Mea culpa: Goodbye migration studies

Last week I attended ‘On migrations: Images, subjects, objects’, an event co-organised by the Dublin City Council Arts Office in association with PhotoIreland Festival 2012 and GradCam. Listening to papers on ‘diaspora space’ among indigenous Irish people in the north inner city and on ‘collaborative’ photography projects with residents of direct provision hostels, a line from the Israeli poet Nathan Alterman rang in my head: ‘Here are the trees with their murmuring leaves / Here is the air dizzy with height. / I do not want to write about them / I want to touch their heart’.

But the poet, like us academics, did continue to write. Indeed, writing was his stock in trade, as it is ours. And writing ‘about them’ is just as invasive as the poet’s wish to ‘touch their heart’. So I reflected aloud about the permission we give ourselves to turn others, in this specific case migrants, into the objects of our ‘desire to know’, as Alice Feldman of UCD expressed it. And – although I was a founder member of the Trinity Immigration Initiative, for which I managed a project on migrant networks assisting in their own integration, and although I am deeply committed to supporting migrants in Ireland and elsewhere – I made a decision there and then that I will never again research and write about migrants.

Migration Studies is often obsessed with figures, with the management and regulation of migration flows, and with integration as a state gift. Many academics assist governments in regulating migration flows, fixing quotas, differentiating between deserving labour migrants and undeserving asylum seekers. I would like to believe that my research did not engage in such policy measures. I started by writing about racism, state racism that is. My latest book, co-edited with Elena Moreo, Migrant Activism and Integration from Below in Ireland, did focus on migrants’ own strategies of resistance to state immigration and integration regimes. But even though my starting point was what migrants themselves are doing in order to ease the pains of migration and resettlement, even though I was and still am committed to an open door policy and to fighting against deportation – using migrants and their life stories as the objects of my analysis is no longer tenable for me.

Academics, sociologists in particular, act on our ‘desire to know’. But like the poet’s wish to ‘touch the heart’ of his dizzy trees, such desire harbours orientalist strands of what Chandra Mohanty calls the ‘discursive colonisation’ by white, first world researchers of non-white, non-European subjects, objectified by our gaze and desire.

This realisation of mine is sharpened by my work on Israel-Palestine, where, as a citizen of the occupying entity, I have clearly declared my refusal to ‘research Palestinians’. I will continue to analyse and critique the war machines of the racial state, and keep a watchful eye on state discriminating practices. But I will no longer attempt to satisfy my curiosity by eliciting the life stories of migrants or occupied subjects – they are well able to write their lives and their activism is testimony to their struggle and their subjectivities.

So, goodbye migration studies. Farewell to the desire to know and touch hearts. As Paul Gilroy said all these years ago in his famous article ‘Race ends here’, it is academic raciologists who maintain the construction of race and difference. I can only apologise for using migrants’ voices for my own research agendas. Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa.