Modernism, Humanitarianism, and Suffering

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

Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees offers a historically rich, theoretically compelling, and literarily nuanced account of a question that has long underpinned scholarship on human rights: what is the relationship between literature and human rights? Several aesthetic forms are typically foregrounded when considering this question: sentimentalism as a mode of empathizing with the suffering other; the Bildungsroman as a genre that charts the development of legal personhood in human rights discourse; and testimony as a vehicle for giving voice to trauma. In her monograph, Stonebridge focuses not on a specific genre—indeed, the subtitle of “writing” accurately describes the myriad forms she explores, from poetry to films to novels to essays and criticism—but rather, on a particular historical moment and movement: late modernism at the mid-century. Drawing on a range of more and less canonical modernist writers and thinkers—Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Simone Weil, Samuel Beckett, Dorothy Thompson, W.H. Auden—with a nod forward to the contemporary Palestinian poet, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Stonebridge asks how their writings might be understood as responses to the intensifying racial logics of the nation-state and the resulting condition of statelessness that has become the hallmark of “the age of the refugee.”[1]

This attention to mid-century modernism makes sense for both historical and aesthetic reasons. Historically, the era sees the proliferation of refugees across the globe: if Jews fleeing Nazi totalitarianism and the mass displacement of Palestinians via the founding of Israel represent the twin historical events at the heart of Stonebridge’s analysis, she reminds us that the theatre of statelessness plays out more broadly in the global south in, for instance, the 1947 partitioning of India and Pakistan or the refugee crises stemming from the Korean (1950–53) and Vietnam (1955–75) wars. The period also witnessed the institution of new human rights regimes, most visibly encoded in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sought to manage such crises. To be sure, the limited efficacy of human rights law—their unenforceability outside the sovereignty of the nation-state, their reliance on the principles of humanitarianism rather than political justice, their presupposition of a restrictive conception of the human—is by now well-trodden territory. Stonebridge expresses a similar ambivalence when she describes the “misplaced abstractions of mid-century humanism” and argues that postwar international human rights law “at its best, pushed placeless people into inhabiting specific and sometimes limiting political and juridical categories, and at worse, threw them out of those categories altogether” (22, 17). Stonebridge’s turn to a set of modernist writers facilitates her critique, given modernism’s traditional antipathy to the ideologies of liberal humanism. Simon During has suggested that modernism’s “evacuation of human substance” and its “anti-anthropological political logic” means that it is fundamentally opposed to human rights, since the latter is necessarily grounded in “a particular account of human nature.”[2] Modernist antihumanism thus subtends the first of Stonebridge’s two central claims: that these mid-century writers “refused to humanize—or banalize—the brutality of mass displacement in the mid-twentieth century” by repudiating the representational strategies of literary humanism that foreground refugee suffering, and by drawing attention instead to the historical and political forces that produce rightlessness (168). In doing so—and this is her second argument—these intellectuals and authors not only sought to capture the inhuman realities of displacement, but to carve out imaginative room for “thinking and being between nation states,” envisioning political communities that might function as “alternatives to nationalist conceptions of political sovereignty” (19, 14). In other words, these writers sought a kind of world-making, even as they bore witness to—and in some cases experienced—the world-destroying effects of statelessness.

Placeless People is especially illuminating, first, for its remapping of the contours of modernist studies and, second, for its nuanced excavation of the vexed relationship between human rights literature and the representation of atrocity. Modernism, as Stonebridge rightly observes, has always comfortably inhabited the echelons of European and North American cosmopolitanism. Terry Eagleton made this point when he observed that the most accomplished modernist writing originated from those who were exiles and émigrés: James, Conrad, Eliot, Yeats, Pound.[3] The more recent paradigm of “transnational modernism” attempts to displace this Eurocentric conception of modernist rootlessness by expanding modernism’s geographical locus to the global south, yet the figure of the refugee continues to remain invisible in such scholarship.[4] Stonebridge’s foregrounding of mid-century displacement thus provides a startling and estranging new lens for apprehending the historical content behind familiar modernist tropes: Kafka’s “nobodies” and Beckett’s “living corpses” become figures for the rightless and the unraveling of legal personhood; Auden’s reliance on simile—“a state which is neither one thing nor another”—is reflective of a poetry of the borderline; while the uncontrollable cruelties in Orwell’s writings are symptomatic of the psychopathologies of a nationalism that has to render the refugee its political other (178).

Stonebridge’s attention to histories of statelessness masterfully recasts modernism in new and innovative ways. Likewise, her analysis of modernist aesthetic strategies opens up productive avenues for thinking through the adequacies—or inadequacies—of literary representation in the face of political statelessness. Placeless People enters this conversation via Edward Said’s “Reflections on Exile” and his insistence that “on the twentieth-century scale, exile is neither aesthetically nor humanistically comprehensible”; the attempt to humanize rightlessness simply “lend[s] dignity to a condition legislated to deny dignity” (quoted in Stonebridge, 10–11). Said’s comments about the incommensurability between the brute reality of exile and its sublimated aesthetic representation informs Stonebridge’s trenchant critique of the humanitarian sensibility that dominates both literature and the human rights public sphere—its sentimental mode; its focus on trauma and suffering; its elision of history and politics; its transformation of the refugee from “a subject of international right” to “an object of international compassion”; and its privileging of the sympathetic spectator who remains at a distance from the suffering other (16). In different ways, the problem of representational incommensurability has haunted modernism, given its witnessing of multiple historical catastrophes in the first half of the twentieth century—two world wars, racial genocide, mass displacement—and is perhaps best encapsulated in Adorno’s famous dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”[5] Indeed, before Said’s reflections on exile, Adorno too had remarked that the “aesthetic principle of stylization … make[s] an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning … something of its horror is removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims.”[6] For Adorno, it is not the mimetic representation of suffering as atrocity, but rather, modernist art’s autonomous relation to reality—exemplified in his eyes in Kafka’s and Beckett’s oeuvre—that paradoxically “confers on the work of art a vantage-point from which it can criticize actuality. Art is the negative knowledge of the actual world.”[7] To be sure, the writers whom Stonebridge reads in Placeless People do not necessarily conform to Adorno’s ideal of aesthetic autonomy, but in their oblique and elliptical relation to humanitarian suffering, they do exemplify a range of modernist styles that make possible alternative ways of apprehending the realities of statelessness beyond the spectacles of pain and deprivation.

It is, however, worth raising a question about the efficacy of humanitarianism and literary humanism as forms of ethical response and representation. By Stonebridge’s account, spotlighting suffering may produce humanitarian horror and sympathy, but it does this at the cost of erasing political history. This claim is perhaps most visible in her reading of Sands of Sorrow, the 1950 film documenting the plight of Palestinian refugees. She writes: “there are no perpetrators, causes, politics, or history in the film; only consequences, people and suffering … What we see instead is refugee despair without a cause” (155). This, then, is the quintessential de-politicizing work of humanitarian sentiment. Yet it is far from certain that apoliticism is necessarily either the corollary or the consequence of humanitarianism. Both Didier Fassin’s study of “humanitarian reason” and Luc Boltanski’s discussion of “distant suffering” may be instructive here, for in different ways, both understand humanitarianism as inhabiting a particular mode of politics, rather than being altogether opposed to the political. As Fassin observes, “on both the national and the international levels, the vocabulary of suffering, compassion, assistance, and responsibility to protect forms part of our political life: it serves to qualify the issues involved and to reason about choices made.”[8] So pervasive is this discourse that it inaugurates what Fassin sees as a new age of humanitarian government—which he dates to the late twentieth century—in which our political decisions are fundamentally channeled through both the recognition of suffering others and the attendant moral responsibilities of alleviating that suffering. The sociologist Luc Boltanski is likewise interested in what a “politics of pity” might entail. In mapping out the various genres—or in his term “topics”—that might mediate the relationship between the spectator and the spectacle of distant suffering, he suggests that the impulse to bracket humanitarianism off from the realm of the political has to do with the temporal dimension of the politics of pity, which is concerned only with the immediacy of present suffering and not with the past causes of injustice or the future consequences of action. This is undoubtedly a limitation, to be sure, yet Boltanski nonetheless maintains: “there is room also for a politics of the present which…would be entirely orientated towards present suffering and present victims…[For] the present has an overwhelming privilege: that of being real.”[9] Humanitarian responses to human rights crises are certainly by no means the only—and they are likely far from the best—vehicles through which to galvanize political action, but for both Fassin and Boltanski, neither can such sentimentality be dismissed as apolitical or mere ideological mystification. Placeless People brilliantly points to a valuable mid-century body of modernist writing that makes visible alternative affective and aesthetic treatments of statelessness, at a moment before humanitarian reason takes its place as our dominant political logic. Yet, it is also likely the case that suffering will remain a central topos in representations of historical atrocity, since, as Adorno puts it: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.”[10]


[1] Lyndsey Stonebridge, Placeless People: Writing, Rights, Refugees (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 10. Hereafter cited parenthetically in text.

[2] Simon During, “Modernism in the Era of Human Rights,” Affirmations: of the Modern 1, no. 1 (Autumn 2013): 158, 141.

[3] Terry Eagleton, Exiles and Émigrés: Studies in Modern Literature (New York: Schocken Books, 1970).

[4] For key texts of transnational modernism, see, among others, Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel, eds. Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); Rebecca Walkowitz, Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48; Jessica Berman, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[5] Theodor Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 34.

[6] Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” in Aesthetics and Politics, trans. Francis McDonagh (London: Verso, 2007), 189.

[7] Theodor Adorno, “Reconciliation Under Duress,” in Aesthetics and Politics, trans. Rodney Livingston (London: Verso, 2007), 160.

[8] Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, trans. Rachel Gome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 2.

[9] Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics, trans. Graham Burchell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 192, italics in original.

[10] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (London: Taylor and Francis, 2004), 392.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Janice Ho

Janice Ho is Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her monograph, Nation and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century British Novel, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. She has also published essays on both modernist and contemporary literature in a variety of journals and edited collections, including Modern Fiction Studies, Novel, Journal of Modern Literature, Literature Compass, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Her next project traces transnational genealogies of the welfare state and its links with global development and aid. She is currently serving as Book Review Editor for the division of British and Anglophone Fiction for the journal Contemporary Literature.

One thought on “Modernism, Humanitarianism, and Suffering

Comments are closed.