Below is a text copy of Dr. Jay Dolmage’s (Associate Professor of English, University of Waterloo) presentation at our December event, Disability, Technology, Inclusion: A Symposium on Interdisciplinary Research, History Exhibits and Pedagogy. This presentation has been made available and archived to increase accessibility.
.docx file: Carleton Picturing Deportation
“Picturing Deportation: The Rhetorics and Technologies of Immigration Restriction from 1900 to 2017.”
Please get up and move around and use the room the ways that you need to.
Territorial acknowledgment, and a commitment to connect this to what I am talking about today:
I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg Peoples.
I am a read-from-the-pager, most of the time. There are large-print copies, and the talk is available online if you need text in front of you for access or comfort. I am going to be regulating my tone and speed to work with the ASL interpreter.
One key feature of the Trumpocene epoch is that news – much of it terrible, confusing, and manipulated – comes at us fast. Everything feels like the very first thing, every affront brand new. But the goal of my talk is to help us to slow down, make some connections, and realize that we have been here before. In some ways, we have never left, or we have been held here. I say that not to diminish the urgency of where we find ourselves, in an era that future historians and anthropologists could very likely define by its xenophobia, its panic about immigration, its racism. We have about an hour here, together, and I thank you for taking the time from your own day. We have an hour today to slow things down and find some connections, and then to figure out how this can reshape what we do, moving forward, together.
I’m here to say that immigration bans, unfortunately, are nothing new. So we need to pay attention to the ways that immigration is framed rhetorically. I’ll argue that, examining the photographers and photographs that captured images of “undesired” immigrants in Canada and the United States at the turn of the 20th century, we can begin to understand the development of photography as a eugenic technology, crucial to our evolving understanding of disability in North America. We can also refigure the engagement with visual culture that is developing in fields such as rhetoric, anthropology, and disability studies. This engagement focuses not just on photographs themselves but on the archaeology of photography as a technology, on its surfaces of emergence, its modes of reproduction and circulation, and on the ways that disability is revealed or ignored in archives. This approach then offers tools for interpretation and investigation that might be taken up by others and applied across eras and images, as well as across disciplines.
In late January 2017, Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders aimed at immigration restriction: an order to build a border wall, a temporary ban on immigrants and refugees from specific Muslim nations, a focus on “saving” the religious minorities within these countries (meaning Christians). The executive orders may not have any legal enforceability (currently, they are in a state of legal suspension but intermittent application.) Or they may prove to be tremendously effective, legally and politically. But, unfortunately, they will certainly have very powerful rhetorical effectiveness. And I hope I can show why and how, a little bit.
Such bans or shutdowns will mean that immigrants and refugees cannot land in North America. It means that there will be deportations and interminable, lengthening detentions. But, it also means that these bodies, their beliefs and behaviors, become the subject of a very public process of stigmatization.
This public process, I am going to show, has been an ongoing one. It is a process shaped by, but also a process that has shaped, visual culture and its technologies.
Charles Davenport, perhaps the eugenics movement’s greatest proponent, defined the movement as “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding” (1911, 1). Disability Studies scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder define eugenics as “the hegemonic formation of exclusionary practices based on scientific formulas of deviancy” (73). And Nancy Ordover notes that in the early twentieth century “eugenics gave racism and nationalism substance by bringing to bear the rationalizing technologies of the day” (6). What eugenics reveals is that race and disability are rhetorical constructions, inventions, with very real material effects. As Constance Backhouse reminds us: “Race is a mythical construct. Racism is not” (7). Much of the time, as I will show, the ways that eugenics constructs race and disability, often together, can seem ridiculous – exemplary of very bad “science.” But the impacts of these constructions, which some theorists may wish to reject, are violent material effects that the historian and the rhetorician cannot ignore.
There are two specific quotes about eugenics that I return to throughout my work. First, Angus McLaren argues that for Canadian eugenicists, their final “chief success” was not necessarily a drastic increase in restriction and deportation focused on specific groups of immigrants, though eugenic rhetoric allowed this to happen. Instead, the chief success was “in popularizing biological arguments” (McLaren 61). And, as Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, wrote in his 1909 Chapters in Eugenics, the first goal of eugenics is simply to get people to understand its rhetoric: “Then let its principles work into the heart of the nation, who will gradually give practical effect to them in ways that we may not wholly foresee” (43). These popular “biological arguments” and their unforeseen but widespread, ongoing effects are the subject of this talk. Let me pause there just to underline this way of viewing eugenics: it’s not a series of policies or acts, really, it is a rhetoric, and when you give it to people, they run with it.
In what follows, I will look back at photographs that were taken at Ellis Island and Canada’s Pier 21 in the very early part of the 20th century. I develop a “rhetorical history of the visual,” in the way that Cara Finnegan suggests such a project “relies upon critiques of vision and visuality to illuminate the complex dynamics of power and knowledge at play in and around images” (198). I suggest that we recognize a particular group or album of photographs as emblematic of an important rhetorical moment—the emergence of the North American eugenics movement. I suggest that we comprehend these photos as charts of important rhetorical spaces—Ellis Island and Pier 21. And I argue that we should view these photographs as the products of a technology—photography—that was creating a new archive and index for the sorting and classification of human bodies in this era. In these ways, I finally argue that immigration stations, and the photographs taken there, helped to actually frame and develop both race and disability, contingently.
In early twentieth century America, photography became a rhetorical tool of eugenicists and immigration restrictionists, and ideas about bodily fitness and defect drove the development of the technology. The photos I will examine here both capture and illuminate rhetorical trends already at work, as they also facilitate, reproduce, and expand these rhetorical processes.
In keeping with the idea that this will be a “rhetorical history of the visual,” I will anchor this talk in examination of the “surfaces of emergence” of these images, to borrow a term from David Bate. That is, I will focus on not just the photos, but also the connected practices, institutions, and relationships that must be considered when undertaking an archaeology of photography (4).
I gesture to “archaeology” here as a way to suggest that this work is not just historical. That is, as Jussi Parikka writes of media archaeology more broadly, the goal is to understand technological and media cultures as “sedimented and layered” but also to question the “regimes of memory and creative practices” that allow us to interpret and use media and technologies, currently (3;2). I will attempt to analyze photographs in terms of their possible reproduction and emergence, and I will attempt to formulate a working thesis about what these images tell us about photography as a eugenic technology, in the past and in the present.
Visual Description – GLOSS OVER
It is important to note that the historical over-emphasis on the visuality of disability and race was also discriminatory in a very straightforward sense: if you couldn’t “see,” you were excluded at the border, deported. The evidence I present here captures this clearly, while refusing to reinforce this exclusion. So I will provide thick visual description for all of the images I discuss. In fact, all that I will provide will be these descriptions. Part of the effort here is to call attention to the fact that, perhaps especially in academic and historical work that is making an argument for the importance of images and photographs, these images and photographs are not presented in an accessible matter. The argument about the importance of the visual is thus undermined by the exclusionary practice of failing to caption and describe. For those who do want to access the photos, they are available on the temporary site for this talk, and you can access them yourselves.
And you will have the option of not viewing these images as well. In this way, I hope to make a gesture towards the idea that all of the images I am discussing were, originally, taken without the consent of those pictured. And the images have been used and circulated in ways that “freakify” the subjects, hold them up as abject and Other; these have been spectacles of rejection. So, simply including the images, without acknowledging this history, would undermine the arguments I am making here. Making them available on the site allows you to retain some agency and choice in structuring their own encounter with the images. The creation of this small archive (perhaps a “shadow archive”) also means that these images, these people, cannot be easily forgotten. The fact that the need to memorialize these images clashes so powerfully with the ethics of exhibiting them, this conveys the rhetorical complexity of this project, writ large. As Teju Cole writes, “what honors those we look at, those whose stories we try to tell, is work that acknowledges their complex sense of their own reality. Good photography, regardless of its style, is always emotionally generous in this way [but] weaker photography delivers a quick message […] but fails to do more. But more is what we are” (n.p.). Unfortunately, these are not, generally, photographs that acknowledge a complex sense of the subjects’ reality. So, the least we can do is make space to imagine, in a much more generous sense, what this reality might be. The archive opens up the opportunity to create the space to honor these realities in ways that the simple reproduction of these images does not.
Now, back to my argument. But let’s stick with the theme of what I will not do.
The foundations of what I am exploring here will not be discussed here. Instead, I refer you to an online, open access publication that I am not going to rehash very deeply. I published an article in the journal Enculturation in 2014 called “Framing Disability, Developing Race: Photography as Eugenic Technology.”
You can find it here: http://enculturation.net/framingdisability
The article is about how, beginning in 1905, Augustus Sherman, an Ellis Island clerk, took a series of pictures of immigrants who had been stranded at Ellis Island. Sherman took more than 250 of what he called “immigrant type photographs” between 1905 and 1920. These images became incredibly popular at the time, circulated as postcards, framed and displayed in prominent locations, reprinted in periodicals, religious texts, and governmental reports.
Matthew Frye Jacobson has written that in this era, the concept of “variegated whiteness” became prominent, and it was important to be able to mark ethnic others, even if they may have been previously understood as “white,” as now somehow not authentically or fully white. He explains that “the salient feature of whiteness [before this era] had been its powerful political and cultural contrast to nonwhiteness,” yet artifacts like Sherman’s photographs reveal how “its internal divisions, too, took on a new and pressing significance” (41). Looking at the somewhat simple “immigrant type photographs” of Sherman, we may think a rather harmless cataloguing is all that is at work. Yet these photographs provide evidence of a much larger project of racial division. It is not that Sherman himself intended for his photographs to enable a “new racism,” yet the divisions he catalogues, and the use of this catalogue, specifically between 1900 and 1924, allowed for this “new racism” to be experimented with and perfected at Ellis Island. For instance, Jewish peoples from varying backgrounds and geographies became Jews; then they became “Russian Jews,” then they also became, as Ellis Island doctor J.G Wilson wrote in 1908, “a highly inbred and psychopathically inclined race,” whose defects are “almost entirely due to heredity” (493). And Sherman’s photographs became ways to identify these specific bodies, and to superimpose these eugenic value judgments through the rhetoric of the glance. To figure out who was American, one had to scientifically create, locate, mark, and showcase the expulsion of he and she who were not.
At this time, many people collected photographs, and these immigrant photos would have fit, in many ways, into the genre of the freak show postcard photograph, investigated at length by Robert Bogdan, among others. As mentioned, Sherman’s photographs also overlapped with the genre of the anthropological photograph of the exotic, primitive, colonized other, as well as medical and criminological archive photos. While the Ellis Island photographs borrow from these visual vocabularies, they also sent another message, particularly as they hung in the foyer of the Immigration Service offices, as they were circulated as mementoes given to privileged visitors to Ellis Island, and most markedly as they were used by line inspectors to aid in identification of racial and ethnic “types.” The photographs became a key part of the immigration restriction machine of Ellis Island. The photographs develop, in the functionaries and the products of this machine, the power of the snapshot diagnosis to make distinctions and discriminations, (conditionally) assuring the viewer of his or her own normalcy. Moreover, while they catalogue strangeness and difference, they also attest to and facilitate the arrest of this difference at Ellis Island. The article that I link to explores this in much greater detail.
As Aristide Zolberg shows, American immigration policy has always had a double logic: “boldly inclusive” and “brutally exclusive” (432). He argues that the U.S has never been laissez-faire about immigration (2). That is, immigration has always been a matter of keen public and political concern—as the public has shaped immigration, so has it shaped the public. We need look no further than current American political rhetoric about building a wall between the U.S and Mexico to understand this power. Sherman’s photos may not be used to guard the borders any longer, but they must be read against the construction of new immigrant threats, from South of the border, Syria and other “predominantly Muslim countries,” and a range of other locations, all framed as alien.
I’m going to do that work here.
For many years now, I have been doing this archival research, looking at the ways that disability was constructed through immigration processes, practices, discourses, artifacts, and images in the peak period of North American immigration, 1900-1925, which was also the peak period of North American eugenics. We know that such work requires extreme effort and diligence. Because, as I have written elsewhere, disability has been ignored, submerged, and overwritten throughout history and throughout the historical record (Disability Rhetoric 72).
My research on immigration in the Canadian context, frankly, has been much more difficult than research in the American context. While at Ellis Island it was relatively easy to discover the ways that anti-immigration activists and nascent eugenicists influenced the immigration process, to sense how and where new forms of “racial knowledge” fused disability and race, using Ellis Island as a space for experimentation, Pier 2 and Pier 21 offered at once a much more messy and a much more spare history.
My hypothesis is that Pier 2 and Pier 21 also functioned eugenically. I have certainly found discursive evidence to this effect. But the major impediment that I have found, and it is an impediment that many disability scholars have also encountered, is that disability is difficult to locate in canonized histories but also in archives. As I have shown, Archives in Canada and elsewhere are being destroyed by austerity measures – further, archives are tremendously inaccessible spaces. Moreover, in an era of “alternative facts,” these archives become even more endangered. When a president needs to manipulate images to alter the reality of his own inauguration, on his very first day in office, it becomes clear that protecting images of the past will be difficult, crucially important work.
But then, poring through boxes of archival materials, I discovered an image of a young man, sitting on a gurney, likely in the Pier 2 infirmary. The photo is labelled “deformed idiot to be deported.” The photograph was most likely taken by John Woodruff, the government photographer for the department responsible for immigration at this time. He had been commissioned to document the immigration process for purposes of promotion. (More on this promotion soon.)
The image, which you can access yourself on the accompanying website, depicts a young man sitting upright on a medical gurney with his legs out in front of him, wearing a suit with a vest, a white shirt and no tie. His pant legs are pulled up and his feet are bare, and they are in the foreground of the photograph, resting on a pillow, slightly blurred. The toes seem to point towards one another and his feet are misshapen. He has black bands around both calves, perhaps garters, suggesting that his socks and shoes have been removed. The young man has short-cropped hair and looks directly into the camera. A tag is pinned onto the lapel of his jacket with the letter “X” written on it. If he used mobility aids, they are not in the frame.
When I found this image in an album of photographs, I could easily classify and recognize it according to the visual rhetorics and grammars of disability studies: placing it within criminological archives, within the pathological frame of the medical textbook, within the history of the freakshow. I also could easily classify and recognize this image according to the images of disability from Augustus Sherman’s archive. Like these images, this one utilizes what I have called faciality: the move to locate mental deficiency in the face and body of the immigrant. Indeed, even the “X” written on the piece of paper on the lapel of his jacket seems to connote the same thing that such markings did at Ellis Island, where “defective” individuals were marked and indexed with codes, letters written on the lapels of their jackets in chalk. Though, of course, I could find no further evidence that Canadian inspectors ever used such codes. Yet the idea that a photographer visiting – or working – at an immigration station might take the opportunity to frame images of difference certainly made sense. Furthermore, the idea that disability was the condition that rendered this subject available for photographic capture, and also left them at least temporarily without a state, is also unfortunately unsurprising.
Tanya Titchkosky and Rod Michalko have argued that people with disabilities are often viewed as “draw[ing] out the intentions of an environment” via the “limits it inscribes [on] their lives and bodies” (217). The “deformed idiot” photograph can be understood not just as reproducing and perhaps sensationalizing the image of disability but we can also trace the exclusive intentions of Canadian immigration policy and practice, and the exclusive space of Pier 2, across this body. The photograph not only documents what happened in this cultural location, but photography was a key technology doing its eugenic work. In this case, we can imagine that disability deposited this young man in the infirmary even though there is no evidence that he needed treatment of any sort. I will repeat: there is no evidence that the young man needed treatment. His stay in the infirmary was much more likely to have been for the ‘education’ of young doctors, many of whom trained at immigration stations early in their careers so that they could broaden their medical experience (as shown by Birn). This photograph also extended this medical training, in addition to the cultural work it may have been intended to do.
When I did find this photograph at Library and Archives Canada, though I could guess about its uses and contexts, I was surprised that I couldn’t actually discover, with any authority, how such an image was used or circulated at the time of its “capture” in 1908. Then I found another image that I hoped would provide some context. It wasn’t found in the same album at the Library and Archives Canada, though it was taken by either William James Topley or the aforementioned John Woodruff at an immigration station in Quebec in 1910, and filed in an album of “immigration views.” Like Woodruff, Topley had been commissioned to document immigration in this period, also for purposes of promotion. This image was simply labeled “immigrants to be deported.” It pictures a large group of immigrants, and seemingly the photographer wanted to present a true variety of human difference, all of it having been recently rejected. Eight men, two women, and one child can be viewed in the image. The young child in the photograph, front and center, standing on crutches, presents a particularly powerful and memorable image. The boy wears a small wool cap, a sweater, and a jacket. He has short blond hair, cut straight across his forehead. Wooden crutches appear to prop him up – the crutches seem just slightly too large for him. He wears tall boots, and his left foot appears to be raised just a bit higher than his right. The image can be viewed on the accompanying website.
Like the “deformed idiot to be deported,” viewing this young boy, just over half the height of the adults around him, should spur the audience to imagine what comes next for him. Because he is also set apart from the adults around him, we have to imagine that he has been separated from his family through this deportation. This image has been somewhat widely reproduced, for instance on the cover of Barbara Roberts’s very important From Whence They Came, the key Canadian text on the history of immigration restriction. Yet Roberts doesn’t actually discuss the image in the book. Anna Maria Carlevaris does discuss the photo at some length in her dissertation, and provides an interpretation of the symbolism of the image:
the crippled [sic] boy is centered in the composition and stands apart from the group behind him; he probably has been positioned there by the photographer. Neither the group, nor the boy, are close enough to the camera to evoke feelings of intimacy from the viewer but neither are they far enough away not to be recognized […] by lessening the personalizing or honorific aspect of the photograph a distance between the viewer and the subject is constructed […] the boy with crutches, so ‘obviously’ defective, dispassionately gazes back across an infinite gulf of silence. The boy wears the sign of his difference; his body displays the reason for his deportation. The other figures, because they are members of this group, are also defective in some way [their proximity to the boy is incriminating]. Their failure does not announce itself physically, but it is implied by association (38).
The images of young men “to be deported” that I found on my archival journeys provide perfect examples of Kerchy and Zittlau’s thesis that when we witness images of people with disabilities who have been “enfreaked,” we should recognize that these bodies “are made to circumscribe and enforce the boundaries of normality in spatio-temporally specific modes that result from traumatic historical circumstances, decisive geographical contextualizations, as well as related socio-political concerns and communal anxieties” (10). Indeed, the image of the “deformed idiot to be deported” clearly reveals – even just in its name – both a normative and geographical boundary, and this young man’s exodus to Canada may very well have been initiated by trauma, and very likely resulted in it; the image also makes much larger communal and political statements about who can and who cannot be Canadian.
I want to suggest that, while I quickly began to recognize and place these images within the eugenic history of picturing and indexing disability, my first – and indeed my enduring – response has been sadness and anger. It is crucial to recognize the young men in these images, without sentimentalizing them, as much more than pictures. Both likely traveled to Canada with family and/or friends, with big plans, using all of their resources to make the trip. The future back ‘home’ after deportation would have to be uncertain, as it is unlikely that family or friends could afford to travel back with them. While the capture and circulation of images like this can be read now for what consequences they may have had in the formation of something as large as a ‘nation’ or even a ‘technology,’ there were real consequences that these events set into motion at the level of the individual, the family, the community. As Susie Linfield argues, while photography, very importantly, exposes violence and injustice, we also know “how limited and inadequate such exposure is” (33). Her argument is that we can and should embrace this failure: “by offering us a glimpse of a reality we can neither turn away from nor grasp, photographs teach us that we will never master the past. They teach us about human limits and human failures” (98). I choose to remain in this uncertain space: unsure whether even reproducing these images in a shadow archive is anything but a further harm – to these individuals, maybe even to you.
And yet my difficulty first in finding the images, and then in finding answers about their rhetorical uses, has activated another ethical concern: that the exclusionary, eugenic history of North American immigration is simply not being told, and is in fact further vanishing from the available record as time goes on. And this vanishing, in turn, relates to the broader manner in which the colonial past is hidden from the public record. As Stoler argues, this is the result of “affective practices that both elicit and elude recognition of how colonial histories matter and how colonial pasts become muffled and manifest” (122). Not wanting to reproduce difficult, disturbing moments and images is part of the way that we might allow the dominant narratives of colonialism to endure. What does it mean that disability is being erased from history, being made in-visible? And what tools do we have as disability historians and as cultural critics for carefully relocating disability at the center of not just the ‘visible’ record but also history and culture?
We know that Sherman’s photographs were instrumental in the project of immigration restriction, visually fusing emerging eugenic knowledge about race with insinuations of bodily abnormality and difference – disability. These images became incredibly popular between 1907 and 1917, circulated (or “surfacing” or “emerging”) through publications like National Geographic, religious texts, and in the materials of the Immigration Restriction League that were presented to U.S. Congress and that led to an eventual crackdown on immigration in 1924. What is unclear, however, is exactly how Topley and Woodruff’s images were utilized.
Canadian immigration – specifically immigration restriction – was very differently organized and undertaken than American. One key commonality between the nations was the explosion of eugenic rhetoric in the early part of the 20th century. Poring through the correspondence of Canadian immigration officials stationed at Halifax and Pier 21 in the 1910s and 1920s, it is clear that much of the motivation behind deportation was eugenic. It follows, then, that the examples of “immigrant type” photographs in Canada and the U.S., as well as these less well-understood spectacles of rejection, must be understood as evidence and as instruments of eugenics. Furthermore, the technology of photography itself can be understood as developing in these eugenic spaces and practices, though this history of technology has been neglected or left out of the frame.
Canadian eugenic approaches to immigration neither ended at, nor were they ever centrally located at Pier 2 or Pier 21. In the early 20th century, the Canadian government, with the help of the major rail and steamship line, Canadian National, was also promoting immigration into the country, but doing so by traveling outside of the country. As mentioned, Canada was promoting the immigration of desired people from desired countries and constructing a tailored identity for Canada in the process. Canada did so by taking its show on the road and overseas. As one agent wrote in the 1922 Canadian Dept. of Immigration Annual Report, “our agents would be equipped as missionaries of Canada, carrying propaganda to the smallest town and remotest Hamlet” (25).
Canada’s two most highly regarded photographers, Topley and Woodruff, were paid to take photographs of Canada that could be used in “magic lantern slide shows” and lectures that would promote the country to potential immigrants from the US and Western Europe. Many of the photos were of summer landscapes, crops, gigantic apples and tomatoes, men at work in farm fields. The images said: we have great land and lots of work! We have genetically superior crops (and people)! Lecturers, when they delivered the magic lantern shows, addressed negative myths about Canada. For instance, the cold winter was reframed as having “done an enormous good in keeping out the Negro races and those less athletic races of southern Europe” (Cook).
In this way, the lantern slides document the beginning of this ongoing, oppressive, violent relationship between settlers and the First Nations they must be seen to include but control. So we should find it unsurprising that the Topley Studio “immigrant type” photos mentioned above were also part of this promotional push. Preferred ethnic groups were showcased in photos taken in the moments after they had passed successfully through Pier 2 or another immigration station. Carlevaris argues that many of these images “personalized” the preferred ethnic groups landing in Canada and were used as “a defense against a potentially hostile Canadian audience” about exactly who was arriving in Canada, as they were “an incentive to prospective immigrants” who could be shown to others from their country or ethnic group who had emigrated (36). These “personalized” images were a key part, then, of magic lantern shows. But what of the two images of deportees? How might their images have been reproduced and circulated?
My contention is that the inverse of the preference for and success of “personalized” ethnic groups was showcased when the ill and undesirable were pictured in the immigration detention and hospital quarters, and this is where I place the mysterious images of a “deformed idiot, to be deported” and “immigrants to be deported.” I feel relatively safe making this inference simply because the photos were found in albums of images attributed to Woodruff and the Topley studios, all of which were taken during the time in which they had been commissioned to capture their immigration archive – the other images in the albums showcase landscapes, residential schools, “immigrant types,” and the other scenes mentioned above. This availability meant that the specter and spectacle of the disabled body and mind may very well have been projected in these magic lantern shows, just as a normate vision of Canada was protected through these magic projections. Disabled bodies would have been held up as both a warning to those who might immigrate, and as a retroactive and transubstantiated corrective to the Canadian body. They would have been emblems and examples.
From a disability studies perspective, we can certainly understand the image of the “deformed idiot” as connoting the visual archives of criminology and anthropology, the anatomy textbook, or the freak show. But I want to connect these images to more than just a specific set of disability studies analytic techniques. Instead, I want to place the images squarely within the archaeology of photography. The rhetorical power of the Magic Lantern shows needs to be examined. We know that the lantern shows were the chosen media form for traveling immigration agents because they were thought to be classier than cinema shows, which would “draw from the streets a class of person that we are not desirous of” (Smith). Magic Lantern shows were thought to have a deeply felt embodied affect on their audiences, scrambling one’s sense of time and place by jumping across eras and geographies quickly (Heard 24). In their uses for immigration promotion, the shows made “overt and implicit appeals to prospective immigrants” that were “ephemeral and somewhat mysterious,” with “information conveyed literally on beams of light” (Scheinberg and Rombout n.p.).
Carol Williams has also shown how religious missionaries used Magic Lantern slide shows in an effort to “lure and win over [First Nations] converts in relatively isolated villages” in the Pacific Northwest. They employed the Lantern shows “alternatively as magic and as science” in a conscious manipulation (29). In Germany in the late 19th century, such shows were used to show the “newest results of the colonial endeavours in Central Africa’ based on ‘authentic reports’ by the explorers Emin Pasha and Dr Carl Peters, as well as the Imperial Commissioner Major von Wissmann” (148). As John Phillip Short has shown, Magic Lantern shows have a deep colonial history, and the ways that the shows blended and faded from one image to the other, creating a pre-cinematic sequence of imagery, can also be understood to “structure the colonial public sphere” (148). The same can be said for the ways such shows were used in Canada, showing prospective settlers a kind of magical shorthand for their potential colonialism: holding up all that they might consume and claim while also holding up all that might be abjected from this colonial ideal.
The shows provide early evidence of the ways that “histories make geographies,” to borrow from Arjun Appadurai, who suggests that global “flows and networks” have traditionally been based on “models of acculturation, culture contact, and mixture” but have increasingly “brought new materials for the construction of subjectivity” (6). More simply, the slides were circulated through well-established channels based on governmental and industry collaboration, channels that created pipelines for certain types of immigration, while shutting down others. But bodies weren’t just moved and rearranged via these immigration “markets,” they were also shaped through “new” technologies like photography and the lantern show.
Magic lantern shows, in short, had an aesthetic: they were designed to create specific forms of embodied and affective response within a certain group of bodies. It makes sense that they would do so by putting ‘desired’ bodies in visual contact with ‘undesired’ bodies, and this is what Topley and Woodruff’s deportation photos do as well. It is not just the content of the photos that matters; it is how they were framed and delivered. They targeted a specific audience that was itself a specific immigrant population. In this way, once you got the right group to view the photo or the lantern show, the image of disability could then act as a safeguard, a warning, a spectacle.
We wouldn’t have “disability” as we understand it currently without photography, nor would we have the technology of photography as we know and use and see through it, without disability and its rhetorical work alongside racialization. Magic lantern shows, which were already a form of pedagogy and performance, may also have used these images of deportees to ‘train’ foreign and domestic audiences about undesired difference. Everyone who viewed this slide show – or the deportation images in whatever other ways they were reproduced and emerged – could be interpellated with the ability and the imperative to glance at themselves and at others in the manner in which the images and the show had framed difference.
Even more importantly, modern eugenic rhetoric, while not as overt as the sentiment in the 1920s and 1930s, continues to inflect citizenship debates and to shape both disability and race today. As Menzies argues, “while the mentally and cognitively afflicted are no longer singled out for prohibition in Canadian law, the codewords of dependency and risk have become convenient discursive substitutes for [what used to be called] lunacy and feeble-mindedness” (172). It is estimated that 2 million Canadian immigrants currently undergo mental and physical examination each year; approximately 4000 are deported, and this number is “almost certain to include an abundance of people deemed psychiatrically ill” or physically unfit (Menzies 172). . In Canada, the “excessive demands” provision of the current immigration system makes individuals with disabilities inadmissible if they are “expected to be medically or socially expensive and thereby prevents family unification where the overseas relative has a disability” (Mosoff 149). Currently, this policy is explained away as an economic consideration, but “the history and underlying inconsistencies of immigration policy suggest that financial arguments mask a more fundamental stereotype that immigrants with disabilities will not be worthwhile members of Canadian society” (Mosoff 149). A Canadian Council for Refugees report to the UN, written in 2000, “highlights a number of ways in which Canadian immigration policies are discriminatory and racist” including “policies that directly target certain racialized groups, based on profiling, stereotyping, and public annoyance” leading to “continuing signs of xenophobia” (18). The impact of such attribution and typing must be interrogated, and a strong public historical recognition of these conditions would seem essential. Better understanding our restrictive past surely wouldn’t hinder us in interrogating our restrictive present. Currently, this policy is under review by the Federal Liberal government. I don’t know how they have very much to consider: it is an overtly ableist policy an embarrassment to this country and an international aberration.
Finally, for a leader like Trudeau as much as for a leader like Trump, there must be other reasons – political and rhetorical – for constructing immigrants as such latent or overt threats, as inherently disabled or disabling. Those reasons, I would suggest, are eugenic.
Most likely, we can’t know with any authority how the Canadian archival images of immigrants “to be deported” were used. Very likely, we will never know what happened to the young men in the photos, in the infirmary, on the docks. At the very most, we can have what Brophy and Hladki call a “tenuous beholding” of these images, one that wraps the real trauma of rejection for these subjects in our own empathic rejections (264). Perhaps rejection of responsibility for this injustice, perhaps rejection of the ongoing politics that perpetuate such deportations.
What happens, however, when we refuse to leave these gaps, these unknowns, these displacements, in the past? What happens when we move from indexes to cathexis, from the scientific or political purpose of such photos to their emotional impact? What happens when we recognize that even our recirculation of the images, now, offers only a “limited and inadequate” response to their past violence, and reveals just as much about our own “limits and failures” as those of the time (Linfield 33)? In what ways can the history of disability discrimination through immigration practices and processes elicit an embodied response or responsibility?
What does it mean that so little of the history of North American immigration comes to consider immigration along a violent continuum of disablement with colonialism?
I would suggest that the ways that borders have been inscribed upon bodies also tell a larger, unfinished, geographic story. One that extends much further than the “peak immigration era” or the early 20th century “eugenics movement,” and certainly beyond Pier 21 and Ellis Island. Indeed, these inscriptions tell a story that continues today in very real, very violent ways. Margaret Jacobs writes of the “intimacy of borders” to describe how they are “fluid sites of affective and emotional cross-cultural encounters where colonial relations played out on an often daily basis” (165). They still do.
We know that immigration restriction has always needed to create, construct, and invent disability, disabled bodies, and to denigrate racialized others through the use of disability. As restriction increases, so will these forces. But immigration restriction will also disable people, literally. For instance, Kurt Organista reveals how a previous Mexican border fence created drastic death and disablement. A militarized border, and a 14-mile-long steel wall erected as part of “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994 drove many to cross at much more dangerous locations (303). This continued disablement will happen not just on the Southern border of the Unites States, either, but also increasingly in spaces, today – literally, today – like frozen Manitoba. While a border wall likely won’t dissuade much movement, the wall does reveal that borders are mainly ideas. If there is a ten-foot wall, there will be eleven-foot ladders. But Trump and many others know that the wall as an idea is much, much more powerful than it is as a boundary. This border wall, when it is picked up and laid down across real bodies, all across North America, will have a profound impact.
In stark contrast to these past images of immigrants “to be deported,” the primary images of immigration restriction in our current era come in the form of images of people killed by immigrants. Donald Trump used these images as props throughout his presidential campaign, and used them again during a press conference about the signing of executive orders to build a border wall between the U.S and Mexico and to establish an “Office for Victims of Crimes Committed by Removable Aliens” while calling for the publication of a weekly list of these crimes.
These images harness pathetic rhetorical power, but they also powerfully obscure other realities. It is terrible that these people lost their lives. But, in fact, immigrants are much less likely to commit any sort of crime, let alone violent crime, than American or Canadian citizens. A series of studies, and studies of studies, establishes this fact. Regardless, when confronted with this reality, Trump has called reporters naïve or called these “wrong statistics” (access Press). What Trump knows, however, is that the rhetorical construction of immigrants, and in particular Muslims and Mexicans, as criminals will be the lasting impact of any of these orders or acts. Recall that the final “chief success” of eugenicists in the early twentieth century was not necessarily a drastic increase in restriction and deportation focused on specific groups of immigrants, though eugenic rhetoric allowed this to happen. Instead, the chief success was “in popularizing biological arguments” (McLaren 61). And, as Francis Galton wrote in his 1909 Chapters in Eugenics, the first goal of eugenics is simply to get people to understand its rhetoric: “Then let its principles work into the heart of the nation, who will gradually give practical effect to them in ways that we may not wholly foresee” (43). The idea of the criminal nature of Mexicans and of Muslims will be conveyed powerfully through visual rhetoric, like the images Trump uses. The images then work to empower not just the immigration agents and agencies who might have their forces legally expanded, but also the people whose latent xenophobic and racist attitudes have been given justification. The “remote control” over immigration restriction can then almost certainly extend to empower citizens to report immigrants or otherwise to discriminate, stigmatize, and Other.
In these tangled, stacked, and complicated current realities, we find ourselves located frustratingly close to, feeling uncanny resonance with, the historical stories of immigration, racialization, and ableism that have been told throughout this presentation. How is it possible that we are still, one hundred years later, living in a culture that might best be characterized by anthropologists, hundreds more years in the future, as a culture that vilifies disability and disables racial otherness? This said, we can make an effort to challenge the spectacles and interpellations of these borders and these border technologies, and we can imagine the resistance and subversion they might have engendered and might still.
We need to search for new iterations of the coded language of eugenics, the ways that biological difference gets projected upon the faces and bodies of people. We need to examine the ways that industry exerts particular forms of pressure on immigration. We need to interrogate how politicians harness the power of xenophobia, or hide it behind selfies and handshakes, and how immigration is used to pit future North Americans against current ones, current ones against “old stock,” and so on. We need to look at the ways bodies are linked to environments or blamed for environmental change, or how religion gets transformed into ethnicity.
This presentation has traced some of the spaces, technologies, and discourses involved in the work of eugenics. The immigration laws and measures that these rhetorics justify have had a huge impact on the shape of the world. But the eugenic beliefs that they have empowered and that they have told citizens to enforce have had an even more sweeping and dangerous effect. The last time we had an effective ban on immigration, in the early part of the 20th century, mobs murdered thousands of Mexicans in the United States, with 547 cases recorded but many more occurring. The lynchings occurred not only in border states but also far from the border in places like Nebraska and Wyoming (access Jaret; Carrigan & Webb). Just days after Trump’s executive order, a Canadian white supremacist terrorist killed seven Muslim citizens praying at a mosque in Quebec City, Canada. Anti-immigration rhetoric and its connection to violence has been pervasive – one of the most dangerous forces in North American history.
When Donald Trump signed executive orders to ban refugees and immigrants from majority-Muslim countries, or to report on crimes committed by immigrants, these actions fell outside of American and international law. Hopefully, the orders will be successfully challenged or resisted. But it is also clear that the legal frameworks put in place to correct and atone for eugenic immigration laws in the past need to be revisited and reinforced. The attitudes that made bans based on national origins popular in 1924 began in the late 1800s and never went away. Those countries that can counteract the impact of these current orders must do so. In Canada, this should mean overturning the “Safe Third Country Agreement” that prevents refugees fleeing persecution or violence from seeking refuge in Canada if they land in the US first. Not doing so would simply extend the ongoing complicity with which Canada and the US has shaped immigration restriction over more than a century. Individuals – scholars, citizens, industry leaders – putting pressure on the government, at all levels, is what allowed eugenicists to shape the first of these laws. Individuals have avenues – practical and rhetorical – to challenge these restrictions now. After the clampdown on immigration in Canada and the United States in the 1920s, there was a huge growth in Immigrant Aid Societies (access Moya). Current international organizations such as No One Is Illegal, Solidarity Across Borders, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Human Rights First lobby, raise money for legal challenges, and protect individuals. Citizens and citizen groups still have work to do to effect change.
One thing is certain: we can’t continue to tell sanitized and selective stories about immigration and eugenic history. We have been here before. We know that biological and other arguments about immigrants have shaped the continent, often for ill but sometimes for good. As groups and individuals, over time, have been disabled upon arrival, these ideas and attitudes have never left.