Writing, Rights, Refugees

Lyndsey Stonebridge is Professor of Modern Literature and History at the University of East Anglia. Her research focuses on twentieth-century literature and history, exploring topics including Human Rights, statelessness and the psychic and social aftermath of war. Her latest book Placeless People: Rights, Writing and Refugees, is forthcoming with OUPMaya Caspari spoke to her about Hannah Arendt, the limits of empathy and what it means to live critically in the present. This is an edited transcript of the conversation. 

MC: In your work on Hannah Arendt and others, you explore the relationship between their lives and their writing, as well as the often gendered ways in which this relationship is experienced and read. How do you see the relationship between your own life and your critical writing? 

LS: Like lot of humanities academics, writing is incredibly important to me. It is a space for being in the world. In some ways – and I am with Arendt and also Simone Weil on this – writing is living thought. It’s the nearest we get to making thought present to other people in the world. And that experience of making your thought present in the world is exhilarating and necessarily risky. Hannah Arendt certainly staged a very problematic sense of herself in relation to her writing.

Writing is the nearest we get to making thought present to other people in the world.

So, to go back to the first part of your question: how does that affect you as a woman writer? In some ways it is more difficult. I was very lucky with my mentors when I was a graduate student in the late 1980s and early 1990s: Jacqueline Rose was my PhD supervisor, but I also had Sally Alexander, Cora Kaplan, Denise Riley and others, who were all defined by the way that they worked their being into their writing. They were, and are, absolutely fearless. My generation of women were very well looked after by an older generation of feminist writers. Increasingly however, I think academia has become a place where it’s more difficult to do that. Academic writing has become much more proper and proprietorial in the last ten years, partially because humanities are under threat and when things are under threat they tend to close down and put up barriers. Like a lot of people, I chafe against that. And the writing I like to read is the writing of people who also chafe against that. For those working in literary humanities, in philosophy, theory, history, it is particularly important to maintain that sense of adventure and risk – within a scholarly context of course!

MC: Which experiences or encounters have shaped your thought?

LS: When I was an undergraduate, theory was just breaking and I spent a lot of time reading critics like Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida. But I was always drawn to larger-than-life women writers who were asking difficult questions. For my first book, I spent a lot of time reading and trying to understand the thought of Melanie Klein. Klein asked the questions that I really wanted to have answered: where does all this violence come from? Hannah Arendt gives another take on that, which is: how is violence organised? She’s got a strong grounding in the real world.

I’ve always been drawn to women who were trying to think through the darkest of times.

I’ve always been drawn to women who were trying to think through the darkest of times. The mid twentieth century still fascinates me because I keep finding more. There’s Rebecca West, who is outrageously flamboyant in her writing, Dorothy Thompson, Martha Gellhorn and Simone Weil, who I’m working on at the moment. I was trained in reading those women by an older generation of feminist intellectuals.


MC: You suggest that these figures are linked by their commitment to engaging with – and shaping – their historical moments through their writing. Could you say a little more about how you see their engagement with ‘the darkest of times’ as often literary writers specifically? How do they negotiate the relationship between aesthetic and political representation through the form and language of their work?

LS: Language is all we have to deal with – it is thought. But the politics of language can work in different ways. I was very drawn to Arendt and her manipulation of irony as a mode of protest, of being. The other writers I’m interested in are also very precise about the relationship of language to their political time. There’s a wonderful essay by Simone Weil called ‘The Power of Words’. She came back from the Spanish Civil War and she pointed out that in modern wars it’s words that people are fighting over. She starts to squeeze these words to see what’s in them and they’re empty. So, she’s looking at what happens when language is evacuated of meaning. In some ways that’s Arendt’s question as well. All the writers I’m interested in use writing to mark a kind of positional thinking in really quite precise ways.

There are two things you need to do to be able to think: one is to be able to define absolutely what is there, and the other is to say what isn’t there.

That said, I think it’s really important – especially now – to have a bifocal vision where one is immersed in language, but where one is also always looking for what is not being said as well as what is really happening, what really did happen. There’s a wonderful quote by Elaine Scarry – to mention another amazing critic from that generation: “The human ability to think freely – or, simply, to think – is premised on an ability to carry out two distinguishable mental practices, the practice of accurately identifying what is the case and the practice of entering mentally into what is not the case. The two familiar names for these practices are history and literature.” The literary-historical is exactly where the definition of thinking should be because you do need to be able to do both those things. Arendt and others do that – the irony is there to mark an absence.

The writing that fascinates me is always on the border of the historical and philosophical and it pushes the category of the literary. So, for me, the literary is a way of thinking through the historical.

MC: What can we learn from Arendt’s thought about the contemporary moment, and conversely, which aspects of the contemporary moment might reveal the limits of Arendt’s thinking?

LS: For me, Arendt’s critique of ‘rights’ still remains very important: I think she saw a division between a rights-based sovereignty which would belong to some of the world and a humanitarian gifting which would belong to the rest of the world. The thing that I go back to again and again in Arendt is her commitment to forms of critical community, whereby the right to have rights is the right to speak and to be heard. But in order for that to happen there has to be politics. It can’t only happen in an ethical space. There has to be dissent as well as consent. In terms of contemporary politics, that commitment to political community is a real lesson that needs to be heard again particularly in the context of Brexit, Trump and the failure of nation-state politics or globalism to make a politics that has a moral core.

I always think there are two things that Arendt got spectacularly wrong: one was getting into bed with Martin Heidegger.

I always think there are two things that Arendt got spectacularly wrong: one was getting into bed with Martin Heidegger. That said, who knows what’d happen if we judged every male philosopher for who he got into bed with! But she did go a long way to stretching her concept of forgiveness to Heidegger and that for me is a stumbling block. Another stumbling block is her work on Little Rock and her inability to understand race in America. She does move towards knowing that she doesn’t understand and she’s quite good at knowing when to shut up eventually but there’s a blind spot there. In the critical turn to Arendt now we need to keep in mind what she could not see.


MC: That seems particularly important today in a context where the discourse surrounding contemporary refugees and migrants in Europe – and who is defined as such – is still often shaped by race. It also makes me think of the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon, who in a text like Black Skin, White Masks, pays so much attention to racism and the body, both in terms of the perception of race and the affects of racism. How can we productively draw on our awareness that race is a blind spot in her work? More generally, where is the body in Arendt?

LS: Your question about the body in Arendt is so interesting because it is not there. How she reads, how she thinks, is the mind.

There’s this great moment in Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt where Arendt’s student apparently challenged her on sexual difference and feminism, and Arendt apparently turned round and said, ‘vive la petite différence’. And that just about sums her up, I think: the tiny bit of body in there is going to be slapped down. But one thing I can say about Arendt’s writing – and it actually reminds me very much of Sigmund Freud, as well as Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf too to a certain extent – there are certain writers who when you read construct an intimacy which is very striking. So even though you might say that on the one hand there’s an abstractness in their mode of address, in the honesty with which they’re talking and their fearlessness, there is on the other hand also the sense that they’re very very certain that they want to communicate. So there’s an intimacy in the language even though there’s a defensiveness. I wouldn’t think the abstraction only works if you block out the emotive function of language which neither of those thinkers do. Arendt is very intimate in terms of where she takes you, what she demands of you and her generosity. She’s a very hospitable writer, creating a community of address.

In terms of the politics of race, identity and national sovereignty, the other person I’d want to put into the conversation would be Edward Said. There’s a striking moment in the introduction to The Question of Palestine where he cites the famous passage from Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she says that the creation of Israel will not solve the refugee problem or the problem of rightlessness. It will just push the problem onto a new generation, with seven hundred thousand Palestinians left stateless.

MC: Today there are many calls for renewed empathy, often in relation to the refugee crisis. On the one hand, drawing on Arendt you’ve drawn attention to why one might be wary of a certain kind of sentimental empathy. On the other hand you suggest that being open to hearing another may be an ethical necessity in the present. What are the dangers of a certain kind of empathy? How else might we imagine relating ethically to others? 

LS: I think that it’s really important to historicise empathy and recognise its politics. There’s this very famous quote from Ian McEwan which he made just after 9/11 and basically reaffirmed an 18th century tradition of empathy. He said that it’s our ability to imagine the other – to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes – that makes us human. This is the core of our humanity, the core of our morals. He suggests therefore that the suicide bombers in 9/11 failed to do that.

I remember thinking at the time that that was an appalling thing to say, which sounds very counterintuitive because McEwan’s statement appeals to a sort of obvious liberalism. But what I thought was totally missing there was an account of how moral sympathy – which is what he’s talking about – is linked, in the long run, to a politics of colonialism. Who you choose to imagine is always caught up in a power relationship. Empathy is often presented as a gift – as if something is lacking.

Who you choose to imagine is always caught up in a power relationship. Empathy is often presented as a gift – as if something is lacking.

On the other hand, with Arendt, I’d want to revive a Kantian tradition which is actually imagining the other not with empathy or with pity but with the hard work of imagining another life. That is always going to be more uncomfortable than pitying someone who is obviously not as powerful as you. I also think – as someone who has spent a lot of time on literature – that it really devalues the literary to think of literature as simply a conduit for empathy. Literature does hard work. It should be uncomfortable. And sometimes maybe empathy is uncomfortable, but I tend to think not.

MC: Your work on statelessness both addresses its long history and suggests that the ways it is being lived and represented today may be read as a new ‘human condition’. Do you see the present as a particular moment of crisis? Is there any kind of writing that could capture or adequately respond to this?

LS: In terms of critical theory, we’ve been in moments of crisis forever! But this is a particular one that also exists outside moments of intellectual concern.

For me some of the most interesting writing I’m encountering and working on is coming out of new hybrid communities, which are refugee or stateless, or just moving and very clearly bringing with them a transnationality and stating of a new human condition. This is why I think the work happening at Leeds is very exciting – there has to be a transnational approach to this question. A transnational approach to the humanities is the only one for now.

At the moment, I also find myself moving away from the high literary to poetry where those questions are being launched and engaged with by a very transnational generation of young poets. And, in terms of response, sometimes we just need to learn to shut up and listen. That is why the decolonisation of the literary syllabus is such an urgent task.

MC: What does critical life mean for you? What can we do at this moment?

A very good question and one that has lots of challenges. The first response to that is teaching. Teaching is undervalued and its becoming commodified, normalised and policed beyond measure but I think the most valuable work any critical thinker can do is in the classroom, not only because you’re teaching a new generation but also because you learn.

I’ve also been involved in a project called Refugee Hosts where I work with social scientists and with refugee communities that have taken on a new generation of Syrian refugees. What that has brought home to me is the need to write outside of one’s comfort zone. So, I’m doing much more journalism than I ever did previously and doing things I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable doing. And I think the discomfort is quite productive.

There is a call – a need – for a circulation of ideas. There is a need for a moral discourse. Critical life needs to go out into the mainstream and critical life also needs to win back the classroom for criticism and thought – and life actually. That’s what the humanities are known for. And we’ve got a lot more hard work and more defensive work to do because as we all know these things are being attacked!

Lyndsey Stonebridge is Professor of Modern Literature and History at UEA.

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