Problems of Place: On Multiple (Dis)Placements

I am a person multiply (dis)placed.

First and most obviously, in space. I first moved for my studies when I was eighteen. Since then, I have never lived in any one place for more than four years. I am now thirty. Over the last twelve years, I recently calculated, I have moved countries—found a place to live, opened a bank account, gotten a transport pass, paid tax; in other words, settled—a total of seven times (not counting two-or-three-month stints in between). By now, I know the drill. The general rhythm. I can count ahead to the weeks of excitement, the six-week peak of bureaucratic success (the complete checklist: registering for health care; registering with the city; registering with the university; obtaining all the cards and insurances; get listed in the correct tax bracket), and… the eight-week dip into depression.

This last I feel every time, I have learned. It’s just part of the rhythm. It passes, in the end. What remains hard—as others here have written—is being far from those I care about. This is hard not only when I am bereft of my strongest support. After all, as the complete American graduate, an independent self-sufficient modern woman (TM), should I even complain?But, much more so, when I am not there for the people I love. When they hurt, and they need, and they die—or, not to be grim, when they celebrate, too—I am not there. I am the eternally absentee daughter, granddaughter, sister, partner, and friend.

In all this time I have been struggling, too, with displacement in discipline. No level of education, no name for a discipline, has ever quite managed to help me file my own thoughts into the imaginary WorldCat of Scholarship. Back at my undergraduate institution, a liberal arts college in the United States, I was shamelessly encouraged to be undisciplined to my heart’s content. Emerging into the world of disciplinary thought, still ordered carefully by departments and even by architecture, still shocks me today.

Over the years, as I moved countries and universities, I have also traveled through many disciplines. I have described myself as a social scientist, a critical policy studies researcher, an environmental humanist, and so much more. I have belonged to policy departments, literary departments, environmental science departments, and centers of many kinds. I am a traveler of university architecture, and a permanent member of an interdisciplinary nomadic tribe, which, like all nomadic tribes, is sometimes persecuted and sometimes fetishized. If you believe you are a citizen of the world (of disciplines), are you a citizen of nowhere?

But then, my displacement is also a structural component of my cognition. Internally, linguistically, I am a person always displaced. I am someone whose mind speaks in one language and whose heart dwells in another. In many ways, you see, English is my first language now. Yet it is not my native language. I was thirteen when I started learning it, from scratch. I still remember the shock of my immersion class in high school, when my teacher asked us all to write a diary entry before he had so much as taught us the alphabet. I already knew the Latin alphabet from classes in German. But, to this day, I struggle with spelling in English when someone dictates to me letter-by-letter. My mind never learned not to interpret the English pronunciation of A as E, because Germans are much more sensible about those things.

Since high school, however, my education has all been in English. When I did the fieldwork for my dissertation—in English, on the Yorkshire North Sea coast, and in Bulgarian, my native language, on the Black Sea coast—it was the latter that I found more difficult. The language would not shape itself around the ideas I had formulated in English. Not only because I lacked the words and the terms, but also because the ideas themselves were one built by and for my many years of English thought. The very idea of environment reads differently (read: does not exist in the same form) in my native language. And the idea of nature carries different histories, comes weighed with different cultural markers, in Bulgarian and in English. Years of shaping my understanding in English had left me less fluent, not only linguistically but also cognitively, in the environments of my home. And at the same time, I understood them innately, emotively, in a way that does not quite translate elsewhere, either.

Environment and language share this one thing: that they shape us, that they shape the very foundations of how we think. If our environments are fluid, if our languages are multiple, then perhaps it is no surprise that our thinking is, too. What is the one place in common between all those disjointed (dis)placements? Just me. I am the intersection point. I am the sum of my many displacements, which somehow make a singular place. My displacement places me, in a way. It shapes who I am, how I think, and the scholarship I produce—along with its small successes and many failures. All this displacement is privilege, too. Mobile, educated, multilingual: these are the markers of privilege. Academia is shaped to make these displacements the currency with which we buy our place in an elite (this is a patriarchal structure, of course).

So, here I am, (dis)placed. Given the choice, would I have traded any of my displacements for a placed existence? Could I have thrived, emplaced on a single shore, static, ever staring out into the distance?


But then I would not have been who I am, writing this piece, today.

*Cover Image: The dangers of displacement; photo by author.