Julie Reshe on disgusting gypsies, the downside of tolerance and pain of modern nomadic living.
I have no race except which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I’m obliged to belong. I have no traditions. I’m free. I have only the future.
— Richard Wright, Pagan Spain
Instead of the term “Roma”, I will deliberately use the less politically correct term “Gypsies”, because it is the latter that conveys the image I need for my purposes. Using the image of gypsies, I’m not so much going to try to see them from within their culture as to represent a social bias imposed on them from the outside, which poorly vocalizes their inner specificity, but is more familiar and understandable for us.
In accordance with the exaggerated form of this image, the gypsies are something a priori disgusting. They are an ideal object of xenophobia, those who are allowed to be neglected by everyone, who are almost the personification of disgust (tolerance awareness is raising worldwide, but with regard to Gypsies it is still most slowly improving). While the Nazi genocide of the Jews is more than hot-button issue, the theme of the Nazi genocide of the Gypsies which is no less awful (all German Gypsies were exterminated in the years 1939–45), simply is not pronounced. It seems that as far as Gypsies are concerned, the genocide is regarded as more like a natural occurrence, something more understandable and therefore less noticeable to us, not such a big deal.
It is in this image of something a priori disgusting that I am going to try to reveal each of us — to draw a parallel between the individual of today and a Gypsy. This being said, my gypsy background will hopefully help me to become a medium between our perception of gypsies and their inner world, hidden behind the stereotypes.
It is important to realize that not only xenophobia produces stereotypes, but tolerance, too. Xenophobia is certainly a terrible phenomenon that has no place in a present-day world, but its current alternative, tolerance, is also not free from shortcomings and is not the complete antithesis of xenophobia. Both xenophobia and tolerance embody a scornful look that destroys the one at whom it is directed. Tolerance is a spectrum from indulgency (suggesting that we tolerate something disgusting) to sympathy. Regarding sympathy, Nietzsche was right in asserting that, a person who manifests it acts as a benefactor showing his superiority to the one he sympathizes with, perceives him as someone lower, worthy of indulgency.
In any case, the one to whom tolerance is manifested is evaluated according to the value system of the one who manifests it. While xenophobia is the desire to physically destroy the other as someone inferior, someone incomprehensible and therefore repugnant, then tolerance destroys the phenomenon it targets, converts it into its value system and levels its authenticity.
For example, the xenophobic statement “Gypsies steal” provides for their social stigmatization. Tolerant reaction to this statement has several options — to assert that this is a stereotype and Gypsies do not really steal (that is, according to our standards, they are good), to show understanding, write the stealing off for the hopelessness of their living conditions, or to tolerate them as something disgusting, but at the same time to keep our heads, to demonstrate that we are civilized. In each of these reactions, there are no Gypsies, but only the perspective of the one who perceives them — as something good, evil, or neutral. Any of these reactions does not allow understanding Gypsies, excludes them, chaining them inside our own system of values.
There is another possible position: at first try to rethink your own value system, to to put it into question (that is, to destroy a part of yourself). For example, to rethink the generally accepted concept of the propensity to steal from the perspective of another value system — the one that is not based on our concept of private property, but implies communal ownership or more intensive wealth redistribution.
The image of Gypsies that I use here is a nomadic community, which has to exist in conditions of settled societies. It should be noted that a sedentary life is not opposed to a nomadic one. The first one also implies movement, but in a less intensive form — in a sedentary civilization, we constantly move in space: we go to work, or move from country to country; just in the context of a nomadic community, this movement is much more intensive and is a priority compared to elements of residency. The Gypsies’ nomadic society is not opposed to settled way of life: they stop while moving, so the Gipsy encampment movement can also be considered a movement of sedentism (when sedentism is something what moves).
This duality of the settled/nomadic way of life is also noticeable in the international legal status of Gypsies. On April 8, 1971, the first World Romani Congress took place in London. The result of the congress was the recognition of the Gypsies of the world as a single non-territorial nation and the adoption of national symbols: the flag and the anthem. The Gypsy flag depicts a wheel– a symbol of movement. Another common symbol is the horseshoe, which also symbolizes movement. The Gypsy anthem is based on the folk song “Gelem, gelem” (I’ll discuss it later).
The question arises whether a nation can symbolize movement and be non-territorial when the traditional definition of the term “nation” implies a common territory as one of the key features. It is clear that the recognition of Gypsies as a nation is a manifestation of an attempt to adapt to a settled territorially categorized world — and it is impossible to adapt to it apart from being recognized as a nation. But what appeals to me is the idea that this act of adaptation distorts the very concept of the nation and the territorial categorization of settled societies, making a farce out of it, undermining it from the inside.
The values of the nomadic community and its way of life and thinking are different from the value system of the settled community. Exaggeratedly speaking, we can say that, unlike sedentary communities, the key value of the nomadic community is not accumulation and preservation, but freedom and movement — that is, which unties people from the territory and stability, instead of building into them.
The life of the nomadic community is adapted to the traveling way of life. Readiness to travel and persecution is manifested in every little thing connected with the organization of everyday life. The Gypsy tradition to wear golden adornments speaks for the readiness to uproot at any moment and be to a certain extent secured in any new place. Many skirts on a Gypsy woman are not an evidence of bad taste or greed — this is just convenient for quick pack if necessary. Gypsies have to choose such professions that do not tie them to a locality.
From the perspective of a settled civilization, a nomad is an unhappy person living a disorderly life. His life “lacks” something key and fundamental — certainty, guarantees of stability, property. From the point of view of freedom being a key value, the opposite is true: property, certainty, well-being and stable placement are achieved by sacrificing the key thing — freedom. From the point of view of a freedom-based value system, simplicity and poverty are not automatically synonymous with unhappiness.
It should not be assumed that a person who leads a nomadic lifestyle is automatically happy. Gypsies are associated with joyfulness by many, as they performed an entertaining function in many sedentary societies, but this is more of joy mixed with pain.
It can also be argued that there is a difference between the joy of the free spirit and the happiness of stability. The latter is calm, while the former is painful. This joy mixed with pain is reflected in Gypsy beliefs and fairy tales, which are filled with ironic and dark romanticism. It is this joy that we all should learn now.
What does it have to do with Deleuze and philosophy? In his analysis of the sphere of thought and the theory of the subject, Deleuze used images of sedentary and nomadic. For him, they symbolize two modes of thinking.
The first mode — sedentary — is also called by Deleuze statesmanship. It builds a hierarchy, which is centered around a single subject-centre. Nomadic mode is supported by a rigid structure and a well-organized order — this is the space in which meaning of words are formed by fixing boundaries. In this space, meanings are motionless, a certain meaning is assigned to each word. Sedentary mode is associated with common sense, that is, with the consumption of words, which meanings no one doubts, which are used as self-evident. Common sense is a passive mode of using the meanings, which excludes the possibility of their modification.
In contrast to sedentary one, the nomadic mode is characterized by fluidity and non-fixed meanings. Nomadic distribution type activates plasticity and variability of meanings. Here, the meanings of words have no clear boundaries, they shift, “leaving” the old territories, “exploring” the new ones. In nomadic mode, the words are not static elements, but the process. Staticity is detrimental to nomadic distribution, since the main property of nomadic mode is continuous variability. Nomadic mode of thinking is philosophical thinking.
In nomadic mode there is no place for deadly sobriety, which is possible only when a fixed meaning is attached to every word. Nomadic mode is a game space. Deadly seriousness is an element of the divine order (“even among the gods, each has its domain, its category, its attributes”), so the game is a principle that opposes the divine. “Such distribution is demonic rather than divine, since it is the particularity of demons to operate in the intervals between the gods’ fields of action, jumping, for example, through barriers and fenced areas and violating property rights”.
If sedentary mode is a passive form of using words, then nomadic is its active form. In contrast to the passive, the active mode is the mode of activating the modifiability of meanings. The active position corresponds to the use of generally accepted meanings as material for the game, that is, operating them in a space where they can be modified.
As far as the theory of the subject is concerned, Deleuze introduces the concept of pre-individual “nomadic singularities”, which is intended to replace the classical theories of the subject. Classical theories presupposed immutable identities — for example, a woman or a citizen of a particular country. Nomadic singularities are constantly in a state of arbitrary identity formation. It is because of this that they are not subject to any centralized system and control. Nomadic singularity is the epitome of the philosophical way of life.
Foucault and Deleuze associated philosophy with perversion. Commenting on Gilles Deleuze’s works in Theatrum philosophicum, Foucault calls for perversions to be applied to common sense. Although today the word “perversion” is mainly used in the context of sexuality (where it means “an unnatural act defying the laws of nature… despicable and disgusting”), from the Latin word “pervertere”, which means “deviation from the truth”, a distortion of that proclaimed to be true, not intended use. Initially, perverts were considered renegades who doubted religious norms. The philosophers are a pervert because they doubt what is taken for granted and appears to have a permanent identity.
It is not for nothing that perversion is associated with a feeling of disgust. The sense of disgust (xenophobia is based on this) is evolutionary associated with the self-preservation of a sustainable order. It appeared as a reaction to the otherness (something other than what we are accustomed to) and therefore dangerous. With respect to sedentary, nomadic is other, so it is understandable why it causes rejection and disgust.
By the way, not only xenophobia, but also tolerance (in the sense of indulgence) is also built on disgust, because we tolerate what is unpleasant to us. Although disgust is a negative concept, in a strange way it at least recognizes the otherness, as opposed to a benevolent attitude (which involves treating someone different from those whom we consider to be “one of us” and therefore not dangerous), and that is why it can provide a certain degree of freedom.
The remarkable collection “Monologue with the State” contains real stories about street artists’ clashes with police. One of the stories describes sharing an experienced street artist’s practical experience to a less experienced one. The latter was advised not to defecate on the eve of nightly drawing on the walls. When ill luck came to them and police became interested in their activities, the junior one became aware what a good advice he had been given. Due to the fact that an experienced artist delayed the act of deification before encountering police officers, the latter, with a feeling of disgust, decided that the artist was not worth their attention. The stories collection associates the street artists with the caste of untouchables. Moreover, untouchability (immunity) is also a property of, for example, of supreme rulers. Immunity, either out of a sense of disgust or due to a position of superiority, provides access to freedom.
The modern world makes us turn into Gypsy-philosophers. Today, we are in a state of transition from postmodernism to metamodernism. Postmodernism is the epoch of the conversion of metanarratives, that is, the traditional all-explaining patterns of self-conception and comprehension of the world. Humanity has has come to recognize the relativity of traditional values, moral systems and ideologies. In Deleuze’s terminology, there was a transition from a sedentary mode of thinking to a nomadic one. The former constancy and certainty of common sense became impossible. Because of this, the mood of the end of postmodern is dark cynicism and irony.
To describe the present day, the term “metamodernism” was proposed by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in 2010. Metamodernism includes both metanarratives of modernism and postmodernism, that is, an awareness of the conventionality of metanarratives. The world that is emerging today is a combination of two phenomena: a return to the remnants of the old models, provided that they are used as material for the game. It stipulates a sincere childish involvement in the game, despite the realization that this is just a game. This movement is a movement to return to the fixed and traditional together with their perversion.
Vermeulen and Akker used the pendulum metaphor to explain this phenomenon. Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between modernism and postmodernism. The oscillations of the pendulum are so fast that it is impossible to see its movement with the naked eye. Instead, we see only a bizarre vibration in the central space between the two poles. Metamodernism oscillates between extremes that include both these two extremes and everything in between them. One has to be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance: “Indeed, metamodernism is an oscillation. It is the dynamic by which it expresses itself.” As a result of the oscillation, there appears something completely new — productive movement, oscillations/inclusions between the poles that transcendent its spectrum. Metamodernism moves for the sake of movement, makes attempts, despite their inevitable failure; it always looks for the truth that it never expects to find. It embodies the tension between order and disorder, between beauty and ugliness, pain and happiness. The mood of metamodernism is an adult cynicism combined with childish naivety and enthusiasm, the senseless joy of freedom with a bitter taste.
The Internet, network culture and open source are the metamodernism implementation ways, that include traditional forms of communication, cooperation and information sharing, but in a perverted form, because they become detached from a fixed area, lacking a clear hierarchy and provide for the blurring of the stable identity framework. Thanks to information technology, the subject exists, but it is elusive, mobile and abstract.
To describe current trends, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri use the term “monster” as a synonym for the terms “barbarian” and “queer”. Monsters are those who do not play the role assigned to them, so they are persecuted. For example, there are women in modern society who refuse to take care on demand, that is, to conform to the traditional image of a woman. A monster is a person refusing to be who he “should” be. They are barbarians, because they behave as if they do not know or do not understand the established order. A monster is a freak that is not right in the head, acting contrary to common sense, to the generally accepted form of reasoning and existence. From the point of view of the traditional society, they are disgusting, possibly even to themselves, they differ from the traditional subject. But it is this disgust and self-disgust that is a sign of their freedom.
In this context, the concept of queer is not used in the sense of a specific sexual identity that exists along with other stable identities; queer designates the very process of change and transformation, a process in which there is no ultimate identification.
For Hardt and Negri, monstrosity is the only thing that embodies the revolutionary potential of overthrowing the traditional order, but this can not be achieved if you do not become a monster.
Other possible images of metamodernist people are the Internet junky and the modern artist, freed from obsession with their origins, free for traveling, research and experimentation.
A new world is the one in which we are all gypsies, because it establishes new values — freedom of movement, mobility and volatility, while the values of the old world of stability fall into oblivion. This is a world of game, lack of consistency and seriousness. But this new world is not fun and safe, it is primarily dark and ironic, although it also has the features of romanticism. Fun is mixed with pain here.
This is an exciting game, but it does not come cheap. We are disgusting to ourselves — in terms of freedom as a key value, we have no other choice. You can like yourself and be satisfied with your life only if you have traditional values, only if it is clear what you should be like and how you should act so that you are “good” or moral (for example, to respect your homeland, have a traditional family, profession, sustainable employment, property and money). These traditional coordinates fall into oblivion, we no longer have coordinates to determine who we are, do not know what we should be like, what country we belong to, what our moral principles are.
The “soul” of a metamodernist is demonic — it toils with uncertainty, betrays itself. We are no longer able to build stable relations, to love our country, to have a permanent occupation — we value freedom too much, we don’t have enough air inside these boundaries anymore. We are outcast monsters, but romantic ones.
The Gypsy anthem “Gelem, gelem” can claim to be the anthem of today, both in terms of form and of content. A characteristic feature of the anthem is plasticity — the absence of a clearly defined melody, each performer arranges a folk motive in their own way. There are also several text variations in which only the first verse and the chorus are exactly the same. All variations are recognized by gypsies.
In one of the options, the following lines are intriguing:
Gelem, gelem, lungone dromensa
Maladilem bakhtale Romensa
(I rode along the long roads,
I met happy Gypsies on my way)
Sas vi man yekh bari familiya,
Mundardyas la e Kali Legiya
(I used to have a big family,
The Black Legion killed them all)
Puter Devla le parne vudara
(Oh Lord, please open the White Door)
Pale ka zhav lungone dromendar
Thai ka phirav bakhtale Romensa
(Come back to tour the roads.
And walk with happy Gypsies)
This shows the priority values of the extraterritorial community. The normal reaction of a traditional territorial nation representative to the shed blood of one of its other representatives (“The Black Legion killed them all”) would be a call for revenge, protection of the territory and personal identification with the nation. But Gypsies in this situation… just go away and use god for purposes other than intended, praying him to leave them their disgusting liberty and painful freedom.
this essay was written for the catalog of the project Roma Are Us (Kiev, Ukraine)