Despite the infinite variety of these lives, their unique backgrounds and possible futures, the state’s response has become uniform—to withhold citizenship and the rights that go with it. As Hannah Arendt commented when facing her own statelessness, “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.” Rejected by the state, the displaced today fall back on the communities that have survived their long journeys and hardships, and, with them, shape what is called a “profane citizenship,” independent of nations.
As the project’s opening essay, “Potatoes or Rice?“, observes, “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 in literature.” The author is an American novelist, exiled in the Netherlands, who is prevented from returning to the U.S. by an unlawful indictment that threatens his human rights. His essay functions as our starting point for examining the ways that literature—the political space of writing and reading—can host the gathering of equals that Hannah Arendt calls a “polity,” and grant agency and belonging to the stateless, incarcerated, or displaced.
“Potatoes or Rice?” concludes with a series of questions that ArtsEverywhere will pursue as the project unfolds: “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?”
“The Polity of Literature” proposed in “Potatoes or Rice?” is both a lived experience and a bold provocation, a thing so unlikely-seeming it jars our sense of the possible. ArtsEverywhere hopes to inspect both of these aspects—documenting the quotidian encounters that stateless people have with the political space of reading and writing, while also reaching for an impossible imaginary, a vision that jumps the narrow track of pragmatism to make us think and take action in the realm of the unknown—and change our collective future.
Editor of The Polity of Literature