The Landscape of a Crisis: A Conversation with Homi Bhabha, Dilip Gaonkar, and Shalini Randeria

In December 2017, the CHCI Advisory Board convened leading academics, artists, and activists at the American Academy in Berlin to reflect on immigration, academic freedom, and arts education in Europe. Other articles in this series will be coming soon. You can find them here.

Since 2015, Germany has been at the center of national and international debates about human life, and, by extension, the humanities. Central among these debates—which are often presented as “crises”—is the question of where and how to place the millions of people fleeing violence in Africa, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East. After welcoming over a million refugees in 2016 and 2017, the political backlash resulted in gains by the far-right party in last fall’s elections and Chancellor Angela Merkel agreeing to cap the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter Germany.

At the same time, these challenges have also led to new cultural productions and formations, especially in the arts and arts education. The recent Berlinale film festival was filled with fiction and documentary films about refugees, as was this winter’s theater season in Berlin.

By hosting its annual board meeting and special symposium in Berlin, CHCI intended to address these issues and think through them in collaboration with regional activists, scholars, and artists. This panel included three scholars focused on the rhetoric and politics of democracy and global movements. Homi Bhabha, the panel chair and moderator, is the director of the Mahindra Humanities Center and a leading postcolonial theorist. Shalini Randeria is a social anthropologist and the Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. And Dilip Gaonkar is a professor at Northwestern and the Director of Center for Transcultural Studies and recent fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.

In the opening to the panel, Bhabha proposes three guiding questions for the conversation. The first asks, “Why now?” As Bhabha notes, the notion of the global and the transnational has been a common part of political discourse for some time—so why has the refugee, or the stateless person, become such a flashpoint in the current political moment? The second question is how should we understand this phenomenon? Is it enthonationalism, or is it—in Hannah Arendt’s formulation—tribal nationalism? And finally, he asks why does the ferocity against immigrants seem to be an overwhelmingly masculinist phenomenon? What role does gender play in this debate?

The conversation ultimately leads to questions of security, immigration, and death. As Bhabha concludes, the specter of death has become such a profound political issue that it takes us beyond the logic of biopolitics that has organized so much recent thinking about the refugee.