The Citizenship Question, or, A Hundred and a Piece, a Leaky Citizenship Form


People shoplift citizenship like it’s a mink stole rather than a spiked choker, a freedom from a failed idea or a drive toward the shiny brand whose searing pain on application somehow numbs a history. It’s a cash cow whose gift shops sell teratomas of swag, flag, statue, monument, memento. Meanwhile the Dream’s lenticular lens morphs tableaux of racial capitalism into a white-collar paper doll unfurling. Meanwhile murals of the huddled masses freeze in anthologies. Meanwhile the refugee is being trained at the border like trans people are in the doctor’s office, to produce a story that’s an insurance ticket to assuming a happier body. Wrapped in foil like a baked potato to stay warm although it’s hot, the aspirational mass gets coached to wear the hastily made dentures of a new injury grammar, and as the law is a foreign tongue, eloquence imitates being deserving. Due process is an arbitrary template. What is structural vulnerability? What do we call it when it’s gangs and husbands? States and sociopaths aspire to pure force and call it defense.

In Texas the sociopaths run the government. How did that happen? Investigative journalists sniff its rind in redistricting, voter fraud, talk-radio, border sealers, heads resonating nightmares of gender-neutral bathrooms or losing their genetically modified food as if that’s a freedom. Mad little worlds fight back against liberalism’s judgment; it’s all inflammation, everything pushes the rage restart button. Now privatized prison work is the main job in Latinx south Texas. Asylum-seekers know to turn themselves in at the border; they carry an address of someone they know so that they might be released to await trial. There are more ICE raids in Austin than anywhere else, because Texas hates Austin with a hard heart and a mind that never forgets. Dallas killed Kennedy. 

All over state failure sparks citizen whiplash. It’s smoky dark and the targets fight back with rocks, bows, and arrows against water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and guns. Liberal citizenship was supposed to be soothing, a blankie of belonging. It promised a thundershirt of a progress arc, a map moving toward a timespace where all the suffering was necessary, just life, and arbitrary shit happens. It was supposed to be a right, not something earned, allowing strangers to feel a tie toward each other made of matter other than an electric fence. Now people commit to suicide by cop—writing wills and final notes before they take to the streets. They’re writers refusing to be bribed by concessions because they know it’s like saying I’m sorry after a fight when the awful structure continues.

And El Paso is a place. After the shooting, a sad, sober gathering took it like a compression blanket. There’s the long-standing real of daily border crossings to work, protests, comedy, characters, histories, water problems. There are the teenagers in the tunnels below the border, sniffing glue and writing poetry from another planet. 


A listicle for citizenship:

It’s a racket.

It’s a bad idea.

It was a better idea than many other bad ideas.

It offers mattering.

It advises patience.

It’s a rug. You stand on it, wipe your feet on it.

It’s arbitrary when it ignores you. But it’s not arbitrary

when it abandons you.

Liberalism, the drama of decision.

Settler colonialism, the drama of occupation, dispossession, and 

annihilation on a loop of revival and snuffing out.

Racial capitalism, the drama of targeted value abstraction.

The gendered division of affective labor, the high tower of education,

pretending no alienation.

A how-to guide for citizenship:

It’s a machine—arcane, folded in documents and surges no one understands.

An immigrant infant sitting on a parent’s lap has to be interviewed—Do you have a job? What color are your eyes? A parent has to write a story of birth facts around the tiny white edges of the baby’s 2×2 photo. 

If you get a naturalization certificate you are told to never lose it and never send it to another government agency. Then, to get a passport, because that’s the only real way to prove you’re a citizen, the first thing you have to do is surrender the certificate of naturalization; copies are unacceptable. 

There’s a lot of careful face-watching, mouth-watching, lip-licking, toothy smiles, nodding, all ears. A desperate attunement that waits to see.

You remember the pictures of the puffed-up vigilantes practicing a hip swing and a stony stare.

You learn to handle whiteness confirmed on a Halloween porch in a split-second bitch about Mexican teenagers who come late in hordes to drag all the candy out of the bowl into their hoodies. 


Lauren Berlant teaches English at the University of Chicago. They have worked on the formal and affective dynamics of citizenship throughout their career, most recently in Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011) and, with Kathleen Stewart, a book of autopoetic critical theory, The Hundreds (Duke University Press, 2019).

Kathleen Stewart is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin. Her books include A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America (Princeton University Press, 1996); Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007); The Hundreds (Duke University Press, 2019), co-authored with Lauren Berlant; and currently, “Worlding.” She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities; the School of American Research; the Institute for the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.