European Alternatives: On nomadism Interview with Rosi Braidotti

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On nomadism:
Interview with Rosi Braidotti

(Photo: steve phillips)


Rosi Braidotti’s work lies at the intersection of political theory, cultural politics, gender theory and ethnicity studies. The core of her interdisciplinary work consists of four interconnected monographs on the constitution of contemporary subjectivity, with special emphasis on the concept of difference within the history of European philosophy and political theory. She has been Jean Monnet professor at the European University Institute in Florence, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and is currently Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Utrecht University.

By Sara Saleri with Rigenerazioni* Rosi Braidotti has explored the notion of “nomadism” which has become the key concept for the development of an extremely rich and original research, varying from poststructuralism, to the history of feminism, to ethics. In her theory, the nomadic subject is a subject in becoming and, at the same time, grounded to a determined historical situation, embodied and situated. In this conversation, we talked about ethical gestures, feminism and the possibilities of a nomadic political practice.

Q: The idea of the nomadic subject was born as a philosophical concept, as an existential condition, as a (non structured) form of one’s own identity. In recent years you have especially reflected on this concept in an ethical dimension, as what should be the basis of political action. We especially think about Transpositions, where you maintain that “a nomadic and not unitary vision of the subject, instead of impeding ethically relevant positions, constitutes a necessary precondition for the formulation of an ethics which measures up to the complexities of our time”.

Which are the concrete practices you think of, when you talk about politics of location, of multiple becoming, of the necessity of going through differences and belongings that can also be contradictory? Which could be the figures and everyday experiences of nomadism?

RB: The project on nomadic subjects emerges from feminist philosophies, post-colonial philosophies and anti-racist philosophies, critical theory, social theory. And then it develops into an analytical tool to look at three classes of problems. First of all, the cultural mutations, which I call “the cultural cartography”: what is happening to bodies, identities, belongings, in a world that is technologically mediated, ethnically mixed and changing very fast in all sort of ways. Secondly, there is a clearly political project: can we think other ways of being globalized, of becoming planetary, or are we stuck with this neoliberal model? Is there another way in which we can rethink at our interconnections? And then, finally, the ethical issue: what are the values of subjects who are not unitary but are split, complex, nomadic? These three dimensions are reflected in my trilogy of books: Nomadic Subjects (1994, Columbia University Press) is the starting social statement, Metamorphoses (2002, Polity Press) deals with the cultural part, while Transpositions (2006, Polity Press) focuses on ethics. In terms of practical implications, there are two clear areas in which nomadic subjectivity can be seen. First, the actual practice of flexible citizenship, which I explored in my work on Europe: a temporary, interim citizenship based on delinking ethnic origin from nationality and citizenship and then recombining them in different ways. Our European citizenship allows us to recombine nationality and ethnic origins in very unprecedented ways: in fact, we can delink citizenship from ethnicity and connect it to participation, belonging. And I think that this model of nomadic citizenship, that would be pragmatic and grounded, instead of abstract and based on nationality, is what we have to focus on. Second, connected to this, the idea of nomadic subject allows us to have a different take on immigration: we have to stop looking at immigration as a problem and see immigration as simply the fact of globalization. We have to start from the fact that the world will never be culturally and ethnically homogenous again: that world is over. Then, we have to think about the multiple forms of belonging of subjects and map out different configurations of nomadism, different ways in which a subject can have multiple belongings, multiple ways in which ethnicity, nationality and citizenship can actually be combined, even within the same nation state. A model of nomadic post-colonial theory would allow you to de-criminalize, depenalize, de-pathologize the problem, and also not to discuss post-colonial theory only in terms of other possible identities. The crucial thing about nomadic subject is that it is post-identitarian: nomadic is a verb, a process by which we map out multiple transformations and multiple ways of belonging, each depending on where our particular location is and how we grow. So we have to map out the alternative cartographies of the non-unitary subjects that we are, so that we can get rid of any idea that there are subjects that are completely unitary, belonging entirely to one location.

Q: This concept of “flexible citizenship” seems to recall the idea by Hanna Arendt of reversed human rights, which would guarantee the right to citizenship at an international level. A political citizenship in a political space, wider than the one possible within the nation state. Arendt saw a possibility of this kind of citizenship in the project of federal Europe: do you think this notion could be realised in the Europe we have, increasingly more constructed as a fortress, opposed to those who try to enter its borders? Instead, how can we imagine and how can we build a different Europe, really post-national, which would open to this kind of citizenship?

RB: We obviously have the Europe that we deserve. Europe is made through elections in which very few people vote. Clearly a political project that construct a post-national Europe is not there. And Daniel Cohen Bendit, the leader of my party, the European Greens, has been forever working within the institutions, to have the political Europe on the agenda. It’s a political decision if we do it or not: the institutional and legal means are in place. If you look at the work done at the European Institute in Florence by armies of lawyers who have worked out the structure of a possible European citizenship, it is absolutely feasible and easy to delink citizenship from ethnic origins or even nationalities. So the entire infrastructure is in place, there’s no political will. And I think in the last ten years – I was talking with Luisa Passerini about this – the political project of Europe has regressed enormously, under the combined forces of the delirious nationalistic right and the equally delirious old fashioned left: I hold them both entirely responsible. A middle way that can allow us constructing a Europe where – as Spinelli, Schumann and Monnet were pointing out – the European framework would actually allow us to bypass nationalism, would be actually to postulate citizenship on participation, on belonging, on taxation, on being there… allowing people without countries, stateless people, to be citizens. To give everyone the right to have rights, using precisely the European legal framework as an unprecedented legal framework, that would allow us to transcend the nation state. This is the greatness of this project, but it is not highlighted in the public debate.

Q: A keyword in all your work is “responsibility”. In “Transposition”, you defined ethics as a whole of “intersected forms of situated responsibility”, linked to a politics of location: we have to become “other”, to take the responsibilities linked not only to the roles we act, but also to the roles we can keep in memory (a memory which is intergenerational and collective). How do you think this becoming-other, becoming-multiple can be translated in practice, beyond an increased awareness of oneself as a subject (or many subjects)? Is it a project which ends in the individuality of a subject, or do you think it also as a collective project?

RB: I think we have to start from eliminating identities. We will never arrive anywhere if we identity as a starting point. In fact the whole process of becoming is a process of abandoning identity and entering in the construction of subjectivity, subjectivity being per definition transversal, collective. This is an enormous switch because even the political movements I have known in the 70s were identitarian movements: women movements would fight for women, gay movements would fight for gays… There is sometimes a sort of one-on-one equivalence between the grief and the remedy, what you are complaining against and what you propose as an alternative. This one-on-one equivalence has to switch, transcending the merely identitarian claim and look at the broader issue. This point was already made back in the 80s by poststructuralists, when there was a critique of Hegelian and Marxist identity politics. It went for a large part unheard, but if you read early Foucault, middle Deleuze, Derrida, it is clear that the only possible ethics for the global world is collectively shared, because the scale of the problems is planetary, gigantic. An example for this is what people continue to call “the environmental problem” – as if it were a problem, when it is in fact the possibility of the future. It is like immigration: these issues are not problems, they are either a fact or a condition of possibility for survival. You can’t address a problem today, whether it is water, or clean air, without having to take into account a common condition, planetary, almost global, and future generations. That is the clear example of the ethical shift that we need. And of course our morality – Kantian or Judeo-Christian – is not only individualistic but it is like a contract between self and other, a negotiation: “I don’t do to you what you don’t do to me, etc.”. A kind of capitalist driven negotiation of boundaries. No matter what neo-Kantians of today – such as Martha Nussbaum – say, that model is simply inadequate to the scale and dimension of problems we have. We need to be able to think for future generations who cannot do anything for us. The future per definition cannot be reciprocal, so we should exit the Kantian morality “I do that for you, you do that for me”… No! You do that for the love of humanity, because if we don’t do that, there is no going to be a humanity! So we have to give up the idea of reciprocity and we instead to know that we share a specificity of a certain condition. And we have to give up a certain notion which, by the year 2010, has lead to an assimilation of progress with further consumption: you will consume more than we did, we consume more than our parents did, our parents consumed more than their parents did… as a consequence of that, now we are at the verge of a catastrophe, financial, environmental, demographic. The eco-philosophical problem highlights the size of the issues we look at. When we look at war and peace, development, problems in the third world, increasing poverty in the first world … I think either we understand we are in this together, or it’s not going to work. It’s not a matter of choice but of necessity, to think of collective responsibility in a non-reciprocal manner, covering humans and non humans. We need an ethics for our times, and not the application of moral rules that are based in an 18th century world – I’m sorry, but I don’t live in that world. I don’t even think we have to see it as a choice.

Q. In Transpositions, you denounce the emergence of new macro-narratives, like the claim of the inevitability of the free market, or the biological essentialism. These macro-narratives, taken for granted and considered as untouchable, participate in defining some developments of the contemporary gender politics: a neo-conservative post-feminism, which considers financial success as the main, if not the only, index of women’s liberation; a neo-colonial attitude which sets “our women” (supposed as emancipated) against the “women of the others” (to be emancipated and liberated, sometimes with arms, as in Afghanistan). How can we challenge these macro-narrations?

RB: I think we should start to map the different kinds of subjectivity women have acquired, all kinds of women, and also look at other variables, like ethnicity, race, age, fundamental rights, class, income, social inscription – and from this look at differences. There is clearly a strong right-wing feminism, coming from the nationalist groups, from Jean Marie Le Pen, to the Lega Nord, saying: “We don’t want the Muslims, they are backwards, they will make us lose what we have gained through feminism”. There is a clear contradiction, so we need a much deeper analysis of the different locations of different possible feminist subjects, to find out that many of them would be right-wing, liberal, neoliberal, nationalist, some europeistic in a very defensive way (the “Fortress Europe” form). But all them will share the idea that women should be emancipated. So there is a core of emancipation, of equal opportunities, as a nucleus which is generating a whole range of mutations, and I don’t like many of these mutations, but they are all expression of the subjectivity of women. That subjectivity didn’t turn out to be singular univocal, but polivocal, and it’s not what we have dreamt of politically… but it is the risk of any revolution. I think it is interesting is to look at intersections of configurations of womanhood and foreigners, illegality, precarity, youth, disadvantage, and to look at the pockets where the level of oppression accumulates and where emancipationism proves rather empty. It’s like: “Integrate!”, but how am I going to do that if it means leaving my religion? This is the example of Muslim woman, but of course also with youth and unemployment: “Build up a career!” in the present state of the precarious market. About the possibility of feminism, we need to nomadise the concept. So, not think that we will agree – we will not –, but that we all will act, that we will have a platform for action, whatever it would be. And it will probably be very contradictory: for example, on the matter of the war on Iraq, even the feminist American community was split. Think of feminism as a coalition of interests on common issues: it is historically contingent and changeable and it has to be reconstructed at each generation. Now there are many possibilities, but you need to map out the contradictions of our generations and take the responsibilities of your generation seriously.

Q: In more than one occasion you have insisted that “becoming-women” doesn’t coincide with a classical emancipationism that would resemble a “becoming-men”. Do you think we should enter into the system in order to change it? For example, in “Nomadic subjects”, you talk about a “nomadic practice of institutions”, which would create structures flexible and functional at the same time. Could you explain us what you mean with this?

RB: You have to consider it historically: when we entered the institutions, in the 80s, early 90s, when we could see the new capitalist system evolving, the information society coming, the idea was to enter the institutions to consolidate and not to lose the archive, the memory, and let the institutions change, so that some of these ideals would permeate them: appoint more women, teach some emancipation… very basic things, to inhabit the institutions but not to assimilate into them. And it worked quite well, because we managed to be quite respected professors and directors, but we never really stopped fighting for an alternative. So, that was the original idea. What has happened since, is quite simply the huge mutation of capitalism: our information society is the height of flexibility and changeability. It has completely perverted that concept, to the point that now you will not have a career, you will have a sequence of jobs, if you are lucky. So flexibility and moving in and out has become so much the motor of neo-capitalism, that now we have to look at this again and still maintain that nomadism as a qualitative shift is necessary. But nomadism as a quantitative proliferation of multiple little jobs is the reality, so we need more of that. I don’t call that nomadism, I call that the perverted fragmentation of advanced capitalism. Nomadism is a qualitative shift of consciousness, that makes you inhabit the positions of power so as to change it.

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