Lost Cities and Losing oneself in the City

What if we gave up the wish to contain cities and citizenships?


Written by:

Kolar Aparna


Kolar Aparna has a background in the performing arts and human geography, and is currently working as a PhD researcher at the Nijmegen Center for Border Research (NCBR), Radboud University, NL.

The ambition to welcome newcomers within spaces of hos(ti)pitality1 [1] I use the term hostipitality borrowing from Derrida’s text under the same title (1999), in which he points to the troubling (etymological) relationships in the common origin hostis of both words: guest and enemy, and therefore between hospitality and hostility. For Derrida, hostility is implicated in hospitality, because in order to welcome a stranger, one re-asserts one-self as a sovereign authority to define the conditions of hospitality (see also: M. Dikeç, “Pera, peras, poros: longing for spaces of hospitality”, 2002). such as camps, asylum and detention centres is not only an assured formula for segregation, but it fuels fear amongst localities and (trans)national imaginaries.2 [2] The imagination of people in a camp (despite having different nationalities or different life trajectories as migrants) already predetermines an Us/Them relationship in an oppositional manner rather than a relationship that can be negotiated. It fundamentally conditions citizenship, (urban) identity and human relationship to space – where being lost is regarded as foreignness and strange(r)ness. It produces what I refer to as lost cities, where unpredictable human encounters are absent and thus unable to produce urbanity; it brutally criminalizes the condition of being lost, so that strange(r)ness needs to be integrated or disciplined. This article looks at everyday interactions between people in Nijmegen, which argues to take the condition of being lost seriously, especially when it concerns exiles, refugees and migrants. That is, to take their political potential and produce those cities-yet-to-come.

The City of Numbers?

A division between the insiders and outsiders of a city is not only defined by the inhabitants, but it is intrinsically intertwined with national and international geopolitics. Refugee camps that often become long-term residences for refugees are one manifestation of those complex relationships. They function as a spatial and social trap for those living there and for the broader urban processes outside of them. In the summer of 2015 a new refugee camp was constructed in the middle of a forest nearby the University of Nijmegen campus, at a site previously used to house soldiers during an annual four-day march. The fact that 3,000 refugees were to be housed in this temporary camp made me question the micro-politics of that number and the impossibility to relate to it. Numbers take away agency from both the refugees and from those who want to welcome them. A number presented as a natural phenomenon that is out of control creates fear around a massive inflow, but most importantly creates distance between us (the so-called insiders) and them (the outsiders). The language of natural phenomena used to describe migratory processes inherently denies the direct relationships between the refugee trajectories and global geopolitical and economic structures, intertwined territories of international relations, foreign policies, and even more so the relations of cross-border, trans-national and trans-local networks of familial, linguistic, religious and other relations between people.

outside camp heumensoord_justpeople

Standing at the border between the camp and the city, outside the Heumensoord refugee camp Nijmegen, Photo credit: justpeople.nl

In Nijmegen, before the construction of the camp, people had discussed the ways in which to welcome the 3,000 incoming refugees. Though, how does one welcome 3,000 people? This ambition is as equally impossible for a single individual, as it is for a citizen group or a state-based intervention. The idea of treating people from various backgrounds, age groups, with different pasts and future ambitions, trajectories, as well as socio-cultural practices, as if they were all the same is unrealistic and naive to the lived realities of the situation of refuge and its spatiality. According to anthropologist Arjun Appadurai there is a dangerous idea inherent to the modern nation-state. It is the idea of a national ethos, which relates to the statistical proportion of how many of them are among us and how this needs to be managed or curbed. It predetermines what he calls the geographies of anger based on the fear of small numbers.3 [3] Appadurai, A. 2010. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, In Bridge, G. & Watson, S. (eds). The Blackwell City Reader, 2nd edition, Wiley-Blackwell, UK Small, in this case, refers to minorities rather than the actual size of such groups. Not only does this idea produce geographies of anger and fear based on numbers, but it also normalizes imaginaries of human relations as boxed within spatial containers; in this case the nation-state with clearly demarcated borderlines, despite this being impossible in reality. This fuels the state-centric discourse of how many refugees are too many and what a country can or cannot handle, as well as discriminatory approaches labelled as ‘go back to your country’ targeted at migrants and refugees. Refugee camps also produce spatialities that resurrect national borders in ways that invert the gaze.4 [4] Instead of focusing one’s gaze solely on the newly arrived inhabitants, in the case of refugee camps the gaze is simultaneously also directed towards everyone else living in the city to prove their identity. They direct it onto the notion of who belongs and that of strange(r)ness, onto bodies and behaviours, on who is seen as us or them.

“You’re lost, aren’t you?” – Being lost as the condition of the stranger

As Ian Chambers lyrically writes: ‘…the border ushers in an instance of the exceptional state – each and everyone finds his or her biographical status and citizenship temporally suspended before being reconfirmed (or challenged) – it reveals, in the very intensity of its biopolitics, the underlying protocols that define and confine its own domestic population.’5 [5] Chambers, I. 2012. Foreword: A Line in the Sand. In Tijuana Dreaming, eds Josh Kun and Fiamma Montezemolo. Duke University Press ix-xix. Following this thought I would like to argue that spaces of exception such as refugee camps, asylum and detention centers do not target solely refugees, they bring the border back into all everyday interactions.

When the first buses of refugees were to arrive to Nijmegen, student, activist and citizen networks prepared slogans, banners, tea and coffee stalls to welcome the new inhabitants. I decided to go to the camp after work to do so as well. As I cycled along an empty path surrounded by a forest on one side and a deserted neighborhood on the other, I felt unprepared to enter the area of the camp alone. I was not sure what kind of emotional atmosphere to expect. Luckily I stumbled upon a fellow passer-by who also seemed to be headed to the same place. She appeared young and she was the only one walking in the direction where the camp was based. We got talking. She told me she was a student at the University of Nijmegen and wanted to welcome the newly arriving refugees. We went on to discuss the problems of the refugee camps and how they reproduce fear and prejudice based on segregation and processes of othering,6 [6] Othering is a process that identifies people as different from oneself or what is considered the social norm. It can define positions of domination and subordination. Read more. when she mentioned that she herself arrived to the Netherlands as a refugee some years ago and is fully aware of the problems common in the contexts of a refugee camp. She also told me what had happened to her just before we met, which is a telling example of how a refugee camp can reconstruct borders in an everyday interaction, not only towards the newcomers but also other inhabitants:

“I was walking towards the camp when a couple living in the neighborhood passed by. Looking at me, the man said:

-Je bent verdwaalt, hè? (You’re lost, aren’t you?)

In a very condescending and paternalistic way he assumed that I was one of the refugees from the nearby camp who was lost. I was not lost at all, but I could immediately sense what was driving his perception of me. It was not the first time people had identified me as a stranger who does not belong, despite the fact that I have lived here all my life. I felt provoked by his question and I responded rather instantaneously:

– Nee meneer, Ik ben niet verdwaalt. Spreek voor jezelf! (No Sir, I am not lost. Speak for yourself!)”

As I stood there listening to this story, I was deeply moved and I was confronted with the biopolitics of identification that spilled out into a regular spatial interaction. The border diffused into everyday space. The geopolitics of the camp not only produce imaginaries of us and them as separate and segregated entities, but also fuel a differentiating process in which everyone is subjected to interrogation. Despite living and growing up in the country for some years now, my companion was identified as the other in the context of the camp. Her response also highlights the problematic assumption of a homogenous us and them, who can be easily identified based on a stereotypical, often racialized notions of who is an insider and who is not. Such confrontations and exchanges bring to the fore the border as a position one takes in relating oneself to the other. In this case, within normative notions of the typical or ideal national citizen and the migrant. According to Appadurai, the uncertainties of such identifications are increasing with the growing migration across the global territory and problematize the simplistic binaries of us and them.

Rather than seen as strange or associated with the strangers (in this case refugees), I would argue that embracing the political potential of an ambiguous identity is crucial in the globalizing world.

Spaces of camps, detention and asylum centres, however, block potentials that emerge from being lost as a dynamic, lived, everyday, psycho-geographical experience. Instead, they reinforce relational binaries of familiar us versus lost them, which needs to be fundamentally questioned.

Being lost as migrant dérive of emancipatory possibilities

According to Situationists International, a movement initiated by a group of artists and theorists based in Paris between the 50s and the 70s,7 [7] Situationism emerged as an avant-garde movement that raised a critique on urban life that was being transformed as part of modernistic, consumer capitalistic-relations. They argued for transforming everyday urban life in ways that disrupted the monorhythms of urban life under capitalism in ways that aimed for blurring the boundaries between artistic practices and mundane everyday practices. it was necessary to disrupt the monotony of everyday life in consumerist capitalism in order to transform and reclaim urban environments as fundamentally driven by art and imagination. The condition of being lost was central to their idea of producing alternative cities. They called for the creation of everyday situations to transform capitalistic rhythms of everyday life in cities through wandering or drifting aimlessly. It was an art of getting lost led by one’s imagination. One of the techniques/theories they introduced was the concept of the dérive.

“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”8 [8] Debord, G. 1956. Theory of the Derive, Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956), reprinted in Internationale Situationniste #2 (December 1958), Translated by Ken Knabb Guy Debord

The dériver is a conscious and active actor moving through diverse urban ambiences with the intention of being drawn to the attractions of urban terrain. He or she is driven by the desire to change the meaning of urban space beyond the rational urge of modernistic planning and capitalist production and consumption. According to the Situationists, wandering with a certain aim to depart but not knowing one’s destination can open emancipatory possibilities in producing cities that urgently need to be reclaimed to overcome the alienation and boredom that comes with the highly planned itineraries of modern life. However, the bureaucracies of national border regimes (such as the requirement of visas, passports and (documented) citizenship) are unable to comprehend such wanderings and the condition of being lost. Unawareness is a fundamental circumstance in human relations that is often ignored and even dismissed in relation to migration and border regimes. One is assumed to plan one’s journey beforehand, expected to identify his or her purpose of travel (tourism, family visit, study or work) and to prove it with the relevant documents. During a visa interview or an asylum interview, one is forced to declare the purpose of crossing borders. It is never possible to answer ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I just wanted go somewhere’, and if one would answer so, it is most likely that the application would be rejected or one would be deported back to their country in the case of an asylum seeker. Questions such as ‘Where do you come from?’ and ‘Where do you wish to migrate to?’, which are often existential and difficult to answer, are understood as easily identifiable, fixed and rational. At the same time they are blind to the fundamental role of chance encounters and shifting purposes that drive lived practices of migration and inhabitance.

The State-centric notion of hospitality, in regard to migration in general and refugees in particular, is defined by criminalizing the condition of not knowing, which fails to acknowledge the uncertain itineraries of migrant trajectories. This definition also seems to ignore the fact that chance encounters as well as the coming together of people and things are central to urban transformation in the globalizing world, in which new identities and new relations reach beyond borders, fear and pity. Intimately more confronting are these uncertain itineraries as a part of globalization processes and are critical to moving towards urban spatialities that go beyond identities locked in fear of the other, fear of difference and ultimately fear of the cities yet to come.

In a similar vein, I argue, everyday geographies of undocumented migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and exiles, produce situations that break the normative assumptions of spatial relations and identities within nation states. They open a space for future configurations of unpredictable itineraries that disrupt the rational, instrumental logic of modernist, state-centric urban planning and border regimes. Rather than enclosing cities within fixed identities of us (as easily identifiable and known) and them (the lost other), opening up to the shifting nature of human relations allows the possibilities of building relationships based on solidarity, affective connections and polyrhythms towards ‘Cities-we-are-yet-to-imagine’.9 [9] Featured Image: Jullie Mehretu, Dispersion, 2012, © the artist and White Cube. Mehretu’s work combines architectural design, maps, in ways that highlight exclusion while bringing the divergent trajectories of people in cities together and as highly intertwined.


comments [2]

  1. Thank you for sharing the article, I found it a great bouncing off point for further inquiry.


    Ruth Garry

  2. interesting approach and connections, enjoyed to read your article.




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