(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Ghassan Hage as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Ghassan is the Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne. He is author of numerous books include White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (Heibonsha Publishers, 2003), Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society (Pluto Press, 2006), Waiting (Melbourne University Press, 2009), and with Robyn Eckersley, Responsibility (Melbourne University Press, 2012). His most recent book is Writings in Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Racism (Australian Society of Authors, 2014) and forthcoming in February 2015 is Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination (Melbourne University Press).
To the people of the bus.
In my recent work on racism I have differentiated between the ‘racism of exploitation’ (e.g. towards slaves and migrant workers) and the ‘racism of exterminability’ (e.g. anti-Semitism). I argue that the latter is prevalent in the racist modes of classification of Muslims in/by the non-Muslim West.
Inspired by certain dimensions of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s multi-realism, and the teaching of a seminar around Mauss’ The Gift, I have tried to show that the racist experience of the other as exterminable involves the projection of complex layers of affective and existential angst that takes us beyond the dominant domesticating mode of existence in which we live, and where instrumental classification thrives. It invites us to perceive the experience as pertaining to a multiplicity of other realities or human modes of existence. The first is the reciprocal mode of existence classically explored in the work of Marcel Mauss on the gift. I read The Gift as pointing to a whole order of existence where people, animals, plants and objects stand as gifts towards each other. The second is what I will call, after Marshall Sahlins, the mutualist mode of existence. It highlights an order of existence where others are ‘in us’ rather than just outside of us. Central here is Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s work on ‘participation’: a mode of living and thinking where the life-force of the humans and the non-humans that surround us are felt each to be contributing to the life-force of the other.
Despite some facile claims to the contrary, neither Marcel Mauss nor Lévy-Bruhl claimed something as simplistic as ‘look at us we are modern, instrumentalist and rational, and look at those others who are so different from us living in a world of gift exchange, or a world of participation’. Both emphasised that the logic of the gift and the logic of participation were more pronounced in those societies than they were in our own, but they were not as foreign to us as we might first think. They continue to be present along with, sometimes in the shadows of, the dominant domesticating mode of existence. They exist as minor realities. Thus, everything in our environment that we relate to is always simultaneously for us (domestication), with us (gift exchange) and in us (mutuality) even if we are less conscious of our enmeshment in the last two of these forms of relationality. I might decide to cut a tree on my property because I need its wood or simply because it is in the way. In so doing I am letting instrumental exploitative reason prevail. But does that mean that this instrumentalist relation of domestication is the only relation I have with the tree? What Lévy-Bruhl and Mauss encourage us to think is that even when a relation of domestication has prevailed, other forms of relationality between us and the tree are still at work. I might still feel that the tree and I were in a relation of ‘gift-ness’ towards each other. I wake up in the morning and thank it for being there and I might even feel that the tree itself is happy to see me there too. I might even experience a mild relation of mutuality with the tree, feel that not only is it a gift but that it is actually enhancing my existence: something about the way it is growing and deploying itself in the world actually pumps life into me.
In my work, I have shown how important it is to see that the racism of exterminability is itself enmeshed in these three modes of existence. To classify someone as exterminable is not only to see them instrumentally as harmful and useless. It is also to want to have ‘nothing to do with them’, thus negating their ‘gift-ness’. It also involves a ‘negative participatory’ experience: rather than seeing in the other a life-enhancing force, the racist sees in them something that sucks their life away.
Since its articulation to this multiplicity of worlds is what makes racist exterminability what it is, anti-racism itself needs to work at this multi-realist level. Up till now anti-racism has been far too centred on combatting racism at the level of domestication by deploying rational arguments and statistical knowledge that try to show the empirical falseness of the racists’ assumptions. This is so despite a long history that shows how immune racists are to rational and empirical argumentation. Consequently, I argue that anti-racism, without vacating this empirical/rational ground, should also move to think of itself as affective, and even as magical, in ways that speak to the racist sentiments and affects generated in the realm of reciprocity and mutuality.
It is here that we come to the question of anti-racist writing. For what is true about anti-racist practices in general is also true of anti-racist writing. Writing is also enmeshed in a multiplicity of worlds with their corresponding forms of otherness. One can write ‘about’ the racialised, treating them as passive subjects of analysis. There is no doubt that such a form of anti-racist writing can be over-analytical, treating racism, racists and the racialised as objects of what amounts to analytical domestication. This is when all writing aims to do is to ‘capture’ reality, a concept with an impeccable domesticating pedigree. But this is not all that anti-racist writing does or can do. One’s writing can take the form of a gift to the racialised. There is a long tradition of sociological and anthropological writing reflecting on how to write ‘with’ rather than just ‘about’ one’s informants. This is particularly true of ethnographies of indigenous people, where anthropologists have an established history of being sensitive to questions of reciprocity. Anti-racist writers can learn a lot from these ethnographies. Finally, a piece of anti-racist writing can be in itself a form of life that participates in enhancing the being of the racialised aiming to speak to them in the sense of speaking into them and participating in their being. Sometimes this can be a question of style: it is hardly a revelation for anti-racist activists that one can write something like ‘1 in 3 African Americans will go to prison’ as either a mere ‘depressive’ confirmation of marginalisation or as an invigorating call to arms stressing the racialised’s agency and capacity for resistance. I think that the poetic/phenomenological tradition, such as what one finds in the work of Michael Jackson, can offer an inspiration for a more consciously mutualist writing in this domain.
The question then becomes: what does it mean to become more conscious of anti-racist writing as enmeshed in this plurality of modes of existence? I would like to think that, at the very least, such consciousness would widen the writer’s anti-racist strategic capacities and render anti-racist thought more efficient at combatting racism. This opening of the strategic horizon is crucial as anti-racist political forces face the lethal neo-liberal forms of exclusion meted out on the racialised today. For example, the ease with which asylum seekers are radically expelled and disallowed to set a footing in society appears at one level as a form of instrumental/rational/bureaucratic decision making, even if judged as extremely harsh. Yet such extremism is impossible without a culture of disposability and extrerminability in which this exclusion is grounded, and that is far from being entirely instrumental/rational/bureaucratic. It goes without saying that from a disciplinary perspective it is this culture that is by definition the appropriate domain of anthropological investigation and writing. It so happens that, politically and ethically, it is also the most important to address, understand and struggle to transform.