Ethnicity Centre 20th Anniversary Lecture: Homi Bhabha (Harvard University): The Burdened Life: Diaspora and the Struggle for Dignity

9 May 2019, 5.30 PM - 9 May 2019, 8.00 PM

Powell Lecture Theatre, Wills Physics Building, Tyndall Road

Ethnicity Centre 20th Anniversary Lecture welcomes Prof Homi Bhaba (Harvard University) who will be discussing "The Burdened Life: Diaspora and the Struggle for Dignity"



My lecture takes its title and theme from Hannah Arendt’s dark words written in 1945 which return with an atrocious alacrity to address our own times: “To follow a non-imperialistic policy and maintain a non-racist faith becomes daily more difficult because it becomes daily clearer how great a burden mankind is for man.” The tribal nationalisms that arise amidst our much vaunted “global” age make it daily clearer how great a burden mankind—the bearer of rights and representations—has become for the barbarians at our gates.

The political efficacy of discourses of barbarism –--- “we are going for a nationalist message, we are going to go barbarian, and we will win.”{Steve Bannon] ---- activates a violent biopolitics of affect: anxiety, fear, death, destruction, incarceration. With the rise of nationalist barbarism in many parts of the world, the progressive political reason of anti-discrimination and enlightened multiculturalism (as represented by the Bristol School) have to contend with languages of cultural indignity, social harm and psychic insult . These dangerous, inflammatory discourses of indignity and criminality circulate freely and ferociously in their attack --- physical, moral and psychic --- on refugees, migrants and minorities whose humanity is hollowed-out by their historical circumstances, but whose will to survive ---- to secure moral freedoms and political rights --- is exemplary in their pursuit of the “good life”. If an end to discrimination (however utopian) can be imagined in terms of political virtue and legal remedy, the language of indignity seems more iterative and rebarbative, its fantasy of exclusion is more akin to the annihilation of the “other” rather than the isolation or segregation of cultural differences. The language of indignity is steeped in the imagery of violence, endemic criminality, murder and the desire to inflict social death and lethal terror upon immigrants, refugees and foreigners.

And this makes me ask: How do we understand the struggle for dignity in distress? Must we rethink the universal concept of inherent dignity as enshrined in the moral design of the Universal Declaration? The dignity of persons, as Avishai Margalit proposes, ‘preserves the idea that their future is open and they can change their lives for the better through action or.. revaluation..”. And those are precisely the moral considerations and political intentions that inform the struggles of distressed migration, with one grave difference. For migrants in extremis the future is perilously closed --- obstructed by walls, barred by camps and policed borders, threatened by the hungry tides of the Mediterranean. How are we to rethink an ethics of dignity from the place of the risks that migrants face in their attempts to revalue life and to make a bid for personal and political respect in circumstances in which there is often a perilous proximity between life and death?



Edit this page