The Mobius strip—a twisted surface with only one side and one boundary—is known in the field of mathematics for its nonorientability. In Empire’s Mobius Strip, Stephanie Malia Hom thinks with this mathematical object as a guiding spatial metaphor as she maps the connections between Italy’s current crisis of migration and detention and its colonial histories on the African continent. This work is part of the growing literature in Italian postcolonial studies that challenges Italy’s amnestic national imaginary—one that obscures the way in which Italy’s brutal settler-colonial projects in North and East Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are constitutive to its contemporary biopolitical governance regime. Drawing on archival sources and ethnographic materials, Hom challenges Italy’s presentist discourse around migration and detention by documenting how the longue durée of Italy’s colonial regime in Libya continues to structure its contemporary anxieties about mobility. Written in an essay form that is meant to “mirror the Mobius strip by tracing out Italian imperial formations across time and space,”1 Hom draws our attention to the ways in which the organizing logics of mobility function and materialize across three key sites: the island, the camp, and the village.
Lampedusa island, which connects Africa and Italy, is known across the world as the “epicenter of the migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea.”2 In the first essay, Hom argues not only that Lampedusa’s detention center exemplifies the space of exception but that the “temporary permanence” that detainees experience in this space marks empire’s power over people through the control of mobility. Describing the journey that African migrants make to Lampedusa as beginning in sub-Saharan Africa, Hom’s anthropological genre of writing shores up a reading of these subjects as always already flattened into the abstract category of “migrant” when they arrive on the island. The argument here is that the island not only enacts spatial and temporal suspension but also collapses the “distinctions between person and nonperson, human and animal.”3 More revealing and more persuasive in this first essay is the work of one of the scholars that Hom cites: specifically, Rutvica Andrijasevic argues that Lampedusa should not be viewed as an abstract space of exception but rather the processes of detention and deportation that occur there should be examined in relationship to the role the island plays in “transforming European space, the constitution of its citizenship, and the organization of its labor markets.”4 Andrijasevic also emphasizes the necessity of thinking about mobility in relationship to the capitalist mode of production and the “capturing of living labor.”5
The second essay maps out the history of the colonial Libyan concentration camps as a way to understand the structures of contemporary detention centers in Italy (like the Ponte Galeria). The detention center, which Hom argues fits into the logic of Agamben’s camp, is a “nonplace inhabited by juridical nonsubjects.”6 This theoretical orientation is intriguing when considered alongside the author’s reiteration of the unique critique that Italian studies scholars have been able to leverage against Agamben’s theories of homo sacer: that his work, produced within the context of Italy’s amnesia about its colonial histories in North and East Africa, fails to take into account the space of the colonial camp. The question for the reader, then, is, What is (or continues to be) productive in using this theory to conceptualize the workings of the colonial concentration camps to which indigenous Libyan people were forcibly relocated? Perhaps the better question is: what do the concentration camps in Italian colonial Libya unsettle in Agamben’s theorizations of the camp and, more broadly, the state of exception?
The third essay focuses on the village as the key site of analysis and for Hom, the village is the “spatial aftereffect of the camp.” The villages analyzed in this essay range from agricultural villages in Italian colonial Libya in the 1930s, to the Villaggio Santa Caterina near Turin which began housing national refugees in the 1950s, to contemporary villages such as the villaggio attrezzato at La Barbuta near Rome. After the dissolution of concentration camps in colonial Libya, indigenous communities were forcibly resettled in agricultural villages. Hom details how this relocation was, at its core, about transforming these individuals into productive (agricultural) labor for the colonial economy. In contrast to the camp, however, Hom argues that the village is both a zone of indistinction and a space that “thickens and reinforces distinctions so that the Italian state can stamp its mark on its subjects, and that mark is either the recognition or the refusal of citizenship.”7 Through the amplification of racial differences among Libyan subjects by differentially selecting them for cittadinanza italiana speciale (special Italian citizenship), the function of the village was to encourage the psychical and material assimilation into the Italian colonial regime. Critically, access to special Italian citizenship meant that indigenous Libyans had to be willing to give up any rights under Islamic law, which adjudicated on all matters relating to marriage, property, and inheritance. Ultimately, however, this special citizenship was a “minor citizenship, that is, something less than before the law (minoris iuris).”8 This is the juridical process that Hom connects back to the conditions that migrants face in Italy today.
At the close of this third essay, one is left with a set of questions about the way in which the analyses of these three key sites work to flatten specific power relations. That is, while the relational links that Hom is making between different sites and people across multiple spaces and time periods are thought provoking, one wonders about the implications of the equivalences that crop up in the work. For example, what power relations are concealed when poor southern Italians who were resettled in the villaggi in colonial Libya and the indigenous Libyans who were forcibly relocated to Muslim villages are “all colonial subjects, albeit to different degrees”?9 In this theoretical move, how do we account for the specific racial and religious-based violences that indigenous Libyans were subjected to by Italy?
Overall, the spatial and temporal “palimpsests” that Hom traces continuously return to the metaphor that the book opened with. What is meant to be a guiding metaphor produces a sense of conceptual disorientation for the reader. As one moves across and between the three sites outlined in the book, the coherence of the spatial metaphor of the Mobius strip loses its analytical purchase. In the introduction, the author articulates a conceptualization of empire as operating “unevenly and contentiously between times, spaces, scales, and spheres to reinforce gradations of sovereignty that oppress those less powerful.”10 However, the promise of examining these “gradations of sovereignty” is, for me, significantly undercut by a spatial metaphor that seems to rely heavily on an understanding of empire as infinite and—as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri signal—as having “no boundaries . . . no limits.”11 This uncomplicated spatial metaphor, which shapes Hom’s methodological approach to mobility, deeply informs Hom’s reading of the African migrant subject in this text. Specifically, this metaphor—which the author uses to cohere an analysis of empire that is characterized by fluidity, smoothness, and never-endingness—forecloses any deeper examination of the political subjectivity of the African migrant subject, which is precisely what shows us the cracks of empire.
In the first essay, for example, Hom describes the migrants who arrive on the island beginning “their journey into abstraction and categorization at the gates of the CPT.” These migrants, who move from “actual to abstract,” are “immobilized as well as unmade” upon entering the detention center. The “regime of temporary permanence” that the author is describing and theorizing in this essay has little room for the briefly described revolts by the detainees in 2009 and 2011. So how do we reconcile Hom’s reading of African migrants—whose subjectivities are seemingly evacuated of desire and political will upon entering the detention center—with these revolts? This question never arrives. Instead, the analytical focus is reserved for thinking about how the detention center was rebuilt and how it had “become mobile.” This question never arrives, I suspect, because the spatial metaphor-as-method works against the author’s conceptual framework at various points throughout the text; rather than showing us “gradations of sovereignty,” the historical and contemporary reading that is offered is one where Italy’s carceral and death-producing governance of its (post)colonial and migrant subjects is a totalizing force that renders these subjects as abstract, as nonexistent, as “nonpeople.”12 While one could argue that this metaphor is meant to pose necessary questions about the colonial present, it is, in my reading, a metaphor that dangerously slips into forms of flattening at various points in the book.
I appreciate the wealth of historical knowledge across different spaces and times in this text. The historical analysis prompted me to think about how Italy’s colonization of southern Somalia can be put in productive conversation with Hom’s analysis of the problem of mobility in Italian colonial Libya. In 1957, Cornelius Jaenen published an article in African Affairs titled “The Somali Problem,” in which he describes Somalis as “wandering pastoralists, unwilling to settle in villages or towns, unable to govern themselves, yet intolerant of foreign domination, [who] do not live at peace among themselves or with their neighbours.”13 Jaenen goes on to detail the nature of this “Somali problem” and, unsurprisingly, much of this discourse echoes Italy’s descriptions of the Bedouin people in colonial Libya. In reading these colonial archival materials, what has been striking to me is how the “nomad” gets taken up as the (metaphorical) figure whose movements were considered dangerous to colonial powers in Africa and, interestingly, how the roles of racialization, religion, and labor continue to be on the periphery. In colonial Somalia, as in colonial Libya, the nomad as a racialized Muslim figure presented a problem of labor to the Italian empire. After selectively abolishing slavery in Somalia, the Italian administration was faced with the problem of establishing some form of labor discipline in the colony. To pacify the slave-owning Somali clans, the colonial administration adopted a process of gradualism whereby freed slaves were encouraged to come to an agreement with their former masters, in this case, in the form of domestic servitude. As Lee Cassenelli notes, this was because the Italians believed that the free Somalis would abandon agricultural labor altogether; according to one colonial administrator, “to free all the slaves at once would force the free Somalis, unaccustomed to working their own field, to abandon them and resume the pastoral way of life . . . and for reasons of public security as well as for commercial ones, it is preferable that the nomadic tribes become sedentary rather than the reverse.”14
Further compounding this “problem” for the Italians were independent farming settlements, which included Islamic farming settlements, called jamaacooyin, where freed slaves and other fugitives were welcome. This historical analysis shows how mobility came to be construed not only as a racialized religious problem but also as a labor problem. That is, the production of this category of “mobility” was also inextricably linked to anxieties about the valorization of agricultural labor and the colonial economy at large. Hom’s book encouraged me to think about the configurations of this power relationship and its material expression in the colonial present. Finally, anthropological material about Somalia during this time also shows that the movement of the “nomadic” Somali figure is one that has always necessarily been in tension with place(ment). As I thought about the analytic of mobility in Empire’s Mobius Strip, I wondered how one could account for this spatial tension—one that is characterized by multiple forms of relationalities (e.g., to other Somalis, to animals, to the land).
The critical questions that came to mind as I read Empire’s Mobius Strip have been very generative for my own research. Although my work does not take up mobility as a primary object of analysis, the question of mobility is unavoidable. Over the last decade, Somali Muslims in the United States have been routinely convicted of providing material support to al-Shabaab, a Somali militia group that was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2008. Taking two legal cases in the United States as an entry point, my work examines how the Somali Muslim figure continues to be put to “work” vis-à-vis the categories of “terrorist,” “migrant/refugee,” and “pirate.” I came to this research question because I wanted to know how the law could designate the physical, political, and economic movements of Somali Muslim subjects as particularly risky and therefore in need of carceral management. How might taking up this question—in a way that problematizes the dominant discourses about the African diaspora and the African postcolony—allow us to think differently about the law’s relationship to humans and to notions of sovereignty? As I begin to track the ways in which juridical ideas about Somalia and Somalis circulate in national and transnational imaginaries, there are two fundamental and related questions that I am continuing to grapple with. If, as V. Y. Mudimbe teaches us, Africa continues to be construed as an exceptional space, one that is both an “empirical fact, yet by definition . . . perceived, experienced and promoted as the sign of the absolute otherness,”15 how does one orient their work so that Africa does not continue to appear as an exemplar of “absolute otherness”? Within this necessarily difficult theoretical and political terrain, how do we write about and think with African postcolonial subjects, particularly in light of discourses that offer either the “abject” nonperson (e.g., refugees and migrants) or the violent and anarchist subject (e.g., terrorist, pirate, warlord)? One of the ways I am responding to these critical questions is by centering how Africans continue to challenge the ideological and material violences of these kinds of overdetermining narratives. In the current moment, the question of an African political subjectivity—and indeed, of African sovereignty—is even more pressing as Africans on the continent are subjected to the horrific and compounding violence of the long “war on terror” and the global climate crisis.
Xafsa Ciise is a PhD student in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work examines how the Somali Muslim figure continues to be put to “work”—domestically and globally—vis-à-vis the categories of “terrorist,” “migrant/refugee,” and “pirate.” Taking two legal cases in the United States as an entry point, her project documents the historical and contemporary management of the racialized Somali Muslim figure in order to think differently about the spatialization of risk within global governance logics. Central to this work is how the Somali Muslim community—in the diaspora and on the African continent—responds to and decenters these logics. She came to this research through community organizing in her home neighborhood of City Heights, San Diego.
Stephanie Malia Hom, Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), 7.
Maria Michaela D’alessandro, “Inside Lampedusa, the Front Line of Europe’s Migration Crisis,” GlobePost, September 13, 2019, https://theglobepost.com/2019/09/11/lampedusa-italy-migration/.
Hom, Empire’s Mobius Strip, 30.
Rutvica Andrijasevic, “From Exception to Excess: Detention and Deportation across the Mediterranean Space,” in The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement, ed. Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Puetz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 149.
Hom, Empire’s Mobius Strip, 68.
Cornelius J. Jaenen, “The Somali Problem,” African Affairs 56 (1957): 147.
Lee V. Cassanelli, “The End of Slavery and the ‘Problem’ of Farm Labor,” in The Proceedings of the Third International Congress of Somali Studies, ed. Annarita Puglielli (Rome: Pensiero Scientifico Editore, 1988), 273.
Valentin Y. Mubimbe, “Which Idea of Africa? Herskovits’s Cultural Relativism,” October 55 (1990): 93.