The Living Archive: unlearning to recognize

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Friday, April 19, 2019
The Living Archive: unlearning to recognize

Article by Maria Tamboukou ( Professor in Feminist Studies, University of East London), written for the Observatory of the Refugee and Migration Crisis in the Aegean

I have written elsewhere about the archive as a living organism, about following archival rhythms, as well as the psychosocial intensities of archival worlds (see, The Archive Project) In my theorization then the archive is taken as a laboratory of narrative understanding, but also as an assemblage of material and discursive entanglements and processes. My experience of being in Lesvos however, doing research for the Leverhulme funded project Revisiting the nomadic subject has far surpassed the archive fevers I have lived through so far.

I landed in Lesvos on March 25, 2019 and on the same day 188 refugees came by boat, comprising the highest number of people arriving at the island from the beginning of this year. Apart from being Greece’s National Holiday, March 25, was also the day that 30 people were rescued from drowning, while one smuggler was arrested. These are amongst typical daily news on the island, as I have later come to realize. How did I learn about them? Not just by walking around, visiting places, taking photos, reading local newspapers and talking to people I have met here, but also by following the Aegean Refugee Observatory website, as well as a number of social media posts and pages from the different institutions and groups working about and many times with the refugees and migrants currently residing in Lesvos.

There were therefore at least two levels of ‘the real’ in my understanding of Lesvos: the material real, both visible and invisible to the eyes, since ‘access’ to many sites was both restricted or highly regulated and the virtual real, a complex network of on-line connections, websites, images, announcements, as well as a plethora of social media pages. As the Aegean Refugee Observatory has pointed out: ‘The islands of the Eastern Aegean, and in particular Lesvos —an island that received more than half of the refugees and migrants who entered the European Union during 2015– have emerged as the geographic focal point of the largest population movement in Europe since the end of the Second World War.’ (ARO/Population movements in the Aegean) These two levels of ‘the real’ are of course heuristic, since they can never really be separated. But what really struck me in Lesvos is this intense feeling not only of action and practical response to critical events from many different institutions, organizations and standpoints, but also of an intense and on-going activity of history in the making.

It is in this light that I have imagined Lesvos as ‘a living archive’ taking the idea from the important work of the Observatory of the Refugee and Migration Crisis in the Aegean. As the only university institution in the Aegean archipelago the Refugee Observatory has taken over the highly urgent and important task of documenting and archiving the Aegean mobility assemblage, not just in terms of its segmentarities, territorial discourses and bordering practices, but also in terms of its deterritorialization, its lines of flight.

But how do I understand and map mobility assemblages? ‘Historians of migration view human movement as an ordinary, rather than exceptional, dimension of human life and as an almost universal human experience’ Donna Gabaccia has argued. ('Is everywhere nowhere?', 1115) Moreover, Stephen Castles has maintained that conflict and forced migration form a continuum that is linked to the social transformations of globalization. ('Global Perspectives on Forced Migration', 7) According to Castles, the distinction between migration as voluntary movement and asylum as coercion does not stand, since migratory movements across the globe have historically been triggered by wars, regional conflicts, national and international politics, as well as local and global economic dynamics. Taking ‘the migration/asylum nexus’ further, Encarnación, Guttiérez Rodríguez has argued that it is intertwined with the coloniality of power and racial capitalism. ('The Coloniality of migration')

It is within such economic, political and colonial assemblages that I chart narratives of uprooted women on the move, as they already emerge in the process of my research. Their stories, I argue continually cross national, geographical, language and conceptual borders, encompassing components of what I chart as ‘the mobility assemblage’. As I have written elsewhere, the notion of the assemblage allows for post-structural understandings of networks of connections that are always in flux, assembling and reassembling in different ways (see 'Machinic assemblages'). Assemblages are thus emergent features of relationships and can only function as they connect with other assemblages in a constant process of becoming. Assemblages can be physical, psychological, socio-cultural, as well as philosophical and abstract and they allow for the possibility of complex configurations, continuous connections and intense relations. In this light, some of the components of what I configure as ‘the mobility assemblage', would be: wars, local conflicts, gender relations, racial capitalism, colonialism, border practices, global trade and as the analysis goes on more component can be added and more internal and external relations can be mapped. Theorised within the framework of the assemblage, mobility emerges as a complex entanglement of some of the components already identified above that make specific connections with other components within the assemblage, but also develop external relations with components of other assemblages: unregulated markets, economic crises, homelessness, culture, family histories and moral panics, to name but the most startling.

What are the implications of working with assemblage theories then? A central task of the analysis would be to make specific cartographies of situated phenomena and problems, trace the connections they make in order to configure emerging new formations, but also follow their ‘lines of flight’, since for Deleuze and Guattari, who coined the notion of the assemblage, society is not so much defined by its molar formations and their dialectic oppositions but rather by what has escaped them, not the molar socio-cultural entities, but the molecular counter-formations, its ‘lines of flight’. In this light, there can be no clear separation between coercion and voluntary movement, escaping persecution or moving forward in hope for a better life. And although each story is just a singularity, the already significant body of literature on facts and figures of migration and forced displacement across the globe, fully supports and historically contextualizes narrated lived experiences, what François Laruelle calls, ‘le vécu.’ (Introduction to non-marxism)

How does it feel to live such archival instensities, both real and virtual and how difficult can it be to map mobility assemblages? Apart from being dazzled, I have been trying to unlearn how to see and how to listen. Lyotard has suggested that ‘to learn to see is to unlearn to recognise’ (Discours, Figure: 114). While in Lesvos, I have therefore attempted to write genealogies of women’s mobility under conditions of forced displacement. As a Nietzschean insight reconfigured in Michel Foucault’s analytics, genealogy is concerned with the processes, procedures and apparatuses, whereby truth and knowledge are produced. Genealogy writes the history of the present: it problematizes the multiple, complex and non-linear configurations of the socio-political and cultural formations of our times.  In addressing the historicity of such present questions and problems, genealogy conceives subjectivities and social relations as an effect of the interweaving of discourses and practices, which it sets out to trace and explore. But instead of seeing history as a continuous development of an ideal schema, genealogy is oriented to discontinuities. Throughout the genealogical exploration there are frequent disruptions, uneven and haphazard processes of dispersion, that call into question the supposed linear evolution of history. In this context of reversal, our present is not theorized as the result of a meaningful development, but rather as an event, a random result of the interweaving of relations of power and domination. Genealogy as a method of analysis searches in the maze of dispersed events to trace discontinuities, recurrences and play where traditional historiography sees continuous development, progress and seriousness.

In finding myself in the living archive of Lesvos, my problem as a genealogist was how to get out of clichés, discern and follow lines of flight, create conditions of possibility for mapping the complex grid of visibilities and invisibilities, which is the task par excellence for writing histories of the present. It was thus not only about finding new ways of seeing but also of devising new ways of listening, given that listening to uprooted women’s stories was at the heart of my research. Listening as a political activity that enables us to live-in -the-world-with others has been indeed crucial. According to Susan Bickford, ‘both speaking and listening are central activities of citizenship’ (The Dissonance of Democracy, 4). But listening is a complex practice: while we focus on the speaker, we never listen in a void, but within a background that we have to map and understand. In the same way that we are situated speakers, we are also always, already situated listeners: we always listen from somewhere, no matter how open or willing we are to move from our position. My research started as a way of challenging nomadism and has been unfolding as an on-going process of seeing, listening and understanding, including the desire to collect some traces of women’s history in the making.

Maria Tamboukou

Leverhulme Research Fellow, University of East London

April, 2019