The Travelling Subject and its (De)conceptualization

Melita Richter, University of Trieste

Keywords: Migration, Identity, Citizenship

In the elaboration of the contribution that follows, I have been guided by the necessity to attain a deeper insight into some concepts already evidenced in the first version of my position paper, as well as by the stimulus of the contributions that have dealt mostly with the same concepts - migration - identity - citizenship. It is obvious that these concepts cannot be defined properly if distanced from others bearing a close connection to them, namely ‘responsibility’, ‘knowledge’, ‘recognition’...

This contribution will be organized in two parts, the first one containing the departure text (the first version of the position paper) and the second one in which I will try to elucidate specific concepts, putting them in relation with the contributions of the other authors within this site.

The more I approached the topic of this paper, the more I felt that my contribution to our debate could bring to the fore another term, that of the travelling subject and its (de)conceptualization. I use the term travelling subject in the same sense as Joan Anim-Addo, who suggests that rather than the concept travelling, it is the body who moves through ‘different locations, periods of time’ giving /discovering new / old meaning (1). Having said this, I need to introduce some biographical notes.

Urban sociologist in Zagreb, Croatia, at the time part of Yugoslavia, I moved in the early 1980s to Trieste, the Italian border city where urban sociology still does not exist, either in practice (professional work) or as the academic curricula of Trieste (Urban Sociology is not studied at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Trieste). This biographic fact introduces several important questions in relation to the migratory process:

- What happens to the travelling subject, in this case a woman, when she migrates from a social context where the structural segments are more modernized than those she would find in the host society?
- How might she transmit and value her existing knowledge in relation to political-legal and socio-cultural contexts which are so different?

Whatever the answers to the questions above, they should take into consideration that often there is a professional de-qualification accompanying the migratory process, which mostly hits the female migratory universe.

The other fact of utmost importance, which has marked not only my biography but also the biographies of many women (and men) of the former Yugoslavia and their daily practices, is that the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the formation of new nation-states lead to the constitution of new ‘ethnic fatherlands’ and lead to a process of reduction of plural identities. The time of war forced upon women a clear-cut choice between their identity as women and their national identity, between feminism and war. The majority of feminists from all the Yugoslav republics reacted unanimously against nationalism and the impending doom of separatism and civil war, producing a number of collective warnings, petitions, encouraging initiatives for peace building, making space for civil society building and woman’s autonomy.

This history introduces the need for a profound study of the relation between feminism and dissidence and for dealing with the central issues posed by women from peace and feminist movements throughout the whole Yugoslav area:

- What is the best way to express resistance to the war from within the war?
- How can we act against violence in the context of socially structured violence?

These are the themes that I tried to transmit (better than ‘translate’) in the new political and cultural context where I live – in Italy. Therefore, due to my engagement with the diffusion of the knowledge of the concepts of feminist theory, the practices of the refusal of the nationalist option and of the militarization of society expressed by the groups of women in the Balkan area, a major role has been my personal history of belonging to two different separated worlds, my being a travelling subject between different societies with their specific policies, cultures and historical contexts. More than epistemological questions, therefore, I have tried to answer to the following:

- How to widen knowledge of the historic conditions and position of the women in a European country, facing war and a reduction of their identity?
- How to translate the diffuse sense of loss (2) of the rights already obtained by women and how to conceptualize their new marginalization?
- How to translate the meaning of the concepts of ‘dialogue’, ‘solidarity’, ‘networks of women’, ‘human rights’, the gendering of boundaries and spaces, the collectivizing of ‘our women’ and ‘their women’…?

My attempt to answer these questions consisted in the work of concrete linguistic translations of the texts of the intellectuals of the opposition to the nationalistic regimes, authors, and in particular female authors, from all areas of the former Yugoslavia. From this effort are born the books that I have edited (Facchi, Richter and Venza, 1993; Richter, 1996; and Richter and Bacchi, 2003) and a myriad of debates and public conferences, both in Italy and abroad.

How to incorporate these experiences within an international pedagogical curriculum? My answer can only be partial and linked to the third biographic element.

My engagement at the University of Trieste, Faculty of Pedagogical Sciences (Facoltà di Scienze della Formazione) is marginal and does not leave me room for teaching. In my role of tutor (cultrice della materia) in the area of Sociology I can only intervene in the qualitative work of the student thesis and/or dissertations dealing with the subjects of immigration, integration, feminization of migratory fluxes, and the position of the immigrant woman. On the other hand, I have developed these intercultural pedagogic aspects at the high schools of Trieste, where I work as intercultural mediator. This position gives me the possibility of introducing subjects and themes absent in the curriculum of Italian schools, and allows me to promote in the classrooms debate on the complexity of the post-war situation in the countries born from the disintegration of Yugoslavia: forced migrations, the position of the women in the new nation-state and in a society which is highly homogenized along ethnic and national lines, and to reflect on the reconstruction of national ‘we’ based upon exclusion of the Other and the Different, and last but not least, a focus on women’s writing and literature.

A last biographic point: in spite of the fact that I am Italian citizen, I am an immigrant, pushes me towards sociological engagement in the study of migratory processes, with particular attention to the position of the immigrant woman and to the necessity of deconstructing the stereotype that surrounds her identity. Pre-supposing the two basic characteristics of migration fluxes which have become visible in the last decade – namely feminization and internal diversification of the universal migrant - my analysis observes the market typology of Mediterranean countries of the EU as the framework where the gender differentiation of the foreigner’s labour occurs. This analysis is focussed on the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region and the city of Trieste, and includes the importance of the border (3), the daily cross-border migration performed by the female workforce and the multiculturalism of Trieste as a border town.

The so-called stable migration going through ‘family unification’ is a process responsible for a constant rise in numbers of immigrant women and their underage children. Numerous obstacles stand in the way of their integration into the new society: the language barrier; prejudice; the social invisibility of foreign women; their new ‘domestication’; professional disqualification; and coerced collective identity enforced by mono-ethnic associations. Those women are faced with a difficult transition period from the first territorialization phase and the adoption of ‘mental maps’ of a new urban landscape.

There are some conditions imposed by the host society on all migrants before it will let them actually and symbolically ‘enter into the city’. According to the sociologist Adel Jabbar (1999), the stages of integration of the foreigner into the host society are as follows:
1. stabilization or territorialization: the first contact with the host society and the search for the necessary means of survival;
2. urbanization, or stage of exploration of the territory and the first institutional contacts which will help the newly arrived access the networks of services and opportunities;
3. nativization, or process of social naturalization derivable from the stay in the territory and from the perception of the symbolic tie between the foreigner and the native citizen;
4. Citizenship, de facto, or the true entrance into the city through the daily interrelations, which makes them become an effective member of the society (4).

The first part of my contribution ends with the concept of citizenship. Due to the fact that I consider it to be one of the most meaningful terms when undertaking the analysis of the Travelling Concepts, I will try to elucidate some new features of the concept. I would like to make clear that my point of departure considers citizenship as a process and not simply as an outcome. It is therefore not limited to the analysis of the normative for the same reason that citizenship indicates much more than passive holding of rights; it involves an active engagement with the political institutions and the broader social arena. Citizenship is also co-citizenship, meaning that it can only be exercised from within a collective more societal than communal: ‘La citoyenneté est possible (mais non garantie) là où quelque-chose lui résiste: où il y a Etat et societé civique, c’est-à-dire là ou il y a espace politique, public, culturel et du production-ouvert’ (Ivekovic, 2003: 24) (5). In this context, I shift my attention particularly to immigrant women and to the modalities that allow (or stop) them becoming social and political actors, while acquiring an active citizenship expressed either (or both) individually or collectively. However, it is important not to forget the deep-rooted inequalities that undermine many citizenship rights of those who are considered other and non-citizen and are positioned on the margins of society, as usually happens to an immigrant population.

The first phases of the integration path, the territorialization and the nativisation phases, as mentioned above, are deeply rooted in the sphere of the satisfaction of basic human needs (housing, work, health, formation in the sense of training and qualification, development of a network of primary contacts with the primary new physical and social environment) and therefore sets a limit to a period which is not very favourable to the development of the participative subject, yet are the indispensable conditions to start an active citizenship and to develop a form of human autonomy. In their theorisation of human needs, the different authors highlight the link between human autonomy and citizenship, considering need satisfaction as prerequisite for the fulfilment of citizenship duties. ‘Crucial to personal autonomy is the opportunity to participate in social roles of production, reproduction, cultural transmission and political authority. Beyond that lies ‘critical autonomy – the ability to situate, criticize and, if necessary, challenge the rules and practices’ of one’s society, in other words, the ability to ‘act as critical citizen.’ (Lister, 2003: 7). However, there are questions which emerge: What are the real possibilities of obtaining these objectives, for women who are a significant part of the foreign labour-force, if they are wholly subject to economy niches and the locally and globally gendered labour market, which predominantly leaves domestic service work, tourism, catering, entertainment, prostitution and the sex industry? How might they, from their disadvantaged economic position and social invisibility, acquire the ability to act as (critical) citizens?

It would be interesting to compare answers to these questions from similar cultural, social and historic contexts, for example from the Mediterranean. Nowadays the situation is similar in all Mediterranean EU countries (Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece) where immigrant workers (both male and female) have been involved in sub-sectors of the Southern European economy and where the feminization of immigrant population is on the rise. We would find it useful to compare the experience of the South of Europe with the experience of the North, too. For example, in her position paper, Sara Goodman reports on the contrast between ‘Swedish ‘equality’ [and] the ‘cultures of inequalities’ of which immigrants are constructed as bearers’, where ‘ethnicity becomes a marker of inequality between women and men, but labour market discrimination of migrant women remains insufficiently problematized’.

With reference to the South and the North of Europe, and in many aspects the South and the North of the world, the questions are more or less the same: when and how does the immigrant women reach the level that we have called the ‘gateway to the city’? Which means might they use to develop their critical autonomy and to challenge the rules and practices of the host society if (in a legal and a sociological sense) they are not enjoying rights of citizenship, and they ‘know’ that ‘When in Rome…’, if they occupy what Spivak would call ‘marginalized’ or ‘subaltern space’? (Spivak, 1996). The majority of migrants represent, as Assimina Karavanta states, ‘un-constituted subjects’, ‘subjects without a community’, ‘un-representable others’ (6). I find that the Greek experience of the phenomenon of female immigrant labourer and its otherness is very similar to the Italian one and also comparable to the Spanish and Portuguese. This is the reason why I find Karavanta’s proposal to examine the possibilities of articulating, creating and energizing a discourse and praxis of resistance against the function of the binary between the global and local very useful, and - I would add - with the use of a comparative method (in this case, with reference to an hypothetical ‘Mediterranean model’ questioning: does it exist?) (7).

When observing critically the concept of citizenship the criteria should take into account its twofold nature: as a status, i.e. subjects carrying a wide range of rights, and as a practice, involving political participation, broadly defined. Both as a practice and in the relationship between practice and rights, citizenship should be understood as a dynamic process. A similar approach might be useful to overcome the unilateral concept of citizenship as intrinsically exclusive, drawing boundaries between those who do and do not belong as full members of the citizenship community (Lister, 2003: 42).

When trying to deepen further the concept of citizenship, it is necessary not to separate the theoretical and normative from the empirical. Very often these empirical approaches, rooted in defined ‘spaces and places’, show us the way towards a re-appropriation of citizenship outside the restrictions of the normative, allowing what Hall and Williamson call ‘lived citizenship’ to take place (1999: 2). The re-appropriation of public speech involves taking responsibility and, armed with this indispensable component, which is not only ethical, the public word overcomes the private-public division which was (and is) pivotal to women’s long-standing exclusion from full citizenship. The ‘burden of responsibility’ mentioned by Daša Duhacek (8) when talking about Serb society, is indispensable to the concept of citizenship. To Daša’s affirmation that ‘responsibility needs to be materialized as an issue of citizenship’ we can add that there is no way of forging active citizenship without responsibility.

One aspect of the ‘taking of the public word’ is emerging more and more strongly in the sphere of culture, through the writing of immigrant women (in Italy the phenomenon is growing visibly), giving shape to the space of the third dimension that we have mentioned before, the dimension that enables the emergence of multiple positions with the national context. It is an open dimension, trans-cultural, a space which is crossed frequently and, as such, a space of encounters and contamination where, as Clotilde Barbarulli would say, ‘new relationships between subject (9), body, history and world are built’ (Barbarulli, in Barbarulli and Borghi, 2003: 174). Appropriating the new language, the migrant subject expresses him/herself in the linguistic code of the country where he or she lives, and affirms, besides the self affective memory linked to the migratory experience (nostalgia, loss, uprooting), a participatory will, the essence of the practice of the citoyen. In this space, a crossroads, exchanges take place, giving rise to mettisage. Here the world is re-elaborated, the world of writing that was previously the expression of the homologating national culture.

Through cultural representations and writings of immigrant authors the fragments of their existence are re-built, going beyond the private sphere, beyond the boundaries of their history and geography. Word and language become the fighting places and the places where a new citizenship is taking shape and where new states of consciousness are born.

I would like to look further into this third-space that allows, as Barbarulli would say, ‘the mediation and the creation of cultures which are not any longer colonizing or colonized, in a language movement where writing expresses more and more ruptures and plurality, contamination and embraces’. (Barbarulli, in Barbarulli and Borghi, 2003: 179). I would like to examine how translations of ‘cultural constructs’ take place in this space, to observe how here, beside travelling languages the concepts also travel (first of all the concept of identity). On their way, which meanings are acquired and which are lost? In which practices are they translated and how do they forge an agentive subject?

I find my interest very close to that of Joan Anim-Addo in her use of the term ‘creolization’, to Giovanna Covi in her articulation of the ’identity of open and multilayered Europe’, and to Josefina Bueno Alonso’s delineation of an ‘ideal space in which to reconstruct an identity marked by the person’s sex and by the desire for representativity with regard to the normalised Other. And last but not least, I feel very close to Alonso’s strong conviction that writing is the best way to deconstruct and reconstruct new parameters, and to use various different practices of resistance through discourse (10). I would add, however, that writing and narratives are not enough. A social praxis is needed to achieve a transformation of social and cultural structures.

(1) Joan is addressing Sabine Grenz’s question, crucial to my life experience: ‘Who actually is travelling? Are the concepts travelling or is it us who move through different locations, period of times, disciplines and looks at concepts from changing positions, thereby giving or discovering new meaning to/of concepts?’
(2) On the diffuse sense of loss, Vesna Teršelic, a peace and women’s activist and one of the founders of the network Antiwar Campaign in Zagreb, writes: ‘I remember the summer of ’91, the heat and the oppressive feelings of anxiety. I also remember having this need to do something, a need that I felt as a pain in a stomach. The space we worked in, we breathed in, the space we had been building for years, began to dissolve, shrink and disappear. During that humid summer it become completely clear to me that all that we had built by way of Green Movements and Women’s Groups was sinking from day to day’ (Teršelic, 1997: 19).
(3) In the past, this was the border between Italy and Yugoslavia, at present between Italy and Slovenia. For an analysis of the female labour force in the border area of Trieste see Richer, 2003 and 2001.
(4) Adel Jabbar, op. cit. p. 37
(5) Author’s translation: Citizenship is possible (but not guaranteed) where there is resistance: where there is state and civic society, which means that there is an open political, public, cultural and productive space.
(6) She adds that ‘these others are the bodies of a different local within the local, a presence and an articulation of a body that challenges the simple binary between the local and the global by revealing a third, incalculable dimension’.
(7) On the possible formation of the ‘Mediterranean model’ with reference to the migratory process - see King, 1998.
(8) Duhacek is making reference to the way in which the ancient hero Oreste expresses it J.P. Sartre “The heavier it is to carry, the better pleased I shell be: for that burden is my freedom”. See in Daša Duhacek, Gender Perspectives on Political Identities in Yugoslavia in “From Gender to Nation” (ed. by Rada Ivekovic and Julie Mostov), Longo Editore Ravenna, 2002, p.126.
(9) Here I mean a subject in the sense of the contaminated subject that Elena Pulcini defines ‘against the idea of a closed subject, isolated in its presumption of self-sufficiency’.
(10) The sentiment is also expressed by Hélène Cixous: ‘Writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement, of a transformation of social and cultural structures’ (quoted in Silvia Caporale Bizzini’s position paper).

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