Humans are limited in what they can experience and know by their ability to perceive through the five senses. What happens to those senses in a digital age? In this final column in my sense series, I read Mohsin Hamid’s sonorous novel Exit West as an attempt to understand the global refugee crisis through the lens of post-human sensory perception.

Hamid’s book is a window on a technologically assisted future in which the senses are enhanced by digital advances. His refugees seem powerless, but they make use of technology in unexpected ways which appear to protect them, or at least, hold at bay hostile larger forces. The real issue of migration is the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Hamid emphasises that a lack of material goods and basic amenities is the lot of global outsiders. This contrasts with the affluence of ‘natives’ in the West. However, when even the powerless have powerful technologies in their hands, things start to change. 

As philosophers such as Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayes and Rosi Braidotti have argued, the historically located figure of the human is ceding ground to the cyborg, or the post-human. This has profound implications for our understanding of the sensory world and Hamid muses on this through his customary play with genre. At first, it would seem Exit West is magical realist. Most events are related in detail and with verisimilitude, but with occasional fantastic moments. Taking a cue from children’s cultural products such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Hamid’s magical trope is of closet doors and other portals that open to the First World. In books from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland onwards, wormholes have given access to the fabular. Yet Hamid’s doors unfasten not miracles, but a grinding reality experienced by the refugee who struggles to survive in the ‘developed’ country.

Phones and drones loom large in this novel, “sniff[ing] ... out an invisible world.” Technology is both a weapon against and a mode of self-defence for Nadia and Saeed and their fellow refugees.

Hamid’s interest in how technology changes our experience of time and space, and of self and otherness, is apparent in his evocation of drones. In A Theory of the Drone, Grégoire Chamayou writes that the unmanned aerial vehicles of war place a chasm between the perpetrator and the victim of violence, creating unilateral, asymmetric warfare. The aggressors are, Chamayou avers, overwhelmingly American and victims are Afghans, Somalis, Yemenis and, “above all”, Pakistanis. An indefatigable, panoptic surveillance watches and eavesdrops online and from on high. One Pakistani from a heavily surveilled area says: “They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them.” There have also been cases of deafness caused by missiles detonated from drones. In this way, the sensorial is profoundly affected by post-human technologies.

In Exit West, sometimes audibly “prowl[ing]”, at other moments “too quiet to be heard”, drones are as ubiquitous a presence on the Western pages as in the war-torn homeland. Both airborne and terrestrial drones inspire unease, for “they suggested an unstoppable efficiency, an inhuman power.”

Yet when a miniature surveillance drone crashes through the entryway of their hovel in Marin, California, Nadia and Saeed anthropomorphise the hummingbird-sized machine. Even though its job was presumably to spy on migrants, they give it a burial and joke about offering a prayer for it. Drone technology confronts these oppressed people with the materiality of their own dehumanisation, and the authorities listening in on their lives. When the drone’s breakage renders it harmless, through mock death rites Saeed and Nadia try to bring its post-human form into the human fold.

As for the phone, it is not only a tool for listening and speaking, but also a prized possession. For the migrant it is a source of information, space of intimacy, link to home and a resource as indispensable as food. People-smugglers and migrant support networks operate on social media, making refugees dependent on their phones.

Despite their dramatic and involuntary displacement(s), migrants are digital natives. The novel figures phones as providing escapism as well as information. People hold up their screens to provide privacy in public spaces. On Saeed and Nadia’s first date, they show their interest by temporarily abandoning these shields, placing their phones screen down, “like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.” Arriving into destitute conditions on Mykonos, the couple buy SIM cards first. They sit together, discretely absorbed in catching up with the news.

Once entrenched in a dystopian refugee camp in London, Saeed and Nadia can only find a strong signal some distance away, making their access to information precarious. It is on one of her sporadic hikes to get online that Nadia has a weird experience akin to mise en abyme [the artistic technique of placing a copy of an image within itself]. On her phone’s internet browser, she thinks that she spots a photograph of herself. She is surprised, wondering “how she could both read this news and be this news”, and catches time bending in Möbius strip-fashion, before realising that the photograph’s subject is not her, but another covered woman in a war zone. In Exit West, digital technologies function as a door to a world in which the human is decentred and stable selfhood is unmoored.

Just as the black rectangles of our phones allow virtual travel to other, faraway worlds, so too the darkness of Hamid’s doorways open on to the divided spaces of the West. Possession or otherwise of a charged phone symbolises those who are connected to, or disconnected from, both their loved ones and the wider world. Meanwhile, drones divide the world into aggressors and victims, watchers and listeners, as opposed to the watched or listened to. The racialisation of these divisions is apparent: advantage is always with the whites, to black and brown people’s detriment.

In our digital age, the senses overspill the fivefold divisions used to categorise them. Hamid’s Exit West shows that for refugees, post-human sensory perception has become a matter of life and death. Far from a luxury, the phone is an indispensible tool — even if that tool can be turned against its owner like that other, more sinister technology: the surveillance drone. Migrants have been more empowered than disempowered by their devices. Technologies thus don’t just serve to enhance the senses. They also reduce the disparity, the divide, between rich natives and poor migrants in small but crucial ways.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 28th, 2018

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