November 2012

My Globalized family/ Reflections on the spatial changes in the contemporary world

Written by Alexandra Dorca

Last April, my 86 years old grandmother rediscovered, thanks to the Internet, her brother, after an absence of over 50 years.

He left Romania after the Second World War and finished by settling down in Australia, at the beginning of the 50’s. The mail censorship practiced by the Communist regime silenced abruptly their brotherly relation. She was therefore sure that he was no longer alive. Still, she insisted that I help her find his descendants. Since then, I witness her desire and stubborn willingness to recover this memory. Thus, I have learned that a letter travels for about 8 days between the town where my uncle lives, somewhere in the New South Wales, and the home city of my grandmother, in the Southwest of Romania. I have an aunt in Austria and another in London, UK. I have an uncle settled in Frankfurt and another one who lives with his family in New York State. I have relatives in Romania, in Resita, Bucharest, Timisoara, and Miercurea-Ciuc. This would be my mother’s side of the family.

On my father’s side, a cousin of mine lives in Florida and there are some others in the former Soviet Union that my grandmother left after the Second World War when she fled to Romania. Did that stop my family to exist? The answer is, of course, not. I am and will be my mother’s
daughter, here and anywhere else. My aunt from London will continue to be my aunt, even if we have not seen each other for ten years now, maybe more. But the old family rituals and lifestyle were radically transformed. Nowadays, the spatial scattering of the family members changed the
referential system and the family exists mainly through the individuals that form it: we talk more in terms of “me, you, and him/her” than of “us”. The e-mail, the webcams, and even Google Earth (that my grandmother uses to actually “see” where his Australian brother lives) replaced the long visits on Sunday afternoons. Christmas dinners were substituted by phone conferences. And my mother knows anytime what the temperature in Montreal or Bucharest is.

If I started by describing my family “map”, it’s not because I wanted to show a special condition, for I am convinced that my situation is far from being unique. From the beginning of the last century, people are moving. Economic immigrants, political or war refugees, temporary workers, ecologic refugees, populations are moving across the borders. Simultaneously, the borders are changing, too. Some disappear; others appear, whether because of the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Balkans War, the European Union expansion or the terrorism threat. The old lieux de mémoire are vanishing; new ones will come to see the daylight. But nothing of that will prevent the migratory flows from growing and multiplying. New Diaspora communities appear and multiply their practices; the communication channels change and adapt themselves to the new conditions of life and to the new trans-border needs; a language universalizes itself and other “small” languages fade away. Although the new technologies facilitate the trans-border communication, it appears that, in the same time, they are restricting it. The family secrets, the family’s big events are not anymore announced during dinner at someone’s place, but online; the new family members are welcomed especially by sending an e-card; the family albums were replaced by Flickr’s accounts. For some years now the diaries have been substituted by the blogs; Family, friends, and Diaspora groups strengthen their ties in the virtual space; hot-spots’ coffee shops are more and more silent, people preferring to discuss online than engaging in a conversation with others, sitting at the next table. At the office, the private-public separation is more and more visible. The old debates places (e.g.colleges or universities) are transferred to the virtual space (online courses, etc). Last but not least, the “traditional” neighbourhoods are changing day by day and we don’t know anymore our neighbours by their name. This dichotomy, this lack of dialogue in a world of communications translates also to yet another level, of the space reorganisation: the old peripheries become new centres. This does not mean that peripheries disappear. On the contrary, the globalization creates new ones. The North descends to the South, the East comes to the West, the downtowns are inhabited by homeless, and the suburbs are transformed into elegant neighbourhoods. And with this physical and architectural reorganization, we can remark that the space struggle seems to be more and more powerful, translating, in the same time, a radical fight for life and recognition. For instance, one of the interviewees that Philippe Bourgois quotes in “Homeless in El Barrio” declares: “I don’t want anymore to survive, I want to live!” (1993: 322)1. The survival question has been associated with the more divest people, living in precarious conditions: the ghettos, the camps, the totalitarian regimes, and the problematical suburbs. In our days, the whole world seems to face the old suburb problems. The fear (of terrorist attacks, of otherness, diseases, unemployment, etc.) is ubiquitous, invading all types of spaces: public and private, Western and Eastern, urban and rural, centres and margins. The result is a complex fight for space and place: individual (spatial mobility, intra- or inter-generations) and collective (social dwelling, chic neighbourhoods). These mutations are even more terrible when they generate important conflicts, either within the families or within the social perimeter. Thus, new limits are being drawn and new walls are being erected.

On one hand, as we saw it recently in Europe, with the conflicts between the economical immigrants in the Western countries and the local populations, the peripheries are facing the same historical problems. They represent a fertile land for rumours, urban legends, and crime histories. They make us think of death, diseases, obscurantism, and roving. These places are characterized by a big absence: the one of the State (Bourdieu 1993). But, in the same time, the space is more than ever politicized.

On the other hand, State-in-State-like spaces are coming to life. Such would be the case of the gated communities, these closed communities, framed by walls, and under permanent surveillance. These luxurious spaces, generally populated by the middle class, can be formed by one hundred to twenty thousand persons (Le Goix 2005). The golf courses and the country clubs distinguish them from the secured buildings where people often share only the parking lots. Neither private company, nor public local group, it’s more a form of voluntary segregation, of a local sovereignty. Noticed for the first time at the end of the 60’s, these segregations represent a very obvious phenomenon since the late 80’s2. Nevertheless, in our time, the gated communities are an illustration of the fear culture: fear of the other, of the cultural diversity, fear of social changes3. Furthermore, they represent a new form of cultural intimacy, a new type of communitarianism: on one hand, there is “the good”, those that are part of the community, on the other, “the mean”, outside the walls. Subsequently, the frontiers seem to be drawn a second time. It is obvious that these voluntary or involuntary “deportations,” which are, by the way, more and more frequent, will have visible consequences on the people’s – adults and children - behaviour, on the social relations, briefly, on all the aspects which can, in one way or another, touch an  individual 4

Identifications and de-identifications imaginary and illusory, identity redefinitions, memorial repositioning, representation crisis, glocalization, mcdonaldization, individualism and individualization, trans-global and trans-territorial issues, various translations and transcriptions distinguish a world crumbled more than ever. All these dimensions would characterize the new social map of the contemporary world. In order to better understand the new place phenomena and all the implications that transformation would have on the people’s life style and individuals/groups relations, the social should be always imagined _ la Bourdieu, in connection with the physical space, and the habitus in connection with the body. For instance, in this context, an author like Bauman (1998) invokes the impossibility to find a chez soi; the impossibility to stop, to take a break; a sort of a universal, real or imagined, nomadization5. Hence, everybody is a traveller: on one hand, those who can travel even without papers and visas, on the other hand, those who are not able to do it, for they are “without-papers”. The first ones live in a temporal dimension, the second ones in a spatial context. The first ones travel when they wish to, the latter are constrained to do it (ibid.). Bauman identifies them, metaphorically, as “tourists” and “vagabonds”. The “tourists” will leave their places when they want to; the “vagabonds” know that they cannot remain a long time in one place, because they are not welcome anywhere. The society, in lato sensu, points the author, needs the two categories, since the “tourists” cannot exist without the recurrent picture of the “vagabonds”.

Facing individuals that seem more standardized than ever, maybe the statement of the anthropologist and psychoanalyst Pierre Legendre (2004) is just accurate: we are living in a world that seems to have lost its fathers. What is the meaning of “losing the fathers”? It’s losing the references; it’s losing the significant. The individual no longer knows who he really is or what the society/family wants him to be, but persists in wanting to be by identifying with something / somebody else that he will not necessarily be or want to be. Consequently, the fragility of “being as” produces a fragmentation of the subject, from which a representation crisis; so a supra-identification or multiple identifications can result. Thus, on one hand, this is about an alter subjectivity. On the other hand, it could be an inclusion strategy, based on an unawareness of the other: one tries to include the other, one becomes a mirror for another (ibid.). There is no doubt that the symbolic dimensions and their real consequences are huge and generate so many (new) forms of representation. Actually, the French anthropologist Marc Aug_ (1994) speaks about this dichotomy that seems to characterize the supermodernity, between places and non-places. As he points out, the place refers to an identity, a relation, and a history; the non-place will be defined by the absence of these three dimensions. The airports, the malls, and the new technologies of communication are such non-places because they permit the coexistence or cohabitation without actually living together. This being said, we can discern that in the postmodern context who promotes –at least ideologically and in speeches –the otherness and the culture of the other, more than ever, its subjects are centred on themselves. The exclusion forms are multiplied, even if it appears that the other needs to be included for a better selfidentification (or self-inclusion).

Secondly, in the absence of a clear system of references, the individuals will construct new ones, but without actually arriving to identify themselves in an irrevocable way, since all forms of identificationare followed by a de-identification. It’s not in terms of “good” or “bad” that this process must be considered. All that is to remark is that this identification processes sometimes seem endless and they are witnessing once again the fragility of the existence and of the social relations in the contemporary world. Finally, the space/time compression makes in sort that the new family and social “maps”, these new places depend on the new technologies and involve new rituals and different representations. So, the fragmentation of the world system is also present in the families, in the individual’s lifestyle. Being used to travel between Bucharest and London, Melbourne and Montreal, the people are more and more in a hurry and have trouble to find their place. Actually, the places are substituted by the non-places; “tourists” or “vagabonds”, we are living more and more in the airports or their images, we prefer Internet communication to the old agora debates, and the grandmothers are learning how to use the Yahoo Messenger.

Some are travelling in the real world, others in an imaginary one. Whatever the case may be, we have to notice that a reorganized space signifies a reorganized body, another body, another self. Once again, more than ever, we are under the influence of Rimbaud’s statement: “Je est un autre”. Actually, even more than that, because in the same letter in which the French poet stated the “I is an other”, he writes: “It’s false to say: I think. One should say: one thinks me”6.

A first version of this text was presented to the “Contemporary Debates in Anthropology” course at Laval University (October 2005). Acknowledgments: My special thanks to Simona Dumbravă, Sebastian Jivan, and Felix Vogel for their comments on this text.

1. Original text in French: “J’veux plus survivre,j’veux vivre!”
2. The causes of their multiplication is due to the recapitalization explained by the economical major changes during those years and to the need to build a “fortress” in places as Nairobi and Mexico City, because of the risks involved by the militarization of these cities (LeGoix 2005).
3. In fact, in the interviews made by Setha Low(2003) in the gated communities of New York and San Antonio, the fear shows through the recordings in an evident way: the subjects speak about the fear to take useless risks, fear of death and diseases, etc.
4. See, for example, the recent report of the Romanian Soros Foundation, on the migration effects on children’s behaviour in Romania (Toth, Toth et al. 2007).
5. In this very sense, one of the authors of the last “Urbania”, a Montreal magazine, writes: “You can do the tour of the world; see all the cities of the universe. But this is not so important. What really counts is where you will stop”. Original text in French: “Tu peux faire le tour du monde, voir toutes les villes de l’univers. Mais c’est pas tellement important. Ce quicompte, c’est o_ t’arr_tes” (Simard 2007).
6. Original text in French: “C’est faux de dire: Jepense. On devait dire: On me pense.”



Augé M., 2003, „Nouveaux mondes”:  127-175 [I 193-195, in M. Augé, Pour une anthropologie des mondes contemporains. Paris, Flammarion.

Bauman Z., 1998, „Tourists and  vagabonds”:77-102, in Z. Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences.

New York, Columbia University Press. Bourdieu P., 1993, „Effets de lieu”: 249-261, in P. Bourdieu (dir.), La misère du monde. Paris, Seuil.

Bourgois P., 1993, „Homeless in El Barrio”: 317-336, in P. Bourdieu (dir.), La misère dumonde. Paris, Seuil.

Legendre P., 2004, Ce que l’Occident ne voitpas de l’Occident. Paris, Mille et une nuits.

Le Goix R., 2005, „La dimension territoriale desgated communities aux Etats-Unis. La clôturepar contrat”, Cercles, 13: 97-121.

Low S. M., 2003, „The Edge and the  Center: Gated Communities and the Discourse of Urban Fear”: 385-407, in S.

M. Low [i D.Lawrence-Zuniga (eds.), The Anthropology ofSpace and Place. Oxford, Blackwell.

Matache A., 2007, „Vecin\tatea `n limiteleansamblurilor reziden]iale `nchise tip gated communities”, Eurobarometru vizual, un proiectal Centrului Interna]ional pentru Art\Contemporan\. Document consultat online,, `n noiembrie 2007

Rimbaud A., 1975, „Lettre à Georges  Izambard du 13 mai 1871”: 112-114, in G. Schaeffer,Lettres du voyant (13 et 15 mai 1871). Genève,Droz.

Simard M., 2007, „Tu peux frencher un gars à Memphis”, Urbania, 17: 25. Toth G., A. Toth et al., 2007, Efectele migra] iei: copiii r\ma[i acas\, un proiect al Funda] iei Soros Rom=nia. Document consultat online,, `n noiembrie 2007.