Cemile Gizem Dinçer and Eda Sevinin: Migration, activist research, and the politics of location: An interview with Nicholas De Genova (part 2)

The second part of this interview with Nicholas De Genova 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.

The first part is published here and traces De Genova’s intellectual biography, the question of militant research, his work on migration in the United States, and his recent shift to research in Europe and collaborations with the European, especially Italian, school of autonomy of migration research.

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

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

Cemile Gizem Dinçer and Eda Sevinin: We can continue with the idea of “crisis” that has swept the debates on migration. Can you explain how you conceptualize the notion of crisis? Has anything changed in your conceptualization of “the crisis” or “the multiplicity of crises” over the past three years? What has happened in these three years, and, in the end, is this idea of crisis either normalized or just put aside altogether?

Nicholas De Genova: One of the things that clearly did change is that the sheer momentum or volume of the numbers of people who were crossing at the height of those events in 2015 presented European authorities and various formations of border policing with an urgent set of circumstances. And one form that that took was, for various countries, to deliberately disregard their own obligations to be the border police of Europe in favor of effectively looking the other way and allowing people to transit through their countries. So, one of the interesting things that happened was that the larger constellation of Europe became an uneven continuum of transit zones and transit countries. And that eventually meant there was also the installation of the hotspot regime and a whole variety of other sorts of mechanisms that were really about producing new kinds of blockages and new kinds of obstacles for those formations of human mobility.

The EU-Turkey deal was a monumental moment in that progression of events, because it began to reestablish an externalized regime whereby a whole series of countries would serve as de facto detention camps in the exterior of the EU. That would allow for the wider mobilities to be blocked or contained or at least decelerated. And, you know, the arrival of thousands of people at one time in various European train stations began to recede, and it no longer looked like quite the “crisis” that it had been. That of course doesn’t mean that migratory movements have subsided or stopped, but it does mean that—as bordering always is a reaction formation—there was a massive reaction that required a whole series of new ways to try, if not to completely block and impede, then at least to decelerate these mobilities. One of the most pernicious forms is the reliance on detention in Libya. So, you have detention camps in Libya that the apprehension of people there as so-called illegal migrants to Europe who have never set foot on European soil. This is really the continuation of a regime of border externalization that began quite a long time ago—long before the events of 2015—but which has been reestablished and reinforced.

So, in a sense, what you had was the declaration of “crisis”: the discursive production of crisis as the authorization of a certain kind of state of exception and state of emergency that, at that moment, served the ends of foreclosing various kinds of debates that might have arguably been about questions of social justice in relationship to migration, in favor of a completely unilateral, authoritarian sequence of bordering events that were meant to clamp down on that particular situation. But in that sense, what we have seen is a kind of renovation or revision of a regime that was already in place, and much as migrant and refugee mobilities were already there, much as the escalation in migrant and refugee deaths was already there as an established fact of the way that Europe produces its borders long before 2015, so also does all of this continue to be the case now. But from the standpoint of the power of the EU to enforce its borders, you needed a certain set of emergency measures that could address the particular sort of momentum in that moment.

One way to understand it is that moments of crisis are produced precisely in order to routinize and normalize emergency measures that then become the new normal, so to speak, the new way of functioning. I think that is largely what we have seen: the scaling down of the rhetoric of crisis in favor of a return to a sense of relative normalcy, where normalcy is itself a kind of convulsive reaction formation always trying to contend with the disruptions that are produced by precisely the things that state power can’t control, such as the manifestation and exercise of an elementary form of freedom that people engage in when they choose to cross borders, making a priority of their needs and disregarding the law. The state and the authorities have this continuous problem whereby state power has to restabilize itself; sovereignty has to be restabilized in this permanent convulsive reaction formation.

We have been talking about the conceptualization of the “freedom of movement.” Speaking of everything as a right, which can only finally be incorporated into citizenship or certain forms of citizenship, is a perspective that you rather challenge. You say that the freedom of movement is not a right, that it is instead an exercise or a practice, and an elementary feature of the human condition. Maybe you want to open this up: what do you mean by the proposition that freedom is an “exercise” or a “practice,” and then what is its difference from understanding mobility as a right? And how can this perspective open up new vistas to think about mobility, migration, and politics altogether? Does it provide us with fertile ground to change our political discourses and actions?

NDG: I hope so . . .

We, also . . .

NDG: I like to say that the stakes of this conversation about migration really are the question of whether a different world is possible. What is at stake for me, in any case, in thinking about migration on a global scale is precisely the question of whether we still dare to imagine that a different world is possible. In the long aftermath of the end of the Cold War, and the triumphalist declaration of the death of communism and so forth, it seems to me that people on the left in general have been disoriented by what for many seemed like a collapse of the possibility to defend the idea that we could imagine that things could be other than they are. There was a kind of incredible triumphalism about how capitalism—or more specifically, neoliberal capitalism—really was the only way that one could imagine a social life on a planetary scale.

So, I don’t believe that there is anything inherently emancipatory about migration or there is anything intrinsically liberatory about people crossing borders. But I do believe that what we see—regardless of what people may say or think when they migrate—what we see, objectively speaking, is an ever-increasing fact of migration on a global scale where people are putting their needs first and defying the constituted authority of the state and the sovereign power of the border regimes and the border police, and disregarding the law in favor of saying “human needs come first.” That for me is a radical opening for the possibility of imagining a different world—in an objective sense. We could say that this is one of the long-standing propositions of the autonomy of migration argument: that migration is a social movement, and perhaps also a political movement in a sense—not because it formulates in a programmatic sense or any explicit sense a specific politics or because we want to pretend that there is something specifically political about people’s vast array of different reasons for migrating. But the mere exercise of that elementary freedom to move means that we have a kind of conflict staged between human needs and desires and existing borders of the world. And that, for me, in an objective sense, represents a very interesting, exciting site for being able to theorize actually existing struggles—not imagining some scenario of struggle that we want to fantasize about, but theorizing what is actually happening right in front of our noses on an ever-increasing scale, on a global scale.

So, in that sense, it is the actual exercise, the actual practice of a kind of freedom, that I think of as elementary and, indeed, that I would defend as ontologically characteristic of what it means to be human. It is only apprehensible as “migration” if we take for granted the naturalness, inevitableness, or normalcy of a world constituted by territorially defined states that have borders to defend. And increasingly, migration can only be called that (“migration”) to the extent that we are describing a crossing of state borders. In that sense, these movements become apprehensible as migration, but what they really represent is an elementary mobility that is a facet of the relationship of the human species to the space of the planet. If we start with that premise—that what we are seeing is the manifestation and expression of the freedom of movement of the human species and the relationship of this species to the planet—then we see that the thing that is unnatural, the thing that is abnormal, the thing that is problematic is the fact of the organization of the world into territorially defined states that have borders to defend and borders to enforce. And then we’ll become focused on the real problem: the problem is not migration; the problem is the border; the problem is the state.

This has also partly answered the second part of the question—that migration activisms, in the forms of solidarities in Europe as well as in Turkey, are based on the specific notion of “right” instead of freedom. Maybe we can talk about this.

NDG: Yes, this was the second part of the question. So, I’d like to say that I don’t believe in rights. I think that we have no rights except those that we take and are ready to fight to defend. Any time we put our faith in the notion that we have any kind of rights, we become naively susceptible to the illusion that the state exists to protect us. It seems to me that all of the important lessons of history show the opposite.

Well, in Turkey, it is relatively different: on the one hand, no one in Turkey really believes in the protection role of the state; on the other hand, the political discourses are still built upon the idea of “right.”

NDG: Maybe, maybe not. Apparently, some people here are quite gleeful about the state. But, it is part of the mythology of our political modernity in a sense—and this is precisely reflected by the normativity and universality and modularity of the national form of the state—that the sovereignty of the modern state is understood to somehow derive from the nation, and the nation is supposed to represent, in a naturalized way, some kind of ready-made constituency, whereby the state can embody the will of the people and become the instrument for the expression of the will of the people. This presents us with the fantasy of some moment when we convened and engaged in a social contract and chose to hand over our freedom to the state, because we thought that we could be protected from one another’s freedoms by investing the state with that power to enforce the law.

So, it’s part of the mythology of modern state and of modern sovereignty that if we are constituted as its citizens, we somehow are equals before the law and that we live under the rule of law and that this means that we are rights-bearing subjects. But that means that it’s impossible to think of the question of rights and citizenship except in the ways that those are inscribed as a relationship to state power. If that’s the case, then it means that a preoccupation with rights and citizenship constantly operates in an uncritical way within this given set of assumptions and presuppositions of state power as we know it. I would prefer to imagine the question of freedom in a way that isn’t straightjacketed by the framework of rights and citizenship because from the standpoint of any migrant, who is a noncitizen, citizenship is an exclusionary thing, not an inclusionary thing.

So, the mythology is that citizenship is inclusionary, that it is egalitarian, that everyone is equal before the law. But, of course, the minute that we pose the question from the standpoint of migration, we recognize that these are actually technologies of exclusion and, on a global scale, are the means for instituting the partitioning of humanity. So, what happens if we begin to pose the questions from the standpoint of the relationship of the human species to the space of the planet, what happens if we begin to see movement across the space of the planet as the expression of an elementary freedom that is part of what it means to be human, rather than trying to reformulate these things as the kinds of rights that can be inscribed in some kind of larger economy of power, the regime of rights that is the foundation for sustaining the state as we know it? I think that one of the real dilemmas is that when people with radical politics revert to or resort to the language of rights, they, unwittingly, fall back into all of the complacencies of a liberal politics that takes for granted the legitimacy of the modern state and falls prey to certain kinds of illusions about bourgeois democracy, which, I don’t think, we can put our faith in.

You are totally right. However, there is always a dilemma between practice and theory. While our politics is based on the vision of a free world without borders, exploitation, and so on, we have often found ourselves advocating for the rights-based issues. For instance, if there were people who cannot access health services because they lack “papers,” we started to insist that health is a fundamental right for everyone. How is it possible to continue without falling into “rights discourse”?

NDG: Yes, I recognize that it sometimes presents itself as a real dilemma for practical politics, and again I think that we become conditioned to imagine that to make a demand, it has to be in the language of rights. And to some extent, that is a reaction of the fact that we are accustomed to making demands of those who exercise power over us and so we end up speaking their language. So, again, if we use the example of defying and subverting borders, which happens when people cross without authorization, without permission, if we use that example, then we see that no one needs to ask for a right, no one needs to make a demand, no one is appealing for mercy or clemency, but actually practicing a freedom—or exercising their freedom. So, we many times are engaged in practical struggles where we don’t necessarily have the means to lay claim to and appropriate the things that we need or desire; we find ourselves having to petition the authorities, and maybe then, for pragmatic purposes, we find ourselves also speaking in their language. But I think that we should never fall into the illusion that that’s an adequate way to understand what is at stake in our political practice. And again, the spirit of any truly radical politics has to always bear in mind that even when making various kinds of compromises that correspond to the practical circumstances in which we live, we have to retain an image of something else that might be possible and try to realize it through our practice. So, it’s one thing to say we’re hungry and you should feed us, and a different thing to find the way to feed ourselves.

That brings us to the question of authoritarianism. At present, we are living in a situation where political mobilizations are suppressed in the most violent ways. When you look through the window (İstiklal Street, Taksim), you can see a police barricade there, immediately. It’s pretty much the everyday of Istanbul. Especially in a place where anti-fascist movements don’t have the conditions of presence—in a place where political mobilizations are pretty much suppressed, and all the political technologies are actually serving to suppress the political mobilizations—what kind of a politics can be envisioned? Maybe this might be related not only to Turkey but also to Hungary and, to some extent, Poland, or to the United States under the Trump administration and many other places where people have started using terms like “illiberal democracy” and authoritarianism.

NDG: Well, as you acknowledge in the way you frame the question, we are both vexed by the same dilemmas. I don’t pretend to have a ready-made answer or a recipe. But it is indeed a global phenomenon that there is a kind of rising authoritarianism and an increasingly illiberal character to so-called democratic countries, which presents us with real challenges. I think that the only realistic way to tackle this problem is to think about where the places are that struggles are actually happening, at whatever scale—no matter how diminutive, we might say. Where are the places where struggles are happening, what are the forms they take, and how do they present one or another kind of occasion or opportunity for us to advance those struggles? I think we have to always critically assess where the possibilities exist and how to deepen them and radicalize them, as we have seen in many places, including in Turkey. Incredibly large-scale, massive insurgencies are possible when people don’t necessarily expect them or understand even where they are coming from. But certainly, galvanizing events can become flash points where a mass-scale disaffection and dissatisfaction with the existing order of things finds the way to manifest itself. But nonetheless, that’s based on something that’s going on beneath the surface, that is happening in the whole variety of very small-scale local settings long before it manifests itself as something on the scale of Taksim Square.

So then, the question is, how can we take account of the variety of places where we are meaningfully located and inhabit the reality of our specific circumstances in a way that deepens and extends the possibilities for struggle and the expression of our disaffection? I think that’s kind of always true. And it may seem more dire under current circumstances than not. But there is room for maneuver and there is room to be doing things even if they may not look as dramatic or as large-scale as we might desire. But that still has profound repercussions that then link up with the whole variety of other things that they touch upon. So, I think, if we actually talk about the state of things in the United States today, there is, right from the very beginning of Trump’s presidency, a remarkable and very intense energetic expression of the desire to resist. That doesn’t mean that it always finds the way to resist effectively, and that doesn’t mean that it sustains itself as a constant, visible presence on a massive scale, but there is a deep, deep antagonism that constitutes the other side of these authoritarian outrages. So, the question is how to continue to cultivate that.

As much as neoliberalism—authoritarianism—compels us to some sort of pessimism that things will never change ever again, although we know that political mobilizations have been present and continue existing: in Turkey’s case, it unfolds mostly in labor movements. With the state of emergency, all the labor strikes were banned immediately. And yet, we still see labor mobilizations against exploitation, against low wages, against the ban on unionization. Yes, you are right that things are happening.

NDG: Yes, it is understandable that you feel discouraged and pessimistic. And that’s not to say that that’s not a realistic and valid assessment of the situation. It is only to acknowledge that the ruling class is always class conscious; the ruling class is always struggling; the ruling class is always trying to find the way to respond to the insurgencies that arise against it in order to contain them. So, there is a way that capital and the state are always reactive—but reacting in a way that also has the luxury of an acute conscientiousness and sensitivity to their own interests.

And yet, it depends on what your perspective is. If you came into political consciousness under these circumstances—or something like these circumstances—you see the eruption of something like Gezi, you think, “Wow, things really are possible! Things I could have never dreamed of are possible.” That’s part of it. There is this kind of uneven, continuous, constant ebb and flow of the different manifestations of a struggle which is permanent—permanent only as long as we continue to exist under the domination of capital. Then we will, inevitably, continue to confront the ways that various expressions of mass discontent have to be contained, controlled, subordinated, and suppressed. Because that’s what is necessary for the existing order of things to continue. So, until that changes, we will always see these kinds of episodes of greater repression, more authoritarianism, and greater quiescence, that is to say, retreat from struggle in various ways that may seem discouraging. But that doesn’t mean that it is the end of the story. It only means that things are more quiet, because what can be done under these conditions happens in ways that are less visible and less flamboyant.

Long, long process . . .

NDG: Historically, we have been witnesses to some pretty horrific things, but we are still here.

Right . . . You talked about it generally, but to sum up, what can be the methodology or the way in which to construct an alternative way of approaching migration while the whole of academia, researchers, everyone is dominated by this mainstream, policy-oriented research, forgetting the political subject position of refugees.

NDG: I don’t know if you have seen, earlier this year, I published with Glenda Garelli and Martina Tazzioli a coauthored introduction to a special issue which formulates the question of the “autonomy of asylum” (De Genova et al. 2018). We pose the question of the autonomy of migration as a framework through which to problematize refugee studies and the question of asylum. It is related to this question about whether the refugees are allowed to be subjects or only the objects of someone else’s protection, someone else’s compassion, and the ways in which the minute that they manifest some kind of autonomous subjectivity, then they become suspects; they become dubious refugees, suspected migrants.

You were saying earlier that there is this kind of obsession with the question of integration.


NDG: I feel that that’s also been the hegemonic perspective in the US as well. For a much longer history, the question of “immigration,” as it is called in the US context, became an object of sociological inquiry starting in the early twentieth century and became the fixture of the dominant sociology in a way that institutionalized and became a kind of academic expression of what were in fact the preoccupations of the state. So, then, it becomes a kind of intellectual straightjacket where the only question you can ask about migration, or migrants, is whether they are assimilating and how well. This has always been a dominant theme in the US sociology of migration. In the US context, one of the central tenets of US nationalism is to celebrate the idea that it is a country of immigration. Then, immigration has a special fetish power in the US, which is that it allows the US to congratulate itself with the idea that it really is a choice-worthy place. It allows itself to reinscribe the myth that this is a land of opportunity, this is a refuge of liberty, everybody in the world wants to come and become an American. So, there is a particularly nationalistic way in which the question of assimilation in the US sociology of migration is always more or less tied to a still more revealing term, which is Americanization. It really is about the reinscription of nationalistic conceits into research that otherwise pretends to be objective.

So then the question is, can we produce a critical migration studies that poses its questions in a way that doesn’t start from premises of the state, that doesn’t ask questions with the mind set of the bureaucrats who serve the state, and instead pose the questions from the standpoint of migrants and migration? That means that we can begin to ask different questions.

I think that one of the problems that’s posed is that the whole discourse of integration is really about the presumptive legitimacy of the nationalist project. It takes for granted in a way that it is unquestionable that a migrant newcomer to the space of this particular nation-state is here “at the pleasure of the state and its citizens.” So, there is a deep nativism that I detect as the essential identity politics of every nationalism. And when I say nativism, I don’t mean, in any simplistic sense, xenophobia; I mean precisely “native-ism”—the promotion of the priority of natives on no other ground than their being natives. The promotion of the priority and prerogatives of natives on no other grounds than their identity as natives. But, of course, the question of who is the native of the nation becomes a controversial one once we dig in to really to examine it. But it is the work of every nationalism to produce the People in its own image. Rather than this notion that the state is produced in the image of the people, it is actually the people that is produced in the image of the state. Every nationalism has this work of inscribing the population with the characteristics of a national People and constituting us as its natives in one way or another. That means that there is a kind of nativist assumption that’s always at work when the question regarding migrants is “what can they do for us?” or “what shall we do with them?” And I think that’s at the center of whole preoccupation with integration: “How well can they become like us?” That “us and them” assumption is always constantly being reinstated and fixed in place through that question. It also means that migrants are held up to some more or less stringent set of criteria and eligibility requirements, if not impossibilities, for satisfying the demands of some kind of membership which the citizens or the state authorize themselves to permit or disallow. But if we pose the question from the point of view of the migrants, then everything looks different. And it seems to me the only way to do critical migration studies is actually to situate research in conversation, in collaboration, with the lived experiences and standpoint of the migrants, from their experience of migration, and what it can teach us about the larger social and political formation in which migrants find themselves and in which we as researchers also find ourselves.

Thank you very much for this lively and insightful conversation.

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.


De Genova, Nicholas, Glenda Garelli, and Martina Tazzioli. 2018. “Autonomy of Asylum? The Autonomy of Migration Undoing the Refugee Crisis Script.” South Atlantic Quarterly 117 (2): 239–265.

Cite as: Dinçer, Cemila Gizem, and Eda Sevinin. 2018. “Migration, activist research, and the politics of location: An interview with Nicholas De Genova (part 2).” Focaalblog, 14 November. www.focaalblog.com/2018/11/14/cemile-gizem-dincer-and-eda-sevinin-migration-interview-with-nicholas-de-genova-part-2.