Trung Phan Quoc Nguyen
At the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, journalist Thuan Le Elston staged an imaginative encounter between Southeast Asia and the Middle East, rehearsing a pattern extending back to the early Cold War period. In the article, published in USA Today, she recalled her experience as a refugee forty years earlier. In a present tense that imbues the past with the qualities of an unending eternity, Le Elston recalls the day when an overflowing tent city on a US base in Guam containing thousands of Vietnamese refugees fell quiet in April 1975: “The bunk beds are filled with people listening to my father translate a BBC radio announcement: Saigon, our nation’s capital, has fallen to northern communists. No one makes a sound. Not even a gasp. Then a child starts sobbing. Dad says, ‘Maybe the adults have no more tears.’”1
In what follows, Le Elston details how she and other Vietnamese refugees moved through processing sites throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific: the Philippines, Guam, San Diego. The narrative ends with an attempted staging between the past and the present of refugee crises. The author views an image of a nondescript child in a refugee tent, one that could have circulated within a media landscape saturated with refugee images between 2014 and 2017. Yet the cross-temporal and cross-spatial attempt at intersubjective recognition is upset by the author’s projection: “When I see pictures of kids staring out of a refugee tent, I can’t turn away . . . forty years later, an American with children of my own, I still recognize myself in those refugee eyes.”2
What happens when the frames of grievability for the Vietnamese refugee from 1975 to 1980 are exported to the refugee of contemporary imperial formations? Situated as a political fable of refugee subjectification directed toward an American audience, Le Elston’s story was one of many personal recollections authored by Vietnamese refugees and published by mainstream publications as op-eds in the wake of the contemporary refugee crisis. These op-eds follow a similar pattern—namely, a sentimental recollection of the camp experience shifts to moral indignation directed toward an abstract international community, a universalizing category within which nonrefugee subjects could (or should) imagine themselves a part. Op-eds obscure the material consequences of refugee production and often end with a reformist approach to the nation-state. Indeed, these narratives appeal to the reformation of the civil order, replacing a structural analysis with what amounts to instructions on proper conduct within an imagined community that has been fractured—and formed—by imperialist and racist violence.
In what follows, I examine how rhetorical recuperations of imperial violence have been injected into contemporary displacement events through the op-ed form of the Vietnamese refugee. I consider how these modes of writing become forms of work that labors to absolve the nation-state of its imperial violence through its abstract appeal to reform. By questioning how one historical episode of violence gets transited into another, I situate the refugee subject as a specific racial project of the Cold War that structures present modes of coerced movement. I position the refugee as a figure that is differentiated (racialized) by the imperial nation-state out of national detritus (the inassimilable masses expelled by other nations as living waste) to manage the insurgency that displaced masses come to bear on modern state sovereignty. I end with a consideration of how the refusal of this labor might perhaps look like the injection of toxic narratives that decays the modern state from within, exhuming the state of refuse that undergirds and is obscured by the state of refuge.
Through a focus on the op-ed form as a mode of writing that seeks to appeal to an abstract community of citizens, I am interested in the refugee imaginary in part constructed by Vietnamese refugee writers who have assumed spokesperson status relative to the long refugee century, starting from the mid-twentieth century to the present day. What work is performed through the prominent circulation of the Vietnamese refugee narrative during the instantiation of imperial violence elsewhere? What do such accounts obscure, alienate, or make visible? If narrative can be understood as productive of the imaginaries required to articulate, frame, and otherwise make sense of the differential distributions of life chances, how do Vietnamese refugees labor to obscure the contradictions of imperial violence in this role as spokesperson?
Despite the fact that op-eds have contributed to the vast literary and media archive of the refugee, the form’s power to mobilize the imperial desires of the US (by addressing a broad audience and influencing policy) has been underexamined. Formally announced as a separate and distinct genre by the New York Times in 1970, the op-ed (shorthand for “opposite the editorial page,” which was historically where opinionated, subjective pieces about socially urgent issues were published) was designed to be both “profitable and intellectually stimulating.”3 Examining the op-ed form as productive of surplus value thereby provides an understanding behind how the narrow possibilities of refugee futures have been translated into labor that augments the sociocultural resources of imperialism.
By situating the emergence of the Vietnamese refugee spokesperson within global transformations in capital and labor, I am interested in the obscured figures of labor embedded in the rhetorical alignment between refugees of two political epochs. Attending to the specific historical conditions and discursive economies respectively produced out of US armed aggression in Vietnam during the Cold War and its multisited “war on terror” in the wake of 9/11, I explore how Vietnamese refugee narratives in our contemporary moment have been positioned to reproduce, and thereby extend, the waning life of the imperial nation-state at the expense of other refugee subjects—at times coercively, at times collaboratively.
The post–Cold War and postsocialist genre of Vietnamese refugee op-ed about other refugee crises extends the imperial nation-state’s lease through the exoneration of historical violence. Insofar as this exoneration serves to reproduce imperial sovereignty, I refer to it as the labor of absolution. This labor relies on a secular performance in the civil sphere to imbue the speaker with symbolic capital to affirm the imperial nation-state’s power of conferring humanity. At the same time, the Vietnamese refugee op-ed models ideal citizenship by assuming the “refugee,” regardless of different precipitating conditions, to be a universally exchangeable and risk-capable homo economicus.
National Detritus and Cross-Hatched Wars: The Racial Project of the Refugee
Public consciousness about the refugee phenomenon reached fever pitch in the midst of the Syrian civil war as millions of displaced Syrians arrived at the gates of an increasingly fortified Europe from 2013 onward. The phrase “refugee century” (and its variations) saturated news coverage, think pieces, and scholarly research, capitalizing on renewed attention to what was observed to be a new cascading political crisis and urgent moral failure undergirding the emergence of a contemporary epoch of displacement. “Refugees and displacement,” writes Alexander Betts just days after the drowned body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shores of the European Mediterranean, “are likely to become a defining issue of the 21st century.”4
How does the global circulation of an image of a drowned Kurdish boy on the shores of the Mediterranean both mobilize and disavow the racializing project of state sovereignty through the figure of the refugee? How does the European mobilization of the refugee rhetorically undergird but materially differ from the conditions of US imperial statecraft, with devastating outcomes for other durations of coerced displacement? Betts, like others, remarks on the “refugee century” to appeal to the teleological imaginary that the state will emerge to defend the moral duty of the state to defend human rights, thereby obscuring its material history of racialization from the Cold War to the post-9/11 multisited wars on terror.
The nomination of a refugee century and the evocation of its abstract dead by scholars and journalists are neither specific to the contemporary moment nor without normative political assumptions. The refugee century has been articulated to refer to a crisis in the operation of modern state sovereignty extending back to the mid-twentieth century. In the transition from empires to state sovereignty, continental theorists and European area studies scholars have abstracted from the refugee figure to interrogate a tension in the modern nation-state: the refugee beckons an obligation to receive but instead fortifies the gatekeeping properties of the border.
For example, Michael Marrus’s landmark study examined the longue durée of mass displacement in Europe to argue that what defines the modern refugee over the last century is its exclusion from the nation-state. He writes that “unlike vagabonds or the wandering poor [preceding the twentieth century], who at least were seen as part of society, refugees often found themselves entirely outside the web of national community.”5 Although Marrus limits his claims to displacements in or movements toward Europe, the study nonetheless anchors the fundamental problem of the modern refugee (as distinct from other categories or historical periods of movement) to the ways that displaced populations are outside the web of a national community. In doing so, Marrus reproduces what Nevzat Soguk has critiqued as the regimentation of the refugee, a flattening of refugee experience that enables the nation-state to disavow the figure’s appropriation in the ideological contestation over global hegemony during the Cold War.6 Written prior to the collapse of the socialist bloc, Marrus’s study reflects an investment in the imperial nation-state as a guarantor and protector of individual freedom, able to absorb fleeing isolated populations from the socialist world.
In contrast to an investment in national community, continental theorists have turned to the refugee to critique citizenship as the basis of access to social and political life. The destabilization of Europe in the aftermath of World War II resulted in a specific attempt to contain the violence of empire that would later become the universalized condition of displacement management. To shield the global elite of Western Europe from populations fleeing from Central and Eastern Europe (who were marked as undesirable or threatening), the 1951 Refugee Convention materialized the otherwise abstract rubric of human rights, as outlined by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and standardized across Europe a system of previously arbitrary migration laws. Before the 1951 convention, refugee management in Europe was organized by a haphazard combination of loose, ad hoc multistate agreements (such as the Nansen passport system) and domestic immigration policies (such as the UK Aliens Act of 1905). In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the 1948 Universal Declaration sought to grant to all people, especially those expelled from the civil sphere of a given nation-state, a set of inviolable protections referred to as human rights. As it pertained to refugee and migration, Article 14 of the Universal Declaration outlined the right of asylum, which granted displaced subjects the entitlement of movement through and beyond national borders.
The stated aims of human rights were fundamentally incompatible with the modern system of state sovereignty. As Hannah Arendt and later Giorgio Agamben have examined, human rights fails because it amounts to little more than abstracted civil rights; rights-based protections, including human rights, require a territorial nation-state to confer and defend them.7 Under a system of state sovereignty, the nation-state has supreme authority over the territory it claims and those within them: a system of human rights cannot supersede state sovereignty, despite its claims to the contrary. Otherwise put, a state sovereign racializes and differentiates populations through the selection of privileged subjects called “citizen.” A nation-state can choose to abide (or not) by supranational laws, including those outlined by the Universal Declaration, by claiming the inviolability of state sovereignty, especially when it has the military capacity to do so. The material outcome of human rights, as Neda Atanasoski and Randall Williams, respectively, have examined, did more to incite the fortification of borders, invite humanitarian intervention, and intensify the deaths of displaced subjects than to stop them.8 While the 1948 Universal Declaration was rhetorically positioned as an antiracist approach to the conferral of benefits through the universalization of civil rights as human rights, its application and substantiation under the 1951 convention expanded the state sovereign’s capacity to racialize, or select for movement, certain populations against others.
The 1951 convention sought to smooth out the contradictions of human rights by maintaining the balance of power in the sovereign nation-state while continuing to dangle the possibility of movement through the right to asylum—a possibility to channel otherwise insurgent feelings back into the quelling straits of liberal state reformism. The 1951 convention did this through the amorphous condition of “political persecution” as a rubric for the conferral or denial of refugee status. While the convention (and its revision in 1967) was restrictive in outlining the few countries and nationalities that would be unquestionably granted refugee status, “political persecution” was more or less arbitrarily determined by any given state sovereign that signed onto it. Under this formulation, the state sovereign could selectively choose, or racialize, who would receive the (conditional) right to movement, all the while rhetorically positioning itself as an antiracist state because it is allowing noncitizen racial others to enter the nation.
In so doing, the petitioner would be further racialized by the legal performance of political persecution. Those fleeing the violence of empire would be disciplined by the sovereign state and the law to perform their injury, their “political persecution,” in order to be availed of the right to move. In effect, this allowed the sovereign state to disavow its implication in the imperial violence that produced any given episode of mass displacement by modulating the composition of the polis according to political expedience. The latter often traveled along racial and ideological lines, as I discuss later in my further examination of the racial project of the refugee. The convention therefore granted European states the legal grounding to limit refugee acceptances according to internal political objectives to control political narratives and restrict the movement of undesirable others in the creation of the ethno-racial nation-state. The convention would be universalized as the core of refugee policy, including in the United States.
Otherwise put, refugees are the instrumentalized national detritus of modern state sovereignty. I refer to national detritus as the precondition of the refugee to highlight the structures that differentiate between those who are forced to die at the border and those who have been allowed to die sometime after crossing the border. The sometime may be any variable length of time: tomorrow or some years later, after a protracted duration of slow violence, after some semblance of the good life, or after a conditional allowance becomes an order of removal. The former is rendered national detritus: the expelled, inassimilable masses of displaced subjects rendered liquid by the suspect geographies from which they fled, branded by the taint of the wars that produced them, and foreclosed from the conditions of life that have become almost entirely captured by the gridiron structure of the nation-state form. These are the lives to be made waste, toxic, poured back by the imperial state sovereign. The latter is rendered refugee: transited from a state of national detritus and pressed, collaboratively or coercively, into the subjectivities that service the nation-state. Neither appeals to abject persecution nor imminent death moves the sovereign state despite the subject’s coercive performance of either; only when national detritus suits the shifting mandates of the imperium are the gates momentarily crossed and the refugee figure invented in its wake.
The racial project of the modern refugee becomes both manifest and urgent in the crucible of cross-hatched wars. While European area studies and continental theory has usefully examined the refugee as the national detritus of modern state sovereignty, it has produced an abstract, universalized figure of the refugee and the citizen that fails to recognize the material conditions of US imperial warfare and its racecraft.9 As critical ethnic studies scholars have argued, the precarious incorporation of certain populations into the national polis has been central to the fiction of liberal multiculturalism from which the US accrues state sovereignty from the Cold War onward. In particular, critical refugee studies and Asian American studies scholars have examined how the Vietnamese refugee in particular has been put into the service of this fiction because of their entanglement with an imperial and anticommunist war against decolonial possibility.10
For example, Yen Le Espiritu has described how the incorporation of the Vietnamese refugee in the extraterritorial sovereign sites of US empire transforms the interfaces of militarized violence (such as the base and the camp) into sites of alleged safety.11 In what Espiritu has referred to as “militarized refuge(es),” Southeast Asian refugees and the geographies in which they were held were instrumentalized to obscure ongoing US imperialist operations on Guam and Hawaii and its future ambitions across the Pacific. As the mandated target of imperial rescue, the Vietnamese refugee has been conscripted into a relation of eternal debt to the nation-state, which renders their incorporation into the polis conditional on legitimating, and thereby retroactively recuperating, the wars and historical violence that produced their displacement.12
As scholarship in critical refugee studies and Asian American studies has noted, the Vietnam War’s status as a global signifier for revolution and failure of US warfare has conditioned the location of Vietnamese refugees in particular and the instrumentalization of the refugee form in general by US empire.13 Because the Vietnamese refugee was once the national detritus of a completed socialist revolution, they are selected for conditional incorporation to testify to the devastation of decolonization and to uphold the liberal multicultural fiction that the US nation-state can accommodate bodies expelled by illiberal nations. Under the Cold War and into the post-9/11 war on terror, the refugee figure is thus positioned as a rhetorically advantageous spokesperson to divorce US imperialism from the wars and displacements it produces, and against the still-live possibility of unfinished revolutions elsewhere. Attending to the material conditions of US imperialism therefore outlines the multiple racial projects of the refugee and the racial narratives the refugee is made to traffic.
The refugee’s selection out of national detritus creates differentiated populations of both. This differentiation enables one to receive conditional access to life conditions and to movement, thereby marking the other for, in Ruth Gilmore’s terms, premature death.14 To become selected to receive the legal status of refugee, national detritus must perform a racializing narrative of political persecution that divorces the US nation-state from the imperial violence that produced them. These narratives traffic racial tropes that situate the geographies fled by national detritus as illiberal, backward, out of time, and orientalized while situating the US, and therefore its violence, as the opposite.
Yet even if the refugee is selected to receive access to life conditions and to movement, its conditionality must be underscored: access to these benefits remains precarious according to the mandates of the imperial management of the domestic polis. After being granted status, the refugee is transited through old and new racial projects once within the US nation-state. Orders of removal, deportation, refoulement, relegation to the hyperghetto, incarceration, criminalization, extraordinary rendition, and other ways the state has restricted movement join up with antecedent structures of inequity to racialize the refugee into multiple refugees (a pluralization of difference through coeval racial projects layering over the category of refugee) posttransit.15
That the refugee’s access into the nation-state remains precarious posttransit indexes the fact that the inassimilable quality of national detritus never entirely leaves the refugee figure. Because the refugee is marked by the very war they are positioned to absolve, they remain ideologically suspect by the imperial nation-state that was implicated in their production despite efforts to obscure it. Otherwise put, the refugee is racialized, or marked, not just by the coercive performance of ideological alignment (at the threat of imminent death, if not) but also by the taint of ideological difference, one that turns palimpsest into spotlight in moments of imperial crisis.
Whether because they may be seen to hold the politics of the nation from which they fled or whether they might hold resentment against the sovereign whose territory they seek entrance, the refugee is racialized as the possible criminal, enemy, anarchist, illiberal, or otherwise dangerous subject. As Soguk writes, “For those who are imagined to properly belong to the nation, the operative motto might just become (as is the case nowadays), ‘The Citizens of the nation united against refugees, asylum seekers, and other displaced peoples under the state.’”16 The potential for the refugee’s futurity thus may only reside narrowly in reproducing the imperial interventionist logic of the US as humanitarian and disavowing the ideological difference that racializes them.17
While the term refugee has been used to describe the capacious experiences of displacement that exceed legal formulation, one’s proximity to death is profoundly shaped by the delivery or denial of status as a legal categorization. In underscoring this, I am not saying that refugee experience is defined solely by state logics or that conferral of status unequivocally grants the good life. Rather, I am noting that the degree to which a body can access resources and movement indicates how that body is racialized in a particular nexus of institutional inequity. Refugee status is a degree of access and therefore must be examined as a racial project of the imperial violence that upholds the modern system of competing state sovereignties.
The refugee’s position as national detritus and ideologically suspect conscripts them to paper over the contradictions of war in exchange for conditional (and usually diminished) access to the nation-state. This conditional access, out of which refugee futurity is narrowly channeled, thereby links the racialization of national detritus produced out of US anticommunist armed aggression during the Cold War to its multisited “war on terror” in the wake of 9/11.
When the stain of ideological difference is too excessive to be leveraged by imperial desire, the inviolability of state sovereignty is wielded to leave displaced subjects to physical and social death. The exceptionality of the Vietnamese refugee stands in contrast to displaced subjects who have made a claim on asylum within the US but have been categorically denied refugee status. A short list would include Central Americans and Haitians from the early 1980s to the present and now climate refugees. For these subjects, the mark of ideological suspicion also directly implicates the fundamental anti-Blackness of the US and its position as an imperial racist power abroad. The juridical technology of the refugee state thereby produces a parallel racialization through the denial of status where restricted and controlled movement marks a population for imminent death.
Thus attending to the specificity of US imperial warfare rather than the universalized refugee subject of European human-rights based claims, national detritus is more likely to be selected to become refugee if they are able to absolve the US imperial statecraft. If they are selected by the nation-state then their futures may be conditional on performing this labor. The racial project of the refugee thereby is better understood as productive of multiple racial projects: where subjects are differentially offered or denied resources through their capacity to absolve the imperial violence of the nation-state. Whether or not refugees themselves participate in this process, they are marked by the overlapping cross-hatched wars that produced them. I turn now to the op-ed genre as a form that mobilizes urgency and commands the attention of a broad audience to interrogate how these racial projects of the refugee are pressed into the capitalist mode of production through what I call the labor of absolution. This labor, encapsulated by the politics of expertise that undergirds the op-ed genre, aims to both absolve the nation-state of its imperial violence and absolve the speaking subject of the taint of ideological difference—a difference that continues to render the movement of the refugee subject precarious, suspect, or threatening posttransit.
Labor of Absolution: Refugee as Figure of Labor
Shortly after the communist victory over Saigon was announced and broadcast live over BBC Radio, Le Elston describes how tense anticipation gave way to suspended disquiet: “The spell breaks. While some stay in their beds and stare into space, others drift outside toward the cafeteria that by then was serving 20,000 refugees. It’s lunch time after all. What else is there to say? Everyone’s exhausted.”18 The stupor and listlessness of her fellow campmates, Le Elston implies, attested to their profound alienation following the dissolution of South Vietnam. Arrested in time and space, the refugee is cataleptic: “some . . . stare into space, others drift outside.” In her portrait, Vietnamese refugees retracted from the world, no longer registering hunger, thirst, or sociality. They became little more than a collection of the weak traces of their prior social selves: in a bare recognition of camp time, Le Elston evokes a mechanistic language of drift to articulate the attrition of social life illustrated by an autonomic procession toward the cafeteria—it is “lunch time after all.”
The refugee body as an abject perversion of recognizable humanity is common to the modern refugee narrative. As Vietnamese American authors such as Viet Thanh Nguyen and Andrew Lam have similarly observed in their own reflections about the aftermath of war, refugees are spatially and psychically adrift within deplorable conditions of the overcrowded barges, boats, and camps. The abject humanity of the refugee is characterized by both abstemious and voracious desire. Whereas Le Elston’s refugees can do little more than “stare into space” (a perversion defined by an extinguished state), Nguyen’s refugees “rise from dying states to march or swim toward our borders in endless waves”—the equivalent of modern-day “zombies of the world” (an abjection defined by a ravenous state).19 These narratives anchor a claim to moral outrage through these multifarious frames of grievability.
Though the experience of flight is indeed characterized by inhuman conditions of abject violence, these narratives also perform the work of legitimizing the imperial nation-state by implicitly attesting to its recuperative capacities, a rhetorical move that in turn grants authority to and valorizes the speaking subject. In these narratives, the Vietnamese refugee spokesperson directs our attention to various post–Cold War refugee crises by staking their authority in firsthand experience with or intimate proximity to a crossing decades ago: as Nguyen writes, “For people like my parents and the Syrians today, their voyages across land and sea are far more perilous than the ones undertaken by astronauts or Christopher Columbus.”20 The rhetorical encounter between the Cold War Vietnamese and the post–Cold War Syrian might enable radical affinities across time—perhaps by identifying the structural and political tendencies of the racial state and of capital’s role in producing mass displacement from the twentieth into the twenty-first century.
These op-eds are aligned with form’s intention to examine global events from an opinionated, humanistic perspective. During the 1960s, John B. Oakes, an editorial page editor of the New York Times, envisioned a section of the newspaper that would “interpret [the] age to the general public.”21 During a period when US hegemony was threatened by viable alternatives to capitalist imperium, ideological difference threatened to capture the “hearts and minds” of American subjects. The interpretation, or imbuement of meaning, of global events would thus become an urgent task and valuable technique in the fortification of the hearts and minds of American audiences against the racializing taint of ideological difference. These interpretations, which would be collated in the op-ed, debuted in the September 21, 1970, issue of the New York Times. Contrasted against traditional news reporting, the op-ed feature invited expert contributors positioned outside the field of journalism to publish focused, argumentative essays about pressing social and global issues. The op-ed quickly became a profitable form, vitalizing print news against television and radio in a period of recession: the more divisive the opinion, the more profitable.22
The liberal cast that underwrites the op-ed’s invitation of divergent perspectives masks its hegemonic deployment as an arm of the US nation-state. While the purpose and outcomes of the op-ed cannot be entirely flattened, I highlight the ways it has reified the humanitarian violence of the imperial nation-state. Because of its address to a broad audience and its demand to direct policy, the op-ed form has emerged as a genre that could channel the organizational potentialities of crisis into the narrow straits of imperial desire.
For example, studies of op-ed features in US newspapers in the month immediately after 9/11 found that despite diverging mobilizations of affect, they variously framed the event as a declaration of war, arguing in support of on-the-ground intervention in Afghanistan in a crucial moment when policy direction had yet to be clarified.23 A December 2015 report prepared for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees similarly examined how European press coverage from 2014 about refugees fleeing wars in Syria and Iraq directed public anxieties about those entering Europe through the eastern Mediterranean route. They found that the op-ed “appealed to the moral duty of ‘us’—the readers—as European citizens and called for respect for the universal declaration of human rights at the core of the European project.”24 Rather than attend to the economic grievances and political critiques against the regimes and structural forces that have produced refugees, the op-ed reshaped the crisis to deimplicate how the project of European citizenship and human rights has fortified state sovereignty and foreclosed refugee futures. Whether through liberal appeals to the universal human subject or through conservative frames of criminal, undeserving, or threatening masses, the op-ed has been used to remobilize the fortification of state sovereignty and intensify removal during episodes of imperial crisis.25
The Vietnamese refugee op-ed emerges as a particular iteration of this project. Because the expert opinion of the Vietnamese refugee comes from the direct experience of a war, the op-ed of the Vietnamese refugee can be transited to vitalize new wars with old lessons. The suspension of national status—the condition of being betwixt and between—gives rise to the abstractability of the Vietnamese refugee figure. Adrift at sea or in the camp, the Vietnamese refugee is, in these accounts, a diminished or nonhuman form of life. Characterized by excessive or extinguished desire and totally detached from a civil sphere guaranteed by a nation-state, the Vietnamese refugee, by dint of being neither here nor there, is caught between residual and emergent status.
In these op-eds, the diminished human/perverted nonhuman life of the Vietnamese refugee serves both as an origin point for rebirth into modern social order and as the basis of the commodification of the refugee’s suffering. The description of a past defined by a prior state of diminished humanity demonstrates the speaker’s development into a proper national citizen. Agamben writes that the modern nation-state’s conferral of protection and right is staked in nativity: “Nation-state means a state that makes nativity or birth [nascita] (that is, naked human life) the foundation of its own sovereignty.”26 Vietnamese refugee narratives index a virtuosic trajectory from diminished life to ideal citizen-subjecthood, a symbolic rebirth on the imperial nation-state. As reflections, they attest to the former refugee’s overcoming of the state of diminished subjectivity caused by historical and political violence.
As a speaking, writing subject, the former refugee inhabits the terrain of universality by leveraging moral demands on behalf of other refugee subjects who themselves cannot yet speak. In this way, the Vietnamese refugee op-ed, in its emergence in the post–Cold War era, is always political: the former refugee, who was once characterized by improper sociality, is now a fully articulated social subject precisely because they can speak on behalf of others. Even as their spokesperson status presupposes a flattening of specific geopolitical circumstances, it requires a disavowal of the indiscriminate violence of US armed intervention as a shared precipitating cause behind the displacement of Vietnamese and other post–Cold War refugees alike.
For example, Andrew Lam, a widely read Vietnamese diasporic author who has written three books and published numerous journal articles about Vietnamese diasporic experiences, wrote a “Letter to a Young Refugee” in 1999. The letter, published in a book of collected essays for a largely white American audience, charts how refugee subjects should perform for the humanitarian gaze. Addressing an image of an anonymous Albanian child fleeing the Kosovo war, Lam offers a variety of strategies to survive not just camp but also the saturation of media attention.
Lam offers material tips such as “rise as early as possible” and “listen to gossips and news” to stay one step ahead of what humanitarian aid is coming down the line, but also “act as helpless and as sad as possible.” Yet because the publication was designed for humanitarian spectators, the dialogue fiction of the piece is upset. The letter stands less as a document meant to impart pedagogical lessons for actual refugees and more as an index of the author’s position as an expert on refugee experience from the standpoint of having himself been transited by war. Positioning oneself as an expert of refugee experience just as the US-led war on terror and its antecedents in Eastern Europe reified humanitarian violence; this letter functions as a résumé submitted to become the spokesperson for imperial violence. As Lam states, the Albanian story is akin to “my story of a few decades ago.”27 The letter attests to the exchangeable, universal qualities of the refugee-to-citizen Vietnamese refugee.
By substituting the Albanian (or Syrian) for the Vietnamese, these op-eds conceive of the refugee category as universally exchangeable across different durations of militarized mass displacement. Deploying the refugee as the legitimating category to extend the reach of postsocialist imperialism, the parrhesiastic Vietnamese refugee inhabits the role of the expert to intervene in and reshape the subjectivity of the threatening by-products of militarized violence. By acting on behalf of another’s suffering, the expert refugee mimes the role of the imperial humanitarian nation-state. Though the expert refugee could expose the racial contradictions of the liberal nation-state, the Vietnamese refugee op-ed instead works to position the refugee category as a valuable opportunity for the imperial nation-state to recuperate itself by offering the possibility of universal personhood in spite of racial difference. As a genre, the refugee op-ed recovers national civility from uncivil contexts by hailing a moral community through an appeal to humanitarian outrage, accumulating symbolic capital for the Vietnamese refugee whose memories of flight position them as refugee spokesperson par excellence.
In this way, the Vietnamese refugee spokesperson is not just an institutional category but a figure of labor in the contemporary global market.28 From the baker to the domestic worker to the bank teller to the investment broker, each subject is pressed into the service of elite accumulation within the structures of global capitalism and navigates the heterogenous terrain of global capital in dissimilar ways. The rhetorical slippage between these working subjects obscures the differences between them. Similarly, these op-eds collapse the refugee into one abstract category. The speakers note that the contemporary crisis repeats “my story of a few decades ago” and that “I still recognize myself in those refugee eyes.”29 The spokesperson offers knowledge about the risks of accumulating value through sovereign violence. Almost like an investment broker, this figure trades on speculative information about risky subjects (contemporary refugees whose uncertain and risky behaviors are overdetermined by racism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim sentiment) to produce valuable outcomes for the racial state and its stakeholders (the citizen).
The accumulation of symbolic capital for the Vietnamese subject thus requires the existence of another refugee subject against whom expert knowledge may be staked and value leveraged. The imperial nation-state accumulates ever more risks and debts in the form of social and actual death. While the claim to human rights and humanitarian abuses has organized material discipline through sanctions, austerity policies, and restructuring, these standards are rarely applied substantively to the United States. Because of this, I focus more on the outcomes of circulating discourse and symbolic capital. Absolved of the risks and debts accrued through the historical violence that produced refugees to begin with, the nation-state is rhetorically able to “correct” past injustices without undoing its imperial modes of sovereignty. The Vietnamese refugee op-ed subsidizes the life of the nation-state against defaulted promises by incorporating a by-product of war (the refugee) back into imperial enclosure without substantively changing the structural conditions that create refugees.
The rhetoric of risk in the Vietnamese refugee op-ed joins the universal qualities of ideal citizenship with ideal economic subjectivity under global capital. As Neferti Tadiar describes, contemporary processes of accumulation are set into motion across a “racialized cleavage within society between the risk-takers, or risk-capable, and those unable to live by risk, [who] are considered ‘at risk.’”30 In my understanding, the relationship between the two is extractive: as risk-capable subjects pursue greater risks to accrue value from their potential windfalls, they are protected by distributing its potential harms across populations deemed “at-risk.” At-risk subjects become ancillary in this accumulation scheme as collateral bearing the burden of socialized losses passed on by risk-capable subjects. Martina Tazzioli has observed that the implementation of financial tools (such as prepaid cards) by NGOs in Greece has shaped refugee subjectivities to produce ideal economic subjects, surveilled their behaviors, and materially incorporated them into the global system of accumulation.31 What I argue is that these op-eds function akin to these financial tools to redistribute loss, shape subjectivity, and reorganize the social relationship between citizens and the noncitizens at whom they gaze.
The speaking subject of the Vietnamese refugee op-ed attempts to manage their own risky qualities—as a former enemy of the state—by demonstrating a newly formed risk capacity produced by the refugee passage and subsequent incorporation into the United States. As Nguyen writes about the refugee journey, “They lost nearly everything when they took the biggest risk of all and fled as refugees to the United States in 1975.”32 Recalling Le Elston’s description of the postflight psyche, the refugee subject becomes valuable precisely because they are a blank slate, entirely bare without national protection, and ready and eager to be molded into a new polis.
The reference of the abstract dead, materialized in the images of perished detritus washed ashore, comes to index a risk that did not pay off. In language of a risk that did pay off, these op-ed forms attest to a subjecthood that can assess risk and navigate them with success. The newly risk-capable subject can expertly attest to the fit of other racialized subjects from geographies deemed illiberal to produce new at-risk subjects to carry on the losses of risk-capable subjects. The labor of absolution not only absolves the nation-state of its past injustices but also absolves the Vietnamese refugee subject of the stain of risky (read: racialized) particularity that has followed them since the Cold War. In this regard, the Vietnamese refugee op-ed, which invariably extends to other refugee instantiations, labors to enable the reproduction of the precarious nation-state form—and its attendant reorganization of risk-capable/at-risk subjects—into an undetermined future.
Wages of Refugitude
In the aftermath of World War II, the refugee has been evoked by institutional actors and public intellectuals in order to organize militarized interventions staked in humanitarian concern—an approach that masks the violence of imperialism. As the global passage from empires to a system of racial nation-states throughout the twentieth century enclosed the conditions necessary for the reproduction of life, a new mode of collective alienation distinguished some populations from antecedent categories of the exiled, the itinerant, or the vagabond. Rather than an aberration, however, the modern refugee is the structural by-product and a central figure of the cross-hatched wars that sustain the modern order of state sovereignty, whose testimonies have been deployed to paper over the contradictions of the imperial nation-state.
That the existence of refugees has been used to indict the failure of nation-states should not muddle the fact that they have been equally deployed to recuperate it. National detritus, the inassimilable expelled otherwise left to die, is selected to become refugee by US imperialism at politically expedient moments to facilitate its imperial desires. By incorporating the refugee, the myth of civilizational progress is renewed against competing narratives of economic scarcity and racialized threat while the nation-state’s imperialism (or the intersection between capitalist accumulation and militarized incorporation) is obscured.
In this way, the Vietnamese refugee op-eds that I analyze perform the labor of absolution for the imperial nation-state in exchange for incorporation into the latter and the prerogative of pursuing the security and property that it appears to offer. By leveraging recuperated narratives of the Vietnam War and injecting them into contemporary durations of warfare and refugee production, the speaking subject thereby performs their entrance into full subjecthood, detached from the racializing taint of ideological suspicion and releasing (or absolving) themselves of the stain of ethnic, anticommunist, and Asiatic difference. The capital accumulated from refugee expertise can be thought of as the symbolic (and material) wage for universalizing the refugee condition through the recuperated Vietnam War narrative. These op-eds thereby do the work of securing the extraction of value from the racial project of the refugee.
Narratives about refugee futures are part and parcel of what Khatharya Um has referred to as refugitude.33 Articulated in Critical Vocabularies for Critical Refugee Studies, the term refugitude highlights the complexities of “the state, conditions, and consciousness of being a refugee” that extend beyond the length of time that the state allows them to avail themselves of that status.34 Refugitude is a capacious term, one that broadly centers refugee experience and consciousness to mobilize analysis, interpretation, and meaning-making. What I have outlined in this article is the ways that some narratives of refugitude (but not all) have been used to stake refugee futures on indefinite war in exchange for fading the taint of ideological and racial difference. The consequence of these wages of refugitude is the relegation of death for the transited masses whose labor is deemed unfit to facilitate imperial desire.
In this way, refusal might gesture toward an adjacent approach to imagining justice. In what Vinh Nguyen has referred to as refugeetude, refugee futurity is premised against the liberal humanist demand to “redeem an abject position” and instead attends to a prefigured could-be that is not-yet.35 Refugeetude is thus a “catalyst . . . for imagining justice” that “come[s] into being through contacts, attachments, and investments within everyday social and political interactions; they take form in encounters with power, that might prescribe and delimit, as well as in moments of clarity and communion, that might inspire and broaden.”36 Attending to the material relations of violence that transits different subjects across time and space thereby moves away from the nation’s imagined attachment to regimented subjectivities and territory. Refugeetude then discloses how the refusal of these wages could gesture toward unforeseen political possibilities that refuse to be pressed into the labor of facilitating, or assembling, the imperial machine, centering the ongoing organizational work done to challenge it.
While these moments of crisis might confer an important window of opportunity to issue demands that challenge the violence of imperialism and state sovereignty, their cooptation must be resisted. Refusing the wages of refugitude would unearth the inassimilable narratives, attitudes, subjectivities, and insurgent politics of national detritus made to be obscured by the instrumentalization of the refugee figure. Here refusal unearths the state of refuse that underwrites and is obscured by the state of refuge—the contaminating, toxic structures of capitalism that diminish the lives of some so that others may live. Perhaps instead of redeeming the abject, the abject could be exhumed, telling stories of boundary crossing that indict both the imperial nation-state and the nation-states out of which national detritus was produced—stories that attest to the copartnership of otherwise antagonistic nation-states in collaboratively producing the structures of violence that generate mass displacements. Exhuming the national detritus out of which the refugee was formed would enable the refugee to recirculate the toxicity of its otherwise valued assets, redirecting the transits of imperialism against itself, and decay the state from within.
Trung Phan Quoc Nguyen is a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness Department at UCSC. His research examines the sensory afterlives of war and the rhetorical circulation of Vietnamese materials under the US empire.
I thank Christine Hong, Neda Atanasoski, and Eric Porter for the intellectually capacious conversations and questions that led to this article. I also thank my two anonymous reviewers for their generous reading and sharp feedback.
1. Thuan Le Elston, “40 Years Later, Still Looking through the Eyes of a Refugee,” USA Today, May 5, 2015, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/04/19/40th-anniversary-fall-of-saigon-vietnam-war-voices/25804109.
2. Le Elston.
3. Michael Socolow, “A Profitable Public Sphere: The Creation of the New York Times Op-Ed Page,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 87, no. 2 (2010): 281.
4. Alexander Betts, “Human Migration Will Be a Defining Issue of This Century: How Best to Cope?,” Guardian, September 20, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/20/migrants-refugees-asylum-seekers-21st-century-trend.
5. Michael R. Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 4.
6. Nevzat Soguk, States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacements of Statecraft (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
7. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973).
8. Neda Atanasoski, Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Randall Williams, The Divided World: Human Rights and Its Violence (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
9. For a lucid examination that critiques the universalization of the refugee and the reification of state attachment to territory, see Liisa Mallkii, “Refugees and Exile: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to the National Order of Things,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 495–523.
10. For a sharp analysis on the afterlives of Vietnam/war as global imaginary, see the special issue on “Vietnam, War and the Global Imagination,” ed. Timothy K. August, Evyn Lê Espiritu, and Vinh Nguyen, Canadian Review of American Studies 48, no. 3 (2018).
11. Yen Le Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).
12. Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).
13. For more on Vietnam as a global signifier of revolution and its appropriations after market-oriented socialism, see Evyn Lê Espiritu, “Cold War Entanglements, Third World Solidarities: Vietnam and Palestine, 1967–75,” Canadian Review of American Studies 48, no. 3 (2018): 352–86.
14. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
15. See Eric Tang, Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015); Lynn Fujiwara, Mothers without Citizenship: Asian Immigrant Families and the Consequences of Welfare Reform (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); “The Devastating Impact of Deportation on Southeast Asian Americans,” SEARAC, 2018, https://www.searac.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/The-Devastating-Impact-of-Deportation-on-Southeast-Asian-Americans-1.pdf; Gary Kar-Chuen Chow, “Exiled Once Again: Consequences of the Congressional Expansion of Deportable Offenses on the Southeast Asian Refugee Community,” Asian American Law Journal 12, no. 1 (2005): 103–36; Sunaina Maira, “‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Muslim Citizens: Feminists, Terrorists, and U. S. Orientalisms,” Feminist Studies 35, no. 3 (2009): 631–56; David Manuel Hernández, “Carceral Shadows: Entangled Lineages and Technologies of Migrant Detention,” in Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance, ed. Robert Chase (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
16. Soguk, States and Strangers, 16.
17. I thank Christine Hong for this phrasing.
18. Le Elston, “40 Years Later.”
19. Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The Hidden Scars All Refugees Carry,” New York Times, September 2, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/03/opinion/the-hidden-scars-all-refugees-carry.html.
21. Socolow, “Profitable Public Sphere,” 283.
22. The first six months of the op-ed “produced a net profit of $112,000 on $264,900 of revenues” and $244,000 on advertisements alone. Socolow, 289.
23. See Douglas Kellner, “September 11, the Media, and War Fever,” Television and New Media 3, no. 2 (2002): 143–51; Jack Lule, “Myth and Terror in the Editorial Page: The New York Times Responds to September 11, 2001,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 79, no. 2 (2002): 275–93.
24. In Press Coverage of the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in the EU: A Content Analysis of Five European Countries, a 2015 report prepared for the UNHCR, authors Mike Berry, Inaki Garcia-Blanco, and Kerry Moore write, “In general, the op-eds appealed to the moral duty of ‘us’—the readers—as European citizens and called for respect for the universal declaration of human rights at the core of the European project” (237), https://www.unhcr.org/protection/operations/56bb369c9/press-coverage-refugee-migrant-crisis-eu-content-analysis-five-european.html.
25. This is especially manifest in the US gaze of Cuban refugees, another set of national detritus instrumentalized for anticommunist purposes by US imperialism, during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. See Susana Peña, “‘Obvious Gays’ and the State Gaze: Cuban Gay Visibility and U.S. Immigration Policy during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 16, no. 3 (2007): 482–514; Jillian Marie Jacklin, “The Cuban Refugee Criminal: Media Reporting and the Production of a Popular Image,” International Journal of Cuban Studies 11, no. 1 (2019): 61–83. In relation to Vietnamese refugees, see Yen Le Espiritu, “The ‘We-Win-Even-When-We-Lose’ Syndrome: U.S. Press Coverage of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the ‘Fall of Saigon,’” American Quarterly 58, no. 2 (2006): 329–52.
26. Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights,” Social Engineering 15 (2008): 93.
27. Andrew Lam, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (Berkeley: Heyday, 2012), 19–21.
28. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
29. Le Elston, “40 Years Later.”
30. Neferti Tadiar, “Life-Times of Disposability within Global Neoliberalism,” Social Text 31, no. 2 (2013): 21.
31. Martina Tazzioli, “Refugees’ Subjectivities, Debit Cards and Data Circuits: Financial-Humanitarianism in the Greek Migration Laboratory,” International Political Sociology (forthcoming).
32. Viet Thanh Nguyen, “John Kelly’s Ancestors Wouldn’t Have Fit in Either,” New York Times, May 19, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/19/opinion/sunday/john-kelly-refugees-immigration.html.
33. The term is referenced in Khatharya Um’s From the Land of Shadows: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora (New York: New York University Press, 2015). It is later advanced in the Critical Vocabularies section of the Critical Refugee Studies Collective website.
34. Um, From the Land of Shadows.
35. Vinh Nguyen, “Refugeetude: When Does a Refugee Stop Being a Refugee,” Social Text 37, no. 2 (2019): 111.
36. Nguyen, 111, 118.