Precarious Citizenship in the Late Capitalist Society

life_expos ong_flexible

– Adriana Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl, Princeton UP, 2002.

– Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, Duke UP, 1999.

How do self and social identities change in a state of transition? How does the relationship between individuals and the state change in a rapid or gradual social crisis? How scientific, medical, political-economic transitions, resulted from the new power-knowledge relation, reveal “a fundamental reconfiguration of human conditions and conditions of citizenship”(Petryna 6-7)? By applying ethnographic methods, two authors, as (woman) anthropologists, are asking these questions and investigating the meaning of citizenship and social identity in different contexts, but in the repetitive way.

Perhaps fundamental basis for their works might be under the influence of Foucauldian theories, although each of them follows different concept: while Petryna refers to “bio-politics” or “biopower” in her thesis, Ong finds “governmentality” as a guiding concept for her argument. Foucault’s concepts are very useful in dealing with the problem of citizenship, because they, both on the macro and micro level, take into account the relations between politics and body – or the discipline (and surveillance) and the individual (population) – in the function of power-knowledge. Though it is not so clear whether Foucault addressed it explicitly, the relations between disciplinary power and docile body are flexible and adjustable through the process of struggle and negotiation, rather than predetermined and immobile within the frame of politics. For both authors, the conditions of citizenship are not just naturally given or fixed attribute which is embedded in the modern body but always on the process of becoming something other or crossing the borderlines.

Petryna is interested in how scientific and medical practices are involved in the citizens’ lives, especially after the nuclear reactor’s explosion of Chernobyl. She “explores the ways people have learned to engage with Chernobyl-related bureaucracies and medical and scientific procedures as a matter of everyday survival”(4). In the sense that Chernobyl sufferers, who have been damaged physically and psychologically, exercise their right to access to a form of social welfare and medical treatment, their social status was called “biological citizenship.” This concept of “biological citizen” shows how the Chernobyl victims used their biological injury to be included in the state’s welfare system, on the one hand, and how Ukraine state justified its sovereignty – to be independent from Russian Union – by using the biological images and taking care of the sufferers, on the other. That is to say, it is important to note that science is playing crucial role on both sides: there is “the patterns by which science has become a key resource in the management of risk and in democratic polity building” and “Ukrainians employ knowledge of biological injury as a means of negotiating public accountability, political power, and further state protections”(7).

While Petryna focuses on the process of mutual construction between individual and state in terms of science and technology, Ong’s interest lies in the emerging subject’s unique cultural logic in globalized economy. Ong describes the aspect of the new subjectivity by giving example of Hong Kong business leaders (taipans) who are holding multiple passports and who are willing to accommodate self-censorship for long-term returns on their investments in mainland China. For her, this example shows that the citizenship – diasporan Chinese, in particular – comes to be “flexible” as the effects of “transnationality.” Her concept of “flexible citizenship” derives from David Harvey’s observation, in The Condition of Postmodernity, of political economic transformation in the late capitalism: flexibility of accumulation, production, technology, labor, information, market, consumption, etc. Flexible citizenship implies the mobility reflecting economic and cultural relationship between individual, society, and (nation-) state created by the late mode of accumulation of capital. However, it is not only the corporate strategy in the global capitalist system that “promoted a flexible attitude toward citizenship”(17). There are also flexible cultural strategies developed by refugees and business migrants in the practice of accumulating cultural or symbolic capital in the transnational arena of culture. However, the effect of transnationlity is not limited to the art of flexibility on the level of individual and corporate strategies. Ong maintains that in an era of globalization, even “governments seeking to accommodate corporate strategies of location have become flexible in their management of sovereignty”(215).

In this late modern, globalized, and postsocialist era, what does it mean to be a citizen? How does it related with science, political economy, and culture? Why is it so problematic in terms of body? For Ukrainians who are suffering from diverse psychic and somatic symptoms after Chernobyl, to be included in the state’s welfare and medical care system is like upgrading their status of life. But who will determine the degree of damage from irradiation, and how? In other words, what will determine a citizen to be included in or excluded from a society? Ultimately, the laws and science policies will confirm the status of the sufferer through medical examination on the damaged body. The fact that the patients who were declined by Soviet could be registered as sufferers, shows that how political and scientific regimes can intervene each other and cooperate in determining individual eligibility for national compensation and medical care – evidence of citizenship. In that those sufferers are victims of catastrophe caused by the state-science power complex, it seems natural to compensate by endowing more benefit of citizenship higher than ordinary citizens’, as if injured veteran soldiers are treated heroically by Americans. However, considering that this biological citizenship is actually a part of national strategies within which the sate registers itself as a legitimate sovereignty and draw international investment capital and aids, it is ambiguous to judge who are appropriating who – who possess the sovereign authority for the citizenship.

When it comes to flexible citizenship which from the outset supposes individual’s more flexible relationship with the state, we can argue that it is not yet free from the state strategies or the art of governmentality. Confronting global economy in the flexible and mobile form, the Asian tiger governments have been pursuing “new ways of governing and valuing different categories of its subject population”: they apply “different kinds of biopolitical investments in different subject populations, privileging one gender over the other, and in certain kinds of human skills, talents, and ethnicities”(217). Thus this kind of unequal biopolitical investment results in the uneven status of citizenship. Within this system of “graduated sovereignty,” the state reterritorializes its political space in which the relationship with global capital is negotiable, while individual citizen’s life comes to be insecure or even neglected. Flexible citizen – politicized life – is, thus, a figure which verifies “contradictory nature of the relation between politics and capital”(239) in an era of transnationality.

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