Thursday, July 22, 2010

Identity and Property in Precarious Times

John and Jean Comaroff with Eric Worby, JWTC

Jean and John Comaroff’s session on ‘Identity and Property in Precarious Times’ took a different look at themes that had also preoccupied the first day of the workshop. How do we study the forms of subjectivity associated with economic action at the present time, and what does doing so teach us about the larger trends that are shaping the future? Arjun Appadurai came at these issues on Monday through a return to Weber in light of Callon, leading to a call for work on the kinds of ethos inspiring how various actors (traders, for instance) animate the instruments or devices of contemporary markets. The Comaroffs’ intervention was to lay out the terms for an immanent critique of what they called the emerging identity economy. How are we to understand a world where (some) people make a living by owning and selling their culture? What configurations of justice and recognition emerge around this activity? What kinds of social entities congeal through it? How does the commodification of culture relate to other historical iterations of self-possession?

The Comaroffs’ approach to these questions started from a (Foucault-inspired) sketch of continuities and disjunctures between the logic of classical liberalism and a present moment they variously termed post- and neo-liberal. According to this narrative, the world at present is witnessing the involution of categories, distinctions and relationships that once marked the constitution of civil society through acts of exchange among self-possessed individuals: free subjects who exteriorized their selves in forms of property produced by work, protected by law, and circulated in markets. Most importantly for their argument, neo-liberalism sees the narrowing--to the point of collapse--of any residual gap between the self and the forms of property on which self-realization in the liberal world depends. With this comes the collapse of the idea of a social world mediated by acts of labour, and into the resulting space step subjects like the South Africans and others whom the Comaroffs cite as (self-consciously) possessing and selling not labour, but identity itself.

This is the basis for what they call Ethnicity Inc., the object of their recent book by that title. Increasingly naturalized modes of belonging (genetic ones, particularly) become the means of membership in legal corporations that control the rights to exploit and profit from heritage, indigenous knowledge, ancestral land, and other such ethnic properties. (Things that in more modernist times were seen as the very antitheses of the logic of the commodity form.) The result is a new configuration of self, culture, and social being--including new forms of harm and exclusion the Comaroffs identified particularly with life in the waste ecologies of the formerly industrial zones of the world (both North and South).

The early round of responses focused mostly on the way the Comaroffs traced the genealogy of Ethnicity Inc. Several participants asked how the emergence of the identity economy would look if narrated specifically from the South. How would the story of ethnic tourism look if one saw precedents in Fanon’s account of the black subject rendered dependent on white recognition, for instance? Would the communitarian dimensions of cultural property look different if one started, not with the logic of Lockean liberalism, but the history of the constitution of property in the colonial world? From a different angle, what is occluded by moving from classical liberalism to its neoliberal involution without thinking through the impact of the first ‘post-liberal’ era: that of 20th century state capitalism?

In answering these challenges, as well as subsequent questions on the status of high theory in the contemporary moment, the Comaroffs insisted that their project is to understand a world that more and more understands itself in terms of the intertwining of property and identity. Thinking through the logic of the subject-as-commodity is motivated not by traditional theory, then, but rather as a way of engaging the terms of thought in the neoliberal age.

Myself I find that a deeply compelling argument on the interplay of method, theory and history. But it seems to me that hard work still lies ahead to discern, in a rigorous way, exactly where developments cross the line from continuity to epochal difference. One participant pointed out the affinities between Ethnicity Inc. and the central tenet of post-workerism: the idea that we have shifted from a condition where the isolable and measurable industry of factory workers manufactured valuable things, to one where value stems from our ineffably subjective contributions to an economy of images, attachments and desires. Without a doubt this illuminates some aspects of an ongoing shift, but it also draws its force from a strangely artisanal account of what industrial labour was even at its height in the Fordist economy. What if one sustains instead the idea that even classically proletarian subjects never survived by commodifying their labour or its products (both of which belonged instead to the capital employing them) but instead by selling the time in which they exercised their own subjective capacities for action? If subjectivity is time, and time is the most important form of property that industrial labour constituted and alienated, then the lines between industrial and identity economies begin to seem less radically distinct than implied by a contrast between the selling of labour and culture.

Hylton White

Wits University

1 comment:

Johor Property said...

Nice experience shared. Its not less than an interview. Great way of posting such good and informative stuff.

Post a Comment