The Guise of Citizenship: Immigration & Liminal Spaces of Legality

Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore including the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect (Althusser, Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus [117])

I begin with this quote because it gestures at what I would like to explore: the fallibility of citizenship. I would like to question the “obviousness” of citizenship in the U.S. within the context of immigration and liminal spaces of citizenship. Why is citizenship considered to be an inherent right or a right of birth? And when it is not a god given right, what of that space outside the law? The space I would like to interrogate is not when citizenship goes un-questioned and remains static, but precisely when it comes into question, within the moment of the hail from the law. In the moment when the police officer hails you, when your citizenship matters most, this is the moment when it falls apart, and indeed through this process the law itself fails. From my investigation into this subject I have deduced that citizenship in the moment of the hail is always in jeopardy of being denied, and ultimately revoked. This project interrogates the moment when the citizen encounters the officer of the law.

My project is based around the theory of interpellation first formulated by Louis Althusser in his essay Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus and later re-articulated by Judith Butler in her work The Psychic Life of Power. Both theorists explain the subject as formed through discourse, and this space of discourse is necessarily tied to ideology and a relationship with the law. Firstly the subject is constituted through discourse, which can be explained through the process of birth. Even before a child is born they are considered within a certain ideological framework. For Althusser this is apparent in that the child will always already be born to a father/mother/family organization generally heteronormative and democratic.[1] For Butler this can be explained through the process of the ultra-sound and gender. When we look at an ultra-sound we immediately see the child as either boy or girl. In this moment we ascribe a gender to that body, and constitute that body through gender and discourse as such. The subject is thus formed in its process of naming through a certain ideology, whether it be through gender, familial relations etc.

For Butler this construction of the subject through discourse is a construction that inherently is tied to the law. The law is that which names the subject.

Interpellation is the theory that surrounds the potential encounter with the law, or for my purposes the moment where the subject must prove their citizenship status to the officer of the law. It is the moment in which we face the law as a legal subject, when our legality becomes questioned. This moment does not necessarily have to actually take place for both theorists but can be both “exemplarary and allegorical”.[2] By this I mean we are always ready for this possibility of an encounter with the law, and that this encounter structures and founds our ideology. The ideology I focus on in my project is citizenship, the idea that there is an inherent safety and staticity in citizenship.

My first example highlights how citizenship can be undermined symbolically, my second example shows how citizenship can be completely denied and that the citizen can be taken out of the space of law and citizenship at any time.

It is necessary to have a broader understanding of the ways in which, in the 21st century, law and the force of the state function to understand the particular examples I use. For this I draw on Foucault’s theory of “security” as articulated in his lectures from 1978 compiled in the volume Security, Territory, Population.[3]

“Apparatuses of Security” for Foucault are systems in which things are not deemed necessarily good or bad. Because of this lack of moral delineation subjects, goods, generally things in circulation are allowed to flow naturally. In general we can think about this in terms of the uninhibited flow of capital. Security, as he says, at a certain point must include an attitude of “laizzer-faire,” that to avoid a seizure and clamping down of systems things are allowed to flow freely.[4] Apparatuses of security attempt not to smother a problem in a system but attempt to fix it by “making other elements of reality function in relation to it, in such a way that the phenomenon is canceled out…”[5] It takes into account details only in that they effect a better working of the whole system, and thus security is “centrifugal[ly]” oriented. Always built into an apparatus of security is a certain ability to deal with fluctuation. They are constantly changing to the natural flow of systems as these systems deem them natural.[6]

To put this theory into context let us consider the closing of the U.S. / Mexico border. The Department of Homeland Security is not simply closing the borders, posting guards every mile, but it is slowly putting measures and defenses in place that funnel immigrants into the most dangerous parts of border so as to discourage and eliminate the threat of illegal crossings. By funneling the immigrants into dangerous territory they have not closed the border completely but have increasingly made it more and more difficult to cross the border. In a disciplinary system the border itself would be walled up and completely closed. This does not mean that discipline is foreign to security but is rather a force used within it. Governors of a system of security takes into account that they cannot fully stop all immigrants from entering the country but they can make it nearly impossible to survive a trip to the border. In addition to the understanding that they cannot control the border they look for new non-geographical borders which can catch the remaining people who might cross through the narrow gap. I mean non-geographical in the sense that border patrol, which should be specifically located at the geographical border, no longer operates on these conditions but considers the complete internal U.S. as a border. Thus for an interpellated subject the threat of an encounter with the law within a system of security is always looming since the law is always moving and changing it’s position.

And this brings us to the first example. An Amtrak train was stopped in Buffalo New York by Border Patrol officers in March of 2010. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (hereafter referred to as ICE) stopped the train in order to ask each person on the train about their citizenship status. These stops are routinely performed around the U.S. When someone on the train tells the officers that they are not U.S. citizens they are forced to show identification and prove why they are in the U.S. Through the implementation of this practice of random routine checkpoints ICE has not only increased encounters with the law, but has routinized them.

On board the train were two college age Americans, Rafael and Carlos Robles, who were American in all but citizenship status. When asked about their citizenship they told the officers that they were Mexican citizens although they had been raised in the US since they were adolescents. The two brothers are both College students in the U.S. Their adult life has been spent as Americans. They were arrested and face deportation charges despite their apparent Americaness. They were both great students and leaders in their high-school. Under the proposed Dream Act these brothers should be able to gain citizen status but because of the political issues with the passing of the Dream Act the brothers now face deportation. Herein lies the difference between citizenship and the ideology that founds it.

This scene can be read in many different ways, what I would like to focus on the fact that facing the hail the brothers intentionally confront the law with itself. They did not have to tell the officers that they were Mexican citizens because they could have easily proven their false citizenship status. There is no way to attribute some sort of psychological motivation to this act, but we can look at this act conceptually as a moment of refusal of the laws authority.

The Robles brothers in this moment, as interpellated subjects, decided to work against this very interpellation by facing the law with something it cannot account for. These brothers are American except before the law. They maintain a legal appearance, and could have passed as such, but before the law, when exposed, they become illegal subjects. What is so radical in this moment is that they say to the law “I am more like you than you yourself are. I maintain all the values that you yourself value and my citizenship status does not in any way effect these values. You depend on your citizenship status to justify your stance as American and yet I need none to justify mine.”[7]

What happens in this moment is that the law must not only account for an exception, but that it must also justify that American means to maintain a legal citizenship status. The symbolic authority of Americanness no longer resides within the law itself for it has lost the power to define symbolically why it is able to act as an enforcer of Americanism. In essence citizenship no longer can maintain that it is inherently tied to being an ‘American,’ it no longer has any purchase on this subjectivity. Citizenship is only the cold hard fact of a legal status without any symbolic meaning. When the officers hail these two brothers as subjects they are denied the possibility of bestowing any identity upon them, for they have already appropriated that power away from the law itself.

Legal citizenship in a sense does not mean anything. The process of interpellation requires that the subject in their turn inwards turns thus because of a want for identity and alleviation of guilt. A scene in which the subject does not need to have this identity bestowed but rather faces the law with an identity that arises under that law but does not maintain the proper legal status is a radical moment. The law can no longer justify symbolically why it acts. Their act undermines the law not by taking an outside position but by exposing it from within the shaky foundations of the ideology that founds the laws authority.

So, we now see how the law can be broken down symbolically, but what I am about to show is how the law can move outside itself, and necessarily must in it’s founding moment.

With this next example I will explore the moment in which a subject is denied any identity that places them in a legal space. This next story involves the terror when the law presents itself through physical rather than verbal authority. The persons affected in this story are seeking redress from the incident but as of yet have not received any aid. This story exemplifies how the law by imposing its power on the citizen can take them into a space where all legality which calls upon the space of the written law is gone. In this space, outside the written law, is the space of the founding moment of pure force, where officers of the law (re)commit acts in excess. This space is always violent.

On October 8th, 2008 Michael Mattia and his mother were driving on highway 85. Mattia recognized that his mother was experiencing early symptoms of a heart attack. They were stopped at a checkpoint and Mattia explained to the officer that his mother was going to have a heart attack if he did not get to the hospital quickly. The officer denied his mothers serious condition, and his right as a citizen to declare a state of emergency. Mattia told the officer to follow him to the hospital and drove off. Farther down the highway Border Patrol had set up a road block of cars and spike strips. Mattia again tried to explain the situation. He got out of his car with his hands up, was forced onto the ground, brutally beaten, dragged across the ground, thrown up against the police car and then imprisoned without charge. During this time his car was torn apart and damaged. His mother survived but was only given medical attention because Mattia had called 911 before being stopped. Incidents like this one often go unreported and the ones that do often get no support on the side of the affected.

What this case illustrates is that a space exists outside the law, where the law itself becomes unlawful. This space is a pre-legal zone where the agents of the law act outside of it. The act itself is pre-legal because there is no citizenship that can authorize such actions. The officers act as if there was no law. Only after do incidents like this become punishable, and only retroactively can we attribute any meaning to such acts. The act in this moment is only a brutal raw violence, something which is so excessively real we must create a narrative to understand it.[8]

Mattia as a citizen understood that he was able to declare a medical emergency and thus bypass the checkpoint. As a legal citizen he believed he had a legitimate right to bypass the checkpoint. The officer was simply not being reasonable and not interpreting the law correctly. What is most important here is that the officer was interpreting the law correctly. The law exists as written, yes, but only in as much as it is cited by the officer or official representing the law. An officer of the law can act on what they see as the law. The law in this sense is constantly in a state of flux since it depends on the interpreter. Inherent in this is both the power of the law and it’s failure. By reinterpreting the law as a document the officer was directly undermining its symbolic power as a written objective statute. But at the same instant through the laws power of physical force the officer was able to claim that the law still held force no matter that it’s symbolic power was being called into question. Indeed in this situation it was not the officer that was upholding the law but rather the citizen who needed to reproduce the written law within this context so as to found his legitimate citizenship status.

Citizenship in this sense is not dependent upon your actual status but upon the subjective conditions under which you come in contact with the law. The law always has the power to deny whether or not you count as a citizen with proper rights.

I believe this act relates to the space before the recognition by the hail, before the hail is even possible. In essence there is no authority here that ascribes to any notion of order or rule, but only authority in the old testament sense, authority that does because it is. There need be no justification for such actions within the acts themselves. Only retroactively does the act acquire any meaning. In the moment of the act of beating Michael Mattia the actual beating is all that mattered. To understand and be able to incorporate the act into what Žižek calls our symbolic order[9] we must first construct a myth about why the agents in this situation did what they did. It becomes difficult for us to understand how such an act can occur without giving it some symbolic meaning.

The law can act without boundaries because we believe the law is always tied up in restriction. I think we should resist this precisely on the grounds that any system of law is always founded upon such acts. Symbolic meaning is ascribed because it is often too difficult to accept acts as meaningless. We cannot believe that these incidents happen within our symbolic framework of our relationship to the law. The founding of America as Cornell West states in Examined Life “was founded upon the mass killings of Native Americans, the enslavement of African peoples, and the marginalization of gays and lesbians…” Slavoj Žižek expands upon this saying that the founding moment of a state can never be incorporated into its symbolic narrative fully, that it has to be narrated in order for the state to maintain any authority.[10]

I believe this example leads us to the true nature of state violence, and to the base point at which interpellation has power over citizens, that even if we resist the hail at a certain point we must fundamentally learn how to resist the uncontrollable founding violence of the state. Many of the cases of abuse by officers of the law I believe are not meaningful in the way that we attribute meaning to them, but that they are extensions of the constant overflow of excessive violence that founds the state. The violence of the hail, and its ultimate threat lie in the fact that it is impossible to disassociate the actions of the state from their founding violence, that occasionally this ghost will rise. And this is why the only subjectivity at the zero level is illegal subjectivity. The officer of the state can always return to this primordial violence and impose it on the subject without the subject having any recourse to an action except in violence itself.


[1] Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (Monthly Review Press, New York, NY: 1971): 119

[2] Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA: 1997): 106

[3] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, trans. Graham Burchell, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY: 2004).

[4] Ibid., p. 45

[5] Ibid., p. 59.

[6] Ibid., p. 36

[7] This is my interpretation of the situation. None of this, to my knowledge, was said during the incident.

[8] Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! (Routledge: New York, NY, 2008)

[9] Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute (Verso, New York: 2008)

[10] Slavoj Žižek, Violence (Picador Press: New York, 2008), p.116-117

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