Arts & Culture / International / Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 1 No. 2

Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Poetics

Manuel Hughes Stories Lock in a Box

Image Credit: Manuel Hughes, Stories – Lock in a Box ,2007, oil on panel, 10″ X 8″. Courtesy of the artist.

As a poet and essayist, I think of poetry as creative heuristics, a means to investigate the world and experience through language, community, identity and politics. In poetry, writer and reader engage the contents of our categorical thinking, formally and informally (in custom and usage), as well as the limits, opacities and gaps. I understand poetics to be the portion of human life given to diligent curiosity, approached with an attitude of “what is this?”—performed for its own sake. Poetry, for the most part, escapes the overdetermined practices of the marketplace where a “dollar” is a dollar, a pre-calculated exchange. In fact, poetry is most vital when its velocity slips out of the warping vocabulary of the “market” place of expected “value” and instead, extends our thinking, opens space for the practice/rehearsal of freedom.

A poet is one who gives study to the givens around her: she drinks from her thermos (given) watching the tideline vein the shore (the unexpected). She thinks “we speak to reach what’s beyond our grasp.”

I understand “citizenship” to be a juridical concept, an abstraction, a generic default for white, author and authority, Occupant and state-holder, determining who is stated and who is stateless, and for whom the state will allocate the good life, and deny the humanity or life itself to others, the non-citizens.

Who is a citizen? Not the 26 Nigerian girls who recently drowned trying to reach Sardinia. Not the 65 million people in the world today who are refugees, nor the 22 million who are stateless. Think DACA and the end of TPS for Haitians and Salvadorians, here in America, in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and all over this fearful nation.

“Citizenship” in James Holston’s book, Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil, is about marking social differences based on hierarchy, rank and privilege. He posits two main types of citizenship: the “entrenched” and the “insurgent,” and correlates the rise of insurgent forms of citizenship with the conflict that emerges as groups begin to contest settled tiers of preference, privilege and rights. The more “diverse” a democracy becomes, the greater the demands for reallocation or reframing of the tacit and explicit exercise of “citizenship.”

“For friends, everything, for enemies, the law.”
Brazilian saying as quoted in Holston’s “Insurgent Citizenship”

For friends—everything is possible, human rights, permission and imperfection, human genius and human error, risk and opportunity to fail and to “fail better.” For our enemies—or strangers—there are “standards” of “accountability,” “personal responsibility,” the right to “stand your ground” and the validation of the courts. Our court and judicial system are stages where the distribution of innocence and guilt, doubt and credibility often align with race, class, gender (“MeToo” everyone? Any one?), social status and occupation.

“Citizenship” exceeds simple questions of time and place of residence; in fact, it turns questions of time and tenure, place and habitation on their heads. In a recent voting-rights case nearing settlement involving Navaho communities San Juan County, Utah1, the plaintiffs successfully challenged gerrymandered voting boundaries that diluted their political representation and power—and thus influenced the allocation of resources in the southern end of the county where they live without library, hospital or bank. Meanwhile, their fellow Anglo citizens at the northern end of the county enjoy paved roads, two expansive libraries, a community center on a golf course, a recreation center with a pool, and the seats of local power: the sheriff’s office, the courthouse, the school administration building.

Of course, this is not new but it should never cease to shock.

“Citizenship” has always been a troubled category in America, entwined with race consistently from 1662 to the present:
“That which is brought forth follows the womb.” Partus sequitur ventram

This doctrine enshrined in many states as statute curtailed and drew the line between the enslaved and the free. The status of the child follows the mother was engraved into law to ensure that the slave owner never lost control of the reproduction of his enslaved capital, and to preserve wealth in the form of the offspring of enslaved African women. Regardless of the status of the father—whether by rape or bond—the child of an enslaved woman’s value and “rights” and “citizenship” could never be granted at the expense of property rights, capital and capture.

The edges betray the unsettled and forgotten contents of the category “citizen.” We grapple with memories officially lost to the past but the edges carry a stickiness, a stain, a hushed retreat. Poets are called to question the edges, notice the turbulence at the borders, how edges dissolve or slide, and to incite knowledge in poems that ask “what is this?” embodied in syntax or substance and beat.

Postscript: From the margins to the center, examples of “insurgent” citizenship, often led by women, arise. See the Right to the City movement and also Pavement Dwellers International.

1“For Native Americans, a Historic Moment on the Path to Power at the Ballot Box.” The New York Times. January 4, 2018

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