Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees, by Lyndsey Stonebridge

Book of the week: writers shine a light on the disturbing gap between human rights and realpolitik, finds Matthew Joseph

January 17, 2019
Source: Getty
Citizens of nowhere: a hut at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields church in May 1958 highlights the plight of refugees

Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People dives headlong into two of my favourite subjects: political philosophy and literature. I am fascinated by how the events of the mid-20th century shaped the art and thought of the time, and how those events and artistic responses reveal the deep fracture lines in our notions of state sovereignty and citizenship. For anyone who shares my interests, the book offers a wealth of insight.

Although Placeless People revolves around the responses of writers to a crisis of refugees and statelessness, it would be simplistic to say that it is about these things. The problem with such a description is that there is nothing straightforward about such concepts. One can be a refugee by virtue of being outside one’s political community and justifiably afraid of returning to it (the stateless, on the other hand, might be justifiably afraid of all political communities). But this tells us practically nothing about how a world divided into discrete political units, which theoretically serve the interests of their citizens, can turn on them; or what those citizens are to do once the unthinkable happens. For those European writers who, as the author puts it, “had thought of themselves as citizens of the world [but] discovered that they had become citizens of nowhere”, the stripping-away of their rights as citizens was an existential shock. Left with nothing but their human rights, they soon discovered what scant protection such rights offered in a world of sovereign nation states.

Stonebridge brings into focus the gap between human rights and realpolitik through the lens of writers who either experienced at first hand what having only the rights of a human being meant, or who watched in horror from the sidelines as citizens were reduced to mere humans. These writers, in one way or another, seem almost Socratic: gadflies pestering the rights-rich of the world about the fragility of citizenship. In Hannah Arendt’s message of ill tidings, the messenger is the message: a democratic citizen turned stateless refugee represents the message that ethno-nationalism is the endgame of the sovereign state, and, in turn, the end of human rights. George Orwell’s well-known warning of the totalitarian state lurking in the shadows is perhaps less important than the struggle of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Winston Smith to, as Stonebridge puts it, “hold to the fiction of a moral agency that could lift itself free of political violence”.

For the French philosopher and activist Simone Weil, the only sensible response to the rupture in the nation state as protector of rights was to choose placelessness – to be literally of nowhere. Samuel Beckett, by contrast, found that only in accepting the absurd – the unrational, unmeaningful, un-understandable – can we come to terms with exile as a new normal.

Misplaced faith in empathetic humanitarianism led the campaigning US journalist and broadcaster Dorothy Thompson to demand first that Western colonialism (in the form of the nation state of Israel) be the course correction for Jewish refugees, and then to decry the ensuing creation of Palestinian refugees. The book’s journey ends, appropriately, by linking the work of W. H. Auden, the British cosmopolitan poet who fled “a shrinking nation-state that…had become more and more cloying as its power diminished”, and the Palestinian “second generation exile poet”, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh. Some, it seems, choose exile, and others have it thrust upon them.

All these writers, although separated in time and space, are brought together by their shared aporia. In political discourse, all humans are citizens of somewhere and thus have their human rights protected. Yet those who have their citizenship stripped away are thrust beyond the purview of political discourse. Without citizenship, they do not have the rights of citizens. Being merely human, they are denied the protections of human rights.

By steering the reader through these mostly mid-20th-century writers, Stonebridge seems to me to be doing “interdisciplinary” the right way. Bringing together the various strands of her own research interests (literature, history, human rights and refugee studies), she connects the literary to the historical. In placing our reading of her subjects in their own time, she shows us that poetry and fiction are as politically responsive as philosophy and public commentary. In a sense, the projects of Orwell and Beckett are the same as those of Arendt and Thompson: to make a kind of human sense out of the political realities of nation states.

A particular virtue of Placeless People is Stonebridge’s control over the narrative. She is, after all, telling a story – a true story, of people who lived not very long ago, who recorded honest responses to disruptions in the global political order that are still happening. Although there are many strands to her story, she maintains control over the pace and direction of the material. For instance, just as her discussion of Arendt and Kafka had me thinking that analytical political philosophy sometimes overlooks the human condition when it transforms humans into citizens, Stonebridge turns to John Rawls and Michael Walzer to highlight their limiting perspectives as Western, rights-rich thinkers. In almost every chapter, just as my response to her argument had me wondering how it might relate to some other concern, I turned a page to find that she was there ahead of me.

At times, however, I think she provides too much background on her subjects. Each chapter begins with some context for the writer in question, positioning them in time, space and intellectual trajectory before proceeding with the argument. Perhaps it was just my impatience to get to the good stuff – the critical reflections on states’ responses to mass population disruption – but at times I was unsure why I was being given so much contextual information.

Refreshingly, Placeless People is not a book just for those with an academic interest in political philosophy and literature. There is very little academic jargon at play here, and no dense argument at all. Stonebridge is not trying to present a contentious thesis that requires deep immersion in specialised fields. Her argument is that much of the literature and critical thought of a particular time reveals a consistent concern with the status of human rights in a world of sovereign nation states. It seems to me that anybody seeking to understand the contemporary challenges faced by refugees, and the responses by nation states that view themselves as sovereign, will find in Placeless People clues as to how we got here and ideas as to what we ought to do next.

The book navigates contested themes from multiple viewpoints. In doing so, it illuminates historical and contemporary challenges to national distinctions, political communities and human rights. It invites the reader to question the value of humanitarianism as a response to the distinctly political problems that follow from sovereignty. And, aside from its contributions to our understanding of rights, it is also an excellent companion piece to late- and postmodern fiction. I, for one, will certainly be revisiting Kafka, Beckett, Brecht and Orwell from a fresh perspective.

Matthew R. Joseph is doing a PhD at the University of Sydney on the philosophy of immigration and the state’s right to exclude.

Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees
By Lyndsey Stonebridge
Oxford University Press, 272pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780198797005
Published 25 October 2018

The author

Lyndsey Stonebridge recently took up a position as the first professor of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham. She was born in Kent, spent some of her early years in London and, when the family moved back to the Kent countryside, she recently told Times Higher Education , “dropped out of school early and went back to London as soon as I could”. When she later went to university, she recalled, she found that “studying literature and critical theory in the 1980s established a clear connection for me between writing and politics that has been the basis of my work ever since…my feminism, as well as my concern with violence and justice, began with reading modern literature under Thatcher.”

Long based at the University of East Anglia, Stonebridge served as founding associate dean of the Arts and Humanities Graduate School. She has also worked with refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, who live in communities that themselves have “long histories of displacement, statelessness and exile”, on the Refugee Hosts project. This “uses poetry, narrative, photography and film, as well as more traditional social science methodologies, to shed light on the history of refugee-refugee humanitarianism”.

The author of The Writing of Anxiety: Imagining Wartime in 1940s British Culture (2007) and The Judicial Imagination: Writing after Nuremberg (2011), Stonebridge explained that “it’s the legacies of mass displacement and exile that have preoccupied me most”. She hoped that her job at Birmingham would enable her to “put the human back in human rights…in terms of modern history, what we might call the sciences of administrative reason – including law and social policy – have often been as responsible for perpetuating abuses as preventing them. By contrast, the humanities are good at understanding the messiness of human experience, and good too at imagining new terms for justice.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Humanity alone won’t get you far

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