moving in a more dynamic manner than in the past, and heading in multiple directions. They do not always move with the intention of settling, and this is making attempts to map and govern the movement of people difficult.

Connections and relations are increasingly being formed across cultural boundaries and through dispersed networks. Similarly, the kinds of people on the move across the world also defy the stereotypes of migrants as either desperate or dangerous. As the scale, diversity and complexity of mobility have increased, the capacity to regulate and control it has decreased. For a long period of time, the traditional identity of those on the move was defined partly by place. However, identity is no longer rooted in a place but dispersed across multiple places and spread across different time zones. The impact of mobility on identity and culture is most profound at the border zones, where inequalities, persecutions and the need to escape are at their most extreme. These zones embody the reconfiguration of the norm through the violent experiences of refugees within them.
It is now commonplace for Australia to be represented as a nation that has been forged through stories of mobility. It has been a place of brutal dispossession and a place for the re-grounding of the dispossessed. The lessons of multiculturalism that came from the experiments in postwar migration were one of Australia’s greatest gifts to the world in the twentieth century. With the dawn of the twenty-first century, Australia subordinated the principles of hospitality and the laws of asylum to claims of security and sovereignty. With the Pacific Solution, Australia has shown the world a hardline system of refugee deterrence. It starts with a triage method of offshore interception and screening, and results in the suspension of the refugee in limbo, or their relocation to a third country. Europe, in particular, has learnt a great deal from the Australian example; this can be seen in the way it has managed its ‘hotspots’ of mobility. For instance, Lampedusa in Italy is a primary hotspot for people attempting to reach Europe from Africa. Syrian asylum seekers often attempt to reach Europe through Turkey and then Lesbos and Chios in Greece. These hotspots, among others, are sites of abuse and violence. The challenge of hospitality is not an abstract philosophical problem or a minor political issue. It is central to our political and cultural landscape, and it is particularly important given that a large portion of movement today is forced migration, the result of war, persecution and climate change. Therefore, this section of the publication is dedicated to exploring personal trajectories and the political apparatus of mobility.

In this introduction I will reflect on the challenges of mobility and hospitality. While we are all increasingly aware that we are living in a world in which the movement of people is accelerating and where places are more interconnected, there is no model that defines hospitality. There are no historical examples of unconditional hospitality. It is at best an ideal, but one that also acts as a benchmark against which we can measure our expedient falls, as well as an index of how far we need to go to build a more humanitarian and just world. The tension between hospitality and hostility has been the subject of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s ruminations. He famously issued the interdiction: ‘Let’s say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification’.1 Derrida echoed the sacred duties of xenia, the hospitality that Homer describes in the Odyssey. Xenia is the duty to open your house and offer hospitality inscribed by Zeus, as patron of all strangers; it is no coincidence that the Greek word for stranger shares the same etymological root: xenos. The duty to receive whoever and whatever is a double openness, as it is based on the possibility that the stranger that appears on your threshold is a god in disguise. To grasp the impossible but necessary ideals, as well as bear witness to the unresolved tensions in hospitality, we now turn to Homer’s Odyssey.

Homer’s journeys

The journey described in the Odyssey is set on the Mediterranean Sea. It is an uncanny coincidence that the journeys on the map in the Odyssey are almost identical to some of the major movements of refugees towards contemporary Europe. Homer is believed to have been born on the Ionian littoral. His birthplace corresponds to the area near the contemporary city of İzmir on the west coast of Turkey. He is believed to have lived and died on the nearby island of Chios. The narrow stretch of water between Turkey and the Greek islands is one of the most treacherous transit zones for contemporary Syrian and Asian refugees. In  the past decade, and with the hope of finding security, sanctuary and opportunity in Europe, more than 100,000 people a year have risked their lives by crossing this specific stretch of water.

The Odyssey is an epic poem, composed in a style that oscillated between the plausible and the fantastic. The form in some ways re-enacts and brings forth the idea of estrangement, hospitality and homecoming and the interplay between these experiences. The various encounters of the traveller, Odysseus, remain relevant for migrants and asylum seekers around the world. In particular, Odysseus’s encounters with the civilised princes, the Sirens and the Cyclops highlight the ritualistic obligations of hospitality involved in receiving a traveller, the seductive but also destructive lure of freedom upon arrival and cannibalism as an expression of the absolute disavowal of the needs of the other. Ultimately, however, Odysseus’s travels reveal that, even when there is compassion towards a specific stranger, or an adherence to the obligation of xenia, the motivations behind hospitality often fall short of altruism.

Homer, despite being blind, was a well-travelled man. He was fully aware of the kinds of difficulties involved in travelling. He therefore puts forward the narrative that hospitality is an obligation and a duty. Homer travelled partly to tell his stories and partly to seek out work in other cities. His world view was dynamic, complex and reflective of the times. Democracy had not yet come to Athens, but there was already the idea of isonomia, meaning equality in the law. However, Homer’s writing does not portray an acceptance of isonomia or provide  an intimation of the democracy to come. There is an incredible scene in the Iliad where Odysseus thrashes one of the soldiers, Thersites, for daring to question the ignorant idea of one of the kings. Homer relishes the ruthless depiction of the humiliation of the impertinent subordinate who, while speaking the voice of reason, also dares to speak up outside his given rank. This provides an ambivalent context for interpreting the importance of order and rank in the story of Odysseus’s journey. On the one hand, Homer gives the voice of logic to the subaltern, and on the other hand this soldier, who is not announced through the name of his father, and is thus presented as a commoner, a man without lineage, is shown being put back in his place and silenced. The example also gives us a forewarning of the different treatment that is meted out to different kinds of strangers. To be on the move is not an option for such a soldier. They are moved from one place to another, but they are not on the move as individuals. Today this distinction jars. We give great weight to our individual rights and agency. We expect isonomia, if not democracy, and while the motivations and opportunities for mobility have expanded, the obstacles and pitfalls have become higher and deeper. The Odyssey is set in a time that is far from the current day, but it also dwells on tensions that remain unresolved and expresses both unspoken sadistic impulses and lecherous fantasies, which we may often recognise but rarely dare to admit.

The person on the move is not an idealised figure in the Odyssey. Not only is the journey physically difficult but, it is also threatening from a moral and metaphysical perspective. The wanderer is depicted as the figure that is potentially stripped of their moral compass, resulting in isolation from their home, family and city, and as someone who is at risk of having lost the favour of the gods. There is a vicious ugliness to some of the stories of Odysseus. For example, Homer tells us that when Odysseus is on his way home, the winds cause him to detour. He comes across an island named Manos and enters the city of Cicones. In a brutally matter-of-fact way, without the slightest hint of regret or guilt and with absolute self-assured impunity, Odysseus pronounces: ‘There I sacked the city and slew the men; and from the city we took their wives and much treasure’.2
The Greeks did not consider the life of a wanderer that of a noble adventurer. The wanderer is someone who is deprived of the most precious set of relations  – their bonds to their kin and city. By being apolis – without a city, without rank – the wanderer experiences personal effacement and geopolitical disconnection; there is a stripping of subjectivity to the point of being rendered invisible. This threat of being an outcast is presented with great detail throughout the Odyssey. For example, it is evident in Odysseus’s relief at being treated to unconditional hospitality by his swineherd, Eumaeus:

‘Stranger, may Zeus and the other immortal gods grant you what you most desire, since with a ready heart you have given me welcome’ … To him then, swineherd Eumaeus, did you make answer, and say: ‘Stranger, it is not right for me to slight a stranger, even though one of less account than you were to come: for all strangers and beggars are from Zeus, and a gift, though small, is welcome from such as we’.3

The Odyssey therefore exposes the different trials and journeys that Odysseus encounters. In the battle scene against the other warriors of Troy in the Iliad, he shows his great strength, guile and courage. In many ways, Odysseus proves himself against gods. He has to come up against disguised goddesses, and work out how to triumph over the tests that they put before him. Athena, while being his protector, constantly disguised her appearance and presented advice that required discernment and tact. Odysseus not only found ways of dealing with beguiling seductresses and treacherous sirens but also had to show respect towards a virtuous princess, knew when to be gracious towards  a benevolent queen and, ultimately, knew how to prove himself to his beloved.

The rituals of hospitality

However, rather than focusing on Odysseus’s character and the fantastic ordeals he endures, I turn to the depiction of the rituals of hospitality in the Odyssey. In Book 1, there are seven ritualistic steps that are presented as necessary for the hospitable reception of a stranger. When the stranger arrives, there is at first a kind of mute greeting. The stranger is given the opportunity to wash their body, then there is a prayer to the gods and a libation of some sort. At that point, the stranger approaches the host either on bended knee or upright, according to their status. Then the host grants the stranger the freedom to stand, to present himself as an equal and share in a meal. Only after the completion of this ritual does conversation commence. All this occurs before language, or as Derrida might argue, the first ‘yes’ to the stranger must occur in the language of the gesture. Then the host asks the guest: Where have you come from? Who are your people? Where has your journey taken you? Where are you going? These are the same customary questions that are asked today when travelling in the Mediterranean. However, it was also traditional in Odysseus’s time for a traveller to be given gifts to facilitate his ongoing journey. The gift is both a gesture of assistance and a form of social insurance – it solidifies a bond between the host and the guest.

As Odysseus’s journey unfolds in Book 5, the account of ritual hospitality is represented in more pragmatic terms: it starts to appear as a kind of investment in the Other. For example, the stranger might look like a beggar, but is discussed as if he is actually a king whose lost powers may one day return. Homer also entertains the thought in the host’s mind that, perhaps, the stranger is even Zeus in disguise. So the ritual is a vital insurance, even if it seems futile at the time. Similarly, in Book 17, when Eumaeus is rebuked by the suitors for having the audacity to bring a beggar into the court, he replies,

Who, pray, of himself ever seeks out and invites a stranger from abroad, unless it is one of those that are masters of some public craft, a prophet, or a healer of ills, or a carpenter, or perhaps a divine minstrel, who gives delight with his song? For these men are invited all over the boundless earth.4

So, the swineherd is unwittingly warning the suitors to not dismiss him as an ordinary beggar, for this man might have great skills.

The idealism of hospitality is further stripped back in Book 13 of the Odyssey. After all the gifts have been presented to Odysseus, one of the princes in Alcinous’s court reassures all the others that have contributed: ‘But come now, let us give him a great tripod and a cauldron, each man of us, and we in turn will gather the cost from among the people, and repay ourselves’.5 There is no sign of altruism here, as he points out their own unchecked capacity to extract from others so that ‘we’ll repay ourselves for the gifts we’ve given to the stranger’. Before Odysseus goes into King Alcinous’s citadel (Alcinous was the most generous of all kings on his journeys), he is informed that the local people are suspicious of strangers; they will not welcome or befriend someone who comes from elsewhere. Odysseus is told that it is therefore best to enter by means of guile and deception. It is unclear whether it is the nature of these people to be hostile to strangers, or whether they are simply wary of the punitive costs, which they will bear disproportionately.

Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens takes us further into the jagged end of the matrix between hospitality and mobility. If it were not for Circe’s warning and his cunning strategy of tying himself to the mast, while his fellow sailors, with their ears filled with wax, kept rowing past the danger, Odysseus would have been lured towards the Sirens, and would no doubt have been doomed, like the others, whose shipwrecks littered the coastline. Odysseus was intrigued by the power of the Sirens, but also remained prudent enough to prevent falling for their seductive song, which offered wisdom, pleasure and relief from the ordeal of the journey. While the Sirens epitomise the perils of false hopes, the extreme antithesis of hospitality is revealed through the encounter with the Cyclops. Here the prospect of reception is confined to cannibalism. In this context, the antithesis of hospitality reflects the antithesis of civilisation. On Cyclops’s islands Homer also points out that there are no assemblies, nowhere for people to gather and make the law. There are neither temples nor family structures. All the inhabitants of this island live alone. The recourse to cannibalism is thus linked to the absence of the polis. The Cyclops lives without the bonds of civility. The absence of political, familial and social structures is further underlined in his response to Odysseus’s plea for mercy. Odyssey invokes the duty to uphold the law of Zeus, who as we have seen is the protector of strangers, to which Cyclops responds:

‘the Cyclops pay no heed to the Zeus’.6

The description of Cyclops, whose name was Polyphemus, conveys a gross, ugly giant – the embodiment of the monstrous barbarian. He is beastly but his portrayal is also complex. Homer also reminds us that Polyphemus is the son of a god, Poseidon. He is shown as a sympathetic shepherd. Polyphemus took pride in protecting his flock and observing the rank and order of their movements, and he whistled with a kind of innocent joy when he was out among them. Odysseus took note of the tender care displayed by Polyphemus. This more sensitive portrayal is paradoxically crucial to Odysseus’s escape plan. After Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, he instructed his fellow sailors to clutch onto the undersides of the sheep as they were let out to go to pasture. Odysseus hid under the lead ram, which he held back so that it exited last. In a fascinating moment of empathy switching, Homer allows Polyphemus to ponder on why his favourite ram is not running out front as always: ‘Beloved ram, why is it that you go out through the cave like this, the last of the flock? … Surely you are sorrowing for the eye of your master, which an evil man blinded along with his miserable fellows’.7

The cosmos in Homer

A much-overlooked feature of the Odyssey is its ending. Our minds are usually fixated on triumphant scenes of slaughter of the suitors and the tender, sweet reunification with Penelope. However, the Odyssey concludes with another civil uprising – mourning friends and family members of the suitors rise up in vengeance.

However, rather than focusing on this anxious and perilous truce, I will now trace the use of a key word in Homer’s writing. Throughout the Iliad we see the use of the word ‘cosmos’. It is used to convey the allure and authority of beauty and order. It appears as a means to adorn the body with elegance (think of our use of the word ‘cosmetic’), as well as the deployment of rhetoric to deliver a point with charm and conviction. Whereas in modern Greek, cosmos is also used to refer to the whole of humanity, in ancient Greek it refers to the imaginary sphere that existed between the Earth (gaia) and the infinite universe (apeiron).
For the many philosophers that followed long after Homer the idea of cosmos was central to their thinking. Pythagoras contrasted the celestial order of the cosmos with the chaos of the infinite universe. Socrates, keen to bring philosophy down to Earth, used the idea of cosmos to expose the absurdity of any restrictions on the place of belonging, and declared himself to be a citizen of the cosmos. Diogenes also refused to subordinate himself to any particular tyrant, and renounced the authority of any sovereign other than his own. He, too, saw himself as belonging only to the widest horizons of truth and beauty. He also declared himself a cosmopolitan.

In the Hellenistic era, a cosmopolitan was a person who was attuned to the workings of the cosmos and was in harmony with the whole world. The Stoic philosophers, who were all migrants, developed the most robust theory of cosmopolitanism and through this presented a vision of radical equality between all men and women. The Stoics also claimed that logos (understanding of the universe) was located in the cosmos; to be a sage was, in their terms, to find a fragment of logos in their being, and to thereby find a connection with and share in the ‘creative fire’ of cosmos. The Stoics stressed that the metaphor for logos in the cosmos was creative fire. Logos was not a fixed and static thing; it was forever unfurling like the flickering flames of creativity itself. Humans thus shared the divine capacity to be in touch with logos, and this was manifest in the idea of creativity as cosmos. Hence cosmos, as in the cosmetic gesture of adorning of the body, or even a poetic use of language, was a world-making activity, an effort to create a space that would beckon and attract the other. This creative-cosmetic capacity is what has separated the human from the animal and aligned creative activity with the divine order of the cosmos. It is this more recent use of the term cosmos that informs our deeper understanding of Odysseus’s homecoming.

The word cosmos appears rather sparingly in the Odyssey. There is a frequent use of cosmos throughout the Iliad, however, perhaps as an index of the turbulence of the journey and the attendant inversion of the order of things. It is the absence or negation of cosmos that is registered most profoundly. It first comes to us in Book 3, in the negative form, ou cata cosmoi (a reckless disregard for order), and then again in Book 8, in another even stronger negative register – acosmoi (without order). Then in Book 13 it starts to switch. Cosmos suddenly starts to be about reimposing an order. In the scene where Odysseus confronts the suitors, he is described as attempting to reinstate the order of the house by turning the tables upside down, to put them right side up again.

Finally, in Book 22 we see the moment of reunion with Penelope as a canny game of testing to probe the identity of Odysseus. In this instance, Homer uses an expression describing wanting to put the whole house in order again – catacosmisisthe. Through this incredible conjunction of words – cata, meaning all; cosmos, meaning creating order; and misisthe, the creation of the whole order – the reunion with his family, the re-imposition of order to the house and the cosmos are embedded in each other. Despite this, Penelope is still suspicious. She insists on another little test and instructs one of his servants to not only make a bed for this man but also to move their matrimonial bed. Odysseus becomes furious. Why? Because that was the bed that he had built, and he had built it out of an olive tree that grew from the ground, and he built it in such a way that it could never be moved. At the sight of his spontaneous fury Penelope is finally convinced that Odysseus is back, and Athena, in order to help the lovers revel in their love, and tell each other of their hardships, holds back the night: ‘When she judged that in his heart Odysseus had had full joy of lying with his wife and of sleep, at once she roused from Oceanus golden-throned Dawn to bring light to men’.8

Tracing mobilities

The great variety of people on the move has shifted dramatically since Homer. In the Odyssey, the people of the land did not move of their own free will. If someone was on the move, they were more likely to be a prince – a person of power who was not only ‘deserving’ but upon whom people relished showering hospitality. What does all this mean for a museum? A melancholic despair or callous refusal to address this question is clearly not the way forward. The world that artists now live in and which museums respond to is different from the world of Classical Greece and modernist museums. The challenges of postcolonialism and new media worlds did not exist then. Throughout history there have been constraints on mobility. It was clear that not everyone was assumed to be on the move, and therefore had the right to hospitality. Hospitality and equality in the Odyssey were never extended to the commoner. As we noted earlier, when the lowly soldier Thersites dared to speak up in contradiction of his master, he was thrashed mercilessly. However, the plight of the stranger is now even more wretched than Homer could have imagined, and the allure of the journey far exceeds the deadly lure of the Sirens.

Modernity has been shaped by migrations. Mobility is not a problem that is either temporary or marginal to contemporary society, but rather the driving force that brings innovation and dynamism to this world. It has no guarantees and it is clear that the range of responses towards strangers in the contemporary world have not necessarily progressed from the pragmatic investments, stigmatic receptions and repulsive cannibalism that were depicted by Homer. Given that it is not only elites and people with talent or skills who are on the move, it is noticeable that governments all around the world are employing more procedures to link their expression of humanitarian care towards refugees to the prospects of economic and social benefit. Nobody offers hospitality in muted and unconditional terms. On the contrary, when there is the fast-tracking of citizenship, visas and tourist entry, the speed and quality of entry is determined proportionately to the venal calculation of the applicant’s net worth. We celebrate flexibility and connectivity but impose more restrictions on entry and demand of migrants that they perform to higher standards of civility. Amid the display of opportunistic self-interest there is simultaneously a retreat towards a mythical time and place in which identity was secure, and a minimising attitude towards mobility, as if it is just a passing phase, and that the normal state of being is to be settled.

The defensive reaction towards mobility and restricted expressions of hospitality are not only immoral, they are delusional. The mobilities of contemporary society are anything but occasional. Disruption is not just the norm of the technology sector, just as displacement is not confined to people who have been forced to move. As Paul Virilio claims, the ubiquitous and boundless mobilities have undone all the ontological certitudes and sedentary parameters upon which identities were lodged.9 Today, at best, people narrate their lives not by referring back to an imperious centre but by establishing lines of ‘traceability’. Identity is, in this sense, no longer cultivated within the vertical interiority of consciousness; the complex and contradictory story of a life is not held together by aligning the fragments to an inner core. By contrast, the traceability of the self suggests a matrix of being and belonging that in part accords with the Homeric world. Cavafy got it right in his marvellous poem Ithaka. Ithaka was the home of Odysseus, and no journey is going to make it bigger and better: ‘She has nothing more to give you now / And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you’.10 In Homer’s world the protagonists are confronted by abominations and wonders, but their identity is neither damaged nor enhanced. As Kitto notes, Homer’s narrative neither expounds on background information, nor opens a portal into the inner world that constitutes the self: ‘Nothing is described but the essential figures’.11 The tracing of these figures is similar to the depiction of the bodies on vases: the story of the subject is told by facing their outward actions. Across these events a narrative line is traced, but a more reflexive self is not cultivated. Odysseus experiences many ordeals and overcomes many tests, but at no stage do we see him reflecting on how to reconcile the strange and perilous events into his identity.

The detachment from the inner world that is evident in Homer’s narrative has uncanny resonance with the condition of subjectivity for the contemporary refugee and art. Artists have long since internalised the alienation of the work of art in the age of institutionalisation and mobility. The essence of the work of art is no longer bound to singular place. It is made so that it can be moved around and seen from different perspectives. This kind of mobility can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Hospitality is the great moral challenge of this era. Welcoming the stranger is not just to offer sanctuary. Finding sanctuary does involve respite but may not include resolution. Mobility has saturated contemporary life so deeply that it deserves to be seen as a constitutive feature and ongoing process. In the past, it was commonplace to fear the journey. The physical experience of the journey was not only seen as being filled with risks and perils, it also exposed the traveller to the danger of being severed from all moral anchors. In this era, the meaning of mobility has to be uncoupled from a linear trajectory. It does not only mean displacement and necessarily promise progress, but rather it is enmeshed in a radical disconnection. The refugee is not only alienated from their former self, but also cut adrift in a state of zombification. The journey does not end in a homecoming or even in the discovery of sanctuary. Mobility is now a perpetual condition as it is pushed and pulled by multiple forces. The experience of being unsettled is ambient.

Nikos Papastergiadis is Professor of Media and Communication and Director of the Research Unit in Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne. He writes on art and migration. His recent publications include Cosmopolitanism and Culture (2012) and Ambient Screens (2016).