Featured Research Project: Minor Migrations

Criticalhabitations is happy to draw your attention to the research project Minor Migrations: Reframing the Discourse around Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Children

From the Children Overboard scandal in Australia, to the global response to the image of Aylan Kurdi’s body, to the policy of family separation at the U.S. / Mexico border, contemporary debates about migration often play out around and on children’s bodies and through ideologies of childhood. Such debates highlight the power of children to mobilise moral sentiments in a context that is largely hostile to the arrival of disenfranchised non-white bodies. Yet whilst narratives and images of vulnerable displaced children elicit strong emotions, their framing often reinforces normative ideals of children and childhood, which in turn detracts from the material realities of child displacement. Such idealized representations seldom offer adequate vehicles for ensuring children’s rights or creating ethical and humane migration regimes more generally.

The interest of various actors – politicians, humanitarians, activists, journalists, migrants themselves – in framing discussion of human mobility around child migrants builds on a long tradition of using images and narratives of children for specific national projects. Central to this tradition is the equation of children with the “universal” ideas of childhood-as-potential, innocence, goodness, vulnerability and helplessness that work as powerful vehicles of community and consensus building. As embodiments of our future, Sharon Stephens (1995) argues, “good” children have been seen as “at risk,” their protection contingent on their role within projects of nation building. At the same time, she claims, “bad” children are seen “as risks,” or threats to “our” sense of community and identity, deserving not rescue but disciplinary interventions. Such simultaneity of images of threatened and threatening, deserving and undeserving children, writes Bhabha (2014), testifies to the ambivalence concerning displaced children in the West.

In the context of migration, these archetypes contribute to ambivalent perceptions and configurations of children who migrate alone as, for example, victims or as threats to national security. And whilst they ensure visibility, humanitarian frameworks that frame children as “at risk” and rely on patrons and experts to plead their cause provide actual children with few opportunities for expressing their own opinions as agents of migration in their own right (Bhabha 2014). Resulting conceptions of the child migrant – and specifically the child refugee, as we seek to show – thus tend to reflect at an extreme the practices of silencing, dehistoricization and depoliticization that Liisa Malkki (1996) identified in Western discourses about refugee populations more broadly.

Recently, overlapping fields of study have come ever more strongly to problematize pervailing discursive practices around both childhood and forced migration. From the side of childhood studies, childhood has emerged as a site of contested social and cultural meanings and political agendas (James and James 2004). With the turn to the “politics of childhood,” the concepts of innocence, vulnerability, lack of agency, and dependency are associated with normative visions of childhood, mobilised in the pursuit of political and ideological agendas (Stephens 1995). Furthermore, a growing body of work critiques the equation of childhood with innocence (Stockton 2009; Faulkner 2011; Ticktin 2016), highlighting how normative ideas about childhood discipline and/or exclude “unchildlike” children (Aitkin 2001; Brown 2011). From migration studies, the “autonomy of migration approach” (see Nyers 2015) draws attention away from modes of state control and expert knowledge to forms of migrant agency, putting the actions and aspirations of migrants themselves at the centre of investigation, including those of children. Similarly, critical refugee studies have re-centred refugee storytelling and communities as vital sources of knowledge and agency while insisting on the importance of reconstructing imperial histories behind roots and routes of dislocation (Espiritu 2006).

In this project on ‘minor migrations’, our “child-centered approach” examines the conjunction of politics, history and migrant children in different national and transnational contexts. We chart the heightened visibility of displaced children and explore how the figure of the migrant child becomes a carrier of political meanings, configuring political debates both within and beyond national spaces. Drawing on the fields of postcolonial and cultural studies, childhood and forced migration studies, we aim to bring new perspectives to the contemporary discussion on child migration. With its attentiveness to power dynamics, our interdisciplinary framework highlights the kinds of imperial histories and practices that undergird child/related politics and policies of migration. Simultaneously we are concerned with creating “spaces of enunciation” (Woolley 2017), in which children’s voices become audible. Focusing on refugees and asylum-seekers, but also on illegalized minors crossing borders for economic reasons, we explore intersections between the politics of age and the politics of movement, between child-protection regimes and national economies, between humanitarian sentiments and human rights, between the politics of childhood and the politics of asylum.

Who We Areposter_crossing_borders_lecture_series_potsdam_uni

“Minor Migrations” is a collaboration between Bard College Berlin and the Department for English and American Studies at the University of Potsdam. Developed by Prof. Kerry Bystrom, Dr. Sunčica Klaas and Dr. Carly McLaughlin, the project brings together international scholars and activists working in the field of child migration.

The project spans a variety of initiatives, such as the international symposium “Shifting Frames: Migrant Children, Politics and History” and the lecture series “Children Crossing Borders.” We are very grateful to the Thyssen Foundation, Bard College and the University of Potsdam for their generous support of the project’s activities. For further information see https://www.uni-potsdam.de/iaa/ and https://berlin.bard.edu.


Works Cited

Aitken, Stuart. “Global Crises of Childhood: Rights, Justice and the Unchildlike Child.” Area 33.2 (2001): 119-127.

Bhabha, Jacqueline. Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Brown, Elizabeth. “The ‘Unchildlike Child’: Making and Marking the Child/Adult Divide in the Juvenile Court.” Children’s Geographies 9.3 (2011): 361–377.

Espiritu, Yên Lê. “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1.1-2 (2006): 410-433.

Faulkner, Joanne. The Importance of Being Innocent: Why We Worry About Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

James, Allison and Adrian James. Constructing Childhood: Theory, Policy and Social Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Malkki, Liisa. “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism and Dehistoricization.” Cultural Anthropology 11.3 (1996): 377-404.

Nyers, Peter. “Migrant Citizenships and Autonomous Mobilities.” Migration, Mobility and Displacement 1.1 (2015): 23-39.

Stephens, Sharon, ed. Children and the Politics of Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Ticktin, Miriam. “Thinking Beyond Humanitarian Borders.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 83.2 (2016): 255–271.

Tyrrell, Naomi.et al. (eds). Transnational Migration and Childhood. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Woolley, Agnes. ‘Narrating the ‘Asylum Story’: Between Literary and Legal Storytelling’, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 19.3 (2017): 376-394.


debate 4: remembering german-australian colonial entanglement

This debate presents some of the findings of a German-Australian working group on the countries’ entangled colonial past.

  1. In Remembering German-Australian Colonial Entanglement Lindsay Barrett, Lars Eckstein, Andrew Hurley and Anja Schwarz comment on German and Australian memory work that occurs on the ‘ruins of colonialism’.
  2. Anja Schwarz thinks about Australian objects in Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde.
  3. Too many Ludwig Leichharts? asks how cultural studies can productively engage with colonial figures like the German-Australian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt.

Want to contribute to criticalhabitations? Here is how!

Remembering German-Australian Colonial Entanglement

The role of German actors in European colonialisms, especially before the foundation of the German nation state in 1871 and Germany’s entry into imperialism proper with the so-called protectorates of 1884/85, is a contested one. Different academic camps have interpreted the peculiar German case very differently. Opposing positions were flagged in the late 1990s and still hold. Notably, the literary scholar Susanne Zantop (1997) compellingly argued that longer standing German ‘colonial fantasies’ were not only instrumental in paving the way for later German imperialism but analogous to Hannah Arendt’s earlier argument that they were also constitutive for Germany’s fascist futures in the twentieth century. Although the continuity argument about the links between the Holocaust and antecedent genocidal practices during the Herero uprising in South West Africa (from Waterberg to Auschwitz, so to speak), and the implications of making the link have been debated, subsequent historians, including George Steinmetz (2007), have shown how colonial fantasies were indeed operative, although they met with other determining factors, such as local conditions and the habitus of German colonial actors, when they were put into practice in the German colonies.  By contrast, critics like Russell Berman (1998), partly drawing on Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt, but also deliberately distancing himself from universalising arguments about the European colonial project, proposed that early German investment in other states’ colonialism could be, and very often was, a disinterested affair driven by a passion for science and the extension of knowledge rather than conquest. Continue reading

Too many Ludwig Leichhardts?

Leichhardt-Zeichnung_von_MannThe explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (*1813 in Trebatsch – †1848? in Central Australia) is a colonial figure shared by Germany and Australia alike. After a successful expedition together with a party of Indigenous and non-Indigenous men, travelling north – east from Moreton Bay (Brisbane) to Port Essington in 1844 and 1845 –  Leichhardt was hailed as hero in both his native Prussia and in the Australian colonies. His and his party’s subsequent disappearance in the Australian interior on a further expedition in 1848 bound for the west coast remains a mystery, and together with his controversial character and the mixed nature of his legacies, continues to fascinate, engage or trouble Australians, Germans and others.

Today Leichhardt is remembered as a scientific hero, a cultural enquirer, and as an agent of colonial expansion. He has been portrayed through fiction and visual art, sung about, and cudgelled by opinion. He has been claimed or vilified by the Australian colonies, the British Empire and Prussia, by National Socialism and the East German state, as well as by contemporary Germany and Australia. Still missing, he is found in so many places.

In the light of important contemporary reassessments of Germany’s colonial past, how can cultural studies adequately engage with such a legacy? Given how little we can ever know about Leichhardt’s fate, what is the potential, in this context, of a fragmented yet composite picture of the explorer? A little over 200 years after his birth and exactly 170 years after departing on the journey from which he never returned, researchers, cultural producers and family members within and beyond the Academy were asked to experiment with the memory of this ambiguous colonial actor. They were invited to share a Leichhardt yarn and to contribute to the ongoing renegotiations of meaning attached to him as a dynamic figure enmeshed in the forces of memory.


In ‘Failure: The Curse of Leichhardt’, Anna Haebich introduces the reader to the Australian politician Bill Grayden, who set out on an expedition to find Leichhardt and returned as a modern-day prophet with a new cause: to “help” the Ngaanyatjarra desert people.

In ‘Dreaming Leichhardt: Wim Wenders at the End of the World’, Gail Jones analyses how Wim Wenders is cinema-seancing Leichhardt in his movie “Until the End of the World” (1991).

Lindsay Barret describes a traumatic experience he had, living in the inner-Sydney suburb of Leichhardt. He explains how the suburb was named after Leichhardt and how he and Leichhardt actually share a few things in common, especially the urge to record, observe and make traces.

Gerrit Haas’s, ‘How to Write About Leichhardt? _Towards a Ficto/critical Manifesto‘, is a declaration on how to write about Leichhardt in a ficto/critical way and why Leichhardt is a subject for ficto-critical writing. His essay ‘How to Write Like … Hard? – Manifestly Untoward: The Ficto/critical –’, is the performance of ficto-critical writing on Leichhardt.

In ‘Schoolbook Leichhardts: Discovering Ludwig Leichhardt in Historical Narratives for Children‘, Stefanie Land-Hilbert reflects on her discoveries on Leichhardt in Australian and German textbooks.

Anja Schwarz reflects on a puzzling comment by Irrwanyere elder Bingey Lowe in ‘Too many Ludwig Leichhardts‘.

These and many other Leichhardt stories can be accessed here.

Natural History’s Colonial Entanglements: Australian Objects in Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde

IMG_1269Recent years have seen a growing interest among museum practitioners, as well as the greater German public, in the history of objects acquired in colonial contexts. This turn to colonial objects forms part of a broader shift in the status accorded to colonialism in Germany’s memory culture. Long neglected or wilfully ignored, Germany has for a long time been reluctant to accept the responsibilities arising from the nation’s colonial past.

Objects and specimens collected in the colonial era have a particular role to play in this process, as demonstrated, for instance, by the heated discussions around the current reassessment and relocation of some of Berlin’s ethnological and ethnographic collections, which are to be housed, as of 2019, in the Humboldt Forum in Mitte. In this context, questions are being asked about the legal context of the objects’ acquisition and their adequate management by museum staff and researchers. How are such items to be cared for and stored? How, if at all, should they be made accessible to the public, and possibly displayed? Should they be returned? And there is a slowly growing understanding of the kind of complicated ongoing connections and obligations that these objects might establish between European collecting institutions and Indigenous communities today.

It might seem slightly eccentric to raise the issue of natural history collections within the context of these debates about the legacy of German colonialism and the attendant politics of collection, display and repatriation. Nevertheless, I want to situate natural history objects within such a framework for two reasons that foreground the entanglements of humans and non-human objects in our social histories. Continue reading

Waste Matters: Workshop at University of Potsdam, July 8th 2016

Contemporary cities generate waste of various kinds on a scale that is often difficult to imagine and comprehend. Yet cities are also key sites for innovative practices of reuse, recycling and re-purposing. Through such cultures of renewal, waste products not only acquire a new value and function, but they also become entangled in new social relations, material practices and urban forms. Although waste is generally understood as the mundane, worthless, redundant and discarded afterwards of how we live our lives, this project takes as a starting point the fact that we spend a good amount of time in our ‘ordinary’ lives managing waste, and that the problem of how we manage waste is at the heart of environmental crisis and the development of more sustainable futures. Building on research in waste studies, and premised on the analytic importance of exploring that which is rejected, this project recognizes waste as a dynamic category that needs to be understood in relation to the urban contexts in which it is most commonly found and transformed, and the relationships in which it is embedded.

The workshop brings together scholars from Australia and Germany within the fields of cultural and urban studies to investigate the diverse cultural phenomenon that is waste, the urban infrastructures that were designed to eliminate waste in the name of hygiene and technical efficiency but which are now in crisis, and the range of amateur and DIY urbanisms that are retooling waste in new and innovative ways.

For more information, please contact Anja Schwarz.

Minor Culture: Melbourne, 1st – 3rd December 2015

Cultural Studies Association of Australasia

Minor Culture creates a space for inter-disciplinary dialogues around the study of place, identity and marginality, and addresses research on everyday cultural productions and media texts, cultural policy and discourses of sustainability, digital life and creative industries, and public cultures in the Asia-Pacific region. The conference also invites responses to the following questions:
  • How are minor cultures inhabited? When do minor cultures become uninhabitable?
  • Is the concept of minority still useful in explaining contemporary forms of cultural marginality?
  • How do categories such as indigeneity and Aboriginality, gender and sexuality, class, disability, race and citizenship produce minoritising effects? How might these categories change when mobilised through governmental discourses, newsmedia, and everyday usage?
  • Who narrates experiences of minoritisation? For whom are these narratives produced? How is minoritarianism articulated through film, music, television, literature, performance, and digital cultures?
  • In what ways do practices of government and cultural policy shape relationships between local, national and transnational cultures? To what extent are legal regulations implicated in the formation of minoritarian practices?
  • How do new minor or major cultural formations emerge? Through which means do political practices resist or intervene in these formations?
  • Do minor cultures require novel theoretical tools or research methodologies? What do “experimental” approaches to cultural research look like? What alternative kinds of knowledge could such approaches make available?
  • Is minority a humanist concept? What place could “majority” and “minority” have within post-anthropocentric thinking?
  • And when do minor cultures cease to be minor?

Find more information here.

Postcolonial Piracy: Media Distribution and Cultural Production in the Global South

Across the global South, new media technologies have brought about new forms of cultural production, distribution and reception. The spread of cassette recorders in the 1970s; the introduction of analogue and digital video formats in the 80s and 90s; the pervasive availability of recycled computer hardware; the global dissemination of the internet and mobile phones in the new millennium: all these have revolutionised the access of previously marginalised populations to the cultural flows of global modernity.Postcolonial Piracy_cover page

Yet this access also engenders a pirate occupation of the modern: it ducks and deranges the globalised designs of property, capitalism and personhood set by the North. Positioning itself against Eurocentric critiques by corporate lobbies, libertarian readings or classical Marxist interventions, this volume offers a profound postcolonial revaluation of the social, epistemic and aesthetic workings of piracy. It projects how postcolonial piracy persistently negotiates different trajectories of property and self at the crossroads of the global and the local.

Postcolonial Piracy: Media Distribution and Cultural Production in the Global South, edited by Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz. London: Bloomsbury Academic 2014.

The book is available for download.

Indigenous Cultural Studies

History, Power, Text: Cultural Studies and Indigenous Studies is a collection of essays on Indigenous themes published between 1996 and 2013 in the Australian journal known first as UTS Review and now as Cultural Studies Review. From the introduction:
“[T]his collection has been conceived and assembled as an exercise in institution building beyond ‘the Institution’. We call this institution, tentatively, ‘Indigenous cultural studies’ and see it as a disciplinary space that is built iteratively through events, single articles and books. We do not seek to prescribe or delimit this project but rather to give it density and energise those working in the overlapping fields represented here.
Indigenous cultural studies is our name for the intersection of cultural studies and Indigenous studies, a crossing often expressed as, but certainly not limited to, cultural studies with Indigenous topics, Indigenous scholars doing cultural studies or Indigenous studies of culture and everyday life. Just as John Hartley describes cultural studies as ‘a crossroads or bazaar for the exchange of ideas from many directions’, Indigenous cultural studies is the exchange—in the sense of both a transactional site and a transactional act—that occurs at the meeting point of these diverse undertakings.
It is the site where the scholars republished here might form and defend inquiries, and modes of inquiry, and where their‘discipline’ is not primarily grounded in method or topic, but in their mutual textual presence. This collection seeks to (re) build this particular bazaar by identifying the conditions and fact of its existence and by revisiting some of the ideas and directions that have shaped the meeting of cultural studies and Indigenous studies.” (Eve Vincent, Timothy Neale & Crystal McKinnon, 2014, 11-12).
 The volume is published by UTS ePress and can be downloaded here.

Workshop: African Cultural Studies, 22-23 January 2015, University of Potsdam / Werkstatt der Kulturen Berlin

Across the African continent, new forms of cultural enquiry are emerging that operate either in parallel or in opposition to Anglo-American and European traditions of cultural studies. Devoted to a critique of the continuing dominance in Africa of the European academic legacy, these African approaches to cultural studies draw on local knowledge traditions and seek to develop a genuinely decolonised approach to thinking culture and understanding the relationship between the local and the global, between tradition and modernity.

Within our European research and teaching contexts, the impulses from African cultural studies make necessary a critical reappraisal of concepts such as indigeneity and the place-bound nature of knowledges that sometimes sit uneasily within our own ways of doing cultural studies. How does one adequately address and make productive the tensions that exist between a research agenda that is presumably shared by all cultural studies scholars alike and the simultaneous insistence on diverse, local traditions?

Tursday, 22nd January, 10 a.m. – 12 noon: African Cultural Studies Master Class University of Potsdam, Campus Am Neuen Palais, house 8, room 75 (“Professorenmensa”)

Join us for a lively discussion during a morning master class with Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Adam Haupt, two leading cultural studies scholars from South Africa.

Francis B. Nyamnjoh is Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town
Adam Haupt is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

To sign up for the workshop, please contact anja.schwarz@uni-potsdam.de
Preparatory readings will be made available prior to the meeting.

Friday, 23rd January, 3-6 p.m.: Doing African Cultural Studies, Werkstatt der Kulturen Berlin

Bringing together African scholars from the field of cultural studies with Berlin-based colleagues, the workshop aims to generate a dialogue between their diverse practices of thinking culture.

Francis B. Nyamnjoh, Professor of Anthropology, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town
Adam Haupt, Associate Professor of Media Studies, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

Elahe Haschemi Yekani, Junior Professor of English Literature, University of Flensburg
James Odhiambo Ogone, Doctoral Student in the Department of English, University of Potsdam
Regina Römhild, Professor of European Ethnology, Humboldt University, Berlin
Anja Schwarz, Junior Professor of Cultural Studies, Univeristy of Potsdam

Book Launch

The workshop is followed by the launch of Postcolonial Piracy: Media Distribution and Cultural Production in the Global South (eds Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz). Please join us for a round of celebratory drinks and snacks.