Guest post by Deatra Walsh, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Women and Gender Research, UiT, The Arctic University of Norway and Adjunct Professor, Yukon Research Centre, Yukon College, Canada.

Review of Spaces of Governmentality: Autonomous Migrations and the Arab Uprisings by Martina Tazzioli (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2014).

Martina Tazzioli’s new book, Spaces of Governmentality: Autonomous Migrations and the Arab Uprisings, is a timely text. Migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea remain in the global spotlight. For Tazzioli, Tunisian migrants during the 2011 Arab Uprisings are of particular interest. Broadly, the text addresses the themes of visibility, possibility, representation, mobility, opportunity, and autonomy among these migrants and problematizes them. These key themes, and a plethora of others, are, according to the author, ‘strugglefields’―nexuses of conflict and moments of disjuncture that require further exploration to reveal their discursive meanings and thus provide substance to the subject of political epistemology, which Tazzioli describes as a ‘practical engagement with the politics and economy of knowledge on migration’ (p. xvi). This is a book concerned with discourses of migration.  

The book is organized into six chapters, and includes a separate introduction and conclusion. Each chapter is subdivided according to discussion topics relevant to that chapter. It’s an incredibly dense yet theoretically rich Foucauldian-inspired and post-structurally informed piece. The concept of biopolitics―the power over life, largely by governments―and the defiance of biopolitical processes, is central. However, this isn’t immediately clear from the book’s introduction. Throughout the text, Tazzioli provides rich and complex word couplings to describe the pushes and pulls of Tunisian migrants’ agency against a structure that attempts to cartographically capture them and biopolitically render them powerless. She chronicles their techniques for survival in and against these circumstances, including their refusal to be ‘mapped’ in the traditional sense of the word and their avoidance, at all costs, of mapping, revealing themselves through expected routes. Maps, and ultimately cartographic processes, are for Tazzioli, governmental domains. In true Foucauldian fashion, the productive irony of such agency isn’t lost. While migrants are agents in refusing to follow governmental processes, it is, she admits, in and through this agency that ‘new mechanisms of capture’ are invented and ‘new narratives’ are arranged (p. xi). So while Tunisian spatial and democratic upheavals can be understood as ones that ‘troubled the Mediterranean order of democracy and mobility’ (p. ix), the uprisings unintentionally contributed to new means of biopolitics. Nonetheless, Tazzioli reminds us that it’s critical to look not at the binaries produced through ‘powers/resistances,’ but in between to understand what these biopolitical practices reveal.

Although the introduction and initial chapters provide the overarching substance of the book, Chapter 5 makes the critical contribution to the text, particularly in reference to biopolitics. For me, it serves as a hinging point for all other discussions in the book. Here, Tazzioli further details the ‘humanitarian-securitarian discourse,’ which she argues is mobilized by those in power, as it’s ‘made in the name of saving migrant’s lives… [but] neither values life nor effectively manages the circulation of movements’ (p. 141). It’s in this chapter that the reader becomes better acquainted with Tazzioli’s musings on and working through of biopolitics, especially as revealed through the military-humanitarian operation Mare Nostrum, which launched in 2013 and was initially designed to ‘rescue’ migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. The Sea, while seemingly overregulated because of the widespread efforts to engage in its surveillance, is also a liminal and unsafe space for migrants who pass through it. Rescue efforts are, as Tazzioli illustrates, at the discretion of rescuers. Bodies are deemed necessary to rescue, yet these rescues are motivated more so by the need for security, rather than the desire to be humanitarian and save lives (p. 138).

Although the book is methodologically consistent with a political epistemology, I would have appreciated greater empirical insight into the lives of these migrants and their experiences. It seems ironic that in a text devoted to revealing the ‘strugglefields’ upon which these migrants ‘battle’ there appear so very few ‘real people.’ They too are lost in the jargon, rendered silent by the very methodological techniques aiming to engage them. It’s not until Chapter 5 that the text shares people’s lived realities at a somewhat greater length. Still, these voices are largely genderless, classless, and from an intersectional perspective (which I’d have preferred to see in a work on migration studies), lacking in any situatedness beyond geography. As a consequence, the reader is never fully acquainted to the people’s context of the Arab Spring, nor adequately introduced to the geography. Unless the reader is familiar with the region, the peoples, and the geopolitical history, the text is additionally challenging to read. One fortuitous aspect of the book is that it need not be read linearly, an aspect of the text also consistent with the post-structural rhizomatic flavours of Deleuze and Guattari. Although the introduction serves the purpose of situating the book’s content, the chapters can be read as standalone pieces and are informative if digested as such.

Overall, Spaces of Governmentality is a thought-provoking book that’s jam-packed with terminological coinings and conceptual insights. Amid the many gems, however, is a considerable amount of jargon which makes the text difficult to digest at times. For this reader, Tazzioli’s writing isn’t as accessible as other political theorists, and as a consequence, the book appears written more as a specialized text for readers familiar with Foucault’s work.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Walsh, D. (2015) Book Review: Spaces of Governmentality: Autonomous Migrations and the Arab Uprisings. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2015/09/book-review-5 (Accessed [date]).