From sideration to consideration: Reimagining migration representations with utopian poetry


Illustration by Denis Courard.

Immigration tops the list of the main concerns in the European public opinion [1]. It is therefore hardly surprising that the current migration in the Mediterranean has a major impact on the political decisions in the European Union. If anti-migrant resentment has become a primary political argument, mobilisations from civil society in favour of vulnerable migrants have at the same time paved the way for new forms of citizen participation. Among this movement of reflection, protest and solidarity, many writers’ texts have emerged as attempts to modify the citizen’s perceptions on migration dynamics. This short presentation will observe the dialectic of utopia in three poetic essays, which condemn abusive representations of migrants and renew the collective imagination of migration in order to transform our relationship to hospitality.




In her collection of poems Ceux du large [2], Ananda Devi represents the intrinsic vulnerability of exiles colliding with borders while others watch ‘Head down arms loose’ (Devi 2017: 37) ‘the disaster movie’ (56). Her choice of poetry as a form of expression is a deliberate one. Poetry, she says, ‘adds its weight of meaning [3]’ [porte son poids] and each word ‘must convey its part of truth’ [doit contenir sa part de vérité], as a way to oppose the media and political discourses on refugees, which ‘colour [the truth] with falsehood and lies [4]’ [colorent [la vérité] de fausseté et de mensonges]. Metaphors mobilize a representational truth: they make us see the world in such a way that we can discover and recognize it at the same time [5]. And the recognition of something already known (or supposedly already known) provides an emotion [6]. In Ceux du large, the main metaphors concern the phenomena of sideration experienced by those who observe ‘stunned’, ‘These packs assaulting / Our citadels [7]’. ‘Screen images [8]’ [images-écran] – here of the Migrant invader – irrigate the imaginary field of spectators. Glare thus appears as the manifestation of the porosity of reality regimes and as the cause of a disorder of categories of perception. The success of screen images is indeed in line with the contemporary being and its essence [9], intrinsically connected to objects such as ‘our silver screen [10]’. Subjects of sideration feed off images about migration, which are illusions, dreams, or fetishes. Through their prism, spectators acknowledge the misery and suffering they expect the migrants to be experiencing, and this acknowledgement is their compassion. But in the context of the so-called ‘migration crisis’ the abundance of visual representations masks the weakness of information, analysis, and political debate [11]. Compassion, spurred on by this media context, does not, therefore, make it possible to perceive the equality of lives in the unequal distribution of precariousness. Thence Ananda Devi’s poetry denounces the era of ‘post-truth’ experienced today as the driving force of reality. Her metaphors work as dialectical images: they expose a tension between sideration and awakening from this enthrallment. According to Walter Benjamin [12], the parabolic figure of the ‘dialectical image’ is first produced out of places like a constellation from luminous eye-catching points. The constellation is a model that typifies the mortiferous fascination with utopia of modern mythology. Then the concern of the dialectical image is to find the constellation of awakening: awakening is the synthesis of dream consciousness (as thesis) and waking consciousness (as antithesis). The constellation is like a momentous conjunction, which reminds us of the effects of sideration [13] (from the Latin sidus, sideris, the star) in Devi’s metaphors. Her dialectical images take us into the spectators’ chimeras to chase the mythology that inhabits and ruins them. As such, they expose the deadly sideration with screen images, but also, and above all, the desire to wake, and to reject the part of the myth that threatened utopia freed from the dialectical image within it. I will postulate that this awakening can be triggered by an emotion, that of anger.




In Sidérer, considérer, the refugee camp near Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris embodies a dialectical image [14] that first induces sideration. However, the dialectical image shifts when anger erupts. Anger radically changes our readiness to act in the face of what we perceive as outrageous [15]. It is in this complex movement of brutal rupture that the awakening can take place, wrenching the meditative being from the hypnotic stupor that holds it close to death. In front of the migrant camp, Marielle Macé articulates anger with a certain intensity of attention, which leads to consideration (from the Latin considerare, the scrupulous contemplation of the stars). To consider in poetry is a procedural vigilance with regard to the multiple forms of life and the true ideas that are involved. Only ‘an anger smitten with rightness [16], a poetic anger, a thought of poem [17]’ [une colère éprise de justesse, une colère poétique, une pensée de poème] can require consideration, as a political and legal task, because only those whose lives are not considered to be bereaved, and therefore valuable, are burdened by precarity, legal incapacitation and a differential exposure to violence and death [18]. As peril is coming back to the present times, in the face of a disaster movie, it is a matter of seizing the dialectical image, of exploding it in order to better dissolve the ambiguity that affects it and to release its saving force as well as its intrinsic truth. 


The New Awakening of Utopia


To demand consideration through poetry is to demand that narratives about migrants be presented with rightness and treated with justice. Rather than a ‘principle of hope [19]’, it is a ‘principle of responsibility [20]’. Assuming this responsibility instils in poetry the anger necessary to rise up in the face of violence against refugees and of all forms of domination. In Frères migrants, Patrick Chamoiseau heralds sixteen propositions on the mode of duty towards migrants: ‘The poets declare that every Nation is Nation-Relation, sovereign but united, offered to the care of all and responsible for all on the baize of its borders [21]’ [Les poètes déclarent que toute Nation est Nation-Relation, souveraine mais solidaire, offerte au soin de tous et responsable de tous sur le tapis de ses frontières]. In the collective voice that carries his utopian poetic declaration is embodied the demos. The poet acknowledges the existence of a political scene, outside politics, that demands recognition, negotiation and possibly solidarity, and not just a humanitarian or security scene that induces compassion and indignation, screen-image and stupor, or fear and rejection. As such, utopian poetry extends the scope and true political meaning of democracy itself. It does not set itself the aim to end politics, but rather to elaborate in the most fertile and paradoxical – or dialectical – way a new nod of tension, a new constellation: the invention of politics, always renewed, beyond the State, even against it, which is the hallmark of utopia according to Miguel Abensour [22]. In other words, Ananda Devi, Marielle Macé and Patrick Chamoiseau open the way to what I call ‘the new awakening of utopia’ in the 21st century, a type of literary utopianism that extends the path initiated, among others, by E. Bloch and W. Benjamin in their times. Inspired by the anger over the inhuman treatment of migrants, this impetus attributes to utopian poetry the difficult task of finding the proper law to a new human experience, free of all relations of domination, which requires us to re-imagine migration representations. 


Notes and references

[1] According to the 2018 Eurobarometer.

[2] While Devi was in the United States in October 2016 amid the presidential election for the translation of one of her novels, it seemed to her that it was an opportunity to read these poems, hence the work of translation into English [Afloat] by the poetess, then into Creole [Bann nwaye], bringing together the three languages of her native Mauritius.

[3] All translations are my own.

[4] Devi, Ananda. ‘Parler des réfugiés, c’était une urgence, un cri’. TV5MONDE. Maghreb-Orient Express, 5 March 2017 (accessed on 15 December 2019).

[5] Dominicy, Marc. 2011. Poétique de l’évocation. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 130.

[6] Gouvard, Jean-Michel. 2009. ‘Poésie, parallélisme et stéréotypie dans l’œuvre d’Yves Bonnefoy’. L’Information grammaticale: Linguistique du texte poétique, 121: 16.

[7] Devi, Ananda. 2017. Ceux du large. Paris: B. Doucey, 38 and 46.

[8] Tonda, Joseph. 2015. L’Impérialisme postcolonial. Critique de la société des éblouissements. Paris: Karthala.

[9] Mbembe, Achille. 2016. Politiques de l’inimitié. Paris: La Découverte, 77-78.

[10] Devi 2017, 56.

[11] Agier, Michel. 2013. La Condition cosmopolite. L’anthropologie à l’épreuve du piège identitaire. Paris: La Découverte.

[12] In Benjamin's Passagen-werk or Arcades Project, the term ‘dialectical image’ (which apparently crystallised in conversations between Benjamin and Theodor Wiesengrund [Adorno], Gretel Karplus [Adorno], Max Horkheimer and Asja Lacis at the end of the 1920s) makes a striking appearance. More references to dialectical images can be found in other unpublished texts, such as the 1935 ‘Exposé’ of the Arcades entitled  Paris, capitale du xixe siècle. Also read Abensour who gathered and commented on Benjamin's texts on utopia: ‘Le Guetteur de rêves. Walter Benjamin et l’Utopie.’ Tumultes, 12 (Apr. 1999), 81-119; L’Utopie de Thomas More à Walter Benjamin. Paris: Sens & Tonka, 2000.

[13] The etymology of the English word ‘sideration’ from Middle French (late 16th century) syderation (itself from the Latin sidus) means harmful influence on a person's life or mental state attributed to the stars and planets.

[14] Macé refers to W. Benjamin whose papers may have passed through the Austerlitz annex camp during his exile to the United States, which he was never able to reach, fleeing from the Gestapo (2017: 13).

[15] Kreutz, Philippe. ‘L’épidictique et les émotions’. In Dominicy, Marc, and Frédéric, Madeleine (dir.). 2001. La Mise en scène des valeurs. La rhétorique de l’éloge et du blâme. Lausanne: Delachaux & Niestlé, 123.

[16] Macé plays on the root of ‘justesse’ which is, in French, the same as in ‘justice’.

[17] Macé, Marielle. 2017. Sidérer, considérer. Migrants en France. Paris: Verdier, 32.

[18] Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.

[19] Bloch, Ernst. 1976. Le Principe Espérance [1954-1959]. Paris: Gallimard.

[20] Delmas-Marty, Mireille. 2011. Les Forces imaginantes du droit (iv). Vers une communauté de valeurs? Paris: Seuil, 358.

[21] Chamoiseau, Patrick. 2017. Frères migrants. Paris: Seuil: 136.

[22] Abensour, Miguel. 2009. Pour une philosophie politique critique. Itinéraires. Paris: Sens & Tonka, 356.

Justine Feyereisen

Justine Feyereisen is a Wiener-Anspach Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford where she is conducting a project entitled “Poetics of Cosmopolitical Utopias: Challenging Borders with Literature”. She is affiliated with Wolfson College and a resident at the Maison Française d’Oxford. In October 2016, she joined the Université libre de Bruxelles and the Haute École Robert Schuman as non-tenured Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies, after a FNRS Doctoral Research Fellowship at the ULB and the Université Grenoble Alpes, and a Fulbright Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley. The results are about to be published in a monograph, “Sens. J.M.G. Le Clézio” (Classiques Garnier). She is currently the Vice-President of the Association des lecteurs de J.-M.G. Le Clézio.

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