A guest post from Ida Danewid. Ida is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her work focuses on decolonial theory, global ethics, and the politics of solidarity. She is the editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies vol. 45, and the forthcoming special issue “Racialized Realities in World Politics”. This post is based on her article White Innocence in the Black Mediterranean: Hospitality and the Erasure of History which won the 2017 Edward Said Award.
On the evening of the 3rd of October 2013, an overcrowded fishing boat carrying more than 500 migrants sank off the coast of the Italian island Lampedusa. Amongst the 368 found dead was an Eritrean woman who had given birth as she drowned. The divers found her a hundred and fifty feet down in the ocean together with her newborn baby, still attached by the umbilical cord. Her name was Yohanna, the Eritrean word for “congratulations”.
Over the last few years the Mediterranean migrant crisis has provoked numerous responses and activism; ranging from Ai Wei Wei’s life vest installation to Pope Francis’s “day of tears”, from radical activist campaigns such as “The Dead Are Coming” to Jason deCaire Taylor’s undersea sculpture museum, from the silent minute in the European parliament to #AlanKurdi. Seeking to counteract the rise of populist, far right, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and racist political parties, a variety of scholars, activists, artists, and politicians have called for empathy and solidarity with the fate of shipwrecked migrants. By recognising and publicly mourning the lives that have been lost, they seek to “humanise” those who, like Yohanna and her baby, are swallowed by the turquoise-blue waters of “Our Sea”.
In international theory, these expressions of solidarity have been paralleled by a growing interest in the question of who and what counts as human. A longstanding area of concern for post- and decolonial thought, poststructuralist and feminist theorists have increasingly begun to interrogate the normative frames that cast some lives as waste, bogus, and non-human. Responding to an era shaped by the global war on terror and securitizing discourses that figure the nation-state as a body under threat, thinkers such as Judith Butler and Stephen White have argued for a new humanism, based not on the rationalist sovereign subject central to liberal political theory, but on notions of loss, grief, relationality, and bodily vulnerability. Calling for a “reconceptualization of the Left” based on precariousness as “a shared condition of human life”, Butler argues that mourning and vulnerability can serve as the new basis of political community, enabling a “we” to be formed across cultures of difference. Applied to the context of the European migrant crisis, this is an ethic of hospitality that seeks to disrupt nationalist protocols of kinship and that points towards new forms of solidarity beyond borders. As the contributors to a recent special issue on “Borders and the Politics of Mourning” make clear, grief for unknown others—for migrants—offers a radical challenge to the xenophobia and white nationalism that underwrite the necropolitical logic of the European border regime.
My research interrogates what such critical humanist interventions produce and make possible—and crucially, what they foreclose and hide from view. Building on what some activists, artists, and academics have begun to call “the Black Mediterranean”, I argue that these responses are indicative of a general problematique, endemic to both leftwing activism and academic debate, which reproduces rather than challenges the foundational assumptions of the far right. By privileging a focus on the ontological—as opposed to historical—links that bind together humankind, these ethical perspectives contribute to an ideological formation that disconnects histories that are intimately connected, and that removes from view the many afterlives of historical and ongoing colonialism. Continue reading