Performing the human: refugees, the body, and the politics of universalism
This paper explores the conflict between the pervasive representation of refugees as the pure embodiment of humanity, and the continuing efforts to dehumanise them through various ‘othering’ strategies. Just as being human is an ever-unfolding process and not a static state of being, ‘refugeeness’ is a site of contestation where discourses regarding culture, society, economy, and politics constantly interact. Drawing on feminist and queer theories, this paper argues that the body is a vital site of identity construction, particularly with regards to the idea of humanity. Going beyond the existing literature on the relationship between ‘refugeeness’ and the body from an Agambean approach where the body is subjected to state control and discipline, this paper offers an alternative approach, that the body is not only subjected to discipline and regulation but also (re)produces, constructs, and resists ideas about identity and difference. Using three case studies of corporeal protests—naked protest, hunger strikes, and lip-sewing—this paper explores what these corporeal acts by refugees communicate as acts of resistance and attempts to reassert their humanity, and what role the body has in the construction and performance of humanity. The case studies prompt us to question our positionality in the ever-changing world; how our lives may be implicated in relations of violence; and how the body may offer a vehicle through which we can foster empathy and the capacity to shorten the distance between ‘the other’ and ‘the self’.