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Migrant stories project

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Migrant stories project

“This is not a history book [...] It is an anthology of existences. Lives in a few lines or in a few pages, countless adventures and misadventures, gathered in a handful of words. Short lives, met by chance through books and documents”. Thus wrote Michel Foucault in 1977, in the introduction to his project for an anthology of The Lives of Infamous Men. Not a finished, polished and necessary history, but rather a process of collecting, dependent in some measure on chance. And in its turn, the chance depends, on the one hand, on the editor’s taste, pleasure, laughter, and surprise, and, on the other, on a blind necessity. These are the lives of men and women who, in the few and tremendously intense pages devoted to them, Foucault calls “infamous” because they have nothing to do with any kind of glory. We come to know them only through the few words that they exchanged with the power and that the power forced them to say when they were caught. Within the historical and anthological project, we do not aim to seek out, behind the conflict- words, some original, some supposedly authentic life story to bring us in touch with who these people really were. Rather, the project allows a choice, in accordance with the taste and preference of each, among the fragments of lives that the authorities have by chance left in store, and an occasion to ‘recopy’ them so as to allow us latter-day readers, at a distance of a couple of centuries, to peruse them.

A peculiar idea of history. A history that does not reconstruct, that does not interpret, that does not go beyond the archived fragment, the trace. A history that simply brings back what the archive has kept in store. At the heart of what Foucault develops in the introduction to the never-completed project is the perception that the immense labor of creating an archive begins at some point in the period of not more than a century between the second half of the seventeenth century and the second half of the eighteenth. Beginning with chance fragments, outlines and fleeting words, the authorities collect ever fuller, more comprehensive accounts of the lives and histories of ordinary men and women, grey biographies made of small nothings, of meaningless everyday lives, in which no action, no word and no event has any intrinsic need to be remembered. What starts here, in short, is what, here and elsewhere, Foucault calls “documental history”, a fundamental correlate of that disciplinary power that, in an incessant bustle of observation and notation, demands and requires the whole of the life of each individual so as to check on it, to regulate it, to normalize it, and to discipline it.

The project of building an archive of migrant stories takes off from this notion of Foucault’s, especially from two of his key-words, namely ‘chance’ and ‘anthology’, and from the effort to bring these ideas up to date. Our societies are no longer merely disciplinary, but have developed other tools of observation and control, adding to the documental and biographical mode of the archives what we might call an “identificational” mode, one that is better adapted to observing and checking on individuals in a time marked by movement and change of place. We are no longer confronted with fragments of words about life but with fragments of bodies or moving silhouettes, fragments of consumption and “credit-card-credibility”, fragments of trips on the highway or by plane, fragments of virtual navigations. These are the traces that bodies, which are no longer individuals, leave behind in the archives of the present: video surveillance tapes, databases on whose identifications and short fleeting images the anthologist mode of the future should work if s/he wants to recover not so much the biographies as the itineraries of the men and women of today.

In short, a meager archive, but no less meager than the archive of ordinary lives was when it first came into being. But now it is no longer an archive made of poem-words as it was in 19th and 20th centuries that were transformed in narrative-words. Rather, now the archive consists of signs and pictures. This identificational archive also captures, of course, those men and women who have or would like to have only a one-way ticket without planning their return from the outset. In one of his books, Zygmund Bauman has used the term “vagabonds” for these people, to distinguish them from the mass of “tourists”, who have adapted to and been included in the globalized world. We should call them immigrantsandmigrants to take account of them relative both to their countries of arrival and of departure. Or we might call them migrants, to highlight their subjectivities not so much in terms of places and the apparatus of the state, as in terms of their initial projects, their choices to migrate, which in their turn often clash, among other things, with the barriers set up in their way, and with the spaces of confinement where the idea of a destination certainly has no role to play. The writing-by-identikit that characterizes the archive of the present day becomes, in their case, even more stripped-down and meager: Fingerprints for a residence permit or for an expulsion order, fragments of images caught by the video surveillance systems located along the lines of those borders which are expanding and becoming less and less traceable – systems that one part of the world uses to watch over their movements. It is an archive that sometimes runs into simulation. The simulation of a name and a surname, the simulation of a place of origin, one’s fragment-story told as the story of someone else – strategies of existence and survival activated by migrants to stay in their places of arrival. Sometimes, where migrants are concerned, even these identifying traits escape from, or can be mixed one with another in today’s archive, which leads generally to the de-archiving of everybody’s stories and biographies. A stretch of sea or a burial place from which noone can reconstruct or count the number of the dead: this may be the most telling image of this movement that tends towards a total de-archiving.

The effort of imagining and building an “archive of migrant stories” should not turn into the banal effort of bringing back to a documentary mode what will always be elusive. For, the archiving of biographies’ that led historical knowledge to become documentary is closely intertwined with observation by power, in this case power in its disciplinary form. The effort should be to try to respect, both in written and oral reports, that space of self-ambiguity and self-simulation that perhaps constitutes one of distinctive traits of migrant existences today, and to pay attention to that other mode of the constitution of the subject, that is not that of being identified by others, and that tries to make up a history respectful of subjects who are revolting against the possibility of history.

Archiving the hum of migrant stories is possible only if one thinks of a space, necessarily a virtual space, in which to begin to bring together all the stories already told in various places around the world, and then stories that one will plan to go listen to. And this is ultimately possible only if a group of people will plan, directly or indirectly, the work of listening, collecting and archiving.

This website devoted to the “Archive of migrant stories” is, then, the fundamental starting point that will allow our group to benefit from collaboration with other scholars, PhD candidates, students and other listeners to stories. It is also instrumental in prompting the direct involvement of migrants themselves in telling and collecting their stories, as they are the protagonists of the archive. An archive that has no ambition to be sequential, that does not aim at telling one story, at offering one linear plot of today’s migrations. Rather, we envisage an archive that registers moments of stories, irreducibly fragmentary fragments of lives, a plurality of stories that we will not try to reduce to unity because we are aware that such fragments don’t tear anything apart because there is no linear story to tear apart.

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