Presentation at the MLA Conference in Austin (January 2016)
Panel: “Other Europes: Migrations, Translations, Transformations”
Europe in early 2016 no longer resembles the Europe many presumed to be under construction even a year ago. The influx of millions of refugees from the Near East and Africa over the past year has not only triggered embittered distribution battles among different member states of the European Union, but led to the invalidation of the Schengen agreement, a resurgence of preservative cultural nationalisms, and the construction of materials walls and ideological fences both Stalin and Donald Trump would be proud of. In light of these dramatic developments, as well as ongoing threats of possible Grexits and Brexits, it has become commonplace among pundits, scholars, and public intellectuals to bury the idea of Europe altogether. Quick to presuppose that the political in the 21st century has no alternative but to follow the dictates of biopolitics and ongoing states of emergency, many see little reason to believe that the institutional structures of the European Union have the ability to prevent renewed national partitions and create better conditions to meet the challenges of this unprecedented wave of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.
So much is clear for now: the figure of the refugee is and will become central, not only to the geographies of everyday life across Europe, but also to its cultural production and academic scholarship. Shot in Berlin, season 5 of the Showtime series Homeland features a Syrian refugee professor at Berlin’s Technical University who helps engineer a jihadi attack on the German capital; by no means a religious fundamentalist, his role in the strike against his new home is motivated entirely political, namely to punish Germans for their allegiance with contemporary Israel. Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2015 novel Gehen, ging, gegangen profiles a freshly retired German classics professor who stumbles into the bureaucratic maltreatment of African refugees in Berlin and, while pondering the cultural foundations of his intellectual belief systems, ends up housing—illegally—a dozen asylum seekers to protect them from imminent deportation.
The aspirations of these two fictional Berlin-based professors could not be more different, the first meant to project latent fears about the potential unreliability of the refugee, the second staging a becoming foreign of the cultural insider in face of the failure of his society to circumvent the procedural coldness of the law. Both scripted before the full impact of last summers’ refugee crisis, both academics have been—one might argue—already overrun by the historical process itself given the fact that, with 1 million refugees having entered Germany in 2015 alone, the fabrics of German and European society have already changed irreversibly and the question of the refugee is no longer one of whether and how to allow the other to enter, but how to move forward in face of the becoming other of Europe itself, of how to reinvent the present to accommodate a significant de facto change of the population. Yet both texts, whether timely or untimely, continue to raise the larger question regarding the role of the academy vis-à-vis the tremendous inflow of refugees, and how to adjust scholarly practices and epistemological frameworks in response to the becoming other of Europe.
On a conceptual level, scholars might find themselves drawn to harvest the insights of recent exile studies, and with a certain twist of historical irony, the rich work on German refugees during the Nazi area, to map the ubiquity of displaced persons in central Europe today. And yet, as Erpenbeck’s novel itself actually shows with great urgency, the most pressing questions for contemporary refugees are not those of symbolic loss or renewal, of blocked transfer or cultural hybridization–questions that have been at the heart of recent exile studies and have triggered the development of demanding theoretical frameworks to produce compelling answers. No, the first and foremost issue for today’s refugees is a legal and political one, a question of human and civil rights, of how political infrastructures implement legal mechanisms for asylum seekers and are willing to adjust their operations if real-time events overwhelm their factual architecture. Cultural theorists may at length speculate about how the massive presence of refugees may change the cultural, normative, and symbolic textures of Europe, and what kind of theoretical framework might best be suited to theorize such changes. In the end, however, what matters most right now is to reflect on the structures and stipulations, the procedures and policies that guide processes of asylum and the integration of refugees into their new host countries.
A lot can be read in newspapers about protests against and attacks on refugees in Europe these days, including in particular in the Eastern parts of Germany. While criminal attacks of course need to be persecuted, it’d be foolish, though, and politically utterly naïve and self-defeating, to expect individual countries or cultures as a whole to speak or act in one voice in this matter. The possible articulation of dissent is part of what makes certain countries desirable targets of refugees in the first place. In the current situation, academic uses of the figure of the refugee as a portal to deeply reflect about the meaning and cohesion of so-called European values, of the overarching unity and significance of “Europe,” are merely the flipside of how populist leaders seek to stir affects to warrant cultural identity. What is truly needed, instead, are scholarly interventions that explore, question, and enhance the democratic legitimacy of legal structures and political procedures—scholarly perspectives whose readings of refugee texts, films, and images unfold against the background of a solid understanding of human rights discourses and their differential implementation in various member states of the European Union.
This fall witnessed the publication of a small booklet, entitled “Deutschland: Erste Informationen für Flüchtlinge” (Germany: First Information for Refugees), presented in both German and Arabic, also available as app for download. This handbook, for various good reasons, received some bad press in Germany for its extremely abbreviated guide to navigate everyday life in Germany today.It is easy to critique the stereotypes at play in such a guide and simply see it, from the academic armchair of criticality, as a cunning mechanism of interpellating the other into normative concept of the same. What is—assuming a somewhat more generous perspective—quite remarkable about this text, however, is the fact that it starts out, not with a deep contemplation of German culture, geography, and life, but rather with a rather dry description of the political system, the constitutional form, and the federal organization of contemporary Germany. Dry: but more than apropos, given the fact that no refugee will be able to settle in without navigating various legal and constitutional hurdles, but may very well do so without knowing anything about the appeal of German poetry, music, cars, or the Bavarian alps.
Somewhat strangely, the word Europe does not appear in the initial pages of the book, and yet—as I would argue—it was nothing other than the process of European integration since the 1950s that enabled Germany to define its identity, not simply in culturalist or ethnic terms, but in terms of certain legal and political achievements—achievements that include the very legitimacy of constitutional structures that allow and inspire even conservative politicians to pursue policies toward refugees that run counter to populist sentiment on the street. However flawed factual practices on the ground may be, books like this can serve as a powerful reminder that what we need is more rather than less Europe to respond to the massive influx of refugees, more rather than fewer transnational structures backing the legitimate rule of local law rather than the frenzy of the nationalist mob; more rather than less scholars developing their reflections on cultural identities against the background of both the incomplete project of the European Union and the dire need for post-nationalist institutionalizations of human rights; and more rather than less trained academics stepping in to teach linguistic, legal, and cultural skills to refugees, not in order to remake the other in the image of the same, but on the contrary simply and pragmatically to provide what it takes to navigate the day-to-day challenges of exile and asylum within contentious environments most effectively.