The Invisible Armada

The island – from community to insularism

By Alain Brossat

1 July 2022

It is quite risky to talk about the island in general or, if you will, to make the island not just a place, but a concept. It is because there is such a great diversity of islands that it seems that we can only take note of their diversity: small and large, tiny islets and islands which form continents or almost, deserted islands and others densely populated, islands on which very advanced material civilizations thrive and others where populations dedicated to wild life prosper or wither – the paradise of anthropologists... And then there are also the islands which form archipelagos, as in Japan or in Southeast Asia and that are inseparable from this archipelagic configuration, which considerably distinguishes them from others which, by contrast, are far from everything, in the middle of the maritime expanse... Not to mention the element of disparity which means that not all the islands are associated with the maritime environment – you also find beautiful and famous islands in lakes, on rivers...

This disparity, this extreme diversity of the island as place and environment is liable to discourage us from trying to find any substantial and general feature of the island, in itself, as such. There are islands of all kinds and qualities and the best we can get out of this scattered and heterogeneous condition would be to try to bring some order to them by producing taxonomies – by classifying the islands according to different criteria or principles: the small and the big, the rich and the poor, the hospitable and the inhospitable, those which are conducive to tourism and those which are not, etc.

And yet, since we are here in Taiwan, on an island which is also a space of civilization, a place to live and a political entity, even disputed, I would like to try, at my own risk, to outline some recurring features or insisting on what one might call an insular regime ; a regime that would find its expression in terms of forms of life, mentalities, perception of the world, relationships with different environments, etc. In these completely hypothetical and open to discussion reflections, I combine the observations that I have been making on this island for many years now, taking it as a permanent field of study, with my readings and my work on the cinema and all kinds of readings through which the theme of the island arises – novels, films, but also many essays of all kinds, philosophy, newspapers of course, anthropological or ethnographic studies...

I try to understand how the relations match between the island which is a location, a topography and insularity , which is a condition, and finally insularism which is a mentality or a state of mind... These relations are dynamic and changing, it is a whole combination that unfolds around the island understood as "world" - because this is indeed the first of its paradoxes: it is both an isolate (in the Latin languages , the etymological relationship between island and isolation is distinct) and what connects – from a maritime point of view, the island is the stopover, the port, which allows you to move from one point to another. From the outset, we see a whole field of reflection taking shape on the relationship between land and sea, dry land (Festland, terra ferma) and liquid expanse, an essential reflection which leads us to the foundations of politics and the genesis of the State, and a reflection whose the island is sort of the operator.

The island is what connects land and sea in a way that is fundamentally different from what can be done from the continent or from the point of view of the continent. We could begin to deconstruct the legitimized games of opposition that are practiced today in mainstream Western discourse about Taiwan and China by noting this: what distinguishes and opposes the two entities in the first place is not not the fact that one would be dedicated to democracy and the other to its opposite, but that the first is, above all, an island and the second, above all also, a continental entity. But to do this, one would of course have to begin by taking completely seriously, from a theoretical, conceptual point of view, the motif of the island and consider what, fundamentally, opposes it to the continent.

We have to follow here inevitably the jurist and philosopher Carl Schmitt, an individual whom I would not like to associate with because of his collusion with the Nazi regime, but an essential reference for whoever thinks about the relationship between territory and sovereignty, relations between States and the inscription of power. politics in space. Schmitt poses a primary opposition between mainland and sea understood as liquid expanse. The mainland ( Festland ) is territorializable, the sea is not. The first gesture in the formation of political power, therefore of the constitution of the State, in the Schmittian perspective, is that which consists in marking out a territory in order to appropriate it. This is the famous nomos of the Earth which consists in making the foundation of a legitimate order and therefore of the law inseparable from an activity of rooting and inscribing power in a territory. As you can see immediately, this operation is possible on land, it is not on the sea. The politics and the life of the States will therefore be based on this primary opposition between the land (the continent) as what can be appropriated and the sea insofar as it is not and is defined a priori as the good (possession) of no one (rather than of all – res nullius , in Latin).

If we stick to this game of binary opposition, then we immediately see that the island occupies an ambiguous position, likely to make it the subject of all disputes and litigations: from the very fact that it is surrounded on all sides by the sea, it fully belongs to this liquid element. This condition is particularly evident if one refers to the archipelagos, the Ryukus, the Sunda Islands, etc. : the islands are relay points in a whole, a space, whose primary element is the sea; which translates, in terms of human geography, into the fact that what makes this space prosperous is the maritime trade from island to island and that the characters who inhabit it are, first and foremost, seafarers, sailors, traders, pirates, maritime kingdoms, etc.

However, on the other hand, the island, whatever its size, is still a piece of solid land and therefore, as such, territorializable and appropriable. But, as it belongs to the sea, so to speak. Hence the constancy and intensity of the disputes relating to the sovereignty or the dependency of such and such an island, insofar as, in particular, they bring into play the relationship between the island and the continent: is Taiwan an integral part of the Chinese sovereignty established on the mainland or does it constitute a distinct maritime entity? Corsica, and the remnants of the French colonial empire scattered in all the maritime expanses of the planet, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion, Mayotte, New Caledonia, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon... - all these micro- island entities, to what extent are they constituent elements of the global and sovereign entity “France”? The question is indefinitely open and disputed, the proof being the persistence of independence or autonomist movements in one or another of them...

The attachment of an island entity to a larger and more powerful whole, generally of the continental type, but not always (Japan, Indonesia, etc.) is never self-evident – from the question of Okinawa, very close to here, passing through Puerto Rico or, a fortiori , the Falklands. Whether it is two nation-states or, in the golden age of European colonialism, two empires fighting over an island, or even whether it is the islanders who claim their independence from a continental state entity - the island remains a thorn in the heel of global orders based on the division of the world between powers, whether imperial, colonial or national-state. It does not fit well into the boxes of these distributions and divisions. Continental powers clash over sovereignty over this or that island – USA vs. Spain over Cuba at the end of the 19th century, Britain vs. Argentina at the end of the next, the list could go on and on. . The dispute around the island becomes blatant when it bears two names which exclude each other: Falklands for the English, Malvinas for the Argentinians; Senkaku for the Japanese, Dyaoyu for the Chinese and, until further notice, for the Taiwanese too...

As a terrestrial environment, the island is opposed to the continent insofar as the former is closed. The continental entity, whatever it is, and even if it is delimited, as a territory, by natural obstacles (mountains, rivers...) and borders, is fundamentally open, you can get out of it, escape from it, even by crossing passes, passing through forests, following the course of a river, etc. Suppose you are wanted by all the police in Taiwan, the obstacle you will relentlessly come up against in your escape is the sea, an impassable liquid expanse for an human attached to land. This very fact that the island is separated from other land spaces, whatever its size once again - even the immense Australia presents this feature, it is the reason why England deported its convicts there - is intrinsically ambivalent . It has the consequence that, even on a sparsely populated island, it produces what I would call a community effect : the islanders do not simply form a society, as on the mainland, they always tend towards community, they identify with each other with all sorts of particular traits, infinitesimal or obvious, there is a more or less strong affect that binds them together, for better or for worse.

Being an islander is an identity marker that can easily become a destiny. One of the manifestations of this condition is the fact that the islanders who live on the mainland tend to form community societies, to cultivate ties there intended to affirm a specific identity, a folklore, to support each other and, in certain cases, to form friendly associations or mafias – the Corsicans in France, the Sicilians in New York, the Taiwanese who do business in Shanghai or Shenzhen, perhaps, you tell me. .

This spontaneously communitarian trait of the islander is crucial, insofar as it influences in a more or less decisive way the way of life. What has always struck me in Taiwan, I who am a continental, and who moreover come from a culture where the barriers between people of different social categories and conditions are numerous and marked, is the ease with which, here, people who do not know each other (for example a taxi driver and his-her customer) can enter into a relaxed conversation, in an affable tone, what we, in my country, would call a conversation between neighbors or acquainted people ... Everything happens as if, it seems to me, despite the abysmal character of social inequalities, we had here, on this island, and precisely because it is an island, a society of neighbors , where a kind of spirit of community of low intensity made that the cordial and relaxed small talk set the general tone of a sociability based on sympathy rather than suspicion or antipathy - lukewarm rather than cold, as with us in northern or continental Europe (to distinguish here from southern Europe).

Often, this community feature of the common life of the islanders is supported by linguistic or customary particularisms. We feel it here, even when we don't understand, the tone of the conversation changes when people go from Mandarin to Taiwanese, in an interaction between people who don't know each other, a trait that we will find again when people go from French to Creole in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyane or Reunion. There is also everything that pertains to the habitus , and which enters into structural games of opposition between continental culture and island culture. The island is, in general, the world of particularisms , generally cultivated, sometimes stigmata for islanders living on the mainland – a characteristic accent, for example, the Corsican accent in mainland France, the Sardinian or Sicilian accent in Italy, speaking Taiwanese or Hakka in Taiwan...

However, if the status of islander brings together the people who share it and produces effects of community of varying intensity, this positivity has a reverse side which includes all sorts of negative traits. On the one hand, this condition leads to self-centring, it feeds the natural propensity of all human groups, more or less compact, to perceive themselves as “the center of the world”; in modern societies, in particular as they are organized around the system of nation-states, this propensity for self-centering is the most common thing; but let's say that it is particularly affirmed and displayed in spaces where the nation-state coincides with the insular or archipelagic condition – Japan, for example. However, there is only one step from self-centeredness to insulation, from the Latin insula (island).

As we have seen, the island is fundamentally placed under this double sign, the two poles of which are in tension – isolation and connection; the liquid expanse understood as, simultaneously, what separates and what connects. Insulation is the isolation pole which "enters the heads" of the islanders and which leads them to withdraw into their own condition, into their own space, physical and mental, as if they would be the center of all things.

Or, more precisely, perhaps, one could say that the condition of the islanders oscillates between phases in which what prevails is openness, connection with other, larger spaces, and others in which withdrawal into oneself and more or less narcissistic self-centeredness are imposed. From the point of view of an ontology of the present, the question would of course be, for us, here and now, to know where Taiwan is today, considered from this angle.

On the other hand, when island confinement takes a harsh, i.e. autarkic, form, when the island becomes a world tending towards closure, with very few or no break-ins from the outside, the compact, dense, molar communal form, as Gilles Deleuze would say, prevails. The individual subject is caught in a tight web of relationships and forms of exposure and obligations in his relationships to others and to the group; he-she has no choice, the life of the group imposes its conditions on those of the individuals; the community envelops them, protects them – but it simultaneously deprives them of all autonomy. It is the life of the group that determines all forms of life – this feature is particularly salient in the social organization of the first peoples. There is a time for hunting, a time for gathering, a time for rites and festivals, etc. The individual who does not “play the game” of the island community, under these conditions, condemns him-herself to an existence of reprobate, of banishment, when he is not quite simply exposing him-herself to being put to death.

Under these conditions, the figure that emerges, which is not necessarily associated with the island condition but of which the island is, let's say, the ideal topos , is that of the terrible (or dreadful) community . What is Terrible Community? It is this figure according to which the human group becomes an indivisible, fusional totality, where each of the members who compose it is totally "exposed" to the others and is subject to the "law" of the group. What makes that this version of the community can be called "terrible" is its perfect ambivalence: on the one hand , of course, the individual subject fused with the group finds in this very condition a power, a force, a security, an assurance which will always be kept out of his reach in the more common situation where he-she is only one social atom among others, separated, even isolated from the others, exposed to all sorts of risks and perils. But, on the other hand , in this figure of communal totalization, the individual subject suffocates, he-she is entirely taken hostage by the life of the group, it is a collectivist tyranny which is exercised at his-her expense. If he-she rebels, he-she risks his-her life and if he-she accepts his-her condition, he-she dissolves into the group, he-she ceases to exist as an individual subject.

The beauty of the community, in its pre-modern form, is that it is acephalous (headless) , when it has a "leader", as the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres has shown, this one is approximately devoid of any real power. It is in its modern degenerate, modern, totalitarian or authoritarian form that the community (but is it still one?) has a chief, a Leader, a Führer... But the other side of this beauty is that the individual subject is directly and permanently placed under the direct influence of the group – the group is the Law, and the latter regulates all behavior...

The terrible community is in fact the white-hot community, it realizes the potential of any community, it reveals its dark side, its cursed share, as Georges Bataille would say. The individuality of the subject is constantly threatened with having to dissolve into the great homogeneous and compact totality that constitutes the community; the subject who persists in displaying a difference, a singularity is threatened with being the object either of banishment or of an expiatory sacrifice, both committed in the name of the cohesion of the community, of defending its integrity. It's a not very pleasant music whose accents you can distinctly hear today in Taiwan, functioning here as an island-community aiming for a form of homogenization placed under the sign of the One-only, in a distinct atmosphere of witch hunts, about "fifth column", "infiltration", "saboteurs", "foreign agents", etc. - the terrible community in a neo-McCarthyist Taiwanese version .

On the other hand, the harmful temptation which weighs permanently on the destiny of the island is, as I have said, isolation, the tendency to withdraw into oneself, mental autarky in a context where the economic autarky is less possible than ever. When, for various reasons, the relations of the island with its immediate environment enter into crisis, the temptation of the bubble appears: self-centeredness, the backlash of a village mentality, what is called in French the “spirit of bell tower”, campanilismo in Italian. The island ceases, in this configuration, to be a crossroads, a meeting point or a relay in a large space of circulation where the maritime expanse is the primary environment, it becomes a bastion, a mental burrow. Two remarks on this.

The first is that the quest for bubbles and closed spheres is a phantasmagoria that greatly agitates our present. This is due to the fact that the perception of the multiplication of threats, risks and dangers weighing on our lives is today the most shared thing – threats of war, environmental, climatic, health risks, etc. Bubbles, intended to provide those who are tempted to withdraw into them with an illusory sense of security and immunity, are multiplying: malls, gated communities , SUVs, places protected by all kinds of access codes – and tomorrow anti-atomic bunkers, of course; the temptation to make the island on which we live a sort of mental and existential bubble is strong, in this context of generalized insecurity. But it is based on a pure illusion – the main feature of the island, unless it is far from everything, protected by a kind of impassable maritime barrier, which is very rare, is on the contrary that it is open and exposed. You don't necessarily enter it like in a mill (idiomatic French for: in an open space), but conversely, it is almost impossible to make it a gated community , to block all access - against all odds; migrants, deprived of everything, enter day after day in England, hiding in lorries loaded with goods, or risking their lives on small boats...

The second remark is that, in the present context of the new cold war and, because of the Ukrainian affair, less and less cold, Taiwan is a sensitive spot, particularly exposed to the temptation of withdrawal into oneself – but in a form which seems to me particularly illusory. This question has particularly sensitive issues in academic spaces and I will tell you frankly what I think about it, without beating around the bush, even if we then have a contradictory discussion on the subject – civilized debates never hurt anyone.

For reasons that are not related to any kind of historical fatality but rather to strategic, political choices made by the leaders and elites of the country, mainland China has been gradually, over the past years, built for the public opinion in Taiwan as a bad object; the mechanical effect of it has been the production, also in the areas of teaching and research, of effects of unbinding and disinvestment of this object, of virtual disappearance of academic exchanges with mainland China and, automatically, a withdrawal of centers of interest and investment to the Taiwanese “village”, in its very insular form. I remember that ten years ago, when I worked at NCTU (Hsinchu), the director of my research institute showed her openness by inviting a Marx specialist attached to a famous institute in Nanking, specialized in the most orthodox Marxology; today, in the same places of research, mainland China has become a blank spot and they are preferably interested in gender issues and aboriginal issues, preferably in the Taiwanese-Taiwanese context... This turning point seems to me to be repeated almost everywhere on the island's campuses.

However, the inscription of the continental Chinese world in a blind spot could not find its compensation in an instantaneous passage of your mental and academic factories in the Western cultural and academic “grand space”: one cannot choose a side in the fields of culture, research and teaching as is done in that of politics or commercial strategies. In the fields of social sciences and humanities, cultural studies, very minority sectors in the Taiwanese university (compared to hard sciences, applied sciences, technologies), everything that constitutes the foundation and the body of knowledge of scholarly disciplines and discourses of the West, remains fundamentally a domain of more or less radical otherness - remote, difficult to access for questions of language, among other things. These things cannot be imported or exported like commodities or armaments. Making travel European philosophy to Taiwan takes an infinite amount of time, comes up against all sorts of obstacles, requires infinite goodwill and motivation on both sides – I know what I'm talking about, that's my job here.

It is not a question of "delay", we must banish here any culturalist presumption, it is a problem of the structure of interactions in a particular historico-political configuration: what can the Academy do in a context where it is urged to turn its back on mainland China and where, in compensation, it does not have the resource to turn, in the moment, to another great rear, another great "alternative" cultural space - the West? Once again, it is easier to import military equipment than to create a good philosophy or sociology department in a major Taiwanese national university...

The risk here is for Taiwanese culture and the university, to villagize itself by insularizing itself in the situation where it ceases to maintain any organic link whatsoever with other major cultural and scholarly spaces – ever more distant from the continental Chinese world, and not closer for that to the Western world; Taïwanese academic culture and knowledge is thus exposed to the risk of falling into the ever wider gap that separates these two worlds one from other...

The temptation, in these very particular conditions, is the insular "bifurcation", precisely: the withdrawal into the culture of the village-island, a withdrawal which is obviously not total, all in one piece, which is rather an inclination, a fold, but in any case enveloped in this obscure turn which consists in averting from the great continental space understood as a historical, cultural, political, academic, even linguistic “world”; which necessarily supposes that other investments, other centers of interest, other qualifications, other modes of problematizing questions of identity are substituted for them – but in a context where all these efforts will still be and always, overdetermined by the weighty and trivial geo-strategic realities of the moment: it is distinctly under the shadow of the American umbrella that the redeployments of the supposed “Taiwanese identity” take place .

In all circumstances, the frantic quest for identity origin and purity are false trails, which can only lead to false answers to poorly posed and poorly thought out problems. This general statement is of particular validity with respect to issues of island identity. This is because, in the island context, identity markers are inseparable from what connects, rather than what would constitute a nucleus, a crystal, an essence, a substance. In an insular context, questions of identity constantly present themselves under the sign of the multiple, the relational, the diverse – rather than under that of the compact heart (molar) and the originary.

In the Taiwanese context today, it does not make much sense (or, more exactly, it is based on an elementary fault in reasoning) to insist on the one hand on the composite and multiple character of the Taiwanese identity, molecular, therefore, as such – but to immediately find there, on the other hand, an argument with a view to opposing this very form of identity to another – that of mainland China – in the most molar mode possible, therefore. This molar use of the molecular is, from a philosophical point of view, a major inconsistency.

Generally speaking, the passion for the origin, for the originary conceived as a unique and compact treasure, and that for identity defined as what makes the difference with all the others and is the object of all pride. and all the narcissistic rehashing (the "we-nouism as a variant of the me-moism in vogue in today's post-liberal societies, the identitarianism of the "selfie" - note here the relationship between selfie and selfish designating the autarcism of the "self") - these two obsessions, that of origin and that of identity, go hand in hand.

But it seems to me that in the context of the island and of insularity, they designate the worst part of it; this, especially in the contemporary world which is made up of interconnections and in which autarky can only be a derealizing phantasmagoria. The islander's withdrawal into identity can only prosper as a fantasy, that is to say by ignoring its real conditions which are those of a dependence with regard to powers and factors whose effective will be the object of the most constant denial: this is how in France Corsican independence or hard identarism prosper in the shadow of a strong dependence on all the devices, administrative , economic, financial, which make this island a protected territory, benefiting from all sorts of substantial advantages; this is how in Taiwan, separatism and sovereignty have their master – disguised as an ally, a protector, a “friend”.

What is interesting in the question of the island, both as an object of reflection, an object of history, a "dream machine", is that the motifs of utopia and heterotopia are constantly intertwined– it is a real location, but it is also always what overflows it and thwarts our efforts to territorialize it, by the very fact of what destines it to flee towards the maritime expanses and also to stimulate the imagination and daydreaming . This is one of the reasons why cinema has a predilection for islands: indeed, an island, in movies, is always a tangible, real place, that is to say the location in which the film was shot, while being frequently, at the same time, something completely different – an invented, reconstituted, imaginary place, the space in which a tragedy, a comedy, a tale, a drama, a war will be set , a love story, a fable, a utopia, a dystopia... The island, as the real place where the film is shot, and the island as the imaginary place where the plot takes place, combine and dissociate ad infinitum: a tropical island, with its fine sandy beaches, its palm trees, its luxuriant vegetation, its variegated fauna and its natives can indiscriminately serve as a framework for the most cheerful of utopias as well as the darkest of dystopias – but it will always be on the condition of this perpetual game between reality and imaginary that stimulates the specific condition of the island as other space – as heterotopia.

It seems to me, to finish in two words, that we are today placed, if we adopt the point of view of the island on the world, at a crossroads : either we see the island as the providential space in which it would be possible for us to complete the process of isolation, of withdrawal into protective and immune bubbles – the island as a sphere, a cocoon therefore, a living space aiming at its enclosure as completely as possible. But even a very cursory examination of the present conditions, historical, economic, political, military, geo-strategic (etc.) is enough to convince us that this temptation is completely illusory – the island, whatever it is, whatever either its size and its location, cannot become a bunker or a vivarium, an enclosed and watertight living space. It "leaks" everywhere, for better or for worse, this is the very condition of its breathing.

The other way out, then, is the island as an intersection , a crucible, a meeting and exchange point, a relay – a location which, by this very title, will be placed under the sign of the multiple, in that it is located precisely at the point of junction of two environments which, at the same time, oppose and complement each other – the terrestrial and the aquatic or the maritime. It is on this condition, it seems to me, that the island is "a realm", a world that is at once singular, like no other, and which is linked to all the others, contains them all, a certain way.

The island should not be seen as an isolate, but rather as a microcosm, a point of condensation and refraction – but also a point of attraction and repulsion: when I am here, in Taiwan, sometimes the feeling of being “locked up” in the island grips me and overwhelms me a little – especially when the conditions of the interminable pandemic reinforce this impression; but conversely, when I am at home, at the end of the European continent, but well inland, I miss the island because despite all the dangers to which it may be exposed, it always retains something its character as a niche, a nest in which, rightly or wrongly, one feels protected, sheltered from intrusions – the island as a “housing unit”.

I conclude with these lines, those with which opens a novel by the English writer of Irish origin Lawrence Durrell, a novel entitled Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953) and in which he evokes the stay he made the day after immediate effect of the Second World War, as an officer in the British occupation troops, on the Greek island of Rhodes, in the Aegean Sea: “I discovered one day (…) Islomania is a disease not yet classified by Western science, but to those afflicted, its symptoms are all to recognizable. There are people (…) who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, in a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication. These "Islomaniacs" (...) are the direct descendants of the Atlanteans, and it is towards the vanished Atlantis that their island existence tends all their secret desires...".

I recognize myself fully in these lines and therefore consider that it is in my capacity as an "Islomaniac" that I indulged in delivering these few thoughts to you...