A short review I wrote a few weeks back on Michel Agier’s Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government (2011):
Rooted in anthropological practice, Agier’s Managing the Undesirables (2011) provides a rich critique of refugee camps and humanitarian aid. Although the meat of the book is an ethnography of refugee camps – conducted from 2000–2007, mostly in Africa – some of its most compelling insights concern issues of theory, identity, reflexivity, and the pitfalls of doing social research. On the latter, Agier points to the dangers of taking normative categories – like “refugee,” “illegal,” &c – at face value. Such “sociological realism” (Agier 2011: 12) ultimately reifies and reproduces the very antagonisms that the critical researcher would aim to challenge. This is something that Werner Bonefeld (2016: 103) has recently critiqued as a “theory of social stratification” that “classifies” individuals as members of a group according to a normative set of analytical criteria. The problem, for Bonefeld, is that these groups are always constructed in terms of a market situation, meaning that they are always-already rooted in contradiction (“social antagonism”). And because it is impossible to classify a contradiction, Bonefeld is correct in dismissing sociological attempts to quantify concepts like “class” or “surplus population.”
Agier’s critique of sociological realism reads similarly. “Refugees” for him is something socially constructed. It thus becomes the task of the researcher to deconstruct this category – to show where, when, and how it is produced and to “jam the machinery” (Agier 2011: 7) of this repetition. This is why Agier insists that his study is not about “refugees” per se but about the “perimeter” (Agier 2011: 29) around “refugees,” which includes the subjects of violence but also the humanitarian institutions, policies, &c that assign identities, laws, and policies. It is through such an approach that Agier (2011: 2016) is able to decenter politics around refugees and change “the focus of our gaze on the world.”
At the end of the day, though, is this really enough? Will conceiving politics from the margins really “signal the end of camps and the beginning of resilient towns” (Agier 2011: 216)? Doesn’t this place all hope in a global “ban-liex” much in the way Hardt and Negri point (problematically) to a homogenous multitude? The problem with this, in my view, is that it runs the risk of celebrating those processes of abjectification (making bare life) that we would want to do away with (cf. Endnotes 4). “Thinking at the limit” is only possible because there is a limit – i.e. contradiction – to be thought in the first place. Shouldn’t a radical politics work to abolish altogether the liminal spaces of the refugee camp, prison, &c? To this end I think Agier is right to point to the problem of identity, as a name for the mediating processes that inscribe subjects within these terrible worlds. Against this, and not unlike Adorno (1973), Agier places strategic emphasis on non-identity as a limit-concept. Non-identity helps us to “think at the limit” but also to think beyond that limit, beyond the material conditions bound up with the production of refugee camps and of bare life. Perhaps this is what Agier (2011: 46) has in mind when he talks about “communities without identity”—as a kind of Adornoian “constellation” (1973: 162) of individuals and things organized, not around identity, but around some arbitrary situation, space, or event. (Echoes of the commune?) This explains why Agier can characterize refugee camps as both inside and outside the present: as contradictory and liminal spaces of political agency they point towards their own abolition, towards the future.
Adorno T (1973) Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge.
Bonefeld W (2016) Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion and Negative Reason. New York: Bloomsbury.
Endnotes (2015) “An Identical Abject-Subject?” In Endnotes 4: Unity in Separation. Available at: http://endnotes.org.uk/issues/4.