If all the world’s a page, as one might say, most of it is the margins. As in the ancient tragedies, offstage is where you find the real action. Most people are marginal, by today’s political and economic reckoning – in democracies where each vote doesn’t count, and with the money being hovered up by the super-rich – and now, with common ownership shrinking, we are defined by this status. The margins – the edges, the places where the writing doesn’t show – are heaving with meaning.
For some time, while we’ve sat and talk talk talked, growing our endless Facebook threads and yougov petitions, most of the action has been happening almost everywhere else. ‘Swarms of migrants’, surging masses of people, trying to cross the borders onto our page. Almost a Titanic of refugees drowned every week last summer in the Mediterranean. Market bombs, airport bombs, far-right election victories gathering force, deportations almost everywhere, the mother of all bombs. Who knows where it will have dropped by the time this essay goes to print. And now this election, with its explicit messaging. Meaning, which means meaning in the ways in which we both say things and don’t say them, in the form of men, women and children, is surging towards us from all the margins of our mental map.
It used to be predicted, back in the 1960s and 70s, that scarcity of resources caused by the population and pollution explosions would lead to wars, mass migrations as in the ice age, and poverty-stricken victims by the million. What wasn’t predicted (and in the eighties we learned to stop worrying) was the neo-capitalist gold rush – the plutocrats roaring back to full throttle, leaving the rest of us in the dust of the roadside. Back in the margins.
Joseph Brodsky, the Russian émigré poet (and protégé of Anna Akhmatova), wrote extensively about the linguistic faces of political marginalisation. In his essay ‘Less Than One, he remarked, ‘“History, no doubt, is bound to repeat itself: after all, like men, history doesn’t have many choices. But at least one should have the comfort of being aware of what one is falling a victim to when dealing with the peculiar semantics prevailing…’
An important effect of our current ‘interesting times’ turns out to be a snap back to a conformist mentality, an insistence on consensus as the centre ground shrinks. Look at how our governments in the UK and the US have become obsessed with identifying and vilifying groups: who’s in, who’s out. Look at how we talk on Facebook or Twitter: everyone’s defined by their ‘community’, or by the insult one happens to be hurling at them – whether ‘snowflake’, ‘fucktard’ (just kill me now) or ‘terrorist’. Belonging is safety.