Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Neither Germans nor Jews (but international socialists)

We who uphold abstract multiculturalism, must be self-critical. We who decry the racist lurch of Europe toward 'Leitkultur' and its troublesome apparatus of state surveillance, deportations, police violence, pogroms and so on, must acknowledge that we have helped to create this problem. We must accept that our abstract multiculturalism was itself always-already a particular version of 'Leitkultur', to which they - a referent as ubiquitous as 'we' - have been invited to submit. We should have been explicit about this. We should have embraced it. We have been foolish in delaying this solution for so long. Our 'Leitkultur' must be radical, emancipatory, just like Europe of old. We must revive Europe.

The above, by repetition, becomes familiar, almost intuitive - its loaded terms and assumptions are easy to internalise, the historical ignorance it requires easy to assume or feign, for the sake of argument. Yet it remains unsettling, because you can't help noticing that you're being press-ganged for a role that you may not want to occupy. You are a 'we' or a 'they', a German or a Jew - Zizek prefers to use the analogy of 'Greeks and Jews', but I think this one works better - and your we-ness (or they-ness) resides in your ownership of, and belonging to, a discrete, monochromatic cultural bloc. And if you are a 'they', it's hard not to feel there's a certain amount of anxiety and suspicion toward you, as if your presence is inherently problematic, brings up all sorts of defensive reactions, and demands that something be done about you, to you - evidently not what has been done, which may even have been too tolerant. You would be hard-pressed to see where your interests come in, since it is implicitly a problem for 'we' to be resolved by 'we' and no one else. You are not the intended audience, that much is clear, and you may not wish to be coerced into the role of the troublesome minority.

And even if you're a 'we', then suppose your experience doesn't conform to those expectations? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you live in New Cross, or Whitechapel, or somewhere else that you can identify as a place where mixed-race marriage, multicultural workplaces and schools, and so on, are quite unremarkable? (In fact, I can't speak for elsewhere in Europe, but Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson have demonstrated fairly conclusively that such inter-racial, multicultural relations are the norm in those parts of the UK where there is significant cultural, ethnic, or 'racial' diversity). So put yourself in that position, and suppose you've never had this problem of worrying over how much to tolerate your brother, your lover, your mother, your friend, your comrade, your work mate, or your neighbour? Wouldn't you find this attempted interpellation ominous? Maybe you have feelings for one of 'they', but leave that to one side just for a second. Just think about what you're expected to be, implicitly, in this drama of uneasy tolerance and mutual suspicion. Somehow you, though you've probably never been one before, are expected to become a European (a white European, obviously - this is implicit). Only by means of this racist interpellation do you become in some sense the same as Tony Blair, Philip Green, the Pope, Jacques Chirac, Silvio Berlusconi, and Geert Wilders, to select but a few of that Enlightened continent's luminaries. This offers you what, exactly? Nothing, if not a brutal simplification of your experience as a human being. Nothing, if not a sense of superiority, of chauvinistic pride. Do you want it? Is it enough to make up for the personal loss involved in such a role, the loss of complex, easy, loving, or just amicable relations with people around you? Is it enough to make up for the wider loss, as a nosy, bossy cultural bullying undermines actually existing social solidarity in the name of Europe? Probably not. So, who is left to be the target audience here, to accept this role? Apart, that is, from certain professional layers, including the vast majority of politicos, journalists, think-tankers, and probably a lot of academics?

And I raise this not because I want to start one of those interminable Zizek debates, what with the exhausting sequence of bad tempered snarks and decoys that usually follows. He's an example and, because he never stops banging on about the same obsessions, he's easy to make an example of - but the territory he is staking out is not exactly deserted. I raise it just to pinch myself, and remind myself that I live in 2011, not the 1950s. And that there is a way of talking about culture which does not submit to the racist political ontology of Europe, or any other imagined white community; which does not believe that culture can or should be the subject of some sort of national policing operation in the interests of cohesion; which does not see culture as a property, or a territorial entity, or as anything other than a manifold sequence of parallel, multilinear processes that could never adequately be captured in any amount of dichotomising concerning Europe and its Others. Allow me to give you an example of a place where such arid binaries still dominate. In Northern Ireland, there are only ever 'Protestants' and 'Catholics'. The growing number of people who say they are of neither or no religion in the census tends to be ignored. Instead, we hear constantly of how the Catholics are outbreeding the Protestants (it's a 'race' race, and they're winning!), of how eventually there will be a nationalist majority brought about by a papist conspiracy using the simple expedient of avoiding contraception. This has literally been the basis for much paramilitary violence against Catholics - we have to beat them now, or they'll have us under their thumbs soon enough, so the logic goes. But one does not have to be either a Protestant or a Catholic, either a German or a Jew. There are other, much preferable ways of being.