Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Preface to the Japanese Edition of Alter-Politics: For an Alter-Colonisation of Everything


I am happy to see this Japanese translation of Alter-Politics. Especially that it has been initiated by my friend and colleague Yoshikazu Shiobara, who also translated Against Paranoid Nationalism and before that, along with the late Minoru Hokari, translated White Nation. If anyone in Japan is familiar with my work, and the way I write and think, it would be him. This is important because of the relation between translation and trust. Alter-Politics has also been translated to French, and even though the translators Maria Thedim and Emmanuel Thibault did an excellent job, I didn’t have to trust them as much. I am fluent in French and can check for myself if the translation did justice to the original text. Likewise when my friend Yassin el Haj Saleh translated part of the book in Arabic. Though I often fantasize about learning and being fluent in Japanese, unfortunately it is far from being the case. I have to rely entirely on the translators as I have no idea how effectively they have translated concepts, sentences and paragraphs. This is why the question of trust is important here. 

This is especially so since I know from the previous translations that Alter-Politics is not an easy book to work with. As far as its geographic interests are concerned, it casts a very wide net.  It deals with Australia, with global political trends, with Middle East politics and particularly with Palestinian politics. As far as its subject matter, it deals with colonialism and anti-colonialism, with nationalism and belonging, with racism and anti-racism, with the nature of crisis, with ecological questions and with utopian politics. Its theoretical approaches bring together anthropological theory, Bourdieusian theory, affective theory and post-colonial theory. And it creates new theorizing out of all of these.

The book’s most general argument is that critical analysis has predominantly invested itself, intellectually and emotionally, in a sociology of power. This sociology investigates the structures of domination behind the inequalities and injustices of the world. As such, the critical writing it has generated is predominantly concerned with helping oppose and combat those existing structures: what I have referred to as anti-politics. It has been less concerned with the analysis of radically different emerging realities that can be mobilised in the struggle to build an alternative social world. What I have called alter-politics. The book helps define the analytical horizon of a writing that contributes to such an alter-politics. 

I developed the outline of the above argument in 2009 when delivering the inaugural Australian Anthropological Society Distinguished Lecture series. At the time, I could already see the shrinking of the alter-political imaginary around the world. For all its attacks on White multiculturalism, the text of my earliest book, White Nation, took for granted that there was within multicultural policy a desire for a better society. My critique saw itself as pushing to intensify that minimal alter-political dimension at the expense of the White liberal ‘tolerance-enrichment’ tendency.  By 2009 I could see that multiculturalism had in fact lost whatever alter-political dimensions it had. It had become a purely defensive tool. Gone was any hint of a desire to build a better multicultural society. What was left was the shrunken particularist imaginings that figured in sound-bites such as: ‘how to let people maintain their culture.’ Likewise, gone was the desire for a non-racist society. What was left was a cornered and defensive: how do we protect people from racism? 

What was true of multiculturalism was also true of many of the liberal policies advocated by the state. They were all slowly but surely gutted of any vision of a better society and reduced to band-aids for social injuries. Even environmental policy, that should have invited us, given the magnitude of the ecological crisis, to radically revolutionise our relation to the planet, was slowly transformed into a disenchanted and disenchanting: ‘so, what’s the minimum that can be done here?’.

I write this preface shadowed by COVID-19, which has accelerated all these tendencies. Despite the voices that call for a need to re-invent society once we are out of the pandemic, the main impulse has been a survivalist one. In the way described in chapter 2 of this book, what dominates is a survivalist ethos: we are on the brink of the abyss and it is not the best time for new ideas. Let’s survive first. More than ever, it can be said that being bereft of new dreams and fantasies for a better future self and a better future society is one of the main characteristics of our time. I am not talking about whether such dream exists in the literary and artistic world. It does. It also exists in a far more pronounced way among young people. But never has the dreaming in that field been as cut off from institutionalised politics as it is today. The idea of ‘a better future self and a better future society’ was premised on the belief that one can always work to transform oneself and one’s society so as to improve them. This belief is largely gone. The world is no longer driven by fantasies and visions of better futures. This is true of right-wing as much as of left-wing fantasies.

Take something like the US imperialist fantasy of ‘spreading democracy around the world’. This has always been a fantasy with destructive consequences for colonised people. Some might like to think that with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan the fantasy is still alive. They would be wrong. The words are definitely still being used, but the belief in them has diminished considerably. In the 1950s such a fantasy had a genuine propelling power. It was certainly used to justify imperialism. But many of those doing the invading believed and even idealised their ideological justifications. Today, those in the United States who truly believe that it is ‘spreading democracy’ are a very small minority. The words are the same but their affective power is not. ‘Spreading democracy’ today sounds hollow. It offers nothing more than a very thin, and often cynical, justification for a conquest that is uninspiring even for those who are participating in it, let alone those who have been subject to its destructive consequences. 

Fantasies, visions, hopes and dreams of a better world are alive when they inject life into those who believe in them. They propel those believers into the future. To be propelled by a dream or a vision is to relate to it in such a way that it infuses hope into you and pushes you forward by working from within you. This is the very meaning of a propelling power. Much of today’s world politics is deprived of such propelling fantasies.

It can even be said that the most potent fantasies that are close to or inhabit institutionalised politics today are entirely regressive. The fantasies of Islamic fundamentalists, of right-wing nationalists, and Trumpists, are all largely nostalgic, wanting to take people ‘back’ or ‘again’ to a past that never even existed: a past-to-come.[i] One can speak of such fantasies as dead fantasies that are well past their use-by date. They are rotting. And yet they are maintained alive by those who continue to believe in them. They are transformed into zombie fantasies.[ii] To paraphrase Frank Zappa ‘they are not entirely dead, they smell funny’.

The late Lauren Berlant’s concept of ‘Cruel Optimism’ continues to define the predominant fantasies of our time. She argues that ‘cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.’ [iii] But perhaps that today’s fantasies are even more than cruel. They are more zombie than we think. Not only are they the living dead, they are classical flesh eaters. Those who believe in them keep them alive while they are gnawing at the bones of these very believers. It is not by chance that Trump’s rallies often resemble scenes from the famous Japanese zombie movie One Cut of the Dead (カメラを止めるな!, Kamera o Tomeru na!).

In times such as these it is particularly important for academics not to just dwell on how to oppose oppressive realities. More than ever there is an imperative task to stay connected to the forces motivated by the enacting alternative futures. I often think of this as a project of re-colonisation. Nietzsche once quipped that being opposed to ‘exploitation’ is like being opposed to life. What matters is what kind of exploitation prevails not whether or not it exists. The same can be said of colonisation. At its most general, to colonise means to populate, occupy and inhabit a certain space. Understanding colonisation at this broad level is important because it makes us face the fact that there is no alternative to it. If we are to exist on earth we have to populate it, occupy it and inhabit it. It is when facing the question of who does the colonizing and the populating, and how does one occupy and inhabit the environment that the possibility of a radical re-colonisation, an alter-colonisation comes to the fore. How do we stop one ethno-nationalist colonising force to be replaced by another ethno-nationalist colonising force? How do we stop a destructive inhabitance of the planet to be replaced by another destructive inhabitance? It is to this kind of alter-colonial politics that this book aspires to provide a minimal intellectual contribution. 


[i] Ghassan Hage, Afterword: The end of nostalgia: waiting for the past-to-come, in Ethnographies of Waiting Doubt, Hope and Uncertainty. Editors: Manpreet Janeja, Andreas Bandak, Bloomsbury Publishing, UK, 2018.

[ii] See Ghassan Hage, Introduction to Ghassan Hage (ed), Decay, New York: Duke University Press, 2021.

[iii] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, New York: Duke University Press, 2011, p. 7.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Orientalism between the Desire to Harm and the Desire for Knowledge, Journal of the Society for Asian Humanities, Vol. 52, 2020–21

 JOSAH, Journal of the Society for Asian Humanities, Vol. 52, 2020–21

Special Issue


What’s in a Name? After Orientalism

Guest Editors

Olivier Krischer and Meaghan Morris


Remembrance Note: Vale Rosita Holenbergh (1937–2020)


Jocelyn Chey               1



Olivier Krischer and Meaghan Morris            3


From Oriental Studies to Inter-Asia Referencing: The 2019 A.R. Davis Memorial Lecture

Adrian Vickers            12


Islamic Central Asia and the Russian-Soviet Orient

Adeeb Khalid              36


Coordinating Contemporary Asia in Art Exhibitions

C.J.W.-L. Wee            54


Nusantara, Bilad al-Jawa, the Malay World: Cultural-Geographical Constructions of Maritime Southeast Asia and Endogenous Terms as Palimpsests

Imran bin Tajudeen     80



Round Table: After Orientalism


Three Ways of Relating to Orientalism

Chih-ming Wang        105


After Orientalism

John Frow 110


Orientalism between the Desire to Harm and the Desire for Knowledge 

Ghassan  Hage            114


Oriental Philology after Orientalism

Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan               120


De-imagining Tibet: Beyond Orientalism, Reverse Orientalism and Other Traps in the Study of Himalayan Histories

Jim Rheingans             126


‘Orientalism’ and After: Impacting Feminist Theory in India

Tejaswini Niranjana    135


Orientalisms in China

Huaiyu Chen               141


Designing Japan’s Orient: Department Stores and the Modern Experience 

Nozomi Naoi               147


Saidian Time: Orientalism at the Fulcrum of Global Histories of Art

Mary Roberts              154


Scholarship at the Edge: Reflections about Teaching History

of the Arab World and Islam in Australia after Orientalism

Lucia Sorbera              162


Endemic Orientalism

Tessa Morris-Suzuki   168


Review Essay

On the Sources of Lu Xun’s Treatise on Māra Poetry: Some Issues and a Few Answers

Jon Eugene von Kowallis             172






Orientalism between the Desire to Harm and the Desire for Knowledge

Ghassan Hage, University of Melbourne


There is no doubt that one of the more powerful dimensions of Edward Said’s Orientalism is the way he peeled away the layers of ‘objectivity’ in which Orientalist knowledge had wrapped itself. He showed how this objectivity was political through and through. But behind this claim is a difficult assumption that I want to explore: what made a thought ‘Orientalist’ for Said was its effect rather than the intention of those who articulated it. This was because, regardless of individual intentions, such a thought, as a whole, inherited Orientalist categories and reproduced them. In so doing, it was part of the practical colonial assemblage that produced the very Orientalist reality it was being ‘objective’ about.


Those of us who work within the anthropological and sociological tradition have no problem thinking this way. We have internalised quite well the Durkheimian idea that things like Orientalism, or even more generally racism, are social facts. Thus, what makes them important to us is that they represent macrosocial realities that cannot be reduced to individuals and their intentions. This idea is implicit throughout Orientalism.


But there is a contradiction here between claiming that a certain mode  of thinking is complicit in the construction of reality and saying that the way this thinking is actually produced by the individuals who produced it matters very little in this process of construction. It is clear, in Said’s account at least, that he does care about the difference between what he called the ‘great Orientalist works of genuine scholarship like Silvestre de Sacy’s Chrestomathie arabe or Edward William Lane’s Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians’ and the outright racist works of people like Renan and Gobineau, not to mention the Orientalist-inspired Victorian pornographic novels. However, despite that difference Said also wanted to argue that they all ‘came out of the same impulse’ (1). It seems that it is the latter part of this argument that dominates the imagination of a number of postcolonial critics today who care little for such nuance and for whom the respect for scholarship despite it being Orientalist seems unthinkable. People who, guided by a desire to know, have produced scholarship of exceptional quality are dismissed for various reasons as ‘Orientalists’ or ‘racists’ tout court. That the reasons for which they are accused of being colonialists or racists or Orientalists are sometimes good reasons does not make the categorisation of such academics as ‘racist’ or ‘Orientalist’ any less reductive. It is as if scholarship can be reduced to its political moment.


The way Orientalism has circulated as a critical mode of classification inside and outside the academic world is quite similar to the circulation of the category ‘petit bourgeois’ as it evolved out of the Marxist tradition. Both Edward Said and Karl Marx took a pre-existing category and transformed  it by giving it both a critical analytical and a radical political component. But both reinforced or injected into the radical political facet a derogatory dimension. This is why, while the fusion of the analytical and the political marks both categories, it is also the case that, with both, it is not easy to work out when the deployment of the term analytically ends and when political abuse begins. That is, it is not easy to know when we are trying to make critical sense of someone’s piece of writing, or their way of thinking or behaving, and when we are seeing them as political enemies that we wish to metaphorically if not literally obliterate. One would perhaps wish that this latter usage could be found more in the populist rather than academic deployment of the term, but as noted above this is far from being the case.  I feel that allowing this political/abusive dimension to take precedence over intellectual critique marks a certain failure of the academic imagination. Let me rush in saying that I am not critiquing this failure from a position of the one-who-never-fails. This is far from being the case. Indeed, what I want  to do in this brief essay is reflect on the limitations of thinking Orientalism within a register of political abuse, not so much by criticising others but by taking three cases where I deployed, or thought of deploying, the concept as a kind of swear word myself.


A friend who was starting a new literary magazine asked me if I would review the novels and interview the author of a series of thrillers set in the Middle East. The author happened to be visiting Sydney. As I began reading the novels it became clear to me that the negative stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims was too systematic to be accidental. Here is part of what I wrote:

I enjoy thrillers. I like all sorts … ignoring the warning and protestations of people around me concerning the sexism, racism and violence that I am about to be subjected to. I switch off my over-intellectualised mind and plunge into a thriller’s world.… To me, it’s like listening to Chuck Berry’s rock ’n’ roll. Go Johnny, go, go.

I tell you all this because I am about to launch into a serious critique of Daniel  Easterman’s  thrillers  and  I  don’t  want  you  to  think  of  me  as  some boring person who cannot appreciate a thriller for what it is. I am truly sorry … (for while reading Easterman) no matter how much I tried, I could not hear Chuck Berry singing.


Here is, for example, how he introduces ‘the Arab’—who remains unnamed the rest of his very short life:

‘He was small, thickset, with shifty eyes and a furtive manner. He was the sort that masturbated without enjoying it. David guessed that he fantasised about fifteen-stone women with massive breasts and pouting lips called Fatima’. (2)

This was the first of many passages like this. I remember reading them and, as I did, Orientalism as a category of abuse directed at the author rushed into my mind. I thought, ‘You racist Orientalist fucker’.


I will go back to the above soon, but I will describe the other two incidents first. Here is the second. It’s late 2011 and I am having an argument with    a colleague, and up till then a friend, about the Syrian war that started in March that year. He is showing more sympathy to Bashar Assad’s claim    to represent an ‘anti-imperialist’ force than I would. So I criticise his views in quite a trenchant manner. Perhaps because I was quite aggressive in critiquing him, he rushed into critiquing me back, but in a way that left me pretty much shaken. This was a debate happening publicly in an Australian anthropological forum, and he directed his reply not so much to me but     to the listeners. For whatever reason, what he thought was important for those listeners to know was that, according to him, to understand my views on Syria one needs to understand my family history in Lebanon and the way they think about Syria. What took me aback was not how empirically ignorant his suggestion was, though this was itself quite astounding: he got the conventional views of Maronite Christians about the Syrian government totally wrong. What really got to me was that I was having an argument that I thought was between colleagues, in a space where it was our professional background that mattered most, and here was someone bringing ‘my family history’ into the equation and naturalising the fact that, ‘of course’, this being my ‘family history’, it’s something I would primordially adhere to rather than have my own views about the matter. I was actually being ‘Orientalised’. What made it worse, even though I do not recall anyone’s family history being brought into the equation in that forum, before or since, was that not one of the Australian anthropologists listening seemed to notice that there was anything worth openly objecting to here. As my colleague was an ardent Foucauldian, I nearly said, ‘I don’t ever recall you attributing any of Foucault’s political views to him traditionally taking on board his family history’. But I didn’t for what had totally invaded my mind and what I wanted to say most was, ‘You little Orientalist prick!’ It was the end of our friendship.


Now let me briefly go through the third incident. I am at a public discussion organised by a community organisation. It was yet another debate about ‘Islam and the veil’. It followed the French government’s decision to ban the Islamic veil in public institutions. The man, an Anglo-Australian teacher married to a Muslim woman, was defending the right of Muslim women to wear the veil. He said to the audience that while he is not Muslim himself he is married to a Muslim, and he has taken it upon himself to   read the Qur’an from which he was quoting copiously to explain why it is important for Muslim women to wear the veil. I started getting irritated with him as the panel conversation evolved as he was literally chain-quoting from the Qur’an to justify every single proposition he was making. I raised my eyebrows and said to my companion sitting next to me, ‘Why is it him and not his wife speaking? Perhaps she’d be less inclined to quote from the Qur’an and we wouldn’t have to be subjected to this Orientalist crap’. My friend who was not an academic asked me, ‘Why is that Orientalist?’ I gave him a standard answer, ‘You wouldn’t explain everything that Australians do by referring to its justification in the Bible just because they are Christians, so why assume that the Qur’an is where you need to start to understand what Arab Muslims do just because they are Muslims’.


My friend took the above well, but he said, ‘Still, I don’t see why you are so irritated with him. He meant well’. It struck me how little room there     is today in postcolonial critique for recognising the difference between the knowledge that is complicit with colonialism because ‘it means harm’ and the knowledge that is complicit despite ‘meaning well’. After all, I can clearly say that in directing a single mode of political abuse at ‘Orientalism’ in the cases above I have homogenised what are three very distinct situations. In the case of Daniel Easterman, I am convinced that we are dealing with a racist: that is someone who means harm. To critique such people for their ‘essentialism’ and ‘misrepresentation’ is to mistake them for people animated by the desire to know. They don’t desire to know. They desire to hurt. Their aim is to misrepresent even when they know. Now, to equate the Orientalism of such people with the Orientalism of the last speaker, who is precisely animated by the desire to know, is not only unjust but is clearly politically absurd and irrational. Even if we establish that he is guilty of reproducing an Orientalist reality through his religious textual essentialism, this certainly does not warrant throwing political abuse in his direction.


But what about the case of my colleague who Orientalised me by making me my family’s views’ unproblematic conduit? Even if this was the most upsetting case of Orientalisation for me personally, we cannot equate what my colleague did with Easterman’s desire to harm. To begin with, this case highlights the fact that our judgments are related to our expectations. If an intellectually unsophisticated person started talking about my family in this way I would have felt that they should be corrected, but I wouldn’t have felt as bad. If I felt as bad as I did with my colleague it is because I expected better from a professional. At the very least, I expect professionalism to translate into more reflexivity. This brings us to another point highlighted by this case: among academics, we will hardly find racists and Orientalists of the Easterman type. The intent to harm is almost non-existent. Orientalism as a political accusation here is not a matter of either/or but a matter of more or less—a more or less that is dependent on degrees of reflexivity, that is, an awareness of the conditions of production of one’s own categories of thought. There is today a postcolonial critique that sees itself as engaged in the decolonisation of theory in the way Althusser invited Marxist philosophers to see their critical writings as class struggle in philosophy. In both cases we see a collapsing of the intellectual and the political as if they occupy the same space without any autonomy of one from the other. In this short essay, I have tried to show that in the field of Orientalism, not only do the political and the scholarly not coincide, they can actually be in a contradictory relation. Knowing how to situate oneself in such a contradiction is crucial for the production of both good political critique and good scholarship.


1. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 8.

2. Ghassan Hage, Editions 1 (1989): 14–15.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim Racism since 9/11

Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim racism is a pervasive feature of Australian society. It is a structural dimension of society embedded in the operation of all of our institutions and leading to ongoing prejudice, various forms of injustice and to discriminatory treatment. It is also the grounds for racist political mobilisation inspiring individuals and groups to engage in hateful practices aimed at hurting Arabs and Muslims economically, politically, physically and psychologically. 9/11 did not give birth to either of these dimensions but it certainly legitimised and exacerbated them making the struggle against them particularly difficult.

There are many facets to the struggle against these different dimensions of racism, but it can be said that the two key aspects of the struggle involve diminishing the presence and the power of racism in both institutions and politics, and the second is to protect the racialised from the effect of racism. When one looks at what has been achieved in the twenty years since 9/11, one has to say that anti-racist politics has failed to effect much change: Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim racism remains a salient feature of Australian society both structurally and politically. While there is considerable change happening in the cultural spaces of younger Australians, this change has not found itself an expression in mainstream politics yet, let alone in the institutions of the state. The only other space where one can note a relative success is in the way that Arab and Muslim Australians have successfully immunised themselves against the most pernicious psychological and symbolic dimensions of racial hatred. Racists can try and make Arabs and Muslims feel inferior as much as they like: They don’t feel inferior. They might try and make them normalise their marginality, they don’t show any sign that they have accepted their marginality.

It can be even said that, in this regards, and to the chagrin of racists, Arabs and Muslims have managed to foster among themselves, particularly by mobilizing their cultural, communal and spiritual traditions, a healthy dose of unperturbed narcissism that remains immune to all racist attacks. This is an important thing to protect. It is arguably the most important single resource needed for a future politics.

If there is a problem in this regards it is more to do with how to ensure that this narcissism remains a healthy one. For like all defensive narcissisms it grows in two different directions: one one hand there is a love of self that is open to critique and that sees in critique an opportunity to grow and become better, and on the other there is a narcissism that invites excessive defensiveness, paranoia and cultural sclerosis. This latter kind of narcissism is no different from the narcissism of the racist right wing movements Arabs and Muslims face. It is a narcissism that  equates criticism and the acknowledgment of past mistakes with weakness. It  conflates strength with the ‘avoidance of guilt’ and sees virtue in the uncritical adherence to conservatively conceived communal, national or religious tradition experienced as a variation on the ‘law of the father/land’. Such a fascistic adherence to imagined tradition always wears a masculinist, patriarchal and homophobic garb. It opts for a politics of one-ness over a politics of plurality, and valorises autonomy over relationality.

Here Arabs and Muslims face a question of particular importance as it comes to define the kind of social space they aspire to live in. For some peculiar reason, it is a question that is often left for White anti-racist Australians to think about. The question is this and it clearly opens up a space of reflection rather than have some kind of unique good answer to it: what kind of togetherness with non-Arab and non-Muslim Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, do Arabs and Muslims fantasise about? If they are reasonably clear about the figure of the White enemy, what consitutes the contours of the figure of the White ally?

Monday, August 16, 2021

COVID, Accelerated Decay and Social Ageing


It’s almost two years of being stuck in Australia and moving from one COVID lockdown to another. It could be just me, but I have a distinct feeling that I have aged far more rapidly than ever during these last two years. There is no doubt that there is a relation between a sense of stasis and what the French social scientist Pierre Bourdieu refers to as ‘social ageing’. COVID has certainly brought about a certain shrinking of life’s opportunities and intensified forms of life consisting of routinised activities in enclosed or at least strictly bounded spaces that causes a sense of ossification of the self: a decrease in social malleability that Bourdieu associates with social ageing. But my sentiment of having aged is also a bodily one. I am someone who takes their body seriously both in terms of exercise and in terms of diet. And like most Australians, I have been lucky enough to be able to continue to exercise and eat well while locked down. So the feeling of having aged in a more accelerated fashion than I have been experiencing so far must come from somewhere else. It could be that lockdown means more of what in Australia we call ‘navel-gazing’ and in that sense a heightened sense of the changes that one is undergoing. It could also be that the transition from early sixties to mid-sixties that I am undergoing is always experienced in this way, but I have not found any health literature that describes such a phenomenon. So my sentiment remains in question form: are the COVID-induced conditions of life making us age more rapidly? 


A few years ago, I initiated a writing project that began as an invitation to some of my anthropology colleagues to think with the concept of decay, to examine areas of social life where a discourse of ‘decay’ comes to the fore and to treat processes of decay as an angle through which to examine the social world. The book that resulted from this exercise is coming out in October this year.[i] The project began before the pandemic. And the chapters were also finished before the pandemic. Only the editing and the introduction were finalised in pandemic time. Yet, the more I reflected on the book the more I felt that it offered me some conceptual resources with which to think my pandemic experience. This includes the question of the relation between COVID and accelerated social ageing that I asked above. I am too much of a social scientist to think that such a question can be answered without considerable research. So, I never thought that the questions around decay provided me with ready-made answers. I was noting however that decay offered an interesting perspective on the issues I was thinking about.


It is banal to note that everything is in a state of decay. The fact that it is an ongoing process is the reason why it often remains socially un-noticed, or at least, that little is made of it.  But this is only so for as long as decay is proceeding according to what we think of as a ‘normal’ tempo that we end up routinising. The various chapters of the book make clear that decay comes into our consciousness and becomes a social and political issue when it is experienced as proceeding at an anomalous and aberrant pace. This building is decaying too quickly and it shouldn’t. This plastic waste is decaying too slowly, at a much slower pace than we expect waste to disintegrate. The book leaves one with a clear sense that it is beneficial to see all things as continuously and simultaneously subjected to processes that tend to either accelerate or decelerate their decay. Furthermore, all things are subjected to internal forces that determine the pace of their decay from the inside (endo-decay) and external forces that determine the slowness or rapidity of their decay from the outside (exo-decay). Some things, by their very nature, like gold and silver and plastic, decay very slowly and others, like many flowers, decay rapidly. But gold and flowers are also subjected to environmental conditions that either accelerate or decelerate their decay. Sometimes this boundary is not clear at all: what we eat comes from the outside but can either accelerate or decelerate our decay from the inside. Finally, and importantly, most things in the social world from bridges, to buildings, to houses, to offices are subjected to a labour of maintenance. The quality of this maintenance plays an important role in determining the pace of decay. After the book was finished I amused myself trying to think of a term for this generalised study of decay. Decayology did not sound nice at all. In fact no term associated with decay sounded nice with an ‘ology’ attached to it. The best I could come up with was ‘decadentology’ something like: the study of processes decadency (fortunately for everyone I did not use the term in the book). But behind the frivolousness associated with trying to create a concept like this, there was a serious conviction that there is a need for a concept that means: the study of all the internal and external forces that accelerate or decelerate the way things decay, decompose, degenerate, disintegrate and are replaced by other life forms. For there was no doubnt that the book offered such a generalised analytical perspective by showing that it has multiple applications. A ‘decadentology’ was useful whether we are dealing with natural and physical environments like forests or buildings, or we are dealing with social collectives like families, villages or nations. Last but not least, it was also clearly relevant when examining individual entities such as the human body. It was not surprising that I found myself thinking my experience of accelerated ageing from this decadentological perspective (I promise I’ll keep the usage of this term to an absolute minimum).


What immediately came to my mind when I began thinking my ageing from this perspective is that the human body is before all else subjected to varying processes of endo-decay. At the biological level bodily ageing is an irreversible process of cellular and molecular deterioration that ultimately leads to death. But just as there are differences in the pace of bodily decay between a human and a dog that have to do with inherent properties of the body of each, there are also differences between the rates of decay of human bodies, associated for example with sex and ethnicity and that have to do with genetic properties inherent to the body itself, even if these inter-human differences are less dramatic than inter-speciesist ones. At the same time the body is subjected to forms of exo-decay caused by social and environmental factors such as rural/urban locations and the degrees of pollution in the atmosphere that come with such locations. Then, there are dietary factors linked to class and ethnic factors and that affect both endo- and exo-processes of decay.


The more I thought about the above the more I wondered: is it not the case that an important dimension of medical studies is before all else a decadentology of the body? a study of the processes that affect its pace of decay. At the same time, medicine, both as a practice of looking after individual bodies and as a politics of public health dealing with populations, is of the order of bodily maintenance. Its success is measured not only by the quality of life it ensures but the degree to which it is able to decelerate the process of bodily decay. It is with all of the above in mind that I began to increasingly try and think the various social processes that COVID and the public health policies aimed at protecting us from it have unleashed in decadentological terms. Most are obvious, but I found it worthwhile to consider them in terms of a dynamic of acceleration of bodily decay and ageing. 

Perhaps, given the sensitivities associated with discussion of lockdowns and restrictions of all kind, I should stress that I am not listing these to moan and invite sympathy or pity, nor to consider them more important than the need to be protected from COVID-19 (far from me to think that), nor to invite sarcasm and to have people mansplain me about how frivolous they are compared to the problems faced by others. I am well aware of the relative unimportance of some of them. My primary intent as I have made clear is to illustrate the decadentological way of thinking I have described above and its consequences.


There is no doubt that the pandemic has led to increased level of stress. One can intuitively accept that stress leads to an acceleration of bodily decay. How it does so is a more medically specialised question, but one can take it for granted that the causes of stress abound in the shadow of COVID. There is of course the stress that comes from the fear of catching the virus, or a more vulnerable family member or friend catching it. This clearly varies according to age and according to one’s general health, and the health of the people we surround ourselves with. It can be said that the pandemic makes for a less secure sense of permanency in social relations. We go to sleep less confident that the vulnerable people we know will still be with us when we wake up in the morning. This feeling is initially exhausting but when it gets routinised it becomes an ongoing but unrecognisable tension that hammers and wears out the body. It manifests itself in a variety of ways: increased worrying, short temper, etc…


There is also the stress that comes from the necessity of social distancing and in many cases the need for intermittent self-isolation. Along with this is the accompanying stress that comes from having to wear masks and from the prohibition of bodily contact in the process of greeting friends and kin. As with the above, the degree of stress this can cause varies a lot according to class, gender, sexuality, cultural background and many other things. Personally, I can definitely relate to a sense of hug-deprivation when meeting friends and I find having to do the ritualistic alternative of touching elbows mildly painful. Clearly this is not the case for a person who is not into hugging in the first place: a person who prefers the more bodily restrained handshake, let alone a Japanese person who’s into bowing. 


The process of individualisation that social distancing and self-isolation orders encourage can have a very pronounced impact on those who have a more mutualist sense of their selves. Anthropologists know all too well that there are many people who don’t experience the health of their individual body in isolation from its connection with other bodies of friends and kin. This is not just about how such people ‘think’ about themselves, so it is not about asking them to ‘think’ differently for a while. It is more a fact of life: this is how they are and how life is experienced in an interconnected manner. The singularised, individuated body that Western medicine privileges as an object of policy, and that it isolates as it tries to keep it healthy, can, for many, be the source of decline in health when isolated in this manner and deprived of the network of other bodies it co-exists with. While this mutualism is the dominant norm in some cultures, it is nevertheless present in minor ways in all cultures. WE feel it when we are deprived of seeing our children or our parents or our close friends. 


In much the same way, the enforced nuclearization of the family, and the normalisation of the single familial house mode of inhabitance can be seen as stress-inducing for people who are more used to living in extended family settings and moving on a daily basis between several households. Here we are dealing with more than just stress. Such nuclearization has practical and dietary consequences that can be easily seen as decay-accelerating forces. 


In Australia especially, another cause of tension is the inability to travel and leave the country. For many people who see the viability of their lives in transnational terms, this seclusion intensifies the inherent tension that comes from an always existing sense of international isolation that is part of living in Australia: the so-called ‘tyranny of distance’. Again, this affects some more than others. Generally, the more grounded in a transnational diasporic network people are the harder their experience of enforced national isolation will be.


Related to the above but somewhat different is the stress that comes merely from being still and stuck whether in one’s 5km zone or in one’s city or in Australia, as opposed to being able to move around. As someone who, because of the nature of their work, spends a considerable part of the year travelling around the world I have found this particular difficult to deal with. As the Arab nomadic poet has it: ‘move and be fresh like the running water, or like still water you’ll putrefy.”


Are all of the above enough to make for an experience of accelerated decay and increased sense of social ageing? Even if it is the case, I am sure there are other features that I am not aware of that make for an experience of decelerated decay in pandemic times: I know that some enjoy the general slowing down of things for instance. Even so, the above question has more than a mere individual importance. Is it possible that the public health measures that are aimed at both protecting individual bodies from catching the virus and at minimising the effect of the virus on the general population are in fact also leading to accelerated bodily decay at least for some? Nonetheless, even if this was indeed the case, it is not clear whether something can be done about it except perhaps being aware of it as a limitation. For it would be ironic if the public health policies implemented and enforced to protect our lives are making us die more quickly.


[i] Ghassan Hage (ed), Decay, Duke University Press: 2021.

Monday, July 12, 2021

At the Scene of the Migratory Crime

Soon the world will note that a year has passed since the Beirut port explosion. People will not fail to note how this destructive murderous explosion was born out of gross governmental negligence. So gross and diffused that, in the best tradition of gross and diffused Lebanese governmental negligence, it becomes impossible to legally pin it on a particular person or group or government that can be held responsible. But everyone knows that they are ‘all’ responsible. For as the revolutionary slogan pointing at the Lebanese politico-economic ruling elite during the 2019 October uprising went: kellun ye’neh kellun (all of them means all of them).


I am seriously dreading the approaching date of the actual explosion and I have been wondering why I am dreading it so much. There is no doubt that I am first and most obviously dreading it because it will bring back the memory of the death and destruction it has caused. I am also dreading being subjected to an endless stream of videos of the explosion. I find those videos traumatic and traumatising when shown in a purely exhibitionist manner. News networks will argue that they are providing their viewers with what is purported to be newsworthy ‘historical footage’. But even when this is true, the footage is never handled with the necessary care, and I cannot help feeling that many actually have shown it and watched it, and will show it and watch it again, with a pleasure akin to the enjoyment of snuff films. There should be a better awareness of what those videos entail to a substantial number of (Lebanese and non-Lebanese) viewers who share my sensibility. 


But upsetting as these videos and films are and will be, I have come to know, on further reflection, that they are not the only or even the major source of my dread. After all I left Lebanon in 1976, in the early stages of the civil war and I have a long history of coping with being subjected to the media running clips of Lebanon violently self-immolating and disintegrating as a form of infotainment. The main source of my dread lies elsewhere. It’s been there for a long time, at the same time plainly and manifestly present and yet very well-hidden from me. 


Since the explosion, Lebanon has been slowly transforming into a living hell for so many. And for those of us connected to what is going on there, we are continuously reading on social media accounts of how people are coping. I hear from my colleagues and friends in Beirut about their experiences of economic and governmental collapse, as well as their accounts of the experiences of others economically less fortunate than they are, and I can see them defining and redefining before my very eyes the boundaries between the bearable and the unbearable life. It is here that I slowly and clearly became aware of something I should have always been aware of: of all the accounts of poverty and misery nothing affects me like hearing someone describing how unbearable life has become such that they want to leave the country or that they are actually leaving, or indeed that they have actually left. Yes, I am actually triggered by stories of people emigrating. They trigger me in that they revive in me that injury I experienced when Lebanon expelled me from its entrails. 


I have written about this injury of ‘belonging to a country that cannot keep its children’ (if this link doesn't work google this title). But, strangely, I only just started to come to terms with how deeply affected I have been by this injury myself and how central it is to my make up. When I look back, I think that, surely, I should have been so much more aware of this. I have confronted it on so many occasions in myself and in the many people I worked with when doing my research on the Lebanese diasporic condition. Perhaps because I managed to repress it precisely by making it always there, present and visible. For, banalizing the presence of something can indeed be a mode of repressing its centrality.


All this became obvious very recently when reading a wonderful text by Farrah Berrou (if this link doesn't work, see her piece Across the Rickety Bridge on her blog Bambi's Soapbox), written in a very evocative and affecting manner, describing her feelings as she settles in L.A. after leaving Lebanon. She tagged me as she quotes from my above-mentioned piece. As I was reading her and getting upset thinking “here goes another Lebanese expelled from the country”, it dawned on me that being upset about someone leaving Lebanon contradicts something I have almost celebrated in my recent work on the Lebanese diaspora, The Diasporic Condition. Indeed, I have just finished a whole book arguing that Diasporic culture was the very culture of Lebanese modernity. That the Lebanese, even in Lebanon should not be always conceived of in migratory terms as ‘here or there’, or ‘neither here nor there’ or ‘in between’. Rather, I argue that there is also a way of seeing them as being simultaneously here and there, with an emphasis on the ‘and’. It is this here-and-thereness that I define in the book as the ‘lenticular condition.’ So, how can I celebrate this being here-and-thereness and at the same time be so upset that someone is leaving Lebanon. It dawned on me that maybe this whole argument in the book was driven unconsciously by the trauma of my own diasporic injury, and of finding ways of alleviating it. It was some revelation. Luckily, I don’t see affectively influenced social scientific writing as bad social science, or it would have been a disaster to have to come to terms with all this a couple of months before the book is out! With Nietzsche (in The Genealogy of Morals) I believe in the importance of those “active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something”. Perhaps if I was finishing my book today, I would have highlighted this in my introduction. 


But, to go back where I started, there was another important thing that I also became conscious of while reading Farrah’s text. Her piece allowed me to see how my dread of this migratory injury was connected to my dread of the explosion. For if it is true that Lebanon cannot keep its children it is also true that it has ejected them in very different circumstances and very different ways depending on the times and on where they come from geographically and socio-economically. Some were pushed out gently into the world, some were coerced, some were seduced, some were driven harshly as war refugees and everything in between. In the way it has occurred in a country ruled by a particularly ravenous and venomous ruling class, an assemblage of competing economico-confessional hyenas, that has impoverished the country morally and economically beyond anything seen before, and in the way the shattered glass, that came to metonymically symbolise it, blended with and materialised the shattered dreams of its inhabitants, the explosion initiated a particularly ferocious migratory cycle. It worked as a centrifugal force in a cruel and brutal fashion. It neither coaxed people into leaving nor did it just coerce them. It actually spat them out. This is where, to me at least, the explosion has come to mark something diasporically traumatic, along with the other traumas it has initiated. I have come to see it as that very act of spitting.  And it has spat people out of the country in what is perhaps one of the worst migratory times possible. A time where the hospitability of the host countries, which has never been so great, is at its vilest. At its worst, and as it is for many refugees in the world today, the migratory experience consists of this: being spat out by your own country to be spat at by your host country.

While clearly not all migrations are like this, no migration is free from this macabre dimension. Particularly in such an environment, an inability to stop undesired migration is a governmental failure. In a country like Lebanon, it is a form of neglect that is in continuity with the neglect that was behind the explosion. To make things even worse, in Lebanon, and elsewhere, there is a certain similarity between the way a country treats those departing emigrants leaving because they have to and the way it treats soldiers departing for war. The emigrant who does not desire to go, like the soldier going to war, is not particularly at ease with leaving. In all likelihood, s/he is scared of what is expected of him or her, s/he is scared of what will become of him or her, and s/he prefers to stay. But the public governmental discourse constructs them both as heroes to be celebrated, depriving them of a public space to voice their fears and anxieties and the undesirability of what they are about to engage in. Even today, Lebanese radio abounds with songs celebrating migration as a kind of national achievement and a form of heroism. More than ever, it is necessary to undermine those celebratory practices and tear down the constructed social stages where this dark comedy is allowed to take place. It is important to create instead a space where the fears, anxieties and refusals associated with forced departures, and that are voiced privately, can be voiced publicly. In so doing, we pave the way for those ‘neglectfully’ responsible for these forced migrations, all of them (kellun), to come to publicly face the traumatic effect of their neglect.




Tuesday, June 29, 2021

I am Amani Haydar. My mother was murdered by my father. My grandmother was murdered by the Israelis: Même combat.(Some quick thoughts around Amani Haydar, The Mother Wound, Sydney: Macmillan, 2021.)

This book was distributed to bookshops yesterday. I already knew what it was about and I’ve been waiting for it. I think I was the first person to purchase a copy at my local bookshop, Gleebooks, yesterday. It was still in a box at the back and I had to wait for them to open the box for me. I started reading it in the afternoon and finished it at 3.00 am that night. I was going to start writing my comments there and then but thought I’d better sleep on it so I can write something just a little bit more coherent than an after midnight rave.

Like many in Sydney, I had followed the media’s coverage of the murder of Amani’s mother, Salwa, by her father. I was perhaps more interested than others because I had met Salwa in Sydney previously when organizing ways of commemorating the many victims of Israel’s failed, but destructive and murderous, attempt to subdue Hizbollah in 2006. Salwa’s mother, Amani’s grandmother, Layla was killed (indeed, obliterated) by an Israeli criminal bombing that targeted a car convoy of civilian escaping their village. But I didn’t know about the significance of the loss to Amani herself until I became aware of her activism, writing and artwork. Her portrait of herself holding a photo of her mum holding a photo of her mum was an Archibald Prize Finalist in 2018.


But what made me most eager to want to read it were two questions before all else. The first was: what kind of authorship and what kind of writing is needed to overcome the difficulty of writing a book about male domestic violence centred around your father murdering your mother? In my mind this could only be a kind of heroic writing that I was eager to read. The second question was: How do you write critically about patriarchy within an Arab Muslim setting, in a book destined for the general public, knowing that, no matter how you write, your words will be mauled and disfigured by the Islamophobic hyenas. I knew that Amani was up to the task. I have read some of her previous writing. So, I wasn’t asking myself whether she could or not. I just wanted to learn more about how she has done it. But already, by telling you that I was up well past midnight finishing the book, I guess I have already told you that I was far from being disappointed. This is indeed a heroically and subtly written book, full of insightful gems, that everyone must read.


First all, the book is very well crafted. One feels throughout that the writing, in the sense of the kind of words used and the modes of constructing sentences and paragraphs, is exactly the right kind required to express something as painful and psychologically demanding. It allows the author both the needed proximity and the equally needed distance. But the book is also well-crafted in the sense of it being a story that is exceptionally well-told. I am not sure if it is a suitable term to use when dealing with such serious, and seriously gutting and heart-wrenching, subject matters, but parts of the book do read like a thriller. It makes you eager to turn the next page to know what happens next even when you know what ultimately was going to happen next. Amani uses writing devices that also make the description of the court proceedings a page-turner. Perhaps the fact that she is a trained lawyer helped here. And she also introduces a testimony with a ‘secret’ referred to as ‘the thing’ that makes us eagerly await page after page to know what it is. I am not sure if Amani uses ‘the thing’ here with an awareness of the psychoanalytic genealogy of the term, but what is exceptional, and particularly powerful feat of writing, is how ‘the thing’ ends up being articulated around a critique of what is accepted as evidence of abuse in the court of law. And at the end of the book, when you think the story has been told and it is time to wrap up the text is augmented with exceptionally insightful commentary about storytelling that gives the book a certain raison d’être that is well beyond the individual and the therapeutic: ‘The best story telling is that which builds a community and it is, in turn, a communal responsibility to make the space – in courtrooms, media, schools, society – safer for stories. That way, victims know that they are welcome and supported to reclaim their narrative and thereby reclaim their world.’


As a tale concerned with male sexuality, patriarchy and migration, a topic I have dealt with in my academic work, I found the story of her father’s gradual loss of control speaking to two issues I have often encountered in my fieldwork. To what extent they help think the case of Amani’s father is not for me to decide but I can say that reading about what she described helped me to further think through the way I theorised the cases I am studying:


First, the loss of patriarchal control is experienced not merely as a loss of power but a disintegration of a primal patriarchal fantasy of being mothered, whereby the role of the mother (and later the wife also imagined within this fantasy as having the task of mothering her husband) is to create a space of absolute mothering: where everything and everyone around the male exists to service their needs. A particularly patriarchal mode of imagining ‘heaven on earth’. Because it is a fantasy space of absolute control it becomes so emotionally charged that any minor disruption, any minor moment when a woman looks the ‘wrong’ way or does the ‘wrong’ thing is experienced as disastrous and a threat to one’s primary well-being.


Second, in the cases I have examined, the patriarchal fear is not just a fear of losing control. What is most unbearable is seeing those whom you previously controlled flourish and leave you behind, socially stuck and unable to move along as successfully yourself: not only is my wife doing better than she was doing when she was under my thumb, but she is actually doing much better (getting better jobs, more education, networks, etc.) than I can ever do myself. It is a patriarchy-in-decline jealousy born out of comparative existential mobility. I thought I could see elements of this process in Amani’s story.


One of the most original aspects of the book is the way Amani articulates the killing of her grandmother by the Israeli army and her mother by her father (both with claims of being injured parties on the defensive). Amani explicitly shows herself to be aware of the importance of intersectional thinking to better understand the articulation of patriarchy, race and class in the way domestic violence among immigrants works. But in the way she articulates the killing of her grandmother by the Israelis and the killing of her mother and the working of the justice system in Australia, she seems to be pointing to another intersectionality, an intersectionality between different forms of patriarchy that operate at a family, social/national and international/colonial level. 


I thought that the book dealt exceptionally well with the question of the universality and cultural specificity of these patriarchal processes and particularly the question of patriarchal violence. For it is always easy to think that one has to choose here. Is this about Muslim patriarchy or is it about patriarchy, tout court? My anthropology tells me that any choice would be a false choice. The task is always to continually fluctuate between degrees of universality, or at least generality, and degrees of specificity. To say that the book is about Muslim patriarchy without making an effort to see in what way it is about patriarchy in general would be a mistake. But it would be equally a mistake if one deals with patriarchy as a general category and ignoring it culturally specific forms. This always has political consequences.


For if it is true that racists have used the patriarchy of the other as a way of getting away with their racism, it is also true that sexists have used the racism of the other as a way of getting away with their sexism. As Amani puts it: ‘Such is the double-bind Muslim women survivors and activists find ourselves in. Between the screeches of Islamophobes and the booming voice of patriarchy within our own community, there is little room left for Muslim women to share their truths.’ She does an excellent job at finding some room and working within it but she also more than amply shows how this ‘double-bind’ is constructed. Indeed, the way her father’s lawyers organise his defence offers a rather breathtaking exemplification of this mobilisation of cultural specificity in the defence of patriarchy. But Amani herself is quite aware how important cultural specificity is but she is also aware of the limits, and necessity to limit, the work of cultural specificity. As a male, I could easily say this book is not about me. It is about Muslim males from a rural background. I am an urban cosmopolitan Christian Lebanese. I would be right to a certain extent but there will be a point where I would be using cultural specificity as a defence mechanism to stop myself from reflecting on my own sexism. It would stop me from asking, for example, a question that I need to ask myself: in what way does my short temper and occasional explosions of anger in continuity with the kind of male violence analysed in the book. Where does my anger and my mode of expressing it position me on the patriarchal spectrum, as it were? and how do I work critically on myself to continue to minimise the anger itself, rather than minimise its importance?


Without essentialising (as she is clearly blessed with an exceptionally wonderful male partner), Amani clearly wants to address all men: ‘I’m cynical about men. That’s not my fault: it’s theirs’.


The least we males could do is read her. So go, and pick up your copy… now… and make your COVID lockdown useful to help you thrive, flourish and become a better person.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Sutton, Walshe and Pascoe: Empirical truth and racist intensifications

 Let me begin with these three anecdotes. They might appear to be unrelated to begin with. But as I will show they all take us to the issue I want to raise here. They came to my mind in the recent media coverage given to Peter Sutton and Kerryn Walshe’s critique of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and the social media commentary it has generated.


Anecdote 1

I am in the car listening to a US radio program. The interviewer is talking to a member of an evangelical sect who had predicted the end of the world on a precise date. It was sometimes in 2005 or 2006. I am writing this from memory. I can’t recall the exact date. What I recall is that the person being interviewed was discussing his sect’s eschatological position. According to the sect the end of the world was accompanied by a state of ‘rapture’. For those who don’t know, ‘rapture’ refers to a belief that at the ‘end of time’ Jesus will snatch all the true believers from the earth and towards the heavens while the non-believers stay on earth and burn and suffer to death. This particular sect, according to the man being interviewed, held a particularly gory version of this: if you are a believer, not only did Jesus ‘suck you up’ away from earth and towards the heavens, but he actually suspends you mid-way through this process so that you can ‘enjoy’ the sight of the non-believers burning and suffering before finally going to inhabit your well-deserved heavenly realm.


This was all discussed in the interview. But the point of the interview was that neither the end of the world nor rapture happened at the date it was supposed to have happened according to the sect. The radio interviewer was pretty calm and understanding about all this (I remember thinking: in a way that only liberal Americans can be). Indeed rather than mocking the man or cornering him with the failure of the prediction, the interviewer was trying to help him find a way out. He suggested that maybe the end of the world is not as sudden as we like to imagine it to be. Maybe, he said, it will happen slowly as with global warming. The man’s reply remained and will remain with me forever. ‘Ah. Global warming. The jury is still out on this’ he said.


The man accepted the end of the world and the rapture unquestioningly despite the absolute lack of empirical data to support that view. But he doubted the validity of global warming despite the enormous body of empirical data validating it. In the first case he acted as if he couldn’t care less about the question of ‘empirical evidence’. In the second case, he was denying the facts presented by the majority of the scientific community, not by acting as if he didn’t care about facts, but by posturing as if his scientific standards of proof are much higher than all those scientists combined. For in the matter of global warming, unlike in the matter of the end of the world, nothing but the most stringent empirical proof can do.


The anecdote highlights the classical difference between belief and knowledge. It brings to mind arguments against thinking those as a binary opposition between different people, as if some people dwell in the world of belief and some people dwell in the world of rigorously evaluated empirical knowledge. In fact, most people’s views are a mixture of beliefs and empirical knowledge. But it also brings to mind something Pierre Bourdieu argued in relation to Levy Bruhl. It is mainly social scientists who have a vested interest in knowledge for knowledge’s sake who dwell primarily in the world of rigorously evaluated empirical knowledge. To demand an investment in rigour from everyone is a form of scholastic fallacy: a belief that everyone is motivated by pure intellectual pursuit. For most people, knowledge is subordinate to non-intellectual practical ends.


It is a mistake to think that it is strange that a man who believes in rapture is unable to engage in an empirical pursuit of some truth or another. But it is a mistake to think that the empirical pursuit of the truth is motivated by nothing other than the search for the truth. In the above case, it is clear that it is not the man’s search for the truth that has led to his position on global warming. It is his position on global warming that led to his cynicism towards the dominant existing knowledge on the subject. He was using a form of mega-empirical posturing as a way of reinforcing his belief.


Anecdote 2:

A group of people in my local café are discussing a news item in the morning paper. A Palestinian-background male doctor in Sydney was convicted of sexually assaulting his female patients. The man was clearly a creep, drugging his patients and assaulting them in his clinic. One of the women in the café was saying exactly that: that the man was a creep. But she was saying it with particular intensity that distinguished her reaction from that of the other women she was talking to and who clearly agreed with her. I was trying to guess where this intensity came from. I thought she might have been perhaps a victim of sexual abuse herself. But then she said: ‘that’s what you get from seeing a Muslim doctor’ (the doctor, as could be recognised from his name, was actually a Palestinian Christian). 


I was struck by the fact that, being partially deaf, I still heard this clearly. The woman felt totally comfortable saying this in a public space. She didn’t even try to lower her voice while saying it. It became clear to me that at least part of the intensity of her reaction was a racist intensity. I remember wondering at the time how one is to point to this racism without wanting to be seen to be defending the doctor. It initiated a long reflection on this question. But it also made me think of something that the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once said. That it is a relief to find a good reason to hate someone one hates for no good reason at all. Racialized people behaving badly are a source of psychological relief to the racists who hate them just for who they are not for how they behave. The intensity referred to above is the symptom of the relief their bad behaviour provides. Similar forms of racialized intensities became a more generalised phenomenon during the public debates about Sydney ‘Lebanese gang rapes’ at the turn of the century.


Anecdote 3:

It is 2002 or 2003, I am presenting a paper at a staff seminar in my own anthropology department at the time, at the University of Sydney. It is a piece of ethnographic work on male sexuality in a Lebanese village and its transformation in the process of migration. The paper argued that the usage of the concept of ‘phallocentrism’ as a metaphor in depicting some forms of masculinist cultures should not be universalised. I showed that the particular masculinity in the Lebanese village I was investigating (so I wasn’t generalising about a ‘Lebanese sexuality’ either) was phallocentric in an actual not in a metaphoric sense: that is, it was a penis-centred masculinity. After presenting the paper, a Lebanese-background man I did not know approached me to say that he is disappointed about me reproducing what he saw as ‘negative stereotypes’ about Lebanese male sexuality ‘given what has recently happened.’


I immediately understood what he meant by ‘given what has recently happened.’ He was referring to the above-mentioned ‘Lebanese gang rapes’ controversy which had indeed only just abated. I was taken aback by his comment and taken aback by the fact that he was positioning my research in events that had nothing much to do with it as far as I was concerned. The research was actually based on interviews with Lebanese migrants living in Boston. I reacted defensively saying that this was a social scientific anthropological research, and that what I am interested in has nothing to do with how people in Sydney discuss Lebanese male sexuality. I asked him if he was an academic and he said he wasn’t but that my name and the topic of my presentation piqued his interest. ‘As you know, a lot of people are interested in what you have to say’ he said. I replied, always defensively, that this was a specifically academic seminar and that I wouldn’t argue in the same way if I was discussing things on television. 


Part of me was genuinely annoyed at the idea that I should let the racism of some people in some part of the world like Sydney decide what research outcomes I should discuss or not discuss. At the same time, I was also worried about the ramifications of my stance. Isn’t that what the scientists who invented nuclear power said about the atom bomb? To be sure, it wasn’t that I was equating my findings with the discovery of nuclear fissure (!) but the socio-ethical questions were the same. Can I really act as if the world of research and science is a world independent of the more general social space in which it is occurring? It is not. At the same time, another question that leads to the opposite path was equally valid: can I be a professional without wanting to establish the autonomy of my findings vis a vis how some people outside the academic field invest in them? There is a social scientific field that is autonomous from the wider social field and where the questions that are asked and the issues that are raised ought to be asked and raised because of their academic and scholarly value not because they reinforce or challenge some politicised stereotype or another. Over the years, I cannot say that I found a satisfactory resolution to this dilemma. However, if I were to see this man again, I would thank him for ensuring that I always think about this dilemma as an unresolvable contradiction in which social researchers dwell and have to negotiate as best as they can. 


I trust that people can see how these anecdotes and the questions they have generated are relevant to the way we think about the public discussions generated by Sutton and Walshe’s critique of Dark Emu. Every such specialist debate with social ramifications occurs in what Bourdieu calls a ‘restricted’ and a ‘wide’ field. Debates about music or cinema happen between musicians or film makers (restricted field) and between the consumers of music or film (wide field). In much the same way, one has to be clear about the difference and interconnection between professional anthropological debates and the populist media debates they generate. One cannot treat the two as if they are the same, but nor can we treat them as if they have no bearing on each other. Nor is the value of an anthropological work solely based on the way other anthropologists perceive it. Rightly or wrongly, there are many works that have left a lasting effect on the public imagination, and that continue to be seen among the best of what anthropology can offer in that they move us in the right direction in our search for a better world, while being questioned scientifically: two different bodies of anthropological works come to mind here, the work of Margaret Mead and that of Carlos Castaneda. I am not sufficiently expert in Indigenous anthropology to have a strong view as to whether Pascoe’s work will end up being seen in this way. But it clearly has the potential to move us in this way. If so, Sutton and Walshe’s critique will matter very little regarding the social circulation of the work. My lack of expertise in the field also stops me for judging too categorically Sutton and Walshe’s critique, although I am more than willing to admit that many issues that have been reported to be part of their critique sounds right to my anthropological ears. 


But I also wonder if Sutton and Walshe are asking themselves the question regarding the significance of the populist interest in their work that I had to ask following my lecture. Do they really think that the media/populist interest in their work is an interest in truth? Is it? One can immediately think of the many fact-based critiques of the whitewashed early historical accounts of ‘the settlement of Australia’ that never got the kind of populist attention they are now receiving. And, far from me to equate their valuable scholarly critique to Keith Windschuttle’s petty number crunching mode of searching for the truth, one has to ask if it the media/populist interest in the ‘truth’ of their work is not itself actually treating the two exercises as if they belong to the same order of scholarship.


It would be a mistake to think that racists do not use empirical facts. But it would be a mistake to think that their usage of facts comes from an interest in the pursuit of truthful facts. For I can already see in the intensity of the populist critique of Pascoe that same racist form of intensification I referred to earlier.