The bio-politics of immigration

By Joanna Zylinska
12th April 2005

Drawing on official acts of Western multicultural democracies - predominantly the UK Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act (2002) and its accompanying documents and actions - I want to discuss in this paper the workings of the current politics of immigration. Looking at some of the ways in which the dominant ideas around asylum seekers are developed with direct reference to their bodies and lives, I will describe the current politics of immigration as a bio-politics, a form of life- and body-management. But, as well as considering the current structuring of the ‘asylum and immigration issue’, I also want to think about the possibility of imagining a new, more ethical response to this ‘issue’.

The ‘asylum and immigration issue’ lies at the very heart of the broader issue concerning the constitution of the public sphere. Indeed, we can go so far as to argue that democratic participation in the public sphere is enabled by the preservation of its boundaries, and by the simultaneous establishment of its ‘constitutive outside’, i.e. of what does not ‘officially’ belong to democratic institutions, while also serving as a differentiating mechanism between their ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, ‘legitimate’ and ‘bogus’ sides. In contemporary Western democracies numerous singular lives are being barred from the life of the legitimate community, in which standards of recognition allow one access to the category of ‘the human’. In order to develop a set of norms intended to regulate the state organism, politics establishes a certain exclusion from these norms, to protect the constitution of the polis and distinguish it from what does not ‘properly’ belong to it. But it is not only the host population that is subjected to - and simultaneously constituted through - the regulatory controls of its lives, such as population censuses, vaccination programmes and the politicisation of sexual health. The ‘healthy’ body politic needs to be maintained in its vitality by preventing contamination from ‘outside’ - through viruses and plagues of all sorts.

The politics of immigration is thus a form of bio-politics, as it is involved in the management of citizens’ lives at a biological level - it penetrates their flesh, organs and cells. The bio-politics of immigration looks after the bodies of the host community and protects them against parasites that might want to invade them. In order to be able to do this, the sovereign state needs to equip itself with technologies and tools that will allow it to trace, detect and eliminate these parasites. Technology is mobilised to probe and scan the bare life of those wanting to penetrate the healthy body politic: through the use of fingerprinting, iris recognition and scanners in lorries travelling, for example, across the English Channel, the presence and legitimacy of ‘asylum seekers’ can be determined, confirmed and fixed. And thus, through probing the bodies of the population a boundary between legitimate and illegitimate members of the community is established. This process depends on a truth regime already in place, a regime which classifies some bodies as ‘genuine’ and others (be it emaciated bodies of refugees arriving in Dover, squashed in lorries in which they have been smuggled to the ‘West’, or confined to the Norwegian Tampa ship hopelessly hovering off the shores of Australia) as ‘bogus’.

The bare life of the host community thus needs to be properly managed and regulated, with its unmanageable aspects placed in what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls a relation of exception, ‘an extreme form of relation by which something is included solely through its exclusion’. The inclusion of bare life in the legal and political order depends on a regulatory ban, on the constitution of ‘bandits’ whose life is exposed to injury and harm. This allows for a different treatment of ‘illegal’ immigrants from that of ‘legitimate asylum seekers’, which goes some way towards explaining why, for example, the US federal government could have passed welfare legislation in 1996 which specifically denied Medicaid-funded prenatal care to illegal immigrants, or why the UK Home Secretary could have proposed in 2002 to cut off benefits of those refugees who do not declare their ‘status’ on entering the country and are thus not considered ‘genuine’. But the question that remains occluded in these processes of ‘life management’ is, to borrow a phrase from the US cultural and political theorist Judith Butler, ‘which bodies come to matter - and why’?.

The borderline position of asylum seekers in Western democracies on the threshold of the state - both in a literal and figurative sense - makes us ask broader questions about legitimacy, political belonging and ethics. I want to suggest here that asylum seekers’ very position on the threshold of the body politic creates possibilities for imagining a different immigration politics, one which will be informed by a different ‘ethics of bodies that matter’. (Ethics will be understood here as a justification for politics, but also as something that will allow us to keep a check on politics, to make it accountable.)

In order to consider the possible form of this new politics of immigration, I want to look first at the current Labour immigration policy in the UK, and, in particular, its White Paper, ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain’ (February 2002), a document which paved the way for the subsequent Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act. ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven’ opens with a foreword which has been authored and signed by the recently departed Home Secretary, David Blunkett, author of the Labour Party’s new immigration policy. Blunkett adopts here a somewhat paternalistic, sermon-like tone, telling the British public that ‘There is nothing more controversial, and yet more natural, than men and women from across the world seeking a better life for themselves and their families’. (One cannot help but read both the fatherly tone and the family-oriented sense of this pronouncement as ironic in the light of Blunkett’s own recent fight over the recognition of paternity and access to his children with his ex-lover Ms Kimberly Quinn, an event that led to his departure from the government in December 2004.) In his apparent attempt to win over ‘the British public’ via the 2002 immigration paper, Blunkett establishes a sequence of logical equivalences (e.g. between a ‘natural’ desire for migration and a ‘natural’ feeling of apprehension felt by those whose territory the migrants enter) which are supposed to embrace and convey how ‘the nation’ feels about the issue of immigration. He thus speaks about the need to offer ‘a safe haven’ to ‘those arriving on our often wet and windy shores’. The ex-Home Secretary addresses and unravels the anxieties of all those self-appointed guardians of the national shores, from editors of tabloid newspapers to ‘my home is my castle’ John Bulls, who want to turn Britain into a fortress. Blunkett’s discussion of the problems connected with migration and asylum is supposed to rebuke accusations that Britain is out of line with other European nations when it comes to the way in which it deals with illegal immigration and asylum seekers, and that ‘people coming through the Channel Tunnel, or crossing in container lorries, constitutes an invasion’. Blunkett’s Foreword is thus aimed ‘against false perception’, which he attempts to overcome with ‘clarity’ and reason. Blunkett lays out his argument carefully, indicating errors in the public perception and correcting them with his own argument.

But it is not only the correction of errors that interests the ex-Home Secretary. Blunkett’s primary aim is the development of an immigration and asylum policy that ‘looks forward’. He thus warns the people not to act unwisely; explaining carefully that migration brings significant benefits and that it can advance the prosperity of the nation - provided it is properly managed. This last reservation makes Blunkett a thrifty prophet, resorting to the discourse of economics and management to explain his vision. As we know from the theorist of society Michel Foucault, the bio-politics of modern democracies works precisely through the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life. And, as if to illustrate this, it is by means of proposing ‘rational controlled routes’ of immigration (rather than ‘the international ‘free for all’, the so called ‘asylum shopping’ throughout Europe, and the 'it is not our problem' attitude which is too often displayed') that Blunkett hopes to promote his government's policy. But the calculated rationality of his outlook seems permanently threatened by the irrational ' coming not only from the opponents of his policy but also from the author of the White Paper himself. After laying out his proposal for a 'rational' and 'controlled' economic migration and asylum system, Blunkett adds: 'It is possible to square the circle'. At this instant the voice of reason founders, and immigration policy reveals that it is only a very rough sketch, one that allows the draughtsman to resort to illicit geometrical moves in order to complete the picture.

Indeed, Blunkett's prophetic vision for Britain as a 'safe haven' depends on a number of exclusions firmly in place. First of all, the ex-Home Secretary affirms that this new vision will only work if we are 'secure within our sense of belonging and identity'. At best a utopian fantasy of homeliness, at worst a conscious foreclosure of an ethics of openness and hospitality - Blunkett's politics of migration therefore seems premised on a logical impossibility. It is a hospitality which is in fact based on closure, on foreseeing the foreign threat and trying to avert it. Blunkett thus suddenly adopts the role of a protector of the public sphere, whose law both produces and excludes the unlawful, those without the integrity and belonging shared by the members of the polis. For it is this when he goes on to announce: 'We have fundamental moral obligations which we will always honour', only to counterbalance this claim with the following reservation: 'At the same time, those coming into our country have duties that they need to understand and which facilitate their acceptance and integration'. His paradoxical immigration policy of 'squaring the circle' is also described as 'a 'two-way street' requiring commitment and action from the host community, asylum seekers and long-term migrants alike'. It is perhaps not surprising (which does not mean it is intentional on Blunkett's part) that a linguistic paradox is used when outlining our moral obligations and their duties, since the asylum seekers' position 'before the law' itself entails a paradox - even though they are outside it, they are supposedly subject to its power. Constituted as threshold political beings, migrants and 'asylum seekers' are defined precisely through their borderline status that places them on the outskirts of the community. Then how can they be expected to 'have duties' imposed on them by the host community and manifest commitment to these duties if this very community needs a prior definition of itself, a definition which confirms identity and belonging in relation, or even opposition, to what might threaten it'

We also need to consider how the political status of asylum seekers and migrants is actually established. Who legislates the duties that they will be expected to follow? What is the source of the moral obligation that will help Britons 'manage' the asylum issue? To what extent is the state entitled to impose the law on those whose identity it defines as being situated 'before' the law, both in the spatial and temporal sense? In particular, given that in the years 2001-2004 the majority of all asylum seekers in the UK were Iraqi, is this conditional openness in the context of the 'Gulf War II' not a certain blind spot in the rhetoric and politics of the sovereign government which does not see a connection between the Iraqi refugees from their own country, whose lives are threatened by Western bombs, and the Iraqi asylum seekers trying to come into Britain? This form of politics, with its underlying moral obligations, seems to be based on a certain occluded but inevitable and thus constitutive violence, where the democratic state becomes a point of indistinction between violence and law.

Indeed, even the very process of naming an Iraqi, Albanian or Kurdish refugee an 'asylum seeker', towards whom the hospitality of the host nation is to be extended, entails an element of violence. Judith Butler explains that the process of naming involves the setting of a boundary, and also the repeated inculcation of a norm. How can we then rearticulate the hegemonic political discourses in order to shift the borders that delineate and establish the contours of the human within these discourses? How can we imagine a new politics of immigration, a politics which will be informed by an ethics of response and responsibility that goes beyond the set of moral obligations? We might perhaps suggest that a responsible immigration policy should not be based on the idea of integration and immersion but rather on the preservation of the outside as 'the site where discourse meets its limits'. This does not of course mean that all asylum seekers should be permanently kept on the threshold of the country or community they want to enter, and that we should naively celebrate them as a difference that resists incorporation. But it is to suggest that the bio-politics of devouring the other, of digesting and disseminating him or her across the body politic, in fact forecloses on the examination of the normative regime that establishes and legitimates the discourse of national identity.

The 'asylum seeker' - itself a product of the regime to which s/he is subsequently opposed - can only function on the outside of that regime as its limitation and a guarantee of its constitution. (Once the community truly opens itself up to what it does not know, both its knowledge of difference and self-knowledge are placed under scrutiny, a state of events that leads to the inevitable shifting of the boundaries between the host as the possessor of goods and the newcomer as their 'seeker'.) The idea of liberal multiculturalism in which all difference is welcomed and then quickly incorporated into the host community risks occluding the violence at the heart of the constitution of this very community, even if this community defines itself in terms of diversity or pluralism, and not necessarily national or ethnic unity. The task of refiguring the 'outside' as a future horizon, without attempting to get rid of or absorb this outside altogether, presents itself as a more responsible response to the 'asylum question'.

In the final part of this paper, I want to suggest that the challenge that the excluded and rejected bodies produce to a symbolic political hegemony comes in the form of an ethical injunction, in revealing the foundational ethicality of the 'universal political acts' already in place. For these acts - such as the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act - can only be formulated in response to the other, someone whose being precedes the political and makes a demand on it. Knocking on the door of Western democracies, 'bodies that matter' are already ethical; they are already taken account of, even if they are to be latter found not to matter so much to these sovereign regimes. The alleged sovereignty of the democratic subject, whose response to the needs of the 'other' has to be properly managed through the application of utilitarian principles intermixed with a dose of human-rights rhetoric, represents thus the foreclosure of ethics.

I understand ethics here as a need to respond to what precedes me and challenges my self-sufficiency and oneness, to what calls on me to justify 'my place under the sun'. This realisation is crucial for developing our notion of citizenship and political justice. To actively become a citizen, a host, a member of the public sphere - instead of just passively finding oneself inhabiting it as a result of an alleged privilege that covers up what it excludes - I need the other not in a negative sense, as an outside to my own positive identity, but to put me in question and make me aware of my responsibility. This is the only way in which mature political participation can take place; otherwise we will only be 'running a software', i.e. applying a ready-made programme to an allegedly predictable situation in which a need for a decision gives way to a technical manoeuvre. Through an encounter with the other I realise that the political subjectivity I inhabit is always already temporarily stabilised, that it can be changed, redrafted. And it is bio-politics that establishes the sense of normativity through managing and regulating bare life, a life which is subject to this ethical injunction, to intrusion and injury, to a call to response and responsibility.

The problem of openness which is to be extended to our current and prospective guests - even, or perhaps especially, unwanted ones - therefore must be seen as coextensive with the ethical problem. Of course, absolute and unlimited hospitality can be seen as crazy, self-harming or even impossible. But ethics in fact spans two different realms - it is always suspended between this unconditional order of the demand to answer for my place under the sun and open to the other that precedes me, and the conditional order of ethnos, of singular customs, norms, rules, places and political acts. If we see ethics as situated between these two different regimes it becomes clearer why we always remain in a relationship to ethics, why we must respond to it, or, in fact, why we will be responding to it no matter what. Even if we respond 'non-ethically' to our guest by imposing on him a norm or political legislation as if it came from us; even if we decide to close the door in the face of the other, make him wait outside for an extended period of time, send him back, cut off his benefits or place him in a detention centre, we must already respond to an ethical call. In this sense, our politics is preceded by an ethical injunction, which does not of course mean that we will 'respond ethically' to it (by offering him/her unlimited hospitality or welcome). But, and here lies the paradox, we will respond ethically to it (in the sense that the injunction coming from the other will make us take a stand, even if we choose to do nothing whatsoever and pretend that we may carry on as if nothing has happened).

The ethics of bodies that matter is not only a paradox though. It also entails the possibility of changing the laws and acts of the polis and delineating some new forms of political identification and belonging. The ethics of bodies that matter does not thus amount to waiting at the door for a needy and humble asylum seeker to knock, and extending a helping hand to him or her. It also involves realising that the s/he may intrude, invade and change my life to the extent that it will never be the same again, and that I may even become a stranger in the skin of my own home.

Joanna Zylinska is a cultural theorist writing on new technologies, ethics, cultural studies and feminist theory. She is a Lecturer in New Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Zylinska is the author of The Ethics of Cultural Studies (2005) and On Spiders, Cyborgs and Being Scared: the Feminine and the Sublime (2001) and editor of The Cyborg Experiments: the Extensions of the Body in the Media Age, a collection of essays on the work of performance artists Stelarc and Orlan (2002).

This is an abbreviated version of her article, 'The Universal Acts: Judith Butler and the Biopolitics of Immigration', which was published in the academic journal Cultural Studies in July 2004. A number of political and philosophical ideas drawn upon here can be traced back to the work of Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and Emmanuel Levinas.