DreamMakers REFLECTION ESSAY by Engin Isin, Professorof Citizenship, Politics and International Studies and Director of Citizenship,Identities and Governance at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the OpenUniversity.
I’m very interested in the projectDreamMakers as well as this space and the activities you are undertaking,connecting arts, politics, citizenship and belonging.
I want to say a little bit about the kind ofwork that’s taking place in the academy and my interest. How it gets connectedwith the relationship, the interface, between art and the politics, citizenshipand belonging. Citizenship as you may imagine has been mostly understood inmainstream culture, if you like, as passage, or the right, to belong to aparticular state. It is very state based, institution and symbolised by nothingother than, most sort of poignantly, that particular instrument called thepassport. We are asked for our passports everytime we cross borders, when weswitch places and so on. But all the last twenty years around the world hasbeen a lot of interest in migration and travelling. Travelling not as intourism, but as people who travel, who do not stay put in the place of theirbirth and they do this for a variety of reasons.
Whether it’s for work, lifestyle, enjoymentor just simply to escape the boundaries that bind them. And as soon as thishappens people run into a very complex mesh of regulations. These regulations protectborders, nations, and specific ways of doing things.
So migrantexperiences, what we have learned over the last twenty years, migrantexperiences of travellers, travelling people as it were, not so much has beenabout their particular experiences of how does one for example translate, howdoes one negotiate different languages. I was reading for example at theexhibition.
One is born into a particular language anddoes not have a choice in that and we call it native. That’s the language thatyou learn; then as soon as you switch places for whatever reason, one of thefirst things one has to negotiate is how to communicate, how does one translateone’s experience that evolved in a particular language to another and thedifficulties. So that translation is notsimply translation. It’s not just simply switching from one language to anotherto express the same thing but each language has its own conventions. Eachlanguage has its own norms with which it speaks about experiences. So, if youlearn as I did, for example, Turkish as your native language and then switch toEnglish, things don’t translate. So learning how to translate, learning not theother language, but translating experiences. We learned much about that in thelast twenty years from travelling people and also all the prejudices,xenophobia, misogyny, and Racism, ethnocentrism, that these kinds of switchesput people into. As soon as you make this kind of switches you realize thatmany closed boundaries that states protect also use variety of prejudices toprotect those boundaries. So it’s not about border controls and passport, butit is also culture and cultural homogeneity, cultural uniqueness. Speaking from experience, I now realize peoplehave been told lies. There isn’t such thing as quintessential Canadianness or,that there isn’t such a thing of being quintessentially German. That it isnon-negotiable, that one has to impose on other, that notion of Germanness orBritishness. There is this very strong call and how the media, the culture… andthen you realize that these things have been invented. And through variouspractices that are beyond border control they’ve been inculcated in people’sways of thinking. So it is very real to people just because something is invented,such as Britishness, we realize that it doesn’t make it unreal. People haveinvested themselves. So then travelling becomes that culture translation, isalso about translation, how does one negotiate these differences. How does onefor example, negotiate one’s own invented identity. Because, that’s one of thethings that one experiences. That what you were taught as native and ingrained,you realize that is not so. You are much less pure. Much less sort of inventedthan you were first told. I grew up with Turkish nationalism and Turkishnationalism is one of the worst as the world goes, in terms of its own beliefof racialised purity and so on.
And I come from a family that is anything butracially pure. My father is of Cypriot origin and both, soft of Greek andTurkish mixtures. Also different religious mix in there. He himself migrated toTurkey from Cyprus. So, it’s anything but pure.
My mother is…a migrant family. I don’t knowif anyone knows about this, but in 1920’s there was a tragic moment in TurkishGreek nationalism, where there was a population exchange. Basically, rise ofnationalism in both Greece and Turkey. Greece and Turkey as states entered intoa treaty, saying that ‘you claim yours and I will claim mine’. They toldpeople, like people of Crete that they have to make a choice. Well, how dopeople make choice when their everyday lives and experiences are not pure. Theydid not think of themselves as Turks or Greek. So they had to make a decision.So my family, my mother’s family was actually Greek. They could speak bothTurkish and Greek. And they chose Istanbul to go. And so my mother comes fromthat mixed background.
For me translation started very young, tryingto figure out why is Greek music playing at home. And my mother saying to me,don’t mention this and make sure that you speak Turkish, not quite figuring outwhat is there to hide, why there is this. But then you know, when your motheris telling you this is what you should do. Your first instinct is, ok, I’dbetter go with that. Later I think you begin to negotiate that. Call that intoquestion as well. But then there is something about the safety and I better doit.
So, in a way, I’m even contradicting myselfwhen I said earlier that the experience about migration and travelling, to beexposed to it, one actually does not have to move much either in our world. Ourworld is already a world of travelling ideas, travelling experiences. Beforeeven I took many steps, I realized that I had to already encounter the problemof translation or the question of translation. How do I translate my mother’sexperiences, my father experiences into my own. Those were the questions I hadto tackle, not being able to have the language at that time. So, many yearsforward, there was a fixed interest in citizenship for me. Of course, I wasalways intrigued by the question what do people do to be invited, to investthemselves in this particular identity? Why some people develop thick sense ofthese identities, So much so that they find it non-negotiable?
‘I am British. Do as I say’ kind of thicknessor ‘I am German’. And by contrast others are much more fluid, in flux with it.Almost there is the sense of these are the things that as we move through ourlives we have to negotiate. It’s a give and take. So, what is it? Is it justtravelling experience because for example my own trajectory began with alreadya family that had experience of travel or maybe it’s not even that. What is it thatstates, education, systems do to protect borders and educate people to makeinvestments in these pure identities, and why this is. I became interested inthat question as a question of citizenship. So to me citizenship was not somuch as the passport one holds but the investments one chooses to make in life.And how do people make those choices. Some people make these kinds of choices.These kinds of choices they lead people to either thick loyalties path or thinloyalties of various kinds and no less rich for that. That really became sortof over riding question for me. But in academic terms we have come toarticulate this.
I’ve been involved in academic aspect of thisfor more than twenty years and when I entered into it by accident, this smallfield called citizenship studies and how do we study citizenship, it wasdominated by lawyers, political scientists and people who just thought thatnation states existed from the time immemorial, boundaries exist as rivers andmountains, as real as they are.
And it’s the question about studying lawsthat regulate citizenship. I struggled through and kept saying that when youunderstand citizenship like that you miss so much of social, negotiated,anthropological aspects of this and so on.
The field is much less lonely twenty yearson. There is a lot of people. And the most I think, welcoming aspect, andthat’s why I was really excited when Eva and Barby invited me for this, is alsothat it is not only anthropologists and sociologists became interested but alsoartists. Why interest in artists? Art is a different language than signs. Notnecessarily better or worse than signs but it brings a different lens ontohuman experience and provides different languages by which to express thatexperience. And in expression it brings into focus certain richness that typicallyeven anthropologists and sociologists are much more attuned to human experiencethan let’s say some other fields or some other approaches.
It brings into focus the richness of thoseexperiences that signs don’t have, the social sciences, humanities havedifficulty articulating. And so in the interface between humanities, socialsciences and arts there is much to be gained. So much as we sit in a room suchas this, it is vitally important to start with experiences of people. How dopeople negotiate that language that I’ve just described. It serves twofunctions, that are really significant. One that we’re not alone, that I think is really significant part ofsharing experiences. I, for one, for a long time felt as being alone in thatpath. Because when you don’t have an opportunity to express and opportunitiesto share, you kind of put it aside. Thus gettting on with life withoutreflecting much on the translation business you are doing. Only through timebut sharing with others that you begin to develop a more conscious reflectionon. We’re all fellow travellers on the road of translating our experiences andthen you begin to focus on what does it mean to be constantly translating thoseexperiences. That’s really significant in terms of sharing. The second one isof course, developing language of these translated or travelling experiences. Languageinevitable is a social product. We do it collaboratively, we do it together. Itcannot be done and it never is such a thing as private language. It is publicand social product. Product in the best sense of that term that wecollaboratively engage with one another and produce such languages. If indeedwhat I said earlier, art has access to experience and expresses thesenegotiations of translation in a particularly effective way, then it is alsosignificant to develop the idiom, the language of art collectively and sociallyin communication and collaboration, not only with each other, but also withhumanities and social sciences. I think humanities and social sciences would bemuch poorer if we don’t simply reach, but instead fully open ourselves toartistic expressions and artistic engagement with experiences. And the otherway around, I think artistic expressions and language also can learn from allsorts of things that study comparatively and in other places and in history andso on. My first entry into citizenship was historical. I learned a lot abouthow in other cultures historically, how they negotiated these differences,developed languages. And then I realized there is so much to do for example: InGreek archaic poetry, I found incredibly poignant expressions of Greek politicsof citizenship. That is not less valuable as much wanted Aristotle and what hesays in his polities. So I got drawn into more poetry than just simplypolitical philosophy. And that was my really important entry into therelationship between politics and art. And in the end when I was writing ahistory of citizenship it became history of poetry ad its relationship topolitics but without really realizing I ended up opening every chapter in theend of the book with a poem. And then work my way through how that poem cameinto being. So that is really the significance of that.