Between Humanitarianism and Security: Displacement in a Perilous State of Exception

Between Humanitarianism and Security: Displacement in a Perilous State of Exception

By James Fitzgerald

• This paper examines how the politics of state, border, and biological control affect the journeys and experiences of asylum seekers and “irregular” migrants who are, at once, the victims and recipients of care and security. Building on fieldwork carried out at the “migrant aid centre” in Porte de la Chapelle, Paris, the harsh realities of the indefinitely displaced in supposedly-liberal democratic spaces reflect not only a disintegrating duty of care, but also the very conditions—and political logics—that make such moves possible. It exposes these practices in terms of biopolitics, the state of exception and humanitarian government; an assemblage of domination that seeks not to provide adequate security to those subjects seeking refuge, but to instead “enhance the biological and emotional well-being of host populations“ (2017, p. 809) which must be innocultated from them.

It has long been argued by political theorists and philosophers of a certain ilk that the impulse to control life and death is woven into the body politic; activated by the very instruments of governance that not only sustain sovereign power, but effectively construct the identities of those subjects who exist under its control. This is, to borrow from Michel Foucault, the basis of biopolitics: the “State[‘s] control of the biological” (Foucault, 2003, p. 340); the “power to make life live” (and the power, therefore, to let die), and it is, for many, definitive of a modern security milieu in which entire populations can be accessed, recorded, attacked and/or effectively inoculated against that—or those—which might do them harm.

The development of biopolitics as a mechanism of state control has necessarily shifted over time; inevitable, given that our understandings of biology, and the body itself have also developed (see Dillon, 2011, p. 180) in tandem with advances in scientific discovery and our ability to measure large collectives of bodies; i.e. populations.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, advances in statistical recording allowed for a more streamlined identification of ‘abnormal’ or ‘deviant’ subjects who could be removed from society and placed into disciplinary (or reformative) spaces, such as the asylum, the prison and the hospital (see Legg, 2009, p. 139). As these technologies progressed—underpinned by an Enlightenment-led logic of scientificity and rationality—populations were conceived in ever-broader and more abstract ways: by birth rates, mortality, longevity (ibid, pp. 139-140) and inevitably, by race—hence, the development of biopolitical racism.

From Foucault’s perspective, biopolitical racism represents not an abhorrence of social cohesion (and, thus an emergency condition to be eradicated), rather, biopolitical racism is constructive to the making of social identities: it furnishes the state’s ability to distinguish between “threatening” and “non-threatening” others, serving as “an expression of a schism within society that is provoked by the idea of an ongoing and always incomplete cleansing of the social body” (Mavelli, 2017, p. 817).

In other words, the ability to deny the equal or approximate worth of ‘threatening’ others on the basis of their human coda (appearance, skin colour, accent etc.) sustains a broader sense of security and cohesion that is afforded to the dominant, ‘non-threatening’ host population.

This logic can become manifest in a variety of ways, and is surely at its most vicious when the designation of an entire population as ‘threatening others’ activates overwhelming violence to correct this deviation; an act of collective inoculation that is typically referred to as ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Read thus, the Holocaust can be interpreted as a most extreme form of biopolitical racism, simultaneously driven by the breathless capacity to deny life, and the technological infrastructure that allows for mass surveillance, classification and ultimate biological control.

Though we often assume that such a horrific event will be forever confined to history, a biopolitical interpretation sees the Holocaust not as a temporal finality, but an example of what Giorgio Agamben calls the “state of exception,” an “original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension” (Agamben, 2005, p. 3, in Zannettino, 2012, p. 1099)[1]. Read thus,

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