The first piece in our Polity of Literature series:
“Dehumanized, often by the state, no one simply stops being human—they find profane sites for their humanity, a realm for their politics that their enemies cannot destroy. Often it’s in their religion, their family, gangs, a neighborhood, or a declaration of war. In my case it was literature.”
—from Potatoes or Rice?
In 2015 an American prosecutor’s abusive indictment led to an unlawful extradition attempt, which forced the author, a gay American novelist, into hiding for almost three years. In 2018 a Dutch court ruled unanimously that the U.S. indictment violates basic human rights law, and the author’s rights were restored in the Netherlands. But that didn’t open a way to return home: the Americans refuse to acknowledge or remedy their human rights abuse.
The story of this ordeal is told anonymously to keep the focus off private conflicts and on systemic problems—as well as potential solutions—that (while highlighted by the author’s own experience) are by no means limited to this case. As the author puts it, “The U.S. action shocked me, though I soon discovered that it was not an aberration, just business as usual. Citizens lose their rights everyday, sometimes fairly through a due process of investigation and reasonable suspicion, but just as often unfairly and without cause. Racism, systemic corruption, personal bias, or, increasingly in the U.S., the mere zeal of prosecutors empowered to detain and threaten anyone they choose, strip citizens of their rights every day.”
Lacking the rights guaranteed by the state, expelled by the threat of a wrongful arrest, the author ultimately found citizenship, agency, and belonging inside a “polity of literature.” That polity is the subject of this essay, and it is what we invite you to consider in the focused inquiry that will follow. Every week or two, at regular intervals, Arts Everywhere will add further essays, art works, and other documents, to interrogate the problems and prospects of both widespread statelessness and the kinds of “profane citizenship”—in the arts and elsewhere—that might lie nascent within that crisis.
“Potatoes or Rice?”
MY FREEDOM IS GUARANTEED BY a silicon chip embedded in my residence permit. The biometric information stored there was taken from me by a large, egg-shaped machine in a pleasant suburban office in Hoofddorp, the Netherlands. The Dutch had granted me a two-year work permit. I went by train on a February morning. The machine scanned my retinas, digitized my head-shape and facial features, turned my fingerprints into high-resolution maps, and stored all of this information in the chip, which lies hidden inside a small plastic card. The same chips are in passports, indeed most state IDs. If the chip reports an order to detain me, or if my body does not correspond to its digital account, I will be arrested. That is, my body—the offending part of any mismatch—will be detained and held in a jail cell. Nothing in my body can contravene the testimony of the chip: not my words, not my self-knowledge, not my soul, not my humanity. None of that counts; only the chip.
We rely on biometrics because we don’t believe people can be as fair, consistent or accurate in their judgment. It’s a reasonable belief, an example of what French writer Jacques Ellul termed “technique” in his 1954 book The Technological Society. Wanting certainty, accuracy, and impartiality, we routinely ask moody, flawed humans to adapt to the rigid binaries of technology—the either/or of the chip’s algorithmic verdict—and until they do we trust the chip, not the person. While it’s true that human judgment first granted me my rights, that is an archaic fact, and nation-states have been shifting these decisions to the realm of technology as fast as possible, ever since the technique of state administration made its great leap forward in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, my political rights reside in the chip’s digital mapping, which stands as the only guarantee of my freedom, so long as the Dutch are willing to grant me it.
I have no passport. In this I join more than ten million people world-wide who lack papers to prove citizenship. Mine was taken away when the U.S. indicted me through a “secret grand jury” and told the Dutch to arrest me and send me back for trial. The charges are false, the process unjust, and the threatened punishment so draconian that it violates basic human rights law. In effect, I was made stateless when the U.S. withdrew my rights and my life was put in peril by their threat against me. I asked the Dutch to refuse the request, and while my case was being heard by their courts I lived with the rights granted me so that I could work in the Netherlands.
The U.S. action shocked me, though I soon discovered that it was not an aberration, just business as usual. Citizens lose their rights every day, sometimes fairly through a due process of investigation and reasonable suspicion, but just as often unfairly and without cause. Racism, systemic corruption, personal bias, or, increasingly in the U.S., the mere zeal of prosecutors empowered to detain and threaten anyone they choose strips citizens of their rights every day. The fact that I was abroad and could take my objections to a separate state authority, the Dutch, opened up an unusual space in which to consider the injustice of what was happening to me.
Among the first assumptions to fall apart in this unmarked space of peril was my long-held faith that citizenship lay solely in the hands of the state. Suddenly I was stateless, and yet I felt all the more fiercely my need and my right to citizenship. I was lucky to have the Dutch process and the temporary protections that it granted me; but where would I find confirmation of my belonging, equal standing, and my rights and dignity in the society of others? The state, the one I was born into, had refused me the rights of the citizen, yet I had to go on living. I was lucky to have books that could help me.
A 2012 book, called Profane Citizenship in Europe, contrasts “state citizenship”—a sovereign’s granting of rights backed by their military, political, and economic muscle—with “profane citizenship,” which locates our belonging in the acts and relationships each of us choose every day. (The study cites Jacques Ranciére and Giorgio Agamben, among other contemporary writers, as developing a discourse of the profane, anchored in Émile Benveniste’s 1960 essay, “Profanus et Profanare.”) Is citizenship a protected status granted by an authority with the power to back it up? Or, is citizenship a capacity that any body can activate with others, choosing our freely-willed relationships? And, in what ways does freedom inhere in either one?
The differences are stark, and never just theoretical. Every human life is caught at the intersection of these claims. A passport exempts no one from the everyday obligations of locale (to the great frustration of many ex-pat communities), and good neighborly relations will never convince police to overlook the lack of a passport (or if they do, it is called “corruption”). Good neighbors cannot protect us from the state’s claims on our liberty, and even the full force of state law cannot quiet the voices of neighbors who scold or punish us for violating their norms. In some ways, the question is only simple for those who are denied state citizenship: their fates are in the hands of the people around them. Everyone else lives with two, often contradictory, masters: the state and the communities in which we live—the temple and the profanum.
“Profane” has two interesting meanings. The profane is contrasted either to expertise or to the sacred. In the first meaning, profane knowledge is a layman’s knowledge, as against the knowledge of a trained professional. Profane knowledge has its place, which is why it is named. But, in a technological society, as Ellul points out, that place is always subservient to expertise. Similarly, the profane that we contrast with the sacred is placed below and the sacred above, although this pair is far more complex and complicit than the arrangement suggests. In his foundational essay, Profanus et Profanare, Emile Benveniste detailed the interwoven nature of the two. Their meanings come from a simple architectural detail dividing the temple (the site of sacrifice and the sacred) from the public space in front of the temple, called, in Latin, profanum. The threshold between them was constantly crossed, not least when animals were sacrificed in the temple and the carcass had to be brought back out into the profanum, where everyone was invited to feast on the meat. Thus, the profanation of the sacrifice was never its undoing, but its completion. The sacred and the profane are elements of a single unified social process. Ranciére suggests that the same holds true for citizenship: the rights granted by the state are only fully realized in the freely-willed acts and choices of profane citizens.
Jacques Ellul’s discussion of technique speaks to these same issues, but his book is largely forgotten. A French resistance fighter and devout Christian, Ellul used his social analysis to shape a radical theology, distancing his work from the academic and political circles that dominated post-War French philosophy. The French left might have read Ellul, but they did not cite him. His critique indicted many of their preferred political solutions, including communism and humanism. His provincial home address in Bordeaux further absented him from the vigorous discourse of Paris. But his book has aged well and now appears prophetic, both in its reading of technique and in the position Ellul staked out at the intersection of politics and theology. Technique exhibits the same complicity between the sacred, or expert, and the profane that we find with citizenship. This is especially true for what Ellul called “human techniques,” which begin as rule-bound, expert procedures that can only be completed when we accept and practice them in life, until they become commonplace. Standardized education and psychological counseling are examples, as is technocratic government and the friendly, rehearsed protocols of the Dutch bureaucrats who solicited my biometrics to add to their database. There was no compulsion or force, only a reasonable request that I was glad to comply with.
I was enormously happy to be confirmed and cataloged as a Dutch resident. In the U.S., my life was in turmoil, and the security that this permit gave me was an island of safety in stormy seas. Back home my unconventional family was in trouble. I’m gay and had made a family with a lesbian friend. We had a baby and raised our child together for thirteen years. Now she was “making a new family” and angry accusations from her new partner’s son had split us apart. I knew it was nothing criminal, and there were no charges filed, but animosity ran so high it seemed that only distance and time could help us move forward. I owed a book to my Dutch publisher, and so I returned to the Netherlands for the eight or nine months I needed to finish and see it published. By that time, I hoped, the mother of my child would be ready to speak to me, and listen.
I arrived in Rotterdam to long-held friendships and warm collegial relations. Over the decades that I had visited and worked in the Netherlands, I’d learned enough Dutch and studied enough of the country’s history and culture to develop strong ties and a sense of belonging. So, it was a pleasure to have my belonging confirmed by the state’s approval of my application. In effect, I was adding the state’s imprimatur to the accomplished fact of my profane citizenship, after twenty-five years. While it was far short of Dutch citizenship, that imprimatur turned out to be crucial.
In September, many months after the egg-shaped machine extracted the biometrics from my body, I got a phone call from the Dutch police. The U.S. embassy had delivered a “secret indictment” against me. Would I please report to the station and deal with it? I agreed, we set a time for later that day, and I went to speak with a lawyer I knew. He told me I would be arrested upon reporting—that was the protocol. But, as a free man, I could simply not report, awaiting more forceful requests. I could even move to some place where the U.S. was not looking for me. What did I want to do?
* * * * *
In her 2014 book Expulsions, the Dutch-born sociologist Saskia Sassen describes a global pattern of increasingly efficient, brutal dispossessions in every sphere—political, economic and ecological. Among the familiar cases are the sans papiers, refugees fleeing economic or political oppression who wander the world without state citizenship. But Sassen looks past this crowded surface to expose what she calls “subterranean patterns” of expulsion driven by market forces that punish much vaster populations with even greater efficiency than do states. Her focus is “the systemic edge,” which she describes as, “the site where general conditions take extreme forms [as] the site for expulsion or incorporation. Further,” she writes, “the extreme character of conditions at the edge makes visible larger trends that are less extreme and hence more difficult to capture.”
Every age has its systemic edge, and its deeper emergent patterns. Sassen gives the example of 19th-century England, which, on the surface, “looked like an overwhelmingly rural economy…[when] in fact industrial capitalism was already the dominant logic of the political economy.” While that shift became recognizable in hindsight, Sassen’s purpose in Expulsions is to see current conditions clearly. “Today,” she writes, “I see new systemic logics arising from the decaying political economy of the twentieth century. This decay began in the 1980s. By then the strong welfare states and workers’ syndicalisms established in much of the West…either had been devastated or were under severe pressure.”
Like most of Sassen’s widely influential work, Expulsions uses the bracing precision and scope of sociological research to compel our sense of injustice. It speaks in the language of the human sciences. Statistics interleave with emotionally wrenching case studies to give weight to our deepest, empathetic responses, compelling a kind of fevered impotence. You cannot see the numbers she cites without feeling that something must be done, while also feeling dwarfed by the scope of things. Statistics cast their spell. Her method predisposes us to look for comprehensive solutions requiring systemic change—that is, broadly professionalized, expert, technical solutions. Systemic injustice begs for a better application of just laws, in the same way that a personal tragedy begs for catharsis and then mourning. And so, somewhat paradoxically, Expulsions deepens our hunger for technique, because the forces at work lie so far beyond any one person’s scope or agency.
Of course I saw myself in the picture Sassen paints, transferring my unfathomable feeling of injury and confusion into a widely shared condition that let me feel situated, comprehensible, less alone. First among the shocks that state expulsion brought was a sudden, pathetic loneliness, as though my own family had willfully slammed the door shut. I felt like an old dog, shooed outside on a winter night. Mostly I wanted to whimper and scratch at the door, looking for familiar, warm eyes to recognize me and let me back in again. I literally could not believe that the U.S. would have done such a thing to me. Reading these books (Expulsions and the studies on profane citizenship) mapped the territory I was thereby thrust into. And I found that it was crowded with all manner of people.
The Dutch policeman’s kindness impressed me. He’d phoned with a reasonable request. He didn’t operate in secret nor mislead me or my friends as a trap. (Which, I soon learned, was how the U.S. handled my case.) And so I told my lawyer that I would report to the police as promised. They’d been reasonable; I would respond in kind. At the police station in Amsterdam, a sergeant showed me the indictment, arrested me, and put me in a crowded holding cell. It was mid-afternoon. The station was busy with brisk conversations between men in restraints and men at desks. I was fascinated by their bodies, so similar and desiring, but held in the contrasting apparatus of their stations. The men in restraints gestured and posed, willing their human form and substance to express itself through the camouflage of their captivity; while the men at desks braced themselves like sailors in a storm, as if the bulky furniture were a flotilla of water-tight boats that might safely navigate this flood-tide of expelled humanity.
I was offered tea and coffee, and the sergeant gave me back the novel I’d brought with me, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. I happily disappeared again into the book’s rich story of five children, found at sea by pirates, who overwhelm the fussy protocols of their pirate captors and transform the ship into their own small kingdom. I relaxed, home again in the book, laughing with recognition at the power of these kids’ naiveté and their clever overturning of the elaborate rules of captivity. Five other men shared the holding cell, and I held the book’s cover ostentatiously in view, hoping one of them would strike up a conversation or even say “I’ve read that book!” But so few people read novels these days, and certainly the holding cell in Amsterdam wasn’t the likeliest place for me to find the society of readers I sought just then. They were nice enough men, but none of them spoke to me. The sergeant announced they’d be loading us into a paddy wagon soon, and he told me I’d have to give the book back to him, so I hurried to finish it. We were loaded into an armored van with a half-dozen other men, and I was taken to Zwaag Prison.
* * * * *
The authors of Profane Citizenship in Europe consider a half-dozen instances where the lack of state citizenship forces people to establish their rights and freedom strictly through profane means. For example, deaf communities living in isolation can be effectively denied their citizenship because the state has become unavailable to them. Their passive disempowerment can be as total as the active expulsion of attacked ethnic or political minorities whom the state wants to be rid of. In both cases, the expelled must construct civil society and the terms of belonging on their own. Or, in the case of children born to refugee parents, an intersection of disparities conspires to deny them the actual papers and the education, health care, and society by which children normally grow into citizenship.
More disturbing, as the book’s authors point out, is the fact that enrollment in the state and the official papers that are thought to be a ticket out of dispossession, actually become the cause of a daily, repeated drama of expulsion. It happens whenever those with state IDs cross a biometrically regulated threshold—a border, a police check, or an appointment for health care or other services. At these boundaries, determination of our status shifts from the testimony of the bodies we’re born into to the biometrics stored in our ID’s memory chips. Our fates are put further out of human reach when algorithms determine what the state does with us next. We become walking prisons—purified sites of complete administration. During this passage, our bodies are emptied of meaning and stripped of identity, which has been transferred wholesale into the chip. The only ones exempt from this quotidian drama are the 12 million globally lacking proof of citizenship, who navigate their days by avoiding every such boundary or encounter. I would soon find myself among them.
It was astonishing how utterly common my situation was. More than 20,000 people come to the Netherlands as refugees each year, not counting the hidden ones, nor the criminalized ones who show up in statistics as fugitives from justice. (Events in the world suggest that these numbers will only increase.) They are not treated well. The largest groups, in Amsterdam and Den Haag, are shuttled from overfull refugee centers to empty churches, disused prisons or abandoned buildings lacking basic services like heat and hot water. The facilities are so inadequate for the numbers of people that in 2015 the UN charged the Dutch with violating the treaties they signed to protect refugees. And the Netherlands is among the rich countries, the ones with a history of concern for asylum seekers. Refugees travel thousands of kilometers, through other less-welcoming countries, just to put their fate into the hands of the Dutch. Among these brave people I was an outlier, an exception in almost every way.
In Zwaag I stood out: I was American, middle-class, and completely new to the criminal justice system. While these facts generally biased my jailers to treat me well—as though my stay in prison was a comical mistake better suited as a premise for a TV sitcom than as, say, an instrument of justice (an obviously racialized privilege)—it also meant I had little or no society during the time that I spent there. I was a complete misfit, and clueless about the community I’d been thrust into.
A reasonable person will wonder why I, a law-abiding citizen, chose to refuse the U.S.’s claim on me. Why fight extradition? Citizenship is never just the provision of services or safety; it is a mutual obligation. Implicitly, my life-long enjoyment of the state’s protection meant I should answer their summons now, and I’ve always assumed I would do so without any hesitation. These were not casual assumptions on my part. I studied political theory in school because the root of my political rights and obligations felt both urgent and uncertain. In my twenties, I came to believe sincerely in the social contract that Enlightenment thinkers, especially Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, saw as binding citizens together in a sovereign authority that we both comprise and are subservient to. Told that a U.S. prosecutor, following the rule of law, had issued an arrest warrant for me, my mind flashed to this tacit agreement. I’d always lived as a U.S. citizen, so I should surrender myself now. Why wouldn’t I?
The state’s actions against me were shockingly deceitful, and contrary to every detail of the social contract I believed lay at the root of citizenship. I had been pursued in secret under a presumption of guilt based on my past writings and reputation without any investigation of the specific acts I was ultimately charged with. The charges were incendiary: child molestation. My son was taken from me, and my friendships and professional relations were poisoned as part of the so-called “investigation,” which, it turned out, did not include speaking to me about the charges, interviewing the other people present when I was alleged to have committed the crime, nor ever inspecting the scene of the allegation. Instead, the prosecutor—who later told my lawyer that the novels I’d written 20 years prior “make me think he’s guilty”—went to Yale University to look in my literary archive for “evidence.” Evidence of what, I wondered? I only discovered this piece-meal, in the long, slow fall-out after the U.S. delivered its extradition request. And by then, the police and prosecutors had dismantled my family, damaged my work life, and robbed me of my liberty in order to extradite and imprison me in advance of trial. Bail was set at $2.25 million, despite my having, as they say, “no priors.”
My 82-year old mother (a lifelong political activist who raised her four children while fighting the racist laws and military aggressions of the U.S. government) and my brothers and sister were shocked and upset. We all believed the U.S. courts could deliver justice, and for the most part my family counseled patience and good lawyers, thinking these would see me through until I had my freedom back. But our faith was shaken, with the interesting exception of my oldest brother. He, alone among us, is Christian—a born-again believer in a Christian God and in Jesus’s martyrdom. His discovery of this faith came in the course of an apocalyptic break with the family and the world we’d been raised into, a church-less world that only referenced Jesus as an inspiration for social justice movements. So that now, a good thirty years into his Christian life, he alone received my news with calm and assurance. “The world is corrupt,” he would remind me. Injustice rains down on everyone. My salvation would come in the next world, and only if, in this one, I acknowledged Jesus as my savior and humbled myself before God. I was lucky, he said—all too commonly the police simply shoot the people they’re afraid of. The mostly-white police of America shoot the black men who frighten them every day. “You still have a chance for salvation,” he assured me. “Thanks be to God.”
The jailers at Zwaag took away my books (along with my pens and paper), and told me that I could get other books on “library day.” In the meantime I could watch TV. I don’t like TV. Their rule struck me as crazy, a kind of petty, brain-deadening punishment. Similarly, inmates could not have musical instruments in their cells, but they could constantly listen to the radio. I knew my time at Zwaag would be brief so I didn’t object. The judge who heard the testimony of a half-dozen of my Dutch friends had assured me that I would soon be scheduled for release, which came the following week.
My long history in the Netherlands—in effect my profane citizenship—and the considerable advantage of having persuasive friends, compelled the state to quickly restore my freedom and my rights. There would be restrictions: I’d have to report to the police once a week and never leave the country until the extradition process was done. In effect, my detention was shifted from Zwaag Prison to the small nation where I’d come to work. Anywhere that extradition treaties were in effect, the U.S.’s order to jail and extradite me still held. But in the Netherlands I would be free.
* * * * *
Asylum is only partial because the experience of displacement can never be forgotten. Home is a ghost from long ago, haunting the refugee wherever they alight, each new safe haven another reminder of their fundamental loss. Some find stability, a permanent site for their exile, but most do not. Their displacement is repeated as they shuttle from promise to promise, crossing borders, moving on or off the radar, finding brief respites that come to an end so they must flee again. The war catches up; local politics change; economic hardship squeezes them out. Expulsion is a permanent condition that plays its same script over and over until the refugee dies. This is an essential aspect of “technique,” one that Ellul saw rooted in its autonomous, self-augmenting logic. Techniques are all problem-based. That is, they begin by identifying a problem which technique can “solve.” It resembles what cultural critic Evgeny Morosov calls “solutionism.” Even in the absence of any disquiet or political urgency, “problems” are cultivated and refined in order to shape the precise ground on which a “solution” can be built (which, these days, Morosov tells us, typically takes the form of algorithms in software). The solution is announced, and its wide-spread adoption sets the stage for our serial re-enactment of the problem we are told gave rise to it, until millions of lives are caught up in the endlessly repeated performance of “the problem,” which feeds the autonomous operation of “the solution,” which is technique.
The state—among our oldest and most pervasive techniques—promises to solve the problem of our perilous unbelonging, taming the Darwinian jungle into which we are born. It offers us security in a safe, lawful home—an antidote to the nomadic condition that is our stateless fate (or so we’re told). What the state actually protects us from is, primarily, other states. Instead of settling us, the state stages the serial re-enactment of our unbelonging, confronting us over and over again with borders we can or cannot cross, security checks, biometrics, temporary restrictions, cullings and dispossession. The state is not a settled place of human dwelling so much as it is a kind of endless corridor of doorways, opening and closing, stringing its thresholds from birth to death so that our passage can be made in as efficient a way as possible. The state that promises us a home will inevitably function as the permanent engine of our displacement. Technique is never a solution to a problem: it is the baroque preservation of whatever problem the technique was putatively meant to solve.
Only in prison does the state deliver on its promise of a home, by offering us a kind of stabilized site of expulsion. In prison, our unbelonging is institutionalized and given a home address. Prison perfects the modern state’s technocratic ambitions—pure administration framing a complete absence of rights—by locating us outside the messy contradictions of the human belonging that we are born into, the home we call our “body.” Prison takes full control of the incarcerated body and empties it of rights. In Sassen’s terms, prison is “the systemic edge” where expulsion takes place. So it was interesting for me to discover, at Zwaag, that prison is also the site of re-incorporation into robust, established frameworks of profane citizenship.
* * * * *
Many of the men who arrived at Zwaag with me were happy to be back. They saw old friends and recognized familiar faces, renewing ties, not only to other inmates, but also to guards who were their compatriots in the richly social world of the prison. The rigor of Zwaag’s administrative function seemed to compel a sort of compensatory chumminess, a soft warmth among captives and captors alike, that blurred the harsh reality of our common fate: we were all being expelled, every minute of every day. At least in prison we could laugh together. In the assembly line of our admissions, after we’d given up all our possessions and clothing, before bending over for body-cavity searches and showering to rid ourselves of germs and lice, a garrulous, corpulent guard marched down the line with a clipboard asking each man, “Potatoes or rice?” We would be served one hot meal a day, handed to us in our cells, and it featured either potatoes or rice. The question neatly divided us into Muslim (rice) and non-Muslim (potatoes). It was the most basic kind of sorting and, as it turned out, the first re-entry point to our profane citizenship. Diet, religion, and language all demarcated common territories on which familiar structures of kinship could be quickly rebuilt. The necessary building blocks of close community—carried like compact tents in the men’s mother tongues, their prayers, common friends, senses of humor or fondly held memories—were unpacked and put in place in the familiar clearing of Zwaag. But I had arrived unequipped, and I moved on before my ill-fit could become a problem, or be repaired.
To be accurate, and fair to myself, I actually came fully equipped; but I was routinely stripped of my accustomed means of making community by jailers unfamiliar with the culture that defines me. The guards knew rice-eating Muslims, potato-eating Calvinists, radio-blasting young offenders, and TV-loving men of all ages—but I love books and literature. My society and belonging begin there. The lawyer I consulted had taken me shopping on the way to the police station, to “buy clean underwear and anything else you’ll need.” I laughed at his urgent insistence on the underwear (it turned out to be direly necessary) and stopped at a bookstore to pick up a few more books: Stories by Lydia Davis; Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading; and David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, adding them to my bag with A High Wind in Jamaica. These were the books the guards took from me.
When I read, whether non-fiction books of sociology, politics, history, and economics, or the novels that I prefer, I’m often scanning for my place. Reading offers me contexts and details that frame my belonging, or open up new relationships at the intersection of the world and my imagination. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and I spend a lot of time alone. Text is comfortable to me, as familiar and welcoming as a hearth or the sound of my mother’s voice. Whatever the reason, I find my common cause with others by reading. Thereby, I place myself in the world.
I’m not interested in middle-class stories of male anxiety about growing older. I’d rather go further afield to contextualize my life at a scale that matters to me. I want to know how an Iraqi girl gets from the war zone that swallowed her life to safety, and alienation, as a refugee in suburban New Jersey. I’d rather read a love story about a cow in Switzerland that is slaughtered and butchered by the Spanish migrant worker who loves her and is compelled to kill her, and find myself there. You might think I mean that literature inspires me or gives me insight, or that I prefer the world in books to the world of people. But I don’t mean those things at all. There are specific human capacities that literature hosts—such as empathy, curiosity, delight in paradox, humor and humility—that I find in books and can bring back into my relations with others in the world. Literature is a politics. It has customs and entitlements, manners and style, and I need those tools to construct my citizenship.
By “literature” I mean that writing for which every reader has equal authority to make its meanings. The shared space of the text is a place of engagement among equals in conflict (that is, readers), with nary a policeman nor sovereign in sight. Even the author gives up her original position as an arbiter of meanings (one she enjoys so long as she is writing) by giving the work to its public in an act that we call “publication.” After publication every reader, including the author, is possessed of equal authority in the contested realm of the work. This is precisely—and only—what we claim whenever we claim that such-and-such “is literature.” By this definition, any writing can be literature; and a great deal that is not can, nevertheless, have “literary” qualities. For instance, not all histories are literature, but some are more literary than others. By that I mean that some possess qualities that cannot be assessed by any single authority—literary aspects such as style, pathos, humor, wisdom or relevance—which the writer attends to, alongside the facts and other applied systems of thought that experts in the field (other historians or philosophers or journalists, etc.) can best judge.
Literature proves nothing. It asks us to judge for ourselves. More, it invites—even seduces—us into taking that risk by whispering in each reader’s ear, you know what I’m talking about…. This intimate investiture draws us out into the open, into the book’s plurality of readers, by granting us the authority to disclose our own meanings and have them heard. Literature opens a space of appearance in which we become equals, needing no defense. This contentious plurality, the vivid cacophony of contradictory readings in a polity of literature, is where I find my agency and belonging.
* * * * *
My literary bent went unnoticed at Zwaag. The books men shared were the Bible and the Qur’an, and I hadn’t read either. It was not surprising to see how clearly the men divided into faith-based groups. The prison built it into the program, granting privileges based on the faith each man declared. Muslims got special freedoms on Fridays and help with prayer (including a Xeroxed map that established East, and Mecca, from every cell in Zwaag), plus a tacit permission that let them keep the Qur’an in their cells. Christians had a Sunday service and access to a priest, along with the books and second-hand clothing the priest dispensed as part of his ministry. I belonged with neither group. As Hannah Arendt wrote, in the midst of her experience as a refugee (first from Nazi Germany, then from France when it fell to the Nazis, and then in America as a Jew), “The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion—formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities—but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever.”
While others prayed or went off in groups to their sanctioned activities, I daydreamed alone in my cell, waiting for library day. When it came, I chose twelve books, reading only five before my release: Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer, Sarah Paretsky’s Killing Orders, Bill Clinton’s My Life, Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy, and E.H. Gombrich’s History of Art. The Highsmith was uncharacteristically wooden and dull, and I couldn’t finish it. Paretsky’s book was wonderful, the only completely satisfying escape I experienced at Zwaag. Clinton’s and Clancy’s books were awful flip-sides of the same dirty coin, American patriotism, and they blurred into a haze of hyper-masculine boasting (nevertheless I finished them both, caught in the demonic efficiency of their plots). Gombrich’s book alone was a balm for my soul. Gombrich restored me to myself and to my culture. I could read just a sentence or a caption and be returned to the realm of consideration, keen curiosity, deference and good humor that was my preferred state. Gombrich kept me company. His words kept my mind lively and challenged. When I spoke with the other men (usually the guards, but sometimes fellow prisoners) I talked about what I’d read. Everyone knew Clinton and Tom Clancy, and Gombrich’s broad scanning offered me subjects that many of the immigrant prisoners could tell me more about. But that was a small circle of light, a mere candle in a dark world, and unless I entered the carefully constructed realms of their religious faith or the communities that awaited them outside Zwaag, I had little or no society with my fellow inmates.
My oldest brother would dismiss my prison loneliness as trivial. I didn’t need to join the Sunday services, nor the daily prayers of the Muslims—the organized church is a secondary thing, he would remind me. My solitary relation to God was primary, and that was within my reach at any time. Prison might even sharpen and refine this capacity, which was imminent within every human body. We all have souls, after all. That was Jacques Ellul’s belief, too. Ellul’s Christian faith clarified an idea of freedom that underlay his skeptical analysis of technique. Freedom, he argued, is not the liberty to choose whatever pleases us, a misunderstanding widely propagated by liberal “free markets,” where we’re taught that the liberty to choose is democracy’s pinnacle prize. Most of us are familiar with the limits of this gift, the frenzied acceleration of consumer choices, the exhausting compulsion to choose again and again, even while we recognize the incredibly narrow range of options that are put in front of us, like assembly-line buyers pushing buttons to change the color on identical products.
It’s not hard to see the same logic at work in more crucial spheres, such as politics and culture. Mass democracy administers similar procedures by offering voters carefully limited choices, positioning our assembly-line performance as a privilege of citizenship, while ignoring the fact that the vast majority of people never vote. In the arts (which, especially when administered via Internet or broadcast television, enjoy much higher rates of “buy in” than most political elections) cultural work is also positioned as a market process. Through clever instruments like Kick Starter, crowd-funding, focus groups, target audiences, or even the mundane clicking of “like” buttons on Facebook, autonomous expression gives way to polling, and we become the engines of expulsion. We choose what pleases us in the cultural marketplace, and the rest, whatever we don’t like, disappears from our view.
Ellul argues that this is not freedom, but enslavement to technique. The citizen is not set free, so much as she is integrated deeper and deeper into rigorously administered systems. We are the choosers, given not the right so much as the obligation to choose—constantly sorting, picking, voting, buying, liking. Our votes and market choices validate the most brutal expulsions. As citizens of a “free market” we perform the culling that expels the paperless, the poor, the unpopular, and we call that freedom.
Ellul rejects this. Instead, he proposes freedom as a lived experience of every human body, a solitary, tremulous state of precarity that is ours by birth, and which has nothing to do with our tastes and opinions. It is something like what Aristotle proposed as the born, pre-political state of every person—”bare life,” or homo sacer (which means one who can be set apart or banned)—in which the individual, stateless and without citizenship, has no politics and belongs solely to God. Freedom is not the state-protected exercise of our tastes, Ellul says, it is naked exposure to our limits—the corporeal limit of the human body, time bound and placed in relation to God alone. By “God” I understand him to mean a power beyond the self that is imminent within every human body. To grasp this necessity directly—feeling both our body’s limits and its harboring of something more than one’s self, and to bring this awareness back into society—is to fully experience freedom.
* * * * *
Ellul’s critique threatens to throw every kind of citizenship into question. How can we ever find freedom in community if freedom rests in our lonely precarity? Does profane citizenship offer only the same “solutionist” enslavements as the state? Moreover, isn’t my search for a kind of citizenship in literature, in the face of real state power, quixotic at best? I cannot overstate the vertigo these circumstances conjured in me. I was looking for the most crucial things in the most unlikely places, focused on reading and writing as I plummeted fast toward impossibly hard ground.
I was released from Zwaag and spent more than a year arguing against extradition in the Dutch court. In July, 2015, I lost, and the Dutch Minister of Justice issued an order to arrest and deport me to the U.S. I knew that this order posed grave threats to my safety and human rights. The minister had failed to follow the court’s order that his office must first evaluate those threats and only extradite me if there were sufficient guarantees for safety. There remained one court to which I could appeal, a Dutch court that would review the minister’s action and rule on its permissibility. But with an order for my arrest and immediate extradition now in effect, I would have to live in hiding.
Paperless and afraid of contact with anyone who knew me, I spent the next two-and-a-half years with no legal residence and no traceable activity, no jobs, health care, or the use of any system in which my identity could be tracked. Despite the arrest warrant, I used my real name always and told the truth to anyone who asked me. I had never hidden from others in my life. Indeed, my life had at one point effectively “begun” when, as a teenager, the fact of my homosexuality became a conscious identity for which I found words that I could share with others. Having come out as a gay teen in the 1970s, the idea that my political freedom would now depend on secrecy or hiding was both repulsive and impractical. The game of secrecy was foreign to me. I found it impossible to give false names or engineer any deceptions; even something as simple as dying my hair or growing a beard made me laugh or panic. Uncertain if I would ever see my son or my family again, I was deeply unstable. Edward Snowden’s revelations of the reach of the surveillance state had burst into view just two years prior, and between his whistle-blowing in June 2013 and the summer of 2015—when I tried to live without detection in a European milieu riven by millions of paperless, distressed refugees, also on the move—every computer screen and CCTV camera looked like a policeman’s hand fixing shackles on my wrists and hauling me away.
Strangers were kind to me. No one asked the questions that would implicate me. I passed through crowds and cities undetected because I didn’t look like the illegal alien everyone was focused on then. I was white, American and clueless—among the most familiar benign creatures in the European countries, a tourist or businessman probably, too much bother to ask questions of. Cash was my passport, even the very little cash I had.
Eventually I settled. I learned how to use encrypted email. Through that channel (and the wonderfully humane medium of letters sent by post) I reached my mother, then 85-years old, and my family, to let them know that I was alive and safe. I couldn’t tell them where I was, nor how to find me. This was the year that the American journalist Barrett Brown, in prison for acting as a press person for hackers, saw his elderly mother arrested by the FBI and charged with aiding him, simply for having his old computers in her house. What the American police would or would not do to find and punish me was an open-ended nightmare that I could not risk. I reached my lawyer through encrypted email and, assisting him in any way I could, waited for the slow appeals process to arrive at its conclusion. He counseled me to stay put, stay out of sight, and wait until we had a victory or the defeat that would allow him to take my case to the European Court of Human Rights. It would be more than two years before the Dutch court ruled in my favor, blocking the extradition and restoring my rights in the Netherlands. I spent most of that time writing and reading.
I was lucky to find Hannah Arendt’s work among the books available to me. In particular, The Human Condition was a revelation that registered in my body as well as my mind. The “polity” she describes as the realm in which all persons can become political was my experience of literature.
The Human Condition is Arendt’s attempt to “merely think what we are doing”—thinking being an activity of the body, a present manifestation that is as beholden to the body’s place in the world—its home address, personal history, background and culture—as it is to inherited systems of thought, which in Arendt’s case came from a deep reading of “Western philosophy,” anchored in the Classical Greeks.
Arendt’s title for the book was Vita Activa (which was used later, when she produced a German version from her English original), meaning that it only concerned the active life—what we do in the world—not the vita contemplativa, which is the life of the mind. This distinction framed a paradox that I found astonishing. Arendt put it this way: “For this and other reasons, the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable, the activity of thinking, is left out of these present considerations.” I gazed at the page in astonishment, then smiled at her daring. After proposing the opposition of activity and thinking, she refers to “the activity of thinking” so she can deny its place in “these present considerations.” It is literally daring—daring the reader to go on while holding the crumbling remains of these definitions in our hands. I dwell on it because Arendt’s deft choice of words—the economy with which she confronts us with the paradox—establishes the text itself as the place where our bodies can think together, home to the mess that living makes of thought.
Arendt is a literary writer: she’s not proving anything, only “thinking what we are doing” in public. As such, her work summons our native reactions rather than our expertise. It makes us argue and disagree. She confronts us, as literature always does, with the necessity to use our own judgment. A meticulous and deliberate writer, Arendt chose to lay these struggles bare on the page, which marks every line and paragraph with a great sign of vitality and welcome.
Arendt’s root proposition in The Human Condition is that human life consists of three things: labor, work and action. Labor is what we do out of necessity—to survive. Work is the privilege of those who find time free from the demands of survival to apply their inborn talents—from intellect and cleverness to physical strength—making practical things (Homo faber, free from necessity, works with forward-looking purpose). “Action” is what persons can do when freed from both necessity and purpose. Action is the activity of equal persons with divergent goals in an enduring collectivity. It is uniquely human and only happens with others. Following Aristotle, Arendt calls this collectivity a “polity.”
Persons are not born equal. As Arendt puts it, “each of us is endowed with the unique capacities that make us different from all others, qualities that can only be of concern in the private world.” Our capacity for “action” waits on a public collectivity (or, as Arendt preferred, a “plurality”) that asserts our equality despite this born condition. Greek city-states gave rise to such, and called them polities, or “a polis.” In Athens they gathered in the agora (free-born men who owned property) to engage in politics, which was the open-ended conduct of their conflicts and disputes. “This plurality,” Arendt writes, “is specifically the condition—not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam [the catalyst that brings a new thing into being] of all political life.” Power is at play, and it ebbs and flows, but power congealing in the hands of any one faction is anathema to politics. In politics, no one can definitively win or lose because the plurality’s existence depends on equality. The polity’s collective actions cannot be purposeful because any shared purpose will favor those more gifted to accomplish it. A polity is born in the decision to leave inequality behind and gather together as equals. It collapses whenever power congeals, or when purpose arises to designate a better or “best” outcome. A polity exists only in the doing, in the open-ended enactment of conflict among equals.
I recognized this condition immediately, and it was not the “politics” I’d been taught at university, nor ever encountered in my years of activism. Within that world, its closest equivalent was in the anarchistic collectives that I’d heard of as a student or attempted to join through my work. They could be very frustrating, and often felt pointless. Arendt’s description gave me a better idea why. Something foundational was at risk, and could be destroyed by purposefulness or by power. Arendt called it “politics,” yet it was different from the focus of almost every political gathering I’d ever been a part of.
The Human Condition explains this gap by surveying a centuries-long history in which politics, as it was known by Aristotle, had been overtaken and displaced by the administration of social life, via the state. Arendt recalls Aristotle’s distinction between the family—the original site of the social, with all of its hierarchies and inequality—and the life of emancipated citizens who’ve been given a public status in the polity, a chance for politics. She comments, “The collective of families economically organized into the facsimile of one super-human family is what we call ‘society,’ and its political form of organization is called ‘nation.'” The nation is a hyper-extension of the patriarchal family, and its purpose is, she writes, “a program of administrative ‘housekeeping’ on a massive scale,” a program that threatens to “displace the public realm.” Politics, real politics as Aristotle defined it, is an escape—is the only escape—from the social inequality of the family.
Here one feels Arendt’s deep sympathy for those whose political being has been attacked by the nation-state, her contempt for the cynical justifications of the state’s bureaucratic administrators as they systematically erase those parts of life in which we experience ourselves as political. Paradoxically, Arendt accepts the state’s claim to a monopoly on citizenship, even while she convincingly describes its serial abrogations of that duty—the awful history that led to the remarkable scale of dispossession in our time. But if the state has completely migrated into the social, so that it now functions mostly as an administrative tool to end politics, to where where did politics go? Can it have simply disappeared?
That conclusion was too bleak, and did not ring true to me. Indeed, it wasn’t Arendt’s conclusion either. But I couldn’t find a satisfying answer within the pages of The Human Condition. I found one, instead, in my own experience of dispossession. In the years and months of my involuntary exile I’d had a keen, bodily experience of politics in my daily engagement in reading and writing. I felt the closeness of others in reading, our conflicts and engagement in the shared text. Of course, in reading and writing I can avoid others, but I can also draw near by imagining their voices or soliciting them to join me, to talk about what we read and write, or have our disputes about it. Literature is a collective realm, but the terms of engagement are more deliberate and less sudden than in other publics, and they include solitude. The open-ended enactment of conflict among equals—that’s what it is to write and read literature. I could find my profane citizenship there.
* * * * *
The polity of literature is anarchistic, which is to say every reader has full and equal authority to make meanings. There is no recourse to external power. The authority I seek is in your hands (and mine, also as reader). The polity of literature is deferential, even when contentious. Differences abound, unresolved, enriching everyone. Literature’s community naturally values curiosity, patience, promiscuity and fellow-feeling. Readers of a shared text gain fresh insights with every new, deviant reading. Use-value or its lack, the purposes a text can be put to, are never placed above other pleasures. Thus loosened from instrumentality and the impatience or greed it tends to inspire, the citizens of literature are adventurous, unpressured, delightful. Books frame a private, sheltered space—what Ellul calls “the inner sphere of freedom”—while also comprising a shared social space. This is crucial and unique: literature is at once intimate, private and open to all. Strangers gather here on equal terms, becoming readers together. Literature, given up to its readers, creates a polity. We gather here to form and feel our belonging, to become citizens without recourse to hierarchy or power.
* * * * *
A second book helped me recognize the larger structures that framed and, in some ways, defined my situation, and it alerted me to ways in which I might have been misreading Hannah Arendt. Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse came out in 2016, while I was still in hiding and effectively stateless. Schulman is a literary writer and life-long political activist who, as she puts it in Conflict Is Not Abuse, “comes directly from a specifically lesbian historical analysis of power, rooted generationally in Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.” The book’s main thesis is this: “At many levels of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve. I will show how this dynamic, whether between two individuals, between groups of people, between governments and civilians, or between nations is a fundamental opportunity for either tragedy or peace.” Schulman was describing my family—the regrettable stages by which we’d gone from conflict through escalation into abuse, the summoning of abuse to put an end to dialogue and justify the police, and the tragedy of our refusal to face and engage our conflicts.
Schulman’s account of these patterns draws equally on social analysis, history, and anecdotal recollection (as she puts it, “I continue the tradition of creative writers using nonfiction…a category of the literature of ideas that stands apart from academia and yet is useful to it”) painting a picture in which I repeatedly recognized my own experience. Schulman writes, “false accusations of harm are used to avoid acknowledgement of complicity in creating conflict and instead escalate normative conflict to the level of crisis.”
I want to be clear that, in my case, I mean specifically the false accusations of the state as expressed by the prosecutor. I’m drawing clear lines between my public experience of injustice at the hands of the state, and the initial problems of a family falling apart. Our family crisis includes claims and actions that are still unresolved—because the state’s intervention was so brutal and excessive it violates human rights law—but which are not, and should never be, a matter of public debate. I’m in public now because the conflicts in my family led one of us to call the police. She had her reasons, and I’m sure she’ll defend them. But once the state was involved, any capacity we had to speak, listen, or resolve our differences was lost to us. No one except those of us involved directly can resolve our conflicts. Any delay in that process is a private tragedy, but a tragedy that comes from a broader public problem—which is my subject here. Readers who feel concern for the well-being of the private persons involved should join in protesting the state’s pattern of abusive action, and support any efforts to begin a restorative justice process.
Schulman identifies the summoning of state power as a crucial threshold that shifts a conflict from the realm of self-accounting and harm reduction to reinscribe it as an adversarial contest of accuser versus accused, a crime that must be punished. “In cases of Conflict, calling the police is the last thing any of us should be doing unless our only objective is to cause more pain.” It was uncanny just how many details of my case hewed to the model that Schulman describes. She focuses on “shunning,” and the alienating effects of email and texting as a substitute for face-to-face encounters. “I wish that all the people of the industrialized world would sign a pledge that any negative exchange that is created on email or text must be followed by a live, in-person conversation,” she writes. “So many relationships are ruined by the artificial nature of these obstructive walls, especially when one party makes a negative power-play by refusing to speak to the other in person.”
What I had been deaf to in Arendt, but Schulman’s account made clear, was how crucial the human face and voice are to the operations of a polity. Schulman references Arendt (through philosopher Judith Butler’s quoting of her), and the full passage from The Human Condition is worth including: “The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be…It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me.”
Reading books while isolated and in hiding, I might have felt welcomed and recognized in a community that I was part of—the community of readers who shared these books and whose meanings would be the sea in which my own understanding swam—but I was still faceless and voiceless. Though I had reached a half-dozen such readers through encrypted email (to immerse myself in their passionate arguments and endless disagreements), I was still a figure of their imaginations, as they were figures of mine. Our only common dwelling place was in the words we read and wrote—our polity.
So, what was the experience I was having in my room with these books and my few correspondents? If it was politics, how had politics survived being driven out of “the space of appearance?” And could it ever thrive in the imposed silence and facelessness of writing and reading? The realm of “action”—of political activity in the world—had become, for me, entirely confined to the “activity of thinking.” My mind ran backwards through the times in my life when I had encountered this same paradox. It began in my earliest years of reading, when the fragile thing my mind was (or the feelings that I had) often did not survive the dialogue with parents or siblings, and I retreated into books where I could think and feel as myself. Then continued in school, the high school library where I spent so many lunch-times reading alongside…why were there so many girls? I assumed it was another aspect (and sign) of my homosexuality, but maybe, like me, the girls had their heads in books because, there at least, we could live free from threat. Inside a book, no one attacked or humiliated me, or these girls it seemed (that was saved for later in the classroom, if they shared their thoughts, which many of them then refused to do). I felt more alive in books, more able to feel and think in a dialogue that did not include humiliation, shunning, or violence. At that age, “the space of appearance” was not a safe place for me.
What happens to those for whom the space of appearance is never safe or available? What if the prospect of “appearing to others as others appeared to me” is always the site of violence and expulsion? My life became exactly that when I was criminalized. For me to “appear” was to be detained, arrested, and dehumanized. And only then did I begin to understand the lives of the tens of millions more for whom the space of appearance was never open. Dehumanized, often by the state, no one simply stops being human—they find profane sites for their humanity, a realm for their politics that their enemies cannot destroy. Often it’s in their religion, their family, gangs, a neighborhood, or a declaration of war. In my case it was literature.
I don’t mean to imply that the polity of literature is a lesser, weaker realm of politics—all that’s left after collective public politics has been threatened or wiped out. I mean that literature is the clearest political realm that many of us have. When reading a novel, say, the ease, even the joy and relief, with which we leave grim purpose behind and shed the differences that make us greater or lesser, so that we enter the unknown together, percolating with impulses and actions, new thoughts and meanings, while welcoming the contradictory conclusions of other readers—here is Arendt’s politics, fully and plainly in life. Literature is not a lesser realm of politics, but among our clearest lived experiences of it. We can call it to mind as a measure, a standard, as we try to regain politics in the more-public aspects of our lives together.
* * * * *
On November 29, 2017, the Dutch court ruled that the secret indictment put me in danger of “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” in the Oregon jails and prisons—a violation of human rights law. The extradition must be refused. Though the impermissability of the prosecutor’s attack was confirmed by the Dutch court, the U.S. government has ignored the ruling. I’m informed that I’ll be arrested and jailed if I ever set foot in the U.S., or anywhere their extradition treaties reach. Everywhere, I face the state’s unilateral power to either grant or erase my place in the “space of appearance.” I understand freedom in Ellul’s terms, as the discovery within my solitary, precarious self of a power beyond myself; but I don’t, as Ellul does, understand that power to be God. It is, instead, in Arendt’s terms, politics—our capacity for action in collectivity, our ability to birth unpredictable futures. As Arendt put it, “The raison d’etre of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.”
My two years of freedom have been perplexing. From outside they look a lot like my two-and-a-half years in hiding. I live alone, reading and writing. While my home address, phone, and email are easily found. I have few visitors and fewer nearby friends. Those who love me are often as afraid of what has happened—what is still happening—to me as I am. Life in the “space of appearance” remains fraught and fugitive, as though my return is spectral, and either I or everything around me has turned to ghosts. There are exceptions, wonderfully vivid moments when the generous actions of a stranger, or an old or new friend, break through the silence to touch my heart, and I feel my blood again. It still flows. But I am not with you, except here and now. The necessary retreat into a polity that is severed from the space of appearance can also function as a starting place. I publish this essay to put myself in a space shared by strangers, a realm of equality and contention—a polity. It’s a beginning, the only beginning that many of us have. What will come of it?
Everywhere the nation-state is failing at its most basic duty, unable to shape citizenship for the scores of millions of refugees and the many millions incarcerated in the world’s prisons and jails. It is possible that the human need for politics, for the rights secured within a jurisprudence that casts us all as equals, for a logic that secures our inclusion, safety and belonging with others, will be answered by culture—specifically by literature—and not by nation-states. Expelled from their standing in a political community, this great multitude must ask how profane citizenship can adequately substitute for the protections and belonging that have been taken from them. For the most part, the answers will come from churches and other ethnically-specific groups, and with them will come long histories of exclusion and strife. Given the hazards of these divisive histories, cultivating another way forward seems urgent. As a practical matter we all need safety and shelter, bodily pleasure, confidence walking into the day that we will not be attacked, detained or arrested. We need human company, others who recognize us as who we are, fair recompense for our work, mutuality in our relations and the pleasure of belonging everyday. To be human and free we need politics and the dignity and rights the state has denied us, and we will assert them regardless of the state.
What keeps the polity of literature alive? Lacking the robust physical immediacy that is so useful for politics, what will help literature fully host its contentious plurality of readers and writers? How can we keep the discourse open and ensure that power never congeals in the hands of this-or-that few? How can we leave behind our inequalities—the differences that we are born with—so that they never become credentials for the right to be heard? How can we bring the faces and voices of those in this plurality into view, even in a disembodied realm? How can our bodies—and our lived, collective “activity of thinking”—come fully into literature? And, how can we extend the reach of this polity? Can our literary selves become legible within legal systems or state bureaucracies? Will the stories that we tell person-to-person regain their power despite digital policing? Can literature’s “truth” be aligned with, or become part of a broader community of truths, as in story-telling cultures or indigenous traditions of “circle convening” justice? How will the world rush back in to find us, and recognize our citizenship in the stories that we share, in how we read and write?
Featured image courtesy of Michael Baers.