Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading Trump's Foreign Policy with Bourdieu-ian eyes

A good understanding of Pierre Bourdieu's differentiation between a state of 'symbolic violence' and a state of 'orthodoxy' can help us understand an important dimension of the various dispositions already exhibited by the Trump administration in the domain of foreign policy. The centring of the idea of 'America first', the willingness to engage in an exhibitionist flexing of muscles and the cultivation of an aura of unpredictability.
States of symbolic violence and states of orthodoxy are for Bourdieu two states of domination.
They differ first of all in degree. A state of symbolic violence entails a far more complete domination than a state of orthodoxy. 
If you are representing, upholding and defending a way of living A with a set of beliefs x, y, z and you are struggling against someone representing, upholding and defending a way of living B with a set of beliefs a, b, c. You have a state of symbolic violence when your way of living A and your beliefs x, y, z so decimate the way of living B and the beliefs associated with it that the latter become insignificant. Symbolic violence is a state where a dominant reality and a dominant set of beliefs dominate so completely that they stop being perceived as dominant, they become the norm, what goes without saying, the way things are, 'common sense' as Gramsci would say. It's like when you ask someone for the date in a western or westernised country today and they say it is 18 April 2017, they will not say 'It's 18 April according to the Gregorian Calendar'. Not many think of that date as embodying the history of the domination of the Gregorian over the Julian Calendar or the solar over the lunar calendar. A date is the end result of a long history of domination of a particular way of thinking the date that becomes so dominant that it successfully hides its history as a process of domination. It does so by absenting any alternative reality and beliefs from its orbit so much so that it becomes just the norm.  We can look at the colonisation of Australia, Canada and the US as a way in which a European mode of life displaces and eradicates indigenous ways of life to the extent that the latter becomes largely invisible and insignificant (except in a limited touristic way) and a European way of life becomes so dominant that it is perceived to be the norm. Your everyday tourist to Sydney will not experience the Europeanness of Sydney as the end result of a history of domination, extraction and colonisation. Symbolic violence is a violence that hides its original violence such as it no longer appears as violent domination. Its when your order of things becomes the order of things such that when you are defending your own particular interests you are defending 'the order of things' and vice versa.
A state of orthodoxy for Bourdieu is a lesser complete mode of domination. It is still a mode of domination, to be sure where there are dominant ways of life and beliefs and minor/dominated ways of life and beliefs. However, in a state of orthodoxy the dominant never manages to 'naturalise' their way of life (to make them look as if they are natural, unquestionable and normal). It is a state of orthodoxy because there is a significant heterodoxy which is continually challenging those who are dominating. It is not that it stops them from dominating but a heterodoxy is nonetheless always there, in the way, stopping an orthodoxy from dominating so much that it no longer appears as if it is dominating. In a state of orthodoxy, the dominant order of things is not experienced as 'the' order of things but as the dominant's order of things, and when the dominant's defend their interest they appear as doing exactly that: defending their interest.
In what way is this helpful to understand Trump's foreign policy orientation in the world? For a long time, the United States acted in the world as if it was aiming for, and upholding, a state of symbolic violence. It wanted and tried to achieve, and acted as if it had achieved, a state where its interests and its order of things became perceived as the order of things, where it's order became the 'world order'. This has never been completely successful nor has it been a linear history of success. It can be said that the American capacity to define the 'world order' has fluctuated between a state of symbolic violence and a state of orthodoxy. US presidents have always vacillated from being the upholders of an international state of symbolic violence to upholders of a state of orthodoxy.
When Trump says 'America First', only the most naive would think that before that declaration US foreign policy was 'America Second'. Of course it has always been 'American First'. Nonetheless, it would be equally naive not to note that in explicitly declaring 'America First' one is changing the way in which the policy of having America first is being pursued and the way 'America's firstness' in the world is being conceived. What we are seeing is a clear move from a politics of symbolic violence to a politics of orthodoxy, form saying I want to protect 'the world order'  knowing very well that the world order is precisely your order writ large to saying I want to protect myself and my interests in the world come what may.
The modality of rule in, that is, the ways to uphold, a state of symbolic violence and a state of orthodoxy are very different. The mode of rule in a state of symbolic violence is in a sense quite perverse because the dominant assumes both the position of a fighter in the ring and the position of the referee. You act as if you are regulating the game while at the same time fighting to win the game. You have to look at your enemy both horizontally, face to face the way fighters face each other, and top down as a regulator, the way a 'world's sheriff' is supposed to look at a conflict. your wars are always fluctuating between a warring and a policing operation: it is never clear whether you are fighting a war that looks like a police operation or a police operation that looks like a war. The mode of fighting to maintain one's dominance as an orthodoxy does away with the transcendental, policing, position. You therefore can shed your 'reasonable' aura necessary for someone who acts as a judge and a regulator. you become a pure fighter needing to flex your muscles and exhibit your power in a different way. If as a regulator of world affairs you need to exhibit wisdom, establish and be seen to be following rules and regulations, as a warrior you need to be unpredictable: one cannot fight if one's enemy knows what one's moves are going to be well ahead. It is hardly surprising that this is precisely what we are seeing Trump doing today.
From Bush to Obama we have a series of presidents who have been confronting a clear decline in the capacity of institutionalising American power in the form of symbolic violence. And while the United States' dominance of world affairs is unquestionable, its mode and degree of dominance certainly is. Obama was the last president trying to maintain the aura of a world policeman while US power is clearly no longer projecting itself as 'world order'. That is Obama is the last president to act as if the US was presiding over an institutionalisation of symbolic violence while it is in fact struggling to dominate as an orthodoxy.  Trump, on the other hand, is the first to assume responsibility for this state of orthodoxy. In this sense he is more of a realist than the presidents who preceded him. This mode of accepting a far more realist sense of the kind of domination that the US is capable of exercising in the world might end up being one of the defining dimensions of international politics in the first half of this century.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The world-(that’s)-to-come(-to-an-end): a ‘subvival’ guide. Some comments on D├ęborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro 2017. The Ends of the World (trans. Rodrigo Nunes). Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.

It was just a brief reference, a single word, made kind of en passant, in what is a critical survey of the way human thought is trying to come to terms with the ecological crisis and the end of the world as we know it. Yet that word somehow captured what to me was the issue that is at the core of the book. Talking about the environmental crisis and noting the various ways in which people are trying ‘to survive’ it, the authors stop after ‘survive’ and add, or rather to ‘subvive’. They added the word and kept going without dwelling on it as if there was nothing to it.  Yet, it is precisely what the whole of this book dwells on. The fact that the very notion of ‘survival’ even when used with a recognition of the importance of the ecological crisis such as in a formulation like ‘can we survive the Anthropocene?’ lacks reflexivity. The usage of the prefix ‘sur’ which denotes the capacity to transcend, to rise above, etc… is so full of that very macho sense of omnipotence over ‘Nature’ that got us where we are in the first place that the usage of this ‘sur’ is no longer adequate. While ‘vive’ we must, we can forget about ‘surviving’. It will be wonderful if we can manage to subvive given all that is stacked against us. The prefix sub does not only reflect being ‘under’ but also the capacity to be content with ‘imperfection’, with a diminished state of being. In fact, it can be said that the whole politics of the book lies in drawing a battle line between survivalists and subvivalists. Those who still believe in a modern, technological overcoming of ‘nature’ and those who are happy to negotiate a minimal deal with the earth so as to secure our continued existence in some diminished way or another. For this is not just an analytical book. It is a book that does not shy away from drawing battle lines, or from categorizing and even naming the enemy. In this sense this is also a book for warriors and in search of warriors suited for an end-of-the-world politics. Environmental activists will learn a lot from it, indeed, I would say: they must read it. It is heavy but lightly and beautifully written which takes me to another important dimension of the book.

Beside helping delineate the analytical and political domain examined throughout the book, the minor inclusion of this ‘subvive’ word also points to the fact that we are dealing with authors of the highest technical caliber. A point that hardly needs to be made about Danowski and Viveiros de Castro but, still, as fellow writers/craftspeople we need to stop and marvel at this capacity to embody so much critical thinking and reflection in so little. Indeed, this is an exceptionally well written book in this regard. Another point to admire from a ‘craft of writing’ perspective is the clarity and heuristic ethos of a book that is dealing with seriously difficult material. One learns a lot about the social, political and ecological issues raised by the ecological crisis. One learns a lot about the various schools of thought that are grappling with it. Most importantly we have an exemplary mode of reviewing and critiquing the works of other writers such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers. It is really an admirable skill to read, explain and in some way augment the work of fellow authors, clearly laying out the central arguments they are presenting, acknowledging the various ways in which they help you construct your own argument, and once this is done, engaging in a critique that, because of what precedes it, becomes far more powerful as it becomes centered around the capacity of a certain strand of thinking to achieve the specific tasks set for it. I have an ongoing interest both as a writer and a teacher in ‘how to use theory’ (see Hage, Towards an Ethics of the Theoretical Encounter. Anthropological Theory, 2016). This is one book that I will be using in my teaching as an example of how an ethical reading and critique of other writers should be done.

As far as the content of the critique goes, at one level, it can be said to be simply an attempt to bring a colonial critique to bear on authors such as Latour and show some of the persisting Euro-centrism in their thought. This is indeed done very convincingly including a funny reflection concerning the theoretical fixation of European thinkers on Greek words. Even Dispesh Chakrabarty, in what I thought was a good moment he must have himself appreciated (he has written a blurb for the book), had his previous ‘subaltern studies’ thrown back at him. It was a reminder that even when aiming at capturing the geological impact of humans, analytical thought does not itself become ‘geological’ but remains structured by class, colonial, gender, etc. relations of power. But in some ways there is more to Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s critique than your usual attempt at introducing a de-colonial/indigenous thought. Taking for granted the many possible ways in which indigenous people relate to modernity and capitalism, and going way beyond the usual simplistic arguments about the fear of ‘essentializing’ and romanticizing indigenous people as anti-modern etc… Articulated to reflections on the Maya as ‘end of the world experts’, the book works with a genuinely liberating and politically powerful conception of ‘indigenous’ agency as a form of subvivalism. I’ve not kept it a secret that I have a soft spot for Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s thought. Now I have to say that I have a soft spot for Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s thought as well. Nonetheless, soft spot or not, it is hard headedly that I say that if you are a thinker or an activist concerned with the ecological crisis the issues raised by this book are unavoidable. If you think they are avoidable, it is yourself who is totally avoidable :) Voila.