Sunday, 23 December 2007

Humane, all too Humane: A Marxist-Multiculturalist Pastiche on the Christmas Spirit and the Phenomenology of the Border


Stoke Newington Church Street a few days before Christmas: farmer’s market vibrant and bustling as ever, with yuppie couples, hippies, hipsters, pranksters, immigrants, students, and eagerly busy stall-holders smiling over jars of jam and crates of vegetables and cheeses and sold-out boxes with a few leaves of spinach clinging to the bottoms. A choir of carollers holding up a banner saying “Friends of SING for JOY: a choir for people with Parkinson’s: please give generously.” Across the street a Muslim lady in a full-face veil, all in black, walks by. Hasidic Jews, funky youngsters, artsy geeks, weirdos and town lunatics, couples with prams. I buy some jam and a chola bread and ask about the “PAPERBOY WANTED” sign at the Indian newsagent’s next to the market (aiming to supplement my meagre library income and push my solvency margin up); then stop off for some funky postcards in a second-hand bookshop advertising a large LP collection (Ocean Books) on the way to the Spence bakery, where I read a few pages of Ranciere’s The Future of the Image while sipping tea and munching on a pan di ramerino – a surprisingly tasty, chewy sweet pastry flavoured with raisins and rosemary. Next to me a seemingly mentally ill man sways back and forth while reading a book himself. Saying goodbye to the cute Italian girl working in the shop I leave, and dip into another second-hand bookshop next to Bridgewood & Neizert, the violin seller. While browsing the shelves I overhear the very English, stocky and balding, elderly bookseller enthusiastically relate to a lady of same age who has just walked in the story of Mersad Berber, a Bosnian painter and graphic artist known for his collages mixing paint on canvas with a variety of graphical elements, who apparently had an exhibition in London earlier in the year. He pulls a catalogue off the shelf and hands it to her, gasping at the prices of the works listed. My Bosnian parents knew Berber, and had a set of some very fine prints of his framed on the wall of our apartment in Cairo, years before. In the end I purchase four books: Jane Eyre, a recent Vintage edition of Homer’s Odyssey (the classic Robert Fitzgerald translation), Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, and Travesties by Tom Stoppard, a play whose main characters include Tristan Tzara, James Joyce, and Lenin, all of whom happen to have lived in Zurich during the Great War. Having just read Ranciere, I impulsively think of ways to link all these images together, to weave and cut out of these disparate elements a tapestry of co-presence...without a camera or any complex recording equipment, that is. Being composed of heterogeneous elements myself, I feel comfortable here. I want to record in language this moment, this snippet of history, immortalize a snapshot of this community of things placed alongside one another without common measure, this continual barbaric flow of the sentence-image in a heterogeneous industry of the mind that weaves together all the breaks and ruptures and disjunctions in a series of co-located images and presences.


It is with reference to multiculturalism that I part company with Žižek - at least the Žižek of Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth, who claims that although it is racist to demand an end to immigration of foreign workers who pose a threat to “our jobs”, “the influx of immigrant workers from post-Communist countries is not the consequence of some multiculturalist tolerance – it effectively is part of the strategy of capital to hold in check the workers’ demands.” (78) On a global scale, this simply cannot be the case. The fact that George W. Bush of all US presidents has done the most for the legalization of illegal Mexican workers is hardly telling – the latter event is not only overdetermined, its economic logic still rests on a fundamental exclusion and in no way entails any opening of borders, only the acknowledgment of a reality that must be dealt with, similar to a sober admission that it may be better perhaps to deal with existing drug addicts by providing rehab than by throwing them in prison. Moreover, the Bush administration has brought about the most extreme tightening of immigration policy and oversight in years - largely on the pretext of September 11, but as with the case of Afghanistan and (especially) Iraq, we should not be deterred from the conclusion that September 11 was, in the end, no more than that - a pretext.

The global position with regard to immigration is in fact quite the opposite – doesn’t the machinery of global capital at its most fundamental operate precisely by the imposition of borders and walls – not in the sense of economic protectionism per se but in the fluid contemporary economic logic of free trade zones, cheap labour, and global economies of scale? Isn’t the most basic indictment of globalization precisely in the fact that it is not true globalization, that it is unidirectional and does not comprise the opening of borders so much as a one-sided penetration of developing-world markets by the corporate conglomerates of the developed world? Beneath the surface-logic of a globalization premised on removing barriers to trade, there is a more elemental founding-logic concerned only with a different way or method of constructing barriers, one which maintains the status quo of global capital. It is not, after all, the threat of EU expansion and the hiring of newly arrived east-european workers that German automakers usually deploy in order to extract concessions from unionists in collective bargaining agreements; the key threat is the dismantling and moving of factories elsewhere, and whatever short-term benefits may be reaped by capital through EU-style expansion, in the long run the global picture would be one of neither falling nor rising wages, but one of an economic and juridical equilibrium which leaves no particular incentive to move production elsewhere. It is paradoxically and fundamentally not the lifting of barriers – economic, legal, political – but a specific technique in their imposition that functions to produce disparity and accumulate capital in the hands of an ever-shrinking global elite. It is in this register, in the struggle against the border, that the true economic interests of workers from the developed world are at one with those of workers from the developing world.

The problem of course is that any system of inter-penetrative globalization with clearly defined borders such as the EU nevertheless leaves a category of the excluded – its internal inclusiveness, however universal and expressed in the notion of ‘citizen’, is by definition a form of exclusion. ‘Citizen’ always implies ‘non-citizen’, and it is here that the fundamental paradox of the modern liberal state is to be found, the paradox of Herrenvolk democracy on which Losurdo, in the same volume as Žižek (Lenin Reloaded) expounds. It is this ultimate form of inclusion – the universal citizen of the liberal state with universal human rights granted without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, etc etc – that is also the ultimate form of exclusion, with no blurred boundaries, no indeterminacy: one is either in or out. Here we may recall as significant Badiou’s work with the sans-papieres in France…The mistake is perhaps in aligning multiculturalism with liberalism and ‘tolerance’. True multiculturalism is not about tolerance – tolerance implies a kind of grudging acceptance along the lines of ‘ok, you can live here, but…’ Real multiculturalism can be rendered neither by tolerance nor by the liberal notion of the citizen as put into practice…


Which brings us to Goethe’s theory of colour that so captivated Wittgenstein. (The link will eventually become clear) It has been claimed that Goethe would have rejected both the wave and particle theories of light (generated in classical physics by Huygens and Newton, respectively), asserting as he did that light refracted through a prism and as perceived by the human eye was not composed of different colours, but that colours were rather generated by the interaction of light and dark edges between reddish-yellow and blue-cyan. Darkness therefore is not the absence of light (rejection of the negative!) but is polar to and interacts with light. Most modern physics rejects Goethe’s theory; however Goethe’s is not so much a theory as an empirical account of how the human mind perceives light, and modern physics does not normally concern itself with how the mind comes to perceive ‘redness’ or ‘blueness’, but rather with the mathematically expressed mechanical processes that underpin our perception but are external to it, and do not have any explanatory power with regard to the human mind. Is this not precisely the Žižekian ‘parallax gap’ – the “confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible” such as that between the brain as matter and the meta-substance of mind? Nothing about the ‘scientific’ notion of light as composed of different wavelengths disproves Goethe’s empirical account with regard to perception. Even if light is broken down into particular wavelengths that in some way relate to colours, is it not still possible that our perception of 'redness' is indirect; that the only two colours we can perceive as primarily arising out of light itself are those named by Goethe and that our perception of ‘redness’ is the compound result of a mingling of light and dark edges between them? (Goethe’s theory has in fact received some support from brain researchers studying human perception of colour and light.)

Moreover, doesn’t the quantum-mechanical paradox of wave-particle duality go toward restoring Goethe’s account to a certain extent, or in the least leaving breathing room for it? Light, according to quantum mechanics, is in fact neither wave nor particle, and all matter exhibits properties of both waves and particles. This alone indicates the possibility of a ‘parallactic real’ behind the visible phenomenon of light. An article in the 20 October issue of New Scientist (‘I’m quantum, therefore I am’) supports to an extent a suggestion I made in a previous post, vis-à-vis the structural homology between the Freudian psyche (as divided into conscious/unconscious) and space-time as expressed by mass-energy equivalence or E=mc2. According to a ‘quantum model’ of consciousness developed by Efstratios Manousakis of Florida State University, the ‘image flips’ performed by the human brain when faced with an ambiguous image (below – chalice or two faces) – the switching between two incompatible ways of perceiving the same image – can be explained by quantum mechanical processes. What has fascinated psychologists especially is the fact that the human brain cannot perceive both versions simultaneously: “a particle such as an electron does not have clearly defined properties. Rather, it exists in a multiplicity of mutually contradictory states represented by a wave function. It is only when an observer measures a property that the wave function collapses into one of these options.” (10) In Manousakis’ model of consciousness, the wave function is analogous to ‘potential consciousness’, while its collapse into one of a multiplicity of potential states is analogous to ‘actual consciousness’. The viability of his model even received some empirical support in experiments comparing the neuron-firing rates in brains of people taking part in ‘binocular rivalry’ experiments, and similar experiments on individuals tripping on LSD! According to Manousakis “the potential-consciousness state corresponds with our experience of the subconscious mind, which we tap into in dreams.” (11)

This on one hand brings into play Deleuze’s notion of the Idea and its actualization(s), while simultaneously buttressing Deleuze’s proto-Marxist claim that consciousness is by definition ‘false’, that it is always the unconscious that acts; and what we may take as Žižek’s corresponding claim that the nature of the real is ‘parallactic’. The real, as Deleuze again claims, is not actual but virtual. The unconscious or potential-consciousness state refers to the Idea or the real (virtual) which is therefore only fully perceived unconsciously; while actual consciousness, in being able to perceive only one of a multiplicity of potential-consciousness states at a time, is by definition ‘false’, given that the parallactic real (the Idea, virtual) is thus inaccessible to it. (Anyone who has ever watched The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in place of the soundtrack while stoned would get what I am talking about.)


Is this not the way to view what Žižek calls the ‘two faces of humanitarianism’, or what Agamben would (following Foucault) refer to as biopolitics-thanatopolitics? Isn’t humanitarianism the ultimate glimpse of an ambiguous or even antinomial ‘parallactic real’ that we may barely trace but hardly fully and consciously perceive in all its simultaneous and concomitant duplicity? In a talk at the Historical Materialism conference at SOAS last month, architects Eyal Weizman and Eyal Sivan expounded on precisely this element of recent developments in Israel’s occupation policy in the West bank and Gaza. Humanitarianism, according to Weizman and Sivan, has become a strategic category of Israeli occupation. They note several related phenomena in this regard, from the Israeli military’s co-opting of the language of humanitarianism and the incorporation of ‘humanitarian concerns’ in designing checkpoints, to the formation of a Humanitarian Division of the Israeli Defence Forces. Among the methods used in addressing ‘humanitarian concerns’ at checkpoints is the integration of a panoply of humanitarian staff, from representatives of Israeli human rights organizations to medical professionals from the Red Cross whose task is to vouchsafe that the same procedures carried out at these checkpoints in the past are carried out with the appropriate concerns in mind. One cannot help but recall Foucault – is this not precisely the transformation that takes place in European penal systems in the modern age: the incorporation of humanist ideals in the new technology of power, the slackening of the hold on the body and the attendant articulation of a ‘soul’ in the disciplined subject, the move from mere incarceration and physical punishment to the continuity of a whole network of institutions (schools, prisons, hospitals) and the introduction of doctors, psychologists, criminologists and other previously extraneous staff into the prison environment, which serves only to make the production of ‘docile bodies’ more effective and perfect the technology of power over the body to make it “the very principle both of the humanization of the penal system and of the knowledge of man”. (Foucault, D&P, 23) … “[T]he most important effect of the carceral system and of its extension well beyond legal imprisonment is that it succeeds in making the power to punish natural and legitimate…” (Foucault 301) Humanitarian organizations in Israel, as Weizman and Sivan put it, have as their goal the improvement of Israeli democracy, not questioning Israeli democracy. A complementary point made by Losurdo renders this even more starkly: “The international press is full of articles or attitudes committed to celebrating, or at least justifying, Israel…it is the only country in the Middle East…in which there is a democratic regime operating. In this way a macroscopic detail is suppressed: government by law and democratic guarantees are valid only for the master race, while the Palestinians can have their lands expropriated, be arrested and imprisoned without process, tortured, killed…” (245)

The lesson here is perhaps that humanitarianism as an ambiguous quantum-object of consciousness is not to be outrightly dismissed, but rather treated as such, as ‘parallactic’ – an ‘empty signifier’, or an instance of what Derrida, drawing on Plato, calls the pharmakon, in its poly- or equivocal function as both ‘poison’ and ‘medicine’; in Foucault’s terms, a discourse that functions as a ‘tactical element…operating in the field of force relations’, that can be used both by us and against us, both incorporated in the strategy of power-knowledge and in our own strategy of resistance to it. The answer is neither multiculturalist ‘tolerance’ nor the liberal melting-pot notion of ‘citizenship’; rather what is needed is a radical multiculturalism that entails a multiplicity of allegiances, an emptying and re-coding of the self, a dual participation in political and social life that embraces simultaneously the particular and the universal, a humanism that on one level goes beyond the liberal conception of ‘citizen’ and ‘state’, beyond even the simply human perhaps in order to capture the truly universal – a humanism, perhaps, that no longer calls itself humanism. To this end it would appear crucial to address what Balibar calls the ‘phenomenology of the border’ or what, following Foucault, he more specifically calls ‘the border as heterotopia’ – a place that secures the existing system of power in place, but also makes the confrontation with it possible – what I have elsewhere referred to as a ‘locating device’ akin to the polished bronze shield that enables the Greek hero Perseus to slay the Gorgon Medusa. Goethe’s theory of colour, as the empirical antidote to the scientific rigidity of classical physics, curiously insists that light refracted through a prism in human perception is not composed of the various colours, but that colours arise from the interaction of light and dark edges, at the margins or boundaries where the edges of the only two true or primary colours, reddish-yellow and blue-cyan, come close enough to overlap – differences (other colours of the spectrum) generated by the repetition of elements (two primary colours) drawn from a field of potentialities, as Deleuze would have it. This, then, may be a good starting point for a phenomenology of the border: to treat its exclusionary juridical legitimacy, the particular ‘colour’ according to which it includes or excludes, as ‘fake’ or an optical illusion – to see beyond all subsidiary or compound colours, beyond and through all conceptions of the ‘citizen’ and all particular citizenships and to fundamentally and a priori qualify all 'noble' political ideals that legitimate states and citizenships and revalue them through the operation of the two primary forms or ethical categories that distribute all borders and all citizenships: inside and outside.