Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
13Aug/130

Contesting Statelessness

FromtheArendtCenter

“The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human” (The Origins of Totalitarianism). Refugees and other stateless people embodied this condition of loss for Hannah Arendt, and she regarded them as “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.”  But is the loss of all qualities and relationships an irrevocable outcome for those who experience it? How might refugees contest their status as stateless people? How, if at all, might they work to recover rights that make them something other than merely human beings? These questions have recently arisen in Germany, where hundreds of refugees have established “protest camps” in Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg to demand the right to free movement and legal employment.

The camps in question are makeshift tent complexes that the protesters and their supporters have assembled from found and donated materials.

tent

They provide a base of operations from which the refugees can assert their demands to policymakers and the public at large. By deciding to live in these camps, stateless people from every corner of Germany have abandoned the asylum homes to which they were assigned by bureaucratic agencies at the state and federal level. They thereby violate the legal terms of their refugee status, which stipulate that they may not (except with express permission) step foot outside the local jurisdiction in which they have been registered.

The protesters demand that these restrictions on their mobility be lifted so that they might travel in Germany in a manner comparable to other residents and citizens. They also seek the right to work legally and, when feasible, secure their own housing. These provisions might conceivably result in better material conditions for some refugees. But the protesters do not justify their activism on such narrow grounds.

Instead, they argue that rights of mobility and employment are necessary requirements for a dignified life (ein menschenwürdiges Leben). These rights would recognize them as autonomous beings with distinctive capacities, desires, and aspirations. They would also minimize, if not necessarily eliminate, their dependence on state institutions and social service agencies. Such dependence is particularly acute in the provision of food, clothing, and other material needs. At the moment, refugees in Germany are entitled to a modicum of basic care that falls short of the welfare provisions available to other residents and citizens. They are also largely if not entirely reliant on non-cash, in-kind benefits with little access to money they might spend at their own discretion. Mobility and employment, these refugees insist, would allow them to exert greater influence and control over the fundamental conditions of their lives.

Hannah Arendt was herself a refugee during a pivotal stretch of her life, and her experiences in France and the U.S. left a deep imprint on her later thought. Her most mature insights into the fate of stateless people were formulated in “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” perhaps the pivotal chapter in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But she also offered a series of earlier, more immediate and polemical reflections in “We Refugees,” an article that initially appeared in The Menorah Journal in 1943. Although these two essays are now more than fifty years old, they still offer important tools for thinking through both the implications and the limits of the current protests.

On the one hand, these texts help us to read the protesters’ efforts as a sharp rejection of their current treatment as refugees. Through their words and deeds, the protesters draw attention to the restrictions that German authorities have placed on their activities, restrictions that do not apply to other residents and citizens. The protesters thereby expose their positioning as, to paraphrase Arendt, “anomalies for whom the general law does not provide.”

Moreover, the protesters’ rejection of their present treatment is evident not simply in their explicitly articulated demands, but in the very ways they inhabit the space of the nation-state. By leaving their assigned jurisdictions and living in provisional camps, they offer a pointed rebuttal to governmental efforts to isolate them as human beings who may receive exceptional aid but who do not, in the end, rightfully belong to the state, its people, and its territory. In response to such containment efforts, the protesters’ actions convey a pointed message: we will not remain in our designated place. Indeed, we would rather be homeless, for all intents and purposes, than interned in asylum homes.

But the current protests do not simply constitute a refusal to abide by the current terms of their refugee status. They also aim to fashion a different, more constructive relationship between stateless people and the German nation-state. Arendt’s writings are once again helpful here. For in demanding rights of mobility and employment, the protesters also articulate a desire for “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective.”  They seek social and legal conditions where they might have “the confidence that [they] are of some use in this world”, where they might be acknowledged—and judged—as freely acting people who “carry their dignity within themselves.”

Such confidence, acknowledgement, and judgment can only emerge, however, within a larger nexus of social and political relations. On this count, Arendt suggests that the protesters and other refugees have a right to belonging in an organized and self-determining political community. According to her analysis in Origins, it is precisely such belonging to which supposedly “inalienable” human rights have been historically tied, and it is precisely such belonging that stateless people lose when they are expelled from their countries of origin.

Here, of course, lies the rub. Many German state agencies and “ordinary” citizens continue to regard refugees as aliens who threaten the nation-state’s presumed homogeneity and territorial rootedness. They accordingly object to any expansion of refugees’ civil rights and any improvement of their prospects for inclusion. In fact, as cultural studies scholar Fatima El-Tayeb has recently noted, refugees with “an exceptional leave to remain” (a Duldung, in German legal parlance) may spend decades in the country without gaining anything more than the “right” to be present at the state’s discretion.

Furthermore, official and popular opposition is likely to grow more entrenched as the size of the refugee population increases. While the number of asylum applications in Germany decreased steadily after the constitutional right to asylum was restricted in 1993, it jumped dramatically in 2012 and the first half of 2013. Given ongoing suppression in Russia, Syria, Chechnya, and other global “hot spots,” this upward trend seems set to continue in the years ahead.

camp

Arendt’s writing anticipates many of these recent developments. Her analysis of the state’s colonization by “national interest” is as relevant today as it was in the years after World War II, as is her account of the corrosive effect of large numbers of stateless people on legal provisions like asylum and naturalization. Given the arc of refugee administration in Germany over the past few decades, Arendt’s work on the perplexities of human rights remains timely and incisive.

I can only imagine that Arendt would have applauded the current protests in Germany if she had lived to see them. As “We Refugees” makes clear, she found comparable determination and courage sorely lacking among Jewish refugees in Europe in the 1930s and early 1940s. Most, to her mind, were deeply misguided in their willingness to accept the treatment they received (and, not coincidentally, to deny their individual and collective existence as Jews).

But I also worry that Arendt diagnosed the very forces that seem poised, slowly but surely, to undermine the protesting refugees’ efforts. At least at the moment, the refugees’ camps generate both vocal solidarity and pointed opposition. But I doubt that this level of public engagement can be sustained over the long term. The more time passes, the more pressure the refugees will face to accept a cosmetic compromise or abandon their protest entirely. The more time passes, the more likely they are to lose a battle of attrition and inertia.

-Jeffrey Jurgens

6Feb/130

“If”

My girlfriend and I walked by a clothing storefront and noticed the print on some of the t-shirts at the lower right corner of the window and went in. She had mentioned this Imaginary Foundation (IF) before. They make print t-shirts.

I went to school at an expensive liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley—everyone there makes print t-shirts. It is like a business you start as a college sophomore as a way to convince yourself that you are a ‘creative entrepreneur’ before you enter the corporate world (or, alternatively, as a penance for inherited culture and comfort) the not-for-profit world.

Often, I cannot stand them —the print t-shirts. There is something out of shape about them, as if the juxtaposition of body/shirt/image, sets askew some intrinsic agreement in the marriage of fashion and identity. And yet, the IF designs spoke to me. There is something dreamy and yet sincere about these prints. If le petit prince was looking for a print t-shirt, he would buy one of these.

It just so happened that the owner of the company was visiting this Seattle distributor and was in the store. He was awkward, skittish and European. I liked him, and before we left I told him that I blog for a thinking and humanities institute out east and may want to write about his brand. That’s how I got into the Imaginary Foundation.

The shirts are not exactly ‘pretty,’ or ‘fashionable,’ rather, their attraction is a gesture beyond themselves -- a rare feat in a culture that positions branding as the apex of success. I’ll describe one shirt and if interested you can invest your own time in the Imaginary Foundation.

The “Being There” shirt has three anonymous human heads (one of the cloud suit, one of the water suit, and one of the fire suit). The heads are in peripheral view and are aligned, with a slight skew (allowing us the view of all three faces), as they break through a wall, the veil of the universe.

Other shirts handle concepts of psychosis and love “Love Science,” science and discovery in a reach towards heaven “Reach,” and other such concepts widely considered esoteric or cliché within the lens of our popular culture. But, we no longer understand what a ‘cliché’ is. I have long held the view that a cliché is a truth, or a point of interest and perspective insight, that has simply been worn out by overexposure. But who has worn it out? How have we taken the liberty and quiet pleasure of the private sphere (the realms of reflection, contemplation, meditation as it is thought of in the Greek terms), out of our living cycle, our consciousness, our daily existence? Why is the call for private contemplation no longer a necessity of existence? It seems we should have more time then ever for such practices. So many of our daily chores, our basic needs, are met through the economic matrix. I no longer have to chop wood for warmth, hunt a boar for food, trek down to the river for a water simply, etc... Why shouldn’t I spend more time in private contemplation, or even public conversation on these more subtle topics of the human necessity? Why shouldn’t I be making something in an effort to communicate those private necessities? The actualization of the humanist requires space for such a practice. And yet, anything that requires a slowing down of, a calling for the work of the mind and private reasoning, is now, quite often immediately, labeled a cliché.

In The Human Condition Arendt writes “The emancipation of labor and the concomitant emancipation of the laboring classes from oppression and exploitation certainly means progress in the direction of non-violence. It is much less certain that it was also progress in the direction of freedom.” She is not saying that laboring classes should not have been emancipated. Rather, that the humanist goal has been blurred by some glitch. Instead of moving towards freedom from wasteful labor (a waste of human power -- physical, mental, spiritual) we instead have emancipated labor. Most of us have become imprisoned in a non-sustainable cycle that for the continuation of its forward motion requires an ever-increasing consumption and waste. This waste can be seen in terms of power. The core power of the human psyche originates in the liberty of free private thoughts—a psychological space for contemplation. A mapping of one’s stillness that is only possible in the acquisition of free time. Free time is a result of freedom from labors necessity. What Arendt’s thoughts gesture towards is that the set of basic necessities that we have been freed from, have been replaced by another, far more complicated and disguised set—the necessity to perpetuate a system that is moving much faster then us; a necessity to consume and continue consuming. To be ‘a part of‘ is, today, to be a consumer—to take ones place in the labor of waste.

Oh right, I wanted to tell you about a product...

“IF” is a creative project. It gains the viewers attention and borrows the imagination. This is a beginning. It does not steal, it borrows. It suggests the prospect of resonance rather than ownership.

I checked out the company website. The “about” page describes the development of the Imaginary Foundation: “a think tank from Switzerland that does experimental research on new ways of thinking and the power of the imagination. They hold dear a belief in human potential and seek progress in all directions.” The page is dotted with black and white images from the sixties, shaggy haired men and turtle-neck clad women engaged in contemplative, laissez-faire, light spirited dialogue. The imaginary director of the foundation is described as a “70-something uber-intellectual whose father founded the Dadaist movement.” The foundation is imaginary. It is a base, a canvas, for the products (the t-shirts) and the ideas behind them.

The blog section of the site imagines a list of contributors: Isadore Muggll, Kamilla Rousseau, etc. These architects, as is the back story, are too imaginary. “IF” is a fictional foundation for the product. But the product is real and engaging.

What is captured here goes beyond the tangible properties of the product (t-shirts). It is about what the product delivers—the wonder of creativity and science, the archetypes of the IF.  Imagination IS the foundation of this product.

The blog itself is a venue for artists who marry technology and art, as well as other thought provoking materials. The image I use at the head of this article is taken from the blog. Cloud, idea, light, community, play—IF: all these are represented in the Cloud installation. This art installation is a discovery I am brought to by the Imaginary Foundation.

I once taught a course on the development of contemporary advertising, heavily focused on Edward Bernays and the peripheral route of persuasion. Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Woodrow Wilson’s image advisor, the father of the term "Public Relations," and the architect of the torches of freedom (Lucky Strikes) campaign, among many others. His theory, though terribly simplified here, was that the modern consumer does not purchase with his mind; rather, he defers to his emotions in most choices. The rational-actor is a fiction. If consumerism became god, branding became its religion.

Ad campaigns have become remarkably creative, and even, at times, beautiful. Have you ever felt the urge to cry during a Jeep commercial? Many have. I think I have. The central conceptual premise of the AMC show Mad Men, depends upon this tension: between art and consumption; the rendering from black and white, to color; the effective marketing and selling off of the human experience. In question is the art aspect of advertising. It is at the core of Don Draper’s motivations, and the one that despite his many character failings keeps endearing him to us. Ultimately we are asking, will he reconcile his artistic urge (his private motivation) with his office at the homunculus of the consumerism model (his role in the corporate arena). Exposed is a manipulation, an incongruence, an infidelity in the marriage of advertising and art. Where as art points towards something beyond itself, beyond even the image and the medium, the ad campaign points only to one purpose—back into itself. No idea behind it. Nothing living. It consumes.

Advertising is like the Ouroboros, the dragon that swallows its own tail; having entirely swallowed itself, the modern advertising campaign defies the laws of balance, it is only the un-relentless, hungry serpent head of consumption -- devoid of the body of life. The only urge driving it is to possess.

It is the difference between the work of Egon Schiele and Penthouse, the writings of Georges Bataille and a godaddy.com super bowl campaign.

Seduce ->consume. This is the current mandate of the ad campaign. But this relationship is only sustainable through incompletion. It requires continual doses. Seduce -> consume -> feel a lack even in the possession of product (contract unfulfilled) -> be seduced again -> consume. Ad infinitum. A terrible loop.

How can consumerism and individual consciousness (the most private sector) be made sustainable? Is it possible for a product to speak beyond itself? To fulfill the promise of its persuasion? And if it could, what would that mean for us?

Here I position the word sustainability to face two directions. In part it refers to what Arendt terms as “worldly,” the creation produced through work and not labor, something that has the potential to last beyond the productions of time, something that maneuvers into the arena of the eternal. I also want to posit the word in terms of its evolving contemporary potential. The one sector of the public, and political sphere that allows for the platform of this conversation is the environmental movement. It is where we have begun to contemplate the world beyond the shortsighted view of individual lifetimes. We speak of the sustainability of our planet; we are considering new ways to move our habits from wasteful and consumptive, towards lasting and sustainable power. It is a fairly new conversation and the word “sustainability” is evolving with each new perspective we bring to it.

Sustainability goes beyond consumer awareness. It is about the awareness of the product, how a brand gains consciousness. I need to explore here a definition of “consciousness.”

I have come to understand definitions as ever evolving in accordance with society and the pressures put upon it by the conditions of the time, the fractals of our world (more simply put, the culture stew).

Consciousness is the expanding of space into which one can resonate. To learn of the world around us, to acknowledge it, to consider its multiple dimensions, is to become more conscious -- to create space into which we can move by the will of our imagination and invention.

The Imaginary Foundation is an example of this bridge. It acknowledges itself and its fiction. It allows for play. It is a small company that uses the fabrication of its narrative to bring the consumers attention to the mimetic principles behind its product. Revealing the architects conceit brings me (the consumer) into co-authorship of the story. It endears itself to me. We do not only consume the product. We consume the narrative of the product. Even if I do not purchase, if I am thinking about it, I am talking about it, I have bought in. If it generates new ideas and deeper order thoughts, then I have begun to take ownership of the product. I consume the myth, I begin to co-author it -- I don it in the neural network of culture. And thus the product has gained consciousness, has begun to be carried beyond the object -- it resonates.

My study of this product is limited. I am not encouraging anyone here to purchase a shirt. I have not purchased a shirt. What I think this opens up is a table for negotiations between the current consumerism model, and individual consciousness—an opportunity to examine sustainable consumerism in all implications.

-Nikita Nelin