Starting with Alan Kurdi as the “ideal” figure of the refugee, juxtaposed with the figure of the migrant swarm, which rehearses the contrast between humanitarian compassion and securitarian anxiety, this essay traces how these seemingly opposed logics meet in the “humanitarian” detention of children at Europe's borders. This essay examines the partial reinscription of colonial histories and their racist aftermaths in current technologies of surveillance, capture and detention. Adapting the figure of the Möbius strip to envision the relationship between camp and polis, the essay analyzes an experimental documentary on migrant detention at the Greek-Turkish border. In Blue Sky from Pain, by Stephanos Mangriotis and Laurence Pillant, detention sites contain unpredictable subjectivations, forms of dissent, and figures of persistence, even when the detainees are children. The film puts pressure on the frames by which we imagine the subject of human rights and the object of humanitarian compassion.
Refugee Child and Migrant Swarm
In September 2015, the body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, drowned in the Mediterranean as his family fled war, washed up near Turkey's Bodrum beach. The image of a child whose posture resembled that of a sleeping baby, in all of its vulnerability, triggered a global outpouring of identification and compassion that, for a time at least, arrested the technocratic rhetoric of swarms, waves, tides and flows associated with the so-called refugee crisis.1 The photograph's circulation on social media (20 million views in twelve hours) even tilted the balance, again for a time, toward using the term refugee rather than migrant for those in flight.2 Framed by the initial press photo as a solitary body deprived of life, movement, speech, indeed of a future, Alan Kurdi could be projected as the “ideal” figure of the refugee. Political cartoonist Chris Riddell captions his satirical image of the child “swarm,” a quote from then–UK prime minister David Cameron, whose racist, securitarian phantasm of migrants is evidently belied by the tiny, singular figure of victimhood (fig. 1). Alan Kurdi has become a lasting emblem of the refugee “crisis,” thereby joining the iconography of innocent children on whom the violence of History is unleashed, including the photographs of the little girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam war and of the starving Sudanese child eyed by a vulture.3 While images of child suffering and death are quick to mobilize public awareness of a “humanitarian crisis,” the moral outrage and compassion they provoke can foreclose an inquiry into the political conditions that produce the crisis in the first place (such as complex histories of military intervention leading to unlivable conditions, the border regime and its governance of mobility, or European asylum and immigration law). Such representational uses of children participate in “the constitution of a depoliticized ‘humanity.’”4 They trigger powerful but ephemeral affective responses situated within the urgent yet transient temporality of humanitarian crisis.5 Despite its remarkable visibility, Alan Kurdi's death did not do much to shift legislation on asylum, open EU borders, or increase rates of refugee acceptance; neither have the countless children who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean since. As this essay will show, the effect was quite the contrary.
If Chris Riddell's inscription of “Swarm” above his drawing of Alan Kurdi was intended to underscore the distance between a single child and invading hordes, the juxtaposition nevertheless conveys the inextricable link between innocent refugee and criminal swarm in the public imagination. It makes visible the current convergence of care and repression in policies of “humanitarian detention.” A few months after Alan Kurdi's tragic death and the Paris terror attacks, and in the wake of sexual aggressions allegedly committed by migrant men in Cologne and Berlin on New Year's Eve 2015–16, the French journal Charlie Hebdo published a caricature of the Syrian child in the very terms of the criminalized swarm that Riddell's drawing sought to ironize (fig. 2). Alan Kurdi has multiplied into two predators who are explicitly designated as migrants, not refugees, with features both simian and porcine, as they rush towards two presumably white women's buttocks. The caption reads: “What would little Aylan [sic] have become if he'd grown up? An ass groper in Germany.”
The desecration of the innocent child, posthumously cast as future sexual molester, provoked international outcry. It was received as a straightforward rehearsal of racist stereotypes about migrant men, or at best, a scandalous thumbing of the nose at even the most sacred icon of innocent victimhood. I argue instead that the critical force of this caricature lies in its mockery of the public's capricious swings, from tearful compassion at a figure of radical victimhood to fear and loathing towards the foreign sexual predator. In the brief interval between Alan Kurdi's death and the New Year, the vulnerable body of the “refugee” mutated into a predatory and uncontrollable “rapefugee.” While in dubious taste, the caricature plots a continuum from humanitarian compassion to securitarian anxiety when screening those bodies that have been deemed “out of place.” The child's imagined resurrection as two future sexual predators stages a return of what is repressed in the framing of the initial press photo: the anxiety over the migrant's arrival and his potential mitosis into a future swarm. The caricature exposes the two possible extremes to which racialized, illegalized bodies in motion can be consigned: singular victimhood and teeming criminality. These are not poles, of course, but two sides of the same coin. Both humanitarian compassion for the would-be refugee and securitarian phobia of the illegal alien envision racialized bodies as matter, as vulnerable or savage materiality to be managed through protection, surveillance, quarantine, and expulsion.
The continuum between care and repression in Europe's social imaginary is starkly visible in the policies and practices of migrant detention at the borders. Not only are sites of migrant detention also sites of care that provide humanitarian protections such as food and medicine, but detention itself is justified in the name of care. Under what Kelly Oliver aptly terms “carceral humanitarianism,” detention is increasingly cast as protection: from human traffickers, from the hardship of border encampments, from the perils of maritime crossings encapsulated by Alan Kurdi's fate.6 The EU-Turkey deal signed in spring 2015 was presented as a humanitarian intervention to deter irregular crossings into Europe and avert the tragedy of children drowning in the Mediterranean. Proposed a fortnight after Alan Kurdi's death both to secure the EU's external border and to “save untold lives,” the deal stipulated that all new irregular migrants arriving from Turkey to the Greek islands be returned to Turkey.7 For each Syrian returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian would be resettled in the EU.8 As it became clear that Turkey would not provide adequate protections and that European borders could not be so readily outsourced, asylum claims had to be processed in Greece, leading to the mass encampment of refugees in squalid, overcrowded “hotspots” on the Aegean Islands. As many as twenty thousand asylum seekers were stranded on the Greek islands in 2018 as a result of this containment policy.9 If the EU-Turkey deal has successfully limited the death toll at sea, it has turned the Aegean Islands into a carceral archipelago. Some refugees describe their “humanitarian” quarantine and detention as a form of slow death. Alan Kurdi may have died at sea, a Syrian refugee in Greece declared to a journalist as he held up a picture of the drowned child, “but really there is no difference between him and the thousands of children now dying [metaphorically] here in Greece.”10
A similar convergence of securitization and care in the encampment of children at the borders is observed in the United States, where, in the wake of Trump's zero-tolerance policy and the forcible separation of families at the border, a record number of children were warehoused in detention sites designated as “shelters.”11 Many were not released to family members or sponsors due to the stringent security screening and vetting of potential sponsors in the name of these children's protection. Some were even administered psychotropic drugs while in detention without their consent, as chemical straitjackets, in order to manage a trauma inflicted by the state.12 This twinning of securitist repression and humanitarian care has been the object of powerful theoretical scrutiny.13 Under carceral humanitarianism, detention is shelter and materializes the double meaning of security, as securing against a threat through violence and offering security from the threat of violence. Humanitarian governmentality produces irregularized bodies as simultaneously a threat to security and a life to be secured: a life to be saved and made secure, seized, possessed, fastened to an apparatus of care that is also an apparatus of capture, control, and ruination.
I have suggested that the continuum of compassion and repression in the social imaginary of the border “crisis” is materialized in the policies and practices of humanitarian detention. The body of the child is a key site for these simultaneous operations of protection and repression, as I proposed in the context of the response to Alan Kurdi and as I will elaborate at the end of this essay. How can we historicize this interplay between refugee as victim and migrant as criminal, with its corollary logic of humanitarian detention for biopolitical security, in relation to prior histories of racialized violence such as slavery and colonialism? How do technologies of surveillance and control perpetuate colonial legacies of racialization and domination in new ways? What possibilities remain for resistance and fugitivity within the border regime's biopolitical capture and how can we conceptualize the forms of becoming, existence, and persistence that emerge from within spaces of migrant detention?
This essay opened with the image of Alan Kurdi juxtaposed with the xenophobic rhetoric of the migrant swarm. The portrayal of racialized bodies as a criminal swarm has a long history, of course, but new technologies of border control inflect this racist imaginary in distinctive ways while seemingly foreclosing the possibility of resistance. In The Wretched of the Earth, for instance, Frantz Fanon described the colonial relation as a species division that relegates the colonized population to teeming zoological abjection. The settler's imaginary bestiary of the native population is full of “breeding swarms,” “hordes of vital statistics,” (cette démographie galopante) and “faces bereft of humanity.”14 Yet, on the other side of Fanon's colonial relation was the counterviolence that ripples through the native subject's tissue and bones: “The colonized man will first manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones, against his own people.” The native's psychosomatic organism contracts (“The natives muscles are always tensed”) until the explosion of anticolonial reaction, leading to a symmetrical confrontation between colonial violence and native counterviolence.15 If colonialism wages war against certain forms of life and their “galloping demography,” embodied counterviolence against the settler population—in Algeria and other colonies—still had liberation and nation-building as its horizon. While in Fanon's historical moment, a people could come into existence within the colonized population, projected by the colonial regime as “hordes of vital statistics,” today the postcolonial security state produces populations as impersonal statistical entities, as flows to be regulated, and thereby forecloses an agonistic, corporeal process of liberation. Recalling Fanon's diagnosis of the colonial encounter within the contemporary border regime helps us discern echoes of this legacy in current xenophobic discourses, policies, and practices, while remaining attuned to the differences between then and now. Embodied counterviolence of the kind Fanon envisioned under colonial rule is foreclosed by the border's securitarian/humanitarian dynamics. New technologies of surveillance and classification at once revivify ethnocultural hierarchies, while machines mediate the encounter with racialized bodies and dematerialize these bodies into data, seemingly undoing the possibility of struggle itself.16 Furthermore, the movement of bodies in contemporary mass migration is flipped: in the xenophobic imaginary, it is the formerly colonized who are seen to threaten reverse-colonization of the European continent.17
How to tease out the entanglements of imperial formations and their racist aftermaths while grasping new techniques of surveillance and capture? How to remain attuned to emergent forms of dissent, organization, and resistance within the border, and even within detention? In conceptualizing the global refugee “crisis,” different legacies of racialized violence tend to be frozen into paradigms of abjection—whether slavery as social death, colonialism and the subaltern abject, or the Holocaust and the Muselmann (or detainee on the brink of death). The Nazi camp in particular has been a foundational vector of remembrance in public discourses on the detention of migrants and refugees.18 The ubiquity of this reference attests to the Holocaust's ongoing hegemony as a model for global memory and mobilization. Following the influential work of Giorgio Agamben on the camp as modernity's nomos, there is a troubling tendency among theorists of biopolitics and migration to equate such disparate spaces as offshore detention facilities like Australia's Mauru Island, improvised camps at cross-border zones such as Calais or Mount Gourougou, and “hotspots” at Europe's borders, as uniform spaces of exception modeled on a reified conception of the genocidal Nazi camp.19 This camp paradigm forces a necropolitical reading of the border in which migrants and refugees are not only bare life at the mercy of sovereign power, “politicized through its very capacity to be killed,” but inhabitants of “death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to the conditions of life conferring on them the status of the living dead.”20 The camp paradigm projects a temporality of repetition, in which a singular catastrophe recurs in identical form across time, essentializing the refugee as bare life, and even, as “bare death.”21
Contemporary sites of migrant and refugee detention are not states of exception imposed by a sovereign ban modeled on the Nazi camp, since they are not designed to kill (even if they do unleash death), but forms of governmentality that seek to dissuade, displace, detain, and distance the unwanted.22 Technologies of surveillance, detention, or expulsion, as well as asylum procedures, do not scan racialized, illegalized bodies to kill them outright or to extract their labor, but to sift through them according to a hierarchy of life worth saving or life worth leaving to die.23 What we witness today in the context of refugee detention is not a “return of the camps,” in a logic of repetition, but a temporality of entanglements and aftermaths in which legacies of racialized violence crisscross and settle into new configurations. Colonial and concentrationary legacies remain starkly visible in the current landscape of global migration, with its machinery of deterrence, containment, detention, and expulsion. Technologies of surveillance freight these legacies of racialized violence, casting bodies on the move according to racist tropes, as pathological swarms requiring identification, tracking, and deportation. Borders have become battlegrounds for imagining the boundaries of the species itself. But what seems distinctive today is that under carceral humanitarian governance, this battle is not rehearsed in oppositional terms as the logic of genocide or of extraction would have it (e.g., master/slave, colonizer/colonized, Nazi/Jew, state/enemy of the state). Rather, it is an operation in which the illegalized body is both a security threat and a life to be secured. It is this continuum of securitist anxiety and humanitarian compassion that is staged in Charlie Hebdo's caricature of Alan Kurdi, innocent child, as a future sexual molester.
Technology plays a complex role in this securitarian/humanitarian operation. Current techniques of surveillance and data collection depersonalize, derealize, and naturalize racism. As David Theo Goldberg argues in “Coding Time,” biases are built into algorithms, making the algorithmic a “perfect post-racial discriminating machine.”24 If borders sift a plurality of bodies according to the principles of lives worth saving and lives worth leaving to die, their technologies target single bodies in novel ways. Biometric capture such as iris scans, facial recognition software, or fingerprint databases differentially target moving bodies in relation to their race and risk factor. These procedures of “digital epidermalization” turn migrants into “machine-readable bodies,” with contradictory effects: biologization and bestialization as swarms, abstraction as flows, and singularization as trackable bodies.25 Carbon dioxide probes or thermal imaging cameras reduce bodies in motion to their elementary biological processes, such as breath or heat, whereas CCTV cameras of migrants storming a border fence perpetuate the colonial bestiary, or the swarm. Meanwhile, faceprints derealize migrants into data flows, and biometrics more generally track individuals according to their unique signature. Even as individuals are dehumanized and massified into a security threat as teeming bodies or impersonal flow, then, their recording and processing as data bits stored in various banks (such as the Eurodac fingerprint database) means that each individual body can be tracked in its singularity by security software. Familiar patterns of racialized dehumanization are reconfigured by new technologies of surveillance. The colonial bestiary of the native as swarm, as regressive, anonymous materiality, merges uneasily with this dematerialization of migrant bodies into data. The postcolonial security state banishes the embodied reciprocity of (colonial) violence and (native) counterviolence that characterized the colonial struggle. Its borders capture racialized migrants as streams of beasts and data to be tracked, deterred and detained but also as vulnerable flesh on which the same control is enacted for humanitarian protection.
As migrants pass through the border, they are not just recorded and policed by these technologies of anticipatory surveillance. They are in some sense remade as expropriated bodies and risky personhoods. Some migrants historicize fingerprinting as the aftermath of slavery, and indeed, branding made the enslaved body hyper-visible and trackable.26 These migrants mutilate their fingers with razors, hot screws or acid to become unreadable so that they will not be sent back to their first port of entry, and compare themselves to runaway slaves.27 Such evocations remind us of the colonial roots of fingerprinting in British India, or the eerie afterlife of racist phrenology in facial recognition software. Biometrics illustrate the “strange continuity” that Ann Stoler identifies between past and present imperial formations; they are “colonial reverberations with a difference . . . that cling—vitally active and activated—to the present condition of peoples' lives.”28 Contemporary artist Trevor Paglen offers a powerful meditation on the aftermath of colonial bodily expropriation in contemporary technologies of surveillance. “Fanon”(Even the Dead Are Not Safe) is a faceprint produced by facial recognition software, through the data of what makes the revolutionary's face mathematically distinct from other faces, including his racial difference (fig. 3).29 The projection of this theorist of anticolonial struggle through embodiment, as a machine-readable ghost, is both ironic and cautionary. The biometric capture of a dissident thinker and body attunes us to the afterlife of racialized histories within new technologies. It also alerts us to the perils of a future that would preclude the very existence of unruly bodies, militant lives, and radical thought. If for Hannah Arendt refugees were at the vanguard of the population because they grasped that they were “nothing but human beings,” the stateless migrant today has intimate knowledge of a similarly shared condition: we are all potentially expropriated bodies and risky personhoods under the security state and its techno-surveillance: “Even the dead are not safe.”
Figuring Detention through the Möbius Strip
If prior legacies of racialized violence are pulsing through the contemporary border regime, I am arguing that the application of past paradigms for the encampment of migrants and refugees tends to erase the border's specific operations, the scope of their intervention, and their effects on population flows as well as individual bodies. The afterlives of slavery, colonialism, or the Nazi camp are neither governed by repetition nor by rupture, but by “partial reinscriptions, modified displacements, and amplified recuperations.”30 An analysis of these legacies' entanglements and aftermaths can disclose historical continuities in the capture and repression of illegalized bodies. They can also make visible forms of expression and persistence even from within the abjection of detention. Such forms remind us that sites of biopolitical control, necropolitical abandonment, and carceral humanitarianism remain, nevertheless, vital places of struggle for the right to a livable life.
We might imagine the phenomenon of detention at the borders not through the paradigm of the camp, but through the figure of the Möbius strip (fig. 4). I borrow the image of the Möbius strip from security studies scholar Didier Bigo, who argues that sites of detention at the border are not states of exception imposed by a sovereign ban “from above,” polarizing power and bare life, but forms of governmentality that track, dissuade, and contain bodies deemed risky, while simultaneously ensuring the movement of capital, goods, services, and “safe” bodies. Significantly, he turns to a topological figure to imagine the porosity and mobility of the contemporary border: the Möbius strip, a one-sided, continuous geometric surface that, due to a twist, appears to have two sides and thus seamlessly traverses what is considered inside and outside.31 In the field of international security studies, the Möbius strip has enabled analyses of the continuous transactions between the domestic (inside) and foreign (outside) management of a sovereign state's security. However, as a metaphor for the border's non-closure, that is to say, for the border as a zone of traversal and a nodal point within a network, we might adopt the Möbius strip to envision detention sites as spaces that contain unpredictable subjectivations, micropolitics, and tactical solidarities. A topological figure rather than an inherited historical paradigm, the Möbius strip conveys the unmappable and reversible points where vulnerability could twist into resistance, or where abjection can turn into emergence, or where a detention camp might mutate into a space of politics.
As a literary scholar, I am trying to understand how cultural representations of forced migration convey such twists and swerves, how aesthetic expression can open alternatives to the depoliticizing rhetoric of the refugee “crisis,” with its temporality of emergency, its investments in security, its humanitarian alibis, and its manufacture of forgetting. In what follows, I turn to a short documentary film on detention in the Aegean transit that intervenes in the humanitarian/securitarian logics of migrant detention traced thus far. The 2016 film Blue Sky from Pain evokes the entanglement of several concentrationary histories, while tracing modes of perseverance that emerge from within the walls of detention. It documents the traversal of camps by unpredictable embodiments, expressions, and solidarities, staging the Möbius twists by which a concentrationary space of abjection can momentarily become a political space of emergence.
Blue Sky from Pain: An Archive of Persistence
Blue Sky from Pain is a film by visual artist Stephanos Mangriotis, made in collaboration with Laurence Pillant, at the time a doctoral student in geography researching clandestine migration and detention in Greece, and photographer Hyacinthe Pavlides. Drawing from testimonies of former detainees in Greece, this fifteen-minute film is framed as a work of memorialization that is “between fiction and documentary.” Its source is a multimedia “archeology of the border” dividing Turkey and Greece that aims to “preserve and document the memory and traces of sites slated to disappear.”32 For fifteen minutes, images of abandoned sites of detention unfold while an anonymous male voice narrates his detention nine years ago in a closed camp. In Syrian Arabic, the narrator describes the conditions of a camp in which he was held for almost a year (341 days), denied all communication with the outside world for half of that time, ignorant of why he was detained, where he was, or how long his detention would last: “When I left [home], I was a kid. This place transformed me.”
Blue Sky from Pain (figs. 5 and 6) does not represent human subjects, but rather, the objects that are left in the wake of their passage. Static shots linger on things charged with eerie animacy: the flutter of rags at a window, the quiet trickle of a water spigot left on, worn mattresses piled on cement floors. Its imagery evokes the sensory experience of detention through the materiality of objects and spaces, while, at the same time, underscoring its inaccessibility. Sound, image and text are in tension from the outset. As the voice-over evokes the blinding whiteness of the detention center's walls, viewers contemplate a black screen; the deafening noise of the detention center is described as we hear a serene soundscape of tropical birdsong. These juxtapositions draw our attention to what we cannot know, reminding us that we do not have access to such places and cannot claim to inhabit them through the cinematic medium.
With its alternation of photographic stills and moving image, the film's visual poetics are explicitly situated within the French postwar legacy of concentrationary cinema that issued from Buchenwald camp survivor David Rousset's Concentrationary Universe, one that includes Alain Resnais's Night and Fog and Chris Marker's La Jetée.33 Among the many features of concentrationary cinema was its resuscitation of the remnant, its attention to objects that are imbued with a spectral charge in the aftermath of human disappearance. In Blue Sky from Pain, a photographic still of worn and dusty shoes documents one such remnant (fig. 7), bearing witness to the child who once wore them while in detention. The indented heels invite speculation: perhaps the little owner outgrew them; perhaps they served as slippers to shuffle around indoors. Yet their abandonment also signals the child's escape from these walls. The photographic still is not only testimonial, bearing witness to the presence of this child, but also figural: it evokes capture and flight at the same time, in a Möbius twist.
Instead of the refugee's body, then, what these shots of ruined and abandoned spaces deliver is at once an architecture of detention and an archive of human traces. These traces attest to the detainees' confinement, but they are also the mark of their passage, the imprint they have literally left behind on the camps' walls. The title of the film, Blue Sky from Pain, is from the opening line of Pink Floyd's 1975 song “Wish You Were Here” (“So, so you think you can tell, Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain?”). Scrawled in large letters on a cell wall (fig. 8), it is disclosed to viewers in a lingering tracking shot. In contrast to the still shots on ruined structures of detention and objects left behind, slow tracking shots animate the graffiti, the tally marks, carvings, drawings, and portraits left behind on the walls of the cells, infusing life and movement into these hieroglyphs. Inscriptions in Greek, Arabic, and French attest to different temporalities of detention and different populations detained, while the voice-over wonders what other illegalized groups of people were held within these walls before the speaker: “Criminals? Or simply like us? People who were here . . . without knowing why?” The narration draws attention to the entanglements and aftermaths of concentrationary histories and their targets.
The film simultaneously conveys the apparatus of capture and the forms of emergence and persistence within detention. The imagery of ruins signals the transience of the carceral apparatus, condemned like all matter to ruin; we witness both the recurrent architecture of detention and its built-in obsolescence in the face of human movement. The succession of imagery from various sites visually conveys that disparate forms of detention cannot be reduced to a paradigmatic “camp.” The graffiti on which the camera lingers attest to imaginaries and expressions irreducible to bare life, as a purely necropolitical reading of refugee detention might presume. Such traces give us a glimpse into a vision of the human that is closer to what Alexander Weheliye has termed “habeas viscus,” which, “in contrast to bare life, insists on the importance of minuscule movements, glimmers of hope, scraps of food, the interrupted dreams of freedom found in those spaces deemed devoid of full human life.”34
In Blue Sky from Pain, cell walls turn into texts, even palimpsests, that archive the circuitous itineraries and experimental personhoods scrawled, carved, drawn, or painted by successions of detainees. The writings are shadow practices of emergence and persistence within spaces of captivity, bearing witness to the itineraries, memories, and aspirations of those detained. One such wall (fig. 9) bears inscriptions by a former detainee, Rachid, who seems to have taken up the mantle of criminality that I presume was assigned to him on his journey, which included a deportation from France to Algeria in September 2002. Both his alternate name (Lucky Luciano) and his email name (Mafia) seem an homage to the Italian-born gangster who was imprisoned in the United States and then deported to Italy. The slow tracking shot over the writing on this wall is an eerie temporal experience for viewers. It positions us as witnesses to Rachid/Lucky Luciano's history, to his past presence within these walls, and to his disappearance. Yet it also proffers the possibility of future contact, since we are, with some effort, able to discern his email address. A text in smaller letters, and in what appears to be the same handwriting, lists Rachid/Lucky Luciano's itinerary, with stops in Rome, Alicante, Madrid, Barcelona, Istanbul, Bordeaux, Nancy-Metz. Rachid does not seem to share an address with his wife, whose location is not legible—“C'est là où ma femme habite” (“That's where my wife lives”)—but his own home is unambiguously claimed as Paris (“Paris, c'est là où j'habite”), even if he was expelled from it toward Algeria, presumably his country of origin. Such traces attest to remembered, imagined, and emergent selves: Rachid as Lucky Luciano and as inhabitant of Paris. The markings organize an itinerary of forced deviations from his desired destination (Barcelona-Istanbul-Bordeaux) into a sequential itinerary that concludes in his chosen home. The camera's focus on traces such as these blocks the protocols of humanitarian reason, which “pays more attention to the biological life of the destitute and unfortunate . . . than to their biographical life, the life through which they could, independently, give a meaning to their existence.”35 Instead of reducing the refugee to an inert body and object of compassion, the film animates autobiographical scraps on carceral walls as it attends to expressions of memory, possibility, and futurity from within detention.
If the film seeks to be a site of memory for those who have been detained on the Greek islands, it also meticulously records the arts of memory by which the detainees have made personal and political sense of their predicament. Indeed, the voice-over remembers another trace on the wall, this time an image yoked to a poetic recollection. As a tracking shot reveals the brightly colored drawing of a tree with a man playing the flute underneath (fig. 10), the narrator recalls drawing a “pretty landscape” with crayons given by a Greek guard, Zoya, the only one to communicate with the detainees and to bring them “stuff from the outside.” Once again, time is layered as he remembers the drawing, which at the time sparked the memory of Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish's “Passport.” “Do you know it?” he asks the viewer and recipient of his testimony, and recites some verses in Arabic as we contemplate a landscape that is entangled with a human figure:
In Darwish's poem the passport leeches out its bearer's embodied self and vital connection to place, making a mockery of “recognition.” By contrast, the poem offers a luminous ecology of belonging, where the stateless body becomes the veins of the land from which the elements flow:
I do not have the space to provide a reading of this remarkable poem, only to note that its figures for the passport's force of dispossession resonates with the current border technology's production of expropriated bodies and risky personhoods. Darwish's poem echoes Hannah Arendt's indictment of passports and certificates as weapons “by which one may kill men without bloodshed.”37 Yet the poem also opens into an alternate and spacious imaginary of belonging. It stages a re-embodiment of stateless rights and collectivities, not through the recognition of data and documents, but instead through the body's entanglement within a borderless landscape. The ecology of belonging pictured on the wall of a detention cell and echoed by the verses promises the possibility of selves embodied within spaces that remain irreducible to the nation-state. The narrator suggests that even within sites of confinement and destitution that are deemed abject, even within a detention facility for refugees, there remains an excess to the logic of the ban (which is taken to be the logic of the Nazi camp). Unterritorialized selves and forms of belonging continue to emerge in relation to a place, its atmosphere, and its other inhabitants in the absence of statehood and official papers. These subjectivations leave their mark on the apparatus of captivity, which itself becomes a site of memory for detainees and vectors of future connection: “When I was inside there I told myself that maybe one day someone would see my drawing and know that I was there,” the voice-over reflects. “That made me feel . . . I don't know, that I existed. I don't know if my drawing lasted. I'd love to go back there. Just to see.” Artistic practices such as this one craft alternate forms of becoming and belonging that contest the border regime's territorialization; they beckon an acknowledgment of presence and existence irreducible to state recognition.
Blue Sky from Pain thus functions as a kaleidoscopic site of memory for the expressivity of various populations formerly held in detention at the Greek-Turkish border; its empty spaces and fragmentary traces defy the identitarian, nationalist function of Pierre Nora's definition of a “site of memory.” Since the shots in this film are of several deserted detention sites, we do not know which camp we are seeing or when it was actively in service. The detention center walls, with their inscriptions, become paradoxical vectors of remembrance. In their anonymity, they evoke disparate regimes of detention, pointing to a longue durée of concentrationary history that remains a vivid actuality. But the architectures and archives represented in the film cannot be reduced to any singular, abstract paradigm of the camp. While the film makes visible the afterlives of racialized histories in the contemporary architecture of migrant detention, it does not portray refugee detention in light of reified visual memories of slavery, colonialism, or the Nazi camp. Instead, the entanglement of carceral histories and memories we see attest to what Paul Gilroy has described as the “knotted intersections of histories” produced by “a fusion of horizons,” the entanglements and aftermaths of overlapping and ongoing histories of racialized violence.38
Despite foregrounding minor practices of expression, however, Blue Sky from Pain offers no humanist allegory of the spirit's triumph over carcerality. On the contrary, its gaze is a stark rendering of the biopolitical capture that is spatialized in detention camps. Its narrative also obliquely interrogates the discourse of human rights and its pertinence within sites of detention that suspend the right to have any rights at all.39 There is no platform from which a demand for rights can be made, only a plea for elementary biological requirements. This predicament is made painfully clear at the film's midpoint, when the voice-over reads out a letter composed collectively by the camp detainees for the authorities. In stilted English, this letter protests the material conditions of the camps—only one toilet for 149 people, not enough mattresses to go around, the absence of hot water with winter looming ahead. A series of photographic stills flash up to give visible evidence of these abject conditions: brightly lit, bare bed blocks without mattresses, soiled floors and walls, piles of files strewn across dirty rooms, attesting to the vast, anonymous bureaucracy in which asylum applications are swallowed. The letter closes with a slow tracking shot over an initially anonymous chest X-ray (fig. 11) as we hear the detainees' concluding pleas: “So now, at the end, we think that a man cannot live without the sunlight. If possible, let us see the sunlight every day for two or three hours, and even breathe the outside air.” The plea for the most basic of requirements such as sunlight and oxygen, that is to say, that which “a man cannot live without,” posits sheer biological survival, or bare life, as the site for such demands. This plea goes unheard, for the letter was ignored. The chest X-ray is most likely to check for tuberculosis, a routine test for “irregular migrants” who are seized and detained in Greece. But of course, the risk of tuberculosis and upper respiratory infections exponentially increases within the overcrowded conditions of detention, when one is deprived of simple access to the elements, to “see the sunlight” or “breathe the outside air,” and this is especially the case with children.
This scene stages the convergence of humanitarian care and securitarian hygiene with which I opened this essay. In the name of care, the medical gaze of surveillance intrudes into the body's intimacy, seizing and exposing its insides to regulate a contagion that the conditions of detention actively produce.40 The exposure of these bones evokes the unreliable bone density tests to which young migrants are subjected in order to determine their age and the protections they are owed. The sequence visualizes, even literalizes, the border regime's immunitary violence: its production of racialized, illegalized, and diseased bodies, managed as swarms requiring scanning and quarantine. The medical, securitist, and forensic gaze here converge to extract data from a body treated as pure matter.
If in Fanon's divided colony, the anger and aggression of the colonized had “been deposited in his bones,” charging the body with a kinetic force of opposition in the anticolonial struggle, the X-ray reduces the migrant to an inert skeleton in the name of protection, on the one hand, and identification on the other, since we can make out the detainee-patient's name at the bottom. Humanitarian detention undoes the very possibility of an agonistic confrontation with oppression. The body's hollowed-out image in the X-ray, its reduction to luminous bones, attests to the expropriation and risk to which dissident bodies are consigned and may remind us of Frantz Fanon's spectral faceprint. The sequence illustrates my initial claim about the convergence of security and care in the management of refugees. The X-ray also demonstrates conflicting operations of current border technologies on illegalized bodies evoked earlier. Migrants are massified as a security threat, as a swarm to be penned up offshore until sifted. They are classified as healthy or diseased organisms, surveilled and singularized through the medical technology that is the X-ray, and finally, subject to identification and individual tracking in the name of their health and that of others. The humanitarian/securitarian operations of current borders are thus rehearsed in miniature within the quarantine of detention at the outer edges of Europe.
The concentrationary spaces of Blue Sky from Pain are devoid of human beings, as if the film refused to frame and deliver the bodies of the detained. This absence of human figures seems a deliberate challenge to the conventions of humanitarian documentary, its commitment to represent the unrepresented in order to symbolically secure rights on their behalf. It also eschews what Pooja Rangan designates as the genre's “immediations,” that is, humanitarian documentary's tropes of bare liveness, voice, and immediacy.41 Nevertheless, after exclusively documenting the architecture of capture and traces of resistance in empty, ruined detention sites, the last two minutes of Blue Sky from Pain abruptly confront viewers with human presence, in the form of video footage of a rebellion that shows children addressing the camera and brandishing signs demanding their release (fig. 12). This footage was taken in 2009 from inside Pagani, Lesbos, by Najib Meherdel, a fifteen-year-old detainee, on an iPhone smuggled in by the noborder network. A former storage facility, Pagani was a closed camp for refugees arriving by boat from Turkey. Even though it was designed for two hundred detainees, it sometimes held over one thousand, including many unaccompanied minors, as we see in figure 12.
The endangered or suffering child is an emblem of vulnerability in the “spectacular rhetorics of human rights.”42 Children are exemplary forms of bare life; they are also apolitical figures of pure humanity and goodness that it is the charge of human rights to defend and humanitarianism to protect: “Childlike innocence is a way of making recipients of humanitarian assistance a tabula rasa, innocent of politics and history.”43 This is why Alan Kurdi's little body was converted into such a powerful affective meme for the refugee “crisis.” The purity of his innocence and passivity, sealed by his death, made of him an exemplary victim, but also an exemplary refugee.44 In sharp contrast, the minors who erupt into this cinematic frame do not belong to the humanitarian fantasy that Alan Kurdi so tragically embodied. These boys do not invite compassion or protection; they demand witness and intervention. They summon, they protest, they exhort and demonstrate as rhetorical agents able to represent themselves through speech, writing, and action, including the destruction of detention's apparatus. The sequence offers a provocative complication of the child as universal emblem of innocence, dependence, and passivity. It undoes the polarity between the refugee as singular innocent victim and the migrant as criminal swarm, portrayed by Alan Kurdi's solitary figure, on the one hand, and the multiplying sexual predators of Charlie Hebdo's caricature on the other. The remediated footage forces an acknowledgement of children's complex political energies and expressions from within a detention regime at Europe's borders that makes no concessions to youth.
The riot, as “the language of the unheard,” abandons the register of the plea found in the carefully crafted collective letter that begged for access to light, oxygen, toilets, and mattresses.45 In the absence of the most elementary rights to cleanliness, fresh air, and sunlight, now bathroom sinks are smashed, beds are flipped over, and sheets burned. It is significant that these rioting minors, who shout and set things on fire, fall out of the traditional formulation of the subject of human rights (the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen [Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen] of 1789 in France, for example, defined the subject of human rights as one who has the capacity to reason and to exert autonomous moral will, hence the exclusion of children, women, and the insane).46 The interplay of text and remediated footage highlights the children's rage as a condition of being undone, driven mad, out of themselves, by detention: “I was beside myself, everyone was,” the narrator recalls. “There was an Afghan, very young, twelve or thirteen years old maybe, he was all alone, and he set his sheets on fire, yelling like he was crazy.” These are the last audible words of the film.
In August 2009, when the riot that was captured on the iPhone took place, conditions at Pagani camp were so dire that it was called a “Guantanamo in the Aegean” and “Dante's Inferno.” But even though Amnesty International denounced its “degrading and inhuman conditions” and Médécins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) had been calling for its closure, the closure was brought about not by humanitarian agents but by protests such as the one we see, alongside a hunger strike by 130 minors who used their only resource—their blocked bodies—as forces of expression, while others set fire to the cells. The rage inside was also supported and circulated by “networks of outrage” on the outside.47 Transnational solidarity activists such as the noborder network that smuggled in the phone worked in alliance with the riot; they relayed messages and news online and occupied the detention camp's roof. If the children in the footage appear to be literally crawling up the walls, it is not as a swarm, but in order to access the barred windows so that noborder network activists could take their depositions and circulate them on the internet.48 The site of detention is not sealed off “out there” but traversed by outside forces, in a relationship that reminds us of the Möbius strip conjoining camp to polis.
The riot is a powerful illustration of the resistant energies and alliances forged and mobilized by refugees, even from within the subjection of detention. Its remediated appearance at the close of Blue Sky from Pain suggests that abject spaces such as detention camps remain spaces of embodiment, persistence, and solidarity.49 What we witness is an organized eruption, an “Anarchy of Colored Boys Assembled in a Riotous Manner,” to adapt Saidiya Hartmann's meditation on black women imprisoned under vagrancy statutes, for whom rioting, as in Pagani, was “the only remedy within reach.”50 If detention at the closed prison of Pagani forced refugees into “living outside the visual frame,” where media is required to support the establishment of a sphere of politics, the detainees and activists momentarily carved out a space of appearance from within this erasure.51
The film's abrupt ending loops us back to its beginning, when the narrator announces, “That day we got fed up.” The looped frame might invite us to reread the imagery of anonymous camps ruins as the consequence and aftermath of rebellion. But the gradual fading of the protestors' voices into noise, as if submerged underwater, invites a more cautious reading. An acoustic reminder of the mass grave that is the Mediterranean, it also signals the ongoing reality of detention on Lesbos. The flash of language and self-representation yields to inaudible collective noise, as the screen goes blank, once again suggesting the twists and turns of the Möbius, as spaces of political emergence flicker in and out of existence.52 Today, the Pagani prison has been replaced by the Moria Detention Center, a former military base that in late 2018 was up to four times more crowded than its capacity, including hundreds of children due to the EU-Turkey deal made in the aftermath of Alan Kurdi's death. As a result of this measure, in spring 2019, over fourteen thousand refugees and migrants were trapped on the Aegean islands, waiting over a year for their claims to be processed, so they could access the mainland and move on towards sanctuary or face deportation to unsafe countries. The fate of children trapped on islands such as Lesbos encapsulates the complicity of humanitarian reason and securitarian practices. Moral outrage over drowning children has further illegalized them in the name of their protection while securing Europe's outer border.
Blue Sky from Pain makes visible the plight of children hurled into adulthood while encamped at the edges of Fortress Europe in the name of “humanitarian detention,” but it resists the pathos of the refugee as purely exposed life that is so often mobilized by the image of the vulnerable child. In the remediated footage, children are portrayed not as passive objects awaiting the distribution of shelter, care, or rights, but as subjects who may take up those rights by shouting out claims, destroying property, surging into the frame of an extended iPhone video camera. These bodies and voices suddenly populate carceral walls that have already borne vivid traces of detained refugees' memories and imaginaries, their ecologies of belonging and arts of persistence.
My evocation of persistence throughout this piece is indebted to Judith Butler's reflection on the illegalized body's oppositional charge when it appears “on the streets,” as a body exercising a “right that is no right” (such as the right to sunlight and outside air); a body that has not been reduced to bare life but that “articulates its way of living, showing both its precarity and its right to persist.” What happens, however, when “the persistence of the body against those forces that seek its debilitation or eradication” is deployed outside the realm of visibility, in the rightless zone of an offshore detention facility?53 The clamor of children rioting to demand their release can simply go unseen and unheard. Yet even if certain sites appear entirely cut off from frames of material support, consigned to invisibility by their geographic remoteness, such as the Greek archipelago's refugee detention system, I have suggested that these are not zones of exception “out there” manufacturing bare life. The insertion of the riot's footage in Blue Sky form Pain shows us children seizing access, however improbably, however briefly, to the scene of appearance, thanks to the solidarity of others. Attending to the Möbius strip that connects camp to polis, vulnerable child to political actor, is not the same as celebrating “resilience,” which has been rightly critiqued for its neoliberal denial of vulnerability and implication in a logic of security.54 It is to honor, acknowledge, and perhaps even support forms of persistence, and of emergence within the inferno of migrant detention. Envisioning encamped children in relation to the Möbius strip might help us unlock entrenched oppositions between bare life and triumphalist survival, abject negativity and the obscenity of agency under conditions of duress.55
The rhetoric of human rights and humanitarianism operate according to the representational mandates of visibility and recognition. But Blue Sky from Pain is not invested in bringing the unseen into visibility according to an additive and inclusive model of aesthetic representation as recognition and ethical reparation. The film at once exposes and challenges the securitist apparatus of capture at Europe's borders, even as it puts pressure on the frames by which we imagine the subject of human rights and the object of humanitarian compassion. Its imagery and testimonies question the very conditions of visibility, recognition, and reparation in discourses on asylum seekers, moving and mobilizing its viewers instead toward solidarity with the lives that are being ravaged at the border. The concluding footage of kinetic counterviolence restores the struggle that the border's technology of humanitarian detention seeks to short-circuit or occlude. The practices and protests archived by the film, in addition to its own representational choices, open up a “space for new affective and political grammars in response to suffering, injustice, and death,” as we confront fragments of memories and imaginaries that are irreducible to received categories of political existence.56 At the very least, an aesthetic representation such as this one cautions us to check the humanitarian impulse in theory and scholarship, by which I mean the “search and rescue operation” of subjects, histories, and itineraries, recognized exclusively through victimhood, bare life, or biopolitical capture. It urges us to nuance the terms by which we figure bodies that are detained, in a flight that is toward refuge but also toward forms of becoming and belonging that have yet to be captured by thought.
I am grateful to Achille Mbembe, David Theo Goldberg, Églantine Colon, and the anonymous readers of Critical Times for their response to earlier versions of this essay.
The initial photo was taken by Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir for Doğan News Agency.
I am referring to Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, titled The Terror of War (1972) and informally known as “Napalm Girl,” and Kevin Carter's photograph The Vulture and the Little Girl, also known as “The Struggling Girl” (1993), which also received the Pulitzer Prize.
For a thorough diagnosis and critique of the deployment of crisis as a term and category in contemporary migration politics, see De Genova and Tazzioli, “Europe/Crisis.” There is a vast literature on the spectatorship of suffering. Classic titles include Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others; and Boltanski, La Souffrance à distance. For a reading of the response to Alan Kurdi's photo through Boltanski's conception of “moral spectatorship” and the “politics of pity,” see Mortensen and Trenz, “Media Morality and Visual Icons in an Age of Social Media.” On the transience of compassion, see Sohlberg, Esaiasson, and Martinsson, “Changing Political Impact of Compassion-Evoking Pictures.”
Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative, put it thus: “If this agreement could be put in place quickly, before the seas get even rougher and the cold season closes in on the Balkans, it could save untold lives.” Knaus, “Why People Don't Need to Drown in the Aegean.” For specifics on the Greek-Turkey deal, see Corrao, “Legislative Train Schedule.”
The EU-Turkey deal calculates the lives of refugees through what Oliver defines as the logic of humanitarian warfare: “Within the logic of humanitarian warfare, refugees become not only collateral damage but fungible units to be exchanged between nations, where rich governments pay poorer ones so they won't have to” (Oliver, Carceral Humanitarianism, 8).
See, for instance, www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/03/european-leaders-must-end-the-humanitarian-and-human-rights-crisis-at-europes-borders/; www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/03/the-eu-turkey-deal-europes-year-of-shame/.
Then–deputy director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Matthew Albence likened these detention sites to “summer camp” at a Capitol Hill hearing. He has since been appointed interim ICE director. See for example Kopan, “ICE Official.”
The forcible administration of psychotropic drugs to migrant children in detention has been ruled illegal. Lartey, “No More Psychotropic Drugs to Migrant Children.”
I am thinking of Didier Fassin's influential diagnosis of humanitarian reason as a politics of precarious lives in which “the tension between humanity and security” gives rise to the oxymoronic “compassionate repression” (Humanitarian Reason, 135). I am also indebted to Miriam Ticktin's work on the twinning of threat and care in Casualties of Care; and Nick Vaughan-Williams, who examines the inherent ambiguity “within EU border security and migration management policies and practices that (re)produces the ‘irregular’ migrant as potentially both a life to be protected and a security threat to protect against” (Europe's Border Crisis, 3).
“In fact, the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms. . . . He constantly refers to the bestiary. Those hordes of vital statistics, those hysterical masses, those faces bereft of all humanity, that mob without beginning or end . . . all this forms part of the colonial vocabulary” (Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 41–42).
“The violence of the colonial regime and the counter-violence of the native balance each other and respond to each other in an extraordinary reciprocal homogeneity” (Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 87).
For an incisive account of how new technologies such as genomics or biometrics “recalibrate” colonial models of race difference, see Mbembe, Critique, 20–24.
See for instance the right-wing, xenophobic, and racist conspiracy theory of a great replacement of “native” white Europeans by racialized non-Europeans developed by Renaud Camus in Le Grand remplacement and fictionalized by Michel Houellebecq in Soumission. Camus recently claimed that “France and Europe are far more gravely colonized by Africa than they themselves have colonized.” See www.breizh-info.com/2017/07/07/73501/renaud-camus-france-culture-finkielkraut-grand-remplacement. My thanks to Ty Blakeney for this reference.
Pope Francis likened refugee camps to concentration camps in 2017, drawing rebuke from the Jewish community. Astonishingly enough, the former concentration camp of Dachau served as a refugee center in 2015. See Noack, “Germany Is Housing Refugees.”
The Third Reich's concentrationary system was shaped by forms of administrative detention developed in nineteenth-century colonial settings, and genocide is itself rooted in forms of absolute destruction in Africa. Furthermore, the “Nazi camps” are irreducible to a singular model, since they served a range of purposes, from labor exploitation to extermination.
Stümer argues that the European borders are performances of necropower. “Fortress Europe re-creates both the colonial fortress and the death camp while anxiously denying these histories as constitutive of the current ‘crisis.’ I argue that this privileged denial escalates bare life into bare death as a form of non-relational death, defying the humanity of the dead and leaving them as a mere body outside the European realm. Bare death is produced by Europe's border and enabled by a constructed otherness of the Muslim refugee” (Stümer, “‘Dead Are Coming,’” 22). See also in the context of Calais's former “jungle,” Davies, Isakjee, and Dhesi, “Violent Inaction,” which similarly mobilizes Mbembe's articulation of necropolitics. These studies of thanatopolitics and necropower illuminate how the border regime is not only biopolitical, as the administration of life in terms of “making live and letting die,” in Foucauldian terms, but as the sanctioning of brutalization and death. They are valuable in showing the mechanisms by which this violence is administered. However, an overwhelmingly necropolitical reading of the border homogenizes its sites and operations even as it eclipses subjectivations and politics that emerge from within these unpromising spaces. If Mbembe is a point of reference in these approaches, his own work draws on Frantz Fanon for “the idea that in every human subject there is something indomitable and fundamentally intangible that no domination—no matter what form it takes—can eliminate, contain, or suppress, at least not completely” (Mbembe, Critique, 170).
This follows Foucault's thought on security and mobility under biopolitical governance as “the emergence of a completely different problem that is no longer the fixing and demarcating the territory but that of allowing circulations to take place, of controlling then, sifting the good from the bad, ensuring that things are always in movement, constantly moving around, continually going from one point to another, but in such a way that the inherent dangers of this circulation are cancelled out” (Society, 65). Building on Foucault, Didier Bigo suggests that “the detention camp of would-be criminals thus appears where the line tracing the border is unclear, where inside and outside are not delimited objectively as in a cylinder, but intersubjectively as in a Möbius strip” (“Detention of Foreigners,” 5).
“Digital epidermalization” is Simone Browne's term, a powerful update on Fanon's epidermalization in an age of biometric information technology. See Dark Matters, 109; and more generally, chapter 3, “B®anding Blackness: Biometric Technology and the Surveillance of Blackness” (89–129). Machine-readable body is a term coined by van Ploeg and Sprenkels, “Migration and Machine-Readable Body,” 68–104.
In the context of slavery, Saidiya Hartman evokes “the degraded hypervisibility of the enslaved,” the slave song's opacity as a resistance to this regime, and her own commitment to honoring this opacity (Scenes of Subjection, 36–37). Also, see Simone Browne on “dark sousveillance” as resistance to this hypervisibility (Dark Matters, 21–24).
The title of the piece cites Walter Benjamin's “On the Concept of History”: “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins” (Benjamin, Illuminations, 248).
Ann Stoler examines the ongoingness of racial imperialism's occluded histories, and “how uneven sedimentations of colonial reason and the affective sensibilities on which they depend—whether under the rubric of ‘security,’ ‘terrorism,’ ‘defense of society,’ or ‘race’—participate in shaping the possibilities for how differential futures are distributed and who are, and will be, targeted as those to be exposed, both external and internal enemies in the making” (Duress, 13).
“The Möbius ribbon destabilizes the idea of an objective border between inside and outside. . . . Within the strip, zones of indetermination appear; zones of conflagration (of violence and of meanings) emerge” (Bigo, “Detention,” 16).
Stephanos Mangriotis is a visual artist living in France and Greece who uses photography, film, and multimedia forms to investigate migration and borders. See www.stephanosmangriotis.com/infos/about/. For a dossier on Blue Sky from Pain and an exhibition linked to the film, see dekadrage.org/projets/blue-sky-from-pain/. The quotes about the film and the exhibition on which it is based are drawn from this site. I am indebted to Kyle Thomson for his careful breakdown of this film in a seminar. All translations from French to English are my own.
See Rousset, World Apart. Stephanos Mangriotis evokes Chris Marker's emblematic La jetée as an influence, but also L'Ordre (1973), by Jean-Daniel Pollet, which investigates a leper colony on the island of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete. Correspondence with the director on February 14, 2018. For an overview of postwar concentrationary cinema and its visual poetics, see Pollock and Silverman, “Introduction: Concentrationary Cinema,” 1–54.
The recollection of Darwish's poem in detention is a moving echo of Hannah Arendt's meditation on the refugee's nightly solace: “I don't know which memories and which thoughts nightly dwell in our dreams. I dare not ask for information. . . . But sometimes I imagine that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved” (Arendt, “We Refugees,” 118).
I am evoking here Hannah Arendt's concept of “the right to have rights,” formulated in response to the insufficiency of the Declaration of Human Rights, which claimed that one has rights by virtue of being human, whereas in fact, only citizens of nation-states have their rights protected, hence the need for a “right to have rights” for the stateless: “We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged according to actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when there emerged millions of people who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation” (Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 296–97).
MSF reports that 60 percent of medical conditions in Greek detention centers are produced by the conditions of detention: overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and no outside air. Once apprehended, “irregular” migrants in Greek detention centers routinely undergo tuberculosis screening as well as blood screening for hepatitis and syphilis (X-rays are usually administered if results are positive). Unaccompanied minors are additionally screened for HIV and for hepatitis. See Carr, Fortress Europe, 90–92.
“Perversely, innocence is clearest in death; Alan exemplified the pure innocence of refugees only after he was washed up on Turkish shores. He was pure in his passivity, his lack—innocence is about lack, after all” (Ticktin, “Thinking beyond Humanitarian Borders,” 261).
I am aware of the securitarian uses of the term riot to disqualify protest activity, and I seek to restore Martin Luther King's diagnosis of the riot as “the language of the unheard,” despite his own commitment to nonviolence.
Joseph Slaughter has argued that human rights and the bildungsroman are legal and literary regimes that “imagine an idealistic scenario for the human personality to become the sovereign guarantor of its own development,” one that concludes with recognition and incorporation into the nation-state and citizenship (Slaughter, Human Rights Inc., 103). While Blue Sky from Pain opens with the Bildung structure (the narrator as child on the brink of transformation), its conclusion undoes these twinned regimes of recognition and assimilation.
As Samera Esmeir argues, “When we begin to refuse to recognize, and therefore endow, a fixed juridicalized humanity, we might also begin to participate in struggles in which there are more possibilities for the emergence of political subjectivities” (“On Making Dehumanization Possible,” 1550).
Hartman's speculative history of Black women's riots at Bedford Correctional Facility in 1919–20 restores the meaning and music of these riots' destruction and “noise”: “The noise conveyed the defeat and the aspiration, the beauty and the wretchedness that was otherwise inaudible to the ears of the world”; “It was a chorus that “spoke with one voice” in a “willingness to lose oneself and become something greater—a chorus, a swarm, an ensemble, a mutual aid society” (Hartman, “Anarchy,” 485, 481, emphasis added).
The submersion of political speech into inaudible noise in the film recalls Jacques Rancière's argument on the protocols by which some utterances by the human animal are seen as “mouthing a noise,” and others as “articulating a discourse.” “If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing him as the bearer of signs of politicity, by not understanding what he says, by not hearing what issues from his mouth as discourse” (Rancière, Dissensus, 38). To consider this in light of the riot illustrates the fragility of the emergence into political existence, its dependence on the solidarity of others.
“This right is codified nowhere. It is not granted from elsewhere by existing law, even if it sometimes finds supports precisely there. It is, in fact, the right to have rights, not as natural law or metaphysical stipulation, but as the persistence of the body against those forces that seek its debilitation or eradication. This persistence requires breaking into the established regime of space with a set of material supports both mobilized and mobilizing” (Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 83).