Drawing the lines, postcolonial Lisboa and other modern fortresses Europe

In the so-called postmodern world, a world in which boundaries between disciplines, art genres and discourses, the popular and the erudite, are supposed to be blurred, a world in which borders between nations and identities, the inside and the outside, are described as porous, and cultures celebrated for their mongrelisation, other limits and interdictions seem to persist or, alternatively, return with a vengeance. Are we inhabiting a post post-modern moment, the comeback of modernity? In a striking parallel to walls and fortifications around continents and countries -such as ‘Fortress Europe’ and the wall dividing the US from Mexico -boundaries between the social and the artistic are increasingly kept under surveillance, not only by social scientists with their classic suspicion of volatile, imprecise, or unrealistic artistic languages, but also by artists, curators and critics, the latter now eager to preserve their own distinctive field aloof from political and social issues, afraid the former may contaminate their pure, aesthetic intentions. The cultural turn -with its close association of the poetics and politics of cultural phenomena, namely as a way of questioning the disciplinary surveillance of the hard core of know ledges and powers, and the ensuing interdisciplinary dialogues – is wearing off. Simultaneously nationalism and ethnic identities seem to harden around religious and other differences, a tendency reinforced not by the “clash of civilizations”, but rather the threat of the crash of the global financial and economic system.

head and tales, de Monica Mirandahead and tales, de Monica MirandaDespite such redrawing of disciplinary boundaries, an unexpected consensus has emerged in the last few years. If social scientists appear to be increasingly suspicious, at least in Portugal, of issues of multiculturalism and ethnic and racial difference, art practices and discourses seem to share this positioning, albeit for opposite reasons, but recurring to an identical argument: the mistrust of the smallest hint at some kind of ‘political correctness’. Behind the apparent dissent, there emerges yet another consensual approach: the universality either of citizenship ideals or artistic criteria, according to an implicit certainty, as regards western or European superiority, no matter how much postcolonial approaches may have tried to unsettle them.

Of course, things are more complex than this argument makes it seem. Difference and multiculturalism are still being engaged with, frequently as a form of official, paternalistic, discourse on ‘intercultural’ affairs or ‘conflict management’, in which ‘voice’ is supposed to be ‘given’ to those who lack it. The marketing of difference is another striving field (but for how long?), with its investment in ‘expressions’ of a presumed hybridity that ultimately ignores complex forms of identification that cannot be summed up under the motto - to take a familiar example – of Lisbon as a ‘Creole’ or ‘multicultural city’. This is also a way to entertain a kind of wishful thinking as regards the proverbial European respect for the ‘Other’ that ignores the asymmetric contexts that posit and define ‘difference’, as well as those who have ‘culture’ and are thus to be ‘tolerated’. The actuality of Europe’s multiculture (Gilroy) is not to be disputed, unless it leads to ignoring other barriers in ‘postcolonial’ Europe that result from the increasing precariousness oflabour and other emerging social questions. These do not, however as some are all too ready to claim -make of racism and other forms of discrimination, in which economics is only one element among the issues at stake, mere secondary aspects.under-construction, greater Lisbon, Monica Miranda / Paul Goodwin 2009under-construction, greater Lisbon, Monica Miranda / Paul Goodwin 2009Although images of contemporary Greece sometimes bear a striking familiarity to those that the French banlieues exhibited in 2005 -thus putting into jeopardy what some Europeanists still like to regard as the site of the ‘continent’s origins’ or ‘roots’ -one cannot hasten to simplify the comparison, although it also demands)a more differentiated approach, concerning ethnic and racial issues in post post-modern times. Nonetheless, the fact is that the attacks and raids on public buildings, such as universities and schools and other public spaces, as well as the assault on private property -as the more ‘visible’ element in those events that cannot, of course, in both cases be reduced to its spectacular impact -demand a more complex approach to a wide range of phenomena that contemporary societies in Europe are facing and that inherited social models cannot give response to. This also applies to political discourse. Cosmopolitanism has been traditionally associated with a precise form of imagining space, i.e., the city as the ‘civilised’ locus of democratic exchange, of negotiated differences around a common citizenship. This gives rise to a tension that can no longer be subsumed under the slogan ‘all equal, all different’, a supposed dialectics between the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’ that excludes not only the complex processes of identification, but also the dissent that people, who take seriously what ‘living with difference’ may mean on effectively democratic terms, have to encounter.

But how is cosmopolitanism to be practiced, if the city persists in creating barriers between insiders and outsiders? If traditional boroughs of Lisbon are inhabited by recent immigrants, they are easily fixed into specific territories, such as Martim Moniz, Praça de S. Domingo or Restauradores, some parts of Alfama, former Jewish and Moorish ‘ghettos’, a testimony to the ever permanent ‘multicultural’ character of the city, as well as its more tolerant and racist moments. Those who have settled for a longer period, and whose descendants were born in Lisbon, seem to have been relegated, banned, to non-places, the banlieues, the banned sites, where housing project is the privileged location for reporters to invent sensationalist news about criminality, violence and difference, in order to divert a bored and impoverished ‘white’ middle class during torrid Lisboan summers from other social preoccupations. Thus the «majority’ can find a compensation for their frustrations in their ‘superior’ manners, their ‘European civilisation’ in which ‘ethnic minorities’ or ‘immigrants’ do not share. While enjoying kuduro concerts and other ‘African’ or Creole sounds in the open air during the city’s summer festivities, ‘indigenous’ locals seem to view with suspicion the invasion of summer resorts by Black, mainly male, youngsters, as was the case of the famous ‘Arrastao’ event or the idea that living with difference entails a serious questioning of received paradigms as regards who belongs to the nation, Europe, or the ‘West’.

Are mongrelisation and hybridity a way of disavowing the actual, imposed borders on those whom discourses of’ difference’ insist on segregating through subtle exclusionary practices? Is citizenship, as a form of providing equal rights to everyone, a way of ensuring effective equality to those who want to belong, but insist on clinging to -last but not least, because they feel they are not wanted -their (re)invented ‘difference’, such as using more or less global symbols of Blackness, including language, outfit and hair, from streetwear to dreadlocks? One must bear in mind that ‘white’ youngsters also use these symbols, a fact that also tells us a lot about other forms of conviviality (Gilroy) beyond official policies on ‘difference’.

The spaces now occupied in Lisbon by project housing -the ‘problematic neighbourhoods’ - from quartiers problématiques in French, where ‘second generation immigrants’ mainly live, cohabiting and interacting with poor ‘white’ populations -are delineated by a line formerly traced by the military road, in order to contain foreign invaders during the Napoleonic wars. Significantly, the event that contributed decisively to build a new form of collective national memory against an invader, after the Castilian or Spanish one, seems to reproduce the need of the nation a persistently invented tradition -to define itself as something homogeneous and pure against potential contaminations. But paradoxically, the same neighbourhoods frequently described and discriminated against as ghettos, resist that all too familiar labelling, as they insist on drawing from their own tradition and the locally found one, thus pointing to the inevitable interdependencies of (post)colonial histories, despite their intrinsic violence. Thus the (in)famous ‘Portuguese house’ -the title of a famous fado, that my generation cannot avoid associating with the authoritarian and repressively petty bourgeois atmosphere of pre-democratic and colonial Portugal reappears in new guises, according to unexpected perspectives and juxtapositions. This points to other stories beyond a proverbial Portuguese tendency to mix racially and culturally, an inevitable consequence of any colonial setting, apart from all kinds of more or less apartheid-like measures, differentially introduced according to diverse geographical and historical contexts. And it seems to underline, as well, the tense negotiations lived by those who inhabit the borderlines of what is still defined as the national (‘Portugueseness’) and the transnational (‘European’).

under-construction, greater Lisbon, Monica Miranda / Paul Goodwin 2009under-construction, greater Lisbon, Monica Miranda / Paul Goodwin 2009Blackness seems to be accepted in Lisbon in order to market the city as part of a cosmopolitan global space, characterised by the juxtaposition of the exotic and the familiar, as is the case of Luanda-Lisboa kuduro, increasingly popular in London too. The music and nomenclature of Buraka Som Sistema translate well into the vitality of such enterprises and experiences that are easily co-opted by, but also resistant to, economic interests. But if fado, the Portuguese national music par excellence since the late 19th century - the age of the invention of traditions (Hobsbawm/ Ranger) - is increasingly understood as a hybrid form of music, and globally marketed as an exotic form of world music, it is nonetheless regarded as a mainly ‘Lusophone’ manifestation. Although seen as the result of the mixing of African origins with Brazilian sounds and transatlantic travels, the Atlantic still seems to resist the adjective of ‘Black’, in consonance with other narratives in Portuguese imperial histories.

What other ways of imagining space and time can be thought of as alternative to the understandings that, despite proclaiming the blurring of boundaries and disciplines, are still prone to ensure the segregation of those who belong and those who do not according to surveillance procedures that define the territorial limits to be inhabited? How is one to unravel the tight knots that are still part of a consensual idea of Europe and its nations? How are barriers and suspicions to be questioned? Perhaps this is achieved by attempting to break, persistently, stubbornly, the boundaries, thus questioning the discourses that legitimate the segregation of difference under different disciplinary and political banners.

under-construction, greater Lisbon, Monica Miranda / Paul Goodwin 2009under-construction, greater Lisbon, Monica Miranda / Paul Goodwin 2009


Abandoned places, destroyed neighbourhoods, such as those depicted in the book “Underconstruction” by Monica de Miranda and Paul Goodwin, thus serve less as a way to stimulate a meditation on ruins, evidencing the transitory character of a universal human nature, as the Baroque allegory emphasised (Walter Benjamin), than to point to the (unequal) transits across the (Black) Atlantic and beyond it. Houses shattered by the will to modernise retain nevertheless the traces and fragments of lives, unfulfilled in their aspirations, but nonetheless fully lived, giving witness’ to the ways in which they influence and were influenced by an urban space that cannot be simplistically equated to a classic cosmopolis.

The contemporary postcolonial space resists, but therefore begs for, more diverse forms of culture, regarded in their full modernity, and less in their exoticism as global Black cultures, either in their vernacular or avant-garde moments.

Everyday life does not have to be the exclusive object of social sciences, and art cannot be seen as the realm of artistic discourses. Both should be considered in their relative tensions, and productive conflicts in postcolonial Europe, namely in those countries, such as Portugal, that have built their national identity around an alleged exceptional role in ‘world history’, a role that has not avoided the country’s traditionally subaltern location in local and global contexts.

In a moment in which the redrawing of boundaries seems to be the more effective strategy, artistic projects such as Underconstruction present one can be a reminder of the complex interdependencies and encounters with diverse demands and aspirations deriving from the concrete everyday experiences of all those who strive for a better life, regardless of increasing economic restrictions and inequalities.

by Manuela Ribeiro Sanches
Cidade | 13 May 2010 | cosmopolitanism, Lisbon, migrants, multiculturalism, post-colonial, territory