Introductory digression: sans mains
It’s not very orthodox to start with a digression but that’s not a very orthodox paper either stylistically or in content. It’s a paper that mixes the anecdotal and the ethnographic, the personal and the theoretical hoping all of it adds up a mildly different space of reflection for, and perhaps another dimension to, thinking the politics of de-colonisation. I was tempted with the title to write ‘another/an additional’ rather than just ‘another’. This is because when writing ‘Another de-colonial politics is possible’, people more often than not read ‘another’ to mean an alternative one that can/should be pursued insteadof the one that exists today. Such is the hegemony of mono-realism that the logic of the ‘either/or’ is a default position, and despite a long history of works critiquing such a logic, many of us have to still labour on ourselves to think and give primacy to the ‘and’ and the ‘as well as’. Another thing I was tempted to do was to characterise this other/additional politics as a minor one. It does not aspire, I would even say, it should not aspire to take center-place in any de-colonial politics. I perhaps like to see myself as pointing to something that is of the order of the ‘necessary but not sufficient’ to think – nowhere near sufficient in fact, and certainly not the most important. Nonetheless by declaring it of the order of the ‘necessary’ I am saying that I think it to be important enough.
But I am failing to digress by saying all this. I’ll come back to the above soon enough. For now, let me set out on my introductory digressive path. And please bear with me here, even if you can legitimately be asking yourself ‘in what way is this related to de-colonial politics?’ I am confident that it’ll all come together midway through this text. To the impatient I’ve added a couple of hints. So here we go.
It started with a mundane observation. But it was an observation that was clearly made possible by years of being attentive to, studying and writing about strategies of domestication and which intensified during the writing of Is Racism an Environmental Threat?(Polity 2017). This made me sensitive to the variety of ways that power and domination are yielded within inter-human and human-animal domesticating processes.
I was walking my dogs to the park, not far from my house. To do so, I have to cross the main road between the house and the park. The traffic is reasonably heavy and we always cross at an intersection where there is a combined traffic and pedestrian light. Opposite us on that day was a man about to cross from the other side. He had his dog on a leash. As is always the case, this made me conscious that my dogs are trained – mainly by my partner – to stop at the pedestrian red light without needing a leash. The green light comes with a rattling noise that the dogs recognize as ‘its time to get ready to cross’. I say ‘go!’ as an extra prompt and they go. When this situation occurs, I am not only conscious that unlike x or y ‘I don’t need a leash’, I actually feel superior to them. That is, somehow, in the back of my mind, there is this idea, never explicitly formulated but clearly there, that having instilled in my dogs the knowledge that allows them to self-control themselves in front of the pedestrian light, I have taken my human-dog relation of domestication to a higher realm that made it a superior relation to the human-dog relation of the people who need a leash.
So, on that day, things were no different. I looked at the man-leash-dog assemblage coming towards me and immediately felt as superior as I always do. What was different was that, for whatever reason, maybe it has been slowly ripening and ready to come forth, for the first time I started seriously reflecting on the significance of this feeling of superiority: Why on earth? ‘You’re so ridiculous’ I was saying to myself. The thought that we humans don’t need much to feel superior over others came to my mind. But at the same time, it was also clear to me that, ridiculous as it may be, phenomenologically speaking, the experience of being in control of my dogs and feeling confident that they stay with me and that I can steer them in whatever direction I want without needing physical restraints was a pleasing sensation. But it wasn’t, and it still isn’t, fully clear to me as to why it is so pleasing. Somewhat out of nowhere the words ‘Regarde! Sans mains!’ popped onto my consciousness. And here I was a kid riding my bike and managing for the first time to do so ‘with no hands’ and screaming for my friend to see me doing it. My unconscious was inviting me to make a link between the two situations. A French Belgian song from the early nineties intrudes into the mental mix:
le bonheur c'est comme faire
du vélo sans les mains
du vélo sans les mains
(Happiness is like riding
Your bike with no hands)
Your bike with no hands)
My mind was racing: what is it about dominating your surrounding ‘without using your hands’ that makes it such a particularly enjoyable and even sublime mode of being, something of the order of jouissance. Was I touching onto a dimension that was of the essence of power and control, and the social and psychoanalytic fantasies in which they are grounded? I was now thinking of the unlimited, mundane, everyday joy that the ‘remote control’ has brought into the lives of human beings. Despite being scientifically explainable, does not the sentiment of power to affect things at a distance generated by the remote control have its genealogy in the sentiments generated by the practices of magic and voodoo. I curse you here and you develop a fever there. I put a pin in this doll here and I paralyze your arm there. Regarde! Sans mains!Not entirely ‘sans mains’but the principle behind it all is similar enough.
The more I thought about it the more I became convinced that the idea of a domination that does not require excessively visible physical restraint was really at the heart of all fantasies of domination.It is certainly at the heart of our most common understanding of domestication as a mode of dominating other natural species. The latter is perceived as the ultimate mode of domination because unlike capture which needs visible restraints such as cages, and unlike taming which only applies to an individual of a species and has to be repeated again and again, domestication involves species reproducing themselves as always already accepting of the state of domination they are born into. That is, domestication is the fantasy of a species born in a state of subjugation without us having to do too much to it that is of the order of visible domination. Again: sans mains!The idea is to be in control without appearing to be in control. This is also of the essence of making a relation of domination pass as a relation of co-operation and mutual benefit that some people still like to theorize domestication to be. But it is also clear that even from the perspective of the domesticated the less visible the restraint the more bearable, and as such, the more viable and durable a relation of domination is.
The early history of caging and cages presents us with a paradigmatic problem: those who began building cages to keep birds in them were faced precisely with the problem of the visibility of domination from the perspective of the dominated: the over-visibility of the cage. The birds that were in cages that were too visible – because the bars were too thick, for instance – kept trying to break free by flying straight onto them, hurting themselves and dying. Thus, the makers of the cages were faced with the problem of creating a structure that encages without it being overly visible that it is doing so. Technically, then, the history of refining cages is a history of creating something that is strong enough to ensure that the encaged does not break free, while at the same time ensuring that this search for strength does not mean a more ‘in your face’ over-visibility that creates in the encaged an excessive claustrophobic feeling of ‘encagement’. It is understood that such an experience of over-visibility of the cage triggers in the encaged a ‘freedom or death’ disposition that leads precisely to either freedom or death. Thus, those aiming for a prolonged self-reproducing relation of domination aim to avoid such over-visibility. If you don’t care about the caged experiencing such claustrophobia as a result of over-visibility, it means you have no interest in them staying alive. Caging here becomes a technique of extermination rather than a technique of domestication for usage. A suspicion that such is the dynamic behind Aboriginal death in custody in Australia and the caging of refugees, is unavoidable here.
When theorists of domination forefront the problematic of the perpetuation of domination through the passive acceptance of domination by the dominated, whether it is Jean Jacques Rousseau telling us that the “slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them” or Bourdieu via Marx and Gramsci highlighting the problematic of ‘the acquiescence’ and ‘the participation of the dominated in their domination’ are they not all recognizing, and indeed idealizing, this domination ‘sans mains’ and positing it as the ultimate mode of domination? Let us hear Bourdieu make this clearer (while having an implicit conversation with Weber):
The command that makes itself obeyed, if it is an exception to the laws of physics in that it obtains an effect out of proportion to the energy expended, and thus liable to appear as a form of magic, is in perfect conformity with the law of the conservation of social energy, that is, of capital: it turns out that, to be in a position to act at a distance and without expense of energy, by virtue of an act of social magic, as with the order or the watchword (ordre et mot d’ordre), one must be endowed with authority, that is, authorized, in one’s personal capacity or by proxy, as delegate, representative, or functionary, to set off, as by a trigger mechanism, the social energy that has been accumulated in a group or an institution by the work, often protracted and difficult, that is the condition of the acquisition and conservation of symbolic capital. (“Scattered remarks” 1999, European journal of social theory, 338)
But it should be clear that what we are really talking about here when highlighting this ‘sans mains’ imaginary is the fantasy of domination as it is fantasized by the dominant. For the process of domestication in practice, as any domesticator knows, is never complete and requires continuous ‘hands on’ work. I might well feel superior when I am crossing with my leash-free dogs but the truth is that I never fully trust them to do the right thing (by me) and I am continuously watching in case the situation requires a ‘hands on’ intervention. And is it really the case that the slaves ever lose the desire to escape from their chains? At the very least, this seems doubtful to me or at least very rare. That is why we are dealing more with the dominant fantasies of power here. These hopes of maximal domination are not ‘opposed to’ as much ‘entangled with’ the practical reality of domination. The extent to which a domination is ‘sans mains’ is a matter of degree rather than either/or: some don’t need to show and make visible their domination as much as some others. But there is no doubt that those whose domination is less visible always project a greater image of power.
In a Lebanese village, the patriarchal male patron who is exceptionally confident of his control of ‘his’ women (wife, daughters, sisters) or ‘his’ men that he let them go around ‘wherever they want’, because they know where to not go and what to not do, remains even today a living fantasy of the ideal-type patriarchal zaïm(leader). He is an embodiement of the type of social magic Bourdieu is talking about above. His confidence is imagined to come from his ‘wahra’, which in the Lebanese village is a form of symbolic capital equivalent to ‘manly aura of authority’. The man who has a ‘wahra’ doesn’t need to ‘exercise’ and ‘exhibit’ his domination, he does not have to ‘do’ anything, he apparently lets it happen by the mere fact that he is ‘there’, the mere fact that he exists. For he only needs to be present for people to take notice of him, fear him and even know what he wants. The very idea of needing to ‘do something’ diminishes his power. Now such a man and such a smooth deployment of ‘aura’ clearly do not exist except within the idealized imaginary of power as it circulates in the village. Hands on intervention is always necessary. Nonetheless, there are men who are closer to the ideal than others. And like me and my dogs without leash, the men who have wahra, and who do little in terms of visible control, are seen as by far superior to the men who need to restrain the freedom, let alone use physical violence, to assert their domination over ‘their’ women or ‘their’ male patronage (see for a different discussion of male authority in Lebanon, Michael Gilsenan, Lords of the Lebanese Marches, University of California Press, 1996).
It can thus be said that the excessive need for physical restraint, or any other visible mode of domination, is really an indication of a pathological power, a capacity for domination that is already in crisis, unable to even minimally dominate ‘sans mains’. Such a ‘hands on’ domination, then, is the domination of those who are ‘bala wahra’ (deprived of a manly aura of authority). As we shall see, it is not coincidental that someone like Trump comes to mind when speaking of such powerful men ‘bala wahra’. Indeed it is hard to think of someone or somewhere where the gap between the amount of power at their disposal and the aura of authority that they generate is greater than in the case of Trump.
Let us be clear: It is not that those who dominate ‘balawahra’ do not have the power necessary to dominate. Rather it is that they are insecure about the power that they have because they don’t feel their power is recognized enough which might or might not be for good reason. To use a Nietzschean language we can say that they have a weak sense of power. It could well be because they have less power, but it could also be that they feel that they have a tenuous hold on their power and fear losing it, or that they have a sense that it is declining. What is clear is that their experience of the degree of power that they have make them feel brittle and fragile despite remaining in a dominant position. They believe less and less in themselves and those they dominate believe less and less in them. Thus, they are forced to compensate for this insecure hold on power with overt ‘hands on’ means which, as noted above, only manages to highlight their insecurity. Their mode of deploying power and dominating becomes more and more tainted with anxiety, it becomes more and more cruel but as importantly it becomes more and more obvious and visible, and perhaps one might even say vulgar, in that, in this Nietzschean world, a stronger and secure sense of domination makes for a refineddeployment of power.
Let’s leave the above behind for a while. As promised, we will come back to it, and its relevance will become apparent, if it is not already. We should now be moving to confront the question of thinking another/an additional way of thinking the de-colonial that is the chief concern of this piece.
Postcolonialism, or on being stuck with the colonial other
It goes without saying that today just as much as in the last century we still live under the domination of a white colonial domesticating assemblage. Many of us who work on colonialism and its legacy like to quote the late Patrick Wolfe’s wonderfully concise characterisation of settler-colonialism (but, by extension, any colonialism) as ‘a structure not an event’. We do so because we are often faced with sometimes political: “colonialism happened long ago, get over it”, sometimes analytical: “this is too binary, things are more complex than this”, and sometimes both, attempts at belittling and underestimating the extent to which colonialism as a relation of exploitation and as a set of cultural attitudes, racist classifications and assumptions affecting the distribution of power and opportunities in our postcolonial world remains diffused in so many aspects of the social spaces we live in. We know that there are many other ‘things’ going on. But we also know that it is critical to keep in mind that there is an important dimension of our lives where ‘things’ are not ‘more complex than this’: it is because colonialism is an enduring structure that post-colonial societies just as much as settler-colonial societies remain structured by it.
Yet, for all its importance and the need to continuepolitically and analyticallyto drive this point, it would be just as bad, to move in the opposite direction and think that highlighting the existence of colonialism as a structure is the endpoint of analysis. For, pointing to the existence of relations of power in social reality can be as analytically illuminating as pointing to the existence of life there. And needless to say, saying that colonial and post-colonial realities are organized around the same colonial structure, is not saying that they are the same realities. In this sense we can say that the claim that colonialism still exists as a structure points to a beginning and a direction that analysis must take rather than an end. We need, for example, to know what kind of deployment of power and domination is perpetuating such a structure. I did not intend to bring back until much later the significance of the introductory digression into the different modes of visibility and invisibility that the exercise of power and domination take, but we can mobilize it already in this context to highlight the necessity of asking: what kind of ‘sense of power’ or more generally what kind of culture of power is reproducing the colonial structure in our post-colonial era? Clearly such a culture changes in time and from one place to another. Let us not forget that the dawn of the post-colonial era was not only initiated by anti-colonial struggles in the previous colonies but also by the rise of the United States as the imperialist power that introduced a new neo-colonialism, which was really a colonialismsans mainswith only the occasional intervention. It was a form of global domination commensurate with the US’s strength at the time. Such neo-colonialism made the ‘hands on’ colonialism of the previous colonial powers look increasingly vulgar and outdated in its obviousness, visibility and vulgarity. The fact that the United States might be reverting to a hands on imperialism is symptomatic of the weakening of global US power.
Furthermore, the practices of the dominant and their culture of power are not the only ones that should be of concern to us. What about the practices of those located in position of domination? The structural binary subjection/resistance is a poor classificatory repertoire to account for the multiple ways in which the dominant and the dominated relate to each other in the continual struggle to make and/or unmake this relation of power. Are the dominated really destined to always relate to the dominant in a way that can be defined within the subjugated/resisting spectrum? What about the effect of time: don’t the dominant go through periods of domination-fatigue, and likewise don’t the dominated suffer from resistance-fatigue, and does that not affect the culture of power and domination? A richer ethnography of modes of domination and subjection and the various ways dominant and dominated relate, avoid, aim to eradicate or co-exist with each other, is a necessary component of any analytical claim about the existence of relations of power, not an after-thought to the latter, and colonial relations of power are no different. Indeed we might say that such an analytics is particularly important in the case of colonial power relations since it is precisely through the description of this practico-cultural level that the difference between the colonial and post-colonial become salient.
It is in light of the above that I want to explore an argument made in my book Alter-Politicsregarding the Palestinian politics of de-colonization vis a vis Israeli settler-colonialism (Melbourne University Press, 2015). The initial argument was made in 2009 at a lecture at the Australian Catholic University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvr_afwrejY) but the point has grown in importance for me. My implicit starting point in that lecture was a simple observation: while there are struggles in history where the aim has been to eliminate the dominant either physically or symbolically, there are other struggles where the elimination of the dominant is neither possible nor desirable. For instance, while I am sure that there are some feminists who have fantasies of eliminating males altogether, the majority of feminists do not harbor eliminationist fantasies towards males in the same way for example slaves wished to eliminate salve-owners. Rather, feminists aim for a transformed, better, more egalitarian, more respectful, etc. relation with men. The lecture made me increasingly aware that this absence of eliminationism is one of the most important defining characteristics of de-colonial struggles in the post-colonial as opposed to the colonial era, and that this tells us something important about the difference between colonial and post-colonial societies as social realities. In the colonial era de-colonial fantasies of elimination were possible, thinkable and sometimes even desirable, and indeed the dominant imaginary of anti-colonial struggles was an imaginary of cleansing: cleansing society from the colonizers as people, cleansing the colonized culture from the traces of colonial culture. It was also a narcissistic imaginary of revalorization: recovering and revalorizing oneself, one’s society, one’s nation and one’s cultural heritage that have long been repressed, devalorised, distorted, by colonialism. In the post-colonial era such fantasies of elimination became less and less possible. In some places they become even unthinkable. This is how I saw it for Palestinians in the lecture. While ‘driving the Jews to the sea’ can be used for rhetorical purposes by some and can be exploited by the Zionists themselves as an example of what they are ‘really’ facing, the fact is that the aim of most Palestinian struggles of de-colonisation today is not (and, I argued, should not be) to eliminate Zionists, even if this was remotely possible (which it isn’t). Rather, the aim is to radically transform the existing colonial relations that are defined by Zionism into something better. My fantasy was a transformation of the relation Zionist-Palestinian up to the point where the category Zionist becomes useless and fade away. That is, to put it more generally, hard or impossible as this might be, I saw that a crucial aim of de-colonial politics in the post-colonial era is to transform a bad relation into a good relation.
In much the same way, Indigenous Australians are not going to eliminate the white settlers and the immigrants who have colonized their land and exploited their resources and continue to do so. Such fantasies of elimination might be entertained by some and even voiced on Facebook by a couple of enthusiastic ‘symbolic warriors’, but the fact is that such elimination is neither possible, nor desirable, and nor is it realistically entertained or even wished for by the various indigenous Australians who are in a position to voice and formulate Indigenous demands. In many ways, the outcome of the struggle against the settler-colonialist Apartheid regime in South Africa is paradigmatic for our post-colonial times. It already pointed us in the direction of what is and is not possible or desirable. If Apartheid as a form of colonisation has exhausted itself, so has de-colonisation as a desire to eradicate the colonizers. Bad as they were and are, they are here to stay. Not only can they not to be eliminated, but nor can they be made to go back to wherever Western country they originally came from. Thus, for the colonized and their descendants, post-colonialism is an invitation to re-imagine a better relation than the one they had or have with the colonizers and their descendants. What better means, and what kind of ‘better’ is possible, is a difficult question since the relation is not merely a symbolic one but is also marked by a very colonial exploitation and sometimes continuing dispossession which invites a de-colonial struggle still enmeshed in the logic of elimination.
The above means that in the post-colonial era, we have to deal with the left overs of the processes of colonialization but also the left overs of the processes of decolonization that marked the colonial era, unachieved colonization here, and unachieved decolonization there, and indeed we ourselves are such left-overs, neither fully colonized nor fully de-colonised, stuck with each other and with whatever else these unachieved processes of colonization and de-colonisation have bequeathed to us.
A few years after giving the lecture on the importance of the relational imperative in Israel/Palestine, it was with great pleasure that I read in Achille Mbembe’s Avant-Propos to the second French edition of De la Postcolonie (Karthala, Paris, 2009) similar arguments, presented with Mbembe’s characteristic philosophical sophistication and ethical depth, and made on the basis of a critique of Fanon. For Fanon, Mbembe argues, ‘to kill the enemy is not only a necessity, but a politico-ethical responsibility’ since he sees that ‘life’ for the colonizer can only emerge from the ‘decomposing body of the coloniser’. Mbembe argues that such a way of thinking de-colonisation is not satisfactory in ‘our context’ where it is less ‘about taking away the coloniser’s life’ and more about opposing the politics that is still driven by fratricidal tendencies and the refusal to ‘constitute a community’ (pp. xiv-xvi). Thus, Mbembe argues with the help of Derrida’s Donner la Mort(Paris, Galilee, 1999) that the aim is to struggle against the politics of death with a politics motivated by what Mbembe considers the highest ethical horizon: giving death to death.
As should be clear from the above, I think my argument echoes in many ways Mbembe’s argument. There are however if I understand his argument some differences between us that create an interesting space of reflection. Because he formulates his arguments primarily in terms of politico-ethical differences, Mbembe’s subjects are not historicized as the descendants or inheritors of the Fanonian politics that he wants to distance himself from ‘in our context’. As such they are not seen as marked by it. Furthermore, and I think as a result of this, he sees the difference between the Fanonian colonial ethic of ‘giving death to the colonist’ and his post-colonial ethic of ‘giving death to death’ as an either/or matter. While thinking through the latter question I increasingly felt that my initial argument and his can both be criticized for offering a linear historical logic which does not allow for the possibility of a return to the conditions that constituted the colony amid the post-colony. This is particularly important today as we are facing throughout the western world a politics of White restoration. An attempted restoration of white supremacy within the nation but also a return of certain forms of ‘hands on’ imperialist White global politics that are more reminiscent of colonialism than of neo-colonialism. It is crucial then to think through the post-colonial relation as a fluctuating relation that can oscillate between the colonial and the post-colonial since the two co-exist with each other. Finally, it is also important to think it dialectically where what one does affects the other and vice versa, as a dynamic on-going process. Saying that a relation of domination is structural means that it perpetuates the same basic positions within the structure. Nonetheless, at the level of practice, relations are a strategic and tactical field, not just in Bourdieu’s sense, but as involving ongoing actions and reactions. A particular deployment of a mode of domination generates a particular reaction which in turn generates some other deployment of domination. It is particularly to account for this relational dialectic that I started deploying the concept of anisogamic strategies.
The field of anisogamic strategies
‘Anisogamy’ is the concept used by Levi-Strauss to refer to marriages between people of unequal status. But I use ‘anisogamic relations’ to describe any relation requiring a reciprocation of labour between people of unequal status, not just marriage. I also use the notion of ‘anisogamic strategies’ to speak of the symbolic labour, in the dialectical sense described above, that is involved in the maintenance of these relations. To be clear, I don’t see, as Bourdieu does, this dimension of practice as something opposed to Levi-straussian structuralist analysis. Rather, I see it as exploring a different dimension. I initially developed the usage of these concepts in relation to my work on the Lebanese diaspora. In particular, I deploy it to analyze the situation of a Lebanese man, Adel, who migrated to the United States to live and work with his maternal uncle who supported his migration (see Ghassan Hage, Migration and the Transformation of Male Sexuality in John Gagnon and Samir Khalaf (eds), Arab Sexuality, Al-Saqi Books, London, 2006). His maternal uncle and his family were all much richer and well educated than the man’s own family. He nonetheless ended up marrying his uncle’s daughter. This was in terms of class and cultural capital a anisogamic marriage which involved considerable upward social mobility for the man. At the same time, however, the man felt from a purely patriarchal perspective that being associated with the maternal side of the family was a less prestigious move than being associated with the paternal side of the family (who were however from a class perspective like him and his father nowhere near as rich or as well-educated as the maternal side of the family). In the course of my research, I witnessed and analysed the symbolic labour required by Adel and his wife, Lamya, to ensure everyone’s dignity/honour was being preserved in this environment marked by economically dominant and dominated sides who nonetheless are also committed to maintain a viable conjugal relation between them. This was to me the domain of anisogamic strategies: the reciprocal management of relations by people who have structurally antagonistic positions but who nonetheless think themselves to be stuck with each other. It is this aspect of the relation which made me think of it in relation to the ‘being stuck with the other’ nature of post-colonialism that I have analysed above.
Essentially, a positive anisogamic marriage involves reciprocal strategies of valorization. Both the dominant/high status and the dominated/low status parties have to participate in this, and both parties see themselves as having an interest in pumping up the prestige/dignity/honour/status of the other up to a certain point. For instance, the high-status spouse would clearly want the low-status spouse to show some recognition of and a certain degree of gratitude for the higher socio-economic or cultural status they have offered them though marriage. At the same time they would not want this recognition to be done in a too obvious, obsequious and overly submissive manner that would end up being demeaning to all concerned. To put down one’s own origins is a shameful thing to do, both to oneself and to the person one has married, and it is always important to show yourself capable of speaking highly of your own family. However, anisogamic logic is such that if the person of low status start valorizing their family too muchit can become a sign of disrespect to the high-status spouse. That is valorizing should not be done to the point where it becomes a form of excessive boasting that can make the spouse of high status feel like needing to remind their low status spouse of their lowly origins. There is always a need for the person of low status to show some gratitude to the person of high status for having helped them experience upward social mobility. But as noted above, it has to be done with style and restraint so as not to demean oneself and one’s high status spouse. For the latter usually also has an interest in highlighting what is exceptionally positive about the low status person they have married. After all they have married them.
A positive anisogamic marriage depends then on both partners knowing how to valorize themselves, but not too much, and how to valorize each other, but not too much; how to show gratitude but not too much and how to show pride but not too much. It is an artful process of knowing where the borders between maintaining one’s dignity and excessive narcissism are and how not to cross them. These are also the borders between pride and boastfulness, measured sense of appreciation of what has been received and excessive gratitude, and respect and servitude. Because of their dependence on all this subtle symbolic labour that requires continual awareness of where one is positioned and continual adjustment to changing circumstances, anisogamic marriages can quickly degenerate from a process of mutual reciprocal co-valorisation to the exact opposite: an infernal dialectic of put-downs and de-valorisation. This is what I term as a negative anisogamic relations. Here people still feel stuck with each other but nonetheless are continually engaging in strategies of valorizing the self and devalorizing the other. This was where it was at with the relation between Adel and his uncle’s family that I mentioned above. From what I gathered hearing the various people concerned speak about it, a number of things led Adel to feel insecure and to continuously boast about the importance of his paternal side of the family, so much so, that the family of Lamya began feeling that this over-valorisation of the paternal side of the family was a devalorisation of their family. For his maternal uncle, Adel was being doubly ungrateful. He was not showing any gratitude for all the work he has done to help him get a visa and migrate to the United States, nor was he showing any sign of gratitude for all the financial help he has received from him since marrying his daughter. So he, according to Adel, in turn began to make barely disguised comments aimed at highlighting the low status, the economic poverty and the lack of education of his nephew’s paternal side of the family.
What is particularly of interest to us though here is that at one point Adel talking about his father-in-law says to me: “The way he treats me is no different from the way Americans treat most Lebanese. They think that because we come from a background where people have less money and are uncomfortable financially means that we are less worthy human beings.” Similarly, he said: ‘He (his father-in-law) and all of America might have a lot of money, but I am not going to respect them just because of that. If you want to be respected you need to respect people. He acts as if he has giving me his daughter or something archaic like this, and he conveniently forgets that she fell in love with me.” At another point he sharply criticized something his brother in law said to marginalize him by saying: “So when do you stop being the one who married into the family and become just part of the family?”. This reminded me of the thankless dynamic of integration where immigrants are always ‘trying-to-be’ American, Australian, etc but never fully becoming one in the eyes of the white population who nonetheless expect them to keep on trying. Because of such statements and a number of others like them it slowly dawned on me that in fact Adel’s imaginary of American-Lebanese relations was very close to the way he imagined his marriage. Both were seen as forms of negative anisogamy: a relation where the party that thinks itself superior is continuously trying to make the other forcibly acknowledge that superiority and where the other party reactively refuses to acknowledge any gratitude for what it has received propelling the relation into this destructive dialectics. At the same time, because of the sense of stuckedness in this sea of negativity, there is also a desire to see things get better. Of his relation to Lamya and after listing a litany of problems, Adel said: “what can I do, he’s my uncle, she’s my wife and we’ve got children. If only we can go back to getting on a bit better than this”. Of his relation with the United States Adel also at one point said: “leaving is not an option. I don’t like saying it, and I wish it wasn’t the case, but our future is here”.
It was in many ways Adel then that pointed me to think that there could be much to be gained if the colonial or neo-colonial relations that mark our post-colonial time today are perceived through an anisogamic frame: a relation festering with antagonism and yet a relation between people ‘stuck with each other’. I am conscious as I write this of the possible conservative implications of thinking relations of exploitation and domination, as relations one is stuck in and as inviting ways of searching for co-existence despite such relationality. This, however, is precisely where the importance of thinking ‘another’ to mean ‘an additional’ not ‘an alternative to’. My point is that to come to terms with the fact that we non-westerners who have acquired a western inheritance are stuck in a relation with the inheritors of Western colonialism requires us to think boththe labour of opposing and resisting, and the labour of transforming existing colonial relations from without and from within them together rather than in opposition to each other. At the very least this makes us aware of some of the shortcoming of any de-colonial work that is blind to this dimension of ‘stuckedness with the colonizing other’.
Conclusion: Post-coloniality as negative anisogamy
To see the core post-colonial relation as a negative anisogamic process gives us I believe a special insight into one of its dimensions. This finally takes us back to our introductory digression which from where we are now is no longer one. The difference between visible and sans mainsdeployment of power that we began with is also the mark of the difference between positive and negative anisogamic relations. While a positive anisogamic process of co-valorisation buttresses the increased invisible deployment of power and authority, a negative anisogamic process tends on the contrary to make that deployment more visible which as we noted is more often than not a sign of weakness and of a dented authority. This allows us to come face to face with and better analyse, I think, a dimension of White power in the post-colonial era. For as much as white colonial domination remains the major structuring force of our life, it has nonetheless changed in ways such as it has been increasingly involving a more visible and ‘hands on’ forms of domination. States of hegemony and symbolic violence which used to hint at a power so legitimate that it was exercised ‘sans mains’ have become a thing of the past. In today’s western colonial world neither are the dominant white colonial subjects secure in their domination, nor do the dominated, while, to be clear, remaining dominated, feel particularly in awe of those dominating them. From the French banning the ‘foulard Islamique’ to British politicians arguing that immigrants have to respect British values, to a group of wealthy and conservative Australians aiming to save the university from the clutches of ‘cultural Marxism’ and advocating a university degree that promotes the greatness of Western Civilisation, the culture of power in the west like with so many other things today is becoming increasingly like that of third world tyrannical regimes. To use a concept introduced in the introductory part, we have been long entering an era of a whiteness ‘bala wahra’ tending towards the vulgarity of a Sissi, the cruelness of an Assad, and the unrefined arrogance of MBS. Like the man who beats his wife to assert his patriarchal power and in the process manages to appear weaker and less legitimate, so are these dominant white subjects increasingly caught in a negative dialectic where their assertion of power and demands for respect is more and more hands on, more and more visible, more and more obvious and vulgar, and because of this less and less legitimate, sometimes even laughable, and more and more easy to challenge intellectually, though not necessarily easy to get rid of politically.Reflecting on the international acceptance of the fait accompli in the face of the Khashoggi assassination, Elias Khoury asks: “What does it mean when language strips its clothes and becomes naked? What does it mean when the language that prevails among the politicians occupying the international scene today is an unrefined, coarse and raw language that ditches all pretense and lays reality there before us uncovered, taking us to an uncouth and barbaric bottom where a crime is crudely declared and we are invited to accept it in a ‘so-what’ kind of manner” (Elias Khoury, The Naked Language - translated from Arabic). How can one speak truth to power when power itself speaks its own vulgar truth embracing its crude visibility?
A strategy that is commonly observed in relations governed by a negative anisogamic logic is the open belittling, in a ‘know your place’ kind of way, of the person of low-status they are married to. Unlike in the tribal settings analysed by Levi-Strauss, and as he would be the first to acknowledge, in an open complex system, the question of who is high-status and who is low-status is hardly a settled one. High-status is something that is much more easily open for challenge. Still there are situations where a high-status/low-status logic practically imposes itself. When an immigrant from a poor social/national background migrates to a Western nation-state it is clear that the anisogamic relation involves a migrant who is suffering from some form or another of economic or social disadvantage and who benefits from the anisogamic relation implied by his or her migratory move. Thus, it is not surprising that in today’s West, as part of the sense of insecurity experienced by White people, the art of throwing the immigrants’ disadvantages, whether social, cultural or economic, in their faces is rampant.
But, as with the proverbial tango, it takes two to have an anisogamic relation and to send into an upward positive or a downward negative spiral. And if a negative anisogamic dialectics is propelled by the insecurity of the high-status person and their need for outward signs recognition of status, it is also perpetuated and amplified by what are also classically negative anisogamic strategies of devalorisation of the high-status party by the colonized and the inheritors of their structural location. Let me give a small example.
John, is a Lebanese background man who has arrived in Australia in the mid 1970s. I have known him well before I started researching migration as I met him when he worked at a mechanics shop that serviced my car in the mid-1980s. I coincidentally saw him at a squash court playing with an Anglo guy who turned out to be his sister’s husband. I and the person I was playing with, John and his brother in law ended up having a beer together after the game. This ended up becoming a regular occurrence and I remember distinctly a time when an indigenous person entered the pub where we were drinking and both John and his brother in law started engaging in what I considered was a racist conversation about indigenous people. As this is hardly unusual I did not pay excessive attention to this until a few months later when we were also having a beer after a squash game, at the same place, and John and his brother in law start having an argument about whether Australia was better than Lebanon, which degenerated into whether Australians were better than Lebanese. That’s when his brother in law said something like ‘Australians have done a better job making Australia a great country. That’s why it is you Lebanese who are migrating to Australia. It’s not us Australians migrating to Lebanon.’ To my amazement john replied: ‘What have you achieved? You stole the land from indigenous people.’ Given his racist sentiments towards indigenous people, I couldn’t help note how convenient John’s suddenly found colonial consciousness in helping him avoid acknowledging any sense of debt towards White Australia. This is what I see now as a form of negative anisogamic strategy: the avoidance to acknowledge a debt for any advantage accrued from having engaged in an anisogamic relation. This contrasts with another Lebanese I interviewed during the republican debate in Australia who was a staunch monarchist and who argued that the reason he is benefitting from everything that Australia has to offer, ‘the reason the streets are clean’ he said, is ‘because of the Queen’. Here we have someone whose relation to Australia was positively anisogamic. I think however that it is the negative anisogamic feelings that are becoming dominant today. I believe that a more sophisticated and intellectual usage of ‘This is Aboriginal land’ to avoid the recognition of any debt towards white Australian and construe such recognition as a priori conservative can also be found in some of the post-colonial literature one reads today, and not only in Australia.
There is no doubt that one can value Western civilisation too much and this can end up being a conservative position. But is it necessarily so? At the very least, the anisogamic perspective highlights the need to ask the question: Should a post-colonial critique be aware and critical of some of its own in-built anisogamic resentments? Some forms of colonial indebtedness are exceptionally hard to acknowledge. Achille Mbembe argues that colonialism in Africa was experienced as a form of rape: how can the black offspring of a colonial rape who has nonetheless inherited some whiteness that has given him some social privileges deal with their inheritance. One can only begin to imagine the difficulty, even one can say the traumatizing effect, of thinking one’s white inheritance in such a situation. But there is no doubt that to think that one does not owe any anisogamic debt at all is a way of ironing out the difficulties rather than confronting them. It is still the case even if we accept that there is no possibility of confronting such difficulties and no other way of handling such a difficult situation other than to block it. In the same way in his lectures on the State, Bourdieu asks 'how can one critically think the state with the very thoughts inculcated in us by the State?' we need to ask how can we think the critique of western colonialism with categories of thought that are at least partially but fundamentally inculcated in us by western colonialism? But even more so what happens when this inculcation takes the form of an 'intellectual rape'? Thus is the difficulty before us.
As I have began by arguing, I don’t want to centre such mode of thinking or posit it as an alternative to the more common oppositional anti-colonialism that prevails, indeed that should prevail, today. This is especially so in the face of the revival of colonial racist fantasies and colonial practices of land theft and exploitation. But, also as I have began by arguing, I think it a necessary critical mode of thinking that can deepen our critical understanding of both the processes of colonisation that exist today and the processes of de-colonisation that we are participating in.