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Otherness and Distance

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Ota De Leonardis


The new walls with the power to ignore
Ota de Leonardis

Madness has, for a long time, quintessentially been "other" - when the walls of psychiatric hospitals defined and ascribed otherness by excluding it from civil assembly. The reclusion of the "abnormal experience," as Basaglia called it, was defined as alienation and then as mental illness. Otherness was at the time correlative to the exception statute of psychiatry. I have been interested in this for a great deal of time, accompanying the crucial history of deinstitutionalisation which has exposed a bond of domination in this otherness and the exercising of a power (a power-knowledge, it must be said): the power of bestowing a name (naming). This power can be "terrible" when, as Pizzorno sustains, it pushes so far as to impose an identity, like in the classic case of the stigmatisation of the Jewish, right up to the Shoah (Pizzorno, 2007). The "mad returning to the city," along with the processes of deinstitutionalisation, have made otherness spread, making the contiguities of experiences and the name-bestowing devices - which discriminate and stigmatise - obvious. This is so in the social worlds confining illness and healthcare, crime and punishment and deprivation and social assistance.
If I have briefly recalled this substantial event, it is because the point of view I would like you to see is here activated to outline features of a different configuration of otherness, and correlatively of a different way of dominating, which I see in my work of research, study and reflection . Otherness seems to be assuming a trait which I would provisionally define as "radical." It takes shape as a correlation of power which does not impose names, which is not exerted to discriminate, exclude and stigmatise - rather, it ignores: it denies the Other any type of recognition, insofar as discriminatory, and therefore it condemns the Other to a condition of social non-existence (from which doubts of physical survival of people may originate, and not rarely do they originate).
The power which this radical otherness generates is of the order of the "biopolitical" regime which Foucault called "to make live and let die" - as such, different from the "disciplinary" regime of let live and make die (it is to be specified that I am not interested in discussing if these two forms of power are alternatives to each other. They historically follow one another or rather, they coexist and they combine in concrete contexts). Clearly, the circle between the ignoring power and the radical otherness is not closed. Nor is it set in a powerless destiny, for also in this case a reference to Foucault is valid: "where there is power, there is resistance." And it is this last thought which still needs discussion.

Walls of separation

A couple of years ago, the local newspapers reported a lively political debate which had developed in the Milan hinterland: if it were better to erect barriers or dig ditches around an area occupied by gypsy caravans - and the related forming of a camp - in order to impede access. The right and left wings were divided on this matter. Let's start, therefore, from here.
Sustaining the perspective which I referred to in the introduction, I can only start from the walls. Moreover, these walls are proliferating nowadays. A large variety of walls of separation has spread in the last twenty years at the borders between States, or within States or cities, to separate territories; concrete or metal barriers, fences and electrical and/or armed surveillance devices, buffer zones and check points (as well as ditches). These walls keep undesired populations out (the longest of these is between the United States and Mexico), separate slums or problematic neighbourhoods (as far as Italy is concerned, the example which is recalled in international literature is that of Anelli Street, in Padova), protect privileged residential villages (gated communities or gated towns) or make extractive capital, metals or oil implantations secure (regarding South America see Maristella Svampa, 2008).
According to Wendy Brown, who made the first census and the first valuable analysis at the crisis of State sovereignty, which has become "porous," the proliferating of these walls must be brought back (Brown, 2009). Instigated by the dismantling of vertical architecture of modern institutions, they grow on the surface of the flat world, where everything is connected, mobile and fluid, allowing a glimpse of a complementary facet; the outlines of new forms of verticality and dominion.
I will examine, thus, these new walls of separation, to ask myself what type of otherness is built around them. In order to do so, it may be useful to concisely bring several salient characteristics into focus.

1) These walls are new as opposed to the walls of the total institutions (starting precisely from the psychiatric hospitals), which have represented an awkward and problematic presence, as well as emblematic markers of social exclusion, in the inclusive landscape of modern society. The difference lies in the fact that where the wall instituted a space of containment and of segregation, which "included" otherness, these new walls act as separation devices, with the simplified (and I would say, hurried) task of keeping it out. While the psychiatric hospital walls were founded on a complex architecture of regulations of law, institutions and administrative and technical competencies, which claimed to justify people's segregation with the social duty to treat them, the new walls ignore people, even when they produce effects of segregation. They answer to a logic which works on, and outlines, a territory instead of people, who are not subject to any treatment - if not indirectly, as a result of the treatment of the space and its reshaping. The effects on people and their lives, or the social effects in general, are not considered, as they are not included among the sums of the costs and benefits of those barriers. They are devices which do not deal with social life but "only" space, or more effectively, territory. These effects may be very severe on the people concerned, and they are more so when such effects are ignored. The people who experience these effects are also ignored, treated as aspects which are irrelevant to the functions of the barriers, similar to the side effects experienced by war civilians. This is the direct opposite of the "social control" which lay behind the walls of the total institutions.
This different, spatial reasoning, which oversees the construction of the walls, has been revealed in its most brutal version (with precise regards to its social effects) in the studies on separation devices used by the Israeli government in the Occupied Territories (including the Wall, of course). Regarding this, I have gained a lot from E. Weizman's research (from an architect's point of view, who knows how to recognise the generative power of spatial devices). Weizman (2007) shows how this extreme case (we are on the scene of a seventy-year-long endemic military conflict) represents a prototype, as regards to new walls and a form of power which is exercised by dealing with space and ignoring people. In the long history of the construction of otherness of the Palestine population, it is no longer only a matter of imposed identity - stereotypes attributed to the enemy - but ignored identity, or as Pizzorno would say, "refused."
Ultimately, the indication is to take the normative force that these new walls exercise seriously, precisely where this force is applied to space and the cartography of a territory and not to people. It is also suggested to consider the ignoring of people as a sign of rejection of the processes of the construction of otherness and as a type of radicalisation.

2) These barriers have little to do with rights and with the imperative power of the Law, which is legitimate since it is the same for all. In most cases they are declared provisional, and often justified as being the response to an "emergency." In general the barriers are established on the basis of purely administrative and technical standards of territorial management, under the aegis of urbanistic, geological or economical competencies, or even police or military - but bypassing the legal setting. These barriers are objects of "soft law" standards, a matter of "adjustments" and not of regulations, they are effectively juridical, as Alain Supiot points out (2010), with evanescent guarantees regarding people's fundamental rights. Yet again the practically inexistent juridical bases of the Wall of Israel in the Occupied Territories are emblematic, upon which the ignoring, which I mentioned earlier, is based. This ignoring is evident in the consequences of the walls' merely administrative installation, even on the exact juridical condition, and on the statute of the rights of the people and populations involved. However, we also find these weak bases of rights in places of migrant containment which, as we know, are aimed at keeping them out, identification and expulsion Centres (CIE): those who are segregated are done so based on administrative, not juridical, procedures. They are held back, not detainees (as a note from the Home Office specified, reacting to an escape from the Lampedusa CIE). Furthermore, in our own cities' administration, we know about the most complex tendency to come between the migrants who settle there - a central figure of otherness - by using administrative and urbanistic standards, commercial regulation or the attendance of public spaces.
One can hence begin to discern that this construction of otherness passes for the weakening of the vocabulary of fundamental identification, especially juridical, which is such even where it spreads subjection, exclusion and affliction. This type of technical-administrative barriers are there to impede - rather than to forbid - a power which belongs to the law.

3) Another revealing clue about what characterises the new walls respect to those of the total institutions - and the otherness which they shape - can be seen on an aesthetic level. The old psychiatric hospitals were striking (and still are) because of their architectural beauty and parks in which they were immersed. As beautiful as the old American psychiatric hospitals, mainly in the style of ancien régime castles and buildings, which the photographer Christopher Payne documented in Asylum, a remarkable book . The still fully functional psychiatric hospital in Vienna is just as beautiful and it is owned by Otto Wagner, the architect and master of Jugendstil who designed and built it, also a cultural tourist destination.
This beauty was the sign of great (scientific and primarily juridical) investment which spread at the turn of the 20th century, in order to also include the mad under the protection of reason - a great hypocrisy, if you will, to soothe the bad conscience of the violence exerted on them. However, the difference is striking: the new walls are blatantly ugly. Or perhaps something more than ugly. As I am not able to rely on photographs to clarify this point, I can only suggest the reader surf the Internet. They will certainly find the Wall of California, and while exploring image sites, they will be able to find examples of what I am about to highlight. There is something archaic in the rough and ungainly materiality of these installations - to be intended, I reiterate, as a concretion of power - or perhaps something so brute that one wonders who the barbarians are. This brutality seems to contradict the virtual character that power has acquired in the kingdom of the net and of global connection (consider the case of finance). And nevertheless, as Wendy Brown has highlighted very well, it is precisely their weightiness which emits the virtual power in a set-up, a fiction: the new walls assume a «theatrical function». The message transmitted and the scene represented by this archaic theatre is the extreme simplification of the social situation - the wall secures the social dynamics in a dual, drastically asymmetric relationship which permits very few variations. The hastiness of curtailing seems to be condensed in the rough materiality, exhibited as such, of these barriers. This could represent a salient trait of the otherness constructed around the new walls. These new walls put up repulsion (expulsion, proscription) rather than exclusion.

4) However, the "new walls" also proliferate at the opposite pole of the social spectrum, defending privileged spaces and territories which have been "secured" from the threats of otherness. We can find traces of it in the ditches and buttresses which articulate the landscape of the residential estates in the development areas in the city of Milan, where even public green areas act as buffer zones to separate. These are slightly softer versions of gated communities, private residential areas with their own reserved commercial and social services, including school and police, and they are governed like a club or a company and namely with a type of private administration. With the addition of walls, fences, sensors and check-points. The same equipment. These forms of human cohabitation, fortified and separate from the surrounding territory - off worlds as Mike Davis says - are widespread everywhere, in and around the metropolises in the south and north of Italy (and even around Milan) and they sometimes acquire the dimensions of an actual city .
One can hence discern a common kind in the installation of the new walls, an isomorphism: the same logic of social separation which appeals to the division of physical space, the common driving force being fear, or perhaps the "government with fear," which is spoken about diffusely. The close observation of these secured villages allows the introduction of an additional specification on this logic of separation. It seems as if it is moved by an intrinsic energy of auto-production and multiplication; that is, the separating installations act as multipliers of other separations, in a sort of fractal dimension. I have had the chance to observe this by, for example, visiting a gated town (one of the many barrio privado in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires: with at present 35 thousand inhabitants but rapidly expanding ). It is not only equipped with barriers with sensors, check points and passes, which border it as a private territory: barriers, check points and passes increase within, to separate one district from another (but also football pitch fences, children's playgrounds...) . During our visit to four of these districts, we went past four checkpoints twice, apart from the one at the entrance and exit of the barrio privado (we went past all of these barriers thanks to our guide who was not only a resident, but also a qualified real estate operator in the barrio privado). Therefore one ought not to go about freely here, not even within the fenced area of this secured built-up area. There is no longer the possibility to meet amongst strangers, which is a distinct trait of city as public space, nor is there the possibility to accidentally meet friends or acquaintances (just think of children). The logic of separation reciprocally makes inhabitants others, even within these small privileged forts. Others, not strangers. In this example of fractal dimension which is triggered with the spatialisation and the logic of separation resulting from it, an important aspect of the production mechanisms of otherness, and its configuration, arises. This is what I am trying to focus on: its great mobility, fungibility or inter-exchangeability, which is not potentially fixated, does not cause stable figures of otherness. The latter does not only define the position of unfortunate populations, but also a logic of social organisation.

5) There is the last aspect of the installations of the new walls which I would like to try to grasp although it is difficult to decipher. The fact that it is unsuitable, in most cases, for them to be justified in terms of efficiency or efficacy with cost-benefit evaluation parameters, is intriguing. The case of the The United States - Mexico barrier is emblematic, as it has extremely high costs but it has not at all interrupted the stream of illegal immigrants arriving. It has solely made them more resistant and riskier (accidents and deaths are increasing) and has strengthened the criminal nature of the passage organisation which people must comply with. This thoroughly evident inefficacy appears to be, for the time being, a case from the school of the fully disclosed "self-fulfilling prophecy," where these very walls construct reality - the equation for which immigration = criminality - and are assumed to battle. However these dynamics are so dramatic - certainly not ascribable to the argumentative register of "perverse effects" - that I am led to hypothesise a sort of mutation: these walls are not justified because they function as something. Even in this sense they have a "theatrical" consistency, as we were saying. It seems that a dissolution of the functional grammar of the anchorage of reality is summarised in these walls. This corresponds to a disengagement regarding the duty of existence recognition and of considering the subjects on whom power is used: on lives (on death) and on bodies to justify such powers. This - I add - may also be valid for the logic of separation underlying security policies as we know them in our cities.

Distance and indifference

The new walls emphatically represent a social order based on the spatialisation of social bonds, where the privileged tools are those of separation. They appear to answer to an immunisation imperative, rather than social control, and otherness which is constructed there takes shape as a non-statutory social condition, as it were (rather than a "statute of exception").
Not only do the processes of spatialisation separate the inside from the outside, and the respective populations, they deeply establish a social caesura, so much so that the outside becomes a radical elsewhere, and those who live it are relegated to invisibility or even indifference. This caesura is composed of the bonds of otherness. That is - to try to make myself clearer I could say - the logic of separation which appeals to space establishes cognitive distance as well as physical. Distance which is free from the duty of naming and measuring it, as it is objectified in space. The social distance between the privileged forts and the elsewheres inhabited by deprived populations is not only enormous (see the polarisation of inequalities), it is above all, immeasurable. This is so because it is not equipped with a metric system to measure it, nor a dictionary to define it: spatialisation is frugal with words to talk about it and to talk about the Other. This distance creates a hole and an emptiness in which social bonds of reciprocal determination between "us and them" disappear, that is, the very possibility of recognising and calling and of defining the juxtaposition between us and them. Individuals and social groups who find themselves being subjected to a condition of otherness constructed as such do not even obtain the qualification of "others." This consists in the absence of a name and in a situation of negated recognition (different from the negative recognition of discrimination and stigmatisation and different from the imposed identity which I cited from Pizzorno).
Inscribed in space, this "radical" otherness, which condemns its subjects of a power of repulsion to a situation of social non-existence, could work as a detector of a more general, or systematic, mechanism. This could be analogous to the position illustrated by the notion of social exclusion in the interpretative tone developed by Robert Castel, which I have shared and supported: "it is often the seemingly more eccentric positions which tell us more about the internal dynamics of a society" (ce sont souvent les positions qui paraissent les plus excentrées qui en disent le plus long sur la dynamique interne d'une société » (Castel, 2009,64). Furthermore - at this point it can be made explicit - we are looking at something from the edges and we have it under our eyes. That which we have under our eyes is, to start with, the multitude of situations marked with barriers and separations which can be catalogued in our cities. Ordinary, ugly and rough, just like the new walls. The most recent item which has been added to Milan's inventory is, in the middle of the city, the barrier which separates a hotel in an old luxurious restructured building from Opera San Francesco (a centre for poor people) and a pleasant well-groomed garden, where the soup kitchen patrons take a break . Signs of «the city coming undone» can be felt in this and in many other places where separation tools are at work and where encounters amongst strangers are substituted by the distance between aliens. According to Jacques Donzelot's expression, it comes undone precisely as a political community. These tools are an origin of the «urban suffering» which this magazine has duly focussed on.
The exploration around the new walls suggests to pay attention to what occurs around us with territorialisation, to what is familiar to us and to what we appreciate in «territory» . This is not to diminish the prospectives of participation and bottom-up democracy which can develop there, but on the contrary, to safeguard the latter from the opposite prospectives of the caesura of social bonds which spatialisation brings. The results of the logic of separation which accompanies it could consist, reverting back to the fractal metaphor, in a segmentation of the social body which reproduces itself non-stop and in which situations of distance, emptiness and of reciprocal non recognition increase. It is an implication of connectionist society which is less paradoxical than it first appears: it is effectively flat, as I have for some time insisted on saying, referring to Abbott's novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Not only does otherness not have a name in this flattening, but neither does the power which produces it.





Brown, W. (2009), Murs. Les murs de séparation et le déclin de la souveraineté étatique, Paris: Les Prairies ordinaires
Castel, R. (2009) La montée des incertitudes. Travail, protections, Statut de l'individu, Paris, Seuil
De Leonardis, O. (2011) "Combining or Dividing Citizens. The Politics of Active Citizenship in Italy", in J. Newman, E. Tonkens, eds., Participation, Responsibility and Choice. Summoning the Active Citizen in Western European Welfare States, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
De Leonardis. O. (2012) « Creuser son sillon. En explorant une gande transformation », in Robert Castel et Claude Martin, dir., Changements et pensée du changement, Paris : La Découverte
Payne, Ch. (2009) Asylum, Cambridge Mass.: Mit Press
Pizzorno A. (2007) Il velo della diversità. Studi su razionalità e riconoscimento, Milano : Feltrinelli
Supiot A. (2010) L'esprit de Philadelphie. La justice sociale face au marché total, Paris, Seuil ( Italian translation et/al Edizioni)
Weizman E. (2007) Hollow Land, London : Verso (Italian translation Bruno Mondadori)




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The study centre wishes to study the phenomenon of urban suffering, in other words the suffering that is specific to the great metropolises. Urban Suffering is a category that describes the meeting of individual suffering with the social fabric that they inhabit. The description, the understanding and the transformation of the psychological and social dynamics that develop from the meeting of ...

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The Urban Suffering Studies Center - SOUQ - arises from Milan, a place of complexity and economic and social contradictions belonged to global world.Tightly linked to Casa della Carità Foundation, which provides assistance and care to unserved populations in Milan (such as immigrants legal and illegal, homeless, vulnerable minorities), the Urban Suffering Studies Center puts attention on ...


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