First Symposium: Migrant Subjects - Citizenship, Law and Orientalism

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By Stephan Scheel · 22 June 2012
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What are the connections between the make-up of contemporary border regimes, their justification through orientalising discourses and the potential of citizenship as a political resource in migrants’ struggles against disenfranchisement and selective exclusion? The workshop Migrant Subjects: Citizenship, Law and Orientalism provided room for an in-depth discussion of this vexed question. Five presentations explored these relationships, providing the basis for a lively and controversial discussion.

In his presentation, border studies scholar Sandro Mezzadra argued that placing the question of labour at the centre of analysis would reveal that contemporary border regimes are not geared towards the exclusion, but towards the differential inclusion of migrants. This rationale not only implies a heterogenisation of borders, but also a multiplication of legal statuses, which ultimately result in the disintegration of the citizen-worker as the national model of the production of labour power as commodity. In order to investigate and theorise the disintegration of the citizen-worker Mezzadra argued for the need to ‘decentre the notion of citizenship from debates on subjectification’ by focusing on the dynamic interplay between the three categories of citizenship, legal persona and labour power.

Enrica Rigo then explored the intertwinement between the conceptualisation of citizenship as a legal category and the constitution of a political space as a territorial order at the origins of the modern state by drawing on the famous Calvin’s case (1608). The case is regarded as the most influential theoretical articulation of what came to be the common-law rule that a person's status was vested at birth, and based upon place of birth (jus soli). According to Rigo, Calvin’s case yields important lessons in regards to the ongoing construction of Europe as a unified political space. It highlights, for instance, that a territorial order does not precede the establishment of authoritative relationships in the political domain.

Andrea Brighenti explored how specific conceptualisations of citizenship imply particular notions of the city. These in turn surface in distinct territorial programmes, understood as attempts at political ordering. Hence, territory emerges not as a fixed and given physical space, but as something that must be done. Brighenti used numerous drawings and pictures in order to illustrate varying territorial programmes and reveak how they are each related to particular notions of citizenship and conceptions of the city.

In the fourth presentation Jordi Moreras investigated the rise and fall of laicism in Catalan politics. Moreras challenged the dominant view that the policy-making of the office for religious affairs in Catalonia provides a positive example for the rest of Spain. He argued, by contrast, that laicism has only been used as a political concept in relation to religious minorities, but not in relation to the Catholic Church. Moreover, the varying policies of the religious affairs office all highlight that laicism is a condition to be achieved, but not a given state of affairs.

Finally, Anne McNevin stipulated that existing, essentially administrative categories such as ‘citizen’ or ‘illegal migrant’ are insufficient to investigate and theorise the complex dynamics of belonging/not belonging, inclusion/exclusion, and other political distinctions, which seem to operate in more nuanced and complex ways than can be expressed by binary divisions. This challenges us to develop alternative ways of conceptualising mobility and citizenship; ways that grasp the complex dynamics brought about by contemporary forms of border control, but do not reproduce the underlying politico-territorial order of the nation-state-system. To this end, McNevin proposed Vicki Squire’s concept of the borderzone as a viable starting point, because it conceptualises today’s borders as zones of intensified political struggle over the selective denial and reappropriation of mobility, thereby de-centring the nation-state in the analysis.

The following discussion focused on questions of whether and how we can decentre the notion of citizenship. It was noted that the search for new, supposedly more appropriate categories would not solve the political problem of how to restore at least some rights for people on the move without resorting to the human rights regime. Yet, the proposed abandonment of citizenship would not only imply an abandoning of the human rights regime, but also an abandoning of people. Other participants insisted, in turn, that citizenship ‘does not seem to be enough’ to capture the complex dynamics of ‘political subjecthood’ in today’s borderzones. It was proposed that, instead of abandoning existing categories such as citizenship, we could push  them to the limits of a liberal agenda. Hence, existing categories should be used ‘under erasure’ (as Jacques Derrida put it). It is then precisely those moments, in which scholars lack an adequate vocabulary to express their ideas, which are the critical moments. Finally, workshop-organiser Iker Barbero concluded that this controversial discussion emphasised the need for scholars to continue to think critically about citizenship and its links to orientalising discourses, the disciplinarisation of migrants’ labour power and the production of political subjectivity in today’s borderzones.

Workshop Coordinator

Iker Barbero

Invited Attendees

Claudia Aradau, Andrea Brighenti, Sara Dehm, Anne-Marie Fortier, Akos Kopper, Anne Lavanchy, Patricia Lopez, Sebastian Mehling, Sandro Mezzadra, Anne McNevin, Jordi Moreras, Kim Rygiel, Stephan Scheel, Katerina Sichova, Vicki Squire, Anya Topolski

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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