Reflections | The Long Baking Process of History: Changing Narratives of the Nation

As the Conservative Party conference opens in Manchester today, Immigration is likely to be a main theme, with UKIP in the role of Banquo’s ghost. Roger Bromley explores the ways in which ‘ethnic boundaries’ are increasingly being ‘heated into significance’, as questions of sovereignty are talked up as a major political distraction from the real economic and social problems facing the country.

New in Ceasefire, Reflections - Posted on Sunday, September 29, 2013 14:51 - 0 Comments

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In Europe there is a war on immigration. It is a war fuelled by the territorial imagination and carried out by extremely vulnerable sovereign nations. 11,000 Africans have lost their lives since 1982 in attempting to reach the borders of Europe; in 2000, 58 Chinese men and women were found suffocated to death in a container lorry on arrival at Dover; in 2004, 23 Chinese men and women were drowned in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire, while searching for cockles at night. Harassed, bullied and humiliated by their fellow, white workers, this was the only time they felt safe to work. In the first four months of 2011, 1500 migrants from North Africa, in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’, drowned trying to reach European coasts. Many hundreds of other instances could be added to these, but the point that I am making is that each one was killed by the territorial imagination.

The territorial imagination is produced by ideologies of nation or, more precisely, the quartet of birth, territoriality, nation, state upon which concepts of national sovereignty and citizenship are constructed:

The doctrine of nationalism which crystallized in 1848 gives a geographic imperative to the concept of culture itself: habit, faith, pleasure, ritual – all depend upon enactment in a particular territory. More, the place which nourishes rituals is a place composed of people like oneself, people with whom one can share without explaining. Territory thus becomes synonymous with identity. (Sennett, 2011: 58)

Out of this was born ‘the territorial imagination’, the concept of an authentic national identity with the outsider as ‘inauthentic’. I have not time here to explore authenticity but it is a crucial part of border rhetoric and imagery. In the formulation ‘the British people’, for example, the ‘people’ are not explained or defined because, as Sennett argues, ‘they just are’.

It is this geographic idea of culture which, in some ways, shapes UKIP and partly accounts for its recent emergence as a serious contender in British electoral politics. There is some evidence that it derives considerable support from a generation which grew up in the 1940s and 1950s (my own generation), at a time when Empire Day was still celebrated in schools, the extensive amount of red on maps of the world was seen as positive, men fought wars and went out to work while women brought up children and cleaned the house, homosexuals were ‘poofs’ and ‘nancy boys’, and people knew their place. Most people lived in towns and villages where they would never see a non-white face from one year’s end to the next, and the only foreigners worked in Italian or Chinese restaurants. This is, admittedly, a crude sketch (embodied in the recently UKIP MEP defector, Godfrey Bloom perhaps) but, to a certain extent, it did shape group identities and affiliations which were seen as eternal and unchangeable signifiers of Britishness, bolstered by the very recent memory of the defeat of Germany in the second world war. Being white, male and heterosexual were seen as ‘natural’ and, above all, as normal, a recurring trope of that time. You worked hard, you paid your taxes, and you looked out for your family. Honesty and decency were values you lived by. It was a moment just prior to decolonization and it is interesting to speculate whether the end of an empire predicated upon exploitation of, and contempt for, that inferior ‘other’ has left, what might be called, a ‘mentality gap’, a psychological phenomenon which sees an independent United Kingdom as a form of imperial self, no longer in need of colonies, but which satisfies its desire to constantly renew a lost cultural narrative by incarnating the immigrant as that once-despised colonial ‘other’.

At the time, and even today, it was hard to unpick such inviolable identities, to show them in their class, race and gender particularity as fabrications or to point out the disparities which they concealed. As Foucault argues, these formations were ‘undoubtedly the sort of error that cannot be refuted  because it was hardened in an unalterable form in the long baking process of history’ (Foucault, 144). To simply mock UKIP and its supporters would be counter-productive  as its current prominence needs to be seen in a historical perspective, from what Foucault calls a genealogical standpoint:

Where the soul pretends unification or the self fabricates a coherent identity, the genealogist sets out to study the beginnings – numberless beginnings whose faint traces and hints of colour are readily seen by an historical eye. The analysis of descent permits the dissociation of the self, its recognition and displacement as an empty synthesis, in liberating a profusion of lost events. (145)

We need, therefore, to do the work of cultural analysis, to dissociate the UKIP ‘self’ by applying an ‘historical eye’ to the emergence of its ideological roots in ‘the long baking process of history’, to adopt Foucault’s wonderful phrase. Simply to take it on in its own terms would be self-defeating as politically  we need to liberate debates around immigration, for example, from the generational ‘memory’ of that long moment prior to the 1960s which I have tried to outline. This is not to argue that the ‘memory’ is false as it is felt viscerally, embodied in habit, disposition, and ritual, but that it is, above all,a  partial narrative, which has its belonging in a specific temporal formation, while claiming to be the whole story.

The concept of the unified nation – ‘our way of life’ – simply reflects this idea of an unalterable essence, rather than being seen as the construction that it is. It is a powerful fiction – a fiction of power – which impacts upon the asylum seeker and the immigrant more generally, always conscious of being out of place, displaced from his or her territory. The immigrant not only exposes the fiction of sovereignty but also the fiction – the fixed notion – of belonging. S/he is a figure of time and movement, not of place.

On this basis, citizenship and identity become categories of and for inclusion/belonging. For example, British politicians frequently refer to ‘our island story’. The island is only notionally territorial in this usage; it is more a cultural and ideological narrative: it is a code for heritage and a ‘white’ heritage at that. At a time when the ‘British’ narrative is ceasing to make sense, cohere, motivate, or hold people together at the economic, social, or political level, it is being re-assembled symbolically/discursively on a negative construction of immigration. This is true also for a number of other countries in Europe where Far Right parties are gaining prominence on the basis of opposition to immigration. The immigrant is mapped against an already existing, fixed, and (so the story goes) socially cohesive national culture – the symbols, stories and legends of the deeper normative notions and images that underlie, what Taylor calls, the ‘social imaginary’, those once-common understandings and a widely-shared shared sense of legitimacy produced by the conversion and transformation processes brought about by nineteenth and twentieth century hegemony – a partly conscious, partly unconscious repertoire.

In Gunter Grass’s memorable formulation, immigrants‘become irritants to the rigid orders of the self’, and as Soguk claims, ‘In this way, refugees help remake the languages in which the narratives of the citizenry, national community, and territorial state are told.’ They, or more generally immigrants as a whole, help to sublimate internal anxiety, fragmentation and fragility at a time when governments lack the prescriptive power to inscribe what is an increasingly empty and obsolescent national imaginary as the social state has yielded to the globalized, market-state.

The post Cold War period has seen the ‘dismantling of ideological, political, social and identification reference points’ (Laïdi, 1998: 2)), readily available dichotomous symbolic forms, and, as a consequence, the nation has come up against the limits of its being and meaningfulness, its representational currencies; what in psychoanalysis would be called its ‘narcissistic self-enclosure’, hence the preoccupation with borders and security. There is a crisis at the boundary of articulation as there is no longer a national narrative or symbolic vocabulary available that can produce discursive solidarity. Is national identity only now possible in a continuous state of emergency (levels of alert) where a threat has to be constantly imagined by its citizens so that a form of self-enclosure can be validated.

In short, we are witnessing a renewing of the cultural script of nationalisms (core values): a restoring/a restorying which is also an act of narrative foreclosure as far as the unbelonging are concerned.Hence the frequent reference to borders and border security. Borders here mean literally the limits of a nation’s sovereignty but they also refer to those borders which help to construct the cultural, social and national imaginary. Immigration control has come to occupy a central position in discourse about the identity of the country, as well as other issues relating to security and citizenship.

What the immigrant challenges is the dominant vocabularies and image resources circulated and referenced by the state, and its mediating agencies, to anchor its, perhaps limited, power in a culture of entitlement and identity. An anxious state is strategically displacing its insecurities onto the ‘always already’ displaced and seeking to renew and replenish the weakened territorial imagination of its increasingly alienated citizens.

European governments talk up the nation and the national through a rhetoric of ‘core values’ but also, and more importantly, use the concept of sovereignty – a key feature of UKIP populist discourse – to re-seal and control their borders while, at the same time, exercising the prerogative of determining who to exempt and who to include in their territory.

As Dalal has shown, ‘Differences between groups of people turn into ethnic boundaries only when heated into significance by the identity investment of the other side.’(Dalal, 2002: 24) Identity investment, I shall argue, is at the root of the need to exclude and the politics of securitization and is made even more urgent by the loss of meaningful symbols. As Mirzhoeff argues, ‘the current moment of globalization is… based upon a reactionary redefinition of identity that, from the point of view of government, requires new modes of surveillance and internment.’ (Mirzhoeff, 2004: 137).

Dalal goes on to define the issue in this fashion:

The fact that there is the constant danger of the imaginary “us” dissolving into the “them” resulting in another kind of “us” and “them”, sets off two interlinked anxieties. The first is a profound existential anxiety that comes about as one starts to feel the sense of self dissolving, and so is resisted. The second anxiety is evoked by the potential loss, dilution or disruption of access to the vortices of power and status. (24)

As Kevin Foster suggests, the asylum seeker, and the migrant, have an unsettling effect on the ‘settled’, particularly those who feel dispossessed, marginalized or dislocated in the contemporary situation:

The asylum seekers and migrants who flock to Britain more and more often evoke from the locals not a sublime sense of their own well-being but an uncomfortable flash of recognition as disoriented, bewildered and afraid they look in vain for shelter and succour, for the support of a lost family, the comforts of a forgotten society and the values of a vanished world. (Foster, 2006: 683-691)

In similar vein, Vittorio Longhi speaks of how: ‘In our knowledge economy, we now have a whole generation living in frustration and uncertainty, because of casual work and general insecurity, and because of spreading unemployment in the absence of former unemployment’ (Longhi, 2013: ix). By a strange kind of transference, the UKIP ‘generation’ has taken on the frustration and uncertainty of the generation to which Longhi refers and adopted its precariousness as a rallying cry for the world  they have lost.

Until perhaps as late as the end of the Cold war, Britain embodied the essence of a liberal democracy, outlined by Benhabib: ‘Not only politically, but theoretically as well, the incorporation and acceptance of immigrants, aliens and foreigners into liberal democracies touch upon fundamental normative and philosophical problems concerning the modern nation-state system’. (Benhabib, 2002:160). As Benhabib also argues:‘The virtues of liberal democracies do not consist in their capacities to close their borders but in their capacities to hear the claims of those who, for whatever reason, knock at our doors’ (Benhabib, 171) For some time now, it has been clear that closing borders has assumed primacy over such ’claims’, mainly because to continue to behave in accordance with the precepts of liberalism leaves governments in danger of losing their constituencies of power. The Swiss government, for example, under pressure from the Right, has not only banned the building of any further minarets, but has also introduced (after 2006) a stringent set of immigration rules which are distinctly illiberal.

The liberal dilemma referred to is at the core of much current political discourse: ’Defining the identity of the sovereign nation is itself a process of fluid, open, and contentious public debate: the lines separating “we” and “you”, “us” and “them”, more often than not rest on unexamined prejudices, ancient battles, historical injustices, and sheer administrative fiat’. (Benhabib, 177). By allowing immigrants to be used as a means of reinforcing unexamined prejudices, the lines of separation referred to by Benhabib are very firmly re-inscribed with the result that public debate ceases to be fluid and open but is subject to authoritarian closure. The negatively signified become the focus of contention – they are always narrated as a ‘problem’ or ‘threat’ – not debate itself. Definitions are imposed by default and ’transference’.

As Seyla Benhabib says, ’The rights of foreigners and aliens, whether they be refugees or guest workers, asylum seekers or adventurers, indicate that threshold, that boundary, at the site of which the identity of “we, the people” is defined and renegotiated, bounded and unravelled, circumscribed or rendered fluid’. (177)

To sum up thus far, in Soguk’s words: ‘Regime practices, while purportedly concentrating on the problem of the refugee/asylum seeker, thus work not so much to “solve” the “refugee problem” as to utilize those bodies marked as refugees in order to stabilize various territorialized relations, institutions, and identities that afford the state its reason for being’ (Soguk, 1999: 52). The immigrant, whatever their status, is ‘a challenge to the boundedness of territory’. Displacement helps us to think place and belonging, to complexify these concepts so as to articulate the conditions of new possibilities, lived spaces of mutuality and reciprocity, hospitality which overcome borders. Arguably, the displaced offer the greatest challenge today to traditional concepts of sovereignty.

Maps inscribe and demarcate borders because, as de Certeau argues, ‘the map wants to remain alone on the stage, central to modern imagination’, whereas the displaced interrupt the performance of the map and claim space on the stage – what the maps cut up, ‘stories cut across’. (de Certeau, 1984: 129) . The displaced embody the movement of exile away from symbolic structure, the national fiction (Canning, 2000: 351) which is why the national(ist) narrative is designed to stop the ‘native’ from meeting the displaced, literally and metaphorically speaking: ‘When we meet another being, we begin to experiment with our relations and create possibilities together. This creation of possibility is an aesthetic act, an experiment in vibration, resonance, composition of affects…’(Canning, 352). Hence sovereignty puts in place a range of symbolic/cultural barriers to prevent that encounter so that the displaced is represented as danger and chaos because s/he seeks, demands, claims opportunity, the advantageousness of site or position at the expense, it is argued, of the indigenous. As Shapiro argues, ‘the selves that nationalists seek to separate are all ambiguously mixed rather than ethnically pure selves. The desire to partition and abjection constitutes a denial of a history of intermingling and acculturation.’ (Shapiro, 2004: 68)) It is this denial of ‘intermingling and acculturation’, another prominent aspect of UKIP’s appeal, which shores up asymmetry and inequality, the sovereign conditions of ‘Fortress Europe’.  The ‘Hope not Hate’ campaign tries to bring a genealogical perspective to an understanding of UKIP’s denial and erasure of our own migrant formation  and, as a consequence, has recently been proscribed by the party.

The immigrant, juxtaposed to the name of the national subject, is signified as the figure of lack, indicating an absence and an aberration, an incompleteness and limit vis-à-vis the citizen subject. By excluding the immigrant, the nation asserts its own boundedness, plenitude, completeness: it is foundational. In order to be reconstituted as a whole, as a subject of value and meaning (like ‘us’), of ontological security, the immigrant must return to their nation/home/community (the circumstances of their flight are overlooked in this ideological, and contradictory narrative). As Soguk argues, ’the refugee is incorporated into [the discourse of] the national life only to be distanced from the possibilities in it – they are both legally and popularly marginalized.’(53). So, however insecure, limited and arbitrary the possibilities in the national life are for the subject, these are enhanced and magnified by the presence (always already an absence) of the refugee. By contrast, and by default, the subject becomes a privileged site of identity and the ideological narrative achieves closure.

The governance of refugees is an alibi, or surrogate, for the governance and circumscription of the ’nation-people’. As Cynthia Weber says, the modern state must control how its people are ‘written’ and how their meaning is fixed – a forever incomplete project but one which has to be tackled if the state is to retain its claim to legitimacy and representative agency. So the policing of immigration helps to restore hierarchies of identities and meanings, and the refugee is used as a means of restoring an axiomatic centrality to the state and its sovereignty.

My argument throughout has been that ’immigration control’ is a displacement activity, a fabulation, that incites, by an oblique, or subliminal, racism, and also transfers attention from ’real’ doubts by the repetition of manufactured ‘anxieties, ambiguities and indeterminacies’.  It is a generative project that is activated by the repeated circulation of links between immigrants and crime, disease, prostitution, gang masters, terrorism and welfare dependency.

Displacement, in all senses of the word, dominates the experience of the asylum seeker as they journey from country to country, crossing borders in search of refuge. Although they are moving in time, in a sense they are out of time as well as out of place, in a state of arrested development, being temporarily arrested in time in the waiting zone, whether it be airport, accommodation centre, or detention centre. When the journeying stops and they find themselves in the waiting zone, they will be infantilised, static and inert, subject to curfews and a behavioural regime of containment that strips them of agency, voice and adulthood, sleeping in bunk beds, barred from alcohol, regulated and reduced to passive dependency and submission. They are perceived as a threat to be controlled. The detention, or containment, centres are spaces for the victim, the vulnerable and the powerless (in order to fit with the decision-making regime) where signs of agency, autonomy, and independence are treated with suspicion.

The experience of displacement is that of interruption and discontinuity,  the loss of ‘the power to impose a shape upon oneself’ and the attempt to construct continuity and shape against ‘arrest’, literal or metaphorical.The asylum seeker is not only a figure in transition but a figure of transitional identity, changed profoundly by dislocation, with the need to compose a story in order to move beyond im/de-mobilisation imposed by the ‘claim’ – a claim which is simultaneously a demand for something which is due (protection) and a bid for recognition at a time when Europe has created structures to minimise access to asylum and also criminalized those seeking it. As Arthur Helton has shown, in the Cold War period asylum seekers had an ideological value, a trophy-like status, whereas today this currency is devalued and each asylum claimant has to negotiate the nationalist scripts of insecure and hostile countries within, what Balibar calls, a ‘European apartheid’, marked by the ‘socially discriminating function of borders’ [Balibar, 2004:113). In Rancière’s terms:

The new racism of advanced societies thus owes its singularity to being the point of intersection for all forms of the community’s identity with itself that go to define the consensus model…So it is only normal that the law should now round off this coherence…turns its unity into the mode of reflection of a community separating itself from its other. (Rancière, 1999: 174)

The extensive asylum legislation in the UK since the early 1990s testifies to the role of law in attempting to formulate a coherence and unity predicated upon separation from its ‘others’ and materialized in ‘detention zones and filtering systems’ [ italics original; Balibar, 111]

Matthew Gibney argues that ‘asylum exposes a profound conflict of value between the legitimate claims of citizens and those of refugees,’ (Gibney, 2004: 259), but this supposed conflict of value is also subject to ideological manipulation by governments particularly in attempts to establish ‘legitimacy’ through appeals to ‘core values’, ‘shared identity’ and ‘our way of life’.This ideology manifests itself in, what Michel Agier calls, ‘frozen otherness’ (Agier, 2008: viii) which, he argues, ‘is established today in the thinking and practice of the countries of exile, and is the basis of all rejection – racial, cultural and xenophobic’. (Agier, viii). UKIP is founded upon the basis of this rejection  and has constructed, what might be called, ‘frozen sameness’, something akin to a United Kingdom Identity party, independent not just of Europe but of all those entanglements which historically challenge their claims to cultural distinctiveness.

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Roger Bromley

Roger Bromley is an academic and author who has published widely on a range of topics and, in recent years, has written mainly on postcolonial culture and diaspora, refugee and asylum issues, particularly in relation to cinematic representations, and on post-conflict cultures. He has worked in UK higher education for 44 years until his retirement in 2010. Currently, he is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies and Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, Visiting Professor in the Centre for Transnational Writing and Research at Lancaster University, and Associate Fellow in Politics at Rhodes University, South Africa.

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