Exile on Main Street. The Desert as Internalising Territory

Velasco Pérez, Álvaro (2019). Exile on Main Street. The Desert as Internalising Territory. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00010bc3


The desert has traditionally been considered as background. For the history of Modern architecture it forms a backdrop, a place in which to contemplate the metropolis from without. The architect withdraws to the desert escaping the metropolis. Moving away from the understanding of the desert as ‘exterior’, the thesis postulates the possibility of understanding it as ‘threshold’, a space that mediates the relationships of the metropolis with its exteriors. Revisiting the journeys of characters like Maxime du Camp, Gustave Flaubert, Le Corbusier, Raymond Roussel, Michel Leiris, Aldo van Eyck or Herman Haan, a different conception of the desert is generated: one in which the landscape is not relegated to the background but actively engages with the figure, highlighting moments of transition—of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. Questions that have become to the fore in contemporary post-colonial discussions. In that movement, a main historical process is focused: the desert has been utilised as mechanism of internalisation.

With internalisation I point to the historical process through which the modern city appropriates or absorbs within it what was excluded or defined as its outside. I look at this process particularly in the case of the modern metropolis. In this case, three main steps describe the mechanism of internalisation. First, there’s a definition of the self over a background of the other. The modern metropolis is not that much defined by its own extremely heterogeneous identity. In a more legible way, the metropolis is defined by via negativa, by setting out what the metropolis is not. In a second step, the ‘exterior’ –‘that what the metropolis-is-not’ – starts to be defined as something specific. It is not, then, an ever-expanding backdrop; but rather a bounded area within the background. It is the moment highlighted by the travellers setting out from the metropolis. Their fascination is with something specific – the categories of the exotic, the irrational, the primitive, etc. A fascination that is a reaction to the situation back home. The trouble with these ‘findings’, these exteriors, is precisely in that; they are highly entangled with the condition they were fleeing from – even if it is in a reverse way. In the final step, that category is imported back into the metropolis. While originally intended as exteriors, spaces of critique vis-à-vis the metropolis, the categories paradoxically make their way back into the metropolis, into spaces that collect, contain and, overall, put a boundary around their experiences. In this paradoxical movement, the process of internalisation is a peculiar mechanism with which the metropolis moves forward: capturing exteriors, appropriating or absorbing within what was originally excluded.

The thesis is organised as a journey, following the steps of specific travellers. Each chapter deals with one particular character travelling at one particular time. These are organised in three clusters each of which deals with one specific category that was crucial for Colonialism, and that has been highlighted by post-colonial critique—identity, vision and knowledge. For these categories, I would argue, the desert supposed bringing the colonial enterprise to its limits. The desert supposed a locus in which colonialism was not unfolding as power struggle; quite the opposite, it was precisely these ‘being-out- of-control’ that became a different form of colonial appropriation. A territory that absorbs ‘median categories’ – as Edward Said sees them – not completely familiar, not completely alien. In that sense, the desert poses a relevant question to the contemporary fascination with the exteriors of Modernity. The desert remits to Bhabha’s Third Space of enunciation, a crucial area for post-colonial studies as it is where that negotiation between cultures takes place. There, Bhabha sees the potential to overcome colonial cultural appropriations into a hybrid encounter. As Bhabha proposes, “(f)or a willingness to descend into that alien territory(...) may reveal that the theoretical recognition of the split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. (…) It makes it possible to begin envisaging national, anti- nationalist histories of the ‘people’. And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves.” (The Location of Culture, p. 38-39) While it is still a possible fruitful terrain for contemporary cultural encounters, and a crucial quest that should continue, revisiting the stories of these characters in the desert pose the risk of the Third Space of enunciation becoming a space for internalisation rather than Bhabha’s internationalisation.

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