City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

You are here: Home \ Blog \ The space that remains \ Inventing Maps: Medical Police as Public Space Cartographer

Inventing Maps: Medical Police as Public Space Cartographer

I. “The Abstract Nakedness of Being Human” – Modernity as Short-circuit

It was the early morning hours of October 3rd, 2013. The sun was rising over the Mediterranean. Amidst its natural tranquillity, even a god would have to try hard to discern the overloaded small boat that suddenly capsized off the shores of the quaint island of Lampedusa. A few hours later, the italian coast guard would collect hundreds of bodies of anonymous migrants that had been travelling with the renowned Europe as their final destination. The shipwreck of that aged boat could not have caused any surprise, not even to the most absent-minded reader of mainstream newspapers. Soon enough, they would struggle to even recall it in their memory, squashed as it would be among so many others. But something made this one stand out. The italian state, the same state that would in the past ram boats with their desperate albanian living cargo in cold blood,[1] or that would abandon to their fate—right in the middle of the Mediterranean—the boats originating from the shores of North Africa,[2] had this time round called for a day of national mourning for the loss of all these unknown foreigners. An entire nation, then, mourned for the loss of all those that it did not know; for people that were not even linked to it by any right of blood; but that had to the contrary scheduled a malign intrusion of its territorial integrity.

A strange event, if one were to take into account the fact that national mourning tends to be declared in the wake of the loss of some important person or some critical mass of what could be termed the national family. And yet, the italian government seemingly ignored this rule, “diverting” the very conceptualization of the national property of mourning per se, demonstrating thus some unprecedented internationalist magnanimity. Some magnanimity that could comprise the absolute moral rupture in the contemporary history of humankind.

The question of mourning should not appear as a mere functional management of the end of a physical cycle. It is called upon to bring into our everyday symbolic universe the loss of a beloved person. It ought to reconcile us with their definitive loss and to bring to words the wound this loss leaves behind. Françoise Dastur rightly claims that “it is legitimate for us to discern in mourning […] the roots of civilisation itself”.[3] Mourning, in this sense, comprises a world with its very own stakes;[4] a world that takes on the unbearable burden of positioning itself as an alleviative seam between life and death, as a reception area for the inescapable absence. Judith Butler claims that the process of mourning can compose a sense of political community and she shows us respectively how its ban can constitute an extension of violence: the very same violence that had led to death at the first place.[5] In this sense the recent tragedy in Lampedusa, one among so many others, proved to be a particularly fortunate tragedy—accompanied as it was by an excess of mourning (when many similar ones remained numbers at best, suspending between stone-cold medical bureaucracies and statistical register departments). It was in the end the number of the dead that gave Lampedusa the status of a noteworthy event, as prescribed by the media culture of “body counts”. It was also an unprecedented opportunity for Europe to regroup, distributing liabilities and looking a boiling periphery in the eyes.

And so, in the breakthrough marked by this tragedy, one could dare try an inversion of Butler’s  sensitive observations. Because this time round it was not the ban, but precisely the performance of the mourning that proved to be a continuation of violence. The institutions that called for national mourning are exactly the same that have forced, for years now, thousands of migrants to travel in such precarious and hazardous of ways, due to the violent exclusions resulting from the strict policies guarding Europe.[6] And this can only be described as a violation of the memory of the deceased. Yet the functionality of the incident in question had multiple benefits. In-between the international attention paid to it, Greek PM Antonis Samaras seized the opportunity to promote his steadfast anti-migratory agenda. He communicatively used a catastrophe, in other words, to promote the very policies that had caused it at the first place. Nearly two weeks after the said shipwreck Samaras visited Malta and Italy aiming at the coordination and the further shielding of Southern Europe against the uncontrollable inflowing waves of migrants. A few days later, at the European Council Meeting in Brussels, he would present a seven-point plan for tackling illegal migration. He did also talk, as expected, about the humanitarian catastrophe in Lampedusa, attempting yet another manoeuvre. Speaking of the thousands of migrants reaching the european shores with nowhere to go, he said: “they are trapped, they have no past, they have no present, they have no future or prospects—and I consider this to be a major humanitarian catastrophe”.[7] A catastrophe, then, that will befall them one way or another—either during their journey or at their destination. Either way, it impinges on their lives as a fatal incident. It carries that inescapable quality that befits a natural phenomenon. And the Greek prime minister described it as such.

The mourning discourse produced over the bodies of the hundreds of anonymous migrants was a media deception, as it essentially comprised an international call for the furthering of the militarisation of the management of migratory flows through the strengthening of the control of sea crossings and the “discouragement of movement”.[8] It was a meticulous deception that took on the humanitarian challenge with the aim of turning migratory flows into the subject of military intervention par excellence, as nowadays dictated by the military and humanitarian industrial complex.[9] “This ‘grey zone’ between the military and the humanitarian”, claims Mariella Pandolfi in a conversation with Athina Athanasiou, “denotes a redrawing of the political field”.[10] From now on, the short-circuit of the contemporary culture of interventions finds one more application, this time by the “civilised” shores of Europe. The typical, by now, case of air-crafts hovering with no-one knowing whether they are to deliver bombs or humanitarian aid, hereby acquires the form of a domestic managerial mechanism that mourns in face of the countless dead. This, while it is precisely the same mechanism that produces this environment of risk and danger— rendering, with surgical precision, populations precarious and eventually doomed. What we are faced with, in this case, is not a typical intervention of the western military-humanitarian complex in an exotic troubled place, but the mobilisation of humanitarian discourse and a rhetoric of mercy and compassion for the purpose of homeland security in itself.[11] The use of the term “humanitarian catastrophe” and the “mourning” that accompanies it presuppose that one would start narrating the story from the end. And that they would stay there. “The choice of the term ‘humanitarian catastrophe’”, writes Pandolfi, “is an extreme image of this ‘mediatic’ tendency, often illusory by intention, that leads to the interpretation of violence in terms that are near-mechanical and natural […] as if this had not been the end product of a complicated interaction between the altering of international balances and political phenomena produced by specific historical events playing out at very unique places”.[12]

An obscuring of all political processes that cause these catastrophic events is attempted today within the moral-emotional framework outlined by humanitarian rhetoric, and by focusing on the urgent character of these events. The entering of morality into the field of politics[13] does not only safeguard the de-politicisation of the catastrophic phenomena that surround us, by re-assigning them meaning through an urgent interpretation of bad fortune and naturalness; it also offers the penultimate site for the legalisation of the suspension of the rule of law under the pressure of the “state of emergency”.[14] Necessity, this dark notion against which western political philosophy would always stand with uneasiness, nowadays constructs new fields for intervention. And it finds itself in an untangled interweaving with the notion of humanitarianism, some interweaving that has been meticulously constructed: “Both concepts, ‘humanitarian’ and ‘emergency’...”, writes Craig Calhoun, “...are cultural constructs and reflections of structural changes. They come together to shape a way of understanding what is happening in the world, a social imaginary that is of dramatic material consequence. Behind the rise of the humanitarian emergency lie specific ways of thinking about how the world works and specific, if often implicit moral orientations”.[15] In the example of the Lampedusa tragedy, the conspiracy of the state of emergency and of humanitarianism nevertheless acquires more complex articulations. As the generic and abstract request for the rescue of human lives competes with the specific demand for stricter border controls, the humanitarian short-circuit is exposed in its full glory. No-one is certain of whether the invocation of the emergency, in this case, aims at highlighting a collective human drama—and therefore constituting a call for immediate relief action, or whether it aims at safeguarding what national territorial integrity has established—and therefore perpetuating the conditions causing these dramas in the first place. In this intentional conceptual haze, mourning of any type can be performed unobstructed on the side of the furthering exclusions of sea crossings; exclusions that can only guarantee they will even-handedly offer reasons for fresh outbreaks of mourning in the future; a coexistence that does not form not even the tiniest of paradoxes.

It is then clear that the Lampedusa tragedy has revealed something much more substantial. It has shown to Europe (and its humanitarian staff in particular) that, having learnt how to safely operate at the distant humanist labs of the capitalist periphery while creating a profitable market and new mechanisms for the subjectification of the “other”, it now ought to gradually confront phenomena that will annoyingly repeat themselves at its geographical boundaries. Europe, this cynical confession of well being, which rushed to first utter a discourse concerning universality and global human rights, nowadays meets its discursive limits precisely in the awareness of its bewildered position within a truly universal, fluid and almost uncontrollable environment. Surrounded as it is by irksome flows, it reveals its true face: on the one hand attempting to safeguard its internal stability and on the other hand, to get rid of these inelegant tragedies. Not by preventing them, but by letting them happen “elsewhere”. Behind the humanitarian calls for the rescue of life lies a well-orchestrated operation for the management of death. Hereby death acquires a broader meaning which, to remember Michel Foucault, does not include “simply murder as such, but every form of indirect murder: the fact of exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on”.[16] Today, more than ever, it is proven that Europe’s abstract pronouncements and its carefree anguish for the lives-that-must-be-saved unavoidably trip over the terror caused by whatever possibility for its internal destabilisation. “Since the ripple effects of poverty, environmental collapse, civil conflict, health crises, and so on respect no international boundaries, they can easily breach and destabilize the West’s carefully balanced way of life unless they are properly managed”.[17]

The intensification of border controls makes clear that the adverb “properly” above urgently calls for a redefinition of the “value of life” per se, readjusting the balance sheet of rescues and losses and intervening in the “social imaginary” that Calhoun described. This will henceforth be called to reconcile the audience of the humanitarian spectacle no longer with the unavoidable losses occurring under conditions extending beyond what is humanly possible, but with the losses resulting precisely from what is humanly possible. Humanitarian culture has been historically built precisely upon the notion of the “crisis”[18]: that is, upon the imperative facts dictated by an emergency event. Yet the case of Lampedusa, and the wider matter of the management of the migratory flows that it exemplarily represents, sketch out a crisis that is far more crude and more literal. A crisis that does not offer any luxury for one to observe it from afar; and a need that emergences much more imperatively in lieu of any such distance.[19] The “humanitarian catastrophe” that is playing out, for quite some time now, at the “vulnerable” thresholds of Europe, reveals the well-hidden operation of the humanitarian apparatus. The intentional concealing of the political characteristics in all other humanitarian examples, through the meticulous de-politicisation and naturalisation of every given tragedy, hereby returns in the form of an excess of the political that calls for vigilance, surveillance and protection of the (supra)national territorial integrity.[20] It returns, in other words, in the form of an excess of the Political in its Schmittian sense, one that marks refugees and migrants as Enemies against which Europe ought to defend itself[21]—and their moving as acts of war[22] which might then even lead to some dead.

The mourning therefore declared for these lost lives steps onto an evident asymmetry which, paradoxically, is proven intrinsic of humanitarian projects overall. In this particular tragedy, whatever lamentation takes place appears insufficient to cover up the causes that lead to it. And whatever humanitarian call made does not suffice to blur the waters in which thousands of migrants sink their hopes on a daily basis. Through the infuriating rhetoric of compassion, a hierarchy of lives emerges, one that is key for the self-conceptualisation of the humanitarian construction which Fassin describes in an exemplary way: “Thus, within the humanitarian arena itself hierarchies of humanity are passively established but rarely identified for what they are—politics of life that at moments of crisis, result in the formation of two groups, those whose status protects their sacred character and those whom the institutions may sacrifice against their will”.[23] In this way, in the case of Lampedusa the asymmetry—and the antinomy—that dictates the discourses of security as much as rescue finally becomes evident. And yet, it stretches the central (if often implicit) idea behind the overall operation of the humanitarian apparatus to its limits—as Calhoun points out, this presupposes hierarchical conceptualisations of what we would call “humanity”, referring to the idea of charity in particular.[24] The field of the natural disaster or the war zone, which turns into a field of humanitarian aid, may appear as an environment filled with objective dangers for whoever may happen to populate it; yet in fact, it separates subjects in two worlds, revealing a “complex ontology of inequality [...] that differentiates in a hierarchical manner the values of human lives”.[25] This curative moment of the emergence of “human compassion” may appear to interrupt the frantic routes of violence, and ostensibly gives back to “humanity” its lost cohesion. Yet it dictates, through its own “normative schemes of intelligibility”,[26] conditions of subjectification and hierarchies that eventually reassert the familiar conditions of the asymmetrical assessment of lives.[27]

In the case of Lampedusa, the humanitarian appeal acquires a more offensive form, since the above assessment is predetermined by the mechanisms that administer death in the Mediterranean. And so these are not, as they try to convince us, natural events: they are tangible results of an entirely normalised violence which, as Athanasiou writes, “is performed through the definition and the outlining of what lives are worth living”; through which lives are noteworthy and which ones are not.[28] Yet beyond the obvious function of “normative violence”[29] in our given example, the humanitarian construction acts in a normative way in itself, thanks to its gestating representations. The aim then is to prove that the tears and cries that followed this particular shipwreck off the shores of Italy not only failed to withhold the force of the violence that had caused them but to the contrary, offered this exact violence absolute legitimisation. This failure does not concern the excess of hypocrisy that trampled over everything alone; it also concerns that structural asymmetry residing in the very conception of the humanitarian idea itself. The devaluation of the lives of migrants that meticulously prepares these tragedies, as exemplified by the policies of Fortress-Europe now returns, via the humanitarian rhetoric, in the form of a more refined and indiscernible devaluation of the “other”. Some devaluation that nails those who survive such a catastrophe to the position of a victim, a position they are not allowed to escape. This victimisation is the essence of the humanitarian industry. Pandolfi writes in this regard: “In this colonization of political space, humanitarianism is a technology that produces a body that must be transformed through the beneficence of aid”.[30] Through this transformation, the figure of the refugee becomes the namesake of the victim of a natural misfortune. A victim that requires immediate help and ought to be subjectified through this help, and this help alone; as a passive “consumer”, that is, of humanitarian products.

This is not, therefore, just an embodied exposure to the material consequences of a catastrophe. It is also an exposure to the catastrophe’s own representation. In this way, the victimisation technique is accompanied by the careful management of witnessing, which turns humanitarian staff into the only voices of the victims—constructing and putting in place yet another derogatory division: a division “between those who are subjects (the witnesses who testify to the misfortunes of the world) and those who can exist only as objects (the unfortunate whose suffering is testified to in front of the world)”, leading to what Fassin calls “humanitarian reduction of the victim”.[31] For any humanitarian catastrophe, then, there is a corresponding catastrophe of meaning that succeeds it. A complete erasure of the meanings and the narrations of those who were confronted with violence, condemned to an enforced silence, merely compiling vivid images of an emergency on behalf of its humanitarian representation. “One of the most distinctive features of the emergency imaginary as it circulates in the global media...”, writes Calhoun, “ that it renders those who suffer in emergencies as voiceless masses”.[32] In silence, the protagonists of the catastrophes of this world are subjected to a biographical denuding that turns them into anonymous and a-historical figures, merely populating destroyed landscapes and standardised infrastructures of mass nutrition and relief. Figures that are “paradigmatically distant”,[33] with no personal stories, their only connecting thread being the fact they ultimately share the same fateful way of being related to the catastrophe. In their collective drama, humanitarian aid appears as the only way for them to become visible. “However, the very gesture that appears to grant them recognition reduces them to what they are not—and often refuse to be—by reifying their condition of victimhood while ignoring their history and muting their words. Humanitarian reason pays more attention to the biological life of the destitute and unfortunate, the life in the name of which they are given aid, than to their biographical life, the life through which they could, independently, give a meaning to their own existence”.[34]

This biological erasure is completed with the arrival of death—some death that is not even their own. When humanitarian discourse overrides the historicity of the lives lost as well as those that survived—in essence overriding the political conditions within which this historicity acquires its full meaning—then death inevitably means nothing.[35] Through these normative schemes reproduced by humanitarianism’s victimisation and de-subjectification, one could dare claim that eventually, death does not exist. Following Butler, who sheds light on the asymmetric rating of lives in the context of war, we could claim that the normative humanitarian schemes “work precisely through providing no image, no name, no narrative, so that there never was a life, and there never was a death”.[36] The protagonists of the Lampendusa shipwreck, stripped of their biographical armament, “enjoy” a mourning that breaks out as a twofold irony. On the one hand, it is provocatively declared by the perpetrators themselves. On the other hand, sunken as it is into the abstraction of humanitarian rhetoric, it can only describe the end of a typical biological course—leaving outside all those biological elements that would elevate death to an event with its own historicity, and mourning to its essential recipient and guarantor. The complete deassigning of meaning from death thereby comes to complete the humanitarian short-circuit. Right at the point where the rhetoric of mercy and compassion aspires to reveal the universal “value of life” is the point where it achieves its absolute devaluation and subjectification, focusing exclusively upon the mere event of biological existence.  The humanitarian tears shed for the deaths of hundreds of migrants off the shores of Italy, performed some mercy that “insinuates aid not toward individuals, toward citizens, not toward political subjects—but toward bodies, that is, toward human life in its most naked of manifestations”.[37]

We hereby enter into the heart of the humanitarian short-circuit. The obsessive adherence to the mere event of human biological existence as the starting point of whatever humanitarian provision—and by extension, as a main axis of our conceptualisation of humanity—challenges all those elements that make a human truly so. As stressed out by Calhoun, “this biological minimum is, perhaps, below the real minimum of the truly human, the capacity of speech and shaping social life.”[38] Such focusing upon this biological minimum is then not only insufficient to rescue the humanity that it invokes but, to the contrary—it casually marches toward the absolute political denuding of the human and to her definitive exposure to contemporary thanatopolitical landscapes. This denuding allows both the exposure of migratory populations to conditions of extreme precarity today, as well as the tying down of all who survive to a regime of impossibility of meaning. The equation of human nature with its literal biological backdrop, which has been driving the humanitarian project for more than two centuries, denies precisely all the wealth historically endowing humans and their particular complexities. Roberto Esposito stresses that “something like a definable and identifiable human nature doesn’t exist as such, independent from the meanings that culture and therefore history have, over the course of time, imprinted on it”.[39] And yet, at the sight of these survivors “we find ourselves confronted with a bare life that has been separated from its context”.[40] Or, to be more precise, we find ourselves confronted with a life whose context is proven to be the very event of biological survival itself.[41] Amidst this new “survivalist public sphere”[42] shaping up, Agamben’s dystopic claim is proven assertively: taking on the Foucauldian analyses that concern the functions of biopower he claims that “The decisive activity of biopower in our time consists in the production not of life or death, but rather of a mutable and virtually infinite survival”.[43]

We therefore stand before a structural antinomy. An antinomy that was not born all of a sudden following the Lampedusa shipwreck, but one that carries behind it an entire tradition which—as contradictory as this may sound—commences from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789. Hannah Arendt, whose gaze perhaps comprises the most incisive into the paradoxes of the Declaration, writes: “From the beginning the paradox involved in the declaration of inalienable human rights was that it reckoned with an ‘abstract’ human being who seemed to exist nowhere”.[44] The appeal to such a generalisable human substance is the one that, according to Arendt, paves the way for the deprivation of human rights—as much as this may sound like an oxymoron[45]—and it comprises the legitimising backdrop for the biographical denuding that the humanitarian construction enforces upon the “victims” of the disasters of this world. The idea, therefore, for one to resort to such an abstract notion of the human has led to the dead-ends in which thousands of migrants and refugees find themselves crammed today. “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human”.[46] It is evident that the Declaration attempts to inscribe the “inalienable” rights of humans upon a supposedly universal human nature, referring to some supra-historical natural laws,[47] looking for the penultimate legitimisation in the definitive event of one being human, and that alone. As Arendt proves, however, this inscription has the exact opposite result since “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human”.[48] And this, because at the exact same time when the plan for the conceptual construction of this new, abstract human being was activated, the philosophical and political foundations of the modern nation state were also being founded—with the emergence of the figure of the citizen becoming the essence of this foundation. With the emergence, that is, of an entirely political figure—the notion of political hereby denoting primarily a specific relationship—that describes not only the absolute bearer of rights, but also that modern form of sovereign power that conveys these rights. Therefore, the fact that the terms “human” and “citizen” were jointly hosted by the Declaration was insufficient in bridging the conceptual and legal chasm that separates them, leaving the former fully exposed to nothing.

In locating this discrepancy, Agamben writes: “In the phrase La déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, it is not clear whether the two terms homme and citoyen name two autonomous beings or instead form a unitary system in which the first is always already included in the second. And if the latter is the case, the kind of relation that exists between homme and citoyen still remains unclear”.[49] It is precisely within the vortex of this ambiguity that we are requested to interpret the paradoxes of the humanitarian construction as well as tragedies that will keep increasing in an environment built on the basis of what Arendt calls “the politically most pernicious doctrine of the modern age, namely that life is the highest good”.[50] The persistence upon this notion of “nothing but human”, shortly before nationalisms would start sweeping Europe from one end to the other, can therefore only be met with scepticism.[51] The historical and political processes that followed the Declaration, and which gave form to a large part of the world as we know it today, made evident that only what is termed citizenship could safeguard these notorious “universal” human rights. A citizenship that already from its conception was chained to the notion of the sovereign nation-state, which would eventually establish itself as the absolute pre-condition for the absolutely unconditional. The fact that “[t]he Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved unenforceable [...] whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state”[52] can henceforth only be conceived within this framework. It is only through the unconditional inscription of “universal” rights upon the notion of the sovereign nation-state state that we can nowadays comprehend that paradoxical mechanism packing entire populations in a zone of total legal denuding, where they are left precisely with that “abstract nakedness of being nothing but human”—and that nakedness alone. Some packing that will become ever more violent in a world assuring us, as Arendt writes, that “for the time being, a sphere that is above the nations does not exist”.[53] One ought to seek part of the causes of the Lampedusa shipwreck within this inability to conceive and constitute a post-national or anti-national political sphere. It is this inability that nowadays traps thousands of refugees and migrants, eventually turning the conditions of their existence into a responsibility of the police and of humanitarian organisations.[54]

One then understands why the humanitarian rhetoric, through its popular techniques of depoliticisation and naturalisation of any given tragedy, and through its choice to continue highlighting this notion of “nothing but human” as its ultimate mission, offers the most effective of alibi to the perpetrators of the catastrophes of this world. For as long as the appeals to “human life” are not followed by critical attempts to de-construct the notion of the nation and efforts of re-inscription in a new political context, refugee and migrant populations will continue roaming as “nothing but human”—that is, as “life that cannot be sacrificed and yet may be killed”,[55] within the contracted killer fields that defend the contemporary nation states. The political denuding that stokes the humanitarian engine therefore acts in two directions. On the one hand, in the absolute erasure of the biographical wealth and the crude focusing upon the naked biological condition of the survivors which, as we saw, turns into an apolitical worshipping of survival. And on the other hand, in the choice to merely soothe the pain, leaving those quintessentially political conditions that caused it aside—and turning compassion into the ultimate apologist for brutality.[56] “The separation between humanitarianism and politics that we are experiencing today...”, writes Agamben, “ the extreme phase of the separation of the rights of man from the rights of the citizen, in the final analysis, however, humanitarian organizations [...] can only grasp human life in the figure of bare or sacred life, and therefore, despite themselves, maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight”.[57] Bare or sacred life becomes the fuel in the humanitarian engine. And the more this engine focuses upon the biological necessity of human existence, authorising the former as the only one qualified to describe the latter, the more political extermination will be foisted on in the form of humanitarian catastrophe. This authorisation ultimately outlines, in the most implicit of ways, the notorious End of History; some end that is entirely functional, imposed as an imperative political demand, thereby creating the infinite “meta-political” space nowadays occupied by the inescapable and the necessity gestated by the “truths” of biological life.[58]


By Christos Filippidis

Translation by Antonis Vradis


[1]: The website Fortress Europe wrote on this instance, in April 2008: “It was March 28, 1997. At the strait of Otranto, 25 nautical miles from the shores of Apulia, the italian navy ship “Sibilia” rammed and sank the albanian ship “Kater I Rades”. 108 people died. Only the bodies of 81 of them were retrieved. For more information, see (in Greek).

[2]: See for example the article NATO: Investigate Fatal Boat Episode, Human Rights Watch, May 10, 2011, available at

[3]: Dastur Françoise, La Mort: Essai sur la finitude, trans. by Vicky Sotiropoulou, Scripta, Athens 1999 (in Greek), p.17

[4]: It is in this aspect, for example,that a mourning act will be proven successful or not as Judith Butler points out, drawing from Freud’s work. See Butler Judith, Precarious Life – The powers of mourning and violence, Verso, London-New York 2006, pp.20-21

[5]: Ibid., pp.22,148

[6]: During the last two decades approximately 20.000 people have lost their lives in their attempt to reach Southern Europe from Northern Africa and the Middle East. See Shenker Jack, Mediterranean migrant deaths: a litany of largely avoidable loss, The Guardian, October 3, 2013, available at, and Sunderland Judith, Dispatches: Boat Migrant Tragedy Should Shake Europe's Conscience, Human Rights Watch, October 3, 2013, available at

[7]: See the article “Samaras in Brussels: He presented 7 points for tacking illegal migration”, To Vima, October 25, 2013, available at (in greek).

[8]: Only a week after the Lampedusa tragedy the European Parliament would approve the commencing of the operation of the notorious Eurosur system (from two words’ components: Europe & Surveillance). This is a new system of surveillance and data exchange for the Mediterranean, as an extension of the functions of FRONTEX, which was developed by the European Union and which will be based on the use of satellite images and drones for the surveillance of the open sea and the shores of North Africa. See the article titled “The european parliament approved the Eurosur system, which launches in December”, To Vima, October 11, 2013, available at See also the article EU: Needless Deaths in Mediterranean, Human Rights Watch, August 16, 2012, available at In addition and following the Lampedusa tragedy, the Mediterranean Task Force was introduced—among others, this force will apply pressure for the application of the greek-turkish protocol for the return of “illegal” migrants. See the article “Samaras in Brussels”, ibid. Let us remember finally that in September 2012, and while there was information that the first Syrian refugees were already at the shores of Turkey, two consecutive meetings took place in Athens with the participation of the ministers of National Defence, Public Order and Shipping. According to the minister of Public Order, Nikos Dendias, the aim of these meetings was to take measures in order to “shield the Aegean”, as he said. Judging by the tone of the three ministers’  statements one could discern some deliberate fogginess regarding the use of the term “illegal migrant” and “refugee”, and some total vagueness regarding whether they spoke about humanitarian or about military action. See the press release of the greek police on September 17, 2012, available at, and the article by Dionisis Vithoulkas titled “The meeting at the ministry of Defence regarding the migration issue has ended” To Vima, September 17, 2012, available at

[9]: See Pandolfi Mariella, Contract of Mutual (In)Difference: Governance and the Humanitarian Apparatus in Contemporary Albania and Kosovo, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 10.1(2003), p.372. An indicative picture of this military-humanitarian interweaving is located in the founding moment of the contemporary humanitarian culture, as this is outlined in the birth of the Red Cross in 1863. More specifically, the five-member committee founded on February 17th that year under the directorship of general Guillaume-Henri Dufour, and which would later evolve into the International Committee of the Red Cross, at first operated under the name Comite International Et Permanent Aux Blesses Militaires (International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded Soldiers). See Skaltsas Constantinos, The Geneva Conventions, Hellenic Red Cross, Athens 1989, pp.8,38. Let us remember, finally, that when commenting on the importance of the four Geneva conventions, concerning the fate of unarmed populations, Carl Schmitt claimed that these only provide the legal grounds for the humanitarian interventions of the International Committee of the Red Cross—saying, characteristically: Inter arma caritas (Charity in the midst of arms). See Schmitt Carl, The Theory of the Partisan – A Commentary/Remark on the Concept of the Political, trans. by A.C. Goodson, Michigan State University Press, Michigan 2004, p.16

[10]: Pandolfi Mariella, Social suffering in the contemporary world, an interview with Athina Athanasiou, in the newspaper inset Vivliothiki, newspaper Eleftherotypia, May 11, 2007 (in Greek). Concerning the notion of the grey zone, see also Pandolfi Mariella, From Paradox to Paradigm: The Permanent State of Emergency in the Balkans, in Fassin Didier & Pandolfi Mariella (eds), Contemporary States of Emergency – The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions, Zone Books, New York 2010, p.163

[11]: In expanding the existent framework, Didier Fassin explains that “the distinctive feature of contemporary societies is without doubt the way the moral sentiments have become generalized as a frame of reference in political life. This is the phenomenon I term ‘humanitarian government’”, in Fassin Didier, Humanitarian Reason – A Moral History of the Present, trans. by Rachel Gomme, University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles 2012, p.247.

[12]: Pandolfi Mariella, “Moral entrepreneurs”, souverainetés mouvantes et barbelés – Le bio-politique dans les Balkans postcommunistes, trans. by Babis Georgantidis, Sighrona Themata, issue 82, Athens 2003 (in Greek), p.26

[13]: See Fassin Didier, Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life, Public Culture, Volume19, No3, Autumn 2007, pp.508,511

[14]: “Morality now justifies suspension of the rule of law”, write Fassin and Pandolfi. See Fassin Didier & Pandolfi Mariella, Introduction: Military and Humanitarian Government in the Age of Intervention, in Fassin & Pandolfi, ibid., p.12.

[15]: Calhoun Craig, The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)Order, in Fassin & Pandolfi, ibid., p.29

[16]: Foucault Michel, Society Must Be Defended – Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-76, edited by Mauro Bertani & Alessandro Fontana, Picador, New York 2003, p.256

[17]: Pandolfi, From Paradox to Paradigm, ibid., p.164. During his aforementioned visit to Brussels the Greek prime minister stated: “The periphery exports destabilisation to Europe as a whole”. See “Samaras in Brussels”, ibid.

[18]: See Pandolfi, Contract of Mutual (In)Difference, ibid. p.381

[19]: One could argue one such example has already made its appearance in Europe with the events that followed the breakdown of ex-Yugoslavia, and which led to the instalment of a permanent field of military-humanitarian intervention in the area. Yet the case in question, even if geographically abolishing any notion of distance from Europe, seems to comprise an exemplary way and a place for the application of the products of the humanitarian industry, as these were developed in the labs of the distant periphery. Pandolfi describes the balkan particularity through the examples of Bosnia, of Kosovo and to a lesser extent, that of Albania, as cases of hybrid intra-european colonization, orchestrated by the EU, NATO, UN complex. See Pandolfi, From Paradox to Paradigm, ibid., p.168

[20]: The discourse produced in Europe today concerning migration brings to the fore, once again, the importance of the border. A border that updates its meanings on the one hand within a globalised environment that also gestates “unwelcome” flows, and on the other hand as part of the common functions of the European Union that by now assign to certain border cases a supra-local and supra-national role. The uncontrollable population flows call, then, to a peculiar return to the guarantees of the “outdated” territorial state. Some return that most certainly does not vindicate Foucault in regard to the devaluation of the geographical element in his analyses regarding the transformations of the state. Stuart Elden will therefore rightly claim, in a critical reading of the Foucauldian work, that “Territory is more than merely land, but a rendering of the emergent concept of ‘space’ as a political category: owned, distributed, mapped, calculated, bordered, and controlled”. See Elden Stuart, Governmentality, Calculation, Territory, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2007, Vol.25, p.578. In regard to the update in the importance of the border and the drastic proliferation of checkpoints in the contemporary globalised world, see the chapter Ubiquitous Borders, in Graham Stephen, Cities Under Siege – The New Military Urbanism, Verso, London & New York 2010, pp.89-152.

[21]: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy”, writes Schmitt. See Schmitt Carl, The Concept of the Political, trans. by George Schwab, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London 2007, p.26

[22]: For example, the American military theoretician William Lind writes: “In Fourth Generation war [...] invasion by immigration can be at least as dangerous as invasion by a state army”. Adduced in Graham Stephen, The Urban “Battlespace”, Theory, Culture & Society 2009, (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and, Singapore), Vol. 26(7-8), p.284. See also Graham Stephen, Foucault’s Boomerang – The New Military Urbanism, in Sörensen Stilhoff Jens and Söderbaum Fredrik (eds.), The End of the Development Security Nexus? The Rise of Global Disaster Management, Development Dialogue, No.58, Uppsala, April 2012, p.40

[23]: Fassin, Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life, ibid., p.516

[24]: Calhoun, ibid. p.35

[25]: Fassin, ibid., p.519

[26]: Butler, ibid., p.146

[27]: Alain Badiou writes in regard to this point: “Who can fail to see that in our humanitarian expeditions, interventions, embarkations of charitable légionnaires, the Subject presumed to be universal is split? On the side of the victims, the haggard animal exposed on television screens. On the side of the benefactors, conscience and the imperative to intervene. […] Who cannot see that this ethics which rests on the misery of the world hides, behind its victim-Man, the good-Man, the white-Man?”. See Badiou Alain, Ethics – An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. by Peter Hallward, Verso, London & New York 2001, p.12

[28]: Athanasiou Athina, The Crisis as a “State of Emergency” – Critiques and Resistances, Savvalas, Athens 2012 (in Greek), p.61,82

[29]: Ibid, p.82

[30]: Pandolfi, From Paradox to Paradigm, ibid., p.167

[31]: Fassin, Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life, ibid., p.517

[32]: Calhoun, ibid., p.55

[33]: Ibid., p.33

[34]: Fassin, Humanitarian Reason, ibid., p.254

[35]: Commenting on the ontological state of dying in the context of the nazi extermination camp, Giorgio Agamben describes a condition that is radically separated from the experience of death. And yet, despite the vast differences between the two examples, we would risk interpreting the tragedies breaking out in the Mediterranean through his observations on Auschwitz—to the extent that an invisible thread seems to connect these two historical categories. Both are characterised by the absolute presence of a death that is violently stripped off its contexts, those that would have assigned it its any given meaning. Some stripping that forms, eventually, the appearance of a futile event and an “empty possibility”. See Agamben Giorgio, Remnants of Auschwitz – The witness and the archive, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Zone Books, New York 2002, pp.70-76.

[36]: Butler, ibid., p.146

[37]: Pandolfi, Social suffering in the contemporary world, ibid.

[38]: Calhoun, ibid., p.34

[39]: Esposito Roberto, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. by Timothy Campbell, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London 2008, p.29

[40]: Agamben Giorgio, Homo Sacer – Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford California 1998, p.6. Commenting upon the notion of bare life, Eva Geulen notes: “naked or bare (and bared) life is not a prior substance, but instead what remains after the withdrawal of all forms”. Adduced in de la Durantaye Leland, Giorgio Agamben – A Critical Introduction, Stanford University Press, Stanford California 2009, p.203

[41]: Stressing upon the traumatic experience accompanying a violent event in our personal life, Cathy Caruth writes: “that trauma is constituted not only by the destructive force of a violent event but by the very act of its survival. If we are to register the impact of violence we cannot, therefore, locate it only in the destructive moment of the past, but in an ongoing survival that belongs to the future”. In light of these observations, one can easily assume that the impact of such violence becomes more crucial under the conditions imposed by the humanitarian assignments of meaning. Because it is not only that violence constantly recurs through the internal psychic function of the trauma. It is also that as part of the humanitarian fixation, the survivor ought to live with a constant external reminder, constantly carrying the event of their survival as their only identity. See in this regard, Caruth Cathy, Violence and Time: Traumatic Survivals, Assemblage, No.20, The MIT Press, April 1993, p.25

[42]: Pandolfi, From Paradox to Paradigm, ibid., p.160

[43]: Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, ibid., p.155

[44]: Arendt Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Schocken Books, New York 2004, p.370

[45]: Waltern Benjamin had also foreseen the catastrophic extension of this unprecedented appeal to a universal human nature when he wrote that “The proposition that existence stands higher than a just existence is false and ignominious, if existence is to mean nothing other than mere life”. And he added: “However sacred man is (or however sacred that life in him which is identically present in earthly life, death, and afterlife), there is no sacredness in his condition, in his bodily life vulnerable to injury by his fellow men”. Here, the notion of the sacred preserves its dual significance, since Benjamin knew that “what is here pronounced sacred was, according to ancient mythic thought, the marked bearer of guilt: life itself”. See Benjamin Walter, Critique of Violence, in Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926, trans. by Marcus Bullock & Michael Jennings, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London 2002, p.251. In regards to the ambivalent notion of the sacred, see Agamben, Homo Sacer, ibid., pp.49-54.

[46]: Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ibid., p.380

[47]: Arendt’s distrust regarding the declaration of the (human) nature as an explanatory principle of the human condition is expressed in two ways. First, she claims that such an appeal is futile since serious doubts may be raised about the very existence of laws in nature overall. Second, she stresses out that “nothing entitles us to assume that man has a nature or essence in the same sense as other things”, making sure to clarify that human nature is not in any case equated to the human condition. See Ibid., p.378 and Arendt Hannah, The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London 1998, pp.9,10, respectively.

[48]: Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ibid., p.380. Arendt adds that “[t]he survivors of the extermination camps, the inmates of concentration and internment camps, and even the comparatively happy stateless people could see […] that the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger”. Ibid.

[49]: Agamben, Homo Sacer, ibid., p.75

[50]: Arendt Hannah, On Revolution, Penguin Books, London 1990, p.64. Many years earlier, and amidst the unpleasant experience of exile, Arendt would write, respectively: “Brought up in the conviction that life is the highest good and death the greatest dismay, we became witnesses and victims of worse terrors than death—without having been able to discover a higher ideal than life”. See Arendt Hannah, We Refugees, in Robinson Marc (ed), Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, Faber & Faber, Boston & London 1994, p.112. Available at

[51]: Regarding the post-revolutionary emergence of the notion of the nation in Europe see Hobsbawm E. J., Nations and Nationalism since 1780 – Programme, myth, reality, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000, pp.14-45

[52]: Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ibid., p.372

[53]: Ibid., p.379

[54]: See the chapter titled Beyond Human Rights in Agamben Giorgio, Means without Ends: notes on politics, trans. by Vincenzo Binetti & Cesare Casarino, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2000, p.19

[55]: Agamben, Homo Sacer, ibid., p.52

[56]: In an incomparably incisive observation—even if in an entirely different historical framework—Arendt would write in regard to compassion and its apolitical extensions: “As a rule, it is not compassion which sets out to change worldly conditions in order to ease human suffering, but if it does, it will shun the drawn-out wearisome processes of persuasion, negotiation, and compromise, which are the processes of law and politics, and lend its voice to the suffering itself”. See Arendt, On Revolution, ibid., p.86  

[57]: Agamben, Homo Sacer, ibid., p.78

[58]: Agamben writes in this regard: “The only task that still seems to retain some seriousness is the assumption of the burden—and the ‘total management’—of biological life, that is, of the very animality of man. Genome, global economy, and humanitarian ideology are the three united faces of this process in which posthistorical humanity seems to take on its own physiology as its last, impolitical mandate”. See Agamben Giorgio, The Open – Man and Animal, trans. by Kevin Attell, Stanford University Press, Stanford California 2004, p.77

Leave a comment

Funded by

Partner Institution

About Us

City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...