In his lecture series Society Must be Defended from 1975–76, Michel Foucault (2003, 241) describes ‘one of the greatest transformations political right underwent’ during the 19th century: the shift from sovereignty as the ‘old right […] to take life or let live’ to the ‘opposite right […] to make live and to let die.’ To Foucault (2003, 239), this shift marks the ‘birth of biopower’ through which people are divided into those who must live and those who must die. Accordingly, Lauren Berlant (2007, 765) defines the operations of biopower as ‘a hegemonic bloc [that] organizes the reproduction of life in ways that allow political crises to be cast as conditions of specific bodies and their competence at maintaining health or other conditions of social belonging.’ In the case of the recent European migration regime, racialized bodies—and corpses—are constructed as these specific bodies not competent enough to stay healthy or alive.1 Those who do not manage to migrate regularly are, thus, threatening Europe’s health and welfare not only physically but also socio-politically, economically, and morally. Because of its biopolitics, Europe as hegemonic bloc ‘gets to judge the problematic body’s subjects, whose agency is deemed to be fundamentally destructive. Apartheid-like structures […] are wielded against these populations, who come to represent embodied liabilities to social prosperity of one sort or another’ (Berlant 2007, 765). Against the alleged threat these bodies pose, pre-emptive measures must be taken.
Foucault’s thesis on biopolitics has not only been reiterated by Berlant to analyze obesity but also by Judith Butler to scrutinize how societies deal with (publicly displayed) death. Butler especially considers affective orders that produce what she refers to as ‘grievability’—a social construct with an authentic outcome: deciding whose lives are to be mourned publicly establishes normative hierarchies to determine whose lives are (not) worth mourning. Butler argues that within the differential distribution of grievability, questions of race and gender matter. ‘[H]umanity,’ Butler (2016, 50) concludes, ‘is, in fact, implicitly divided between those for whom we feel urgent and unreasoned concern and those whose lives and deaths simply do not touch us, or do not appear as lives at all.’ That reminds us of Foucault’s definition of modern sovereignty. Based on this argumentative similarity, the paper traces Foucault’s and Butler’s discussion of the relationship between sovereignty and power as well as grievability and vulnerability to scrutinize the intricate power systems working within the current EU migration regime in which the migrant other becomes both racialized and gendered and thus dehumanized.
In a first step, Foucault’s study on biopower and modern sovereignty as the right ‘to make live and let die’ is compared to Achille Mbembe’s (2003) notion of ‘necropolitics’ shifting the focus from the management of life to the management of death. I will argue that bio- and necropolitics intersect in Europe’s migration regime to decide whose deaths are grievable. Second, and in reference to Butler, the paper elaborates on how sovereignty works through constructions of impermeability. It shows how to deconstruct them as a narcissistic fantasy of absolute power. Insisting that vulnerability must not only be comprehended as victimhood and passivity, from vulnerability phenomena of resistance might arise. Lastly, the paper connects the theoretical concepts to visualizations of the tragic, such as the drowning migrant other, to show that they not only represent the racialized biopolitical apparatus of the EU migration regime but become part of its necropolitics. Thus, the politics of drowning make live and let die.
‘…so that when European men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed murder.’ (Arendt 1958,192)
When analyzing biopower, Foucault shows how state affairs and biological premises become more and more intertwined in modern society to shape policies and managerial state infrastructure. Under a biopower regime, ‘living becomes a scene of the administration, discipline, and recalibration of what constitutes [the] health’ of its population. Biopower operates via normalization that regulates state laws to define what is a good and healthy life for the whole population. While parochial sovereignty targeted the construction of individual autonomy, modern sovereignty under the impression of biopower cares for the health of its people. In turn, everything and everyone that supposedly threatens the health care system must be eliminated and ruled out—from bacteria to people. The governmentality to assure the elimination and to justify stately killings of people, Foucault finds to be racism. Racism ‘makes it possible to establish a relationship between my life and the death of the other that is not a military or warlike relationship of confrontation, but a biological-type relationship […],’ Foucault defines (2003, 255). The brilliance and brutality of racism lie in its ability to generalize, creating universality that supposedly applies to all (human) life. However, within this allegedly equalizing universality, power relations operate: the biopolitical regime runs on racialized processes of othering. In biopower, health and purity as collective goals are universalized, whereas the other is identified to threaten them. Consequently, the other must die. To legitimize the other’s death, mechanisms of dehumanizing are to put to work:
‘The fact that the other dies does not mean simply that I live in the sense that his death guarantees my safety; the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer’ (Foucault 2003, 255; italics MG).
In modern systems, politics and policies are entrenched with binary processes to produce the other that is deemed threatening, dangerous, unhealthy, and impure. Othering inherent to racism radicalizes this binary to an existential level where the other is not only a political adversary or a militaristic rival. Instead, the other becomes an enemy, a threat to the very existence of life as such. Thus, racism ‘is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die’ (Foucault 2003, 254)—and what must die is the other. Accordingly, the first function of racism is ‘to fragment, to create caesuras within the biological continuum addressed by biopower’ (Foucault 2003, 255). Racism’s second function pertains to legitimations of killing:
‘In a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable. When you have a normalizing society, you have a power which is, at least superficially, in the first instance, or in the first line a biopower, and racism is the indispensable precondition that allows someone to be killed, that allows others to be killed. Once the State functions in the biopower mode, racism alone can justify the murderous function of the State. So you can understand the importance—I almost said the vital importance—of racism to the exercise of such a power: it is the precondition for exercising the right to kill. If the power of normalization wished to exercise the old sovereign right to kill, it must become racist. And if, conversely, a power of sovereignty, or in other words, a power that has the right of life and death, wishes to work with the instruments, mechanisms, and technology of normalization, it too must become racist’ (Foucault 2003, 256).
With the concept of ‘killing,’ Foucault (2003, 256) describes more specifically ‘not simply murder as such’ but ‘every form of indirect murder,’ that is, exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for specific groups and populations, or social and political death, as well as expulsion from one safe territory to one that is unsafe and life-threatening. These categories can be directly translated to the European migration regime, where people are either denied legal entry by restrictive migration and visa policies or are removed from European soil when found guilty of illegalised residence. Moreover, these illegalized populations are left to die already on their migratory routes passing through desert wastelands and dangerous high sea. Additionally, persons reaching the putative safe harbors and refuges of Europe, but do not fit the right migration criteria, are deported to their home countries or to extraterritorial zones where not even the rule of law applies the liberal democracy of Europe so preciously upholds. Instead, these extraterritorial zones—from internment camps on Greek islands to the ‘refugee camps’ in Libya—are dominated by a state of exception where migrant lives are reduced to ‘bare life’ in Giorgio Agamben’s (1998, 4ff.) words. Agamben refers to Hannah Arendt’s (1958) historiography of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism where she meticulously describes the work of dehumanization: When states start eliminating the plurality thriving within the ‘human race’ stripping one (social, ethnic, or religious) group off their juridical rights and their political agency, the process of dehumanization has begun. It is established when the abnormalized group becomes integrated into an administrative apparatus to eradicate the last bits and pieces of their humanity, putting them to death eventually. Consequently, killing this population becomes legitimate since they are not even humans. Like cattle, the state can put them into concentration camps and, eventually, to death.
In the current discursive operations to dehumanize the migrant other, the most often masculinized migrant is reviewed and judged through two (neo-)colonial frames by which the possibility of a ‘common bond between the conqueror and the native’ (Mbembe 2003, 24) is (racially) denied: ‘the savage’ on the one hand and ‘civilization’ on the other. As the migrant originates from the savage tribes of wild, uncivilized, and potentially dangerous (post)colonial zones, he is ‘just another form of animal life, a horrifying experience, something alien beyond imagination or comprehension’ to the mindset of the Western ‘conqueror’ (Mbembe 2003, 24; italics MG). In this operation, the power-political focus changes from sustaining healthy lives to selecting and eradicating the foul, impure, and diseased. While Foucault concentrates on the category of life in his considerations on biopower, Mbembe builds on Foucault’s premises but turns his attention towards death as the primary category to analyze contemporary (migration) politics and colonial residues. To Mbembe (2003, 17), the biopolitical administration of so-called race relations has been ‘the ever-present shadow in Western political thought and practice, especially when it comes to imagining the inhumanity of, or rule over, foreign peoples.’ Race politics are linked to the politics of death since both operate on the ‘shattering experience of otherness’ (Mbembe 2003, 17). Biopower, thus, turns into ‘necropower’ in which ‘sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not,’ Mbembe (2003, 26f.) concludes.
The production of disposable populations, while others are comprehended as sovereign, triggers Butler’s considerations on grievability and vulnerability. Grievability results from a discourse that renders certain groups disposable, ‘for, if a life is not grievable, it is not quite a life; it does not qualify as a life and is not worth a note. It is already the unburied, if not the unburiable’ (Butler 2006, 34). Disposability and dehumanization interlock to stabilize the production of ungrievable lives. If a population is exposed to these discursive operations, it is considered vulnerable. Vulnerability is most often associated with helplessness, victimhood, and precariousness and thus opposed to sovereignty. (Neo-)liberal regimes run on both bio- and necropower. They understand vulnerability as a socio-moral category outside of the political that belongs, instead, to the sphere of human/itarian/ism. Within the bio- and necropolitical frame, vulnerability becomes, hence, depoliticizing.
Additionally, vulnerability is feminized and represents a moral concept in which gendered normative orders prevail (Bargetz & Sauer 2015). Since femininity is constructed as unproductive and disabling regarding the political dimension, when vulnerability is discursively attached to female* migrants, they are understood as victims in need of help by a putatively a-political humanitarian regime. Moreover, the (neo-)liberal comprehension of feminized vulnerability needs vulnerability to be overcome to establish individual and political—male*—sovereignty. It is considered a weakness in working against the population’s strength and health. This understanding needs to be radically challenged since vulnerability can be ground and source of political productivity—‘atmospheres’ of subversion, resistance, and deviance, as I want to argue in this chapter.2
Neoliberal and post-democratic systems favor impermeability and invincibility as political ideals and autonomous subjects who practice them, as Rancière (1999) and Byung-Chul Han (2014) have critically shown. Within neoliberal post-democracy, a ‘regime of the perceptible’ (Rancière 1999, 101f.) privatizes vulnerability. If vulnerability is, contrastingly, conceptualized as politicizing, it disturbs, irritates, and sabotages the neoliberal fantasy of impregnability. Moreover, it challenges the efficient inner workings of the neoliberal regime of post-democracy to which regressive identity politics, border fortifications, and securitization technologies are key assets.
Butler (2016, xvii) starts the reiteration of the concept of vulnerability with the statement that ‘there is no living being that is not at risk of destruction,’ referring to a radical-democratic framework. Hence, living beings must be perceived as vulnerable: Still, vulnerability is distributed unequally. To react towards being rendered vulnerable, the subjected is most often left with two options, Butler argues: Either the subjected repudiates vulnerability choosing the ‘possibility of appearing impermeable’ and thus imitating neoliberal politics, or it succumbs to ‘the […] possibility of wishing for death or becoming dead, as a vain effort to pre-empt or deflect the next blow’ (Butler 2006, 42). In the first option, the violence that did produce life as vulnerable is reproduced by this very life. It retaliates against the biopolitical regime by a simulation of sovereignty. With the second option, the vulnerable life becomes even more invisible, speechless, and powerless and eventually dies socially, politically, or even physically without being heard or seen at all. Both options are devastating to the vulnerable subject and echo in the discursive practices that construct migrant lives as vulnerable. The first option, retaliation, aligns with the masculinized and racialized discourse position on migrants as a menace: This racialized and gendered population might attack first to destroy the violent social, political, and cultural mechanism that renders it vulnerable; and in consequence, the order needs to react first. The second option, becoming dead, is mirrored in feminized or infantilized figurations produced by the discourse on migrant vulnerability: vulnerable female* and infant lives are represented as victims of the patriarchal hegemony, the savage conditions, and the (gender) inequality in their home countries. Since the subaltern female* and infant migrant cannot speak, they are rendered mute, and thus passive in terms of political agency. In short, while retaliation partners up and strengthens the practices of dehumanization, becoming dead reinforces practices of victimization.
To Butler (2006, 42; italics MG), though, there might be ‘some other way to live such that one becomes neither affectively dead nor mimetically violent, a way out of the circle of violence altogether. This possibility has to do with demanding a world in which bodily vulnerability is protected without therefore being eradicated […].’ Here, vulnerability as an element of all human—and non-human—life makes one understand a radical sharedness: something we all have in common and that connects us dramatically. In a subversive move, Butler reclaims vulnerability as something all (human) lives share. It does not need to be overcome. Preferably, it has to be embraced, even celebrated, if one wants to stay ‘human.’ Butler’s humanistic turn focuses on the human as a central concept of ethics, not as an idealism to define humanity’s essentialist core. One must not mis/understand Butler’s references to the categories of the human and humanity as falling to the (neo-)colonial trap of a Eurocentric human/itarian/ism. Instead, referring to ‘humanity’s shared vulnerability’ provides Butler (2016, 50; italics MG) with a ‘ground for a new ethics of resistance towards neoliberal biopolitics that would not be able to justify letting die.’ Against a Eurocentric human/itarian/ism in which ‘all humans’ are supposedly equal, Butler (2016, 50) highlights that ‘when we take our moral horror to be a sign of our humanity, we fail to note that the humanity in question […]’ underlies a ‘regulatory power that creates this differential at the level of affective and moral responsiveness.’ Like in a Foucauldian understanding of power, Butler denotes that power and resistance are co-constitutive: Where power is at work, resistance is, too. And resistance emerges from ‘oppressive atmospheres’ (Ford 2015, 3), where it works against the mechanisms of power. Thus, in Butler’s comprehension of shared vulnerability, a power differential is still at work, re-/producing both itself and resistance.
As in Foucault’s reflections on racism, Butler (2006, 42) insists that the concept of ‘“common” corporeal vulnerability’ does not posit a new basis for human/itarian/ism—as a moral ideology establishing universal norms for humanity—but reformulates the conditions of what she calls an ‘ethical encounter:’ a situation where the Self is confronted with both the radical difference and the radical commonality of the Other; a situation where the Self is being undone by the Other to realize that one will never be, to an absolute degree, authentic or genuine to oneself. Instead, traces of Otherness are always to be found in oneself—not as deficits, deficiency, and impurity but as what makes the Self ‘human’: gives it context, history, and narratives to build on. The Self is neither a radical new beginning in terms of tabula rasa nor a pure unity confined to its neat demarcations. Instead, it is embedded in hi/stories. Butler, accordingly, puts the ‘common’ in inverted commas to signify that commonality does not serve as an essentializing and universalizing category, which rings true for classic humanism. Butler (2006, 43) emphasizes, instead, that there is always the possibility that vulnerability will not be recognized and that it will be constituted as the unrecognizable, the ungrievable, and, eventually, the unlived. But, in contrast, ‘when a vulnerability is recognized, that recognition has the power to change the meaning and structure of the vulnerability itself’ (Butler 2006, 42f.; italics MG). And it is this power—an Arendtian (1998 ) power of assembly—that can be understood as a radical-democratic potential that resists the depoliticizing mechanisms of the bio- and necropolitical machinery. The political power of the assembly, where the many share their vulnerabilities, drastically irritates the norms of recognition dominating (neo-)liberal regimes that dwell and thrive on overcoming vulnerability. Instead of becoming (socially) dead or violent, the vulnerable many, once embracing their shared existential vulnerability, subvert the hegemonic comprehension of vulnerability: from a privatizing and individualized deficiency to a politicizing resource of the many. If we consider the moment in which a vulnerability is recognized as deeply political, instead of depoliticizing, vulnerability sparks resistance.
Transferred to the discourse on migration to Europe, I want to conclude that by constructing migrant lives as vulnerable, the European discourse recognizes migrant others. In this political act of recognition lies the Butlerian power to change the meaning and structure of the vulnerability itself. It empowers the migrant others to intervene in and resist the very mechanisms that render them vulnerable: From hunger strikes in Brescia/Italy against live-threatening working conditions at construction sites to protests in Würzburg/Germany against harsh restrictions of freedom of movement via migration legislation, lip-sewing by refugee protestors against the poor living-condition in Greek internment camps to the mutilation of one’s fingertips to resist biometric identification by re-entry to EU territory, these vulnerable lives resist to be rendered unheard, unseen, not mourned. Consequently, these ungrievable lives subvert how vulnerability is framed and how they are framed by discourse, EU legislation, and state violence. Frames regulate and organize perceptions, affects, and debates and thus working towards normalization of violence (Butler 2016, xiii). Being integrated—even forcibly—to a frame makes one part of the normative orders of recognition. Yet, it leaves one out as ‘the part of those who have no part’ (Rancière 1999, 99) since the migrant other is still rendered passive: as a recipient of the humanitarian aid system, as a depoliticized and atomized individual, or as a dead body that drowned, suffocated, died of thirst and hunger. The migrant other, accordingly, has no part in actively making, shaping, and designing politics within this rigid frame. However, through challenging the racist normative orders establishing and maintaining the frame, a political ‘space of appearance’ (Arendt 1998 , 199; Butler 2015, 35ff.; Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 97) discloses in which critique of and protest against both humanism’s moralizing and depoliticizing matrix of compassion as well as the differential bodily distribution of vulnerability becomes possible. Resistance, thus, emerges from those whose lives do not matter as a ‘resistance-to-come’ (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 86). Identifying oneself as someone who does not matter, however, might serve as a starting point from where the very structure of the frame, the inner workings of the norm, can be sabotaged and, eventually, altered. Even if—from a hegemonic position—the ones resisting do not matter, their resistance does.
As argued by Butler and Athena Athanasiou (2018, 162f.), the fantasy of sovereignty is part of a narcissistic politics of impermeability and ‘radical invulnerability’ exercised by neoliberal states. For instance, through the EU’s migration regime, European sovereignty shall be reinforced. As a result, borders are securitized, while thousands of migrants die trying to cross the Mediterranean as Europe’s most contested space of sovereignty (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 78, 85). The biopolitical regime of EU migration politics, Nicholas de Genova (de 2017, 3) writes according, ‘has long been nowhere more extravagantly put on display than in the Mediterranean Sea […].’ The ‘putative crisis surrounding the influx of migrants and refugees in Europe—and the border spectacle that it generates’ (de Genova 2017, 3) has been solidified by mainstream media outlets, political debates, and a social climate of (anti-Muslim) racism. De Genova (2017, 3) concludes that ‘the Mediterranean has incontestably earned the disgraceful distinction of being the veritable epicenter of […] lethal border crossings […].’ As one of the world’s deadliest border spaces, it has been identified as ‘deathscape’ (de Genova 2017, 1). In this ‘death-world’ (Mbembe 2003, 40), neoliberal biopolitics and postcolonial necropolitics interlock.
In the lethal border space of the Mediterranean, vulnerability is masculinized and, in synchronicity, racialized (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 92). It is the black male* body that signifies the dead migrant body—female* migrant is, in contrast, more often understood as (sexually) abused and violated, but not dead. In these moments, masculinity and race intersect and transform the ‘affective economy’ (Ahmed 2014) of the humanitarian regime, in which neoliberalism and postcolonialism conjoin: While the female* migrant receives pity and compassion, the masculinized and racialized migrant other is targeted by suspicion and hate from which racist violence, ‘femonationalist’ rhetoric (Farris 2017), and ‘ethno-sexist’ (Dietze 2017, 293ff.) tropes emerge. Whereas the feminized migrant is constructed as passive, helpless, and a-political, the masculinized migrant becomes connected to notions of autonomy and sovereignty: his* death is his* fault because he* could have decided otherwise. It was his* autonomous decision that led to his* death. As a result of this discursive practice, neither the humanitarian regime nor neoliberal politics can be held accountable for his* death. And more importantly, the male* migrant acted and is, therefore, understood as a part of politics—even as one who does not partake in Rancière’s definition.
I want to argue that this transformation in affects is based on a peculiar connection between the construction of both vulnerability and sovereignty regarding the racialized male* migrant body as the other par excellence. On one side, the other as a migrant is attached to a (humanitarian) affective economy of compassion; on the other hand, the other as man—not men, in an Arendtian sense (1998 , 234)—shares some proximity to the construction of sovereignty as the (political) ability to decide autonomously. In the figure of the racialized male* migrant, these two contrary notions—vulnerability and sovereignty—meet. Otherness is pushed almost beyond the limits of intelligibility. The process of racialization enacts the last push over the edge of intelligibility. At the intersections of gender, race, migratory status, and—increasingly—religion, the racialized male* migrant is demonized. These practices dwell on and echo colonial imaginaries of the black (Muslim) threat to a white, that is, Christian, pure, and healthy Western civilization that is entrenched in biopolitical formations (Said 1979; Fanon 2008). Understanding this other is foreclosed to the mindset of ‘the conqueror,’ as we saw in Mbembe’s argument. Towards this unintelligible other fear spreads, and pre-emptive strikes need to be launched: from repressive migration policies to physical elimination, also in the form of letting die. The racialized male* bodies are constructed as disposable by a bio- and necropolitical power machinery regulating the field of normalization to justify these measures: to normalize the letting die. Foucault meticulously described how racism is stabilized and explained by utilizing normalization. Even if his (historical) discussion of racism rests on biology and eugenics, Foucault’s trenchant critique of normalization still applies to recent racist discourses that instrumentalize rhetoric of culture instead of biology. However, recent racism still (re-)lies on essentialist grounds and constructions of race and ethnicity.
While vulnerability can be recognized by the regulating (bio-/necro-) power and therefore re-inscribed to the frames of recognizability, this does not apply to grievability. Once a population has been accepted in their ‘radical ungrievability’ (Butler 2016, xix), they are unrecognizable at all. ‘Ungrievable lives are those that cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; that is, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed […]’ (Butler 2016, xix). If a frame establishes that the norms of mourning do not apply to a group of people, the frame institutionalizes ‘an interdiction on mourning’ (Butler 2016, xiii). Therefore, no life has been destroyed. From grievability, however, resistance towards the norm of recognition can be expected in a spectral mode—as a form of haunting. Butler (2016, 43) presumes that ‘the death of ungrievable lives will surely cause enormous outrage on the part of those who understand that their lives are not considered to be lives in any full and meaningful sense’—an almost hopeful thought on resistance in dark times that Butler shares with Arendt, Athanasiou, and Rancière. In death—understood as the impossibility to act—resistance becomes possible as haunting in a Derridean sense (1994, 10, 63). To explain this possibility in impossibility, Butler turns to Derrida and a notion of spectrality with which Butlers shows how the un/dead, that is, the ungrievable, haunt those lives who are understood as the living:
‘If violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated. But they have a strange way of remaining animated and so must be negated again (and again). They cannot be mourned because they are always already lost or, rather, never “were,” and they must be killed, since they seem to live on, stubbornly, in this state of deadness. […] The derealization of the “Other” means that it is neither alive nor dead, but interminably spectral’ (Butler 2006, 33f.).
‘Stubbornly’ those whose lives are rendered unmournable resist their construction as ungrievable lives. Even in grievability, the ‘unreal’ is not dead in an absolute sense. In their deaths, they empower that undead to steadily remind the living of how they render specific populations dead. In their undead state, the ungrievable haunt the mechanisms that made them ungrievable. As in the Rancièrian figure of those who have no part, ungrievable lives—both those who survive grievability and those who do not—may no longer accept the normalization that renders them ungrievable. Form the margins, the shadows, the edges of existence, and their graves, a spark ignites that has the potential to burn down the frame—or haunt its rules of regulation, at least.
Butler, as well as Rancière, is no naïve political thinker dreaming of the revolutionary moment where oppression is ridden off the face of the earth and the interrelations between living beings. Still, there is hope—not as an idealistic vision of the future but as an insistence, a resistance, that the frames, the norms, the normalization can be radically challenged. Butler (2006, 22) finds hope in the potential for radical change in the ethical concept of ‘fundamental dependency:’ Because grieve—and with it, grievability—shows ‘the thrall in which our relations with others hold us […], in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control. […] Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other’ (Butler 2006, 23; italics MG). Ungrievable lives are exposed to physical and bodily pain as well as to political, social, and cultural injustices. However, these pains and injuries also hurt and haunt the perpetrators who become themselves undone by the violence inflicted upon the other. The division of the world into those who are grievable and vulnerable on the one hand and those who are sovereign and unbreakable on the other becomes subverted when, for instance, regressive and racist migration policies are exposed as narcissistic fantasies of impermeability, even though they have very real outcomes for those affected. Those fantasies thrive on (neo-)liberalism’s concepts of sovereignty and individual autonomy. Still, once their fallacies are unearthed, ‘we might critically evaluate and oppose the conditions under which certain human lives are more valuable than others, and thus certain human lives are more grievable than others’ (Butler 2006, 30). From this de-/realization, resistance sparks.
‘We may know how to count, or we may well rely on the reliability of certain humanitarian and human rights organizations to count well, but that is not the same as figuring out how and whether a life counts’ (Butler 2016, xx).
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that in 2018 an average of six migrants per day drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean; every 15th migrant dies on the Central Mediterranean route in their effort to enter Europe from Libya; in total, 2,275 persons died in 2018. These official numbers count the dead in a way symptomatic for the humanitarian-militaristic complex that lies at the core of the securitization regime policing EU borders. In Frames of War, Butler (2016, xx) describes how counting dead bodies do not only circulate them as ‘representations’ of war or crisis; instead, these bodies become ‘part of the apparatus’ itself. They become the fortification of border surveillance and justification for crisis narratives. What these numbers do not do, however, is define and critically analyze whose lives count. In reference to Athanasiou’s works (2019) on ‘Political-Aesthetic Criticality’ and ‘critical epistemology,’ the following last chapter scrutinizes the discourse practices, the ‘visual epistemologies,’ and systemic mechanisms to decide upon whose lives (do not) count by discussing different visualizations of migrant (dead) bodies and adjacent politics of drowning that are inscribed into the ‘racial episteme’ of the global north (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 93).
The inner workings of Europe’s migration regime steadily re/produce illegality to render migrant lives ungrievable. To analyze how migrant deaths are framed in European media outlets, I refer to Athanasiou’s (2019, 93) notion of ‘visual epistemology’ that refers to postcolonial, decolonial, and queer-feminist critiques of knowledge production. Critical visual epistemologies trace tacit knowledges produced via visualization to decipher messages (knowledge) that are displayed and distributed through visuals representation to disclose underlying power structures. They ask why one event or incident is singled out, spectacularized, and distributed via affective economies of moral indignation. Accordingly, they question how differences in the moral economy occur, for instance, when media coverage explicitly points out that ‘women and children’ were onboard a capsized ship. They also ask about the epistemic presupposition behind the visual depictions of boats over-crowded with black men. Critical visual epistemologies challenge how media outlets visualize migrant vulnerability: how they relate to Eurocentric notions of sovereignty and force ‘the other’ in the frameworks of a depoliticized humanitarian regime.
Visualizations of migrant drowning became part of the humanitarian and moralistic outcry after events that spectacularly depicted migrant deaths, such as the Lampedusa shipwreck of April 19, 2015—as if before no migrant ever died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Hence, over the past few years, the visualization of migrant death was normalized. It is now part of the European migration regime and its media outlets, both re/producing ungrievable lives (again and again). These visualizations of the other are integrated to the ‘refugee necropolitics of Fortress Europe’ (Athanasiou 2019, 84) that are undergirded by two intertwined mechanisms: While a ‘black Mediterranean’ (Proglio et al. 2020) is being exposed to the white/wide gaze of border patrolling, surveillance techniques, and Search and Rescue Missions (SAR) on the one hand, the European ‘regime of crisis ordinariness’ (Berlant 2007, 779) is strengthened by the (visual) reiteration of mass migration and the interpretation of this increased mobilities as refugee/migrant crisis on the other.3
Berlant (2007, 760) has shaped the term ‘crisis ordinariness’ defining it as the misrepresentation of ‘duration and scale of a situation by calling a crisis that which is a fact of life and has been a defining fact of life for a given population that lives it as a fact in ordinary time.’ The re/distribution and dissemination of pictures visualizing stories of increased human mobility is a central mechanism to stabilize the crisis narrative. Moreover, ‘crisis denotes a crisis in judgment, which is to say that at the heart of a crisis-claim is not the quality of the object in question but the condition of a spectatorial mind.’ And lastly,
‘this deployment of crisis is often explicitly and intentionally a redefinitional tactic, a distorting or misdirecting gesture that aspires to make an environmental phenomenon appear suddenly as an event because as a structural or predictable condition it has not engendered the kinds of historic action we associate with the heroic agency a crisis seems already to have called for’ (Berlant 2007, 760; italics MG).
Within the contemporary EU migration discourse, we find all the characteristics that Berlant formulates: Scale and duration of the migrant influx are exaggerated. At the same time, mobility and the conditions leading to the decision to leave one’s home have always been a defining fact of the life of othered populations. People have always been on the move—only legal definitions and nation-state-centric policies frame mobility as migration. Furthermore, denoting current mobilities as a migrant crisis merely legitimizes stricter and (subtle) migration policies that are soaked with racism, (ethno-)nationalism, and culturalism. Additionally, the construction of heroism does operate in those crisis narratives. The politicians who will be competent and strong enough to solve the crisis can stage themselves as saviors—heroes of Western, that is, Christian civilization who determinedly fought against the Muslim threat: colonial imagery we often find channeled by ethno-sexist tropes and far-right rhetoric but is also unleashed by femocrats, ‘toxic’ feminism (Hark/Villa 2018, 78), and (neo-)liberal defenders of gender equality. Pictures and representations not only support the crisis-claim but make it more real because can see it. Instead of asking about their implicit or explicit (neo-)colonial imaginaries, visualizations become part of normalizing the narrative of a migration crisis. As Berlant defines the spectatorial mind at the heart of a crisis-claim, viewership, too, becomes central to visualizations of migrant deaths. In the current narrative of the migration crisis, a ‘humanitarian viewership’ is complicit with the convergence of ‘compassionate/condescending liberalism’ and ‘neoliberal border securitization’ to regulate ‘which and how bodies appear in public space’ (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 96).
To show how normalization and spectacularizing bolster each other, I will discuss three visualizations of migrant drowning in the following and last part of this paper. The hashtag #KiyayaVuranInsanlik (‘humanity washed ashore’) became one of the top trending topics on the social media platform Twitter during a worldwide media circulation of a photograph of a dead toddler who was washed ashore the Turkish peninsula of Bodrum (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 94f.). Aylan Kurdi drowned on September 2, 2015, while he and his family tried to reach one of the Greek islands close to the border to Turkey, where they fled to from Syria. In this photograph, we see a toddler—a red t-shirt, blue pants, head turned to the side.4 From the perspective of media attention, the picture of Aylan Kurdi scores highest when inserted into a hierarchy of grievability: the more vulnerable a life is rendered, the more grievable it becomes.
Furthermore, the image displays vulnerability in its rawest sense because the sentimental and tragic trope of dead innocent child is evoked to foster both an affective economy of compassion—and its concomitant feelings of pity, shock, loss, and grief—as well as a moral economy of righteous wrath against the systemic failures of EU migration policies (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 94). While the photograph was soon declared iconographic being disseminated in astonishing speed as well as in various re-presentations—from cartoons, murals, and art performances—it also represents both the inhumane EU migration politics and the gruesome system of so-called migrant smuggling. However, soon the focus of attention turned towards Aylan’s father and was suddenly aligned with neoliberal notions of self-help and individual responsibility. Not the death of a child was discussed anymore, but the irresponsibility of Aylan Kurdi’s parents, especially his father’s, attempting to cross the Mediterranean in the first place. Abdullah Kurdi, as one of the view surviving family members, was accused of lower motives and a weak ‘risk-assessment’ leading first to the illegal migration of his family and second to the death of most of its members. In a transformation of affective and moral economies, the discussion shifted from compassion, triggered by the tragic, towards suspicion against Abdullah Kurdi. It became, eventually, entrenched with anti-Muslim racism. Simultaneously, Abdullah Kurdi tried to legitimize his decision to leave the family home, while his mourning was privatized and thus banned from public discussion. His grief was depoliticized by public debate, while his decision to migrate became its center. Abdullah Kurdi was radically dispatched from the possibility of public mourning, while his son’s infancy evoked the willingness, even necessity, of shared public grieving across Europe, or even worldwide. In the end, after a short interim of humanitarian compassion and moral indignation, the visualization of a drowned toddler strengthened both regressive EU migration policies—its neoliberal securitization regime and border technologies—and the racist climate shaping the debates on migratory influx.
Another highly debated visualization of the tragic was published by the campaign #holdyourbreath with which SEA WATCH, a German-based non-governmental SAR organization, seeks to scrutinize EU migration policies in general and the criminalization of non-governmental SAR missions in particular. In the hashtag and the spot, the politics of drowning connect to the ‘politics of breathing’ (Górska 2016, 95). From an intersectional feminist perspective, Magdalena Górska (2016, 95) emphasizes that ‘[it] matters if and how one can breathe and if and how one’s life is breathable.’ To Górska (2016, 95), ‘[o]ne of the central contributions […] in feminist studies is the articulation of the intersectional specificity of whose lives matter and how […].’ Intersectionality ‘prevents homogenizations and generalizations that have been criticized throughout feminist discussions […], and it allows for the development of an analysis of the specificities of social power differentials.’ At the intersections of race, gender, and age, corporeal activities such as breathing, choking, drowning become political and, thus, a part of the struggles and protest movement of racialized populations.5
Referring these thoughts on intersectionality to the politics of breathing and drowning, questions about complicity, humanitarianism, and euro-centrism arise: If a German NGO such as SEA WATCH, with predominantly or almost exclusively white members, launches a video campaign that visualizes drowning black and brown bodies, the risk to merely reproduce the binary between white saviors and non-white victims is high. The question remains, what does the footage do, and how does it relate to a possibly humanitarian viewership?
The SEA WATCH video was made public before the EU election in spring 2019. In this context, it was circulated by DIE PARTEI—a German political party headed by satirist Martin Sonneborn—for their election campaign. The spot shows how, in Nicholas de Genova’s words (2017, 2), ‘the maritime borders of Europe transform into a macabre deathscape.’ It arose, therefore, high media attention. Its explicit pictures led ZDF, one of the two leading German public television channels, to refuse to broadcast the video. ZDF argued, in addition, that the spot was no ‘authentic’ election campaign material. After ongoing debates about visual ethics, the footage was eventually broadcasted via TV but already had had a considerable impact while being distributed via social media channels.
I will outline the footage and how it visualizes the racialized Mediterranean shortly. The election campaign video of DIE PARTEI starts with the remark: ‘The European Union assumes all responsibility for the content of this spot.’ In Germany, all election campaign videos are legally bound to state which party is responsible for its content. Accordingly, the remark works as a satirical comment because it is not DIE PARTEI that assumes responsibility for the spot’s content but shifts it towards EU legislation and officials. After that statement, the actual SEA WATCH spot sets in. The viewers watch a boy drown. In the end, the video informs the viewers that drowning takes about as long as the video: 1 minute, 18 seconds. The boy resembles Aylan Kurdi: His skin color is slightly darker than that of a white European. He could be, judging from a racialized phenotype, from Syria. The drowning child wears a red t-shirt. This boy is, however, a bit older, maybe 10 or 12 years, but he is not yet of legal age and can, thus, be read as an unaccompanied minor. Again, the visualization of this drowning minor evokes the tragic and sentimental for its humanitarian viewership while it radically neglects a political dimension. Filming techniques stabilize the affective and moral economy of the humanitarian approach: Several times, the camera moves, almost in documentary style, between the ocean’s restless surface and the person who first holds his breath and then starts to fight to drown. In the end, the footage shows how a supposedly dead body glides to the bottom of the sea. The camera moves to the ocean’s surface onto which three sentences are projected: ‘Every 10th migrant dies trying to cross the Mediterranean.’ Again, dead bodies are counted. However, the question of whether their lives count remains—uneasily—unanswered. After this first sentence, the topical focus changes. SEA WATCH and its relations to the EU become the center of attention: SEA WATCH first accuses ‘The EU is blocking rescue missions,’ and then demands from the viewership ‘Help us to stop these deaths’ (translation, MG).
This video footage is not the only time SEA WATCH deliberately worked with sentimental visualizations of the tragic to invoke humanitarian affects, such as pity and compassion. In 2016, the RTL-documentary Am Limit (‘At the edge,’ translation MG) introduced SEA WATCH’s operations to a broader TV viewership. This third example shows how visualizations outside of a critical episteme safeguard the humanitarian-militaristic complex of the EU migration regime. SEA WATCH is portrayed in a way that renders the organization complicit with the regressive policies, moral economies of indignation, and humanitarian affectivity of the Eurocentric, neo-colonial bulwark that is the EU migration regime. Am Limit shares with #holdyourbreath and the photograph of Aylan Kurdi the explicit depiction of migrant infant death. However, it even melodramatizes this visualization to an unbearable degree of white saviorhood. Combining action genre styles and melodramatic features, such as the strategic use of romantic or hard rock music to support and strengthen the visual message by sound, the docudrama depicts the tragic in the sense of coming too late. Am Limit shows how the crew of the SEA WATCH 2 finds, on one of their missions, corpses floating on the ocean’s surface. One of the ‘experienced’ crewmembers, regularly partaking in SAR missions by SEA WATCH—the physician—realizes that the arms of one dead body are still holding onto something. When the camera zooms in, it becomes clear that it is a dead infant, probably only a couple of months old. The docudrama shows in detail over several minutes both the crewman’s face with eyes tearing up as well as the dead infant he is holding in his arms. What becomes striking in this visualization of the infant’s death is how vulnerability is equalized with weakness, exposure, and, thereby, privatized into a humanitarian matrix of compassion. At the same time, the individual courage and perseverance of the physician are celebrated who, as the viewership is informed, ‘sacrifices’ most of his yearly days off work to board a vessel of SEA WATCH to engage in SAR missions. The structural causes and systemic failures responsible for thousands of migrants are only shortly touched upon. Still, this docudrama is almost entirely free from any political critique. Instead, it emphasizes the moral obligation of each individual to help prevent these deaths—starting with a donation for SEA WATCH.
#holdyourbreath still hints at the political dimension by critically referring to the EU’s blockage of NGO-SARs. The hashtag-campaign aims to politicize at least to a certain degree, which becomes evident when integrated into the election campaign material of DIE PARTEI. Contrastingly, the docudrama Am Limit radicalizes the a-political of a merely humanitarian approach since it is void of any political context or critical comment towards EU policies—except view remarks of some of the crewmembers during noticeably short interview sequences. Instead, the docudrama works with a neo-/colonial binary: The white people of Europe and their humanitarian representatives are portrayed as a sovereign population that autonomously and courageously decides to aid the helpless victims, that is, migrants. In contrast, the non-white populations, in this case, the migrant others, are displayed as vulnerable subjects left to die if no humanitarian is to help them. Am Limit, therefore, focuses on the heroism of those white crewmembers taking their yearly days off work to partake in SAR-missions and risking their lives for people ‘they do not know.’6
To sum up, both SEA WATCH footages differ decisively from the many pictures and portraits of (capsized) migrant boats, on which the European audience most often sees a de-individualized, vague, and diffuse mass of black bodies. The photograph of Aylan Kurdi and both SEA WATCH videos, in contrast, highly individualize migrant death and strengthen the focus on migrant vulnerability—helplessness, passivity, and high risk to violence—instead of critically exposing the political structures that condition and normalize these very deaths. All these visualizations work with pictures of children adding to the moralizing dimension of their claim. However, critique about the power relations that produce these dead bodies or about the political violence inherent in the discourse on migration is not or rarely to be found. Rather, the visualizations focus on ‘the “suffering other” in the context of the so-called “refugee crisis”’ in a way ‘that reduce[s] sociopolitical questions of power and dehumanization to moral and/or ontological issues of abstract humanity’ (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 94). The ‘focus on the abstract humanist figure of “innocent children” serves precisely this purpose’ (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 94), while questions about invisibilization and recognizability, the reproduction of imperialist histories and colonial tropes, as well as the sovereign violence of humanistic morality are not raised at all.
Lastly, the visual epistemologies of these dead children ask about the relation between racialization and body politics in European migration necro-/biopolitics. The different visualizations of dead migrant others—from capsized rubber boats to floating corpses—portray the migrant other ambivalently: Some populations are highly individualized, visible, over-exposed to a ‘necrophilic gaze’ (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 93) and, thus, more grievable, as in the cases of dead infants. Simultaneously, the racialized populations of male* migrants are portrayed as a non-identifiable, ungrievable, and disposable mass of dark bodies–a migrant menace—vanishing from the rules of recognizability. This erasure of lives by ungrievability is part of a ‘racial episteme’ (Athanasiou/Sheikh 2019, 93) that ignores those non-white bodies because their lives do not seem to matter.
In a caricature by Laurent Sourisseau published in the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo shortly after the New Year’s Eve 2015/16, it reads ‘migrants’ at the top; on the right side, a circle with a sketch of the Aylan Kurdi photograph. Next to it, the question is raised ‘What would have happened to little Aylan if he had grown up?’. In the center of the caricature, two ape-like men— black predators— are chasing two screaming women. Their over-proportionally long arms, their lascivious look, and their pronounced jaw suggest the colonial and racialized trope of an untamed animalistic sex drive opposing enlightened European sexuality. The question is answered at the bottom of the caricature: Aylan Kurdi would have become an ‘ass grabber in Germany.’ The cartoon shows how ethno-sexist discourse works via colonial imaginaries of the hypersexualized wild animal the savage represents. It remains unclear whether the caricature criticizes European ethno-sexism or joins the anti-Muslim racist climate of the debates evolving around and after the New Year’s Eve 2015/16 in Cologne. ‘Cologne’ became a trope in which the racialized, colonial resentment of the sexual backwardness of the black and brown man became intertwined with both anti-Muslim racism and a white Western feminism that Sabine Hark and Paula-Irene Villa call ‘toxic.’ In its aftermath, defenders of Western civilization, far-right governments and movements, as well as racist politicians forged alliances with those toxic feminists to strengthen the already existing femonationalist tendencies that are disseminated throughout the European discourse on the migrant other.
Already in Precarious Life, Butler (2006, 41) warned about the ‘culturally imperialist exploitation of feminism’ by neoliberal and bio-/necropolitical regimes in which ‘feminism […] is deployed in the service of restoring the presumption of First World impermeability.’ To protect this putative impermeability, (male*) migrants are constructed not only as vulnerable but as demons that must be left to die to safeguard and secure the European fantasy of wholeness and superiority—and Europe, in its fantasies and mythologies, has always been imagined as feminine.* How migrant lives are, via masculinization, dehumanized and thus rendered less grievable and eventually more disposable, is impressively shown in EU’s migration necropolitics. However, fortifying the migration regime both juridico-politically and via colonial and racist tropes by unleashing regressive politics does something with and to Europe. The visualizations of dead migrants and their inherent politics of drowning are part of that un/doing: As Europe and its peoples share a radical vulnerability with all those, who are left to die, Europe dies, too. Kept in this peculiar state of undeath, Europe’s sovereignty becomes undone. When the imagination of an impregnable Europe becomes unmasked as the ethno-sexist specter that haunts the idea of Europe as one, Europe becomes undone. Her* undeath, however, is part of a new beginning: With hope, finally realize that are not one, but many—inhaling, exhaling, breathing: From these fragmented and dispossessed leftovers of Europe, an insurrection fills the air that insists on the sharedness of vulnerability: that insists that leaving people to die, to preventing them from breathing, will not have been an option anymore.
1I use the term regime in a Foucauldian understanding of ‘governmental rationality’ or ‘the art of government.’ In his introduction to Foucault Effect, Colin Gordon (1991: 2f.; italics MG) summarizes ‘governmentality’ as follows: ‘Foucault understood the term “government” in both a wide and a narrow sense. He proposed a definition of the term “government” in general as meaning “the conduct of conduct”: that is to say, a form of activity aiming to shape, guide or affect the conduct of some person or persons […]. Government as an activity could concern the relation between self and self, private interpersonal relations involving some form of control or guidance, relations within social institutions and communities and, finally, relations concerned with the exercise of political sovereignty. Foucault was crucially interested in the interconnections between these different forms and meanings of government; but in his lectures specifically on governmental rationality he concerned himself principally with government in the political domain. Foucault used the term “rationality of government” almost interchangeably with “art of government.” He was interested in government as an activity or practice, and in arts of government as ways of knowing what that activity consisted in, and how it might be carried on. A rationality of government will thus mean a way or system of thinking about the nature of the practice of government (who can govern; what governing is; what or who is governed), capable of making some form of that activity thinkable and practicable both to its practitioners and to those upon whom it was practised.’
2How air conditions—in a literal sense—‘enable resistance to oppressive atmospheres’ is argued by Derek R. Ford (2015) before the backdrop of the protests of blacklivesmatter.
3Referring to Paul Gilroy’s book Black Atlantic from 1993, the racialization of the Mediterranean is summarized under the notion ‘Black Mediterranean’ with which a growing number of publications from critical theory, migration and postcolonial studies expose the (neo-)colonial formations that are embedded in, for instance, EU migration policies; cf. SA Smythe’s ‘The Black Mediterranean and the Politics of the Imagination’ (2018), Giuseppe Grimaldi’s ‘The Black Mediterranean: Liminality and the Reconfiguration of Afroeuropeanness’ and the edited volume The Black Mediterranean: Bodies, Borders and Citizenship (Proglio et al. 2020).
4The picture was taken by photojournalist Nilüfer Demir whose professional ethics were soon questioned, shifting the discussion away from the EU’s necropolitics and the thousands of deaths it causes, to individual responsibility.
5Similarly, Ford (2015: 2f.) refers to the ‘politics of breath’ to show how ‘breathing and choking serve as stand-ins for oppression and resistance.’ Ford refers to the protests of blacklivesmatter that reiterate Eric Garner’s last words ‘I can’t breathe’ before he died as to protest the exposure of ‘black lives’ to police brutality, institutionalized racism, and structural violence. Ford, however, suggests ‘that we take the politics of breath in the most literal manner possible, positing the air as a central medium and stake of contemporary political struggles.’ Ford impressively shows, quoting empirical studies, that black lives in the US have a higher risk of asthma and other pneumatic diseases then white populations.
6While I, a white European female academic, was writing these passages, I was wondering if I add to the construction of the tragic and the reproduction of a racialized binary. I often felt the work of the humanitarian affectivity and moral economy regulating that I feel the right things. I want to share this experience with the readers, but also remind you and me that feelings are highly political, especially when felt in an intersectional setting where I, the European female academic from a lower-class background, write about the visualization and discussion of migrant populations’ deaths in European media outlets. On this note, I struggled and still struggle with the question of how much detail should be integrated to the discussion of these three visualizations, how graphic the description must be to make the reader understand what I am writing about and when my descriptions became too graphic as to reproduce the tragic.
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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