Thursday, September 30, 2004

States and Strangers (Maria)



Nevzat Soguk. 1999. States and Strangers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

The book is an exploration into the origin, development and employment of the concept of the “refugee” in the context of International Politics. Above all else, the book is a re-thinking of the traditional meaning attached to such politically-laden terms such as “border,” “citizen,” state,” “nation.” To begin with, he acknowledges that there is not one definition of “refugee” today that sufficiently encompasses all the complexities and multiplicities of refugee experiences. Thus, the epistemological base from which much theorizing on the refugee is done is already lacking in broad-enough scope and necessarily leaves our categories of people who do not fit within the neatly defined lines of Internationally-accepted conventions some fifty years ago. The lack of applicability thus creates the problem of accountability regarding the very organizations that are to take care of the person in flight. Soguk suggests that the discourse on the refugee is rooted in a hierarchical interpretation still, an interpretation that is blind to the refugee itself and that leads to a voicelessness that is “an effect of the refugee discourse” (9). Thus the central question in the book: “How is it that the discourse of the refugee announces itself as a privileged discourse oriented to helping the refugee yet all the while manages to afford no place for the refugee? This is, I would accentuate here, a question of power” (9). The answer to this question is to be found in the epistemologically and ontologically stable/sterile nature of the state/citizen discourse as it has been conceived by conventional International Relations scholars. Soguk turns his attention to the so-called paradox of sovereignty, deriving its legitimacy from the “premise that the modern citizen, occupying a bounded territorial community of citizens, is the proper subject of political life” (9) and thus, the paradox:
The state is understood to derive its powers from the citizens it represent,
the citizens who author the state by way of a covenant or social compact
that accords certain powers to the state, the citizens for whom, in return,
the state deploys law, force, and rational administrative resources in order
to guarantee certain protections. (9-10).
The community of citizens that empowers the state is the same community that the state claims to represent and by virtue of whose control the state authorizes its own use of violence, one outcome of which is the figure of the refugee. Neither theories of International Relations (realism and its derivatives), nor practices of International Organizations themselves made up of sovereign entities address sufficiently the question of the refugee as long as the latter continues to be seen as a challenge to territorially-defined authority of the state as well as to the security of its territorially-conceived citizens. The refugee is seen as a problem in the otherwise stable, orderly and secure realm of the nation state. In the context of state-ist discourse, the refugee is inscribed negatively as an outsider, an Other, a threat and at the same time, as the very thing that legitimizes the creation and justification of those very categories of exclusion. The dichotomized understanding of the modern state system cannot but perpetuate its claim to being the unproblematic authority that represents a territorially-bounded citizenry (12). In order that he uncover the paradoxical implications of the refugee, Soguk refers to “contingent moments of history when the presence of the refugees has become both a 'problem' to be addressed and a 'resource' to be employed in the service of discursive yet converging social and political practices of representation that constitute the realities of the sovereign territorial state” (15). In order to do that, Soguk follows the thought of Michel Foucault in uncovering how and why the refugee has been made “objects of acts of problematization” (17) affirming statist practices. As such, they legitimize practices of exclusion spanning from the unit of political organization that is the state to International Organizations' often hypocritical and orchestrated actions. Soguk centers his discussion around three puzzles:
The first puzzle centers on the question of whether it is possible to
retheorize the refugee discourse as one of the many boundary-producing discourses instrumental to the task of statecraft . . . how the refugee
problematizations might work in constitutions and representations of the
relations, institutions, and subjectivities of the sovereign state in local and
global politics. The second puzzle . . . how these problematizations might be
generated in a multilateral fashion, that is, through international activities of intergovernmental regimentation. And finally . . . how these activities of
intergovernmental regimentation are imbricated and bound up with the articulations of a number of fundamental projects and practices in life, including human rights, humanitarianism, security, and democracy and democratic practices. (21)
The figure of the refugee figures as a problem as well as an empowerment for both statist and international activities that perpetuate a rhetoric of regimented and methodical disciplining and inscribing of the “effective boundaries of sovereign statehood and citizenship in contemporary global life” (20). Thus, in conjunction with a call for the recognition of the multiple existing discourses on refugees, the book itself is a multifaceted exploration into the nature of the various theoretical as well as practical employments of the category of the refugee toward the creation of a “category of orchestration of global political life” (22). Chapter one engages the refugee as one of the multiple fields of statecraft in history. Chapter two offers a historical analyses of the evolution and emergence of the category of the refugee in relation to that of the sovereign state. Chapters three and four examine the various aspects of the so-called “international refugee regime” focusing primarily on intergovernmental practices as exemplified by the League of Nations and the United Nations. Chapters five and six examine “how contemporary strategic representations as sovereignty practices constitute strategic discourse on and of security, human rights and democracy, all of which are linked epistemologically and ontologically to the discourse on sovereignty” (25). Rightly so, the book poses more questions than it answers and opens the door to a more critical, certainly more liberating, interpretation and understanding of important issues that have been, to say the least, taken for granted and theoretically abstracted from the every day reality of the displaced human being dying somewhere on the border between two equally unstable, but importantly, sovereign, territories. To look beyond the state is indeed troubling but the only way to hope to see.

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