STS and Human Drama

by Noortje Marres

Recently I had to give an interview for a university magazine. After some questions about STS, cities and sociology, the interviewer asked me how STS helps us to think about the current refugee crisis. I stumbled and didn’t know how to respond, even though during the last weeks I’ve been shocked by stories and images of unfortunate human fates; angry at the slow and irresponsible reaction of most European governments, particularly at their silence about Europe’s historical responsibility; touched by the commitment of volunteers and private acts of generosity and hospitality; concerned about the ongoing negotiations about EU-wide refugee distribution system; convinced that refugees should be able to apply for visas in third countries; so that they can travel legally and safely to recipient countries, and so on. I certainly wanted to say something about these issues, but it was hard for me to connect them with the theories, questions and problematizations in our field.

This does not mean that while reading the news in recent weeks I haven’t come across many developments and configurations that lend themselves to fascinating STS studies. Think, for example, of the controversies around systems and formulae being devised for asylum-seeker allocation throughout Europe. Or the debate about why for many weeks the online system for refugee registration in Germany was switched of at nights; a decision for which no governmental office took responsibility. Or the controversy about the need to obtain building permissions when it comes to the urgent building of refugee housing and facilities. Or the use of mobile phones and Facebook among asylum-seekers during their trips to Europe. Or how other uses of transportation networks, walking on highways and railways, sleeping in train stations, load these with moral and political capacities.

But as sociotechnically interesting as these topics might be, my sense is that none of them really grasps the fundamental issue at stake, what moves us, concern us and engages us ethically and politically, namely, the drama of fleeing. In traditional political theory, human suffering is imagined to be a universal concern related to a common human nature. From this perspective the real challenge that the refugee crisis poses to Europe is not so much the one related to tolerance and multiculturalism, which assumes the prevalence of cultural difference, but the challenge of cosmopolitism, the challenge of recognizing a common humanity. Such argumentation is, however, at odds with the intellectual project of STS, so greatly invested in decentering if not undoing the idea of a human nature, reimagining the nonhuman as not opposed to the human, and opening a new politico-theoretical space for thinking about the post-human, the more-than-human.

So how to think about the human dramas of fleeing asylum-seekers with STS? Clearly, feminist interventions in STS have for a long time been concerned with issues of sociotechnical exclusion, with making invisible, absent and with suffering: how classifications and standards produce both smoothing of operations and human sufferings; or how conceiving of sociotechnical assemblages as matters of care reveals all type of devalued ordinary labours. This perspective is crucial to critically explore the devalued position of refugees in the various sociotechnical assemblages in which they come to be integrated, but I wonder whether it suffices to grasp the drama of displacement, of fleeing away from home, of leaving it all behind.

A possible starting point can be found in Nigel Clark’s book Inhuman Nature, which addresses the relationship between an ethics of hospitality and natural disasters. Challenging the emphasis in STS on symmetrical entanglements among humans and nonhumans, Clark argues that natural disasters demonstrate a fundamental asymmetry between human existence and a whole realm of natural processes, ranging from bacterial life to tectonics, upon which human existence depends, but which are completely autonomous from our doings and, most importantly, capable of annihilating us. From this perspective, the sense of empathy, compassion, the offer of help and hospitality to those affected by natural disasters would not derive from a recognition of a common human essence, but of a common vulnerability to overwhelming earthly forces.

Somewhat similarly, what the drama associated with fleeing as a liminal process seems to reveal is the asymmetrical dependence upon the various nonhumans that constitute us, to which our identities, memories, skills are attached, upon which we so deeply depend and without which we become nothing but poorly equipped human bodies. What the current situation reveals is not (only) the sophisticated biopolitical production of a ‘nude life’ in refugee camps, to use Agamben’s term from State of Exception, but the painful processes of disassembling and disentangling humans from the sociotechnical assemblages they live by. What we thus seem to recognize, when we are touched by these human dramas and when we feel the urgent need to help, to donate things, to shelter, to teach our language, is perhaps not so much a universal human nature, but a universal right to be sociomaterially entangled, sociotechnically equipped, heterogeneously assembled, that is, to be more-than-human.