The shadow of non-citizens in an immoral economy of risk
Stephen Hartman, PhD
Cord / Fall, 2018
This work is based on the financial support provided by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences. The author acknowledges that opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in any publication generated by the NIHSS- supported research is that of the author, and that the NIHSS accepts no liability in this regard.
Consider Kris’s excitement: the Republican incumbent in his deep red Kansas district – out! A Native American lesbian will replace him. Kris tells the story of going door-to-door canvasing for her. He hadn’t returned home since his transition and, for him, the local pastor’s trans son, each knock anticipated a slammed door. Much to his surprise, Kris was welcomed into the homes of his parents’ neighbors who listened to his prepared speech and commented on his convictions rather than his new goatee. Now all fired-up, Kris speaks about working with a trans advocacy group and wonders what it would be like to some day run for office. He speaks in a new voice with an increasingly deep tone that has a confident political cadence.
Kris’s circuitous path to citizenship can help us rethink what we mean when we refer to “the political.” Political life in his conservative region has long been dominated by advocacy for traditional family values. A political habitus, defined by Bourdieu (1977) as socialized norms that guide lasting dispositions to think, feel, and act in normative patterns, gave Christine a certain political capital and a trajectory in citizenship that Kris lacked. The habitus confirms business as usual and establishes patterns of participation that focus our attention and confirm our civic role: we know what we are supposed to do or allowed to do or prohibited from doing in public life and, like it or not, think about it or not, suffer in the face of it or not, act on it or not, our sense of ourselves as citizens is inextricably linked to the recognition granted from the habitus to, in Kris’s case, true-blue (that is deep-red) Americans.
Prior to the transition and before trans was ever mentioned on Fox News, Kris was invisible as a political subject—perhaps even more invisible than the Somali immigrants and undocumented immigrants whose effort to obtain status united “the opposition” in his district. Basic needs such as comfortable bathroom access (not to mention the right to dignified embodiment) fell far outside the routine discourse of rights in a zone of non-recognition. Bereft even of nonjuridical structures with which to congregate among political kin, Kris’s trans non-citizenship was a largely internal matter lived outside of civic measure and only quasi-experienced in its earliest formulation as something more like identity. Entering the habitus as an outsider, the political voice of a trans subject strikes its first chord in tension with rhythms of “normal” citizens. But prior to that, prior to a contested role in “the political,” the idea “citizen” is as much a rubber stamp as a void: trans gender is excluded from the political as an unconscious rule that allows only subjects from “known” categories recognition from the State and Ideological State Apparatuses (Althusser, 1968). “Identity politics” comes on the scene only after non-citizenship has come to the fore.
Normative patterns of the political habitus vary from place to place according to the government design that rituals of citizenship support. To broaden the base of what counts as an act of citizenship, we need to interrogate unconscious workings of “the political” that already might (Marriot, 2018) become a field of contestation. This requires attention to an unconscious resonance that emerges into awareness as a political subject only when there is some disruption in the ordinary flow of things. The concept “moral economy” (Thompson, 1971; Scott, 1976) has been useful to citizenship studies because it describes how “revolts express concepts of legitimacy” (Shankar, 2018) that contest the habitus. On an “unconscious” level, a moral economy identifies a system of nonjuridical relations that appear to have informed non-citizen practices of citizenship and relationality all along, but in a fluid, unrepresented passage of sensual and affective messages about the exigencies of a livable life. A “relational conception of legitimacy” (Dube, 2018) grows in the space of the unregistered and allows for the articulation of concrete political demands that flout the administrative constraints offered by official political avenues. Christine, to return to Kris’s example, gains a trans voice through embodied and affective experiences of exclusion from normative gender that cohere as GLBT identity. Registration in the political habitus happens in the eruption of a collective affective valence refracted through complex interwoven identifications among noncitizens (Wheeler, 2018) as a future-oriented trauma narrative (Ngwenya, 2018). Of the 2018 election’s “purple wave,” Kris wryly comments, “Trans ahoy!”
Psychoanalysis provides a useful model for how zones of non-citizenship come into formulation in its attention to “internal object representation.” Internal objects are psychic placeholders for social interactions and, as such, they form the internal cast of characters and roles that guide perception and populate our narratives. Any given “internal object” is at once a representative of the object of my attention (mom) and of the affective structure that delimits our hierarchical interaction (mom!). An internal object can be a person with qualities or the role that a person(s) occupies (the pastor’s wife) in an economy of needs and desires; I may endow that internal object with a complex subjectivity or I may relate to that object only as a reflection of my needs—and vice versa (Winnicott, 1969). I am adding to the roster of internal objects a vague affiliation held in the “groupal mind” (Gonzalez, 2012) by the abstraction that we call “the political” insofar as the political convenes in Kris’s imagination as a potential for identification with like-subjects leading to recognition in the political habitus.
Back to Kris. The Other who is necessary to my self-assertion relates to me as an object along lines of mutual recognition when things go well and in a destructive mode when they don’t (Benjamin, 1988). Evangelical parents dress baby Christine in a pink frock and damn Kris to hell long before he seeks the recognition that counts him among political subjects. Yet even when object relations are gnarly and Kris experiences himself perpetually in the thrall of bad objects, it is better to have bad objects with whom one might spar for recognition than no objects at all. Such a state of politically “depleted object relations” reflects the desperate state of life for the most disenfranchised “silent citizens” (Von Lieres, 2018). The “subaltern” subject may have robust object use when it comes to family or community, but with regard to “the political” – not so much because robust object use demands an intersubjective recognition that is simply not there. Oddly enough, instability in the habitus brings the abject object into intersubjective space as a shadowy figure at risk in an immoral economy of politics.
In protest, a collective internal way of knowing identifies an emerging collective that had been banished from everyday awareness (see Mohanty, 2018 as an extreme example). Trans people lived among us long before Fox News identified trans as a risk to family values. A “risk object” such as trans or the indigenous can rest silent in the pacing back and forth of the everyday or rise up in jittery protest joining silent citizens in a demand for rights or services (Von Lieres, 2018; Piper, 2018; Anciano, 2018) — even power as we saw in the 2018 election’s “purple wave”. The risk object endures the political in a manner that is “unconscious” just as Kris and his kin forge virtual connections that will become “quiet encroachments” (Bayat, 2000) only after linking non-movements to “the social” – by knocking on doors sporting a proud goatee or in streetwise acts of spontaneous disruption (Von Lieres, 2018). The extraordinary always turns out to be an amplification of something that was already in the works: lived or barely lived or dissociated but somehow resonant in the moment of political rupture.
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