Will the real migrants please stand up? Action, and how technocracy leaves its citizens passive
Introducing some of the themes raised in Thomas Bellinck’s play Simple as ABC #2: Keep Calm & Validate, political anthropologist Gregory Feldman gives a one-hour lecture based on his publication We Are All Migrants: Political Action and the Ubiquitous Condition of Migrant-hood (2015).
The migrant and the refugee feature in the public imagination as the cause of great anxiety. They are feared due to their otherness. They must be saved due to their suffering. Above all, they must not be empowered. We mistakenly attribute this anxiety to – and justify migrant disempowerment with – the logic of national sovereignty. States give priority to the citizens in whose name it exists; citizens are constituted by their culture; migrants possess a different culture; migrants thus threaten the citizens; migrants must be disempowered. This position reflects more than just someone’s xenophobic personal sentiments. It forms for the premise of the inter-state system itself. But isn’t this chain of logic a little too simple? We merely need to ask if citizens are particularly empowered simply because they are citizens. If not, are migrants really disempowering them?
Instead, social atomization disempowers people as it prevents them from jointly constituting political space. This atomization renders us all migrants: disconnected, disoriented, disenfranchised, disillusioned, and disempowered. Don’t these words describe as many citizens as they do migrants? How is atomization achieved? It is built into the technical organization of mass society itself – politically, economically, and socially. It enables such banal administrative processes as managing “data-subjects”, i.e. virtual profiles of migrants and refugees stored in large databases. However, the administrative logic of technocracy operates on the citizen as well. “Citizen” and “migrant” are only categories that facilitate the management of state sovereignty.
Hence, the real migrants are not those identified as “aliens”, but rather the atomized: those who cannot stand up with others to jointly constitute sovereign space. Yet, such action brings us to life as particular persons rather than nullifies us through relentless categorization. Taking action as particular persons radically changes our perspective on others (citizens and migrants), because we must negotiate with others as particular persons if we likewise wish to be recognized as particular persons. The space that materializes out of this speech and action signifies a place in which citizens and migrants appear as a genuine plurality rather than disembodied categorical types anchorless in a sea of others.Back to top
Gregory Feldman is a political anthropologist interested in migration and globalization; political action versus technocratic governance; and critical perspectives on security and neoliberalism. His geographic focus is Europe with emphasis on its relations with countries in the Mediterranean Sea region. Feldman is currently conducting the ethnographic project titled The ‘Gray Zone’: Human Smuggling and Police Investigations in the Mediterranean Space of Control. His latest book is titled We Are All Migrants: Political Action and the Ubiquitous Condition of Migrant-hood (Stanford University Press 2015). His previous book is titled The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union (Stanford University Press 2012).Back to top