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Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 403-411

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Navigating Citizenship

Donald Martin Carter
Johns Hopkins University

Unni Wikan. Generous Betrayal: Ethnic Politics in the New Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001; 280 pp..

The most vivid and disturbing images of immigration in our times have become a commonplace in the media and other popular forms of representation. The traces of an exodus are still fresh in many parts of the world. And the dislocation of so many who may never return to their former homes or receive their loved ones with familiar ritual seems to grow in number even as we announce the dawn of the global community. This community is not always ready or willing to take up the part of people abandoned to motion fleeing political upheaval or natural disaster.

Such images are familiar enough to us by now. They include past visions of Haitian makeshift boats, Cuban inter-tube crafts and rafts laced together with all manner of binding, voyages undertaken by the men, women and children trying to enter Hong Kong or exit a region touched by natural disaster. In short, there are images that float through the newspapers and immigration discourse of the makings of the so-called global world. Some voyagers never reach their destinations. Of course there are some that do reach the shores of the Promised Land. There are crafts that founder, that are lost off the coast of Spain or the Mexican workers who die for lack of oxygen in the back of rented trucks headed for the sweat shops of California or the chicken factories of Maryland; each [End Page 403] fades into the minutia of the media. There is even a celebration of the politics of closure represented in the semi-documentary films that justify the forces of order that attempt to control populations that seek the safety of new homelands. In the United States, the border with Mexico provides countless images of border patrol, smugglers, and confrontations with the legendary border police, while the Canadian border with the United States provides no evidence for arguments for or against immigration. And yet even the frozen lakes of the great Northeast provide walkways for migrants who must at times be pulled from the waters, processed and sent on their return journey.

One of the most haunting images of the late twentieth century has come to be that of the tiny wave-tossed crafts of the so-called "boat people" during the mass exodus from Southeast Asia. Cast out on the seas in the least sea-worthy of vessels, subject to pirates, violence and violations of body and spirit, these lives provide us with emblematic forms of desperation and human tragedy. Both in popular culture and in the world of expert or scholarly discourse. Such powerful images define the contours of the popular imaginary of forced dispersal, dramatic changes of state/status and the seeming powerlessness of the victims in process; these images condense the central notions many of us hold of diaspora. The representation of such translocal, transcultural passages is often rendered intelligible to us through the idea of navigation. The "boat people" convey to us a kind of surplus of meanings connecting home and country of settlement to a ready cultural logic provided by such taken-for-granted notions as assimilation, multiculturalism and cultural pluralism. These concepts are available to all and avidly recapitulated through media, literature and scholarship. This confluence of ideas about the cultural and social markings comes to us through what Antonio Gramsci calls "common sense" knowledge, as the "common sense" understandings of the "boat people" help to naturalize an idea rendering it a taken-for-granted part of our worlds.

The search in social theory for explanatory models that define and characterize the present seems to have accelerated as we face the twenty-first century. The tumultuous patterns of social, cultural and economic dislocations of global capitalism and the complex interplay of power relations in and across nation-states has often been associated with the creation of vast interconnected global systems of cultural, economic and social relations and the decentering...


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