Monstrosity and the colonial archive: intersectional and interdisciplinary perspectives on the construction of Otherness in the migrants and refugees crises.

Gaia Giuliani, Birkbeck Institute of Humanities Fellow 2018, (CES – University of Coimbra).

In May and June 2018, the BIH hosted a series of three events that I organized as a BIH visiting fellow. The events investigated the contemporary iconography of monstrosity attached to migrants and refugees within the context of the war on terror. Their focus was the relation between such iconography and the gendered/sexualised “figures of race” that since modernity have been making up the symbolic material of (post)colonial imaginaries of Otherness.

In order to explore figures of monstrosity as metaphors of transnational or local crises, speakers explored the mutual intertwining of theoretical concepts and popular representations of monstrosity that emerged since 9/11 in visual and written texts: novels, television series, newsreels, political pamphlets, theoretical essays, artworks, movies. Materials were explored intersectionally to shed light on the workings of ideas of gender, race and class in representations of monstrosity.

The points of departure were some of my recently published academic research: the monograph Zombi, alieni e mutanti. Le paure dall’11 settembre ad oggi (Le Monnier: 2016a); book chapters and academic journal articles: ‘Life adrift in a postcolonial world,’ in A. Baldwin and G. Bettini eds, Life Adrift (Rowman&Littlefield: 2017); ‘The Mediterranean as a stage: Borders, memories, bodies,’ in G. Proglio ed, Decolonizing the Mediterranean (Cambridge SP: 2016c); ‘Monstrosity, abjection and Europe in the War on Terror,’ Capitalism Nature Socialism, 27 (4), 2016b: 1-19; and ‘Fears of disaster and (post-)human raciologies in European popular culture 2001-2013,’ Culture Unbound 7 (3) 2015: 363-385.

The first event was a public workshop titled ‘Monstrosity, Abjection and climate change – the Mediterranean in a global context’, with speakers Drs Giovanni Bettini (Lancaster University) and Sarah Keenan (Birkbeck School of Law). I introduced the event by linking the Mediterranean to a global context and framed the methodology, themes, and issues at the core of the papers presented. The first speaker, Giovanni Bettini, discussed the relation between mobility and the Anthropocene and their relationship to our current political preoccupations. Drawing on academic literature and novels explore these themes, Bettini’s paper proposed a ‘symptomatic’ reading of contemporary discourses on climate migration and climate refugees. To interpret (the insistence on) such narratives, his paper drew on the two key understandings of the ‘symptom’ proposed by French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan: the ‘return of the repressed’ and ‘Sinthome’.

Sarah Keenan – whose paper was co-written with Dr Nadine El-Enany (Birkbeck School of Law) – reflected on the political history and legal geography of Australia’s offshore detention policy. Keenan and El-Enany argued that Australia’s extreme defensiveness against un-vetted racialised migrants is a sign of the nation’s white fragility; a result of its unresolved colonial foundation in the fiction of terra nullius. Following the talks there was much lively conversation on the themes raised by the speakers amongst the audience of almost 40 students, scholars, artists and professors.

The second event, an interdisciplinary panel on ‘Lampedusa and Beyond’, saw the participation of Drs Martina Tazzioli (Swansea University), Sarah Turnbull, Monish Bhatia (both from the Birkbeck School of Law) and Federica Mazzara (University of Westminster). My introductory remarks framed the event as a reflection upon Lampedusa and the Mediterranean as prosceniums: gates between past, present and future where the polysemic border is performed; where memories of colonial violence return and where potential or future postcolonial violence can enter the space of the Self. My argument was that the discourse around Lampedusa and the Mediterranean reveals the persistence of the foreclosed memories of colonial conceptions of the global space. With this in mind, the aim of the panel was to frame Lampedusa and the Mediterranean within a global context.

Martina Tazzioli revisited the notion of ‘containment’ and the ways in which migrants are controlled, contained and selected after landing in Lampedusa and on the Greek island of Lesvos. She drew attention to the ‘Hotspot System’ aimed at disciplining mobility, showing that it is not narrowed to detention infrastructures. Through a critical engagement with carceral geography, Tazzioli pointed to the limits of the island studies, arguing that there is a need of mapping the geographies of containment that go beyond the migrant spatial confinement on the hotspot-islands. These she  contended, should be seen as chokepoints of mobility disruption, deceleration and filtering.

Sarah Turnbull considered the relationship between the racialised bordering practices at Europe’s southern borders with ‘Fortress Britain,’ drawing attention to themes of insularity and dangerousness. She explored the rhetorical performance of Britain as a  small island in need of protection from migrant others and how the geographic distance from Lampedusa is linked to this performance of the border.

Monish Bhatia doscussed the case of Calais Jungle as representative of the dirt, savageness and ferocity of ‘illegal’ migrants; their lack of restraint and adherence to law, where the only law perceived is the survival of the fittest. The Jungle, Bhatia argues, has not only become spatially but also symbolically bordered. The aim of his paper was to highlight the racialised construction of the Calais Jungle and the manner in which the ‘illegal’ and ‘criminal’ (white) racial framing (Feagin, 2013) is used and strategically deployed by tabloid and right wing press to legitimise violence against refuge seekers, to deny their suffering and personhood, and to distance them from humanitarian discourses. This framing of the ‘illegal migrant’ renders them both hyper-visible and hyper-invisible simlutaneously. Bhatia went on to argue that racial framing and legitimisation of state violence and border control practices have produced a social death of refuge seekers in Calais.

Finally, Federica Mazzara presented examples of using artistic practice as a way of disrupting and challenging the politics of representation of mainstream discourses around Lampedusa. Mazzara explored the ways in which art is able to unveil the contradictions and paradoxes of the securitarian regime that regulates immigration into Europe, thereby contributing a vital form of political dissensus. An animated discussion of around 50 students, scholars, artists and activists followed the panel discussion, allowing the themes and perspectives proposed by the panelists to be explored in greater depth.

The third and final event was a round table, focused on ‘Monstrosity and the refugee/migrant crises’. Invited speakers were Roger Luckhurst, Agnes Wooley (both English and Humanities, Birkbeck), Ben Gidley (Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck), and Calogero Giametta (Aix-Marseille). My introduction argued for the strategic use of the concept of monstrosity as both a discourse and a practice – both connecting the internal abject (the terrorist) and the external threat (the migrant/refugee that lands in Lampedusa or crosses the Eastern frontiers of Europe), conflating them in the unstable figure of the absolute Other, and identifying by contrast the unsaid, unspeakable feature of Europe as a profoundly racialised ‘imagined community’.

The papers that followed were valuable contributions to a multidisciplinary and critical reading of this concept and its current representation (both visual and written) in the spheres of law, politics, and popular culture.

Roger Luckhurst examined Garret Edwards’ famous horror film Monsters (GB, 2010) as a reflection on the discourse of monstrosity generated at the US/Mexico border since the first emergence of systematic border fence building in the early 1990s, and accelerated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and Presdient Trump’s recent experiments in new border fences. The multiplication of systems at the border, and the invocation on the American right of what Greg Eghighian calls the homo munitus (the Walled or Sheltered Man), makes the borderline as something haunted by its secret other: the border as volume.

Calogero Giametta reflected on the perceived moral panic over the extent of trafficking in the global sex industry and how it produces alarm-based forms of affective governance. Here, he argued, the borders between  the categories of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ are imagined as fixed, and are erected to polarise the perception of migrants as either absolute victims or opportunistic monsters. Giametta’s paper examined this ‘teratological’ understanding of certain migrant figures by focusing on the migrants’ own understanding of agency and exploitation, finally contextualising these within current neoliberal socio-economic transformations.

Ben Gidley proposed a speculative paper on Jews and Muslims in the European archive of monstrosity: from the blood libel to the new war on terror. Gidley delineated the long history of tropes connecting Jews and Muslims (as European Christendom’s two primary constitutive others) to the idea of bloodthirstiness, and suggests that this archive has been re-animated in the current (post-2011) period of the War on Terror, to deny the humanity of Sunni Muslim Syrians (including refugees) through association with the figure of the extremist and through a narrative of secret malignant Jewish power behind terrorism.

Finally, Agnes Woolley discussed the role of Docu/Fiction and the aesthetics of the border during the refugee crisis, in particular the relationship between arts and activism in this context. Drawing on examples of contemporary border art concerning current refugee movement, Woolley’s discussion focused on the film project On the Bride’s Side (2014), in which a group of refugees and Italian citizens embark upon a journey across Europe from Italy to Sweden disguised as a wedding party. Aesthetically as well as politically subversive, the film undermines prevalent assumptions about refugee movement and succeeds in performing the act of solidarity it documents. Wooley contextualised the film within the flourishing of the documentary genre over the last twenty years in which film has engaged in formal innovations that test its own borders in ways that are both aesthetically exciting and actively engaged with the subjects they depict. Once again, we were lucky to have an incredibly engaged audience of around 40 people at the event, and enjoyed much illuminating conversation following the paper presentations.


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