In her reply to the previous post, Laura Dennis asks how to overcome the divisions that separate us; how to move from the purely personal to something more “just”. I appreciate her reply very much because it is indeed a dilemma that I know I’ve alluded to without really speaking of in terms of actual practice. What started out as a simple answer along these lines has itself turned into a post of its own, if you will bear with me. The basic idea, I think, is to both move away from the personal, or at least tie the personal to economic and political realities, and in this find the “common cause” that seems to elude us otherwise.
A few examples to define our situation. When I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I attempted at times to volunteer with various local organizations, many of them centered in the housing projects that lined “Manhattan Valley”, or upper Amsterdam Avenue. It was easy enough to gain access to, say, organizations centered around the idea of crime prevention, tenants’ organizations, etc. (reflecting property ownership and the like); but crossing the line into the aid charities, public housing advocacy groups, or soup kitchens was near impossible. What might be seen as a racial divide was in fact a class divide as I see it now, and I want to go on the record as saying that I understand it; I do not want to sound like the Privileged One who laments not being welcome where obviously s/he is not wanted. I get it now.
More painful was the time I participated in the vigil for Sakia Gunn, a New Jersey teenager killed in Newark, who got little notice in the local press. Friends echoed the general sentiment which was “that’s Newark”, read: “she’s black”, and lives in a place of violence. As if to say such violence is a fact of life and expected, and thus not a point of discussion. At the vigil downtown, I was at a loss to speak to those assembled there; again, it was a world away from my acculturation and upbringing. But I remember more disturbingly the looks of those whose neighborhood we marched through on the way to the pier: They had “cleaned” their neighborhood of ethnic undesirables, and we were not welcome back, despite the trappings of “progressiveness” that the West Village still manages to claim, despite its high rents and gentrification. On the surface level, to them, I was as “alien” as anyone else in the vigil, though my class acculturation stated otherwise.
What has been most bizarre to me has been a “crossover” in the reverse direction afforded to me (not courted by me) in having returned to Lebanon for 10 years. When I spoke on the panel “Art and Resistance” at the Socialism Conference in Oakland in 2010, I was “allowed” to speak as an “Arab”, as a “Muslim”, though I don’t claim the former, and though my time acculturated with the latter has been quite brief. I spoke more Arabic than the second- and third-generation Arab-Americans present, and this made for some discomfort as to who was more “genuine” (whatever that even means), which seemed to lean in my direction, strangely enough. I tried to point out this functional aspect of an alienating culture which emphasizes the superficial and apparent, by phrasing my statements as someone “acculturated American”, etc., but there was a bizarre willingness to ascribe to me identity markers that I was not myself laying claim to. This is, sadly, the water that we “swim in” as having grown up in the United States.
Most bizarre was that such identity markers are as much affectations here as they are there. I mean to say that my first year in Beirut was spent (unfortunately) with ex-pats, and in the places they frequented, away from anything resembling local culture, and leagues away from the neighborhood and community I’ve since settled into. It was quite easy, or would have been quite easy to affect cultural markers in a way that spoke just as much of my privilege to don such affectations, with no one questioning this whatsoever. That this might take place in such a milieu as a group of left-wing radicals really got me thinking about how we navigate such forced labelings, how pervasive the cultural hegemony really is, and how this culture disavows anyone who points out the “naked Emperors”.
One such local example found me sitting with a friend in a cafe near the university here in Beirut. An American, eavesdropping on our conversation, decided to reprimand us that we were “retreating into our ethnicity” for defending the local culture he was denigrating. As two people completely acculturated in the United States, we let him have it; I remember answering his question of whether “I had ever been to the United States” with “I’ve been an American twice as long as you’ve been alive on this planet”. Our anger was split between his defining us as Outsiders, and the sad reality that this “ethnicity” he projected onto us is not 100% “available” to us to “retreat into” here, where we are also often seen as outside of any local or regional culture, mostly for class reasons.
But then again, I understand this “retreat” when I witness it: On social media, you will often find various members of ethnic minorities going into a kind of protective mode that is exclusive to those seen as outside the ethnicity; with calls to “check your privilege”. That this takes on the trappings of racial exclusion, when those excluding are often of the same class acculturation as those excluded speaks long to what I am trying to address here. I find in this a depressing mimicry of the dominant Anglo-Saxon mode we are acculturated into, which demands a breakdown along precisely defined lines of race/ethnicity/sexual identity/gender. These lines evoke themselves most often as black-and-white binaries, and which further demand a choice be made (there is no “opting out”), and that we overlook the spectrum that they truly represent, as well as the spectrum of time and evolution of context and place. This reductive maneuver smacks of the blood “tests” (not to mention Anglo-Saxon/Nazi eugenics) that give us some of the ugliest racist epithets in the language—quadroon, half-breed, high yellow, etc.—which sadly continue to be used by some of those still labeled in this way to prove their identity and lay claim to ethnic pride.
The entire function of Orientalism, and by extension Islamic Studies, or Chinese Studies, Indian Studies, Iranian Studies, etc., is nothing but “to explain” the foreigness of these languages and cultures to their “Western” readers. To explain something is ipso facto to constitute its foreignness, and thus by definition point to the quintessential inexplicability of the phenomenon in its own terms—and thus to constitute the foreign as the enemy and the enemy as the foreigner, as he who does not speak one’s language…and is thus outside the form of the political [polis] squarely in the realm of zoë or bare life.
Dabashi is making reference here to Giorgio Agamben (whose work I don’t like, for his primacy of theory over practice) who updates the Greek Platonic notion of those who are ascribed entry into the body politic, and those who merely exist at this group’s whim. I’ve often described this as the difference between the “subject” and the “object” of a verb (such as adoption). I like this quote because it describes quite clearly for us the dilemma at hand, which might be explained as follows: “The dominant mode defines me as Z. Defined as Z, I am not allowed the luxury and privilege of those who form group A, which is made up of those who define Others into categories. If I emulate those who thus define, I will be afforded an entry (not complete) into Group A, and this will suffice in terms of my own sense of inclusion. I will be required to define myself as Z, as well as define the difference between Z and A, as well as define others in turn. I will be afforded a “space” to exist as Z, but will need to modify the peripheral limits of my sense of self. I will be “Z” coming back around into the “A” group, but never fully arriving. But this is better by far than finding oneself in the realm of the “defined”.
The problem comes with the question: Why do we never take a step back and define group “A” in retaliation? Why should we endlessly mimic those defining, using their terms, tools, analyses, and categories, and never turn around and say, “You do this because this is a function of you in group A?” Most of those I quote in my writing have attempted such a turnaround: Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Emma Goldman, Emory Douglas, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, just to name very few—nothing I go on about is really original to me, so credit where credit is due. Another work that is relevant along these lines is that of Emmanuel Todd, who spells it out in this way in his book After the Empire:
The relationship of Anglo-Saxons to the world is a shifting one. They have in their heads an anthropological border that distances them from universalists and brings them closer to categorizers, but this border moves, in the sense of its extending or its shrinking. There’s us and there are others; among the others are some like us and others who are different. Among those who are different, some may be classified as similar. Among the similar, certain may be classified as different. But there is always a limit separating the complete human being from the Other: There is someplace where you must draw the line.
The problem comes when we mimic this practice of “drawing lines”. This brings up another discussion that we often make reference to, which is what defines groups as “white assimilated“, and what was required of them to round the corner from Z to A as it were; to transgress the border previously ascribed to them. I remember having a discussion with a white foster-adoptive mother of two black children, and sensing her pain in trying to cross a seemingly unbridgeable chasm with them. I made the suggestion of looking into the historical “resistance” mode of her own background, which was Irish. That in this there were commonalities to discover—not in the sense of making an equivalence—but to historically ground her experience as it relates to the children temporarily in her care. My adoptive father was third-generation Irish New Yorker, his parents and uncles were raised in Catholic orphanages, and his father grew up with the anti-Irish sentiment that goes largely forgotten today. I bring this up only to say that this is not an attempt to define (or redefine) oneself, but to define the definer’s actions, and to find in this a resistance to such definitions. Had my father been willing to “dis-affect” himself, perhaps we might have found here some common ground.
Such a refocusing outward absolves us of falling into the trap set for us by those who would define us. We see this “A/Z” trap everywhere: in the tables separated by race in my New Jersey high school; in that school’s senior yearbook poll’s category “Most All-American” that we all naively voted for; in the media’s “History Months”; in academia’s ethnic studies departments; in activist movements that split along racial lines; etc. To remember is that this reductive devolution that is imposed on us is also to our “liking”; meaning, it strokes our fur in the right direction; it is the path of least resistance, it is also a slippery slope. It is comfortable, because it doesn’t ask anything of us at all. The “solution” is, to me, to move from this kind of “passivism” to a true activism; to no longer passively accept this status quo. This can be found in a multi-pronged “response” that takes a variety of forms which I will refer to as: dis-affectation; defensive redefinition; and common-cause class identification.
By “dis-affectation” I mean an “unlabeling” of ourselves. One of the nicest side effects of leaving the United States for me is no longer having to abide by identity affectations. This is of course made easier by being an adoptee returned, with no connection to anything resembling his culture or background. At the same time, it is made more difficult by the gravity of those who adhere to such affectations, namely, the expatriate class, as well as their reflective local Lebanese compradors attempting to emulate a “Western” ideal. Don’t get me wrong, Lebanon is nothing if not horribly stratified according to race, class, and religious sect; there have been many moments that I am not proud of where I have claimed an “identity” if only in an attempt to prove someone’s denigration of the Other as wrong. This only reveals to me how much such mentality is imposed by our economic and political condition, and barring changing that condition in a radical way, the solution left to us is to deny its definition of us except in ways that provide us common cause.
Which leads to “defensive redefinition” which I also refer to as “inversion”, meaning, a turning of an argument on its head, or holding up a mirror to those who just assume a hegemonic position in terms of a discussion. To not accept the givens of an argument, or the modes of speaking, or the form of discussion, to turn around and “define” Anglo-Saxon, Calvinist, and capitalist norms, modes, and practices, or the ways in which these cultural practices have become the formative norm of much of the way the world sees itself, is to ask the centipede how it walks. This is revealed by the fast and furious reaction to such a held-aloft mirror, which is often virulent and emotional, but rarely of an equivalent argumentative nature. This speaks long as to the effectiveness of such a tactic, and this I think forms the cornerstone of uniting those who find themselves on the “defined” end of things.
This leaves those who are “naturally of” the A group, for race or class reasons, but who wish to find themselves outside of that definition. This is where I bring up “stepping down” from one’s class acculturation. This is no easy feat. It comes with a price tag (speaking from experience, often loss of job; loss of friends; societal rejection; etc.) It also has a dangerously convenient form which we often refer to as “slumming it”, which is premised on the idea of a “safe” place to return to. Leaving this safety behind becomes the key, and I understand perfectly how loathe anyone might be to so leave such a place of comfort behind. The line I walk here is a fine one, and I am constantly reminded of the “luxury and privilege” that I still manage to maintain despite efforts to give this up. There are moments when it is revealed to me in the reverse way, and this is such a frightening revelation that I am not going to cast stones in this regard, or judge anyone along these lines.
But this is a starting point, it seems to me. An awareness of our place, our class, and our luxury and privilege as derived therefrom, and above and beyond other identity markers, is a given. A further awareness of the machinations and advantages of such privilege, as well as its inversions, comes next. Finally, this cannot become, in and of itself, a place of stasis and constant re-iteration of where we are, but requires a moving forward; a constant opening up. I have another post in the works that will address this more concretely, as to steps one might take to pro-actively change this in terms of one’s life and lifestyle. This is pretty much attempting to swim upstream; it saps energy that we don’t have in the first place.
I used to teach a class called “Voice Manifest“, and we explored these questions in some detail; I’m hoping to get the syllabus and readings from the class online soon. Part of the class project was viewing and designing a series of posters for a variety of films that addressed what we were discussing during the seminar; one of the most interesting movies along the lines we are discussing here is Matewan, which describes the intersection of slavery, immigration, and local labor in the coal mining towns of West Virginia. It shows us the reality of what we are up against, which has had 500 years to perfect its methods. That today Appalachian locals see “coal” as a welcome entity shows us how much we have lost, and how hard the road to “recovery”, reunion, and (dare I say) revolution will be.
But I have been revealed moments of hope from within this dystopian nightmare. I remember, for example, when our artists’ collective welcomed Juan Fuentes as a visiting artist from California. We were working on a series of posters that addressed the plight of the Palestinian people, and we planned to do an art workshop in Bourj Al-Barajneh, one of the Palestinian camps here in Beirut. The tension at first was palpable; the residents of the camp are understandably tired of the parade of NGOs and outsiders who come tramping through for their media ops, or else of those who profit handsomely from hosting such events, and thus seek such intrusions, creating only more divisions within the camp itself. As Lebanese, we had the luxury and privilege to speak in ways that they, the actual Palestinians, did not. So the divide was a given from the get-go.
Finally in an attempt to break the ice, I asked Juan to speak of his work. He started describing his background, which was that of Mexicans who became “Texans” after the Mexican-American War. He spoke of the plight of immigrants; the wall being built along the southern border of the U.S.; his family’s life in labor camps; his sense of resistance that came from all of this. As various terms were translated into Arabic—wall, camp, checkpoint, pride, identity—I could see the demeanor of the young people assembled change; it was a seminal moment, and they were able to relate to this in a very visceral way. His personal story was not framed in an exclusive way, but in an inclusive way. What do we have in common? It assumes a desire to find such common cause. This, in and of itself, runs counter to our acculturation, which would have us differentiate ourselves along what should be such commonalities. This is our paradox. And yet Juan “crosses over”, as did Elizabeth Catlett, speaking of revolutionary artists and Mexico.
The last time I visited the Bay Area, Juan gave me a tour of the Mission District and the cultural center there, which was preparing for the Day of the Dead celebrations. I’ve attempted to learn Spanish these past years in order to communicate with my sister-in-law’s family (from Chile), so I was not lost; at the same time, my projection (afforded to me by being the traveler; the visitor; the outsider) took a back seat to my observation. By this I mean to say that in all of the research and studying I’ve done on, say, the histories of ethnic communities in the United States, I try not to “claim” anything; I do not “lean forward” claiming them; I “lean backward” into them. Like here in Lebanon, I am 100% in listening and learning mode; observing and attempting to understand, with such an understanding coming from those most overlooked in terms of voice. Come whatever may. This is not a process that comes with no pain. And it requires much in the way of patience. And it is much easier at the periphery than in the Belly of the Beast.
And so this becomes my advice, at long last, and with apologies for going on at such length. I don’t think it is to anyone’s advantage for us to, say, exclaim our own “personal” inability to understand for not being “Z”. Nor is it of any real value to say “you are not Z, and so you cannot understand, so don’t try”. In this, we have fallen into our own trap; dug our own grave. In remaining within this “personal” mode, we have taken on the individualism of our acculturation, its competitive “Lord of the Flies” nature, and have reneged on the collectivism of our true historic past. If I go in the other direction, away from such binary definitions and affectations, then I am forced to speak less and listen more. No matter who we are, our class position, our luxury and privilege, gives us a certain voice, and this at a certain volume. By focusing on those “above”, and demanding that we be heard, we inadvertently perhaps drown out the voice of someone from “below”. If, on the other hand, we aim at elevating those below, then we approach a kind of united voice that cannot be denied, and which, simply in terms of sheer number, need not scream in order to be heard. Most importantly, it shifts us—from shaping our voice to fit the terms of and be understood by the ones who would keep us silent—to finding our own voice, our own dialects, our own ways of communicating with or without them, amid and amongst ourselves, and thus reversing the historic differentials delimiting us. This places the burden on us to study, to learn, to give witness, to seek testimony, to advocate in a way that is self-decentered; expansive; outward gazing.
I admit readily this is no easy task. But this is, at least, my “utopian ideal” of things, and the defining practice behind the seeming “madness” of what I say, and how I say it.