March 16, 2011

Agamben defines the nation-state as “a state that makes nativity or birth…the foundation of its own sovereignty”.  He believes this is founded on a fallacy, as although implied by the sovereign, the birth of a person is not binding to its birth place. When an individual leaves its birthplace, this inherent nationality cannot be left behind, but cannot be taken with them. Refugees create a rupture in the nation-state “by breaking the identity between the human and the citizen and that between nativity and nationality”, a rupture which sovereignty cannot reconcile. What then happens to this “pure human”? Agamben believes, similarly to Arendt, that with these refugee “vanguards” lies the future.

The nation-state believes that a refugee is only temporarily a refugee, that their status “ought to lead either to naturalization or to repatriation”. It is this struggle that Hannah Arendt describes in We Refugees, and the subsequent loss of personal identity when assimilation is “optimistically” sought. The willingness to adapt to a new environment in the hopes it is easier to ‘fit-in’ than ‘stand-out’ means that the refugee is merely replacing one nation-state’s control over the self with that of a new nation-state. For Arendt patriotism is not a matter of practise and the act of assimilation does not necessarily result in healing this rupture between self-identity and place. Instead “our [refugee’s] identities are changed so quickly that nobody can find out who we [they] actually are”.

When the nation-state decides that the individual is no longer a citizen then they are able to no longer treat them as a citizen – the rights which were before seen as ‘sacred’ and inherent from birth are no longer protected. This applies equally in the refugee’s birth nation as in their new ‘host’ nation. This means that an individual can change geography but not necessarily treatment or ‘status’. Unless of course the nation-state they are entering will recognise the individual as a new citizen whilst acknowledging the fact they were born elsewhere.

Agamben argues for a nation-state to no longer be defined as a collection of ‘citizens’ with inherent rights but as a state of “refuge of the singular”. The rise of the refugee as a dominant status of humanity would suggest that this arrangement could work however does not seem to work unless everyone is a refugee. If “the status of European would then mean the being-in-exodus of the citizen” it seems to suggest a loss of the local within self-identity. In Agamben’s scenario where European space is defined by a greater distinction between birth and nation the importance of the local place to humanity appears to be undermined.

– Tim Brooks


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