From the Print Journal

Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees by Lyndsey Stonebridge

 Writing, Rights, and Refugees. Lyndsey Stonebridge.
Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees. Lyndsey Stonebridge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 272. $34.00 (cloth).

© 2020 Johns Hopkins University Press

In her stateless exile, Hannah Arendt read Franz Kafka. He was “rather uncannily adequate to the reality” of statelessness, she wrote (quoted in Stonebridge, 29). In 1933 Arendt had fled Germany through a house that sat on the border with Czechoslovakia (24). She ate dinner and left by the back door, into a legal void that exists on the fringes of the accepted world order of sovereign states and citizenship (24). Reading Kafka helped Arendt, Lyndsey Stonebridge argues, turn her own experience into a “thought experiment” about rights and the modern state (30). She would publish Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, the same year she finally became a naturalized citizen in the United States (30).

Arendt is one of seven authors who are each the subject of a chapter in Stonebridge’s Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees. “Arendt was one of the first,” Stonebridge writes, “to understand that what looked like a refugee crisis in reality was a crisis for the political and moral authority of the European nation state” (4). Through Stonebridge’s elegant and compelling literary and historical analysis, the writers whom she brings together diagnose the failures of the modern world from the symptom of mass displacement. Arendt, George Orwell, Simone Weil, Samuel Beckett, Dorothy Thompson, and W. H. Auden each reflected on the mid-twentieth-century refugee crisis as it occurred. Each struggled to avoid historical inevitability by imagining “how it could be”—a skill that Stonebridge finds Arendt learned in part through Kafka’s literary style (42). Literature, Stonebridge argues, offers escape routes from deterministic descriptions of the modern political community. “Kafka,” she explains, “offers Arendt a means of thinking about freedom at a moment when it seemed almost impossible to think outside of nation-state politics” (44). In her conclusion, Stonebridge introduces a contemporary Palestinian poet, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, establishing a continuity of thought from past to present displacement.

Placeless People gives hope for a response to the refugee crises of our own world both with lessons from earlier writers and with the possibility that literature itself contains political redemption—for those of us reading today as much as for the subjects of Stonebridge’s book.

For Arendt, from her stateless condition, language and literature offered images from which to construct the world anew, for reimaging a political community from a literary community (21). Theodor Adorno wrote that poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric.[1] The response that Stonebridge finds in these authors is that there must be poetry after Auschwitz or there will be no future, no possibility to break the cycle that made Auschwitz possible.

Crucially, she argues we will find the images of literature and language to address the political failures that produce displacement specifically among the displaced (19). We look to refugees for pathos, Stonebridge argues, and fail to recognize the abundant and ever-expanding archive of displacement as a space for creative thought (25). Refugees—and placelessness more generally—open an opportunity for thinking about rights beyond the state, beyond sovereignty and citizenship.

The Jewish and Palestinian refugee crises of the mid-twentieth century are together the archive of displacement from which Stonebridge and the writers in Placeless People draw their sources. As they grapple with the consequences both of Jewish statelessness and of Zionism, Israel/Palestine emerges as the quintessential failure of nation-based sovereignty. At the same time, unexpectedly, Stonebridge raises the Palestine/Israel of 1948 as a brief moment of hope for a different future, suggesting that it presented the opportunity of “a rights-based citizenship without nationalism” (24). She finds this construction in Arendt, who advocated a Jewish homeland rather than a Jewish nation-state, believing it might become an extension of a European federalism that represented “sovereignty without nationalism” (43). Starkly, Simone Weil’s alternative to nationalism had a common pain, rather than common values or common identity, as the foundation for community (100–01).

Stonebridge suggests the mid-century failure to resolve Israeli/Palestinian sovereignty and citizenship has made that same crisis the present-day measure of our ability to imagine a new future. It is a sobering thought when recent studies of climate change project that approximately 150 million people currently live on land that will be below high tide in thirty years.[2] As land disappears, we will face yet another global challenge to our conception of sovereignty. A solution for Palestine/Israel, Stonebridge argues, will prepare us for the necessary rethinking of political structures and communities that such a future will demand (8). It is not an optimistic thought, but it does set a roadmap for the questions we must be asking and the concepts—apparently immutable—that we must begin to challenge.

The mid-century writers of Placeless People concluded that human rights and humanitarianism are not sufficient as solutions. An adequate response to displacement and the loss of rights that accompanies it can only be political because the cause is political. This understanding is truly the unifying feature between the authors Stonebridge selected. Humanitarian action appears merely as a band-aid to treat, or even to cover up, a symptom; and human rights for these authors are themselves another symptom of the nation-state’s political failure.

When the displaced have “the audacity to believe” that they are entitled to rights, they strip away the myth that rights are natural and universal (39). Instead, we recognize that rights are tied to citizenship, utterly dependent on the laws and institutions of a state for protection. The most dangerous situation, Arendt wrote in Origins of Totalitarianism, is to be “nothing but human,” without citizenship, for to be merely human means to be without rights.[3]

The existence of refugees or people who are stateless is deeply disconcerting for those of us who imagine ourselves secure in citizenship and rights. The displaced represent the fragility of both, revealing our own vulnerability. The writers in Placeless People recognized that the typical response was to make the state more exclusionary (Placeless People, 8). This reaction only created hierarchies of rights and cycles of greater displacement. Weil warned: “Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others” (quoted in Stonebridge, 105). The existence of the modern nation-state inherently creates rightlessness, and our own citizenship makes us complicit in the rightlessness of someone else (169). In the case of climate change, we are each responsible for daily choices that will transform the physical landscape and alter sovereignty and citizenship irrevocably.

Yet, at the same time, none of us can be entirely confident that we are not the ones who will lose our rights. Who knows themselves to be the pariah, Stonebridge’s subjects ask. To protect ourselves we tighten our sense of nation, and build our borders taller, tying nation to state in the way these writers knew will fail.

What is the alternative? Not the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948, according to the voices from this archive of displacement (13). Beckett and Arendt both despaired that “human rights were a poor response to the radical rightlessness of the age” (143–44). Stonebridge writes that Weil (who died in 1943) “would not have been at all surprised at the document’s failure to reconcile its moral aims with the realpolitik of late postcolonial state formation” (22). One alternative that Stonebridge works out over the course of her analysis is to construct citizenship without national identity (164). Still, even Arendt could not move beyond the idea that group identities are a necessary precursor for rights (7).

The productive creativity for which Stonebridge makes a case often does not produce an immediate resolution. Placeless People hints that it may be necessary to await new readers to discover the potential for influential ideas in these observations of an earlier era. Stonebridge recites Primo Levi’s experience of rediscovering Dante’s Inferno in Auschwitz as an example of how literature shifts meaning from the vantage point of the reader (64). The voices from the archive of statelessness, including those Stonebridge has selected, may take on a new significance in our present crisis, as Kafka did for Arendt when she recognized that he had torn apart the “fiction that nation states are willing or able to legislate for all on their territory” (34). The invitation is for us, Stonebridge’s readers, to do the same, forming an active part of this multi-era thought experiment.

Placeless People provides a philosophical framework for further mining the voices and contributions of the displaced. Among the subjects of Stonebridge’s book, only Arendt, Weil, and Qasmiyeh are refugees themselves. Too often, merely labeling someone a “refugee” writer, Stonebridge notes, may consign their voice to “invisibility” (180). Including Qasmiyeh in the conclusion is an invitation to take his thinking on statelessness as seriously as we do that of his predecessors. They were not so different from him in their own time, as we understand from Stonebridge’s historicization. The archive of statelessness contains many more voices who may hold the key to new constructions of rights and citizenship. There were those in the mid-century generation who worked to build nonexclusionary states; others who built institutions to protect rights outside of citizenship.

The success of this book will lie in its readers. Whether its subjects succeeded in contributing to a literature capable of imagining a new future will depend on whether we accept their provocative challenge. Stonebridge has created an engaging forum for that encounter, and has herself contributed to expanding the language we use to discuss citizenship and statelessness. Physical displacement may be inevitable, but the loss of rights does not have to be. When one calamity does not inherently lead to the other, then universal rights will exist and the insecurities that produce nationalism will have an opportunity to fade.



[1] Theodor Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society” (1949) in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 34.

[2] Denise Lu and Christopher Flavelle, “Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050, New Research Shows,” New York Times, October 29, 2019.

[3] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1976), 300.