In Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention, Stephanie Malia Hom situates the current refugee emergency at Europe’s southern shores as the most recent episode in a much longer historical durée of practices by which the Italian state has regulated the mobility of colonized and otherwise racially subjugated populations. Empire’s Mobius Strip was recently awarded the American Association for Italian Studies 2020 Best Book prize for the “20th and 21st Centuries” category. In the book’s three lyrical essays, Hom considers the various sites within which Italy’s imperial power over mobility has been historically sedimented, tracking the connections between colonial concentration camps in Africa, carceral islands in the Mediterranean, and migrant detention centers and government “villages” for forcibly displaced Roma and Sinti communities within the Italian peninsula. Empire’s Mobius Strip builds upon a burgeoning literature in Italian colonial history and postcolonial studies while simultaneously challenging the overwhelming presentism that characterizes many engagements with the ongoing Mediterranean refugee crisis.
Empire’s Mobius Strip represents a culmination of Hom’s many personal and professional engagements with questions of mobility and empire. Hom grew up in Hawai‘i—a site of US empire and settler colonialism where militarism and tourism collide and intertwine. Pacific poet and scholar Teresia Teaiwa has named this phenomenon in Hawai‘i “militourism,” where “military or paramilitary force ensures the running of a tourist industry, and that same tourist industry masks the military force behind it.”1 But, as Hom explained to writer George Di Stefano of La Voce di New York, her childhood immersion in the Pacific World led her, perhaps ironically, to view Italy as a site of “fascinating Otherness.”2 Hom’s first book, The Beautiful Country: Tourism and the Impossible State of Destination Italy, is a work of critical tourism studies that explores the romantic imaginary of Italy as an ideal site of leisure and pleasure, and the entanglement of this bel paese with the rise of the global mass tourism industry.
It was this glossier side of mobility—tourism—that ultimately led Hom to the themes of Empire’s Mobius Strip. The contradictions and disparities of a stratified regime of international mobility come to a head on the tiny island of Lampedusa, which is geopolitically a part of Italy but geographically closer to Africa than to Europe. The island is both a playground for summer beachgoers and a point of arrival for hundreds of thousands of migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe. On Lampedusa, Hom writes in Empire’s Mobius Strip, “Boutique hotels, seafood restaurants, and a modernized airport aimed at [luxury tourists who are drawn to its sunshine and pristine beaches] run up against the coast guard ships, emergency field officers, and detention facilities intended for migrants” (9). As she explains in the book’s introduction, this jarring collision of differentiated mobilities inspired her to begin questioning who gets to move, and why. By the end of the book, Hom arrives at the powerful conclusion that “the control of mobility is the fulcrum of empire. The power over mobility equates to power over people” (182).
Why have we selected this book for our special issue of Critical Ethnic Studies? Why look to the Mediterranean and the discipline of Italian studies in particular? The goal of this special issue is to think across geographically distinct borderland sites and to look to spaces that are often overlooked in critical ethnic studies. With this book forum, we hope to bring European/Mediterranean refugee studies, critical ethnic studies, critical refugee studies, and Black geographies into the same analytical frame. We also see Hom’s book as deeply engaged, in form if not by name, with both critical tourism studies and carceral studies. These fields have traditionally engaged with different sites, communities, and bodies of literature—but what can be learned when we put them into dialogue, with questions of empire and mobility guiding our analyses?
The forum’s place in our special issue allows us to ask, for example, what can we learn from reading Hom’s analysis of the restricted mobility and temporary permanence of the camp alongside that of refugee camps elsewhere, as in Palestine. How can we read Hom’s book with and against analyses of other spaces, like Greece, where tourists and migrants converge? What does Hom’s analysis provide for texts that take critical refugee studies as their point of departure, even and especially when those sites are as ostensibly disparate as Laos, Burma, or the Philippines? How do we collectively understand statelessness, and how states manufacture and reproduce that statelessness via their own colonial amnesia—an amnesia shared by imperial state formations across the globe? What is the relationship between (im)mobility and indigeneity that animates the colonial present shared by so many settler borderland regimes? And what does it mean to do fieldwork across these sites, when this movement, too, is either made possible or circumscribed by imperial formations?
To answer these questions as they relate to the racialized present of Italian colonialism, we reached out to three advanced graduate students—Xafsa Ciise, Ampson Hagan, and Torin Jones—whose research addresses sub-Saharan African migration, as well as the legacies of Italian colonialism in the Horn of Africa. We asked them not simply to review Empire’s Mobius Strip but to reflect on what the book might offer—conceptually, methodologically, archivally, and otherwise—in relation to their own projects. In their commentaries, they help put the book into conversation with Black and ethnic studies on a broader scale. For instance, as new work in the field of Black geographies has demonstrated, anti-Blackness is a fundamentally geographical process that works by spatializing Black folk either as hopelessly trapped within (degraded) place or, alternatively, as endlessly rootless, mobile, and displaced. In response, Hom outlined some possible future directions for research on mobility and empire. What emerged was a rich, wide-ranging, and interdisciplinary dialogue about the politics of representation (ethnographic and otherwise), agency and political subjectivity, and continuities and differences across different imperial formations.
Teresia Teaiwa, “Reading Paul Gauguin’s Noa Noa with Epeli Hau‘ofa’s Kisses in the Nederends: Militourism, Feminism, and the ‘Polynesian’ Body,” in Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics, and Identity in the New Pacific, ed. Vilsoni Hereniko and Rob Wilson (Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 251. About the genealogy of the term militourism, Teaiwa writes,
Louis Owens, the late literary scholar and novelist of Choctaw, Cherokee, and Irish American descent, was on the Qualifying Essay committee for my PhD in history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After several conversations with me in his office at Porter College about my dual interest in militarism and tourism, the two terms had begun to blur and blend together for him. When Louis offered me the neologism militourism, I ran with it. I ran with it for a good couple of years—it shaped my Qualifying Essay and two of the published articles that flowed out of it.
She continued to reflect on both the potential and the limitations of the blurring of militarism and tourism, both what it allowed her to see and what it made impossible to see. In the end, she writes, “When Louis helped me conceive of militourism some twenty-five years ago, we could not have imagined how many variations of military tourism had already preceded our own observations, what kinds of tourisms built on militarization were to come, or just how formidable the critical descriptions and analyses of these phenomena could be.” Teresia Teaiwa, “Reflections on Militourism, US Imperialism, and American Studies,” American Quarterly 68, no. 3 (September 2016): 850–51.
George De Stefano, “Empire’s Mobius Strip: Italy’s Migrant Crisis Today and Its Colonial Past,” La Voce di New York, November 14, 2019, https://www.lavocedinewyork.com/en/arts/2019/11/14/empires-mobius-strip-italys-migrant-crisis-today-and-its-colonial-past/.