‘No refuge’: The sign of our times

Signs are everywhere – there can be no escaping them. From the speed limit signs on our roads, to fire exits, and the signs that tell us not to smoke, signs can take many forms that help us navigate the world and instruct us how to behave. They also say something about the world in which we live.

The struggle for life

Some time ago now, I wrote a blog about a set of signs put up around my university’s hockey pitches:


While these signs certainly give an important health and safety message, they also serve to encode a series of important ‘truths’ about the world in which we live. Namely:

  1. Some activities are dangerous
  2. Dangerous activities can lead to injury or death
  3. Injury and death are very bad
  4. Follow instructions to avoid injury or death

While most sensible adults would not think to scale a 10-foot fence in normal times, the signs exist to warn us that if we did consider scaling said fence, we could potentially suffer serious long term consequences, or even death!

However, what goes unsaid here is that the sorts of people who would scale a fence to trespass on a hockey pitch are not the sorts of people who would be put off by risk of injury. In this way, the signs don’t really serve a purpose as a form of instruction. Rather, they serve to merely remind us that danger is everywhere, and injury or death are always just around the corner.

The discourse of the human

The hockey-fence example is but one of many, many signs we all see on a daily basis that serve to frame our lives as precarious. In doing so, they also instil an implicit association between instruction and safety – of following orders to avoid death.

By avoiding death, so we prolong life. And as so many of our institutions remind us, prolonging life is the most important thing we can do.[i] If we didn’t seek to prolong human life, then we’d be no better than animals.

What all of this goes to show is that ‘life’ – in particular, human life – is an artificial construct. We are ‘human’ only because we give ourselves the right to call ourselves human, and we assign human life with some value that must be protected at all costs. In doing so, we create the terms for inclusion within the group, and also create an animal Other, from which the human is set apart.[ii]

Traditionally, the ‘creation’ of human life has been the role of religion (after all, it’s only the ‘good humans’ who get into heaven). However, in more recent times, this role has also been fulfilled by politics, science and the various apparatuses of the state.

No refuge, no escape

Biopolitical signs are particularly prevalent in the world of work. My department has recently moved into a new building. As you would expect, health and safety signs are everywhere. Most prominent of which are the large ‘NO REFUGE’ signs to be found on every floor, next to the main staircase:

'No refuge' sign found in Lancaster University Management School
‘No refuge’ sign found in Lancaster University Management School

While these signs give our disabled friends a certain amount of practical advice in case of fire, they also serve a much deeper and more powerful role to enshrine precarity in the workplace.

On a somewhat darker level, they also remind us that some lives are more precarious than others. While it is perhaps not the sign-maker’s intent, there is a sub-text that reminds us that there is a certain unspoken hierarchy in the way that human life is managed and controlled. This doesn’t just include disabled people: it also includes immigrants, criminals, military enemies and of course, the homeless.

What is so interesting for me as a biopolitical scholar is how these signs are so often taken for granted. We almost expect to see them, and if we didn’t, it would seem unusual.

This is the true purpose of the health and safety signs in the new Management School building. Not to protect life as such, but rather to create it and manage as part of the operation of power.

It seems then that there is no refuge for any of us, as we are all subject to the machinations of the biopolitical state machine.

[i] This raises many questions about assisted dying. In many respects, we treat humans worse than animals when it comes to end of life. This goes to show just how systems of power construct the discourse of the human as being separate to the animal, such that we must suffer more than animals for the ‘privilege’ of being granted status as humans.

[ii] As I suggest in my thesis (and other places) we might well soon have to consider machines as a part of a new triumvirate of human-animal-machine.

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