White people love to talk about politics around the dinner table, which might explain the continuing popularity of the Thanksgiving holiday. More than any other day or time on the American calendar or schedule (which are typically governed by all manner of rules and directives about “polite company” and social taboos), Thanksgiving is the day when white Americans expect to talk and argue over the politics du jour. In that sense, the cover of the November 28, 2011 New Yorker got it exactly right:
"Promised Land" by Christoph Niemann
The artist, Christoph Niemann, told the New Yorker’s Mina Kaneko and Françoise Mouly that his purpose in doing this cover was infuse complicate an ongoing discussion about immigration in the U.S. through juxtaposition, an approximation of America’s heroic settlers with America’s current “invaders”:
Too often in politics, very complex subjects are being turned into sound bites, so it’s easy to take them apart In “Promised Land” I draw a parallel between current immigrants and early settlers—the hope is that it will provide context, to help keep things in perspective. Cartoonists, not politicians, should be the ones who condense political discussions into simple images.
To be sure Niemann’s impulse to want to complicate the current immigration “debate” by denoting the subjectivity at work in contemporary and popular conversations over immigration is a worthy one, though I wonder if his final claim, that it should be cartoonists and not politicians who distill complex issues into simple images, doesn’t contradict that impulse and ultimately render his critique ineffectual? For, I wonder, should anyone be condensing political discussions as complicated as the US-state’s ongoing issues with immigration into simple anythings?
Looking again at Niemann’s recent cover for the The New Yorker one realizes that there is an attempt to simplify–or at least condense–the debate over immigration in the U.S. In both scope and scale, “Promised Land” takes on but a very small set of symbols and a very small frame from among all those that could be used to represent the “very complex subject” of US immigration discourses, popular and legal. This is what Niemann gives us:
- It is night, as the star- and moon-lit dark sky indicate;
- We are viewing a scene that place in the dessert per the barren landscape and the occasional cactus;
- Five figures, all dressed in stereotypical ”American pilgrim” garb (black breeches and skirts, stiff white collars and cuffs, buckled shoes, belts, and steeple hats, white aprons and bonnets) and arranged in a line that crosses the image from the top-left corner to the bottom right corner.
- The facial expressions and bodily positions of the pilgrims clue us in that they are in the midst of some form of illicit, unauthorized, possibly even criminal activity. You can tell as much because of their faces and bodies are represented: the figure farthest afield, and female pilgrim, seems to be tip-toeing (she lifts us her skirt as if to take lighter steps across the dessert floor) and looks to her left for any sign of detection; in front of her a male pilgrim also tip-toes and, looking straight at the viewer, holds his left index finger up to his lips as if to “shoosh” us. He means to make us complicit in their trespass; this pilgrim is almost to the fence, where the third pilgrim is caught in the very act of breaking through, her hands clawing at the ground in front of her, and her face betraying her fear; the male pilgrim in front of her doesn’t look back–he’s in a full run and the drops of sweat falling away from his face suggest that he’s work hard to make it through and isn’t about to give up; the final and fifth clothing–we can only see half of his face worried–he’s “made it” and his body already exists off of the image, the page, his body is almost in “our” world, the world of The New Yorker reader.
- The other prominent figure in the image is a tall chain-link fence crowned in barbed wire that extends from the top-right of the page and into the bottom-left. This line and the other prominent line on the page, the one made of the bodies of the pilgrims, intersect at the body of the female pilgrim who is caught in the very act of crossing-over. Her body simultaneously bisected by the fence and bisecting the fence. This is the focal point of the image.
This visual analysis, if anything, already indicates how difficult–if even possible–it is to simplify popular and legal discourses surrounding immigration in the U.S. Even when a skilled artist, through technique, awareness, focus and through the selection of a limited field, wants it to make it so, complications bubble up and spill out of the page. And while a lengthier and more critical interpretation of the preceding analysis might be worthwhile, for the purposes of this post I’ll limit my comments to two of these complications: the fence and the body caught at the fence.
It might be useful to start a discussion about the fence with a rather obvious statement: The pilgrims represented here, and which are supposed to remind the viewer of the “first” settlers to the U.S., did not have to cross a fence. Now, I am not suggesting that crossing an ocean wasn’t a difficult task crossing the Atlantic as settlers to the New World is not the same things as getting through a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. Rather, while the ocean is allowed to remain an abstract obstacle in the pilgrims’s experience, the fence at the U.S.-Mexico border cannot be. The fence (and the border it is on) are a metonym for the US state, an entity that didn’t exist in the 1500s. Whereas the pilgrims (for the sake of simplicity we’ll continue to call them that) had to endure and survive the natural vicissitudes of maritime travel and later of the environment in the New World, migrants coming across the U.S.-Mexico border have to both endure and survive the perilous southwest dessert and also the hostilities of the US-state’s immigration enforcement apparatus, which includes both state-sanctioned modes of enforcement (border patrol) and none-official but somehow permissible modes (militias).
In material terms, what does the border zone on the U.S.-Mexico border actually look like, and what might the actual experience of getting into the U.S. actually be like? To offer one example, in May 2010 The Hill reported that “Predator B aerial drones, which have proved successful fighting insurgents in Afghanistan, were deployed this week along the border between Texas and Mexico” (Bolton). These drones came as part of an escalation on the part of the Obama Administration which included the deployment of an additional 1,200 National Guard troops; together these troops and these drones “augment the federal government’s presence along the 1,900 mile border. The agency already has a few other unmanned aircraft as well as about 20,000 agents and nearly 700 miles of fencing” (Bolton).
Add these dangers to the natural dangers that migrants seeking entry in the U.S. via the U.S.-Mexico border and you have vastly different picture than the one represented by Niemann. Hundreds of people die in the southwestern dessert in their attempts to cross into the U.S. This is especially true in the high summer months, which bring extremely high temperatures to the region. In late 2010, for example, immigration authorities reported finding over 250 bodies along the Arizona desert that year, setting a record that prompted questions as to the nature of the increase. Not surprisingly, the aforementioned escalation likely played a role in the increased deaths, according to a story by NPR:
In recent years, the U.S. government has built a border fence, improved technology and hired thousands more Border Patrol agents.
That has helped reduce the number of people caught crossing illegally, but it has also pushed crossers into more remote and dangerous places to avoid detection — places where sore feet or a broken ankle can mean death from dehydration or exposure. (Robbins)
Now, to turn to a discussion of the female pilgrim caught and literally bisected by the border.
According to Eithne Luibhéid, the author of Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border, the U.S. immigration control system has served as a crucial site for the construction and regulation of identities, including those of race, gender, and sexuality (x-xi). The way in which immigration laws and procedures have “differentiated women into categories such as wife, prostitute, and lesbian reveal the role of immigration control,” according to Luibhéid. In a very real sense, the way in which this female pilgrim is represented, as a body that’s literally stuck and momentarily bisected by the fence, demonstrates just how historically and presently the US state, through its various iterations of the immigration control system, uses the women’s bodies as sites for the refiguring of both state and nation (xi).
Since 1875 the US state has looked directly at women’s bodies as they seek entry into the U.S. to apprehend them as either desirable and intelligible, or as unfit. At the border a woman is looked at and analyzed, and her admissibility decided upon based on whether or not she has been understood to be a wife, a prostitute, or some other “immoral” person (xi). But this border control hasn’t always stopped upon successful entry into the state, rather migrants, especially racially-, sexually-, and gender-marked ones find themselves monitored and disciplined by an extension of the state’s gaze into their private and public lives within the state. Luibhéid describes this surveillance as an example of the “carceral archipelago of modern society” that Michel Foucault writes about, one that includes but is not limited to the immigration control systems of the US state. Thus, a woman’s experience at the border simultaneously individuates her (much in the same way the female pilgrim is individuated in Niemann’s cover), while also tying her into a wider systematic and multi-institutional network of surveillance (xv).
So, while Niemann’s cover for the November 28, 2011 The New Yorker attempts to be critical of the ways in which US immigration is typically talked about, it ultimately fails as it needlessly further simplifies the conversation. One wonders what a more expansive canvas for “Promised Land” might allow a more critical Niemann to produce. And one wonders what an artistic representation of the migrant’s experience looks like outside the limited frame of this cover. Would Niemann draw large, imposing, SUVS cutting across the desert night, its high beams piercing through the darkness to catch a rustling bush here, a receding foot there? Would he draw the armed militias that patrol the areas just outside the border patrol’s jurisdiction? Would he draw the murmuring drones scanning the horizon for signals of brown bodies (and would Neimann transgress typical U.S. conceptions of its idealized migrants/founders by racializing them in this revised cover?)? Would Neimann find a way of representing the abstract state gaze that through all manner of institutions–legal, educational, social, political–envelop discipline the 21st-century pilgrim’s presence in “the promised land?” I wonder.
Luibhéid, Eithne. Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.