Bernard on Stonebridge’s Placeless People

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

Placeless People cements Lyndsey Stonebridge’s position as one of the most committed and perceptive chroniclers of the Euro-U.S. intellectual milieu of the mid-twentieth century. Like her brilliant previous book, The Judicial Imagination: Writing After Nuremburg, Placeless People returns to this historical juncture to recover critiques of humanitarian thinking that were articulated at the time of human rights law’s formalization. Stonebridge describes this book as a sequel to the last one (vii), and their shared preoccupations and methodological similarities are evident. Both focus on a “generation” (2) of loosely connected writers working in the 1940s and 1950s, with Hannah Arendt at its center. Each chapter addresses a single writer (as in the last book, Arendt gets two chapters), offering an overview of their thought across a selection of works and anchoring the analysis in biographical vignettes and absorbing close readings. Both emphasize their subjects’ efforts to use literature, broadly defined, to argue for political instead of empathetic responses to suffering (or brutality, as Stonebridge more pointedly puts it on page 168), at a time when empathy had not yet become the dominant mode of response to injustice. This makes these writers’ efforts to imagine alternatives especially valuable now, when it has become harder to think beyond the vocabulary and assumptions of humanitarian sentiment.

The new contribution that Placeless People makes, apart from its attention to a different selection of writers (this time not all women, and including more canonical figures like George Orwell and Samuel Beckett), is that it focuses on their responses to the problem of statelessness rather than post-genocide justice, with a more sustained emphasis on the contemporary relevance of their work. These writers understood, Stonebridge argues, that humanitarian empathy is not just an inadequate response to mass displacement, but also “structural to [its] historical and political circumstance.” This is because to see refugees through the lens of the humanitarian imagination is to see them as “simply human,” and thus as “strange to those for whom national citizenship is a given,” placing the refugee outside the bounds of a shared political community (13). The meaning of the term “political” is initially left open, defined mainly as the opposite of “humanitarian.” Over the course of the book, however, it comes to designate an attention to the material and systemic conditions of statelessness. This outlook addresses not only “the symmetries between refugee histories, but [between] their political causes,” above all the problem of the unequal distribution of the rights reserved for citizens (161). Most of these writers offer critiques of this predicament rather than explicit counter-proposals, but each also identifies a need for “a conception of political citizenship that had yet to be thought, but of which one could at least dream” (93).

Placeless People makes a persuasive case for the need to return to these writers now, even though they are mostly not figures that you might think of as poets or theorists of statelessness: Arendt and Beckett are more obvious choices, but Orwell, W. H. Auden, and the American journalist Dorothy Thompson are not. The book also leaves me with some questions, which I sketch out here as a way of thinking about the future directions that scholars it inspires might take. The first has to do with the selection of writers, whose backgrounds are German, British, French, Irish, American, and—in the case of the only contemporary writer addressed, Yousif Qasmiyeh—Palestinian. Despite the book’s emphasis on the political, none of these writers were affiliated to a particular party or movement, or at least not for long; as Stonebridge notes of Simone Weil, some were actively opposed to organized politics (100). Some took problematic positions: Orwell and Weil described Jewish refugees in anti-Semitic terms, while Arendt and Thompson were initially Zionists, although both changed their minds (78, 112, 42, 148).

Stonebridge adopts the dispassionate tone of a historian while relaying these tensions and contradictions: she focuses on what is useful in these writers’ work, rather than its limitations or blind spots. But this means that the partialness of their locations and views is not always foregrounded. All of them, apart from Qasmiyeh, are western European or North American. None of them, apart perhaps from Thompson, can be straightforwardly described as liberals, but none were socialists either (you could make a case for Orwell, but Stonebridge doesn’t) (144). This means that, while these writers might have been out of step with the dominant liberal European sentiments of the time, they were also distant from the era’s most radical transnational political development: namely, the coming to fruition of the anti-colonial independence movements across Africa and Asia. Stonebridge acknowledges that there are many sites of mass displacement that the book does not cover, including China, India/Pakistan, Algeria, and Vietnam, but she doesn’t highlight the fact that these non-European contexts were also contemporaneous sites of state formation, which might pose a challenge to the book’s generalized critique of nationalism and state sovereignty as such (25). I found myself wanting to see figures like Arendt and Beckett discussed alongside writers whose vision of an alternative political future was more explicitly socialist—Bertolt Brecht is mentioned in passing, but only in terms of his limited influence on Arendt and her belief in his “political blindness”—and/or whose main point of reference was not Europe (67). For instance, the Urdu-language writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who chronicled the lead-up to and aftermath of the 1947 Indian partition, belonged to the same generation, and was concerned with many of the same questions of mass violence, mass displacement, and the relationship of national citizenship to statelessness.

This point leads me to my second question, which is about the critique of national self-determination that runs throughout the book. Stonebridge identifies the clash between self-determination and human rights as the primary dilemma that these writers faced: “This chapter in the history of rights made extraordinary gains, but because the self-determination of peoples was also part of that same package, little could be (or was) done to prevent new generations of people being expelled, pushed, or driven from their homes” (2). But Stonebridge’s cohort (again, arguably because of their specific locations) don’t seem to have engaged with the challenge that decolonization poses to this understanding of self-determination, since the effort to transform a former colony governed by minority rule into a state of all its citizens is very different from the claim to sovereignty of settler-colonial or ethnonational states. I am not suggesting that the newly independent post-colonial states were able to circumvent the problem of the “precariousness of modern citizenship,” but I am wary of the encompassing demand for these writers and their readers to “think beyond the…terms of political sovereignty” at a time when the sovereignty of the new postcolonial states and the national movements that aspired to statehood was itself especially precarious (2, 23).[1]

This tension becomes more noticeable when it comes to the question of Palestine. The twentieth-century history of Palestine/Israel is a through-line of the book: it is implicit in each of these writers’ engagements with the plight of Jewish refugees, and overt in Arendt, Orwell, and Thompson’s anti-Zionism and Thompson and Qasmiyeh’s depictions of Palestinian dispossession. But Stonebridge tends to associate the idea of self-determination in this context with Zionism, not Palestinian nationalism (see, for example, 161). She rightly observes the hypocrisy of United Nations Resolution 194, passed one day after the UDHR: “No sooner had the UN committed itself to the self-determination of all peoples and universal human rights, it was forced to acknowledge its failure to do just this in the case of the Palestinians” (143). However, her subsequent comments that Palestinians’ access to the aid administration of UNRWA was “granted at the price of political and historical visibility” and that the early camp documentary Sands of Sorrow “mutes any specific reference to geopolitics” could be more candid about the precise political context that was being omitted (151, 155). The demand for national liberation was central to the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle against British occupation and European Jewish settlement in the 1930s and 1940s, and would remain fundamental until the 1970s, when the PLO/Fatah turned to the far less radical goal of achieving any kind of statehood.[2] The distinct political character of this kind of national imaginary from that envisioned by Zionism marks another horizon of citizenship yet to be realized.

The final major question that Placeless People raises has to do with how we describe the work of literature as a means of political inquiry. As Stonebridge puts it in a recent essay summarizing the book’s argument, “What do we want our books to do that we cannot?” She offers a trenchant challenge to the emphasis that critics like Derek Attridge have placed on the “ethics of the literary encounter,” asking “where can that ethics possibly land” in the world outside the text (14)? Although the book makes few statements about literature as such, Stonebridge forces her readers to sit with this question by carefully working through examples from these writers’ essays, novels, and poetry. The most intriguing suggestions that emerge include literature’s effort to build “images by which to understand the world” (21, via Arendt with a nod to Kant); its “capacity to represent absent speech” (61, again Arendt); and its potential to offer a form in which “the faux theatrics of humanitarian compassion” could be resisted (133, as seen in Beckett). Each of these formulations positions literature as a site of proleptic or prefigurative political imagination, not unlike the experimental modes of collective organization that Gary Wilder, in this journal, has named as instantiating “a planetary politics whose framework, language, and institutional arrangements does not yet exist (and perhaps can never fully exist).”

There is perhaps a tension in the book between the claim that this stance makes for the instrumental value of literature as such (this work is valuable because it makes us not just feel, but think, and hopefully act) and its focus on works associated with the heyday of European modernism, which tend to refuse this kind of instrumentality. The closing discussion of Qasmiyeh offers a counterpoint in terms of his background and historical moment, but stylistically his work can still be described as modernist, a movement that has its own history in Arabic poetry and prose. Future scholars might push this line of inquiry beyond the association of literature and literariness with modernist technique to works that experiment with documentary, realist, or testimonial modes (see, for example, 8–10). Each approach has the capacity to emphasize “the politics that follows from such storytelling,” a politics that is grounded, Stonebridge suggests, in solidarity rather than empathy (58). Stonebridge draws this part of her argument mainly from Beckett. Solidarity, as Beckett sees it, refuses the humanitarian impulse of identification with the dispossessed; literature offers itself as a medium in which this anti-empathetic solidarity can be conceived and communicated (136).

Stonebridge ends the book by returning to the idea of storytelling, claiming via Arendt that the task of poets and historians is to create a narrative that can claim a place in the world (185). Placeless People thus 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.


[1] For an account of the form that international legal debates over the right to self-determination and sovereignty of anti-colonial liberation struggles took a little later, in the 1970s, see Jessica Whyte in this journal.

[2] For an elaboration of these distinct understandings of Palestinian nationhood, see Bashir Abu-Manneh, The Palestinian Novel: From 1948 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 1–32.

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About Anna Bernard

Anna Bernard is Senior Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at King’s College London. Her research is concerned with the literature and culture of anti-colonial struggles that have persisted after the formal end of European imperialism. Her first book, Rhetorics of Belonging: Nation, Narration, and Israel/Palestine (2013), examines Palestinian and Israeli writers’ responses to the expectation that their work will “narrate” the nation. She is currently working on a book called International Solidarity and Culture: Nicaragua, South Africa, Palestine, 1975-1990. The book considers appeals for solidarity in literature and film that was circulated among British participants in the Nicaragua solidarity campaign, the anti-apartheid movement, and the Palestine solidarity movement.