Refugees as >, by Jugal Patel

November 13, 2020

[Reading List]

Without exception, states of exception exist in service to specific structures of the sovereign. As with race, I contend this state (of exception) should be treated as occurring within on-going scalar processes entangled with fuzzy logic, rather than imperatives that come to define self, people, or place. I point to the unapparent relevance of political philosophy in academia and our society, connections with spatial theory, and examples rooted in the experiences of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to rationalize the relevance of Agamben’s contested concepts to human geography and migration research. Before starting, I want to reinforce that in my naïve interpretation, these concepts are at minimum useful frameworks for contextualizing geographic phenomena – and should not be misconstrued as sociologically justified truths.

With exception to Agamben, philosophers seem to do an excellent job of making their work seem socially meaningless or divorced from reality. For example, in its broadest sense, much of science is conducted without serious engagement with philosophy (of science, mind, or language), leaving practitioners with neoliberal notions of ethics. Practices devoid of this engagement are built upon socially upheld but questionable ideals regarding our world, humanity, and what we can reasonably say we know as truths. Agamben offers discursive elements – Homo Sacer and the State of Exception – to describe geographic processes that lead to disturbing realities that contradict how the sovereign presents itself. With considerable abstraction, Agamben lays out the inherent necessity for liminal spaces to emerge; if sovereign states exist, they, at their core, rely on states of exception.1,2

Beyond ivory halls, the most popular discourse with respect to race is framed within a broader “culture war” (or sometimes, read as “race war”) – whether it is real or not. Of course, this intellectual-dark-web-white-supremacist nexus does not read the things they “battle” online (e.g., “postmodern cultural Marxism”).3 However, what is especially relevant is how academic communities, like ours, normalize fundamentally illiberal talking points as we engage with race. Whether we interpret race as pure fantasy (with hopes to refute biological essentialism) or a scalar process (with practical insight into countering outcomes of pervasive ideas of biological essentialism) is of material consequence to the many racialized by systems we maintain and legitimize. Concerning geography, it is important to ground research in coherent spatial theories that can describe or contextualize various study systems. For the remainder of this essay, I will map out broad connections Agamben’s work has with spatial theory and focus on contextualizing the utility of his paradigm (read as a framework) to understanding processes that underlie the spatiality of refugee encampment.

Spatialities of States of Exception

Spatiality is inherent, as Minca outlines in Geographies of the Camp,4 to Agamben’s state of exception. As the most popularized example in media, the Guantanamo Bay complex is an explicitly spatial state of exception. The US exerts authority in Cuba to exclude people from their inherent humanity under the guise of security.5 To Agamben, camps are a constant liminal space, and their existence exposes a broader biopolitical system that predicates upon this inclusionary/exclusionary in-between space.6 To understand Agamben’s biopolitical regime, sovereignty must be defined not by borders but by the biopolitical means that can be managed. As we cull populations of animal species, we hope to conserve, the biopolitical regime maintains itself by culling and reasserting the need for purification – a function that is vital to the state’s survival.This last example of culling is further clarified by thinking about Agamben’s nomos as something that normalizes “us” versus “them.” With us inside and them outside.8 Increasingly, biotechnological advances extend the traditional camp into a technocratic open camp to heighten this fundamental characteristic of sovereign power. To formerly spatialize these concepts, it is important to consider the camp as a topology of power, which invariably governs people’s agency and mobility.9 This topology can be understood as embedded within broader systems interdependent on sovereign power and bare life. A key example of this interdependence is in Agamben’s notions of territorialization-linked-sovereignty primarily focused on defining the ontological status of individuals and (relative membership to) humanity.10

While I’ve taken care to avoid the topic of refugees in explaining the broad implications Agamben’s philosophy can have for human geography, it is disingenuous as the entire Homo Sacer series is primarily focused on defining refugee camps as states of exception. This is where sovereign power exists but only so far as to leave refugees in limbo with no spatial permanence and proposes this spatiality as the primary biopolitical paradigm of the West. To focus further on the West, the growing archipelago of states of exception and the current crises of statelessness, I turn to Hanafi and Sanyal to contextualize the experiences of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as emergent in states of exception. Sanyal here refutes bare life in refugees with a claim of agency.11 As a superficial retort, Agamben makes no claims regarding the relative absence of agency. Although this would be a controversial response to many scholars focused on agency, Sanyal also showcases a state of exception in ‘hardship cases’ for whom the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) supports on condition that no family with men (boys over the age of 18) qualify for aid. While not inherently a liminal space, the precarity of the Shatila refugee camp and adjoining Sabra market, along with Lebanese laws that exclude Palestinians from labour participation, results in a state of exception.12 Sanyal also describes camp-villes as either closed or open camps interlaced with fuzzy logic, arguing that this supposed duality constructs a rigid hierarchy that discounts the agency, socio-spatial networks, and memories of displaced people.13 However, as camp sites are organized to minimize security risks (irrespective of their physical characteristics, be they open, closed, or somewhere in between), these spaces reinforce bare life. Despite calls for the built environment to enable efficient aid-delivery, the primary physical characteristics of (open or closed) camps limit interaction with surrounding places. Fundamentally, aiming to dis-embed places and people creates a state of exception teaming with some qualification of bare life. Hanafi also considers differences between Palestinian refugees living in camps and urban refugees in Lebanon and, while doing so, describes the importance (or criticality) of Palestinian nationalism in camps. Over time the Palestinian experience underwent a golden age – the ayyam al-thawra 14– and the consistent quelling of the same systems that facilitated Palestinians livelihood when sovereign power did not. Hanafi states that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services routinely dissuaded any united Palestinian authority.15 Again, this illustrates Agamben’s conceptualizations as the state of exception is preserved by redefining bare life to whatever is minimally acceptable to maintain sovereign power. This is, I think, an excellent example of how the biopolitical is reinforced in place of a truly territorial claim of sovereignty. It is not so important who controls the camp if the encapsulating sovereign power that is suspending this state of exception into a metaphysical liminal space is conserved.

Agamben, for a good reason, is criticized for his engagement with current events while simultaneously offering frameworks that do not consider major components of power – gender, for example. Despite this, human geographers have aimed to further the relevance of Agamben’s concepts on the state of exception and bare life to migration research. In my opinion, this seems like a rational approach as the objective of Homo Sacer is to describe a biopolitical reality, not arrive at fundamental human truths. Agamben argues consistently that the refugee and the refugee camp are the primary means to understand this biopolitical regime that permeates all spaces while working to improve “us” at the acceptable expense of “them.”


Giorgio Agamben, “Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life,” Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998, 96.

Richard Ek, “Giorgio Agamben and the Spatialities of the Camp: An Introduction,” Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography 88, no. 4 (2006): 363.

3Post-modern cultural Marxism is the boogey-man of the intellectual dark web, which purports that the problem with liberal institutions like Universities is indoctrination into this set of theories in the Humanities. However, this is an illogical claim as Marxism in many ways does not accommodate post-modernism. Nor would deconstructionists think it necessary to analyze the world with dialectical materialism.

Claudio Minca, “Geographies of the Camp,” Political Geography 49 (2015): 74.

5 Ibid, 76.

Richard Ek, “Giorgio Agamben and the Spatialities of the Camp: An Introduction,” 364.

Claudio Minca, “Geographies of the Camp,” 76.

Richard Ek, “Giorgio Agamben and the Spatialities of the Camp: An Introduction,” 365.

Claudio Minca, “Geographies of the Camp,” 77.

10 Prem Kumar Rajaram and Carl Grundy-Warr, “The Irregular Migrant as Homo Sacer: Migration and Detention in Australia, Malaysia, and Thailand,” International Migration 42 (2004): 38.

11 Romola Sanyal, “Squatting in Camps: Building and Insurgency in Spaces of Refuge,” Urban Studies 48, no. 5 (2011): 877.

12 Ibid, 878.

13 Ibid, 879 – 880.

14 Sari Hanafi and Taylor Long in “Governance, Governmentalities, and the State of Exception in the Palestinian Refugee Camps of Lebanon” describe ayyam al-thawra as a time Palestinians refer to with relative Palestinian unity and most notably economic empowerment.

15 Sari Hanafi and Taylor Long, “Governance, Governmentalities, and the State of Exception in the Palestinian Refugee Camps of Lebanon,” Journal of Refugee Studies 23, no. 2 (2010): 138.

7 responses to “Refugees as >, by Jugal Patel”

  1. michellebrais says:

    In the readings this week, we examined spaces in which the sovereign state tends to the basic physical/biological needs of the residents but does not tend to their social, economic and political well-being, and in fact, works to keep the residents under control by purposefully dismantling and preventing movements for the residents to help themselves in this regard. What is interesting is the spatial component to a phenomenon that I see more as social. Hanafi writes of ‘open space’ and ‘closed space’ of the camps being defined both by the physical urban space and social connectedness and freeness of the residents. The political power of the sovereign is made easier by closing and walling off certain populations, but what I feel really acts as an obstacle to social, economic, and political well-being are the laws, the status of the refugees, and the limits to their human rights and self-determination. Hanafi points particularly to the Palestinian refugees being stunted to even be able to set up governance structures to help organise people in the space. Our readings were meant, I believe, to make us reflect on how the concept of homo sacer is spatialized, but I cannot help but reflect on how the space has little to do with the power being exerted by sovereign states over refugees. I feel it enables the power dynamics, but I cannot help but think about the similar lived experience of many who are physically integrated in spaces around the world. I think of those who carry the experience of being a homo sacer without being spatially contained like in a prison, a refugee camp or a concentration camp. I think we can draw parallels with illegal immigrants, slaves, and ex-convicts in the United States. And, to a lesser degree, people of colour being denied access to services, institutions, employment and status as well.

  2. Aamirah says:

    Thank you for providing the readings and the essay this week. Reading about the ways that refugees use camps to assert their presence in the land also makes me think about why the feeling of permanence or belonging to a place is often considered so important. When refugees like Palestinians in this case, are forcibly removed from their land, they are also removed of their rights and stripped of memories accumulated over vast expanses of time and deeply embedded in place. Transfer to the camp further excludes the refugee from even attempting to build up a new history, where situations like the denial of entry into the workforce and the many laws and systems of control preventing the construction of more permanent living spaces leaves them to continually exist in a state of limbo. The seemingly chaotic nature by which refugees covertly attempt to improve their living conditions in camps reflects this instability and dispossession, emphasized by the reality that their former homes have become sites of dispute. Further control of the movement of refugees essentially restricts their ability to occupy more than one space, which is a human right in itself.

  3. Michael Nugent says:

    Thank you Jugal for you essay and this week’s insightful readings. I must admit that I found Ek’s piece incredibly dense, and I may have misinterpreted some of Agamben’s philosophy. However, I found Agamben’s use of the term ‘camp’ as a universal to be problematic. I understand that he is positioning camps as the opposite of a polis, however doing so ignores the typomorphology of camps. New York, Rome, and Mumbai are all cities, but no one would conflate their cultural-spatial formation. In the same way, I think its critical to recognize the distinction between interment/concentration camps and refugee camps. I think Agamben’s definition of camp is much more in line with that of a refugee camp, and can be clearly applied to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon that Sanyal describes, as places of exception from the polis. While they are undoubtably places of hardship and violence resulting from spatial failures of state management, they provide and necessitate greater agency by its residents to construct and effect its spatial-material construction. Even if those efforts are being hamstrung by the state every step of the way…
    In contrast, internment, detention, or concentration camps are designed, built, and maintained from a top-down state logic that creates a highly robust spatial [infra]structure designed to control those interned there and limit their agency. Several years ago, I working on a exhibition on Auschwitz, in which dissected the organization of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and constructed a large scale model specifically to convey its urbanistic organization and how it camp itself was designed as a city. I bring this up, because conflated refugee camps and concentration camps both as opposites of the polis, I believe that omits the ways in which systematic violence is exerted by a state onto a group of people. In the case of refugee camps it is through a refusal of recognize the permanency of being a refugee and depriving them of being part of a polis, while in the case of a concentration camp, it is through dehumanizing incarceration.
    While I appreciate the importance of Agamben’s work and agree that camps have unfortunately become the new paradigm for displaced people, I find the lack of semantic distinction when discussing camps to be deeply problematic. Conflating Nazi concentration camps, China’s interment of Uighurs in camps, the US’s detainee camps along its border with Mexico, with the refugee camps around the world normalizes those human rights violations by folding them into the new paradigm which refugee camps represent. One represents a state’s exertion of malice, while the other expresses its civic failure.

  4. Christina Mahut says:

    Thank you Jugal for these readings and your thought-provoking essay. Understanding the state of exception as the rule rather than the exception in our modern times is rather unsettling. When I think of non-spaces, liminal spaces, sometimes invisible space, I think of uninhabited spaces, space of transit, abandoned spaces. Rather, camps become this spatialized reality through those that inhabit them: refugees. It is through these stateless people, stripped from their rights, home and often their history, that become reduced purely their state of life, being alive, that these spaces become socio-political, inclusionary but excluded, places.

    I’m also struck by how the notion of time affects the typology of the camp: how does seeing something as temporary affect its value, role and evolution and those within it? This space of limbo, of waiting, seems to inform the voicelessness the spaces are often rendered by. It is both elivening and saddening to identify the Palestinian nationalism that was birthed in the camps: on one hand there is an acceptance that this temporary state is unfortunately becoming permanent, while on the other, there is a mobilization of the people, reclaiming their rights as political beings.

    I find an interesting link with past weeks themes, such as the discussion of social housing where complexes made for racialized, poorer communities were built out of sight, away from the rest of the city, becoming a liminal, almost invisible space, legally marginalized. Moreover, this in-between status of refugees, as detached from their nation, but unable to become part of the workforce and rebuild themselves while living in camps, is reminiscent of the imperialist upon arrival, colonizing indigenous territory, leaving behind their European identity, but not achieving indigenization. However, the element of power, sovereignty is what allows the colonizer to reign and implement his status, claim space, eventually being the one that marginalizes and exclude the indigene, to outskirts, reserves,… or camps.

  5. Ke Yan Ye says:

    Aganbem’s theories on human geography and migration have given me some guidance on reading spaces of urban informality and marginality such as the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and other ‘State of exception’ around the world as the phenomenon of displacement and subjectification is affecting more and more human beings today. The first thought that came to my mind is the constant relation between the citizen and the sovereign state-nation and how any deviation from those statuses creates a spectrum of liminal conditions leading to multiple paradigms. Those paradigms result from the segregation of biological and political aspects of life. For example, although the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) committed to providing basic rations and minimum income to refugee families in need (biological aspect), multiple layers of governance and legalities prevent some of those families from engaging with education, work and life opportunities (political aspect). At the same time, the notion of citizenship puts those refugees in a state of non-place where their claim for citizenship is hindered by politics when, on the contrary, their actual quest for identity is a claim for non-citizenship.

  6. Olivera Neskovic says:

    Thank you Jugal for this insightful essay and today’s presentation. Similarly to Michael thoughts, I feel that it is very important to study camps as a typology on a case-by-case basis, since every camp comes to fruition under very different circumstances, which in turn play a huge role internal social dynamics of these liminal spaces. The situations of the refugees themselves also cannot be generalized – vast differences in culture and acceptance in the countries they flee to, play huge roles in the treatment of refugees and their integration into society – this is not solely based on racism, but also societal, political, religious and cultural differences.

    What is incredible to me about the Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, as well as the Sahrawi camps in the Western Sahara, is the progress and spatial permanence that develops under such difficult circumstances. Refugees are often seen as helpless, but in the case of Beirut, the liminal space that is occupied by Palestinian refugees in some ways allow them to gain agency over the space through their covert building practices. Permanent structures develop over time as the camp becomes more and more embedded within the city, and this occurs in parallel to the very slow increase in acceptance and state lenience towards refugees. It is interesting to think about how the act of building, and the progressive permanence of inhabitancy develops in some ways due to the lack of laws and control within the camps.

  7. Zoe Goodman says:

    Thank you Jugal, for introducing us to your geography world this week. I have been thinking about how we can relate Agamben’s ideas about Homo sacer and State of exception to racism in North America. After reading Michelles comment about “space having little to with the power being exerted by sovereign states over refugees”, I agree that policy can exert more power than organization of spaces, however studying spatial patterns/architecture of these spaces can help to reveal otherwise hidden issues with policies. For example, the changing wall constructions of the Palestinian shelters in Beirut (from tent, to tent + wall, to wall) revealed how refugees were being treated, and how they were reacting to their treatment at various moments in time. In the United States and Canada, it seems the history of redlining in the is a good example of the concept of homo sacer and state of exception being revealed spatially. The National housing act of 1934 made it difficult for people in redlined areas (most often black inner city areas) to purchase homes, revealing the racial biases of the Federal Housing Administration at that time in the spatial organizations of cities.

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