Diagonals of Freedom

This post is part of a symposium on Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

It is always a special act of scholarly good faith to take time to read, respond, and write about one another’s work; I thank my colleagues for their generous care, attention, and criticism, and the editors of Humanity for creating this space for dialogue and future thinking. Two themes emerge from these responses to Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees, one methodological, the other political. Both are timely. First, the relationship between literature and history, particularly in terms of thinking about the histories of human rights and humanitarianism. Secondly, as raised by my friend Anna Bernard, the relationship between the placeless condition that troubled the thinking and writing of the mainly European writers I discuss in my book, and larger questions of citizenship, sovereignty, and self-determination that were being worked through in anti-colonial thinking and liberation struggles in the later post-war period. I welcome the opportunity to respond to these issues here not least because, as recent scholarship has again made clear, doing justice to the histories of both decolonization and statelessness also requires new theoretical reckonings with the ways we approach literature, history, and politics on and across their disciplinary frontiers.

The question of history and literature is raised by Brian Goodman’s deft introduction of Jorge Luis Borges’ short essay on Kafka’s precursors in his piece. “Each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, just as it will modify the future,” Borges concludes his discussion of writers who came before Kafka but who now asked to be read, and so misread, through him. Generally speaking, history is not happy with this proposition. Goodman reminds us that Samuel Moyn opened The Last Utopia (2010) with the same Borges quote, specifically to reject the kind of happy human rights story that began with horror in the mid-century and acceded to world moral guardianship in the late “American” twentieth-century. What gets distorted in this retrofit telling is the maintenance of global inequalities, the mass displacements, massacres, and strategic impoverishments that went with the West’s efforts to keep gaining whilst moralizing in the post-war period.

Goodman wonders whether the literary history I practise in my book might point in the other direction: “Perhaps the literary history of human rights should be conceived as a Borgesian search for precursors?” I think that this is probably right and is also a particularly helpful suggestion if we want to get at some of the different histories of trans and post-national counter-politics that also emerged in the twentieth century. Certainly, my starting point in the book was to engage with writing that refused to cover up or “banalize” (to use Edward Said’s word) the violence of displacement and de-citizenship.[1] Most of the writers I focus on were impatient with the platitudes of an emerging mid-century human rights sensibility. They—especially Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil—dwelt on statelessness not simply because it was one more atrocity in atrocious times but precisely because it could not be redeemed within the terms of the European nation-state and its colonial legacies.

As Janice Ho correctly observes in her response, this approach entails a pretty sustained and occasionally grumpy scepticism towards literary humanitarianism on my part. Yet, like Didier Fassin, I do not (as Ho seems to imply?) see all humanitarianism as necessarily opposed to politics. The writers that interest me do so because they understood so well how history conditions the capacity to respond to suffering. They are political-moralists of the humanitarian imagination not just because they find creative ways of responding to pain and trauma, but because of their untimely awareness of the limits of their humanism in a world in which a radical placelessness had become the new norm. For Weil, Samuel Beckett, and Arendt literary form was a way of expressing that historical dilemma. When Beckett wrote in 1946 that the rediscovered post-war concern with “humanity” was about as welcome as a “dum-dum bullet,” I believe we should take this well-aimed critique of political and moral hypocrisy at its critical word.[2] As Adorno pithily described Endgame in a phrase that might as easily describe early twenty-first century humanitarian reason, “history swallows up existentialism.”[3]

In the context of the current criminalization and demonization of humanitarian activism in Europe and the US—where once again the refugee and/or migrant is determinedly and aggressively cast as a political limit point—retrieving a lost heritage of an anti-nationalist political humanitarianism would seem like a good idea. The question is how? The historical and political dilemma here is succinctly set out in Gary Wilder’s indispensable study of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (2015): “We do not have a robust critical language with which to speak postnational democracy, translocal solidarity, and cosmopolitan politics in ways that have not been instrumentalized by human rights, humanitarianism, and liberal internationalism,” he writes.[4] Historiography is rightly suspicious of modifications of the past that make butchery look like precedents for later claims to moral (read economic) superiority, but something else is being proposed in Wilder’s book, as it is in the recent work of Paul Gilroy and Priyamvada Gopal and other mid-century scholars: the reaching back to a historical experience in order to grasp at an anti-colonial tradition of thinking that might then be realized—or at least imagined—as a politics for today.

Starting in 1945, Césaire and Senghor developed ways of advocating “self-determination without state sovereignty.” Imagining decolonization, like imagining statelessness for some of my writers, entailed both pushing against the past and anticipating future freedoms. In both cases, the poetics of this politics was a means of conceiving the possibilities harboured within the in-between of time and space that open up in historical crises. Arendt, reading Kafka again in the 1960s, similarly found an x-ray of political freedom in the “small non-time-space at the very heart of time” disclosed by one of his parables from the 1920s. A man struggles to hold off the crushing weight of the past whilst at the same time battling with the future. The way out of this dilemma, for Arendt, is to be found neither with “Man” or “thought,” but with the diagonal path thinking can take across the two opposing directions, a “parallelogram of forces,” between past and future. Kafka’s story—his fiction—opens up the “odd in-between period(s) which sometimes insert…themselves into historical time” that are otherwise often lost to political history. “Our inheritance was left to us by no testament”: Arendt was fond of quoting René Char’s (Beckett’s wartime neighbour in Roussillon) aphorism on how the sudden collapse of France produced the “treasure’”—at least for Char and his comrades in the resistance—of living a political life “where freedom could appear.”[5]

Arendt and Char are also important to Wilder’s book as they help identify a moment in the mid-century when imagining forms of self-determination free from the legacies of the colonial European nation-state was a significant political and, occasionally as importantly, literary project. “In this view” Wilder notes in a discussion of the debates in the first issue of Tropiques, “criticism identifies potentialities within inherited forms and enacts future possibilities by inventing novel forms.”[6] In this sense, Anna Bernard is absolutely right to argue that in the intellectual and literary history of statelessness I begin to tell in my book must engage with the politics and poetics of decolonialisation. When it comes to imagining a moment when political citizenships might not require the violent racialized scapegoating of refugees and other so-called “non-citizens,” in some respects these projects were already joined at the hip in the 1940s. But I would push back a little at the suggestion that postcolonial state formation was by any means a straightforward alternative to mid-century critiques of nationalist sovereignty, not because these struggles were not world-making, but because they were (and are) often also forms of ongoing resistance to attempts to keep colonial models of national sovereignty and self-determination—and so Western power—in play.

Again, the point that we need to rediscover the precursors for alternative histories to human rights, humanitarianism, and liberal internationalism is pertinent. “The acquisition of sovereignty was an extraordinarily significant event;” Antony Anghie has dryly observed, “and yet various limitations and disadvantages appeared to be somehow peculiarly connected with that sovereignty.”[7] Sovereignty has always worked with the paradox that in order to get some freedom you need to give some up. Post-colonial sovereignty also mandated—and “peculiarly” is just the right word here—that you also had to give up something that you never had for the sake of something that the powers of the world were in practise reluctant to share with you in the first place. Sometimes political futures can get blocked not only for want of national sovereignty, but by being offered deeply compromised versions of it too.

As Joseph Massad argued recently in the pages of this journal in his essay “Against Self-Determination”: “The major achievement of nationalism, in its colonial and anticolonial guise…was not only the creation of the national and the foreigner but more importantly its elimination of any space outside the binary; no one in the postnationalist worlds could exist as neither a national nor a foreigner.” I would add that the forever refugee will stay forever so long as citizenship is hamstrung by nineteenth and twentieth-century models of colonial nationalism.

Few people understand the price of nationalism quite so well as refugees, migrants, the stateless—the non-citizens and foreigners against whom nationals are defined. As Graham MacPhee usefully elaborates in his response, part of what I was trying to do in Placeless People was to ask what the mid-twentieth century looked like from the perspective of those living on the other side(s) of a political systems made up of nation states. The book is not an argument against self-determination, but it is an endorsement of the point that the elimination of the space outside of the binaries of citizens and others, nationals and foreigners had and continues to have dire and violent consequences, not just for refugees and migrants, but for all those fighting for the freedom to live their political lives on their own terms.

One lost treasure we might do well to claim as a precursor today, then, is the politics and poetics of resistance to nationalism that began with the convergence between mass displacement and anti-colonialism in the mid-century. These “non-perspectival perspectives” to borrow Simone Weil’s vocabulary, share an ambition to think about political life from the historical points at which it can seem so out of reach. At the very least, such a Borgesian scooting up and down the diagonals of freedom is necessarily going to be considerably more agonistic, messy, and uncomfortably tangled, but thereby perhaps more productive, than the story that has human rights getting better and better until it finally exhausts itself correcting anomalies and missteps such as torture, mass incarceration, refugee, detention, and concentration camps.

Just five years after Bandung in “What is Freedom?” Arendt rehearsed what she believed to be the dead-ends of sovereignty in terms that would have struck many at the conference as, at best, careless: “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce,” she declared.[8] As MacPhee reminds us, however, that critique was flipside of her endeavour to make political freedom more real than could be achieved within the moribund historical terms of late colonial nationalist sovereignty: “Political concepts are based on plurality, diversity, and limitation,” she wrote in her 1957 essay on Karl Jaspers, and “its laws are the positively established fences which hedge in, protect, and limit the space in which freedom is not a concept, but a living, political reality.” That said, it remains the case that Arendt chose not to make the connection with anti-colonial struggles to make freedom a living political reality and that, just ten years later, would sweepingly—many would say carelessly—reject the politics of Third World solidarity.[9] Some “positively established fences” at mid-century, it seems, were higher than others. Like I said, this is messy, not happy, history.

“What is Freedom?” is a response to Arendt’s earlier, now classic, essay “We Refugees” (1943) and its evocative closing suggestion that refugee resistance begins with understanding just how comprehensively the exclusiveness of an out-of-control nationalism had wrecked Europe. If a politics of plurality is to have a future, we might read Arendt as replying to herself nearly twenty years later, it must break with the false promises of nationalist sovereignty. The question that remains hanging as urgently today as it did in the twentieth-century is how that “we” of “we refugees” living on the outside might help constitute any future for a “we” of “we the people” in a politics of plurality and diversity. Placeless People, Anna Bernard concludes, “demands not only a response to the scandal of statelessness, but a wholesale rethinking of how we got here, how this ‘we’ is and could be constituted, and how we understand the role of literature and criticism in prompting the kind of political action that is still so urgently needed.” I could not have put it better myself.


[1] Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (London: Granta, 2001), 179.

[2] Samuel Beckett, “La peinture des van Velde ou le Monde et le Pantalon,” in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn (London: John Calder, 1983), 13.

[3] Theodor Adorno, “Trying to Understand Endgame” (1961), in Notes to Literature, Volume 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 244.

[4] Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), xiii.

[5] Hannah Arendt, “Preface: The Gap between Past and Future,” (1961) in Between Past and Future (London: Penguin, 1993), 4–12.

[6] Gary Wilder, 28–29.

[7] Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 2.

[8] Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?,” in Between Past and Future, 164–65.

[9] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (London: Harvest, 1970), 21

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About Lyndsey Stonebridge

Lyndsey Stonebridge is Interdisciplinary Professor of Humanities and Human Rights at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her recent books include Placeless People: Rights, Writing, and Refugees (OUP, 2018), The Judicial Imagination: Writing after Nuremberg (Edinburgh University Press, 2011), winner of the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize. Her other books include The Destructive Element: British Psychoanalysis and Modernism (1998), Reading Melanie Klein (with John Phillips, 1998), The Writing of Anxiety: Imagining Wartime in Mid-Century British Culture (2007), and British Fiction after Modernism: The Novel at Mid-Century (with Marina MacKay, 2007). She is currently completing a short book on human rights and literature, Writing and Righting (OUP, 2020), and collaborating on a large project with refugee and host communities in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, Refugee Hosts. A regular media commentator, she has written for The New Statesman, Prospect and The New Humanist.

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