The Homeland and the Right of Death
Foucault, Arendt, and the paradox of being stateless
“Welcome, dear compatriot. How would you like to die? You have all the choices the homeland has to offer. You’re free. Believe that you are free!” These are the opening lines of an episode of Radio Souriali, a podcast playing on the words suriaali (Arabic for surreal) and Souria li (meaning "Syria is mine").
The host of the episode, Lukman Derky, continues “by the Nasra Front? ISIS style? Just let us know! You’ll even get a marching band, and obituaries all around town. But we can’t guarantee it in case you’re hit by a mortar. Haven’t you heard? The terrorists are shooting mortars now, my compatriot.”
“..and if I die by a mortar, I will not only have died by the hands of terrorists, I’ll also get to be wrapped in the flag of the homeland”
Then he goes on to present other options: “I want to die by ricochet. I don’t want to complicate thing too much for my family.”
“Me, I want to go by drowning. So they could make a TV series about me. This stuff is in now, we could do it in Greece or Turkey. If I die by drowning, there will be no one to sue, no courts and no trouble.”
“I want to die by sniper, I want a despicable terrorist to snipe me, and then I want him to get caught, regret it, and apologize on TV in front of everyone.”
He ends by saying “Thank you. And I hope the world sees the freedom that we get to live — sorry, die — in.”
“Thank you. And I hope the world sees the freedom that we get to live — sorry, die — in.”
The tone of this episode, to clarify, is an absurdist tone. It is humorous, making us smile as it leads us to a deep point about the biopolitics of Syrian people today. The different “methods of death” listed in the episode remind us not only of people still living in Syria under conditions of war, but also refugees who are looking for a safe place. What happens to people who are in such a situation? Without a state to let them live and make them die or let them die and make them live? What happens to your rights and freedoms when you are not really a part of a political body like a state or country?
I happened to read Michel Foucault’s Right of Death and Power of Life and Hannah Arendt's The Perplexities of the Rights of Man the same day I listened to this podcast episode. These two chapters discuss exactly what Derky is trying bring to our attention in this episode.
Foucault talks about the change in the sovereignty. For a long time, he says, what made a sovereign power was the right to decide life and death. In classical times, this meant that the sovereign exercised his power by deciding whether to kill or let live (faire mourir ou laisser vivre). This has slowly changed into a form of power which is "to make live and let die" (faire vivre et laisser mourir). This is not a power that wants to take life, it is a power that wants to administer it, to optimize and multiply it, to control it through regulations. This is why suicide was seen as a crime for such a long time. It is a subversion of power, since it takes life away from the grasp of power. Death, then, is power's limit. Death cannot be controlled.
Where do the life and death of Syrians or any refugees fall in this theory? Do they have the freedom to choose whether to live or die? Is there a sovereign power controlling this freedom? Listening to this episode, Derky really shows how Syrians not only have no freedom to live (or to choose how they live), they don't even have the freedom to choose they die.
Both groups referenced in the episode— the Syrians in Syria and especially refugees — can be seen as no longer having a political body which controls their rights. Paradoxically, however, not having a state to control their rights has not granted them freedom. Far from it. As Arendt explains, the result is a type of expulsion from being part of a community and… from humanity? Despite not being “controlled” by a state or even a community, they still don’t have ownership over their bodies, they don't get to decide what happens to them, and don’t even have the freedom to choose how they die. That's what's so absurd here.
When we think about refugees, we don't always think about these questions. It is important to try to understand what it is like to be "in between," or to be "nowhere." The risk that people take is not only their safety. It is their power, their freedoms, their rights, and even their identity.
Seeking asylum means living between two countries for months or even years. Sam Ivin's arresting portraits of refugees…www.wired.com
This isn't only relevant for refugees and people living in war conditions, it also relevant for immigrants, people stuck in airports with refused entry, people undergoing a revolution, and others. Having the ability to make decisions about one's own fate is crucial. Losing that, as illustrated in the photography project of Sam Ivin, makes you lose a part of your body, a part of who you are.