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Okay, as eager as I am to get back to pop culture, last week’s Egypt blog was just a mess. So, I’m going to do one more week of politics and clarify what I was trying to say last time. But soon, shiny happy “OMG TV representation is so crazy!”


Let’s rewind to last week and think about that tweet again and what it tells us about Egypt:

By itself, it gave me an “Aha!” moment, but what I figured out thanks to Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire was what it really meant.

So, we’ve got this ideology that says that the West is the beacon and arbiter of all things civilized. Only “we” are democratic, free, tolerant, etc., and “they” are inherently (constitutive-other-ly, in fact) none of those things.

Under this model, when non-Western countries refuse to acknowledge Western superiority and beg us to lead them into the light, they’re hopelessly backward. Nevermind that they may have different sets of values—the community over the individual, say—and don’t want to do things our way.

Nevermind, in fact, that the idea that things like religion are private is totally grounded in the Protestant idea that you have a personal, reasoned relationship with God and that it isn’t actually a model that’s portable to other types of religion, let alone other sorts of ways people differ from each other like race or gender.

No, no. None of that. “We” are right and “they” are wrong, end of story. “We” are superior in the way we tolerate things, which they don’t do. “They” are so intolerant that we refuse to tolerate their intolerance. “They” have to change and be more like us. This is not us being culturally imperialist, but a universal value of humanity that they refuse to recognize.

That, then, is what “we hate you because you hate our freedom” references—the insistence that non-Western cultures be exactly like Western ones or else be barbaric is bound to piss off those people getting labeled barbarians.

It’s only under a logic like this that the Washington Post can tell us that the “Arab world” has a “freedom deficit” and “political underdevelopment”—because there’s a norm they aren’t living up to. It’s a Western norm, but it’s seen as a universal norm.

There is, as I pointed out, a gesture away from the first part of the logic—“they” are inherently barbarous and un-free-able—with the WaPo arguing that the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere are “exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism.”

But the second part of the logic still stands, where the West’s way of doing this is inherently superior, such that it amounts, as I suggested last week, to “Hey, those Arabs aren’t as irreparably backward as we always thought. They want to be like us after all!”

But this part is exactly what the protests in Egypt are rupturing, if we can see what they mean. The idea that “we” are the keeper of things like freedom and “they” aren’t allowed to be free or tolerant or internally diverse unless “we” bring it to them has to go out the window when there’s an uprising from within.

Not spurred by U.S. invasion, literal or figurative, but the people themselves in a non-Western place saying “We are SO done with this dictatorship thing.” The idea of resistant “savages” being forced or cajoled into freedom by a light-bringing West is looking a lot less reasonable these days.

That’s what I really meant to say. Tune in next time for The Peculiar Racialization of Rachel Berry.

Once again this week, it’s a retweet by @Halfrican_One that gets me thinking—in combination with spending some time with Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire

First, since it came first, the tweet:

When I first read this, I had a “Huh.” moment. It rang true somehow, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

But then I read Brown’s sixth chapter, “Subjects of Tolerance: Why we are Civilized and They are the Barbarians” (assigned to me years ago now but not gotten-around-to until exam time came calling) and it all fell into place.

The chapter, Brown says, explores “how and why liberalism conceives of itself as unique in its capacity to be culturally neutral and culturally tolerant, and conceives of nonliberal ‘cultures’ as disposed toward barbarism” (151).

This supposed “barbarism,” Brown contends, is the result of nonliberal/nonwestern societies being “depicted not only as relentlessly and inherently intolerant but as potentially intolerable for their putative rule by culture or religion and their concomitant devaluation of the autonomous individual” (166). That is, the West imagines itself as tolerant and imagines tolerance as a universal value. What it won’t tolerate, though, is intolerance.

So, there’s a lot going on there, and I haven’t gotten back to Egypt yet, but sit tight.

This only makes sense in a situation under which, by self-nomination, “liberal societies become the broker of what is tolerable and intolerable” (166). This, in its turn, relies on the ideas of “culture as separable from political power and political power as capable of being cultureless,” which are, Brown argues, “what permit principles of liberal democracy to be universalizable without being culturally imperialist” (170).

Okay, so if principles of liberal democracy are imagined to be universal rather than a culturally-imperialist imposition, and if tolerating (not embracing or celebrating, mind you) difference is one of those principles, and nonwestern societies are imagined to be intolerably intolerant, they start to look like they’re inherently unable to live up to those universalized ideals.

If all of this seems like a stretch, let’s turn to some news coverage of the protest in Egypt. The Washington Post tells us that the “Arab world” has a “‘freedom deficit’ signaling the political underdevelopment that accompanied many other economic and social maladies.” Their level of freedom is a “deficit,” and they’re “politically underdeveloped.” If that doesn’t smack of an imperialist-minded universalization of a Western norm, I don’t know what does.

(Though, while I’m on the subject, et tu, WaPo? I’d expect this racist, cultural-elitist, anti-Islamic crap from the Wall St. Journal [AKA the print edition of Fox News], but you? You’re an upstanding journalistic institution, I thought. Maybe I’m wrong about your rep.)

They go on to say that “all these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’ as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush’s support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force.”

This is again interesting, because it assumes that the only kind of invasion or imposition that matters is the military kind. But the idea that everyone has to govern themselves in exactly the way that we (Americans, Westerners) do is cultural imperialism.

But hey, they redeem themselves, right? They say that “the massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and are exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism.”

Unfortunately, they don’t mean what we would like them to mean, because the next sentence is “Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections.” Which essentially amounts to “Hey, those Arabs aren’t as irreparably backward as we always thought. They want to be like us after all!”

This is particularly cultural imperialism given that, as Brown points out, under this same logic democracy is imagined to be inherently hostile to culture or religion or any group identification other than the nation.

Unless that religion is Christianity.

Or, maybe, only if that religion is Islam. As Brown points out, there has been a cyclical repetition of the idea that “those people can’t be trusted; they aren’t like us, their allegiance is really to X”: it was Jews who were imagined inherently traitorous in the 19th century, communists in the 20th, and it’s Muslims today (166).

Which I guess brings us back to Nidal Hasan again

So those are my (admittedly somewhat disorganized) thoughts about Egypt.

As Lisa Nakamura has demonstrated in Digitizing Race and elsewhere, the fact that the rise of the internet was contemporaneous with mid-90’s neoliberal colorblind discourse has resulted in a conception of the internet as a race-free environment. However, as she also shows, at the level of people’s real use of the internet, their racial identity is a key part of how they present themselves online, whether through AIM buddies or pregnancy website avatars.

This disjuncture becomes less perplexing when this racial formation is viewed through the idea of incitement to discourse that Michel Foucault elaborates in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. This is to say that the foreclosing of official discourses of race by neoliberalism not only didn’t make racial inequality go away (i.e. there’s still an un-level playing field), but is also “not a plain and simple imposition of silence. Rather, it was a new regime of discourses. Not any less was said about it; on the contrary. But things were said in a different way; it was different people who said them, from different points of view, and in order to obtain different results” (Foucault, 27).

Under neoliberalism, Nakamura notes in her 2009 piece Don’t Hate the Payer, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft, racism is “the result of the person who identifies it, for they are the ones who ‘see’ race, or ‘make the difference in their head’” (p.139). That is, it is a system in which it is assumed that if we don’t talk about race, it will go away, along with its attendant problem of racism.

The reverse side of this discourse, of course, is that “if it insisted on making itself too visible, it would be designated accordingly and would have to pay the penalty,” such that all discussion of race comes to be silenced (Foucault, 4). Nakamura terms this “the language of tolerance, or of disavowing racism by simply omitting all language referring to race,” and points out that it “functioned to perpetuate digital inequality by both concrete and symbolic means” (Nakamura 2008b, 3). (For a further discussion of neoliberal colorblindness, see Omi and Winant’s 1994 book Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s.)

However, I contend that it had a second effect—in that “the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression,” we want to speak of it more and more, to insist on these identity categories because they are denied (Foucault, 6).

The incitement to discourse does, of course, work a bit differently around race than Foucault describes it working with respect to sex; in the case of the former, it went from circulating relatively freely in unofficial contexts to being constrained there but proliferating in medical, educational, and legal official, institutional contexts.

With race, on the other hand, its official instantiation—begun, at least according to David Roediger, in 1676—fell out of favor and racial discourses proliferated instead in unofficial contexts (Roediger 2009). This is to say that, under the neoliberal colorblind model, it is imperative that we not notice race in institutional contexts, but in day-to-day practice we clearly do notice it—and in that identities get erased by the implicit whiteness of colorblind discourse, it is imperative that we do.

Thus, we are incited to racialized discourse, and, as with sex, this is not outside power but a part of the very same system that made certain phenotypic features into an essence in the first place.

In this context, then, rather than accepting the neoliberal model as producing silence, “we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required” (Foucault, 27).

Thus, though “race” is now supposedly invisible, we can talk about insufficiently assimilated immigrant “culture” as a proxy (Nakamura 2008b, 3). Similarly, the fact that race does not exist as a category on the AIM buddy icon sites Nakamura describes does not stop the expression of racial identities; they’re just shifted off onto “nationality” (Nakamura 2008b, 44). In these ways, there is “a very rigorous expurgation of the authorized vocabulary,” but discourse proliferates unchecked (Foucault, 17).

The content of these proliferating racialized discourses makes their status as incited and not external to power even clearer. Of the pregnancy website’s avatars, Nakamura notes that “each figure is composed to look phenotypically the same in terms of facial features, yet distinct from each other in terms of skin color, hair color, and body shape”; she likens this to “the popular BeDazzler, a device that enables users to attach crystals, beads, and other trimmings to jeans or pocketbooks,” arguing that “these avatars embody an aesthetic of decoration that has to do with adornment of an existing ‘base.’ And in a sense, race is one of those aspects of adornment” (Nakamura 2008b, 144).

In this way, then, race becomes something of a fashion statement, a different-colored coating on an identical inside—like an M&M or gumball. Thus, as Nakamura argues , “while Race 1.0 was understood as socially constructed, a process that at least acknowledges that race and gender are historical formations, Race 2.0 is user-generated” (Nakamura 2008a, 1680). This user-generation promises us freedom, the ability to invent and express ourselves without boundaries, and so we eagerly take it up.

Of course, Race 2.0 isn’t a space of freedom. First, the internet may allow freedom of creation, but this is always within constraint, such that we must “view the interface as an object that compels particular sorts of identifications, investments, ideological seductions, and conscious as well as unconscious exercises of power” (Nakamura 2008b, 17).

Thus, in creating an online racialized identity, we are constrained the affordances built into (and left out of) the interface we use, as demonstrated by the simplicity of the AIM buddies. Second, the terms of race in existence in culture do not disappear when moved onto the internet; though Nakamura rightly notes that the digital divide is not a strict, either/or division, differential access to all sorts of resources is a fact of this country’s racial system, and so are stereotypes, and both factor into racial representation online (Nakamura 2008b 15, 18).

Finally, the BeDazzler-ified race performances Nakamura describes underscore the ways in which identity has become inextricable from capitalist consumerist choice. The processes Miranda Joseph (2002) describes are only intensified when enacting identity online, as race becomes something you paint on—and, thus, implicitly can take off or repaint a different color, as Nakamura’s example of Jennifer Lopez’s racial flexibility demonstrates. In this way, digital racial formation frequently works to obscure the power relations in operation with respect to race, and this, I think, should trouble us.

Works Cited
Foucault, M 1990, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. (New York: Vintage).
Joseph, M 2002, Against the Romance of Community (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P).
Nakamura, L 2008a, Cyberrace. PMLA 123(5), 1673-1682.
—– 2008b, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P).
—– 2009, “Don’t Hate the Payer, Hate the Game: The Racialization of Labor in World of Warcraft”. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 26(2), 128-144.
Omi M and Winant H, 1994, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s 2/e (New York: Routledge).
Roediger D 2009, “Hope and History: Past and Present Burdens of Race.” Center for Advanced Study Special Presentation, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.