Editor’s Note to Issue No. 4

Welcome to the fourth issue of Errant Journal. With this issue we tackle the imaginary nature of the nation state, and look into alternative forms of solidarity, community and belonging that are disconnected from or even antagonistic to this form of governance and in which a migrant or otherwise marginalised position can be seen as one of power and resistance. As several contributions in this issue remark, humans are fluid beings that do not adhere to externally imposed delineations, whether those are borders, nationalities, or genders, and instead – much like water – we carve out our own ways.

Although the critique of nation states is a very common topic of discussion in books, journals and symposia, one could still forget sometimes that states and nations are not natural phenomena. But not only have nations as we understand them now been created, they have done so extremely recently – more or less from two hundred years ago onwards. In his influential book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson asserts – as the title suggests – that nations are imagined ‘because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.’[1] Curiously, in our collective consciousness the order of the world today made up of sovereign nations and states, feels so natural and historic, their existence largely goes unquestioned. For ‘[i]f nation-states are widely conceded to be “new” and “historical,” the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future.’[2] The fiction tells us that this is the way it has always been, and this is the way it shall always be.

Much more than just being a legal construct, there is hardly anything more decisive on how your life might unfold, the chances you will have, and mobility you can enjoy, than the passport with which you are born. To quote Anderson once more: ‘[n]ation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.’ Identification with a nation is ‘conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship’ for which people are willing to die. A reality even Anderson struggles to explain as he writes that while ‘the facts [about nation-ness] are clear, their explanation remains a matter of longstanding dispute.’[3]

So what of those (twelve million according to an estimate from 2018) who find themselves without a nation or state; the stateless?[4] Here too, there is a contradiction between its supposedly clear-cut, neutral, everlasting character and the imaginary, ambiguous reality. The official definition of statelessness as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1954 says that a stateless person is one ‘who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.’[5] A refugee is commonly considered a stateless person, but the narrow legal definition in fact does not automatically include them; refugees are often still considered to be part of a nation, albeit one they cannot currently reside in or that can offer them protection.[6] Yet, a person with a passport fleeing their home country by fear of persecution or death, may not be stateless in the eyes of international law, but they are politically homeless and generally without a place in this world in every other way that matters.

Similarly to the concept of the nation state, statelessness is a surprisingly novel construct: in this case only one hundred years old. Before the concept’s solidification in international law in 1921, it did however enjoy a much longer history in fiction. By the late eighteenth century the concept of statelessness was much debated. Theorists however, insisted ‘that such a figure […] could only exist in the realm of the imagination rather than real-world politics.’[7] Throughout the nineteenth century as well as in the twentieth century, such ‘creatures of the imagination’ featured in novels, usually adrift at open sea unable to port or find rest.[8] It is therefore a curious history, to say the least, that brought a long considered imaginative form into legal reality, with devastating effects.

In other words, although statelessness is defined by law and has very real and grave consequences for people – something that we do not want to diminish or deny, and is an urgency that also finds its place in this issue – the law and history of the concept offer many pathways to open up and question the delineations of notions such as ‘nation’, ‘stateless’ etc. For this reason, we emphasise the states of statelessness: the different layers, and hierarchies of barriers and ways in which people respond to them.

A first step in this, is opening up our definition of statelessness, towards one that is arguably much more consistent with the lives and experiences of people. Reflecting on the period after the first World War, during which the concept of statelessness received its accepted legal status, Hannah Arendt explains how the peace treaties wrongly created new nation states in central and eastern Europe, arbitrarily lumping very diverse groups together which effectively also created a different category of humans considered ‘minorities’ for which special regulations were now necessary. As a result, Arendt writes, ‘only nationals could be citizens, only people of the same national origin could enjoy the full protection of legal institutions.’[9] In her eyes, these newly created minorities and the stateless are interchangeable in practice, as from then on nationality became the only way to enjoy the full protection of the law, and the only way for others to enjoy these same benefits was to assimilate or leave.

This demand to ‘assimilate or leave’ resonates disturbingly with present-day racist sentiments toward how refugees, migrants but also second or third generation people with a so-called culturally diverse background should look and behave. It makes clear that in fact, citizenship is not an absolute, but rather a sliding scale that serves some people more than others. In reality, statelessness rather functions as a social spectrum that should be considered intersectionally. This is because nation states and their laws of protection and rights are made with an ‘ideal citizen’ in mind, and anyone not fitting this standard may therefore find themselves somewhere on the gamut of statelessness.

The contributions in this issue of Errant reflect this wider interpretation and the different gradations of relations to nationality or state and – more importantly – the diverse ways in which people form their own communities; whether they be as big as a country, or very small, informal and more or less spontaneously gathered around a shared struggle. We wanted to ask in what way we can learn from such communities, how they question the fiction of the nation state by their very existence, and by doing so become  voices of resistance against harmful policies and ways of being forced upon us from an invisible ‘above’.

We start this issue with a critique, or rather sidestep, to our own open call. Having both left their home country Ukraine due to the full scale invasion and attempted annexation of the country by Russia, Asia Bazdyrieva and Alevtina Kakhidze express doubt regarding the critique of the nation state because it emerges from a position of former empires and is not universally applicable. Ukraine is only now becoming a nation state, and one that is not the product of imperial power or the ethnonationalist ideas of the 18th-19th centuries, but rather one that is formed in opposition to these concepts. According to them, in the case of Ukraine, ‘the concept of a nation state – a product of European imperial imagination of romantic times – […] has morphed into something else.’ This something else, or ‘hybrid and inclusive Ukrainianness’ is ‘far more than a territory or a uniform identity. It is a social contract that includes detachment from fixed identities, circulation of resources, multitude, absence of the center, self-regulation, trust.’

From there, we consider the past and the timeless grassroot struggle for self-sufficiency and basic human rights. Republished in this issue of Errant is an 1872 piece of feuilleton writing by Max Ring that tells of a visit to ‘Barackia’. The Free State of Barackia was an informal republic in what is now the centre of Berlin, built by people facing impossible rises of rent and intolerable landlords: an eerily common story for anyone living in any big city today. But much more than a shantytown for people without homes, Barackia was said to have been very organised, filled with ‘hard-working men and women and healthy and clean children.’ It was widely looked upon with fascination as it ‘gained a reputation in all of Europe’ and served as an example of ‘working-class resistance against housing inequality’ and ‘a small utopia of freedom and solidarity.’ Writing from the present, Saskia Köbschall provides Ring’s text with more context, and shows how Barackia’s spirit still reverberates today. Her article is accompanied by photos of Nyabinghi Lab’s project Freistaat Barackia: Landscapes of Liberation, which took the history of Barackia as a starting point to explore decolonial urbanism, resistance, and solidarities in Berlin and around the world.

Arguably one of the best examples of a contemporary functioning ‘free state’, or autonomous region, is that of Rojava in north-eastern Syria. In her text, Nilüfer Koç places the lessons of Rojava within current geo-political unrest in Ukraine and the Middle East, and states that there is much to learn from Rojava’s philosophy, history and current struggle. In particular, she focuses on the role of women and the fight against patriarchy which is the source of power and exploitation. Fighting patriarchy therefore ‘means to eradicate the one-sided domination, the inequality, and intolerance towards women. Moreover, it is to kill the nation state, fascism, dictatorship, despotism, and capitalism.’ The result is a society that is horizontal, decentralised and truly pluralistic.

With right-wing sentiments on the rise, some political leaders would have us believe Europe is a homogeneous (Christian and white) community, thereby ignoring, or even attempting to erase, the presence of people that don’t fit the ‘pure European narrative´. One such group of people, and one of the largest groups of people becoming stateless after the first World War, are the Roma. Although their presence in Europe can be traced back to the twelfth century, their struggle for their way of life can be said to be equally long. Writing from the position of Polish Roma, Elżbieta Mirga-Wójtowicz and Michał P. Garapich, state that there is community in this shared suffering. To counter the injustices and the racist judgement their people face, they call for a kind of banal anti-nationalism, or counter-nationalism through which Roma, in their view, ‘have a unique, rich and still unrecognised contribution here. Their understanding and conceptualisation of the “history from below” and grand narratives seen from their unique standpoint opens a rich research potential to the exploration of diverse hidden transcripts and tactics of resistance.’

That there is also immense value to be found in very modest and informal communities, is explored by Fabian Holle as they recount their personal experience and work with LIMBO; ‘a weekly workshop series for and by queer/refugee/migrant community organizers and artists with the aim of creating a safer space for queer people with a refugee background to share stories and create content.’ Through their research into community engaged scholarship, Holle also reflects on what knowledge is produced by using creative tools to address the challenges and resilience of queer refugees and the role of community engaged scholarship. Both queerness and refugeeness can be said to represent a position of liminality, of in-betweenness, of spaces as well as societal norms. Coming together in small groups, sharing stories and creativity, and challenging dominant assumptions about refugees as ‘victims’ thus has a transformative potential.

An in-betweenness of a different kind is explored in Abdul Adan’s short story about Rupert Ray; a figure whose identity is confused by his heritage of both a settled father and a nomadic mother. For inexplicable reasons, Rupert finds himself ‘wandering randomly into other people’s homes’, unable to distinguish between the spaces that are ‘his’ and those that are not. To greater confusion, Rupert even seems to have difficulty understanding where his own body ends and other’s begin. Rupert’s predicament, and inability to make these basic distinctions, can perhaps be viewed in a positive light when we consider the topic of hospitality as explored in the conversation with Merve Bedir. Bedir’s ongoing project the Vocabulary of Hospitality explores the different layers of violence in the concept of hospitality, as it indicates a relation of power (of the host) over the other (the guest). Her project Mutfak مطبخ (Kitchen) Workshop in Gaziantep aims to reverse these roles by turning the guest into the host. Her kitchen project works with food to explore how the roles of host and guest are created by borders that cut through landscapes and communities, and how we can recover from such rifts by returning to community and re-establishing ways of living together.

The very real repercussions of being stateless are touched upon by Isshaq Albarbary. While his nationality upon arrival in the Netherlands was first recognised as being Palestinian, his current ID card states his nationality as ‘unknown’ and his place of birth the code ‘XXX’. His case, ‘shows how the Dutch authority’s bureaucratic theory that identity documents describe objective facts about people negates the performative nature of such documents. Documentation not only describes facts about people and their relationship to the nation state but also “creates” these facts.’ In fact, by giving him this status, the Dutch government has effectively positioned him out of place, out of time, and thus incapable of political agency. But considering this reality of the stateless, Albarbary asks, ‘can their social and political experiences open up a space to imagine – and perhaps realise – forms that might exist outside of what is possible or even conceivable today?’

As paper can be such a powerful bureaucratic and political tool, we wanted to think about our own format and how paper can also be used in commenting and acting on our geo-political realities. COVID, labour shortages and rising energy prices due to international conflicts have resulted in a worldwide scarcity of paper. We respond to this reality by printing this issue (and perhaps the ones to follow) on leftover paper from our very accommodating printer. Additionally, we reflect on how paper can be used to form networks and communities. Initiated in 2013 by Dominique Himmelsbach de Vries, A Paper Monument for the Paperless is a homage to undocumented people and spread guerrilla style by the (illegal) pasting of posters in the streets of cities everywhere. A Paper Monument for the Paperless is a project that is already quite well known in the Netherlands, and which I personally have enjoyed following over the years. I am therefore very happy for each copy of this issue to include a portrait from this monument, and for you – the reader – to help this monument grow.

We hope that by expanding the idea of what statelessness is that the pathways of solidarity between marginalised groups become more visible. Groups that are often played out against each other or whose voices are simply made invisible because they are inconvenient to homogenous and timeless narratives of nationness. States of Statelessness delves into the diverse manners in which people respond to this in practical, poetic and community-based ways. But more than that, this issue is a celebration of the ways in which people are able to stand their ground, to exist in fluidity, and a commemoration of those before us that have shown that other ‘states’ are possible.

[1] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso Books, 2016: p. 6.

[2] Anderson 2016: pp. 11-12 (see note 1).

[3] Anderson 2016: pp. 3 and 7 (see note 1).

[4] ‘Statelessness.’ Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 September 2022 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statelessness>.

[5] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons: Implementation within the European Union Member States and Recommendations for Harmonisation, October 2003, accessed via <https://www.refworld.org/docid/415c3cfb4.html>. 

[6] Siegelberg, Mira L. Statelessness. A Modern History. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2020: p. 2.

[7] Siegelberg 2020: p. 25 (see note 6).

[8] Siegelberg 2020: pp. 27-28 (referring to the novel The Man without A Country) and pp. 46-48 (referring to Das Totenschiff) (see note 6).

[9] Arendt, Hannah. ‘The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man’. Accessed via <https://www.jus.uio.no/smr/om/aktuelt/arrangementer/2015/arendt-decline-of-nation-state-end-of-the-rights-of-man.pdf>: pp. 270 and 275.

Editor’s Note to Issue No. 4
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