Europe and migrations: Arjun Appadurai and the power of imagination

Twenty years after “Modernity at large”, the great anthropologist Arjun Appadurai reflects on how cultural flows, inside and outside Europe, have changed

Twenty years ago, with “Modernity at large”, he formulated an anthropological theory that became a model defining reality as “global cultural flows”. Today, Ariun Appadurai – American anthropologist with Indian origins – keeps on elaborating original and acute visions, with a never banal cross-cultural look towards our present and, increasingly, towards our future.

ICS met him in Milan, at the event Future Ways of Living by Meet the Media guru, talking about Europe, rights and modernity and discovering that nothing ever returns the same.

One of the pillars of your theory on global flows was the concept of ethnoscape and the idea of ​​overcoming the typical modern link between territory and identity. As nationalisms are rising again, this connection is getting stronger: are we facing a resurgence of the idea of ​​territory?

I certainly think that there is a global swing to the right, to the cultural right, the national and xenophobic right, not only in Europe. As people are facing anxiety associated with the radical circulation of migrants and refugees, or of arms, of terror, they do look again at their anchors - space, soil, locality, family etc.

But as we learned from the early classic insights of Levi-Strauss, when one thing is new, everything is the new, meaning that it changes the relationship to other things. So, even the territory - the french would say terroir – is not longer simply available to restore, because in the meantime the ground has literary moved under our feet. We can use a proustian metaphor about “le temp perdue”: the lost time is, in every sense, lost. We can recreate it and tell the story again, but the revisitation will never be the same.

Managing massive migration flows will be one of the biggest challenges of Europe. How imaginative processes influence this phenomenon?

It is clear to me that imagination is a very powerful force, both for those who are coming and those who are receiving. And it requires some serious effort of attention on how to manage and shape this imaginary in a constructive manner, in order not to make it (as it’s already happening) a matter of fear and hate and rejection. I think it requires some thought and action and policies, which for example do not create a shock contrast between human right refugees and economic refugees. In my mind this is a false contrast: everybody wants to improve their lives. And improvement means more safety, more security but also a better future, for me and for my children.

Indeed, Europe itself has been for centuries a land of free internal and external movements. So I think it’s a bit hypocritical that we suddenly want the music to stop and everybody to sit down, and who doesn’t have a chair disappears. That’s not going to happen. We do need to recognize that imagination and aspiration are everybody’s right, not only the right of a few.



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