What is politics and where might we find it?
Politics and its surrounding themes are extremely intangible and a definition is therefore hard to pin down. In this essay, I suggest that instead of seeking to define politics, we should explore other critical ways of conceptualising it, such as exploring what politics is associated with and investigating its real life manifestations.
Politics is prominently associated with the governance of a country or a geographical area and often regards the political decisions made by any given ‘state’. But like politics, the ‘state’ is another intangible idea that appears to be locatable, but in reality is both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I reference this idea in my blog post on sovereignty and the state, using Gupta’s theory who argues that there is no locational or single state, but the key to understanding is through anywhere the ‘state’ makes itself manifest in reality. Consequentially, while politics can be found in state institutions – such as law, policing or citizenship – I reveal that the lived realities and effects that trickle down from these institutions are also a prominent place to locate politics.
I argue that the lived manifestations of the ‘state’ are a key site to find politics because they usually involve a power relation between the ‘state’ and everyday people. I will use the political manifestations of the state institution citizenship to highlight this argument. Citizenship is a clear example of this power dynamic as people are dependent upon the state to be included. This connects to themes discussed in my blog post on legal fictions and political exclusion in how Coutin is arguing that, "legal truth is constructed rather than uncovered” (1995, 550). By situating citizenship within this framework, it is evident that truth and the consequential status of people are decided by the power dynamic of the ‘state’.
This makes citizenship such a key function of politics because it determines human reality. Citizenship however not only affects those who are included, but also those who are not. Ticktin’s article on humanitarianism in France brings this to life by demonstrating what happens when people are deemed not to be citizens and how the state navigates these transient realities.
Ticktin explores the role of humanitarianism, compassion and also deservingness in understanding how undocumented immigrants are granted residency in France. Ticktin explains how in France in 1998, the ‘illness clause’ was turned into law, which essentially granted legal residency permits to those already living in France who have life-threatening diseases and cannot receive proper treatment in their own country. This sparked a moment of serious social change as now; the disabled or injured "become the most mobile, the most able to travel" (Tikctin 2006, 41). Ticktin reveals therefore that immigrant deservingness became heavily situated upon the ability of immigrants to prove mental or physical traumas. Citizenship is only given to those who remain diseased, and it is these people who become the most deserving because they use their biology to gain access. Ticktin refers to this idea as immigrants trading "in biological integrity for political recognition" (Ibid, 33).
It becomes apparent in this ethnography that the manifestations of the state institution of citizenship reveal a power dynamic between immigrants and the French state. Immigrant recognition of legitimacy is dependent upon the decisions made by humanitarian and social workers, who are representatives of the ‘state’. Immigrant fate becomes a negotiating process of deservingness, and depending on how well their physical body can evidence this, their reality will translate into legitimacy.
Immigrants having to prove legitimacy and a right to legality exposes citizenship as an active process that the ‘state’ engages with, which further exposes the power dynamic involved. De Genova’s work draws on this, “the law has entailed an active process of inclusion through ‘illegalisation’” (2002, 439), demonstrating how there cannot be citizenship without also having those who are deemed non-citizens. However, de Genova goes beyond this to argue that it an active relationship of the state that creates this binary, illegality does not simply exist because legality does. De Genova suggests that status of illegality is a relationship with the state not a quality of a person. It is precisely this power relationship between the state and immigrants in France where we see politics because their reality is dependent upon this active process of inclusion. If immigrants want to be included in citizenship and removed from illegalisation they have to fulfil strict criteria that the ‘state’ determines.
Another political manifestation of the state institution of citizenship is evidenced in the cultural and everyday political reality of those not deemed citizens. The difficult process of immigrants trying to obtain citizenship exposes another power dynamic that is situated between the binary of citizens and non-citizens. Even after immigrants are granted residency in France, they will always be tainted with inequality because they are “stripped of their legal personas when identified solely as suffering bodies, and, as such, they cannot be protected by the law; they are rendered politically irrelevant. And although they may be liberated from suffering, the are not liberated into full citizenship" (Ibid, 44). Culturally, immigrants will never be able to properly integrate into French society because they are ostracised by the fact that they are labeled merely as people who are sick and who have no cultural relevance.
I have argued that politics is and can be found in the everyday manifestations of state functions, which expose a power dynamic between the ‘state’ and everyday people. I used citizenship as a key example of a state function that has intense repercussions for everyday realities. I demonstrated initially that one manifestation of citizenship is the dependency on the ‘state’, which altered immigrant realities by subjecting them to strict processes of proving deservingness through health discourses. Another consequential reality for immigrants in relation to the ‘state’ was therefore the change in their political relevance, as culturally they merely exist as suffering bodies inscribed with inequality.
Coutin, Susan Bibler. 1995. Smugglers or Samaritans in Tuscon, Arizona: Producing and Contesting Legal Truth. American Ethnologist 22(3): 549-571.
De Genova, Nicholas P. 2002. "Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life". Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (1): 419-447. Annual Reviews. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085432.
Gupta, A., 1995. blurred boundaries: the discourse of corruption, the culture of politics, and the imagined state. American Ethnologist, 22(2), pp.375-402.
Ticktin, M., 2006. Where ethics and politics meet. American Ethnologist, 33(1), pp.33-49.