Richard Mosse, Agamben, and the political theologies of the refugee crisis

The room is dark, the soundscape diminishes into silence, and a small archipelago of spectators are solemnly sprawled on beanbags in the gloom. On one of the three large screens, projected in a peculiar monochrome, a head-scarfed woman twists to face the camera – as she does, thin stalks of vegetation intrude into the shot, like wires. This striking moment is one among many in Richard Mosse’s fifty-two-minute video Incoming, currently exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Its monochromatic cinematography is a consequence of the particular equipment that Mosse deploys in this piece, namely thermal imaging.

At several key moments, Incoming repurposes this military technology in order to disclose the banal, private moments of the refugee crisis. We see a child wandering through a holding camp, clutching a balloon; we see a man washing his face with bottled water; we see a matriarch making a bed, the pale handprint of her heat-signature left lingering on the bedclothes. In these instances, Mosse testifies to the profound limitations, the distortions, of our prevailing political vocabulary.

By bearing witness to the daily existence of the refugee, and by mediating it through the martial gaze of thermal imaging, we are repeatedly confronted with the rhetoric of security in a visual register. Shot after shot lingers over the faces of refugees. With the thermal imaging failing to pick out the details of their eyes, what we come up against is the art of dehumanisation itself.

And it is dehumanisation that is unquestionably at stake in Mosse’s work. In his programme note, he refers to the project as seeking to uncover the ‘bare life’ of refugees, thereby invoking the writings of political philosopher Giorgio Agamben. But, I feel, this citation demands another. A key contribution that Agamben has made to political philosophy is to re-examine the ways in which our secular political discourses are still inflected by theological concepts. By way of example, we may well note that Peter Dutton’s official identity, his political person so to speak, is the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

This is not a facetious observation – the term minister is not arbitrary, nor should we dismiss it as an inert relic of pre-secular government. It still denotes his position as that of a servant or instrument. But when we then ask what exactly Peter Dutton serves (or even what we think he should serve), we may start to get a sense of the theological sediment that still buttresses contemporary politics.

For Agamben, and perhaps for Mosse too, the strange breaches in our political conception of life itself are what merit special attention. After all, we exist in a culture that can, on the one hand, speak of the sanctity of life in medical ethics but, on the other, describe the bombing of a hospital as collateral damage. Holding both examples in mind, this categorisation of life as simultaneously sacred and expendable suggests a serious contradiction within our political thought, a contradiction that might be unresolvable without acknowledging the lingering political claims of theology.

As it happens, in this very vein, a question was recently posed to me, ‘How can our secular society ever comprehend radical religious beliefs?’ To my thinking, this question, and the state of politics in general, demands another more urgent question: ‘How can our secular society ever comprehend its own radical religious beliefs?’

Currently, the problems that arise from this tension seem to find their greatest concentration with regards to the refugee crisis – a crisis that, for Australian society, seems to be occurring first and foremost on a symbolic level. If nothing else, the extraordinary expenditure required to detain asylum seekers off-shore suggests that this is not a political problem of the usual order. However, we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the art of dehumanisation and the conceptual emergency of life are things that solely occur on the thresholds of our society. In an adjacent installation, Mosse invites us to look more closely, by way of example, at Wilson Security.

Wilson is a large private security company that administers security at the detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island, as part of the significantly named ‘Pacific Solution’. But, as Mosse himself notes, Wilson also provides security for the NGV, the very space in which his work is exhibited. We can discuss the public subsidisation of private security companies or, indeed, the privatisation of public security. But this overlap also ought to remind us to think more deeply about the subjects and beneficiaries of the security industry itself.

The urgency of Mosse’s images speak to the need for all of us to examine what kind of service our politics of security administers, and for whom? The political securitisation of life runs at its highest intensity – and its greatest cost – in relation to the bodies of stateless migrants. Yet to properly respond to this phenomenon, we must first become attentive to its underlying political framework, and its daily immanence in our own lives.


Image: Still from Incoming / Richard Mosse – The State of Arts

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Alexander Thom is a doctoral researcher at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. His research focuses on Giorgio Agamben, political theology and the cultural histories of banishment.

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