Ghosts in the Shadows
In the first week of February this year , students at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, UCL, Oxford and Cambridge all woke up to the news that their campuses had been littered with anti-Semitic leaflets, promoting holocaust denial. It shortly became apparent that the universities had all received the same material, and were the targets of a coordinated effort. Institutions were quick to forcefully condemn the action, but under these strong rebuffs rang a deep sense of horror. Only shortly before, the Trump White House had neglected any mention of Jewish victims in its Holocaust Memorial Day statement, drawing praise from white-supremacist and anti-Semitic groups. But beyond this chilling move from the administration of the world’s major superpower, the tone of the leaflets threw up broader resonances. Following the Brexit vote and the US elections, waves of racially motivated hate crimes, attacks, and graffiti swept across cities and towns. Swastikas were suddenly found across university campuses, on subways, in town centres. Mosques were burned down, and hijabi women assaulted on the street. Ghosts from a dark past were rushing up to haunt us.
Neo-Nazi political movements are nothing new. Nor is violent xenophobia, or anti-Islamism. But when we’ve encountered them in certain periods in the past, we’ve been able to dismiss them with greater confidence. These were the beliefs of radicals, zelots, terrorists. Nowadays we don’t seem so sure. Language which was once a part of the arsenal of fringe movements have proven its worth as mainstream political currency – tropes of conniving, greedy foreigners threatening to overrun us seem to sell like never before.
There can be no one account of the present moment. Those who talk about spiralling inequality have just as much to say as those who talk about the way certain groups have come to feel left out of a liberal global order, or those who trace the long history of using race and foreignness as ways of talking about and diverting attention from more complex questions of economics and politics. Yet, as an urbanist, I am drawn to just how public this haunting is – how these menacing images from the past are being plastered over public space, and how the idea of nation that they fight over is a fundamentally public notion.
By plastering pamphlets, making a speech, spraying graffiti in public, or even simply by invoking the nation in rhetoric, one is doing more than just expressing a political stance. Such actions attempt to lay claim to collective space and collective imaginations. They do not speak as ‘I’, but as ‘we’. Those who speak back, those who protest in public, occupying city streets, or walking out of work, counter with different definitions of what ‘us’ means, of who ‘we’ are. Physical public spaces play a fundamental role, as they become a key medium on which these competing claims are scrawled, sometimes literally. Public spaces belong to all of us, and so what is done with them, or to them, implicates us all. It’s when ostensibly fringe politics spills out into public that we begin to become apprehensive, because it’s public presence suddenly suggests that it might not be so fringe anymore. Who’s behind the hateful leaflets, the disturbing graffiti – just one or two individuals, or hundreds or thousands? Are they ‘us’? Could they be?
It’s not unusual to see public space as alive with the presence of others in this way. The anthropologist Alfred Gell famously suggested that we read the signs and symbols around us – especially the particular striking ones – as pointing to particular actors behind them. A painting suggests a painter, a world of experience and thought brushed onto canvas. A building suggests an architect and inhabitants. A steely façade may conjure to mind no-nonsense efficiency and tightly cinched ties, and we hurry past, while the open spaces and inviting lines of a city square tell us that this is a place where others are welcome to stop, and that we too can join them. And a leaflet will conjure up the suggestion of an author, a distributor, a whole movement perhaps, all lurking behind the page.
Yet not all such figures are so spectral. If you familiarise yourself with a particular place, with its people and its rhythms, the public traces you’ll find will likely bring to mind full, complex, relatable human beings. For a pearl-clutching outsider, graffiti may be the marker of a generically ‘rough’ neighbourhood. But someone well-acquainted with the area will be able to see the expressive intent behind it, to hear the sorts of voices and conjure up the sorts of faces of those who might leave such tags. And this familiarity will lead to more nuance. They’ll be able to read the difference between restless youth having some fun on building walls, artistically minded hipsters producing something for a mass audience, and a drug dealer marking their territory. They’ll not only see traces leading to others, but understand whether they can relate to them and how. To the outsider, the graffiti conjures a ghost – an unknown presence brimming with unknown potential. To the local, the graffiti conjures Michel. He lives two streets down, and he’s a nice kid. Bit cheeky, likes to be in charge and can cuss up a storm, but a nice kid.
This leaves us with a paradox. Our ability to dismiss particular claims on the public is strengthened when we know the people making the claims. The outsider takes the graffiti all too seriously, the local does not. Anti-Semitic, racist, hateful markings made on public space are so harrowing because they invoke presences many of us thought were confined to other places and times. They are haunting because we do know who is behind them, how supported they are, how we could ever sit down and talk with them.
When public space is defaced with racist insignia, or hateful material, or when threats of violence are made in public, we rightly dismiss the prospect of getting to know the instigators. They’ve shown themselves to be all too willing to discard any rights their targets might hold as human beings. It would be ludicrous to turn around and ask the targets and victims of such people to turn around and extend a hand of friendship, when they themselves have been threatened for doing little more than existing. Yet this leads to a double-bind. Just as the perpetrator become ghostly presences to us, so do we to them.
It’s no small wonder, then, that as we recede from transparent, accountable, public conversations into closed and cloistered channels of communication, that our engagement with our political opponents, whether radical or moderate, is becoming increasingly characterised by mutual vitriol, conspiracy-thinking and a fundamental unwillingness to listen.
Here, simple co-presence matters. Physical publics bring us into sometimes risky encounters with others, but they also force others to hold themselves accountable to us – to speak to our faces, not to our backs or our twitter avatars. A much older tradition of democratic politics, harkening back to ancient Greece, stresses the necessity of ‘anogism’ – think pro/antagonism, stripped of the pro or anti, leaving behind only the sense of a back-and-forth between different perspectives. This tradition does not square entirely with our modern approach to democracy grounded in fundamental rights. You can’t engage directly with political opponents and ensure all freedom from harm simultaneously. Yet it’s clear as well that we need to recover some of the lessons from this older tradition – to turn our publics, physical and virtual, back into common spaces where ghosts become human and where we are held accountable to one another. There are no easy answers as to how you do this while protecting the vulnerable. But it’s also clear that a full refusal to engage offers us no safety, but simply allows the presences of others to turn dark and ghostly.