Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Image
Dominga Rodriquez, 48, originally from Mexico, visits the exhibition “Sueno Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer” at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, 2019. While working as a janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Arizona, Kiefer went through the trash to collect thousands of items seized by border agents from migrants and asylum seekers trekking across the desert in an attempt to enter the U.S. via the U.S.-Mexico border.Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Image
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The Privilege of Being Nobody

Today’s refugees face a new pressure to narrativize and commodify their experience

by
Blake Smith
June 09, 2022
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Image
Dominga Rodriquez, 48, originally from Mexico, visits the exhibition "Sueno Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer" at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, 2019. While working as a janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Arizona, Kiefer went through the trash to collect thousands of items seized by border agents from migrants and asylum seekers trekking across the desert in an attempt to enter the U.S. via the U.S.-Mexico border.Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Image

In a 1943 essay “We Refugees,” Hannah Arendt argued that Jews fleeing Nazi-dominated Europe had been afraid to admit what they really were. Rather than acknowledge themselves as refugees, exiles, and “pariahs,” they pretended to be immigrants whose departure was motivated “by purely economic reasons,” hoping to forget the past and become good, instantly assimilated citizens of wherever they had ended up. Arendt had Olympian contempt for such efforts. It was only those who accepted their status, the “conscious pariahs,” who could understand political reality and stay rooted in the “vaunted Jewish qualities … humanity, humor, disinterested intelligence,” which, she insisted, are “pariah qualities.” To be a proper thinker, a proper Jew, a proper human being, one had to join the “very few”—and it went without saying that Arendt herself was among them—who admitted to being one of “we refugees.”

Three generations later, to be a refugee is, under the right circumstances, almost a privilege. The refugee intellectual or artist is haloed with the sort of epistemic and ethical authority with which Arendt sought to invest herself—provided, however, that she is a refugee of the right kind. Maral Bolouri, a visual artist in France and refugee from Iran, notes that in order to be “credible … the art of immigration must perpetuate stories of trauma” told in a certain way. In her 2019 series, “Tell Me Why You Love Me?,” Bolouri, who lives in France on a visa for queer immigrants fleeing countries, like Iran, where the expression of alternative sexualities can mean imprisonment and death, asks why Western governments and art patrons alike are so interested in refugees. Far from condemning them to silence, as Arendt described, we seem to demand that they speak to us about themselves, as long as they tell us what we want to hear.

While Arendt despised self-described “immigrants” who seemed to fold to the assimilating pressures of their new hosts and forget their past attachments, Bolouri observes that today, in the consciousness of the left-liberal establishment, the “good immigrant,” is rather one who “is tied to his past … is defined by his past … reproduces his past.” From the left-liberal perspective, a good immigrant is the bearer of a desirable quantum of diversity, a charming addition to a multicultural mosaic, offering us new recipes, new patterns and designs, and other such bits of harmless folklore. Above all, they bring us the stories of their victimhood. In some cases, as in Bolouri’s, they have literally had to rehearse such stories to official panels in order to be recognized as the right sort of refugees, people who have suffered in the approved sort of ways, to the proper degree, and learned how to organize the details of their misery into a coherent, cogent tale.

Arendt, writing amid the Second World War, imagined refugees as people who had lost all status and ties, who had become “nothing but human beings.” Such people held the potential to reveal radically human truths. She linked the self-conscious refugee’s lack of ties to particular identities to a supposed capacity to “represent the vanguard” of thought. Today, however, to be a refugee is a status in itself, with its own legal codes and cultural expectations. Rather than experiencing what Arendt considered the priceless advantage of a rootlessness that granted access to truth and universality, they find themselves cornered in a new form of specificity. “Am I oppressed enough to have a political value?” Bolouri asks in a list of questions addressed not only to the state, but to all readers. The questions conclude, “How would you read this if you did not know who I was?”

Arendt suggested that refugees—the ones lucid and brave enough to acknowledge themselves as such—embodied something essential about the human condition, stripped of traditional forms of belonging. In essence, she was offering a vision in which people like herself were enabled (or indeed, in which she specifically was enabled) to conceive and express thoughts inaccessible to others. For her, intellectual courage was a matter of speaking up and saying who one was. Today, in contrast, Bolouri’s questioning of how we, in the West, expect to “read” and find “political value” in refugees shows that this kind of self-disclosure is no longer a fearless act of resistance, but the very form of submission to contemporary power.

Seeking asylum in the West as a refugee means telling stories about oneself to holders of power, and those who request asylum on the grounds of homophobic oppression face a particular pressure to narrate themselves compellingly. As the anthropologist David A.B. Murray demonstrates in his investigation of the Canadian asylum system, applicants, many of them coming from the Middle East, are coached by lawyers and NGO workers to tell their life stories in ways that will satisfy the state’s criteria. Many of them, smoothing tangled lives into something that can be presented in an official dossier, “had the exact same story,” a stereotype based on what those helping them knew would work. Some applicants accused others of not even being sexual minorities, a claim that is difficult to disprove, since “sexual orientation claims depend mostly on the presentation of internal, often unspoken or unspeakable qualities.” The performance of queerness to satisfy the requirements of the state, is one that in principle anyone could learn, and anyone could fail. Like all tests of such unrepresentable internal characteristics, it measures not the quality in question, but the capacity to present a narrative about it.

Maral Bolouri, 'Till death do us part' (from Un-mothering), Pen and thread on found photography, 2022

Maral Bolouri, ‘Till death do us part’ (from Un-mothering), Pen and thread on found photography, 2022Courtesy Maral Bolouri

Such high-stakes tests are reserved only for the most vulnerable outsiders in our societies, but iterations of these evaluations have become commonplace for us all. A demand for autobiography, for stories about who we are, organizes the most diverse domains of contemporary life. The college admissions process, notoriously, has become a kind of pageant in which applicants are asked, through their essays, to bare their souls to the admissions board, which evaluates them not so much on their record of achievement or cognitive capacity as on their ability to cast themselves in an ethically appealing light. For artists like Bolouri, there has been a growing demand over the last few decades for “artist statements” directed toward grant committees, curators, and collectors. Through these texts, artists try to convince the latter that their work possesses the qualities—as unmaterial as queer desire—of relevance and novelty, often by linking their creations to their autobiography, highlighting those aspects (being queer, a refugee, etc.) understood to be, for whatever reason, of political and aesthetic value in our current dispensation.

The history of “artist statements” has yet to be written. The work that exists tends to conflate them with the manifestos and essays through which self-consciously avant-garde artists of the early and mid 20th century declared what art was or should be. But such documents of artistic self-assertion, usually directed at—and meant to shock, baffle, or inspire—other artists or an anonymous public, have little to do with the compulsory, pseudo-autobiographical writing that comprises the genre of “artist statements” today. Art historian Lindsay J. Twa has identified one important reason for this shift in her research on the applications of Black visual artists to the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a charitable organization of the 1930s and ’40s created by the former head of the Sears department store chain. Applicants described their art as a means of “understanding and perhaps furthering racial relations,” and described themselves as “in relation to their subject matter in order to establish their authority.” Making art worthy of funding meant making art that contributed to a clear political project and presenting oneself as a proper member of one’s racial community.

As Bolouri pointed out to me over email, no matter how “true” such stories may be, they become false once they are turned into “a selling point” that “the western art market chooses to promote.” Like the organizations that charge themselves with saving refugees, the latter seeks to imagine the minorities on whom it extends its favors as “as underprivileged and unsophisticated, which affirms in return the universal position of the benevolent saviors.” While Arendt argued that it was outsiders who had the “priceless advantage” of having no particular identity, Bolouri counters that it is the insiders, those benevolently dispensing favors, who have the “privilege of being a nobody, to blend in, not to have to reproduce my past and roots … identity IS for the marginalized.” Bolouri adds: “Zizek tells a brilliant joke on this: A rabbi and a wealthy merchant were praying in the synagogue, saying things like ‘oh God, forgive me for I am a nobody before you.’ A poor Jew passes through, kneels down next to them, and repeats the same thing. The rabbi and the wealthy merchant are like: Who the hell do you think you are calling yourself a nobody?”

To be a nobody—to be free of having to explain oneself, narrate one’s life according to the criteria set by power, to exploit one’s “identity” in order to access the resources one needs—is indeed a privilege in our society, one held by a shrinking number of people.

Refugees, queers, and artists, from various vantages, all might have imagined in the past—or had it imagined on their behalf by sympathetic observers—that their condition, somehow marginal to the mainstream of society, was being condemned to a silence that could be overcome through a great, courageous push. In such a vision, telling the truth about oneself would have seemed an act of liberation. Inside there is a secret—a desire, an insight, a wound—that parents, neighbors, friends, colleagues, all the regiments of the social order, seem to work together to keep hidden. Bringing it out of oneself and into speech, risking the consequences of its revelation, is an act that could transform both oneself and the world.

Now, nothing seems less liberatory, and more routine, than to avow oneself. At an interview for a job, or on the first day of orientation, someone in a position of authority asks us to say something “personal,” something from the darkness of our private life. We are invited to make ourselves visible, told we can and should admit our “whole selves” here, and we might imagine that we are being granted the satisfaction of our long-held wish to speak the risky truth—but under a compulsion that makes what we utter seem false and what we desired futile.

Once, one held within oneself a secret too dangerous to disclose; now, one must have on hand seemingly intimate revelations to feign a candid disclosure (one’s “greatest weakness,” a self-deprecating but ultimately self-affirming bit of nonsense). We must satisfy demands, not for our silent conformity to the norm, but for our garrulous submission to questioning about who we really are.

If it is true that power today demands that we speak up rather than be silent, it is, however, unclear what possibilities silence offers for resistance. Retreating into opacity and obscurity would hardly seem to serve us better than participating in the continual pageant of self-display. If we want to win back the privilege of being “nobody,” as Bolouri advocates, even for brief moments of evasion from the imperative to deliver canned autobiographies, we will need to rethink the intellectual heritage that leads us to conflate self-disclosure with autonomy, and to ask by what new practices of freedom we might regain the ability to speak, or be silent, in the name of common humanity.

Bolouri, for their part, lays claim to this universality in a new series, “Un-mothering.” Writing in Persian on early 20th-century French family photos, Bolouri captions these images with phrases ringing out from what they describe as “the unspoken” family ties: “I will never be ready for your death; I left you, so we stay together; I was yours from the very first day, but you’ve never been fully mine.” Speaking the unspoken once appeared to mean revealing one’s private truth in order to liberate oneself from the weight of stifling bonds. Perhaps now it means insisting instead that, like everyone else, one has the right to be no one in particular.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, is a Harper Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, where he works on cultural ties between France and India. He is a writing fellow at Heterodox Academy.