Neil Vallely – Re-thinking Place in the Age of Global Displacement: Lessons from Phenomenology

Re-thinking Place in the Age of Global Displacement: Lessons from Phenomenology (Neil Vallely – University of Otago).


In 2003, Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng collaborated with American author Dave Eggers to tell the story of his forced displacement during the second Sudanese civil war (1983–2005). The result was What is the What, published in 2006. Deng spent his adolescence in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya; he was educated, fell in love, and even became part of theatre troupe there. And yet, throughout this time, he was plagued by an existential dilemma—was life in Kakuma really lived? After all, as Deng tells us, it was “nowhere”: “the place was not a place.”

The politics of place have never been more volatile. On the one hand, the most privileged global citizens travel the world for the purposes of business and leisure, and technologies of communication have transformed traditional notions of place from being tied to physical environments. On the other hand, the image of a borderless world is continually interrupted by the desperate plight of refugees and displaced persons, alongside the violent protection of national borders and the mass surveillance of public spaces. The paradoxical nature of place thus rests on a simple premise: in order to move seamlessly between places, one must possess a secure—primarily, legal and economic—connection to a place.

In a similar vein to the contemporary politics of place, the phenomenology of place tends to view place as the primary milieu. The axiom “to be is to be in place,” proposed initially by Edward S. Casey, exemplifies the dominant line of phenomenological thought that being springs forth and always returns to place. But if this is true, then what is the ontological status of Deng and displaced persons? Is it possible to be in a place that is not a place? If not, then the concept of place conceals within itself an exclusionary dimension—it depends as much upon what it excludes as it does upon what it includes. While Heidegger maintained that “‘place’ places man in such a way that it reveals the external bonds of his existence and at the same time the depths of his freedom and reality,” place—or lack of—can also be the very environment that denies freedom and reality.

This paper is at times critical of the phenomenology of place—namely, its dependency on a Westernised and privileged understanding of place. Secondly, it argues that phenomenology is critical to any understanding and potential transformation of displacement as a lived experience. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of the disintegration of the body in psychic illnesses—where the body appears to turn against itself and precipitate a radical dualism at the heart of being-in-the-world—as well as the testimonies of displaced persons and anthropological case studies of refugee camps and detention centres, I argue that a phenomenology of displacement can help us re-think place in the era of global displacement.