Monday, July 27, 2009

Variations on Waste

Achille Mbembe and Eric Worby

Achille Mbembe has argued that there is a distinct social category of waste people. He cites successive social managements of supernumerary people to support his claim that this category is ubiquitous: the great confinement and siftings in the period of primitive accumulation, the Napoleonic conscription of the petite bourgeoisie to staff the state, the redefining of the lumpenproletariat in 1848 and later with fascism, the use of criminalization, immiseration and regal incentives to eject people into colonies and the exemplary modern waste populations of refugeeism and displacement in Palestine, Africa and eastern Europe serving as bartering chips of international policy and fund positioning.

In counterpoint to Mbembe’s category is the military logic of eliminating class enemies, construable at certain times as supernumerary populations - in the Terror, in 1917 and 1930, in the European and Japanese genocides after 1939 and the innumerable colonial exterminations. These are modalities of civil war in the sense of a state attacking those in its jurisdiction and are as transient, exceptional and cyclical as the violence that this requires.

Mbembe’s waste people are not the object of a direct or indirect genocide, are not peripatetic groups unanchored in a jurisdiction or entirely void of rights, they are not synonymous with the extremes of immiserisation nor with the famed reserve army of labour. They are not the leftovers of a social, economic and developmental recuperation of surplus populations - the residual hard core anomalies in a disciplinary society. What is sinister about Mbembe’s category is that it maps so inexactly onto the three great systems that create and recover surpluses - surplus value extraction, territorial expansion and social defense - are only the backdrops to the tragedies and farces around superfluous people.

Mbembe himself registers this difficult mapping in his searches, his erudite variations -his frottage - across the places where he thinks new waste populations are. It is in homage to his search , that so captured his audience and vanished in their questions, that a minor variation on the theme of Mbembian surplus is offered here.

Waste, what is or is laid fallow, is not an intuitively explicit concept or experience. Its nearest analogue in experience is pollution, which, as Mary Douglas showed, is intuited as contagion and only then against a set of relationships and categories harboring logical anomaly. It would be interesting to see the extent to which waste is an historicized version of pollution and contagion and carries over its sources of the sacred and the defiled and their bodily models. This might become clear from a comparison of the juridical and philosophic registers Agamben’s thought straddles with similar mixtures of precept and concept found in Douglas’ Purity and Danger.

But this is not the time to explore the anthropological provenance of Mbembian waste. A more immediate parallel exists in the history of science. In the era of Newtonian dynamics there was no conception of waste. Wind, animal and water power had all the renewability our contemporaries see in solar energy. All that was required was the machinery exactly elaborated by Galileo and Newton to harness - sails, levers, gears, wheels, weights .Eighteenth Century technologies seamlessly reflected the universe - as Leibniz’ monadic clocks testify - and if ever motion ran down, you could reverse it or couple it to wider vectors of cosmic movement in its neighborhood.

Carnot shattered this world with his reflections on the motive power of heat. Faced with the steam engine, it was not sufficient to explain motion by the extant motions it coupled to: it had to be derived from energy, as one particular – kinetic phase of its conversions.

In a Newtonian system forces could all be harvested and accounted for, hence the drive to greater and greater precision in the levers and gears of clocks: in a steam engine the final reckoning of forces always shows a deficit, a nonrecuperable loss of energy each time it changes form. From the pressure of the boiler to the motion of the piston, energy leaked from the machine. This profligacy could not be offset by greater precision, by making the steam engine in the 18th century image of the perpetuum mobile or the frictionless plane - waste was inherent as a principle despite all conscientiousness of design and execution - and waste always took the form of heat.

Heat is the first totally exact - because entirely deducible - model of waste. Once each energy conversion was known to create irrecoverable surplus energy it was a short step to generalizing the steam engine, through Carnot’s abstractions, to the universe and finding in its daily workings the symptoms of its eventual demise. The cost of the universe is changing energy and each transaction leaves a cosmic residue to lessen the difference between energy potentials until all work is choked and the cosmos dies in its own tepid waste.

This history of ]wasted heat and the natural or historical motors that make it thinkable has been traced for decades by Michel Serres and he finds its steam-engine reservoirs, heat sources, potential differences and lossy circulations in figures as seemingly remote as Marx, Freud, Bergson, Derrida, Turner Zola and Monod.

Its would be interesting to read in Serres perspective the great passages in The Order of Things on hominisation in the dissipative motors of life, labour and language, restoring the minor axis of ‘deductive demonstrative sciences’ in the famous trihedron of the human sciences.

Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests shows early capitalist thought from Mandeville to Smith fully awake to the drastic metamorphoses Carnot would trace in the fate of energy - which political economy expressed as transubstantiating social devices efficiently able to recuperate all warring interests to the greater good: the literal motors of history.

From the Invisible Hand to Hegel’s Aufhebung an automaton formalized by the steam engine framed capitalisms ability to harness the disparate and implement ways of overcoming its own limits.

This vision of pliant circulations and efficient transductions had its critics, preeminently Marx, who emphasized the residual human losses and civic waste caused while extracting surplus value from the reservoir of labor power .Das Kapital culminates in a Carnotian scene of overheated flows circulating in a single channel, causing it to lose potential difference and void future movement - the changing organic composition of capital is reinvestment’s version of a universe swamped by inutile energy - or a piston hotter than its steam.

Mbembe crosses this bizarre current of motors and social automata when he invokes Baitaille’s Veblenian fantasy in La Parte maudite of waste becoming the momentary objective of production. Bataille confronts Hegel, the model bourgeois recuperative thinker ,with his General Economy of heat and noise in place of value - celebrated as l’informe - irrecoverable to circulation, experience and thought.

Baitaille’s economy of potlatch is a Smithian nightmare: inverting the poles of heat and work in the motor of political economy while leaving the rest of its apparatus intact. It is completely at home in the energetics matrix of the theory and shows that even for such an eclectic thinker, political economy remains the best means to develop his concepts of waste, superfluity and excess because it is the automaton least disguised by hominisation.

Foucault would famously use the Bataillian measure of absence of works in contrast to the recuperative frame of production to define madness in the modern era. Foucault wrote of madness becoming superfluous, stripped of its roles and imagery and sifted by confinement from the sick, the indigent, the criminal and the morally dissolute until it became a pure, mute surplus.

Yet from this vanishing point it was at once turned into a powerful support to elaborate a new kind of reason, to medicalise deviance and with Freud, to implant desire in people as a liability. Simulated by drugs it gave critical power to art and counterculture and replaced death as the touchstone of authenticity .When Deleuze and Guattari returned the mad stroller to the heart of capitalism they broke perhaps the most productive silence in history.

It is conceivable, thanks to Foucault, that waste populations and supernumerary individuals are maintained to make elbow room for new institutions and contracts, for social innovations possible only in reaction to breaks in sense and utility. The managed void replaces eternal vigilance as the price of liberty.

This vision of ingeniously applying waste and loss pervades Foucault and more so Deleuze and Guattari, who pry worlds apart into major and minor powers with their own tempos and spaces, intensive and extensive qualities in order to make work and waste, information and noise circulate more intimately.

Perhaps a showdown is looming over the Deleuzian machine - between de Landa- committed to its thermodynamic metaphysics and Negri and Hardt who draw on its credit of social vitalism. The continuum of schizophrenic noise and capitalist waste might split into a new automaton for mapping minor histories and a non- philosophy for those seeking the permanent informality of flight.

The difficult reduction of political categories to their implicit models and metaphysics accepted and ingenuously balanced by Deleuze is also the subtext for scientists when they write and make expositions for more than just one another.Vaulting out of culture by means of one of its products, their explications of evolution, machine cognition, neurobiology, cosmology and exotic physics update the atlas of common thermodynamic reason, lending their work its strange and unexpected political effect - neither natural nor social nor physical nor informational - making Dawkins, Dennett and Haraway the Hegels, Humes and Mary Shelleys of the present…

Mbembe uses the suspended social machines and the hiatus in their imagery to suggest a condition of social waste exceeding economic, educational and fiscal recuperation. Such waste is invisible to the eighteenth century model of the contract, to the institution of the market (this much Marx made clear) and is considered a mere performative error by the State in its role as administrator of utility and welfare. Waste people exist in an intimate beyond - outside recontractualisation and reinstitutionalisation to agents, citizens and populations and below resubjectivisation to pupils, workers, or offenders.

The split between the reach of capital and the nation state central to Negri and Hardt’s arguments has made many of the waste processes of capitalism into everybody and nobodies problem: displacing state and economy into units with discontinuous boundaries, different times and incommensurate worlds in between.

Perhaps the waste people are only the facts of power and exploitation no longer automatically overlaid by the inertia of the nation or the ameliorative services of education, training, credit and health so vital to capitalism? Waste is the point where capitalism can find no social organization commensurate with itself: for two hundred years thermodynamics has made this point both inevitable and unthinkable,

Achille Mbembe has leapt into the hiatus-society of waste which is a concept’s width away from us all. Like the priest in L ‘Age d’Or he has a vast social, epistemological and today metaphysical load harnessed to his back. His questions light the thin membrane separating capitalist rationality from itself - the blur it can somehow never focus: the dynamics of waste that unites its furthest reach with its imaginable core. There is every indication that this engaged, passionate, polymathic wanderer is leaping over capitalism’s shadow.

Jean Pierre La Porte

Africa Bauhaus Workshop

Friday, July 17, 2009

The political possibility of exceeding a politics of representation.

Ariella Azoulay

In the impossibility (or possibility) of this time I will not try to respond to the lecture “The Civil Contract of Photography” by Ariella Azoulay. Rather than present an argument, I prefer only to post some ideas to put into question the relationship between the politics of representation and the possibility of the political.

A distinction should be made between the political possibility of the image and the politics of representation in which images are inscribed. Photography is not (only) an action or an encounter but a production of images; images that are inscribed in a specific regime of knowledge that establishes some distributions on the sensible in which some things can be seen, heard and thought while others are just non-visible, non-hearable, non-thinkable even if there is an image that stands as the promise of “presentation”.

A photo is not the presentation of an event but the possibility of visibility. Visibility is not the grade of clarity in which we can see an object, but the logic that permit something to be open; visibility is not the act of the subject that sees, nor the empirical data of the visual sense, but the interaction between actions and reaction with the aesthetical (that we can understand as Rancière suggest, “as a system of a priori forms determining what present itself to sense experience.”[1]).

Photography might not be thought as a representation of anything as its own temporal and spatial structure is based in the spectrality of the dislocated manifestation of the un-present (thinking spectrality as the dialectical force, that resists the configuration of the image as a representation of something, that allows us to be related to an event not in the distance of its correspondence –symbol- with time and history but in the in the continuality of its manifestation) but we cannot deny that photography is inscribed in a system that creates and allows the production of meanings trough a given system of knowledge, a regimen that in modern western culture is based in the establishment of politics of representation as an epistemological device for the enforcement of the configuration of the sensible.

Images are part of the regime of knowledge and are one of the mechanisms of power (institutions, including the State) to create representations (as fixed meanings based in the structure of the symbol – as a correspondence between the object and the truth) in which to fix identities and meanings in order to legitimize some regimes of knowledge and orders of things.

In this scenario maybe what we have to think is how images can exceed this politics of representation, and how their emergence can be a political irruption that allows the possibility of new constellations of meanings to unsettle the dominant regime of knowledge.

How can an image create new knowledge if the image is inscribed in the same politics of representations, based on identities, based in the dominant system of power (state) based on the dichotomy of friend-enemy (in-law/out-law, citizen/non-citizen)?

In this sense what seems necessary is to suspend the functionality of the politics of representation and to search for a moment of manifestation in which the image can operate not as a correspondence with a fixed identity but as a moment of de-identification in which a new constellation of meanings can emerge.

Maybe we can think images not as symbols but as fragments; the image as an allegory that introduces the possibility of history, of the past not as gone but as a moment that keeps coming back, of time not as a fulfilled structure but a collapsed one in which modernity (as progress) can no longer operate.

Perhaps the poetical (as poiesis or moment of emergence and creation) potential of the image might allow us to search mechanisms, strategies and devices to re-read images, to unsettle the politics of representation and open up the possibility of the political. It is important to keep looking for ways to open the invisible, the hidden and the concealed by some given regime of visibility in order to create a fissure.

These are just some problems in which I am engaged, and knowing that there are no final solutions but only stutters, I want to share with you my own way to deal with the possibility of the political in some art practices, as I believe that arts works in between territories, what creates a space and time in which we can re elaborate the relationship between the aesthetical and the political.

Instead of the global south I will invoke the Red Specter as a possibility for what is to come, and I hope he bring us back together…

¡Nos vemos en el 2010!

Helena Châvez MacGregor

Click here for my article “Enter the ghost, exit the ghost, re-enter the ghost: The Red Specter”


[1] Ibid., p. 13.

Heynes on Geschiere

Gamadoela's restaurant

Thursday morning the JWTC welcomed Peter Gescheire, whose earlier work on The Modernity of Witchcraft, is familiar to many of those gathered for the workshop. More recently, Gescheire has turned his attention to issues of migration and “belonging.” His presentation, which drew on his recent book, Perils of Belonging, which is focused on the ethnographic problems of community membership and autochthony. The neoliberal world, he argues, has seen an increased number of claims to cultural and ethnic membership, often cast in the language of autochthony. Drawing on Anna Tsing’s transnational ethnography of global “frictions,” Geschiere argued for an increased focus on localized experiences of globalization, rather than other analytic approaches that might take this phenomenon for granted. Globalization is not a uniform process, and therefore must be actively engaged at the various points in which it is experienced in order to understand it properly. Geschiere was particularly critical of what he sees as an overemphasis on introspection in much current ethnography due to the reflexive turn in Anthropology, which he linked to the influence of Cultural Studies on the discipline, especially in the United States. This, he said, negates the context in which ethnography is carried out and therefore turns the anthropological project from one of dialogue into one of ventriloquism.

While I very much appreciated Geschiere’s discussion of autochthony, and I found his criticisms engaging, I would like to qualify them a bit at one point. Specifically, with regard to the importance of particularly in the study of globalization, I heartily agree that anthropologists and other scholars cannot afford to treat globalization as a uniform process. James Ferguson, in his book, Global Shadows, has noted that one can hardly speak of transnational “flows” – whether of information, wealth, or culture. Rather, it is more accurate to describe the dissemination of such things as a series of “hops,” which systematically skip certain parts of the globe while simultaneously connecting others. However, while we will all certainly do well to avoid treating globalization as a monolithic process, it is equally important, at least as far as anthropology is concerned, to hold on to the idea of globalization as a framework for comparative study. Anthropology, while clearly concerned with the kinds of particular description and analysis to which ethnography is best suited, is also importantly a comparative discipline. Axes of commonality, whether human reproduction, economic exchange, or experiences of the supernatural, are the necessary flashpoints along with the study of human experience develops – hence the rich ethnographic literature on kinship, reciprocity, and religion. I would therefore temper Geschiere’s critique by sounding an equal and opposite warning: just as anthropologists gain nothing from treating things like globalization as uniform social phenomena, they will be equally hindered in their efforts by a retreat from comparative arguments in favor of the too-particular.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rallying Cries and the (Mis)use of Terms

Shalini Randeria

Shalini Randeria, in her talk on “Juridification in the Shadow of the World Bank,” unsettles the boundaries between theory and practice, academia and activism. Often, as academics, we become—contrary to the best of our efforts—overly reliant on monolithic terms and concepts. Neoliberalism, for example, becomes in many academic circles, an unexamined entity synonymous with exploitation: a hegemonic “technology of governance” (to use Aihwa Ong’s words) that, by opening markets and instituting a drive for privatization, unevenly benefits the West in lieu of the rest. Similarly, the World Bank, often rightly indicted for using the language of human rights to push structural adjustment programs, emerges as a singular entity: an oppressive regime unquestionably rejected by anti-privatization academics and activists alike. Yet, as our academic training continually reminds us, nothing is this simple. John Comaroff, speaking on the “Politics of Law” this past Thursday, emphasized that neoliberalism as a noun differs greatly from that which is labeled with the adjective “neoliberal.” As both scholars and activists—and this is a statement that has become a bit of an academic cliché—we must be meticulous in how we use our terms. On many occasions I have been guilty of homogenizing complex concepts under the sign of a singularity. It is much easier to rely on rallying cries, yet we must seriously commit to rigor if social activism and academics are to work together.

This brings me back to Prof. Randeria’s presentation, as her multifaceted approach to discussing the World Bank highlights the importance of ethnographic and theoretical rigor. The World Bank, in her formulation, cannot simply be discounted as an apparatus for ensuring the hegemony of US free market policies. In many cases, the bank can be used against itself to put pressure on individual states. As Shalini emphasizes, globalization has brought about a sort of global government made up of four major entities: NGOs, states, international organizations, and transnational corporations. By playing these governing bodies against each other, activists and social movements can enact changes that accord with their own agendas. Through a productive friction (a term championed by Peter Geschiere in his talk on Friday), organizations such as the World Bank can be used as leverage against the state and vice versa; activists can use bank policies to name and shame their own governments, thereby forcing a change in the status quo. Instead of outright condemnation of the World Bank, we must identify the tools that the organization and other such political bodies provide for enacting a progressive social and economic agenda. Similarly, other entities—NGOs, governments, etc—can be used to destabilize certain hegemonic policies of the bank. Of course, this will not bring about any sort of balance; that would be utterly utopian and unproductive. Yet openings exist where progressive change can occur.

Perhaps as one without knowledge of the interstices of the World Bank, I am contradicting my own call for rigor in this post. Yet, despite my inability to follow my own ideals at this point in time, I can still attest to their importance. This draws me back to the bridge (or gulf) between academics and activism. Through a commitment to careful ethnography and research, an endeavour championed by Prof. Randeria, academics can assist in developing a new pragmatic politics that can be mobilized by activists and academics alike.

Nicholas Matlin

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Temporality of the Political

Adi Ophir

Perhaps the task of defining something like "the political" is complicated by the fact that such an effort is itself entirely political. In today's seminar at the JWTC, Tel Aviv University-based philosopher Adi Ophir led us into a conversation which attempted just this. While various ontological and philosophical debates emerged in the discussion, I would like to draw out the theme of temporality, something which I think is central to understanding the political as Ophir suggests we define the concept.

Ophir proposes "the political" as a predicate, and thus a declaration. The political comes into being as humans gather publicly to articulate their dissatisfaction with the powers-that-be. The work of the political is the problematization of power, and here Ophir follows Foucault's historico-philosophical understanding of power. For Ophir, power is a structure of repetition which is imagined as external - and thus naturalized - and experienced as asymmetrical and hierarchical - and thus not equally accessible or transparent. The political, then, emerges in the moment in which power is recognized, confronted, and denaturalized. Importantly, political acts require an audience. The public as witness and participant in the political is a direct challenge to the hegemonic understanding of electoral and legislative politics as the singular site of the political.

An event, as Foucault defines it, is a reversal of power-relations, a particular shift in temporality in which the regularity of structures and systems is actively contested. The political is a moment of sovereignty which thrives in what Ophir refers to as the "excess" of power, that which power does not subsume in its repetitive technologies. As this excess is necessary to power's formation, so the political too exists in a complementary relationship to power, engaging the space outside it while remaining within it.

What, then, is the temporality of the political? As Ophir says, the political is an "always-already there"; in other words, the political lies in waiting, and it is called into being through words and actions. This always-alreadyness, however, is in tension with a not-yetness that restricts and suppresses the political from within its own imagination.

Perhaps it helps to think of the political as the production of alterity – that which is unrecognizably Other, yet demands to be recognized in its being-ness – through a temporality of untimeliness. This is to say that the relationship between the political and power is also a particular conception of the subject with respect to time and history, and thus truth. Untimeliness is characterized by Nietzsche as the rejection of the separation of the modern subject into “inner truths” and “outer truths,” which correlates here to Ophir’s notion of the problematization of power. As much of our debates during this session of the JWTC have revolved around Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri ’s notion of the common, it fits to inquire, what is the temporality of the common? We talk about an imaginary of the future, in which post-apartheid South Africa and occupied Palestine can drop the adjectives preceding their proper names, but what are the structural regularities of power that place such an imaginary in the future – as opposed to the day-to-day, the here-and-now? In other words, the relationship between untimeliness and the political is one which ties discourse to actions, which calls upon those who problematize power to “[act] counter to our time and thereby [act] on our time.”

It might be one of the tasks of the political, then, to problematize time itself by bringing the future into the present, that is, by acting in an untimely manner, without deference to history and its narratives, and instead grasping onto the emergent, that which is, perhaps, unrecognizable as the political. I would like to raise the question, then, of how the political, through temporal prolongation, can become a mechanism of power. For example, resistance movements themselves can become de-politicized as they are made regular, as they repress alterity from within. Temporality, as untimeliness, is therefore imminent to the political.

Rachel Signer in conversation with Bernard Dubbeld

For Rachel Signer on Michael Hardt click here:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Openings – encounters with Acts of State. Photographs by Juan Orrantia, Thursday 9 July 2009

John Comaroff’s ‘Politics of Law’

Achille Mbembe and John Comaroff

John Comaroff’s presentation on “Politics of Law” largely centered on the growing hegemony of the law and the rising culture of legality as the privileged domain of 21st century politics. In what follows, I will attempt to touch on a few key points that emerged in Comaroff’s robust presentation.

Rather than relying on the symbology of the process of sacralization we find in theorists that have returned to the work of the likes of Kantorowicz to argue that the force of law relies on the sacred invocation of sovereignty in its complex and always delimiting forms, Comaroff posited a “fetishization” of the law which is built into and results from the administrative invocation of the language and praxis of legal constitutionalism. The law as fetish is the abstract made real, represented as if imbued with an agency of its own, functioning through legal and legalistic discourse that hides power relations through a kind of (fiction of) commensurability. Lawfulness, Comaroff argued, is increasingly read as synonymous with justice, placing under erasure the violence of the law—its exclusions and the commissioning and decommissioning of forms of life.

By drawing upon what Bruce Ackerman has coined the “faith in constitutionalism,” Comaroff highlighted how the terrain of politics today makes of the juridical the privileged domain of political contestation. His examples included the Indian constitution which gives the Constitutional Court jurisdiction over executive decisions as well as the functioning of U.S. constitutionalism which makes of the court the arbiter of the validity of congressional and executive legislation. Politics, Comaroff seemed to argue, functions increasingly in the interstices of or through the juridical or perhaps, if we consider his example of “legalized illegalities”[1], in spite of it. The point is, Comaroff argued, the construction and reliance on the legal subject as a kind of privileged model of citizenship and the faith in the law’s operational justice have become fundamental to the functioning of the political, allowing for the contestation of political power (in the case of governments sued in their own constitutional courts) while producing and delimiting the landscape of possibilities. He argued for the way in which the emphasis on the juridical as a privileged site of contestation works with a kind of “evangelizing” of a particular kind of legal subjecthood premised on a rhetoric of the right to desire made through claims of injury.

These claims of injury, Comaroff argued, are key to what he has coined “neoliberal constitutional design.” The neoliberal here seems to function at the level of legislative and constitutional interpretation which makes of personhood an atomized legal subject functioning in a supposedly commensurate space of judicial contestation. Pointing to how bureaucratic and parliamentary authority are increasingly subjected to constitutional authority, he astutely pointed to the intentional fallacy inherent in readings of constitutionalism as a liberal institution divorced of the function of interpretation through which it is constantly made and remade. It remains unclear to me, however, what labor this notion of “neoliberal constitutional design” actually performs. That is, does not the reliance on this concept further reify a kind of faith in constitutionalism—as if it functions independently of the regimes of interpretation marked by the functioning of ordinary judicial processes?

Comaroff noted that even though many constitutions today recognize claims of difference, there is a tendency of the “neoliberal constitution” to limit the process of litigation to claims of injury as posited by atomized units—individuals and groups of individuals (class action), thus making it difficult to obtain economic rights for ethnic groups more generally. Yet, in referring to the case of the San, he also pointed to how group identity can be normativized and cemented through “identitarian class action” and constitutional interpretation—that is, even the acknowledgement of group rights functions through a strict logic of singularity, a point which seems to relate to why so very few juridical claims can be made on grounds of human rights.

Another series of discussions that came up in Comaroff’s lecture were the ways in which the juridical order is an increasingly important site of religious contestation (specifically, I believe, he said in the “Muslim world”) and that religion is increasingly being posited in debates about the law. Reading the call for Sharia-based regimes of power as a call for the “rule of law” Comaroff argued that these calls fall within a “modernist point of view.” He also cited as an example cases operating around the attempt to institutionalize qualities/properties as rightful predicates of Islam. In short, he argued that the politics of faith is increasingly operating around this juridification of the political.

A question that can be asked of his delineation is to what extent it is that his own reduction of a myriad of different phenomena to the “sacralization of the law” actually obtains. A few of the divisional constructs that we can consider beyond this characterization of “sacralization of the law” include the sacralization of constitutionalism, juridification of the everyday (as suggested by seminar participant Brian Goldstone), an instrumental form of resistance, the neo-liberalization of legal interpretation, and the juridification of theology (obviously this is not an exhaustive list). Comaroff readily drew upon examples ranging from India, the United States, England, South Africa to “the Muslim world,” to name a few, leaving some in the audience to wonder to what extent his conclusions about the sacralization of the law depended on his own totalizing gestures, both of reducing a set of different kinds of examples to a singular framework of “sacralization” of the law and of generalizing a condition based on a set of markedly different examples from different sites and contexts. Though the generalizations of the presentation were undoubtedly a function of the attempt to provoke the engagement of an audience of scholars working on markedly different sites, disciplines, and topics, the following question still remains open: can these different examples drawn upon can be rightfully subsumed under either the appellation of ‘sacralization’ or that of ‘the law.’

Sharareh Frouzesh Bennett

[1] According to Comaroff, “legalized illegalities” refers to legislation forwarded for its temporary effects with the knowledge that it will eventually be overturned in court.

Belonging in the neoliberal age: Following Peter Geschiere’s lecture at the JWTC

Geschiere on THE question

In times when I have the privilege of listening to scholars sharing their thoughts and ideas on the world we live in today, I cannot help but wonder about THE question that lies beneath their reflections, analysis, conclusions, interpretations. That question that drives them to think hours into the night and keep digging for answers in the places that they have chosen – or should I say, chose them – to spend most of their intellectual life. How does one end up working on prisons, born-again Christians, the law or the WTO? Where do notions like “ethics of mutuality” come from as analytical tools to counter necropolitics? And as I listened to Peter Geschiere speak eloquently about issues of belonging in a neoliberal age that has produced as much globalization as it has produced heterogeneous practices of locality, I could not help but wonder about the question that drives him to warn us of the terrible repercussions the politics of belonging have had and continue to have in Cameroon and the Netherlands.

He presents quite an alarming portrait of the spread of an extremely reductionist and naturalized form of identity politics, one that brings forth a new form of extreme territoriality, where one’s identity is re-inscribed literally in the soil that gave birth to him/her. Geschiere draws on compelling examples of kin being suddenly turned into strangers, political parties exploiting ethnic tensions and identity politics in order to gain votes in rural villages, relatives who have become urbanized being accused of witchcraft as a form of leveling by their kin and other residents of their villages of origin, and of conflicts erupting over where those who are accused of being allogènes, and not autochtones should or should not be buried.

His arguments relate to a body of literature in the human and social sciences that has been increasingly gaining ground, one that is focused on deconstructing and implicitly delegitimizing notions such as community, and collective manifestations of identity. The philosopher Kwame Appiah comes to mind, so does anthropologist Nigel Rapport. Both authors call for a form of individuality that can skate through the artificial boundaries of national, religious and communitarian identities. The violence human beings’ attachments to certain myths of origin and imagined sites of identity politics are cited as clear examples of the perils of belonging and community as analytical tools to interpret and understand human relations.

That is not the individualist project that Geschiere, I think, seems to defend although overtones might be detected. These notions are too self-evident, too imprecise, and too politicized to be used uncritically by anthropologists Gaschiere argues. Furthermore, they are symptoms of the neoliberization of politics. All of these are strong and convincing arguments. The devastation that fights over who belongs and who doesn’t have left in different societies is unquestionable. Yet, deconstructing belonging as a by-product of neoliberalism and highlighting its perils leaves unanswered an even more fundamental question: Constructed or not, artificial or not, these notions are invested in meaning, they are used and referred to in everyday life, so unless anthropologists are willing to go back to their old habits of telling people who they are and how they should think, we have an obligation to take seriously the meaning and value that groups and individuals invest in belonging.

As Geschiere would undoubtedly agree, autochtony is but one form among many that belonging can take. Its potency lies less, in my view, in its invocation of an organic identity derived from the soil (a specific place) than in the context and cosmology that has made that soil (or place) so central as a primary reference to identity. I am not convinced that the reference to the soil is more prone to the naturalization of identity than is religion or class or political affiliations for that matter … Whenever a criteria for inclusion or exclusion is established, it becomes potent and naturalized in order to impose its hegemony. So in the context of Cameroon, I would be very interested in understanding how “returning to the soil” (the village) has developed into a condition for belonging.

Geschiere argues that neoliberalization has very much to do with that. That is where he leaves me unconvinced. The passion that identity politics invokes can be explained only partially by an order like neoliberalism. Autochtony relates to an extremely powerful mythology of origin and the particular role that the stranger plays in those myths, legends, stories through which societies constitute themselves locally and globally, in the past, through the present and into the future. The causal relationship that Geschiere establishes between autochtony and neoliberalization fails, in my view, to capture the immensely powerful desire to belong as well as the myths of origin that produce autochtony. One eloquent example of this is the myth around which the state of Israel as a land without people for a people without land was created and through which its atrocities continue to be justified. Neoliberalism in this particular case serves only as an instrument among many to keep reproducing this myth. Neoliberlaism without this myth of origin would not have, in my view, made it possible for Zionist notions of autochtony to continue to be legitimized generation after generation regardless of history.

Identifying a notion as having a certain power and cosmology built around it inevitably invites a deconstructivist approach. Anthropologists having always had a problematic relationship with culture, and having always thought about the human from marginality’s perspective are naturally more inclined to be skeptical and react negatively to any normative notion. So the reflex is to deconstruct. The deconstructivist position is one that generally starts with a negative. The notion being deconstructed is more often than not approached from the point of view of marginality, its hegemonic character is taken for granted and thus the orientation of the analysis can only go in the direction of picking through its elements and tearing them apart. This method has been quite useful and fruitful in denaturalizing and exposing implicit discourses of power but it has been quite unsatisfying in understanding why people are attached to such notions beyond treating them as being manipulated and helpless.

So the question is, how to resolve this dilemma of trying to deconstruct a notion without destroying in the same exercise the meaning that it has or has always had for people in one form or another. One might ask, justifiably, why not destroy “autochtony” since in Israel’s case, it has lead to so much suffering and injustice? Quite simply, the answer is because notions of autochtony may also be a site of liberation. Palestinians in diaspora have survived and continue to survive because they can still imagine being part of a shared homeland. Artificial or not, idealized or not, the imagined homeland has served as a catalyst of resistance and getting out of the refugee camps.

I think one of the ways of getting around this obstacle of deconstruction is by changing the root question that drives most deconstructivist interpretations of notions related to identity and belonging. Instead of starting from the premise that autochtony is constructed and thus inevitably artificial, I would actually build on the premise that human beings are quintessentially social and can only enact their humanity by relating to others, and in that sense, the longing to be part of something, to be attached is a condition of being (be-longing to cite David Goldberg). The question then is not how artificial or hegemonic one form of being is or not, but how individuals and groups strive to find belonging in a contemporary world that is constantly calling into question canonized myths of origin.

In a sense, this is what Geschiere does, and his analysis of the repercussions of neoliberalism is part of this quest to understand how different societies define and search for belonging. But neoliberalism is only one intermediary in a series of discourses and phenomena that shape notions of autochtony. I am quite skeptical of the way it has become the be all end all of everything happening in the world today locally and globally. In a way, it’s too easy. I am not sure that neoliberalism is more inclined to bring about the autochtony-related form of belonging. It might be simply the current category that we use to speak about powerful discourses that have always existed. Social scientists tend to invent new terms to think with or against that often refer to recurrent phenomenon. The danger in that is that it gives the impression that we are facing a unique or especially perilous situation when we aren’t.

So what I am proposing is, in effect, to decentralize neoliberalism as a hegemonic discourse by going back and asking the question: how does belonging gain meaning in different contexts and among different societies. Instead of deconstructing what we perceive as artificial categories, I think we should build on localized and historicized understandings of belonging and go from there.

Yara El-Ghadban

The Common in Communism

JWTC on the commons

Michael Hardt’s The Common in Communism

Caveat: what follows is an attempted synopsis of what were very complex ideas. Apologies to their author!

Addressing what he described as the ‘sea change’ in the political landscape of the current fiscal crisis, Professor Hardt sought to work through a reconfiguration of communism drawing on Marx’s early economic and political manuscripts. In his reading of Marx, Hardt identified two concepts which he mapped onto a proposal of how to think beyond the fixities of capital and the social. In so doing, he advocated a ‘third way’ of conceiving the political anchored in a recuperation of the ‘common’ in communism.

Hardt argued that the normative meanings attributed to communism have to be reconceived in light of shifts in the composition of labour and forms of production. He contended that Marx’s notion of property in his 1844 manuscript ‘The Relationship of Private Property’, demonstrates a division between moveable and immoveable property, represented by the extraction of value in profit and rent respectively. Hardt went on to contend that, given the transformation of production, Marx’s analysis of moveable and immoveable property retains its purchase when applied to the concepts of 21st century material and immaterial production. The latter he defined as ideas, language, codes and social relationships in contradistinction to the more traditional forms of material property embodied by the former. The defining characteristic of the immaterial as something shared, leads Hardt to perceive it as the site of ‘the common’, and a locus from which the social power relations of capital can be contested. Whereas, for Hardt, Marx maintains the triumph of profit (the immoveable) over rent (moveable) in terms of the expropriation of value, the contemporary political-social has witnessed the triumph of the immaterial over the material, as its reproducible and shared form makes it more resistant to the kinds of policing and containment applied to the exclusive and non-reproducible qualities of the material.

Hardt qualified this assertion with the following observation: in order for the maximum productivity of the immaterial to be realised, ideas must be shared. The contradictory implications for capitalism thus reside in the paradoxical nature of immaterial production: the more the common is controlled and delimited, the more its productivity is reduced. Conversely, the sharing of the immaterial undermines the notions of private property so central to capitalism’s formation. Hardt supplemented his interpretation of Marx’s analysis of property with a focus on his exploration of communism in the essay, ‘Private Property and Communism’. This essay, Hardt submitted, provides evidence for a Marxian understanding of the ways in which capital appropriates not simply the object/commodity, but also subjectivity. That is, capital seeks to produce human subjects as commodities, as sources of production. This social relation of capital reveals both the increasingly bio-political nature of capitalist production and offers up a site for the interaction of singularities, the formation of multiplicities and mutualities, which resist its hegemonic impositions. The notion of the bio-political and/or immaterial as ‘the common’, and its increasing centrality to modes of capitalist production, allows us to think about the ways in which these concepts can be utilised against capital. When we recognise the ‘common’ in communism we recognise our shared potentiality to dismantle the oppressive apparatus of late capitalism.

Responses to Hardt’s argument are considered by Maki Motapanyane…read on!

Megan Jones

The politics of common belonging

Michael Hardt’s poetic vision for the future asks us to become conscientized to our intrinsic autonomy in the context of late capitalism. This autonomy, he argues, can serve as the basis of a shifting and radicalizing of social, economic and political relations beyond the domain of private property.

The ‘common’ that Hardt proposes brings human plurality and diversity into its fold through what he identifies as the intrinsically autonomous connection human beings have to the ecological (earth, nature) and artificial (creativity, affect, cognitive labour) common. Hardt imagines, from the present, the possibility of a common organized outside of private property relations yet still engaged in the market; a common that challenges the idea that something is only ‘ours’ when we possess it.

The argument that current modes of capitalist production reduce productivity by appropriating, controlling and constraining the common, is compelling. As is Hardt’s vision of rescuing immaterial products (ideas, images, affect) from private property relations so that these may be ‘freely’ shared.

What remains unclear is whether and how this vision of the common accounts for difference and inequality, for the material presence of history in day-to-day life. Radical speculation, in this case around the possibilities for organizing labour relations in a new way - in a manner that frees up human creativity for genuine mutuality, is important to the practice of effecting change. Nonetheless, part of the intellectual responsibility we carry in such endeavours involves grappling concretely with difference, racism, exclusion/inclusion, gender-based violence and vampirism in the name of the common, among other lived realities.

Maki Motapanyane