Occupy Wall Street

September 29, 2011

Something that has come up twice so far in my Geographies of Globalisation class this semester is the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is a very interesting development because a big (but obviously not the only!) part of trying to think geographically entails identifying objects that don’t seem to fit into a particular location – objects that stand out, that deviate from some sort of a pattern – and then trying to understand what might be the significance of their presence there.

As such, it should be of general interest to geographers when we see protestors (perhaps wearing casual clothes like jeans, caps, and ‘hoodies’) standing and shouting outside the glass and steel offices of large, multinational investment banks or stock brokers, in a place, that is, where we don’t usually see them; a place in which the normal dress, say, is smart formal and the only shouting to be heard (and I’m definitely having to hazard a guess here) might be the call of one broker to another: ‘Buy US bonds, dump Euros’.

So the protestors stand out. Intentionally, of course. And in doing so, in being present and loud and an obstruction to the daily business of the investors, traders, brokers and numerous other workers in Wall Street, they force us to ask why they are there. In this sense, then, their action is working: they are drawing attention to the place in which they are protesting; forcing us all to ask what might be wrong with the normal daily practices that occur in this place, in Wall Street? What is it that happens here that compel thousands of people to attempt to occupy it? Why not ‘Occupy Times Square’? Or ‘Occupy Brooklyn Bridge’? Clearly, it is Wall Street’s location within the constellation of financial deals, movements, and trades that matters. It is the centrality of Wall Street, its position at the heart of all the decisions contributing to the crises that seem to be coming together now and chopping away at our standards of living, our means of social reproduction. So while Times Square and what it represents isn’t by any means irrelevant to the crises we are dealing with, the occupation movement is focusing on Wall Street because it is within that small area that so many decisions affecting us all are made; and it is in Wall Street that so many of the beneficiaries of those decisions – the 1%, the richest 1% of the US population – make or keep their money. Occupying Wall Street therefore helps to focus our attention on the uneven geographical development of capitalism, on the power that seems to get concentrated in a few relatively small areas, and the problematic way in which that power is often exercised. Standing in the street and shouting, being somewhere you’re not welcome, can achieve a lot. [Sorry, but I don’t want to take on the question of whether it’s enough.]

Of course, there are, without any question, lots of other reasons why this is an interesting development. There’s the emphasis on claiming back public spaces, the desire to use open general assemblies to make decisions, the explicit effort to combine rallies on the streets with an online campaign, and much more. Look out for the inevitable outpouring of Geography journal articles on the topic in the next few years!

Let me now finish this by posting a few links to further information:

* An unofficial but certainly updated and rich resource is the following web site: https://occupywallst.org/

* There’s a live stream with a good chatroom on the right in which to interact here.

* The Guardian has a section dedicated to the developments here.

* The Real News and Democracy Now have been offering some decent coverage

* Adbusters are definitely on this one.

* There are some interesting comments and great pics at Juan Cole’s blog.

* You can follow a lot of what’s going on from Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/OccupyWallSt

* There’s even some scope for fans of celebrity culture to have fun occupying Wall Street. Big time (early 1990s?) comedian Roseanne Barr has been on site and Susan Sarandon has spoken there. The one and absolutely only Russell Simmons has also spoken, as has Lupe Fiasco, who has featured elsewhere in this blog.

* Finally, I suppose there must be some way to use Facebook to follow it all but without having joined the 10% of the human race already on FB, I can’t make any suggestions here..

Alistair Fraser

The geographical imagination of Luka Bloom

September 26, 2011

There are very many geographical themes and metaphors in the songs of Luka Bloom. (1) If we take Geography as being concerned with, to paraphrase Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the study of the Earth as our home and if we follow the common practice of identifying Space, Place, and Environment as the fundamental building blocks of geographical theory, then, Luka Bloom’s art is profoundly geographical.

Let me begin with environment or nature. About half the songs written by Luka Bloom have nature as a direct concern or a central metaphor. Antinuclear politics are evident in several songs including, ‘Rainbow Warrior’, a celebration of the Greenpeace campaign to end French nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean. There is also a surprising commentary upon the environmental damage wrought by consumerism expressed in a song of respect for a homeless man whose ‘CO2 emissions are pretty much zero […] a model urban citizen’ unlike the singer for ‘if everyone lived like me, we’d need about four planets just to keep it all going’ (‘Homeless’). Metaphors drawn from nature are ubiquitous from the contemplation of endless change in ‘Here and Now’, to the comparison of the fever of love to the rush of a rain in ‘Love is a Monsoon’. There are dozens more and certain motifs return. For a child of the Midlands, Bloom has a perhaps surprising love of the sea. ‘Moonslide’ treats the plunge of commitment as akin to swimming while ‘Salt Water’ treats swimming in the sea as perhaps an activity out of time that releases someone, at least for a time, from the claims of history. There is something pagan and pantheistic about the reverence for nature in these songs. It is ‘[o]utside the churchyard walls’ that one Sunday, the singer offers the sacrament of song, for ‘[e]very note is sacred | Every word’s a little prayer | As the blackbird’s call | Or the last leaf’s fall’ (‘Sunday’). In ‘The shape of love to come,’ the singer remarks that ‘[p]eople are leaving God’s houses | Looking for footprints in the sand’ and goes on to anticipate a love of nature celebrated in the open air of a circle rather than the cloistered space of a church.

If place is a sort of effect produced by people being in each other’s presence, then, as we know, this can produce a strong sense of rootedness although that is certainly not the only form of place that matters. Luka Bloom was born in Newbridge, Kildare. The region features in several of his songs. I just described as a broadly pagan account of the worship of nature, ‘The shape of love to come,’ yet the song also recalls Brigid with her ‘cell of oak’ and Luka Bloom has shown a particular reverence for the memory of the patron saint of Kildare. In 1995 he was involved with a music festival associated with St Brigid’s feastday, ‘singing The Curragh of Kildare to accompany the lighting of St Brigid’s flame on the Hill of Allen’ although in talking of this event he made a fairly secular pitch for tourism: ‘[t]he fire has been lit and there’s no going back […]. From now on we have to make sure that Kildare is seen as a place to come to rather than to come through.’ (2) More recently, in praise of Maura ‘Soshin’ O’Halloran (1955-82), a young Irish-American woman who trained as a Buddhist monk in Japan but who then died in a coach crash while on her way back to Ireland to set up a Zen centre, Luka Bloom offered that ‘She could have become a 20th Century Brigid.’ (3) The Brigid that he cherishes in ‘Don’t be afraid of the light that shines within you’ has more to do with nature and the seasons than with any specifically Christian witness and it is perhaps the goddess Brigid who rather presides over his prayer: ‘[o]ut of the cold, dark winter space | We come together, looking for Brigid’s grace | We dip our open hands deep into the well.’

Kildare as a place is championed in the very funny, ‘I’m a bogman,’ a song which challenges what the singer feels as the condescension of so many towards the Midlands, a place with ‘[n]othing to do for the body | Nothing to do for head.’ For Luka Bloom, though, the bog promises ‘[t]urf smell’ that ‘warms hearts | ’Til the huggin’ and kissin’ starts | Bog love surrounds you | A beautiful place to come to.’ He even called one of his albums, ‘Turf’ (1994).

There is an achingly beautiful evocation of place in another song that relates place to memory, to death, and to continuity. In ‘Sanctuary’, Luka Bloom contrasts the ‘calm’ of the Kildare fields with the ‘shock’ of time passing, as registered in the ‘loss’ of someone very dear to the singer. But he can ‘leave daffodils where you lie’ and be warmed by a memory that is as ‘[a]n easy voice making everything all right | Sanctuary.’ A sense of rootedness is produced by the association of one’s co-presence with someone very dear in that place, and then of one leaving that person’s body into the soil of that place. Yet, not all is dead and interred with their bones. In another arresting elegy, ‘The man is a alive’, he sings of being ‘brought up near the riverside | In a quiet Irish town | An eighteen-month-old baby |the night they laid my daddy down.’ This did indeed happen (4) but in the song Luka Bloom finds that his father is yet alive, ‘[a]live and breathing | The man is alive in me.’ If the son brings the father with him, so will home, place and people also travel. In ‘Tribe’, Luka Bloom asserts that ‘[h]ome’s a place inside, I take it with me | I meet my tribe wherever I may be.’ This conclusion was wrested from the strict schoolmaster of the open road and it recalls directly the central chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses where another Bloom, Leopold, the Irish-Jewish man, is baited with the question, ‘But do you know what a nation means?’ (5) In the song, Luka Bloom is dissatisfied with those who ‘stand saluting, saying this is who I am | A piece of cloth, a field, an island’ and recalling that ‘Joyce lies in Zurich, Beckett lies in France’ asks ‘[w]hat anthem has the tune to their dance’ before posing the rhetorical question, ‘[w]ho is my tribe, is it only green | Or is it the rainbow of my dreams.’

Those dreams were, in large part, ‘Dreams in America.’ The wisdom of ‘Tribe’ comes from travel, diversity of experience, and the different lessons to be learned from the various ways of living of different people in different places. Recalling among other things perhaps, W. B. Yeats criticism of the fanatic that ‘[h]earts with one purpose alone | Through summer and winter seem | Enchanted to a stone,’ (6) an early song about leaving Ireland used the image of the ‘Treaty Stone’, to represent Ireland. (7) Although the Treaty Stone recalls the conquest of 1691, the notion of an Ireland ossified by an inglorious treaty could as easily apply to the state of politics in the Republic at the time that the song was published (1978) with the contending parties of national politics claiming to distinguish themselves from each other on the basis of their attitude towards the Treaty that created the Irish Free State in 1921. In the song, he promises soon to ‘leave the treaty | Say goodbye to the stone’ admitting only that he is ‘sometimes sad to go.’ In another early song, ‘Mother, father, son’, a son tells his parents that he has no wish to go back to their home, ‘[n]o I won’t go back there | Not this time’ for ‘[c]hasing wealth and discipline | Have been your only goals’ and he can no long live with the injunction to ‘[h]ide your feelings.’ In his mid twenties he spent time in Holland but in his early thirties, he left Ireland for the United States and Barry Moore now became Luka Bloom, after the affecting Suzanne Vega song about child abuse, ‘My name is Luka,’ and the pacifist hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom.

Using the relations between how life is lived at different locations to think about proper conduct is certainly to invoke the geographical framework of space. One of the songs on his first album as Luka Bloom concerned a Chilean exile, ‘Rodrigo’, living in the United States but who is drawn home by fond memories. But he arrives to find the place turned into a charnel house by the vicious military and ‘[o]ne young Chilean soldier smiles to his friends |And douses Rodrigo’s body in gasoline.’ Nostalgia is a treacherous siren. Safe in New York, Luka Bloom took pleasure in being ‘An Irishman in Chinatown’: ‘[s]he says “I come from China” | I says “I’m from Ireland” | And “Isn’t this a fine small world.”’ A ‘fine small world’, indeed, and several songs from this period give a sense of comparisons being made. In ‘100,000’, he explains why illegal Irish workers want to stay in the United States since back home in Ireland is no place for ‘a young lad | there is only bitching and begrudging and there’s no jobs.’ In ‘Colourblind’, he sings of ‘[a] rainbow of faces’ that ‘walks alongside me, right beside me.’ The melting pot of New York promises a chance to ‘let go of all the pain I left behind,’ to ‘leave my Irishness at home,’ to ‘leave all sense of race behind | To be among you colourblind.’ But four years in the United States was enough and he sang in ‘This is your country’ of feeling a ‘tug […] | Inside your heart’ which recalls the happy days of youth ‘[b]efore the age of the cruel and the unkind’ and which ‘is your country waiting for you | Come back home.’

But a mind enriched by life in Europe, in the United States, and soon nourished also by extended stays in Australia, would not confront Ireland in quite the same way as before. Local engagements could now be nourished with foreign experience.

Rosa Parks, 1956

Thus in ‘Freedom Song’, the attempted eviction of a Dublin traveler community is resisted by one woman who stood her ground to assert her dignity and her dream that her children should be ‘loved | As Irish brothers and sisters by and by’ and in the song Nan Joyce is inspired directly by the example of Rosa Parks with her comparable fight for fair treatment on behalf of African-Americans through the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama: ‘[s]he lit the flame and the fire is still burning | Inside every heart that’s longing to be free.’ (8)

Nan Joyce and her family, 1971

In ‘Gypsy music,’ he turns the comparison around and uses the freedom and mobility of the traveler lifestyle as a new paradigm for the post-1989 Europe where ‘[a]ll the old walls are tumbling down | Bringing us freedom for moving around.’ The mobility of movement in space is a very important imaginative resource in Luka Bloom’s songs. In ‘Change’, he enjoys ‘the moment of change […] when the road is clear.’ Just as he celebrates freedom as movement, so that means he accepts the immigrant as readily as he does the emigrant. With the brilliant phrase, ‘No matter where you go, there you are,’ Luka Bloom knits together space and place. In this marvelous song, a young Muslim forced out of his country by his refusal to go to war, finds a new home in the sound of the Irish music he first hears in Paris and that he follows to Galway, ‘[f]or the music in his spirit, is his shelter and his home | Mohammed’s fir ignited with the ancient jigs and reels.’

These connections and comparisons between here and there might be thought of as a sort of spatial moral imagination. With ‘I am not at war with anyone,’ Luka Bloom insists that he doesn’t ‘need to be friends with everyone |But I’d like to live in peace with everyone | This rush to war is wrong | And so I sing this song | I am not at war with anyone.’ In ‘Listen to the hoofbeat,’ Luka Bloom sings of a Native American ‘medicine man’ who brings the tribes together, calling for ‘[s]haking off ancient pains’, ‘a wiping of tears’ and thereby ‘mending the sacred hoop.’ The relevance to Ireland was only implicit in that song but has been explicit in some of Luka Bloom’s newer songs about Irish history. He invites people to set past hurts aside for there is little to be gained in ‘[c]ounting our sins on the path to forgiveness | Hoping we’re heard by a merciful witness.’ Far better, as in the title of the song, to engage with ‘Right here, right now.’ Making peace with the past is the only way to engage fully with the present and in ‘Forgiveness’ he sings of the ‘[o]ne word’ which ‘[b]rings freedom home at last’: ‘Forgiveness … | For the ancient wounds still hurting | For the wrongs I’ve never known | For all the children left to die | Near fields where corn was grown.’ In ‘The miracle cure,’ he promises ‘[n]o losers, no winners | In forgiveness | Together we’re free.’

It may be that only someone who spent time away from Ireland could put forgiveness and the famine in the same song, only the imagination of space and not just place could recognize that much hurt is indeed for wrongs that the present generation has never truly known. This fierce adherence to nonviolence has been nurtured by the travels of Luka Bloom. It has been fed by his appreciation in the United States of the achievements of the civil rights movement there, and has also been watered by Buddhist teaching. Luka Bloom has great respect for the Dalai Lama and has not only written a song about him, ‘As I waved goodbye,’ but also has performed the song as the curtain raiser for the monk’s Australian concerts. In ‘Primavera’ Luka Bloom continues with his reflections upon the need to cultivate an ethic of nonviolence as the only salve for ‘this cold, dogmatic world | Where the righteous are on song | They talk God on every side | And all humility is gone.’ Cultivating humility through experience is part of this troubadour’s métier and while ‘Background Noise’ dramatizes doubt – ‘[w]hat the hell do I know– | Crying out for love,’ it also gives the reassurance of lofty ambition – ‘[w]e all need a new speech– | The words of love.’ There is true grandeur in the geographical imagination of Luka Bloom.

Gerry Kearns

(1)  I have given a listing of Luka Bloom songs on our Department website. I also give there links to the lyrics for most of the songs, and to live or radio performances of many of them (from Youtube).

(2)  Katie Donovan, ‘Kildare festival remembers St Brigid,’ Irish Times (3 February 1995) 2.

(3)  Quentin Fottrell, ‘Reviews, cues and predictions,’ Irish Times (3 January 2009) B16. Luka Bloom has himself written a song in her honour, ‘Soshin.’

(4)  Andrea Smith, ‘Brothers striking a chord: Christy Moore and Luka Bloom have inspired each other through lives filled with music,’ Sunday Independent (9 August 2009).

(5)  James Joyce, Ulysses (London: Bodley Head, 1986 [first edition, 1922]) ch.12, l. 1419.

(6)  W. B. Yeats, ‘Easter, 1916’ [1916], ll 41-3, in idem, The Poems (London: Everyman, 1990) 229.

(7)  The Treaty Stone is in Limerick and is reputedly the surface on which the treaty of 1691 was signed.

(8) Nan Joyce is a traveller woman who has collected songs and stories and whose life story has been published: Nan Joyce, Traveller: An autobiography (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1985). There is a discussion of this book in Paul Delaney, ‘Sean Maher and Nan Joyce,’ Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 93:372 (2004) 461-472. Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was a civil rights activist in the United States who began a boycott of local buses in Montgomery, Alabama, when, on 1 December 1955, she refused to move out of a seat in the whites-only (front) part of the bus when asked. You can watch an inspiring interview with her here. The photograph of Nan Joyce and her family is from the George Gmelch Collection, South Country Dublin Libraries, http://hdl.handle.net/10599/7594. The photograph of Rosa Parks is a United Press photo from the New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/083_afr.html#ParksR. It shows Ms Parks sitting at the front of the bus after the Supreme Court ruling of 1956 confirmed her right to do so.

Song Maps

September 25, 2011

“Temiar rain forest dwellers of peninsular Malaysia sing their maps: theoretically, in their epistemology of song composition and performance; melodically, in contours of pitch and phrasing; textually in place-names weighted with memory. They inscribe crucial forms of knowledge in song: medical, personal, social, historical, geographic.”

Marina Roseman, ‘Singers of the landscape, p. 106 (1).

Songs can be maps. In a fascinating article, Marina Roseman describes the many ways Temiar songs of the 1920s and 1930s expressed an acute understanding of the historical geography of their situation. In poetic, and thus heightened, language they gave an account of the reduction of their magical kingdom to a British colonial possession open for mining and plunder. They dramatized losing control over their lives in songs that enacted a sort of cultural death both in the strangled delivery and in the description of their homeland as no longer a shelter but now a prison or coffin. But in lamenting the loss of their ancestry in songs that rehearsed again local place names and their significance, the songs walked the listeners through a landscape saturated with the kind of historical significance out which claims to nationhood are frequently crafted. Yet because their lives were folded intimately into the landscape through gardening, hunting and gathering, rather than by extensive forest clearance, it was all too easy for the British colonial rulers and later the government of independent Malaysia to treat them as not having properly broken the land into the units of absolute property rights.

Yet the inert fields of a property map are utterly inadequate in the face of the multiple ways Temiar people weave their lives through the human and non-human, the animal and plant, the mundane and the spirit worlds: “[t]he forest becomes a social space when networks of association are established between humans and spirits, who then become parents with children, students with teachers, mediums with spirit guides” (Roseman, p. 111). For example, the Temiar understand sickness as a sort of dissolution with the soul (head) leaving the body (trunk) to dwell elsewhere in the forest. Singing someone back to health involves performing the path that, guided by a spirit, can lead above the forest canopy to the part of the forest when the absent soul now awaits the seductive call of the singer and chorus which might yet bring it back to the body that so desperately needs it. But the forest as the dwelling-place of the spirits of the elders whose bodies now rest in graves is also, then, a cultural patrimony and by singing of the many ways the forest and specifically named places within the forest have cooperated in sustaining the life of the community with plants, fish, and animals, the Temiar perform their right to the continued use of the forest within the significant territorial range of the village group and because the song of the landscape is a collective or communal effort so too the assertion of usufruct rights is likewise a communal and not an individual matter. In the organic promiscuity of the rainforest, the vanity of human artefacts are all too evident, or rather inevident. Not churches, or monuments but, rather, fruit trees are the most lasting of the traces of the human transformation of first into second nature. Villages name the individual fruit trees and it is these tree-names that are the place names collated and hymned in Temiar song, alongside the even more permanent and independent rivers and mountains. The songs to the fruits are thus an assertion of communal or village rights to use the second nature crafted through planting and caring.

The Temiar people are now refugees beyond the frontier of earlier colonial and now independent-state invasion by capitalist resource extraction. They are a people who have tried what James Scott in a brilliant book has called The art of not being governed (2). In happier times they lived alongside the settled peoples of the lowlands but palm oil and rubber have produced a fury on the part of invaders, a fury to integrate the Temiar people into states, to privatize their communal lands into resources that can be sold to logging companies, and to re-cast the Temiar people as tax-paying proletarians forced to tap rubber to satisfy a predatory state and their own subsistence needs. Yet the conquest is incompleted and elements of their former ‘relatively nonviolent, exquisitely poetic, yet utterly practical relationship with one another, their environment, and their cosmos’ still survive (Roseman, p.117). Their song maps are no mere nostalgia and for yet a while might be heard as an articulate claim for respect, for some protection from the commodification of everything, for continued use rights over parts of the forest so that they can make their own ‘deliberate and informed choices about their future’ (Roseman, p. 118).

Gerry Kearns

(1)  Marina Roseman, ‘Singers of the landscape: Song, history, and property rights in the Malaysia rainforest,’ American Anthropologist 100 (1998) 106-121.

(2)  James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

Geography and Photography: A Recent Example

September 2, 2011

Geographers can draw upon a range of tools and resources to illuminate spatial processes. These can include statistical datasets, policy documents, historical archives, and literature. In addition to word-based texts, the use of images is also a key way in which geographers make sense of the world. Images never only offer us a glimpse of ‘reality’, but are key ways in which power relations and social processes are expressed and constructed. As Gillian Rose (2007, 2) suggests in her book Visual Methodologies, “…images are never transparent windows onto the world. They interpret the world; they display it in very particular ways”.

Geographers could use images, such as those used in advertising, to explore, for example, how gender norms are constructed; in relation to body size, sexuality etc. Alternatively, geographers could look at political campaign posters to examine how particular policy issues and ideological positions are constructed as being important and given a certain slant. In addition, images can also be potent geographical tools for expressing spatial processes at work, and can be used in conjunction with geographical analysis to provide a deeper understanding of these practices.

Anthony Haughey’s series of photographs of ghost estates, Settlement, offers a good example. In providing a visual record of these places, Haughey’s photographs offer a geographical text. As I suggested in an introduction to the series published in photographic journal Source:

“These are decidedly modern landscape photographs that also allow themselves to be haunted by Ireland’s past. The images foreground the natural environment – the grass, soil, and rock – and visualise the developments as disordering the topography. The absence (or oblique traces) of human life in the photographs highlights the uncanny decoupling of these houses from their function as places of dwelling. They evoke not so much the intrusion of people into the unspoilt landscape, but the incursion of a more senseless and arbitrary capitalism, itself decoupled from the basic premise of supply and demand. As such, they offer a fitting visual metaphor for the property boom, a record of the tangible material affects of the international financial crisis and Ireland’s entangled property crash”

You can see the collection of photographs here.

Cian O’Callaghan


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 201 other followers

%d bloggers like this: