New seminar: Ann Varley, “From nomadic subjects to noble savages? Inverting binaries of mobility and dwelling”

The first HOMInG seminar of 2019 will take place next January 18 at 11am, Dpt. of Sociology.

Ann Varley, a Professor of Human Geography at UCL, will give a presentation on From nomadic subjects to noble savages? Inverting binaries of mobility and dwelling. See the abstract below. All welcome!

From nomadic subjects to noble savages? Inverting binaries of mobility and dwelling

Ann Varley, UCL (University College London)

In recent decades, feminist theorists have joined others in challenging the rigidity and exclusions of binary classifications such as those pitting citizens against aliens. Such oppositions inform what political theorist William Walters (2004: 241) calls ‘domopolitics’: ‘a fateful conjunction of home, land and security … the home as our place, where we belong naturally and where, by definition, others do not; international order as a space of homes’.

Theorising identity in terms of mobility is a favoured device to combat such binary oppositions. Feminists have been particularly inspired by Rosi Braidotti’s (1994, 2011) writings on nomadic subjects, which draw in turn on the nomadic thinking of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987).  Although Braidotti’s figuration of the nomad is meant to take on board the multiple differences between women, critics express disquiet about the privilege implicit in the idea of a footloose travelling self, given the very different experiences of refugees or undocumented migrants.

Surprisingly, a similar rhetoric of mobility has recently emerged in the theorisation of urban informality in cities of the global south. Current discussions of informal human settlements, in Latin America and elsewhere, are full of references to mobility as a value contrasted with the fixity and exclusionary implications of dwelling. They too draw on Deleuzian nomadic thinking: on rhizomes, smooth space and ‘shantytown’ dwellers as urban nomads. I argue, however, that, rather than undermining dualisms, such incautious celebrations of mobility invert conventional valorisations of dwelling and mobility. In doing so, they convert nomadic subjects – the residents of informal settlements or migrant populations – into a form of contemporary noble savage.

Based on many years of research in urban Mexico, this presentation will question the theoretical preoccupation with mobility. The celebration of the provisional and the temporary is strikingly at odds with the experiences and preferences of urban residents I have interviewed. Tenants and sharers describe their experiences in terms of unwanted mobility, leading them, paradoxically, to feel trapped, while informal owner-occupiers talk about finding a place to rest as the key to moving on with their lives. The relationship between dwelling and mobility is, then, more ambiguous than many of those writing about urban informality suggest. In addition, at the same time as some boundaries between different identities are challenged, others may be created or reinforced. This argument, put forward twenty years ago in studies of migrant domestic workers by feminist geographer Geraldine Pratt (1999), still needs to be heard today.