To unsettle: art as a reflexive verb?

The word settle – when cast in the positive – seems walled in somehow, already complete and hard to get at. It is associated for me, as an architectural designer trained in the mid-1980s in a socialist school, with the studies of vernacular architecture from the 1960s and 1970s, and books such as Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without architects (1965). Here those built structures produced by indigenous communities in direct response to their environments were celebrated in contrast to the modernist design interventions of architects, but the act of settling itself was not put forward for direct critique. So somehow settlement remains moored in my imagination just outside the reach of the critical humanities.

Both the verb and noun – settle and settlement – sound quite comfortable, whether referring to material artefacts such as wooden benches, villages, towns and cities; to legal agreements; to immaterial states of emotional, political or climatic conditions; or to those processes associated with stasis and with coming to rest. Yet, when I consider the word describing those subjects who enact the verb – the settlers – the meaning is quickly coloured by moral judgment, certainly in left-wing discourse. It is hard to separate the term settler from practices of illegal occupation; for example, Israel’s destructive grabbing of Palestinian land, and other European practices of colonisation in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and the United States (north and south) in the past and present.

Only this morning a news story broke of a current and unjust unsettling concerning ‘many cases of Commonwealth citizens who have lived, worked and paid taxes in the UK for decades but have recently been threatened with removal’.[i] As Diane Taylor reports in The Guardian, many have been asked to prove they were resident in the United Kingdom (UK) before 1 January 1973, the date the Immigration Act 1971 came into force. Children of the Windrush generation[ii] were invited by the British government to work in the UK after World War II and automatically entitled to what is called ‘settled status’ under the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. However, there is no equivalent clause specifically protecting Commonwealth citizens granted limited status before January 1973, such as students or people who came on temporary work visas. As Taylor notes, it has come to light that ‘a key clause from 1999 legislation, which had provided longstanding Commonwealth residents with protection from enforced removal, was deleted from the 2014 Immigration Act’.[iii] The removal of this clause was not consulted upon or announced, and it took place as part of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies requiring landlords, the National Health Service and other bodies to check people’s immigration status.

This current attempt to expel those who have been settled in the UK for many decades, some of whom were even invited to settle, raises questions for me around the precise definition in law of the terms ‘settled’ and ‘settlement’, and the activity of settling. In the UK, ‘settled status’ is a term regulated by immigration law and means being ‘ordinarily resident’, with no restriction on the length of stay; it includes those with the ‘right of abode’, those with ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and Irish citizens. As I start to look into it, the complexities explode, and the literature focuses on all the problems produced through the mess (likely now to be illegal) that is Brexit. But it is clear that ‘settled’ status links to two other phrases that sound extremely familiar to me, the ‘right of abode’ and ‘indefinite leave to remain’, but which I realise I understand so little about. I discover that all British citizens have the right of abode, a status introduced by the Immigration Act of 1971, which, under UK immigration law, gives an unrestricted right to live in the UK. But no person born in 1983 or later can have the right of abode unless he or she is a British citizen. Those with a certificate of entitlement to the right of abode or to indefinite leave to enter/remain also have settled status. Anyone who wishes to ‘apply for settlement’ in the UK has to complete a form called SET(O) to apply for indefinite leave to remain in one of several categories, but only those refugees and people with humanitarian protection who have residence cards can apply. Those who are defined as not settled include members of the diplomatic community, who are exempt from immigration control; those who have a time limit on their immigration permission and the length of time they are entitled to stay; and those with a passport that does not give them British citizenship, for example a British National (Overseas).[iv]

And when I start to ponder the meaning of settle’s negative counterpart – unsettle – things become even more complex and harder to grasp, as there are no definitions in UK law. In common usage, the verb unsettle feels familiar when used to describe a state of mind or a condition, as in, ‘I feel unsettled’ or ‘the weather has been unsettled’. As a verb it is more often deployed to describe an emotional register, ‘she unsettles him’, than an artefactual one, ‘they unsettle the house’.[v] And in its noun form it sounds decidedly odd: what exactly is an unsettlement? The suffix ‘-ment’ tends to mean a resulting state, and so I start to wonder about the ethics of an act of unsettling that results in an unsettlement.

[i] Diane Taylor, ‘UK removed legal protection for Windrush immigrants in 2014’, The Guardian, 16 April 2018,, accessed 16 April 2018.

[ii] The Windrush generation is a term used to refer to British Caribbean people who came to the United Kingdom in the period after World War II. The HMT Empire Windrush, a ship named for the river, brought one of the first large groups of postwar West Indian immigrants to the UK in 1948. See, accessed 23 April 2018.

[iii] Diane Taylor, ‘UK removed legal protection for Windrush immigrants in 2014’, The Guardian, 16 April 2018,, accessed 16 April 2018.

[iv] See, for example, and, both accessed 17 April 2018.

[v] The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1973, provides a good definition of the terms unsettle and unsettlement. The verb unsettle is both transitive (to displace, unfix) and intransitive (to become unsettled). The noun unsettlement is the act or process of unsettlement, and an unsettled state or condition.

Jane Rendell, ‘To unsettle: art as a reflexive verb?’, Charlotte Day, Shelley McSpedden & Elise Routledge (eds), Unsettlement, (Monash Art Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, 2018).


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