Asylum and Culture: Comments on Khanna and Noll

Article excerpt

It's a pleasure to be able to comment on these two papers. They both engage the analysis of asylum in rich and provocative ways. My remarks will focus especially on the culture question-on the ways in which culture and asylum get tangled up with, and indeed co-produce, one another in asylum contexts. In so doing, I will draw not only on these two papers but also on work I have done on political (or "cultural") asylum cases involving female genital mutilation (FGM), especially the 1996 landmark Kasinga asylum case,1 for which I served as a (minor) expert witness.

Ranji Khanna's paper locates the figure of asylum, and the contemporary asylum seeker, within a nexus of broader theoretical categories (sovereignty, states of exception, biopolitical disciplinary regimes) and within a field of sites (the mental asylum, places of religious sanctuary) that bear family resemblance to the site of refuge for the asylum seeker today-the nation itself. She suggests that we think of political asylum less as refuge or sanctuary and more as reinscription of state power and sovereign authority, thus urging us to read the offer of hospitality (that is inherent to the granting of asylum) as an act of exclusion and violence-and a reassertion of state power. Asylum, Khanna argues, represents the right of institutions over bodies rather than of individuals over institutions or states. But more, she also asks us to consider thinking of asylum in its dystopic, biopolitical form as symptomatic of our times, as norm rather than exception, as universal condition. We are all refugees living in an "age of asylum."

Khanna also suggests that gendering the asylum seeker as paradigmatically female and theorizing the category asylum through a Marxist-feminist optic might cause us not only to acknowledge or bring into recognition that which often remains unrecognized-for the Marxist-feminist, "affective" or "immaterial" labor as well as the exclusions and violences of family and community, for the asylum seeker, the work she is performing for the sovereign and the violence to which she is subjected by the state-but also to explore the site of asylum as a doubled space of excess, desire and Utopian hope.

I find the analysis immensely suggestive, and simply want to extend its reach by raising some questions about some of its main points. First, I would like to hear more about how we get from the iron cage (or "melancholia") of the first half of the essay to the Utopian space of desire of the second? If, as Khanna suggests, asylum is saturated with state surveillance and control, how does one ever escape such disciplinary regimes to inhabit a more emancipatory space?

Second, Agamben seems to haunt this text but is never mentioned.2 Are not the disciplinary regimes of Agamben's concentration camp precisely those of the insane asylum, and is not the principle of the "state of exception become norm" that Agamben invokes so powerfully around the figure of the camp not also the point Khanna is trying to make for political asylum?

Moreover, what about that other contemporary sovereignty theorist, Achille Mbembe? He suggests in his work on "necropolitics"3 that we need today to supplement the biopolitical with the necropolitical, that sovereignty in today's world is inextricably linked with death-dealing and, thus, with the taking (as much as the granting) of life. Since domestic regimes of surveillance and incarceration and those of global war are so intimately connected in this post-9/11 world, and since the figure of the asylum seeker-clutched from the jaws of death by the offer of life and hospitality-is so implicated in such a world (as a transgressor of its boundaries), it would seem that thinking asylum through its relationship to the necropolitical might also be necessary. Indeed, does not the asylum seeker escape one form of necropolitics only to submit herself to another?

Third, I wonder about Khanna's periodizing moves, especially her characterization of the contemporary era. …