Agamben essay on Arendt’s “We Refugees” (notes)

Arendt’s “We Refugees”:

Agamben on Arendt’s “We Refugees”:

Agamben’s “essay” appears more to be a collection of notes broken into seven parts.  I have been unable to find any information on why Agamben wrote this essay or who he intended as his audience, but I know he wrote the essay in 1993 “precisely fifty years” after Arendt’s 1943 publication. Since a bio of Agamben (1942 – ) has not yet been provided, I’ll report that he is a current figure in Italian philosophy and political theory.  In Homo Sacer, his best-known work, he draws heavily on and modifies the political ideas of Foucault and Arendt.  His major intellectual influences (besides the previous two) include Heidegger, Hegel, and Walter Benjamin.  (Source:  What follows is a section-by-section summary of Agamben’s essay.  [My questions will appear in brackets.]

Section 1: Agamben acknowledges Arendt’s redefining of “refugee” as someone “who has lost all rights, yet stops wanting to be assimilated at any cost to a new national identity so as to contemplate his condition lucidly.”  He remarks that the problem of refugees is just as urgent today “in the context of the inexorable decline of the nation-state” as when Arendt was writing.  [He views the growing number of refugees as evidence of the decline of the nation-state system.  Have you observed such a decline?  I, myself, had never viewed the system to be in jeopardy, but I don’t read much political theory.]  He proposed reconstructing our political philosophy around the unique figure of the refugee since “until the process of the dissolution of the nation-state and its sovereignty has come to an end, the refugee is the sole category in which it is possible today to perceive the forms and limits of a political community to come.”

Section 2: Agamben describes how refugees first appeared as a mass phenomenon following WWI, and he argues that there isn’t a clear distinction between refugees and stateless persons, both because people can voluntarily give up their statehood to become refugees, and because countries can pass laws to denaturalize/denationalize their own citizens.  According to Agamben, “these laws [which began to appear during WWI] – and the mass statelessness that resulted – mark a decisive turning point in the life of the modern nation-state and its definitive emancipation from the naive notions of ‘people’ and ‘citizen.’”  He also accuses the organizations created to deal with a mass phenomenon of refugees “to be absolutely incapable not only of resolving the problem but also simply of dealing with it adequately.”  [Do you agree that the UN refugee committees and other refugee organizations offer at most only a band-aid to the problems experienced in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, etc.?]

Section 3: Agamben refers to Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism Ch. 9 to explain that dealing with a mass phenomenon of refugees is so difficult because “in the nation-state system, the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man prove to be completely unprotected at the very moment it is no longer possible to characterize them as rights of the citizens of a state.”  [I’m confused about the cause and effect here.  Do nations chose not to protect the ‘inalienable’ rights of refugees because they feel no duty toward noncitizens, or do nations not even recognize refugees as having any rights (inalienable or otherwise) because the rights can only be understood in the context of citizenship?  Furthermore, are nations the only protectors of rights?  I’m sure organizations such as Amnesty International view themselves as protectors of human rights, but Agamben was probably thinking of such organizations when he argued earlier that they don’t really offer much protection (since, as non-nations, they don’t really have any power of enforcement).]  As further proof that “the pure man in himself” has no place in the nation-state system, Agamben observes that “the status of the refugee is always considered a temporary condition that should lead either to naturalization or to repatriation.”  [Really?  I guess even if you’re cynical about whether a group of people will ever cease being refugees, you still probably view it as something to be fixed/alleviated.]

Section 4: Agamben analyzes the real function of the Rights of Man in the modern state.  He introduces the terms ‘zoe’ and ‘bios’ and defines nation-state as “a state that makes nativity or birth (that is, of the bare human life) the foundation of its own sovereignty.”  Since birth and nation cannot be separated (a person is automatically born into a nation), rights are attributed to a citizen and never to a man-in-himself/woman-in-herself.   Agamben considers this attribution of rights only in the context of citizenship to be a “fiction.”  [Is this because he believes there are inalienable human rights that exist prior to and outside the nation-state system?]

Section 5: Agamben explains that nations find refugees disturbing because they break the equations between person and citizen, birth/nativity and nationality – they “throw into crisis the original fiction of sovereignty.”  As such, they are in danger of sovereign retaliation, ultimately through extermination (he refers to the Nazis here): “When the rights of man are no longer the rights of the citizen, then he is truly sacred, in the sense that this term had in archaic Roman law: destined to die.”  [But Agamben wants us to evolve into a nationless system, in which case the rights of man wouldn’t be the rights of the citizen.  Surely we wouldn’t all be destined to die in this situation.  So I assume Agamben’s quote applies only to our current nation-state system.]

Section 6: Agamben observes that today’s growing problem of “illegal immigrants” (or “a permanently resident mass of noncitizens, who neither can be nor want to be naturalized or repatriated” also referred to as “denizens”) is very similar to the problem of refugees in the sense that they are “stateless de facto.”  [I couldn’t help thinking of the movie District 9 here.]  He also observes that some citizens of industrialized nations may be transforming themselves into denizens through abandonment of political participation.  [Does he mean something more than just disillusionment with politics and subsequent decision not to vote?]

Section 7: [Agamben begins by saying that extermination camps are beginning to be reopened in Europe.  Is he referring to the atrocities going on in Bosnia at that time?]  Agamben warns that in order to avoid future genocidal clashes, “nation-states must find the courage to call into question the very principle of the inscription of nativity and the trinity of state/nation/territory which is based on it.”  He suggests solution of exodus and individualism, which he illustrates with two optimistic examples.  First he describes a future Jerusalem in which two political communities (not nations) dwell “in the same region and in exodus one into the other, divided from each other by a series of reciprocal extraterritorialities, in which the guiding concept would no longer be the ius of the citizen, but rather the refugium of the individual.”  Next he describes a future Europe “as an aterritorial or extraterritorial space” where all European residents (former citizens and noncitizens alike) would exist as individuals in exodus.  This would allow the “old concept of people… [to] again find a political sense by decisively opposing the concept of nation.”  Agamben concludes, “It is only in a land where the spaces of states will have been perforated and topologically deformed, and the citizens will have learned to acknowledge the refugee that he himself is, that man’s political survival today is imaginable.”  [Agamben refers to his current Europe as “an impossible ‘Europe of nations’.”  Is this a pointed dig at the European Union which was formally established on 11/1/93?]

[Do you think Agamben’s visions of a nationless, individual exodus system are possible at any point in the future?  Or do humans have too strong a tendency to organize themselves into hierarchical groups?]

[Agamben still allows for ‘cities of the world’ in his utopia.  Wouldn’t there then be citizens of these cities?  How is this any different from the nation-state system?]

[I agree that studying the extremities and outliers of a group is a good way to gain understanding of the group.  What else can the experiences of refugees reveal about the nation-state system?  Are there any pros to balance the cons?]

[Side comment: The male-oriented language really started to grate on me after a while.  Is it possibly an artifact of translation, or has academic writing made significant strides toward gender neutrality only in the last two decades?]


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