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The land, Exile and Citizenship

July 20, 2015

I couldn’t help thinking of Beckett’s Genesis as I read Erfani and Whitmire’s essay. I never thought of the politics of land-occupation that might be inherent to that text… (and still need to think that through!).

“From its Western beginnings, exile as a form of political punishment implied a definite philosophical conception of citizenship: to be a citizen, to be a political agent, one had to be associated with a land. This relation between citizenship and the national land is still very much present in our juridical definitions of citizenship. Though there are undeniably other important facets to citizenship, it is essential that we recognize from the beginning this tight relationship of citizenship to a particular piece of the earth.” (p.45)

“With Plato, the question of the land – the uncontaminated land – is present in his two most important political works: the Republic and the Laws.” (p.45)

“The Laws, a trans-political and comparative dialogue, opens with an unidentified man, referred to only as the Athenian Stranger, asking Cleinias (a Cretan) and Megillus (a Lacedaemonian) about the origin and “authorship” of their laws. The discussion draws its initial focus from the fact that Cleinias is in charge of creating a new Cretan colony.” (p.45) “His first questions to Cleinias regarding the new colony are not about the [-p.46] education of the future citizens (as in the Republic); they concern, instead, the land. In the ensuing discussion, the Stranger congratulates Cleinias for picking a somewhat fertile yet deserted site (with no neighbouring states), several miles from the sea, for this new city. For in order to have virtuous citizens, he argues, one must have a city on land fertile enough to support its population without producing the surpluses that would encourage commerce, and far enough away from the sea and other cities that even travel would become prohibitive. In the eyes of the Stranger, foreigners contaminate the polis with their trades, their culture, and their sheer presence; they make the polis ‘unfaithful’ to itself by turning the citizens’ attention and devotion away from their political home.
To be a citizen, to be a political agent, for Plato, means being subject to a polis, belonging to a land. In this case, since there is no common history, language, or even religion to create a bond among citizens, the actual land becomes uniquely important. The very identity of the citizens is defined in their collective subjugation or subjection to this land. In other words, the condition sine qua non for a virtuous polis is an internal integrity entirely undisturbed by what lies beyond its boundaries. The Athenian had promised to legislate with nothing in view but virtue; and from the beginning virtue implies exclusion and, indeed, exclusion firmly rooted in the land: good citizenry is a matter of good land.” (pp.45-46)

… “Now, given the importance of the land, it should come as no surprise that exile is the second harshest punishment, after the death penalty. Exile becomes a political punishment, then, because to be a citizen is to have a special rapport with the land. Accordingly, to be banned from the land means an end to one’s political life.
Plato’s position in the Laws, though perhaps exaggerated, represents a tradition to which we still very much belong. We still associate our capabilities and responsibilities as citizens with a particular land where we may participate in political life, a land we are always trying to keep pure and uncontaminated by foreign influences (metaphorically or more literally). All countries monitor the foreigners who are allowed to set foot on their soil (the American Patriot Act being only one of the more overt manifestations of this) through visa systems, and whatever foreigners wish to bring – from agricultural to cultural products – is rigorously controlled.” (p.47)

“Our own bureaucratic versions of [Plato’s] nocturnal council also restrict the distribution of passports, and thereby travel, to those ‘good’ citizens whom we trust not to import a foreign culture inadvertently; felons and criminals forfeit not only their voting rights, but their right to travel freely, by violating the laws of their land. While we no longer (generally) exile our convicts – though we do deport citizens of other lands who break our laws – we still remove them from the land and significantly restrain their political agency by institutionalizing them in corrections facilities. As we can see, then, land and the rights and duties of citizenship continue to be intimately linked. This model, however, […] is inappropriate for us today. Pure isolation, even as an ideal, is untenable.” (p.47)

“We suggest […] that the notion of citizenship must be broadened in our current, post-modern condition. We certainly do not deny the importance of land, and perhaps more importantly the right to belong to a land; what we hope to challenge is the outdated notion that sharing a land means sharing the same political ideals or struggles.” (p.45)

The authors ask us to “take into account […] the massive inconsistency in the argument of many advocates of globalization: whereas ‘free trade’ is heard often, ‘open borders’ is not. ‘Globalization’ has tended to mean that capital may flow freely between nation-states, whereas labour remains largely restricted to those territorial boundaries. Poor workers are often forced to become illegal aliens in the search for better pay or working conditions. Consequently, as corporations have learned to move from one land to another, millions – in rich and poor countries – have lost their voices and political capacities precisely by being restricted to their own land.” (p.51)

In a fluid, post-modern world, which allows ideas, capital, and even some persons to move easily around the globe, and in which all of us are affected by others in unprecedented ways, we believe it is [-p.53] necessary to recognise that political participation is no longer (if it ever was) simply a local matter, contained within finite geographical boundaries. We can no longer afford the luxury of thinking and acting merely locally; indeed, the primacy of locus, or place, to political agency is what we have been chiefly interested in problematising here. We would argue that we must, instead, begin to think of citizenship in terms of strategic interest, in terms of what people have in common, and no longer solely in terms of land. Political participation must no longer be a local issue; it should be horizontal, across the globe, where similar political interests would be able to have a global and associated voice. The United Nations is certainly one such forum for discussion, but it is not, and should not be, the last word in politcal representation, inasmuch as it proceeds on the often-spurious presumption that states – and ultimately, as we have shown, all those who are tied to a given body of land – have something like a set of uniform political interests that override all other ties, whether these be economic, racial, gender, or otherwise.” (pp.52-53)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine; I have eliminated references from the quotations, but there are plenty in the original) Farhang Erfani and John Whitmire ‘Exile and the philosophical Challenge to Citizenship.’ pp.41-56 Ed. Mike Hanne (2004) Creativity in exile. Amsterdam ; New York : Rodopi 


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