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Territorialities of Flight: The Refugee Narrative in Edwidge Danticat and Madeleine Thien

Sikho Siyotula, Cosmopolis Doodle


* A video recording of the lecture is available below *

Video recordings are also available for:

 Gurminder Bhambra, "Postcolonial Cosmopolitanism: A Contradiction in Terms?"

Madina Tlostanova, "Beyond the local/global Dichotomy: decolonial cosmopolitanism as a tool for re-existence." 

An exclusive interview with Paul Bandia is also available. 

Alexandra Ganser (University of Vienna)

Territorialities of Flight: The Refugee Narrative in Edwidge Danticat and Madeleine Thien

In contemporary philosophy and cultural theory, the terms flight and territorialization are tightly connected to concepts introduced by French poststructuralists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, most notably in A Thousand Plateaus. By what they call “lines of flight”—unpredictable, unruly routes defying spatial control—, they refer to the break-up of a hegemonic spatial semantics through the mobility associated with the figure of the nomad. The concept is closely connected with that of “deterritorialization“ as a strategy to contravene normative spatial structures—“striated” space—, and to produce “smooth space,” space that escapes structuration and control. For Deleuze and Guattari, deterritorialization has a positive value: “write, form a rhizome [i.e., networks of unstructured offshoots and trajectories across smooth spaces], increase your territory by deterritorialization” (1987/1980: 11). In this light, my title is deliberately oxymoronic, as it associates lines of flight with the territorialization process rather than deterritorialization. Postcolonial criticism, most notably Gayatri Spivak, has held Deleuze’s philosophy accountable for reaffirming a European universal (male) subject. Even these critics, however, have not debated the Deleuzian conception of lines of flight and deterritorialization. These concepts appear not just as starkly normative but also as grossly romantic if applied to refugee subjectivities—subjectivities deprived of agency and involuntarily deterritorialized in toto—physically, culturally, and in terms of identity.In my lecture, I am asking how literature and its readers can perform the work of a conceptual corrective to such fashionable theories. I am taking up the prevalence of flight to Western societies, which are today exhorted once more to shelter the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse“ of so many shores, “the homeless“ and “tempest-tossed,“ to recall Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus“ (1883) and examine the territorialities of flight articulated in the short story “Children of the Sea“ by Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat (1991) and the novel Dogs at the Perimeter by the Chinese-Malaysian Canadian Madeleine Thien (2011). Danticat’s story focuses on the Haitian “boat people“ that attempted to reach Florida shores in the 1980s and 1990s, while Thien examines the Red Khmer genocide in Cambodia and its consequences for the children that came to Canada as refugees. Both are informed by what Achille Mbembe has called the necropolitics of genocide and demographic control rather than by the immigrant narrative, which usually takes off with the migrants’ arrival and focuses on immigrant life in a new environment. This necropolitics, as Mbembe claims, dictates who may live and who must die, who finds shelter and who is left to drown; accordingly, both texts offer insights into such precarious, deterritorialized subjectivities and perform a grueling critique of the necropolitical structures that continue to produce transoceanic diasporas.

 

Thursday, May 18th 2017; 18-20 // Campus Neues Palais, Building 9, Room 2.15 (second floor) 

Download lecture poster

Seminar with Alexandra Ganser (University of Vienna)

Each lecture was accompanied by a seminar conducted by the speaker, which picks up on the themes and talking points of the lecture. 

Friday, May 19th 2017; 10-12 

Short Bio

Alexandra Ganser is professor for American literary and cultural studies and Executive Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies (ZKS) at the University of Vienna as well as Key Researcher of the Interdisciplinary Research Platform “Mobile Cultures and Society“ (univie.ac.at/mobilecultures). Her research interests include mobility studies, early American and antebellum popular culture, gender studies, transatlantic American studies, Native American studies, and ecocriticism. Her current book project, sponsored by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), examines transatlantic representations of piracy before the Civil War and is titled Crisis and Discourses of (Il)Legitimacy in Transatlantic Narratives of Piracy, 1678-1865 (to be published with Palgrave Macmillan this year). She holds a doctoral and postdoctoral degree in American literary and cultural studies from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. She was Christoph-Daniel-Ebeling Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society (2010) and is Fulbright Alumna (University of Oklahoma at Norman, 2003/04). Other book publications include: Roads of Her Own: Gendered Space and Mobility in American Women’s Road Narratives, 1970-2000 (dissertation; Rodopi, 2009); Pirates, Drifters, Fugitives: Figures of Mobility in American Culture and Beyond (ed. with Heike Paul & Katharina Gerund, 2012) and Transgressive Television: Politics, Crime, and Citizenship in 21st-Century American TV Series (ed. with Birgit Daewes and Nicole Poppenhagen, Winter 2015).

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