Interview with Adam McKeown, author of Melancholy Order

Adam McKeown“Migration control is the last bastion of open discrimination in the modern world.”—Adam McKeown

The following is an interview with Adam McKeown, author of Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders. The book is now available and paper and the cloth edition is on sale during our Spring Sale.

Question: What is Melancholy Order about?

Adam McKeown: Melancholy Order argues that immigration restrictions and border control have by no means been indispensable to national sovereignty. In fact, their origins go back only to the late nineteenth century—to the exclusion of Asians from liberal white settler nations. Before that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, international opinion and laws favored free mobility as one of the rights of man and a cornerstone of economic progress. Attempts to justify Asian exclusion to international and domestic critics helped establish the basic principles of modern migration control: that migration should be controlled at national borders; that it was entirely a domestic issue and not the concern of international diplomacy; and that humans have no rights at national borders. The enforcement of these laws also produced the basic mechanisms of migration control and identification, especially the extraction of migrants from social networks that produced identity and their reinsertion into a matrix of bureaucratically defined categories. By the 1920s these principles and methods, originally forged in a burst of racist segregation and believed to be a temporary expedient, became the norm in most countries around the world.

Q: Everyone talks about globalization these days. What is the globalization of borders?

A.M.: Globalization is often understood as a challenge to national borders. In fact, the dramatic growth of global flows in the past two centuries has come hand in hand with the modern international system, well-policed borders, and the imagination and enforcement of difference. The very act of proclaiming that we live in a “new” age of globalization (a proclamation heard repeatedly since the 1830s) is an act of forgetting the extent to which the world is already a product of dense interaction. The creation of legal, physical, political, and cultural borders has been crucial to that forgetting.

Similarly, the regulation of migration has both facilitated and restricted flows. The creation of standardized and streamlined passports, visas and inspection procedures has greatly facilitated the movement of a “globalizing class” of people who can obtain such documents and are free to move around the world. It has simultaneously created a class that is not free to move except under conditions of close surveillance and promises to return. The regional differences in wages and skill created by such restrictions help to make the movement of goods, money, and information even more lucrative and necessary.

Q: Is that what you mean by a “melancholy order?”

A.M.: “Melancholy order” is borrowed from the parable of the gatekeeper in Kafka’s The Trial. The priest who shared multiple interpretations the parable with the protagonist, K, concluded that “it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.” K responded that this was, “A melancholy conclusion. It turns lying into a universal principle.”

Migration control is the last bastion of open discrimination in the modern world. It has its roots in the “self-evident” ideas of civilization, self-determination, and the rights of man but also in the equally self-evident facts of fear, self-protection, and xenophobia. Now, the need to further “manage” mobility by strengthening and refining discrimination is frequently justified in terms of simultaneously promoting human rights and national prosperity. But most of these reforms are reinforcements of precisely the ideals and policies of the past, policies that created the unsatisfactory situation we now feel needs to be improved. We may be firmly committed to many of the ideals that motivate immigration reform. But few of these ideals have provided a straight path to human emancipation, equal rights, or security. All of them have run up against their own contradictions. It only looks like a progressive path when we forget and create borders around certain portions of the past. In other words, we need to build institutions based on self-deception if we are to continue acting in support of our ideals.

Q: Does your book suggest any ways to deal with current immigration challenges?

A.M.: No, it does not. My book shows only how we have come to understand immigration problems in the ways that we do and why we constantly return to the same kinds of solutions. Most proposals for immigration reform must come from within that shared understanding. A position outside that understanding is inherently impractical. Ultimately, the contradictions that suffuse our discussions of immigration are the same contradictions that shape us as humans, problems which are at heart insoluble.

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