Laliv Melamed, Sovereign Intimacy: Private Media and the Traces of Colonial Violence (University of California Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Laliv Melamed (LM): Sovereign Intimacy centers amateur videos, made in memory of Israeli soldiers by their families during the 1990s and early 2000s. These videos got a bracketed public life when aired in marginal time slots by Israeli television during the National Memorial Day. The format emerges in a scene of media production that first persisted outside formal production economies, then was quickly taken by a private market of freelance producers, becoming a commodified standard of personalized commemoration. Throughout, it maintained its ostensibly non-institutional status and affective resonance. I was interested in how this format, which seems to be maintained by civil society or the private sector, seems to disavow the state intertwined projects of military, memory, and mourning, yet ultimately displaces, even denies, the regime of violence that these deaths perpetuate. Were the videos’ expressions of kinship ever other to the Israeli state production of martyrdom?
The book delineates a biopolitical calculous in which the life of the citizen gains intimate volume; the life of the noncitizen is void. For the individual family the video’s objective were various and indetermined. The book describes fragmentary archives, ends that do not meet, missing information and documents pulled out from the trash. Among the things that prompted me to study these videos was that very limitation: the perception that some things do not belong in the archive, some things are sheltered from the sphere of critique or politics, even though they lie at its very heart. With these objects of study, I map settler-colonial societies’ zones of comfort and familiarity, zones that we know only intimately, never analytically. These spaces produce and reproduce a quotidian veneer that sustains injustice, oppression, deprivation, and slow death. My investigation of the video phenomenon in the book is attuned to the pain of loss that they articulate, but, unlike the general dynamic around them, does not turn a blind eye to the biopolitical and affecto-political state mechanisms they serve, to the death they efface, to the compliance of the family with the state.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LM: The account of the videos’ emergence that I ultimately provide in the book has two interconnected starting points. First, a massive process of privatization that Israel was going through during the 1990s, specifically the privatization of the Israeli media market. That first aspect led me to track the political economy at work, how mediated mourning is produced as part of the capitalist individuating logic of the neoliberal state. When television understands the videos as “belonging to the family,” it marks them as private property. Second, the politization of the family, as a structure of feelings, during the “Lebanon period” (this refers to the military occupation of the south of Lebanon from the mid 1980s until 2000). This is a common scenario of liberal left politics. While the familial position of loss initially becomes a critical agent that calls into question the state’s military investment, I note the limitations of this position in its differential ethics (for the sake of “OUR SONS”) and its displacement of violence and victimhood. For the vernacular political parlance, kinship coins a set of terms that serve only those within the citizenry. Ultimately, with familial feelings, the Israeli society withdraws into the allegedly consensual space of the home. Not surprisingly, these two processes—the privatization of market and the privatization of political subjecthood—happen in tandem. As I argue, the production of privacy is a production of a settler-colonial divide; the forging of memory is also a forging of forgetfulness; the claim for love is also a form of violation.
In diagnosing Israeli sovereign power, I draw on Achille Mebembe’s conception of necropolitics, where sovereignty is defined through the “right to kill” and Jasbir Puar’s analysis of Israeli sovereignty as exercising “the right to maim.” To the sovereign’s rights I add another one: the right to love. This is allegedly a universal right for all, yet, as with all rights, while it is granted to the individual, it simultaneously affirms and conforms to the sovereign who grants it. The right to love is the right to private life. It is exercised by a sovereign power which is constituted through a radical separation between Jewish-Israeli citizenry whose privilege relies on ethno-nationalist conceptions and the Palestinian other/noncitizen.
While Mebembe and Puar analyze the direct manifestations of violence, in this book I am interested in power’s anatomical mechanisms. I read media as a means that organizes the social body. In my analysis, media’s relations to the state are both symbolic and bureaucratic. In the book, media is ubiquitous, routinized, embodied, and affective. It serves mourning families as both a container for their loss and a personal means of communication with their dead. Throughout the book I ask: is television a telephone, specific in the way it channels a transmission between two ends? Media is also pervasive and circulating, never contained within the intimate zone it is allegedly designated for. To this scalar reading of media another level is added, one which reads media as par-excellence governing technic, a form of production that contains and orients the citizen’s psychic life.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LM: I hope the book resonates with those thinking about the mediated and affective registers of imperial and militaristic statehood, as well as those studying settler-colonial societies. I hope it can provide insight into the systematic devaluation of Palestinian lives by analyzing oppression’s intimate logics.
Settler colonialism is predicated on indirect and routinized attachments that we often fail to register. This reading refuses a sense of distance. My arguments are shaped by a detailed scrutiny of the mundane fabric of Israeli society. Such reading is diligent yet never sentimental. All of this is often uneasy. Someone told me that they found the book to be very textured—this mode of reading is what I have hoped for.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LM: My current research centers the paradigm of operativity—media that is designated as a utility or act—in relation to the political imaginaries associated with the public secret. Secrecy, especially one related to securitism, is one of liberal democracy’s paradoxes, a sort of consensual impasse. With the public secret I investigate the yielding of civil society to a militaristic or carceral regime and the epistemic particularities that are compliant with state operations. These inquiries inform my next book, Optics of Opacity: The Cultural Imaginaries of Operative Images.
Part of this research is a study of the mediation of Gaza and its surroundings through Gaza’s tunnels infrastructure. Through the tunnels I introduce interiority as a threat to the security regime of the Israeli sovereign, challenging the military logic of total visibility. Lingering on the threshold of visibility, in subterranean terrains, I explore ideas about sovereign control, immunity, and agility. Here too, sovereign operations are quintessentially vital and fatal. Attempting at controlling Gaza from the outside-in, the state of Israel funded a costly and elaborate technological barrier that draws on means of surveillance, the consistency of the earth, as well as the psycho-civil infrastructure of resilience. Such highly penetrative operations, alleged to uncover the secret of clandestine activity, in fact obfuscate the public secret of everyday violence that the Gaza siege entails. Ultimately the 7 October Hamas attack was launched with first targeting the means of vision and communication. The combatants came not from underneath the ground but by bulldozing the fence. The tunnels, as much as they are a fact on/in the ground, become sovereignty’s obsession in a genocidal pursuit. There were other things to note, such as the civil duties of Israeli media, stepping in for an absent sovereign, Israeli public opinion that goes parallel to the military apparatus: a barrier that makes life in its biological and affective forms count only on one side of the wall.
J: How is your work affected by what is currently happening in Palestine and the region?
LM: I started writing my responses to this NEWTON just before the weekend of 7 October. Scholars writing on Palestine-Israel are acutely aware that in any given moment more violence might erupt in the most devastating and disorienting way. I look at the pages I wrote. My book offers insights into the regional economy of life and death, the speech acts that trap life in a necropolitical calculus, the weaponization of mourning, the cooption of the personal and collective labor it entails, and the persistence of the private space of the home and family as a stricture, a disavowal of colonial violence. Nevertheless, I feel I am missing language. While I attend the urgency of the situation, I find myself asking about theory and its tasks. The answers I can provide are questions as much as they are answers. How can we write a theory that truly acknowledges the stakes? Can critique offers accountability? Critique always comes after the fact but it does not mean that it comes too late. Critique needs to take into account that ideology is embedded in the deepest texture of everyday life and feelings, but also that some part of life will always remain irreducible to ideology. When I go back to my work, it will have to sit with the ruins, the rubble, the burnt houses and to insist that lives, as well as the mechanisms that cease them, will be fully articulated.
Excerpt from the book (from the Prologue: Our Sons)
Sovereign Intimacy is not about forms of political resistance leading us towards a hopeful horizon. It is about a pervasive, even passive, compliance. It tackles the paradoxical relationships in liberal and neoliberal politics between kinship and sovereign power, paradoxes that the book seeks to articulate rather than resolve. While Sovereign Intimacy is not about resistance, I want to begin by recalling a moment when these paradoxes crystallized, simultaneously provoked and reaffirmed.
In February 1997 four Jewish-Israeli women founded what would become the most popular and successful anti-occupation movement in Israel. The women, all living in the north of Israel, all mothers of soldiers who served on the northern front, initiated a local protest following a disastrous event in which two helicopters carrying seventy-three soldiers across the northern border crashed, leaving no survivors. Their activities took place under the name Four Mothers. For Jewish-Israeli society these were years of constant unrest, when a chain of occupied posts in southern Lebanon termed a “security belt” by the Israeli military yielded daily casualties. The helicopters’ crash was described as an event whose ruinous aftermath touched every part of society, and for days, the media streamed images of broken families mourning their loved ones. The Four Mothers’ protest, calling the government to immediately withdraw from southern Lebanon, soon became a nationwide popular movement with unprecedented success. Thousands joined their call for the sake of lives, mostly the lives of Israeli soldiers, “OUR SONS.” The movement call was taken up by the political leader of the Israeli center-left at the time, the former general Ehud Barak, who assimilated the cause into his electoral campaign. In May 1999, Barak was elected as Israel’s prime minister and in May 2000, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) pulled out from southern Lebanon, ending almost two decades of occupation.
The Four Mothers movement’s oppositional position against the Israeli security regime—its claims on the political—emanated from its appropriation of the voice of maternal care. To speak from a place of care turned out to be the key for mobilizing public opinion and the motor for the movement’s substantial popularity. An important landmark in undermining Israeli militarism and the pact between patriarchy and nationalism so essential for Israeli statehood, the Four Mothers movement belongs to a national and international tradition of feminist movements. Jewish-Israeli feminist anti-war movements such as Women in Black (initiated in 1988, a few months after the eruption of the first Intifada) and Checkpoint Watch (initiated in 2001 following the eruption of the second Intifada) have to negotiate their place and legitimacy to speak out against occupation in a society governed by militancy, securitism and chauvinism. Predictably, populist discourse in Israel dismisses feminist activists as collaborators, traitors, or as irrationally emotional, thus still bound to a binary metaphorism of either clueless or promiscuous social danger. Women’s movements, shows Diana Taylor, have questioned state sovereign power precisely by performing the gendered politics of motherhood. Re-appropriating the maternal position as a form of citizenship was a strategic decision for Four Mothers, partly led by the movement itself and partly applied by the public discourse around it and its supportive or less supportive media coverage. Indeed, regardless of the movement’s investment in an informed critique, what popularized it and paved the road for its success was the call on family love and the soldier’s life as a way of undermining the military imperative.
While the movement contributed to the gendering of citizenship by legitimizing maternal affinity as a political position and was able to disarm national securitism, it also had the effect of excessively infantilizing the representative of state power, the soldier, now seen as an endangered son. Negotiations have a flip side. While kinship potentially introduces a different discourse to the dominance of militarism and security, it also speaks its language. Kinship plays into a fraught bio-political and affecto-political power, where it can quickly be used as a strategy for containing militarism and colonization rather than rupturing them. Whereas the call on kinship emerged as a critical stance, it ended up either being assimilated into the state’s own mechanisms of administrating and governing life, or sentimentalizing the very forms of power it sought to dismantle. Consequently, the movement’s call for geo-political re-strategizing (military withdrawal) made for the sake of “our sons” shifts the aim: from justice and rights for those subjugated by occupation, to withdrawal for the sake of domestic unity and the well-being of the family—and the nation.
This book’s topic, families’ homemade videos commemorating their loved ones, soldiers who died as part of Israel’s long-running regime of security and military aggression, encapsulate the same paradox. Initially a challenge to the state-run memory in their call on intimacy as a mode of labor and production that prioritizes love over death (or money), they ended up, or maybe were to begin with, at the very core of sovereign politics. To end occupation and violence for the sake of “our sons” stays within the discourse of security, the only difference being that what is protected is not territory, wealth, or the population at large, but kinship. Calling upon kinship exposes the price of loss, but does not imagine life outside or beyond the colonial military state.
In the discourse of liberalism, the sovereign subject—a self-sufficient, self-governed figure of liberalism, our son or their parent—is situated as the vector for everything which is just and right, and needs to be defended. As a citizen, our son or their parent validates a system of normative, indeed gendered and racialized, social values, with the family as its ultimate symbol. In order to unlearn a social logic so total as the logic of militarism in Israel, there are some attachments, some sentiments, we will have to let go. Nevertheless, a critique of the inside of that social logic, its intimacy, is meant not to further normalize or sanctify it, but to insist on citizenship as the space for political action and resistance.
Working on intimacy, sometimes ends do not meet. When trying to gather information on a video in memory of Eliav Geffen, a soldier who died in 1975 in a fire exchange across the northern border, I found very little about the video itself, which was made in 2011 by a semi-professional local production studio. In my research I discovered, however, a news item in the press from 2006 that mentions Geffen’s father. Upon receiving the Memorial Day letter written to bereaved families by the Ministry of Defense, Geffen’s father sent the letter back to the Ministry with a poignant letter of his own. The father writes: “I sadly return your generic condolences. . . . The letter has no substance and it is full of cliches. Our damn aggression killed my son, Eliav, for nothing. . . . You kill and eliminate and cannot realize that war, hatred and death will stay with us until we will grant our neighbors minimal autonomy and dignity.”
Eliav Geffen’s father joined the Israeli-Palestinian forum, an anti-occupation, bi-national organization that mobilizes mourning and kinship as means of recognition. He did not appear in the 2011 memorial video. Geffen’s mother did appear, and in one of the more excruciating scenes, she walks to the place where, thirty-five years earlier, her son was killed, a spot she can clearly see from her home. Ends do not meet not because the information I gathered was partial, which is mostly the case when working on autonomous media made outside industrial matrixes. It is also not because of the tension between the video’s special circumstances and its being part of a consistent mode of production, a tension held by all videos as expressions of personal mourning. It is because there are systems of proximities here that are hard to cohere. What does it mean to want to distance yourself from loss’s very mechanisms, yet to live so intimately with the space of loss? I share the story of the video in memory of Eliav Geffen precisely because I could not make meaning of it and believe this is an important position to hold in relation to these materials. This does not mean that I am hesitant in my critique of the overall mechanism that the videos eventually serve, but that I acknowledge that mourning often resists meaning, or stays utterly opaque, that there are contradictory vocations like rejecting the state’s cliches and seeking other channels to articulate your loss, and that complicity is a complex and not straightforward position. In this book I try to represent intimacy in its nuances, yet to be clear about what is at stake for the oppressed. By articulating the multiple ways in which citizens attached themselves to the state and its violent endeavors I hope to open up a path for refusal: to object being a citizen of an intimate sovereignty.