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Transcript: In conversation with Nicholas De Genova


Luke de Noronha: Hi everyone, I’m Luke de Noronha, lecturer in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at UCL. I’m delighted today to be in conversation with Nicholas De Genova, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston. Nicholas has published and edited many important books, including Working the Boundaries: Race, Space and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago. He’s edited Racial Transformations, The Deportation Regime with Nathalie Peutz and The Borders of “Europe”: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering. Nicholas has written many, many chapters in these books, and many others, and countless, excellent journal articles and papers; far too many to name here. I really wanted to speak to you for the podcast, Nicholas, because I’ve found your interventions so helpful when it comes to thinking about borders and citizenship, specifically in relation to questions of race and racism. Nicholas’s work is theoretically rich but also empirically grounded, and always connected to conversations being had among activists struggling against violent borders. This is clear in the writing and theorising on illegality and deportation which centres, as does all of Nicholas’s work, the questions around labour and disposability; and in the more recent work on the borders of Europe, on autonomy of migration, and on the demonisation and expulsion of Roma people in Europe. We’re going to get stuck into some of these issues over the next 30 minutes or so. Firstly, I just want to thank you so much for making time to come on the podcast and chat with me, Nicholas. I really appreciate that.
 
Nicholas De Genova: It’s a pleasure to be here.
 
Luke: I wanted to start with a question that might be too hard, or too broad, to tackle easily here, but I’m going to ask it anyway; and it’s about how the pandemic has shaped your thinking. During this time in which our lives have all been so drastically transformed, particularly in relation to our mobilities, I’m wondering what you’ve been thinking about and puzzling over and working on in the last year, and if there is anything in particular that you want to draw out that has surprised or confused you.
 
Nicholas: I guess I could come at that question in two ways. One is that I’ve thought for a long time about the importance of Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the critique of everyday life, as well as the situationists concept of the revolution of everyday life. And it seems to me, to make a long story short, that the pandemic has confronted us with everyday life in a form that provokes a kind of crisis, where we have to reflect on how we actually live in the day-to-day. So, if everyday life is the space of our alienation, the space of our disaffection, our disappointments, the place where we experience most viscerally and most immediately all of the things that need to be changed, it also is the place where we’re conditioned to become accommodated to those things, to become passive and domesticated to precisely those miseries of what it means to live under capitalism. And that’s why I think the concept is so profoundly radical; that if we can’t take charge of our everyday life, if we can’t revolutionise our everyday life, if we can’t change how we actually live, then speaking about revolution in some grandiose, abstract terms is basically kind of posturing and meaningless. And so one of the things I think about the pandemic is that it’s provoked a kind of crisis of everyday life, and confronts people with a new kind of transparency around the inadequacies and the miseries associated; the humiliations and the disappointments of everyday life. And that’s not to be naïve or overly optimistic about what becomes possible, but it exposes, the pandemic exposes the depths of a lot of inequalities that otherwise are normalised. And in that sense I think all kinds of questions are blown open; suddenly the idea that people should not have to pay rent or mortgages, the idea that healthcare should be available to all, which is still a controversial proposition in a country like the United States where I live, the idea that there should be a universal basic income - all of these ideas that might have previously seemed preposterous, or unthinkable, as practical viable political solutions to the immediacy of our circumstances, become more and more common-sense to a great many people. So, in those ways, I think the pandemic has presented us with a kind of opportunity in the face of crisis.
 
On the other hand, more directly related to my research, obviously it’s presented an opportunity also for state power, particularly in the form of border closures and various kinds of restrictions on mobility. So, from the point of view of someone who is a scholar of migration such as myself, there’s been a lot of important developments to think through at the level of how the public health crisis has translated into a pretext and an opportunity for state powers to exert new kinds of control. And one of the things that's happened in this context is that working with my colleague, Soledad Álvarez Velasco - who is a postdoc in my department, and was formerly a PhD student of mine - working with her we’ve really initiated a research network across the Americas around the relationship between bordering and migration and the pandemic. This is really her initiative and I sort of serve as a kind of interlocutor for it, a senior adviser for it, you could say. But she has mobilised a network of at least 70 researchers across the entire western hemisphere - Canada and the US, as well as the Caribbean, as well as all of Latin America - where teams of people who worked on migration and border kinds of issues, were confronted with the immediacy of the fact that the pandemic required of us a new kind of evaluation of the actual situation. And so that’s been another way that the pandemic provoked a kind of re-evaluation and reassessment of what kinds of things we have to be thinking about at this moment.
 
Luke: That’s really interesting. It sounds like a great project and network. I want to move you back to this hemisphere, where I’m speaking from London, because you have written a lot about Europe, about the borders of Europe, about the so-called 'migrant crisis', and about the relationship between race and the European border regime. So, I wanted to turn the clock back a few years to that work. In your 2017 paper, The "Migrant Crisis" as Racial Crisis, you write, and I think you put this brilliantly,

"Anyone concerned with questions of race and racism today must readily recognize that they present themselves in a particularly acute way in the European migration context, haunted as Europe’s borders are by an appalling proliferation of almost exclusively non-European/ non-white migrant and refugee deaths and other forms of structural violence and generalized suffering... But why, and how exactly, has Europe so deftly managed to convert the precarious lives (and bodies) of migrants and refugees – disproportionately racialized as not-white, and in fact inordinately racialized as Black – into overtly de-racialized “migrant” lives?"

And then you ask,

‘...if objective circumstances conspire to ensure that these lives truly do not matter – that these migrant lives are rendered utterly disposable – does it not seem plausible, if not probable, that race has something to do with it?"

I think these questions are so generative, they have been for me. And so I just wanted to ask you to talk a little bit about why you think it's important to think of migrant crises - in contemporary Europe and elsewhere, now that you’re situated in North America - as racial crises.
 
Nicholas: Thanks for that. I’m gratified to know that my work has been of some interest and use for yours. Indeed, this question is not one that I’ve moved away from. I continue to have one foot, at least proverbially speaking, in that conversation about European borders and migration, and it ties in, in fact, to the prior question about the pandemic. If you think about the events surrounding the fires at the Moria Camp on Lesbos, where it was precisely the circumstances of the mismanagement - management or mismanagement as it were - of the Covid outbreak in the detention camp that then created the consternation that apparently set off the fires that destroyed the camp and displaced 13,000 people. So, you had this hotspot that emerged in the context of the 2015 so-called migrant or refugee crisis, which at some points has been over-populated to the point of 20,000 over these last few years, in appallingly overcrowded, unsanitary set of conditions, that were intolerable in the first place and have represented, for the people whose lives are trapped there, a continuing crisis. Coupled with the public health emergency and the draconian series of measures that were used as a way to respond to the management of it, which in the case of the migrants and refugees living there was experienced as a direct imposition of the various kinds of restrictions that were untenable, resulting in ways that I think appear to still be controversial, either in a series of fires that were set in protest on the part of some exacerbated residents of the camp; alternately, there is speculation also that local Greek fascists were manipulating and exploiting the situation and setting fires - and maybe both things were true. I don’t know the facts. I can only say that the fires, which devastated the entire camp and left 13,000 people sleeping on the road, really were a renewed flashpoint of this effectively permanent crisis of the borders in and of Europe, as it were.
 
So then, to come more directly to your question, I think that there is an unspoken way in which Europeanism, and the very question of Europe identity, which has become so pronounced during this historical era of European unification, integration, harmonisation; and I’m not only referring to the European Union but obviously that is the predominant institutional framework, but in this era of European unification and integration and the pronounced investment in Europeanism, there is an unspoken way in which that has been a racial formation of whiteness, a post-colonial racial formation of whiteness, whereby all questions of migration, in my view, are inherently racialised, but where migration serves as a proxy; so that it's possible to invoke race without speaking race, to invoke the questions of race without addressing them directly. So, there's a kind of inherent evasiveness around the racial legacies of what Europe even means, that is systematically being sidestepped in favour of a reconstruction of problems of race and racialisation and racism in the European context, that treat it as if it were merely something that arises in some inevitable, unfortunate way as a response to an intrusion from the outside. So then, as long as it can be reconstructed as a matter of migration, it’s possible to engage in a certain kind of post-colonial amnesia, historically speaking, with respect to the legacies of European colonialism that says, 'where did this come from? Why are these people coming here? We don’t have room for them, and they come here and then we have problems that we didn’t foresee or anticipate.' So, it’s really a kind of systematic way that makes it possible to continue, at least overtly, to avoid a frank confrontation and conversation about race and racial inequality, on the one hand; but also that permits, for the re-inscription of this narrative, that effectively says these are problems from somewhere else that come intruding upon us, that kind of come crashing in. And that’s also part of this rhetoric of crisis, it's continuously presented as though it were this kind of unforeseen emergency that needs to be brought under control, but that, in some senses, is not Europe’s own responsibility and inheritance.
 
Luke: That’s really helpful. And I suppose I was thinking as well about your writing on nativism and some of that writing, I guess, is a set of remarks on the discipline of anthropology, which is where you come through. I’ve been reading your writing on nativism, especially in light of kinds of centrist and generic complaints about nativism in the light of Brexit and Trump, and our set of moral panics around that. But you think about the problem of nativism in broader terms, perhaps. I wonder if you could talk briefly about that and if it links to your previous comment.
 
Nicholas: Yeah, I think it does. The term nativism has a very distinctly US-American kind of origin, I think, going back to the 19th century, and so it’s more common for people to use the term xenophobia than nativism, although that may be changing. But for a long time nativism was a familiar term in the kind of lexicon of the politics of migration in the US context. And for me, it was always instructive because rather than xenophobia, which has a kind of psychologistic dimension to it that seems to emphasis some kind of irrational fear- phobia, a fear of the foreign, a fear of foreignness, that that term doesn’t seem to adequately address all of what’s at stake. For me, nativism then is repurposed as an analytical term, not simply a way to sort of cast aspersions on some kind of anti-immigrant hostility that is presumptively already a kind of evaluation or judgement. So if you call somebody a nativist it tends to be an insult, and even nativists themselves tend to disavow their own nativism, and that remains true even in the US context. Although there have been movements that are sort of audaciously and explicitly nativist, most of the times - like racists and of other ilks - they’ll disavow being called that, at least in this era, post-civil rights era; the affiliation of nativism with racism is sufficiently strong that people tend to want to sort of disavow it. But I think it is powerful as an analytical term, because what it means to me is that it is native-ism. It is the promotion of the priority and the prerogatives of the natives and, in that sense, it draws our attention somewhere else. It’s not simply reduceable to an irrational fear of the other, an irrational fear of foreignness. It’s the promotion of the priorities and the prerogatives of the natives on no other basis than that they are natives. So, it calls our attention to what I think of as the identity politics that grounds every nationalism. And in that sense, it allows us to unpack in a different sense part of what’s at work when we think about nationalism, part of what’s at work when we think about politics of citizenship; the presumptive birth right entitlements that are associated with nationhood or with citizenship are effectively named through a nativism as that kind of commitment; a notion that you can make claims and be deserving of certain entitlements on no other basis than this is where you’re from, you’re a native of this place; you were born here and, therefore, you have some kind of inherent right that prevails over someone else’s. And so, I think that opens up a whole series of important questions theoretically and gives us a different kind of leverage on the question of what’s going on when people debate the politics of immigration, the politics of citizenship.
 
Now, the more specifically anthropological spin on that question is that there is a legacy within the discipline of anthropology that celebrates the idea that ethnographic work within social anthropology or cultural anthropology should try to capture the natives’ point of view. And that of course was a revealing turn of phrase in the history of the discipline that evokes the uncomfortable and awkward relationship of the discipline of anthropology to colonialism, because the native of the anthropologist was always indeed the native of colonialism. And part of what I puzzle through, as someone trained within that discipline working on migration in the country where I’m the citizen, where I’m the native, as it were, was to say that my challenge, my burden and my task and my responsibility, politically, ethically and intellectually, was to repudiate the natives’ point of view because that was the point of view of nativism; to be able to, even in the most modest sense, do what any good, critical ethnographic enquiry should do to be able to come to grips with the critical perspectives and experiences of the people who are themselves migrants and produced as non-natives, as non-citizens, etc. required repudiating that natives’ point view, which is the series of conceits by which citizens authorise themselves to decide about people that are deemed to be non-citizens. And that again is a set of presuppositions and presumptions that unify both sides in the typical mainstream debates around migration: what do we do with them, we citizens, how do we authorise ourselves to debate the question? And even if one is arguing for immigrants’ rights, or for the virtues of migration, those arguments tend to have a normative set of assumptions, which is that what’s pre-determinative of the winning argument, what’s inherently legitimate, is making the case that it’s good for us, meaning whereby the 'us' is equated with the nation, which is equated with some notion of a national economy, etc.
 
So, those debates tend to devolve into cost arguments; some people will say migrants cost us too much, other people will say, no, they’re actually a greater benefit to the national economy or the welfare state, etc. But those debates are presumed to be legitimate ones and they’re framed by a set of nativist conceits, that we, the natives, have an inherent entitlement to decide whether or not we admit those people from outside or not. So, there's a way that nativism becomes the animating sort of normative framework at work in a lot of these debates, even when people imagine themselves to be proponents of migration and proponents of migrants’ rights. So, part of what that opens up is the possibility also of doing the critique of what I call nativism from the left, which is arguments in favour of migration restrictions on the basis of what are presented as arguments for greater social justice, which are nonetheless methodologically nationalist arguments. So arguments for social justice on the basis of class, arguments for social justice on the basis of race, that say, before we allow for more migration we have to be sure that things are done right on the part of the so-called native minorities, or the native working class, or the native poor. So those are expressions of nativism that are not xenophobic at all, and they might be overtly anti-racist, but nonetheless participate in a larger politics of nativism.
 
Luke: I’m reminded of Angela Nagle’s intervention a couple of years ago, which I felt the need to respond to as well. And there’s quite a few people making the similar arguments from an ostensibly left position here as well. I think that’s really helpful to think about nativism in those terms, as something broader than a way to cast aspersions against people seen as especially intolerant, or not subscribing to a set of liberal standards. And I know you’ve written recently about populism, and I’m reminded of a friend of mine, Sivamohan Valluvan, who’s written about populism and critiqued it, basically in a similar way to you actually by saying that a lot of what is named as populism is, in fact, just inherent to nationalism, to all nationalist formations; and I think you’re doing similar and complementary kinds of work in your broadening out.
 
I want to move now to the autonomy of migration because a lot of people might not be familiar with the frame and I think there is a lot to gain from it, so I’d really like to hear you talk about it. In the book, for example, The Borders of Europe after the colon is Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering. So, for those who aren’t familiar with the kind of autonomy of migration framework, or school, can you tell us a bit about what it is, what it means, where it comes from, and why you find it useful?
 
Nicholas: Well, I’m certainly not the originator of that concept or phrase, I’m one of many people that are a part of that kind of perspective and it’s been elaborated over the years in a variety of ways. Its origins really are in the series of debates within the European context that derive ultimately from an autonomous, Marxist kind of perspective on the autonomy of labour. So, the autonomy of labour in a sense was reworked as the autonomy of migration, as a framework that could open up a different kind of politics, both within the realm of left politics around class but also anti-racist politics. And without trying to represent that full range of debates, the simple way to understand this point of view was to say that rather than treat migration as merely a kind of epiphenomenon or effect of some larger set of structural requirements driven by the needs of capital, it was important to recapture the subjectivity of migration. And what I mean by that is, again analogous to the role of labour within capital, so that rather than understanding labour as merely the sort of subordinated figure in that relationship, it’s a recuperation of the fundamental insight that labour is the manifestation of human productive power and creative capacity; that labour comes first, that labour is a subjective force that makes the world and remakes the world, and it’s only when it can be subordinated within a certain historically specific framework that it becomes dominated by capital, and that capital is able then to convert the products of labour into capital. But there is a dependency of capital on labour; there is a reactive character, a responsive character, to the ways in which that subordination of labour actually is always secondary, and what’s primary is the sheer productive and creative ingenuity and power of human life. So again, it’s a repurposing of that basic insight, in my interpretation, at least; it’s a repurposing of that basic insight into how we understand the relationship between migrants and migration, and the regimes that try to manage and govern them: borders, immigration law, asylum law- those various systems of government and systems of control and policing that are always reactive, are always reaction formations, that are trying to respond to something primary which is the sheer restlessness of human life, the productive power and creative capacity of that human life, and of those human mobilities. So, in that sense, it opens up for me an appreciation of the fact that when people migrate, even under the worst of circumstances, even under the most severe constraints, even under the most repressive and violent conditions, when people migrate, they’re not purely the objects of other forces, they’re subjects.

And this is what I mean by subjectivity. They’re subjects, they’re human beings with aspirations and they’re trying to realise projects in the world about making life. And, in an objective sense, they’re also making a priority of human needs in defiance of the law, in disregard of borders; that human needs, in a sense, are being promoted above and beyond and against state powers, the law, the police, the border, etc. And, in that sense, it’s objectively political. So, one of the other insights of the autonomy of migration is that this literal movement of people across space, across national borders, etc., this literal movement also has the character of a social and political movement. And that’s not to romanticise it or dress it up heroically as some kind of purely self-conscious expression of radical or subversive kind of tendency. Indeed it’s, in my view, independent of whatever specific ideas may be in peoples’ heads, independent of any ways that they have or have not articulated a politics, as such; there is something objective about the fact that human beings are putting their needs first, and the immediacy of pursuing and trying to realise those goals through their mobility presents a continuous kind of affront to the kinds of powers that are aligned to police borders, to impose regimes that would govern and otherwise manage human mobility. But what’s at stake in that for me then is a deeper question about the relationship of the human species to the space of the planet. And when I put it that way, what I mean to say is that there is something inherently at stake in questions of migration on a global scale, that pose the question, implicitly, of whether another world is possible.
 
Luke: Maybe that leads us on to the final topic I wanted to talk to you about, which is that you are working on a book project titled The Migrant Metropolis. I’m really intrigued by what this book is going to be about and maybe you can talk to us a little about the book and about the migrant metropolis as a concept and as a way to round off the conversation.
 
Nicholas: The degree of intensity with which I’m actually working on that book varies, so I’m also intrigued to eventually know what that book will look like. But it is a project that I’ve been sort of engaged by, again to greater or lesser degrees of intensity over these last few years, and something that I’ve written a bit about already in a variety of places. Part of what I think then is the other side of these questions that I’ve been referring to, is that you could say that, within migration studies broadly, there’s a kind of bifurcation between the work that looks at the specific sites and events of migration, especially borders and things like that, and then work that is about the contexts where migrants get on with it and where people make their lives and the contexts where they settle.
 
So, a lot of traditional migration studies work is really focused on migrant communities and migrant lives in the settings where people then have established themselves more or less and get on with it, as it were. And you can sort of see how those could pull in different directions. And in a way this is my continued engagement with that bigger question: if migration itself involves an appropriation of space, and an appropriation of mobility, it also means that, in the course of realising those migratory projects, people are reproducing space, creating new kinds of space. And for me, the premier place to see that is in large urban contexts where people are producing space, and transforming space, and creating a context to get on with life. And so it really is the insistence that we have to think about both of those things together, that we have to sort of talk about all the implications of that argument about the autonomy of migration in its more extended form where people then are engaged in remaking everyday life in the various contexts where they land, where they arrive, where they settle, to greater or lesser extents. And in that sense, there are a couple of things that are going on. One is that it’s not reduceable to some kind of classic model of the so-called ethnic enclave or immigrant ghetto, where people then find some place to burrow in, in a way that predictably looks like an old-fashioned kind of anthropology or sociology of migrant communities; you have these things that look like little villages that are kind of reconstituted in the context of the great modern metropolis, or these things that look like little islands that are understood to be fundamentally worlds unto themselves, and insular and detached and bounded spaces of cultural difference. And I want to disavow the conceits of that kind of perspective, which has long predominated how people study these things, and instead see that all of urban life itself is transformed, that the whole metropolis, the whole metropolitan region of great cities like London, for example, comes to be remade by the dynamism and the creative ferments that come with migration. And it opens up a variety of questions. Obviously, there is, to greater or lesser extents in different places, severe segregation but there is also what Paul Gilroy refers to as multicultural conviviality. There is a kind of creative ferment associated with the ways in which migrants remake the space of the city that transforms life for everyone involved. So then when I think about the migrant metropolis, I’m talking about social relations, I’m talking about the relations whereby people don’t exist unto themselves but are actually involved in a meaningful, practical material way with everyone else around them. And it means that part of what’s at stake is that we’re seeing the transformation of the world as such.
 
To go back to something I alluded to at the start of our conversation, a thinker who has been important for me, Henri Lefebvre, talked about the critique of everyday life but he also talked about what he called the urban revolution, where he forecast, many decades ago, the idea of a complete urbanisation of the globe. And people talk about that idea now in a fairly banal but ubiquitous way, the degree to which all of human life is becoming urban. And there are ways to critique some of those dominant discourses about the urban and the predominance of the urban, but there are also important ways in which that transformation of what we could call our global society, that urbanisation on a global scale is one in which migrants are central, and one in which the lived human interconnections across space, across sometimes great distances, that connect people who appear to be otherwise remote from each other, those lived relations that migrants create across the globe, as it were, then become an important part also of what I’m imagining is at stake when we think about the migrant metropolis; so that we can easily imagine the migrant metropolis in a form that looks like, to use a London example, something like Brixton, except that Brixton has always interconnected in a deep, profound way with Jamaica and other parts of the West Indies; that what looks like a specific kind of configuration of migrant life in a place like Peckham, for example, again is deeply interconnected to the lived present and imagined future of all sorts of other places. So, it’s those dynamic interconnections that I’m also interested in, that ultimately give us a different leverage on theorising the transformations on a global scale of our global society.
 
Luke: That sounds great. I really can’t wait to read the book. I’ve been thinking for a while about the importance of kind of combining that literature on convivial city life, on urbanism, on cosmopolitan life with a real critique of the force of immigration law, citizenship regulations and late capitalism. So, I’m really excited by that and I hope we can continue the conversation about the issues we’ve discussed and others. That’s all we’ve got time for and I wanted to say thank you so much, Nicholas. I really appreciate you making time to come and chat with us. I really enjoyed that conversation and I look forward to many more.
 
Nicholas: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Luke: Cheers.