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Visibility in Crisis: Configuring Transparency and Opacity in We Are Here’s Political Activism

by Christian Sancto

Fig. 1. We Are Here, Homeless on the street in the cold and rain after the eviction of camp Osdorp, Autumn 2012. Courtesy of the artists’ collective.

We Are Here is the vehicle by which a group of Amsterdam-based refugees attempts to make visible the conditions of crisis that envelope its members’ lives. The group is comprised of refugees whose applications for asylum in the Netherlands are, for various reasons, no longer in process. Although they remain living in the Netherlands, they have no means of income, since they are not permitted to work. At the same time the government does not provide them with housing, forcing the group to move from squatted building to squatted building, or simply to live on the streets. The refugees formed We Are Here in September 2012 to provide them with a means for having their existence in the Netherlands recognized through collective action. The group’s website recounts that it emerged from an impetus to “make themselves visible” by “start[ing] a demonstration.”1 As interest in the group among both refugees and the public quickly swelled, so did the scale of its demonstrations and the intensity of attention it received from the media. In addition to their public demonstrations, We Are Here’s activities have included the Here We Are Academy (in which some of the refugees give lessons to members of the public), media training for refugees, the We Are Here soccer team, and a large number of public workshops and talks across the Netherlands.2

In their manifesto (available on their website) the group’s project is articulated in the following terms:

Here in The Netherlands our existence is structurally denied. But this does not mean that we do not exist. We are here. We are living on the streets or in temporary shelters. We are living in a political and legal vacuum—a vacuum that can only be filled by the recognition of our situation and our needs. Our lives have been put on hold because we don’t have papers, but we refuse to have our existence denied any longer. We refuse to remain invisible. We refuse to remain victims. We demand a structural solution for anyone who is in our situation and for all others who might find themselves trapped in the same political and legal vacuum. We demand recognition of our existence. We demand our existence to be acknowledged in official policies and laws. We are here and we will remain here.3

To exist but not have that existence recognized by the institutions of law and politics: it is this juridical invisibility that conditions the critical situation in which We Are Here’s members are forced to live. As the group’s manifesto states, remaining “invisible” is correlative to remaining “victims” of this situation. For this reason, We Are Here’s primary objective is to overcome their political and juridical invisibility—they aim “to make the inhumane situation that they have to live in visible, by no longer hiding, but showing the situation of refugees that are out of procedure in The Netherlands.”4

But the centrality of the need to attain visibility for We Are Here’s political project begs the question: What kind of visibility is at stake in this context? According to the group’s manifesto, making their critical situation visible is coeval with making its members recognizable in legal and political terms; that is to say, making themselves legitimate claimants of the rights and social protections that they need. Visibility in this context thus appears to connote intelligibility, or more specifically, a degree of compatibility with the forms of intelligibility particular to the spheres of politics and law. The aim of attaining such compatibility is certainly indispensable to the impetus of We Are Here’s political activism. But, as an important strain of recent critical-theoretical work has argued, collective political action has the capacity to do more than produce legible and legitimate legal subjects; it can also call attention to the ontological limits of such notions of subjectivity in politically consequential ways. In this article I build on the trajectories of some of this scholarship to argue that the forms of visibility constituted in We Are Here’s political activities exceeds any ostensible aim of recasting its members as fully intelligible subjects before the law. Rather, the group’s activities index a politically transformative possibility emerging from the crisis of legal (in)visibility that envelopes its members’ lives.

My analysis is based on a comparative reading of Judith Butler’s theoretical account of collective rights claims and Édouard Glissant’s simultaneously ontological and political conceptualizations of transparency and opacity. The terms ‘transparency’ and ‘opacity’ have recently been the subject of a great deal of attention in academic discussions across various disciplines. For the most part, they have been applied to discussions centred on critiques of institutional accountability or state-citizen relations.5 In this paper, however, I use them to make a theoretical sketch of the kinds of visibility that pertain to the relations between collective political action and legal intelligibility in the form of rights. I focus in particular on the resonances of Glissant’s syntagma “the right to opacity” with Butler’s work on the performative dimension of “extralegal” rights claims. My main aim is to show that by exercising their “right to opacity” We Are Here exhibits a performative power capable of transforming the category of right as a site of the emergence of political subjectivities.

Antinomies of right

What forms of visibility are constituted in collective rights claims? And how do these forms of visibility modulate the emergence of political subjectivities? For Butler, the question of the visibility of political subjects is tied to the relation between two kinds of right. The first is legal rights, meaning rights that are formally inscribed in law and subject to verbal claims by individuals and groups. The second is “extralegal” rights, a term Butler uses to designate ‘rights’ that are immanent to collective action as such and are exercised by groups that, for various reasons, do not have the means of legitimately claiming the first kind of rights.

For Butler, these two forms of rights exercise correspond to two distinct but inseparable modalities of collective action. Butler argues that the possibility of accessing legal rights depends on a group’s ability to delimit itself according to a particular set of predetermined characteristics. In Precarious Life she writes:

When we argue for protection against discrimination, we argue as a group or class. And in that language and in that context, we have to present ourselves as bounded beings—distinct, recognizable, delineated, subjects before the law, a community defined by some shared features. Indeed, we must be able to use that language to secure legal protections and entitlements.6

But a group’s ability to present itself in this way is contingent on the modality by which it exercises “extralegal” rights. Butler describes this second modality in Dispossession; it consists in a moment when “the uncounted prove to be reflexive and start to count themselves, not only enumerating who they are, but ‘appearing’ in some way, exercising in that way a ‘right’ (extralegal, to be sure) to existence.”7 The distinction between the ways in which legal and extralegal rights can be claimed thus rests on an ontological distinction between the two kinds of collectivity. To make legal rights claims a group has to determine a way of delimiting its boundaries; it is only in this way that it can present itself intelligibly to the juridical institutions through which it can secure legal protections and entitlements. By contrast, ‘extralegal’ rights do not bear directly on groups characterised by particular traits; instead, these rights are characterised as “plural rights.”8  “[T]hat plurality,” Butler notes, “is not circumscribed in advance by identity, that is, it is not a struggle to which only some identities can belong.”9. It is instead a performative exercise that “seeks to expand what we mean when we say ‘we’.”10 In other words, the ‘we’ manifested in the exercise of plural rights is an entity whose boundaries are dynamic—they “expand”—rather than fixed, however temporarily.

As Karen Zivi notes, this twofold conceptualization of right turns on a parallel distinction between descriptive and performative speech acts. A descriptive notion of rights claims suggests that “to make a rights claim would be to describe something that already exists, to represent the real.”11 But Zivi asserts that, for Butler, such a notion of rights discourse can only offer a partial account of what happens when rights claims are made. This is because rights claims also carry with them a performative dimension. This dimension of rights discourse

“bring[s] into being a set of relationships or ways of being that may not have existed prior to my speaking. I am not simply representing a reality, but actively doing something in the process of making the claim, and doing something more than just making the claim itself.”12

Zivi observes that the intelligibility of a rights claim rests on the way it remains in close syntactic proximity to pre-existing discursive codes. As such, rights claims cannot but enact “the replication of norms” to the degree that they be intelligible.13 But the transformative possibility of making rights claims lies in their performative dimension, that is, in the way in which they “do more” than reproduce juridical discourse as it exists prior to its citation in a rights claim. The extralegal ‘right’ to existence that Butler describes encompasses this performative dimension of rights claims. It is not a right that can be verbally iterated since, residing outside the sphere of formal rights, it cannot be subject to descriptive iteration within legal terms. Rather, the extralegal ‘right’ to existence is a performative right, since it is by the very exercise of this right that the collective comes to constitute itself and the political subjects that comprise it are produced. As Butler writes, the exercise of extralegal rights can be seen “as a way of producing a political subject, such that the subject is a political effect of this very exercise.”14 The capacity to constitute a collective through the exercise of extralegal rights is thus a necessary condition of any legal, or descriptive, rights claim.

This analysis reveals an irreducible complexity in the modes by which groups like We Are Here attempt to attain legal and political visibility. On the one hand, for the group to effectively stake its claim to legal protections it must delimit its boundaries and establish a means of identifying itself. On the other hand, the “extralegal” rights that the group exercises as it constitutes itself indexes a dynamic form of collectivity in which logics of identity are displaced. In particular, this analysis presents difficulties when it comes to the question of how We Are Here makes itself and its lived conditions of crisis visible. What kind of visibility is at stake when a group’s boundaries are both clearly defined, for the sake of legal intelligibility, and dynamic, in the manifestation of plurality? In the following section I attempt to contend with this difficulty by bringing Butler’s analysis of rights claims into dialogue with Édouard Glissant’s politically-inflected figurations of transparency and opacity.

Transparency and opacity

Glissant develops his notions of transparency and opacity via a critique of the main ways that “the West” has historically come to understand its ‘others’. According to Glissant, an imperative for transparency has been the primary condition for making people or things understandable in the West: “If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought,” Glissant writes, “we discover that its basis is [a] requirement for transparency.”15 For Glissant, transparency describes a process of assessing an object according to one’s own means of measurement—what Glissant calls “the ideal scale”—in order to render it knowable.16 It is closely related to the gesture of grasping, which designates “the movement of hands that grab their surroundings and bring them back to themselves.”17 Transparency thus casts the subject and the object of understanding in an ineluctably hierarchical relation, one that Glissant describes as “enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy.”18

Glissant’s remarks recall earlier poststructuralist critiques of the forms of subjectivity predicated on logics of transparency, autonomy, and self-identity. Jacques Derrida’s figure of s’entendre parler (‘to hear/understand oneself speaking’), discussed in his Of Grammatology, is one example of such a critique. Derrida writes:

The voice is heard (understood) […] closest to the self as the absolute effacement of the signifier: pure auto-affection […] which does not borrow from outside of itself, in the world or in ‘reality,’ any accessory signifier, any substance of expression foreign to its own spontaneity. It is the unique experience of the signified producing itself spontaneously, from within the self, and nevertheless, as signified concept, in the element of ideality or universality. […] Within the closure of this experience, the word is lived as the elementary and undecomposable unity of the signified and the voice, of the concept and a transparent substance of expression. This experience is considered in its greatest purity—and at the same time in the condition of its possibility—as the experience of ‘being.’19

For Derrida, the “experience” of hearing oneself speak forecloses the excess of signification emerging from the signifier, folding the latter into the self-same subject and, in the same instant, calcifying the uttered word as “a transparent substance of expression.” The s’entendre parler is an experiential phenomenon that manifests its subject’s “purity” of existence via the “transparency” of its semiotic production to its physical means of enunciation. In this way the phenomenon confers a degree of ontological truth onto the subject’s notion that his/her experience is autonomously and self-reflexively produced. Indeed, Derrida has written elsewhere that this “pure auto-affection […] is no doubt the possibility for what is called subjectivity.”20 Subjective experience predicated on this “transparent substance of expression” is thus coextensive with a sense of coherence within the delimited terrain of one’s own being.

Derrida’s grammatological program aims to dismantle the basis of the auto-affective subject’s sense of coherence by elaborating the ways in which the written mark (grammè) discloses difference—or more precisely, différance, meaning both ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’). In Derrida’s argument différance comes to mark the limit of intrasubjective autonomy and, as such, the limit of transparency as a constitutive logic of subjectivity. For Glissant, however, such forms of difference risk being insufficient to the task of overcoming structures of knowledge predicated on transparency. This is because the notion of difference, though “invaluable,”21 continues to partake in processes of epistemological reduction in one’s encounters with others: “I understand your difference, or in other words, without creating a hierarchy, I relate it to my norm. I admit you to existence, within my system.”22 While difference implies “upset[ting] the hierarchy” of the scales posited by logics of transparency, it cannot but retain the epistemological functionality of those scales.23 “But,” Glissant continues, “perhaps we need to bring an end to the very notion of scale.”24 Glissant proposes opacity as a figure, at once ontological, ethical, and political, for approaching such a task.  

In contrast to transparency’s double movement of reduction and enclosure, opacity designates the imperative to “[d]isplace all reduction” in order to effectuate “subsistence within an irreducible singularity.”25 Opacity’s singularity is a form of relation that consists in both the coexistence and convergence of its elements, a characteristic Glissant compares to the weave of a fabric, in which one’s attention is drawn to “the texture of the weave and not the nature of its components.”26 Moreover, this notion of Relation, predicated on opacity, attains a dimension of collectivity via Glissant’s reconfiguration of the “Western” idea of totality.27 Glissant writes that the latter presupposes a principle of unity and thus becomes “threatened with immobility.”28 The thought of Relation, on the other hand, cleaves the principle of unity away from totality, thereby effectuating “an open totality evolving upon itself.”29 The opacity that Relation carries thus becomes “the force that drives every community: the thing that would bring us together forever and make us permanently distinctive.”30

In these passages opacity acts as a largely ontological notion. But opacity is also discussed in explicitly political and juridical terms. Glissant asserts that opacity can overcome the “barbarism” of transparency by making “[e]very Other […] a citizen and no longer a barbarian.”31 Opacity is thus framed as a condition of a political community to which membership is, in principle, closed to no-one. This assertion appears to present a political variation of the ontological concept of ”an open totality evolving upon itself.”32 But Glissant emphasises the political and legal stakes of opacity most strongly with a declaration that begins (in a modified form) and ends his chapter on opacity: “We claim/clamor for the right to opacity for everyone” (“Nous réclamons pour tous le droit à l’opacité.”)33 Curiously, while several of Glissant’s interlocutors have noted that the philosopher’s figure of opacity migrates across multiple conceptual registers,34 the repeated framing of opacity specifically as a right that can be claimed has received comparatively little interpretive attention. Why does Glissant so emphatically encase opacity in this legal nomenclature? Gerard Aching asserts that “The Martinican philosopher’s concept of opacity is […] ethical in view of his call for opacity as a human right”;35 but I want to argue here that Glissant’s claim of the right to opacity indicates something more than the sentiment that opacity, because ethical, is something that should be protected by juridical means. To do so I bring Glissant’s formulation of opacity into conversation with Butler’s elaboration of extralegal rights claims discussed above.

In the preceding section I identified two categories of rights claim in Butler’s work. The first is explicitly articulated claims to social protection by appealing to established legal frameworks. Making this kind of claim depends on the ability of a group to identify itself according to a particular set of characteristics in order to present itself to juridical and political institutions. I have referred to such rights claims as ‘descriptive’ or ‘legal’. The second category of rights claim is that which is exercised in the manifestation of a collectivity prior to its making any particular descriptive or formal rights claim. Butler calls this the exercise of a “right […] to existence,” which is by definition an “extralegal” right. Such an exercise was referred to above as ‘performative’.

Reading Butler and Glissant alongside one another suggests that the latter’s figure of opacity may be mapped onto the performative dimension of extralegal rights claims analysed by Butler. In particular, Butler’s description of performative collectivity enacts an imbrication of epistemological and visual registers in a manner very close to Glissant’s account of opacity:

[F]or political action, I must appear to others in ways I cannot know, and in this way, my body is established by perspectives that I cannot inhabit but that, surely, inhabit me. This is an important point because it is not the case that the body only establishes my own perspective; it is also what displaces that perspective and makes that displacement into a necessity. […] In this way, my body does not act alone when it acts politically. Indeed, the action emerges from the ‘between’, a spatial figure for a relation that both binds and differentiates.36

Similarly, in Precarious Life Butler comments on the opacities that inhere in using the first person plural pronoun:

One speaks, and one speaks for another, to another, and yet there is no way to collapse the distinction between the Other and oneself. When we say ‘we’ we do nothing more than designate this very problematic. We do not solve it. And perhaps it is, and ought to be, insoluble.37

In this passage ‘we’ indexes a relation in which the reduction of ‘the Other’ to a given subject’s own epistemological schemes—the reduction demanded by the logic of transparency—is interrupted. This interruption foregrounds what Butler, in the first passage cited, calls “the ‘between’.” This is a space in which the Other and oneself become neither fully separable nor entirely confluent with each other; rather, it is the site of “a relation that both binds and differentiates.” This figure of the ‘between’ might also aptly describe the field of opacities that, in Glissant’s words, “would bring us together forever and make us permanently distinctive.” Further affinities between Butler’s and Glissant’s thinking can be found with regard to the latter’s notion of totality. The reflexive and dynamic figure of “an open totality evolving upon itself” resonates with Butler’s description of collective action as an exercise that “seeks to expand what we mean when we say ‘we’.”

Moreover, the affinities between Butler’s figure of the ‘we’ constituted through collective action and Glissant’s relational opacity are suggestive for considering the specifically political and juridical valences of the latter’s syntagma “the right to opacity.” Butler describes the appearance of “the uncounted” as they begin to “count themselves” as the exercise of an extralegal ‘right’ to existence—that is, a performative ‘right’ whose exercise is a necessary condition for any formal or descriptive rights claim. This mode of appearance is coeval with the exercise of the performative form of right. It is also correlative with the claim to “plural rights” immanent to the emergence of the ‘we’. If, as I have suggested above, the ‘we’ can be said to be constituted by a field of opacities—one akin to Glissant’s metaphor of woven fabrics—it can thus be concluded that “the right to opacity” corresponds to the appearance of political subjects as they exercise their extralegal ‘right’ to existence. In the twofold structure of rights derived from Butler’s work, Glissant’s claim to “the right to opacity” thus much more strongly resembles the exercise of performative, plural rights than claims to formal, descriptive rights. Furthermore, in this analysis an added weight accrues to the subject pronoun of Glissant’s declaration ”We claim/clamor for the right to opacity for everyone.” The right to opacity is something that “[w]e claim,” but we do so not just for ourselves, but “for everyone.” Claiming the right to opacity can thus be seen as a movement immanent to any exercise that (in Butler’s phrase) “seeks to expand what we mean when we say ‘we’.” It might therefore be asserted that opacity indexes the relational consistency of collective performative action.

Conclusion: We Are Here and the right to opacity

To conclude I want to outline some of the implications of this analysis for responding to the question that has framed this article’s argument: What forms of visibility are at stake in We Are Here’s project of claiming political and legal recognition of their situation of crisis? Following the above discussion, it may be concluded that visibility in We Are Here’s collective rights claims consists in a double movement: On the one hand, a group presents its own political subjectivity as transparent and autonomous before the law, as it must in order to secure legal protection; but on the other hand, it preserves the element of opacity that makes the emergence of political subjectivity possible beyond the limits of established legal forms of intelligibility. The way in which groups like We Are Here make themselves visible can thus be described as consisting in an indeterminacy between the transparency and opacity of emergent political subjects. By asserting that although their existence is “structurally denied” in the Netherlands, they do, nonetheless, exist, We Are Here locates the precarious situation that its members endure in a space between existence and politico-legal recognition. It is from this space of precarity, too, that the group’s imperative to make itself visible emerges.

And yet, as the theoretical trajectory of this article suggests, the visibility of such a group need not be understood solely as a means to the end of legal recognition. This is because, as I have been arguing, this visibility is not equivalent to making the group’s individual members autonomous, transparent subjects before the law. This transparency is intertwined with another kind of visibility—the opacity of subjectivities that emerge in the interstices of existence and right, specifically through collective forms of political action. Moreover, it is in this exercise of their “right to opacity” that We Are Here’s political activism echoes beyond the group’s expressed desire to have its members’ existences formally recognized in political and legal frameworks. We Are Here also manifests the possibility of performatively transforming the relation between visibility and right. Thus, the forms of visibility that issue from We Are Here’s attempt to contend with its conditions of crisis—its members’ legal and political invisibility—are not only directed towards neutralising the effects of those conditions. The opacities that their activist practice weaves also bear witness to a transformative possibility emerging from within that crisis of (in)visibility itself.

  1.   “Geschiedenis van Wij Zijn Hier,” accessed February 21, 2018, http://wijzijnhier.org/tijdslijn/geschiedenis-van-wij-zijn-hier/
  2. “Geschiedenis van Wij Zijn Hier.”
  3.  “Squatting and the undocumented migrants struggle in the Netherlands,” accessed November 4, 2017. http://wijzijnhier.org/tijdslijn/squatting-and-the-undocumented-migrants-struggle-in-the-netherlands/
  4.   “Over Ons/About Us,” accessed February 21, 2018, http://wijzijnhier.org/who-we-are/
  5.  In an example of the first, social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern has analysed audit procedures in British higher education to show that the techniques of “making the invisible visible” can enact a slippage between the rhetorical effects of visibility and transparency; those professing to work in the service of greater transparency can “knowingly” eclipse inconvenient realities in this way. As such, Strathern contends that visibility can conceal as much as it reveals. As regards state-citizen relations, cultural analyst Clare Birchall describes a double standard in the concept of transparency. On the one hand, policy reformers and activist groups claim greater transparency from the government. While on the other hand, without protections on personal privacy, transparency “risks looking less like an agent of democracy and freedom and more like a tool of totalitarianism.” Marilyn Strathern, “The Tyranny of Transparency,” in British Educational Research Journal 26(3) (June 2000): 315; Clare Birchall, “Introduction to ‘Secrecy and Transparency’: The Politics of Opacity and Openness,” in Theory Culture Society 28: 7 (2011): 7-25.
  6.  Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London/New York: Verso, 2004), 24.
  7.   Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge/Malden, MA: Polity, 2013), 101.
  8.   Butler and Athanasiou, Dispossession, 24
  9. Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2015), 66
  10.   Butler and Athanasiou, Dispossession, 101.
  11.  Karen Zivi, “Rights and the Politics of Performativity,” in Judith Butler’s Precarious Politics: Critical Encounters, ed. Terrell Carver and Samuel A. Chambers (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2008): 165.
  12.  Zivi, 166
  13.  Zivi, 166
  14.  Butler, Dispossession, 101
  15.  Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189-190.
  16.  Glissant, 190
  17. Glissant, 191-2. The syntactical proximity between understanding and grasping is more clearly evident in French than in English. On this topic Glissant’s original texts reads: “Il y a dans ce verbe comprendre le mouvement des mains qui prennent l’entour et le ramènent à soi. Geste d’enfermement sinon d’appropriation.” (Edouard Glissant. Poétique de la Relation. (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1990), 206)
  18.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 190.
  19.  Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. (Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 20.
  20.  Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Translated by David B. Allison and Newton Garver. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 79. Emphasis in original.
  21.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 189
  22.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 190
  23.   Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 190
  24.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 190
  25.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 190
  26.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 190
  27.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 192
  28.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 192
  29.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 192
  30.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 194
  31.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 190
  32.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 192
  33.  Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 194  (translation modified); Glissant. Poétique de la Relation, 210
  34.  Zach Blas, for example, writes that ‘‘while Glissant’s opacity is an ethical proposition, it also can be understood as an ontological condition and a form of political legitimacy, as well.” Zach Blas, “Opacities: An Introduction,” Camera Obscura 92, Volume 31, Number 2 (2016): 49.
  35.  Gerard Aching, “The ‘Right to Opacity’ and World Literature,” (1616: Anuario de Literatura Comparada, 2, 2012): 45-6.
  36.  Butler, Assembly, 77
  37. Butler, Precarious Life, 25.

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