Thursday, November 1, 2018

Metropolis Talk (This was the text of a short talk I intended to give at Metropolis but a change of format meant that I delivered most of it as part of a Q&A type panel)

I am sorry if I didn’t join you from the start of this session but I am not in a rush to hear what the minister of immigration has to say. The minister belongs to a side of politics that despises academics, has nothing but contempt to people who are sympathetic to the plight of refugees and loathes people of arab-background. I am all three, but especially now that any semblance of respect towards academics has disappeared with the brutalizing of the ARC grant process, I don’t feel obliged to be polite at all. I have nothing to say to them and they have nothing to say to me. 
In my ethnographic research on Lebanese immigrants in Lebanon I have seen many houses of returnees adorned with an Australian flag. I have heard people passionately describe how ‘wonderful’ and ‘beautiful’ Australia is. I have witnessed Lebanese Australian immigrants engage in games of competitive story-telling trying to prove to and convince Lebanese Americans or Canadians or Brazilians that Australia was best whether in terms of natural beauty or as a society. Sometime the people doing so have bitterly complained to me about racism when in Australia but when in Lebanon the memory of this racism fades. 
What marks these moments of Australian nationalism is the absence of ‘Anglos’. Or to be exact since in quite a few cases these families do have Anglo partners or friends etc, what marks them is the absence of those White/‘Anglos that endlessly yap about national cohesion whether in or outside of parliament.
Indeed from these variety of observations I have come up with a general one: the less there are Anglo Australians pestering everyone about the need to put Australia or Australian values first the more nationalist, or able to express their attachment to Australia will Australians of immigrant background be.
Note that I am not necessarily saying that this is a positive development. Lebanese-Australian nationalism can be as masculinist and as blind to the indigenous history of dispossession, exploitation and extermination on which Australian prosperity was built as any other nationalism. Still it is worth noting that it only comes to express itself freely when exists when it is not stifled by that equally masculinist and blind variety of White/‘Anglo’-Australian nationalism.
Anglo-Australian nationalism comes in two varieties, both are masculinist and colonialist but one is more celebratory of an Australian strand of anti-authoritarianism and one is celebratory of nothing but is merely authoritarian and paranoid. The difference has been characterize in different ways: the nationalism of the working class and the nationalism of the petit-bourgeoisies, the nationalism of the convicts and the nationalism of the warders. I like to charactrise it as the difference between the nationalism of those who idealise Ned Kelly and the nationalism of those who idealise the policeman who shot him. It is that petty, ugly, paranoid, violent and policing nationalism that is rising and rising today and the one immigrants have to increasingly contend with. And make no mistake it is just as present in society at large as it is present in formal political circles.
My point is that this nationalism has been the most destructive force as far as the development of a collective sense of Australian sociality. Yet here we are indulging these unsubstantiated white fantasies and debating yet again the relation between migration and social cohesion. Why? There isn’t a single bit of evidence that migration is the most important negative force affecting social cohesion or a sense of communality in Australia. There is plenty of evidence that this violent policing white nationalism has again and again played the role of injecting venom and animosity and dividing, alienating, and separating Australians from each other. So if we want to get real about Australia’s sense of communality (I am not particularly fond of the term social cohesion, but even if it is social cohesion that concerns us) than what we should be investigating is not migration but how to defeat this surge of racist policing nationalism. Let us take the policeman that shot Ned Kelly to jail rather than lay the ground for another assassination of our bushranger.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Dear White (The motion “It’s OK to be white” introduced by White Supremacist Senator Pauline Hanson denouncing “anti-white racism” and “attacks on Western civilisation” was narrowly defeated 31-28 on Monday, with the government supporting it)

Dear white*, it's ok
It's ok to be white

but it’s ok to be white and nice
It’s not ok to be White and mean,

It’s ok to be white and generous in spirit
It’s not ok to be White, envious and stingy

It’s ok to be white and ill-informed, and try to know more 
It’s not ok to be White ill-informed, ignorant and mediocre and be proud of it

It’s even ok to be white and prejudiced as long as you’re trying to work on yourself to be less prejudiced
It’s not ok to be White and prejudiced and ignore and justify your bigotry.

It's ok to be white and demand and struggle for a better life because you deserve more as a human being.
It's not ok to be White and demand a better life because you think you deserve more because you are White.

It’s also ok to be a socially unrecognised and low-achieving white and still be proud of the many wonderful cultural and scientific successes, attainments and accomplishments that white people have achieved across history, but it’s not ok to think that just because you share the same skin colour with those high achievers that their achievements have something to do with skin colour and are yours only. Most of these great white achievers wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole, so stop acting as if you represent them.

It’s ok to be white and be the descendant  of people who have plundered, exterminated, enslaved and subjugated other peoples and their lands across this planet, if you recognise it and deal with its consequences. It’s not ok to be a White who is aspiring to perpetuate what your ancestors have done in this regard.

If you don’t recognise any of this no amount of official and non-official declarations and proclamations will change the fact that you are a shitty White, a racist scum, and a scourge on all of us, white and non-white, who are struggling to make this already damaged planet as bearable to live in as possible.

On the other hand, you would be so great if you recognise all this. 

So: why settle with being ok when you can be great?

* In this text I use white to mean a white-skinned person (which as many academic works have shown is a far less straight-forward description than it might first appear). On the other hand, I use White with a capital W to indicate a White who has a conscious or unconscious investment in a Whiteness that they think they possess. It is someone who mistakes, in a classically racist way, an identification with their skin colour, as they imagine it, for an identification with Western Civilisation, and, someone who derives as a result of their identification with White skin colour, as they imagine it, a national and colonial sense of supremacy, that is, someone who thinks that their skin colour, as they imagine it, entitles them to certain privileges over and above what other beings are entitled to. (For a more in depth discussion of this complicated process of identification see my book White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society).

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Regarding the film 'the insult'

Last night I saw the Lebanese film 'The Insult' with some friends in Sydney. I had already seen it with Greg Burris when it first came out in Beirut. I enjoyed the film the first time and I enjoyed it again the second time. It goes without saying that it is an excellent film as far as directing, camera work and acting by all those concerned. I don't think many would dispute that. The more difficult question and the one that has given rise to many controversies is the content. ( I am concentrating on the film - there is also a controversy around the director for filming his previous film The Attack in Israel, not just going there but using Israeli labour, Israeli institutions etc...)
The movie starts with someone who is for all practical purposes a hard core Christian Lebanese (this has as little to do with religion as the description of someone as 'a hard core Irish Catholic'). The viewer is invited to see him as a classical Christian right-winger who oozes anti-Palestinian prejudices and that it is only such prejudice that can explain why he is after the Palestinian foreman who 'insulted' him.
But then the film dramatically turns the tables and invite us to sympathise and understand this Christian's anti-Palestinian prejudices by locating their source in a famous historical event during the Lebanese civil war that involved the Palestinian/Lebanese Leftists invading the isolated Christian Lebanese town of Damour and massacring many of its inhabitants and turning the survivors into refugees.
I think the film maker is *affectively* quite sympathetic to the idea articulated by one of the characters of the film and that is that 'all sides of the Lebanese political scene have suffered, but some suffering (that of the Palestinians) is more recognised nationally and internationally while the Christians' suffering is neither recognised nor allowed to express itself publicly in post-war Lebanon'. 
While the film says and shows all the right things about the reality in which the Palestinians in Lebanon exist: prejudice, discrimination, lack of rights, poverty, etc... all of it however is presented as if it exists in the order of this 'etc.' That is, it is more often than not normalised and presented to the viewer in a way that does not create an 'overly outraged' identification with the Palestinian subject. This is more retrospectively experienced. For, when we get to what the Christians of Damour have suffered at the hands of the Palestinians and the Left we get a horrendous, detailed and sustained historical footage. There is no doubt that this footage has an exceptional dramatic impact on the unfolding of the film. and it works well. Personally the footage took me back to the rawness of the Lebanese civil war and I was very affected by it.
But, in one way, this footage is a bit of a cheap shot. I don't want to be absolutist here and I am glad the footage was there. It raises issues that I am happy to see them raised in a film destined to be seen by a wide Lebanese audience.
Still, the fact remains that the whole Damour massacre-Christian prejudice connection operates like the famous Lacanian formula of the cause that comes after its effect. The Christian right's prejudice towards the Palestinians is a form of prejudiced racism that was hardly dependent on a 'rational cause' that led for it to come into existence. It predates the Lebanese civil war and is in part an extension of the Lebanese Christian colonialist sympathies and racism towards muslims. So the Damour massacre here, to continue with another Lacanian image, is a psychologically comforting reality: It is always comforting to find a good reason to hate someone you hate for no reason.
Let me explain this in a western context: Let's say you make a movie about someone X who is shown to be prejudiced about refugees. but then you show that fifteen years ago a person of refugee background has tried to rob X's house and in the process killed his wife. There is no reason why we can't imagine such an event occurring and it'll make for some good drama and everything in the film may well be of the order of a reality that can possibly unfold. There is no problem about that. the only problem is to let the viewers think that X's prejudice against refugees stands for the prejudice refugees experience in the west in general. To me this is the weakest point in the portrayal of the link between the macro and micro social processes that the movie explores.
For all that, I think this is a good film that offers an intelligent space for thinking and talking about the sense of injury that is articulated to various forms of politics. Needless to say, this articulation is not just part of Lebanese politics but is part of global politics today.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Encountering the Cannibal: Melbourne University Open Day Introduction to Anthropology

Whether it is medicine or psychology or astronomy university subjects aim at professionalizing what is an ordinary experience pursued with varying intensity by people in their everyday life. Medicating the body and thinking about the body in medical terms did not begin, nor does it end, with the study of medicine at university: people think medically about their bodies and the bodies of others all the time. Even with the rise of medicine as a profession people are wont to leave ‘thinking medically’ to medical doctors. There are always people who will tell you they know better than the doctor without them having pursued any medical studies. Such people often claim that what they know, they know from experience. Such experiential knowledge acquired in everyday life should not be discounted. It is a problem however when people who claim it as a source of knowledge think that those studying medicine at university stop having experiential knowledge. University knowledge comes on top of, not instead of experiential knowledge. In medicine, it gives you access to an accumulated, extensive, formalised, institutionalised and rigorous way of thinking and doing medicine that one can only access through hard work, at university.

Anthropology is no different. One of its primary objects is the way we reflect on our experience of cultural difference. This is something people do all the time from very early in life. For most of us, the earliest experience of cultural difference is when we get to visit our friend’s house for the first time, perhaps for a sleepover, and discover that they do a number of things differently in their household. In many ways, our first pre-anthropological anthropology is when we go home and report to our parents or siblings on the experience: ‘You should see what they have for breakfast!’ or ‘I can’t believe how they talk to their mum and dad!’. We engage in our first comparative analysis without necessarily calling it so. From this early experience of cultural difference we move to more elaborate experiences of travelling and encountering cultural differences connected to studying away from home and travel.  We move from ‘you should see what the neighbours do’ to ‘you should see what they do in Kerala (assuming you’re not from Kerala)’ or ‘It’s seriously weird how they live on the Gold Coast in Queensland (assuming you’re not from there).’ Our life involves then continuous reflections on such encounters with difference and a continuous engagement in comparative cultural thinking. Anthropology offers on top of this everyday reflection, a formalised, institutionalised and rigorous way of investigating and thinking about how we do this kind of reflection.

Even for those who do not wish to become professionals, anthropology involves a reflection on the pitfalls of such everyday comparative thinking such as ethnocentrism and the hierarchical classification of cultures. It is one thing to note that unlike you who spreads a small quantity of it on your toast, the neighbours like their breakfast vegemite piled on theirs, it is another to think that your mode of eating it is normal and while theirs isn’t. This is an early sign of ethnocentrism. You note that your friend’s dad doesn’t have a dryer and hangs the clothe on the line and you think that your household is more ‘advanced’ and that they are ‘backward’ because you use the latest dryer.  Note your friend might come to your house and note that you use a dryer and decide that you and your parents are ‘backward’ because you still seem unconscious of the imperatives of global warming. Anthropologists are not immune from ethnocentrism and ‘cultural hierarchy’-mode of thinking but anthropology over the years has provided us with important tools to help us avoid such pitfalls, or at the very least, when we feel we want to be ethnocentric, to do so fully aware of the pitfalls of how we are thinking.

This is why cannibalism offers a good ground for highlighting the way anthropologists think. For cannibalism often invites the strongest forms of ethnocentrism. Even a person who is otherwise a committed cultural relativist, who always thrives on ‘respecting other cultures’, will find it hard to say: ‘ah well, in your culture you eat people, in my culture we don’t, that fine by me’. Cannibalism also invites a strong hierarchical mode of thinking. It often conjures images of backwardness, barbarism and primitiveness. But Claude Levi-Strauss has argued that there are certain cultural continuities between cannibalism and other forms of eating in the world. For instance, he argued that endo-cannibals (people who eat their own people, usually eating a bit of an ancestor as a demonstration of love and to ingest his or her spirit) tend to boil the human meat that they are eating, while exo-cannibals (those who eat the meat of others, usually eating a bit of a worthy enemy warrior again to ingest their warring spirit) tend to grill the meat. Levi-Strauss argues that this is in continuity with our own habits of favouring stews for homely endo-dining (eating among ourselves, such as in a family dinner) while bar-b-ques are favoured for exo-dining (eating with others in a social event).  This is why as one anthropologist noted it is more often than not men who do the bar-b-que while women, as symbols of homeliness, are associated with making stews. Stews, Levi-Strauss also stresses, are more located in the realm of culture in that one needs a cultural utensil like a pot in order to stew, while grilling is the unmediated, or only relatively mediated, action of nature on nature: meat on fire. This might not seem much but such type of thinking helps bring cannibalism in from the wild, as it were, by showing that far from being a sign of wilderness, it is a cultural form like any other cultural form and shares with other cultural forms some important characteristics.

Another important way of thinking cannibalism anthropologically is to reflect on it as a mode of ‘eating our own’ with an emphasis on what ‘our own’ means. Our society highlights a human/non-human divide when we think what is edible. Societies that engage in cannibalism also have a divide between what is and isn’t edible except it is not as anthropocentric as ours. They see the divide as between some humans, animals and plants and other humans and animals and plants. They consider some plants and animals and even the landscape as ‘one of them’ more so than other humans. For them eating such plants and animals is considered taboo and is just as sacrilegious as cannibalism appears to us. We can see a continuity today between such cannibalistic forms of thinking human commonality with animals, and current vegetarian and, even more so, vegan, modes of thinking which redefine the boundaries of what is the edible ‘non-us’ and the non-edible us. 
I am sure some tabloid newspapers, those great experts in university education, will tell you otherwise, but anthropology does not invite us to become ‘pro-cannibal’. It will allow us, however, to be open to what we can learn from cannibalism in terms of other ways of thinking our relation to nature in these times where such alternative modes of thinking are so necessary in the face of global warming.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Marcel Mauss' The Gift: the 3,493,654th take on the book

I was reading Bourdieu’s Anthropologie Politique to introduce the students to his theory of practice via a reflection on his take on the gift and the way he distinguished himself from Mauss and Levi-Strauss. As it turned out the first lecture of Anthropologie Politique (the text is a transcript of his 1993 lectures on the topic) has a sustained critique of Derrida’s take on the gift. I actually came to realise that both Derrida and Bourdieu miss an important dimension of the gift that I highlight in Is Racism an Environmental Threat? So here we go. According to my calculations this has to be the 3,493,654th take on the Gift. and I am sure there will be many more to come for as long as somebody finds White Male Western Anthropologists interesting despite their sins. I’ll concentrate on Derrida.
Derrida critiques Mauss by basically saying that the gift is impossible. It’s a version of what he calls unconditional hospitality. He basically says that for the gift to be a gift it has to be radically non-calculative and non-obliging: The person giving the gift has to do so without noticing that s/he has given one so that she doesn’t experience that she is owed something in return. The person receiving has to not notice that s/he has received one so that s/he doesn’t experience a sense of owing anybody anything. Bourdieu disagrees with Derrida about many things but he basically agrees that the gift is what he calls ‘an intrusion’.
The problem is that both Bourdieu and Derrida start with an ideal of autonomous sovereign people. Derrida basically is saying that if you come out of the train station and see a beggar and want to give him a gift the key problem is how to give this beggar in a way to ensure that you both quickly forget that the encounter has taken place, without feeling that you are owed something for giving and without making the beggar feel that they owe you something for receiving.
But the idea that feeling like you morally owe somebody something, that you have an obligation towards them, is a bad thing is so Modern Western Individualist as an ethics. For what is wrong with obligating and feeling obligated? From another perspective to carry each other’s obligations is to celebrate our relationality. To accept your gift and feel the obligation to return it is to accept the fact that I am related to you. The carrying of the burden of the gift’s obligation is a celebration of the relation. That is Mauss’ starting point. Derrida (and Bourdieu in a different way) begin by seeing in the beggar another autonomous sovereign individual whose autonomy and sovereignty needs to be protected and respected. It’s like how to give the beggar a gift but leave him and oneself alone. Mauss does the opposite. The moment you see the beggar you are faced with your unavoidable relation to this beggar. You are faced precisely with the fact that you are not alone. The starting point is not autonomous sovereign individuals but always already inevitably related individuals. To give and run away from the beggar is to be radically blind to what ties us together. It is to avoid wanting to have a relation with them. There is nothing ethical about that. This is why for Mauss the gift, not only is, but has to be acknowledged. The gift is the acknowledgment of a relationality that precedes the gift and is affirmed and recognised by it. To accept being indebted to others is to agree to carry the burden (but also the joy) of having a relation with them. Of course, giving and receiving can become a relation of power with the givers and receivers always being the same and lead to a distorted sociality, but it is a sociality nonetheless.
This is why Derrida’s unconditional hospitality, while offering a potent critique of Kantian hospitality: I don’t want to ‘offer hospitality’ for I would subject the other to my law, is at the same time anti or at least a-social. The opposite of a bad relation should not be ‘no relation’, a relation is by definition a strength and a burden that both sides of the relation need to carry and negotiate.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Afterword to 'Decolonizing the Curriculum', Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Winter 2018

This thought-provoking collection of essays treats the decolonization of the university from a variety of perspectives. It explores a wide variety of issues starting with the decolonization of the content of the curriculum and up to the decolonization of teaching as a practice. In so doing, it opens up a rich space of reflection. I feel privileged to be given the opportunity to dwell in this space and to write this afterword.
I’ve always aimed to make both my writing and my teaching conscious and critical of, and endeavoring to offer an alternative to, the way colonialism has marked and continues to mark anthropological thought and practice. When I started teaching in the late 1980s I often found myself as the only ‘non-Anglo-Celtic’, as we say in Australia, in the staff room. I have had situations where students looked visibly stunned that a non-Anglo-Celtic voice of academic authority was directed at them in the classroom (mostly pleasantly but on the odd occasion not). I have also dealt with a number of situations where students would come to me to say that they had problems with my accent. It was mainly students from an exceptionally insular background as I know that my accent is hardly of the incomprehensible variety to most ears. Luckily, most found me engaged and engaging, so they didn’t say this about me behind my back but felt comfortable telling it to me in my face. I remember starting to use my accent playfully to challenge the students with it by making it a political issue. I consciously used my position to habituate White students to the very idea of a non-White voice that can have something to tell them. Likewise, I encouraged non-white students to believe, not by talking about it, but performatively, that they are not always destined to be the listening subjects and that they can be listened to. And I was always made aware, by the realities unfolding before me, of the ways complex dynamics of class, gender and sexuality were always there practically intersecting within the above processes.
Likewise, in my early post-PhD writings, particularly in White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (Hage, 2000), I played the fact that I was a Lebanese-background Australian researching White Anglo-Celtic Australians for all its worth to try and challenge the dominant expectations about the identities of the researching and the researched subjects. Nonetheless, I thought mainly with white European males, especially from Marx to Bourdieu. This was so even when, as an anthropologist, I thought it crucial to be open and able to respect and take seriously the thinking of the colonized other as an object of research. It took me a while before I internalized the anthropological tradition which thought that the higher critical aim of anthropology was not to respect and direct one’s (Western) thought to think the other but to understand and direct the thought of the other to think oneself. But I was already thinking along such lines when I encountered Povinelli’s ‘otherwise’ (2012), and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s wonderful description of anthropology as ‘the permanent decolonization of thought’ (2014) along with the wider tradition which has been referred to as ‘the ontological turn’ by some (Holbraad and Pedersen, 2017) and, more recently, ‘comparative metaphysics’ (Skafish, 2016). In the encounters with such trends I immediately felt ‘yes, this is what I aspire to do in my writing’. The ‘permanent’ bit of Viveiros de Castro’s sentence was particularly evocative to me. I see colonialism in the same way my friend the late Patrick Wolfe so neatly put it regarding settler-colonialism: it is ‘a structure not an event’. And by that very fact it also makes it ‘a culture not an event’. Its influence is defused throughout the world we inhabit, and, crucially, decolonization of thought is not just about dealing with the effect of the past on the present. Colonial thought continues to re-formulate itself anew and to find new niches in which to instill itself in all disciplines because colonialism itself continues to renew itself in all kind of ways and to find new niches to instill itself in a multiplicity of spaces. Thus, the appeal of a critical thought that is in a permanent state of vigilance and permanent state of reworking itself to disallow itself to ever become a colonized or a colonizing structure. 
Despite the above, I cannot say that I always feel familiar with all dimensions of the recent debates about decolonization, nor even that they are all easily within my intellectual reach. I also sometimes feel taken aback by the intensity of the affect between postcolonials and decolonials that reminds me of arguments between Trotskyist groups I have witnessed in the past. The issues raised sometimes seem to have emerged from a ground that is different to the ground in which my thought had been developing. Perhaps my positioning, first, within Australian settler-colonialism and the way it articulates racism towards indigenous people and racism towards immigrants from non-White/non-First-World background, and, second, within the Middle East in the face of the defining Israeli colonial-settler project, explains some of this. Neither of these two regions, nor the struggles that are happening within them, have greatly influenced the current global debates about the post-colonial and the de-colonial in anthropology. There is of course the over-arching work of Edward Said, as one of the papers makes clear. But it is the Said that is treating the West-Orient configuration rather than colonialism in Palestine that is the main template in these debates. The post-colonial/decolonial debates, and I am really relating my impressions here rather than some well-researched history, seem more influenced by the struggles that are happening within a North-American, South-Asian, South-African and to a lesser extent South American geography. This is all to say that I feel I am continuously being exposed to new arguments and directions, and at the same time exploring the connections and the differences between these new arguments and directions and mine.
One positive change has to do with the centring of feminist issues within rather than beside colonial issues. While in the initial work I have done on race and colonialism I always thought that in critiquing colonialism one could learn from the way feminists critiqued patriarchy, today the emphasis is more on the intimate entanglement between the two. Not that using feminism analogically needs to be devalued. My early usage of the category ‘Third-world-looking-people’ in White Nation is inspired by the differentiation that feminists introduced between what a word really means and what it claims it means. Such as with the now classical deconstruction of the word ‘man’ to show that it continues to have an exclusionary and devalorising ‘man not woman’ embedded in it even when some people are committed to using it in a non-gendered manner. By analogy, though in a different way, I thought that all the neat words that Australian bureaucrats use such as ‘Non-English-Speaking-Background’ hid in their underbelly an exclusionary and devalorising aesthetic imaginary that fused negative class and phenotypical types, and that I rendered as ‘Third-world-looking-people’. The object of this racism is imagined to involve a combination of what the racists consider as non-White, ‘ugly’ and ‘not-modern’. Here, a beautiful, tall and trendy Eritrean model is not ‘Third-world-looking’ and is less likely to be subjected to racism. 
Another positive difference that I note with the new wave of arguments concerning decolonization is a more affirmative sense of entitlement. It reminds me of the difference between the way first and second generation immigrants relate to racism. First generation immigrants can tell me horrendous stories story of being subjected to some seriously vile racism. But they often finish with a kind of acceptance of what they are enduring as normal, even as something that they deserve by the mere fact of migrating. Their kids on the other hand can be subjected to much less but find it far more unacceptable and see themselves as entitled to better, à la: ‘fucking cops I can’t walk the streets without them giving me a bad look’. I think this entitlement to better seems to be very present in the more recent wave of decolonial thinking. And while it is not necessarily generational in the case of the university, as it can be grounded in a variety of sociological variables, I am sure generational differences do play a role. For instance, there is a difference between a department or a school or a university which doesn’t include enough third-world-looking people and where this minority sits there silently enduring, deploring (but sometimes also enjoying) their minority status and their underrepresentation, and a department which doesn’t include enough third-world-looking people but includes just enough to make them feel capable of saying ‘this department doesn’t include enough third-world looking people’. Likewise, in fighting for a decolonised curriculum in universities, one needs a certain form of entitlement to move from a struggle for symbolic inclusion of non-White thinkers to a whole scale short-circuiting of the colonial symbolic inheritance of future White generations.
There remains, of course, some unresolved, and probably unresolvable, tensions. These are not necessarily a negative feature of the struggle for decolonisation. Spaces of unresolvable tension are often the source of genuine creativity. Sometimes, for instance, one can see in the literature on decolonization an opposition between anthropological knowledge which is a professionalized western knowledge of otherness and folk non-western knowledge of otherness. Here we see an interesting tension emerge: is decolonization de-professionalisation? Does it have to be? I doubt there is ‘an’ answer to this. But reflecting on the question is clearly an intellectually enriching pursuit.
There is an even more perennial tension between decolonization as a weapon and decolonization as an end. Ritty Lukose insists on seeing feminism within the university as ‘in and of this world’. But surely this is true of the university as a whole. Thus the general question: Is the struggle to decolonize the curriculum or the university a way of creating decolonized bubbles in an otherwise colonized social space, or is it about creating a generation of cultural fighters who extend the struggle for decolonization from the university to its outside? Likewise, one can launch a process of decolonization from within the university but one cannot hope to ‘decolonize the university’ without having decolonized everything. Or, at least, there is a limit to the extent to which the university can be decolonized without having decolonized the more general culture and the other social institutions of the society concerned.
Another space of tension the papers made me think about resides in the difference between decolonization as a unitary struggle and the meaning of particularly situated struggles for decolonization. Jamaican, Middle Eastern, African and Asian-located struggle all partake in the process of decolonization. Are they all necessarily the same kind of decolonization? And in what ways are they compatible or incompatible? A sociology of this plurality that delineates areas of similarity and areas of difference seems crucial.
There is also the question of the tensions and the compatibilities between decolonization and the opposition to neo-liberalism. Let me end with this and with what is perhaps a defensive note. But I hope a productive one. It concerns my call for anthropologists to ‘respect the elders’ mentioned by Mogstad, Tse and Morningstar. I find it interesting that people only see this as a defense of the canons and no one picked up the de-colonial and anti-neo-liberal move embodied in the call. I hope no one thinks that I was expressing some ‘primordial’ middle-eastern desire for traditional authority!
So I’d like to make the logic behind it very explicit: First of all, I was hoping that there is an obvious anti-‘colonial modernity’ playfulness in the call given that it sounds incredibly anachronistic. It belongs either to another time or to another more traditional culture. Indeed, in many parts of the world, the modernization that came with colonialism can be seen to kick-in the moment people stop thinking in terms of respecting their elders. ‘Respecting the elders’ has to do with respecting the wisdom they are supposed to have accumulated, and the idea that ‘elders’ have accumulated wisdom to bestow on the next generation represents a non-modern pace of change where this accumulated knowledge is still relevant. Modernity in general, but particularly colonial modernity, always aimed to short-circuit this inter-generational traffic. Neo-liberal modernity pushes this to an extreme where it encourages us to think each generation is starting from scratch and every day involves a ‘revolution’: a revolution in everything except an actual revolution. So, a call to respect one’s elders is a call to refuse this celebration of false ‘fresh starts’.
But there is another important dimension to perceiving certain anthropologists as repositories of accumulated experience. Readers of academic texts are encouraged to experience reading as a form of consumption, whereby texts are available to us as if we are shopping in a vitrine, and as with buying shampoo, we proceed to look at the variety available to us and buy and consume the text that we like. But as with what Marx described as commodity fetishism, indeed as an instance of it, this process of consumption disallows us to experience the concrete labour that goes into the writing of a piece of academic work (both the labour of writing and the dead-labour that one brings into the writing process). It is a quaint neo-liberal ‘democratic’ view of things that wants all products of knowledge production to be of the same order. It takes us an hour to ‘like’, ‘dislike’ and even rubbish something that has taken years to write and that can on top of this embody a long history of reading, thinking and writing that are also present in the text. It is in this sense that I see in the call to ‘respect the elders’ both a de-colonial and an anti-capitalist experience of consuming knowledge. But I am also aware that the ‘elders’ like ‘man’ has a long gendered imaginary.

Charbonnier, P., Salmon, G. and Skafish, P. 2016. Comparative Metaphysics. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hage, Ghassan. 2000. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Routledge. 
Holbraad, Martin and Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2017. The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2012. “The Will to Be Otherwise / The Effort of Endurance,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, 111, 3: 453–75.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2014. Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology. Univocal. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Intro to Inside and outside the law (Social Analysis, Volume 62, Issue 3, Autumn 2018, 1–21)

Despite the absence of shared public spaces, the serious environmental problems and the lack of centralized urban planning that characterize it, and despite the recurring political violence that marks its history (Hermez 2017), Beirut’s inhabitants of all classes, even if in different ways, often speak of a quasi-mysterious but nonetheless tangible “buzz,” a sense of “quiet pleasure,” a type of urban jouissance, woven into the texture of the city’s everyday life. What is more, this jouissance is seen as closely entangled with rather than in opposition to the sense of chaos and uncertainty that the city is able to produce in people. Lebanon’s semi-chaotic social life partly mirrors its economy. Someone, long ago now, defined Lebanon’s laissez faire capitalist economy as laissez tout faire, so bereft of any government regulation it is. The economic anarchy which allows investors and developers to pursue profit with little regard to the social, urban or ecological consequences of their investment is replicated in the way religious communal organizations, political parties and groups as well as individuals behave socially and politically in everyday life pursuing their interests with little regards to their impact on the collectivity. This is often found exasperating, and is part of what gives Lebanon’s periodic civil wars their particularly chaotic form. “Shoo hal fawda b’hal balad!” (What a chaotic nation this is!), “Ma fi nazam b’hal balad!” (There is no law and order in this nation!) or “Ma fi dawleh!” (There is no state!) are exclamations/moanings that are commonly heard. But it would be a very poor ethnographer indeed the one who does not notice that, without diminishing in any sense the general sense of exasperation that these exclamations contain, or the fact that they point to real often encountered problems, they nonetheless, and at the same time, contain a kind of mischievous enjoyment of the very chaos that they are bemoaning.
I refer to this enjoyment as “jouissance” because of its mischievousness but also because people speak of it as a state of the body just as much as a state of the mind. Of course, like everywhere people spend their time bogged down in the grind of everyday life worrying about practical and financial realities. And more than everywhere, people will be crankily caught up in an impossible traffic jam or trying to negotiate a transaction with the state bureaucracy. Yet, despite and alongside all this, people are able to express a certain joy in maneuvering through these very difficulties. And more predictably, on a quite evening alone or with family and friends, walking on the Corniche, having an arghileh (water pipe) in a café by the sea, or just sitting having a smoke and a coffee with the concierge and a few others in front of one’s apartment building, or having a man’ousheh in the morning and taking cover underneath someone’s balcony as the rain starts falling, people will readily tell you that “there’s something about this place.” A fisherman near Beirut’s Manara (lighthouse), who began by relating a variety of personal and financial problems he encounters on a daily basis finished by telling me “life is hard but every time my friends come and we play a game of cards by the sunset here, all my problems disappear, even the traffic behind us (GH: I was complaining to him about the traffic) seems like a nice traffic.” “I have the best of friends and this must be the most beautiful sunset in the world” he said. “Where else in the world did you see the sunset?” I asked, somewhat naively and genuinely wanting to find out. He hesitates for a second before turning his head and replying, “I haven’t been anywhere.” I inadvertently embarrassed him. “But it must be one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world, don’t you think?” he asks with a sense of pleading. “Yes” I said. “the most beautiful sunset and the most beautiful traffic.” Something I, being after all a Beiruti at heart, actually deeply believed.
While it is important to remember that almost everyone expresses these feelings every now and then, it is also the case, for obvious sociological reasons, that the more unburdened people are from the dismal local wages people receive, the uncertainties of the future, the effect of pollution, the weight of class, patriarchal, racial, bureaucratic and clientelist arbitrariness and domination, the more willing they are to be effusive about this “something,” this, “mellow and yet intense feeling at the same time” in the words of a man I was chatting to on the Corniche. Thus it is not surprising to note that middle-class Westerners who come to live in the city for extended periods of time have often expressed similar feelings. In her book Once Upon a Time in Beirut, the Australian journalist Catherine Taylor (2007) describes living with her husband Matthew in Beirut for a number of years while working as a Middle East foreign correspondent for an Australian newspaper. She reflects:
Matthew and I would often talk about why we liked Beirut so much. After all, it was polluted and chaotic and noisy. Don’t even start on the traffic. The politics was turbulent and sometimes dangerous… And… it was quite an expensive place to live... It was the little things, we decided, that we loved. The upside of chaos was that regulations were sporadic. We could drink cocktails hanging off the edge of a tower block with a view of the ocean; drive the wrong way down a highway when all other routes were closed and break the speed limit (what speed limit?). The pace of life itself was slow and rhythmic, soothing and full of things to like... We would wonder out loud to each other if perhaps it was simply that Beirut’s extremes exaggerated everything, made every moment seem alive. (233–234)
There is also a whole genre of light touristic journalism, regularly appearing in the international press, celebrating the way Beirut keeps being a city of enjoyment despite war and chaos, though without being based on long term experiences of life in Beirut. Radical activists and academics often bemoan this type of journalism and the clichés it circulates. They rightly see it as mystifying the serious problems Lebanon is facing. The way it is criticized, however, ends up itself being so absolute that it negates the fact that this reporting does point to a jouissance experienced by many. After all, mystificatory and light-weight as they might be, these same journalists do not write the same touristic thing about every single city. What’s more, such journalists are hardly the only ones who inflate their experience of this Beiruti enjoyment. Indeed, no one expresses this jouissance with as much conviction as returned immigrants, particularly (but not only) middle class returnees, who carry with them the economic and ontological security that they have internalized elsewhere in the world and who come to Beirut with a nostalgic desire for an imaginary Beirut where the enjoyment of anarchy and chaos is a, if not the, central feature. It is the experience of such a group of returnees that will be the main empirical focus of this paper. It should be clear from all of the above that I don’t see this enjoyment of Beirut as specific to the culture of returned immigrants. What is specific is the clarity and intensity with which it is present in this milieu, and which allow us to better understand the phenomena in question.
This paper can therefore be seen as a contribution to both an urban anthropology of Beirut and an of Lebanese diasporic culture. At the same time, however, it should be noted that urban anthropology and diasporic anthropology in general, have been more sociological and explanatory in their intent. That is, they have been anthropologies that participate in the general sociological endeavor of explaining and understanding as best as possible the nature and the dynamics of urban and diasporic phenomena. Anthropology here does not differ from sociology or any other sociologically-oriented discipline in its general analytical intent. It only diverges in terms of methodology and, in terms of the dimension of the phenomena that it chooses to analyze and emphasize. It is worth noting in this regard that with the exception of the thorough doctoral work of Kristin Monroe (2016), which explores the role of capitalism, corruption, and patronage in shaping the informal and unplanned character of urban space, some the best critically and theoretically-informed, sociologically-oriented and ethnographically-based studies of Beirut’s urban culture is neither the work of sociologists or anthropologists but of academics working at the intersection of architecture, urban design and politics (see the work of Fawaz [2009a; 2009b] and Harb [2010a; 2010b]). My approach here differs from this not so much because of a lesser commitment to the sociological project, but more because I want to wed it to what I consider a more specifically critical-anthropological quest for radical cultural alterity (Hage 2015). This can be summed up with one guiding question: in what way does the study of a particular socio-cultural phenomena expand our knowledge of the plurality of modes of existing in the world?  Though not concerned with radical alterity as such, the work of AbdouMaliq Simone (2004) offers, in a general sense, a similar direction. Studying something as intimately part of our everyday life, and as connected with capitalism and modernity as Lebanese urban and diasporic cultures are today, is not usually the ground on which such a classical critical anthropological question is asked. Indeed it is more often associated with “exotic” or “primitivist” anthropology where alternative forms of existence to our own are usually found. So there is something akin to a disciplinary challenge behind engaging in such an approach while studying diaspora. Therefore, notwithstanding the desire to elucidate certain dimensions of Lebanese urban and diasporic life, it is important to remember that it is this search for “another” sociality that is the primary driving intellectual quest behind this paper. As a necessary corollary of this, is the willingness to “do” anthropology (in the philosophical sense of the word) with one’s ethnographic material. This is similar to what Holbraad and Pedersen (2017: 80) describe as the “willingness to stage the encounter with ethnography as an experiment in conceptual reflexivity.”
When confronted with the expressions of jouissance such as those noted above, it would be easy to see in them a mere individualized libertarian enjoyment of an excess agency, akin to the urban Dionysian experience described by Ulf Hannerz (1981), but magnified by the absence of any systematic law-regulated forms of sociality. But, to be clear, we are not dealing with mere chaos here. Firstly, because state laws in Beirut are never completely absent. They are merely selectively or incompetently implemented, both in terms of where and on whom they are implemented, and with what degree of tenacity and intransigence. Secondly, and as importantly, even when the state’s capacity to implement the law was at its weakest during the civil war, Beirut, except perhaps in the war zones proper, never descended into pure chaos. Indeed, while it is more customary to speak of how unruly and chaotic Lebanon is, the more astonishing, though less dramatically experienced, fact is how ruleful and disciplined it remains despite all the wars and the inability of the state to adequately govern and uphold the law. Everything continues to function: services, shops, traffic, schools, everyday social life, etc. – not wonderfully, indeed often very badly, but functions without collapsing nonetheless. It is this capacity of society to continue being one, to offer possibilities of everyday forms of relationality, co-existence and considerate interaction, in the shadow of the state, as it were, that invites us to think the presence of another, outside-the-law, mode of sociality that allows for the continuation of social life.
Anthropology, more so than other disciplines, has always had to come to terms with forms of sociality that are not based on state regulation of law and order. As James Scott (2009) notes:
Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self-governing, kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading and peacemaking. It did not contain anything that one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition. (3)
And there is particularly a long lineage of anthropological work highlighting the “horizontal” sociality of the gift in opposition to the “vertically mediated” sociality of the state. The contrast between state-based and gift-based forms of social relations is already well-explored in Marcel Mauss’ classic work The Gift (2002 [1925]) and by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1969) after him who saw in reciprocal sociality the “elementary” organizing principle of kinship. This lineage continues via the work of Pierre Clastres (1987) as well as Marshall Sahlins’ masterful analysis of Mauss’s work in Stone Age Economics (1972), where he argues that: “Where in the traditional view the contract was a form of political exchange, Mauss saw exchange as a form of political contract” (169).
This paper sees itself as a contribution to this anthropological lineage, arguing that it is to such outside of the state form of sociality that the jouissance we have introduced above takes us to. To begin to do so we need to bravely enter the world of Beirut’s traffic, for nowhere is this sociality more present than in the way people have to negotiate the city’s streets.