What our Waters Remember: On Wasted Bodies as Strange Fish
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Guest post by Helidah Ogude-Chambert. Helidah is a Departmental Lecturer in Migration and Development at Oxford Department of International Development. Her interdisciplinary scholarship is concerned with how political elites manipulate emotions and public discourse in ways that normalize migrant precarity and justify state practices of cruelty and racialised expulsion. She has over 15 years of professional experience working in migration and international development practice. The excerpts that are weaved into the blog are drawn from a poem entitled Strange Fish, written by Helidah Ogude-Chambert. The inclusion of the poem reflects how her writing style is influenced by decolonial feminist scholars and affect theorists who find it crucial to account for the ‘personal’ and processes of ‘being affected’ in their scholarship and praxis. By inscribing the personal, this format seeks to subvert ways of knowing that rely on ‘economic rationalist’ logics and colonial ideas of ‘reason’ in migration and borders scholarship.
In her compelling work on the representations of Black life, Christina Sharpe asks the poignant and exacting question: What does it mean to defend the dead?
When a fishing trawler carrying as many as 750 migrants capsized off the coast of Greece in June 2023, a morbid, and recurring thought came to mind. For years now, I have periodically imagined what it must feel like to die at sea…searching, hoping for a new life. A life where you are not always Black; a life not organized by agony and buoyed by death.
The poet and philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, reminds us in his essay entitled, “Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter,” that water is an element ‘which remembers the dead.’ That is, the Mediterranean Sea carries with it the countless unnamed bodies that have perished.
Indeed, Strange Fish.
Here I think not only of the matter that made up those bodies -- their limbs, their eyes, their fingers, their breasts, and hearts. But I think of what gave meaning and life to those bodies. Their unfulfilled desires, their countless regrets, their dreams. Perhaps more importantly, the Sea remembers their acts of resistance and ephemeral joys and laughter, in spite of being subjected to the global socio-economic and political terrors of racial capitalism (or cruel colonial reimaginings) that renders their lives disposable. A coloniality that establishes the racialized poor as waste.
One cannot but think of the not-too-distant past where the heavy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, still recall enslaved Africans who were thrown or dumped, or jumped, overboard in the Middle Passage. In this sense, the Sea, the Oceans, they also em(body) multiple temporalities; what Sharpe refers to as “that past not yet past, in the present.” One could say then that these multiple temporalities also illuminate the fact that the methods and practices of Black subjugation might have shifted, but the verity and architecture of this subjugation endures.
Although often rightly associated with Cedric Robinson, the late African American scholar of Black Studies and Political Science, “racial capitalism” originated in South Africa in the late 1970s. White Marxists, Martin Legassick and David Hemson, used the phrase to argue that “dismantling apartheid without overthrowing capitalism” would not do away with the forces and structures that produce and “reproduce racial inequality and the exploitation of all workers.” Said otherwise, capitalism as a mode through which an insatiable amount of capital is extracted from the productive activities of the racialized poor (and through ecological devastation) in service of a few, has always had a colonial, globalizing, and racial logic.
To be clear, many of those that perished in the events of June 2023 were already living a “social and figurative death.” A perverted version of life if you will, which at the whims of extractivist corporate forces (who have their roots in colonial oppression) and state practices of cruelty and “engineered neglect,” suffer a “slow death, a gradual decay of bodies that are both overworked and under resourced.” These overworked and under resourced are the urban unhoused; the maimed and depressed ‘collateral damage civilians’ from decades of wars and militarized invasions and occupations; the opposers of despotic and corrupt governments; the dispossessed and displaced urban waste pickers; the displaced in place; the underpaid and sexually violated domestic workers and care givers; the (un)natural human-made disaster victims; the forgotten in the rural hinterlands and the small island states; the undocumented farm workers, and miners; the under-employed and the not-employed, the hungry: the never-can-make-ends-meet, people. These are some of the subjects of racial capitalism; a systemic and structural violence that ultimately manufactures what Françoise Vergès calls “wasted lives and wasted lands.”
“Where is the life we came to live?” – Keorapetse Kgositsile
The reasons for the desperate human movements from the Global South to Europe are multiple, dynamic, and not mutually exclusive. To reduce these reasons to ‘persecution’ or ‘poverty,’ that is to label them definitively as, ‘refugees’ or ‘economic migrants,’ which is to designate who is ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ of humanitarian protection, would itself be an act of epistemic violence. If not least, it would reflect a myopic understanding of the webbed and multifarious ways in which the impacts of racial capitalism come to be embodied in people on the move. As compellingly argued by critical legal scholar, Nadine El-Enany, legal categorizations such as ‘refugee’ are paramount in enabling continued forces and processes of colonialization and racialization. These categorizations are essential in trapping the racialized poor in “regimes of recognition.” The habitual acceptance of legal categories such as ‘refugee’ obstructs how immigration laws and media discourses produce “racialized subjects and racial violence.”
The reasons why a small minority of global migrants attempt to reach the frontiers of Europe could rather be understood as a relentless will to live fuller lives, to escape the conditions of the nonhuman, or what Rob Nixon calls “long dyings”; to not merely exist as the living dead, but to resist and subvert the conditions imposed on them and their ancestors. Moreover, their movements are an assertion, as Franz Fanon told us, that “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World,” because Europe would be little without its violent plundering of the Global South’s wealth, and as such, “the wealth of imperialist countries is also our wealth.” From this perspective, their movement is fundamentally decolonial.
Therefore, we should not see the events of June 2023 as exceptional. Nor as exemplary of a fictious ‘migrant or refugee crisis,’ but rather as the logical and inevitable consequence of global systems of power that “create migrants yet criminalize migration.” European governments are among (but certainly not the only) masterminds and perpetuators of these socio-economic and political forces. European immigration policies and border practices are not legitimate forms of governance, but as I have said elsewhere, are part of “ongoing expressions of empire” and are among several state apparatus used for “global racial ordering.”
And so, how do we defend the dead? We defend the dead, in part, by accounting meticulously for who is to blame for their premature deaths.
Death by Rescue, a report produced by Forensic Oceanography at Goldsmiths, University of London, found that “institutionalised neglect…created the conditions that led to massive loss of life” during the height of the so-called European refugee crisis in 2015. Lest we forget that in April 2015 a vessel carrying 850 people capsized, and all but 28 of the vessel’s passengers, died. The report specifically notes that because European states retreated from search-and-rescue operations, the burden to rescue migrants was shifted to ill-fitted merchant ships. In this sense, “EU agencies and policymakers knowingly created the conditions that led to massive loss of life.” The report also states that “state-operated rescue was, in fact, to act as a deterrent for migrants and smugglers in the aim of stemming crossings.” However we know all too well, because research and empirics have shown us, time and time again, that punitive policies and sanctions have a negligible effect on the mobility of asylum-seekers.
Ultimately, these policies of “deterrence,” as witnessed again in June 2023, have been central in the active abandonment to premature death of the racialized poor – most of whom have geographical histories of colonization. Stated plainly, Black migrant death is a ritualized practice for European governments, often obscured from public scrutiny by corporate media’s indifference to Black lives and Black death, and instead, an obsession with valued lives; that is, often White, wealthy men’s lives.
How do we defend the dead? We tend to the dead by remaining vigilant to the ways in which racial capitalism makes us all complicit in its everyday violence and its routine production of (border) deaths. In its routine production of wasted bodies as strange fish.
This piece is inspired by Giulia Bertoluzzi’s documentary film, Strange Fish, Abel Meeropol, and Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit,” and the many dead that the Waters remember.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):H. Ogude-Chambert. (2023) What our Waters Remember: On Wasted Bodies as Strange Fish. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/10/what-our-waters-remember-wasted-bodies-strange-fish. Accessed on: 08/12/2023
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