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? Gavin Mottram attempts to make an intervention…
My earliest 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 saw a lot of films about alien life, of one form or another, that visited America or that was visited by Americans, and I was captivated – both delighted and troubled – by the non human things in these films. I was told that these were ‘only films’, and that the exotic, and ultimately abject, figures in them were ‘not real’, that they were ‘made out of rubber’, but this was equally as fascinating to me, creating an appreciation of America as being the place where ‘monsters’ were made. The obvious irony here is that America is indeed where 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, at the forefront of western civilization, the manifestations in U.S. popular culture that I found so compelling as a child are rooted in a heritage of fictions intended to cordon off an avid ideal of domesticity from other formations.
This ideal ultimately stems from a commitment to human mastery over nature: a commitment that led humans from foraging to cultivation, and then on to more intensive forms of agriculture which became Europe’s modus operandi to take over the world. Hence, arrived at through European conquest and expansion, at America’s domestic core are the enforced dichotomies and indenture of a settler colonial enterprise, belied by a fetishization of the home as a space of purity and domestic interdependence that remains central to common understandings of citizenship and love to this day: a nuclear mythos bellowed and whispered through U.S. mass culture, throughout it’s still relatively new history, in order to determine the mores of it’s population, and to maintain the hierarchy in which American morality is qualification for global leadership.
Within this mythic banality the practice of being human is aligned to stop otherness at home’s door, beyond which threshold love is just not a requisite. By certain decrees otherness may indeed be permitted to dwell inside of the U.S.’ austere outline, provided it meets the ‘proper’ standards of domestic intimacy so as to further transcribe America’s dream of itself into a reality, where ‘things’ beyond it’s interests risk dissolution in projects to improve the world for the benefit of mankind as a whole.
At the beginning of 2020 the realm of human authority was indeed confronted by a type of ‘being’ that exists beyond all common domestic ken, and since then the parameters of organized social behavior, globally, have transformed conveying a reminder of how tenuous the border between nature and culture is, and illuminating how cosmetic the institutions that much of the world is asked to put it’s faith in are. Among these expositions – spectacularly on form – is the cabaret of American exceptionalism as the U.S. holds tight to the concept of itself as capitalist defender against entropy.
At a point where domesticity, as institutionalized globally by an insistent amount of western/American imagery, has been undermined by realties distinct from the desire to make a profit, then perhaps it is wise to look to the seams of global capitalism as a place to begin contemplating alternatives to conventions ultimately produced by an imperial past.
Returning to those fantastic extraterrestrials that compelled me so much as a child I would’ve 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. I had went there to study at an arts institute, on an F1 visa: 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 so to make the most out of the privileges with which I was already in the U.S. it looked like, 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 numeric designation for 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.’ 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 is no shortage of attorneys out there charging an average of $4000 to $5000 to lead people through the process of framing themselves as the most spectacular examples of neoliberal success, as torchbearers for the great imperial tradition, and as distasteful as I found the prospect I concluded that it was a pill worth swallowing, and a debt worth taking on, if it allowed me to continue the life I was living there.
Essentially the process involves ‘inflating’ one’s biography – excessively so, but as it is the ‘state’ that dictates this process as such then carrying it out isn’t about fooling anyone as much as it is about ‘playing the game’ correctly, and so I began building a petition that constituted me as an extraordinary other: a ‘celebrated Scottish Native’, an ‘extremely versatile’ and ‘in demand individual’, a man who has ‘built his reputation from the ground up’, who has ‘made waves’ and who’s ‘career is on an upward trajectory’. These are actual examples of the of the language used to satisfy the various requirements of the application process, one of which involved having ‘articles’ written and published about me and my ‘extraordinary achievements’, for which this type of language was most vital. At first I had no idea how to achieve this, but it proved relatively easy as there are writers groups out there cashing in on the O1 racket who will knock out luminous reviews about a person for $300 each, and then publish them among a myriad of online journals that seem to exist purely as notice boards for this type of propaganda.
A friend 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 building this petition felt like: like I was preparing a confection with enough external hyperbole to obscure any underlying candor.
It’s estimated that it should take, on average, around six to eight months to complete the O1 application and to get a result, but it took me almost one year just to submit it. Beyond the amount of co-ordination involved in the actual process itself were paradigm shifts so varied that I’ve forgotten much of them now, but perhaps the most overarching issue at the time I undertook the process was the rise in popularity of explicit hyper national chauvinism across the western world, ubiquitous in the leadership that had assumed control of American politics to Brexit, adding further dimensions of complexity to an already intimidating immigration system, and so 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, and the conceivable future, on hold, initially reasoning that I would be back ‘shortly’. But, the more convoluted the application process became the more time passed, and the further out into the beyond I drifted. 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., pay $200 to have their visa issued and then proceed to the land of the free. But, at the same moment I was certified extraordinary enough to do this COVID-19 had emerged and was rapidly upgrading it’s own status around the world, un-beholden to any bureaucracy, and all pre-existing migration paths of human design came to a halt.
Since then certain ‘Presidential Proclamations’ are withholding the issuance of approved immigrant and non immigrant visas and other temporary visas that ‘Present a Risk to the U.S. Labour Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak.’ In effect these proclamations are counterintuitive to their stated purpose as many of the now suspended visas were designed for U.S. agencies intended to function in collaboration with external bodies, not as tickets to usurp domestic job seekers, hence leaving both parties floundering. So, it seems fair to assume that this new hard line placed upon America’s borders serves most effectively as a pretext for safeguarding imperial sovereignty, and all the fractious divides it imposes, from the various perversions thereof.
As a ‘host’, the America I was trying to stay in was the one that I was experiencing through Los Angeles, a city that other guests might experience as I did, firstly as a tundra of Americana, and secondly as an expanse of discrete spaces – 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, thus America, that I wanted to stay among, but this version, of entanglement, being as it may, ultimately conflates with an ideology rooted in oppositional terms.
As we advance into 2021 the colonial undercurrents that define global capitalism 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 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 has the potential to thrive.