WJT Mitchell: Thank you very much, Howard. And while I’m saying thank you, I think we all ought to thank Pamela Gray and Melinda Hinkson for their marvellous work in bringing this symposium together, so let’s put your hands together for Pamela and Melinda.
I’m going to begin with an image I’m sure you all recognise, and it’s been partly because … I thought of this last night at 3 in the morning in the throes of jetlag that I wasn’t going to be showing very many faces, and this conference is largely about images of identity defined in terms of portraiture and faces. So I thought, “Well, I’d better show a face, and another face besides my own.” This is Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother, also known as The Depression Madonna, and very much in the tradition of portraiture that we were discussing earlier today. I think David Campbell came closest to my topic. That is the notion of the imaging identity through a portrait, a portrait which will elicit sympathy, identification, and some kind of affect.
And I take it that the portrait, and by implication the face, is to some extent the hero or heroine of our discussions here, and that there is an assumption that if we could only represent and see the faces of other people with clarity and precision, this would have the effect of humanising them, eliminating their alienness, their otherness, bringing them closer to us.
During the Depression, Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell famously exploited this whole assumption in a photographic essay about American migration entitled, “You Have Seen Their Faces,” a title which James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, famously heaped scorn upon for its presumption that any photograph could guarantee the ethical claim conveyed by this title, that “You have seen their faces.” And no, you have not seen their faces. You’ve seen a photograph, a portrait, built around a certain convention. And the real question, as Agee put it in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is, by what right do you look at this face, at this photograph, and what will you do about it? So the ethical claim in Agee’s terms went the other way, as if the photograph were looking at us and making a claim on us.
Same photograph, a bit blurry. Digital blurring of the same image. And I’m showing this not to make any claim that digitisation produces unnecessary degradation of the clarity of the image. I think that would be quite false. We know that digital images can be just as clear, precise and focussed, and that they can have just as firm a connection to the referent, indexical or whatever, as any analogue or chemical-based photograph. I’m doing this in order to illustrate a rather different point, namely … partly to show that … I mean, both of these images, both the previous one and this one, are digital images; after all, they’re in PowerPoint. The original, of course, was a chemical-based photograph. But the point I want to make is, there is a sense in which the blurring or even disappearing of the portrait and of the face that it represents is essential to a powerful tendency in the contemporary imaging of identity. This is the new condition of the situation I’m going to be talking about in this paper, namely, what’s been called illegalisation immigration.
And just as a bit of background, this paper was originally written for a conference called Images of Illegalised Immigration that was held at the University of Basel in Switzerland about a year ago.
The illegalised immigrant, the one who is not welcome, is one of the most important demographic developments in our time. The rapid growth in populations of displaced persons, undocumented aliens, persons sans-papier, without papers that contain the correct words or images to certify their legal or political existence and identity within a legitimate State entity. When under the terms of the State of Arizona’s new immigration law, scheduled to take effect this month, one is, when approached by a policeman who demands, “Your papers, please,” the humanity of the photographic portrait on those papers will not be at issue. And I want to formally apologise for the State of Arizona, as a US citizen. The cultural attaché of the Mexican Embassy is here, and a number of State governors in my country have apologised to Mexico, and I’m happy to say that the coach of the Chicago White Sox, Ozzie Guillen, has also apologised. So I want to join them in apologising for Arizona.
The idea of the Arizona law is I think that the humanity of the photographic portrait on the papers that people carry with them, that will not be an issue. We will not be looking at this either blurry or in sharp focus in the way you would look at Dorothea Lange’s photograph of the immigrant. The only issue will be what is on those papers, and the matching of the person who carries them to the photograph, in which case the person becomes the signified of the photograph. The photograph is more important than the person. And of course also the correct inscriptions, seals, dates and signatures, the bare existence of these papers testifying to the right of that person to be in the place that he or she has been stopped by a policeman. And this stop, or arrest, as it’s widely recognised, will be provoked not by criminal activity, but by suspicion that the person is an illegal immigrant, provoked by where they are and how they appear.
For a long time in the US there’s been a saying that “It can be a crime to be driving while black,” and it seems clear now we are on the threshold of a new era in which it will be equally criminal, or equally subject to arrest, to be driving while Hispanic.
If there’s a link then between the quality of a portrait and the perceived humanity of who it represents, this is a link that is in the process of being broken in our time, and broken precisely by the law which substitutes for the humanising portrait a repertoire of blurred images, something like Galtonian composite portraits, or stereotypes, of those who are – and this is the fundamental paradox I want to suggest that underlies my whole argument – the persons who are at one and the same time outside the law or, as is often said, without standing before the law, and therefore subject to the most arbitrary force of the law.
So (8:40) my subject here’s not going to be very much about faces, but much more about places, spaces, and landscapes, and what they have to do with images of identity.
There’s three fundamental disciplines that come together in this argument. First of course is the law and its foundation in judicial practice and political philosophy. The second, migration, the movement and settlement of living things, especially humans. But not exclusively humans – lots of other living things are prohibited. For instance, when I arrived in Sydney airport yesterday morning, I had to check a list to make sure I wasn’t bringing any parasites with me, or any kinds of diseases that might want to spread themselves around. So migration as the movement and settlement of living things – and especially human – across the boundaries between distinct habitats. And the third is the theory of images, or iconology, what I call the discipline that addresses images across the media, including verbal and visual images, metaphors and figures of speech, as well as visual representations.
Law and migration, then, engage the realm of images at the location of both the sensuous and the phantasmatic. Concrete, realistic representations of actuality on the one hand, and idealised or demonised fantasies of migrants as sometimes radically antithetical figures, heroic pioneers, or invading hordes.
One peculiarity I think has to immediately strike anyone who sets up as an image theorist and thinks about this particular array of problems. Since antiquity we have described images and defined them as imitations of life. And they turn out to be in a number of important senses very much like living things themselves, which is why I wrote a book called What Do Pictures Want? And because my sense of what living things are is, they are things that want things, driven by desire, by hunger, appetite, need, demand. It makes sense, therefore, to speak of a migration of images as well as a migration of persons, of images themselves as moving from one environment to another, sometimes taking routes, sometimes infecting an entire population, sometimes moving onward like restless nomads. The animated, lifelike character of images has been recognised since ancient times, and that’s I think why the first law concerning images that I know of – and I think probably you know of – is a prohibition on their creation, accompanied by a mandate to destroy them. I’m speaking of course of the second commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image,” the strangest commandment of the ten.
If the relation of the law to migration, then, is mainly negative – a mandate to block the movement of living things – the relation of the law to images is exactly analogous. The prohibition on images is grounded in an attempt to sequester a political and religious community from contamination by the wrong kinds of images. To extirpate those alien forms of images commonly known – and this is what the biblical prohibition is about – the arrival of idols, or the residence of idols in particular places. The image is thus always involved with the other, whether it’s something as simple and straightforward as the phenomenological other, starting with your mother, or with alien tribes, foreigners, invaders, or with native inhabitants who must be expelled.
Since other people, both kinfolk and strangers, can only be apprehended by way of images, search templates, stereotypes of gender, race, ethnicity and so forth, the problem of migration is structurally and necessarily bound up with that of images. Migration, then, is not just a kind of content to be represented in images, but is a constituted feature of their life, central to the ontology of images as such.
But there’s an important limit to this analogy that we need to note at the outset. The prohibition on images, especially the dangerous images of others, is rarely successful. In contrast to real human bodies, images cross borders and flash around the planet at lightening speed in our time, and they were always quick in every sense of the word – quick in the sense of lively, but also fast, tending to move rapidly through the world. And I think this was true in primitive societies. It didn’t depend on the Internet for this to happen.
Unlike real living bodies, images are very difficult, if not impossible, to kill, and the effort to stamp them out often, as Nick Taussig has argued, the attempt to kill an image has the effect of making it more lively than ever. An image is never so lively as at the moment when someone is trying to destroy it. The idea that images thus constitute a kind of subhuman life, a virus, or a plague, is one of the well-established commonplaces long before Baudrillard said it. The idea that images were like life forms that were out of control and needed to be quarantined was a commonplace.
So the laws that govern the migration of real bodies and borders, I think, are much better enforced than those against images. Images go before the immigrant, in the sense that before the immigrant arrives, his or her image comes first, in the form of stereotypes, search templates, tables of classification, patterns of recognition. At the moment of first encounter the immigrant arrives as an image text, whose documents, in the normal form in our time of a passport, go before him or her at the moment of crossing the border. And I always think about this at that moment, at passport control, when you stand behind a line, you pass your passport over, and for a moment, just a moment, you are sans-papier. In that moment, your identity is in the hands of someone else.
So your documents go before you at that moment, and this simple gesture of course is repeated millions of times every day throughout the world, and I think might be regarded as something like the primal scene of law and immigration in the face-to-face encounter.
Insofar as my topic is illegalised immigration, it engages the whole domain of law and the underlying foundations of political philosophy. In Western jurisprudence, the law is grounded principally in liberal political philosophies that insist on some form of primacy for the law in its most abstract sense, as applying to equally abstract subjects of persons. The legal subject has to be an abstraction, or the law is not the law. The law is no respecter of persons. As we say in the United States, we live in a nation of laws, not men. Notions of the equality of subjects before the law, the moral equality of persons quite apart from accidents of birth, race or culture, the individual as a subject of rights and responsibilities, sovereign in its value. All these features of the liberal notion of law and politics remain difficult to imagine or represent concretely. They are deliberately abstract. It’s important that they are. That’s the whole point of liberalism.
As a political and legal philosophy it is deliberately schematic and abstract, employing a kind of aschesis of images, most visibly represented in the image of blind Justice with her scales.
One might even see liberal legal theory as an instance of the (18:00) and iconophobia of Judeo-Christian and Muslim religious law, and its grounding in an invisible, hidden personification of divine justice. God is unrepresentable, cannot be imaged, and he is justice.
This, I think, this relation between abstraction, unrepresentability, almost unimaginability, and justice and the liberal subject, perhaps made most explicit and clear by the philosopher John Rawls, who put it this way: “The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance” that eliminates all concrete contingencies and particularities.” In other words, all sensuous images. And this is where the subtitle of my talk comes in, “The veil of ignorance”, the refusal to see, in the case of blind justice, or the refusal to look at the face and to judge according to the face, but to judge according to the law.
Now, this is not the only notion of law we have. There are of course versions of law that are much more concretely embodied and visible. The body and buildings associated with sovereignty, notions of cultural custom and communal authority that may clash markedly with liberal notions of individual freedom and equality. When the realm of images and the imaginary collides with the law, in other words, the abstract tends to become concrete, and liberalism’s picture of a rational and legal politically just framework for immigration begins to expose its contradictions.
As Phillip Cole notes in his book Philosophies of Exclusion: Liberal Political Theory and Immigration, liberal political philosophy comes to an end at the national border. There is a space, that moment, when the veil of ignorance drops. Rawls’s veil of ignorance is rent by a revelation of flesh and blood human beings, and the abstract legal subject takes on a human face, and the abstract notion of the border becomes a concrete sight. Cole in fact opens his book with a meditation on the proper image for the cover of a book about liberal political theory and immigration, and immediately notes a reversal of expectation. He had been imagining “something dramatic signifying exclusion – a painting of city walls with massive gates closed against besieging hordes, or a black and white photograph of barbed-wire fences and people with guns keeping out … travellers. I was searching for something spectacular or stark, which would signify one or other of the poles around which discussions of immigration gather – that liberal democratic states are justified in erecting firm barriers against teeming masses that would drain them dry, or that they are jealously guarding their privileges against the weak and the helpless.”
But the image that Cole finally adopted was quite at odds with these melodramatic and imaginary scenes, turning out to be rather a banal photograph of a man painting a white line down the middle of a street. This 1947 photograph of a British official marking the boundary between the Soviet and British sectors of Berlin reveals two quite contradictory readings. On the one hand, it signifies, as Cole notes, the arbitrary, even imaginary and ephemeral character of a border. As we know, if you look at a map of Eastern Europe in 1900, and if you were to track the changes in the borders you would say there’s nothing natural, fixed, or obvious about a national border. It’s like a child drawing a line in the sand to claim a momentary territory.
But on the other hand, as we now know, it was a premonition of a global dividing line that was central to the Cold War for half a century. It became the frontier of clashing political philosophies and the site of numerous legalised murders and tragic separations that still linger, and not only in the consciousness of the German people but across the world. The banality of this image of illegalised migration was matched by its fatefulness for the world order from 1945 to 1989.
Immigration at the level of the image then has to be seen as perhaps the most radically dialectical image available to us in the present moment, and I’m using that phrase in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the image that captures history at a standstill, as this one certainly does. But I’m also interested in the vernacular sense of the dialectical image as a site of visible, audible and palpable contradictions, where the real and the imaginary suddenly crystallise in a symbolic form, epitomised by the merely imaginal character of the white line and its fateful realisation.
Migration as a topic engages I would suggest all the inherent dialectics of the image and exacerbates them. Figure and ground, for instance, the fundamental constituents of any image we might imagine. The migrant’s body, and the physical border, or the physical space in which that body exists. Immigration itself as an affair of bodies and spaces, of living things and environments, and the push and pull of movement and stasis, exile and return, expulsion and invasion. And just to schematise this for you, this is my dialectical diagram of you might call the grammar of migration, its division into exits and entrances, departures and returns, settlements and expulsion, detainees and refugees, all centred around spaces and boundaries, borders, frontiers, checkpoints, interment camps and ghettoes.
In calling this a dialectical diagram I want to insist that its elements don’t have the status of binary oppositions that remain in fixed positions. They’re rather dynamic opposites that are manifested in times and places, and above all in points of view. Every immigration is at least in principle an immigration somewhere and to someone else. Every departure implies an arrival and perhaps a return. Every exile by definition longs for a home, and even the most radically rootless nomad requires an oasis as the temporary home.
Invasions are almost invariably accompanied by expulsions, such as ethnic cleansing and the production of masses of refugees. And at every turn, the law is invoked to justify expulsion or confinement, exile or colonisation. So every legalisation is at the same time an illegalisation, or if not, an outright crime, as the law of manifest destiny showed when it justified driving Native Americans from their ancestral homelands to make room for European settlers.
The dialectical image of history at a standstill is most often revealed when the image captures a figure or space of arrested motion, or what may come to the same thing of endless repetition. The most salient fact about migration in our time is the way it has become not a transitional passage from one place to another – the difference between migration and circulation, for instance, would be crucial here. Migration means moving from one place to another.
But what happens when migration becomes a permanent condition in which people may live out their lives in a limbo of perpetual confinement in a refugee camp, or perpetual motion and rootlessness driven from place to place? We might call this, inverting Heidegger, migration as dasein.
The paradoxical condition is nicely captured in a Dust Bowl ballad that I want to play for you, just a verse of it now. This is by Ry Cooder. We’ll turn the sound up.
Ry Cooder: How can you keep on moving unless you migrate too?
They tell you to keep on moving, but migrate you must not do.
The only reason for moving and the reason why I roam
to move to a new location and find myself a home.
Tom Mitchell: I’d like to play the whole thing, but this is a long paper, and … the balladeer here wants to insist on the logical connection between moving and migrating, only to be told by the law that they are opposites. Moving is mandated, and migrating is forbidden. And this law was being applied, it should be noted, not to aliens arriving from another country, but to citizens of the US, refugees from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, moving from one state to another. In fact, the boundaries between states became … well, with state police, with checkpoints monitoring the movement of the Okies westward.
So when people say America – and I imagine this must apply, since Australia’s a country of immigrants as well – it’s not only a nation of immigrants with the Statue of Liberty welcoming the poor, tired, huddled masses, but a nation of internal migration in which whole populations surge across the borders between states and regions, sometimes voluntarily, as in the removal and ethnic cleansing … I’m sorry, voluntary as in the case of the 19th century pioneers heading westward, or involuntarily, as in the removal of the Cherokee nation on the notorious Trail of Tears.
The great migration that brought African Americans from the rural south to the industrial north was at the level of the imaginary a utopian reversal of the obscene parody of immigration that had been forced upon them when they were brought to the United States as slaves. So the law showed its teeth at both ends of African American migration, legalising slavery in the first instance as a biblically-sanctioned institution, and also guaranteed by the sacred rights of property, and then after slavery was abolished, re-enacted in terms of immigration law, most notably in the famous Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court in 1857, which says: “Persons of African descent cannot be, nor were ever intended to be, citizens under the U.S. Constitution. Plaintiff is without standing to file a suit.” And this goes back to the question of being subject to the law while having no standing before the law, the fundamental paradox of the illegalised immigrant. The Dred Scott decision then had the effect of rendering African Americans and their descendents resident aliens ineligible for the rights of US citizenship.
Migration, then, in search of freedom, or as a compulsion to slavery, might be taken as the absolute dialectical poles of the law of human movement. God tells Abraham, “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee, and I will make thee a great nation.”
He later tells Moses to lead the Israelites out of captivity into their promised land. What is not generally noted is that these mandated legalised immigrations are accompanied by conquest, colonisation, and expulsion of the native inhabitants as well, not incidentally as their images. Images also have to be expelled, and this becomes explicit in this passage from Numbers: “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you, destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” So the destruction of images, these are images of identity, even for a nomadic tribe like the Bedouins. Idols, or balam, were located at oases, and those oases which were temporary stopping places the balam were purged as idols to indicate that the people who identified with those places, and whose identity was constituted by these images as their claim, that was to be … they would be destroyed.
So if our goal’s to make visible and to ponder images of illegalised immigration, we need to focus not only on images of the immigrant body – faces, genders, skin colour, clothing, the data gathered on identification documents – but also on images such as the Jordan to be crossed over, the promised lands to be conquered. Images of immigration crucially involve the places, spaces and landscapes of migration – borders, frontiers, demilitarised zones, occupied territories that constitute the material and visible manifestations of immigration law in both its static and dynamic forms.
Above all, I think we have to consider the emergence of the detention camp as a new form of legal limbo where persons may be detained indefinitely, in a situation that is de jure temporary,. but de facto permanent. Illegalisation of immigrants and the spaces set aside for them might be regarded then as a more moderate version of the most militant form of illegalisation in our time, the concept of the unlawful combatant or the terrorist. As you may know, the US Senate a few years ago voted to declare Gaza and the West Bank terrorist sanctuaries. The effect of that resolution was to make every man, woman and child in the West Bank and Gaza either terrorists proper or accomplices of or – the most wonderful legal dodge – human shields for the terrorists, being used unscrupulously by them, whose deaths would be blamed on the terrorists, rather than on the people who actually killed them.
Illegalisation then places this population outside legal resource, such as due process, habeas corpus, and elementary human rights, at the same time that it does so in the name of the law, or under the colour of legality. And this of course … you know that one of Obama’s great promises was to close Guantanamo, which is one of the most notorious of these spaces of lawful lawlessness, but has been unable to do so. The US Senate will not vote money to do so.
As a kind of mnemonic device, it’s helpful I think to exemplify these two manifestations of the law in opposed phenomena, the immovable wall on the one hand, and what’s called the flying checkpoint on the other. We’re about to have flying checkpoints in Arizona.
This comment by a Latina scholar at a modern language convention back in 1995 always struck me: “It’s again reinforcing this notion of the arbitrariness and the mobility of the border which can crop up quite unpredictably just about anywhere.” And particularly most dramatically in failed states with insurgencies, the phenomenon of the paramilitary group establishing an ad hoc checkpoint to extract tribute, intimidate populations, and exterminate enemies defined along racial, religious or tribal lines. In countries like this, everyone is a potential immigrant whenever they try to move anywhere, even within their own homeland.
The opposite of the refugee of course is the visitor, the guest, who comes perhaps with the objective of settling among us, or conquering us. And here I’m going to pass over a section of this paper quickly, but I just want to imagine what you might think of as the most radical form of the immigrant narrative, and that’s the sci-fi fictions of the arrival of aliens. And I think actually many of these sci-fi fictions are transparent allegories of our attitudes toward aliens, paranoia about invaders being of course the dominant version. And as you may know now, there’s a vast literature growing up in Europe which is talking about a second Muslim invasion, as if guest workers, people coming to try to get economic betterment, constitute something like a new Moorish conquest in Europe.
The two sci-fi narratives, though, I want to just put into the discussion and remind you of them, one is what I think of as the utopia of immigration in which the law that governs immigration is something like the law of evolution. And the novels I’m thinking of is a trilogy by the African American novelist Octavia Butler, who wrote a series of novels called the Xenogenesis series, which is based on the premise of very special aliens known as the ooloi, who have very interesting physiognomy. They are bipeds, they are intelligent, but they are Medusa figures. Their bodies are entirely covered with tiny, highly flexible tentacles, and each tentacle has in it a little stinger which can administer either the most ecstatic sexual pleasure or kill you instantly and administer the most terrible pain in the process. The basic point of this is that no one ever gets over being hugged by an ooloi. One way or another, either you’re dead or you are committed for life, as the mate of the ooloi. And the oolois’ law, their purpose in doing this, is they want to accelerate evolution. They want to create new hybrids, so actually they go around mating with everything: plants, animals, people. It’s a sci-fi novel of the alien as a completely promiscuous being who’s trying to accelerate Darwin’s hypothesis that evolution in some sense may be moving toward higher differentiation, improvement of organisms.
The one I want to contrast with this, a very recent sci-fi film … how many of you have seen District 9, the film that came out of Johannesburg? And, you know, this is one that most clearly I think for the first time says something about our time, that a science fiction film has finally come clean and said, “This is really about immigration.” The aliens in this case are crustaceans, again, bipedal crustaceans with big brains, language, and advanced culture. In fact, they’re more technologically advanced than humans, but they’ve got one little problem. They’ve had an engine breakdown in their spaceship, and so they’re forced to remain hovering over Johannesburg for 20 years. South Africa provides ample location sets for dealing with something like this.
The prawns, as they are called, these aliens, are moved into internment camps where they are treated basically like racial aliens, and with all the privileges and lack of privileges that go with that.
I think of District 9, made for actually a tiny budget, as kind of our answer in the first decade of the 21st century to what The Matrix was in the 1990’s, taking the issue of immigration and producing a kind of radical version of it with the alien as the centre of it. And as you know, once again, the question of intermarriage, sex, transformation of the native stock is central to the District 9 narrative.
Well, what happens when the space of illegalised migration isn’t merely a camp or a detention centre, but an entire country? The answer I think is to be found in the country I’m going to talk about a little bit now, and that’s Israel/Palestine, a place that concentrates all the contradictory images I’ve been contemplating into a small region that is by all accounts at the centre of the most important global conflict in our time, the struggle involving the West and the Middle East, European Judeo-Christian civilisation, and the Arab and Islamic world. Very much that picture of the imaginary boundary that established the frontier of the Cold War in Berlin I think has been reinscribed in our time in Israel/Palestine.
And I’m not going to rehearse in great detail what real Palestine is as a State, except to note a few contradictions. Israel does not have, as (42:48) points out, a written constitutions that guarantees the right to equality and prohibits discrimination among its citizens, at the same time that it continually trumpets its status as the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. Insofar as it is defined as Jewish State, a polity defined by religion and ethnicity rather than by secular or race-neutral concepts of citizenship, it is not the state of its citizens but rather the state of a people, many of whom of course do not actually live in Israel but are invited, even encourage, to immigrate there. The legalised, even mandated migration of Jews to the homeland is enforced by the law of return that is exclusively for Jews no matter where they come from. Palestinians who were forced into exile since 1948, who have titles to land and property inside Israel, have no such right of return and no legal means, no standing, for seeking compensation for their losses. The Palestinian diaspora lives, by definition, in a state of permanent illegalised immigration with respect to its homeland.
Now, the Palestinians who live inside Israel proper enjoy at least some of the minimal rights of citizenship while being denied the rights of nationality, one of the great anomalies of this whole situation. The current Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, would like to compel all non-Jewish citizens of Israel to sign a loyalty oath, or be subject to expulsion. That so far has not been successful.
Palestinian in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, by contrast, enjoy none of these rights, and are subject to military rather than civil law. It’s virtually impossible to describe the complexity of this occupation from a legal standpoint. The multitude of permits, licences, passes and identity papers required of a Palestinian surpasses the ingenuity of the apartheid regime of South Africa, to which it’s often compared, especially, of course, by the Palestinians.
Gaza has been described, I think rightly, as the world’s largest open-air detention camp, a densely-populated strip of land whose inhabitants are mainly refugees living in appalling conditions, a state of permanent humanitarian crisis, most of them prevented from leaving or threatened with no possibility of return should they manage to escape. This tiny territory is regularly subjected to ferocious military assaults that make only token attempts to discriminate between civilians and non-combatants. And for instance in the recent 2009 invasion of Gaza, about a third of the casualties were civilians, so it’s in a sense the epitome of the most extreme contemporary condition of the refugee internment camp, at the same time that it’s treated by Israel as if it were a sovereign nation with which Israel is at war and which is attacking it, ruled by a rogue terrorist regime with whom no negotiations are possible. So basically a state of judicially certified endless war. No way to negotiate with an enemy who’s defined as outside the law.
The news blackout and general censorship of all images coming out of Gaza constitute a kind of Rawlsian veil of ignorance that allows Israel to maintain its fictional status as a liberal democracy. But it’s in the West Bank that this veil is most dramatically torn away, and I’m just going to show you a couple of images of spaces and places. This is a photograph by Mickey Kratzman, an Israeli photographer who’s done marvellous work. And I should emphasise that a lot of the exposure of this condition I’m talking about comes from Israeli scholars. It’s not as if this is … Israelis are in total denial about all this. The notorious security wall known … the names of these things are always contested … known as the Apartheid Wall by Palestinians is the most visible manifestation, a 30-foot-high wall of concrete slabs that snakes its way through the West Bank, often plunging deep into the occupied territories to protect the Israeli settlements in the West Bank – which are of course violations of international law – or to surround Palestinian villages such as Qalqilya and cut them off from the agricultural lands on which their economic life depends. Having travelled all over the West Bank myself, I’ve seen that the economic strangulation of the West Bank is enforced by this wall in the most certain terms.
There’s also an attempt to mend the veil, you say … I think of this as the veil exposing itself. This is another wall that protects a settlement called Gilo, near Jerusalem, by making the wall seem to disappear and become invisible, in favour of a depopulated Arabian pastoral landscape in the distance. The actual village of Bayt Jala is on the hillside opposite, and you can see it’s a heavily-populated Palestinian village, quite unlike the depopulated pastoral painted on the wall.
But these efforts I think seem only to make the veil more egregiously visible, exposing the fantastic contradiction between the imaginary peace the Israelis talk about and the actual state of permanent war in which they find themselves living. I’m going to show you a couple of recent documentary films, just clips from them, one by an Israeli, the other by a Palestinian, which expose the nature of illegalised immigration when it’s concentrated into a relatively tiny space and imposed on an indigenous population. The Israel film I want to show is entitled Checkpoint, by Yoav Shamir, in 2003. It’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary which looks at the more than 500 fixed and flying checkpoints that are sprinkled profusely over the West Bank. And the first scene I’m going to show you is one of these flying checkpoints. It opens the film and introduces you to the petty details of daily life under military occupation.
What follows this is then everyone being forced to remove all their clothes from their suitcases to put them on the ground, and particularly the woman in the centre, all her underwear is dumped on the road. Why begin this film, which is called Checkpoint, with this scene? I think one thing we’re pretty clear is the banality of the scene. Again, the sense that this is a boring ritual, one that’s repeated so often that it’s regarded as a routine performance by the Israelis and a numbing, daily humiliation to be endured with silent resentment by the Palestinians. It has all the signs of a border crossing, with the inspection of belongings and the emptying of suitcases, but it’s important to note that this is not taking place at any border between Palestine and Israel, but is internal to the West Bank on the road between Nablus, the second-oldest city in Palestine, and Jericho, the oldest. Jerusalem is the third-oldest city in the country.
The second thing I think strikes us is the attitude of the soldiers, a mixture of kind of cynical detachment, arrogance and insolence as they smile and smirk self-consciously for the camera, and strut their authority over older people. They issue contradictory commands, one soldier telling the Palestinians to line up by the side of the road, then ordering them to remove their suitcases, and then the other impatiently ordering them to line up again by the roadsides. The Palestinians register their sense of being caught in a wedge between two arbitrary authorities by pointing out … the driver says, “He told us to get our bags,” And the driver tried to claim an exception for himself both from the line-up and removal of his belongings.
This is a scene of illegalised immigration in two sense of the phrase. On the one hand, it imposes upon the lawful, native inhabitants of a country a ritual that reduces them to the status of immigrants in their own land, immigrants that are greeted under a cloud of suspicion as potential criminals or terrorists. On the other hand, the soldiers themselves as representatives of an unlawful military occupation are performing a kind of arbitrary and capricious authority that amounts to the lawlessness of mere force embodied in the automatic weapons they carry so ostentatiously. The real illegal immigrants in this scene are the soldiers themselves, and the quarter of a million settlers that Israel has planted in the West Bank.
Having travelled around the West Bank with Palestinians myself, subjected to periodic stops at flying checkpoints, I can testify that this scene is absolutely typical and true to my own experience. On one stop the teenager soldier who inspected my passport expressed surprised to find an American in the West Bank, and he said, “Well, what are you doing here?” My answer was, “I was about to ask you the same question.” Of course, my Palestinian comrades immediately put their fingers to their lips and urged me to shut up. Later they told me that if I had not been there they probably would have all been beaten up by the soldiers.
A second clip I’d like to show you. This is at a permanent, not a flying checkpoint.
So if the soldiers at the flying checkpoint were acting out all the kind of telltale signs of a fascist mentality, this mindset is made verbally explicit at the main permanent checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. This nice young soldier, probably a student, probably a fine young man, has completely gone over to the dark side in this moment of candour. He calls the Palestinians “animals”, denying their humanity, and he’s defiant and proud to be telling the truth about an attitude he knows he shares with many of his countrymen: “We are human beings, they are not.” Racism dissolves into a bioracial picture of species difference itself. Ariel Sharon once put it in the clearest terms when he said, “We must treat the Palestinians like roaches in a bottle.”
The irony of these scenes can’t be lost on anyone who has, as I do, a deep sympathy for and connection with Israel and the Jewish people. These soldiers are only a couple of generations away from the victims of the Holocaust, and the whole fascist resolution of the Jewish question in terms that are intelligible in terms of illegalised immigration. Jews were illegalised in Nazi Germany, treated as racial foreigners in the midst of the German folk, subject to dispossession, expropriation of their property, deporting, and of course a final solution of industrialised genocide. All this supported by a process of legalisation justified by a state of emergency, what Nazi legal philosopher Carl Schmitt called “the state of exception”. Small wonder that right alongside the legalised immigration encouraged by the law of return, there is a significant tendency toward immigration of middle class Israeli Jews who cannot bear watching their children transformed into what this young soldier has just performed, that is, into fascists by the occupation. As one Israeli put it in another documentary film about this issue, “I would be willing to send my children to risk their lives in defence of this country, but to see them becoming morally corrupted as agents of this occupation is more than I can bear.” And this is producing a moral reverse immigration.
Israelis with a sense of history and justice understand quite clearly that the security wall and the occupation and the checkpoints have only incidentally to do with security. They are, as Israeli scholar Ilan Pappé has shown, instruments of a long process of ethnic cleansing that began in 1948 and continues to the present day, always hidden under the veil of legality on the one hand and the exceptional demands of security on the other. Key to this process is the double system of legalised immigration for Jews, and the reduction of Palestinians to the status of illegal immigrants. The aim is finally to encourage all Palestinians to emigrate, not by direct violence, but by a war of legal attrition that makes ordinary life and civil society impossible.
The Palestinians constitute about 50% of the population of Israel/Palestine, or Greater Israel as the Right likes to call it. A disproportionate share of this population is under 25 years old, unemployed, and living in a state of constant rage and emotional mobilisation. I mean, Palestine is a country, to go back to in an earlier talk today, of children, most of them under 25.
Now I want to show you one clip from a recent Palestinian film that shows the other perspective on this situation. It’s called Journey 110, made by an art student named Khaled Jarrar, which contrasts strikingly with the Israeli film in its strict economy of means. The single camera as opposed to multiple cameras, and … well, you’ll see for yourself.
This film is called Journey 110 because it involves a single day in a 110-metre passageway under a highway near Jerusalem that is for Jews only, and this is the passageway that Palestinians use. This is their dignified way of passing. Rather than going through a checkpoint, this is the alternative. This is the illegal way of going to and from Jerusalem from Ramallah. I think in relation to the question of image and identity, one of the geniuses of this film is the fact that it shows no faces at any time. If you were to give a title to this, it would be something like You Have Seen Their Feet, and the tenderness of the feet, and the passage which they make in order to maintain some kind of autonomy and freedom of movement.
The film also … it’s 12 minutes long. I could show you the whole thing, but there isn’t time. And it subjects the viewer to the ordeal that it represents, turning the darkened space of the theatre into an analogue of the underpass itself. I’m sorry, it wasn’t quite dark enough here to see it. It should be seen in absolute darkness. Its insistence on remaining confined to the space enacts the sense that Palestinians also live in a no exit situation, with no outsides to their underground existence. Movement and obstruction, migration and internment, have become for them a way of life, rather than a temporary passage. In this regard the film reminds me of the structuralist films of Michael Snow in the 60’s, with their obsessive exploration of a single confined space, especially the corridor, as scene of minimalism. But now that the perceptual exploration of that space has been given a specific human and political content the details of the film – the plastic bags, the bare feet, the voices – puncture the darkness and make it clear why the Palestinian people are so difficult to control, why every barrier erected against them they find some way around.
Okay. I want to conclude now by pulling back from the situation with a more general and global view of the issue by way of a brief meditation on the work of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who has made the question of immigration a central topic of her work. At document 11 she installed a re-creation of an immigration checkpoint that could have been anywhere in the world. The spectator passed through a gauntlet of loud noises, shouting, and dazzling searchlights that induced an intense affect of anxiety and disorientation, the kind that almost invariably accompanies to some degree every passage through a border security checkpoint.
But more interesting and successful, I think, is Bruguera’s current long-term performance project in Europe which aims to create an immigrant’s party, a political organisation focussed … based not on ethnicity, not on identity in that sense, but on the identity of .. the fabricated identity of the illegalised immigrant, and the shared experience of immigration.
Her work is centred in Paris, and the wonderful paradox of it is, she’s managed to get the French government to finance this on the grounds that it is an artistic project. If she said, “This is a political project,” I’m sure no money would have been forthcoming.
It’s impossible to predict at this point what will become of Bruguera’s project. As a work of conceptual performance art it could simply pass into the archives as an interesting idea whose time is, as Jacques Derrida liked to always say, yet to come. Whatever the result, the process will centrally engage the question of the image, and especially the deconstruction of the racist and racialising images endemic to the representation of immigrants. The objective will be not merely to change the way people see immigration, but to change the way that immigrants see themselves, enabling the production of new self-generated images and words to articulate the common interests of immigrants, both legal and illegal. And to do so, not just in order to create new icons, but to generate new situations, from the immediacy of the mass assembly to the staging of events for the mass media.
As perhaps the fastest growing population on the planet earth, the immigrants party will have to create its own slogans and identity as an emergent public sphere, building on the blank space or place of negativity that is the absolutely critical component of any democracy or political action. It may even have to reinvent a new form of Rawls’s veil of ignorance in order to suspend the divisive forces of identity politics, racial, ethnic and religious schisms, typified by that other veil, the one worn by women, that has been so toxic within French political culture.
I’m aware that this will all sound impossibly utopian and imaginary, but that’s surely another role that the image has to play in relation to illegalised immigrant, namely, to set out hypothesies, possibilities and experimental scenarios for a world of open borders and universal human rights. The road of militarisation and racist schemes of national security is a one-way street to global fascism and anarchy.
And there is one contemporary phenomenon at the level of the image that offers just a twinkle of hope. As you may know, the most powerful man in the world at this moment, the current President of the United States, has been declared by the leadership of the opposition party to be an illegal immigrant. The Republican Party does not disavow the claim of the emergent Tea Party in my country that Obama was not born in the US. So Obama’s image has now gone through the entire cycle of demonisation and idealisation, merged with the visages of Jesus, Mao, Lenin, Osama bin Laden – which his name of course lends itself to – and Hitler. He’s now revealed at last as an undocumented alien.
When an African American man embodying all the characteristics of a multi-racial identity that both fulfils and defies racial categories becomes the leader of the so-called free world, and then is declared to be an illegal immigrant, perhaps an immigrants party is not so very far behind. Obama’s image, as distinct from his actual policies, has had the effect of rending the veil of liberalism, or more precisely of turning it into a screen for the projection of the most extremely antithetical fantasies.
We’ll continue to need the veil of ignorance in order to secure any notion of legality with respect to migration, and we will need to rend that veil and project new images on it in order to have any hope of justice.