I want to I present three interlinked propositions about Vukasín Nedeljković’s Asylum Archive exhibition. Firstly, just like Irish state and society had managed to ignore the workhouses, mental asylums, mother and baby homes, Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools, they also ‘manage not to know’ about the plight of asylum seekers, precisely because direct provision isolates asylum seekers, makes them dependent and makes it difficult for them to organise on a national level. Since ‘managing not to know’, or disavowing, erases the direct provision system from the Irish collective consciousness, I propose that asylum seekers represent the return of Ireland’s repressed, confronting Irish people with their own experiences of e/migration.
The second proposition explores the notion of ‘archive’, defined by Foucault as ‘a storehouse that catalogues the traces of what has been said, to consign them to future memory’, rather than as a ‘library that gathers the dust of statements and allows for their resurrection under the historian’s gaze’ (Agamben 1999: 143).
Thirdly, since residents of the direct provision system have been taking action, protesting and representing themselves, they can no longer be theorised merely as Agamben’s ‘bare life’, at the mercy of sovereign power, and must be regarded as active agents of resistance in their own right.
Managing not to know
Denial, according to Stanley Cohen, is always a paradox. In using the term ‘denial’ to describe a person’s statement ‘I didn’t know’, we have to assume she does know what she claims not to know. The public shock about the revelations since the mid-1990s about the incarceration of unmarried women in ‘mother and baby homes’ and ‘Magdalene laundries’ and about the abuse of thousands of children in Irish ‘industrial schools’ represents a disavowal of something Irish people knew but were repressing.
Ireland has an appalling history of incarceration, having locked up 31,000 people at any given time between 1926 and 1951, or one in every 100 citizens, in mental hospitals, Magdalene laundries, ‘mother and baby’ homes and industrial schools, continuing the legacy of the 1838 Irish Poor Law and the 130 workhouses catering for the destitute poor. This also applied to children – one child in every hundred was enslaved in an industrial school.
Irish institutions of incarceration were located in towns and cities throughout the country which meant that claiming ‘not to know’ was disingenuous. According to Fintan O’Toole, the system served to warn the disobedient: it was family members who forced pregnant daughters into Magdalene Laundries or ‘mother and baby homes’ and the hapless children of ‘bad’ or poor mothers into industrial schools where many were abused. The harm done to the incarcerated also taught ‘a whole society very deep habits of collusion, evasion and adaptation’.
The denial – of what we actually know – can be illuminated by Freud’s work on the unfamiliar or ‘uncanny’: ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’ which can become uncanny and frightening’. And, he writes, we often repress that which we are afraid of, which is familiar and known to us yet becomes estranged in the process of repression. And the repressed always returns to haunt.
I propose that the 1990s revelations about the Magdalene Laundries and the industrial schools that Irish society was forced to acknowledge was the return of Ireland’s repressed and preceded the choice not to know about asylum seekers dispersed to direct provision centres and living in intolerable conditions, due to their racialization and dehumanisation, removal from sight, and construction as a (financial) ‘burden’.
Like its history of incarceration, Ireland’s refugee reception history is also shocking. Having refused to admit more than 60 Jewish refugees during the Nazi era between 1933 and 1946, Ireland accepted small groups of ‘Programme Refugees’ since 1956. Asylum seekers (‘Convention Refugees’) began arriving in Ireland in the early 1990s and in July 2016 4,208 people, including 1,100 children, were housed in 35 direct provision centres. Many centres are run by for-profit companies costing the state more than 50 million euro per annum.
I propose that Irish people are adopting an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to asylum seekers in direct provision. The disavowal of asylum seekers’ living conditions makes direct provision centres ‘zones of exception’ which, according to Agamben, positions residents outside the law, between inside and outside. Direct provision centres, like similar ‘state-sponsored enclaves of non-existent rights’, ‘signal a sort of surplus of “bare life” that can no longer be contained within the political order of nation-states’ yet cannot be entirely disposed of, and is thus trapped in between spaces and statuses’. Thus isolated, asylum seekers, like residents of Ireland’s workhouses, mental hospitals, industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and ‘mother and baby homes’, are perched at the edge of Irish life, and disavowed as Irish society ‘manages not to know’ of their existence.
In 2002 I argued that asylum seekers, refugees and migrants represented the return of the repressed for an Ireland reluctant to confront the pain of e/migration. In 2016, with 16 years of direct provision, very low refugee acceptance rates, and with emigration again becoming a major social force – disavowal is again apparent. The familiar of forced emigration is returning to haunt Ireland’s collective consciousness, making Irish people disavow, yet again, the plight of people seeking refuge in their midst. In the process Freud’s familiar becomes unfamiliar, uncanny and frightening, enabling the denial not of what ‘we’ do not know, but of what ‘we’ know only too well.
In the light of Ireland’s disavowal and of ‘managing not to know’ about the direct provision system, I propose that Vukasín Nedeljković’s Asylum Archive is an archive of silence and secrets, challenging Irish society to confront the return of its repressed pain of incarceration and e/migration. Deliberately not representing the humans warehoused by the state in the direct provision centres, this archive of silence nonetheless makes visible these humans, which one might be tempted to theorize as Agamben’s ‘bare life’ – s/he who lives at the mercy of the sovereign state and who can be killed, deported or transferred with impunity, yet whose life is banned from the sacred realm of Irishness.
If Foucault’s archive aims to consign the items archived to future memory rather than simply serve the historians’ gaze, then Asylum Archive does much more. In representing the detritus of the poorhouses of Ireland’s present, the traces of robbed humanity, and the glimpses of the skies of hope and flight, Asylum Archive helps us remember that the humans incarcerated in varying states of deportability, cannot be merely thought of as ‘bare life’ and – in view of their resistance – must be regarded as active agents in their own right.
Beyond ‘bare life’
During 2014 asylum seekers staged a series of protests. Among other things, protesters spoke of inadequate food, of being unable to cook for their families, about management providing out of date, insufficient food served at specific hours and not available out of hours, leaving many children hungry.
Though I initially wanted to theorise asylum seekers as Agamben’s ‘bare life’, inmates in what he calls the ‘camp’ system, a pure space of exception, which ‘distinguishes and separates what is inside from what is outside’, their lives controlled by RIA and its agents – management and staff of the direct provision centres, this theorization was ultimately inadequate, particularly since Agamben’s ‘bare life’ is deeply Eurocentric and ignores race, while the direct provision system is deeply racialized. The disavowal of race ignores the everyday lived experiences of racial discrimination experienced by people seeking refuge from persecution, war, conflict and oppression, at the hands of white Irish state and society.
Furthermore, Agamben’s ‘bare life’ theory posits asylum seekers as passive subjects to whom everything is done, often in arbitrary and violent ways, rather than as active agents of resistance. Indeed, the 2014 protests by asylum seekers, and let me remind you there were also asylum seekers’ protests during the 1990s by ARASI – the Association of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Ireland, who were taken over by the white Irish SPIRASI – led to the establishment of MASI – Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland. The protests demonstrate that theorising asylum seekers in direct provision merely as ‘bare life’ subject to sovereign rule is Eurocentric and that the protests are ‘acts of resistance’ in the best sense of the word.
Together with these protests and the campaigns by a variety of supporters, Asylum Archive, in archiving and making visible the silences and disavowed experiences of asylum seekers in Ireland, means that the repressed is returning to haunt and we can no longer ignore the clear demands made by asylum seekers: end the direct provision system, regularise all residents, and end all deportations.