Freedom, Difference, and Public Space

The Outer Harbour

As a work of what might be termed speculative or science fiction, Wayde Compton’s collection of stories The Outer Harbour transcends genre, and should instead be read as simply fiction. His is a re-negotiation of borders, a trespassing of structure, that, in its multiplicity, creates a new space, a “dream house” as the epigraph says, “the house of the future [...] better built, lighter, and larger than all the houses of the past” (9). It is no surprise that the first story in the collection is titled with a measurement: “1,360 ${FT}^{3}\ $(38.5 $M^{3}$).” Compton constantly returns to questions of narrative and space, their simultaneous and contingent construction, and the formation of identity within them (and/or without). Artistic, racial, and counter-cultural identities come together in his text, and within the text itself, in space, specifically, public space, they are made possible and, more importantly, made manifest. Identity in The Outer Harbour is up for constant negotiation and renegotiation, expression and reexpression, envisioning and revision, but the freedom to do so depends upon a spatial, social existence, upon the manifestation of identity in an external reality. As philosopher James Mensch writes, freedom “depends on its appearing” (31). If the individual is not seen, if the individual cannot participate in public life with other individuals, he cannot be truly free. Through the textual space of The Outer Harbour, Compton creates a new space in which individual identity can be expressed and discussed, a space for individuals who are not the norm, for those restricted from public life by exclusivist regimes, a place where the oppressed and subjected can perhaps, at last, find freedom.

Throughout The Outer Harbour, as well as in his critical work, Compton is concerned with those between, those who have no space of their own, existing in the null-space of the margins, or in a space that forces them to abandon their individuality, the distinctness of their identities. The Outer Harbour’s first sentence, its first paragraph, puts this concern clearly: “It is as if the apartment has become its own culture. Their lives serve the space where they keep the curtains drawn” (11). Riel, the protagonist of the story, fumbles his way through life in a drug-induced stupor, blowing off class while he desperately searches for something that will give his own life meaning. But the space that he finds himself in, the culture that emerges from the apartment and the three girls he lives with, delimits his experience and potential. As in Mensch’s paper “Public Space” (in which he rereads Arendt’s discussion of the public in On Revolution), freedom, that is, the free expression of the individual’s “private realm of ‘will and thought,’” is only possible when “will and thought” are given space in which they can “manifest themselves” (32). Riel, raised working class and in a church community described as “‘a hippie revision of Pentecostal evangelism, created out of expatriate nostalgia’” (20), flees a restrictive existence (in terms of both class and religion), only to find himself trapped, once again, in a restrictive space. The new “political outlook” (17) he adopted that got him out of his hometown, into university, and away from his parents, simply leads to a new subjection, his potential futures and freedom stunted by his spatial reality. The apartment is his girlfriend, Kelly, and her best friend, Erika’s, world, two “middle-class white kids of university-educated parents” (19). The fourth roommate, Frances, is a drug dealer. So, when Riel hears of the “Mystery Migrant”—an apparently, but indeterminately, foreign woman, discovered in a shipping container, his mind is opened to a new potential, a new space. When he meets her, learns that she is a performance artist, learns her name—Verŝajna—he sees an out, can taste freedom. By the story’s end, he has left the apartment, left his girlfriend, left the controlling umbra of his parents’ influence once again, and “decides he is free” (30). Verŝajna, socially conscious, politically aware, and intimately, expertly involved in public life, presents to Riel a different reality, a reality in which space serves the individual rather than subjecting him, in which the incongruity of his revolutionary name and his un-revolutionary existence can be remedied. He is free from the “culture” of the apartment, free to express his identity in a space of his own making.

The potential of new space becomes central to The Outer Harbour in Compton’s second story, “The Lost Island.” A new, volcanic island erupts out of the ocean in Burrard Inlet, off the coast of Vancouver. Dubbed “Pauline Johnson Island” by parliament (named for the indigenous Mohawk poet), it is quickly declared a “restricted ecological reserve” and cordoned off from the public (36). The story is told through the eyes of Jean, a black woman who lives with an activist, Fletcher, a man of mixed native descent who is the de facto leader of a group of other activists who set out to reclaim Pauline Johnson Island as native land. Jean is an outsider among outsiders, but through Compton’s narrative and the newly emerged territory, Jean finds belonging and identity. She is welcomed in as a fellow marginalized human, welcomed as a member of Fletcher’s group, as a participant in the “‘Liberation of the New Pan-Indigenous Territory’” (40). Though “Pan-Indigenous” is presumably intended to mean people of all native tribes, Jean’s participation as a black woman silently signals a redefinition of indigenous as something greater than native people alone, as all those who have been and are being and will be colonized, who will be made “illegal” by simply entering off-limits places, by “being there—standing, walking, waiting, thinking, peopling it. Being people where they shouldn’t be” (43). Jean discovers a new collective identity, a new public being, a new freedom, through her participation in a public act of resistance in a public space—or rather, in declaring a space public that had previously been restricted and regulated by a colonial authority.

For Mensch, if freedom depends on its appearing, the appearing of freedom depends on its disclosure, the declaration of it, as Jean and Fletcher and the others do in “The Lost Island.” To employ Mensch’s terminology, the “content of our freedom” is the “actual choices that inform it” (32). An “object” such as Pauline Johnson Island presents a site for the expression of choice, for the practice or disclosure of freedom, but the intervention of colonial authority restricts the “projects”—the potential—of the object to an ecological reserve (33). These projects change throughout the course of The Outer Harbour, from a reserve to apartment buildings to a penitentiary, but in each iteration of the colonial project on Pauline Johnson Island, true public freedom is restricted. The emergence of a new space brings with it the promise of new public realities, but these are restricted by the state. In their anti-colonial action, Fletcher and his group attach (or reattach) the public “project” to the island, disclosing it as native territory and a site for pan-indigenous expression. In so doing, Pauline Johnson Island takes on a new “sense” and a new potential (33), or rather, has restored to it the original sense and potential promised by its emergence that were stripped from it by the state. Fletcher’s group champions a project that contradicts the project of the colonial authority. By attaching a different “pragmatic meaning” to the island, the activists simultaneously create a “new understanding of how [they] and others “make [their] way” in the world” (Mensch 33). The individual is liberated to express herself freely in the newly public territory of the island. A new freedom is made possible by the disclosure of a “multiplicity of possible projects” (33), and thus, makes possible a richer, more diverse, and more inclusive public life for all those who fall under the umbrella of “pan-indigenous,” all those who seek freedom from the domineering hand of the state.

The Outer Harbour is, however, no utopia. The activist project is derailed. Pauline Johnson Island remains under the thumb of the state. In “The Boom” readers watch as the public space of the island is converted from a scientific project to a commercial one. By the final story, the island has become an explicit arm of state authority, a penitentiary for the confinement of illegal migrants. As much as The Outer Harbour is concerned with freedom, it is also concerned with threats to it. Citing Sartre, Mensch argues that the only way an individual’s freedom can be fully realized is if he “‘put[s] himself out of circuit’” (33), which is to say, the subject, in relation to the object (here, public space), must put himself outside of his subjective relation to it. Freedom is thus, in this definition, the “separation of the self from the world” (34), which is the separation of the self from the self-as-subject (i.e. both the self subjected to the state and the self in subjective relation to the object). For the self to be free it must step outside itself and perceive its subjection (in both senses, again), its selfhood in relation to other selves. Herein lies, for Mensch, the importance of public space. For individual freedom to be realized, the self must be made aware of “the alternatives that others exhibit” (34). The freedom to act, to choose, to change the world, is made possible only when the self is “ranged alongside of alternative ways of being disclosed” (34). In Compton’s near-future, technocratic, security-state Vancouver, the vital acts of disclosure and appearance are impeded. For the individual to realize himself as subject—his self in relation to other selves—is also for the individual to realize himself as a subject of the state and his relation to the apparatus of control. And so, the state prevents the individual from realizing his selfhood to prevent him from also realizing his subjection. Public space is transformed into state space, and the individual is resituated within a new “circuit” of being, one of control, rather than “intersubjective” freedom (32). With public freedom obliterated by the state, individual freedom—internal “will and thought”—is destroyed as well. The self-as-subject is reduced to a single relation, a single definition: the self as a subject of the state.

Because the self in relation to other selves finds his freedom in “excess” and “non-coincidence,” in the space between subjects where “meanings are shared, but not entirely” (36), public freedom is, therefore, found in this intersection of overlapping but not identical potentialities. Individual freedom can only be found in such a milieu, where alternative disclosures of reality are made possible and expressed and accommodated. But the state, entering into public space, seeks to eradicate difference and excess, all the potentialities for difference that threaten the stability and security of the ruling body. The state limits expression, coopting the self-realizing power of the public for its own ends. Thus, the “potentialities for appearing” (36) that public spaces contain include the potential for state coercion, control, and subjection. So, in The Outer Harbour, from “The Secret Commonwealth” to the final story, “The Outer Harbour,” a technology originally created to help live action role-players participating in the LARP game The Secret Commonwealth to more fully realize their fantasy world becomes a non-lethal, but highly effective, crowd control tool. The Secret Commonwealth, a space for the intersubjective realization of new and unique identities becomes a testing-ground for the coercive tools of the state apparatus. The tools of public freedom are turned back against the public and used to quell unrest, quell difference and alterity, quell the freedom that the tools were originally intended to serve and foster. Individuals who were once “‘allies’” (Mensch 39) are reduced to dehumanized subjects. The “excessive presence of the individual” (41), the free individual actively participating in the public sphere, is delimited and demarcated into the “defined presence of the citizen” (41). All his potentialities, all his choices, all his futures, are replaced with whatever the state chooses. This is, for Mensch, the implicit danger of public space, the danger that Compton returns to, over and over again, in The Outer Harbour.

Though Compton does not attempt to suggest a utopian alternative to such a horrible system, he does, nevertheless, suggest an alternative. For Compton, there is power in the words that we use and the narratives that we weave. By simply talking, by telling stories, the freedom of the public space that has been destroyed by the state can be resuscitated in the space of the text. In Compton’s work, both fictive and critical, this is especially important in matters of race. Throughout The Outer Harbour, and as has been seen in part above, the mixed race subject presents a dilemma to those who seek to define and delimit. The mixed race subject does not present herself as distinctly one thing or another, but rather flows between spaces, ignoring and crossing over boundaries by simple fact of her existence. This crossing over, this inbetweenness, is labeled by authorities as “passing,” a precarious term that Compton wrestles with in his essay “Pheneticizing Versus Passing” (21). Passing is subversive and dangerous, a different individual consciously deceiving others in regards to her race. But Compton redefines the parameters of the discussion, introducing a new term—pheneticizing—that places responsibility (in many cases) on the viewer, not the one viewed. Thus, a character like Verŝajna who the authorities think is “[m]aybe Asian, maybe Middle Eastern” (19), but is, in fact, Canadian (or at least presumably so), draws attention to the act of perceiving itself, to the placing-upon-her of a racial, and thus, foreign, different, and dangerous, identity that relegates her to a space outside public life. She is a transgressor, and is, therefore, excluded from the public, but the very act of transgression is precipitated by a system that preemptively excludes her based on a perception of difference. Though some individuals do deliberately pass with intent to deceive and harm, Compton makes it patently clear that most are simply pheneticized and blamed for an existence, a reality, they have no control over. By redefining the terms of our discussion, by consciously choosing the terms that we use, Compton suggests that a modicum of the freedom lost to us, specifically, the freedom lost to, taken from, marginalized and subjected people, can be regained.

In Diamond Grill by Fred Wah (a Vancouver based and mix-race writer like Compton), the mixed-race (and so, different and marginalized) existence is defined by the hyphen. In his Afterword, Wah writes, “[t]hough the hyphen is in middle, it is not in the centre. It is a property marker, a boundary post, a borderland” (178). He continues to list other things that the hyphen is, but it is telling that the first three are concerned with space. For Wah, the hyphen in his identity—“ChineseHYPHENCanadian”—is a “sign of impurity,” emphasizing that the “parts” (here Chinese and Canadian) “are not equal to the whole” (178). The hyphen is a marker of difference, and thus, a tool for the subjection of the different individual. But Wah, in his fiction, is able to recuperate the hyphen: “its noisy—sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque—space feels nurturing. Its coalitional and mediating potentiality offers real engagement, not as a centre but as a provocateur of flux, floating, fleeting” (179). In Compton’s work, this hyphenated subjectivity can be seen in his final story, in which three marginalized individuals—a spontaneously teleporting migrant child, an insurgent, and a hologram die and become ghosts, forcefully removed from the public in a corporeal sense, but go on to find each other in the hyphenated space of the afterlife. Trapped between this world and the next, they haunt Pauline Johnson Island together, creating a new public through their intersubjective, ghostly community. As Mensch writes, “public space is generated by our free activity, but that such activity is conditioned by this space” (37). Public freedom is the “result and the cause of individual freedom” (37). And so, the three outcasts, the three ghosts, created in response to an oppressive system that then kills them, construct a new public outside of it, a new reality that waits for all those who will come after, all those who will be pushed out and excluded, all those individuals that the state wishes hidden or destroyed. Only by occupying the hyphen, by occupying the out-of-bounds, can the outsider be free once more.

Works Cited

Compton, Wayde. “Pheneticizing Versus Passing.” After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010. PDF.

Comtpon, Wayde. The Outer Harbour. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014. Print.

Mensch, James. “Public Space.” Continental Philosophy Review 40 (2007): 31-47. PDF.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1996. Print.

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