This post appears in the City and Society Forum: Haunted Cityscapes: Critical Dialogues, edited by Derek Pardue and published 13 Feb 2018.
When the editors of City and Society asked me to write this piece and gave some examples of previous publications on ‘haunted landscapes’ to engage with, I was immediately taken by a couple of suggested topics: the “eeriness of city spaces after deindustrialization, collective memory about public architecture that is somehow unspeakable”. Both relate closely to my own research on Russian small-town rustbelt communities. Maura Finkelstein’s ‘Landscapes of Invisibility: Anachronistic Subjects and Allochronous Spaces in Mill Land Mumbai’ was an obvious choice as a companion piece to my own work.
Published in 2015 Finkelstein’s article shows how deindustrialization is not an obvious linear process. She explores experience of trauma through the gradual or sudden loss of working-personhood. This relates not only to a “question of mourning and nostalgia, but also one of economic insecurity for most of the global workforce.” Her fieldwork findings and reflections on Indian cotton spinners in Mumbai relate to discussions of precarity well beyond the purview of traditional blue-collar labor. Of particular interest is the literature that critically engages with the meaning of “precarious work” from a less Eurocentric perspective (for example Munck 2013, Paret 2016, and subsequent reflections, for example on China, South Africa and Russia).
The main question posed in Finkelstein’s article expresses what in my view is a chief task of urban ethnographers today: “What might a global history of contemporary labor transformation look like if the remaining workers and remnant spaces of industry are allowed visibility and voice alongside narratives of disappearance and scarcity?” One of the answers for Finkelstein is that a ‘sense of being a worker permeated every conversation’ with informants, even as they lost their jobs or were already primarily engaged in other labor. This leads to her adoption of the term “allochronous space” to describe Mumbai’s mills. They are still working spaces, even as the gentrified and ‘modern’ city of 21st century India encroaches on an industrial setting little changed since the 1960s and predicated on an economy of empire and the global flows of cotton dating from the mid-19th-century.
Finkelstein doesn’t use the term “haunting”, but certainly the idea of the spectre of 20th century urban industrial landscapes can be adopted to further elucidate key ideas about space and people as they appear “out of joint”. The term “hauntology” comes from research in popular cultural studies by Mark Fisher. Fisher used this term to link nostalgia about British 1970s popular culture of his youth to what he saw as the simultaneous pendulum swing towards the neoliberal, post-Fordist consensus. Michael Grasso’s reading of Fisher sees this transformation as leading “to a culture of retrospection and pastiche” typified by a particular form of consumption: “destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar?” For those growing up in the final stages of the previous period of full employment and widely enjoyed socio-economic rights and privileges, the subsequent period and present are experienced as a “unnatural”, “rigged”, or, in the words of Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a “slow cancellation of the future”. Like for the Mumbai mill workers, this is an example of “allochronically” experienced time, or at least diachronicity. The past expectations of the future are “cancelled”, yet the past, with its hopefulness, naïve beliefs, refuses to die in the present, even as the “majority” (the increasingly gentrified middle-class Mumbaikars) see in the mill workers and their factories, only ghosts of a time past.
How similar this sounds to the experiences of my Russian informants in a small deindustrialising town. I’ve written extensively about the multi-generational experience of workers there living out of joint. I call this an example of a social trauma of the unhomely present – disjoint and time, place and belonging. This is different from the acute trauma experienced by people living in big urban centres like Moscow in the period immediately during and after the extreme capitalist market reforms of the early 1990s, which is amply documented in both urban and rural anthropologies of postsocialism. But, in reality the processes of “restructuring” have stretched into the present, a period of more than 25 years and thus become a multi-generational experience. Hence, informants’ characterization of present time as a seemingly never-ending interval (the future is somehow never expected to arrive and the past socialist period is continually referred to as the time “before”). The sense of traumatically being out of synchrony with the times—that the present is somehow mocking and torturing a person—is experienced as an ongoing and growing process of trauma, rather than a single event. This idea of trauma as process in the postsocialist context really begins in Sergei Ushakin’s work (also spelled Oushakine). It also helps us think of “postsocialism” as an analytic concept of relevance to the present and to global neoliberal processes – see Borelli and Mattioli 2013, and Makovicky 2014.
How does this painful haunting show up in terms of the relationship between workers and the urban landscape? What first appeals about the Finkelstein piece is the physical immediacy of the ethnographic encounter with the industrial city, even in its decline. The mixture of dust and food smells, also unmistakable in the Russian context, is the reminder of the town’s industrial worth even in the present. The fine limestone easily turns to powder under the wheels of trucks on its unsealed roads. Second, the hulks of abandoned buildings are emblematically haunting, but also misleading. The photo of Mumbai in Finkelstein’s piece shows the domination of the shininess of modernity in the form of new housing, but, peering closer, we see the decrepit looking but still functioning mill buildings.
looks are deceiving – a still functioning Russian cement works.
In deindustrialising communities the backdrop of the now-useless “worthless dowry” of disused mill, workshop and smoke-stack structures seems universal, but, in reality, reveals important differences in the degree of haunting, and as Alice Mah has shown, seemingly “ruined”, abandoned industrial sites remain connected with the urban fabric. The term “worthless dowry” comes from research on urban technological networks by Maria Kaika and Eric Swyngedouw via Elena Trubina on the problems of post-Soviet urban regeneration. Most industrial settlements in Russia were purposely built and the land for their “industrial zones” is of little worth for redevelopment – too peripheral, disconnected from urban centres, or simply decrepit. Hence, the abandoned and half-finished buildings are left to rot rather than pulled down or repurposed. They are therefore an ever-present haunting reminder of the comforting and familiar rhythms of the Soviet factory (with guaranteed social housing, multi-generational employment and other benefits), and simultaneously the loss of meaning and status in the present, the cancelled future.
There is one road in and out of my town, Izluchino, 4-hours’ drive from Moscow. While many workers have found new jobs in the multinational corporations that have set up factories closer to Moscow, this means a long commute by car. Every working day a convoy of workers cannot avoid driving past the still standing brick chimneys that dominate the landscape. But there is no smoke except from the newly built German limekiln employing a handful of workers. The Soviets, both anxious and proud of their rapid achievement in building socialism in a backwards country were keen to mark the urban territory at every turn. Thus, the brick chimneys and buildings of Izluchino still bear the date of their construction: “1970”, “1980”, as well as the ubiquitous “Glory to the CPSU” [the USSR Communist Party]. Even beyond the industrial zone, one cannot escape the Soviet periodization of progress. When the USSR began building its nuclear arsenal, the town suddenly boomed with activity as limestone in great quantity was required for the railway to the world’s first grid-connected nuclear reactor in Obninsk. As a result, wooden barracks were built hurriedly in the town. Now they are more like slums, but still each one bears the year of its construction: “1960”, “1961” and the sports hall still bears the proud emblems of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, exhorting all Soviet people to engage in physical “culture” for the sake of the project of building communism. Outside the post office building, now mainly given over to selling Chinese domestic appliances, a forlorn whitewashed bust of Lenin looks on.
Centre of town. photo courtesy of Balázs Gosztonyi
However, despite the seemingly worthless dowry of Soviet industrial modernity, the present-day workers like their Mumbai counterparts “are not relics of the past, their perspectives are relevant to contemporary understanding of deindustrialization” (Finkelstein). Their lived experience of trauma, and of dealing with dislocating social change is indicative and witness to broader issues relating to contemporary precarisation – as the haunting metaphor indicating a loss of future seeks to show. In such spaces, allochronicity means that values of work, dignity, and the sense of betrayal can live on – haunt – so to speak – long after the acute period of deindustrialization seems to have passed. In Mumbai former mill workers still separate out the categories of “work” versus “labor” – enforced cab driving is merely “labor” and not the same as millwork as it is lacking in dignity for the cotton spinners.
This could have been written about many former socialist urban communities, where cab driving, day laboring and informal economic activities provide a form of precarious survival, camaraderie of despair even, but also show up the stark contrast between the work-based certainties and social status of the past. Finkelstein notes “how one’s work comes to craft one’s identity is left unanswered” in much scholarship. Finkelstein is at pains to show how work, even after deindustrialization produces selfhood, but in a context of devalued or declining work, personhood comes to be experienced in a pale haunting quality. Workers are “selectively invisible”, but their erasure is an active social process in postindustrial urban spaces. The state, media and of course redevelopment and gentrification all play a role. In the postsocialist context, after the obligatory propaganda of workers states, a reversal is observed, and in the media, a demonization of workers occurs. Finkelstein refers repeatedly to the incredulity of more sophisticated Mumbai residents on learning that cotton is still being spun in the city – surely these workers have been “dispersed” – or disposed of. Postmodernity has no use of these people.
A longue durée history of people at the sharp end of change and a truly global anthropology (or geography) of work and class must draw upon precisely these processes of making workers, work, and workplaces invisible if it is to capture adequately the ebb and flow of industrial and urban time. Mumbai as fishing village gains global industrial visibility as cotton production moves there after colonialism. Recently there has been fruitful, if polemical, discussion of the comparability of aspects of postsocialism and postcolonialism – see for example Hana Cervinkova, Gruia Badescu, and Radim Hladík. The problems faced in Mumbai appear similar to those in Russia after socialism. They include obviously loss of markets and a dismantling of larger networks for the main product, but also the complex issues of public subsidies, alternative use of the production spaces for work not connected to the original purpose (the parallel informal economies mentioned above), redevelopment and zoning laws, and reneging state and private sector partners that once promised regeneration or simply pensions and basic social benefits.
At the same time, Finkelstein’s Mumbai piece shows how urban anthropology as well as being globally aware, also requires a commitment to people in, and out of place: an approach that tries to capture the embodiment of urban change in personhoods. Buildings as well as ways of city life are abandoned, repurposed, made invisible. But, these processes do not take place without parallel experiences at the level of the person – the socially embedded individual. And, it is the effect on people, as much as place that gives these events their political resonance.
The removal of Lenin busts across postsocialist countries (particularly Ukraine) in the last few years – minus Russia – is often used to symbolise the proper periodisation of ‘postsocialism’ – the end of that term’s usefulness and the beginning of a new era. However, I’d like to end this piece with a more problematizing example of politicizing urban change – the tearing down of 1960s low density housing in the heart of Moscow. More than Lenin heads, this project of urban renewal by urban planners reveals not the end of the postsocialist period, but the continuing haunting of the present by a promised and abandoned future in the socialist past. So-called ‘Khrushchevki’ – small, prefabricated flats in five-story blocks are being pulled down to make way for high-density blocks sold to the urban middle-class (really a small upper-middle class minority) and for shopping malls, in a last gasp of Russia’s dysfunctional oil-based consumption binge. Khrushchevki remain emblematic of the mixed-use public urban space – yards, gardens, distributed social housing throughout the city, also of the meager yet utopian project of socialism – family housing, albeit of low and cramped quality, for all. It is ironic that a totalitarian state had such a “democratic” vision for urban space. No wonder that of all the social protests of the last few years, the response to the Moscow authorities’ residential plans drew the widest response across the political spectrum. However, it was the residents themselves, another category of the invisible (pensioners and the urban poor), who were active in resisting the plans. Their ongoing residence in the heart of one of the world’s largest and most expensive cities was not just a question of the meaning of class, gentrification and modernisation.
People and place together constituted a political haunting of the seemingly neat present of extreme neoliberal capital logic dictating Moscow’s urbanscape. The past as utopian project, as shoddy and uncomfortable, but equitable and available for all, refuses to die quietly. So too do deindustrializing communities, as Finkelstein’s Mumbai research shows. Sherry Lee Linkon, a proponent of renewed working-class studies, makes a strong case for approaching deindustrialized landscapes in concert with their residents as “resources” that feed small, local efforts for renewal particularly in the sphere of memory and narrative. Linkon focuses on the literary, but in anthropology, there is pressing work to be done concerning how communities come to terms with urban and socio-economic traumatic change – whether that change is abrupt or relatively drawn out.