Naked musings on borders, illegality and personal identity

Last week at Gatwick airport, after asking me several apparently random questions presumably intended to trip me up, the official wagged my passport at me frustratedly. I knew what he wanted to ask but couldn’t: Damn it, who are you? These poor foot-soldiers in the war of the borders are required, whilst maintaining a calm and polite facade, to bully border-crossers in the hope of finding someone with nefarious purposes. I’m so accustomed to it that I scarcely notice, at the same time I’m aware that, if they want, they can keep me out, so it is always a moment of heightened attention lived in a zone of border thinking.

My Purpose was given as visiting friends, so he’d asked What nationality are your friends? Lots of different nationalities, I said. Oh, so you’re visiting more than one friend? You see why I call these questions random, and they also border on ethnic profiling, but never mind. They are probably sent lists of Annoying Questions of the Week. They hadn’t gotten him anywhere in his quest, anyway, which is why he flapped the passport at me and asked What do you do, anyway? I write, I replied. Now we were back on a more well-trodden track but still with stumbling-points. Have I read anything you’ve written? he challenged. I said I had no idea and and doubted it, but of course while he is having a hard go of figuring out who I am I haven’t a clue about him. Maybe he’s a No-Borders activist in his time off. Finally he gave up and waved me through.

Yesterday I was interviewed by a London politician on my views and proposals relating to trafficking. At one point I was explaining how underground economies mostly tootle along without disturbing anyone, replete with opportunism and abuse but flexible and tending to solve problems internally. To illustrate, I mentioned an incident during my own five years of illegal status (not in the UK). Who are you? I could almost hear him think. At another point I referred to my own experience of being oppressed by the work-permit system, where leaving a job one has a permit for means instant expiration of one’s legal status in the country. He has been told about the live-in maids who cannot leave because their passports are stamped for that single specific employment, even if they are being abused. To find out that supposedly ‘highly-skilled’ permits are just the same and that a researcher might feel abused and want to quit the job but stay and find another had never occurred to him. These are the nuts-and-bolts workings of a dysfunctional migration system, and they are rarely addressed in the abstract debating that goes on about migrants.

At one point, attempting to pin me down, he said, Philosophically you could be called a libertarian -and I cut him off right there. No, I said, I am not a libertarian, I rarely talk about rights and freedoms. I also am not a neoliberal proponent of the happiness of making money in a free marketplace. What I am is a believer in human agency. I believe that disadvantaged persons with limited options of how to proceed in life have, until they are actually put in chains, some space to move, negotiate, prefer one option to another. This position hardly seems philosophical to me, and I am not going to get credit for inventing a new theory with it. Yet time and again it turns conversations upside down.

Similarly, I handle the endlessly tedious conversation about whether selling sex can ever ‘be work’ like this: If one person tells me they experience it as rape and exploitation, I believe them. If another person tells me they experience it as a profession, I believe them. The other day sex workers in Santo Domingo, faced with a government proposing to criminalise their clients, reminded the state attorney that muchas de ellas mantienen a sus familias de este trabajo – many of them maintain their families with this work. (You’d think that would be punto final, wouldn’t you, especially in a poor country where any jobs at all are scarce – but it never is). Why this difference of perception and emotion should lead to such a hullaballoo is really beyond explanation.

Maybe these views make me a philosopher of the cracker barrel, doling out obvious common sense. But the politician explained his grimaces of embarrassed delight: You say things that occur to me in the back of my mind but I tell myself I must not allow them. Because they are taboo? I replied. Or, what do you think, because they are outside the box, revolutionary or downright criminal? Which lines are being crossed, exactly, with this naked talk?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

15 thoughts on “Naked musings on borders, illegality and personal identity

  1. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

    Funny. I was recently employed to write a chapter about agency for an upcoming volume on prostitution which will hopefully be published by a Social History institute.

    I couldn’t figure out why they wanted a chapter on agency, however, given the volume’s massively wide-lens and comparative (prostitution in 30 global cities over a 500 year period).

    Then I realized that some of the people putting the volume together apparently hadn’t really thought out what agency is. They were confusing it with free will, opportunism, or untrammeled choice.

    So I wrote my bit about what agency is, as understood by anthropology and sociology and presented it at the seminar. Everyone kinda got silent. Then one guy spoke up: “So, basically, it’s impossible to deprive someone of agency unless they’re clapped in chains and tossed in a dungeon or you put a bullet through their head.”

    “Yeah,” I responded. “That’s the key point about the dialectic between agency and social structure. Humans fuck up the best-laid plans of mice and men. Even if you were a perfect slave, absolutely and sincerely wishing to follow your master’s orders, you would refract them through a matrix made up of your past history and your personal circumstances and you would end up doing something different than what was expected of you. And very, very few humans are perfect slaves. Once personal interests come into play, Lord knows how things will end up. If reading about what slavery was actually LIKE in the Americas should teach us one thing, it’s that the slaves definitely knew they had agency. The masters did too, and were as scared as hell by the situation”.

    Marxist thought – while certainly valuable – has ended up addicting much of social-scientific analysis into believing that structure is everything and power absolute.

    I think in this situation, it is a very good and useful service you provide, doling out common sense. Social science has gotten so detached from life-as-it’s-lived, especially when it comes to highly politicized topics like prostitution, that it seems to be flying straight off into some sort of neo-positivism. In that kind of scenario, women and men willing to point out that the philosophers have no clothes are desperately needed.

    1. Laura Agustín

      On the response ‘basically it’s impossible to deprive someone of agency unless they’re clapped in chains and tossed in a dungeon or you put a bullet through their head’ – I myself would probably say not exactly. There is a time element involved: because of exercising an option to do something, one may end up in a situation one doesn’t want and can’t easily get out of – whether because of bad information, self-deception, crappy luck or someone else’s lies and coercion. I think of those situations as traffic accidents; for a while afterwards you may be stuck in bed with a broken leg or worse. As you recover you begin dealing with options again. Your agency has been damaged, and you may have been the victim of a crime, but you are not a permanent victim.

      1. Thaddeus Blanchette

        Well, it’s not so much options that define agency, from my view, as one’s natural defraction of external circumstances. So to take your traffic accident metaphor, while having a broken leg deprives you of many choices, you’re still going to interact with the situation in a way that’s not entirely predictable via the situation’s external constraints. The SMART money says you’ll kick back and relax while you heal. A certain percentage of people, however, won’t do that and an even smaller – but significant – percentage of people will do things that are really surprising and almost totally unpredictable, even with both legs broken and while flat on their back.

        I see the reduction of opportunity as one thing, a sperate thing. I don’t see agency as something that can be reified and quantitatively compared in any meaningful way. Asking who has more agency is rather like asking which ocean is wetter. Human beings, by their very nature, are not objects and are not passively acted upon. Every slave holder knows that fact very well and it’s at the base of all of her computations.

        Asking about who has more opportunities and what those opportunities are… now that’s something that can be measured and compared. Agency, however, is simply innate.

    2. drs

      Note from LA: This comment is in reply to Thaddeus, above, but somehow got misplaced. Drs is quoting him, not me.

      “it’s impossible to deprive someone of agency unless they’re clapped in chains and tossed in a dungeon or you put a bullet through their head”

      Right; OTOH, it’s certainly possible to *reduce* someone’s agency, or the scope of it. I’d guess you know that, but I’d bet $100 some people would hear “slaves and the poor still have some agency” and take that as meaning “they have the same agency as everyone else”. People make choices, but not everyone has any good options, let alone an array of equally good options.

      1. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

        No, I think it’s possible to reduce someone’s opportunities. That’s certainly true. But agency is innate. Agency is our innate ability to act upon opportunites. It never goes away. It is not quantifiable and is thus not able to be increased or reduced. If you reduce opportunities to zero, you reduce what agency has to work with and that’s what all systems of domination try to do.

        You don’t reduce agency itself, however, as many a slave-holder has found out the hard way.

        This might all seem a bit abstract, as Laura complains, but I think it is key. Too many sociological theories these days – especially with regards to trafficking and prostitution – postulate people with no agency at all or presume that the reduction of opportunities eliminates agency. These theories thus ironically do exactly that which they accuse traffickers and slavers of doing: they reduce people to objects. People are not objects, no matter how degraded and abused they are.

        I DO think slaves and the poor have the fundamentally same agency as everyone else (but please see below). What keeps them in their place are their circumstances, not their “reduced agency”. Those circumstances are largely imposed by the social structural forces acting upon them.

        Now, one could argue that on an individual level, people internalize external constraints to the point where they continue to be constrained even after these restraints are removed. I would guess that on the individual level, then, one might argue that agency can thus be “reduced” by psychological trauma and the like.

        That might be so, but I would also argue that on a sociological level, this is pretty much meaningless: remove a social restriction and the group so restricted will move, en masse, to exploit that situation, even if some individuals in the group don’t. The best example of this, to my mind, would be the end of slavery in the Southern U.S.

        I’m open to the idea that agency might possibly be reduced, but so far don’t see much that would allow us to measure such a reduction in any coherent way. You say “slaves and the poor”, for example. Those two categories are externally applied and adjudged according to social-structural definitions: they say nothing at all about what a poor or enslaved individual DOES, which is what the concept of agency tries to tackle. What we really do when we say “their agency is reduced” is that we stop looking, to a certain degree, at what people actually DO in such situations.

        If you think you can predict a slave’s actions based on the fact that they are enslaved, then you need to read more about historical slavery. Again, slave masters were fully aware that the people under their domination continued to have agency and were very, very clever and creative in the excercize of it. The fact that the so-called “weapons of the weak” can often screw up the best laid plans for domination should clue us into the fact that we can’t reliably, quantitatively adjudge “how much” agency someone has.

        This is why it seems to me to be more emprical and logical to understand agency as something that cannot be quantitatively measured. It is a bit like “culture” in this sense: you cannot say someone has “more” or “less” culture because human beings in groups inevitably create culture and there’s no quantitative way of measuring it.

      2. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

        I would agree, however, that it’s possible to reduce the SCOPE of someone’s agency by reducing opportunities.

        You might ask how is that different from reducing agency, per se?

        Very simple: if one can reduce agency, one can create human beings that are in fact objects.

        This has never happened at any point in human history. Even the most oppressed and vilified human beings can react in surprising and unseen ways.

        I would say that this understanding of agency is what sets Laura apart from the rescue industry.

        She sees the poor and enslaved as having agency and is interested in removing their restrictions, widening their options – in short, “empowering” them (although I hate that word).

        The rescue industry by and large does not see these people as fully human: they see them as humans who have been reduced to objects and who can only acquire humanity through outside intervention and – this is crucial – reconstruction.

        This is one of the reasons evangelicals are drawn to the rescue industry: they see “sex slaves” as so abject that they can and must be reconstruced from ground zero. This is why the rescue industry is always surprised when the “saved” bite back: they’re not supposed to be able to do that. Their experiences are supposed to have turned them into essentially empty vessels into which rescuers will pour the spirit of the Lord.

        1. Laura Agustín

          For my review of Kara’s ignorant book I read a lot of slavery studies, from different fields, from the 60s to the present. About Kara’s notion of slavery I said ‘he is nonetheless blind to the possibility that people in bad situations may be able to exploit them and seems ignorant of slavery studies far evolved from abolitionist reductionism. Slave narratives, slave archaeology, ethnobiology, and historical research all have illuminated social systems in which slaves were not wholly passive nor owners unidimensionally crushing. Coping, resisting, manipulating, strategizing, and creating culture form part of slaves’ lives.[1] But Kara, intent on discovering tales of sexual exploitation, has no idea how his informants spend most of their time.’ citations at the end of the review:

        2. nada

          Interesting! I once did a performance in a circus where I came out practically naked, and hands tied behind my back on a very small platform. All the other performers had laser beams pointed at me and I did a whole contortion and handbalancing act (something most people can only dream of doing) in that state.

          I think we were trying to communicate the point you are trying to make about agency through performance art.

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  4. antony goddard

    For some time I have been thinking about ‘quantum tunneling’ and social intereactions.
    Class barriers are part of the topography of human intereactions and quantum tunnelling simply says that what seems impossible may in fact be quite likely. This model works on a continuum where a majority (Middle Class/Under Class) has choices ranging from co-existancewith to extermination of the minority. You never know what will happen. Everything is expressed as something like a wave function.

    1. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

      Interestingly enough, I”m moving that way too, Antony.

      The social sciences have always drawn their metaphors from the exact sciences. This is a problem, but probably something that’s ultimately necessary. And I agree that chaos physics and quantuum physics might provide us with better metaphors to think about social relations than the biological ones that are too often used.

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