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Friday, November 17, 2006

"Netherlands proposes to ban burkas"

There are a couple of aspects of the matter that incites my interests in these--let me put out it out there right away--racist laws. And, to be entirely honest, none of them really relate to the question of secularism. I identify as a secular subject, but these so-called defences of secularism leave me cold--to say the least.

First of all, what I am really interested in is to develop a distinctively leftist response to the debate. Alain Badiou,
in a very sarcastic and powerful critique of the "scarfed law" in France, begins to formulate a leftist position that I can identify with, more or less. The ridiculousness of these bans compels Badiou to build his analysis of the french ban on hijab from the basic lacanian thesis pertaining the status of fantasy: rather than revealing anything about the object of fantasy, they lay bare the unconscious investments of the subject(s) of the fantasy. The title of the essay "Behind the Scarfed Law, There is Fear" is explained in a paragraph towards the end of this short intervention:
27. In truth of fact, the Scarfed Law expresses one thing and thing alone: fear. Westerners in general, the French in particular, are but a shivering, fearful lot. What are they afraid of? Barbarians, as usual. Those from within, i.e. the "young suburbanites"; those from without, i.e. "Islamist terrorists." Why are they frightened? Because they are guilty, but claim to be innocent. They are guilty of having renounced and attempted to annihilate-ever since the 1980s-every kind of emancipatory politics, every revolutionary form of Reason, and every true assertion of something else. Guilty of clutching at their lousy privileges. Guilty of being but old children playing with their manifold purchases. Yes, indeed, "in a long childhood, they have been made to age." They are thus afraid of everything a little less aged. A stubborn young lady, for instance.
This analysis reminded me of Michael Haneke's Cache. Perhaps, our contributor j.b. would like to intervene to my connection.

Of course, this critique of the "scarfed law" implicates the leftists,
feminists, seculars, and other so-called progressive (liberal) forces that lend support to it. The question of the feminist critique of the "veil" and the question of how to understand it in the context of the political economy of capitalism opens a second layer of considerations that leads us, unfortunately, to the question of how to theorize capitalism.

Here, in the same article, Badiou, once more mobilizes a set of lacanian concepts, this time the psychoanalytical critique of the libidinal economy of capitalism:
16. It is said virtually everywhere that the "veil" is an intolerable symbol of control over female sexuality. Do you really believe female sexuality to not be controlled in our society these days? This naiveté would have made Foucault laugh. Never has so much care been given to female sexuality, so much attention to detail, so much informed advice, so much distinguishing between its good and bad uses. Enjoyment has become a sinister obligation. The universal exposure of supposedly exciting parts is a duty more rigid than Kant's moral imperative. In passing, between our tabloids' "Enjoy it, women!" and our great-grandmothers' dictate "Don't enjoy it!" Lacan long ago established an isomorphism. Commercial control is more constant, more certain, more massive than patriarchal control could ever be. Generalized prostitutional circulation is faster and more reliable than the hardships of family incarcerations, the turnabouts of which kept audiences laughing for centuries from Ancient Greek comedy to Molière.
While I wholeheartedly agree that the shift from "don't enjoy it" to "enjoy it" is an important shift in the very ideological coordinates of capitalism, I would like to highlight two problems with this analysis.

Perhaps, from a marxist-lacanian perspective, the distinction that Badiou articulates between "commerical control" and "patriarchal control" is somewhat problematic. It is problematic because I am not so sure I understand how the two differ from one another. Elsewhere, C-Blok and I argued that the logic of capitalist-all resembles the masculine logic of exception that Lacan develops out of his readings of Freud and Kant (see Joan Copjec's "Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason" for a "heady" introduction). If those two are homologous, then, what are the differences between commercial and patriarchal control? Do they correspond to capitalist and feudal forms of exploitation, respectively? If they do, then is the story that Badiou tells us the story of an uneven transition (or, perhaps, perpetual co-existence of) two modes of production (with their particular economic, political, and cultural conditions of existence) side by side, or is he sarcastically pointing at the anachronistic obsession, in the age of late capitalism, with feudalism, patriarchy, etc.?

This brings me to the second problem. The analysis of capitalism that informs this critique of the "scarfed law" views capitalism as a "commercial" system. In this analysis, capitalism is conflated with markets. Capitalism should not be equated with markets but rather should be viewed as an insititutional organization of the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus by non-laborers that can exist with a variety of forms of circulation (ranging from the price mechanism to the administrative fiat). One important limitation of this view of capitalism qua market, a view that fails to conceptualize capitalism as one among many institutional forms (e.g., feudal, slave) of trying to domesticate the real of class antagonism, is its failure to formulate and enact a different relation to the real of class antagonism. Reduction of capitalism to market exhange simplifies it and to the extent that the object of critique is simplified, it becomes difficult to find openings in its edifice to begin deconstructing it.

The problem surfaces most clearly in Badiou's deployment of "prostitution" as the metonymy of the "commercial" system.
17. The mother and the whore. In some countries, reactionary laws are drafted in favor of the mother and against the whore. In other countries, progressive laws are drafted in favor of the whore and against the mother. Yet it's the alternative between the two which must be rejected.

18. Not however by the "neither... nor...", which only perpetuates on neutral ground (i.e. at the center, like with François Bayrou?) what it professes to contest. "Neither mother, nor whore," that's quite pathetic. As is "neither whore nor submissive," which is simply absurd: isn't a "whore" generally submissive, and oh so much? In France in the past, they used to be called "les respectueuses" (the respected). Public submissives, all in all. As for "subs" themselves, perhaps they are only private whores.

Without doubt, we should reject the alternative between the mother and the whore, or the patriarcial and the commercial, or the feudal and the capitalist. Yet, as Marjolein van der Veen (scroll down at the linked page for the relevant paragraph) has elegantly articulated years ago, our representation of "the whore" as a metonymy of capitalism reveals more about our own fantasies than the practice of prostitution itself. It is perhaps wrong to take Badiou's treatment of the concept of "the whore" too literally. Yet at the same time, by reducing "prostitution" into "the selling of the body" (rather than "the performance and the sale of a service"), he defines "the whores" as "public submissives". In his attempt to deconstruct the representation of the "hijab girl" as the submissive one, he ends up constructing a discourse on the whore as the submissive one. In other words, he argues, forget about the patriarchal oppression, the real oppression is the commercial oppression!

In this sense, in order to show us that the ridiculousness of the "hijab issue," Badiou juxtaposes the "scarfed law" and the patriarchal oppression that the law claims to oppose with the capitalist colonization and oppression of our lives. Which is, of course, fine and welcome. But, in doing so, he constructs a particular discourse of capitalism-a discourse of capitalism that does not permit us to think beyond the logic of exception.

These concerns, along with the ongoing imperialist war in the Middle East and the sustained construction of the Muslim as the new Jew in Western liberal capitalist democracies, should perhaps constitute some of the points of departure for left (and truly secular) engagements with these laws.


Blogger viola swamp said...

Yes, ymm, I think that these last comments are really on point, and at the risk of restating what you have already said, this is what I took from your posting. In a conversation with a person who cannot get past the idea that scarfing or veiling or whatever you want to call it is the epitome of male (especially “irrational Muslim male”) domination, it is useful to make this argument that Badiou makes, that it is, if anything, just a variation of the obsessive attention given to women's bodies and their covering or uncovering of them as being the site at which all of a given society’s commitments/predispositions to “freedom” or “immorality” are played out. I think that as a strategic tool in argument, this point is more convincing than saying "well, some women choose to," which is also true and always too complicated for liberals to swallow, because even if they repeat it, it becomes reduced to an issue of personal choice. I agree, though, that ultimately these duos, "veiling vs. unveiling(?)" and "patriarchal oppression vs. commercial oppression" are very limiting and can trap us, even if we just use them as talking points, into getting lost in the void in between the two poles, and the more we repeat them, the more we convince ourselves that these are the parameters of the conversation.

1:34 PM


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