London has flown by. In only one week, we have seen so many corners of the city that I’ve lost count. From Brixton to Kilburn to Brick Lane, so much of London has been cobbled together by unique personalities and distinct moments in history. In class, we engaged with the work of the late Marxist geographer Doreen Massey not only because some of her work were products of the Kilburn borough, but also because her scholarship provides a valuable contextualization of the diversity of London we are attempting to understand. She employs the notion of ‘time-space compression’ – a term articulated by Marxist geographer David Harvey with conceptual roots in Karl Marx’s ‘annihilation of space by time.’ Time-space compression attempts to explain the uncertainty behind how we relate to our sense of ‘place’ in an increasingly internationalizing world.
In her chapter “A Global Sense of Place” in Space, Place and Gender (1994), Massey makes an interesting comparison between current globalization trends and the previous colonial era. As the contemporary Western world attempts to grapple with issues pertaining to migration – and the decisions on whether to promote policies of assimilation, multiculturalism, or integration – much can be learned by looking to the past.
We visited the British museum on Sunday because there was an
event dedicated to refugee week. Strolling through exhibits that promoted ‘A Shared Future,’ I couldn’t help but be reminded at every turn the fragmented past that was also on display. The British Museum is indeed a living, breathing artifact of the British Empire – something that caused an unthinkable amount of refugees. Each gallery is proof of what was plundered from other worlds and never returned.
Even in moments of London’s history in which they superficially engaged with the idea of multiculturalism, much of it was exoticizing and did more to distance ‘civilized’ Londoners from the rest of the world. In doing so, London chose to witness the diversity of the world but only on their terms – thus enforcing the ‘power geometry’ that has always existed between the Western world and those that they colonized. A term coined by Massey, the power geometry dictates who is in charge of the time-space compression, and who is at the receiving end of it. In a sense, some people’s social mobility has the effect of the spatial imprisonment of others.
At a Refugee Week panel discussion, Professor Renos Papadopoulos theorized on this point further. Even in a post-colonial era, Western states are continuing to plunder the continent of Africa through economic
means, which of course greatly contributes to the refugee crisis occurring there. His question to the audience was, how might understanding that power dynamic change the way we look at refugees? Should we, in fact, feel a sense of moral accountability? Looking at refugees solely for their needs often covers up their strengths – because in reality, being a refugee is actually one of the bravest things you can do.
Massey discusses the need to socially differentiate the time-space compression; not just because acknowledging inequalities is morally and politically important, but also so that conceptually, we may understand the idea more completely. Because in the end, as one woman on the panel (in fact, the only one, on a panel of otherwise white men) puts it, When two bulls are fighting, it is the grass that suffers. Angelina Jalonen offered the adage as a reminder not to punish the powerless for the actions of their governments who hold the power. Her African proverb was glaringly topical in the room as well, as two prominent white men argued across the table over who to blame for Africa’s poor governance with Angelina sitting quietly between them, never given the opportunity to assert her own insight into the discussion.
Finally, the class spent an afternoon conducting participant observation along Kilburn High Road. With certain boroughs (like Kilburn) increasing in diversity, there is often a fear that a sense of ‘locality’ is lost. But as many places are figuring out, that sense of ‘local’ isn’t going away, it’s merely being transformed into something new. Massey argues that with modern technologies, the definition of ‘community’ no longer adheres to geographic proximity. In Kilburn, they are inventing their own sense of community in a borough that otherwise has much diversity within it. Rather than drawing arbitrary lines and attempting to define a singular neighborhood identity, it is much more important to recognize and celebrate the richness of its many identities.