Theorizing dis/placement

Since the only people who will see this website will probably be people from my class, it makes sense for me to introduce a signification-laden theoretical construct (in this case, “displacement”) and refer to a dense network class-specific meanings in a vague sort of way that leaves any “outside” readers in doubt. Right? That’s how all the “real” academics do it in academic journals… Right? And after all, the class has sort of constructed its own version of what the authors say since only a portion of students take time to do the readings each day… Right?


Like many budding academics, I am fond of two things related to the “scholarly”  use of words. First, I like to re-employ existing words in ways that have different meanings than those that are most common. In this case, I will re-employ the term “displacement.”

What does “displacement” mean? In the context of my coursework, it has mainly referred to human displacement, where people and groups of people are forced out of “their” place and into a new and different one. In the case of “refugees,” people are forced to flee their home states in fear of their lives and cannot return safely across state boundaries (at least, based on the definition employed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR). Other meanings of the term “refugee” can be broader, including people who have been displaced within a state, and also people who have been displaced in ways that aren’t directly related to states and their boundaries.

Second, as a budding academic I am fond of inventing my “own” neologisms (i.e. new word usages) by combining existing words in ways that may or not be extremely confusing. In the case of this website, I will be using the term “dis/placement.” So, what does this mean?

It means two things, simultaneously, in ways that cannot be separated. (Note that the following discussion bears many similarities to Butler and Athanasiou’s discussion, in Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, of two “valences” of dispossession that are fundamentally linked. I actually employed the term “dis/placement” before reading any part of their book. I also created it before reading Daisy Yan Du’s piece about “(dis)placement” in the context of documentaries about the Three Gorges Dam.)

With the term “dis/placement,” I mean to highlight the word “displacement” but also the word “emplacement.” Ultimately, I will argue that displacement and emplacement are mutually constitutive, and that any act of displacement is always an act of replacement, and vice versa.

Taken simply and literally, the first term, displacement, refers to the movement of something out of a place it occupies. To me, the term implies that the “something” is moved by an outside force. To me it sounds unusual to say that “Jenny displaced herself from the table,” whereas it sounds much more typical to say that “Jenny was displaced from the table,” where the term “was displaced” implies that there was an outside actor. Displacement, then, at least in the context of this website, refers to the act of something being moved out of a place. It’s not necessarily “replacement,” since the term “displacement” does not inherently imply that something new will come in to fill the place, nor does it implied that the “something” being displaced, and – and —-….

…and this is pretty abstract. Visual representations are just as problematic as anything, but they’re FUN! So, let’s go!

First, imagine that you have an armchair. (If you actually do have an armchair, this is easy. The question of whether it is possible to “have” something in the first place is for another discussion.) Now, imagine that there is a single cushion on your armchair, and it’s been carelessly left (by you) in the very center of the seat, meaning that someone wanting to sit on that seat will have to either move the cushion or sit on top of it.

Well, you’ve just finished running a marathon and realize that you urgently need to sit down. So, you grab the cushion and move it out of your seat – that is, you displace the cushion. We are not focusing here on where you “place” the cushion, if anywhere… For the moment, all that matters is that it’s been displaced, because all you really want to do is sit down (and not keep tabs on your cushion, which has smelled funny anyway ever since the cat peed on it).

cushion displacement

(Note that “you” are not represented in the diagram, but you are the force that displaces the cushion.)

So, this is what I mean by displacement. Simple, enough, right? Now let’s talk about “emplacement.”

By “emplacement,” I am referring to the act of something being moved into a place. This, too, is a fairly simple concept. Once you finally stand up from your armchair to get a glass of water, your dog Rudolph (so named because she loves the smell of dry oatmeal and once rubbed her nose in a bowl of it until her nose turned red) decides to take advantage of the warmed seat, and jumps up. By my usage of the term, she has “emplaced” herself in the chair.

Rudolph emplacement


So, where does dis/placement come in? I’ll get to that shortly, but I just realized that I should also talk about re-placement.

Let’s say that you put the cushion back on the armchair after standing up so that Rudolph won’t occupy it. (Maybe that’s why you put the cushion there in the first place.) Thus, when you leave the chair, the “place” in its seat occupied by the cushion.

Rudolph doesn’t care, and she moves up to the seat, displaces the cushion, and emplaces her body where it had been. Rudolph has replaced the cushion as the primary occupant of the seat.


In this diagram, Rudolph has replaced the cushion on the chair, and the cushion has replaced Rudolph on the floor.

…But perhaps the cushion’s destination doesn’t matter. Maybe Rudolph crams it into the corner, maybe it’s tossed across the room, whatever. If we take a moment to focus on the chair itself as the place of central concern (with the chair being a sort of “public space” that is being regulated), then the diagram becomes the following:

Rudolph and cushion_emplacement, replacement, and displacement

As you can see, the three dynamics of emplacement, displacement, and replacement are all happening through the same act of Rudolph pushing the cushion to the floor. In the bottom half of the diagram, Rudolph is displacing the cushion by causing it to be moved out of a place. In the top half of the diagram, Rudolph is emplacing herself by moving into the seat of the chair. And because the seat of the chair was formerly occupied by the cushion, Rudolph is replacing the cushion by appropriating “its” former place for her body. The replacement occurs when emplacement and displacement act upon the same place.


So, it’s all well and good, right? Dis/placement must be, then, some way to recognize this interchange between displacement, replacement, and emplacement, right? It must seem pretty simple at this point.

Sort of, but let me talk a little bit about replacement. This is where context becomes important.

In my study, I won’t be looking at instances of where police and protesters trade positions in “public” space, but, rather, where protesters are displaced from public space by police, thus defining publicness. I am interested in situations where police push protesters out of a space, without physically moving in to occupy the space themselves.

In order to illustrate this situation, let’s imagine a slightly different scenario. Recently, because your parents will soon visit your house, you have gone to great lengths to ensure that Rudolph is not allowed to rest on the armchair, because her coat is very hairy and leaves a dog-smelling mess on your chair every time she lays down. Your cat Elise, however, does whatever he (Elise) wants. Rudolph is uncomfortable with this and jealous, so Rudolph makes it her hobby to displace Elise from the chair, yet without actually emplacing herself (Rudolph) into the chair.

Rudolph and Elise_displacement without replacement

In this case, then, we have “displacement without replacement.” This is the sort of situation in question when we are talking about, for example, a violent conflict that makes communities uninhabitable and displaces large numbers of people… Although people have been displaced, nobody has necessarily come in to occupy their former place. (Other situations, like the dis/placement and occupation of Palestine, might still work pretty well in the previous model.) And since Rudolph is not actually placing herself into the chair, she is not “emplacing” her body, correct? So, does this disprove my hypothesis that any act of displacement is also and always an act of emplacement?

Speaking strictly of bodies, yes. Speaking of authority and power, no.

Police and Protesters_dis-placement

Ultimately I mean to argue that the displacement of protesters by police is an emplacement of state authority through mechanisms of violence. This emplacement of state authority is used, in fact, to create the “public sphere” as a space to mediate between the state and private persons through rational discussions. Because protest “violence” is seen as a violation of the rational publicness of the public sphere, the state uses force to displace the protesters while emplacing a public sphere “to promote democracy” and to promote a specific type of “order” that is seen as necessary for publicness. Thus, we arrive violent dis/placement, the central theme of what I will discuss in my project. The police don’t physically occupy the space, but they DO “occupy” the space, through the act of displacement of protesters… The displacing of bodies on the street, and the displacement of political demands in news media representations, acts to emplace power and authority.


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