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A Critique of Migrant Reason

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A Critique of Migrant Reason: installation view by
Exhibition view

Exhibition view

Exhibition view

Exhibition view

Exhibition view

Exhibition view

La Casa Encendida ,
Jun 05, 2014 - Jul 12, 2014
Madrid, Spain

"A Critique of Migrant Reason" (or of national-catholicism as a concentration-camp ideology)
by Jaime Vindel

This exhibition’s approach follows the clear, concise criteria of its curators, Carolina Bustamante and Francisco Godoy, whose insurgent voices stem from a biographically-specific position of empathy with the subjects and issues addressed within Madrid’s Casa Encendida. Their empathetic position gives a different perspective to the generally pejorative use of the term "sudacas" or "South American migrants" (1) and adds to the power of their critique. Placing the focus on the Spanish State – one of whose cultural institutions is sponsoring the exhibition—they attempt to create a "means of uncovering and pointing out the window dressing behind the inconsistency between migration policies and economic policies, which continue to perpetuate the logic of colonial ideologies". (2) The diagram of forces that makes up the tour of the exhibition (ranging from Francesc Torres’s Crónica del extravío (Chronicle of Going Astray) –created for the celebration of the fifth centennial of the "Discovery" of America – to Runo Lagomarsino’s action, more delicate than the historians are the map makers’ colours, 2013) center on Christopher Columbus, a symbol of the origin of Eurocentric modernity, and the strategies for capitalist accumulation of wealth based on the subjection of others. The national-catholicist view of the Hispanic world arose as a trans-historic matrix that focused, from its inception to the present, on confining immigrants, in their condition as homo sacer (who Agamben characterized as someone who is expendable and whom anybody can kill) to the spaces of exclusion of a state of emergency that has become permanent: the CIEs (Centros de Internamiento de Extranjeros – Alien Detention Centers)(1).

That otherness, in this case exemplified by the artist’s body, runs through Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez Peña’s performance, in which they play the role of Indians belonging to an unknown tribe (from a lost island in the Gulf of Mexico known as Guatianau) wandering through the geographical and cultural bastions of colonial (and colonized) reason, among them London’s Covent Garden and Columbus Plaza in Madrid. Fusco and Gómez Peña’s performance serves to update a form of expression made natural by Western modernity in the way it approached the colonial world during the period of the second Industrial Revolution. Even though that modernity was less developed in the Spanish sphere (and stemmed from its links to foreign capital investment), Spain’s cultural policy did not cease to replicate in the national context the abject approach to the native peoples of the colonies that a particular anthropological view had imposed on the Western psyche since the dawn of capitalist modernity. It was thus that at the end of the nineteenth century the Crystal Palace in Madrid’s Parque del Retiro housed a series of exhibitions showing the supposed exoticism of Philippine tribes (1887), the Ashantis (1897) and the Inuits of the Labrador Peninsula (1900), some of whose registers can be seen at the exhibition.

The age of empire referred to by the historian Eric Hobsbawm thus took on its own unique idiosyncratic form within Hispanic modernity. Being as it was the origin of the global process of capital formation, as several authors have pointed out, that modernity was unable to readjust its thrust from commerce-based capitalism to the production-based foundations of industrial capitalism, largely due to the persistent survival of late feudal structures found within the Ancien Régime. Industrial capitalism was reflected in the building materials of the Palacio de Cristal: the cast iron and glass of the building in Madrid referred to the Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton, who displayed the technical and aesthetic wonders of Eurocentric modernity for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Conversely, that alliance between technical development and aesthetic coloniality covered up the genocidal dimension of the "new imperialism." This period also gave rise to the greatest famines in human history not caused by "natural" disasters in different parts of Asia, particularly China and India (3). Indeed, it happened at the same time in which the ideology of that period stamped a non-historical bias on global production and trade relations.

Moreover, the otherness of "migrant reason" portrayed in the exhibition avoids viewing that reason as a hollow abstraction removed from a specific analysis of the social relations of domination, material production and reproduction of life in a specific historical context. As Aníbal Quijano has shown, in European countries the shaping of modern nation-states was linked to a democratization of social and economic structures that left a constitutional loophole at the margin of citizenship: a coloniality of power derived from racial difference (4). That defining of a racial other was (and is) of fundamental importance in sustaining the Eurocentric view of progress, assimilated to the historical succession of the means of production (a stage-by-stage evolutionism that the most teleological versions of Marxism reproduced in the shadow of Stalinist orthodoxy), in the measure that it requires delimiting a colonial exteriority whose contextual space invalidates that interpretation of history: Quijano emphasizes that in Latin America’s case all relations involving production-exploitation (from slavery to wage-earning) existed side by side in the same space- time continuum. That is why the presence of that racial otherness under the guise of the migrant does not pose a threat to the material structures of Western societies (as the politics of fear promoted by the mass media would have us believe), which are largely dependent on that workforce, but rather threatens its historical self-perception, in which the idea of progress continues to propel the oblivion of a ruinous past into the future.

The invisibility of migrant labor is particularly evident in the field of domestic work. Following the publicized –if not financed- conversion into a worthless scrap of paper of the law on dependence by Rodríguez Zapatero’s socialist government, an increasing amount of domestic work in Spain has been performed by immigrant labor, which is not only denied the possibility of legalizing its work status, but also of gaining access to basic social services such as health care. Indeed, the current neoliberal Partido Popular government has withdrawn domestic workers’ access to medical services, so any form of medical attention they may need implies paying bills that they generally cannot afford (5). In addition to being a flagrant violation of human rights, that lack of access to health care has led to the social "disappearance" of domestic workers, who have been relegated to a legal limbo --the "I don’t officially exist" to which Stephan Dillemuth, Konstanze Schmitt and Territorio Doméstico referred to in their 2010 performance, "Triunfo de las Domésticas Activas".

By performing in a public space, they managed to partly offset these conditions by stressing that the work performed by immigrant women is above all a "living" job, both in the Marxist sense, since that legal limbo deprives them of any sense of property beyond awareness of their bodies as a labor force, and in the vital sense, since ultimately the bareness of living labor is what makes any justification of their desire unnecessary under the discursive framework of the legal reasoning that denies their existence: "I’m looking for a better life. Period". Viewed in that light, the figure of the migrant comes close to political rebellion: the passivity traditionally associated with domestic labor becomes an active form of self-affirmation against the existing order, against the aesthetic-legal distribution of bodies in society.

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