Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ethnic Caging

Ethnic Caging (From White Nation)

Ghassan Hage

I have had no direct experience of the conditions in which "Boat People" and others find themselves in following their "capture" by the Australian State. Beside having met and spoken to some refugees who have now settled in Australia, like many people, my experience is primarily mediatic: I've seen it on the TV and read about in the paper. By the end of the day what remains most vividly present in my consciousness are intimations of caging practices: people behind fences, hands clutching wires, guards. I've seen the films and the photos, and listened to and read government officials justifying the way they "handle" the situation. Of course, in the well established traditional pattern of knowledge dissemination, "the point of view" of the caged, from the budgie to the prisoner, is never or seldom heard. I have recently learned that in fact the government categorises those who have attempted to illegally enter Australia's internationally recognised territories as "non-persons"

Like many others I find the images of these "ethnics behind cages" - for this is how they come across - shocking. Even if one is supportive of the practice and does not feel particular empathy towards the "caged", the practice still stands out as non-ordinary. Indeed, a nationalist register is sometimes evoked to call this "ethnic caging" un-Australian. It strikes many Australians as so shockingly "other" of the Australia they experience in their everyday life. It is certainly different from the Australia I experience on my way to work, for example. This is the kind of place where I can stop at my local Italian coffee shop and engage with the owner in a ritualistic ode to "market multiculturalism": the multiculturalism of consumption, especially the multiculturalism of ethnic food. The one that makes my macchiattos particularly enjoyable. Where those who are classy enough to appreciate it enjoy eating ethnics, and where ethnics, who are good enough to offer themselves for consumption, enjoy being eaten. Everybody's happy.

In such a multicultural context, the reason why the images of ethnic caging can shock is obvious enough. But it is worth making them explicit, if only as a refresher. At the most basic, ethnic caging appears as a negation of the historical direction Australia is pictured to have taken within multicultural discourse: multiculturalism as the historical rise of an ethic of goodwill towards ethnic otherness. If nothing else, multiculturalism encompasses a present struggle by the Australian state to appear to be "nice" to ethnic otherness in contrast to a past history constructed as a time when Australia was "not so nice": The White Australia Policy, Assimilation, etc. The "then we were nasty, now we are nice" polarity clearly structures the imaginary history of multiculturalism and underlies most of its conceptual apparatus. In this context, "ethnic caging" appears as a historico-ethical reversal. The slogan behind it is more like: "Then we were nice now we will be nasty". A slogan more popularly known as "no more Mr Nice Guy" which appears, let us again emphasise the word, as an oddity in a multicultural environment!

There is, however, a more recent comparative multicultural paradigm within which "ethnic caging" stands out as an equally shocking phenomenon. Here the comparison is international rather than historical. It has emerged in light of the atrocities associated with Eastern European nationalism, particularly the "ethnic cleansing" of the Bosnian wars. This comparison is structured around what is conceived as two radically different types of nationalism: a nationalism of extermination and a nationalism of tolerance. One "Eastern" nationalism which always aims to eradicate ethnic otherness. One "Western" nationalism which always aims towards the appreciation and the valuing, and therefore the protection, of this ethnic otherness. Clearly multicultural Australia here is perceived as very well entrenched in the "Western" camp, while the "Eastern" camp is constructed as totally other.

It is clear why "ethnic caging" shocks within the above dichotomy. The concentration camp-like images it fosters make "ethnic caging" appear closer to "ethnic cleansing" than to anything remotely linked to multicultural appreciation and tolerance. The lack of respect for the humanity of the people concerned, the caging bureaucracy set up to deals with the "non-people", accusations that institutional procedures are not being respected and that due process is not being followed in dealing with the "caged", all of this works to position these practices further into the domain of "Eastern otherness". Are Broome and Port Hedland really part of an Australia that wants itself to be so nicely multicultural? How can they be?

The government is clearly aware of this "image problem" and many of its pronouncements on the issue aim at distancing "the nature of Australian society" from "what is happening at Port Hedland". Port Hedland is "not-Australian-society" in the same way the refuge seekers are "non-persons". I must say that, at first sight, this idea of a non-social space inhabited by non-people does not strike me as a good way of dealing with an image problem! But the message the government intends to convey is implicitly quiet efficient and credible: Dealing with the asylum seekers this way does not reflect in anyway the values Australians hold regarding how their society should be internally structured. The fact that Australians are committed to kill, if necessary, the soldiers of an invading army does not mean that Australian society values killing. If we are willing to be nasty in protecting our nice nation, it does not mean that we have stopped being a nice nation. Thus, the issues raised by the illegal arrivals are shown - convincingly, one must add - to have nothing to do with how Australians live their lives inside Australia. They have to do with a different set of issue such as: Does Australia have a territorial integrity or doesn't it? Are we a nation capable of protecting our borders or aren't we? Are we capable of enforcing the international procedures set out for entering our nation, and that are followed by thousands of migrants, or are we going to allow people to jump "the queue"?

Although, like most people, I find the practice of ethnic caging morally abhorring, I believe that the government is quite right in stressing that illegal border crossings problematises the above-mentioned issues for the nation. What I would like to question, however, is the neat separation between the internal problems of a nation (social organisation, social values), and its external problems (defence of borders, sovereignty) that is implied by this mode of argument. Can "we" really be nice to ethnics in the internal organisation of the nation and cage them in its external organisation without there being any relation between the two? I am not saying that the way "we" treat illegal refuge seekers is bound to affect the way "we" end up treating ethnic otherness within the nation. Although for those who wish to be prescriptive this can certainly be an interesting argument to pursue. My critical intent is more analytical than prescriptive. I want to argue that the mode of categorising and dealing with national otherness in the process of defending the nation from external threats is intrinsically linked to the way national otherness is categorised and dealt with internally. Both emanate from the same structure of categorisation of national otherness but are different deployments of this structure in different contexts. That is, as far as ethnic caging is concerned, the mode of categorising ethnic otherness implied by it in the context of perceiving it as an external threat to the nation is not at all unrelated to the way ethnicity is perceived internally within multiculturalism. In fact, I want to argue that ethnic caging is best understood in the same way a symptom is conceived in psychoanalysis: a phenomenon which expresses a repressed structure that constitutes and underlies all of the reality of which it is a part. In this sense, the categories of ethnic caging express a structure of perceiving ethnicity which constitutes and underlies all of Australian society rather than being external to it.

To argue my point, I want to slightly formalise the difference already perceived in government discourse between the external issues and the internal issues facing the nation. Without going too much into the finer details of an academic analysis of nation building, I want to stress the difference between two aspects of nation-building which understanding is necessary for our analysis: the building of the national will and the building of the national body. These are not always clearly differentiated when people talk about nation building, although they are very crucial to all such processes. This difference is touched upon in everyday nationalist parlance which clearly differentiate between two modes of relating to the nation. We say: "I belong to this nation". But we also say "This nation belongs to me". In the first, what is emphasised is the nation as a place of belonging, a place where one fits in. This is also referred to often as the "my home". The conception of the discourse as home is rich in organic metaphors where the nation as a place of fulfilment and solidarity is perceived in bodily term. When we say "this is my nation" on the other hand, we are emphasising a certain power over the nation rather than a sense of belonging, although this power derives from a sense of belonging it nevertheless entails a different relation to it. It involves the positioning of oneself in a managerial role towards the nation. It is in this sense that it involves the stressing of a national will over the nation, capable of looking after it.

All nation-building practices operate on both levels in that they are always attempts at constituting the nation both as a national body and as a national will. The degree of emphasis on one or the other is contextual but the two are necessarily intertwined. This relation between body-building and will-building is the hardest to conceive. One can have a hint at what it entails by examining a similar relation in the process of the human body's fight against a disease. A process which can be conceived for our purposes as one of "body-building" in which a human bodily will is fighting for the control of the human body against an otherness invading it. The problem, of course, is that whatever we end up referring to as the human bodily will is not independent of the body. It refers to a capacity of the body to act on, organise and defend itself. The onset of a disease is the onset of matter coming together to form a will other than that of the body, a "counter-will" aiming to colonise it. The bodily will's aim is to eradicate any such a counter-will, an endless job. On the other hand, the more the disease invades of the body the more it weakens the bodily will/capacity to fight it that is inherent in the body. Thus, in the process of fighting against a disease one can move from a stage where the will of the body to fight otherness is present, to another stage where a further quantitative bodily loss to the disease leads to a qualitative loss of a bodily will. This is the stage where without the body actually dying it is no longer capable of offering any resistance; where the human body's will to fight the disease has ceased to exist. The body becomes controlled by the counter-will of the disease. That is, the counter will manages to successfully colonise the body and submit it to it own "order". In some tribal societies, humans who are still physically alive are pronounced dead precisely when there is no longer a hint of a will in the body. This is when disease or "death" take over. Thus for a wilful human body to exist, it is not enough for it to be "alive". It is very hard to understand what is this minimum necessary for the living body to continue to act as a bodily will but it is clear that there is a need for enough of the body to "come together" to order itself and to constitute itself as the ordering principle of the rest of the body for this wilful bodily existence to come into being. The exclamation "pull yourself together" is a brilliant capturing by popular consciousness of this process in situations where someone appears to be "all over the place" The exclamation is an exhortation of the will to take control of the body and order it such that it can stop disintegrating and regain its capacity to be "operational".

The point of all of the above, of course, is to emphasise that nations as well need "to pull themselves together" in order to exist and be recognised as nations by the international community. Just like with the human body, enough of the national body has to "come together" and order itself into a national will that can order and govern the rest of the nation as a minimum for a nation to be recognised as existing by the international community. This is what being recognised at the UN often entails. It is this national will which ends up governing the national body. If a national counter-will has emerged we can also see that the struggle against it by the governmental national will develops in ways similar to the struggle of the human body against disease. There is a point in the fight against a national otherness which has constituted itself into a nation-counter-will (referred to often as a national disease), where the fight is transformed from one where the national will is aiming to stay in control of the totality of the national body it used to govern to a fight for that minimum necessary for a national will to remain existing and without which the nation is declared dead. This is why, like with the human bodily will, this governmental national will is engaged in a constant struggle to eradicate not otherness as such but the capacity of any otherness to constitute itself into a national counter-will. In some ways we can say that struggles over the national body are struggles over the kind of life nationals can live, while struggles over the national will are struggles over life itself. One is a battle over the quality of life one is a battle over life and death. This is why the latter struggles where the national will is more at stake are often deadlier.

Let me exemplify this necessarily abstract, though simplified, analysis. When during the Bosnian war, the Bosnian Serbs become nasty, it's not because they are inherently different from us or from anybody else as nationals. It's because what is at stake here is the very formation of a Bosnian Serb national will. The Bosnian Serbs were not fighting over "Who was going to live in my nation?" They were fighting over "Will my Bosnian national will live and order the nation?". So here we have an example of nation building turning nasty and deadly precisely because what was at stake was not the health of the Bosnian national body but the life or death of Bosnian national will capable of governing this body. Nationalists in quest of a national will are not willing or capable of dealing and coping with other national wills. They must exterminate them.

When we have a situation where the issue of the national will has been reasonably settled, where the national will has achieved an enduring - though never final - capacity to keep otherness in check, and feels secure in its capacity to stop this otherness from forming a counter-national will, then national wills are more easy going with national otherness. This is when they tolerate/not tolerate, accept/not accept rather than merely exterminate. This is when we get a national managerial parlance "You come here, you go there. I don't mind you living here. We're better off if you live there". At the same time, however, while being more pleasant with national otherness, the national will is constantly aware of the danger of otherness constituting itself into a national will and has to ensure that this otherness does not do so and come to endanger the national will's existence as such. This is why national otherness even when it is tolerated has to always be under the threat of extermination to ensure it does not "take over".

So, if we take this very brief and quick differentiation to Australia and examine it, we find that the series of differentiating criteria that Australian multiculturalism operates with in terms of "nice"/"not so nice" national building, extermination/tolerance, Eastern/Western nationalism, are not as dramatically different as multiculturalist discourse would like them to be. Australia has not of course always been tolerant, as the multiculturalists remind us. Well before the caging of illegal refuge seekers, there are many examples of other instances of caging in Australian history. The Australian colonising national will exterminated and caged literally and metaphorically Aboriginal people and in an exemplary fashion started valuing them when they no longer constituted a communal counter will in themselves, when they were no longer capable of endangering the British constituted colonising national will. More recently, we seem to forget that we have engaged in a massive exercise during World War II of caging and detaining "ethnics" who actually held Australian citizenship. Now, why were Italians and Germans who were "tolerated" in the 1930s and early 1940s detained and caged during the war? Because wars emphasise the problematic of the national will. Many things that are perceived as harmless in peace time become perceived by the dominating national will as dangerous for national survival in war time. This will cannot cope with the idea of others who might potentially subvert the national will by acting in the name of another national will (potential spies, the enemy within, etc.) to roam freely within the nation.

But does good old multicultural tolerance escape this logic of nation building? Certainly not. The multicultural national will, like all national wills tolerate national otherness, but only in so far as this national otherness is in no danger of constituting a counter-will. Indeed within multiculturalism we find many examples where when the national multicultural will is threatened, multiculturalism starts showing a rather nasty side.

To take an example from our everyday life today it is enough to examine the way the notion of the ethnic concentration is perceived and problematised by the committed multiculturalists themselves. Multiculturalism is of course always readily emitting statements such as: "We like diversity. We like ethnicity", but once it sees a concentration of ethnicity it is remarkable how it turns a bit on itself. Some even say, in a matter of fact manner, that the whole point of multiculturalism is to avoid ethnic concentrations, ethnic ghettos. Like in Sydney we have in Cabramatta what many otherwise loving multiculturalists perceive as "too many" Vietnamese together. What does "too many" mean? And why aren't too many Anglos living together a problem? Why is the concentration of ethnic otherness such a problem? Because, as Elias Canetti intimates in Crowds and Power, concentrations can produce collective will. For instance, what differentiates the concentration camp from the mere prison at the level of its communal effect is precisely that concentration camps by being "prisons of concentrations" imprison and break not just individual members of a community but the communal will itself. So, otherness scattered around the nation is fine. But once "they" start concentrating they might become an alternative will and the national will has to go into them and disperse them. Indeed, the multicultural discourse that problematises the concentration always ends up problematising national control over it. Someone else, often dark criminal forces, disease, these are what control Cabramatta. So what is happening here? A typical national will perceiving in the concentration a potential counter-will and readying itself to exterminate it in order to transform it once again into a will-less ethnicity that can be once again appreciated and tolerated. All done lovingly from within multiculturalism.

It might have been a long way to it but I think that we are now in a position to deal more meaningfully with ethnic caging. Often, in the public discussion of illegally arriving refuge seekers, we hear things like: 'There's only sixty boat people, eighty boat people,' etc. And people rightly point out that in terms of numbers it's nothing. Australia has taken many more. So why all the fuss? Indeed, if the question was about these ethnic others inhabiting the national home, the national body, it wouldn't have been a problem. But when we are talking about people "jumping the queue" we are not talking about people who are merely taking a position allotted to them in the national home. This "queue" is nothing other than the manifestation of the national will. It is the national order for entering the national body imposed by the national will. This is why it is not a matter of numbers, whether two or one hundred jump the queue what they have done is they have engaged the nation at the level of its national will. They have literally tried to subverts the national will. They have activated something no national will can perceive without it turning nasty: they are ethnic otherness who have exhibited a will of their own. That it is why they are so dangerous. The national will does not care about the reason why otherness hasn't followed the proper channels set out by it for entering the nation. What it cares about is that it is a national will and it must be capable of enforcing its proper channels, it queues, its order. Otherness must not be allowed under any circumstance to show this national will to be weak. You make it shaky and the national will will have to act accordingly. Ethnic Caging is not the caging of ethnic numbers it is the caging of ethnic wills. It is as the government itself argues an example for others: don't try to activate your own will. One will rules in Australia and this is how it is going to be.

As the man falling from the skyscraper, in the French film La Haine, says to himself, "so far so good". So far so good, because if Australia did not have a sizeable ethnic population, "ethnic caging" as a message for other external ethnic wills about the wish of the Australian national will to keep on ruling the nation is relatively unproblematic. It is unproblematic, that is, in a world where the very condition of existence of nations has to do with the capacity to enforce national procedures for entering borders. But because Australia is a multi-ethnic country this message is not as unproblematic as it might first appear. I don't think that these images of caged ethnics I have started by referring to have grabbed my attention a just as an academic. I think they affected me in part because I was watching them as an "ethnic". That is, because of the make up of Australian society, we cannot escape the fact that the message of ethnic caging, even if directed primarily at ethnic wills external to Australia, becomes also a message directed at the ethnic wills internal to Australia. In this process ethnic caging obtains an added significance which needs to be explored. Caging is a very interesting phenomenon. For a number of years I have been actually studying the domestication of animals and its relevance for understanding the domestication of people within nations. That is why caging grabbed my attention almost immediately as an interesting mode of nation-building. So I would like to refer here to the work of the early French naturalist Geoffroy de St Hilaire who wrote in 1861 a book on the domestication of animals .

de St Hilaire differentiates between three states to which humans can reduce animals to in the process of subordinating them to their needs. They can be captive, tame or domesticated. Captive animals are those who have to be caged in or physically restrained to remain subjected to humans. Without this physical restraint they would go back in the wild unaffected by their experience. That is, captive animals have not yet undergone any major transformation in their mode of conceiving how they should live. They still conceive of "the good life", if one might say so, in the same way as they did when they were first captured. Tame animals on the other hand have internalised their state of captivity such that the physical restrains are no longer needed as an instrument of subjugation. Their idea of the good life has changed and they are happy being around the humans who tamed them, caging is no longer necessary to retain them. The difference between tame and domesticated animals is even more important. For de St Hilaire, animals that are tame are always so as individuals of a specie. What differentiates the domesticated from the tame is precisely that domestication involves the reproduction of the specie in captivity. That is, the domesticated are subjugated as a self reproducing community of tame animals.

de St Hilaire's differentiation of the three states is exceptionally interesting in light of what we have been discussing so far. What is the significance of the difference between captive animals and tame animals as far as our present analysis is concerned? One is tempted to say quickly that captive animals are caged while tame and domesticated animals are not. There is an element of truth in this but it is not strictly true. Tame and domesticated animals are in fact often caged. They are not trusted to know that they are not supposed to go certain places and therefore might need to be fenced in. I think what is more important than the difference caged not caged is the difference in the function of caging. Caging for captive animals constitutes the main instrument of their subordination. Tame and domesticated animals have incorporated their state of subordination, cages are used to control their movement, to position them within domestic space, rather than as the main instrument of their subjugation. More importantly, however, what does it mean when we say above that captive animals have not changed their conception of the good life while tame and domesticated animals have. In our terms it simply means that captive animals still have a will independent of the human domesticator while for both the tame and the domesticated animals , this will has become subjugated to the will of the domesticator. Here is my point: if we can easily recognise in the wilful caged animal the wilful refuge seeker who has not submitted to the order of the national will, are we not also invited to recognise in ourselves, those ethnics who have "successfully settled in Australia", the tame and the domesticated animal whose will has been subjugated as the very condition of belonging to the domestic space of the Australian national will. That is, by virtue of the absence of a cage to subjugate us, are we not always post-caged? Mustn't we have undergone a real or metaphoric caging which has shaped our communal wills such that we no longer can constitute any possible counter will for the Australian governing national will as the very precondition of our becoming the subjects of tolerance rather than the subjects of extermination or caging? It is in this sense that Port Hedland works like a psychoanalytic symptom: what are these pictures of ethnic caging being offered to us but images of ourselves as domesticated Third-World-Looking Ethnics (TWLE as opposed to NESB) in multicultural Australia.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Against Colonial Rubbishing

As my facebook friends know, I take my status updates seriously. This does not mean that I only treat serious topics, or that I take myself overly seriously. Indeed I can be very frivolous and I always maintain a healthy cynicism towards whichever way I happen to see myself favorably on any given day. What I mean by taking my facebook entries seriously is that I put all (or at least a lot) of myself into them: in them, I am rational and emotional, intellectual and political, public and personal, theoretical and empirical and a lot more. I am saying this because I am beginning this piece by reflecting on a couple of status updates I have made in the last few months. So, I want readers, especially those who are quickly inclined to do so, to at least wait until I finish before thinking that I am conceited for thinking that my facebook entries are worthy of any serious reflection at all. What led me to reflect on these entries is a realization that, despite the different subject matter between at least some of them, they have been driven by very similar sentiments and emotions: disgust, rage, anger, pain and sadness. I want to reflect on the source of this similarity. The first entry is dated March 9, 2013 when I was invited to give a keynote at a conference held at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank. I wrote it after I had been given a tour around Ramallah and Jerusalem the day before the conference. It went this way: I did tell the organiser of this conference that I don't feel I should be giving a keynote on 'Palestine between dependence and independence', that I am hardly the most empirically knowledgeable person in this field. But he insisted. 'Everyone says you make people think outside the box. That's what we need' he said. I was flattered. But one day of experiencing the 'settlements' and the wall has already so fundamentally disturbed me. I've read all that can be read about the Wall and the settlements and I was still fundamentally shocked... How is this possible today? It is like a colonialism running amok with power. Walling people as they please, mistreating them as they please, building colonies high up on the hills and literally shitting on those living down the hill by letting their sewer come out outside the settlements for others to cope with it. How heroic is it that the Palestinian people are still managing to squeeze a bit of life in the midst of this? and what is there more to say that does not sound cheap? I seriously am not enjoying the prospect of presenting this keynote. The second entry came following reading a Haaretz article on the occasion of what would have been Walter Benjamin’s 120th birthday telling the story of his suicide as he lost hope of escaping the Nazis in Marseille. The thought of someone as grand, as brilliant and as sensitive a thinker as Walter Benjamin being subjected to so much humiliation leading to his suicide always hits me hard: It always makes me so sad reading about this. You think 'fuck fascism and anti-Semitism. Never Again'. Fascist anti-Semitic evil might have been banal but that didn't stop it being close to a form of pure evil. and the struggle against fascist anti-Semitism is as 'pure good' as you can get. except for those who pollute it by investing it with the function of legitmizing zionist fascism. I wouldn't say all forms of zionism are like this, but this is really what the dominant form of zionism in Israel is: a pollution of the struggle against anti-semitism. The third entry was not that long ago following Rudd’s infamous introduction of the ‘PNG solution’ to deal with the dangerous encirclement of Australia by billions of Third World Looking creatures coming to get us: To help think the culture to which Rudd's asylum seekers' policy is appealing to and which he hopes will find him appealing - a creative modification of some cultural and dictionary definitions: *Stingy, Mean* both mean reluctant to part with money, goods, possessions or benefits. unwilling to share, give, or spend possessions or benefits. *Mean* also suggests a small-minded, ignoble, petty stinginess leading to miserable, cheerless, or vacuously cheerful, living. *battlers* old Australian English: working class people. New Australian English: lower middle class people who desire and think they deserve to be upper middle class. Old Marxist English: 'petty bourgeois shits'. Characterised by a permanent state of insecurity and a permanent sense that more privileges are never enough. Often believe newspaper reports that the 'Australian economy is booming' and feel that things are never booming enough for them when compared to X and Y. *Ordinary Australians* Australian-born and immigrants who can't believe their luck that they're born, or have successfully settled, in Australia, and got away with occupying and making use of indigenous land without having to pay for it - see for comparative purposes 'Israeli settlers' - Can't shake a sense of loving what they have being perturbed by a feeling of 'haunted enjoyment'. This sentiment has been referred to in a previous Hage publication as 'the sensitivity of thieves'. *Lucky-worried Australians* another product of the unequally shared 'economic boom'. A prototype of the lucky-worried subject is a person who is given a business class upgrade on (usually) a very short flight, can't believe their luck, but instead of enjoying it, they spend their time worrying about economy class people entering the business class cabin to use the toilet. The final one, which actually initiated these reflections, came about when a colleague made a light-hearted comment about my recent habit of replacing my own photo on my facebook page with that of ‘dead anthropologists’. I am teaching a subject on Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift and I initially had a photo of him standing for me. Now that I have moved to teach the well-known influence of The Gift on the thought of Claude Levi-Strauss, it is his picture that is occupying my little photographic fantasy space. I replied to my colleague that I find it quite useful and enjoyable to have this little identity shift as I am reading and teaching particular thinkers. I then mentioned, kind of en passant, that I also found it a bit perversely enjoyable to embody or let myself be embodied by the spirit of both Mauss and Levi-Strauss insofar as they are both Jewish thinkers. But then I remembered a night I was reading about Mauss’ personal history and discovered that he too had been subjected to the humiliation of the Nazis towards the end of his life and so I added: Actually not always enjoyable I was seriously shattered when I became aware that Marcel Mauss in the last days of his life had to walk with a yellow star stuck on his jacket. It was not dissimilar to learning about Benjamin’s death. If anything it was even more upsetting. I always identified with Marcel Mauss far more than with his uncle Emile Durkheim, who was a bit ‘priestly’ for my taste. Marcel Mauss loved life, was a good eater and a cook, and had a great sense of humour. So again the thought of this great mind being demeaned by the murderous and mediocre Nazi machine upset me immensely. I actually cried in my bed that night as I was reading about it. It was not that I consider the intellectual victims of Nazism intrinsically more important than any other victim. It was more a reflection of the kind of people I end up identifying with and sublimating as an academic. It was while recalling this that the thought came to my mind that some of the sentiments of disgust, anger and pain that I mention above, and that I experienced reading about Mauss and Benjamin were not that dissimilar from the sentiments I experienced when I started thinking about asylum seekers following Rudd’s pronouncements on the ‘PNG solution’. And certainly not dissimilar to how I felt when I toured the occupied Palestinian territories. Indeed after my Palestinian tour I also had to retreat to my room to let myself cry. I felt ashamed feeling the urge to cry while those who were actually subjected to this inhuman treatment stoically enduring it by my side. So I had to retreat to do it. What really got to me in Palestine was the settlers letting their sewage run on Palestinian villages. Twice we were driving through a Palestinian village when suddenly there was an invasion of the smell of the Israeli shit ‘landing’ nearby. I kept thinking to myself that a historical and ethical line was crossed here somewhere: ‘you colonize and you oppress, ok, it’s been done before, but to also literally shit on the people you are colonizing takes colonization into a different realm’. It then struck me that in fact there was probably a classificatory affinity in the eyes of the Israeli colonists between shit and the Palestinians. What differentiates Israeli Apartheid from South African Apartheid is that white South Africans actually needed black South Africans as cheap labour, while the Israelis have no necessary need for Palestinian labour. Indeed they had no need for the Palestinians full stop. And so, in the colonists’ eyes, Palestinian space is always already a kind of social rubbish dump suitable for letting one’s sewage run into it. The historians of slavery have often pointed out that despite the vile racism that characterized slavery, slave owners had an interest in the well-being of their slaves. After all they were their property and they were useful. This was not so in the case of the Israeli relation to the Palestinians. This is when I thought that the similarity of the sentiment that came to me in Palestine, and when reading about the Nazi victimization of Mauss and Benjamin was precisely this: the extreme devalorisation of people that I highly valorized; a dumb, insensitive, machine-ic and relentless devalorisation which went as far as treating people like disposable waste. And is that not what is particularly vile about Australia’s ‘PNG solution’? The vileness resides in the very mode of speaking of refugees by refusing to address them in the sense of looking them in the eyes, and recognize their tragic experiences, while addressing instead ‘the business plan’ of the people smugglers who are supposedly transporting and circulating them. It makes one feel as if Rudd and company could just as easily be discussing the illegal dumping of chemical waste or something along this line. So, there are situations where saying that colonisation can be a ‘mode of rubbishing’ people is more than engaging in flowery metaphors. ‘Rubbishing’ is actually a colonial technique. Indeed even Australia’s colonization of indigenous people took more a form of rubbishing than a form of exploitation of the labour of the colonized. Exterminating people by ‘rubbishing them’ is always less dramatic than when it is done through massacres. It is more like dumping a truck that one has destroyed somewhere on one’s property and letting it slowly rust, corrode and disintegrate. This is perhaps a dominant Australian mode of racial extermination, but there are variations on the same theme throughout the colonial world. The historian of French intellectual life, Didier Eribon, tells this story: I recall what Georges Dumézil told me about the day when, during the war, he went to visit his master and friend Marcel Mauss and saw for the first time the yellow star sewn onto his clothing. He could not take his eyes off this frightful stigma. The great sociologist then remarked to him: “You are looking at my gob of spit.” For a long time I understood this phrase in the most straightforward way: Mauss meant that he considered this bit of yellow cloth as a dirty stain, a piece of filth thrown in his face. But eventually someone pointed out to me that I was mistaken: Mauss had doubtless used the word “crachat” [literally, “gob of spit”] in the sense of “decoration.” And indeed, one of the old demotic meanings of the word “crachat” is that of insigne, medal, or decoration. We can trust Mauss, the master analyst of symbolic exchange, to know how to receive a blow and turn it, at least from a personal symbolic perspective, to his favour. Ultimately he manages to replay for us in his own way an old dramatic move: the act of wearing one’s humiliation like a badge of honour. It is with this question that I want to end here: who are today the inheritors of this ambivalent badge of honour? Who are the wearers of the equivalent of the yellow star today? Certainly, it is those asylum seekers and indigenous people everywhere who are heroically struggling against their colonial rubbishing. This is true even in the case of Palestine despite the Zionist claims of being the inheritors of the yellow star par excellence. For as numerous Jews inside and outside Israel know, the honour associated with the yellow star is not something that can be transmitted ethnically. It is something earned by living up to the nobility of the tragic experience of which it is a metonymy. This is why, while this star has to remain yellow, for anti-Semitism remains a real and present danger in today’s world, it nonetheless also comes with the added colours of Palestine as well as the colour of all those other indigenous people and refugees who are ‘rubbished’ in history.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sexism and Julia

One of the most difficult things I have always experienced when teaching about racism and anti-racism is how to break the instinctive association we often make between goodness and victimhood; the idea that those who are subjected to something bad must be good. It is a deeply engrained thing for, if it is presented in the form of a straightforward logical argument, such as: 'people who are subjected to something bad can be bad, so people subjected to racism are not necessarily good', most people are likely to agree and think that this is quite obvious, and yet the same people are likely to continue to make the slippage between victimhood and goodness at any unguarded moment where they are not being intellectually reflexive enough. Likewise, the argument that 'racism makes life difficult' does not mean that the person subjected to it is otherwise really efficient and graceful. This is partly, but only partly, because thinking of people as victimised is a universalising mode of classification, that is, the classification of someone as victim invites, not by necessity but often enough, a universal image of the victim abstracted from the particularities of whoever is being victimised. through this abstraction the 'victim position' becomes an empty signifier on which the person noting the victimisation can latch their own fantasies of the 'good victim' without being encumbered by the specificities of any particular victim. I am thinking about this because this bears some similarities to the way some feminists are interpreting the fall of Gillard as a prime minister. They position her in the very universalising positions of 'woman' and 'the first woman prime minister', and then proceed to show all the sexism she has been subjected to, all of which, to be clear, is true. But then we are left to make a slippage from this sexism to Gillard's goodness: she has achieved so much, look at all the good policies that have been implemented, so how else to explain her lack of support in the electorate? This is not necessarily an argument against sexism as an explanation but it is an argument about the limits of how much a universalising mode of thinking sexism can explain. For instance, no commentator I know seems to be willing to entertain the idea that part of what Gillard has been subjected to has also to do with her being a 'particular kind of woman' not just a 'woman'. The idea that the sexism that was directed at her was directed at her because she was Julia not any other woman. It is very hard to think what this particularity is but I keep making this thought experiment. If Penny Wong was Prime Minister, I am sure she would have been subjected to some of the sexism that Gillard has been subjected to. Plus, she would have been subjected to racism and to homophobia. And yet, I cannot help thinking that I am right in saying that there would be some types of humiliation that Gillard has been subjected to that would never have been directed at someone like Penny Wong. What are these Gillard particularities/specifities that make the behaviour she has been subjected to possible, I am not sure. It could still be about sexism but it might be about the particularities of Australian sexism and its 'imaginary' of the type of woman that is ok to humiliate - after all sexism is not necessarily about humiliating all women who are in positions of power. For instance, it was the peculiarities of British sexism, not lack of sexism, that allowed someone like Thatcher to thrive as a leader. Pauline Hanson's attempted humiliation by the media worked for her not against her. Other explanations of why Gillard has been subjected to so much could also be something specific to Julia's 'presentation of self in everyday life' as Goffman would say, etc... There could be something about her broad not so classy accent. Australians like to think of themselves differently but they really do like their prime ministers to be a bit 'of distinction'. A male might turn their working class belonging into something endearing, classy and prime ministerial but it will be more difficult for a woman. It could also be that no matter what or how good the rules of the Labor Party are, people don't like others deposing the leaders they have elected, and that this has given Gillard the aura of a coup leader, or even worse, the aura of someone who has been placed in power by less visible coup leaders. It could also be something very disenchanting about Gillard's very achievements. They are arguably well executed social policies. But is that not what one expects the public service to do. what is the difference between the public service and government, at least in people's minds? shouldn't government be presenting some fantasy element that is in excess of 'policy'. perhaps this disenchantment reveals politics for what it now is. that's not something people thirsty for fantasies like. It could be many things, but by not thinking about them, social analysts and commentators who are drowning everything in 'sexism' as a universalising explanation are avoiding thinking about some difficult questions.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

COUGHING OUT THE LAW: PERVERSITY AND SOCIALITY AROUND AN EATING TABLE. It was lunchtime at Sydney’s David Jones, Australia’s up-market department store chain. So I headed down to the ‘food floor’. Whenever I have to shop at DJs I try to make sure I go there around mid-day, precisely so I can go down to the food floor and order the exceptionally succulent off the bone ham sandwich at the roast carvery section. You can buy it and sit and eat it at a large ‘communal’ table nearby. So here I was enjoying my super sandwich with a bottle of mineral water and reading the approaching Sydney Film Festival program when opposite me across the roughly 1.5 meter wide table came and sat an older woman. She seemed in her seventies, well, but conservatively, dressed, and not a single part of her visible self was left to chance: ‘tirée à quatre épingles’ as the French say. She had a sushi roll in an open plastic container and a bottle of water. She opened a paper serviette on the table in front of her as if to mark a space of her own, and opened her bottle of water, carefully positioning the cap on the serviette. She then opened a sachet of soy sauce, poured it on the sushi roll, and again positioned the sachet very neatly on the serviette. I lost interest and went back reading about films and eating my sandwich. Not long after, I put my head up as I hear the woman say: ‘Excuse me’. There was something unpleasant in the way she said it and I looked behind me to see if she was speaking to someone else. But she kept her eyes on me and said quite loudly: ‘No. You.’ If there was something midly unpleasant about the ‘excuse me’, the ‘No. You’ was unabashedly aggressive – a spectre of my severe super-ego masquerading as a not-amused Queen Elizabeth-like figure speaking to me with imperial tones floated around. And what it had to say was even less pleasant. To my utter astonishment the woman spoke clearly for everyone on the table to hear: ‘Do you mind putting your hand on your mouth when you cough’? Heads turned. To say that I was embarrassed and unhappy would be an understatement. I had coughed. It was ‘true’, as Fanon said on that train. And I am not mentioning Fanon because his name came to me by chance. I did feel that I was, for the first time in my life, being subjected to some in-your-face racializing, a ‘look Mamma a black man’-Fanon-on-the-train-like situation. For while it was true that I coughed, it was (please, please, please believe me) the mildest of coughs. And what’s more, I did (please, please, please believe me) turn my head discretely away from the table. This woman was picking on me! I was convinced she was trying to create for her own benefit a ‘First-world-looking civilised person trying to stop third-world-looking guy from polluting the atmosphere in middle class store’-type scene. Things happened very fast. Very quickly, instantly, my embarrassment gave way to an aggressive combativeness, and in less than a split second I knew that anything of the order of: ‘I did move my head’, or ‘I am quite far away from you’ or ‘It was only a mild cough’ would have been a succumbing to the way she had defined the parameters of the situation. It took less than another split second more for me to assume a very unaffected but nonetheless combative and ready for further attacks posture. I looked her back in the eyes and said: ‘Look, if you are old and lonely, there must be better ways of socializing.’ And I pretended to be back reading my paper as if I was not concerned at all by what she had said and what had just happened. Given that I had firmly fixed an image of her in my mind as an aggressive kind of woman, I was also ready for her to make some vicious riposte, and I was already preparing to rip into her again. But, when I looked up, to my astonishment, I realised that she was now quietly crying. Now I was embarrassed in a completely different way. And while, before, everyone on the table was looking at me with a degree of uncertainty trying to figure out ‘what a man who coughs without putting his hand on his mouth looks like’, now everyone was looking at me as ‘the little monster who made the old lady cry’. It’s ‘true’, Fanon would have said. Suddenly I was occupying a space of vacillation. First, I was no longer so sure that this was all about racism. While the manner the woman addressed me was clearly unacceptable, there was room to doubt whether she intended to racialise me. Have I not done here what I have often warned my ‘anti-racism’ students against doing: just because there is a history of racialization does not mean anyone who shows aggression in an inter-racial context is by necessity racializing. Anti-racism is very much a child of the Marx, Nietzsche, Freud tradition of critique that Ricoeur has called the hermeneutic of suspicion. And as Eve Sedgwick wonderfully put it: it is a tradition governed by the injunction ‘you can never be paranoid enough’ (2003: 127). There is a possibility that the woman was racializing me, but there is a possibility that she wasn’t. It could well be the case that she was just being a nuisance, not necessarily a racist nuisance. So, why did I go for the ‘paranoid’ racist option, which probably intensified the cruelness of my response? Was it her demeanour that made the ghosts of English colonial history come and nibble my ham sandwich? Or was it me? Researching and thinking too much about racism can make one see racism in its most subtle manifestations. Sedgwick tells us that such lucidity is part of paranoid thinking. But such thinking can also make one see racism where there is nothing racist to see. One dream I had following the DJs encounter, and I had quite a few, played out the theme of racism in a particularly funny way, that probably also reveals an unsavoury part of my Christian Middle Eastern unconscious. I was holding the sandwich and looking at the woman who was no longer recognizable and trying to explain to her the significance of the fact that what I was eating was a ham sandwich: ‘Hello… can’t you see this is a… HAM… sandwich’ (I was not actually saying it but inviting her to realise what I was thinking). The dream’s assumption was that all racism was anti-Muslim racism and that the lady should have realised she was making a category mistake Despite its ridiculousness the dream was an invitation to go back and concentrate on the original scene. How can I try to further understand what has happened on that day if I am not to go back to the original reason I was there in the first place: to enjoy a ham sandwich? I really enjoy those ham sandwiches. Deep down I am perhaps a bit embarrassed, but only a bit, by the degree to which I enjoy good food. In Paris, when I was a guest of Pierre Bourdieu as a post-doc, if I had to choose between a Bourdieu lecture and an invitation to a good restaurant, I’ve never failed to choose the latter. The jouissance I derive from the libidinal, particularistic and one to one relation between me and the food I am eating is an important fantasy space for me. A pre-oedipal fantasy space a Freudian might say, which could explain the aggression directed as those who puncture the fantasy with unwanted comments and interactions. So, there was room for ambivalence: maybe this had nothing to do with racism and all about my shameful food fantasies. But there was also another source of ambivalence. When I saw the woman crying, I was convinced, rightly or wrongly, that I had hit the nail on the head: she clearly did feel old and lonely. So, faced with an ‘old and lonely’ woman in tears, part of me wanted to forget everything and just apologise, but part of me was still reeling from the ‘put your hand on your mouth’ bullying and didn’t want to apologise at all. In the end, I didn’t find it in me to do so. Even at that time, letting the lady cry without apologizing seemed cruel, especially since, I was already being ambivalent about whether she was a racist old lady or not. Yet, I couldn’t let go of my cruelty. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that for a moment there, I was enjoying my cruelty. But I was also scared of myself for feeling this way. Thus, I was clearly occupying a space of vacillation, or ambivalence as Freud would say. If little Hans’ ambivalence classically exhibited itself in the way he both feared his father and feared for his father (Freud 1909), there was something classical about my ambivalence towards my cruelty: I feared it and I feared for it to. I was scared of it: scared that it would take over me and transform me from someone who enjoyed a moment of cruelty into someone cruel. And yet, there was no doubt that I was enjoying it. It provided me with a scene, which, at a time when I felt threatened, allowed me to stage my self in a viable manner. So this was how it all ended. I was ambivalent about the lady’s rudeness and racism, ambivalent about the cruelty I exhibited, and ambivalent about myself for liking it. With the woman drying her tears (someone actually gave her a tissue) and people still looking at me, I was increasingly finding both the situation I was in, and myself, unbearable. I picked up what was left of my sandwich and my bottle of water and angrily got up and left. It was a memorable sandwich-eating session, and understandably I kept replaying in my head what had happened for a very long time. While I will never be certain that the woman cried because she was confronted with her loneliness by my comments, I kept thinking about the likelihood that she was. By chance, this raised issues concerning the nature of sociality, right-based entitlement and the law that I have been examining in my ethnographic work with the Lebanese diaspora. In one piece I am writing, I look at youngish cosmopolitan Lebanese from London, Paris, New York and Montreal, who enjoy going back to Lebanon to experience a sense of freedom from being straightjacketed by excessive laws and regulations in all aspects of their lives, the latter being part of their experience of living in the West. The analysis brings to the fore questions concerning the role of the law in mediating social relations: while the law makes social relations possible, is there a point where society can be said to have ‘too many laws’? At the heart of the matter are three issues all of which have a bearing on the DJs incident: 1. The first issue has to do with the difficulties emanating from the way the law ‘individualises’ and in so doing favours a form of public togetherness that does not threaten to dissolve individual sovereignties. Social and philosophical critiques of modernity and capitalism, since Rousseau, Hegel and Marx have often enough lamented the processes of individuation to which people are subjected in western societies. Sartre famously called this social and yet individuated existence la série, which to him was a kind of fundamental state of alienated sociality. One is struck for example, by how different the usage of public space is for working and under-class people in Beirut and in Sydney. While people in Beirut go to such public spaces to interact with the public, in Sydney, when people go to parks and beaches, they often go to claim a bit of public space as their own. This is hardly restricted to the under or working classes though. I live in a milieu of people who are all militantly committed to public spaces. Yet, whenever we go to a park or to the beach I often hear people say: ‘let’s find a place where there aren’t too many people’. People spread their blanket not only for comfort but as a mode of claiming public space as one’s own, a space where others should not thread, for the duration of its usage. A similar spirit seems to animate the woman at DJs in the way she spread her serviette on the ‘communal’/public eating table. 2. In so far as the law creates a relationality between people, it is a relationality of subjects who have been abstracted from their particularity by virtue of them being the subjects of national laws: citizens – which, as is well known, is what allows them to be ‘all equal before the law’. Here the law always seems to stage a tension between the libidinal and the abstract, the particular and the universal, dimensions of people. What makes a public eating space so interesting is that on one hand it is a public space which encourages the kind of abstract subjectivities referred to above and yet it is also an eating place where our bodily self, and indeed our libidinality is heavily manifested. As such, to eat on a public table is to continuously aim to negotiate the libidinal and legal/abstract self. While one is deploying one’s own libidinal self to enjoy the food, one is deploying the legal self to protect oneself from one’s own libidinality as well as the libidinality of others – such as claiming the right not to be coughed at. This leads directly to the final point/issue. 3. There is always a threshold whereby certain laws designed to protect citizens and facilitate sociality become excessively protective such as to become a hindrance to sociality. This is highlighted in the classical Zizekian tale of the black fat lesbian non-smoking female office worker: the law protects her against racism, sexism, weight discrimination, homophobia, and smoking, tells us Zizek, but… no one in the office talks to her. Following Lauren Berlant (2011), one could argue that there is an embryonic structure of ‘cruel optimism’ that is at the heart of the law: it opens a space that both optimistically enhances and cruelly hinders the possibility of sociality. How much cruelty and how much optimism changes from one social and historical setting to another. It depends on what socio-legal structures of sociality a particular formation has to offer. But it also depends on the subject’s capacity to squeeze different kinds of socialities out of given situations. At one level, the woman at DJs seem to be an unreflexive enactor of an alienated form of seriality: happy with her individuality, happy with her sovereignty that can afford her the space of a serviette on a public table, happy to protect the sanctity of her abstract self in the face of the cough/libidinality of the other. At another level, however, her bullying reveals her to be a strategist – an unhappy and desperate strategist, but a strategist nonetheless— aiming to position herself out of the impasse of solitude and a-sociality in which the social world has located her. Seen in this light, her ‘don’t cough on me’, rather than, or perhaps along with, being the expression of a further desire for protection from any interaction with others, was also in fact an expression of the opposite: a desire for sociality in a space where sociality was at its minimum. As always with repressive structures, one ends up with sexuality and libidinality in both the repression and the transgression. Michael Taussig has shown us in his work, via Bataille, how there is ‘a certain sexual quality of the law and of breaking the law, the beauty and libidinality of transgression’ (1992: 124). ‘Don’t cough on me’ can conjure up the libidinal just as much as it represses it, while also simultaneously being a rejection and an invitation to sociality. As Marshall Sahlin reminds us in his comparison between Hobbes and Mauss, anthropology has amply shown us that sociality does not have to be the product of sharing subjection to a common law. It can also be ensured by exchange and reciprocity. A good example, of clear relevance to us here, is Claude Levi-Strauss’s famous portrayal of wine exchange on the eating tables of southern France (1969). Even where sociality is largely regulated within a space of legality, there is always another sociality regulated by reciprocity and exchange. While people certainly don’t exchange their drinks on today’s public eating tables (which are actually becoming popular again in many restaurants and cafes), people nonetheless do exchange small talk (if only in the form of what Malinowski (1924) called ‘phatic communication’). Somehow, perhaps because it is an eating table at a department store where eating subjects are already individualised by their experience as consumers, DJs table is, on the whole, free from even such brief and light chit-chat. It is from this perspective that the woman’s bullying can be, within the social space of exchange and reciprocity, an offering made with the only shareable means of relationality left to her, taken from the space of legality: the assertion of her entitlement to be free of bodily relationality. It is an ambivalent kind of offering but an offering nonetheless: “telling you ‘don’t interact with me’ is the only thing left for me to offer as a means to interact with you and squeeze a bit of sociality from such a sociality-free situation”. She was still snatching a bit of optimism at the very place where society was at it cruellest as it were. In that she still had it in her to try and socialise, even by offering such a perverse gift, as it were, perhaps she was revealing herself to be less alienated and accepting of the a-social regime that everyone else on the table that day, including myself, had happily accepted. For while, at another level, I have stressed her acceptance of the alienated regime of sovereign individuality in the way she delineated a bit of her personal space with her serviette, was I not myself, even more happily, but less visibly, doing the same by forming a closed circle between myself, my ham sandwich, my bottle of water and my Sydney Film Festival program? Despite her objectionable behaviour, she was perhaps the radical one on the table, unaccepting of existing forms of un-sociality and still hoping for the possibility for some other form of relationality. And it could well be, as my friend and colleague Stephen Muecke suggested, that sociality might have surged at the table after I made to those seated at the table the offer of my absence.   BIBLIOGRAPHY Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011. Sigmund Freud (1909) Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 8, Case Histories 1, 1977, pp. 169-306. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The elementary structures of kinship. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. Bronislaw Malinowski "The problem of meaning in primitive languages", supplement to Ogden, C. & Richards, I. (eds.), The Meaning of Meaning, London: Routledge, (1923) 1946. Marshall Sahlin, Stone Age Economics, New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1972. Michael Taussig, The Nervous System, New York: Routledge, 1992. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.