In January 2018, Trump again made headlines for referring to the countries of El Salvador, Haiti, and several African nations as “shitholes.” According to reports, he “grew frustrated at the suggestion that immigrants with protected status would need that status restored” and reacted by asking, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” (Barron). Prior to these comments, in 2017, the Trump administration had ended the protected status designation for Haitians and Salvadorans, set for termination in 2019, affecting 10,000+ Haitian people and 200,000+ people from El Salvador (Watkins and Phillip). Bristling at pressure to restore the protected status of these groups, Trump argued that the United States should instead be more welcoming of immigrants from nations like Norway. In saying this, Trump distinguished nations of the global north from those of the global south, supposedly relying on economic impressions of either region to suggest that Norwegian immigrants are less likely to make use of social welfare programs than those from Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean. This interpretive account was promoted by spokespersons such as White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah, who declared, “Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation” (Davis, Stolberg, and Kaplan). However, the racial—and racist—dimensions of Trump’s comments, uttered in a supposed closed-door setting, are especially clear against comments uttered the previous June in which he declared that people from Haiti “all have AIDS” and in which he lamented that Nigerian immigrants would never “go back to their huts.”
His verbally-articulated racism has consistently drawn the ire of activists and pundits the world over. But as the timeline of events shows, bureaucratic damage had by then been done. His words and the racist assumptions that they signified did not instigate the elimination of protected status for Salvadorans and Haitians so much as justified the removal of said status because they were in an “undesirable” class of immigrants. This categorization evokes Agamben’s figure of homo sacer and its relation to state sovereignty. Homo sacer embodies “bare life,” one cast out of society who may be killed but not sacrificed, that is, one who is unworthy of the designation of a human being but whose exclusion reifies and signifies the power of the state (9). Homo sacer is not a person but a condition, with the power of the state deriving from the vulnerability of its citizens under the threat of being declared homo sacer. Political theorist Andrew Robinson explains that due process and habeas corpus were ostensibly established to prevent this kind of domination, according to Agamben, it proves “a permanent aspect of sovereignty which keeps returning and which is becoming increasingly central today,” and it is especially evident in “populist discourse often found in the tabloid press and among the more bigoted politicians, in which various people deemed ‘monsters’, ‘animals’, ‘scum’ and so on are taken not to deserve human or civil rights.” Robinson’s 2011 essay certainly portends the current administration’s exploitation of intolerance as a means to mobilize regulation and control through dis/belonging.
Trump’s comments targeted groups who had already been rendered twice vulnerable, by the dangerous conditions that necessitated migration in the first place and then through his administration’s own actions. The dissemination of his comments was the third form of vulnerability imposed on these groups: their vulnerability encompassed physical and procedural violence, and now symbolic violence, which broadcast said vulnerability as a state of exclusion within the bounds of the state and rendered members of these groups further socially prone to bigoted violence even as they maintained a provisional quasi-protected legal status. Due to time constraints, this is an admittedly overly simplistic understanding of the “shitholes” controversy and its official policy antecedents vis-à-vis Agamben’s concept of homo sacer. But it is vital to recognize racism and other forms of structural oppression as more than words, that we recognize how embodied, verbal, and procedural colonial rhetorics coalesce in the creation of excludable classes of people who are under the law’s jurisdiction and yet outside of the law’s protection. And, I make this rushed point here because what I wish to focus on is not the more obvious rhetorical moves made by Trump to persecute these groups but the ideological foundations that empower his dehumanizing remarks and policies, which cause harm no matter who determines the terms of immigration. I mean the injurious influences that lay outside the dominant culture collective consciousness in the phenomenological background, providing the very means by which said consciousness is organized. I want to go beyond the level of cultural assumptions to consider the lines of orientation that enable such assumptions in the first place, to think through the phenomenology of racism to better understand how racialized and colonized bodies are allowed and denied mobility rhetorically to sustain global coloniality.
By mobility, I don’t mean straightforward movement across flat geographies, but movement influenced by ideology, encumbered and facilitated by a complex of orientations, the movement of bodies through time and space but also rhetorical movement as disposition towards particular groups of people. And so, in the remainder of this presentation, I want to draw on decolonial theories by Fanon and Aníbal Quijano, as well as the work of Sarah Sharma, Doreen Massey, and Helen Ngo, to examine how racialized and colonized people are positioned outside of Eurowestern chronotopes, relationships between time and space in the dominant imaginary, that establish modernity through colonial conceptions of space and time. Impressions of “previously” colonized nations become fixed points in the Eurowestern imaginary, markers of the past against which Eurowestern progress is measured. As a result, racialized/colonized peoples’ mobility must be constrained if dominant ideological space is to be preserved. In this case I am taking up here, Trump sought to set UnitedStatesian citizenship (and those who are presumably worthy of it) in contrast to “shithole” nationalities, embodied by peoples already incorporated into the state but framed as outsiders nonetheless, living reminders of the state’s benevolence, exceptionality, and power precisely because they are deprived of the rights that it alone bestows. However, he did not simply attempt to establish this contrast as much as assert its legitimacy, because as, many analysts and critics have noted, Trump’s bigoted rhetoric works by exploiting already present sentiments. Trump’s verbal rhetorics did not motivate the exclusion of asylum seekers from these nations, but rather, justified their already authorized exclusion. This exclusion was predicated on impressions of so-called third-world “shitholes” that sustain the ideological borders of modernity, a concept reliant on antithetical temporalities that situate the colonizer in one notion of space-time and the colonized in one of time-space.
I have previously spoken at another Cultural Rhetorics conference of Fanon’s connection of racism to colonial orientation. In his critique of Dominique-Octave Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, Fanon disputes what we might call the victim blaming of colonized peoples whose animosity towards the colonizer, Mannoni contends, finds expression as dependency. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argues that Mannoni ignores the “real coordinates” of the colonial project since Manonni relies on a primitive-oppressed/modern-master dyad even as he attempts to explain colonial domination (84). Notably, about the same time as he writes Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon also writes “The North African Syndrome,” wherein he critiques French medical practitioners’ reification of colonial attitudes in the bodies of their patients; this is done through social and material means since they refuse to acknowledge and relieve how their patients’ suffering is caused by the various deprivations imposed by colonialism. In this essay, Fanon makes critical connections between “governmentality, state racism, discourses of citizenship, psychic suffering, migration, xenophobia, and…sexuality” (Gibson 122) to show how the colonizer creates the primitive stereotype that justifies colonial “salvation.” While they tackle seemingly different social and medical contexts, in these two works Fanon critiques an assumption of complicity on the part of the “inherently-dependent colonized,” for it is this assumption that suggests the naturalness and inevitability of colonization. Sustaining these assumptions, however, is the colonizer’s “line of orientation” (Fanon 84-85). Fanon’s analysis in these works shows that the colonizer’s identity as a Subject relies directly on and against that of the colonized as object. In other words, the colonized as a construct embodies for the colonizer the main organizing principle of his very existence, providing an axis of orientation based in strategic disidentification. The dominant culture projects onto the colonized Other an “absence of order, of limits, of light, of spirit” (Spurr 96). Thusly pushed to the margins of humanity, into the phenomenological background, the colonized become organizational structures of the dominant culture’s world.
This arrangement can only be sustained by the “idea of social totality” which Quijano argues connects rationality to modernity by placing global entities into particular relationships with one another in time. Quijano explains that during the rise of the European nation-states, colonization’s notion of social totality demanded a closed system under one dominant logic that “led later to a systemic idea of totality in structural-functionalism” (175), meaning all entities serve a purpose but that purpose is, of course, determined by hierarchical, oppositional Eurowestern notions of knowledge, society, civilization, and progress. As Quijano states, this understanding of social totality relates to “the general paradigm of knowledge as a subject-object relation” (175). Excluding non-Western peoples from categories of “humanity” and “society,” Enlightenment thinkers composed a notion of social totality that excludes the colonized from society “presupposed a unique historical logic to the historical totality” that is predicated on an “evolutionary continuum from the primitive to the civilized; from the traditional to the modern; from the savage to the rational…” (176). And so, where you are located in that version of time has all to do with where you are located sociogeographically. Hence, Mignolo argues that the “colonization of space” including the spaces of language and memory “was signaled by the belief that differences could be measured in values and values measured in a chronological evolution” (256). Colonial time and space, typically understood as “scientific” constants, are created through denigration of the colonized, but for that reason, must be carefully maintained.
Here, work on time and space by Sarah Sharma and Doreen Massey, respectively, helps to clarify how this works. Sharma writes in In the Meantime, “Temporalities are not times; like continually broken clocks, they must be reset again and again…. Temporalities do not experience a uniform time but rather a time particular to the labor that produces them. People’s experience of time depends on where they are positioned within a larger economy of temporal worth” (Sharma 8). This means that people’s temporalities, their understandings of time, depend on the institutions they inhabit, relationships to others’ temporalities, and necessarily on the power dynamics that privilege some temporalities over those of others. Going off of Agamben, she provides a term she calls “temporal labor” to denote “the experience of laboring within a temporal infrastructure while being cast outside of it” (Sharma 57). That experiences of time are only possible in relation and that they are informed by our production and that one may exist outside of dominant temporal structures tells us that experiences of time are necessarily tied to spaces, or rather, how one experiences the spaces that one inhabits as one who dis/belongs, who encumbers or is encumbered by the (in this case) ideological labor of sustaining circumscription, and who exists “in time” or out of it. The two are mutually constitutive and cannot be separated experientially as independent constants, and moreover, they constitute subjects even as they are constituted by the subjects who reify and affirm the temporalities-in-space that they inhabit (Massey 264-5). Along those lines, Doreen Massey argues that “any conceptualization of space has a (logically) necessary corollary in a particular ‘matching’ conception of time” (Massey 264-5), suggesting that “it is easier and more helpful to understand entities and space-times as being constituted in the same moment and as that in itself happening through the relational constitution of them both” (Massey 263). In other words, the world cannot cohere outside of the constellation of bodies, categories, spaces, and times, and these are always relational. Of course, colonial architectonics pose these relationships as always binary and oppositional: inside and outside, primitive and modern, space and time. Massey goes on to argue that space-time relies on a spatiality that is “constantly in the process of being made (the relations yet to be established, or not) and  have elements of both order and accident (the latter deriving from the happenstance juxtapositions and separations…” (Ibid).
Here I disagree with Massey because I contend that the juxtapositions and separations are not happenstance; whether at the macro or micro level of organization, an underlying line of orientation (to quote Fanon) coordinates which juxtapositions and separations are permitted or even possible, given the regulation of space and time. As Agamben states, “Law is made of nothing but what it manages to capture inside itself through the inclusive exclusion of the exceptio… The sovereign decision traces and from time to time renews this threshold of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusions and inclusion, nomos and physis, in which life is originarily excepted in law” (Agamben 27). Juxtaposition and separation are not determined by chance; they are fundamental to the world as it exists within the colonial imaginary and is imposed even outside of itself.
To this also very rushed line of reasoning, I lastly want to connect bodies to space and time as the reification of space and time. Helen Ngo’s work on phenomenology and/or racism helps to explain how these issues come to be in the world. Ngo explains that racism obtains through bodily habit, “habit as habituation and bodily orientation [that] qualitatively mediates and modulates our relation to the spatial, placial and social world” (850). Reminding us that it “trades also on the twin notions of power and possibility,” she discusses how racism creates spaces through “a habitual bodily orientation which often lies undetected and consequently underexamined” (Ngo 848). Here, then, is where I situate the construction of colonial space-time, where its orientations towards and against the colonized become manifest and material but where (as Ngo notes) racism is unlikely to be examined. Coloniality demands racism as its foundation of rightness as a means to regulate its social totality’s ideological borders, and those borders exist within and without its geographical spaces. Hence, the bodies that represent the outside of its phenomenological world must be regulated both from revealing the porous and actually illusory geographical borders and its constructed world within geographical bounds. Consequently, colonized people must be marked as primitive—or as existing at the tail end of the dominant temporality so that they can signify the space outside dominant space-time, meaning an ideological space sustained by this colonial sense of time. Meaning that colonized peoples are set within a particular time-space, within a time where they disbelong and therefore can never inhabit the same space as the colonizer. There is no reason to assume that people from Scandinavian countries are any more familiar than people from other places in the Western hemisphere, except in a world where strangers can somehow occupy the same space in time and neighbors can inhabit adjoining geographies while being posed as centuries apart.