Toward Critical Refugee Studies: Being and Becoming in Exceptional States of War, Violence, and Militarism
Media and Cultural Studies
Yen Le Espiritu
UC San Diego
UC San Diego
Asian American Studies
UC Los Angeles
Literature and Philosophy
Gender and Women's Studies
Critical Race and Ethnic Studies
How refugees have been discursively constructed in U.S. national culture serves as a point of entry and departure for this Residential Research Group, as it intervenes in and restages the recurrent conversations about the state of being stateless in both mainstream and academic discourses. The group came together to further delineate the contours of Critical Refugee Studies, an emergent field of study situated at the intersections between the humanities and social sciences. We invited applicants from scholars across the disciplines who sought to think through a new paradigm for the study of refugees, one that reconfigured refugees as “central political figures” not only in the “national order of things” but also within contemporary discourses about war and militarism.
We charted the field of Critical Refugee Studies as an interdisciplinary field that re-conceptualized the refugee not as an object of rescue, but as a site of social and political critiques, whose emergence when traced, made visible the processes of colonization, war, and displacement. Studying displaced populations from a variety of geopolitical perspectives, provides alternative frames of analysis into the historical and political dimensions of refugeehood. As objects of inquiry, refugees have been the subject of volumes of study in the fields of sociology, political science, and literature, coming into being in this kind of scholarship as in-between figures that symbolize victimization, resistance, or postmodern interstitiality. Critical Refugee Studies must be premised, first and foremost, on a broad understanding of the reach of empire in the definition and management of refugees in the past and present moment. The collaborative research, as we envisioned it, pivoted on a critique of the unique braiding of militarism and imperialism underlying forced migrations on a global scale. Furthermore, the study sought to contextualize the violent conditions, and the racialized nature of these conditions, which impel refugee migrations. The group queried the formation of refugee subjectivities as they have been (re)produced in various sites (in the diaspora, the homeland, and the camps) and affectively registered through various media (literature, film, photography, art). While the investigation delved into the larger narratives of the national geopolitical, a significant part of our focus coalesced around the lived experiences of refugees whose (post) memories have been profoundly shaped by their home countries, host countries as well as at the different centers and camps through which they have been “processed.” To decenter the monolithic notion of camp as (only) “bare life,” we brought to life the details of the banal and the spectacular of camp life to delineate the ways refugees intimately negotiate with the complexities of camp experiences and the sense of suspension that mark their lives under militarist rule.