This essay asks what current scholarly and political treatments of the refugee illuminate about our political moment. Taking as its starting point Ilana Feldman’s historical ethnography of Palestinian refugee camps and the possibilities for political action afforded by purportedly a-or anti-political institutions such as the humanitarian apparatus, the essay mobilizes her conclusions to consider the recent history of the refugee crisis in Europe. It argues that humanitarianism offers a valuable optic through which to understand present politics at two levels. The turn to humanitarianism and to the refugee as a political imaginary has marked ways of talking about and responding to the profound crisis of a political horizon on the left. But there have also been turns within humanitarianism—and, indeed, multiple humanitarianisms. Changes within the material apparatuses of humanitarianism and their routinization beyond the “exceptional” conditions of disaster and displacement have exemplified the broader social transformations producing that crisis of emancipatory politics. At once ideationally and materially, the story of humanitarianisms in recent decades is a tale of the conditions under which politics came to feel so difficult. The essay ends with a tentative suggestion that the generalization of the humanitarian apparatus and outlook offers a terrain—albeit messy and compromised—from which a collective politics might proceed.

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