Cemile Gizem Dinçer and Eda Sevinin: Migration, activist research, and the politics of location: An interview with Nicholas De Genova (part 1)

In Turkey, especially after the Syrians’ arrival following 2011, the field of migration studies has more or less confined itself to mainstream discussions such as integration, social cohesion, data collection, and so on. At this point, the work of Nicholas De Genova and the wider literature on the autonomy of migration open up a new horizon for discussing migration. De Genova has had a decisive influence in shaping our approach to migration and borders. We hope that this interview, conducted in Istanbul when Nicholas attended the conference “Migration, Social Transformation and Differential Inclusion in Turkey,” will be read across Turkey and make his work accessible to students, activists, and everyone interested in migration. We had a long conversation on topics ranging from the recent “refugee crisis” and alternative ways to think about migration and politics, activism, and academia in general.

The first part of this interview traces De Genova’s intellectual trajectory, his work on migration in the US and European contexts, his methodological approach, and his intellectual collaborations with the school of autonomy of migration. The second part,  published here, moves into an analysis of the so-called refugee crisis since 2015 and possibilities for militant academic research that challenges the increasingly hard-right consensus in Europe and beyond.

Amsterdam, 2016 (© M. Rodriguez).

Nicholas De Genova, a scholar of migration, borders, race, citizenship, and labor, in Amsterdam, 2016 (© M. Rodriguez).

Cemile Gizem Dinçer and Eda Sevinin: So, we would like to start with your story. How did you become interested in migration and critical migration studies?

Nicholas De Genova: I became involved in migration studies because I was first involved in activist politics with migrants. It was not a politics that was specifically about migration; it just happened that I was involved in activist work, from when I was quite young, with people who were migrants from Mexico. And that experience began to reshape my conception of my own politics. I was very interested in questions of class and race in the United States, and in the course of these kinds of activist engagements, I began to understand that the experience of my migrant comrades was one that could challenge many taken-for-granted assumptions, you know, even in the ways that people thought about radical politics. Another way to answer your question is to say that the dramatic escalation in migration from Mexico to Chicago (which was the city where I was born and raised) coincided with my life—coincided more or less with my birth. So, this means that I grew up in a city that historically had been, in racial terms, understood primarily to be a white and black city, and in the course of my own lifetime, it became more and more important that Mexican migrants became the primary figure in a kind of transformation of the racial landscape, and became a very important kind of third term in the dominant understandings of race in the city. So, I arrived at migration studies in a way that is really about the intersection of my own personal biography with the social context in which I was growing up. The questions of migration emerged as important ones for me politically first, and then they began to guide how I approached applying to a PhD program. So, when I applied to do a PhD, the project that I proposed grew directly out of my activist work. Then for a brief moment I started to play with other possibilities, thinking about other possible projects, but came around very quickly to recognize that this was really the project I was most committed to, and that I was most implicated in, and so that history of activism and the intellectual questions that arose from those activist engagements then defined the first part of my academic career.

Then how do you link your activism with academia?

NDG: Well, for me the choice to be an academic was a way to continue to be engaged as an intellectual with a certain kind of radical political commitment. And my choice to become an academic, in many ways, might have been relatively naive—because you sort of imagine that you have more freedom as an academic than you do. But nonetheless it was the decision to pursue a career that would allow me to continue to pursue these questions and concerns as the centerpiece of what I would spend most of my time doing. And in that way I would say it was always the commitments of my radical politics that guided many choices I made as an intellectual, which therefore guided many choices that I made as an academic. But, of course, as I say, I discovered in the course of making an academic career that there are many ways in which that is a process of professionalization—a process of becoming subjected to various kinds of institutions—and you are presented with all kind of conflicts and contradictions arising from being materially and practically implicated in the university system and making a career there. So, of course it’s not simple, it’s not straightforward, it’s not easy to balance those kinds of political commitments; it’s only to say that for me the choice to be an academic was always one that came about through commitments that had to do with being an intellectual engaged in radical politics.

It is pretty much what we have been discussing when we try to negotiate our own places in academia as well. We think that militant research or activist research, as we call it, is sort of a way in which you can negotiate your place in academia, or with academia in its most institutionalized form. Maybe you call tell us about what kind of methodology you are suggesting for activist or militant research, and what are the implications?

NDG: I have written a little bit on this subject, because it was part of an ongoing dialogue with people for whom this category “militant research” is a much more established one. In a way, my relationship to that debate is less dogmatic, or it is less entrenched in a particular kind of position, because for me any kind of research requires that you make a choice. Any kind of research means that you are implicated in substantive ways in terms of your social and political standing in relationship to research you do. And in that sense, I feel that it’s not so much a question of embracing some kind of concept of “militant research” or some kind of methodology that we might give a special name; rather it’s about choosing to be a militant and then choosing to do research.

That is to say, you make choices about your political commitments independently of the question of doing research. It might be possible in certain kinds of activist contexts and campaigns that one formulates a research project that is driven by the preoccupations of that activism. But in a more general sense, if we are in academia and we are doing research, then it seems to me that’s always political—and then the question is: what politics do you defend, what politics do you stand by? I think the deeper question is that we have to account for the politics of our work, regardless of whether or not we want to fashion it as specifically activist or specifically militant. In other words, I think that so-called mainstream research is as political as anything that I would do. Part of the problem is that certain kinds of research are branded as “political,” “militant,” or “activist” in a way that serves to marginalize them or stigmatize them or insinuate that they somehow are less legitimate because they are somehow less objective. But I think that this myth of objectivity is actually a deep and central problem for social science in general. The commitment to some kind of abstract notion of objectivity is actually a commitment to objectification. And the deeper question is: where do we stand as subjects in relationship to other subjects, and how do we understand the research endeavor as one which is an intersubjective kind of engagement and encounter that could be a collaboration? And in that sense, you could say that this is a formulation of a kind of “militant” or “activist” research, but for me that’s a kind of unnecessary way of qualifying our research, because it should be an elementary way to understand how we do any legitimate research: that its objectivity actually is achieved by producing a forthright and honest account of its own material and practical conditions of possibility, which includes, of course, an honest account of how the researcher is positioned socially and politically in relationship to it.

Maybe we can switch to the autonomy of migration—how has it unfolded, what does it offer, and why is such an intervention is needed?

NDG: In a way it’s a funny question for me to have to address because that concept was first formulated in the European context, but there were a variety of activist-scholars or scholar-activists who were engaged in a debate around the question of migration as a political concern for radical politics that emerged in different places, in a more or less parallel fashion. So, of course, in Italy and in Germany in particular, there was an important debate around these questions. And I, coming from the US, had no particular relationship to those things, but early on, it was recognized that there was an affinity between things that I was arguing in my work and the work that people were doing within the framework of those debates around the autonomy of migration. So, I was invited by Sandro Mezzadra to have something I had written translated into Italian, which was included in an edited volume. That became the beginning of this long and fruitful collaboration with him—and not only with him, but also with a whole network of people associated with these ideas. So, in that sense we could say that some of the emphases in my work grew out of similar political starting points and a similar set of political activist preoccupations, which meant that there was a kind of natural affinity between the work that I was doing already, in some sense relatively alone in the US context, and the work that people were generating in Europe, oftentimes in a more collaborative and collective way.

One of the preoccupations that motivated that debate in the European context was to challenge the notion of “fortress Europe” and the dominant imagination of European borders and immigration policies as being purely about exclusion. And so the idea of “differential inclusion” was formulated in a way to account for the ways in which migrants were in fact becoming more and more a central part of European life and presenting new kinds of questions about labor, about class formation, and ultimately about the politics of racism in the European context. In a different sense, the concept of the autonomy of migration provided a way for people based in Europe to confront the questions of postcoloniality as these questions were presenting themselves as open-ended and unresolved conflicts in the European social context. So, those concerns were coming out of an autonomous Marxist tradition associated with the idea of the autonomy of labor, which was being reformulated as the autonomy of migration now that that tradition was confronted with the specific question of migrant labor. In those European debates, there were important affinities between their concerns and mine that, over time—and particularly as I found myself located in Europe—meant that we had a great deal to share and think about together. In that sense, long before I ever came to call it the autonomy of migration (which for me was indeed a response to dialogues with colleagues in the European context), I was nonetheless formulating ideas based on my work related to Mexican migration to the US that had strong correspondences and analogies with this question of the socially transformative potentialities of migration, and the ways in which migrant labor presented an important site for asking elementary questions about class politics, as well as racial politics.

Although your earlier work focused on the US context, your more recent work is relocated to the European context, and it has somehow coincided with so-called refugee crisis in 2015, but we can come to that later; why did you relocate yourself to Europe in terms of research? Because the US context has not really stopped raising urgent concerns for migration research—it’s all still happening there and even getting worse.

NDG: I don’t think that I ever left the US in terms of research. I always have continued to maintain to a certain degree my involvement with research related more directly to the US, but as I found myself located physically and professionally in Europe, it arose naturally that I would pay more and more attention to those same kinds of social and political questions there, because I have always been deeply interested in being engaged with the place where I am most directly implicated, where I am located. The work that I did first was literally situated in the city where I had spent my whole life, and then later it took a new turn in the aftermath of events of 11 September 2001, a turn in the direction of what I call the “metaphysics of antiterrorism” and the rise of the Homeland Security state in the US. I dedicated a fair amount of time and energy to those questions, which in many ways were always, at the core, about the same basic topics: my work continued to be about the politics of migration, citizenship, and race, and more specifically it was still about the politics of migrant “illegality,” deportation and deportability, but it increasingly also came to then be a concern with the question of detention, as all of these things were reconfigured in the context of the so-called War on Terror. So again, you could sort of see how on the one hand the central preoccupations in my work have always been the same in all these contexts, but in different historical moments and confronted with new kinds of circumstances or in different places.

Regarding Europe as a question for research, I mean, I found myself increasingly engaged in a variety of conversations in the European context about migration and about borders because of the ways that colleagues there were taking up some of the concepts and theoretical perspectives of my work. But then, one of the enduring preoccupations of my work is about race and racism, and it seemed to me that there was always a kind of deficiency in the ways in which people tended to think about these concerns in the European context, so that became more and more of a kind of an insistent feature of my work about Europe. I felt that work related to migration in Europe needed to be much more widely and radically engaged with the question of race and racism because in the European context, migration serves as a proxy for race: you don’t need to ever say the word “race” because as long as you speak about “migrants,” it is presumed that this is already a kind of racialized subject, and yet one that then cannot be systematically interrogated and debated because there is so little recourse to “race” as an analytical concept.

So, you end up with an anti-racism without race, which ensures that it is always an anemic kind of anti-racism. As I say, people in the European context were working with ideas that I developed around migration and borders in the US context and were inviting me into new conversations, so I very quickly and easily became interested in and focused on the European context, but I also wanted to bring something new and more urgent into those conversations, which ultimately means that I’ve formulated a question about Europe itself. When I invoke what I call “the ‘European’ Question,” I contend that the very meaning of “Europe” is at stake and in question: What is “Europe”? Where is “Europe”? Who is “European”? What can be considered “European”? These are not only my questions as a “non-European” but questions that plague Europe and Europeans more and more. The “European” Question is centrally a question about race and postcoloniality, but one that really arises in a new way from the constitutive impact of migration in the contemporary context.

Maybe you want to expand a bit more on what do you mean by “the ‘European’ Question” and its relation to Europe as a postcolonial space.

NDG: For someone who is not from Europe, it is always a remarkable thing to see the apparent ease with which Europeans engage collectively in a kind of willful forgetting of the colonial legacy, which after all is the only way to understand the historical production of the power, wealth, and prestige of Europe. So, for hundreds of years, colonialism was the source and the foundation for producing European wealth, power, and prestige, and yet there is this kind of remarkable postcolonial historical amnesia, as we might call it, but ultimately it is probably more accurate to say that it is kind of willful forgetting—a desire and deliberate effort to somehow reimagine Europe as in the center of its own history. That has profound implications for the ways in which people debate the question of migration because there is such a stubborn insistence on presenting migration as a kind of intrusion, as a kind of undesired and mysteriously unanticipated arrival of people from other places who carry with them all the troubles and all the presumed pathologies of those seemingly distant “elsewheres” that in fact, just a short while before historically, were understood to belong to Europe. These migrations and refugee movements and the conditions that have produced them are to a very great and substantial extent the products of European power. So, that implicatedness of Europe in the entire configuration of the world as we know it, and the kind of radical inequalities that distinguish the world as we know it—that implicatedness of Europe in the greater global scene of postcolonial misery—is the only way to begin to understand the relationship of migrants (who are so often from precisely those places that were formerly colonized by Europe) to a kind of historical claim to the space of Europe and the wealth of Europe, which itself was produced by the people in the colonies. George Orwell once made the point that the great majority of the European working class didn’t live in Europe, and this was true literally for centuries.

In a way, then, this postcolonial perspective requires us to completely reimagine what might be at stake in thinking about any kind of socialist vision for a different society. What can class politics mean? What can it mean to think about a radical politics of labor in the European context without beginning from those historical starting points? In that sense, it seems to me that there is a kind of immediacy and urgency about questions of migration and the questions of postcoloniality in the European context that frequently go unremarked and silenced. And so, to call it “the European Question” was a deliberate provocation. Because, it is modeled on the “Jewish Question,” or the “Negro Question” or the “Nationalities Question” or the “Woman Question”—where these famous “questions” were always ways of formulating one or another sort of problem, so to speak, in the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century history of various social movements. So now circumstances compel us to pose a new question regarding the thing that is the most normative in the European context—the very question of Europe and who is European—now explicitly and expressly reformulated as a problem. Indeed, the evidence is all around us that this is a very vexing question for the Europeans themselves: they are completely preoccupied with trying to understand what Europe is and what Europe can be, who is European, who cannot be European. And these are in a sense institutionalized questions at the heart of the project of European integration and harmonization, at the heart of the project of the EU. But to name it as a problem and to pose the question about Europe then allows us to reconnect to precisely what Europe has been as a way to understand what it is and what it can or cannot be.

The so-called refugee or migrant crisis of 2015 in Europe, which was also a crisis of Europe—do you think this whole process was effective in making Europe reflect anew on the questions that you just posed?

NDG: Well, in the most immediate sense, we can say that the autonomy of various migrant and refugee mobilities that came together in a particularly forceful way starting in 2015 instigated a crisis for the European border regime, which is to say, it was a crisis of control, a crisis of sovereignty. And insofar as that’s the case, then, it means that the very project of European unification and integration, the very project of the EU, was sent into its own kind of crisis precisely because what was bluntly exposed in the course of these events were the inequalities among different European member states—the variety of ways in which some European states were being made serve as the border patrol guards to insulate the wealthiest European countries from the migrant and refugee arrivals, and so on. So, you have a whole series of institutional arrangements that have been put in place over the bigger part of 10 or 15 or 20 years that solidified certain hierarchies within the European context and compelled the complicity and compliance of the less powerful and less wealthy European countries, now confronted with something that none of them could control or manage, which was this incredible demonstration of sheer force of human mobility and the disruptive power that came with the autonomy of migration. The internal relations among different member states of the EU—as well as the relationship of the EU to its so-called neighborhood, the surrounding countries—meant that the “crisis” of Europe’s borders really was experienced in an intense way for the people who authorized themselves to speak as Europe and for Europe: it really presented them with a real crisis of their own identity and their own sense of what their project is.

So, there is no question in my mind that the so-called migrant crisis, or refugee crisis, was, above all, a crisis of European identity and of European political and economic power. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that anyone has been prepared to engage that question in a self-reflexive and critical way. So, we see all varieties of ways in which there are competing claims on the part of the various contenders for power and influence within dominant European politics, competing claims with respect to the best strategy and tactics for bordering Europe—or rather, rebordering Europe—insulating Europe from these global crises in which Europe itself has been a very central player. But unfortunately, I don’t think that the kind of critical questions that I am asking about the identity of “Europe” and “Europeanness” have been very widely engaged.

As a result of the events that are called the “migrant crisis” or the “refugee crisis,” we instead have seen a kind of reactionary re-entrenchment—in the sense that the most important, the most urgent task for European authorities is to figure out how to expel as many people as possible or to kind of recalibrate and reconfigure the mechanisms for various sorts of exclusion and insulation. Consequently, we’ve had all sorts of new innovations with respect to the ways that the borders could be re-externalized, whereby border policing could be outsourced again to junior partners, to countries such as Turkey. On the other hand, we have also seen the internalization of bordering—the proliferation and the rebordering of Europe in a way that really made many commentators start calling into question whether the Schengen arrangement—and specifically, the notion of free mobility within Europe—was itself at an end, and revisiting whether the ideal of a Europe without internal borders is at all viable given that all these different European nation-states were reinstituting borders and border controls. I think, inevitably, the events that are associated with the so-called migrant and refugee crisis have created a whole series of ramifications that constantly instigate and provoke a certain set of anxious preoccupations about the question of Europe. But that’s a different thing than asking the critical question about “Europe” as such, which, I think, is at stake in finally reckoning with the harvest of empire.

Nicholas De Genova is a scholar of migration, borders, race, citizenship, and labor. He is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston. In addition to his influential books—Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship (2003), Working the Boundaries: Race, Space and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago (2005), Racial Transformations: Latinos and Asians Remaking the United States (2006), The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement (2010), and The Borders of “Europe”: Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering (2017)—he has published several dozens of articles and book chapters. His works have also found a wide readership among nonacademic audiences and activists.

Cemile Gizem Dinçer is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Middle East Technical University, where she completed her master’s in Women and Gender Studies and studied the migrant domestic workers from Georgia in Turkey. Her research interests include gender, asylum, borders, migration, and domestic labor. She has worked in various projects on migration and has been a member of various activist groups.

Eda Sevinin is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at Central European University. Her PhD project focuses on the Islamic humanitarian networks working with refugees in Turkey and their role in the reproduction of the category of “refugee” in Turkey’s migration regime.

Cite as: Dinçer, Cemila Gizem, and Eda Sevinin. 2018. “Migration, activist research, and the politics of location: An interview with Nicholas De Genova (part 1).” Focaalblog, 12 November. www.focaalblog.com/2018/11/12/cemile-gizem-dincer-and-eda-sevinin-migration-interview-with-nicholas-de-genova-part-1.