I am thrilled to have had a piece published in the brilliant new online magazine Wildcat Dispatches, entitled “Who is Allowed to be Human? ‘Bare Life’ in Aleppo and on the Mediterranean“. I wrote this very quickly and very angrily. It’s about the stripping of biographical life away from so many people in our world, drawing on Arendt and Agamben. Here’s the first section, which I entitled “The Musselmann” (readers of Primo Levi will know that is the term was used in the concentration camps to refer to the drowned, the walking dead).
In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith describes watching a film of a boat full of refugees being bombed by a helicopter “somewhere in the Mediterranean”. A “middleaged woman who might have been a jewess” sits in the bow with a little boy in her arms, screaming and hiding his face in her chest; she covers him with her body “as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him”. The party members cheer as the boat explodes.
Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Orwell and his readers would have seen, on newsreels in the cinema, the harrowing images of barely alive survivors of liberated camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald; of groups of stateless ‘Displaced Persons‘ drifting across Europe for years after the war ended; of boats full of Jews in the Mediterranean denied ports because of the fear of contagion or that they might be carrying terrorists, or sunk by British forces to prevent them reaching Palestine.
These camps and boats are the images invoked by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his concept of “bare life”: zoological life denuded of humanity through the state’s violence. He drew on Hannah Arendt, who had herself experienced internment as a refugee and had written in 1958 that “The chief characteristic of [the] specifically human life […] is that it is itself always full of events which ultimately can be told as a story, establish a biography […] bios, as distinguished from mere zoé”. Eric Santner names zoé stripped of bios as “creaturely life”, when human life “assumes the cringed posture of the creature”.
In the last few years, we have seen many – far too many – examples of such violently imposed creaturely life. Globally, well over 7,000 migrants– maybe as many as 10,000– have died trying to cross borders in 2016, including nearly 5,000 in the Mediterranean. On the route from Libya to Italy, one migrant dies for every 47 that make it. We have grown used to seeing images of people crammed into boats, or bodies stranded on beaches, but we rarely hear their names.
In Syria, whence many of Europe’s refugees are fleeing, the government has besieged rebel communities for five years, using starvation as a form of warfare; residents have struggled to maintain a liveable, biographical life as barrel bombs fall from helicopters day and night. The UN long since gave up counting the dead – when the toll reached a quarter of a million in 2014. In the latest phase of the war, we have watched – or, more often, turned away from – families in an East Aleppo reduced to rubble, sleeping in the snow before being packed onto buses by their aggressors and transported to unknown destinations.
I strongly recommend you spend time with the rest of Wildcat Dispatches, including the Wildcat Statement on Aleppo, Sarah Keenan’s “Another Refugee Dies at the Hands of the Australian Government“, Emma Patchett “On forced evictions and a never-ending winter for the Roma in France“, Gavan Titley’s “Filter Bubble – When Scepticism of the Mainstream Media Becomes Denial of Atrocity” and Mark Boothroyd’s “Aleppo Falls, and Humanity Falls With It“.