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.

Week 18 Refugees as >

Week 18 Refugees as >

Curated by Jugal Patel

November 13, 2020

Required readings

Ek, Richard. “Giorgio Agamben and the Spatialities of the Camp: An Introduction.” Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography 88, no. 4 (2006): 363–86.

Hanafi, Sari, 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): 134–59.

Sanyal, Romola. “Squatting in Camps: Building and Insurgency in Spaces of Refuge.” Urban Studies 48, no. 5 (2011): 877–90.

Further readings

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

Minca, Claudio. “Geographies of the Camp.” Political Geography 49 (2015): 74–83.

Rajaram, Prem Kumar, and Carl Grundy-Warr. “The Irregular Migrant as Homo Sacer: Migration and Detention in Australia, Malaysia, and Thailand.” International Migration 42 (2004): 33–64.

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