Crossings, Bodies, Behaviours

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Through a reading of two recent films, Marc Foster’s zombie apocalypse movie, World War Z (2013) and Phillipe Loiret’s socially-realist romance, Welcome (2009) this essay attempts to think about the nature of somatic depiction in the cultural representation of refugees. This reading takes its lead from Judith Butler’s notion of appearance, both as a visible façade and the act of emergence as a form of politics, to qualify Giorgio Agamben’s formulation of politics as a kind of biopolitics that exploits the refugee as a figure of exception. In line with Butler’s intervention, this essay argues for an interpretive practice that reads the textual presentation of the body as carrying political content. That is to say that the representation of the body’s physicality orientates the body’s capacity to enter the realms of the civic. The visual appearance of the body is not a neutral manifestation of the body but rather a performative response to the state’s attempt to circumscribe the forms of political action. Following Butler’s logic, appearance can be construed as a kind of non-verbal speech-act that enters into dialogue with the institutional gatekeepers of the state. Film analysis offers a useful way of concretising the logic of Butler’s political argument especially given how commonly bodily spectacle features across a wide range of cinematic genre. Film theory has long recognised that cinema’s form relies upon the framing and manipulation of the actor’s body and this essay situates the representation of the body of the refugee within this tradition. By examining two films of quite different kinds it shows how the framing of the refugee’s body emerges as a kind of political action that serves as a demand for rights. In the sensational genre of the zombie film, the refugee appears as double figure constituting both the human victim and infected monsters that they attempt to flee. World War Z shows how the attempt of the state to contain the infection by segregating different kinds of bodies (benign and threatening) requires that it too becomes a kind of monstrous other; inflicting damage onto a host of bodies and rendering the healthy citizen a kind of living dead. At the other end of the scale, the socially realist film works by counterposing the body of the citizen and the body of the refugee to highlight the differential concepts of the human that the state must employ in order to police its boundaries. In Welcome, the border appears to require the shaping of the somatic body as a means of overcoming the restrictions on movement, Through this process the refugee might appear to take the form of threatening masculinity that occupies political discourses of securitization and that is used to rationalize border restrictions. However, as a site of somatic needs (for breath, for food, shelter and finally for burial) the body of the refugee also becomes a site of demand for rights that indicts the state’s use of the practices of exception and offers a model for critical practice that can critique the politics of asylum.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRefugee Imaginaries
Subtitle of host publicationResearch across the Humanities
EditorsEmma Cox, Sam Durrant, David Farrier, Lyndsey Stonebridge, Agnes Wooley
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9781474443227
ISBN (Print)9781474443197
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019


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