Politics and Connolly’s Ethics: Immigrant Narratives, Racism, and Identity’s Contingency
As the ethical turn in political theory inaugurated by such thinkers as William Connolly (1999; 2002), Judith Butler (2005), and Stephen White (2000) has spread its roots and gathered momentum, it has also come under sharp criticism. These theorists have led others in elaborating practices of “self-cultivation” as prerequisites for deep forms of democratic life, in ways often inspired by the late Foucault’s writings on the “care of the self” and construed as strategies that enact freedom by enhancing the individual’s responsiveness to alterity (Myers 2008). In response, theorists attempting to stake out positions to the left of the protagonists of democracy-as-ethos have expressed skepticism and even dismay at what they see as the latter’s abandonment of the critical sensibilities and tools vital to a radically oppositional politics. Some critics suspect that proponents of the ethical turn harbor a covert “stoicism,” relinquishing the hope for a radical break with the existing society and instead placing a halo on politically timid strategies for coping with the depredations of the current imperial age (Finlayson 2007; Wenman 2007). Others argue that the ethicists needlessly and dangerously renounce the language of “condemnation” along with a vast historical legacy of oppositional discourses that “resist framing their concerns as contestable” but have been central to democratic politics (Vázquez-Arroyo 2004, 11; Dean 2007). Democratic theorists who place ethical self-development in the foreground also come under attack for neglecting to theorize adequate collective responses to the suppression of “associative relations among individuals” by contemporary mechanisms of power, especially in the modes of discipline and bio-power that Foucault himself analyzed (Myers 2008). For all these critics, the basic problem with a universal imperative that individuals generously affirm the contingency of their ideas and identities is that following this ethos de-politicizes crucial arenas of struggle and re-entrenches inherited, structural relations of power.
The detractors of theory’s recent preoccupation with ethics rightly sense a certain conceptual blockage and a potential contraction of political ambitions in this intellectual shift. Yet as I show in this essay, focusing on Connolly’s work, it is possible to imagine fruitful, even symbiotic linkages between cultural strategies for cultivating more courageous and creative engagements with identity and direct political challenges to structural, institutionally anchored arrangements of power. By the latter I mean principally the official policies and unofficial procedures of state and capitalist entities that contribute to the production of racial, class, and gender domination.1 The complementarities of ethical and political action come into view when we probe more deeply and concretely the historical conditions of possibility for realizing the embrace of identity’s contingency that Connolly advocates instead of simply dismissing it as an “ahistorical” normative principle tantamount to a Rawlsian standard of justice (Vázquez-Arroyo 2004, 11). This article thus engages in a thought experiment to begin working out a mutually invigorating relation between Connolly’s ethic and current conditions faced by exploited and marginalized groups, re-reading Connolly’s theory through lenses shaped by the experiences and narratives of immigrant workers. This exercise clarifies the historical reasons why the affirmation of contingency in identity is both possible and desirable for this particular subaltern group. It also provokes a sense of how the means Connolly proposes for cultivating this ethical orientation could be folded into a more capacious repertoire of strategies for radically democratizing political life.
Below, I first argue that the everyday working lives of immigrants in the US contain unheralded and encouraging prospects for nourishing the approaches to identity and difference that Connolly recommends – and that the current politics of immigration raises a historically specific demand for these ethical exertions. Xenophobia in popular culture, public policy, and citizens’ voluntary activism has been on the rise in the US since at least the 1980s (Perea 1996; Chavez 2001; Welch 2002). Meanwhile, the multiculturalist project of identity stabilization and assertion has emerged as the predominant discourse for fostering more open and inclusive orientations toward “diversity,” as human resources curricula for corporations, colleges, and government agencies alike illustrate. Since both these ideological formations tend to insulate the state and capital from critique (Brown 1995; Markell 2003), a common commitment to pluralizing the sources of ethical values and to welcoming the contingent mutations of identities would be salutary things, indeed, for democracy in the US today. It might appear that the circumstances of immigrants’ everyday lives would undermine their capacities to adopt such an ethos, since immigrants seem especially vulnerable to the disciplinary forces that, for Connolly, fuel the drive to identity (Behdad 2005). Yet as I argue below, crucial elements of discipline, in Foucault’s precise sense, are missing in the networks of power governing immigrants’ social actions. Especially in many immigrants’ work lives, a counter-intuitive disengagement of normalizing mechanisms has been occurring that counteracts the mutual reinforcement of disciplinary power and identity’s hardening which Connolly ascribes to late modern society at large. In other words, by elaborating and making explicit Connolly’s implicit argument that experiences of contingency in identity depend on specific historical conditions, I show how present circumstances are diminishing certain impediments to the affirmation of identity’s contingency among immigrants.
For Connolly, experiencing identity’s contingency requires not only the right historical conditions but also specific ethical practices at the individual level. In the latter vein, he underscores the need to undertake “genealogical reflection” to expose the questionable status of commonly accepted dualisms of identity by revealing the contingency of the purportedly transcendental values and teleological visions of history these binary oppositions encode. The third section of the essay thus contemplates what it would mean to approach the personal life narratives of immigrants as instantiations of such genealogical labor. Despite my overarching interest in re-casting Connolly’s ideas in more racially specific terms, in this portion of my argument I deliberately defer until the next section the task of specifying the different effects immigrant storytelling has for immigrants themselves as compared to racially privileged listeners. I do this to press Connolly’s argument as far as possible on its own terms, showing how genealogical work in Connolly’s mode de-naturalizes racist US-nationalist discourses about immigration. Specifically, thinking about Mexican immigrants’ personal life stories with the aid of Connolly’s conception of reflective genealogy reveals how these narratives de-stabilize two immigrant identity-types, both of which anchor normative US-American identity: the delinquent figure of the “illegal alien” and the paragon of the American Dream. Moreover, the jarringly strange reformulations of these types produced by immigrant narratives unearth an even more fundamental assumption regarding the necessity and beneficial consequences of national identities and differences as such. I illustrate these consequences of immigrant storytelling by discussing excerpts from my interviews with two Mexican immigrant women who helped build an exceptional union movement among meatpackers at a major Tyson Foods beef-processing facility in eastern Washington State, which lasted from about 1995 until 2005.2
The question remains, however, as to precisely how these genealogical enterprises could actually have transformative effects both on the narrators and for listeners who approach them having previously accepted normative assumptions about US-American identity and immigrant difference. Again, my aim is to illuminate the historical conditions of possibility for realizing Connolly’s ethical vision, in this case by interrogating the racial positions of the participants in a narrative exchange, asking for whom, specifically, the transformative effects of genealogy are said to occur. As Moya Lloyd has argued, for groups subordinated by racial power relations the project of affirming identity’s contingency is seriously complicated by discourses that call into question their very ability to engage in fully creative, responsible ethical action (Lloyd 2007). Here, I contend that immigrants’ acts of narration enable them to contest this core discursive mode of racism by sensitizing these individuals to their capacities as makers of ethical meaning in the world. The instrumentalities of racial subordination often operate on the micropolitical level of affective transfer rather than in the sphere of explicit creed or consciousness, as Lloyd also observes (Lloyd 2007). Precisely by virtue of their appeals to this “visceral” register of subjectivity, which Connolly emphasizes in his recent writings (Connolly 1999, 27), immigrant life stories can embolden racially oppressed people to wage the struggle against racist norms that deny their own capacity for ethically responsible, creative action – a struggle that, in their cases, necessarily accompanies the task of affirming identity’s contingency. Similarly, immigrants’ narratives can yield a diverse array of mutative effects on listeners by catalyzing experiences of identity’s contingency throughout multiple dimensions of subjectivity rather than only or primarily in the field of critical thought.
Both these transformations, however, presuppose a context of political organization for immigrants: a movement that actively elicits immigrant worker storytelling, that brings those stories into the hearing range of immigrants’ detractors, and that challenges the institutional apparatuses of power that presuppose and normalize popular expectations regarding immigrants’ ethical deficiencies. The immigrant workers whose stories I consider here were politically active in just such a movement in their form of their union and its alliances with community groups. Hence, I conclude, effectively countering the latest efflorescence of xenophobia in the US should mean energetically promoting environments where immigrants’ stories can be told, unleashing their power as what I call catalytic genealogy. Doing this, in turn, depends on stimulating “experiences of democracy,” to use Connolly’s phrase (Connolly 2002, 200), that include not only encouraging narration but also mobilizing campaigns to challenge institutional vortices of racial and class domination. Connolly’s ethos neither contradicts nor ideologically mystifies these political exertions but rather presupposes them as a necessary, historicizing complement.
Immigrant labor, identity, and the slackening of disciplinary power
The rapidly accelerating “globalization of contingency” in society today, Connolly writes, heightens the need for an affirmative approach to the contingent character of identity while diminishing human capacities to respond to this imperative (Connolly 2002, 24). “Identity is relational and collective,” Connolly argues, elaborating this core proposition as follows: “An identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognized. These differences are essential to its being” (Connolly 2002, xiv, 64). Major changes hastening the global proliferation of “systemic interdependencies” among human beings, however, and intensifying “the experience of owing one’s life and destiny to world-historical, national, and local-bureaucratic forces” alike, erode both societal and individual capabilities for “reflection on the issues posed by this condition” (Connolly 2002, 20, 23, 25). Such changes, Connolly notes, have been precipitated by immigration as well as the spread of terrorism, capital’s penetration into new territories, global warming, and other transnational phenomena (Connolly 2002, 24). As the relational and collective forces constituting people’s identities multiply, “the contingency of life and the fragility of things become more vivid and compelling” (Connolly 2002, 25). For Connolly, this fosters a “generalized resentment” that blocks creative attempts to fashion new ways of living, and that favors retrenching identities as foundationalist modes of being instead of acknowledging them as contingent constructions (Connolly 2002, 22).
Immigration thus numbers among the elements of globalization that augment the imperative for affirming identity’s contingency, while ironically making the development of this ethos increasingly difficult. At the same time, the politics of immigration in the US today generates an even more immediate demand for appreciating what Connolly calls “the strife and interdependence of identity\difference” (Connolly 2002, 178–79). For US-born Americans, this demand grows as the organized movement to exclude, expel, and regulate immigrants gains steam and fuels institutional policies that xenophobic discourses justify, such as border militarization, immigrant workplace raids, social security number identification requirements, the expansion of immigrant detention facilities, and English-only initiatives (Dunn 1996; Perea 1996; Welch 2002; Nevins 2003; Wilder 2007). For immigrants, in turn, an ethical embrace of identity’s constitutive involvement with difference becomes more urgently needed as the drive mounts to consolidate group identities, thus enabling multiculturalist appeals for inclusivity in the ominous face of the new nativism.3 The political costs of such a strategy go well beyond the tactical problems this creates for organizing cohesive coalitions of ethnically differentiated groups.4 As Wendy Brown argues, politicized identity-formations furnish a core mechanism legitimating state and capitalist authority in the late-modern era (Brown 1995).
Despite these imperatives of the times, however, globalization stirs the desire for a stable and foundational identity. Moreover, another constitutive and related tendency of late modernity exacerbates this problem, according to Connolly: the elaboration of “a finely grained network of institutionally imposed disciplines and requirements” (Connolly 2002, 21). This “intensification of social discipline” increases the individual’s risk of being designated as a delinquent “other” by not conforming properly to disciplinary routines:
One must now program one’s life meticulously to meet a more detailed array of institutional standards of normality and entitlement. If one fails to measure up to one (or more) of these disciplines, one runs a high risk of entrapment in one of the categories of otherness derived from it.... This is the irony: the intensification of social discipline fosters the proliferation of differences defined through multiple categories of subordination, inferiority, incapacity, and de-gradation(Connolly 2002, 21).
Late-modern subjects thus desperately seek relief from such unbearable responsibility, as well as from the condition of “dependent uncertainty” that the “project” of “intensive self-organization” fosters: “dependence upon a more refined set of institutional standards and disciplines, uncertainty about the temporal stability of established rules of dependence” (Connolly 2002, 22). The subject tries to lighten these burdens both by blaming “others” for its own failures to fulfill norms and by embracing reactionary-foundationalist structures of identity for itself.
Ali Behdad’s historical inquiry into the role of immigration discourses in constructions of US national identity helps us see how immigrants are implicated in the intensification of social discipline that Connolly sees as diminishing the care for identity’s association with difference. Drawing on Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power, Behdad demonstrates that disciplinary operations aimed at immigrants have infused the state and other major social institutions with effective power and legitimacy while also heightening normalization of the native-born citizenry.
Thus, for example, in the early twentieth century, newly arriving immigrants underwent medical-diagnostic procedures that classified them as healthy or “diseased,” while average citizens were urged to participate in “the patriotic task of creating a ‘cleaner and better America’“ (Behdad 2005, 133–35). More recently, deployments of military force have made the border into “a privileged locus where the state’s disciplinary practices can be articulated and exercised,” in ways that again not only “impinge on the bodies and minds of immigrants” but also normalize “an exclusive and exclusionary form of national identity” for all citizens (Behdad 2005, 145). Border agents’ inspection manuals entangle agents and “aliens” alike in “a detailed system of identification, description, and categorization,” thus rehearsing the “‘political anatomy of detail’“ that Foucault theorizes as a central element of disciplinary power (Behdad 2005, 151). Like the panopticist prison, the border’s surveillance apparatus induces selfregulation because “the prospective border crosser must never know whether he or she is being observed at any particular moment, but must be made aware that the possibility always exists” (Behdad 2005, 158). Hounded by “the threat of deportation” even within the US interior, undocumented laborers “work diligently and submissively” at under-compensated and dangerous jobs (Behdad 2005, 163–164). Meanwhile, the publicized “delinquency” of immigrants re-generates “a normalized notion of national identity based on the rights of citizenship” and grounded on the binary opposition of immigrant and native-born populations (Behdad 2005, 161).
From a perspective informed by Behdad, then, immigrants seem to be governed by expanding disciplinary forces to an even more intense degree than other people in the US, while the broader phenomenon of mass immigration feeds the proliferation of normalizing techniques for the population as a whole. A brief re-examination of Foucault, however, suggests that the concepts of normalization and discipline do not adequately describe the dynamics of power in which immigrants are increasingly enmeshed, Behdad’s insights notwithstanding. The “docile bodies” Foucault theorizes are not merely “submissive,” taxonomically ordered, and “tractable and obedient” (Behdad 2005, 164). They are also “practiced bodies” in the sense that “discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility)” even as it “diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience)” (Foucault 1979, 138). The body’s activities are not just controlled – they are also made more efficient and productive. Moreover, Foucault sees the individual as not simply compelled or habituated to comply with certain institutional conditions, but also as trained to regulate herself according to an internalized moral sensibility about the very “truth” of who she is, for instance through confessional practices (Foucault 1990, 58–70). When Behdad measures the impact of disciplinary processes on undocumented immigrants by noting how the deployment of border surveillance technologies “deters” people from attempting to cross the border and has made them “watchful and insecure about the perils of border crossing,” or by contending that “the threat of deportation has forced undocumented immigrants into accepting low wages and substandard working conditions,” his analysis does not speak to these other elements of Foucault’s notion of disciplinary power (Behdad 2005, 159, 163).5
My interviews with immigrant meatpackers provide more substantive indications of how crucial aspects of disciplinary power are currently being withdrawn from key arenas of immigrant daily life. Given the intensive division and minute schematization of the labor process that have recently characterized meatpacking, one would expect a worksite like this to be a prime location of disciplinary power in the Foucauldian sense.6 Yet according to the workers, instead of power emanating at a low but insistent frequency from a de-personalized apparatus of control, power was routinely exercised in strikingly brutal and personal ways. The supervisors verbally abused the workers to make them keep up with the rapid speed of the production belts. The workers, in turn, had developed a shop floor culture where they constantly yelled at one another out of the fear that one worker falling behind would cause the meat to pile up, and that this would expose the co-workers to injury risks and additional harangues by managers. Local 556 President and former slaughter worker Melquiádez Pereyra described the grim atmosphere of mutual hostility along the cattle dis-assembly line this way:
Lots of times your co-workers push you, even though you’re part of the same thing they are.... You’re forced to do it [i.e., to retaliate] just to survive, because of the work. Because they’re shouting at you, “Pull it, you fucking son of a bitch!” They start attacking you that way – and you have to defend yourself.... If you don’t, they’ll eat you alive.7
Thus, as these comments illustrate, the company motivated workers by inciting a perpetual state of emergency and a relentless sense of personal insecurity in the face of barely contained mayhem, instead of through finely regulated processes and orderly techniques for promoting efficient cooperation and self-management. Job-related injuries also occurred at an astonishingly high frequency in this plant, as they do in the industry in general; and the company’s responses to the problem offer still more evidence of its lack of interest in disciplining the workers in any strict sense. The company persisted in understaffing work areas, offering negligible training, and running production at harrowingly high speeds, even though, as virtually all the workers we interviewed testified, these policies were destroying the productivity of workers’ bodies, not to mention forcing them to work in constant pain. In addition, rather than measuring the real extent of the injury problem so that strategies of “bio-power” could be instituted to maximize the health and vitality of the worker population (Foucault 1990, 138–145), Tyson deliberately discouraged the reporting of injuries through supervisors’ stonewalling of injured workers’ requests to go to the infirmary as well as through rewards (e.g., free meals) for work groups that maintained low rates of reported injuries.8 Finally, instead of carefully treating and rehabilitating injured workers, the company medical personnel usually dispensed superficial palliatives (“a fistful of ibuprofen,” as workers commonly put it) and sent these workers right back to the line, thereby avoiding the need to document the injury (which federal law mandates when a worker has to miss at least one full day of employment due to a job-related injury). Supervisors also harassed and humiliated workers put on “light duty,” prodding them into quitting and sending the message to other injured workers that it would be better to work in pain than to try to seek treatment (Apostolidis and Brenner 2005).
All these company practices certainly cut labor costs and boosted profits. However, they did not discipline the worker in the sense of optimizing her capabilities and endowing her with either what Foucault calls a practiced body or a morally self-regulating soul. It is also remarkable that we see the retraction of disciplinary power in the meatpacking industry. This says something important about the overall exposure of immigrants to disciplinary forces society-wide, because the labor processes in other industries where immigrants predominate, such as construction, garment manufacturing, custodial services, and farm labor, are even less tightly formalized, schematized, and managed (Milkman 2000). Virtually all the Tyson workers we interviewed had labored “in the fields” and orchards before landing their meatpacking jobs, for instance, and it was startling to hear them describe their preferences for certain aspects of farm work, despite its notoriously exploitative and physically debilitating characteristics. As Rosario Robles told us: “It’s very different to walk around working in the field, because you feel free.... There aren’t the same kind of supervisors that there are at [Tyson].... The supervisor just isn’t right there with you like they are here.”9
To return to Connolly: to the degree that immigrants are relieved of the pressures of disciplinary power, they also are less prone to those very social forces that most vigorously discourage the acknowledgment of contingency in our identities. Maybe, then, this historical situation poses a strategic opportunity for activating political-cultural projects involving immigrants that would realize this unusual potential for cultivating experiences of identity’s contingency. These experiences are urgently needed not to fulfill the prerequisites of an abstract, universal principle of ethical life but rather to respond effectively to concrete threats to democracy in the current moment: the new nativism in the domains of both institutional policy and cultural discourse; the predominance of the language of “diversity” as the normal way to authorize claims on behalf of marginalized and exploited groups; and the reifications of state and capitalist power that follow from both these versions of identity politics.
Connolly’s theory leads us to expect that political-cultural projects informed by this historical demand would need to incorporate a set of critical practices that he terms “genealogical,” since for Connolly genealogy plays a pivotal role in spurring affirmative responses to the contingencies of identity. Let us now consider what such genealogical labor entails and how immigrants could take an active part in bringing it to fruition.
Immigrant narratives as reflective genealogy
For Connolly, “reflective genealogy” is a crucial practice enabling the experience of contingency in identity (Connolly 2002, 181). He writes that to perform reflective genealogy means composing “histories of the social construction of normality and abnormality” (Connolly 2002, 181). Genealogical reflection reveals how commonly accepted terms of discussion about the proper response to the abnormal conceal questionable beliefs about what is normal, and “protect the normal from critical scrutiny,” by offering false alternatives (Connolly 2002, 181). Connolly elaborates:
Counter-histories of normality are genealogical also in the way they strive to bracket established teleotranscendental assumptions. These assumptions are inscribed in global dualities of good/evil, normal/abnormal, and identity/otherness, as well as in secondary divisions on the negative side of these dualities: irresponsibility/sickness, psychological defect/social anomie, genetic ground/cultural determination, and so on.... Genealogy brackets teleotranscendental legitimations of established dualities in order to problematize established frames within which social and theoretical debates over these issues have been set(Connolly 2002, 181–182).
Connolly seems to be saying that genealogy re-situates persons, actions, and events within a concrete-particular context, a chain of happenings that make up the entity’s distinctive path of becoming. Attentiveness to this unpredictable, possibly twisted or even self-contradictory trajectory makes possible an immanent critique of the teleotranscendental assumptions that would normally endow the entity with meaning. They would do this by prompting a judgment about whether the thing or being in question manifested normalcy or deviancy (and/or a certain type of abnormality), in this way insulating from examination the basic attribution of value to the absolutist vision of justice and goodness these categories presupposed. Genealogy interrupts this logic, supplanting its transcendentalist vision with an acknowledgement of the social forces that give birth to ethical values, and unseating its teleological faith through the recognition of history’s fundamentally contingent character.
The personal life stories of immigrants, such as those gathered through my interviews with the Tyson workers, exhibit precisely these kinds of genealogical effects. As a first example, consider the story of Teresa Moreno, a processing worker at Tyson who was born in 1955 in Mérida, Yucatán, and immigrated clandestinely to the United States in 1991. Moreno told us this episode among her remembrances of crossing the border with her four children, eight years after her husband left to work in the US:
I was so afraid for [the children]. I had such an experience with them. After arriving at the Burger King [in Nogales, en route to Phoenix]...some other polleros [human smugglers, coyotes] came looking for us; there were two of them, in a station wagon or something like that. Then they put us in there: my oldest daughter and me in the front, right, with the driver. And the three other children in the back, and another man in the back.... But at night, my oldest daughter told me: “Mamá, this man is grabbing my leg.” And he was smoking marijuana. It frightened me...I couldn’t tell him, “Stop. Let me out.” And I couldn’t say anything because I thought if I said something to him maybe he would take us to a different place.... And it scared me, and...at a gas station where we stopped I told her: “Get out, my daughter.” I sat down myself in the middle – excuse this word, I’m going to say a bad word – I sat down there [and said]: “OK, you motherfucker, now you just go ahead and grab my leg!”.... No way they were going to touch me, me who’s already an old lady. And from then on things were calm.10
Major aspects of this story reinforce common assumptions about the delinquencies of the so-called “illegal alien.” Conservative commentators regard women like Moreno who carry children with them across the border illegally as shockingly negligent about their family’s safety. The dangers are also presumed never to come from US border agents but only from a kindred species of ostensibly degenerate Mexicans, the predatory coyotes, who in this story appear in living color, smoking pot and trying to fondle helpless teenage girls. Viewed through the fixed and narrow lens of the prevalent dualism distinguishing morally deficient “illegal aliens” from virtuous US-Americans, Moreno’s story could easily provide fodder for nativist screeds of the species commonly heard from Lou Dobbs or the Minutemen.
The longer story of Moreno’s life, however, undermines this all-too-easy appropriation of the narrative to reinforce a binary opposition between US and Mexican nationalities in terms of lawfulness/illegality, sobriety/drug addiction, continence/hypersexuality, and responsible/irresponsible motherhood. In other words, the overall narrative rocks the comforting stillness that comes from superimposing these teleotranscendental categories of interpretation onto the story. It does this by contextualizing the episode Moreno relates within a genealogical thread of affiliation, made up of intermediary steps that are each just as contingent and ateleological as is the culminating episode of the bordercrossing, and that in combination disclose the artificiality of applying the neo-nativist template to the story. It would be hard for anyone to characterize Moreno’s parenting as negligent, for example, when the border-crossing episode is set in the context of her struggles as a single mother in Mexico to raise her children during the many years that her husband was living in the US without them and sending minimal support. Moreno scraped by on the dwindling income from a small family-run meat and vegetable store as long as she could, partly because a trusted comadre at the shop could help her take care of the children in a safe and familiar place. When feuds with her landlady led her to abandon the business as the Mexican economy crashed in the 1980s, Moreno found work cleaning the hotel rooms of Cancún tourists. She would rise at four o’clock in the morning to prepare the day’s food for her children, returning at nightfall to put them to bed. Moreno also defied her husband’s demands that she bring the children across earlier because in her judgment they were too young to make the crossing safely.11 As this longer narrative locates Moreno’s neutralization of the lecherous pollero in a more genealogically extensive context, it breaks the ideological association that places people who care for their families on only one side of the law.
Teresa Moreno’s narrative also performs another critical function that Connolly ascribes to genealogical counterhistories: it reveals how ordinary debates about the proper response to the abnormal conceal questionable beliefs about what is normal by presenting false alternatives. Common debates over whether immigrants are morally capable of assimilating to US culture bury what ought to be an open question: why the presence of the nationally “other” among “us” is so threatening, and why all partisans in these debates teleotranscendentally assume that human flourishing depends on preserving distinct, exclusive national communities. The ordinary question about immigrant women like Moreno would be: do these people evade the law and expose their children to danger because they are criminally inclined and irresponsible, or because they have been driven out of Mexico by poverty and deprivation? But Moreno’s narrative muddles this dichotomy. She elicits neither condemnation nor pity, but rather admiration for her courage and agency in undertaking the ordeal of the border crossing and protecting her child when things got rough. These, however, are precisely the qualities that “Americans” rather than “Mexicans” are supposed to have; and the maintenance of stringently enforced national boundaries and differences is presumed to be crucial to the fulfillment of an “American” destiny in which these character-traits are actualized, causing the nation – and through its leadership, the world – to flourish. By casting doubt on the former of these two suppositions, Moreno’s story also calls into question the latter presumption. Her unmooring of presumptively secure national identities and differences thus unearths the deeper question about the value of national identity as such.
María Chávez, one of the most publicly outspoken activists in the workers’ movement, provides an additional illustration of reflective genealogy that both manifests the contingencies of specific constructions of national identity and disinters the buried teleotranscendental assumptions regarding nationality itself. Chávez had been working at the plant since 1983, had never gained any additional education, and after all those years earned only about ten dollars per hour. Her children, however, had graduated from high school, had finished college, and were building successful careers in banking and insurance.12 Says Chávez:
The way they are living now, I think it’s the reward for all that we suffered before. And I say: “it’s worth the effort”.... It’s worth it in a certain way to sacrifice yourself a little bit.... In our country we wouldn’t have been able to achieve this, because you know that this sort of thing costs a lot of money.... They say ‘you have to suffer a lot to deserve a lot.’ And I would really say that, with God’s help, I have achieved in my life what I wanted – that what happened to me didn’t happen to my children.13
In key respects, these comments resoundingly validate the mythology of “America” as a “nation of immigrants,” constructed as each generation of newcomers renounces its own immediate wellbeing for the sake of their children, enduring the hardships of cultural and geographical dislocation as well as the austerities of low-wage labor and working class life. Chávez confirms a core ideological effect of this cultural dramaturgy that Bonnie Honig identifies: the legitimation of private property and the reinforcement of liberal individualism through the economic self-reliance and class mobility that successful immigrants epitomize (Honig 2001, 74).
Yet the penumbra of pain that surrounds Chávez’s final phrase in the quotation above prevents her story from unequivocally reproducing this nationalist mythology. Instead, when Chávez narrates her bouts of recurrent bodily injury and routine personal humiliation at work, as well as her earlier struggles crossing the border, she tells a counter-history of normality regarding the genealogical constitution of the subject of the American Dream. She recounts, for example, days of severe dehydration, hunger, exhaustion, and disorientation while attempting to cross the border – and sheer terror, as she waded through muddy ocean waters at night and then nearly suffocated in the bottom of a van hurtling down a California highway, her body pressed against burning-hot metal and crushed under the weight of the fifty or so people piled on top of her. Later, as an employee at Tyson, Chávez met with medical indifference and cruel humiliation when she sought treatment for an infection in her hands that resulted from using the company’s wet, dirty gloves:
They asked me some questions but about unrelated things.... They asked if my mother had had abortions. And if I had had abortions. I don’t know why they asked me those questions... I think it was to intimidate me. And later they asked me how many times a day I washed my private parts; if I cleaned the yard; how many children I had, and if they were still living at home. Things that had nothing to do with the matter. And what kind of soap I used when I bathed or when I washed my private parts. What body creams I used. Whether I was a sleepwalker, whether I was putting my hands on the walls without noticing it.14
Far from disciplining Chávez in the ways I specified in the preceding section, much less rehabilitating her body, this ugly encounter was simply an attempt to browbeat her into going back to work. Chávez, moreover, described a distressing catalogue of additional health problems due to the working conditions at Tyson, and still more frustrating conflicts with supervisors and medical personnel who refused to treat these ailments seriously. Additionally, she told us of her rage and embarrassment during a phase when her supervisor would not let her and her co-workers take bathroom breaks, forcing them to urinate in their clothing.15
The normal route to realizing the American Dream is supposed to involve prevailing over adversity by conforming to the positive sides of these well-known binaries: hard work/laziness, family care/selfish individualism, delayed gratification/hedonism. Few US-Americans assume, however, that the suffering and sacrifice connoted by the first terms in these pairs should entail the torments that Chávez has confronted over the years. The shocking disillusionment that the story effects regarding the American Dream, in turn, not only disturbs comforting dualisms that facilitate the stressful incorporation of “otherness” into the national body by splitting the foreign others into “good” immigrants who follow the rules and “bad” ones who deserve the punishments they get. It also exposes to contestation the teleotranscendental assumption that makes this whole problematic celebration of “immigrant America” necessary in the first place: the unexamined conviction that nationally defined human collectivities are indispensable, natural, and conducive to justice and happiness.
Catalytic genealogy, racism, and experiences of democracy
Genealogy in the mode of immigrant life storytelling thus provokes a panoply of ethically stimulating effects. How do the historically specific conditions of racism characterizing the social terrain where María Chávez and Teresa Moreno are telling their stories, however, apart from the presence of the nationalist discourses that their narratives at least in principle deconstruct, shape the possibility of genealogy yielding transformative impulses? And in what ways does this practical possibility relate to activist attempts to make this society more democratic, such as the efforts these women made through their participation in the workers’ movement at Tyson? Answering these questions means getting more specific about how genealogy operates in a racially hierarchical society and within the context of racial and class struggle. This discussion thus returns us to the issue I raised in the introduction regarding the complementarities between ethical and political critique, and between the ethical aspects of democratic action and political challenges to the complexes of policy, law, and routine institutional practices in which domination is structurally embedded.
A further sense of how genealogical work ignites the contestation of specifically racial modes of power becomes possible when we consider how the effects produced by narratives reach dimensions of experience distinct from ideas and critical thought, although linked to them. As Moya Lloyd argues, the micropolitical interactions through which racial domination gains much of its practical force frequently operate through unspoken but potent transfers of affective energy (Lloyd 2007). Hence, to probe more deeply the practical conditions of possibility under which genealogical work would incite experiences of contingency in identity in an environment saturated by racism, it is crucial to interrogate the affective dimensions of genealogical labor. Connolly’s later writings offer resources for doing this inasmuch as he increasingly stresses the affective registers of experience, notwithstanding the rationalist bent of his discussion of genealogy in Identity\Difference which emphasizes, as we have seen, exposing normative assumptions to “critical scrutiny” (Connolly 2002, 181). Thus, for instance, in Why I Am Not a Secularist, Connolly writes that the “visceral modes of appraisal” furnish “an infrasensible subtext from which conscious thoughts, feelings, and discursive judgments draw part of their sustenance” (Connolly 1999, 27). Certain features of immigrants’ stories do indeed enable experiences of contingency in identity in this rich, multiplicitous sense, inviting responses in the visceral register as well as in consciousness that subvert racist power relations.
In terms of the impact of these stories on listeners, it is important to note that Moreno’s and Chávez’s narratives situate the specific episodes I have discussed above not only in relation to contingent genealogical precedents but also in the sense of evoking particular physico-material sensations of these events. In the case of someone listening to Moreno’s story, the experience of ideology’s failure certainly could happen on a cognitive level, as her selfpresentation calls into question standard categories of identity associated with the figure of the “illegal alien” and its law-abiding counterparts. But it also might occur in other registers of subjectivity, since the story engages the realm of affects by evoking the situated physicality of Moreno scrubbing hotel rooms while her children eat at home without her, or of her “old lady” body moving firmly into the seat next to the coyote with the wandering hands.16 Likewise, Chávez’s story provokes an experience of the normative immigrant’s contingency in a capacious sense, activating the infrasensible and intellectual registers alike, inasmuch as the narrative context makes her bodily and emotional traumas viscerally perceptible. Her disturbingly tactile re-presentation of the injuries and indignities she has borne enables an experience of the contingencies comprising the nationalist identity that the mythology of “immigrant America” fantasizes and doxologizes. The sociocultural context of reception that listeners to these stories occupy, of course, profoundly shapes the ease or difficulty with which listeners welcome, feel, and ponder these provocations to experience identity’s contingency. Recognizing the visceral elements of immigrant storytelling, however, makes it possible to see how this practice could counter the effects of racial discourses even for listeners whose social and cultural affiliations make them ill-disposed to question, on a conscious level, normative dualities of national and immigrant identity.
Attending to the affective aspects of narrative also sheds light on the potentially anti-racist consequences of immigrant storytelling for the genealogists themselves, even though, again, the particular environment of reception has a great deal to do with whether and how these effects actually materialize. The limited, rationalist conception of reflective genealogy makes it hard to see how either Moreno or Chávez gains greater appreciation for identity’s contingency through the process of telling her life story. Neither constructs a counter-history of normality with the intentionality and self-consciousness that Connolly’s notion of reflective genealogy seems to presuppose. Even as Moreno de-constructs US-nationalist stereotypes regarding Mexican “illegal aliens,” she emphatically asserts her abiding Mexican identity and shows little inclination to call nationalism per se into question. She even suggests that her own sense of nationality persists through binary contrasts with unsavory others when she criticizes her Asian coworkers as pushy and selfish, and derisively refers to them all as “chinos” even though they mostly come from Vietnam or Laos.17 Chávez refrains from such discriminatory characterizations, and she also acknowledges that since becoming a naturalized citizen she sometimes has felt that her national identity is “American.” Yet she also insists that she is still “one hundred percent Mexican,” and underscores her deep commitment to maintaining Mexican “moral sentiments” such as a fervent Catholic faith and traditions of respect toward elders.18 In other words, Chávez displays an unexamined confusion about her national identity rather than affirmatively and introspectively embracing her identity’s contingency, in the manner that Connolly describes in Identity\Difference.
Genealogy in the mode of narrative, however, can shift the disposition of the narrator toward her own identity by invigorating the realm of affects even if it does not involve critical reflection, strictly speaking. Making this argument does not imply reducing narrative to the conveyance of bodily or emotional, affective immediacy. Instead, it means acknowledging the affective dimension of the reality-constituting effects that narrative produces and attending to the import of these effects for the narrator. As Lisa Disch argues, narrative neither formally nor practically conforms to the often-assumed binary opposition between “abstract” theory (or legal or policy discourse) and the “concrete” expression of authentic experience in stories, a dualism that much writing in critical race theory, feminist theory, and critical legal studies endorses (Disch 2003). Instead of presenting the unmediated experience of subaltern people, narrative constructs both the storyteller and the event being narrated as distinct from one another and as real. This constructive impulse of narrative, which Disch, following Hayden White, calls the effect of “narrativity,” at once imparts to events the sheen of genuine experience and authorizes the narrator’s voice as the naturally appropriate agency for making them known (Disch 2003). Emphasizing the affective qualities of narrative as I do here, in turn, might seem contrary to the spirit of Disch’s attempt to trouble the binary distinction between supposedly abstract official discourses and the apparent rendering of immediate experience through storytelling. But Disch is not denying that the visceral dimension of narrative exists. Rather, her theory makes it possible to see that the act of storytelling produces these infrasensible effects, intermingled with the construction of conscious ideas regarding the identity of the narrator and the meaning of historical events. Thus, by virtue of its quality of narrativity, narrative can catalyze in the storyteller a sense of her own creative, world-making power, a force exerted in the very act of narration and re-organizing the storyteller’s affects as well as her ideas regarding the self (Disch 2003).
This activation of affects through storytelling in a way that invites experiences of contingency in identity, or what could be called catalytic genealogy, crucially sets the stage for ethical practices among people who are systematically subjected to racial domination. Lloyd notes that racist discourses typically constitute certain kinds of individuals as incapable of the very sorts of critical self-examination that, for Connolly, reflective genealogy is supposed to instigate. For Lloyd, this means that for racially subaltern people, developing greater regard for the strife and interdependence of identity\difference must go hand in hand with struggle against such racist discourses (Lloyd 2007). The writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, in turn, clarify that this struggle has an important internal component, which involves striving to alter patterns of conscious thought intermixed with habits of sense perception. “It is a peculiar sensation,” writes Du Bois, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 1999, 11). The practice of storytelling, however, holds the potential to shift the subject’s internal energies away from the sensibilities unavoidably implanted by the environment of racism, toward competing sensibilities that fortify the notion and experience of oneself as a responsible, creative agent – precisely because of the world-constructing implications of narrativity. Narrative thus can kindle the storyteller’s confidence in her very ability to express freedom through re-formulating given categories of identity. It can fuel this subject’s capacity and desire to contend against the forces that turn this freedom against itself by fostering shame, self-doubt, and moral self-justification premised on given congealments of identity.
This internal struggle against racism that immigrant storytelling energizes, in turn, both invigorates and must be fed by a struggle against racism on the level of social action, with the latter involving not only the creation of a welcoming sociocultural context for immigrants to tell their life stories but also the waging of direct opposition to racist laws, policies, and institutional practices. In the register of conscious thought, Moreno and Chávez may not have voiced particularly critical ideas concerning their own national identities, other ethnic stereotypes, or the validity of nationalism as such. Yet their chances of doing so eventually were certainly improved by the fact that their union, as well as the community coalition supporting the workers, fostered a political context that publicly valued their storytelling about both immigration and the hazards and humiliations of meatpacking. Some of the most visionary practices of the union sought to multiply the workers’ opportunities to narrate their experiences to one another, to supporters, and to antagonists alike. The union turned wage and hour lawsuits and state investigations of worker injuries, for example, into campaigns to sign up multiple witnesses to testify about their lives in the slaughterhouse. When a class of my students interviewed twenty-six of the workers about their troubles with jobrelated injuries, the leaders seated the workers in pairs so that those who were more hesitant to speak could gain courage from listening to their peers. The union-community coalition also spearheaded a successful local effort to host the travelers on the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride on their way from Washington State to Washington, DC, organizing events in public parks and church halls where the riders could publicly tell their stories about life on the migrant trail. Toward the end of Identity\Difference, Connolly writes: “The experience of democracy and the experience of contingency in identity can sustain each other, especially when the first is supported by an intellectual culture of genealogy” (Connolly 2002, 200). But the converse relation between genealogy and democracy also holds: organized political efforts to encourage storytelling comprise experiences of democratic action that promote genealogy, specifically in the sense of creating spaces where the catalytic qualities of genealogy can emerge and exert their galvanizing effects on racially subordinated subjects.19
The local union in which Teresa Moreno and María Chávez were active, however, did more than encourage storytelling by its members. It also fostered experiences of democracy by mobilizing the workers to challenge oppressive, inegalitarian institutional policies and power plays in their workplace and larger union organization. That is, the union energetically opposed exactly those structural obstacles to democracy that, according to the critics of the ethical turn in political theory, the intellectual preoccupation with cultivating an ethos of generous receptivity to the contingent mutations and contestable character of identity tends to ignore or even mystifies. In waging its battles against these impediments to social and political democracy, moreover, the immigrant workers’ movement at Tyson confronted precisely those habitually sedimented and officially codified arrangements of power that lend practical materiality to racist assumptions regarding immigrant workers’ ethical deficiencies. In other words, struggle on the level of policy, law, and institutional practices complemented and mutually reinforced efforts promoting the affirmation of identity’s contingency through narrative-based genealogical work. In this regard, for instance, the union protested abusive treatment of the workers by supervisors, which reflected managers’ assumptions that immigrant workers could not judge for themselves what an ethic of judiciously hard work entailed. The movement fought the workers’ exclusion from meaningful participation in deliberations over the speed of production, as though they were insufficiently responsible even to help determine what levels of pain and strain were unacceptably high. And the local union battled the reprehensible collusion between the company and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the national body governing the local union, to destroy the Local and squelch immigrant rank-and-filers’ demands for a more democratic Teamsters organization. In this way, too, the movement confronted the institutions whose actions and policies gave practical force to degrading presuppositions about the workers’ ethical capacities. These experiences of democracy thus complemented the union’s explicit encouragement of immigrant storytelling, helping to prepare the ground for immigrants’ storytelling to release its catalyzing effects and incorporating such ethical labor, in turn, into more direct forms of struggle against structurally embedded power.
This article has demonstrated the political purchase of Connolly’s theory, in one important way, by applying it to reveal a distinctive danger posed by the new nativism that usually escapes comment. The politics of xenophobia operates not just by forcing people out of the country or into hiding, nor only by spreading demonic stereotypes about Mexicans and others that make these actions, and the horrors and indignities that accompany them, seem acceptable. It also suppresses the narrative acts of immigrants, through various techniques including most recently the elimination of judicial review for deportation candidates in immigrant detention facilities and the isolation of these individuals from the public through more aggressive detention policies (Welch 2002, 66–69; Sinnar 2003; Wilder 2007). The ongoing neoliberal assault on immigrant workers’ unions, typified by the hand-in-glove cooperation of the Bush administration’s National Labor Relations Board with Tyson (and the IBT) in the destruction of Chávez’s and Moreno’s local union in 2005, dovetails neatly with these other initiatives to silence the voices of immigrants. In these ways, the new nativist politics both entrenches the exploitation of immigrant workers’ labor and buffers the general atmosphere of nationalist absolutism about given identity-constructs from critical challenges.
In turn, countering the metastasis of xenophobia in the US has to mean more than threading the needle in the pragmatic search for an elusive compromise on immigration reform legislation. It also must entail diversifying the forums where immigrants’ stories can be told and heard, and where the infrasensible energies of these narratives can be released. As Connolly helps us see, making this happen would not only diminish human death and suffering in the borderlands and ameliorate workers’ misery in meatpacking plants and sweatshops. At issue here, in addition, is the hope for taking advantage of historically specific opportunities to change the micropolitical culture by germinating a more welcoming and courageous approach to the contingencies of identity.
Yet the message here is not just that historical circumstances have made cultivating an affirmative disposition toward identity’s contingency a matter of urgency in this moment, and also not only that immigrants’ narratives can play a crucial role in promoting this ethos among nativists and immigrants alike. As the collective, organizational endeavors of the union suggest, the ethical operations of catalytic genealogy need to be nourished by practices of democracy that directly contest “class structures, bureaucratic-corporate power...and the quasi-despotic monopoly of public discourse by corporate power” (Vázquez-Arroyo 2004, 10). Fulfilling the radical promises of the ethical turn does not demand forsaking the intensive analysis of the democratic ethos. It does, however, require a revival of theorists’ enthusiasm for interrogating the structural dynamics of power that help order the terrain where ethical practices are deployed.
Paul Apostolidis is the Judge & Mrs. Timothy A. Paul Professor of Political Science at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where he teaches political theory, cultural studies, and Latino politics. He is currently completing a book manuscript provisionally titled Breaks in the Chain: Immigrant Workers’ Stories of Power in Late Modern America. He is the author of Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio (Duke UP 2000) and co-editor of Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals (Duke UP 2004), along with a variety of articles. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Antonio Vázquez-Arroyo further clarifies the elements of a structural, institutionally oriented conception of social power when he notes the destructive effects on democracy of “class structures, bureaucratic-corporate power, the military-industrial power complex, an often reified constitutionalist-capitalist institutional order, and the quasi-despotic monopoly of public discourse by corporate power” (Vázquez-Arroyo 2004, 10).
2. The remarks of the immigrants quoted in this essay derive from a series of interviews that I conducted in 2002 with twenty-four workers at Tyson’s plant in Pasco, Washington. My assistant (a Mexican undergraduate at the college where I teach) and I conducted all the interviews together and almost all of them in Spanish, including all the interviews discussed in this essay. The conversations lasted 1.5–2.5 hours, following a half hour session on an earlier day to get acquainted and to discuss the interview process, and usually took place in the worker’s home or at the public library. We asked open-ended questions about the individual’s experiences growing up, deciding to immigrate, crossing the border, confronting racial discrimination in the US, working in the fields and factories, and becoming involved in the struggle at Tyson. In this essay, I also refer to material acquired in additional interviews of Tyson’s immigrant workers by students of mine, which provided a qualitative follow-up complement to the quantitative analysis of surveys of the workers regarding health and safety problems at the plant (Apostolidis and Brenner 2005).
3. Evidence of Latinos’ pursuit of multiculturalist ideals in the context of the burgeoning Latino immigrant population can be seen in policyoriented scholarship that demands ethnically sensitive education and social programs (e.g., the essays on health, education, and crime in Suárez-Orozco and Páez (2002)). These ideals also inform the public discourses of leading Latino organizations like the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens, which envision preserving “the sanctity of the heritage of language and culture” that Latinos possess while promising Latinos’ conformity to an underlying fabric of US-American values including “the work ethic, patriotism, the importance of families, the free enterprise system, and the value of faith” (National Council of La Raza 2004, iv).
4. Both the pressures to make exclusive ethnic-national identities coalesce and the splinter-effects that follow for immigrants’ efforts to organize politically were manifest, for example, in tense relations between Mexicans and various Asian groups during and after the immigrants’ rights mobilizations in the spring of 2006 (Avila and Olivo 2006).
5. My critique of Behdad with reference to Foucault’s conceptions of discipline and bio-power is indebted to Anna Marie Smith’s work on the superceding of these modes of power in the US welfare system, which she argues has similarly abandoned the task of fashioning productive and morally self-regulating selves (Smith 2007).
7. Melquiádez Pereyra, interview by author and Paola Vizcaíno Suárez, Pasco, Washington, May 28, 2002.
8. Lucio Moreno, interview by Paola Vizcaíno Suárez, Pasco, Washington, October 8, 2002.
9. Rosario Robles, interview by author and Paola Vizcaíno Suárez, Pasco, Washington, June 20, 2002.
10. Teresa Moreno, interview by author and Paola Vizcaíno Suárez, Pasco, Washington, July 19, 2002.
11. Moreno, 7/19/02.
12. María Chávez, interview by author and Paola Vizcaíno Suárez, Pasco, Washington, November 2, 2002.
13. Chávez, 11/2/02.
14. María Chávez, interview by Paola Vizcaíno Suárez, Pasco, Washington, October 8, 2002.
15. Chávez, 11/2/02.
16. Moreno, 7/19/02.
17. Moreno, 7/19/02.
18. Chávez, 11/2/02.
19. The transmission of immigrant narratives like those of Moreno and Chávez into public domains can thus be seen as one example of the practices Connolly has theorized very recently in attempting to develop a more collective analogue to the “arts of the self” that stimulate affirmation of identity’s contingency. Thus Connolly writes: “it is also critical to devise countertechniques of cultural-corporeal infusion, tactics that work upon individuals and constituencies at the visceral level as they also engage the higher intellectual registers” (Connolly 2006, 74).