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Border interruptions and spatial disobediences beyond the scene of the political

by Martina Tazzioli
5 Oct 2015 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Border Struggles [12] | Article

Beyond the sovereign and citizen model of visibility:

When and how is border-working[1] interrupted in the shaping and containment of subjectivities? How are the spatial limits and the partitioning divides traced and enforced by categories through which some people are defined and governed as migrants? To tackle these questions, I situate this essay in a broader critical framework that questions the politics of visibility that is presupposed in many analyses of migration and border studies. In the last decade, Foucault’s notion of governmentality has gained more centrality in the literature on technologies of migration control and migration management, as well as the ways in which migrants trouble or disrupt the functioning of bordering mechanisms. However, the specific angle through which I would like to deal with the topic of border struggles refers to a critique of the models of political visibility that sustain these analyses. The notion of governmentality is often mobilized to account for the heterogeneity of mechanisms for containing movements; but at the same time the way in which migrants are supposed to be mapped/monitored and to disrupt borders is ultimately predicated on what I would call a sovereign and citizen model of visibility.

Let’s me explain this point. In critical migration studies, migrant struggles are often narrowed to direct and deliberate challenges of the border regime, according to a quite traditional model of political action and of political subjectivity as well.[2] The space of the political that is presupposed in many analyses of migrant struggles recalls, in an explicit or implicit way, Jacques Rancière’s image of politics[3] as the space of disagreement in which those who have no part claim to have a part, thereby disrupting and stretching the borders of democracy.[4] Just to recall Ranciere’s well-known definition of politics: “there is politics when there is a part of those who have no part, a part or a party of the poor”.[5] This image of political space, largely mobilized in migration literature, presents some problems. First, it refers to the regime of counting framed in terms of representation although through a radical questioning of it. Political actions are conflated with the irruption of subjectivities that are not counted in the space of citizenship, political actions that in this way disrupt and stretch the very borders of politics and of representation. In this regard, the notion of ‘aesthetic regime’ encapsulates well this image of politics as a question of struggle by and over the uncounted[6] –that is a challenge of the thresholds of perceptibility and visibility.[7] In other words, as much as the issue of representation is questioned, it is surreptitiously reintroduced through the struggle over the uncounted subjects. Moreover, people are supposed to become political subjects only to the extent that they appear on the scene of the political essentially posited as a bordered space given in advance[8] in which political actions are framed in terms of a “mise en scène”.[9] And the thresholds of the political coincide with the disqualification of all those practices and struggles that do not act according to the ‘form’ of political space as a space of equality. Thus, the distinction between political and non-political is eminently a question of form according  to which subjects are supposed to act and struggle for: “what makes an action political is not its object or the place where it is carried out, but solely its form, the form in which confirmation of equality is inscribed in the setting up of a dispute”.[10]

In this way, politics and struggles are eminently a dispute on the question of the “distribution of places”[11] within a self-contained space that, although disrupted in its order and borders by the presence and the voice of the uncounted, is characterized at the same time by a common language and the partitioning of parts.[12] But how to build a common space when there is no unitary or dominant language to start from? Is the “equality of speaking beings”[13] an appropriate point of departure to account for subjects and practices whose disruptive movement depends on their ‘noise’ or in their ‘silent’ in relation to the codes of intelligibility and visibility? In fact, in order to challenge the paradigm of integration it is necessary to dismiss the unquestioned assumption of a common language already there through which the ‘uncounted’ would lay their claim in the political space.[14] In this regard, the question that arises from the interruptions in the border regime generated by some migrants’ strategies is the following: how to start from a margin of untranslatability of discordant practices, not by absorbing it but by building through it, looking at the new spaces that eventually it opens up? Ultimately, taking the constitutive non-assimilability of certain movements into the existing political space, resounds with what Nicholas De Genova calls migrant struggles that resists and refuses claims to citizenship, “a politics of incorrigibility:” “a politics that truly rendered unintelligible the state’s very categories of distinction and discrimination […]that defied and rejected all of the normative categories of state sovereignty and its immigration regime”.[15]

Instead, the border struggles that are object of this analysis not only unsettle the legitimacy and the tenability of the bordered partitions that constitute the space of citizenship: they also appear as discordant in relation to the very logic of the parts. In fact, drawing on Foucault it could be argued that those practices that disrupt or interrupt the borders-working are not mere oppositional movements insofar as they are not localizable or narrowed to subject-positions.[16] More than occupy a position, border struggles highlight that “we cannot settle in a position, [...] rather we must define according to the context and the time the uses that we make of it”.[17]

This first problematic aspect of Ranciere’s model of political visibility is the political spatiality implicated – the regime of counting and a pre-established political space – and this is related to what I call an active-citizen model of political subjectivity. This model of political subjectivity is predicated on the idea of a citizen politics, namely on a civic engagement that consists in laying claims for rights and recognition concerning one’s own right as citizen or as someone who is struggling to become part of the space of citizenship. More specifically, the form of agency implicitly conveyed through this model of political visibility is based on the active-citizen, which is then transposed and generalized to describe all struggles.[18] Migration literature mobilizes more or less explicitly this active-citizen model of visibility, and through it, subjects in struggles are formally turned into citizens: in fact, the theoretical gesture made in these analyses ultimately consists in transposing on migrants the task of revitalizing an active citizenship in crisis, through claims that are addressed to the existing space of the political in which they are uncounted or whose voices are unheard. In this way, the disruptive effects of some discordant practices of freedom that cannot be contained in nor encoded by existing bordering categories are unaccounted for.

It follows that movements and subjectivies that do not fit in the exclusionary borders of what is established to be a ‘political agency’ are disqualified as non-political; and in addition to that, an aesthetic regime of bodies in space cannot account for processes of racialization nor heterogeneous individuation that complicate the struggle over counting through the primary question of what counts as human life that needs to be granted of rights beyond survival. To put it differently, the horizontal spatial regime of visibility – centred on the disposition of bodies in space and on the uncounted ones who appear on the scene – should be cut through by a vertical gaze, highlighting the differential processes of exclusion that trace hierarchies beyond the sharp threshold being counted/uncounted. In opposition to this flat politics that narrows politics to a question of a contested surface and that underpins Ranciere’s model of political visibility, I will highlight regimes of inequalities in the working and impacts of borders over people’s lives that are irreducible to dichotomies of visibility/invisibility and counted/uncounted. To translate this into the language of the politics of mobility, it entails for instance taking into account the peculiar effects of the working of  migration categories that more than containing and governing by individualization, produce generalizable singularities –namely, profiles in which the subject is required to fit in order to be granted humanitarian protection or that, on the contrary, excluded as an unauthorized illegal migrant. Such a gaze beyond the horizontal disposition of subjects in space also involves moving from the questions ‘how many migrate and where?’ and ‘how many are visible in the space of citizenship?’, to the questions ‘at which conditions and at which prices people are allowed to move and to stay?’, namely ‘to what extent the possibility to move or stay are precarized?’.

Looking at how migration categories and the spatial limits that they impose on migrants are disrupted and interrupted in their functioning, in this essay I propose to go beyond such a visual paradigm by focusing on two aspects at play in the strugglefield of migration governmentality. On the one hand, I question the politics of subjectivation: the hold over lives and the specific meaning of ‘life’ that is implicated in the governing of migration, and the mechanisms of individuation at stake.[19] This focus on subjectivation shifts the attention from the mechanism of control and subjection as such towards the precarization of the conditions that enable certain people to move or stay in a place and transforms some people into migrants. On the other hand, I look at spatial disobediences and at the emergence of the intolerable beyond representation: practices and conducts that interrupt or trouble the working of bordering mechanisms. More than bringing attention to the struggles over visibility and recognition within the space of citizenship, this approach explores the spaces of governmentality and the new spaces of mobility opened by the struggles over and at the borders.

Border interruptions concern both space and categories. Usually, spatial interruptions and categorical disruptions are deeply interrelated: the challenge to established spatial positions –in which migrants are expected to stay – is often associated with a disruption of migration profiles’ and categories’ coercive effects, and vice versa. Indeed, being labelled and governed as ‘migrant’ implicates for the subject to be contained through multiple borders (geopolitical, economic, juridical and racial). Therefore, in order to produce an interruption in the mechanisms of capture, many different border-mechanisms need to be disrupted simultaneously. The spatial disobedience that characterizes many migrant struggles – the refusal to stay at one’s own place[20]– goes often with a right claim that empties and redefines the meaning and the effective working of categories.

(Foucault’s conceptualization of freedom in terms of ‘practices’ leads us to think of freedom beyond its liberal formulations and beyond the model of the autonomy of the subject that underpins Western political thought. Moreover, it points to the transformative and continuing work in which subjects engage for disrupting, altering or reversing power relations. Practices of freedom are eminently a matter of transformation and disruption of the borders in which the subject is situated and by which is shaped. From such a perspective, border interruptions could open new spaces of movements and practices of existence that were not envisaged in the border-field in which they take place, and undermining the imperative to stay at one’s own place. Therefore, the main stake concerning border struggles could be formulated in the following terms: how to connect and to think and act together interruption and transformation?)

Coercive norms without abnormality:

The blurred category of “the migrant” neither fixes the subject to a stable identity nor it defines it on the basis of a distinctive practice or of “natural” features. Thus, the issue of border interruptions in the context of migration is less a question of subverting categories than of disrupting a bordering mechanism, wiggling out of it. Moreover, if in the case of gender and racial categories, the “abnormal”, the racialized or discriminated subject works as a sort of “stabilizer” of the norm (the heterosexual, the white or the fully-integrated subject) this mechanism does not fit in the case of the production of the migrant subject. Indeed, the migrant cannot be seen as the counter-figure of the citizen, nor can fit in any asymmetrical “counter-concepts”[21] but eventually as the marker of the absence and the impossibility of something like a norm of citizenship: actually, the migrant condition is eminently a slippery one, and the continuously changing boundaries between illegal migrant, refugee, migrant, asylum seeker etc. that some individuals experience makes it hard to establish what is its normative positive counter-figure.

The odd content of migration categories distinguishes them from other classifying and exclusionary bordered-identities,  and it is the lack of a stable norm that underpins their definition in oppositional terms. The migrant is neither someone whose actions and behaviours diverge from a normal conduct, nor is it a stable produced identity that can be opposed to a normative subjectivity. Even in the case of “irregular” migration, what is criminalized is not the act of border crossing itself or the circumstance of being apprehended in a certain space; rather, it is because that person is out of the place where he/she is supposed to be by international and national laws that he/she becomes a migrant. Out of place according to the Visa regime; out of place as presence in excess; out of place according to exclusionary criteria of international protection. Thus, it is not an irregular conduct that is sanctioned but a subject that is not entitled or expected to do precisely what is established by norms that full-citizens can do – like moving freely. To put it differently, the (irregular) migrant is a subject out of place and criminalized for doing what is normally acted by the non-migrants but that he/she is not-entitled to do. Actually, it is not the citizen-subject who is opposed to the migrant, or at least such opposition is only contingent and geographically asymmetrical – those who are migrants in Europe could be citizens in their country of origin or in other countries; and what is sanctioned in the case of ‘irregular migrants’ is not even their presence in a foreign country, since many people stay abroad without being citizens there. Finally, the migrant condition is not necessarily a permanent one: the same act of border crossing by the same person could be expected and legalized in other times.

Race, gender and class certainly contribute to determine the unequal access to mobility but none of them is decisive per se. What kind of odd discipline is at stake in the government of migration, in which the working of the norm in tracing spatial limits on people’s conducts seems to be detached from abnormality? I would suggest that it is a discipline that functions as a government of and through asymmetries, and producing population in excess: there is a spatial entitlement, namely a right to freely move and the right to have a space for staying, that establishes differential degrees of irregular conduct of mobility.

Nevertheless, if we de-essentialize the definition of norm and, following Pierre Macherey’s analysis, we consider its performative and anticipatory character, we can concur in saying that the force of the norms consists in “delimiting a field of action […] whose manifestation is in fact deferred”.[22] Without necessarily determining a partition between normal and abnormal, migration profiles partition migrant conduct between authorized and ‘illegal’, between economic and humanitarian, and works to structure possibilities and impossibilities of movement and stay for those who are governed as migrants. Indeed, mechanisms of normation fix the subject’s position to a certain space and define it according to a specific social function. Thus, operation of categorizing migrants represents the juridical and discursive interpellation through which migrants are addressed; but it also designates the spatial and political boundaries that mechanism of containment, selection and fixation are exercised upon migrants. The migrant-label works as a sort of epistemic catalyst that connect to each other disparate criminalizing qualifiers (terrorist, extremist, dangerously ill and depraved) generating a sort of neutralizing effect that tends to overshadow racial and gender issues that, however, effectively play as exclusionary and partitioning borders. Therefore, far from arguing that race and gender disappear in their power effects on migrants’ bodies, I’m suggesting that the migrant category in some contexts work by instantiating and legitimizing spatial, political and social asymmetries through which people’s movements and their persistence in a certain place are mainly hampered.[23]

The production of generalizable singularities:

More than “attached” to the body or presumed indicator of the inner truth of people’s nature and psychology, migration categories remain essentially separated from the subject, without demanding the subject to identify itself with it. Rather they work by allocating and stranding bodies in spaces or by imposing a set of hindrances to people’s movements. In fact, even when migrants are required to produce a narration of their lives in order to evaluate if they can be granted international protection, the discourse of asylum seekers is supposed to comply with a truth that ultimately is already there—the truth actualized in profiles of mobility and in migration categories. In this sense, the discourse that the asylum-seeker is demanded to produce could be named a confession without truth; a quite odd practice of confession that posits an already existing reality envisaged by international criteria and treaties, which the subject is demanded to embrace.[24] This peculiar form of truth-telling recalls in part Fanon’s argument: “it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me”.[25]

Moreover, the forms of subjectivation that are engendered by mechanisms of identifying through partitioning that characterize the government of migration, these are not mainly grounded on individualization but rather, I argue, on the production of generalizable singularities. Indeed, what matters for partitioning migrants concerns less the level of conducts and bodies than the production of profiles through which every migrant is then identified. These generalizable singularities are the outcome of profiling (messa a profilo) of existences and of people’s activities and movements. The collection of different migrants’ stories and data about migrants’ routes are assembled for crafting migration profiles through which new criteria of governability and spaces of intervention are put into place. And the production of profiles is often the result of the articulation between individual/ singular features and “activity patterns”.[26] For instance, in the context of the European police operation Mos Maiorum, that was in place in October 2014 with the task of “identifying the main transit flows of illegal migrants through main land, sea and air thoroughfares in the member states” the main goal was “to collect information on migration flows in the EU countries”.[27] But the ways in which the migrants checked were registered consisted in the combination of questions concerning “who they are?” – that is, their identity in terms of nationality, gender and age) with questions on the modus operandi[28], namely on “what do they do?” – namely the means of transport used by migrants within Europe, main routes, final destination, amount of money spent for arriving in Europe and point of entry in the EU. Therefore, more than individualizing mechanisms, what is at stake is an extractive process that takes data on strategies of migration in order to generate new generalizable singularities.

Discordant practices and the refusal to stay at ones own place:

However, border interruptions at times take place insofar as the labels of “migrant” and “refugee” are further de-essentialized and emptied, and then endorsed by migrants themselves as subjects governed by migration laws. In other words, it is precisely to the extent that some subjects are governed as migrants that they strategically play with the condition of being governed by those specific categories, mobilizing these latter as political footholds for exploding or pushing to the limits the meaning for instance of humanitarian protection. In this regard, the spatial disobedience enacted by rejected refugees at the refugee camp of Choucha in Tunisia near the Libyan border clearly shows the possible strategic twisting of categories. After being denied asylum by UNHCR, rejected refugees at Choucha who escaped the Libyan conflict in 2011 decided not to leave the space of the camp, even after its official closure, persisting in their claims to be resettled in Europe. They endorsed and appropriated the category of the humanitarian from which they were excluded –that is, ‘refugee’ – disrupting the borders of the humanitarian by staging a politics of presence as its ground. Indeed, confronted with a partition between those who were granted the asylum and those who were denied it, they argued: “we all escaped the Libyan conflict, so we are all in the same situation and no distinction should be made among us”; and “we have been living in the desert for four years, here at Choucha camp, so who is a humanitarian subject if not us?”, displacing in this way the meaning of the international protection from the context country of origin to their present conditions and their recent experience of the war.

Border interruption as an analytical standpoint is particularly effective as far as migrations are concerned. Indeed, migration policies work mainly by interrupting people’s movements and responding to migrants’ spatial strategies. The interruption produced by borders is in fact a mechanism for disturbing, containing and break mobility, but it could also be an interruption that forces people to leave the place where they are. Therefore, migration policies are mechanisms of containment and of spatial relocation – dislocation – that try to re-establish an order that is unsettled by practices of mobility and of “spatial insistence”,[29] channelling them into differential scales of illegality.

Certain practices of migration produce interruptions of the working of the border and its effects, and these interruptions convey a political lag between the established working of the border and migrants’ strategies. And it also involves a discordance, a discrepancy between migrants’ claims and the field of legal and political possibilities established by migration agencies, states and international humanitarian organizations. In Gender Trouble and in Undoing Gender Judith Butler stresses that not every failure of the norm represents or leads to its subversion. Actually, the ‘failure’ – what in the taxonomy of migration governmentality can be called an ‘epistemic crisis’ of categories – is often functional to the reorganization and the fostering of mechanisms of normalization. According to Butler, it is in the very process of the iteration of the norm, without which the norm itself ultimately remains ineffective, that the resignification of the normative principle could take place. Thus, the temporal deployment of the working of the norm opens to the possibility for a disruption and a displacement of its ordinary functioning and of its expected effect: “the norm in its necessary temporality is opened to a displacement and subversion from within”. [30]

However, to what extent could subversion take place, beyond any ‘failure’ that recomposes the regime of veridiction in which a certain norm functions? Taking the government of migration as a political technology that shapes and acts on singular conducts and bodies, and at the same time on “divisible multiplicities”,[31] the disruption of categories refers to a misfunctioning in the hold on people’s lives exercised through partitioning and labelling mechanisms. A misfunctioning that consists in practices that exceed the established borders defining a certain migrant conduct and profile enacting a sort of spatial disobedience – for instance, rejected refugees who are not allowed to be resettled elsewhere and, having no possibility to move, persist in a certain space; or even practices that are discordant regarding to the forms of existence and the conducts that people labelled through certain migration profiles are supposed to enact.

Nevertheless, as far as migrations are concerned, categories that partition, define and fix people to a juridical profile – deciding their spatial location and the legitimacy of their movements – are characterized by what I would call the groundlessness of the norm. Namely, the criteria through which migrants are partitioned and labelled are very often the outcome of arbitrary administrative measures, and are subject to constant transformations depending on ‘migration crisis’. For instance, when unprecedented practices of migration occur – like in 2011 the unexpected massive arrival in  Tunisia of third-country nationals escaping Libya – migration agencies and the agencies of the humanitarian as well, declare the crisis in managing people [32] and ‘invent’ new categories and sorting criteria.   There is not something like an identity that the subject is expected to endorse; and even the discourse of truth about their lives required by many migrants to get asylum ultimately appears more as a confession without truth, since subjects are rather demanded to fit their stories into an existing categorical frame (e.g. migrant, refugee, displaced person, internal migrant). This doesn’t mean that the mechanism of categorical partitioning, which characterizes the government of migration movements, doesn’t generate any effect of subjectivation, since the juridical status has tangible and often dramatic consequences on migrants’ lives and on their possibility to stay and move. And beyond the juridical labelling, the spatial limitations inscribed by migration policies, contribute in actively producing and shaping some subjects as migrants to be governed. Indeed, far from being narrowed to the domain of the law, processes of migrantization entail a series of mechanisms of containment, precarization and bordering that concern different dimensions (economy, social condition, geopolitical issues, racial mechanisms). However, the fact of being addressed, interpellated and managed as ‘migrant’ corresponds to a quite unstable and endlessly changing condition, more than to an identity through which the subject is qualified and that is supposed to determine its ‘truth’. In this sense, what is at stake is a process of becoming subject – according to the twofold meaning of being subject to and subject of [33]- that movements of desubjectivation try to alter with respect to the established codes of conduct, going beyond the borders of acceptability of what a migrant is not allowed to do. Such a move requires what Judith Butler calls “a willingness not to be—a critical desubjectivation”. [34] But more than refusing a certain identity, when migrants disrupt and exceed the categories that fix them to a certain space or to a specific juridical status, the question becomes how to disarticulate effects of subjection and exclusion from the right claim to humanitarian protection.

In this sense, the migrant condition is not (only) a question of categories and migration profiles: the juridical labelling is only the outwardly visible marker of multiple processes of migrantization, including labour conditions, social perception, the geopolitical context and racial issues. The terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’, as well as all the plethora of migration profiles, encapsulate a series of spatial limitations that, more than assigning an identity, produce mechanisms of bordering that effectively hamper and legally sanction practices of movement and stay that, normal for the non-migrants, become exceptional if acted by them. Those practices of disengagement enacted by migrants that trouble the functioning of categories by interrupting, sometimes only partially, their grasp and their power of containing movements, are actions, strategies and conducts that do not simply transgress the law but rather are ungovernable. The fact of being out of place – or of not staying in one’s own place,– corresponds to “strategies of existence”[35] that interrupt or disrupt the governability of a space. However, since being (governed as) a migrant is not only a question of categories, the spatial disobedience that migrants engage with, by not behaving as they are expected to do or not accepting to stay in place, is not reducible to a subversive resignification. More than subverting categories, migrants sometimes alter, upset or break the correspondence and the consonance between a given migration profile through which they are partitioned, and the conduct they are supposed to perform in a certain space as refugees, rejected refugees, migrants etc. This disengagement both from the position one is demanded to endorse and from the place where one is expected to stay, sometimes takes place through a radical appropriation of categories, generating an undesired effect that could even be the reversal of the planned one; or, such a radical appropriation, could bring to the fore the unacceptability of a migrant conduct as shaped by migration policies, to the extent that it is pushed to its limits. This is particularly evident in the government of refugees. The incessant tracing of exclusionary partitions between those who are recognized as refugees and those who are ‘rejected’. In this regard, the threshold of the humanitarian works by dividing between those who turn out to be defined ‘people of concern’ – namely, subjects of the humanitarian – and the others.

Subversion beyond names and categories:

Border interruptions are often the result of practices of spatial disobedience enacted in a space and in a specific political setting in which the bordering categories in question are disrupted in their ordinary functioning; practices of spatial disobedience that results in strategies of mobility and of “spatial insistence”[36] that are unmanageable and unreadable through the existing bordering and normative categories. Thus, the excess I talked about should be conceived precisely in these terms. Nor can the epistemological ground upon which categories are predicated and legitimated be effectively disrupted acting exclusively at a discursive level: as Foucault clearly shows by illustrating the practices of resistance to different mechanism of government, a discursive subversion can be easily recuperated by power and, moreover, at the same time a disruption of the functioning of power mechanisms requires to interrupt the effective working of the norms on bodies. Framing it in a different way, Maurizio Lazzarato in fact argues that “in order to bring together the conditions for rupture and subjective reconversion, we must move beyond both language and semiotic […] for a political subjectivity to occur, it must necessarily traverse moments in which dominant significations are suspended”. [37] This is evident in the context of migration, where there is always a discrepancy between on the one hand the limits that a category establishes in relation to migrants’ presence in a space – and thus, how migrants are named – and on the other the way in which people are effectively and ordinarily confronted with bordering mechanisms. Rather, migration profiles like for instance ‘refugees’ set up the spatial and juridical limits for a person, but then it is not enough to subvert the meaning or the name to disrupt the mechanisms of border and containment that acts over migrants’ bodies and that limit they possibility to move.

In this regard, W.E.B. Dubois’ words in relation to the colonial context nicely capture the core of the problem: “If men despise Negroes, they will not despise them less if Negroes are called ‘colored’ or ‘Afroamericans’”.[38] Therefore, the alteration in the functioning of normative categories cannot be the result of a mere linguistic subversion, and rather it depends on what can be called the friction of categories with the political space and the troubling of the “frame” that sustain them.[39] This means that certain strategies of mobility or of persistence in space at some points become untenable for the existing normative scripts of governmentality. The normative and coercive force of migration categories sometimes are directly challenged in their bordering effects, to the extent that these become intolerable to those who are shaped and labelled by them. And this leads us to interrogate how from a certain condition of assujettisement and from within multiple categories that trace the spatial limits of one’s own movements, the intolerable could emerge in the form of a subjective engagement.[40] But other times bordering mechanism are interrupted; even though subjects do not directly challenge them, at least in the form of a political protest, certain practices and conducts become ungovernable or unacceptable,. This is a very important point, since in migration critical literature migrant struggles are narrowed to movements and subjects that deliberately challenge the border regime. Instead, border struggles include a much broader array of practices: conducts and movements that beyond their deliberate purposes of challenging borders, trouble, interrupt or misfire the ‘grasp’ of bordering effects on people’s lives and the acceptability of the spatial limits that bordering categories impose.

Assuming that the government of migrants is made up of a series of  political technologies that exercise an hold over people hampering their movements, it follows that in order to grasp how the coercive effects of categories is interrupted or disrupted it is necessary to analyse how people’s lives are affected by processes of precarization. This entails shifting the attention from the singular category or even the set of migration categories as such to the effective conditions and limitations on the basis on which a person can move or stay in a space. How are the mobility and the persistence in a space of some people precarized and hampered ? And how is this precarization strategically enacted by those who are labelled and governed as migrants?

Who is governed like a migrant?

The group Storiemigranti, an on-line archive of migrants’ stories, reflects on the term ‘migrant’ not by providing a concise definition of it, but by taking into account the migrant conditions: “a woman, a man, a child. Women, men, children. Singularities and pluralities of human beings who, like all human beings, need a space for their existence, but whose necessary adherence to space is, so to speak, suspended by the control devices that monitor their movements and residencies”. [41] In this way, the category “migrant” is detached from the movement in space and reframed in the light of the notion of “space for their existence”. Such a definition that grounds the plurality of the conditions of being a migrant from the point of view of the difficulties in having a (legitimate) space to stay, allows us to go beyond the legality/illegality couple, and therefore beyond a juridical answer to the question “who is a migrant?”. Moreover, it indicates that it is not possible to provide a unique definition, since there are different migrant conditions and the experiences of borders. Thus, it is only by taking stock of the multiplicity of the ways some people in a certain context are governed as migrants it becomes possible to find a common trait: according to Storiemigranti, it is the suspension in time and in space that is shared by all migrants. “In our opinion the word ‘migrant’ also describes the suspended position of migrants. Suspended in space, because an obstacle, a barrier, a limit, a border […] interferes with a complete adhesion to the territory […]. And suspended in time, because an obstacle, a barrier, a limit, a border blocks the transfer, preventing the completion of the movement”.[42]

This enables us to introduce our hypothesis on the relational definition of ‘migrant’: there cannot be something like a definition of who a migrant is, without relating it to and taking into account on the one hand the geopolitical context –in which one is defined ‘migrant’ – and the spatial transformations that migration engender. In order to de-essentialize ‘migrant’ as a category, it can be seen as an unstable placeholder through which the mobility of some people and their possibility to stay at a given moment and in a certain place is problematized as an object of government and security. Moreover, the relational character brings to the fore two other fundamental aspects. Firstly, one is a migrant always in relation to a certain social and political context, that defines, sanctions, perceives and governs him/her as a migrant. Secondly, being (governed as) a migrant entails being involved in a strugglefield. As the authors of the New Keywords point out:

Every practice or experience of migration is situated within and grapples with a specific field of tensions and antagonisms. This structural relation between “migration” and “struggles” fundamentally derives from the fact that practices of mobility that are labelled as “migrations” are captured, filtered and managed by migration policies and techniques of bordering […] And at the same time, migration forces the border regime to continuously revise its strategies, working as a constitutive “troubling factor.[43]

What ultimately characterizes migrants’ struggles is the surplus beyond the ordinary rules and norms for crossing a border. Thus, the migrant is not who enacts a practice that is out of the norm, or whose conduct is in itself deviant; rather, the migrant is out of place and exceeds the norm to the extent that he/she acts precisely as the others who are entitled to freely move. Concurring with the reflections in Storiemigranti and in The New Keywords, what I propose here is a definition of ‘migrant’ that escapes any essentialisation of the term and avoids conflating it with an identity. For this reason, I prefer to reformulating the question ‘who is a migrant?’  into ‘who, in a certain place and in this moment, is governed as a migrant?”; and, to put it differently ‘whose presence or movement in a certain space has become a “problem”?’. This enables us to see that in order to grasp processes of migrantization and to answer the question “who has become a migrant?”, it is necessary to ask simultaneously the questions “who is not a migrant in the same context?”, and “in which space and under which conditions, is someone governed as a migrant?”. Refusing to crystallize different migrants’ experiences and stories into a category and to abstract them from the political and historical context, we should keep the constitutive plurality and instability of the placeholder ‘migrant’.

Who is a migrant today in Europe?

For this reason, an analysis of the impact of the economic crisis on practices of mobility requires to look at how the increasing precarization affects both the mobility and the possibility for people to stay in a place. In this regard, I would like to dwell for a while upon the ongoing reorientation of migration in the Mediterranean context in a time of economic crisis. In fact, if we ground the analysis only on quantitative data, we come to the conclusion that there have not been relevant transformations or alterations in the movements across the two shores of the Mediterranean, especially concerning the mobility of the European citizens. An analysis of the reorientation of migration in a time of economic crisis should take into account, together, the spatial and the temporal dimension, in order to investigate at which price and conditions people move. It is only by focusing on the weave of power relations in which subjects are entangled and on how this concretely affects their presence in space that it is possible to see how migrants interrupt or disrupt the working of categories as they break the hold on their lives. From this perspective, the increased presence  in the last three years of young Europeans from Italy, Spain and France in some countries of the Maghreb area (Morocco and Tunisia) is quite significant as we look at how processes of migrantization and precarization articulate each other. Indeed, if we focus on the strugglefield in which migration profiles are mobilized, we should draw attention to the processes of ‘migrant making’. With such an expression I mean the becoming migrants of some mobile persons (migrantization) and to the way in which this involves processes of precarization of the condition of mobility and of persistence in a space. This is something that neither statistics on migration flows nor analyses focused on migration taxonomies could grasp. In the case of young European citizens moving to North Africa to find a job it is less a question of the relative increase in number of European residents there than of investigating who has been migrantized beyond official designations of ‘migrant’. Actually, what slips away in the politics of numbers are presences that cannot be counted as ‘migrants’ for their brief and unmappable permanence in a certain space, or because they do not register as residents. Therefore, both the juridical labelling and the political definition of ‘migrant’ are inadequate to account for the becoming migrant of some people in a certain context. For instance, it is important to highlight how precariousness impacts the temporality of people’s movements, on the one hand producing the immobility of some, and on the other forcing to an erratic mobility. Therefore, to mobilize the migrant making perspective it means to shift from the question “how many Europeans migrate out of Europe?” to the interrogation “who, among the Europeans has been migrantized due to the increased precariousness?”, namely “at what price and under which conditions could people stay in a place or move?” Ultimately, this involves conceiving the relation between subjects and borders in terms of the borders’ effects on people’s lives. At the same time, such a perspective entails interrogating how those who have been migrantized, even beyond any juridical definition, deal with precariousness and with the impacts with different kinds of borders (economic, political, racial). Indeed, what is important to stress is that the possibility to concretely trouble or interrupt the working of categories relies on their irreducibility to what they are designed to operate for. This resounds what in her analyses on gender performativity Judith Butler calls the ‘incompleteness’ of categories: “the assumption of its essential incompleteness permits that category to serve as a permanently available site of contested meaning”. [44] And the irreducibility of the functioning of categories to their original and established norms does not depend on inaccurate or equivocal meaning: rather, it is the outcome of practices, whose effects and impacts can never be fully determined in advance. A migration category intends to fix the field of possibilities and the boundaries of legitimate actions and movements for a subject. This bordering operation at the same time contains and fixes in advance people’s movements, and for this reason it always needs to struggle for containing and anticipating strategies of mobility.

These categories’ irreducibility results from their working in context: in fact, it is this working in context that generates drifts and unexpected enactments of bordered conducts. These drifts between categories and their effecting working consist also in new alliances that emerge in the making; namely when by working in context those categories are reshuffled by and confronted with movements and practices that appropriate, resist or trouble them in multiple ways. From such a perspective, the social struggles in which migrants are engaged not primarily as migrants –for instance struggles around housing – are particularly significant: in that case the migrant label is mixed, partially superseded and blurred with other bordering mechanisms and social conditions in which migrants are always entangled. Indeed, anyone of us is shaped by and subjected to multiple social and juridical bordering-categories and identities. It is precisely by refusing to be entirely defined only by one of bordering-identities – the “exclusive disjunctions”[45] – that the embodiment of the categories that shape us could eventually open to unexpected practices of subjectivities.

Beyond the different criteria used by international organizations or states to define who is a migrant, at some point the presence of foreigners in a space become objects of concern for governments: that is, they become a ‘problem’ and they start to be mapped as ‘migrants’. The migrantization of some EU citizens[46]due to economic crisis is not necessarily related to legal restrictions imposed on them to enter a country or to work there; rather, it is primarily dependent on the fact that they have started to be perceived and treated as a problem, as people whose legitimate presence on the territory must be supplemented with a justification of some reason –usually a job. Legal criteria only partially contribute to determine processes of migrantization. The geopolitical hierarchy of passports is certainly one of the main issues that ultimately defines the level of migrantization that people experience in moving and crossing borders.[47] This geopolitical gap also creates an unequal illegality, that in turns sheds light on the asymmetrical working of frontiers. In this regard, a glaring example is given by the presence of illegal Spaniards in Morocco in comparison to the illegality of sub-Saharan migrants in the same country. Over the last years, many young Spanish citizens,  most of them with skills and even academic qualifications, moved to Morocco to find a job due to the economic crisis in Spain. Many of them after entering Morocco as tourists are now living there as overstayers. However, the illegality experienced by the by Spaniards is very different from the ‘illegal’ condition lived in Morocco by sub-Saharans, who are detained, attacked by the police or deported.

This means that in order to effectively grasp the meaning and the impact of being an illegal migrant we should shift the attention from the juridical definition and dimension of illegality to what can be called the borders effects – and thus, how people are affected by borders. The migrantization of people, and in this case of European citizens, is dependent on the precarization of life’s conditions, and only in part on legal restrictions to migrate, although this is always a fundamental obstacle that produce differential degrees and experience of illegality – I use the ‘precarization’ well beyond the economic sphere, as a term that embraces social, economic, existential dimensions. To put it differently, ‘precariousness’[48] encapsulates better than ‘precarity’ all these aspects of life that cannot be narrowed to unemployment. Migrantization occurs always in relation to a certain political context and to a given space that someone start to be seen like a problem, to paraphrase W.B Dubois famous sentence “how does it feel to be a problem?”.[49] Thus, focusing on the processes of migrantization and on the multiple migrant conditions, detaching them from an exclusive juridical dimension, involves stepping out of the logic of the count – who count as a subject in the space of citizenship? – paying attention to movements that do not struggle by addressing claims and usually are not visible as ‘the many’.


1. By ‘border-working’ I mean borders taken in the effects of containment and selection that they produce. [↑]

2. Bridget Anderson, Nandita Sharma and Cinzia Wright. “Editorial: Why No Borders?”. Refugee Studies 26.2. (2009); Helen Schwenken and Sabine RuS Sattar, eds. New Border and Citizenship Politics. (London: PalgraveMcMillan, 2014);  Vicki Squire, ed. The Contested Politics of Mobility: Borderzones and Irregularity. (London: Routledge, 2011). [↑]

3. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004). [↑]

4. It is through the existence of this part of those who have no part, of this nothing that is all, that the community exists as a political community that is, as divided by a fundamental dispute, by a dispute to do with the counting of the community’s parts even more than of their “rights.”, (Rancière, Disagreement:9). [↑]

5. Rancière, Disagreement:11. [↑]

6.  The distribution of the sensible is in fact defined by Ranciere as what “establishes at one and at the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts” (Rancière, Disagreement:12). [↑]

7. Peter Nyers, “The Accidental Citizen: Acts of Sovereignty and (Un)Making Citizenship”, Economy and Society. 35.1. (2006): 22–41. [↑]

8. Sandro Chignola and Sandro Mezzadra, “Fuori dalla politica: Laboratori globali della soggettività”, Filosofia Politica 1(2012): 65–81. [↑]

9. Rancière, Disagreement:55. [↑]

10. Rancière, Disagreement:32. [↑]

11. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible. (London/New York: Continuum, 2004). [↑]

12. The distribution of the sensible is in fact defined by Rancière as what “establishes at one and at the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts” (Rancière, Disagreement:12). [↑]

13. Rancière, Disagreement[↑]

14. Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines. Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity. (New York: Mit Press, 2014); Nirmal Puwar, Space Invaders. Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place, (Oxford/New York: Berg, 2012); Federica Sossi,  “The Phantoms of Truth”, in Glenda Garelli, Federica Sossi and Martina Tazzioli, Spaces of Migration. Postcards of a Revolution. (London: Pavement, 2013: 84-102). [↑]

15. Nicholas De Genova, “The Queer Politics of Migration: Reflections on ‘Illegality’ and Incorrigibility”, Studies in Social Justice. 4.2.(2010): 105. [↑]

16. Judith Revel, Per la friabilità dei suoli, AlfaBeta, 3(2012): 65-83. [↑]

17. Michel Foucault, Space, Knowledge and Power, in Dits et Ecrits II, (Paris, Gallimard): 1089-1104.

18. Not concretely but at the level of the way in which they are read and made intelligible. See for instance Engin Isin, Citizens without Frontiers. (London: Continuum, 2012). [↑]

19. Didier Fassin, Ripoliticizzare il mondo, (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2014). [↑]

20. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. (New York: Grove Press, 2007). [↑]

21. Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past. On the semantic of the historical time. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). [↑]

22. Pierre Macherey, Le sujet des normes. (Amsterdam Editions : Paris, 2014). [↑]

23. On this point it could be argued that following W.B. Dubois and Frantz Fanon on the importance of thinking of spatial divisions and categories through the effects of racialization, we can similarly look at the asymmetries in the access to space and to mobility from the point of view of the production of certain subjects as migrants. On race’s effects in producing spatial divisions and the global space see also D. Ferreira Silva, Towards a Global Idea of Race. (Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, 2007). [↑]

24. Martina Tazzioli, Spaces of Governmentality. Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings. (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). [↑]

25. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. (Pluto Press: London, 2008): 105. [↑]

26. Gregoire Cahamayou, Teoria del drone. Principi filosofici del diritto di uccidere (Roma: DeriveApprodi, 2013). [↑]

29. Federica Sossi,  “Introduction”, in Glenda Garelli, Federica Sossi and Martina Tazzioli, Spaces of Migration. Postcards of a Revolution. (London: Pavement, 2013). [↑]

30. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (London: Routledge, 1990). [↑]

31. Martina Tazzioli, “The government of the mob? Produzione del resto e suo eccesso”, Euronomade, (last access, 6 March 2015). [↑]

32. Usually both the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR employ the expression “mixed migration flows” de facto to indicate the difficulty in selecting and managing migrants as the causes and the goal of their movements cannot be easily understood, and the supposedly sharp distinction between economic and humanitarian migration appears as untenable face to the current migration events. [↑]

33. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power”, Critical Inquiry 8.4.(1982): 777–95. [↑]

34. Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, 1997. [↑]

35. Federica Sossi, Migrare. Spazi di confinamento e strategie di esistenza, (Milano: Il Saggiatore, 2007). [↑]

36. Glenda Garelli, Federica Sossi and Martina Tazzioli, eds. Spaces in Migration. Postcards of a Revolution. (London: Pavement, 2013). [↑]

37. Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines. Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity: 17-19. [↑]

38. W. E. B. Dubois, The Soul of the Black Folks (New York: New Library, 1996): 70. [↑]

39. As Derrida explains in The Truth in Painting, the frame is the surplus structure that however cannot be erased for shaping the limits of a space and its constitutive outside: “without them, without their quasi-detachment, the lack on the inside of the work would appear; or would not appear. What constitutes them as parerga is not simply their exteriority as a surplus, it is the internal structural link which rivets them to the lack in the interior of the ergon” (p.59). In this sense, the frame sustains the meaning of any bordered space that, by nature, entails the exclusions of some forms of life from it. Moreover, it connects the “outside” with the internal space, making the latter dependent on the former. Finally, any frame involves a certain violence, through which it enables that partitions are made and that a regime of meaning and truth is legitimized. [↑]

40. Michel Foucault, “Useless of Revolt?”, in The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, vol. 3, Power, (New York: New Press, 2000): 449–53. [↑]

43. Casas-Cortes and others, “The New Keywords”, Cultural Studies.29.2.(2014): 81. [↑]

44. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: 21. On this point see also Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of Sex. (London: Routledge, 1993). [↑]

45. Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines. [↑]

46. By that I refer to the fact that may European citizens, especially from southern and Eastern Europe, have been affected by the economic crisis, in a way that their conditions and price of mobility  has been radically changed in the last five years. This entails both processes of “forced” mobility – people who move abroad to find a job – and conditions of “forced” immobility – namely, an increased difficulty for some people to find the economic means to move. The term migrantization helps to focus on the process of becoming a migrant – thus, de-essentializing the category of “migrant” – and to detach the migrant condition from an exclusively juridical dimension – that is, who is migrant and an irregular migrant according to the national laws. [↑]

47. Certainly, class differences contribute to crystallize and make relevant the differential level of being migrant, since for instance a Tunisian entrepreneur or a student coming from a rich family have much more possibilities and facilitation to get a touristic Visa to Europe than a Tunisian citizen who is unemployed. [↑]

48. Neilson, Brett, and Ned Rossiter. 2008. “Precarity as a Political Concept”. Open 17, A Precarious Existence. (Accessed 5 March 2015. [↑]

49. W.E. B. Dubois, The Soul of the Black Folks[↑]

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Martina Tazzioli has a PhD in Politics from Goldsmiths, University of London. After being postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oulu, she is currently at University of Aix-Marseille, LAMES, LabexMed and Queen Mary, University of London. She is in the editorial board of the journal Materialifoucaultiani and she is the author of Spaces of Governmentality. Autonomous Migration and the Arab Uprisings (2015) and co-editor of Foucault and the History of our Present (2015) and of Spaces in Migration. Postcards of a Revolution, (2013). She is member of Materialifoucaultiani editorial board (
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