Our Placeless Condition

By Hadji BakaraFebruary 11, 2019

Our Placeless Condition

Placeless People by Lyndsey Stonebridge

FLANNERY O’CONNOR did not write much about refugees. Even the family of displaced Poles that worked at her Georgia farm in the early 1950s received only a single story, “The Displaced Person,” and a few observations in her notebooks. What O’Connor did write though leaves the impression of a mind inconclusive about what to make of the newcomers. “With the coming of these displaced people,” one character in the story reflects, “she was obliged to give new thought to a good many things.” Yet the mere act of thinking about them proves difficult. To the denizens of the farm, the refugees appear simply as “extra” or “the world’s overflow”; they induce a feeling of being “in some foreign country” — as if these rooted citizens and not the refugees where the ones who had been displaced. Eventually, a feeling of collective groundlessness sweeps the community. By the end of the story, everyone on the farm is either dead, departed, or driven mad.

O’Connor’s particular mixture of regionalism and Catholicism, leaded with sadism, kept her from providing much in the way of world historical reflection in “The Displaced Person.” In the end, she made the refugee protagonist into a suffering innocent and Christ figure who she characteristically sacrifices. O’Connor’s decision to sanctify the refugee perhaps proves that she too was incapable of accepting him as a worldly being.

Nevertheless, O’Connor’s story captures something of the political and existential quandary posed by what Lyndsey Stonebridge, in her new book, calls “placeless people.” Placeless people are the world’s great displaced quotient: refugees, migrants, non-citizens, and the stateless. “To be placeless,” Stonebridge writes, “is to be denied political sovereignty.” But since “political sovereignty” is imagined to be more or less interchangeable with political life, to be denied sovereignty is to also “become strange to those for whom national citizenship is a given” — which is to say nearly everyone. Losing sovereignty means becoming “strange” to citizens. And what O’Connor’s story suggests, and Stonebridge’s book affirms, is that this strangeness emanates from within the citizen and the nation, not from without. The psychic upheavals that O’Connor’s characters suffer when confronted with refugees invoke less an unassimilable alienness than a shared condition. Stonebridge wants to convince us of this shared condition, and to ask us to lean in. For as she puts it memorably: “[T]he history of placelessness is everybody’s history.”


Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees, Stonebridge’s incandescent and admirably polemical new book, is not easily categorized. It is, by turns: The first literary history of the modern refugee and modern statelessness, a fine intellectual history of mid-20th-century oppositions to both nationalist politics and humanitarian morality, and an urgent argument about the need to recognize our political — as opposed to merely moral or ethical — implication in what Stonebridge calls the “placeless condition.”

When Stonebridge speaks of the “placeless condition,” she is referring to a quintessentially modern phenomenon of “thinking and being between nation states.” Like Hannah Arendt and Edward Said before her, Stonebridge makes the basic argument that the modern refugee and stateless person are inventions of the 20th-century nation-state — and so too is placelessness on the scale that we witness today. Placelessness is experienced by humans without national citizenship and sovereignty, and without rights. These are “placeless people.” But not only “placeless people” share in the “placeless condition.” Citizens, if they are willing to recognize it, will find that they share in this condition too: when we encounter (personally or virtually, in fiction or in film) refugees and non-sovereign others, when loved ones lose their homes to fire or flood, when we lose a passport abroad, when we hear of the death of migrant children in detention, when we are interrogated at a border. At such times, we become aware of placelessness as the shadow and cost of our sense of sovereignty and security and in the world. Encounters with the “placeless condition” disturb us, Stonebridge writes, “because they reflect the vulnerability that lies at the heart of ideas about sovereignty and citizenship.” For this reason, they should be an occasion for political judgment and critique. Yet Stonebridge insists that these moments are more often occasions for bad faith.

The driving polemic of Placeless People is that citizens and especially citizens of the West have either ignored or misjudged the realities of placelessness. We have done so for two reasons. First, because we continue to believe in the power of state sovereignty to resolve the condition of people cast out or detained between nation-states. Second, because we imagine that the space between the national citizen and the human being — and the rightlessness that ensues when one resides in this gap — can be adequately addressed by right moral feeling and humanitarian relief. As Stonebridge puts it, “[w]e have become accustomed to assuming that this is a place of pathos.” But it is not. And if you continue to believe that humanitarianism is enough then “you have confused your human ability to recognize suffering with a way of living with other people in the world,” Stonebridge writes. This confusion does not stem from a lack of care or concern. The culprit here is the lack of thought: not due to ignorance, but rather because thinking about placelessness is difficult, painful, and antithetical to our abiding assumptions about the common ground of political life.

Stonebridge thus offers Placeless People as a companion and spur to thinking about our “placeless condition.” To address a lacuna in modern political thought, she proffers an archive of writing that responded directly to “the gap that had opened up between the rightless and the rest of the world” in the first decades of the 20th century. The archive is made up of the writing of two midcentury refugees (Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil), four writers who worked with and wrote about refugees (George Orwell, Samuel Beckett, Dorothy Thompson, and W. H. Auden), and the contemporary poetry of the Palestinian refugee Yousif M. Qasmiyeh. What exactly unites them? First, their opposition to modern nationalism and a commitment to imagining “alternatives for citizenship and sovereignty.” Second, an incredulity to humanitarianism. Each of them, Stonebridge writes, is an “artist of the placeless condition.”

Stonebridge’s turn to literary history might signal to some the point where Placeless People wends into academic specialization, leaving behind the macro-political purview that commands a general audience. This is entirely wrong. Stonebridge writes here as a pragmatist. Her pragmatism resides in the entirely lucid conviction that the “man made fictions” that we live by daily — like national borders and national citizenship — are no less “made up” than literary worlds. And if a few engrained legal fictions can maintain a system of unthinkable inequality and brutality, then why not look for alternatives in the “literary-historical imagination”?


Plalcess People opens with a quote from the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig. Rendered stateless by the Nazi Anschluss, Zweig committed suicide in 1942 despite having escaped Hitler and settled safely in Brazil. In his memoir, The World of Yesterday, he writes of his losses:

I have not felt that I entirely belong to myself any more. Something of my natural identity has been destroyed forever with my original, real self. […] I — the former cosmopolitan — keep feeling as if I had to offer special thanks for every breath of air that I take in a foreign country, thus depriving its own people of its benefit … On the day I lost my Austrian passport I discovered, at the age of fifty-eight, that when you lose your native land you are losing more than a patch of territory within set borders.

Zweig’s words are important to Stonebridge because they exemplify an erstwhile cosmopolitanism that was incapable of compassing the fact of placelessness. Like Zweig, she writes, “many of those in the twentieth century who had thought of themselves as citizens of the world discovered that they had become citizens of nowhere.” Despite the distance he’d put between himself and the “dark continent” (Europe), Zweig could simply not acclimate himself to the new regions of “nowhere.” Upon hearing of his suicide, some of his fellow refugees, including Arendt and Bertolt Brecht, expressed disappointment at Zweig’s unwillingness to face the world in its new political realities. Welcome to the “placeless condition,” one can hear them uttering across the decades. Placelessness is everybody’s history now.

Not everyone was as blindsided as Zweig when mass expulsion swept a putatively cosmopolitan Europe. Brecht, Orwell, Arendt, Weil, and others recognized statelessness as a new phenomenon but also one that had a history and precedent. Arendt found genealogies of the placeless condition in Franz Kafka; Weil traced the roots of uprootedness to the Iliad; Auden employed the old forms of the downtrodden (the blues ballad) to write his “Refugee Blues”; Orwell gleaned continuities in the British treatment of its colonial subjects. In fact, many of these writers traced a genealogy of placelessness to European imperialism. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt would famously argue that the mass production of “superfluous” bodies was the boomerang of imperial domination. But it wasn’t only the blowback of imperial brutality that had come home to roost. The less aggressive inequities of empire, including those between ethnic and religious minorities and citizens and subjects, had lit the powder keg of nationalism.

Now the conflagration was unstoppable. Modern nationalism, Dorothy Thompson wrote in 1938, was:

[T]urning the world into a jungle and the refugees are merely people forced to run away from one part of the jungle to another part of it. Their personal tragedy can only serve one great social purpose. They are and should be recognized as an advancing crowd shouting a great warning: The jungle is growing up, and the jungle is on fire.

For Thompson, as for nearly all of the subjects of Placeless People, the global spread of the European nation-state was the cause not the cure for placelessness. At the same time, Thompson continued, “[r]ealism demands that one must contemplate the fact with more than a horrified humanitarianism.”

The result of seeing the “refugee crisis” of the 1930s and 1940s within the longue durée of world politics was that it no longer appeared only as a “crisis” — that is, as an exception to politics as usual. Seen historically, placelessness revealed itself as the necessary if unintended consequence of political modernity’s forward march into more bounded and indivisible forms of sovereignty. Consequently, conceiving of an adequate response to the placeless condition became much more complicated. In The Need for Roots, written partly in the Ain-Seba refugee camp in Casablanca, Weil echoed the concerns of many in Stonebridge’s book when she tied the histories of colonialism to nationalism in an appeal to overcome both in the name of the displaced: “We must put an end to the terrible uprootedness which European colonial models always produce even under their least cruel methods,” she wrote. Yet the solution could not, for one, be the restoration of a nation-based world order or of unequal and stratified empires. But neither could the response be merely a “horrified humanitarianism.” Refugees would have to be the starting point for a new politics after nationalism and colonialism; they would be the “vanguard” (as Arendt once called them) in a movement for global democratization.


But democracy without sovereignty was not the way the wind was blowing in 1945, 1948, or anytime afterward. There is, then, a kind of repeated dramatic irony when reading Placeless People, as its subjects insist on the need to supersede modern nation-based thinking only to run up against the intractability of the sovereign nation-state. Orwell imagined a future of “democratic socialism” ranged against nationalism and empire; Weil hoped for a society based on universal duties rather than rights; Arendt advocated for a federated world system without national sovereignty; Auden wrote of a kind of new Convivencia, chastened by the specter of the postwar’s displaced millions. But instead of a new model of international politics, what emerged after World War II was a new regime of global “humanitarian reason.” The site of this tradeoff was Palestine.

In an excellent chapter on Dorothy Thompson, humanitarianism, and Palestine, Stonebridge makes the convincing argument that, in the wake of World War II, “one group of refugees [Europeans] became the subjects of human rights law, the others [Palestinians and other non-Europeans] objects of humanitarian attention.” What happened in Palestine around 1948, against Thompson’s fierce opposition, was something of a Faustian bargain between the displaced peoples of the Global South and the “international community” of concerned Westerners: “[A] modern, committed, eventually effective and, comparatively progressive, aid administration [was] granted at the price of political and historical visibility.” Although exceptions would be made for those fleeing communism, refugees from this point forward became a largely humanitarian problem. Thereafter, if the placeless condition was imagined to be part of a collective predicament it was only insofar as placeless people were relegated to a subset of the ever-suffering quotient of humanity in need of sympathy, care, and relief. Placelessness passed out of a shared history and into a common humanity, where it has been contained ever since.


Placeless People is very good on the wartime and interwar periods when the modern refugee appears in European politics. But the book’s primal scene is the phantasmagoric pivot from wartime to postwar world around 1945 to 1951. It was in these years that refugees largely vanish as historical and political actors and become legible almost exclusively as humanitarian subjects.

Some, like Samuel Beckett, tried to reverse this trend by focusing his fiction on Europe’s “undesirable remnants” — “rightless creatures” whose intractable wretchedness meant they could not be reduced to figures of humanitarian sympathy. In her chapter on Beckett, who began work with the Irish Red Cross in the Saint-Lô, Normandy, in 1944, Stonebridge makes the convincing case for Beckett as “one of the first humanitarian skeptics.” Even as he worked for the Red Cross in a refugee camp, Beckett mashed “up the grammar of humanitarian[ism] […] so as to deride it.” Although they were inspired by the placeless people he met as an aid worker, the “tenderly drawn abject creatures of his post-war writing” were unassimilable to the moral and aesthetic norms of the postwar humanitarian system. They demanded something more than sympathy. But Beckett’s intractable characters were an anomaly. For the most part, Stonebridge writes, “conventions and treaties, categories and agencies, that sometimes offered exits from danger and new homes” after World War II were also, for placeless people, “more often than not, spaces in which to disappear”: from history, politics, the future.

It wasn’t only the new humanitarian system into which refugees disappeared. New nations and enclaves of sovereignty attenuated the visibility of the placeless condition. The proliferation of new nations and nationalisms globally made the millions of people left out of the nation between 1914 and 1950 appear historical anomalies. Of course, they were not. But as the nation-state retrenched in Europe and was globalized during the era of decolonization the “fact that nationalism had once engorged the Europe nation state was swiftly forgotten.” Soon enough, the division of human life into sovereign nation-states “quickly became so naturalized that many in the West did not have cause to stop and think of the cost of their own citizenship.”


Close to a century later, this accounting is still pending. Meanwhile, placeless people have proven to be anything but a vestige of the mid-20th century. And so Stonebridge’s history leads us toward a pressing question: Can we in the West begin to think realistically about the global cost of our own national citizenship? Can this accounting act as a spur to politics — a “different politics of belonging,” in Stonebridge’s words, than those we can presently imagine? And lastly, can the ideal of equality among national citizens be attained without the primacy of sovereignty? Stonebridge belongs to a growing number on the left today who believe that it can and that it must. But she diverges from her contemporaries by emphasizing that “alternatives for citizenship and sovereignty” reside as much in the politics of writing and literature as they do in the countless economic or moral “cases” for open or closed borders.

Across Placeless People, Stonebridge builds a case for the concrete value of literature when confronted with the perplexities of the placeless condition. When Arendt went searching in Kafka’s fiction for a “right to have rights,” or Weil looked to the Iliad for the ancient “viewpoint of the disappeared victims,” or Auden followed his time with the Allied Bombing Survey with a dream-vision search for universal community in The Age of Anxiety, they did so because existing political and moral responses to the placeless condition appeared grossly inadequate. Literature didn’t hold out a concrete solution to the “refugee crisis,” but literary language and the act of writing was an intellectual catalyst. “[A]t a moment when the question of what it meant to belong to a nation was at its most vexed,” Stonebridge shows, writing and literature wrenched midcentury thought from a revanchist tendency to confine rights and belonging to the territorial bounded sovereign state. It can surely do the same today.

Stonebridge wants to change the way we think with literature in the present. She uses literature as a political and intellectual catalyst because it worked that way for her subjects. This is very different from valuing literature as a catalyst for empathizing with refugees and other humanitarian subjects — which is much more common today. Ultimately, Stonebridge chose her subjects precisely for their unsentimentality and aversion to a humanitarian ethos (though not, importantly, to humanitarian responsibility). Each of them refused to follow “the circuits of empathetic identification [that] were wired towards the humanitarian observer, to the giver of sympathy.” In eschewing the ethical pathos of humanitarianism, Stonebridge writes, they were “demanding a more complicated kind of solidarity.” If this unsentimentality makes them less assimilable to contemporary cultures of humanitarianism, it also makes them more instructive as alternatives to our failing humanitarian system and political stalemate — a stalemate that calls for nothing else if not “a more complicated kind of solidarity” than we can presently imagine. 

Placeless People should help change conversations about humanitarianism, migration, citizenship, and democracy. It will be profitably read as a cultural history of the “humanitarian skeptic,” serving as a reminder that literature can and should do more than call for reading publics to feel more for the displaced and dispossessed. But where Stonebridge breaks legitimately new ground — and bestows that ground to future scholars — is in unearthing a tradition of writing that challenges citizenship, sovereignty, and the nation-state for the cause of placeless people yet from a decidedly political and democratic perspective. Engaging with this archive can help dislodge the present hold that moral and economic reasoning has on conversations about alternatives to the sovereign nation-state. Changing the terms of this conversation is no small step forward.


Hadji Bakara is an assistant professor of English and Human Rights at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he teaches 20th- and 21st-century global literatures. He is completing his first book: Governments of the Tongue: A Literary History of Human Rights.

LARB Contributor

Hadji Bakara teaches 20th- and 21st-century literature at the University of Michigan. He is the editor of a special issue of JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory on “Refugee Literatures,” and is completing Governments of the Tongue: A Literary History of Human Rights, parts of which have appeared in American Literary History and German Quarterly, and is working on a second book, Refugee Futures, parts of which are forthcoming in PMLA. 


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