Monday, December 28, 2015

Houellebecq's Soumission

Ghassan Hage

I read Houellebecq's Soumission over the Christmas break.  A novel pertaining to imagine a peaceful and democratic Islamic take over of France which ends up generating a creepy sexist dictatorial social and moral order, and a whole new class of French 'collaborators' that happily join in lured by all kind of equally creepy sexual and financial benefits.

It is interesting that just before the holidays I had also finished writing a piece for American Ethnologist (I think it will be available on AE's site as open access 'early viewing' on the first week of the new year) in which I look at the sense of 'Etat de Siege' that exists in the west today as a result of the refugee crisis.  I analyse the refugee crisis as a colonial crisis, particularly as a crisis in the colonial borders that were traced in the beginning of the twentieth century and that, like the fences of an old and mismanaged farm, have rusted away and are no longer capable of keeping those contained within them under control. I argue that this sense of a 'state of siege' is also accentuated by the ecological crisis. Both the ecological and the colonial crises are experienced as governmental crises. That is, both involve processes of exploitation that have generated 'ungovernable' by-products whose effect has ended up producing a sense of loss of control over what initially was a relatively under control natural/colonial space. Over-exploitation generates a beyond control over-flow of waste and refugees that end up besieging the exploiter and changing the very nature of the physical and social atmosphere under which exploitation is occurring.

In the process I examine those who see in the state of siege a 'reverse colonisation'. It is as part of this process that I look at a very old colonial genre which is precisely the 'reverse colonialism' genre. As I note:

A feeling of being besieged by the very people whom one is actually colonizing is, paradoxically, part and parcel of the history of colonialism. Images of Asians, indigenous people, Arabs, and black people dominating, exploiting, and enslaving White Europeans abound in colonial cultural production. This is so even at the height of the “classical” European colonial venture when colonialists were, relatively speaking, most secure about their entitlements and their transnational supremacy. Stephen Arata (1996) has called these stories of besiegement “narratives of reverse colonization.” As he put it, discussing English literature,

Moments like this recur with remarkable frequency in late-Victorian popular fiction, embedded in what can be called narratives of reverse colonization. In such narratives what has been represented as the “civilized” world is on the point of being overrun by “primitive” forces. 

It is hard not to place Houellebecq's novel in this tradition. I would have of course liked to add: since we are of course talking about Houellebecq, he is too sophisticated a writer and a thinker to just place him there. But the fact is that many writers who have written in this tradition had added their own specificity that shows them to be not just belonging to it.

As Arata points out many a good novel belong to the genre, from Stoker's Count Dracula to H. G. Well's The War of the Worlds (1898). Nonetheless, and as he rightly points out: "Stoker's Count Dracula and Haggard's Ayesha frighten not least because their characteristic actions - appropriation and exploitation - uncannily reproduce those of the colonising Englishman"(108). 

Of course there is non-literary 'reverse colonialism' genre that I have actually examined in White Nation as part of the analysis of white decline. I had not read Arata then and I referred to it as an 'imaginary power reversal' emanating from a real loss of reality which 'explains some of the more hallucinatory fan­tasies one finds in the discourse of decline. '

In Ron Casey's auto­biography, for example, the 'analysis' of the effect of Asian migration reaches truly phantasmagoric proportions. As he put it:

In 2020, the entire east coast of Australia, from Cairns in the north to Melbourne in the south, could be overrun by those of Chinese and Japanese extraction. The north, from Broome across the Northern Territory to the Gulf of Carpentaria, could be populated almost entirely by Indonesians and Malays, and the west coast from Broome in the north to Perth in the South could be home to millions of Indians. Those of European extraction, the ordinary white Australians, could live in small enclaves in South Australia or be driven back to Europe or to parts of the United States. There could be sporadic fighting from gueril­la groups of `dinkums', but this insurrection won't have a snowflake's chance in hell of reversing the Asianisation of Australia. Ghettos of Australian labourers — or 'white coolies' — could live in outer metropolitan areas to service the Asian factories.'

An updated version of this hallucinatory imaginary, his­torical antecedents of which can be found as far back as the 1840s Anglo-Asian encounters, that we find in Pauline Hanson, The Truth. Here we meet the president of what is imagined to have become the 'Republic of Australasia' in the year 2050: Poona Li Hung, 'a lesbian ... of multiracial descent, of Indian and Chinese background' who is also `part machine — the first cyborg president. Her neuro-cir­cuits were produced by a joint Korean-Indian-Chinese research team.'

Soumission has of course a lot more to offer, but in so far as it is a novel of reverse colonisation, not that much more. The Islam that ends up taking power is really a creepy product of a genuinely colonial imagination not aware at all of the coloniality that it is reversing. As to the racialised sexism that characterise most forms of Islamophobia and end up producing subservient Islamic women en masse, all willing to stop working  as soon as Islamic rule shows its face, all willing to become mothers, feeders and whores without a whimper... hard to know where to begin and where to end with that one.

Some might like to argue that what is different from other reverse colonialism novels is that Houellebecq locates that weakness that allows the take over within French society and shows many tendencies in French culture to be actually far more accomodating of his imagined ruling Islam then French people would like to believe. So, the boundaries between, this French cultural tradition and the imagined Islamic forces that end up becoming the ruling force in France is nowhere near as absolute as some would like it to be.

But as Arata points out this is actually very common in British novels of reverse colonialism:

These forces can originate outside the civilised world (as in She) or they can inhere in the civilised itself (as in Kurtz's emblematic heart of darkness). In each case a fearful reversal occurs: the colonizer finds himself in the position of the colonized, the exploiter is exploited, the victimizer victimized. The reversals are in turn linked to perceived problems—racial, moral, spiritual—within Great Britain itself. (1996, 108)

Where Houellebecq distinguish himself is not really in what he has to offer ideologically. But since he has been editorialising in all kind of places and sees himself as capable of giving advice to all kind of political leaders about the political and cultural rot in which we find ourselves in, it would be a mistake to think that the novel is not primarily intended to be read as an ideological novel.

Nonetheless, there are technical moments of beautiful and even transporting French writing in the book. Description of French regions that are very evocative and descriptions of states of being that are classically Houellebecqian and that cannot but resonate with most male readers. Has Houellebecq anything to offer a female reader? I don't think he has anything at all. but I'd be interested to know if I am wrong about this.

Houellebecq captures two social phenomena that I felt play a critical function: the corporatisation of the university taken in the novel to its delicious logical end with the Saudi financed Islamic university of the Sorbonne. Closely linked to this, he also captures some of the crassness of Gulf but particularly of Saudi-financed events in the West. But this becomes racist, as all critiques of Saudi Arabia do, when not properly contextualised. And Saudi Arabia's power, which undoubtedly is real, can also become imagined as far more important than it actually is and 'the source of all evil' without a full understanding of the political economy of the kingdom and of capitalism  and colonialism. Indeed it becomes a bit like the fascist fetishisation with 'Jewish bankers' as the source of all evil. How can these be transmitted subtly in a novel without ending up giving lectures is a matter for novelists. What is clear is that Houellebecq does not seem to have that subtle understanding in the first place in order to transmit it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The mourning after (in Australia)

I met this morning at the Glebe Fair a Lebanese-Australian I’ve known for years. He used to work as a maintenance staff at Sydney University when I worked there. He never struck me as a particularly ebullient personality but he looked more somber than usual. I asked him why. He let me know that he lost his cousin in the terrorist bombing that struck the poor neighborhood of Burj el Barahjneh in Beirut killing fourty people and causing massive destruction. It was the biggest bombing since the end of the civil war in 1990. As if this is not enough, he tells me, his sister is married to a Frenchman and they live in the 11eme arrondissement of Paris, one of the main areas that the Parisian terrorists attacked the day after the Beirut bombing. So not having fully recovered from the Lebanese bombing they spent an anxious half a day before they knew that his sister and her family were safe. 

He paused for a second and then he said: I know these things interest you so can I ask you a question? I said: sure go ahead. He said: ‘did you see how they projected the French flag on the Opera House?’ I hadn’t seen it. I said: ‘no but that’s great…’ Indeed, for a fleeting moment I thought to myself ‘what a great idea!’ But then I stopped mid-sentence because it immediately dawned on me what he was aiming at, and I said: ‘but not the Lebanese flag right?’ 

‘Exactly,’ he said, ‘it is very upsetting. They keep giving us lectures about how we should integrate but they act as if we don’t exist. They think that only the French are worthy of mourning. I thought the new prime minister looks like a decent guy and he had it in him to say a few words and make us feel that they cared about what happened to us but he hasn’t.’

'Why couldn't they project both flags?' he asked moving away from Malcolm and back to the Opera House. 

I left him feeling I should write at least a few ethnographic notes about this encounter. So I quickly walked back home to my computer, and as I hadn’t seen the French flag projected on the Opera House, I looked it up on the Internet. I still liked what it represented. But I did feel that the absence of any sign of solidarity with the Lebanese made the act of solidarity with the French more akin to an act of colonial solidarity. It polluted what should have been a grand gesture. Not more than a few minutes later I was astonished and heartened to see a Facebook status by my friend and colleague Martha Macintyre. Even though she wrote from Melbourne, it was as if she had been part of the conversation I just had. She wrote:
While I feel devastated and overwhelmed by this terrible event [the Paris event], it worries me that so much vicarious grief and outrage can be mustered around the deaths of people, white Europeans, who we can see as being 'like us', while a similar event in Beirut is not subject to a similar outpouring. No cedar tree silhouettes on the Sydney Opera House. What is more telling is that there are relatively few people of French origin living Australia and a lot of Lebanese.

Martha knew as much as I did, of course, that neither the victims of the Beirut bombing, nor of the French bombing were homogeneously white or not white. What they actually empirically are is not the point. It's what the act of solidarity with France imagines them to be that counts here.
Still, my guess was that since the Sydney Opera House is full of enlightened, cosmopolitan and open-minded kind of people, if I was to approach the person who thought of the French flag idea and say to him/her ‘well, how about the Lebanese flag?’, even though they will rightly suspect that the idea will not have the aesthetic value and universal appeal that the French flag has, they will probably still say: ‘of course, what a good idea, why didn’t I think of it myself’. And this would be exactly where the problem lies: why didn’t they think of it themselves? 

It not easy to tell White Australians what they should and shouldn’t do - as always I call White those who partake in a colonially inherited white fantasy of Australia -. Especially following an Islamic act of terrorism. It comes naturally to them to think that it is up to them to engage in moralistic pontification about what Muslims should and should not do to prove their Australian belonging.

At the best of times, it is a difficult spectacle to watch. The inheritors of the Western culture of colonial plunder, land theft, over exploitation of resources, racialised genocides, rape, and over-exploitation of non-Western people are very good at being totally oblivious of the thinness of the moral ground on which they stand. They assume with incredible ease that the moral high ground is theirs to occupy and keep. It is true that this high ground is not so hard to occupy when imagining yourself as facing third-rate petty criminal shits who think they are great because they can mindlessly repeat that their god is great while psychotically murdering people. But the fact is, this is not who White Australians are facing, they are facing a community with whom they have been sharing Australia for more than one hundred years. And so, especially in moments like this, White Australians fail miserably. They fail both morally and socially. They have a lot to learn about the art of building a national society, and despite many people, over the years, trying to teach them, they haven’t learnt much. Jews, Greeks, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Italian, Chinese and many more, each on their own and some times together have tried to make White Australians come to terms with what it means to live in a culturally plural society, and again and again they fall into mindless, unrealistic escapist monoculturalism: anything that will stop them from facing the fact that they are sharing Australia with a whole variety of different people; anything that will stop them from facing the fact that as a dominant culture they are responsible for helping people to integrate and become part of a shared Australia. Again and again, they show that they are much better at disintegrating people than they are at integrating them.

I mean here we have a situation where the Lebanese have been migrating to Australia since late 1880s. It’s not that they are some new unheard of part of the Australian equation. And yet somehow, White Australians find it hard to accept or think that the Lebanese are still connected to Lebanon; they find it hard to understand that this does not make them more or less Australian; they find it hard to keep in mind that if something bad happens in Lebanon this affects in all kind of ways their fellow Australians who hail from Lebanon. They hypocritically believe all this while the most extreme among them are very matter-of-factly still licking British royal arses without this appearing to affect their degree of Australian-ness. White Australians are very big on lecturing everyone around about how they should be part of a single Australian nation with clear cultural values. That’s great, but if part of the ‘cultural values’ they are advocating is to be sharing the same national space with someone for more than a hundred years and not having it in you to express some sympathy when they are mourning, there is no doubt about what they can do with that part of ‘Australian cultural values’. They are seriously lacking in the art of making themselves part of other people’s lives so that others can feel that they are part of theirs. 

So, my dear White Australian, if you are unable to do something as basic as the above, you will get the divided society that you deserve. Just don’t keep blaming it on others as if you’ve had nothing to do with it.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The ecological crisis and the inter-generational contradiction

I've been reading Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment. I share everyone's enthusiasm for the kind of eco-consciousness it provides, laced as it is with logics of reciprocity and mutuality (as if he has read Levy Bruhl and Marcel Mauss) . His critique is also articulated to a vague critique of capitalism. While the latter remains largely in the well rehearsed Christian moralist tradition of critique of greed and instrumental logic, it is nonetheless articulated to a 'critique of political economy' more than anything that has ever come out of Rome.
Among the many thoughts it generated, one thing that drew my attention in particular is his use of 'we' when he speaks of what 'we' need to do to ensure that the earth/the creation is kept viable across generations. He is hardly the only one that does this. Lots of greenies do to.
I am a bit oversensitive to this pseudo inter-generational diachronic 'we'. Let me explain why.
I am teaching the anthropological theories of the gift at the moment and am particularly working with and around Annette Weiner's work 'Inalienable possessions'  on 'the paradox of keeping-while-giving'. An important element of her argument is broadly concerned with the interplay between what one gives horizontally to create social networks and what one keeps which also means what one gives vertically/downwards or intergenerationally to maintain identity and group continuity. It can also be an opposition between what one instrumentalises and what one holds too sacred to instrumentalise. which is what one generation thinks is crucial or even essential (pertaining to one's essence) for the later generation's viability and survival.
This brings me to my point. The inter-generational we is precisely created by the act of 'keeping', bequeathing and inheriting, the mechanics of inter-generational cultural transmission and reception. That is, the intergenerational 'we' is not an a priori entity that can be taken for granted. It comes to existence by the way the older generation ensures that there are important things for the younger generations to inherit.
When we are dealing with the  ecological crisis though, isn't one of the crucial points that the older generations are failing to protect anything from instrumentalisation and leaving nothing sacred for the younger generation to inherit? That is there is no such thing as an inter-generational 'we' today. Asking the existing older generations to help save the core of creation is like asking capitalists to stop exploiting workers, racists to stop engaging in racism, etc…. it is meaningless and it actually shies away from saying the obvious. Like the workers facing the capitalists who rob them, and the colonised facing the racists colonialists that has appropriated their land and their environment and their resources etc... the ecological crisis creates and heightens an inter-generational contradiction that requires inter-generational struggle and resistance not some pseudo collective trans-generational we.  the younger generation has to struggle against the older generation to reclaim the squandering of what should have been their inheritance.

Friday, August 7, 2015

On Facebook Democracies

On Facebook Democracies

While buying my morning coffee, a conversation over something in the morning paper, to which I commented that I don't read the morning paper but go on Facebook for my news, led to me being lectured, as if I had no idea, that it's facile to make radical statements on Facebook, that even a thousand likes doesn't mean your views are having an impact on 'reality', that you're only talking to people who agree with you, that you end up occupying a bubble if you don't realise there's a whole world out there. 
I started by saying that I knew all this but that writing for long hours is a very solitary occupation and I find that a bit of Facebook socialising, solidarity, letting off steam, and articulating and sharing my thoughts does me the world of good. 
But then it struck me and I asked: so, where is it that you have a space where you make 'difficult' as opposed to facile radical statements, where your views have a greater impact, where you are talking to people who don't agree with you and where you are not in a bubble? He looked a bit trapped and repeated unconvincingly 'there's a whole world out there'.
It made me think more clearly something I've been trying to articulate for some time. Perhaps Facebook has a scandalous dimension to it in that it lays bare a public secret about the nature of all democratic public conversations in our societies whether happening on TV or in newspapers. they are all happening in a bubble, in a world parallel to where all the decisions about policy, investments, mining, land development, war, immigration, etc… and are having no effect whatsoever on those. Perhaps then Facebook is the prototype of our democracy rather than an oddity. 
Is that Facebook-like dimension not the problem with Israeli democracy: nowhere will you get more publicly voiced critical and hyper radical critiques of zionism, settlers, colonialism, etc…. but nothing said no matter how radical it is stops the expansion of settlements.
Indeed, one can say the road towards the expansion of settlements is paved by views opposed to them just as much as by views supporting them. That is why BDS is so necessary as it has a 'Enough with impotent radical statements and declarations. what are you actually doing to even remotely try to stop the settlements' - dimension to it.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Hiroshima in the Constellation of Western Racism

I am not sure if others have put Hiroshima in such a context before, but I think it should be considered as one of the four major horrors initiated by the West that still define our lives and that are hard to imagine happening without one form of racism or another coming into the mix. And needless to say, the desires for extermination and exploitation behind these events are not Western/White specific. We see the same desires everywhere on a small scale. What marks their importance is the fact that they become large scale global events as part of the process of western/white global domination. These four horrors are:
a) slavery: the capacity to institutionalise on a mass scale the commodification, possession and exploitation of others. (impossible without a racialisation that includes objectification and inferiorisation). although there are non-racial forms of slavery in history they were different phenomenon all together that did not involve the same kind of objectification, commodification and over-exploitation.
b) colonialism: the capacity to control mobility, labour and resources by claiming sovereignty over somebody else's territory (here the other fluctuates between being useful/exploitable or nuisance/exterminable).
Note: I am in two minds sometimes whether Islamophobia is merely a variant of this racism or quite distinct from it but I think I am more comfortable treating it as a mere variant which has become globalised)
c) The Holocaust: the capacity for contemplating and enacting genocide. The kind of consciousness needed to think and enact this is mind-boggling and yet it has become a routinised form of consciousness.
d) The use of nuclear weapons in Japan: the capacity to eradicate masses of human beings in a blink of an eye. I know that Europeans massacred each other in great and horrific numbers  but I would still maintain that to have 70,000 people killed 'just like that' is not possible without a racist component. It required a specific kind of racist consciousness to make a governmental decision to explode such a bomb.

Monday, July 27, 2015

How to interact with theory while writing your PhD

Today we will reflect on what it means to ‘encounter, dwell in, read, critique and make use of theory’. The idea of an ‘encounter’ with theory is particularly meant to interpellate those of you who meet it as they are working on their PhD, en passant as it were, and to differentiate you from those who come to their research already dwelling in a particularly theory, perceiving reality with its categories, reasonably knowledgeable of its beautifully lit spaces as well as its dark corners, its pitfalls as well as its potentialities.
An encounter is often already a timid mode of dwelling and the distinction between the two is not absolute. It differs for instance according to whether you are a writer already endowed with a well developed theoretical habitus which gives any encounter an intensity and a depth that is dissimilar to the encounter initiated by other students who do not have a long history of dealing with theory.
An academic fantasy would like to imagine a world of PhD candidates who are all invariably theoretically and philosophically savvy. I know from a long experience that this is hardly the case. For many PhD students, indeed for most writers, the encounter with theory might vary in duration and intensity, but it will remain just that. So to explore the theoretical encounter is significant to many. As importantly, the way we end up dwelling in a particular theory, or even in theory generally speaking, is heavily influenced by the encounter, which is a kind of ‘first contact’ with theory.
So, I want to spend the bit of time we have here trying to instill in you a kind of practico-ethical disposition towards such an encounter; how to recognize theory, how to treat it properly such as to have a good long term relationship with it if this is indeed the outcome. I want to use today to expand, and develop for myself just as much as for you, as one needs to constantly remind oneself of these things, a few pet ideas of mine, like:
 - A theory is not a generalization but a transposable generative device that can oscillate between the general and the empirically specific
 - Theory has exchange value and use value. It can be deployed for its own sake and it can be deployed analytically
 - A theory offers a tool or a set of tools. It is neither a church you adhere to nor a football team you support
 - Whenever possible, when first encountering a theory that you don’t like, say, I don't find this theory useful, rather than I don't agree, or, this is wrong – I want to encourage you to have a Facebook approach to the theoretical encounter: that is, there should only be a ‘like’ button to use at this early stage of dealing with theory. If you don’t like a theory just ignore it. There is no need to scream ‘I don’t like’ from the rooftops at the level of the encounter – you will have plenty of time to engage critically when your encounter evolves into a serious dwelling.
Thinking through what you want of theory is not something important just now because you are starting your PhD. It is something you will continue to face throughout your professional lives as academics and writers. I am continuously reminded of this personally. A few years ago, I was in a Paris bookshop and by chance I came across Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s book Métaphysiques Cannibales, which you might call an innovative book of theoretical anthropology (there’s a great English translation of it now by Peter Skafish). Some parts of it spoke to my concerns more than others but on the whole I found it a breath of fresh air and I was voraciously reading it in the bookshop for a good half an hour before I purchased it. Most importantly, I thought that a number of theoretical propositions in the book concerning ‘ontological perspectivism’ were immensely productive. I found myself re-thinking there and then as I was reading it some perennial issues that concern me such as inter-cultural relations in the West and in Israel/Palestine. I was certain that it could help me generate some new insights. I have now written a number of articles (now part of my Alter-Politics book), which at least partly touched on this.
As I began writing publishing these ‘ontologically-inspired’ articles, I was being invited here and there to participate on panels discussing the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology. The way some people were interacting with my new theorizing made me immediately return to the importance and pertinence of thinking through what constitute a good theoretical encounter. For, to begin with, everywhere around the world there was always someone to hint with a concerned tone that I should be careful ‘joining the ontological turn’. It was indeed as if I was joining a religious sect. And if it is true that some ‘ontologists’ behave like priests of theory, it is the case that some forms of anti-ontologism smack religious fervor even more. Then there were the many colleagues and friends who wanted to know how could I reconcile my known affinity to Bourdieu with the ‘ontological turn’? Have I not heard what Latour and Bourdieu think of each other? It was very hard to say ‘I found this or that idea or aspect of the ontological turn useful’ without being put in a position where I had to answer a question formulated along the lines of ‘but how on earth can you believe in x and y’, and where believing in x and y – often having something to do with essentialism – never occurred to me. It was as if I couldn’t say that I liked the Christian conceptualization of love without being immediately asked ‘but how on earth can you believe in the Holy Spirit?’
This is why the first important thing to remember, and live, as a practical ethic is that theory is not a church or a football team. You should never belong to a theory or declare yourself a supporter of a theory. Even if you already are a follower, I urge you to get over it. It is not a healthy way to exist, take my word for it. It’s one of those ‘been there done that’ things for me.
 There is a more difficult question that needs to be dealt with here: ‘If theorists think of their theories as a coherent whole, does that mean that it is not rigorous to pick whatever one wishes to pick from a theory?’ My view is that if a theory is a set of tools, one can pick one particular tool from the set without being committed to use the whole set, as long as one understands the ramifications of the particular tool one is using. This can be done with various degrees of sophistication, of course. The more one has a good understanding of the totality of tools in a tool box, and the way they relate to each other, the more one is capable to engage in selective usage. While there is always the danger of someone choosing a chisel without realizing that it is useless without a hammer, there is always a possibility of choosing a hammer that proves useful in combination with a variety of other tools. But then again, some people choose the chisel and end up finding a creative way of using it without the hammer. So, nothing is absolute here, I am just offering analogies.
Recently, Frederic Jameson has proposed that if the hero of modernity is the orchestra conductor, the hero of post-modernity is the curator. He also argued that the curator is to the orchestra conductor what the theorist is to the philosopher. Even if it leaves out Marx’s idea of the creative theorist as someone who creates fire by rubbing previously opposing theories against each other which particularly appeals to me, I still find this idea of theory as a curated collection, as opposed to a symphonic whole, evocative and useful. At the same time, however, it is a particularly limited metaphor that feeds into the idea of theory as something one exhibits rather than something that one uses. One inevitably does both with theory, but do I need to tell you about the pitfalls of exhibitionism? Any kind of exhibitionism. Let us just say that the temptation for theoretical exhibitionism is built into university education. While we all know how true that mundane formulation is, that ‘the more we know the more we know how little we know’, we paradoxically remain vulnerable to the seductions of appearing masterful, and of mastering the discourse of mastery, those ‘sound bites’ that give us the allure of authority. ‘Theory’, being mainly male-dominated theory, has historically played a crucial role in providing those sound bites. It is very seductive and one easily falls for it: I still fall for it all the time though I like to think that I do so less and less. And of course, global warming is here to remind us that ‘mastering the discourse of mastery’ is very far from mastery.
 I know it is hard to convince you of this but it is so much nicer to read a straightforward theory-free text or a text that shows itself to be honestly struggling to make sense of theory, than a text full of those half-baked theoretical ‘sound bites’ delivered as ‘final truth’. But this is where theoretical exhibitionism inexorably leads to. I see it as partly behind one of the most negative aspects of theorizing, contributing to what I call paraphrasing Marx ‘theoretical fetishism’.
 There is no doubt that theory is consumed like a commodity on a market-like space in the academic/intellectual world. Theories like many other commodities go in and out of fashion. Some become so fashionable that they become a must. Indeed one can do a whole Bourdieu-ian analysis of the field of theoretical taste. There are orthodoxies and heterodoxies. There are forms of symbolic violence. There are dominant and dominated… and so on. What’s more, people do not only make statements about themselves by being for or against theory in general, but they do so by choosing particular theories over others, and, perhaps more importantly, by the way they theorise: some are unsophisticated mimics of others theories, some are avant-garde theorisers who break new grounds and open new horizons. And so, as in any field, and again, as Bourdieu states, one is classified by their classification. Or to paraphrase this, theorists end up being theorized by their theorization. 
Accumulated in the form of cultural capital theory is more often than not experienced phallically, as a valued possession that one can ‘show off’. And we can move from Bourdieu to Freud’s conception of ‘the narcissism of small differences’ for a useful understanding of some of the incredibly affective and over the top rivalries that mar the world of theory. The way both some of the producers and consumers of theory differentiate themselves ‘theoretically’ from others, one would think that the fate of the earth is at sake. In Arabic there is a word called 'takhween' which refers to the tendency of making of anyone we disagree with a traitor of some sort or another such that the differences between us become automatically incommensurable and a matter of life and death. It strikes me that there is a fair bit of that in theoretical positioning. I've gone back to some of my own writings and I can't say that I am not guilty of that too sometimes.
But a Bourdieu-ian or Freudian approach to the market of theory are not the only ones that are productive here - and I am doing a theory of the utilization of theory here exemplifying how a theory has to be useful and have a yield: generate some understanding and insights that would not have been possible without it – otherwise why bother with theory? It is in this vein that one can also usefully approach the ‘theory as commodity’ reality from the Marxist perspective hinted above. For, the appearance of theories on the market and the logic of their production and consumption makes them akin to capitalist commodities. They are experienced fetishistically in the way Marx analyzed the capitalist commodity in his famous conception of ‘commodity fetishism’. That is, theories appear as relating to each other and are valorized against each other in the very same way Marx understood the production and power of the fetish. For him, the world of the capitalist commodity is such that ‘(t)he products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.’ So it is with the world of theory, which is the product of human labour (reading, thinking, writing, editing, printing, etc…) but is experienced fetishistically as a product with intrinsic power that has no relation to the labour that has produced it.
 It remains a mystery how we academics, who should know from experience how long and how much work it takes to produce a decent sentence on anything, let alone a decent theory, allow ourselves five minutes of reading someone else’s work to declare it ‘rubbish’ or ‘agree’, utterly devalorising and showing little respect for the amount of dead and living labour that has gone into its production. As with Marx, this fetishistic absenting of the labour process that is behind what we are consuming is not the simple product of a mental mistake: once I know ‘the truth’ I’ll stop behaving this way. Fetishism for Marx was ‘more like the experience of the sun ‘rising’. It was, and I am sorry to use the word if you happen to be sensitive to it, an ontological form of mystification. This was different from the ‘ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling classes’ conception of ideology that invites an epistemological conception of mystification. The latter can be argued and debated against. But with fetishism, no matter how much we are taught that it is the earth orbiting the sun we will still experience the sun rising. Or as Godelier put it long ago: “It is not the subject that deceives himself it is reality that deceives him”.
To take this critical approach to theory on board means that it is not so much by preaching the right attitude to theory that a diminishing of the unhelpful fetishistic tendencies listed above can come about. Rather, what is needed is a different mode of interaction, a different practice and a different mode of experience of theory that can allow us to begin the process of de-fetishisation. That is, one needs to workshop theory in a way that highlights its use-value, rather than just simply think about the right way to theorise, that’s what I hope to initiate with you.
 The first thing we need to ask ourselves as we are writing is this: ‘what has this theory helped me see, understand or explain that I otherwise would not have seen?’ At a most immediate level, this is to oppose a common tendency among non-experienced academic writers to use a quote from a theoretician at the end of an empirical paragraph or section à la ‘This shows that Rancière is right when he argues …’. Such a form of quoting makes it appear as if the main aim of one’s study is to prove a theoretician correct. Unless it is exactly the aim of one’s thesis to prove a particular theoretician right, this is a very poor usage of theory. This is particularly infuriariting in anthropology when a thesis is about Africa or the Middle East, etc. As this form of quoting Western theory at the end of theory-free account implicitly implies something like ‘this shows that Badiou or Butler well understood the situation in Mozambique without ever bothering to go there’. By the way, I bet you neither Badiou nor Butler nor anybody like to be used this way. I certainly hate it when I see another academic using my work just to give authority to what they are saying about racism etc… I much rather seeing it activated in a way that has helped someone see new things.
Secondly, we need to workshop a way of thinking in terms of a labour theory of value of the theoretical works we are reading. This is essential if we are to learn to be respectful of them as works of labour not as something that just pops up on the theoretical market for your instant enjoyment in a commodity fetishist-mode. Think how much it takes you to write an idea. Do you like someone reading a couple of paragraphs you have spent many days writing in the two-three minutes it takes to read them and in those few minutes judging them to be ‘wrong’, ‘bad’ or ‘meaningless’ let alone ‘stupid’ or ‘idiotic’. This labour can be accumulated labour too. Not everyone is as well read and as philosophically sophisticated as everyone else. I might sound elitist saying so but, the fact of the matter is that if you are reading a well-established thinker and you feel they need to be given a 101-type lecture in 'social causality', ‘essentialism’ or whatever else, you should think twice and three times before doing so, as there is a high chance it is you who has not understood the complexity of what they are saying rather than them not being up to your standard of sophistication. So, it might be useful to read them again. In the domain of exhibition ‘critique’ requires less labour and yields a lot more cultural capital and thoretical grooviness than ‘understanding’ so it is understandable that one prefers to make a sound bite such as ‘there is no theory of change in Pierre Bourdieu’ than actually understand the complexity of Bourdieu’s theory of reproduction. And why do you need to say ‘there is no theory of change in Pierre Bourdieu’ I might ask? If you want a theory of change go to someone you think has a theory of change and forget about Bourdieu. It’s like saying ‘Judith Butler makes bad hamburgers’ (I actually don’t know whether Judith Butler makes good or bad hamburgers but I am taking a wild guess…).
To acquire a good ethic of using theory you need to continue well after this seminar to read writers who live up to an ethic of critical respect, who even while critical of others are always able to understand and forefront the amount and quality of labour that has gone into the work they are consuming. That is, ultimately, critics who see other theorists as fellow craftspeople engaged in a common pursuit. Not surprisingly this ethic is more present, though I wouldn’t say prevalent, among women/feminist writers for example in the writing of Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler or Marilyn Strathern than it is present in the spaces offered by the Badious, Bourdieus and Latours of the world. But there are always male theorists that also stand out. I find Evans-Pritchard’s critique of Levy-Bruhl exemplary in this regard. I also particularly like George Steinmetz’s introduction to his The Devil’s Handwriting and the way he plays Said, Bourdieu and Lacan against each other to help elucidate the logic of German colonialism.