Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Living Absence: The Strange Geographies of Missing People

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Living Absence: The Strange Geographies of Missing People

Article excerpt

Abstract. In this paper 'missing people' gain an unstable presence through their (restaged) testimonies recounting individual occupations of material urban public space during the lived practice of absence. We explore 'missing experience' with reference to homeless geographies, and as constituted by paradoxical spatialities in which people are both absent and present. We seek to understand such urban geographies of absence through diverse voices of missing people, who discuss their embodiment of unusual rhythmic occupations of the city. We conclude by considering how a new politics of missing people might take account of such voices in ways to think further about rights-to-be-absent in the city.

Keywords: missing people, strange city, presence-absence, rhythms

Introduction: the present absence of missing people

In a recent paper Sigvardsdotter (2013, page 524) discusses the curious absent presence of undocumented migrants in Sweden, arguing that "being officially absent robs undocumented persons of their capacity to define space, adding paradoxical qualities to the undocumented spatiality." Sigvardsdotter lends insights into 'being undocumented' (in preference to 'being migrant'), specifically relating to absence and presence, rights, resistance, identification, and the use of public space. This paper builds n these concerns and related calls to explore 'geographies of absence' (Frers, 2013; Meiei et al, 2013), but in the context of a quite different kind of 'living absence': that of domestic 'missing persons', (1) with specific reference to 'being missing' in urban places. We thus explore the paradoxical qualities of present but absent spatialities, through insights into what we are calling 'missing experience' (see below a note about our terminology). We also elaborate current thinking about the city as an assemblage of unusual cartographies, ones which include "well-trodden, but not always visible, tracks ... inhabited by increasing numbers of people, and ... new circuits of belonging, fear and suffering" (Amin, 2007, page 101). We are thus engaging with often hidden uses of the city and a largely unrecognised 'group' we are calling 'missing people' [previously also ignored by human geographers; see Parr and Fyfe (2013)]. In doing so, we seek a distinctive contribution to current thinking around absence, not from the (more common) perspective of the left behind (Wylie, 2007) but from the perspective of those who have (temporarily) gone.

This paper is empirically partial, being based on findings from a UK-based research project, (2) and it is acknowledged that there are other kinds of human disappearance across the world (Edkins, 2011; Parr and Fyfe, 2013). The situated experiences of which we write still allow us to make general points about how people in crisis access relational urban topographies of the human and nonhuman. In contemporary cities, where it is increasingly recognised that there are new kinds of urban precarity and a new kind of urban precariat which traverse such spaces, domestic cases of missing people should be considered alongside the geographies of homeless, trafficked, and migrant peoples (Waite et al, 2013). Reflecting on how missing people access urban public space contributes to ideas about how the urban is an "important site of civic becoming [and contains] possibilities for urban well-being and collective recognition" (Amin, 2008, page 22). Relatedly, it is thus appropriate to consider what rights missing people might have to the city, alongside those of other marginal groups, as we discuss below.

In what follows, we are interested in the absence of missing people as an embodied performance, responsive and resistant to particular kinds of urban governance, notably policing (Cloke et al, 2008; Parr and Fyfe, 2013). Frers (2013, page 2) has recently argued that "the problem with accounts of absence is that they implicitly or explicitly use absence as 'the other', the opposite, the unknown, the spectral, the immaterial. …

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