Being without a People
Last year, watching the news about the arrival of Syrian refugees at the island of Lesbos, a strong image remained in my heart. It was the image of an Imam crying when showing to Swedish journalists the graves of several nameless children who died during the flight from Syria. Instead of names, their graves had only numbers. The Imam cried because, he said, without names, these children would face God alone.
The tears of the Imam were tears before the vision of a child facing the desert of infinite immensity in total loneliness, without anyone to care for her, a child without a people. His reaction moved me but also surprised me because for him it was not death but the absence of a name that withdraws singular life from communal life. One is without a people not because one dies but because one dies and is buried without a name.
In this real story, a different account on the meaning of death can be heard. It is not death as such that separates people, but nameless death. The story gives us a sign about the tragedy of being a refugee – of being the one who loses the name, of being a people that loses a people. Thus to be a refugee, to be in exile, means indeed to be without a people even when one flees with some of one’s people.
Today, millions are suffering the loss of a people. We are facing the situation of peoples without a people. At the same time, we are confronted with the reawakening of fascism and populism all over the world. Millions are without a people, and other millions in search for the people. Millions are escaping the figure of the people, while others are striving for a figure of the people. Using a vocabulary from German romanticism, we could speak about the simultaneity of two opposed movements: a violent centrifugal movement from the figuration of a people and a violating centripetal movement toward a figuration of the people. Being simultaneous, these two opposed movements of escaping from figuration and searching for strong figures are both signs of a great void that accompanies the development of global financial capitalism, or, to say in one word, of globalism.
In order to understand the co-incidence of these two movements we have to recall how the historical experience of modernity and post-modernity is the experience of violent constructions of the figure of a people and destructions of people and their figures. Colonization, imperialism, and globalism are based on these complementary movements of construction and destruction, where the construction of the idea of the people is realized through the destruction of the reality of peoples.
At the same time that modern ideas about the sovereignty of the people were being defined, millions of people were being destroyed, pueblos were being exterminated. Indeed, in Spanish, pueblo means both people and place (or village), and above all it implies that people are places, rather than things in or of a place. The equation between a construction of the people and the destruction of people belongs to the logic of the technical possession of life and of its many worlds that inaugurates modernity and winds through modern and contemporary history. This logic operates both horizontally and vertically. On the one hand, to the construction of national people corresponds the need to destroy people defined as “other” and “foreign,” as “impure”, “primitive”, “degenerated” and “non-existent.” On the other hand, in the construction of national people a gap between those who represent the people and common people, populus and gens, distinguished in Neo-Latin languages, is open.
Recent philosophical discussions about populism as a response to the “return of the people” and the need to consider the need of a good, progressive, European populism, that could even be inspired by Latin-American left-wings populism are attempts to answer the difficult questions: What is a people? And who is the people? In my view, however, the major problem of these discussions resides in the questions they aim to respond to. So long we ask the questions what or who a people is, we remain prisoners of the logic of figuration that accompanies the modern ideas of the people. Another question should be asked, I think: How is a people? And more precisely: How is a people today? Indeed, how to be a people without a people? How to be a people without strong figures of the people? How to be with the without of figures and forms?
Some Syrian artists gathered under the name Abounaddara, which means anonymous, are working today for the right to a decent image – le droit à une image digne. Through their images, they scream that they are not refugees, they are not the suffers, but that they are fleeing, they are suffering. Theirs is the demand not to be fixed in what renders existence indecent. They ask to let their voices be heard. These artists film scenes of everyday life in the middle of a monstrous war, followed by the world with an indifference that grows the more one becomes used to seeing dead pieces of bodies on the screen. Asking for the right to a decent image, they show images of life taking place in deep annihilation: flying birds against the resounding bombs in the background, children playing at school, small flowers in the crannies of walls…
In this Syrian demand, we can hear another sense of a people, of a community that moves us back to the tears of the Imam before his nameless children. Why is it the loss of the name that renders one without a people? Because the name, far from the secure identification of a child, is the sign of a voice, a voice that calls and can be called. As what calls and can be called, the name renders vibrant the taking place of existence as unique and common, as “singular plural” recalling the luminous expression by Jean-Luc Nancy. To the question, how are a people?, the answer is: the people are the bond to the taking place of existence, smiling and suffering, walking and sleeping, loving and separating; the people are the voices and accents of the taking place of existence. To exist with the without of forms and figures of the people, is thus to take the chance to discover the bond to the taking place of existence as the only place – the placeless place – for a worthy life, which we can also call “human”.