Guest Blog from Ippolit Belinski: Musings on Immigration

Immigration entry stamp on the inside page of a passport (XL)

After some talks with Bob, we agreed that I would write a guest blog article. Because our views may not converge, it should be stressed that the views expressed in this article are mine, and I do not know whether Bob agrees with them in any way (if you are interested, ask him Emoji).A reader of these comics would quickly notice the theme of immigration emerging, albeit ironically and sporadically, without an explicit political alignment. This theme is visible, for instance, in these issues:

Page 419 of Warped Cosmos

Page 425 of Warped Cosmos

426

Page 426 of Warped Cosmos

 

 

 

 

 

 

Migration is of course something pertaining to humanity’s very long history. It is highly doubtful that will ever change. We had migrated from one city to another, from one nation to another, from one corner of the earth to another; and when the earth was not enough, we started exploring the possibility of migrating to a different planet (http://www.spacex.com/about).
Equally, to migrate has always meant to survive. We did not simply move, we had to move in order to survive as a species. We did so during the ice age, as we did during the innumerable wars, and the move to a different planet has exactly the same reasons. This primordial instinct for survival is exactly what is at the core of every migrant.

And yet, this same instinct for survival is what triggers the resistance towards migrants. We have an almost innate will to repel anything that will cause a change. Our ‘way of life’ is literally at stake when we view hordes of migrants. There is an instinctual worry that this place cannot sustain all, a Malthusian (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Robert_Malthus) worry that there simply isn’t enough for everyone.

These two sides of our survival instinct are obviously at odds with one another. And they show to be at odds continuously. Both migrants themselves and those who view migrants from a distance are at directly opposing ends. A neutral observer (if there is ever such a thing) would thus observe a strict dichotomy in our survival instinct: what triggers our migration also triggers our resistance towards migrants. In other words, we cannot both be open to new possibilities in the future by migrating ourselves, and hold to the safety of the tradition by opposing other migrants.

This, of course, only applies to an individualistic view; which is, furthermore, not necessarily hypocritical. In most cases it is even highly rational – it is after all highly rational to worry about our personal survival.And yet, the issue of migration is mostly problematic because we view things in this individualistic way. I highly doubt we can change this, precisely because the larger part of it is so tied to our primordial instinct. But there nevertheless remains an acute need to change something about our views of migration. And the way to do this, I claim, is through a change of our understanding of politics. Because we view politics in an individualist way (that is, not through group positions, but as individual wills and wants represented by elected officials – which furthermore is only possible through fragmenting various groups into smaller units, the ageless ‘divide and conquer’, but I digress… Emoji), we further delay doing something about this urgent issue.You perhaps noticed that up until this point, I have talked of migration and not immigration. The reason for this is that immigration is a political term – it already presupposes a political institution to which one belongs and to which others migrate. Immigration thus more closely relates to the second instinct of survival and more readily lends itself to resistance towards migrants. Unlike migration also, immigration is often used as a pejorative. It is for this reason that we need to change our understanding of politics if we are to do something about immigration.

Where change is needed
Immigration is most commonly paired with the most basic human needs: water, food, shelter, etc. Trying to solve the issue through humanitarian means only, appealing to the immigrants’ basic needs, we forget what it is to be human. There is no view of the immigrant as more than a mere biological function. And it is here that our second form of survival instinct kicks in. We offer the immigrants water, food and shelter; but we also realise that there is not enough of it for both ourselves and the immigrants.And this is the crux of the matter, by denying the immigrants their political agency, as more and above the mere biological consumer of basic needs, we remain within the problematic dichotomy of our survival instinct. It is precisely because the immigrant is viewed in simplistic biological terms – just another human being – that the political aspect of that being is being undermined and sometimes even repressed.

But what is this political aspect as opposed to the biological? Here I resort to a somewhat technical discussion following Hannah Arendt’s work. The political is in the first place that through which one can disclose their uniqueness. One does that through speech, through talking in the public space of other things than mere biological needs. Arendt thus distinguishes between what we are (human beings) and who we are (unique human beings). It is the latter that makes life meaningful, through which we may rise to the level of gods, become immortal. In other words, the political aspect is what makes us human in more than a biological sense, it provides us with bonds that only human beings can feel (bonds of community, of history, of the immense vastness of the world and our place in that immensity, etc.).You will note that with all immigrants their political agency is always at stake. Once we have taken the political terminology – i.e. immigration over migration – we have already accepted the migrant as a mere biological other. Not simply because we have hidden the migrant in some dark corner, restricted their mobility, denied them work, etc.; but most importantly, through these acts, we have taken away the possibility of self-determination, and we have done that by denying them the most basic of human capabilities: speech! In all likeness, they resemble plants more than human beings – at best well-watered plants in plenty of sunlight, but plants nonetheless. We have denied them the ability of speech by both hiding them, and by viewing them as extraneous to our discourses¬†– i.e. statements like ‘they do not know our culture and values’, so they cannot participate in talking about our culture and values.This is most clear in contemporary treatment of asylum seekers. And I will resort to a recent example in Europe where the repression of political agency is most clear – Germany. Germany had seen a great rise of refugees seeking asylum since 2012, after having seen a continuous drop between 1993-2011. The reasons are clear to most: strict regulations in 1993 led to lower inflow, while the wars in Syria and Chechnya led to a rise. What is uniquely clear in Germany is that these refugees have refused to be contained within the boundaries set on them by the states and the federation. They had set up camps in public spaces to protest against the speechlessness imposed on them. Their aim was not a biological life – food and shelter are provided; they aim to live a dignified life. Is it surprising that their main concern is the so-called Residenzpflicht (a mandatory residence within specific boundaries)? To put it differently, they are not simply restricted in movement; the restriction is on the public space itself and conversely on their speech. This is a crucial point. We are not simply talking about being hidden away in an outer limit of the specific association. So¬†I will repeat, being hidden denies entry to the public space where one can distinguish who one is.

As Arendt puts it, herself an immigrant for over a decade, all that immigrants seek is “the confidence that [they] are of some use in this world”; being more than mere biological lives, they remain people who “carry their dignity within themselves”.

What we should do is blatantly obvious. We should stop looking at immigrants as mere biological consumers. We should refrain from the politically laden term ‘immigration’ altogether and view them as migrants. They do not simply enter various territories from a biological necessity, even though these play a major role. They are equally political agents, unique human beings with a will to leave a mark on this earth.

For let us not forget that our great insistence on human rights (something we supposedly at least carried out two wars in the last decade) carries with it an equally great demand: “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, [breaks] down the very moment when those who [profess] to believe in it [are] for the first time confronted with people who [have] indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they [are] still human” (Arendt,The Origins of Totalitarianism).

Two brief footnotes:
1. I explicitly disregard the geopolitical reasons – i.e. (neo-)colonisation; while this plays a major role, it is irrelevant to the point I’m making in this article.2. The cultural aspect of immigration typically follows the same line of reasoning – our values are at stake, introducing other values will diminish our values; there would be no reason to fear immigrants if our values were abundant and thereby safe. As Zizek points out, “enjoyment is not something that was previously possessed; it is an epiphenomenal excess of social repression itself … Where ideology succeeds is in fantasmatically translating this sense of lost enjoyment into the theft of enjoyment … the immigrant is someone with perverse firms of excessive enjoyment … and who thereby steals and/or corrupts our enjoyment (our ‘way of life’)” (The Zizek Dictionary, p. 82).You can find my blog on http://paradoxoftheday.com
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