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When the Lights Go Out: A Discussion with David Theo Goldberg

[David Theo Goldberg. Image via the author.] [David Theo Goldberg. Image via the author.]

David Theo Goldberg is the Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and one of the world’s leading figures in Critical Race Theory. Ten years ago he started SECT (the summer Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory). From 29 July - 9 August, the eighth session of SECT was held in Beirut, Lebanon on the theme of “Spaces of Resistance.” What follows is a conversation I conducted with David Theo Goldberg during the Seminar, intercut with my reflections as a participant in SECT VIII.

Ten days discussing critical theory were punctuated by a series of moments when the lights went out. Of course, this is not surprising, but this time I couldn’t help but attend to the different reactions these dark moments provoked: from mild discomfort (the air conditioning goes off), to awkwardness (a professional dinner is suddenly taking place by candle light), to outright bizarre (the replicability of spaces of global capital thrown into question when the music and lights go off at H&M). And then there were the electrical wires: the web of strands—spliced, and re-spliced—that ran through Shatilla and became deadly in the winter due to the combination of ice and kilowatts. During this workshop in Beirut, I started thinking of time, space, and politics in terms of power.

DTG: The post-colonial global south (and I need to stress these are broad generalizations) has been living in a critical condition pretty much since independence. [The condition] is critical in the sense that it faces not having resources, living close to the limit if not at the limit. All of these things—the lack of electricity, the lack of running water, things that people in the global north have taken for granted—have provided dispositions of working around, of resourcefulness in the face of the lack of resources, of being able to figure out how to get along, from one crisis moment to the next, from one critical moment to the next. The other sense of critical is of critical theorizing and trying to get at the roots of things, not to take things at face value and for granted. Of trying to think from these moments of real suffering and challenge [and] to pose questions from those sets of conditions regarding the issues that have an immediate purchase on the lived condition. [This is] what Achille Mbembe has called the necropolitical—the question of what becomes of resistance when war and the distinct possibility of violent, premature death become a matter of daily life. These are the questions one has to face up to when one rises up—if one even has a place to rise from.

The notions of precarity and necropolitics were not new to me. I had spent two years as a PhD student at UC Irvine discussing them (often with David Theo Goldberg himself), so the question remained: Why should forty-odd academics discuss these questions from Beirut? 

During the “walking graffiti” tour some of the workshop participants decided to “tag” the walls themselves—writing things that ranged from the silly (a diamond next to the name of a rapper) to the hilarious (“don’t feed fat cats” on a wall near AUB) to the political (“Syria wants freedom”). The next day, as we convened for a discussion feeling the first signs of theory fatigue, someone posed a question that jolted us to political attention: what right did we have to be tagging those walls—which most of us were viewing as tourists rather than inhabitants? What was our claim on that city and those spaces, which categorically weren’t ours? We were suddenly forced to discuss our own positionality as scholars largely based in the global North, and the relationship between identity, place, and activism. It was a moment that touched many of us who had done activism in circles that we were not born into and who were forced to define a conception of political solidarity that was not derived from ethnic belonging. Still, the notions of theoretical and political responsibility weighed heavily over the next week.

Doing graffiti, in any case, is different than organizing for BDS in that it stakes a material claim. It is often fraught with danger, done clandestinely, in conversation with other artists. Or is it? The political possibilities of graffiti can be located in its very transience, erased, re-inscribed, authorless. Still, we had marked a set of walls which, in a fundamental sense, weren’t ours. The discussion was charged—and raw—unlike those I have participated in as a doctoral student, where there is often a predictability to graduate seminars and a staging that I knew almost by heart (and relished in performing, to a certain extent). In southern California, politically charged emotions certainly were never visibly in play (perhaps even—or especially—when one was discussing affect theory).

DTG: It is clear that critical theory has…become repetitive, and where it’s not repetitive it has become episodic. [We have started these workshops] not with a view towards reviving critical theory, but to think about how you do critical theory differently, which is not by dismissing the tradition of critical theory but by drawing on it as one among other resources in facing up to the questions of our times. By not being bound by the boundaries of that critical canon and by…drawing on the fragments of insight…that provide a kind of starting point or an intervention point [in order] to think about the conditions we face today. This is what some of us have started to call poor theory. [The idea is to] draw on whatever is at hand that enables one to move the insight in critically engaging and productive ways. And that could be something from the critical theory canon—insights from Benjamin or Adorno or others—or it could be any other equally compelling and insightful, incisive text or cultural insight or fragmentary concern that teases out what the driving issues are…for thinking about the sets of problematics that we face today.

The “critical canon” animated many of our discussions, but they were often framed by more imminent problematics. Who was uncomfortable taking pictures in a refugee camp? What was our role in being there (“they are very happy to see you,” our guide kept repeating, even as a gang of laughing youth joked about taking one of us hostage)? Who should (or shouldn’t) agree to speak on al-Manar TV after a guided tour of the Dahia (the Beirut suburb destroyed by Israeli bombing in 2006 and reconstructed by Hizbollah)? Despite many of our activist backgrounds, why did some of us feel uncomfortable throwing a rock into Israeli territory? One colleague insisted, “If we don’t do something concrete here we’ll just have been another set of theorists talking about things no one cares about,” echoing the frustration that many of us had felt as we moved through the physical spaces of Lebanon. We were aware of our position of privilege as we moved through these spaces protected by our structural position as members of the academy largely from the global North. And while our stories were inevitably more complicated than that, we seemed to occupy a position of structural whiteness, even as we approached places for which many us had mobilized, organized, boycotted. The strangest thing about the occupied border with Palestine was that Palestine was just right there—just a patch of land that looked like all the other patches.

DTG: Race shapes the way people think and their dispositions in relation to power and to each other through power as a consequence of the forming and fashioning and fabrication of the racial—both in the sense of creating the social fabric through race and the fabrication that it is always a make-up, putting on the cosmetic, but also making people believe the fabricated projection, a kind of compulsion, a set of convictions.

Why the racial in relationship to Palestine rather than ethnic considerations or other ways of configuring power is precisely because the articulation of a Jewish homeland, from the very beginning, as a geographically identified fathering site with boundaries and borders, was articulated very explicitly in racial terms. Now people have argued that in the nineteenth century everyone was talking in racial terms. Well, fine. But those who came to understand critically that this was a crucial project of the nineteenth century and that it bore with it enormous death-producing baggage also came to rethink the insertion of the homogenous into the heterogeneous. Israel’s project seemed constitutively and conceptually predicated on the fashioning of a homogenizing condition that was necessarily exclusive of anyone not seen to belong to that homogenizing project. Even as it seems to recognize heterogeneity in that homogeneity, it is still ultimately homogenizing. Who can return? Who belongs here? Who exists here? How do we sweep out that which is taken to be constitutively different? And it is explicit in Theodor Herzl and Moses Hess, even as [the discourse] became more sophisticated post 1948. People say there is no racial language here—maybe and maybe not—but even if not, explicitly (it is explicit in Herzl and Hess, actually), racial language is not just about the explicit use of race, it is also the use in the name of race not expressed explicitly for the conditions for which race has always stood. In that sense, Israel remains a racial project. As Saree Makdissi has shown, the legal structures of apartheid and Israel map on to each other in very disturbing ways for anyone who would be disturbed by such things and…the fact that it is denied is to say that people are disturbed by these things even when they’re in defense of things they are disturbed by….It is not just a denial, it is a denial of the denial of that possibility, which is revealing of the fact that something else is also going on—not just in the denial but in the denial of the denial. A recognition too sensitive to touch, an acknowledgment that itself cannot be acknowledged.

I am “legally” Jewish. With my name and heritage, if Hitler were around he’d be offing me. And yet I don’t feel I need to be in Israel or that Israel represents me. If that is the project you want, well and good, be there, embrace it. But then you have to be open to the critiques we are making of your project as a homogenizing project and be serious about those critiques….In a way I respect Benny Morris because he’s so honest—even as I’m horrified at the positions he is taking but there is something I can say to him. You can scream at each other but at least you are engaged. The accusation of preclusion is a product of this project of deep homogenization at the boundaries and that is pernicious. That is a project that’s destined ultimately to fail, as projects of repression in the end almost invariably do. Post-apartheid [and] the Arab Spring raise in their own respective ways the complexities of the afterlife, the legacies these repressions leave in their wake.

It is true that there is something awkward but refreshing about actual conflict in academic circles; The texture of intellectual life often feels predictable, and there are critical questions that require more than a citation of Agamben or a mention of Foucault to address. In Beirut, there was an often destabilizing sense that the boundaries of discussion were flung open and that the walls of the question and response format of MESA was being disturbed in fundamental ways. How could we talk about Hizbollah without theorizing neo-liberalism? How could we not reflect on the fact that terms we had been trained to use and the authors we knew how to cite seemed increasingly flat—failing to capture the historical and political reality, the complexities, that we confront. I thought of my years of proposing badly-worded and uninspired (but ultimately “successful”) MESA panels. The modalities of our intellectual and political life have perhaps also become episodic and predictable and the nature of the afterlife of Middle Eastern Studies is still uncertain.

DTG: Globalizing forces and flows have placed the notion of region or area in question. Modes of established—“given”—comprehension are being undone in favor of emergent ones. It is no longer merely a question of mapping or remapping already bounded geographies—that’s too static, too bounded. [The question should be] how are the networks of relation reconstituting and what networks are in play [in order to try] to get at the suppleness, re-alignments, the uncontainable forces in play. This is exactly what is proving to be deeply unsettling for people. Part of critical theory’s challenge and part of our challenge is to find the terms that enable us to translate ourselves to ourselves in the face of these relational shifts—which after all has always been the challenge of the humanities. It is the project of translation of what it means to be human, in especially critical and shifting conditions.

The academy is completely at a loss today. It always comes to things after the fact, particularly in the global north. There is a challenge from my own campus by the dean of business, who has just co-published a book arguing that the humanities and qualitative social sciences are irrelevant to students’ interests today in seeking marketable skills. [He claims we should] just get rid of them if they are incapable of paying their own way. It is staggering that someone in a full service university would be so bluntly and brutally honest.

So one has to ask, what is the role of the academy and what kind of comprehensions are left in place in the absence of the academy. Are there critical ways of engaging these questions that are nevertheless supple [and] subtle but also strong enough to be able to reinvent themselves?

It is fair enough to claim that area studies and the US academy are subpar institutions. But many of us (the author included) were looking for a job involving both. And to strip the workshop of its purely intellectual engagements, many of us wanted to know how our projects could benefit from thinking about questions from a different geographical and analytical place. As someone who has been trained in Middle Eastern studies as well as critical theory, I felt particularly invested in the possibilities for intellectual and professional engagement between the two. I have submitted articles to the MESA bulletin that subsequently attacked me for being overly “self-conscious” (a pathologizing of the tendency to theorize?) and I fought with theorists about historical specificity. This is a tale of two trainings, perhaps, but life many of my colleagues, I wanted to know how to resolve a resulting disciplinary identity crisis.

DTG: Comparison is about comparing discrete identity formations and looking at their likenesses and differences. You are holding them apart and are failing to understand a very different world which [exists] in the relations that shift and order and reorder and constrain and unsettle…these different sites. And you can only do that when you give up boundedness as a primary social determinant. The relations themselves have become more complex and less bounded. Area studies missed [the so-called “Arab Spring”] precisely because in predicating itself on static boundaries it was blind to the complex range of relational forces in play.

It was difficult not to think of boundedness without thinking of walls—which had been a major part of our discussions and explorations. There were walls we tagged (in Beirut), walls we photographed (the Lebanese-Israeli border), walls between which we felt both entrapped and touched (the narrow passages in Shatilla), walls where we were asked to account for our presence (the gates of AUB), walls we read and re-read (quotes written at Mlita—the Hezbollah liberation museum in the South). One presenter later noted that walls—like phenomenology—are defined by the gaps. I wondered where we repeatedly found gaps in our collective academic life? Why do many of us repeatedly come up against a frustration at being unable to make ourselves translatable for a non-academic (or activist) audience? Why did I feel that, as the archival material for my dissertation piled up and my theoretical background grew, I found it was increasingly difficult to find the right kinds of questions to ask?

David Theo Goldberg started his presentation to the group in Beirut with Anais Mitchel’s “Why We Build the Wall.” He continued:

The wall is built to keep out the plunderer, the stranger, the threat of the unknown. Its construction and sustenance always requires militarization and it always requires supplementation, more wall. No matter how high or long or how thick the wall, it needs to be expanded. The wall fixes in place, or attempts to fix in place. It might start as a fence; though a fence invariably turns out to be not enough so we will try to keep them out by building a wall. A watchtower, for example, is not just an addition but becomes a constitutive part of the wall. The wall always needs other supplemental technologies that are interwoven with each other…. Walls invariably cut through lived space and try to order socialities. They shape the flows of people, commerce, products. They order the social…and empty out the heterogeneous, in the name of a monumentalization to the projection of homegenization. As such, walls are the end of politics, they are a way to fix in place the contestable—to remove from the landscape the possibility of contestation. [This section is based on the author’s notes rather than direct quotations.]

In Beirut itself, the walls were less neat than in Irvine, which is one of the largest private development projects anywhere, almost fifty years in the making, where it is reputed that the planners refused to include sidewalks to preclude the possibility of walking and thus unpredictable public gatherings. The threat of chaos was everywhere in Beirut, from crossing the street to Hezbollah’s use of private property to consolidate party rule. This city, after all, had witnessed a protracted civil war and Lebanon is a country for which there is no official historical narrative after 1946. Both places have guarded against the threat of chaos in their own way, the difference being that Irvine managed to erase all but the softest echoes. Yet moments of darkness often reintroduce a bit of chaos, sometimes with incredibly generative (if not definitive) results. As David reminded me, “I’m not a fan of conceptual promiscuity, but theoretical promiscuity I’ll own up to—that’s poor theory in play, after all.” After the “passing” of the Foucaultian, Derridian, and Post-Colonial moments, there was something humble about this articulation of poor theory. It was chaotic, frustrating, and at times disorienting—elements from which area studies has long protected itself. Poor theory might not make for a successful MESA panel proposal, but it may offer a generative darkness from which to rethink the trajectory of Middle Eastern studies as well as critical theory.

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