Barbara Fields on Dysplacement and Democracy


Imagine you’re an aircraft pilot. You travel to multiple countries in different time zones, sometimes more than once in a day. Jet lag is your occupational hazard. Yet, like many before you, you conceive of a way to adapt: rather than attempting to adopt the time and rhythms of wherever it is you are on any given day, you keep to the schedule of the place you call home. You may be in Tokyo or Barcelona, but you wake, eat, work, rest, and sleep as if you’re home in, say, Milwaukee. Your body is thankful for the relief from jet lag, but you develop a different form of disorientation known to many in the profession as place lag. Where jet lag stems from a disorientation rooted in relation to time, place lag is a disorientation from your physical surroundings, from your sense of place. You wake up, eat meals, and live in the same time and at the same pace you would at home, but your body is forever elsewhere, in different places in different time zones with different rhythms of life. Your internal clock ticks uninterrupted, but the exterior reference points that allow time to measure the duration of events are in a constant state of flux.

This is the thought experiment that sets off Barbara Fields’s provocative new essay, “Dysplacement and Southern History.”[1] The essay, her 2015 presidential address to the Southern Historical Association, introduces a new term with which to conceptualize place in American history and in its present. Given her standard for exacting language, it is surprising she has inserted a neologism into the profession. Dysplacement is an imaginative term that holds immense analytical potential, but is nonetheless one that is, for now, a bit fuzzy. Fields takes the concept of place lag from Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot and puts it to work on history, politics, and the politics of teaching. She adopts the definition of place lag—“an individual sense of disorientation at being removed from familiar or home country”—and gives it brooding heft. “Dysplacement,” as opposed to displacement, carries with it a negative prefix (“dys”) that “signifies ‘faulty,’ ‘difficult,’ or ‘bad,’ as in dyspepsia, dyslexia, or dystopia…” Dysplacement, then, “is the destruction of place itself: the loss of a sense of identification with other persons through a shared connection to a geographic place.”[2]

Fields describes briefly some familiar “mechanisms of dysplacement.” Urban renewal programs, Hurricane Katrina, the Charleston Church massacre of South Carolina—these horrendous episodes were not just policy failures or injustices visited upon poor communities, they were transformations—indeed, destructions—of places themselves, the psychic and moral costs of which are stubbornly impossible to fully comprehend. Less spectacular forms of dysplacement are no less destructive to any one place. Think of the nationwide construction of strip malls, industrial parks, and suburban real estate developments that look identical regardless of whether they are located in southern California or northern Indiana.


The effects of dysplacement are not solely experienced at the individual level. Dysplacement, Fields argues, presents a problem to democracy. “Ties of place, like ties of family, do not signify an absence of evil, injustice, or suffering,” Fields admits. “In common with other relationships that matter—friendship, marriage, family, work—the relationship of human beings to place may involve oppression, betrayal, suffocation, and outrage as often as comfort, contentment, and peace.”[3] Yet democracy cannot thrive in a state of placelessness. Fields’s idea of democracy goes beyond the principle of majority rule. Though she doesn’t explicitly define the term, democracy is clearly something bigger to Fields; it is governance through consent whereby consent demands the constitution of a citizenship fully immersed in a perennial debate over the meaning of the common good and taking actions towards its realization. Democratic debate and action require if not collective values at least a sense of collective experience and destiny, neither of which can exist independent of a sense of a shared place. Democracy, in short, demands an “imagined community.” “Democratic political systems arose in determinate places, nation-states, and still have their roots there,” Fields insists.[4] As such, democratic citizenship becomes impossible amid a constant destruction of that which gives citizens “a sense of identification with other persons through a shared connection to a geographic place.”[5]

The conflict she outlines is not one pitting place against dysplacement, but rather, in my reading of it, democracy against capitalism. In the twentieth century, Fields suggests, capitalism perpetuates a constant state of dysplacement. Endless pursuit of profits and the encroachment of the market on every realm of American life is what uproots communities in favor of strip malls, it’s what destroys public space in favor of standardized, privatized real estate developments. It makes public life untenable. It is through this argument about the rootedness of democratic practice that Fields displays her devastating wit. As a historian and teacher, Fields sees a duty to confront dysplacement

as it takes shape in the writing, public presentation, and teaching of history. I cannot stop the website of my university from sponsoring the notion of ‘global identity’—which combines two terms that verge on meaninglessness to form a compound more meaningless than either. But I can laugh the notion to scorn in my classroom and explain to my students why: namely, that identity, however construed, cannot attach to the globe, an astronomical object, except in dystopian fantasy. From there, I can encourage them to question that egregious contradiction in terms, global democracy.[6]


Not shy of naming names, but polite enough to move them down to a footnote, Fields then offers this simple quip: “Jürgen Habermas has attempted to work out a way to ‘transnationalize’ democracy—that is, to resuscitate it on a supranational basis. Let us wish him success.”[7]

What does all this have to do with the other half of Fields’s essay title, Southern History? The answer to this question is admittedly a bit unclear to me, but that may be owing to how she construes dysplacement in purely negative terms. Fields makes the case that the South, in popular imagination, has a unique sense of place unlike the North. It is the reason why her students don’t bat an eye at the title of her course, “History of the South,” but would likely be puzzled by a course titled “History of the North.”[8] (How the West fits into this picture is unclear.) “What has made the notion of ‘the South’ coherent,” Fields argues, “is a history, localized to an identifiable place, in which slavery, racism, and the Civil War and Reconstruction figure in a particular way…It is neither a redemptive or uplifting history nor the opposite, despite moments that might satisfy either description, because history has no inherent or ultimate destination. All I claim for it is coherence, and coherence, built on the retrospective aggregation of contingencies, comes after the fact.”[9] The claim that there exists in the minds of most Americans the idea that “the South” is a coherent place is not to be confused with a concession on Fields’s part that this coherence exists in fact. Much like her battles over the idea of race and “race relations,” Fields insists on calling a fiction what everyone assumes to be a fact.

The task she sets for herself is to explain how “the South somehow continues to enjoy what might be called a presumption of place, despite the tide of dysplacement that washes over the South as it does everywhere.”[10] Slavery, abolition, the Civil War, and Reconstruction were the major mechanisms of dysplacement in the nineteenth century South. From the late nineteenth and up through the twenty-first century, the rise and dismantlement of Jim Crow coupled with waves of capitalist transformation of communities all made the South a site of, if anything, acute dysplacement. And yet the idea of coherence attributable uniquely to the South persists. Why?

“Enslavement,” Fields wisely observes, “simultaneously upended and reinforced the slaves’ connection to place,” Fields notes. Dysplacement took place during the “Second Middle Passage” in which slaves were forcibly moved from coastal southern states to the interior south.[11] These coercive transfers forged deep memories and longings for families, fellow slaves, and the places in which these yearnings were made. Indeed, “[f]orced migration,” Fields remarks, “increased rather than attenuated the slaves’ sense of place.”  The very dysplacement constitutive of the slaves’ condition was the basis upon which the slaves’ sense of place was born. The legacy of slavery and its afterlife is so profound, its roots sunk so deep into the soil of American history, that the South could remain a place despite its continual and multiple dysplacements. So where does this leave democracy?


This question brings us back to the problem of the intrinsic moral negative of dysplacement. A sense of place alone guarantees neither democracy nor despotism. Place, Fields suggests, is necessary but not sufficient for democracy. And yet towards the end of the essay she makes a comment that both confounds and illuminates what the concept of dysplacement can potentially do as a category of analysis. Swiftly encapsulating nearly two centuries of Southern dysplacement, Fields asserts: “Slaveholders and segregationists once defined the place because others were forbidden to contest the definition through democratic participation. The advent of democratic contest displaced some while, so to speak, re-placing others.”[12]

Fields wisely drops the negative prefix in favor of the more ordinary term “displacement” in describing the ruptures caused by abolition and the fall of Jim Crow—but she does so only because keeping the negative prefix leads her to a blatant contradiction that calls into question the moral cast of the term. By her own logic, abolition, Reconstruction, and the political triumphs of 1964 and 1965 constituted a “destruction of place itself” in the sense that those who believed themselves to be white in the South lost “a sense of identification with other persons through a shared connection to a geographic place.” Yet, outside of today’s Republican Party, one would be hard pressed to find a moral universe in which these “destructions of place” are not understood to have been good things. The end of slavery entailed a massive and violent destruction of “private property” rarely seen in modern history; the end of Jim Crow constituted an immense and profoundly legitimate act of disempowerment that fundamentally challenged the political order of the United States. These democratic achievements were not solely rightful gains for the subjugated; they were necessarily righteous dispossessions of the ruling class and race. This was, in today’s terms, the coercive, and often violent, checking of privilege on colossal historical scales. In those central crucibles of American political history, dysplacement was a precondition for democratic and moral advancement.

Despite its few ambiguities, in twenty beautifully written pages Fields makes a remarkable conceptual contribution with enormous potential to make sense of lived experience. Consider, for example, Matthew Desmond’s widely acclaimed new work on evictions. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which somehow lives up to its considerable hype, is an ethnography of eight poor families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Aside from a few well-placed analytical or historically minded paragraphs scattered throughout the book, Desmond’s work is one of simple biographies and thick description. Through the stories of mostly women, one sees and understands, step by step, the challenges and rituals endured by the poor in their aim to obtain and keep a place to call home, only to be evicted again and again.


In a unique sense, these evictions produce a deep sense of “place lag.” Most of the women in Evicted have gone through multiple evictions in their lifetime. They know the routine. They understand the process and act upon their accumulated knowledge from past evictions: at first, attempt to reason with the landlord, promise a portion of the rent now and the rest later; then, if viable, ask friends or family for help; plead for mercy to the landlord for the sake of your children who did nothing to deserve to be homeless; finally, accept that eviction is your fate and get on the phone to find, first, cheaper housing, then to contact social services to see if they can provide eviction assistance, and, finally, when those options inevitably fail, to seek placement at The Lodge—the local homeless shelter. The familiarity of the routine doesn’t make it any less traumatic. The daily practices remain the same, but the sense of place, and with it, minimal security, is eviscerated: this is place lag on a small, intimate, and excruciating scale.

The big claim Desmond makes is that evictions are not just a symptom of poverty, but a major cause of it. The burden of evictions, he reveals, have fallen disproportionately on African American women. Just as mass incarceration disproportionately dysplaces African American men, evictions dysplace African American women, or, as Desmond puts it: “Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”[13] As revealing and moving the broader picture Desmond paints may be, the most intriguing insight he provides is in describing in rich detail the ways that the poor both experience and manage dysplacement and how this has changed over time. As kin networks dissolved amid the tumult of mass incarceration, the crack epidemic, and misguided welfare policies, the poor by the 1980s began increasingly to rely on makeshift social networks. “If you could not rely on your family,” Desmond explains, “you could reach out to strangers, make disposable ties.”[14] For example, facing immediate eviction, Arleen and her children relied upon the generosity of a young woman named Crystal who was about to take over the lease of Arleen’s apartment. Being destitute herself, Crystal allowed Arleen and her kids to stay in the apartment they were about to be evicted from in exchange for Crystal being able to use the little furniture Arleen had accumulated and the occasional warm meal. Making relations on the fly, depending on the kindness of strangers, forging “disposable ties”—these desperate acts of resourcefulness and solidarity are both a part of the condition of dysplacement and a method for surviving it.

Though undoubtedly profoundly different conditions, eviction, like enslavement, to borrow Fields’s words, “simultaneously upends and reinforces” ones connection to place. The homeless especially experience homesickness and a longing for a sense of place. But not just any place. The places from which Desmond’s subjects were evicted were unfailingly squalid, dilapidated, barely livable. For most inhabitants, these trailers were temporary stops in the journey to a more dignified place to call home. “For most residents,” Desmond notes, “…the goal was to leave, not to plant roots and change things. Some residents described themselves as ‘just passing through,’ even if they had been passing through nearly all their life.”[15] This permanent state of transience forecloses the possibility of building community and, reinforcing Fields’s point, of democratic action. And there is every reason democratic action should exist.


Desmond’s transient poor, he admits, largely did not identify with nor count themselves among the poor and oppressed. The revolving cast of the evicted Desmond lived with for a few years “had a high tolerance for inequality. They spent little time questioning the wide gulf separating their poverty from Tobin’s [the landlord] wealth or asking why rent for a worn-out aluminum-wrapped trailer took such a large chunk of their income.”[16] This was not out of a sense of “false consciousness” or feeling responsible for their own misery. In a certain sense, they couldn’t feel responsible for their condition. Crystal, for example, “had been born prematurely on a spring day in 1990 shortly after her pregnant mother was stabbed eleven times in the back during a robbery—the attack had induced labor…For as far back as she could remember, Crystal’s father had beat her mother. He smoked crack and so did her mother and so did her mother’s mother.”[17] How could Crystal possibly feel responsible for the hand she had been dealt? Quite sensibly, the poor’s “focus was on smaller, more tangible problems.”[18]

Crystal’s instinct to focus on surviving was a product of dysplacement, but dysplacement is not an abstract, impersonal force. Desmond painstakingly demonstrates exactly how the wealth of the landlords was predicated on preying on the desperation of the poor that have virtually no other options for affordable housing. In Desmond’s Milwuakee trailers, the rich were rich precisely because the poor were kept poor and desperate. This is not to say that Desmond portrays the landlords as cartoonish villains. Often, they are shown forgiving some of their tenants’ debts, cutting deals, or even trying to help the soon-to-be evicted find new housing. But these more generous acts were always arbitrary—there was no rhyme or reason why one tenant behind on rent got evicted and another similar tenant wouldn’t. Sometimes the landlord simply didn’t like a tenant. Moreover, occasional generosity is continually overshadowed by the far more cruel evictions (right before Christmas or in the dead cold of winter) and the utter neglect of the expensive and unsafe housing landlords were supposed to maintain.


But these landlords aren’t necessarily sadistic; they are merely capitalists. Tobin, one of the two landlords in the book, paid over $2 million for his trailer park and managed to pay it off in under a decade. He now regularly brings in nearly $450,000 a year, quite literally putting him in the top one percent of income earners. “Most of his tenants,” Desmond notes solemnly, “belonged to the bottom 10 percent.”[19] The tenants had no other choice—those run-down trailers were the cheapest housing available aside from homeless shelters. As Sherrena Tarver, the other Milwuakee landlord Desmond captures vividly, often said, “The ’hood is good.”[20]

Desmond in his own way echoes Fields’s argument about place and democracy. “It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, a public park as our park, a school as our school, that we can become engaged citizens, dedicating our time and resources for worthwhile causes: joining the Neighborhood Watch, volunteering to beautify a playground, or running for school board.”[21] Desmond’s proclamations should not be seen as an advocacy for the virtues of homeownership (he is solely concerned with the rental market), but rather a cry against the dangerous unaffordability of our cities and an insistence on the civic urgency of having a sense of place. Evictions are not merely a unique part of poor people’s process of “passing through” but rather dysplacements corrosive of democratic potential. Read together, Fields and Desmond present a call to create a new place, or perhaps even to “re-place” the poor and displace the wealthy landlords that profit off their tenants’ poverty. This transformation occasions that, following Fields, we once again drop the negative prefix (dys) or perhaps abandon the word “dysplacement” altogether in this context in favor of more familiar words: the “re-placement” of the poor might more appropriately and simply be called the democratization of American society.


[1] Barbara J. Fields, “Dysplacement and Southern History,” Journal of Southern History, Volume 82, Number 1, February 2016, pp. 7-26.

[2] Ibid., p. 8.

[3] Ibid., p. 21.

[4] Ibid., pp. 24-25.

[5] Ibid., p. 8.

[6] Ibid., pp. 24-25.

[7] Ibid., p. 25.

[8] Ibid., p. 11.

[9] Ibid., p. 15.

[10] Ibid., p. 11.

[11] Ibid., p. 13.

[12] Ibid., p. 25.

[13] Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit In the American City, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016), p. 98.

[14] Ibid., p. 162.

[15] Ibid., pp. 180-181.

[16] Ibid., pp. 181-182.

[17] Ibid., p. 160.

[18] Ibid., pp. 181-182.

[19] Ibid., pp. 175-176.

[20] Ibid., p. 152.

[21] Ibid., p. 294.