Exterminating people by ‘rubbishing them’ is always less dramatic than when it is done through massacres.
As my facebook friends know, I take my status updates seriously. This does not mean that I only treat serious topics, or that I take myself overly seriously. Indeed I can be very frivolous and I always maintain a healthy cynicism towards whichever way I happen to see myself favorably on any given day. What I mean by taking my facebook entries seriously is that I put all (or at least a lot) of myself into them: in them, I am rational and emotional, intellectual and political, public and personal, theoretical and empirical and a lot more.
I am saying this because I am beginning this piece by reflecting on a couple of status updates I have made in the last few months. So, I want readers, especially those who are quickly inclined to do so, to at least wait until I finish before thinking that I am conceited for thinking that my facebook entries are worthy of any serious reflection at all. What led me to reflect on these entries is a realization that, despite the different subject matter between at least some of them, they have been driven by very similar sentiments and emotions: disgust, rage, anger, pain and sadness. I want to reflect on the source of this similarity.
The first entry is dated March 9, 2013 when I was invited to give a keynote at a conference held at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank. I wrote it after I had been given a tour around Ramallah and Jerusalem the day before the conference. It went this way:
I did tell the organiser of this conference that I don’t feel I should be giving a keynote on ‘Palestine between dependence and independence’, that I am hardly the most empirically knowledgeable person in this field. But he insisted. ‘Everyone says you make people think outside the box. That’s what we need’ he said. I was flattered. But one day of experiencing the ‘settlements’ and the wall has already so fundamentally disturbed me. I’ve read all that can be read about the Wall and the settlements and I was still fundamentally shocked… How is this possible today? It is like a colonialism running amok with power. Walling people as they please, mistreating them as they please, building colonies high up on the hills and literally shitting on those living down the hill by letting their sewer come out outside the settlements for others to cope with it. How heroic is it that the Palestinian people are still managing to squeeze a bit of life in the midst of this? and what is there more to say that does not sound cheap? I seriously am not enjoying the prospect of presenting this keynote.
The second entry came following reading a Haaretz article on the occasion of what would have been Walter Benjamin’s 120th birthday telling the story of his suicide as he lost hope of escaping the Nazis in Marseille. The thought of someone as grand, as brilliant and as sensitive a thinker as Walter Benjamin being subjected to so much humiliation leading to his suicide always hits me hard:
It always makes me so sad reading about this. You think ‘fuck fascism and anti-semitism’. Never Again. Fascist anti-semitic evil might have been banal but that didn’t stop it being close to a form of pure evil. And the struggle against fascist anti-semitism is as ‘pure good’ as you can get. Except for those who pollute it by investing it with the function of legitimising zionist fascism. I wouldn’t say all forms of zionism are like this, but this is really what the dominant form of zionism in Israel is: a pollution of the struggle against anti-semitism.
The third entry was not that long ago following Rudd’s infamous introduction of the ‘PNG solution’ to deal with the dangerous encirclement of Australia by billions of Third World Looking creatures coming to get us:
To help think the culture to which Rudd’s asylum seekers’s policy is appealing to and which he hopes will find him appealing — a creative modification of some cultural and dictionary definitions:
*Stingy, Mean* both mean reluctant to part with money, goods, possessions or benefits. unwilling to share, give, or spend possessions or benefits. *Mean* also suggests a small-minded, ignoble, petty stinginess leading to miserable, cheerless, or vacuously cheerful, living.
*battlers* old Australian English: working class people. New Australian English: lower middle class people who desire and think they deserve to be upper middle class. Old Marxist English: ‘petty bourgeois shits’. Characterised by a permanent state of insecurity and a permanent sense that more privileges are never enough. Often believe newspaper reports that the ‘Australian economy is booming’ and feel that things are never booming enough for them when compared to X and Y.
*Ordinary Australians* Australian-born and immigrants who can’t believe their luck that they’re born, or have successfully settled, in Australia, and got away with occupying and making use of indigenous land without having to pay for it — see for comparative purposes ‘Israeli settlers’ — Can’t shake a sense of loving what they have being perturbed by a feeling of ‘haunted enjoyment’. This sentiment has been referred to in a previous Hage publication as ‘the sensitivity of thieves’.
*Lucky-worried Australians* another product of the unequally shared ‘economic boom’. A prototype of the lucky-worried subject is a person who is given a business class upgrade on (usually) a very short flight, can’t believe their luck, but instead of enjoying it, they spend their time worrying about economy class people entering the business class cabin to use the toilet.
The final one, which actually initiated these reflections, came about when a colleague made a light-hearted comment about my recent habit of replacing my own photo on my facebook page with that of ‘dead anthropologists’. I am teaching a subject on Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift and I initially had a photo of him standing for me. Now that I have moved to teach the well-known influence of The Gift on the thought of Claude Levi-Strauss, it is his picture that is occupying my little photographic fantasy space. I replied to my colleague that I find it quite useful and enjoyable to have this little identity shift as I am reading and teaching particular thinkers. I then mentioned, kind of en passant, that I also found it a bit perversely enjoyable to embody or let myself be embodied by the spirit of both Mauss and Levi-Strauss insofar as they are both Jewish thinkers. But then I remembered a night I was reading about Mauss’ personal history and discovered that he too had been subjected to the humiliation of the Nazis towards the end of his life and so I added:
Actually not always enjoyable I was seriously shattered when I became aware that Marcel Mauss in the last days of his life had to walk with a yellow star stuck on his jacket.
It was not dissimilar to learning about Benjamin’s death. If anything it was even more upsetting. I always identified with Marcel Mauss far more than with his uncle Emile Durkheim, who was a bit ‘priestly’ for my taste. Marcel Mauss loved life, was a good eater and a cook, and had a great sense of humour. So again the thought of this great mind being demeaned by the murderous and mediocre Nazi machine upset me immensely. I actually cried in my bed that night as I was reading about it. It was not that I consider the intellectual victims of Nazism intrinsically more important than any other victim. It was more a reflection of the kind of people I end up identifying with and sublimating as an academic.
It was while recalling this that the thought came to my mind that some of the sentiments of disgust, anger and pain that I mention above, and that I experienced reading about Mauss and Benjamin were not that dissimilar from the sentiments I experienced when I started thinking about asylum seekers following Rudd’s pronouncements on the ‘PNG solution’. And certainly not dissimilar to how I felt when I toured the occupied Palestinian territories.
Indeed after my Palestinian tour I also had to retreat to my room to let myself cry. I felt ashamed feeling the urge to cry while those who were actually subjected to this inhuman treatment stoically enduring it by my side. So I had to retreat to do it. What really got to me in Palestine was the settlers letting their sewage run on Palestinian villages. Twice we were driving through a Palestinian village when suddenly there was an invasion of the smell of the Israeli shit ‘landing’ nearby. I kept thinking to myself that a historical and ethical line was crossed here somewhere: ‘you colonize and you oppress, ok, it’s been done before, but to also literally shit on the people you are colonizing takes colonization into a different realm’. It then struck me that in fact there was probably a classificatory affinity in the eyes of the Israeli colonists between shit and the Palestinians. What differentiates Israeli Apartheid from South African Apartheid is that white South Africans actually needed black South Africans as cheap labour, while the Israelis have no necessary need for Palestinian labour. Indeed they had no need for the Palestinians full stop. And so, in the colonists’ eyes, Palestinian space is always already a kind of social rubbish dump suitable for letting one’s sewage run into it.
The historians of slavery have often pointed out that despite the vile racism that characterized slavery, slave owners had an interest in the well-being of their slaves. After all they were their property and they were useful. This was not so in the case of the Israeli relation to the Palestinians. This is when I thought that the similarity of the sentiment that came to me in Palestine, and when reading about the Nazi victimization of Mauss and Benjamin was precisely this: the extreme devalorization of people that I highly valorized; a dumb, insensitive, machine-ic and relentless devalorization which went as far as treating people like disposable waste.
And is that not what is particularly vile about Australia’s ‘PNG solution’? The vileness resides in the very mode of speaking of refugees by refusing to address them in the sense of looking them in the eyes, and recognize their tragic experiences, while addressing instead ‘the business plan’ of the people smugglers who are supposedly transporting and circulating them. It makes one feel as if Rudd and company could just as easily be discussing the illegal dumping of chemical waste or something along this line.
So, there are situations where saying that colonisation can be a ‘mode of rubbishing’ people is more than engaging in flowery metaphors. ‘Rubbishing’ is actually a colonial technique. Indeed even Australia’s colonization of indigenous people took more a form of rubbishing than a form of exploitation of the labour of the colonized. Exterminating people by ‘rubbishing them’ is always less dramatic than when it is done through massacres. It is more like dumping a truck that one has destroyed somewhere on one’s property and letting it slowly rust, corrode and disintegrate. This is perhaps a dominant Australian mode of racial extermination, but there are variations on the same theme throughout the colonial world.
The historian of French intellectual life, Didier Eribon, tells this story:
I recall what Georges Dumézil told me about the day when, during the war, he went to visit his master and friend Marcel Mauss and saw for the first time the yellow star sewn onto his clothing. He could not take his eyes off this frightful stigma. The great sociologist then remarked to him: “You are looking at my gob of spit.” For a long time I understood this phrase in the most straightforward way: Mauss meant that he considered this bit of yellow cloth as a dirty stain, a piece of filth thrown in his face. But eventually someone pointed out to me that I was mistaken: Mauss had doubtless used the word “crachat” [literally, “gob of spit”] in the sense of “decoration.” And indeed, one of the old demotic meanings of the word “crachat” is that of insigne, medal, or decoration.
We can trust Mauss, the master analyst of symbolic exchange, to know how to receive a blow and turn it, at least from a personal symbolic perspective, to his favour. Ultimately he manages to replay for us in his own way an old dramatic move: the act of wearing one’s humiliation like a badge of honour. It is with this question that I want to end here: who are today the inheritors of this ambivalent badge of honour? Who are the wearers of the equivalent of the yellow star today? Certainly, it is those asylum seekers and indigenous people everywhere who are heroically struggling against their colonial rubbishing. This is true even in the case of Palestine despite the Zionist claims of being the inheritors of the yellow star par excellence.
For as numerous Jews inside and outside Israel know, the honour associated with the yellow star is not something that can be transmitted ethnically. It is something earned by living up to the nobility of the tragic experience of which it is a metonymy. This is why, while this star has to remain yellow, for anti-Semitism remains a real and present danger in today’s world, it nonetheless also comes with the added colours of Palestine as well as the colour of all those other indigenous people and refugees who are ‘rubbished’ in history.
Ghassan Hage is Future Generation Professor of Anthropolgy and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of, amongst others, White Nation (1998) and Against Paranoid Nationalism (2003).