’That which you are denying us’ - Politics and subjectivity

The future of trauma theory - Edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant and Robert Eaglestone 2008

’That which you are denying us’
Politics and subjectivity

’That which you are denying us’

Refugees, rights and writing in Arendt

Lyndsey Stonebridge

A life without speech … is literally dead to the world.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

In 2002, the refugee inmates of Woomera detention camp in south Western Australia sewed their lips together in protest against their incarceration. It is hard to think of a more eloquent image of the pathos of traumatic speech than a mouth transformed into a wound. Equally, it is hard not to see the future of trauma theory as bound to the political fate of today’s refugees. If trauma theory began with the memory of the camps of the Holocaust, we could claim that its contemporary relevance endures most pressingly in the detention centres of the twenty-first century. These histories are not unconnected. Hannah Arendt was among the first to point out that the legal limbo into which the Jews were thrown by the denial of legal citizenship was a prelude to the extermination camps; ’a condition of complete rightlessness was created before the right to live was challenged’ (Arendt 1949: 29; 2004: 374). More recently Giorgio Agamben has claimed a ’perfectly real filiation’ between the refugee, internment, concentration, and death camps (Agamben 21).1

With its unforgettable imagery and partial political success (the camp was closed in 2003), the Woomera protest generated much theoretical work in the then relatively new interdisciplinary field of critical refugee studies. Unsurprisingly, given the number of exiled artists and intellectuals in the camp, it also produced some remarkable poetry. The poem most often reprinted and cited in discussions of Woomera is Iranian Mehmet al Assad’s sadly ironic protest ’Asylum’. In the poem’s final stanza, al Assad pulls the association between the sutured mouth and rightlessness central to the protest together in an elegant admonishment to those looking through from the other side of the wire, the rights-rich nationals of the West:

Through the wire

one last time

please observe

I am sewing my lips together

that which you are denying us

we should never have

had to ask for.2

In much of the commentary these lines are read, not unreasonably, as a plea that the speaker’s humanity be observed and that his rights as a human being be recognized too: ’that which’ he should never have had to ask for.3 The refugee poet, in other words, is assumed to be a kind of testifying supplicant, a ghost person, or a lyrical person (after all, he is writing a poem), asking to be recognized as a legal person. See me, the human being through the wire, the poet says, and on the basis of that recognition—a recognition made possible by poetry—grant me my rights.

But while that ’that which’ could be human rights, as its pronominal heaviness might suggest, equally it could be something more elusive. As much as the lines run to a conclusion that the speaker be granted something that, because it is self-evidently his (the poem shows us so), he should never have had to ask for, the line breaks introduce a series of hesitations, stops or stutters, into the passage from lyrical to legal personhood: ’that which you are denying us/we should never have/had to ask for’. What is revealed in these pauses is less (or at least not only) the person that the poem gives the illusion is there waiting to be granted his rights, than a voice far less sure of its ground. Note, for example, how the line ’we should never have’ hovers for a moment, both on the end of its line and in grammatical time, resting on the possibility of an entire life without rights. An alternative reading of al Assad’s lines might conclude that it is precisely the ’that which’, of which he is denied, of which he should never have had to ask, that the speaker is calling into question by asking us to read ’through’ the wire of his words.

I begin with al Assad’s ’Asylum’ because it suggests a direction for trauma theory through which the pathos of the open wound (a speechlessness always demanding to be spoken) might be reconnected to what I describe here as a more critical lyricism in refugee writing that emerged with the denial of national, civic and legal rights identified by Arendt in the 1940s. The emergence of new refugee populations over the past twenty years means that the continuities between generations of the rightless are now becoming apparent; indeed, al Assad could almost be talking directly to Arendt when he de-couples his human speaker from the ’human’ rights he is claiming in his poem. ’The paradox involved in the loss of human rights’, Arendt wrote famously ’is that such a loss coincides with the moment a person becomes a human being in general.’ In recent theory this bitingly eloquent sentence has become one of the most frequently quoted passages from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Arendt first wrote the lines, however, within ten years of her own internment (as an enemy alien) in Gurs detention camp in south-west France, her flight across the Spanish border, and eventual arrival in the United States (Arendt 1949: 33). Now you don’t see it, now you do: as in al Assad’s poem, for Arendt the refugee and theorist of statelessness, the human person appears just as her human rights are withdrawn.

Frequently cast as a figure of pathos, this frail human remnant stalks contemporary rights discourses; a stubborn reminder that, while the fiction of human nature may have lost whatever juridical purchase it once had, its shadow still remains. Arendt’s tremulous ’human being in general’, we might say in the context of the project of this book, is what is left after trauma. This figure is as central to law as it is to theory: the United Nations’ 1951 ’Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees’ defines a refugee not as a person who is entitled to rights that she has been denied, but as one who can demonstrate that she lives in fear for her life.4 Pathos, to some extent, has become a legal requirement for today’s asylum seekers (see Pupavec; Malkki). Writing from deep within the experience of statelessness, Arendt, however, refuses to consign the refugee to the position of a quivering supplicant before the law. That refusal, I argue in this essay, is both linguistic and political. For Arendt the refugee (she was to spend 17 years of her life classified as stateless person), as for al Assad later, to claim rights is first of all to criticize the linguistic and political mystifications upon which they rest.

’A new kind of human beings’

Crossing from continent to continent, moving between languages, disciplines and genres, Arendt understood more than most just how intimate the relation between writing and legal subjectivity could be, and just how fraught. She wrote frequently and furiously on her arrival in New York in 1942: on the war, Jewish politics, homelands wrecked, homelands future (she published 38 essays, articles and reviews alone between 1943 and 1947). The experience of statelessness is lived on the page in these pieces, not only in the intensity of the writing, but in Arendt’s struggle to inhabit linguistically the political—legal paradox that she was at the same time beginning to recognize and theorize. In both style and substance, this early writing asks what it might mean to speak as a ’human being in general’, without the protection of sovereign rights.

The first thing it means is that speech itself is cut loose, not only from the law but from its speaker. ’We lost our language’, Arendt writes at the beginning of ’We Refugees’, a 1943 essay first published in the Menorah Journal in the January of the year that news of the full horror of the camps first seeped through to the refugee community. Losing one’s language is not only to be denied a linguistic anchorage to nation and tradition, it also means losing ’the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings’ (Arendt 2007: 264).5 We lost the right to lyrical ease we might almost read Arendt as saying here, to the unaffected representation of feelings and suffering in our mother tongue. In fact, Arendt’s voice in this essay is not so much lost, as purposefully restless. For the Jewish refugee, losing the lyrical immediacy one feels in one’s own language is to lose something you had never had in an uncomplicated way in the first place. ’To know how to play the role of what one actually was seemed the most important thing’ (Arendt 1951: 81), she later quipped of the ontological predicament of middle-class Jews in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

By 1943, the refugee has nothing more to gain from self-mimicry. It is thus not only with a sense of mourning, but liberated ironic bitterness that Arendt writes most of ’We Refugees’ in free indirect speech, citing rather than inhabiting the experience of the ’we’ of whom she speaks in the distancing irony that was to become her linguistic trademark. In ’We Refugees’ we could not be further from the fearfully suffering human voice expected of much contemporary refugee testimony (see Szörényi). Ducking and diving between (in the famous terms she borrows from Bernard Lazare) the affectation of the parvenue who would attempt to assimilate into her host culture and language, and the protesting irony of the pariah, the essay is a controlled performance of the very linguistic un-housing she at the same time describes. The ’we’ of the title turns out to be something of an unaccomodating pronoun. Watch it slide, for example, in this acerbic rendering of the self-deluding linguistic compliance of the parvenu:

With the language, however, we find no difficulties: after a single year optimists are convinced they speak English as well as their mother tongue; and after two years they swear solemnly that they speak English better than any other language—their German is a language they hardly remember.

(Arendt 1943: 265)

The distancing irony (’we’ slides into ’they’) is typical of the tone that will later so trouble readers of Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). But what looks like loftiness here is also a complicated kind of identification. What the parvenue is struggling to forget in the conceit that she speaks perfect English is the new political and existential status that Arendt was discovering for herself The very next paragraph reads:

In order to forget more efficiently we rather avoid any allusion to concentration or internment camps … how often have we been told that nobody likes to listen to all that … Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.


’A new kind of human beings’, the kind that emerge at the very moment that so-called human rights are withdrawn. ’The paradox involved in the loss of human rights is that such a loss coincides with the moment a person becomes a human being in general’: Arendt first rehearses (or perhaps even discovers) her famous paradox in a piece of writing in which she is, we could say, most biographically true to her own history. True in the sense that her linguistic ducking and diving speaks directly to the sense that the ’human’ so unceremoniously dumped by rights law cannot magically re-authorize itself by speech alone, and true too in the sense that speech itself cannot comfortably accommodate these new strangers. ’A new kind of beings’; those who apparently nobody wants to know first emerge in her writing through an arresting grammatical awkwardness. Arendt’s voice stutters in its new language.

’A new kind of human beings’ is archaic rather than grammatically inaccurate. Most of us who have attempted to speak or write in another language (English was Arendt’s third) have used awkward grammar. ’I still speak with a very heavy accent, and I often speak unidiomatically’, she later said in an interview on German television with Gunter Gaus in 1964 (Arendt 2000: 13). She was talking about the distance she felt from her English voice, and how the traces of the mother tongue in the new language testify to a kind of linguistic survival. Traces, perhaps, such as you can hear rippling across the translation of cases from German— eine neue Art Menschen—into English—’a new kind of human beings’.6 It is telling enough that this translation effect occurs just after Arendt has admonished her fellow refugees for pretending to forget their mother tongue. More significant for the critical tradition in refugee writing I want to uncover here, however, is the fact that her language hesitates, so to speak, on the very category that the parvenue is anxious to disguise in her new language: the new human beings created by contemporary history, the radically rightless, the refugee, the detention camp inmate, who are now equivocating, as it were, between German and English, pariah and parvenu, in the same way as they are suspended in legal and political limbo. As in the later more deliberate hesitations of ’Asylum’, in ’We Refugees’ in 1943, it is as if to be lost to the law is also to lose one’s way in language.

Because it (almost by definition) claims rights denied, refugee writing frequently puts the relations between law, language and humanity in question in ways such as this. Conventionally, much human rights testimony insists on the humanity of its speaker by borrowing from lyric an emphasis on individual feeling and suffering (its ’testamentary whimper’ in Avital Ronell’s evocative phrase). Rights, in this sense, are rewarded for the ability to voice the human. In the granting of a common personhood, the rents (the traumas) in law and language experienced by the refugee are passed (and pasted) over. Arendt’s ducking and diving and grammatical awkwardness, on the other hand, like al Assad’s hesitations, suggests a far more uncomfortable and critical relationship between the voices of the rightless and the law.

The intimate, and often vexed, relations between lyric and law were first noted by the late Barbara Johnson in her brilliant discussion of the relation between the laws of genre and the laws of the US constitution. What is always at stake in both legal and lyric texts, Johnson argued, is ’the question: What is a person?’ (Johnson 551). On the one hand, because they assume that the human can be defined, because they are supremely anthropomorphic, lyrical texts allow the law to presuppose what a person is ’without the question of its definition being raised as a question—legal or otherwise’ (574). Hence lyric supports rather than challenges the assumptions law makes about humanity. But at the same time, the very anthropomorphism that lyric needs in order to work reveals that the ’person’ it treats as somehow already known is linguistic before it is anything else and hence can be—must in the end be—questioned. Recasting that argument for Arendt’s ’new kind of human beings’, and for refugee writing in general, we might then next ask what happens when language kicks away that support and deprives the law of its human alibi—its ’that which’ which it never wants to define, but which has to be assumed for human rights law to keep face? In other words: what does refugee writing do to the conventional relationship between literary and legal persons?

Of all genres, lyrical texts, Paul de Man famously argued (de Man is at the heart of Johnson’s essay), are most homesick for the mystical permanence of the human; the lyric voice, he says, is a fallacious mourning for human persons, looking to forge ’eternity and temporal harmony as voice as song’ in their absence (de Man 262). If we wanted to read refugee writing as a kind of post-nation state late lyric, which is one of the implications of my reading of Arendt, we might say that it instead follows de Man’s austere prescription for a truer, more critical mourning for the human in its decoupling of humanity and language. No good will come of pathos, the best we can do with language, de Man advised, is to ’allow for non-comprehension’ (262).

In much recent theory, that linguistic moment has been aligned with historical traumas, such that ’non-comprehension’ has come to describe (often at once) both our response to atrocity and the inability of language to hold traumatic experience. Although concerned with the same problems of linguistic referentiality, the critical lyricism of refugee writing I am tracing here suggests a different approach to the understanding of trauma. If the experience of statelessness uncouples the voice from the human, and hence from human rights law, it does not follow that the connections between linguistic and legal life should forever remain a mystery. If Arendt has a contribution to make to the future of trauma theory, I would argue in this respect, it is because of the political emphasis she brings to the project of understanding trauma. ’Comprehension’, she insisted in the preface to Origins of Totalitarianism, ’means the unpremeditated attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be’ (Arendt 2004: xxvi). An attentive facing up to, and resisting of, a reality we do not, and possibly cannot, know (the prescription sounds far more psychoanalytic than she would have liked); Arendt is clearly neither making a simple claim about understanding, nor advocating a return to a moment before trauma. Neither, however, will she ever concede that the human persons so incomprehensibly lost to rights law are lost too to politics or language, particularly, as it turns out, literary language.

Instead, her new kind of human beings demand a new kind of political and linguistic home.7 Back in the mid-1940s, at the very moment she finds herself a stranger in a new land, Arendt discovers a model for that new home in, of all people to bring into a discussion of human rights perhaps, Kafka.


Of course, it is not that surprising that Arendt should have turned to Kafka’s fiction at precisely the same moment as she was wondering just what was left of the human in human rights. Kafka’s writing is notoriously resistant to anthropological interpretations as her friend, Walter Benjamin, first pointed out. Few of us finish a Kafka novel knowing what a person is.8 Kafka starts from within the very linguistic un-housing that Arendt identified as the lot of the refugee. Writing, as he put it famously in a letter to Max Brod, from the ashes of a German uniquely summoned to life by Jewish hands, his fiction provides the newly English-speaking Arendt with the literary correlatives for the ’new kinds of human beings’ she first discovered in Gurs detention camp, and in the refugee communities of Paris and New York.9

Arendt published twice on Kafka in 1944 (one year after ’We Refugees’ was first published), first as part of the essay ’The Jew as a Pariah’, in Jewish Social Studies, and second, in more depth, in her ’revaluation’ for Partisan Review, on the twentieth anniversary of his death (Arendt 1944, 1994).10 Two years later she would help prepare an edition of his Diaries for Schocken Press (Brod’s sloppiness apparently made this hard work) (Young-Bruehl 189).

It is in K of Das Schloβ (The Castle), in particular, that Arendt discovers a fictional model for the paradox lived by the rightless. K, the everyman stranger, and like Arendt a Jew-stranger, pulls the anthropomorphic rug from beneath the feet of the law (or what passes for the law) simply by asking (as al Assad will later) that his rights be observed. Called to the Castle for what he thought was a job offer (as for many of today’s migrants, mistaking an invitation to work turns out to be his first error), but stubbornly refusing to disappear when the job appears to vanish, K exemplifies the plight of the stranger in a bureaucratized nation state. As the landlady reminds him: ’You’re not from the Castle, you’re not from the village, you are nothing (Sie sind nicht aus dem Schloβ, Sie sind nicht aus dem Dorfe, Sie sind nichts). Unfortunately, though, you are something, a stranger (Leider aber sind Sie doch etwas, ein Fremder), one who is superfluous and gets in the way everywhere, one who is a constant source of trouble.’ (Kafka 1997: 69). J. Hillis Miller has recently written of Kafka’s extraordinary prescience in anticipating the Holocaust. Pressed up close against that moment precisely as it unravelled, Arendt seizes on Kafka’s similarly acute understanding of the connection between being deprived of rights and the horror of a future that cannot be resolved (Kafka could never bring himself to finish The Castle).

The political, as well as moral and human, urgency of that moment in the early 1940s might be why Arendt chooses to read K as a human rights activist, a sort of literary-fictional advocate for the new persons disclosed in her paradox. ’His desires are directed toward those things to which all men have a natural right. He is, in a word, the typical man of goodwill’, she writes, demanding no more than ’every man’s right’ (Arendt 1944: 292). Unlike the timid and self-deceiving parvenues in her own essay, K speaks up ’for the average small-time Jew who really wants no more than his rights as a human being: home, work, family and citizenship’ (292). But K’s activism is not a straightforward claim to rights deprived. He conspicuously lacks the empathy of the humanitarian rights’ worker and is unmoved by the stories of misery, suffering and injustice he hears from the villagers, the ’grim and ghastly tales’, Arendt calls them, invested with ’that strange poetic quality so common in folk-tales of enslaved peoples’ (295). This deaf ear to the poetic qualities of human suffering (which some critics would say is also her own) for Arendt is a refusal on Kafka’s part ’to accept the “magic”’ that turns narratives of political injustice at the hands of the Castle, into folktales about human fate; ’the nauseating conceit’, as she later describes it, ’which identifies evil and misfortune with destiny’ (Arendt 2004: 316). To this extent, The Castle is also an object lesson, perhaps before the world knew it needed it, in the inability of humanitarian sentiment to secure political rights.11

If K is in a unique position to expose the poverty of rights under the Castle’s regime, this is not because of any particular human or moral sensibility on his part, he is no more or no less human than the next person, but simply because he has no other refuge other than in the idea that universal rights might actually exist. It is only because K attempts to become an ’indistinguishable’ generic rights-bearing human person, Arendt argues, to do what the world wishes all strangers would do (as nineteenth-century Europe wished all Jews would do)—renounce his race and, culture, and stand, alone, among men—that he becomes such an enthusiastic advocate of universal human rights in the first place (Arendt 1944: 291). Like many refugees, then, K exposes the fiction behind human rights simply by having the audacity to believe that as a human person he is entitled to them. At the same time, however, K’s status as a ’human being general’ is conditional upon his prior difference — his strangeness — from the villagers; one might almost say that this difference (and hence his lack of human rights) defines his universality (as a general human being). If the paradox of the rightless is that the loss of human rights coincides with ’the moment a person becomes a human being in general’, in The Castle the human being in general is the Jew-stranger, the outsider who exposes the paradox simply in his struggle to live it.

But it is not just K’s advocacy for the rights of strangers that makes The Castle such an important text for both Arendt and, I would argue, for the history of refugee writing. As important is how Kafka answers, or more precisely refuses to answer, the question ’what is a person?’ If lyrical and legal texts, to recall Johnson’s argument, are tied together in their answer to that question, and if lyric sometimes appears to answer it for the law too effortlessly, uncritically, Kafka’s writing changes the terms of that mutually supportive relation entirely. His characters are strange not (just) because they behave weirdly, or because they seem so insouciantly unaware of the rules governing the plausible behaviour of persons in novels, but also because they have none of that enigmatic humanity that modern literature, for de Man at least, appears to mourn. Arendt puts it more forcefully: Kafka’s characters, she writes, have ’little to do with that modern complication of the inner life which is always looking out for new and unique techniques to express new and unique feelings’ (Arendt 1994: 70). No ostentatious lyricism—no compelling performance of human feeling—in Kafka then. And for good reason, for to cast K as a complicated human character who voices his anguished claim for legal and political recognition on the basis of a unaffectedly felt inner life would be to miss the critique of the dubious anthropomorphism of rights that Kafka is making here. If K is a stripped-down kind of literary being, lacking, as Arendt puts it, ’the many superfluous detailed characteristics which together make up a real individual’, this is because, like his maker, he is not of the world he lives in (75). And, again, for good reason; for to be ’real’ in such a world would be to be complicit with a regime in which rights are but mystifications of power. In Arendt’s boldly political reading, Kafka is building a different kind of home for the rightless.

If a man builds a house or if he wants to know a house well enough to be able to foretell its stability, he will get a blueprint of the building or draw one up himself. Kafka’s stories are such blueprints; they are the product of thinking rather than of mere sense experience.


Kafka, the unacknowledged architect of the world of rights yet to come. Is Kafka’s fiction, then, a place that Arendt’s new kind of human beings can finally inhabit?

Or is this home a piece of late modernist architecture too austere for today’s humanitarian sensibilities? Has K arrived too late? Arendt’s Kafka pointedly thinks rather than feels; he is a maker of new kinds of modern persons, not a mourner for the human. Many of Arendt’s critics have fairly commented that her attachment to political reason blocks her understanding of sense experience, of the emotions, of suffering, even of trauma itself. But while the demand for testimonies of human suffering keeps pace with the production of the barbed wire encircling ever larger, and ever more permanent, detention camps, while no amount of anguished testimony to the trauma of statelessness seems to have any impact on the conditions which create it, perhaps we could do worse than to attend once more to Arendt’s critical, reasoned and dispassionate voicing of the trauma of rightlessness.

Jew-stranger, Arab-stranger

In this essay I have been arguing that Arendt’s writing discloses the political and historical frailty of grounding rights in an injured or enigmatic humanity. Writing in the most intense period of her own statelessness, for Arendt to claim, rights in the name of a putative humanity is to leave intact a concept of rights that speaks only to the caprices of political power. On the other hand, it is because the refugee speaks from within the collapse of an anthropological grounding of rights that this bitter truth is exposed. It is because the castle is so unaccommodating to the stranger that K can build a prototype for an ’ideal of humanity’ that doesn’t have to suffer in order to be granted rights. One reason for welcoming the recent return to Arendt in the wake of trauma theory is her refusal to consign the stateless and rightless to pathos. In this, she does more than simply ’allow’ for non-comprehension (the rest point of much trauma theory); her writing also ’faces up’ to a reality in which the connection between language, rights, and the human needs to be rethought altogether.

The new kind of human beings that emerge from Arendt’s writing will not shore up the ruins of anyone’s castle with their suffering humanity. Neither, however, can they exist alone, unprotected. The right to have rights, Arendt will later claim, is not a right that derives from an assumed humanity, but is the right we all have to confer rights upon one another within a political community. The dilemma Arendt leaves us with finally, as did so many writers of her generation, is how that community might be imagined. ’More intensely even than in solitude, Kafka lived in the difficult situation of one who recognizes the temptations and terrors of saying “we”’, writes Vivian Liska in her beautifully rich study of the difficulties of imagining communities in modern Jewish writing (25).12 Arendt, too, lived at a moment when that situation had become intolerable. For her generation saying ’we’ had become both necessary and, for many, truly terrifying.

’If we should start telling the truth that we are nothing but Jews it would mean that we expose ourselves to the fate of human beings who, unprotected by any specific law or political convention, are nothing but human beings’ (Arendt 2007: 273). At the end of ’We Refugees’, Arendt writes (finally we might feel) ’we’ from a firmly collective and non-ironic sense of despair. Being nothing more than Jews, amounts to being nothing more than human: in this sense at least, ’we’ commune as collective outlaws. ’A true human life cannot be led by people who feel themselves detached from the basic and simple laws of humanity’, she similarly concludes her reading of Kafka. It was ’the perception of this truth that made Kafka a Zionist. In Zionism he saw a means of abolishing the “abnormal” position of the Jews, an instrument whereby they might become a “people like other peoples”’ (Arendt 1944: 295).

For Kafka, there was finally no place forward other than back to the concept of nation state, to the very place that had proved itself as capriciously incapable, and often downright unwilling to legislate for universal rights in the first place. The irony of this return to the nation state was not lost on Arendt: ’far from solving’ the problem of the stateless, she wrote in Origins of Totalitarianism, the foundation of Israel, ’like virtually all other events of the twentieth century … merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs’ (Arendt 2004: 368). No solution to the plight of the rightless, without the production of new refugees. We too return here to where I began this essay, to an on-going history of rightlessness, of camps, castles and sutured mouths. If al Assad’s ’Asylum’ flips between making its speaker’s humanity a ground for claiming rights, and questioning any existing association between speech, rights and humanity, this is not least because he is still living the paradox Arendt first identified in the 1940s.

’One of these days—when? It doesn’t matter when, let’s say at some point—I will be able to describe the actual domain political life, because no one is better at marking the borders of a terrain than the person who walks around it from the outside’, Arendt wrote to her husband, Heinrich Blücher, in 1955 (Arendt 2000: 236). Walking around the outside, marking the borders rather than hurrying through them, possibly better describes the critical lyricism of refugee writing that I have been trying to trace here than the model of home building Arendt finally, if reluctantly, advocates in 1944.13 As many contributors to this volume argue, contemporary trauma studies now needs to move its focus from models of European memory and towards the traumas that exist beyond, and increasingly on the frontiers of, the nation state. Following Arendt, and reading through the wire, that shift means being attentive not just to the voices of the new rightless, but also to the paradoxes—political, linguistic and legal—that these voices reveal. Human rights do not travel with human persons; the pained lyricism of the rightless will not always prop up a legally and politically impoverished humanitarianism: these are the messages of the refugees, Jew-strangers, Arab-strangers. ’That which you are denying us’ turns out to be the very thing we question.


Versions of this essay were originally presented at a ’Colloquium of the Work of Cathy Caruth’, at CRASSH, Cambridge University in March 2011, and as a keynote lecture at ’The Future of Testimony’ conference in Salford in August 2011. I would like to thank the organizers of and participants in those events, and Cathy Caruth, Yasemin Yildiz and Dennis Kennedy for discussing it with me.


1 Agamben’s claim about direct filiation has not gone uncontested. In an essay which reads the lip sewing at Woomera as an example of political action in Arendt’s terms (and to which I’m indebted here), Patricia Owens points out that for Arendt the death camps differed from others because of their unprecedented anti-instrumentality (575).

2 Mehmet al Assad, ’Asylum’, first published in The Age 18.9 (2002), republished in Borderlands e-journal 1.1 (2002). Available online at www.borderlands.net.au/vol1no1_2002/alassad_asylum.html (accessed 14 May 2012). I have not been able to trace any more poems by al Assad in English, and have not been able to ascertain whether the poem was first written in English, or translated. The poet, who repeatedly asked to be observed through the wire (the request to ’please observe’ is in all three stanzas of ’Asylum’), seems to have slipped from public view, rather like the ghost person who is both there and not there, seen and not seen, in his original poem. The absence is unnerving, not least because (among other reasons) it echoes the very disappearance of the person of the refugee I trace in this essay.

3 See, for example, Rajaram (2003: 17—19). Rajaram, Jenny Edkins, and Véronique Pin-Fat have stressed how the poem implicates the reader/observer in the denial and recognition of the speaker’s rights, a point echoed by David Farrier in his reading of the poem in terms of hospitality (see Farrier 150—52; Edkins and Pin-Fat 19—20; Rajaram 2004: 222—4).

4 Article 1 of the 1951 Convention on Refugees defines a refugee as someone who ’owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’. Available online at www.unhcr.org/protect/PROTECTION/3b66c2aa10.pdf (accessed 18 May 2012).

5 I also discuss the relationship between statelessness and Arendt’s style in ’“We Refugees”: Hannah Arendt and the Perplexities of Human Rights’ (Stonebridge 101—17).

6 Derrida has written of the way in which for Arendt (as for many refugees, migrants, displaced persons and exiles) the mother tongue becomes an ambivalent ’remains of belonging’. As Yasemin Yildiz points out, however, just as Arendt is stating the primacy of German in the original TV recording of her interview with Gaus, ’she is suddenly at a loss for words and briefly switches into English’. The switch gestures towards the ’postmonolingual tensions’ at the core of Yildiz’s arresting study. In the case of ’a new kind of human beings’ these tensions produce an indeterminate kind of ’third’ language, the idiom, perhaps, which also best expresses the legal no-man’s land of the refugee (see Derrida and Dufourmantelle 89; Yildiz 16).

7 Seyla Benhabib argues that the move between an existential and political account of homelessness is at the centre of Arendt’s project (see Benhabib 35—61).

8 Arendt is directly referencing Walter Benjamin’s 1934 essay in her own revaluation written ten years later. See Benjamin, ’Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death’ and ’Some Reflections on Kafka’ (see also Hamacher). Arendt’s anti-anthropomorphic emphasis can be read as an anticipation of Deleuze and Guattari’s celebration of linguistic unhousing in Kafka’s writing (see Deleuze and Guattari).

9 ’[I]n German … the linguistic middle ground … is nothing but embers which can only be brought to a semblance of life when excessively lively Jewish hands rummage through them. That is a fact, funny or terrible as you like’ (Kafka 1977: 288).

10 ’The Jew as a Pariah: A Hidden Tradition’ (1944), reprinted in The Jewish Writings and ’Franz Kafka: A Revaluation’ (1944), reprinted in Essays in Understanding, 1930—1954: Formation, Exile and Totalitarianism. Arendt’s Kafka traverses categories and languages, much as his K moves through courtrooms, prison cells, inns, castles, villages and continents. The tensions between parvenu and pariah, refugee and Jew, for instance, so pointedly enacted in ’We Refugees’, still echo one year on; in her first discussion of the text, The Castle is described as the only novel ’in which the hero is plainly a Jew’ (Arendt 1994: 290), whereas in the Partisan Review essay K is more neutrally presented as the rightless stranger. The postmonolingual dilemmas at the heart of that earlier piece also continue. Arendt wrote, and later published, German versions of both Kafka essays. Indeed, the English version of the Partisan Review essay in Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb’s recent collection of Arendt’s writing on literature and culture is Martin Klebes’s translation of ’Kafka von neuem gewürdigt’; so you have a piece originally written in English, written again in German by its author, translated back by a second hand (see Ardent, ’Franz Kafka, Appreciated Anew’).

11 Jacques Rancière has written of the way that Arendt’s account of the decline of the rights of man is ’tailor-made’ to describe the ’shift from Man to Humanity and from Humanity to the Humanitarian’ over the past twenty years or so (Rancière 298—9).

12 See also Liska’s concluding discussion on the differences between Kafka and Arendt, ’The Gap between Hannah and Arendt and Kafka’ (Liska 207—12).

13 This passage perhaps also echoes Kafka’s description of writing as ’an assault on the frontiers’, which, ’if Zionism had not intervened, … might easily have developed into a new secret doctrine (zu einer neuen Geheimlehre), a Kabbalah’ (Kafka 1976: 399)

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