Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Ends of Nostalgia: waiting for the past-to-come (From my afterword to Andreas Bandak and Manpreet Kaur Janeja, Ethnographies of Waiting, forthcoming from Bloomsbury. A book to look forward to)

As anyone who has worked on the phenomenon knows, nostalgia is a lot more than a yearning for the past. Firstly, nostalgia is a yearning/waiting for a past that is perceived to have been lost (that is, perceived to be lacking) in the present. Secondly, it is not a yearning for any kind of past, it is a yearning for an idealised past. Thirdly, it is an active and/or passive yearning/waiting which entertains the possibility of, and as such is hopeful that, such a lacking idealised past will materialise in the future. All of this is part and parcel of the Lebanese migratory yearning to return. First, in the process of migration, Lebanon or the village, the land one imagines to have left behind, ‘back home’, is often slowly yearned for and perceived to be what is lacking in the migratory present. Second, this ‘back home’ is quickly idealised as a place of plenitude and well-being in opposition to the harsh land of migration where a kind of reality principle prevails. Third, most Lebanese emigrants strongly believe in the eventuality of return, even if not all of them are capable of actively pursuing it. The nostalgic waiting for return is therefore a yearning to return to a past that never existed but that is hopefully yet to come. It is in this sense that nostalgic waiting can be called a hopeful waiting for a past-to-come.  It therefore takes this general imaginary structure (in the sense of the way it is thought by the nostalgic subject in the present):

Idealised                      Present as lacking idealised past                                the future
past                 à        of plenitude and where the                à                    as the past-to-
of plenitude                 yearning/waiting subject is                                        come

Undoubtedly, this is a form of waiting in that we have a subject negotiating their relation towards the future from the present and with a specific past behind them. Intimations of Arendt’s theorisation are clear (see introduction). At the same time, however, it is a specific kind of waiting where the drama of negotiating the future is staged as a desire to regain a lost plenitude. But to what extent is this waiting for the past-to-come unique to the migratory experience? It can be easily argued that this nostalgic waiting is not specific to migration as much as it is specific to modernity. Is not all modern waiting structured by a sense of loss of plenitude caused by industrialisation, urbanism, pollution and a yearning for the plenitude of the countryside? Does not modernity by its very nature stage a nostalgic subject who is forever waiting to overcome a sense of loss and alienation? This modern yearning is always a yearning for a past time as well as a past space. It could be argued that what characterises diasporic waiting and diasporic modernity is that the emphasis on place becomes greater. If the ‘classic’ modern European waiting is structured by yearning for a predominantly conceived lost time, Diasporic waiting is structured by yearning for a predominantly conceived lost place. We can easily see how this modern structure of waiting/yearning sociologically shapes other forms of waiting/yearning/seeking. Are not current forms of white nationalism in the western world structured in exactly the same nostalgic way, with the white nationalist subject imagining an idealised national past of plenitude (the nation before x, y or z ruined it) and a yearning for a national future that is precisely this idealised past now perceived as forthcoming?

Nonetheless, there are arguments to be made for the universal nature rather than the modern, let alone diasporic, specificity of nostalgic waiting. Such an argument comes from psychoanalysis with the foundational role that ‘waiting for the breast’ plays in the formation of the human subject. In its Freudian/Lacanian version, this waiting for the breast initiated what is a distinctly nostalgic structure. This is because the moment of waiting is the moment of awareness of a lack of immediacy between needing and receiving. For as long as there is no waiting there is no consciousness of one’s separate existence. It is the moment when we need and have to wait for the breast that we become aware of our separateness. However, this separateness is painful and the moment it is experienced one begins to yearn for an imagined time when it did not exist. That is the imagined moment where there was a kind of fusion between mother and baby and a sense of plenitude that comes from this lack of separateness and the absence of the need to wait. Thus, when we receive the breast, we get what we need (milk) but we do not get what we desire (a return to the state of fusion with the mother where we imagine that we did not even experience ‘need’). Consequently, the desiring subject is a subject structured by nostalgia for this state of plenitude and fusion for the mother, waiting for a past-to-come.

While claiming a certain universality, we don’t need a reminder that the psychoanalytic claim is nonetheless a western claim for universality. Integral to this psychoanalytic argument is a more general phenomenological one about the universality of the nostalgic subject: the very moment of consciousness is a consciousness of ‘separation from…’ and a yearning for lack of separation. But this kind of separation rests on a very modern imaginary of the division between nature and culture. Indeed, it does not take too much effort of the imagination to see that what is staged here is an opposition between a state of nature (no separation and plenitude) and a state of culture (separation and alienation) with the subject of culture continuously yearning/waiting for a return to a state of ‘being one with nature’. After all, one of the most fundamental manifestations of this imaginary past plenitude/present lack/future as past-to-come remains the structure of monotheist religion as it is present in the bible, where it takes the form Garden of Eden/the fall as the present of the waiting subject/heaven as the yearned for past-to-come.

The question of cultural specificity/universality of the structure of nostalgic waiting ties into the sociological argument presented above: to what extent have we internalised this macro nostalgic structure of waiting and hoping? And to what extent does it play a role in shaping all the micro modes of hoping we engage in. As I write, I am passively and actively waiting for this afterword to finish. Am I also unconsciously imagining in my very waiting and yearning for an end, a state of plenitude, a return to a state of fusion with the mother, a return home and a being one with nature all in one? Indeed, can one yearn/wait non-nostalgically? Perhaps this is an important political question we are facing today.

If nostalgic waiting is structured among other things with a hopeful fantasy of being one with nature ‘once again’. Is not this kind of waiting and hopefulness beginning to crumble in our Anthropocenic age where we have to confront the impossibility of this fantasy of one-ness ever coming to be fantasised again? And if this kind of macro structure of waiting has a determining effect on other micro forms of waiting, expecting, yearning and seeking, perhaps we are in the midst of one of the most radical transformations of the way we experience our position ‘between past and future’.

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 Déborah 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.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On Racial Injury: Fighting the dilution of anti-racist legislation is more important than anti-racist legislation

Last year, following the terrorist attack in Nice, I met a European friend and colleague at a conference in Milan. I asked him how his Palestinian boyfriend was, a lovely man I have grown to care about. My colleague visibly upset informed me that his boyfriend has had a series of mishaps: a few weeks ago he was racially attacked by skinheads and was hurt seriously enough to need hospitalisation. While in hospital, he was watching the news on TV when he saw the Nice terrorist drive his truck through the crowd. He was so affected that he had a violent seizure.
Still feeling fragile and not fully together because of his racial bashing, the Nice event, beside its immediate awfulness, must have signified to him the prospects of more anti-Muslim bashings. This had a shattering effect on his psyche. This gives us an important window into something we should never lose sight of when discussing racial verbal or physical attacks. Racism is a centrifugal, shattering force.
We humans are always struggling to ‘pull ourselves together’. Our capacity to do so varies from individual to individual and some of us sometimes simply falter and we become ‘all over the place’ as it were. What is clear is that we are all traversed by both centrifugal and centripetal forces and we are continuously struggling to pull ourselves together. It is clearly an endless struggle. But just as clearly it is not just a matter of individual will. This is where racism comes into the equation. The structures of power and exploitation in our societies, our social position within them, and our social history, all play an important role in shaping both the nature of the centrifugal shattering forces that we have to deal with and the nature of the centripetal resources, psychological but also social, cultural and even economic, we have at our disposal to pull ourselves together as much as possible. Racism is one of the mechanisms for the distribution of these centripetal and centrifugal forces - there are other mechanisms, like class for example. It makes both the kind of injuries we have and the capacity to deal with them not only a matter of individual will but also a question of inheritance.
Let me offer another anecdotal moment that can help understand this question of inheritance of shattering forces. A Muslim man from Auburn in Sydney’s west related to me this story about himself. He told me how for a long time he could not understand why he would get very uptight and ‘all cramped up’ every time he crosses a white person when walking on the footpath. That was a lot of cramping up, and he could not fully understand why it happened to him. One day, however, he was walking up the street with his wife when two things happened. A white man passed him and he, sure enough, cramped up but at the same time his wife who was talking to him put her hand on his shoulder. Suddenly the mystery of the origin of his cramping up became clear: when he was a kid his mother used to walk along the footpath beside him with her hand on his shoulder and her hand used to cramp up on his shoulder every time she passed a white man. His cramping up was the bodily transmitted inheritance of his mother’s racial injuries (which after knowing her I found out were quite substantial). Racial wounds are more often than not historically inherited wounds. This is why it is wrong, indeed racist, to assume that we are all offended in the same way and with the same intensity, that we understand what the effect of an insult is by measuring this effect according to how it insults us: my white friend might be insulted if I called him an ape. But it is nothing short of racist to assume that my black friend will be insulted in the same way by the same insult. Being called an ape for a black person opens a wound that incorporates in it a historically accumulated inheritance of wounds made still alive by the very structures of society. The same insult has a far greater shattering effect on the psyche. Psychological fragility, sensitivity to taunts and insults, capacities to be humiliated are not equally distributed in our society and they are not just an individual matter. This brings us to the other distribution of centripetal forces that can actually help us ‘pull ourselves together’ mentioned above.
To say that racism is a shattering force does not mean that every time someone receives a racist insult they are shattered. To stay with the example above, being called an ape works on a historical wound and has a shattering effect but it does not mean that the person on hearing the racial insult actually shatters. It simply means that this person has to exert a far greater effort to ‘pull himself or herself together’ than a white person needs to or can ever experience. Likewise, an indigenous person who ends up with a good enough non-remarkable but satisfying job, is not someone who has not been subjected to shattering forces. She has. That is what makes her achievement quite remarkable. It is important to realise that any ‘normality’ achieved by racialized people is a form of heroism that is accomplished against a field of forces that is continuously pitted against them. But it is equally important to also note that the cost of this normality is far more enormous than non-racialised people can understand. To ‘pull yourself together’ reasonably successfully when you are subjected to a greater number, or more intense, shattering forces is an arduous task that requires a far greater expenditure of psychic energy and ends up being wearing. ‘Normal’ racialized people end up way more exhausted and even drained by the end of the day than other ‘normal’ people. This is a form of racial injury in itself. Still, it remains important to remember that society is not divided between people who are shattered, all over the place and who can’t pull themselves together and people who do. What is crucial is the difference in the degree of effort needed to keep yourself together given the inequality in the shattering forces you are subjected to. This depends on those centripetal forces that society makes available to us like anti-racist legislation. But these also vary individually and socially. It matters if we have grown in a loving family but it also matters what class background and how much educational capital we have. Differences in gender and sexuality are also clearly important.
Given all of the above, the sight of white parliamentarians debating and assuming themselves to know all about what is and what is not offensive, and how important the impact of an offense is, is in itself offensive. Racism often works by highlighting a person’s difference when it is irrelevant and when they ought to be treated just like any other person. But it also works by treating racialized subjects like just any other person when their difference clearly matters. This is at the heart of the perversity of racism: it makes people visible when they want to be and need to be invisible, and it makes them invisible precisely at the point where they need to be visible and when their experience matters. It is in such a context that making invisible by not taking seriously the specific intensity of the racial experience of what ‘an offense, an insult or a humiliation’ is, is nothing short of outright racism. Indeed, it is clear that those who are trying to modify 18 C's anti-racism today care more about what they purport to be a white experience than they care about non-white experience. It is telling that when 18C was conceived arguments for and against it were made using examples of what racialized people experience. The arguments were about whether or not it can help curb the negative effect of such an experience.  Today, those who are trying to modify 18 C are totally consumed by what they claim White people experience, in the form of ‘look what 18 C did to poor old Bill Leak’.
White racism today has a nostalgic slave imaginary. That is, like all nostalgia it yearns for older times and like all nostalgia it imagines these older times as far less contradictory and way more perfect than they ever were. In this nostalgic slave imaginary, white racists ruled supreme, they controlled everything about the racialized, and the racialized knew their place, did what they were told and were thankful and grateful for little white mercies.
Because racialized people today are far from this ideal, White racism has become an increasingly anxious racism, a racism that is always facing the fear of its failure to achieve anything like its nostalgic fantasy. This anxiety is behind the ultra-right movements of ‘white restoration’ we are seeing around the world just as much as it behind the less dramatic but still important White attempts at watering anti-racist legislations anywhere it is possible.
So, for those Australians who continue to be racialized today, and/or who still bear the trace of their racialized mother squeezing their shoulder, the politics of white restoration that is at the heart of the attempt to dilute 18C is clear. In doing so this government is acting like a White supremacist ‘prince’ who thinks of anti-racist legislation as a kind donation they are making to racialized people. Someone in the prince’s entrourage has convinced them that this donation was ‘too much’ so they are proceeding to reduce it. Anyone who thinks that this is not part of the politics of ‘White Restoration’ that we have been going through since Howard is badly mistaken.

Needless to say, there are many white Australians opposed to this politics of restoration. Some are in parliament. Some are even in the Liberal party. Still, the continuity between the unsophisticated ravings of One Nation and Turnbull’s cosmopolitan grin and everything that falls in between cannot be ignored.