What counts as politics and who counts as political subjects are two sides of the same question
The Subjects of Politics
For more than twenty years I have been focusing on one, and only one, topic: the subject(s) of politics. The phrase has two meanings and I have been exercised by both meanings.
First, it means what counts as politics. When asked, most people would say that politics is what happens in parliaments and councils where the business of government gets done. But then most people’s political lives revolve around streets, squares, prisons, courts, hospitals, schools, neighbourhoods, campuses, social clubs, and, even, pubs. In fact, to me what probably counts as politics is sorted in such sites.
If I were to ask people about politics, they will probably be either puzzled or will dismiss the question of politics all together. But if we were to observe what they do in their everyday life and convey our findings, they may be surprised how much of their time is spent with politics.
This leads to the second meaning of the phrase. It means who counts as political subjects. Again, if you go by what most people might say, who counts as political subjects is pretty much professional politicians. By contrast, citizens live apolitical lives. Their business is to disturb nobody’s business.
Both these meanings are beautifully called into question by a W.H. Auden poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’ written in 1939 as an imaginary epitaph. This is one of my all-time favourite poem along with Constantine Cavafy's ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’.
After listing all the usual things that a citizen is expected to do, Auden asks if this ‘unknown citizen’ was free or happy. He makes the government retort ‘The question is absurd. Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.’ What Auden exposes is the absurd separation between citizen and politics that we have come to accept.
By carefully studying what actually people do when they are being or becoming political, I try to close the gap between citizenship and politics. What matters is less what people say but more how they act. Most these acts are minor but their significance (and inventiveness) does not derive from their immediate effects. Cumulatively, they begin to alter the course of things.
Who would have thought pitching a tent in front of a cathedral would have generated as much politics as it did? Who would have thought whistle-blowing would have had global effects? Who would have thought that prisoners would gain the right to vote when a prisoner took government to the court? Well, of course, these are rhetorical questions. To study acts – or deeds, if you like – by which people close the gap between citizenship and politics has a tradition.
How do we study the ways in which people close this gap? We worked with diverse activist groups such as hackers, Kurdish people in Turkey, sex workers across Europe, gay and lesbian activists in Latvia and migrants in Hungary, the Roma people in Germany, Indigenous activists in India, Canada, and Australia, and many others. Our research often invites activists to reflect on what their politics means to them and whether they think themselves as citizens. These groups of activists across often ‘marginalised’ by society, and do not consider themselves as citizens. But when we work with some of these groups they often reposition themselves as citizens. We call this process ‘becoming subjects’ of citizenship.
Our research found that by encouraging people to position themselves as citizens, they begin to articulate themselves differently and develop a critical attitude toward paradoxes belonging and engagement.
This performative approach is an intervention into how people imagine (or failed to imagine) themselves as citizens.
The performative research on politics aims three broad goals:
It challenges conventional thinking about citizenship and creates publics.
It encourages research as activism.
It provides a vocabulary through which activists can position themselves as citizens or political subjects.
You can read in this section about my active and completed projects, and publications related to them – both books and articles. Below I provide brief summaries of key books that have explored various subjects of politics.
From the rise of cyberbullying and hactivism to the issues surrounding digital privacy rights and freedom of speech, the Internet is changing the ways in which we govern and are governed as citizens. This book examines how citizens encounter and perform new sorts of rights, duties, opportunities and challenges through the Internet.
Writing this book was less a challenge than writing Being Political (as I wrote this one rather quickly within a few months though its problem gestated for ten years) – yet it is just as enigmatic. If we begin to think of political subjectivity as performativity (as we started with the concept ‘acts of citizenship’) then how do we approach those acts that traverse frontiers of states and nations? The book again attempts to break out of established habits of thinking about contemporary politics by eschewing concepts such as globalisation, transnationalism, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism and attempts to think through politics that traverses frontiers. We will see if it creates a small republic of its own.
Acts of Citizenship
With Greg Nielsen we worked closely in the early 2000s with a group of postgraduate students in Toronto and Montreal and this book is the result of that close collaboration. It was in this period that the concept 'acts of citizenship' became both an analytical and political way to approach citizenship as political subjectivity and political subjectivity as performativity.
This is the most challenging book I've written and it is still an enigma to me. What this book achieved for me was a 'clearing': breaking out a new path to think about relations of government, citizenship and space. In the process, I ended up creating a vocabulary that was alien to anyone outside the concerns of the book, perhaps even to me. The University of Minnesota Press took a considerable risk with a book such as this and I remain grateful to them. For it is this book that created a small 'republic' – a deterritorialised and dispersed republic of activist-intellectuals for whom the book became a source of further collaborative intellectual work.
About five years after the founding of the journal Citizenship Studies Bryan Turner and I assembled a group of scholars articulating both the interdisciplinarity and plurality of the field. We were rather surprised to discover that the field had become very rich drawing upon varieties of other fields in social sciences and humanities and yielding nuanced and textured analyses of how various people were taking up the position of citizenship and articulate complex claims to rights.
This book presents a critique of citizenship as exclusively and even originally a European or 'Western' institution. It explores the ways in which we may begin to think differently about citizenship as political subjectivity.
What does it mean to be a European citizen? The rapidly changing politics of citizenship in the face of migration, diversity, heightened concerns about security, and financial and economic crises, has left European citizenship as one of the major political and social challenges to European integration. Enacting European Citizenship develops a distinctive perspective on European citizenship and its impact on European integration by focusing on 'acts' of European citizenship. The authors examine a broad range of cases – including those of the Roma, Sinti, Kurds, sex workers, youth, migrants, refugees, and other 'minorities' or marginalised peoples – to illuminate the ways in which the institutions and practices of European citizenship can hinder as well as enable claims for justices, rights and equality. This book draws the key themes together to explore what the limitations and possibilities of European citizenship might be.
In the 1990s, there was considerable critical work on identity, emphasising its multiple, irreducible, and fluid quality. There was also emerging work on citizenship from sociological and anthropological perspectives. There was considerable debate about Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship. We didn’t think that multicultural citizenship was critical enough and there was a need to think about citizenship and plurality of identities – not just ethnic but also sexual, cosmopolitan, transgendered, and even ecological – together in a broad but coherent manner. The theoretical approach of this book also formed the structure of the Handbook of Citizenship Studies with Bryan Turner. These two books gave a rather different inflection of what it means to think about citizenship.
This book is based on my PhD dissertation that was completed in 1990. If your dissertation exercised your body and mind as much as mine did, you should expect that the rest of your intellectual life – in various ways – will be variations on a theme. Knowingly or unknowingly I think I kept circling about the problems that exercised me in this book: of government, politics, citizenship, modernity, coloniality, and urbanity. These problems, although approached differently, also exercise the books I wrote ten and twenty years later respectively.
Citizenship studies is at a crucial moment of globalising as a field. What used to be mainly a European, North American, and Australian field has now expanded to major contributions featuring scholarship from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies takes into account this globalising moment. At the same time, it considers how the global perspective exposes the strains and discords in the concept of ‘citizenship’ as it is understood today. With over fifty contributions from international, interdisciplinary experts, the Handbook features state-of-the-art analyses of the practices and enactments of citizenship across broad continental regions (Africas, Americas, Asias and Europes) as well as deterritorialised forms of citizenship (Diasporicity and Indigeneity). Through these analyses, the Handbook provides a deeper understanding of citizenship in both empirical and theoretical terms. This volume sets a new agenda for scholarly investigations of citizenship.