Tuesday, July 14, 2009

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I learned of this post through antropologi.info, in part because I have been forgetting to add your blog to my list of RSS feeds (finally took care of that now).

I wanted to say thanks for this post, because in fairly short order, sharply and concisely, you really lay to rest a great deal of what is almost an "anti-identity" perspective in some forms of liberal neo-Kantian "cosmopolitan anthropology". Ernest Gellner apparently says, in an oft quoted line, that we should not take any identities or affiliations of a particularist nature, that is, more specific than just "human," seriously. That is a pretty bizarre methodology: don't treat seriously what matters so much for others. You have gone a few steps forward here, which is good, in discussing how there basically is no generic universal human as such, but that being human means feeling an attachment and belonging to a particular something. Some may not like that (I instead like it), but too bad, it remains a fact of life for most humans.

Your comment, "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," is a very important one in other ways as well. Thinking of how and why to develop a course on the Caribbean, I looked at many other "Anthropology of the Caribbean" syllabi. What struck me after a while was that I was becoming depressed: here we have a bunch of white people, talking to a bunch of other white people, using mostly the works of other, often dead white people, to talk about people who have their own booming voices, their own expressions, perspectives, laughter, and so on. It struck me then that you could not *truly* have an Anthropology of the Caribbean course, if anthropological writings were prominent within it -- that it would kill the subject. The anthropology can come out of discussions with students, otherwise t he course is just another exercise in shoring up an imperial discipline (which it bloody well still is, as it always has been), and there is no Caribbean.

Imagine being an anthropologist of the Caribbean, and never taking it seriously enough that you fail to assign Caribbean novels, Caribbean essays and journal articles, Caribbean music, Caribbean television and websites, etc., as the core of the syllabus.

I am always hopeful when I see people of non-Anglo-American and non-European backgrounds take up anthropology, because then I hope it will mature into something more meaningful and less shackled by elite agendas. I know that is naive, but unlike anything else in the discipline, it is the only thing left that gives me hope.

Maximilian Forte
Professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada

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