talking about the refugee

There is a post is doing the rounds. It’s got lots of very clever observations on refugees. It begins with Arendt and moves through other philosophers before ending with the author’s own feelings on the subject. And this is it. Philosophical argument, or the appeal to the same, amounts to justifying our feelings. If we’re talking about exile we could say that philosophical thought at its worst is little more than the hypercognitivist exile from feeling. We forget what we feel and rely too heavily on what we can think.

The problem is we can think all kinds of things. And of course we can feel all kinds of ways too. This is the reason we split thought and feeling, cognition and affect, reason and passion, and pretend they are of totally different kinds. In the end they are neural and somatic information states. But I am drifting from the theme of the refugee. If I open with talk of another post it isn’t to dismiss it. I am not and could not write that piece. Maybe I shouldn’t write anything. It is a compulsion with me. If I don’t write I don’t know what I think. I want to talk to you. That’s all. Preamble done I can begin to speak. I feel I must apologise for speaking. I am not allowed.

We talk about a refugee crisis and about refugees. We talk about “the refugee”. These are names. They are not bodies. And we need those names so that we can speak of refugees without having to speak of this or that particular refugee. We talk of spectral things: abstractions that aren’t entirely abstract but which lack bodies of their own. We talk about language. Can the exile, the refugee, find a home in poetry or in a language? This is where our conceptual language let’s us down. The refugee is a category and not a person. A category can find a home in poem and comes from language. This isn’t a refugee or an exile at all. This dwelling on language as if that were something primordial or prior constitutes nothing so much as a home-coming for the category of the refugee.

The refugee always belongs to a language and crosses through the gaps and ruptures between languages. The same for the exile who is even more at home with not being at home in the language of the other. The exile is also always there in the place where he is and is not. The problem with supplanting the refugee with the exile is that the exile has already supplanted the refugee. Here I am in this place where I was born but where I am not at home. Here you come from over there which is already an interior at a distance of over here; here you are in the place where you are not at home. We are not at home. We are both exiled in place and time.

I am a communist in this place where we are not at home. I am a nostalgic nationalist where we are not at home. I am a pragmatist where we are not at home. I am a schizophrenic and a journalist. What are you who comes from over there? What are you who comes from over there to this place where I am not at home? You could be the agent who shows me there was never any home to wish for; or, in a terrible everyday tragedy, you might be the over there over here who makes here more there than home.

In one way of thinking we are all lost together. Swirling amid one another we are all exiles. And I like this idea. I like the cosmopolitan idea of being from nowhere. Existentially homeless each of us drifts around the others and forms temporary moments of connection where we understand with a shared affect a shared gesture a shared momentary lapse of judgement and the laughter a disposition or somatic language whose only home is in our ancestral deep historical womb. I like the idea that we are all cosmic flotsam. I think this is true, for what it’s worth. Here we are as fading ephemera together in a place as inhospitable as anywhere.

Except the problem is no one can really tolerate this idea. In the end it is terrifying. We cling to structures that carve out sense. We look for patterns to call meaningful. We identify like with like and unlike with danger and disgust. We get better. We get less vicious and more inclusive. I am evidence enough. What I miss of my home is the way London is awash with hundreds of languages and a constantly mutating slang that I grew up inside. But I was never at home in that slang or in any of those languages. Who does an exile talk to? Even those with the same words as her do not speak the same language. Exile is a purified anomie. It is a false comfort to pretend that being alone with others who are alone constitutes some kind of weird homecoming.

And the real problem, the problem of those who know their home only once some outside has crossed the threshold, the problem of this particular intolerance, the problem of the terrified – and who eventually is invulnerable to terror?- is the problem that comes in white vans and black cabs and talk radios and suits and ties and brown shirts. It is useless to pretend. It is the very problem of exile that causes these bodies to huddle around broken abstractions and raise them even higher up. Pure Bunker Abstractions: nation, family, religion………HOME.

It is the exile who dreams of home. It is the exile who dreams of violence. The exile forms coalitions against death and these may be open coalitions of cosmic flotsam, or the closed cocoons of a fading familiarity.

What community is this? This excluded and contested term. A sub-philosophical quotation: Albert Camus, The Exile and the Kingdom, too obvious perhaps:

Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange alliance as if, having cast off their armour with their clothing, they fraternized every evening, over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue.

A basic humanity. A humanity of dreamers who nightly fall side-by-side to sleep; hallucinaters, vivid day-dreamers, nightmare victims. Those going alone through exhaustion. Those trudging. Those crossing borders as much as the border guards. The flotsam of Westphalia. A humanity of emotion enmeshed in a psychopathic order. What good is a poem without bread? This is a vulgar thought unworthy of philosophy. In Camus’ story we have Daru’s identification with the prisoners. What good is that?

But it is true: the category of the refugee is redundant. The order that it belongs inside is crumbling, collapsing, being hollowed out. At the same time the order it belongs to being fought over, as progressive forces seek to capture it and turn it into a platform for better things. Beneath the category what comes through? An action. A practice. A series of practices. These are bodies surviving. First and foremost they survive by fleeing through exit and by forcing an entry and refusing to leave.

There is in fact no such thing as a refugee and there is no refugee crisis. There are bodies struggling to exist thrown up against the limits of nations and their citizens. It is a naked meeting of those who have fled from there to arrive here with those who have remained here because the others did not intrude. Those who are surviving are those who are fleeing an those who are fleeing are those who are arriving. They arrive without arriving caught in a space between exit and entrance. They are held in a suspended realm. What else can be said? That they are sick and that they are dying.

This is what it comes to: the sick and the dying and those who do not want to be sick or to die. Those who are exposed and those who believe as long as the others are exposed they are not exposed.Between these two groups and their supporters what can there be in terms of a language each could call home? What use is it to speak of exile? It is, as it has always been, the citizen against the barbarian terrified of the fragility of the walls.

To refuse internment at the borders of Europe; to want more for your children than charity; to risk everything by crossing seas and land borders – these are all political acts. The newcomer and the migrant are a constitutive force.

A constitutive force is also a force for dissolution, for the acceleration of the breaking down of stability and familiarity, of the known coordinates. The one who arrives from over there doesn’t leave things standing as they were. For some this is a good thing. It bring a destructive force like a forest fire that gives room for new growth. For others it just burns homes down.

I will never forget being in London back in the early 2000s in a pizzeria seeing a man canvassing in a local by-election. An independent on an anti-immigrant tip this black man gave out fliers in an Iraqi owned and operated pizza shop in an area historically Irish but at that point becoming Somalian. I looked on as the son of migrants while this man whose parents must have been migrants castigated about Muslims to Muslims in a Muslim business. This is the face of today’s “refugee crisis” in which we speak of language as a home, or else else of shared joy, or an open space created by difference. Meagre things. Empty things. Artefacts of survival.

The body that dies on the border between inside and outside is a weapon. A constitutive force or a destructive force but never itself. The refugee is the site of the border between two worlds. The fled and the fleeing. The dying and the not really living. The escaping and the exile. She is a weapon and a site that cleaves the world in two. She dies first as herself as she is reborn as a battlefield the size and shape of a human being.

So there are my not very clever observations to add to the clever ones. I am not a refugee and I do not work with refugees and I have known surprisingly few refugees given where I have lived. There is nothing to legitimate my speaking. There is nothing.

There is no refugee. There are dying bodies. There are dying bodies and there are the ones who look away. And there are those who look on all but powerless who try to survive knowing.

3 responses to “talking about the refugee

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