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Beyond a Sense of Place

Beyond a Sense of Place

June 22, 2006

Recently I have been gathering an editorial board for a new online journal. My intention was for the journal to be international in scope, but the majority of the early board members happened to be from the United States, which is no surprise, given its preponderance of researchers. It wasn’t too long before the board started to become more international in its representation and I began to feel more confident that the journal would be able to reflect other regions and their particular voices. Many journal editors recruit internationally, correctly assuming diversity to be important. But then I began to wonder what particular voice could I offer if some editorial manager sought to recruit me? How much does my “region” actually inform my research, my identity?

I was born, raised and educated in England, but never really felt English. Part of this was a political response: Being brought up in a militantly left-wing and anti-monarchist household, and also being one of “Thatcher’s children” instilled in me a certain disdain for all things British. But aside from this it never really occurred to me to include “national identity” as a variable of my “personal identity.” After university, like many lucky 20somethings, I spent a year or so backpacking, missing nothing of England and feeling increasingly “international.” After a couple more years in England I married someone from New Zealand, where I am engaged in Ph.D. research.

So, to the hypothetical recruiting editorial manager looking for a representative voice from the Pacific, will you find one in me? Probably not. Despite having spent several years in New Zealand I have no special feel for the place: there is nothing in my research about masculinity and spirituality that is explicitly informed by my residence in New Zealand. But nor could I be a representative voice for England, which arguably shaped me, having not been there for some time and being remarkably disengaged from English current affairs. My voice is representative of no particular place, yet perhaps also of multiple places: almost stateless, I am something of a gypsy.

Let me take you down a rather romantic path, for I am indeed a gypsy boy: My maternal grandmother was the last of a bona fide line of gypsies. She spent her girlhood in a caravan, the ornately decorated kind you imagine when picturing gypsies. She felt the stigma society placed on gypsies and opted to leave the road for the stability of a life in a brick house. In my boyhood (as is still the case) that stigma was very much alive and I have vivid memories of the hostility gypsies would receive when they would occasionally inhabit a local patch of rough land, or even the school playing field during the summer holidays. I never found out about my gypsy lineage until my late teens: My mother opted to keep it from me, to save me the abuse of being taunted at school, of being labeled a thieving gyppo or pikey. So perhaps I have some genetic memory of being stateless, of defining identity by action rather than place, or at least of the instability and fluidity of place.

Some attention, although not enough, has been given to notions of identity among migrants, refugees and other people who, because of economics, war or some other trauma are no longer resident in their homeland. These peoples’ statelessness, understandably, is a wound to be healed, a wrong to be righted. But my statelessness is not located at the oppressed end of a power dynamic: I am not  disadvantaged by my geographical movement, nor troubled by an identity that some might consider to be in limbo. Yet my identity is a shifting category, which keeps me on the margin: I don’t really fit in giving a paper at a local conference focusing on Pacifica, yet in an overseas context I appear “from” the Pacific region.

There is one place where I feel I do belong, like I have a “right” to pass the comment, ”look, I’ve been here a long time and think it’s fair to say....” That place is the Internet. Around 95 percent of my research is done online; I’ve only met 2 of the 40 people involved in the journal I’m organizing. I know the Internet, enough to pass inconspicuously as a local -- the online equivalent of using a regional colloquialism or drinking the right kind of beer from the right kind of glass. Rather than a communication device, I consider the Internet a place, one in which you can be “local” in Jamaica, Finland or the Philippines.

But so what? What does this actually mean? The answer is twofold. First, we need to start thinking more of the Internet as a place rather than a tool. It is a diverse place of many languages and cultures, but a place nonetheless. In our approach to scholarship we should consider the Internet a region like South-East Asia or Latin America and expect to hear some voices articulating positions that are comparably unique. These voices are unique not simply by using email and browsing, but because the Internet is their primary place of work, and their research is informed by its topography, politics, limitations, and potential.

Secondly, somewhat paradoxically, in the physical world we should resist putting too much emphasis on location as a primary defining category. I’m not for a moment suggesting different locations and particular voices are unimportant or are in some way to be transcended: Difference is, after all, identity. Rather, to give some pause for thought about what and where people are actually representative of. If we assume too much about the particularity and voice of any given place, especially if that place is outside North America or Europe, there is a danger of limiting that voice to a position that is similar to not hearing it at all. So I ask that next time you scan the editorial board of a journal, you resist the temptation to conclude too much from the members’ locations, and to see if you can identify anyone indigenous to the Internet.

Bio

Joseph Gelfer is a Ph.D. student at Victoria University of Wellington and managing editor of the Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality.

 

 

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