“Just to put it bluntly,” she says, “should I be reading this exhibition as a diagnosis of what is happening in the world right now? And am I to understand that such a diagnosis primarily concerns what is happening to Europe? Isn’t what is happening to Europe ultimately a consequence of that which Europe refuses to address, except symptomatically? Where is the ‘real’ crisis in this crisis? From where does the ‘real’ violence originate, and who is the ‘real’ stranger?”
I pause. Though numerous artists in L’Intrus are not European, it is indeed an exhibition about the problem created by Europe and its impossible imperial offspring, the United States. L’Intrus stages a range of responses to the process of fantasizing strangeness as something external to the body, at an individual level or at a collective socio-political level. I do assume that this problem originated in Europe, in the Cartesian split between body and mind, and in the evolution of that split in the form of a wish for some universal form of humanism. I say “wish” because to insist on sameness by virtue of an abstraction—the idea of the human—can and does frequently entail a disavowal of structural violence and its effects on the body. The rebuttal that “all lives matter” to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States is the evil step-child of this idea.
If there is such a thing as “real” violence, I locate its origin in the projection of strangeness proper to oneself onto another. The splitting off from, the rejection of whatever is unacceptable to the (social) body inaugurates violence. I borrow this view, in part, from Jean-Luc Nancy, who is explicit on this point in “L’Intrus,” the essay after which the exhibition is conceptually framed and titled:
My heart was becoming my own foreigner—a stranger precisely because it was inside. Yet this strangeness could only come from outside for having first emerged inside. A void suddenly opened in my chest or my soul—it’s the same thing—when it was said to me: “You must have a heart transplant.” (Jean-Luc Nancy and Susan Hanson, L'intrus. Cr: the New Centennial Review. 2.3 (2002): 4.)
Nancy’s treatise on the heart transplant provides a counter-model for representations of “strangers” by Europe, and by its ideological avatars elsewhere. Images of people in boats, in refugee camps, in shelters, in line to receive aid: these solidify a political understanding of the pictured people’s “strangeness” and their “intrusion” onto the European territory. They establish such people’s existence outside the established social order first, as the primary foundation of their identity vis-à-vis the viewer.
Prevailing images of migrants also displace the heart of the problem, projecting its cause onto the arrival of people, rather than locating it in a process internal to Europe, which incited Europeans to leave that territory for centuries in order to devour resources elsewhere. Nancy suggests that the intrusion of l’intrus begins with the gradual alienation of a heart from its “proper” physical body, and I am borrowing this metaphor to suggest that the “intrusion” of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, tourists, seasonal laborers, and so on, begins with an analogous alienation within the political body.
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