By Nikos Papastergiadis
In the 1970s a large graffito appeared in Melbourne: ‘Wogs Run/Turn Cogs’.
‘Wog’ was the racist name for migrants from Southern Europe, and the graffito underlined their concentration in the work force as industrial labourers, linking their identity to the function of a cog in the machine. During this period it was also commonplace for migrants to describe the location of their identity as being split between two different places. For instance, Con George claimed that the migrant’s body was severed from his imagination: ‘While his body laboriously is and remains in the country of his involuntary adoption, his mind flies back and remains in the country of his origin.’
In John Berger’s classic study of the experience of guest workers in Europe, he begins his account of their arrival as if the migrant is a somnambulist:
… his migration is like an event in a dream dreamt by another. As a figure in a dream dreamt by an unknown sleeper, he appears to act autonomously, at times unexpectedly; but everything he does—unless he revolts—is determined by the needs of the dreamer’s mind.
Berger also notes that the repetitive and exhausting gestures undertaken in the industrial workplace lead to an effect whereby the ‘body loses its mind in the gesture’. The final image he offers in this penetrating account of the splitting of the migrant’s subjectivity is that of a person trapped in a state of bereavement, a state in which ‘everything [the bereaved person] sees reminds him of what he can no longer see; and what he is reminded of becomes the essential experience, not what he sees.’
Against this now familiar immigrant lament I would pose Arnold Zable’s account of a hunger strike against the Australian government’s policy of indefinite detention by Sri Lankan refugees on Nauru Island. Zable ends his plea for understanding of the traumatic consequences of indefinite detention by drawing attention to the placards that the refugees composed in which they describe themselves as ‘living corpses … walking zombies’. Mohammed Sagar, an asylum seeker who was held for seven years in an offshore camp, explained his predicament to a journalist in these terms: ‘I don’t want to be happy, I just want my life back … whether it would be happy or sad doesn’t matter. I just want it back. I want to be alive, that’s all, because now I’m feeling like a dead living thing.’ The fantasy of release from detention is therefore bound by the desire to return to the place of the ‘living’. However, even this modest hope is presented as a chimera in refugee Richard Okao’s account of living in Melbourne, ‘which is the city of the dead for me because it is the city where I realised that I was dead; that I wasn’t living’. Amal Masry, who survived the SIEV X disaster by clinging to a floating corpse, in which 353 people drowned when a people-smuggling boat sank on its way to the Australian territory of Christmas Island. After Masry was granted residency in Australia, she visited her son who was exiled in Iran. He recorded a video interview in which, with a shudder in her voice and a trembling hand placed softly over her heart, she recalled the horror of looking into the faces of the other refugees and thinking, ‘the color of their skin was bad, they were living but they were dead, like zombies’.
The rhetorical shift in the image of migrant subjectivity, from the wog/cog-mechanical to zombie-spectral metaphors provides a graphic register of a possible radicalisation in the contemporary of the form of dehumanisation. In the 1970s migration was inextricably linked to the process of industrialisation in the West. The identification of the migrant as a cog in the machine led many commentators to conclude that the alienation of migrants was also a metaphor for the general form of dehumanisation under capitalism. The theories of alienation referred to the reduction of humanity as it was objectified in the form of a mechanical part. The zombification of the other introduces a new logic for the extraction of functionality from humanity and its release as a purposeless spectral entity. Given the recent transformations in both the structures of economic production and the mechanisms for disseminating cultural values, I contend that the stigmatic image of the migrant has been decoupled from the racial/mechanical image of being wogs/cogs in a vast industrial machine, and now draws from a spectral symbolic economy. The American anthropologists Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff have argued that the zombie tropes have been increasingly used as a way of making sense of the uncertainties associated with contemporary migration. They have argued that migrants have always been considered frightening because they usually look different, they sometimes make incomprehensible sounds, and because they are from elsewhere, there is a suspicion that they will not conform to the dominant moral categories. The dread evoked by the migrant is, according to the Comaroffs, akin to the experience of confronting a zombie because it is linked with the feeling of looking into the eyes of an alien being and not knowing whether your own image, thoughts and hopes will be reflected back. The encounter with migrants is thus framed by the problems of sensorial appreciation and non-communication.
Following on from the argument posed by the Comaroffs I will argue that, the anxiety over the migrant’s body, their silence and moral placelessness is linked to the broader transformations of post-industrial society and the global culture of fear. Unlike the earlier phase of industrialisation, migration is no longer linked to specific economic functions, and the representation of the dehumanisation of migrant subjectivity does not correspond to a notion of commodified alienation; rather, the spectral logic that compares migrants and refugees to ghosts and zombies refers to a kind of abstracted identity that is stripped of national or ethnic markers, and a hijacking of agency by malicious and other-worldly powers. However, for the purposes of this essay I will argue that the refugee’s self-portrayal as a zombie, is not just a metaphor for their abject predicament, because alongside this spectral trope there is a repeated invocation for the world to remember: ‘that we are all humans’, and through this conjunction, there is a broader challenge to rethink the figure of humanity.
Dogs in Polis
During the 2005 French riots, a young unidentified boy from the housing estates in the northern suburbs of Paris was asked by an English journalist if he felt French. He replied:
We hate France and France hates us. I don’t know what I am. Here’s not home; my gran’s in Algeria. But in any case France is just fucking with us. We’re like mad dogs, you know? We bite everything we see.
These bitter words were typical of the comments made by many of the rioting youths for whom police harassment was an everyday occurrence and who also expressed the sense that they have no place in the inner city. More recently Albert Memmi, one of the pioneering theorists on the psychological dependencies that were forged under colonialism, has reflected on the contemporary impact of what he calls ‘unstoppable human waves’ of migration on the ‘besieged fortress’ of Europe.17 His scornful vision of the dislocative effect of migration gains focus as he zooms in on the identity of the immigrant’s son:
The son of the immigrant is a sort of zombie, lacking any profound attachment to the soil on which he was born. He is a French citizen, but he does not feel in the least bit French; he only partially shares the culture of the majority of his fellow citizens, and not at all the religion. For all that he is not completely Arab. … And in truth, he is from another planet: the ghetto.
In the public debates that followed the riots most commentators concluded that the actions and statements of the youths were evidence of either the state’s neglect, or the rioter’s savage vandalism. However, this debate missed the most obvious question. How can the failure of the state, or the outburst of savagery strip people of their humanity to the extent that they describe themselves as ‘mad dogs’?
The ‘mad dog’ boy was part of a gang when he was interviewed. The ‘We’ is this gang but also a more generic claim of defiance against the idea that the nation can create a ‘people’. He despises that which despises him, but also recognises that this hate leaves him without a place. He does not see himself as being at home in the same place as his parents. He knows that his gran’s home is in Algeria, but where does this leave him? His fellow gang members reinforce this opposition against the French nation. It promises freedom, but all it offers is ‘Les keufs, man, the cops’. It declares that the republic is an open space, but leaves them stranded in what another gang member Rachid calls ‘shit, dump’. It presents equality as a right for all, but then his companion Sylla reminds the journalist that the former Minister of Interior and now French President Nikolas Sarkozy ‘calls us animals, he says he will clean the cities with a power hose … Every car that goes up, that’s one more message for him.’ The pyric language is the marker of the deeper loss of faith in the neutrality and integrative power of the state. Republican ideals are seen as a façade that hides the entrenched values of the French. The gang suspects that they cannot enter the ‘open’ space of the state as they are. The gang is not part of the ‘already French’, and therefore would feel duped if they entered into such a social contract. Unlike their parents who saw themselves as cogs in the state machine, these gangs find themselves without any function. They see no potential in a conciliatory dialogue with the state, and as other commentators have observed, the proposition that the migrant must excise their identity in order to participate only inflames their sense of indignation, frustration and anger.
When the gang is left outside of the social contract, they are aware that they are stranded in a no-mans-land. They know that when the ‘cops’ taunt and provoke them that their defiance is futile. ‘We’re sinking in shit and France is standing on our heads. One way or another we are heading for prison. It might as well be for actually doing something.’ In their rage they can only become what the state tries to remove from humanity—animality. If France ‘hates’ them, then the gang threatens to become what France fears most: an animal that is not bound by common ideals, values and laws. By becoming animal, the ‘mad dog boy’ goes beyond comprehension of not only what he is, but where he is heading. Prison is not seen as the destiny for transgressors or as a space that provides deterrence, but as another marker of his own exclusion from social norms. It exists in parallel—no better, nor worse—to the world in which he already exists.
The violence in becoming an animal is not to be confused with juvenile rage. Juan Goytisolo in the novel Landscapes After The Battle offers a prescient scenario that is closer to the worldview expressed by this gang. Goytisolo represents the city of Paris as being in a state of turmoil. Overnight an insurgent gang of immigrants had switched all the street signs from French into Arabic. Goytisolo suggests that republican chauvinism, combined with denialism over post-colonial humiliations, produces both an indifference towards the foreigners that live in but are excluded from French culture, and a vacuum that attracts it own violent counterforce.
The horror of the subject becoming animal can traced throughout many philosophical attempt to distinguish between nature and culture, anarchy and civilization. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben reminds us of Kojeve’s lectures on the limits of civilisation in which he concluded that no animal can be a snob. Or put the other way around, the art of not ‘biting everything we see’ is the achievement of the civilising process. Alain Finkielkraut, a conservative French social commentator and son of Holocaust survivor, takes this civilisational limit as the justification for the necessary violence that was used against these ‘ungrateful immigrants’.
Slavoj Zizek was among the few commentators who noted that the ‘mad dog boy’, while lacking a clear ideological agenda, was nevertheless articulating his fundamental human ‘insistence on RECOGNITION’. This observation echoes the precise claim made by the ‘mad dog boy’: ‘We burn because it’s the only way to make ourselves heard. … Our parents should understand. They did nothing, they suffered in silence. We don’t have a choice.’ It is significant that the ‘mad dog boy’ feels both pity for the suffering and contempt towards the silence of his own parents. At once he elevates and also expels himself from his father’s position. Detached, he is alone and confronted by the fear that he has no support. In his eyes the symbolic force of the father has been killed by the nation. He can neither identify with the dead father, nor with the deadly state. He knows that the return to ‘my gran’s in Algeria’ is pointless, just as becoming French is impossible. His own identity is thereby left without a place. It has nowhere to come from and nowhere to head towards. It withdraws into a position from which he can only recoil as an object: ‘I don’t know what I am.’ Or again, as Zizek observed, the identity of the ‘mad dog boy’ is deadlocked because he is unable to locate the experience of his predicament into a meaningful Whole.
The experience of being entrapped in what the gang called a ‘shit dump’ space does not end with a rigid form of paralysis. On the contrary, the negative space is riven with a thrusting tension. While there is no grounding and binding for a social contract in which individual responsibility can take form, there is a paradoxical series of gestures through which the gang grind out a defence of their hooded identity. The spiralling flumes of the burning cars have been interpreted as evidence of the ‘self fulfilling sense of exclusion’ and ‘the monstrous symptom of social and psychological devastation’ that is hostile to society and yet expects ‘more subsidies’. Yet, these retaliatory and self-destructive gestures are also expressive of the vortex in which a boy becomes a mad dog. This is his way of communicating his sense of place in what Alain Badiou calls the ‘worldless’ world. He does not seek to redeem himself by extracting some latent image in the national culture, or appeal to an image of a distant self that exists in a different place, but he does defend the space in which his own self is embattled. It is a defensive-aggressive strategy that approximates that of a slave, as envisioned by Lu Hsun: ‘He rejects what he is, and at the same time he rejects any wish to be someone other than what he is.’ The interview ends with the journalist, looking for a sign of hope, asking—is there is anyone the gang admires? The ‘mad dog boy’ points to Thierry Henry, a Black French football star who was the greatest goal scorer for Arsenal, and then pours out this acid comment: ‘Henry never scores for France.’
The haunting reference to becoming animal are also central to Agamben’s influential essays on the human condition in modernity. Agamben begins his project by revisiting the classical philosophical claim that a human life is only worth living if it can transcend its original animal status. He draws out the Aristotelean categories that distinguish between a bare life, zoe, which is confined to the animal function of nutrition and reproduction, and human life, bios, which proceeds with language and its capacity to develop aesthetic pleasure, moral principles, economic planning and political order. Agamben observes that throughout the history of philosophy there is a consistent argument that humans realise their potential through the process of gaining representation within the law. In modern times, he argues, the sovereign has greater power to decide the conditions upon which the law can be suspended, and thereby to exclude people from the right of being a subject under law. As an outlaw, one’s mode of being is reduced to that of a bare life: he or she is excluded from the circuit of language and civilisation. The extreme example of this argument is the figure of the homo sacer— a subject under Roman law that could be killed with impunity, and whose existence can only be defined in biological terms. Their life, and more importantly the value of their life, is stripped of any cultural, moral or political value. Agamben provides numerous other examples of historical figures who represent this animal state. Perhaps the most chilling is his recall of Primo Levi’s description of the camp inhabitant that was ironically named as the ‘The Muslim’. This zombie-like figure ‘no longer belongs to the world of men in any way … Mute and absolutely alone, he has passed into another world without memory and without grief.’ He is a being so stunted by fear that neither the threat of pain, nor the promise of pleasure, can register within him. Language no longer impacts upon consciousness. In this apathetic state the camp inhabitant is almost invisible; the guards cannot exert any more power over him, nor can the other inmates reach him. Agamben’s evaluation of human life in the current political context is driven by a logic that identifies the negation of will power, the collapse of a moral order, and the stripping away of all rituals that sustain cultural belonging with an inexorable state of bestialisation. He argues that this slide into animality is accelerated and intensified by the monopoly powers of the sovereign. This leaves the subject with no space in which to forge any form of residual or resistant agency.
How far apart is the life of a camp inmate and that of the ‘mad dog boy’ in the Parisian suburbs? Agamben would claim that they are closer than one might imagine. They both inhabit the non-space of bare life. From Agamben’s perspective it is not the ‘mad dog boy’s’ transgressive acts of violence that have cast him beyond the law, but the prior fact of being in a state of abandonment. The ‘mad dog boy’ does not simply disagree with French values; he sees himself as being outside of the space of French culture. By being excluded from the functions that constitute a human life, he has passed over to the indistinguishable zone of animal. Similarly, Agamben stresses that the homo sacer is not the extreme figure that only exists in the margins, but rather the exemplification of a generalised state of abandonment that everyone is subjected to in contemporary politics. Politics, he claims, begins with the threat of being held in this state of limbo, and he argues, in ‘the most profane and banal ways’, we are all virtually homines sacri. The spectacle of detention—which Agamben reminds us occurs not only in remote zones, but also in suburban sporting stadia and within the transit zones of metropolitan airports—is an expression of the power over the other that actually undermines the foundations of security and integration in society. For Agamben, the space in which the detainee is suspended is similar to the complex topology that the ‘mad dog boy’ claims for himself: it is both inside and outside society, the place where sovereign power is exerted to the maximum, but also where the rule of law is reduced to a bare minimum. This doubled location also exposes a threshold point from which, Agamben concludes, the citizen’s worst fears emerge: the camp has subsumed the home and the city. The detainee is suspended in the camp not just to protect the citizen but also to display the possibility that everyone can be abandoned. As the logic of the camp stretches over the whole of society, Agamben concludes that the integrity of the boundary between human and animal is ‘taken away forever’.
Is the ‘mad dog boy’ an example of Agamben’s definition of the homo sacer? He says he is in limbo and will ‘bite at anything’, and for Agamben this declaration is evidence of his lost humanity. The ‘mad dog boy’ declares himself to be in opposition to the dominant definition of humanity, but unlike Agamben I do not see his words and gestures as markers of his expulsion. The position of the mad dog is more complex. It rejects both the authority of the state, but also inverts the claim that his ‘savagery’ renders him in inhuman. To return the ‘mad dog boy’ to the status of speaking subject is neither to redeem nor excuse his actions. My concern is not with justifications but rather with an examination of the available categories for representing humanity that go beyond the dominant paradigm’s tendency of denigrating and banishing the outsiders. While the state now also revels in the use of spectral terms for representing refugees and terrorists, it is my aim to consider how this discourse also intimates towards a more fundamental sense of loss in subjectivity.
Mad dogs, ghost prisoners and zombie refugees—such stigmatic appellations have been an ancient form of addressing the enemy, foreigner, and even the deviant that lives within society. However, it is now difficult to place the mad dogs, ghost prisoners and zombies on the same continuum as the wogs that turned the cogs. These new names shift the position and the integrity of the boundary between humans and non-humans. Even when the wog migrant was reduced to a cog there was a begrudging admission of utility, and every migrant hung onto the hope that one day he would either return home to become a whole man again, or his own child’s entry into society would redeem his sacrifice. At some point, the migrant wog imagined completeness. The self-image of the migrant as zombie introduces a new level of dehumanisation. At one level it demonstrates the loss of faith in the dream of becoming one with the dominant society. At another level it also issues a call for a new discourse on humanity.
I would suggest that this new spectral hybrid is formed out of these competing paradigms on belonging and migration. The ‘wog zombie’ is the product of the contradictory sources of pagan fears of demonic forces and the modern fantasy of the migrant as part ghost, and part zombie. While the migrant-as-wog featured as a stigmatic figure in the nation building narrative, the wog zombie languishes and then erupts as the ultimate threat to the nation. In fact, the wog zombies are now being blamed for the destruction of the will to build a nation. This spectral image of the migrant as both a victim and the nation’s victimiser, recurs throughout Christos Tsiolkas recent novel Dead Europe.
It is worth recalling that the emergence of ghost stories in the modern era is linked to the Enlightenment and the French revolution. The Age of Reason sought to banish capricious myths, malevolent superstitions and irrational belief systems. It sought to construct a transparent system of governance that was based on rational modes of explanation. It is now well accepted by cultural historians that the emergence of the ghost genre is a vehicle for expressing both the mysteries that exist at the edges of the illuminated spaces of reason, and the passions that elude the powers of rationality. The end of enlightenment principles is not only evident in fiction. After 9/11 the rhetoric employed by the Bush administration was increasingly defined in terms of what his advisors framed as imperial realism. From this perspective there was the firm belief that global reality could be shaped by American dreams. Hence, when faced with the nightmarish image of Osama bin Laden, Bush’s response was structured by a phantasmagoric ‘search for monsters and ghosts’.
In the literary and horror film genre the status of zombies is not confined to aliens that haunt the borderlands, but also encompasses figures that enact the suppression of the other under capitalism. In anthropological accounts, there is the similar observation that the depiction of migrants as zombies not only provides convenient scapegoats but also heightens the vulnerability of social laws, norms and values. Their mobility is presented as if it were a liberation from the rules that bind people to the laws of a place. Hence the anxiety over the migrant’s arrival is not confined to the initial transgression at the border, but extends to an unbounded fear that migrants, like zombies, possess an insatiable appetite and predatory behaviour will destroy all forms of social control. It is therefore worth pausing to consider the link between the dehumanising image of wog zombies and what the American anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff call the ‘experiential anomalies and aporias’ in the dominant sources of power.
The zombie is a figure that appears to be alive but is also dead. In folkloric and anthropological literature it has been noted that the figure of the dead coming back to seek revenge against the living has recurred in almost all cultures. Archetypically, the zombie can move but has neither memory nor will. Their primary senses have been either mutilated—the tongue is cut and the voice seems to come from the nose; or stunned—the eyes are open but the stare is remote. Deprived of these senses, they lack the means for communication. The image of the zombie often oscillates between the dead person that has returned to life, and a body whose soul has been stolen and forced to work for an evil master. Even the meaning of the word is uncertain. It is akin to the Kongo word nzambi, meaning ‘god’. However, it could be derived from either the French word for shadows, les ombres, or traced back to the West Indian term for ghost, jumbie.
In post-colonial literature the appearance of zombies has been linked to the sudden upheaval of social structures, collapse of traditional forms of moral authority, and the rapid collisions between different worldviews such as colonialism, industrialisation and the Great Wars. Most recently, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff have noted an unprecedented increase in the reports on the existence of zombies in the turbulent post-Apartheid period in South Africa. The reports ranged from tales and rumours that circulate in small communities, to journalistic claims and state commissions that investigated the motivations for the outburst of violence against migrant labourers. In line with earlier associations between zombies and violent social rupture, the Comaroffs posited a link between the proliferation of these reports and the social and moral implosion caused by neo-liberal capitalism. They argue that both the imagery of zombies and the flows of capitalism are governed by a spectral logic. The increasingly ‘opaque, even occult’ conditions for the production of wealth in contemporary society have, according to the Comaroffs, left people unable to find a rational understanding of the social change and led people to draw on supernatural imagery as a form of social explanation.
The Comaroffs argue that the experiential conditions of neo-liberal capitalism are framed by a spectral logic because the ‘hand’ of capital is not only invisible, it is also the omnipotent force for social change—no-one can point to ‘it’, but ‘it’ is the only thing that makes things happen. The mysterious presence and force of this ‘it’ has beggared any model of explanation that relies on a direct connection between cause and consequence. The Comaroffs claim that radical shifts in the process of economic production, and the new forms of conspicuous wealth, have disrupted traditional modes for explaining the exchange value between human labour and human life. Hence the proliferation of ‘the disquieting figure of the zombie’45 is an attempt to explain the otherwise inexplicable contradictions in social value. In short, when the traditional and rational systems for defining exchange value have been rendered defunct, the allure of zombie narratives gains greater currency. These writers also make the more general claim, that the zombie is not just an instance of eccentric and local fears, but also an index of a broader cultural anxiety. In each instance, the Comaroffs argue that:
The living dead comment on the disruption of an economy in which the productive energies were once visibly invested in the reproduction of a situated order of domestic and communal relations; an order through which the present was, literally kept in place. And the future was secured.
By focussing on the reportage of zombies the Comaroffs are seeking to address the broader cultural upheavals that arise from the transition of an industrial to a post-industrial society. During the period of heavy industrialisation, the place and function of the workplace was, in large measures, defined by reference to the heavy tools and solid structures of the machine age. It was no coincidence that the graffito ‘wogs turn cogs’ also protested against the alienation of the migrant in the language of the machine. In the post-industrial phase the imagery of the workplace has switched toward light practices, or what Bauman calls the ‘liquid’ flows of capital. The goals of capital have thereby shifted from the concentration of energy into a unified system, to the generation of multiple platforms for the dissemination of energy flows. The place of production and the determination of a company culture are no longer fixed to the territory or norms of a specific place, but unleashed into a global field of perpetual reinvention. In this field no-one has the promise of being a lifelong cog in the machine. For when global capital pursues its objective of maximising surplus and minimising cost, it should come as no surprise that it is also responsible for provoking a violent competition between the mobile and immobile agents.
The process of zombification that the Comaroffs observed in Post Apartheid South Africa is used as a metaphor for the pattern of dehumanisation that characterises the neo-liberal world order. As mobility and uncertainty become the dominant features of everyday life, the Comaroffs argue that society tends towards an apocalyptic scene in which there is a total rupture of the symbolic bonds and the reduction of humans to senseless zombies. This process of dislocation is represented as it were of a different order to migrant’s experience of alienation in the era of industrial labour. As a consequence the counter-reactions are represented as wilder. Unlike the wogs that turned the cogs—who, as ‘mad dog boy’ pointed out, ‘suffered in silence’—the zombie has the potential for demonic and unpredictable reaction against the machine. The fear of the zombies lies in the fact that it is perceived to be beyond animal, for it not only ‘bites’, but also needs to ‘eat human flesh’. Zombification becomes a metaphor for the neo-liberal order because in this era the migrant has no hope of being permanently re-settled and the global economic forces have severed any link between productive energy and cultural meaning. In this context the Comaroffs present the melancholic conclusion that migrants are irreversibly dehumanised and also imply that by ‘becoming’ zombie the migrant may wreck neo-liberal capitalism and thereby rescue everyone from its nightmare.
While Agamben defined the essence of humanity in relation to the articulation of will, the Comaroff’s stress that human value is forged in the integration of productive energy within an embedded cultural context. Both perspectives assume a territorialised vision of human life and thereby identify the value of a migrant life in a negative binary. From this perspective, there is not only a dehumanising logic but also a fatalistic account of the consequences of mobility. All the examples of wogs as cogs or zombies have a negative presumption against the forces that have catapulted people out of their previous state of security and certainty. For while each of these images captures the extent to which the migrant sees his or her body as an entity whose motion is controlled by an external force, they also conceal the possibility that energy is also emitted from the ‘bodies’ of the automaton, beast and living dead. Central to the argument posed by Agamben, and the Comaroffs, is the claim that neo-liberal capitalism is an incomprehensible process of change because its operating forces are remote, obscure and volatile, and as a result no form of coherent agency can survive in its wake. The spectral figure of the monstrous enters when rational principles and civilisational institutions everywhere are in ruins. Against this plaintive conclusion I want to turn to a different view on the relation between mobility and identity, and then suggest an alternative reading of the metaphor that couples migrants and zombies.
The Diaspora: at Home Outside its Home
Speaking at the opening of Refugee Week in Melbourne, John Pandazopoulos, a former State Minister responsible for multiculturalism, connected the plight of the refugees held in detention with the experiences of earlier migrants who had arrived in Australia. He spoke with moral indignation against the then-Federal policies on border protection, and with genuine empathy for the plight of people, like his own parents, who were forced to leave their homes. He observed a deeper moral connection with refugees and believed that this would lead to more than a plea for tolerance towards outsiders. He claimed that ‘the wheel has turned on these issues’, and concluded that as a consequence most people now see the refugee’s story as being part of the nation’s historical narrative.
Pandazopoulos was able to acknowledge the refugee story by first establishing a commonality with the founding myths of the nation. This connection both allays the guilt over the harm done to the refugee, and reinstates hospitality as a central feature of the national narrative. By contrast John Howard, the former Prime Minister of Australia, consistently denied that guilt was a necessary emotion for either reviewing the legacies of the past or establishing a connection with refugees. His stance on immigration focused on the defending the absolute priority of national security over humanitarian concerns. He also pushed an agenda that reduced the social services and dismantled the cultural policies that were previously directed towards promoting a multicultural society. In general, he insisted that migrants should integrate into mainstream society and rejected multiculturalism as a dangerous and divisive experiment. This position encouraged his ministers to make pejorative remarks about the so-called ‘mushy’ principles of multiculturalism as well as singling out for ridicule the grandmothers that dressed in black and refused to learn English.
While the response in the mainstream media to the Federal government’s complaints about failures of multiculturalism and the hidden perils that lurk in immigrant communities was relatively mute, the outcry that it stimulated within ethnic communities was so intense that one radio host described the talkback as a form of ‘wailing’ anger. One old and frail woman who emigrated from Mexico said: ‘We came here with nothing. My English is still bad. However, I did what I could, and with my now dead husband worked very hard to bring up a good family.’ Even at the age of 75, presumably alongside her ‘now dead husband’, she also expressed great pride in her children, who are both doctors: ‘They cure people now,’ she said. In response to the suggestion that her failure to learn English is a sign of unwillingness to join into mainstream society and expressive of disdain of common values, she turns the challenge back to the Prime Minister: ‘Just ask him to come to my place to teach me about values. I’ll teach him where he should go.’
Even with her ‘bad’ English, from whence is she offering to teach the Prime Minister a lesson on values? It is not from outside or elsewhere, but from within ‘my place’. This place is her home. By placing the values lesson in her home, this woman also claims both her equal place inside the nation, and her equal right as a person who can speak the language of human values. The language and place from which she enters this debate may seem uncanny to the sovereign who assumes a monopoly over defining national values; and yet, it is this assertion of relative autonomy that is the seat of its anxiety, and a glimpse of a value system that privileges the human above any other category. The government’s complaint over the failure of immigrants to integrate is contradicted by the response from this old woman, who believes she has succeeded in retaining her human dignity. In her opposition there is both a rejection of the sovereign authority and an assertion of her own cultural value as an absolute human right. She reinstates that she is the master of her own house. The Prime Minister is warned that she remains unmoved by his authority.
The power of the sovereign has in the modern period increasingly defined by it ability to encroach into the private lifeworld of subjects. Inside the government’s complaint about the old migrant stuck in their ghetto is another fear—that it is failing to gain influence over these communities as they are gaining new connections with other worlds. With satellite dishes pointing elsewhere, there is a new fear of the death of national culture as it is bypassed and even vilified in the pursuit of an imaginary life in diasporic cultures. This fear that the nation will fragment into antagonistic ghettoes, alongside the supposed intergenerational gulf that is evident in the righteous indignation of the old woman from Mexico and the nihilistic rage of the ‘mad dog boy’, is indicative of what Albert Memmi calls a new social divide. Sociologists have always recognised that that the corollary of modernisation is detraditionalisation. However, as James Rosenau argues the fragmentation of traditional forms of authority is also as stimulus for the re-integration into new social collectives and a redistribution of individual rights.
Rosenau’s ‘optimistic’ approach towards the crisis in authority is consistent with the new paradigm of migration that adopts a transnational and complex feedback perspective. This perspective is not a utopian promise to overcome alienation, but it does offer an alternative to the melancholic disposition towards the decline of the nation-state and it avoids the denigration of subjects as figures of death and destruction. This is a more nuanced view on the dynamics that produce social change and it follows a dialectical process. In Hegelian dialectics the borderline separating life and death is not an impermeable boundary. It presumes that contradictory elements are in a state of interplay, whereby one is constantly absorbing the other within itself. The incorporation of that which is outside of itself is always a process of effacing the other while also drawing the self into a third space. And so it is for mad dogs, zombies and cyborgs: like the archetypal figure of death—the old lady dressed in black—they know they must make themselves at home outside of their home. ‘Now Australia is my country, I can’t go back where I came from. I don’t like this but I am not going anywhere.’ For this ‘poor Mexican migrant’ who admits that she ‘speaks with an awful accent’, there is the realisation that there is no home to return to, and that life is to be drawn from the very landscape that is foreign to them, even if in this landscape there are voices that condemn her as being among the dead ones. In a letter to the photographer Frederic Brenner Jacques Derrida noted that ‘the diaspora is at home outside its home, it remains outside its home at home, at home at the other’s’. The ‘mad dog boy’ in Paris, the artists in the new collectives, and the old woman from Mexico may respond to the challenge in different ways, but they all proceed from the same insistence: I am who I am, and the national values are not the absolute containers of my humanity. Let me repeat the warning issued by the old woman to the Prime Minister: ‘Just ask him to come to my place to teach me about values. I’ll teach him where to go.’ Like the ‘mad dog boy’ she is angry at the lack of respect. She also proclaims that she has the moral authority to ‘teach him where to go’. But what is the positive content of her lesson? The absence of a clear agenda does not mean there is nothing there.
For Agamben the void in the spectral logic was expressive of the location of the subject in limbo. Beyond some Messianic intervention this figure has no hope of finding a place in the world. The spectral other is a “being in exodus”, permanently banished from the house of national citizenship. Agamben then holds up this exilic figure as a mirror that has both wiped clear the false unity between being and belonging promised by the nation state, and the threadbare form in which all humanity is recognizable. It is, of course, a miserable self-image. The spectral figure does not supercede the citizen, but rather exposes ‘bare life’ – the state in which all political rights have been subtracted – as the paradoxical basis of both the human condition and a new politics of equality.
The step from bare life into the political is now being proposed via a reformulation of the concept of universality through the prism of translation. Butler, Laclau and Zizek contend that, if translation can now be thought of as an unending exercise that is unleashed from the binary of original and copy, then this also provides a new framework for grasping the dynamic interplay between particularity and universality that would accompany the move from spectral humanity into the political. This implies that within each invocation of becoming animal, or turning into a zombie there must be also be a rearticulation of what it means to be human. However, Butler, Laclau and Zizek also state, this movement also requires a new kind of language.
If the spectrally human is to enter into the hegemonic reformulation of universality, a language between languages will have to be found. This will be no metalanguage, nor will it be the condition from which all languages hail. It will be the labor of transaction and translation which belongs to no single site, but it is the movement between languages, and has its final destination in this movement itself. Indeed the task will not be to assimilate the unspeakable into the domain of speakability in order to house it there, within the existing norms of dominance, but to shatter the confidence of dominance, to show how equivocal its claims to universality are, and, from that equivocation, track the break-up of its regime, and an opening towards alternative visions of universality that are wrought from the work of translation itself.