Rowman and Littlefield International

Belonging Under Threat: What You Need to Know About Denaturalization

Published on Thursday 06 Dec 2018 by Marie Beauchamps

In modern politics, questions of belonging and repression tend to be addressed in rational – rather than emotional – terms. Since the Enlightenment politics has become a science, overtly relying on data and logic-driven analysis. Despite this, current political developments show us that rational thinking is not the sole character of our decision-making processes. Emotional reasoning has a definitive place, sometimes even maneuvering its rational sister into narrow corners.

Emotions are a source of knowledge in their own right, and I personally anticipate much of future science to acknowledge emotional intelligence and redress what Cartesian science has negated for too long. Yet despite the depth of intelligence that we can gain from emotional awareness, the science of rhetoric also tells us that emotions are the best tool to manipulate our audiences. Make your audience feel seen and understood, and they’ll believe you whatever you are saying. Facts no longer matter, rational arguments ricochet before drowning. Illogic becomes poetic. In the meanwhile, laws are drafted, debated, and passed without sound arguments, with consequences for us all.

“Make your audience feel seen and understood, and they’ll believe you whatever you are saying. Facts no longer matter, rational arguments ricochet before drowning. Illogic becomes poetic.”

One such law is denaturalization: a law that gives power to the state to withdraw citizenship from people labeled as fundamental threats to the nation. The consequences of denaturalization law are widespread and deeply embedded in the politics of belonging and repression – the politics of granting rights to some and taking rights from others.

In many myths and popularized narrative structures, society is represented as a small-scale community where direct human interactions are the driving force of politics and law. But in modern politics, society has taken the form of nations, states, and nation-states. Instead of direct human interactions, distant data, statistics, risk analysis and practices of profiling have become the oracles giving us cues of who is likely to become a threat, and who is likely to commit treason. But emotions haven’t left us, and when things hit the fan the nation, a conceptual and sometimes abstract political organ, is often reduced to the simple metaphor of a family. 

The metaphor of the nation as a family reestablishes direct and affective human interactions at the core of the ways in which we understand and experience politics and the law-making process. It becomes a structure for understanding and experiencing social and political tensions, reducing the diversity of the population into simple oppositions. Before long, debates about “who belongs and who doesn’t” become a space where emotions take over to manipulate. A conservative and patriarchal version of what it means to be a family leads the show. Born nationals become superior to naturalized citizens. Consenting citizens become preferable to dissenting ones. History is forgotten, and with it, the changing perceptions of threats and treasons we have been witnessing over the past centuries.

In a time when books are being written about post-truth politics, paying attention to the place of emotions in the establishment of rights is more important than ever. Questions of belonging and repression are not likely to disappear. Yet it is possible to develop a better understanding of where our ways of repressing come from, as well as of the history behind repressive laws – including denaturalization.

I’ve had an intimate relationship with those questions of belonging and repression for years. In the process of researching the driving force behind denaturalization law, I welcomed them in the morning, and took them home at night. Initially, I thought denaturalization was a new phenomenon, linked to the state of exception put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but I was soon to discover that denaturalization is nothing new. In France, its first formulation as a law stems from 1915, in the middle of WWI. My consciousness of denaturalization’s historical depth pushed me to look further than the immediate answers of the written law. What had made denaturalization law possible in the first place? What kind of juridical political context made possible to welcome denaturalization as a law when the war broke out?

Gradually, denaturalization affirmed itself as a system of thought that influences some of our most defining cultural and political values, such as community, citizenship, nationality, selfhood and otherness. Since denaturalization applies to those being labelled as a fundamental threat, its history tells us much about the norms that shape the line between those who belong, and those who are repressed. What we see is that those norms are not set in stone. They move with the time. Initial terms and definitions are being replaced by new ones according to contextual emotions. While the initial threat was formulated in terms of espionage during WWI, communists were the next target for denaturalization policies, before the Jewish people suffered the catastrophic consequences of totalitarian logic. They too, were denaturalized, before being deported. And so were those resisting the totalitarian politics of WWII.

“Since denaturalization applies to those being labelled as a fundamental threat, its history tells us much about the norms that shape the line between those who belong, and those who are repressed.”

By giving the state the capacity to withdraw citizenship rights from those labelled as a threat, denaturalization has at its core the capacity to turn modern politics into a totalitarian disaster. Trump’s administration has been adorned with a new denaturalization task force, European countries stand in line to adopt new denaturalization laws alongside Canada and Australia, and questions of nationality and citizenship are among the most pressing questions of our time, regardless of where we call home. In such times, it is imperative we gain a better understanding of the relationship between the political juridical force of emotions and the constitution of norms of belonging and repression.   

Governing Affective Citizenship: Denaturalization, Belonging and Repression (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018) is the written trace of my encounter with denaturalization law and its historical foundations. The context of the analysis is the politics of citizenship and nationality in France, but its conclusions stretch far beyond the French border. In light of contemporary political developments, it is clear that denaturalization is no longer specifically French but has become nested in politics of nationality and citizenship world-wide.

In showing how the definition of terror, the terrorist and terrorism overlap with the category of the stranger, Governing Affective Citizenship develops a critical tool to read contemporary discourses where questions of citizenship rights are presented in relation to immigration and security. While the details of how denaturalization is used might differ from one country to another, Governing Affective Citizenship considers denaturalization as a system of thought that influences seminal cultural political values, such as community, nationality, citizenship, selfhood and otherness.

Combining research insights from history, legal studies, security studies, and border studies, Governing Affective Citizenship demonstrates that the language of denaturalization shapes national identity as a form of formal legal attachment but also, and more counter-intuitively, as a mode of emotional belonging. As such, denaturalization operates as an instrumental frame to maintain and secure the national community. But feeding on those spaces in modern politics where society has been reduced to easy metaphors and simple oppositions, denaturalization appears as a remnant of totalitarian thinking, and threatens our sense of belonging.

About Marie Beauchamps

Marie Beauchamps is lecturer at the College of Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics, University of Amsterdam, and a guest researcher at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis. She writes about the grey area between politics and law, where emotions become entangled in the symbolic force of language.