Coughing out the Law: Perversity and Sociality around an Eating Table

by | 18 Jan 2013

Ham SandwichIt was lunchtime at Sydney’s David Jones, Australia’s up-market department store chain. So I headed down to the ‘food floor’. Whenever I have to shop at DJs I try to make sure I go there around midday, precisely so I can go down to the food floor and order the exceptionally succulent off the bone ham sandwich at the roast carvery section. You can buy it and sit and eat it at a large ‘communal’ table nearby.

So here I was enjoying my super sandwich with a bottle of mineral water and reading the approaching Sydney Film Festival program when opposite me across the roughly 1.5 meter wide table came and sat an older woman. She seemed in her seventies, well, but conservatively, dressed, and not a single part of her visible self was left to chance: ‘tirée à quatre épingles’ as the French say. She had a sushi roll in an open plastic container and a bottle of water. She opened a paper serviette on the table in front of her as if to mark a space of her own, and opened her bottle of water, carefully positioning the cap on the serviette. She then opened a sachet of soy sauce, poured it on the sushi roll, and again positioned the sachet very neatly on the serviette. I lost interest and went back reading about films and eating my sandwich. Not long after, I put my head up as I hear the woman say: ‘Excuse me’. There was something unpleasant in the way she said it and I looked behind me to see if she was speaking to someone else. But she kept her eyes on me and said quite loudly: ‘No. You.’ If there was something mildly unpleasant about the ‘excuse me’, the ‘No. You’ was unabashedly aggressive — a spectre of my severe super-ego masquerading as a not-amused Queen Elizabeth-like figure speaking to me with imperial tones floated around. And what it had to say was even less pleasant. To my utter astonishment the woman spoke clearly for everyone on the table to hear: ‘Do you mind putting your hand on your mouth when you cough’?

Heads turned.

To say that I was embarrassed and unhappy would be an understatement. I had coughed. It was ‘true’, as Fanon said on that train. And I am not mentioning Fanon because his name came to me by chance. I did feel that I was, for the first time in my life, being subjected to some in-your-face racializing, a ‘look Mamma a black man’-Fanon-on-the-train-like situation. For while it was true that I coughed, it was (please, please, please believe me) the mildest of coughs. And what’s more, I did (please, please, please believe me) turn my head discretely away from the table. This woman was picking on me! I was convinced she was trying to create for her own benefit a ‘First-world-looking civilised person trying to stop third-world-looking guy from polluting the atmosphere in middle class store’-type scene.

Things happened very fast. Very quickly, instantly, my embarrassment gave way to an aggressive combativeness, and in less than a split second I knew that anything of the order of: ‘I did move my head’, or ‘I am quite far away from you’ or ‘It was only a mild cough’ would have been a succumbing to the way she had defined the parameters of the situation. It took less than another split second more for me to assume a very unaffected but nonetheless combative and ready for further attacks posture. I looked her back in the eyes and said: ‘Look, if you are old and lonely, there must be better ways of socializing.’ And I pretended to be back reading my paper as if I was not concerned at all by what she had said and what had just happened.

Given that I had firmly fixed an image of her in my mind as an aggressive kind of woman, I was also ready for her to make some vicious riposte, and I was already preparing to rip into her again. But, when I looked up, to my astonishment, I realised that she was now quietly crying.

Now I was embarrassed in a completely different way. And while, before, everyone on the table was looking at me with a degree of uncertainty trying to figure out ‘what a man who coughs without putting his hand on his mouth looks like’, now everyone was looking at me as ‘the little monster who made the old lady cry’. It’s ‘true’, Fanon would have said.

Suddenly I was occupying a space of vacillation. First, I was no longer so sure that this was all about racism. While the manner the woman addressed me was clearly unacceptable, there was room to doubt whether she intended to racialize me. Have I not done here what I have often warned my ‘anti-racism’ students against doing: just because there is a history of racialization does not mean anyone who shows aggression in an inter-racial context is by necessity racializing. Anti-racism is very much a child of the Marx, Nietzsche, Freud tradition of critique that Ricoeur has called the hermeneutic of suspicion. And as Eve Sedgwick wonderfully put it: it is a tradition governed by the injunction ‘you can never be paranoid enough’ (2003: 127).

There is a possibility that the woman was racializing me, but there is a possibility that she wasn’t. It could well be the case that she was just being a nuisance, not necessarily a racist nuisance. So, why did I go for the ‘paranoid’ racist option, which probably intensified the cruelness of my response? Was it her demeanour that made the ghosts of English colonial history come and nibble my ham sandwich? Or was it me? Researching and thinking too much about racism can make one see racism in its most subtle manifestations. Sedgwick tells us that such lucidity is part of paranoid thinking. But such thinking can also make one see racism where there is nothing racist to see.

One dream I had following the DJs encounter, and I had quite a few, played out the theme of racism in a particularly funny way, that probably also reveals an unsavoury part of my Christian Middle Eastern unconscious. I was holding the sandwich and looking at the woman who was no longer recognizable and trying to explain to her the significance of the fact that what I was eating was a ham sandwich: ‘Hello… can’t you see this is a… HAM… sandwich’ (I was not actually saying it but inviting her to realise what I was thinking). The dream’s assumption was that all racism was anti-Muslim racism and that the lady should have realised she was making a category mistake.

Despite its ridiculousness the dream was an invitation to go back and concentrate on the original scene. How can I try to further understand what has happened on that day if I am not to go back to the original reason I was there in the first place: to enjoy a ham sandwich?

I really enjoy those ham sandwiches. Deep down I am perhaps a bit embarrassed, but only a bit, by the degree to which I enjoy good food. In Paris, when I was a guest of Pierre Bourdieu as a post-doc, if I had to choose between a Bourdieu lecture and an invitation to a good restaurant, I’ve never failed to choose the latter. The jouissance I derive from the libidinal, particularistic and one to one relation between me and the food I am eating is an important fantasy space for me. A pre-oedipal fantasy space a Freudian might say, which could explain the aggression directed at those who puncture the fantasy with unwanted comments and interactions. So, there was room for ambivalence: maybe this had nothing to do with racism and all about my shameful food fantasies.

But there was also another source of ambivalence. When I saw the woman crying, I was convinced, rightly or wrongly, that I had hit the nail on the head: she clearly did feel old and lonely. So, faced with an ‘old and lonely’ woman in tears, part of me wanted to forget everything and just apologise, but part of me was still reeling from the ‘put your hand on your mouth’ bullying and didn’t want to apologise at all. In the end, I didn’t find it in me to do so. Even at that time, letting the lady cry without apologizing seemed cruel, especially since, I was already being ambivalent about whether she was a racist old lady or not. Yet, I couldn’t let go of my cruelty. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that for a moment there, I was enjoying my cruelty. But I was also scared of myself for feeling this way. Thus, I was clearly occupying a space of vacillation, or ambivalence as Freud would say. If little Hans’ ambivalence classically exhibited itself in the way he both feared his father and feared for his father (Freud 1909), there was something classical about my ambivalence towards my cruelty: I feared it and I feared for it to. I was scared of it: scared that it would take over me and transform me from someone who enjoyed a moment of cruelty into someone cruel. And yet, there was no doubt that I was enjoying it. It provided me with a scene, which, at a time when I felt threatened, allowed me to stage my self in a viable manner.

So this was how it all ended. I was ambivalent about the lady’s rudeness and racism, ambivalent about the cruelty I exhibited, and ambivalent about myself for liking it. With the woman drying her tears (someone actually gave her a tissue) and people still looking at me, I was increasingly finding both the situation I was in, and myself, unbearable. I picked up what was left of my sandwich and my bottle of water and angrily got up and left.

It was a memorable sandwich-eating session, and understandably I kept replaying in my head what had happened for a very long time. While I will never be certain that the woman cried because she was confronted with her loneliness by my comments, I kept thinking about the likelihood that she was. By chance, this raised issues concerning the nature of sociality, right-based entitlement and the law that I have been examining in my ethnographic work with the Lebanese diaspora. In one piece I am writing, I look at youngish cosmopolitan Lebanese from London, Paris, New York and Montreal, who enjoy going back to Lebanon to experience a sense of freedom from being straightjacketed by excessive laws and regulations in all aspects of their lives, the latter being part of their experience of living in the West. The analysis brings to the fore questions concerning the role of the law in mediating social relations: while the law makes social relations possible, is there a point where society can be said to have ‘too many laws’? At the heart of the matter are three issues all of which have a bearing on the DJs incident:

1. The first issue has to do with the difficulties emanating from the way the law ‘individualises’ and in so doing favours a form of public togetherness that does not threaten to dissolve individual sovereignties. Social and philosophical critiques of modernity and capitalism, since Rousseau, Hegel and Marx have often enough lamented the processes of individuation to which people are subjected in western societies. Sartre famously called this social and yet individuated existence la série, which to him was a kind of fundamental state of alienated sociality. One is struck for example, by how different the usage of public space is for working and under-class people in Beirut and in Sydney. While people in Beirut go to such public spaces to interact with the public, in Sydney, when people go to parks and beaches, they often go to claim a bit of public space as their own. This is hardly restricted to the under or working classes though. I live in a milieu of people who are all militantly committed to public spaces. Yet, whenever we go to a park or to the beach I often hear people say: ‘let’s find a place where there aren’t too many people’. People spread their blanket not only for comfort but as a mode of claiming public space as one’s own, a space where others should not thread, for the duration of its usage. A similar spirit seems to animate the woman at DJs in the way she spread her serviette on the ‘communal’/public eating table.

2. In so far as the law creates a relationality between people, it is a relationality of subjects who have been abstracted from their particularity by virtue of them being the subjects of national laws: citizens — which, as is well known, is what allows them to be ‘all equal before the law’. Here the law always seems to stage a tension between the libidinal and the abstract, the particular and the universal, dimensions of people. What makes a public eating space so interesting is that on one hand it is a public space which encourages the kind of abstract subjectivities referred to above and yet it is also an eating place where our bodily self, and indeed our libidinality is heavily manifested. As such, to eat on a public table is to continuously aim to negotiate the libidinal and legal/abstract self. While one is deploying one’s own libidinal self to enjoy the food, one is deploying the legal self to protect oneself from one’s own libidinality as well as the libidinality of others — such as claiming the right not to be coughed at. This leads directly to the final point/issue.

3. There is always a threshold whereby certain laws designed to protect citizens and facilitate sociality become excessively protective such as to become a hindrance to sociality. This is highlighted in the classical Zizekian tale of the black fat lesbian non-smoking female office worker: the law protects her against racism, sexism, weight discrimination, homophobia, and smoking, tells us Zizek, but… no one in the office talks to her.

Following Lauren Berlant (2011), one could argue that there is an embryonic structure of ‘cruel optimism’ that is at the heart of the law: it opens a space that both optimistically enhances and cruelly hinders the possibility of sociality. How much cruelty and how much optimism changes from one social and historical setting to another. It depends on what socio-legal structures of sociality a particular formation has to offer. But it also depends on the subject’s capacity to squeeze different kinds of socialities out of given situations. At one level, the woman at DJs seems to be an unreflexive enactor of an alienated form of seriality: happy with her individuality, happy with her sovereignty that can afford her the space of a serviette on a public table, happy to protect the sanctity of her abstract self in the face of the cough/libidinality of the other. At another level, however, her bullying reveals her to be a strategist — an unhappy and desperate strategist, but a strategist nonetheless — aiming to position herself out of the impasse of solitude and a-sociality in which the social world has located her. Seen in this light, her ‘don’t cough on me’, rather than, or perhaps along with, being the expression of a further desire for protection from any interaction with others, was also in fact an expression of the opposite: a desire for sociality in a space where sociality was at its minimum. As always with repressive structures, one ends up with sexuality and libidinality in both the repression and the transgression. Michael Taussig has shown us in his work, via Bataille, how there is ‘a certain sexual quality of the law and of breaking the law, the beauty and libidinality of transgression’ (1992: 124). ‘Don’t cough on me’ can conjure up the libidinal just as much as it represses it, while also simultaneously being a rejection and an invitation to sociality.

As Marshall Sahlin reminds us in his comparison between Hobbes and Mauss, anthropology has amply shown us that sociality does not have to be the product of sharing subjection to a common law. It can also be ensured by exchange and reciprocity. A good example, of clear relevance to us here, is Claude Levi-Strauss’s famous portrayal of wine exchange on the eating tables of southern France (1969). Even where sociality is largely regulated within a space of legality, there is always another sociality regulated by reciprocity and exchange. While people certainly don’t exchange their drinks on today’s public eating tables (which are actually becoming popular again in many restaurants and cafes), people nonetheless do exchange small talk (if only in the form of what Malinowski (1924) called ‘phatic communication’). Somehow, perhaps because it is an eating table at a department store where eating subjects are already individualised by their experience as consumers, DJs table is, on the whole, free from even such brief and light chit-chat. It is from this perspective that the woman’s bullying can be, within the social space of exchange and reciprocity, an offering made with the only shareable means of relationality left to her, taken from the space of legality: the assertion of her entitlement to be free of bodily relationality. It is an ambivalent kind of offering but an offering nonetheless: “telling you ‘don’t interact with me’ is the only thing left for me to offer as a means to interact with you and squeeze a bit of sociality from such a sociality-free situation”. She was still snatching a bit of optimism at the very place where society was at its cruellest as it were.

In that she still had it in her to try and socialise, even by offering such a perverse gift, as it were, perhaps she was revealing herself to be less alienated and accepting of the a-social regime that everyone else on the table that day, including myself, had happily accepted. For while, at another level, I have stressed her acceptance of the alienated regime of sovereign individuality in the way she delineated a bit of her personal space with her serviette, was I not myself, even more happily, but less visibly, doing the same by forming a closed circle between myself, my ham sandwich, my bottle of water and my Sydney Film Festival program? Despite her objectionable behaviour, she was perhaps the radical one on the table, unaccepting of existing forms of un-sociality and still hoping for the possibility for some other form of relationality. And it could well be, as my friend and colleague Stephen Muecke suggested, that sociality might have surged at the table after I made, to those seated at the table, the offer of my absence.

Ghassan Hage is Future Generation Professor of Anthropolgy and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of White Nation (1998) and Against Paranoid Nationalism (2003).


—Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.
—Sigmund Freud (1909) Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 8, Case Histories 1, 1977, pp. 169–306.
—Claude Lévi-Strauss, The elementary structures of kinship. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
—Bronislaw Malinowski “The problem of meaning in primitive languages”, supplement to Ogden, C. & Richards, I. (eds.), The Meaning of Meaning, London: Routledge, (1923) 1946.
—Marshall Sahlin, Stone Age Economics, New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1972.
—Michael Taussig, The Nervous System, New York: Routledge, 1992.
—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.


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