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new languages Arrow vol 2 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 3, 2003

New Languages: Power, Feeling, Communication

Anthony Burke
University of Adelaide



It may seem odd to begin a borderlands issue with a "quote" from former US Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. However in the 2000 film Thirteen Days (which dramatised probably the twentieth century’s closest brush with nuclear holocaust, the Cuban missile crisis) a fascinating exchange ensues between his character and the US Navy admiral in operational command of the naval blockade of Cuba. The events take place when no ‘hot line’ exists between the two superpowers, and when the nature of each other’s culture, intentions and convictions remain opaque, obscured beneath suffocating layers of ideology, rhetoric and geopolitical posturing. Intervening to countermand the Admiral’s order to fire on a Soviet cargo ship en route to Cuba, on the basis that orders to shoot would only come from the President himself, McNamara loses his temper: ‘You don’t understand a thing, do you Admiral? This is not a blockade, this is language, a new vocabulary, the likes of which the world has never seen before. This is President Kennedy communicating with Secretary Kruschev.’

McNamara, US Secretary of Defense until 1968, and then President of the World Bank, is certainly a morally ambiguous figure, having during the 1960s been one of the key architects of Pentagon systems analysis, Mutually Assured Destruction and the massive American escalation in Vietnam, and then in the 1990s turning about face, admitting the moral and analytical flaws of the Vietnam war in a controversial book, becoming a critic of western nuclear strategy and an advocate of total nuclear disarmament. However his intellectual ability has never been questioned, and here—in the midst of a military culture steeped in instrumental and behaviourist assumptions about the strategic efficacy of armed force, most of which he shared at the time—he was nevertheless able to seize on a profound insight for politics: that every political act has meaning, is an act of creating meaning and setting it into play; every act, however gentle or violent, is a form of communication.


It is this insight that links the diverse collection of writings that make up this final Borderlands issue for 2003, many of which are focused upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one coloured by intense layers of history and meaning and in which violence is increasingly taking the place of other forms of language. Whatever the political and analytical richness of these writings, and their wide range of concerns, they are all traversed by complex questions of power, feeling and communication; as such, they bring important new insights to our understanding of what politics is and can be. While the articles in this issue represent the growing diversity of the Borderlands project—hate groups and multiculturalism, homo-social identity in Sydney, the convergence of post-structuralist and post-marxist scholarship, Australian citizenship and human rights, racial profiling in the war on terror, the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the debate over calls for an academic boycott of Israel, and the intellectual legacy of the late Edward W. Said—running through them all are complex and inescapable questions of politics and meaning, and a lesson that the link between them can no longer be assumed.

In her essay "In the Name of Love", Sara Ahmed warns against assuming that we know what words mean or that their political force is stable. How else could we understand how "love" could be appropriated by racist hate groups in the United States, based on an inversion of the Hatewatch anti-racist rhetoric: hate is love when it is to ‘love this nation’ or ‘love liberty’. In the face of this extraordinary phenomenon, she asks an important new type of question: "What does that language of love do? How does it work?" (2) This allows her to theorise how such discourses of love create new borders of inclusion and exclusion, and new forms of affective power and subject-creation. Implicit in her argument is a caution against seeing the relationship between politics and meaning as simple or empirical, based on some deeper emotional or physical truth like feeling, identity, or the body. Rather all of them, however visceral or material, are forms of political and social writing which link, clash and connect in powerful and complex ways. For Ahmed, an interrogation of what it is to love, socially and politically, when we can no longer assume to know what love is or if love is an unalloyed good, is a central ethical question that enables us both to question its appropriation by racists and its function in more apparently benign discourses of multiculturalism.

Sasho Lambevski’s fictocritical ‘simulation/fabulation’ of the A-list gay male character Andrew, "Habitus, Attitude, Boredom", similarly warns us against assuming that we are the sole authors of our acts or desires, or assuming that they can be divorced from the larger social-cultural-political-psychological milieu that shapes, frames and is transformed by them. His essay, a challenging political ethnography, combines an intensely observed fictional extract with daring theory which first explores how Andrew obsessively makes and consumes meaning through his desires and lifestyle, and then, in a neat critical twist, reveals him as a stranger to himself. According to Lambevski, Andrew represents the ‘homo new bourgeois self as a syndrome with a range of affective cripplings coming from the technologically assisted channelling of homosexual desire via the mass circulation of the imaginary of the homo new bourgeoisie’ (1). He is ‘a systematic product of his habitus in which every object and practice is assigned a value in a sign system of social distinctions that qualifies him as a super-hot ‘winner’ constantly vacillates between extreme industriousness and hedonism…immersed in endless consumption and abandonment of highly valued objects, including other super-hot male bodies’ (45). Lambevski’s essay strongly hints at an ethical aporia in Andrew’s consumption driven lifestyle and sense of self, but—perhaps like much satire—does not make it explicit. As such, his essay may challenge uncritical accounts of gay liberation as it also desires more positive forms of it. In a way central to the concerns of this issue, a big part of Andrew’s problem is his assumption that he is what he is and knows what he means:

Content with the sign/image values attached to these objects and male bodies, and the narcissistic kick he gets out of the act of consumption of these objects this is an aloof man that dispenses with any need to represent his experience. Encouraged by the national (Australian) inflections of the myth of masculinity, he shuns introspection as boring and frivolous. Yet, he pays a very heavy price for this (45).

While having an analytical richness well beyond my concerns here, Jason Read’s essay about the work of Deleuze and Guattari, "A Universal History of Contingency", also analyses their work through this lens, by placing their ‘rewriting’ of the enlightenment political metanarrative of universal history under theoretical scrutiny. He explains that while ‘the central (and not so central) questions of Marxist history and philosophy are engaged throughout Deleuze and Guattari's writing…their sense and meaning has been fundamentally rewritten in light of the question of desire, of the generation and corruption of different forms of subjectivity.’ This is an inquiry that must be pursued in the face of the dilemmas posed by the fact that ‘universal history been exposed as, at best the fantasy of armchair historians and, at worst the apology for western imperialism’ (2). However this project, which focuses on ‘the relationship between the transformations of the mode of production and the production of subjectivity’, has an important political dimension (one that links nicely with many of the other articles in this and past borderlands issues, which are concerned with the political possibilities of particular kinds of narrative, subjectivity and belonging):

Deleuze and Guattari ask the question: what sort of subject (what sort of desires and beliefs) does capital, or each of the other modes of production, require? How is this subject produced? What sort of limits or resistances does this production come up against? And, ultimately, what are the conditions for a different production, for new ways of living and desiring? (2)

These questions of political subjectivity, language, political power and national belonging are also central to the essays of Binoy Kampmark, "David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib and the Limits of Australian Citizenship", and Gay Breyley, "Kissing the Noose of Australian Democracy". The motif animating Breyley’s article is that of the conversation, which she sees as hostage to repressive and exclusive modes of political power and belonging, blocking access to repressed histories, memories and positive connections:

We are innocents who have kissed the noose of Australian Democracy’, wrote Mohsen Soltany-Zand during his fourth year in immigration detention. Soltany-Zand was released in 2003, but the ’noose’, shared by generations of displaced people, continues to suspend him in precarious positions. This noose is not always lethal and may even grow comfortable, but it hinders movement between conversation sites, between past and future, self and other, ‘here’ and ‘there’. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, propelled in one direction, with locked wings, many displaced people are positioned such that they can neither face the future nor awaken the past. However, the very limits of their positions and the damage all around and within enable other conversations. Though constricted by their ‘noose’, conversations such as those in and between the texts of Soltany-Zand, Crawford and Brett suggest possibilities for response to the misdirected kisses of 'innocents’ (3).

Kampmark, anxious to interrogate bifurcated formations of Australian citizenship produced by the war on terror (when rights have been suspended in the name of security and the Australian government is utterly indifferent to the situation of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, its citizens at Camp X-Ray) begins by seeing the ceremony of naturalisation as a metaphor. The ‘ceremony of naturalisation is not merely a metaphor of an empty package’, he writes, ‘it is a general comment on citizenship rights. If the ceremony is vacuous, then it can pass no genuine rights. It is merely a theatre of legalisms.’ (2)

What can we do when the line between politics and theatre, power and metaphor, life and fiction, is disappearing? We act, but in whose play?


Breyley and Vicki Karaminas ("[Slide Show] Welcome to Australia") also explore the troubled axis of memory and narrative, and the instability (yet existential importance) of memory, amid forms of political movement and struggle in which who you are, and what you and your memories mean, is fraught and painful. One has only to think of the ‘new Australian’ Hristos in Karaminas’ story being sent to the camp at Bonegilla (‘a microsm of cultural reproduction’) to be ‘trained in Australian etiquette. A process that will erase and delete anything that might offend the average Australian citizen and their ways’, or consider the vertigo of a migration journey that will ‘sweep him into an emptiness of detours and returns; the length of an empty subject that can never come home’. Karaminas seems painfully aware of the difficulty in recovering and stabilising memory and subjectivity, even as her prose understandably seeks to do so. Her story walks an easy and shifting line between an eloquent affirmation of being and its dispersion, as voices appear and dissolve in the text, shifting, assertive, uncertain:

Walk with me. Hand in hand through the nightmare of this narrative. Walk the plank. I fear that I will trip on the splinters and slip into the emptiness, the space, the gap between the others and I.

Simon Philpott and Joseph Pugliese evoke the memory and thought of the late Edward W. Said, who sadly died in 2003 and whose intellectual legacy has both polarised and inspired. Said is most famous for denaturalising the language of western Orientalism in books like Orientalism and Covering Islam, revealing so much apparently value-neutral scholarship about the Middle-East and developing world to be not only grossly misleading but part and parcel of an ongoing imperial project of dispossession, control and appropriation, whether of resources, labour, culture or political potential.

Pugliese begins by discussing how Said’s work inspired his own exploration of public and private, given Said’s admission that his ‘own history, values, writings and positions as they derive from my experiences’ mix with and ‘enter into the social world where people debate and make decisions about war and freedom and justice’. For Pugliese this occurs at the locus of the "non", a disturbing space where he is ‘of Middle-eastern appearance’ but ‘is not Middle-eastern’, and his essay explores a series of disjunctive experiences which lead into a powerful exploration of the ontological anxieties and violences central to the post-9/11 practice of racial profiling. Pugliese’s essay critically examines how meaning and communication link with the body and power—the ‘infinity of traces, executed and punctuated on the body by the lines of force deployed by contemporary Orientalist processes’—but it is a power based around a ‘spectral’ image, the ‘appearance’, power exerted through willful displacements of meaning, and forces of spectral truth. It is a warning to be attentive to the ‘barely perceptible quantum lag [that] makes visible the disalignment between categories that are too quickly seen as homologous: body, identity, subject’ (22). It is a struggle to exist and exert autonomy against powers which insist on telling who you are, as if they know.

Philpott is noted for applying Said’s basic insights to an interrogation of western policy discourse and social science about Southeast Asia in his book Rethinking Indonesia (2000) and we would do well in this context to remember his warning: ‘there is no such thing as an innocent representation’ (7). A little like Breyley, Philpott treasures aspects of the conversation Said made possible (whether in his collaboration with Daniel Barenboim in establishing the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of young Palestinians and Israelis, the critical dialogue with scholars like Aijaz Ahmad, or his promotion of not only justice for the Palestinian people vis-a-vis Israel but mutual respect and sympathy for each other’s histories, sufferings and aspirations) and contrasts that with the aggressive efforts to belittle and demonise Said in the new ultra-conservative US public sphere. Such attempts (Philpott mentions Daniel Pipes, and we could also cite the overblown reaction to the ‘stone-throwing’ incident in Southern Lebanon) are the antithesis of conversation: their nostalgia in the face of his very critical mode of dialogue is for a time when dialogue could not be demanded, for when a suffocating form of truth, invented by themselves, could be imposed without question or resistance.

Important as conversation was for Said (which also informed his belief that non-violence would make not only a more effective but more ethical form of resistance to Israel), his notion of dialogue was a critical one, in which participants could not merely reaffirm their identities and truths but must of necessity confront those which were challenging or different. Important questions of justice lay in this space, and this kind of encounter. As his afterword to the new collection edited by Ephraim Nimni, The Challenge of Post-Zionism, acknowledged, an effective dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians had also to be a self-critical process which interrogated the past as it did the future. There he both asserted a challenge to Israelis and their historians to face the facts about the 1948 war and expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, and addressed a similar challenge to Arabs to ‘explore their own histories, myths and patriarchal ideas of the nation…we have a duty to look at our history, the history of our leaderships and our institutions with a new eye’. (Said, 2003: 201)

In this vein, we are happy to publish in this issue two articles setting out challenging alternatives for a future peace, Sari Hanafi’s "The broken boundaries of statehood and citizenship" and Bill Templer’s "From mutual struggle to mutual aid", which set out very different possibilities for a future peaceful political community which is not based on the (increasingly hostile and absolute) visions of separation implicit in the two-state solution. They are particularly interesting both for the depth of their scholarly insight, and their understanding of how difficult it may be to realize something other than separation; however their argument is that the present impasse, in which the illusions and failures of the Oslo process have become so starkly clear, means that new thinking about the nature of identity, statehood and existence is more than ever needed. As a contribution to this discussion, we are also pleased to publish the introduction to Ephraim’s Nimni’s important new book collection, The Challenge of Post-Zionism, along with a review of the book by Ned Curthoys. Nimni’s thoughtful essay works both as a history of the post-Zionist debate and a profound intellectual engagement with it, adding valuable insight and context to the debates in these pages both about the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and about proposals for an academic boycott of Israel.


The debate on the academic boycott is potentially the most controversial and divisive set of articles we have so far published, and I wish to emphasise that in hosting this debate the Borderlands e-journal is not aiming to promote one view of the boycott over another. For example, two members of our editorial board (John Docker and Andrew Jakubowicz) here write on opposing sides of the debate, and we have endeavored to arrange a diversity and balance of views, including those who support a total boycott of Israeli academics and institutions (Mona Baker, Lawrence Davidson, John Docker and Ghassan Hage), those (such as Tanya Reinhart and Ilan Pappe) who only support a partial boycott of institutional linkages, and those who are opposed to any kind of academic boycott (Andrew Jakubowicz, Baruch Kimmerling and Neve Gordon). (Ironically enough, were Borderlands to apply the "total" boycott approach, the four Israeli contributors to this debate would not be appearing; it could not effectively take place.)

Docker and Hage, two celebrated Australian cultural theorists, were instigators of an Australian boycott petition in 2002, while Mona Baker’s decision to dismiss two Israelis from the board of journals she published attracted enormous debate and controversy in the UK. We have reproduced the text of the Australian boycott call, and here Baker (with the American historian Lawrence Davidson) offers a detailed defense of her actions and their support for an academic boycott. Tanya Reinhart discusses a french boycott resolution passed in December 2002 by the Marie Curie University Paris VI, which she also supports as an institutional measure not appropriate to be extended to individual academics or contacts. Ilan Pappe joins her in a cautious and somewhat troubled call for boycott, speaking of the ‘uneasiness which accompanies, and should accompany, any citizen who would call upon the outside world to boycott his or her own country. This means that any call for such a drastic action, should be thought over again and again and not taken easily off hand’. He argues that the boycott should not be directed at changing the nature of the Israeli state, as desirable as he thinks that is, but merely ‘to change a policy of destruction, expulsion and death’ (3).

One of the most distinctive features of this debate is that all participants—writers from Israel, the UK, Australia and the United States—are critics of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and its oppressive policies towards the Palestinian people. All are senior academics and celebrated scholars in their fields, having written many books and work of great insight about the Middle-East, its history, peoples and problems. In particular, it includes a number of Jews (and Israelis) who appear on different sides of the argument and some of whom would probably consider themselves Zionists, however critical. Israelis appear here arguing both for and against a boycott, while one Australian boycott supporter, Ghassan Hage, has a Lebanese Maronite Christian background traditionally hostile to Muslims and Palestinian nationalism. (This he points out in parts of his 2003 book Against Paranoid Nationalism which discuss the responses both to his co-authorship of the boycott petition and to his efforts to encourage rational analysis of the phenomenon of suicide bombing, acts which he nonetheless opposes [2003: 121]). While charges of anti-Semitism are still being leveled in this debate such a diversity of locations and positions, especially amongst critics of Israeli policy, suggest that simplistic equations of support for a boycott to opposition to Israel, or opposition to a boycott to support for Israel, cannot be made. It seems to be as implausible to describe support for a boycott as anti-Semitic as it is to suggest that opposing a boycott amounts to a betrayal of Palestinian aspirations.

The calls for an academic boycott of Israel, and the responses they have received from both inside and outside Israel, raise extremely difficult and complex questions which lie at the very centre of Borderlands’ concerns with power, knowledge and intellectual activity within a modernity fissured and enabled by violence and coercive forms of political reason. Is academic work supposed to be value free and neutral, free of political entanglements, or do academics have a responsibility to construct their work in relation to some kind of political intervention? Is there a space in-between, where the inherently political nature of all knowledge work can be considered, yet a measurably free space of inquiry and thinking can be preserved, or is this a quietist strategy which refuses to acknowledge the urgency of the current conflict?

Is absolute freedom of inquiry, thought and intellectual exchange necessary, and what should we do when they are already sullied by political pressure upon (and within) universities? Do we accept this logic, strike back and join the game? And if political intervention is chosen, what are the implications of attacking intellectual contact and collaboration in its service? Will it work? Is it ethical? Are long-term ends being sacrificed by short-term means? Is a boycott in fact a means to an achievable end, or could its ends escape, surprise and frustrate the noble intentions behind this choice of means? What are the implications of accepting that intellectual work is ineluctably trapped within the logic of power, of making intellectual work and dialogue into mere means for the achievement of political ends? Is critical thought possible under such conditions, or has it become an instrument wielded by another who long ago stopped thinking?

There are no easy or definitive answers to such questions, and a range of possible arguments are offered by our contributors, as are a variety of views on what form and extent a boycott should take, if at all. I am personally opposed to a boycott of any kind (other than for military aid and international loans to the Israeli state) although I do appreciate the gravity of the arguments being made for such action given the appalling turn of events after the September 11 attacks. (Needless to say, my comments here are made in my personal capacity as a public intellectual, not Borderlands' publisher.)

It is worth acknowledging that, as offensive as many Israelis understandably find calls for an academic boycott, the international calls for boycott only began to emerge after Operation Defensive Shield in early 2002 (this is true both of the Roses’ petition, Docker and Hage’s, and the resolution of the Marie Curie University). Operation Defensive Shield, with its appalling pattern of systematic human rights abuses, the destruction of the Jenin refugee camp, the comprehensive dismantling of Palestinian authority infrastructure, left in its wake a dreadful sense that the incumbent Israeli government had no interest in a negotiated peace with the Palestinians and simply wished to destroy all possibility of national independence (Hamzeh and May 2003). Tanya Reinhart sets this out clearly in her article. While expressing frustration at Israel’s interpretation of the Oslo process which assumed that they could ‘establish a Palestinians state without land-reserves, without water, without a glimpse of a chance of economic independence, in isolated ghettos surrounded by fences, settlements, bypass roads and Israeli army posts’— a ‘virtual state’ analogous to apartheid South Africa’s notion of separation—she expressed a unique sense of horror about what had occurred in the few months before:

What Israel is doing under Sharon far exceeds the crimes of the South Africa's white regime. It has been taking the form of systematic ethnic cleansing, which South Africa never attempted. Since April last year (following the Jenin "operation") we are witnessing the daily invisible killing of the sick and wounded being deprived of medical care, the weak who cannot survive in the new poverty conditions, and those who are bound to reach starvation. Since the US is backing Israel, and the European governments are silent, it is the moral right and duty of the people of the world to do whatever they can on their own to stop Israel and save the Palestinians.

Similarly, John Docker and Ghassan Hage write that ‘the Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders’:

It is clear that while the Palestinians are rightly requested to reign in their extremists, the Israelis have elected their extremists to power. The slow, dehumanising and relentless colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza that has been continuing unabated in recent years has now taken an ugly murderous turn of immense proportions.

It would be wrong then for those unhappy with the idea of a boycott to assume that it is basically illegitimate because it represents a deep-seated prejudice against Jews or the state of Israel. Rather, if a boycott is to be opposed it must require not only principled arguments against the idea but a rapid reversal in Israel’s policy of occupation, to remove the wrong which has in fact provoked the boycott call.

However the debate in these pages (especially between boycott proponents Docker and Hage, and Baker and Davidson on one hand, and boycott opponents Jakubowicz, Kimmerling and Gordon on the other) is one between critics of Israeli policy. Baker and Davidson, in particular, specifically set out to refute arguments made against the boycott by those also critics of official Israeli policy. Hence the real ground of the argument shifts from one of urgency, which all recognise, to one of principles and effects. Here I think there are still further arguments to be made, and I offer them here in addition to those of our contributors.

Firstly I would suggest that the idea of an academic boycott must not only be considered in relation to the extremely disturbing turn in Israeli policy since December 2001, but the perversion of the Palestinian resistance campaign by the use of suicide bombings against civilian targets. This targeting policy not only raises moral issues but generates very negative impacts on Israeli society and hence any possibility of the population being convinced of the fundamental rights of the Palestinians and the need to make substantial compromises in exchange for peace.

We certainly need to try to understand why people resort to this tactic, what their objectives are in doing so, and how Israeli policy has directly contributed to it. It should be possible, as Ghassan Hage argues in Against Paranoid Nationalism, to discuss the phenomenon with distance and rationality. (2003: 120-143) To this end, we should highlight the suffering and bitterness in the territories which fuels Palestinian anger and hopelessness, the deliberate distortion of the Oslo process to entrench Israeli control and build more and more settlements, the attacks on the Palestinian security apparatus during Operation Defensive Shield, and the apparently deliberate timing of many Israeli operations against ‘militants’ which seem designed to provoke Palestinian counterattacks. (Reinhart 2002: 138-9; Hamzeh and May 2003) However it also seems normatively important to focus less on the mode (martyrdom) than the targets of the attacks: international law provides Palestinians with a right to resist their colonial occupiers and strike military targets, but the indiscriminate targeting of civilians (some of whom have also been Arabs) undermines utterly any possibility of criticising violence against civilians as uniquely morally reprehensible. How can the destruction of Palestinian homes, the shootings of civilians, denial of medical treatment or the use of torture by Israel be condemned if bombings of buses and restaurants cannot also?

Aside from these moral considerations, the suicide attacks are also a strategic disaster for the Palestinian movement. They have been cynically used by the Sharon governments as a licence to begin Operation Defensive Shield, to reject dialogue with the PLO for a final settlement, and to reassert control of the territories. They have been the public rationale for the forbidding wall snaking its way through Palestinian villages and farms. Any person who defends the suicide attacks as the Palestinians’ last line of resistance (something Israelis nonetheless should think hard about) should read Tanya Reinhart’s sobering analysis of how the suicide bombers have played, at every turn, directly into the hands of the Sharon government in its campaign to destroy and discredit Palestinian self-determination. In her book, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948, she shows how the Israeli government and armed forces had begun planning in mid-2001 ‘an all out assault to smash the Palestinian authority, force out leader Yasser Arafat and kill or detain its army.’ This plan, presented to the Government in early July, two months before the 9/11 attacks in the United States, ‘called for an assault to be launched after a large bombing takes place in Israel, and called for citing the bloodshed and defense against terrorism as a justification’. She concluded that ‘it is not just Palestinian life that does not count in Israel; those in the military sect have no reservations about sacrificing their own people’ (2002: 138-9).

An even more serious element of the strategic disaster represented by the bombings is the way in which they are changing and hardening the Israeli national identity, against an ideological backdrop in which discourses of victimhood and centuries-old existential threat to Judaism are strong. As such they are not only deeply immoral, but a flawed strategy of resistance which serve to make Israelis feel that they are being targeted as Israelis, as Jews, that there is no one to negotiate with, no one to talk to, no one who might compromise or be willing to share the land. Obviously, given the Israelis' preponderance of power, arms and wealth in the conflict, it is they who must make the most substantial compromises, but every bombing works to shut down a space within Israel in which this truth can possibly be acknowledged or appreciated. In short, bombings against civilians support and reinforce the apartheid policy; they underpin the Israeli Right’s self-serving mantra ‘there is no one to talk to’ with a terrible reality. The Geneva Accords put the lie to the idea that 'there is no one to talk to', but every bombing makes it seem truer. To recall Robert McNamara berating his Admiral in Thirteen Days, in the absence of meaningful dialogue the bombings and the military operations are a form of language: they are ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine‘ communicating with one another, and they irrevocably affect the kind of conversation that might one day be called ‘peace’. It is this context in which we must consider calls for boycott also as a form of communication, and ask how they can possibly help resolve this conflict.

In a post-9/11 interview with Giovanna Borradori, Jurgen Habermas calls violence, and particularly terrorist violence, a ‘spiral of distorted communication that leads through the spiral of uncontrolled reciprocal mistrust’ to an eventual total ‘breakdown’ in communication. We may want to ask questions about how applicable his model of rational communicative action is to a bitter conflict like this—a dilemma they discuss—but the basic insight that violence is a form of communication is a profound one, as is the normative force of his argument that ‘the critical power to put a stop to violence, without reproducing it in circles of new violence, can only dwell in the telos of mutual understanding and in our orientation toward this goal’ (Borradori 2003: 35, 38).

Violence is an expression of meaning; but as a form of communication it is uniquely opaque and non-linear, subject to unpredictable reverberations, echoes and feedbacks which not only express cultural, historical and political incommensurability but go on to reinforce it. As such, it always threatens to defeat those who wield it. We may not know what our actions mean, either to ourselves or to those whom we engage or communicate with. What meanings might be intended (if that is at all clear to the ‘sender’) are not the meanings received and then circulated and amplified in a new context which is nonetheless politically crucial. Power is exercised and fought over in this bloody, grief-stricken and angry semiotic exchange—but what kind of power can be exercised, for good or ill, when we do not know what our actions mean or how to convey what they might mean?

It is possible—if difficult—to develop new ways of thinking about violence and other forms of political action which can more clearly understand what meanings they could convey and how they might be taken up, so long as this is never done arrogantly or as a simplistic equation of means and ends. Yet it is exactly such an unproblematic equation of means and ends that emerges in arguments for a boycott, however principled and understandable. Ilan Pappe for example argues for a boycott to have limited objectives; for seeing it ‘as a strategic act [that] has first to go through defining clearly the aim of any outside pressure on the state. The overall objective is to change a policy not the identity of the state. Although I dream of bringing an end to the oppressive nature of the state of Israel and make it, together with Palestine, one democratic secular state—I do not think this can, or should be, achieved through the means of boycott’ (3). He prudently limits the ends sought by this means, but fails to question the more limited equation of means and ends he assumes.

The key issue here, in my view, is that a boycott runs the risk of changing ‘the identity of the state’ for the worse, a risk that cannot be countenanced. Pappe rightly criticises the use of violence by the Palestinians as a failed strategy that had the effect of ‘entrenching rejectionist positions within the Israeli society’ (4), but seizes on international pressure via a boycott as the only answer given that ‘change from within the society of the occupier…despite its vitality and necessity, is even more hopeless than the military action’ (5). My heart goes out to him, but it ought to be obvious by now—given the evidence in the Geneva Accords that a final settlement is feasible, and given the refusal of Israelis to elect Amram Mitzna’s Labour party at the last election—that change from within Israel is the most crucial missing ingredient for peace, and everything possible should be done to bring it about. I fear that further pressure on Israel which would be perceived to isolate it existentially can only reinforce its culture of legal exceptionalism, its perceptions of acute vulnerability, and its deep seated ontology of apartheid and rejectionism which has spread from the Right to the Centre since 2000 and is given added weight and solidity with every bombing.

We can no doubt generate long theoretical arguments about how to bring about a situation of ‘undistorted’ dialogue in which a peaceful conversation might take place—and I could recommend the work of Habermas, Lyotard and William Connolly, among many, as diverse and often contending starting points—but what can at least be agreed on is that violence be removed from the political space so that different forms of communication, which will have to ford a vast sea of different experiences and expectations, can be given a chance.

At this point, boycott advocates (like Baker and Davidson) remind us that their vision is non-violent. However it still reproduces a coercive model of political action as the application of force aimed at affecting another’s will. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s critique in The Human Condition of the category of means and ends, what is most salient here is not so much the end desired (a change in Israeli attitudes, votes for peace) but the means chosen: pressure and coercion. As she argues there, means tend to take over and overwhelm the process, distorting their desired ends until a social logic develops in which means become fetishised as ends in themselves, generating still further ends which do nothing more than reinforce the presence in our world of the means that drive and create them. Action, while often noble and courageous, is also dangerous and unpredictable, and none more so than that form of action which relies upon coercion and violence (Arendt 1998: 154, 202, 232).

Even as a boycott aims to be non-violent, and to be a means to an end which is the end of violence, it takes its place on a continuum of coercive means (sanctions, blockades, war) that runs the serious risk of strengthening and perpetuating the common political logic that underpins them. This is the general strategic principle visible in the work of Carl von Clausewitz, that force is an unproblematic means to the achievement of political ends; the principle underpinning an "enframing" form of modern reason in which, as Heidegger argues, every substance, every idea and every living thing is a tool, an instrument of productivity and power, and thought has no independent vitality or existence (Clausewitz 1982: 118-119; Heidegger 1977: 11-28).

Even as I understand the appalling impasse this conflict has reached, and the urgency behind efforts to change its dynamics, I worry about the implications of a failure to imagine politics outside relations of coercion and values of instrumentality. Could a boycott simply reinforce the entire dynamic, and help rob Palestinians and Israelis of a genuinely different kind of political future in which they are seen not merely first as human beings, but human beings who are more than instruments and means, whose life in this world is richer than that allowed them by the machine-thralled logics of industrial and political modernity?

This is no doubt turning into an argument against any kind of boycott, but there is a special difficulty in considering a boycott on academic activity and linkages. Pro-boycott authors too quickly step around the unique dilemmas raised by a boycott of intellectual activity, which escalates the action into a particularly problematic area. Academic freedom is a fragile thing, and it seems perverse to argue against its limitation in Israel, Palestine or the Arab world (of our contributors, both Gordon and Pappe have recently faced appalling attacks on their freedom of speech) while promoting a course which simultaneously undermines it. While there are legitimate criticisms of the collusion of academics with (or silence in the face of) state policy, surely it would be better to focus on that than launch a general boycott of the Israeli academic world? (I recall working on the East Timor and Indonesian democracy issues in the 1980s and 1990s, when no one suggested a boycott of any kind in the face of a truly appalling regime, but there was much critical discussion of the succour lent by some academics to both the Soeharto regime and its western government supporters).

However given the complexity of the issues there will be no easy conclusion to this debate, especially while the basic situation of injustice which provoked it remains. We hope our readers find it interesting, illuminating and useful. Borderlands has always had at the forefront of its concerns these questions of meaning and power, the politics of knowledge, the ethics of communication and the often deadly game of truth. We have done so because all too often people suffer when we forget them. As our many contributors suggest, it is so dangerous to assume the stability or truth of any narrative without considering its worldly consequences—to assume that it is possible, even when our motives are pure, to act without thinking.


Anthony Burke is the publisher of the borderlands e-journal and a lecturer in the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide. He is the author of In Fear of Security (Pluto Australia, 2001) and has written about security, war and conflict for Alternatives, Borderlands and Postmodern Culture. His article, "Just War or Ethical Peace?" appears in International Affairs in March 2004. He is currently working on a book about war and reason.


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Borradori, G. (2003), Philosophy In A Time Of Terror: Dialogues With Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Clausewitz, C. (1982), On War, with an introduction by Anatole Rapoport, London: Penguin.

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Docker, J. (2002) "Untimely Meditations: The Tampa and the World Trade Centre", Borderlands e-journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, 2002.

Hage, G. (2003), Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society, Annandale: Pluto Press Australia.

Hamzeh, M. and May, T. (2003), Operation Defensive Shield: Witnesses to Israeli War Crimes, London: Pluto Press.

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© borderlands ejournal 2003


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