How can we think about bodies and circulation without deferring to the dominant binary of western discourse on the so-called “refugee crisis”, which is central to both contemporary European politics and how the early 21st century will be remembered. On one side is the openly racist discourse that underpins the border policies responsible for thousands of deaths at sea and on land within and outside Europe. On the other is the liberal discourse that premises freedom of movement and eliminating borders against the backdrop of western, individualist thinking, thereby reinforcing neoliberal market logic and the nation state. Both, as Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz argues, are two sides of the same coin.
We begin at a false point of departure when considering bodies and circulation: the deeply embedded western view of the subject as human individual, and thus, the human body (and the human as such) as an autonomous, individual organism. We consider circulation not as departing from the human body (the body that circulates), but of the human body itself, departing from circulation, aiming at re-establishing the dignity of what we call an extended body, and of human life in general. Paraphrasing Brazilian geographer and fierce globalisation critic, Milton Santos, we say the human body is in circulation, and circulation is in the human body. In other words: no circulation, no body, no life.
There are two obvious ways to relate the human body to circulation. First, there are humans, people that circulate, moving over land and sea. Second, there are things that circulate through human bodies, such as food and water, which are indispensable to human survival. Now, if we shift our focus from the individual human body to circulation as such, we can see a vast field of interconnection: circulation is the organising principle of human life—from the biological (metabolism) to the cultural (music); of all geological movement (the tide, the seasons); of the planetary and stellar movements; and last but not least, of the market. For most societies on the planet, the will of the cosmos depends on what these societies themselves can reciprocate spirituality and materially. It is fair to say that most spiritual, economic, social and biological forms of organisation seem to rely in one way or another on the principle of circulation.
There are three planes or dimensions of circulation that directly relate to human life on planet earth:
the circulation of individual organisms, such as blood circulation in humans and animals, or the biochemical circulation in plants;
the movements on the planet, such as the flow of rivers and atmospheric change, global circulation (production, distribution and consumption) of goods or people under the current capitalist order; and
a vast array of movements related to cosmic circulation, such as day and night, the measurement of time, meteorological and seasonal changes, energy and spiritual forces, divine equilibrium, societies’ cosmologies and even ideological formations.
All three dimensions of circulation are inseparable, and have infinite points of intersection, overlap or superposition. Let’s stick to the example of the individual organism: to keep the human metabolism going, the human needs food. If the human individual lives in a contemporary metropolitan city, it is likely the food travelled or was shipped from another place, another country, perhaps even another continent. A major part of the meat Europeans eat comes from Asia, for example. If we are talking vegetables or fruit, availability is likely dependent on the season. It might well be that the people employed for the harvest are seasonal migrants. Another example is the complex interaction of rain, daylight, minerals and oxygen in plants during photosynthesis. Or think of any given temporal overlap of the female menstrual cycle and the moon cycle. From the point of view of the cosmos everything is matter, energy, in relation to each other and in process of circulation. In short: none of the three planes of circulation can be separated from each other. They all are integrated, co-exist in constant interrelation, and their balance is sustained by precisely those inflection points that lead to other dimensions of circulation.
(THE INSTITUTION OF THE DOUBLE DIFFERENCE)
The human body is a virtually infinite multiplicity of simultaneous molecular movements, transactions and rhythmic overlap of temporalities that perpetually extend the limits of the skin. Contrary to such a notion, the central historical principle for the regulation of populations is establishing the individual human skin as a frontier. In fact, establishing the “individual” human as defined by the outline of his or her skin, can be considered one of the most effective technologies of government to organise life in the capitalist world.
Biologically, the skin is considered the largest human organ, and it serves numerous functions, many of them existential to the individual human organism. It serves to regulate temperature, to protect other organs, and is crucial for both assimilation and expulsion of organic matter. Also, the skin is one of the most vital organs of perception and communication, and as such it serves a social function.
Historically, particularly in so-called western societies, the skin gained fundamental importance in economic, juridical and political terms. It was established as a double difference: a) the frontier between the “inside” and the “outside” of the body; and b) the difference between the “self” and the “other”, including such notions as “me” and “you”, and the “I” and “we”. This double difference defines the “law of the individual” as governing principle, and the skin was culturally established as its representation par excellence (It is interesting to note that many societies lack the word or even the notion of “I”.)
The establishing of the skin as double difference, though, does not entirely close off the “inside” and the “outside”, but rather separates it conceptually and politically. As we have pointed out before, some of the vital functions of the skin lie in its permeability and transmissibility. Closing off the “inside” from the “outside” would almost instantly lead to the death of the organism. On the contrary, the purpose of this double difference lies in the rigid control, the supervision, and the taxation of everything that goes inside and outside of the body. Indeed, all dominant ideological and religious formations that contributed to our global present—such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the nation state, capitalism, the liberal market, individual property, psychoanalysis—have made decisive contributions to the project of administrating, explaining and mediating above everything that affects the human body, everything that crosses the “I”, every penetration of the skin and the body.
In modern capitalist society it seems every diet, every defecation, every act of violence towards oneself and others, every perception, every act of speech, every act of care, is either ideologically “mediated” or economically regulated by consumption. This is why the great moral taboos of modern society generally are associated with the violation of the rules or laws that organise the permeability of the individual body, and often aim to punish or delegitimise transgressions of it. We only need to think of the act of killing (by perforation of the skin or cutting off air supply, for example), defecation, sex, drug use, the act of speaking out, and so on. Jurisdictions and morals are parts of the systemic effort to detect, control and administer what goes through all bodies at all times.
Although jurisdiction and morals in western societies ultimately claim to be protecting the security and integrity of the “inside” of the body, at the same time there are two main constructs that regulate the systemic accessibility of the “inside”, and thus legitimate violence against the body: race and gender. In western societies it is a fact, that the darker a skin tone is, the more legitimate and even legally upheld it is to violate the integrity of its “inside”; put a bullet through or whip it open. Historical and present-day record tells us so. The same can be said about the accessibility to the “inside” of women’s body through sexual assault, as reproductive incubator and disregard for the psychological or physiological repercussions for women as a result.
Both race and gender are decisive factors in the denial of fundamental rights that pertain to the individual, including freedom of choice and control over one’s body and life; the denial of this basic freedom continues to be largely regulated and eroded by a ruling economic imperative in contemporary liberal and post-colonial societies.
THE EXTENDED BODY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION
(THE WATER CYCLE PARADIGM)
Once we have understood the legal, economic and political function of the double difference represented by the skin, we should be careful to refer to “humans circulating” and “things circulating through humans” in an enumerative way, since the opposition of “things that circulate through our bodies (in and out)” and “human beings circulating on the surface of the planet” reaffirms a pre-given ontological difference following the dominant understanding of the “human” in western society, and that of all other “things”.
If, on the other hand, we look at the human body from the point of view of circulation, we must extend our understanding of that body and overcome that difference. For human life, the human body and circulation are inseparable: the “things” that circulate through it are the body itself. It is not the skin, but various forms of circulation that compound existential elements and flows and integrate it as an extended body. Let’s take the example of water:
The human body is two-thirds water. That water is in constant exchange, it isn’t still inside the body, it needs constant refill and expulsion, otherwise the organism dies. It is similar with other life preserving elements like glucose or oxygen: if the organism doesn’t constantly get them, it cannot survive. These elements de facto have a physical extension. They literally form existential parts of the body. The same two-thirds of the human body simultaneously belongs to another living cycle, the natural water cycle, and thus is constantly flowing along its path in a constant flow, and inseparably connected to the living natural cycle of water that embraces the whole planet. Seen from the perspective of the human individual, to exist at least two-thirds of what is considered to be inside the human body, is constantly also outside the human body. An individual might understand it thus:
Two-thirds of my body is not only mine. I share two-thirds of my body with the natural water cycle. Two-thirds of me is constantly flowing in rivers, in the ocean, levitating as clouds raining down, watering the fields. Who knows, perhaps two weeks ago two-thirds of my body was floating along the River Seine in France, or along the coast of Cameroon, or is in this moment raining down on the Brazilian rain forest.
THE COSMIC AND THE POLITICAL
(INSIDE AND OUTSIDE OF EUROPE)
Alarmingly, there are masses of quantifiable floating bodies on the Mediterranean Sea right now: bodies that are not allowed to get to a safe harbour in Europe, or that are sunken by Frontex with armed force; bodies and parts of bodies that are washed onto the coast, or dissolve into the water; bodies that are deliberately set “outside” of their human condition by European border politics.
Yet the primary problem is not the border. To be set “outside” of one’s human condition, means to be cut off from access to existential elements or flows that constitute the living extended body. If a living organism has been cut off from water, through its theft by pollution or privatisation for example, it means that the existential element, water is no longer accessible and, therefore, the survival of the living organism is in acute danger. The only chance to survive is to immediately go after that which has been stolen, to the house of the one responsible for stealing it.
From a cosmic perspective, every closed European border is an extension of the skin as double difference. The body is contained in circulation, just as circulation is already contained in the body, and no border can change that. Yet, for a refugee floating on the Mediterranean, a closed border is as murderous as an open wound, a denial of the primal human right to live.
More than any border, it is the predatory forms of contemporary capitalism that simultaneously secure Europe’s wealth and make vast regions outside of Europe unlivable. The current crisis is still that of the refugees’ lives and the human condition of their bodies, and not of Europe’s safety or wealth. A bit of welfare and a visa here and there, and opening or closing another border will not solve the problems inherent to capitalism. Those Europeans who argue otherwise—who claim to have invented human rights, and all its associated discourses on the right of movement—are being intolerably cynical. For only if the “inside” of Europe assumes the political responsibility of what their political system has done – and still does – “outside” of Europe, will an end to this “refugee crisis” be imaginable.
This and other stories and maps are available in the new issue of the Chronic, On Circulations And The African Imagination Of A Borderless World, which maps the African imagination of a borderless world: non-universal universalisms, the right to opacity, refusing that which has been refused to you, and “keeping it moving”.
- No Pass, But Nine Passports
- Chronic Circulations Bibliography
- Genres of the Human
- HIKIMA – a letter from Zaria
- Search Sweet Country
- SALUT GLISSANT