Walls are being built, straits policed, high seas patrolled: in the frantic seeking after sovereignty the stranger is become a foreigner and foreigners are recast as aliens … Storm the ramparts of the Capitol then, and ask not what we have done to them, but what they could possibly do for us? The Huddled MacMasses attempts to make an intervention…
At a young age my impression of America was that it was a place that had some kind of connection to what might exist beyond the earth. As a child I paid a lot of attention to films about alien life that visited America, or that was visited by Americans, and as this was the 1980s, an era in cinema defined by excessive practical effects, I was captivated by the non-human things in these films as objects. I understood that these were just films and that the ‘critters’ in them were fake, made out of rubber, but this was equally as fascinating to me, creating an appreciation of America as being the place where the ‘monsters’ were made. The obvious irony here is that I would later learn that America is indeed where the monsters are made, in that America, since the world has known of America, has been engaged in a project of self-making that is only possible by creating the Other. Thus, the objects that I found so compelling as a child are rooted in a symbology designed to cordon off an avid ideal of domesticity from other formations.
In ‘Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species’, Anna Tsing examines how this ideal stems from a commitment to mastery over nature, a commitment that led humans from foraging to cultivation, and then on to more intensive forms of agriculture which provided ‘the modus operandi’ – that ‘allowed Europeans to take over the world’. (148) Tsing notes that at America’s domestic core is the enforced dichotomies and indenture of ‘European conquest and expansion’ (148), belied by a fetishization of the family and of ‘the home as a space of purity and interdependence’ (150) that remains central to common understandings of citizenship and love to this day.
Observing how the promotion of this nuclear mythology ’reappeared in mid-twentieth century US mass culture – and again in our own times now’ (150), marshaled in an attempt to maintain the ‘moral hierarchy in which American goodness is qualification for global leadership’ (150) Tsing writes that:
‘Other peoples, and other species, are judged by their ability to live up to U.S. standards of domestic intimacy. If they are properly engaged with family love, they may deserve to live. Others risk becoming ‘collateral damage’ in U.S. projects to improve the world’ (151) Tsing emphasizes that within a supremacist order, the practice of being human is ultimately aligned to ‘stop Others at homes door’ (151), beyond which boundary love is just not a requisite, writing that:
Within the family, other species can be accepted: pets are models for family devotion. But the model of the loving and beloved pet does not spread love; it holds it tight inside the family. U.S. publics learn to imagine themselves as compassionate, moral people because they love their children and their pets. They learn that this love makes them good people – unlike terrorists who only hate (151)
Following the fungal diversity and contingency that flourishes in zones between attenuating spaces, Tsing ultimately asks us to look beyond the pleasures of the domestic to the ‘politically- and-biologically diverse potentials of the seams of global capitalism’ (141), as a place to begin contemplating alternatives to conventions ultimately produced by an imperial past.
In 2020 the world of human authority was indeed challenged by beings that exist beyond common domestic ken, and since then the parameters of organized social behavior, globally, have transformed.
As stifling as this transformation has been, and continues to be, it has brought with it a reminder of how tenuous the border between nature and culture is, illuminating how reductive the desire to make a profit as model of civilization is for much of the world. Among these expositions, and as spectacularly as is to be expected, is the U.S.’ own fantasy of exceptionalism whilst it holds tight to the idea of itself as defender against entropy.
Returning to those synthetic objects that compelled me so much as a child – created for narratives in which they, in one way or another, support the idea of human thus American capitalist supremacy – I would have been bewildered then to find out that one day I would be appealing to the U.S. as one of them myself.
In 2018 I had been living in the U.S. for four years. I was living in Los Angeles and working as a printer. I had gone there to study at an arts institute, on a student visa which permitted me one year to remain in the U.S. after graduating. That year my ‘authorized period of stay’ was coming to an end. I didn’t want to leave, and at that point it looked like in order for me to stay my best option was to apply for an O1 visa, which would’ve given me a further three years there.
The non-alphanumeric designation of this visa is ‘Alien of Extraordinary Ability’.
On the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Service website, the O1 visa is described as a ‘nonimmigrant visa for the individual who possess extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, athletics, or the motion picture or television industry and who has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.’ As far as I’m concerned none of this applies to me, but, at the very least, I could be considered to be somehow ‘in the arts’, and what made me entertain the idea that I could apply for this visa was that I knew quite a few people living there who already had it, who seemed to be as ordinary and as obscure to renown as I am, and they told me ‘it’s a racket, you just need to hire a lawyer to help you make it all up and you’ll get it’. This is essentially true. There are practices out there charging an average of $3500 to $5000 to lead people through the process of framing themselves as being on a par with the most spectacular examples of neoliberal success, and I concluded that it was an effort worth making, and a debt worth taking on, if it allowed me to continue the life I was living there.
Essentially the process involves the hyperinflation, and the outright fabrication, of biographical details to form a kind of simulacrum in the style of a religious deity, which requires amassing a hoard of willing participants to support and animate this celestial identity. As it is the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Service that dictate this procedure as such, then carrying it out isn’t as much about fooling anyone than it is about ‘playing the game’ correctly. Thus, I began building a petition that constituted me as an extraordinary other, a ‘celebrated Scottish Native’, an ‘extremely versatile’ and ‘in demand individual’, who has ‘built’ their ‘reputation from the ground up’, who has ‘made waves’ and who’s ‘career is on an upward trajectory’. These are actual examples of the type of language used throughout the various components required for the application.
Someone I met in the U.S. once told me – after I remarked on what I thought to be an excessively thick pizza – that ‘everything in America turns into cake’, and this is indeed what constructing this application felt like.
It’s estimated that it should take, on average, around six to eight months to complete this application and to get a result, but it took me almost one year just to submit it. Beyond the amount of co-ordination and fabrication involved in the actual process itself were delays so varied that I’ve forgotten the extent of much of them now, but a major contributor being the rise in popularity of older notions of imperial isolationism across the world, ubiquitous in the leadership that had assumed control of American politics to Brexit, adding an extra dimension of complexity to an already intimidating immigration system, thus applying for any visa, even one as smug as the O1, had become even more precarious.
Eventually my time in the U.S. came to an end while I was still in the throes of the application process and I had to leave, arranging to put the life I was living there on hold, initially under the impression that I would be back ‘shortly’. But, the more convoluted the visa process became the more time passed, and it became difficult not to admit that in following the dictates of how to be an extraordinary alien I had indeed drifted into nebulous circumstances. Then, at the beginning of 2020, roughly a year and a half after I began the process, my application was approved.
The approved extraordinary alien is required to go to an Embassy or Consulate General outside of the U.S. and to pay $200 to have their visa issued, and then proceed to the land of the free. But, at the same moment I was declared extraordinary enough to do this COVID-19 was upgrading its own status around the world, and all pre-existing migration paths of human design were closed.
Since then certain ‘Presidential Proclamations’ suspending entry into the United States are withholding the issuance of approved immigrant and non-immigrant visas. Superficially these proclamations are ultimately to protect the lives of U.S. citizens, but the history of the U.S. – outside of its own autocratic telling of it – and the most current events happening there demonstrate that ‘protection’ ultimately applies to an elite closest to the image of the U.S.’ imperial progenitor: white capitalist masculinity, and that it is fair to assume that this new hard line placed around America’s external borders has more to do with a desire to self-isolate that the current American leadership had been making explicitly apparent before COVID-19 showed up.
The America I was trying to stay in was the one that I was experiencing through Los Angeles, a city that others might experience, as I did, firstly as a tundra of Americana, and secondly as an expanse of discrete territories partitioned by boulevards and freeways whilst paradoxically as an ecology of cultural identities and ways of being, made up of residents and visitors. It was this latter version of Los Angeles, and thus America, that I wanted to stay among, but this version, of simultaneity, being as it may, ultimately conflates with an ideology rooted in oppositional terms.
As we advance into 2021 the relevance of the systems designed to protect imperial sovereignty continue to become more and more apparent, and the historically corralled and overlooked by imperial-sponsored civilization continue to counter from the margins, but the rules of domesticity under the myths of capitalism at least have changed, although at the moment it’s not clear if this will be just another seizure in capitalism’s procession of expansion and collapse or if indeed a different value is on the horizon.