Theorizing refugeedom: becoming young political subjects in Beirut

Theory and Society 49 (4):709-744 (2020)
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Refugees can be formed as “subjects” as they navigate forced displacement in countries that are not their own. In particular, everyday life as the politicized Other, and as humanitarianism’s depoliticized beneficiary, can constitute them as political subjects. Understanding these produced subjects and subjectivities leads us to conceive of forced displacement – or “refugeedom” – as a human condition or experience of political (sub)alterity, within which inhere distinctive subjectivations and subjectivities. Drawing on fieldwork in Beirut, Lebanon, we use young Syrian and Iraqi refugees’ experiences with everyday racism, violent bullying and racialized discrimination as heuristic lenses with which to see displacement’s political subjects and subjectivities. We argue that the young refugees emerge as both political and moral subjects through core and defining struggles within – and against – these politicizing constraints. We interpret their struggles as ambivalently and dynamically situated within humanitarianism’s and racism’s subjections and subjectivities. Yet we also found that occasionally the young refugees could eclipse these produced subjectivities to claim repoliticized subjecthoods distinct from those of humanitarianism and outside displacement’s normal politics. We interpret these in Rancièrian terms as “political subjectivation.” Abstracting our findings, we offer a simple theoretical architecture of refugeedom’s subjectivations, subjects, and subjectivities as comprising humanitarianism’s rights-bearing or juridical subject; the vulnerable and resilient, innocent and suffering subject; and the Othered or racialized subject, formed through the exclusions of displacement’s politicized spaces. But we also conceive refugeedom as a space of values, and so the ground on which moral meaning and significance attach to agency and subjectivity.



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