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Transit: Human Dignity and Visa Law and Policy

Transit: Human Dignity and Visa Law and Policy

When Jean Cocteau was asked to address the American “liberators” in New York in 1949, he chose to speak on “human dignity”, and addressed the gathering with “Americans, the dignity of humanity is at stake” (quoted in Conrad, x). One could argue that the dignity of humanity had already been jeopardized during World War II when countless atrocities were committed against human life and dignity. Those who managed to avoid imprisonment, to escape internment camps, and to make it to border towns and port cities faced additional and unexpected challenges in attempting to secure exit routes to other countries that were not under Nazi control. One of the more tragic cases is that of the German-Jewish philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 by taking morphine pills on learning that his transit visa had been cancelled by the Franco government, and that he would be deported back to Nazi-controlled France. He was hoping to obtain a visa that would allow him to sail to the United States via Lisbon. Increasingly, survivors and refugees faced the bewildering “consular hocus-pocus” and the “demon consuls” (Seghers, 134, 61) in attempting to secure passage to safe havens. The introduction of visas during World War II, be it transit visas, exit visas or travel visas, gave rise to new forms of discrimination that led to fundamental human rights violations and the loss of basic human dignity.

Surprisingly, despite their ubiquitous presence, very little research exists on the history and development of visa law and policy as they are practiced today. At which point in time, under what circumstances and in which politico-geographical space does the “visa” come into existence? My project is an attempt to trace this history via literary and linguistic analysis, and to develop an intertextual canvas on which the history / histories of the visa can be plotted. To do so, firstly, I analyze print sources dating from or narrativizing World War II, such as Anna Seghers’ novel Transit, which provides clues as to when the visa enters public consciousness and the everyday reality of the traveler-refugee. Secondly, I use digital resources such as the Google Books Ngram Viewer to establish the historical moment when the reality of visas enters print media, and to identify how the word / reality “visa” is represented in different languages and print genres. Thirdly, I apply the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis to the case of the “visa”, and provide a morphological and phonetic analysis of the word by contextualizing it within a variety of languages originating from different linguistic families. I then use this history to demonstrate how an inherently inequal and discriminatory system, specific to a unique socio-political circumstance, has been uncritically exported across the globe, resulting in the violation of fundamental human rights and dignities of the most vulnerable communities across the globe. Based on this research, I hope to develop an interactive digital media map platform that allows users to trace the historical development of visa law and policy both spatially and chronologically. This digital platform would visualize for users the geo-political origins, consequent transitions and historical evolution of the visa system based on data obtained from different genres of printed media across law and literature. Additionally, it would enable users to search specific text corpora between 1500 and 2008 in English, Chinese (simplified), French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, and Spanish across single or multiple genres to understand the ways in which visa laws and policies impinged on fundamental human rights and dignities in the respective linguistic cultures.

Primary Investigators: