SOME 10 YEARS AGO, in an article that now makes me cringe (please don’t look it up!), I discussed a short text by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben titled “Beyond Human Rights,” which addresses the status of refugees. Industrialized countries today, Agamben writes (in the 1990s), are facing “a permanently resident mass of noncitizens who do not want to be and cannot be naturalized or repatriated. These noncitizens often have nationalities of origin, but, inasmuch as they prefer not to benefit from their own states’ protection, they find themselves, as refugees, in a condition of de facto statelessness.” As Agamben sees it, refugees pose a limit to the political categories of the nation-state, which cannot provide a “stable statute” for “the human in itself.” The nation-state can only repatriate or naturalize. To be a refugee is always only a temporary condition.
I’m returning to this essay today (in 2015), when refugees are once again at the center of political discourse. There is much that I admire in Agamben’s analysis: it is true that refugees pose a challenge to the sovereignty of the nation-state; it is true that they draw out the tense relation between the human in itself and the law of the nation-state; I actually feel inspired by his call for a renewal of our political categories in response to the refugee. But one might also object that Agamben is a little too enamored with the position of statelessness — that especially when it comes to articulating the refugees’s preference (as he does), he is presenting to us a philosophical concept rather than an actual refugee. Another way of asking this would be to inquire about the relation of Agamben’s call for a renewal of political categories to sovereignty. Does this renewal remain within sovereignty? Does it break with sovereignty altogether and propose something else?
What is, according to Agamben, the refugees’s preference? Not to be naturalized. Not to be repatriated. As such, refugees take up the precarious position of the noncitizen, a position of statelessness, that Agamben finds philosophically appealing — and that is in part appealing, because we are probably all to some extent critical of “naturalization”, “repatriation”, “the state”, “sovereignty.” But to focus only on that means to ignore Agamben’s call for a renewal of categories; it means partially to ignore that, presumably, most of the refugees would probably want to become citizens elsewhere; that they desire, at the very least, a form of political belonging (whether it’s called citizenship or not) that Agamben asks us to articulate. The philosophical flirtation with statelessness needs to be balanced out, in other words, with the desire for some form of stability or even state — some form that one can call one’s political home. Inside or outside the categories of sovereignty.
Now, I’d like to suggest in this context that the problem that arises here is arguably one that involves the politics of literature. When Agamben uses the phrase “prefer not to,” readers of his work will know to trace this expression back to Herman Melville’s famous story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which is a recurrent reference in Agamben’s oeuvre. Melville’s narrative is a self-reflective, impossible account (by a lawyer whose offices are located on Wall Street) of the life of a law-copyist called Bartleby. Shortly after Bartleby arrives at the narrator’s office, where his steady dedication at first promises to have a beneficial effect on the performance of his office colleagues, he starts answering any and all queries that are addressed to him with the words, “I would prefer not to,” infecting his employer and his colleagues with his language as he keeps repeating it.
But is it really this story that is a recurrent reference in Agamben’s work, or merely the scrivener himself? I would claim that it is the latter: Agamben is so enamored with the scrivener that he forgets about the story. The philosophical refugee, taking up a position of statelessness, and preferring not to be naturalized or repatriated — indeed, in its most extreme form preferring not to be part of any political formation — can be identified with Melville’s scrivener, who “prefers not to” do any of the tasks assigned to him. But when it comes to assessing the politics of Melville’s story, I think it’s important to see that the narrative amounts to more than what Gilles Deleuze already called Bartleby’s “formula”: indeed, if it were up to Bartleby, if the story had been only his formula, there would not have been any story at all. The politics of the story, therefore, crucially falls on the side of what Agamben calls a “renewal of categories.” And true enough, Bartleby as a limit-character poses a challenge to literary (and specifically biographical) representation that requires Melville’s narrator to reinvent the story form, leading him to state at the beginning, as a kind of preemptive strike, that Bartleby constitutes an “irreparable loss” to literature, and that the story therefore is doomed not to deliver. Importantly, however, even that leaves us with something that can still be recognized as a story — and perhaps, given that the narrator is also a lawyer, also as a law.
Coming back to today’s refugee situation: what is the political form that can accommodate the streams of refugees that we see in the news day after day? Philosophically, we can consider them as figures of statelessness, posing a challenge to any political organization. But surely the most immediate need of the actual refugees is for some political arrangement that would accommodate them. In that concrete sense, a renewed sovereignty may be a better place to start than no sovereignty at all.