Header image.

Review of Chapter 3. by Nadim Khouri

Here is the review of Chapter 3. “Hannah Arendt and the Ontological Deprivation of Statelessness” by Nadim Khouri. You can comment and discuss below the review.

“Serena Parekh—Hannah Arendt and the Ontological Deprivation of Statelessness

In this book, Serena defends the right for refugees to live dignified lives as they await a more permanent solution to their plight. In chapter 3, she defends this claim by highlighting the ontological deprivation that ensues from being stateless. Serena borrows the concept of ontological deprivation from Hannah Arendt and applies it to the contemporary context of displacement.

According to Arendt, refugees suffer from two kinds of loss. The first is legal/ political. When people become refugees they lose their rights as members of a particular political community. As Arendt famously argued, this is dangerous, because we live in a world where our rights depend on our political membership. Once someone becomes stateless, Arendt argues, she belongs “to no internationally recognizable community whatsoever” and finds herself outside “of mankind as a whole.” Serena notes that despite fifty years of changes in international law and human rights, the essence of Arendt’s argument still stands.

But this legal loss is not the subject of this chapter. Arendt, argues Serena, diagnosed a more fundamental kind of loss that has not received enough attention. This loss is ontological and it affects the very being of refugees as social animals. Serena defines an ontological loss as (a) a loss of identity and reduction to bare life, (b) an expulsion from common humanity, and (c) a loss of agency.

I will first summarize Serena’s threefold definition of ontological deprivation, although I cannot do it justice in the short space that is given to me. Then I will raise some questions about her general argument. While I find Serena’s argument convincing, her argument hinges on a neo-Aristotelian understanding of political agency that might demand too much of refugees and a conception of the political that might be too narrowly defined.

(a) Loss of identity and reduction to bare life.

The first dimension of ontological loss refers to the reduction of refugees to bare life. “Once a person is stripped of her political persona and citizenship,” writes Serena, “she appears as an abstract human being who, precisely because of this abstraction, does not appear to be fully human” (p.86). The concept of bare life comes from Agamben’s reading of Aristotle. Aristotle famously argued that the polis is the realm of bios where our human (rather than animal) capacities for speech and action can flourish. It is separate from zoe—bare life—which is the realm of necessity (food, work, trade, etc.). If we take Aristotle seriously, it is only in the polis that we can flourish as political animals, not in smaller villages or in empires (and definitively not in camps). For Agamban, modernity turns this relationship on its head. The purpose of the modern state is to protect the bare life of its citizens, not to promote their good life. But this bare life is the bare life of its citizens. Absent the state, there is no space for bare life anywhere. Serena shows how this affects refugees, and she builds on the work of anthropologists such Michel Agier who have shown how refugees are reduced to bodies to be cared for, not human beings with political agency.

(b) Expulsion from common humanity

Besides the reduction to bare life, ontological deprivation refers the refugees’ exclusion “from the common world.” A common world “is not identical with the earth or with nature… It is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together.” This is very close to what Aristotle thought of the polis: it is the realm of human freedom and creation, rather of human necessity. And Serena seems to accept this when she refers to the common world as synonymous (at times) with the public realm (91). Being a refugee hinders us from being a “cobuilder” of the common world, thus depriving us of something essential to our being.

(c) Loss of agency

The third dimension of ontological loss is the inability of stateless people to have their words and actions be recognized as meaningful and political relevant. Refugees, writes Serena, have no “meaningful public persona.” Without a politically guaranteed public realm, they essentially lack the capacity for action and agency.

I think Serena does a great job of showing how this ontological loss works in practice. And while I am sympathetic to the overall argument, I want to point out some issues I have with the idea of ontological loss.

My comments revolve around the idea of political agency. One way to remedy this ontological loss, writes Serena, is to give back refugees their capacity for political agency. I wonder if Serena’s definition of political agency is not too demanding here. Consider the following passage:

“Politically and publicly, stateless people are still treated as bare life or “nothing but human.” Politically speaking, their words, opinions, and actions still do not “matter,” in the sense that they are not acknowledged or valued by others—neither by humanitarian organizations that care for and control them, nor by states where they reside or hope to reside. This is evident in the ways that their interests are taken or fail to be taken into consideration; the way their claims are assessed in asylum hearings; and the more general way that stateless people are represented in our political landscape.” (96-97)

In such sections, it feels like Serena is endorsing a republican understanding of freedom where we are who we are by virtue of our participation in the polis. Since refugees are excluded from this participation, they lose their political agency in the deep and ontological sense. Remedying this loss requires that they regain a meaningful political persona. Having a meaningful political persona, however, means that one must speak a certain language, master its idioms and enounce it to a certain audience. What if refugees do not want to do that? Learning a new language can itself be demanding, let alone formulating political claims using this language. If their political agency depends on speaking a certain language to be fully human, then one might be imposing too much on them.

Not only does the argument depend on a strong definition of agency, but it also hinges on a specific understanding of the political that does not make room for alternative understandings. If the political means staging a dissensus and challenging the status quo, as Ranciere argues, then refugees do have agency (Serena raises this point while discussing Ranciere on p.96). Moreover, if the political is understood as the distinction between friend and foe, as Schmitt would argue, then political violence would also count as an act of political agency. But for Serena, violence does not count as political agency, because the correct definition of this agency is one that is in line with Arendt’s neo-Aristotelianism.

I don’t think that these issues weaken the argument in any way, but they can pose specific challenges.”

One response to “Review of Chapter 3. by Nadim Khouri”

  1. Serena Parekh says:

    Nadim, thank you for the challenging questions. The points you raise are ones that I’ve probably gotten more push back on than any other in the book. I think you’re right that the disagreement stems from the view of agency and political action that I’m working with.
    The first point: is my view of political agency too demanding? It appears that I’m endorsing a republican model of agency where participating in politics is a privileged kind of action. I think this description is correct. I’m largely working within an Arendtian framework in this chapter, and those who are familiar with Arendt’s work know that political action is fundamental for human beings for her, as it was for Aristotle. I know that there are many critiques of this view, but I think it’s only with this strong sense of political action that you can see the harm that occurs to refugees who are denied the opportunity for political expression for prolonged periods of time.

    Nadim asks, what if refugees don’t want to do this? Aren’t we asking too much of them? “If their political agency depends on speaking a certain language to be fully human, then one might be imposing too much on them.” To respond to this, I’d like to clarify what I mean. I think the fact that refugees’ words are often disbelieved precisely because they are refugees is an injustice. Because they are refugees, in order to be taken seriously they need to learn to communicate in a certain way, with a certain kind of language, or have somebody else speak for them. I agree that this unfair and an epistemic injustice. However, I do think that Arendt is right that the drive to express who we are in words and actions is fundamental to humans. As a result, I don’t mean to suggest that refugees must speak, but rather, refusing to allow them to disclose themselves in words and actions represents an injustice that is often not taken seriously enough.

    Finally, Nadim writes that my view of agency hinges on a specific understanding of the political, where violence does not constitute genuine political action. He’s right about this. Again, I’m using an Arendtian understanding of politics, where politics is about the disclosure of the self through language and action. Because, at least in part, violence makes working with others in this process impossible, the political is opposed to violence for her (she defends this view at length in On Violence). Suffice it to say that I find this view compelling, but certainly understand that it is a very particular view of politics and is not widely shared.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *