Between hospitality and asylum – a historical perspective on displaced agency

WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY, 18.00–19.30

Between hospitality and asylum – a historical perspective on displaced agency

Elena Isayev (Exeter)


“I wish to apologize for shattering the stereotype of the miserable migrant with our mobile phones and clean clothes”

From a poem by Jazra Khalid, Gayath Said: The War is Coming

Founders, conquerors and colonisers, is not how we would normally categorise the victims of forced displacement. The refugee narrative, however, is often positioned as the beginning of ventures that lead to new settlements in our ancient sources. This at first seems to contradict the predicament of such seemingly helpless groups as the Suppliants of Aeschylus’s tragedy. Clinging to an altar between sea and polis – trapped in a liminal space – is how we find these victims. Their predicament has put them at the mercy of others to provide protection. Although not stateless, they might as well be, since they are unable to deploy any rights they have as citizens. Such a state of exception has been the focus of scholarship fuelled by Arendt’s determination to grasp the culmination of realities for the refugees of World War II, and more recently by Agamben in responding to the crisis in the Middle East, especially the permanence of the temporary camp. The latest reflections on their work, however, show discomfort in such articulation of a suspended state of rights and agency. Instead a re-investigation of scenarios both ancient and modern, reveals the potential, and arguable necessity, for continued action and self-determination – leading to a politics that challenges the helplessness implied by exceptionalism. Using the ancient Mediterranean as the starting point, this paper will explore the potency of refugee agency and the innovation that emerges in the least expected contexts to re-claim, and re-frame, the so-called ‘non-exceptional’ state itself.