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locus of the non Arrow vol 2 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 3, 2003

 


The Locus of the Non: the racial fault-line of
"of Middle-Eastern appearance"


Joseph Pugliese
Macquarie University

 

1. In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said, in the course of the delivery of his lecture, pauses in order to bring into focus a point of intersection constitutive of his life/work: "There is therefore this quite complicated mix between the private and the public worlds, my own history, values, writings and positions as they derive from my experiences, on the one hand, and on the other hand, how these enter into the social world where people debate and make decisions about war and freedom and justice" (1994: 9). This succinct articulation of what he terms the "historical density, specificity, and weight" of a subject’s positionality in relation to their life-experiences, to their thinking, writing and actions, remains for me one of Said’s gifts. (1984: 210-1) Said’s validation of the importance of lived personal experience in relation to the larger social world was what enabled me, finally, to mobilise the interdicted "I" – and to own the surprising fact that, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s sardonic words, "I’ve never been a third person" (2000: 223).

2. Reading Orientalism for the first time many years ago, I vividly remember the exhilarating conclusion to his Introduction. Having mapped the enormity of the issues at stake in the construction and ongoing reproduction of Orientalism, colonial matrix of physical and symbolic violence, Said unexpectedly introduces what he terms "the personal dimension" (1991: 25). In the face of an education, at both secondary and tertiary levels, that had denied the significance of the personal and demanded the reproduction of a faceless, illusory objectivity and an effacement of one’s own personal history, Said’s scholarly validation of the personal dimension in the production of knowledge was a revelation. In an uncompromising manner he declares: "my own experiences of these matters [of Orientalism] are in part what made me write this book" (1991: 27).

3. The power of Said’s landmark work resides, of course, in the rigorous, painstaking manner in which he then proceeds to situate the personal, the local and the experiential within the global, systematised, regulatory forces of the knowledge/power nexus that he would name Orientalism. Through his invocation of an excerpt from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks – "‘The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory’" (1991: 25) – Said crystallises for the reader precisely what he has set out to accomplish in his text: to visibilise, map, identify and name that inventory of knowledge/power that so intimately shapes and constitutes the lives of subjects living under the regime of Orientalism. In the chapters that follow his Introduction, the inventory of Orientalism is exposed in all its complexity. The capillary reach of this inventory is tracked to the singular, transient lives of the subjects who come under its power. The power of representation, in the context of this regime, is shown to shape how the Orientalist subject speaks, writes and acts. Finally, Said proceeds to disclose the fact that this regime leaves its infinity of traces not just in textbooks, geopolitical states, archives and artworks but across the body of the subject who is interpellated within its economies of violence, symbolic and otherwise.

4. It is this infinity of traces, executed and punctuated on the body by the lines of force deployed by contemporary Orientalist processes, that I want to examine in this essay. In keeping with the complex logic of Orientalist practices, as elucidated throughout Said’s work, I proceed to track the inter-relation between the personal and the impersonal, between the local and the global, between bodies, geography and politics. As such, this essay reflexively fails to articulate a seamless trajectory. Rather, its itinerary is fractured and divided by multiple points of diffraction and discontinuity; in effect, one of the aims of this essay is to expose those very gaps or fault-lines that cannot be sutured without inflicting further violence.

5. In other words, I view this essay in terms of a textual corpus divided in and of itself, locating the operations of macro political configurations on the individualised body of a subject and, in the process, attempting to identify those dense nodules of structural contradiction generated by the power of Orientalism – for example, one of the refrains in this essay is the paradoxical formulation: "I am of Middle Eastern appearance and I am not Middle Eastern." This type of structural contradiction is also exemplified by the ethnic descriptor "of Middle Eastern appearance"; everything in this descriptor is predicated on situating the interpellated subject within a geographical location: this descriptor assumes its animating essence precisely through its naming and invocation of a geopolitical place. Yet, as I attempt to illustrate throughout the course of this essay, this descriptor, when applied to individual bodies, obliterates the specificity of geography as such. This geopolitically configured category is, I argue, located in the mobile and infinitely flexible locus of the non.

6. Reflexive of the disjointed structure of this essay, I offer this divided text as an example that attempts, through the form of its content, to reproduce the heterogeneous, fracturing and contradictory effects of an Orientalism that has been, post 9/11, vigorously revitalised in its unleashing of symbolic and physical violence against its designated targets. In the face of these heterogeneous and disjointed effects, one thread runs throughout the essay linking its disparate parts: the governing metaphor of the locus of the non, as I examine its effects in the context of bodies, geopolitical spaces, anti-terrorist laws and new technologies of surveillance.

"Of Middle Eastern Appearance": Racial Stereotypes
and the Modality of the Quasi-Prior

Western ethnological science is written on the space
that the body of the other provides for it


— Michel de Certeau (1988: 140)

7. Auto-ethno-bio-graph. This configuration traces the outlines of a desire to short-circuit the location of the other body as already exterior to the project of ethnography (exterior precisely because it is body), even as it constitutes its epistemological ground. Native informant to myself, my corporeal graphism – its images, projections and figures – articulates the space for the inscription of ethnos, as interface between exteriority/interiority and as figure of difference. The inscription of ethnos also marks, constitutively, my relation to the other. It is this relation that designates the cleavage that ensures my failure to coincide with myself. It is this failure that I affirm, as it re-animates the ethical relation between same and other that is at risk at every turn in the field of ethnography, despite its best intentions, regardless of a specular self-reflexivity that, even as it speaks of loss of mastery, furtively reconstitutes yet another Hegelian ruse for the capture and assimilation of the other.

8. No ethnos without the bio-matter of the body: ethnos is what signs its surfaces and circumscribes its differences. This circumscription of ethnos is, simultaneously, exceeded and displaced through a discursive marking that is mobile and contingent. It sets the pace for the spatial dispersion of identities, opening a series of anachronies, misrecognitions and disenfranchisements that fracture the possibility of coherence: they are unsynthesizable except through the deployment of homogenising ruses and their relations of force. The violence of these ruses is underscored by the rhythms of everyday routines and their implacable demands for normative coherence. To a degree, this violence is attenuated by the very routine nature of these same rhythms. These ruses operate to constitute "the subject," precisely as they hollow me out and leave traces of minor lesions. Every lesion bears witness to the graphic nature of the body, as site of inscription. Every lesion traces the fault-lines that fissure this subject and disseminate my identities.

9. This essay is an attempt to trace the racial fault-line designated by the sign "of Middle Eastern appearance." Seemingly bound by definable geopolitical borders, this fault-line is global in its topological reach, encompassing a heterogeneity of bodies, identities, locations and subjects. Of Middle Eastern appearance signs my face. This figure resonates with a double logic. I am of Middle Eastern appearance and I am not Middle Eastern. The racial fault-line that runs along this chiastic articulation shapes both the corporeal contours of this body and the textual corpus of this essay. It is a fault-line that enunciates the conditions of possibility of the post-foundational subject – conditions that mark the impossibility of securing for oneself an identity indissociably tied to place, origin or nation.

10. This racial fault-line instantiates the thematisation of my body into something other, as foreign to both my "native" identity and my "naturalised" identity. (Behind the official screen, at the very moment that a legitimating imprimatur "naturalises" me and thereby erases my "native" identity, the two terms engage in a promiscuous and mocking interchange. Their furtive laughter escapes the solemnity of the naturalising ceremony.)

11. Born in a Calabrian village, I am not geopolitically Middle Eastern. Yet the decisive step of migrating from Calabria to Australia will initiate an irrevocable departure from myself and from any illusion of cohering as a univocal subject. Once located within the Australian context, a systemic process of dislocation begins. This process is constituted by a series of banal stories of misrecognition that generate their own exponential momentum as I travel to other western countries. I say "banal" as they are minor stories of race, racism and racial figuration that transpire within the unfolding of the everyday. They are generated by my encounters with sales assistants, bureaucrats, academics, and so on. Cumulatively, these minor encounters function to construct a narrative predicated on the somatisation of ethnicity. This narrative is, of course, a retrospective enchaining of a series of disparate entries. Let me catalogue a brief representative sampling:

At a cake shop, I am identified as a swarthy Turk. My ethnic identity assigned, I consequently become invisible and repeatedly fail to get served.

A bank teller in San Francisco interrogates me as to whether I am a Palestinian before she deigns to proceed with my transaction.

Visiting a friend in hospital I am identified as his Jewish rabbi.

At a dinner I morph into a Pakistani.

At the barber’s, as my hair is cut, my exotic ethnicity is questioned and, before I can reply, my Syrian status is confirmed.

In the electronics store, the sales assistant asks me a question that is really a self-confirming, knowing statement: "You’re Lebanese, aren’t you?" As he proceeds to write up the details of my receipt, he asks for my surname. As I spell my surname for him, he turns directly to my Anglo-Australian partner and asks her to spell my name as he declares my English incomprehensible.

On a train from Seattle to Vancouver, the ticket inspector inspects both my tickets and my ethnic identity: Are you Iranian, and why are you travelling to Vancouver?

"Wanted for armed robbery: Man of Middle Eastern appearance." At the local police station, I own up, together with a heterogeneous group of non-Anglo men, to being "of Middle Eastern appearance." We all confess to a crime we have not committed as a protest against the police’s ongoing use of an ethnic descriptor whose untenability we embody.

12. As Frantz Fanon so acutely realised, racialised identities are constructed through the lived reality of "a thousand details, anecdotes, stories" (1970: 79). The fragments I inventory above are governed by the logic of Orientalism – not, however, in terms of some immovable monolith; rather, in terms of what Said calls its "flexible positional superiority" (1991: 7) and its "orders of dispersion, of adjacency, of complementarity" (1985: 373). Its orders of dispersion guarantee its global topology; its serial deployment of Orientalist stereotypes establishes a logic of adjacency and complementarity where various figures, bodies and subjects can be classified and catalogued, and thereby positioned, "known" and regulated. Its flexible positional superiority enables Orientalism to re-invent its practices in order to suit the task of subjugation at hand.

13. Although these brief entries are "referential" (referring to a subject, an agent and/or place), they simultaneously signal a referential crisis. In such instances, my identity is founded in the fissure of an invisible, because internal, fracture where the possibility of coinciding with myself, within the contours of this same body, remains an impossibility. No nucleus. Rather, a series of articulations contingent upon a series of mobile, differential relations that fail to generate a space that I might call my own. I am the non-self identical ensemble I call "myself." My point of arrival is marked as yet another point of departure from myself. In fact, at those fraught official entry points to other countries, my constant anxiety is that my moment of arrival will become my point of deportation.

14. This fear of deportation is a family topos. As I recount elsewhere, my Calabrian uncle, on his arrival in Sydney during the period when the White Australia Policy was rigorously enforced, was detained by immigration officials because of his dark skin. Their argument was that he was a North African posing as an Italian and that, violating the colour gauge of the White Australia Policy, he should be deported. My uncle wasn’t released until his papers had been "authenticated." He was thereby temporarily returned to himself and officially allowed entry into the country.

15. My grandfather tells me the story of arriving at Ellis Island in 1923. He disembarks from the ironically named steam-ship Patria/home-land, vehicle of mass migration, dispersion and dislocation. He queues under the lofty vault of the Registration Room; in this room, every immigrant’s mental and physical health is assessed. The mechanisms of national hygiene, of disciplinary medicalisation and subject constitution are put to work in this great hall. The process of assessment constitutes the event of subjection – either subjection through successful entry into the nation or subjection as ejection (signalled by a chalk cross staked across one’s back) back to one’s country of origin. Either way, the process of subjection is what is deployed; it merely assumes diverse forms and faces in different locations.

16. Exactly eighty years after his passage through the gates of Ellis Island, I embark on a journey to retrace my grandfather’s steps. The city of New York, post 9/11, is in a state of siege: military and paramilitary figures are everywhere. The journey out to Ellis Island assumes its own peculiar drama. The queues to the ferry wend right round Battery Park, as rigorous security measures slow the progress of passengers to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In a tent, before embarking, I am made to remove shoes, belt, wallet, watch, coat, scarf, jacket and shirt. I am familiar with these acts of divestment, as I am regularly required to divest myself, at symbolic levels, of the appurtenances that constitute the fabric of my assumed identities. This act of divestment is here merely being played out a literal level. Already exiled from the ground of patria, father/motherland, already expelled without recourse to any sovereign sense of self, every act of divestment underscores the impossibility of disclosing any vestige of a secretive nucleus that will ground me and guarantee a univocal identity. No clandestine substratum, dangerous because hidden, remains to be exposed. Every act of exposition becomes another instance of investing the body with yet another sign. This body is striated by so many textual strata. These layers of signification sediment to give it its discursive density. The officials at the security checkpoints appear unaware that every act of divestment and exfoliation, literal and metaphorical, actually functions to constitute the very substance of a being already naked to the point of surplus.

17. Crossing the icy waters of the Hudson, circumnavigating the Coast Guard with their guns trained on the Statue of Liberty, we finally disembark at Ellis Island. I make a bee-line to the American Family Immigration History Center and collect the facsimiles that document the particularities of my grandfather’s arrival, his mental and physical health, the colour of his skin, hair and eyes, his occupation, destination address and so on. Quickly scanning the taxonomic distribution of my grandfather’s constituent parts across the facsimile "Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States of America," I note that his "race" is "Southern Italian." As a "race" dangerously compromised by what one immigration official termed "dalliances . . . of dubious racial origin from across the water in North Africa," the defining criterion for my grandfather’s entry will be, as my uncle emigrating to Australia was to discover many years later, the "fairness" of his complexion (Pugliese 2002: 161).

18. Armed with facsimile historical baggage, I begin to examine the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Comparing the Registration Room to the historical photographs of the period, the room has been sanitised beyond recognition. All the bureaucratic furniture of holding pens, officials’ desks, and so on has been cleared. This gleaming, cavernous room, with two huge American flags hanging fascist-style either side of the vault, now looks like a concert hall designed to stage patriotic rallies. I immediately proceed to locate one of the surviving artefacts of the period that hasn’t been whitewashed. I am looking for a column covered with the graffiti left by prospective immigrants as they whiled away their time waiting to be processed. I locate the room with the column and enter as other visitors walk out.

19. Viewing the column, I discern the visible traces of migrant voices in the form of writing, pictures and doodles. These traces haunt me: fragile, evocative signatures that know no proper place. Surreptitiously inscribed in the very place where authority and law will determine their fate, they signal minor acts of transgression. The complex layers of signs that cover the column constitute a palimpsest of transitory bodies, names, fears and desires. Their transitory status is underlined by their unlikely survival. I edge up close and attempt to read the graffiti when, abruptly, an order is barked at me: "Get out of this room! Get out now!" The shock of the order rivets me to the floor. My non-compliance provokes a louder reiteration of the order. I turn to find an armed guard ordering me out of the room. I leave the room. There is no argument. Despite the fact the room had been open to public access, this suspect figure of Middle Eastern appearance, dark of eye, swarthy of skin, black of beard and armed with a backpack crammed with potentially explosive historical facsimiles, poses a threat to homeland security. The figure of Middle Eastern appearance magnetises the homeland into a state of fear and anxiety.

20. Figures of Middle Eastern appearance are spectral despite their corporeal manifestations. In Said’s words, they "are not real beings, but demonized fantasams – fearsome embodiments of terrorism and anti-semitism" (2000: 4). The body here functions in terms of a screen upon which is projected a complex economy of fears and desires that congeals into stock representations. Homogenised and undifferentiated, the figure of Middle Eastern appearance reiterates itself regardless of the subject. Global in its dimension, spectacular in its reach and demonic in its intentions, it is a figure generated through the intersection of the apparatuses of state and networked technologies of western media. The violent imprimatur of a cluster of terrorists has now been bestowed upon a heterogeneous mass of peoples.

21. Precisely because the figure of Middle Eastern appearance is constructed by a set of stereotypical attributes, it operates in terms of a predisposition: it situates and establishes the cultural intelligibility of a subject’s identity quasi-prior to the arrival of the subject. I say "quasi-prior" to the subject as the body of this subject stands, here, in advance of me: my body comes before me. Quasi-prior is a modality that I inhabit whenever I appear to be of Middle Eastern appearance. The modality of the quasi-prior enunciates the disarticulation of identity from the juncture: body/subject. It opens up a barely perceptible quantum lag between the category of myself and the figure that I am/not.

22. This barely perceptible quantum lag is what makes visible the disalignment between categories that are too quickly seen as homologous: body, identity, subject. This disjunctive movement is not, let me stress, enabled by a type of neo-Cartesianism that insists on the separation of a self-reflexive subject from their body; rather, I view this movement as constituted by the logic of the Moebius loop. Even as I view my body from a certain distance, positioning the (mis)interpretations that inscribe it as exterior to myself, recursively, silently, these (mis)interpretations function to script, by default, my identities; in the process they fracture and disseminate the synthetic illusion of "the subject." Even as I separate out the discursive threads of these other identities they remain irreducible to the historicity of my existence and its constellation of identities. My subjectivity is shaped by these torsions.

23. I want to return to the modality of the quasi-prior that I outlined above in order to begin to complicate it. This modality articulates a movement where, already in advance of myself, I am what is pre-comprehended before me. My body is captured within a horizon of interpretation not of its own making. Regardless of what I am about to say, I am already said...

Here this body already in advance of me stands
Captured and enframed in biometric gridlines that articulate
the contours and shadings of that identity.
Non-identical to myself,
I am off-stage even as my name is invoked and I am called into being.

An elliptical space opens . . .
It is punctuated by three points of suspension:
a body in excess of itself
an identity not of my making
a passage of violence from one to the other.
The pedestrian traversal of this space temporarily guarantees
an intelligible corpus even as it silently signifies my absence.

24. In my moment of interpellation and subject-constitution, I am also located at the outer-limits of representation. This other place is a type of space-off: even as I am positioned within a particular frame, a series of other identities dislocate me and situate me outside its parameters. Coexisting, at one and the same time, these other identities are nourished and performed in heterotopic spaces that are invisible to technocratic regimes of visual surveillance. They signal the dumb limit of a scopic mastery – biometric, digital and globally networked – that founders at the very threshold of the racial fault-lines it constructs and patrols. Located in the locus of the non, occupying no proper place, these other identities articulate alterities not encompassed by Orientalism’s exhaustive inventory, its multiple dossiers, its claims to absolute mastery.

25. Yet things are more complex than this. A critical discontinuity opens up here between the Saying and the Said, and I turn to the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas in order to map the contours of this fissure. In the process, I want to pay homage to Said through the invocation of his orthographic signature, precisely as I interlace the Palestinian and the Jew in a type of intercultural dialogue that Said so courageously maintained within the orbit of his own interpersonal relations (see, for example, Baremboin and Said 2003: xiv).

26. Advancing from a different direction altogether, and yet committed to identifying, naming and dismantling another violent regime of knowledge/power that he termed "western ontology," as a regime predicated on violently apprehending the other in the light of Being, Levinas has traced a language of ethics that undoes the will to mastery and that articulates a non-thematisable other that is irrecuperable to rationalist exposition. The "price of manifestation," writes Levinas, of thematised appearance and essentialised identity, is "the subordination of the saying to the said" (1991: 6). Yet, "At this moment language" sets to work, "disengaging the otherwise than being or being’s other outside of the themes in which they already show themselves, unfaithfully, as being’s essence – but in which they do not show themselves. Language permits us to utter, be it by betrayal, this outside of being" (1991: 6).

27. The act of betrayal reproduces a double logic: on the one hand, this betrayal is enunciated by the desire to reduce the Other, the unsayable, to the language of the Same/Being. Levinas, post Derrida’s trenchant critique of the residual metaphysics that continue to haunt his indictment of ontology ("Violence and Metaphysics" 1985), is reflexive of the fact that, even as he opposes the reduction of the Other to the Same, every thematising articulation of the Other risks reproducing a process of violent essentialism and assimilation that effectively destroys the alterity of the Other: it is their difference that cannot be countenanced. On the other hand, what escapes this "hold that the said has over the saying," what also betrays this ontologising and reductive move, is precisely what remains unsaid in the said, in the saying, the writing, the utterance. The unsaid is what survives the order of the said precisely because the very process of signification always already signifies, differentially, "beyond essence" (1991: 18 and 7). Beyond essence, in excess of signification, the unsaid disrupts the possibility for an identity, a subject or a theme to coincide with itself. In the moment of subject-constitution, where my essence is assembled and said, the unsaid signifies something else all together. Strange logics are activated here that interrupt the smooth logic of reason. I fail to coincide with myself as I am constituted as the other in the same. In the moment of subject-constitution, the "knot tied in subjectivity . . . signifies an allegiance of the same to the other" (1991: 25). I’ll elaborate on the ethics of this allegiance below.

The Exterminating Violence of the Locus of the Non: Palestine
and the Censorship of Geography

28. The figure of Middle Eastern appearance is founded on paradox. The paradox of this geographically named and situated identity, of this identity that assumes its conditions of enunciation from a geographical place and location, is that, in its effects, it produces no geography as such and an infinitely dispersed series of locations. Of Middle Eastern appearance is constituted by no habitable locus. It is located in the "locus of the ‘non’," to borrow a term from Anthony Wilden’s work on paradoxical systems and structures (1980: 185). In its global sweep of different ethnic bodies, in its operation as a superordinate term that obliterates geographical, linguistic, cultural and religious differences, it emerges as "the empty set itself" and is located "nowhere" as "it corresponds to nothing in the real world" (Wilden 1980: 185). In the face of my experience, the ethnic descriptor of Middle Eastern appearance establishes "a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions come into play" (Derrida 1981: 280). The power of this ethnic descriptor, what Said would term its flexible positional superiority, resides precisely in its capacity to activate and deploy an infinite series of sign-substitutions that effectively works to encompass a heterogeneity bodies within its Orientalist biometric grid.

29. This is not to say that, in being assigned the identity of Middle Eastern appearance, a subject does not experience real effects. On the contrary, these real effects are underscored by the violence of being positioned in the locus of the non. This is a violence generated by the power of the negation of differences, even as the category is animated by an absolutist notion of difference: qua the stereotype of Middle Eastern appearance, monument to the inventive and flexible operations of an ongoing Orientalism.

30. What might appear, in my use of the trope of the locus of the non, to be a mere exercise in a metaphorics thoroughly removed from historical fact and lived reality assumes its painful, brutally corporeal dimensions when it is situated in the context of Palestine. "Consider," Said writes in The Politics of Dispossession, "that as recently as 1969 Golda Meir said that Palestinians do not exist; since then every Israeli prime minister has referred to the more than four million Palestinians in terms that have been intended dramatically to express doubt about their genuine existence" (1995: 64). Graphically, strategically, the locus of the non that is mobilised by the knowledge/power regime of Middle Eastern appearance, with its anti-Arab phobia, where "even the word Arab works quite easily as an insult" (Said 1995: 11), finds its logical, most violent culmination in the denial of the existence of the Palestinians and their land. The locus of the non represents for every Palestinian "a concrete history of loss – of a society, a country, a national identity" (Said 1995: 46). The locus of the non, as that non-space that so painfully designates the condition of violent displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people, operates at virtually every level of cultural discourse. The Palestinian, in the discourses of western media, is the violent terrorist who is prohibited from inhabiting the category of the human. Inscribed in this prohibition is "a dehumanisation of Palestinians to the level of beasts virtually without sentience or motive" (Said 2000: 2). Incarnating the locus of the non, the Palestinian is the figure inscribed in this negative series: non-lawful, non-civil, non-legitimate, non-rational, non-human: non-existent.

31. The violence of this prohibition, as Said demonstrates, works at multiple levels and, inarguably, most effectively at the level of the US media in particular. In "America’s Last Taboo," he maps the magnitude of this prohibition, articulating the massified political forces active in ensuring that "the systematic continuity of Israel’s 52-year-old oppression and maltreatment of the Palestinians is virtually unmentionable, a narrative that has no permission to appear" (2000: 2-3; see also: Abunimah and Ibish 2001; Andoni 2001). The systematicity of this censorship ensures that the violence perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians is dispatched to the locus of the non – that non place where what is experienced by Palestinians cannot be represented. And, in the context of Said’s lifelong work on the power of representation, this reduction of the Palestinian narrative to the status of the unmentionable invokes his Marxian epigraph to Orientalism: "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented." A narrative that has no permission to appear effectively signals not only a discursive order of censorship but, more importantly, an injunction that prohibits, at one and the same time, the right of Palestinians to be. This basic claim to existence immediately compels me to frame this issue in Levinasian terms in order to address the enormity of what’s at stake for Palestinians, whilst also pointing to a fundamental, and strategic, blind-spot in Levinas’ work.

32. In an interview, "Who Shall Not Prophesy?", Levinas argues that:

the question "Have I a right to be?" expresses above all the human in its concern for the other. I have written much on this theme, it is now my principal theme: is not my place in being, the Da of my Dasein, already a usurpation, already a violence in respect to the other? A preoccupation that has nothing ethereal about it, nothing abstract: the press speaks to us of the Third World, and we are well off here, our daily meal is assured. At the cost of whom? One can ask oneself this. (2001: 225).

What’s at stake for Palestinians, in the context of the current violent unequal relations of power that determine issues of representation, is the question of basic ontology, the right to be, to exist as a self-determined people within their own sovereign state. As Levinas so emphatically remarks, the ontological question is always, and inescapably, an ethical question. Situated within the context of the nation-state of Israel and its usurpation of Palestinian land, this ethical question resounds with an historical specificity that Levinas cannot speak, let alone acknowledge or narrativise: "is not my place in being...already a usurpation, already a violence in respect to the other?" Strategically displacing this violent act of expropriation to a generic "Third World" formulaically invoked by "the press," Israel’s acts of usurpation of Palestinian land, and the violent repression of its people, remain unsaid. This is the spectre that haunts Levinas’ great work: that the ethical question of violent usurpation (of Palestinian land) is only ever cast at the generic level of an acutely eloquent but insistently abstracted philosophy. The violence of geography and the specificity of history are what must be simultaneously addressed in every asking of the profound Levinasian question: "Have I a right to be and at the cost of whom?" This is not to say that Levinas is unconcerned with the historical materiality of justice. On the contrary, Levinas rigorously addresses the question of justice in the context of his theory of the "third party" and the material necessity of legal institutions and the state. What I am arguing is that the violent geohistorical usurpation of Palestinian land by Israel remains, within his philosophical corpus, unsaid.

33. Yet, precisely when situated in those very Levinasian terms that I outlined above, Levinas paradoxically betrays his rigorously circumscribed and abstracted said with a saying that speaks otherwise, regardless of his thematising intentions and rhetorical displacements and abstractions. Moreover, in betraying what remains unsaid in the literal letter of Levinas’ work, I in effect proceed to stage a re-presentation of his work that, in the context of his philosophy, can only remain ethical if it stages an act of betrayal and ingratitude that refuses "the return of the movement to its origin": the Same/Levinas (1986: 349).

34. Levinas’ question – that has, as he acknowledges, "nothing ethereal about it, nothing abstract" – proceeds to betray what must otherwise remain unspeakable: that the Palestinian question is, in an a priori manner he refuses to countenance, the emblematic Jewish question: Do I have a right to be in the face of the usurpation of Palestinian land? Yet, as Said so exhaustively documents across his work, this question, in the context of multiple regimes of censorship and prohibition, can only ever be cast as "the Palestinian question." Effectively, what Levinas generates through his disavowal of the historical and geopolitical specificity of his ethical question is what Said terms the "censorship of geography, in this most geographical of conflicts" (2000: 8). The effect of this censorship of geography is to create an "imaginative void" – or what I call the locus of the non – "in which all images of the conflict are decontextualized" (2000: 8).

35. The power of the locus of the non achieves its most extraordinary articulation in the concept of the "four million ‘non-Jews’ (as Israel designates them [Palestinians] officially)" (Said 1995: 68). It is only in the context of the annihilative power of the locus of the non that I can begin to make sense of Salman Rushdie’s unforgettable question to Said: "Do you exist? And if so, what proof do you have? In what sense is there a Palestinian nation?" (1995: 114) Situated over the abyssal locus of the non, as that "imaginative void" configured by multiple acts of violent usurpation, the Palestinian is compelled to answer a question predicated on the possibility that she or he doesn’t even possess a minimal ontology: no body from which to speak, no land from which to draw nourishment, no place from which to exist. Stateless, decorporealised, stripped of the basic rights of citizenship, the Palestinian people are compelled to occupy the non-status of "present-absentees" (Said 1995: 103), human detritus relegated to the nonlocus of camps and territories bounded by apartheid fences and militarised zones. The material violence of the locus of the non is what the Palestinian people are subject to within these spaces.

Points of Ellipsis: Marking an Ethics of Proximity

36. I invoke throughout this essay the schema of ellipsis, and its points of suspension, in order to keep in abeyance, literally in a suspensive manner, the violent essentialism that inscribes the figure of Middle Eastern appearance. And I repeatedly refer to the figure of Middle Eastern appearance in order to underscore its figural status – as a trope compelled to homogenise heterogeneous bodies into stereotypically intelligible subjects.

37. This labour to construct sameness out of difference, to assimilate the other into the figure of the same, generates involuntary, non-elective identities that impose themselves regardless of the intentions of the subject. When I am of Middle Eastern appearance, I am inserted despite myself within a political configuration of bodies that is maintained by relations of force and law: "My body will be no more than the graph that you write on it, a signifier that no one but you can decipher. But who are you, Law who transforms the body into your sign?’ ’" (de Certeau 1988: 140). You are a complex apparatus of mediating technologies and governmentalities that instrumentalise the figure of Middle Eastern appearance into a strategy of power and control. The exercise of this power enables the imposition of this non-elective identity, simultaneously as it brings into operation my allegiance with subjects who are from the Middle East. I mark this allegiance in the face of the persecutions and violences that are daily visited upon you. I also mark, however, the irreducible differences that inscribe us. The question of ethics needs to be underscored here. Your histories, cultures and languages are not mine, and I make no claim on them. I cannot speak for them. I cannot speak for you, even as I am aligned with you. Proximate to you, the very ethics of my relation to you are structured by the impossibility of coinciding with you – outside of the homogenising violence of the figure of Middle Eastern appearance. The logic that governs the figure of Middle Eastern appearance enables an infinite process of metonymic substitution: my proximity already situates me, parenthetically, within the series (of figures of Middle Eastern appearance).

The Extra-Ordinary Figure of Middle Eastern Appearance:
The Biometrics of Racial Profiling Post 9/11

38. As an ethnic descriptor mobilised and deployed by juridico-governmental-media apparatuses, the figure of Middle Eastern appearance has now become synonymous with criminality (see Perera 2002; DaSilva 2002; Abood 2001; Collins et al 2000; Fraser, Melhem and Yacoub 1997). This figure has assumed a new and urgently topical role, post 9/11, in the context of the biometrics of racial profiling and the global search for terrorists. As outlined in an article titled "Irises, voices give away terrorists," the US government is utilising what is known as the Biometrics Automated Toolset (BAT) in its hunt for terrorists. BAT deploys scanners to process a person’s features, including their irises and voices; a series of algorithms is then used in order to convert the features to digital data. Put in Levinasian terms, the biometrical reduction of the face of the other to digital data is tantamount to the imperial project of "annexation by essence": the other’s body is fragmented into so many body-bits (for example, "fingerprints gathered from, say, drinking glasses or magazine covers found in terrorist haunts" [quoted in Associated Press 2002]) before being reconstituted into the spectral image of an essentialised unicity that ensures that "vision moves in to grasp" (Levinas 1991: 8 and 1969: 191).

Irises, voices give away terrorists. The body passively exposes its bits of identity. Irises, voices together synchronise to disclose the hidden subject. Hostage to the timbre of its voice and the colour of its irises, the body offers itself up despite the subject. In this theatre of war, the fragmented body is compelled, unilaterally, to denounce and surrender the subject. The dream of absolute knowledge always returns to the empiricity of the flesh. In the folds of the body’s skin, in the tonality of its voice, in the blink of its eye, is incarnated an identity that cannot be dissimulated – even as the bits of flesh are already disassembled and converted to digital matter that no longer resembles the subject that it proceeds to identify. The identity of the subject comes into being in this very movement of dissimulation: already in its digital conversion, as an array of numbers – 0100010101010101010101010101000111010101010101010101010101101010010 – it is non-identical to itself.

39. I draw attention to this biometrical military project in order to begin to map the contradictory forces at work in the space designated by the postfoundational subject: even as the subject is apparently deconstructed, decentred and dispersed, an opposing labour is assiduously working to ground and centre the subject in the context of the most reductive biologico-racial positivism. Within these political economies of bio-power, racial identity has not disappeared; rather, it has been atomised only to be genetically reconstituted at the level of "ethnic specific alleles" that code for race (see Pugliese 1999). The untenability of the figure of Middle Eastern appearance, as a conceptual category that refuses to be ethnically delimited and that violates all geopolitical borders as such, provokes ever more virulent attempts to ground the figure – down to the nucleic level of "ethnic-specific alleles."

40. Biometrics interweaves flesh with algorithms in order to archive so many body-bits that, with the click of a mouse, reconstitute identity regardless of a subject’s permutations. This biometrical conceptualisation of identity falls squarely within Enlightenment theories of identity and the subject. Produced by the conjoining of the genes of one's parents at the moment of conception, a subject's genetic identity is conceptualised as essentially remaining the same throughout the individual's existence. "The DNA molecule at the heart of each cell in the human body is like a signature, unique to each individual" (Aldridge 1996: 187).

41. Inscribed in the inner core, in the "heart of each cell," a subject's genetic identity is homogenous and self-identical to itself. Yet precisely because it is inscribed, analogically and thus tropically, as "signature," as textual sequence (for example, AGAATTC), its biological status cannot but be discursively and metaphorically constituted. At the very moment when, within the discourse of genetics, a DNA profile is identified and named as unique, as proper to a particular subject, it is always already divided in and of itself: the différantial marks that constitute the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the subject's unique DNA signature simultaneously interrupt its self-identity. The subject's identity is subject to the signifier -- that is, to the presence/absence of a particular allele(s). This is not to deny the empirical status of a DNA profile; rather, it is to underscore the manner in which a DNA identity, as a scientific positivity, is the effect of signifying processes generative of real effects.

42. Lieutenant Colonel Kathy De Bolt, Deputy Director of the Army Battle Laboratory at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, explains the aims and goals of the Biometrics Automated Toolset: "Any place we go into – Iraq or wherever – we’re going to start building a dossier on people of interest to intelligence…. We’re trying to collect every biometric on every bad guy that we can" (quoted in Associated Press 2002). In the desire to establish a biometric archive on "every bad guy" "everywhere" is encapsulated the dream of an imperial disciplinary machine that will automatically individuate the face of the other. Lieutenant Colonel Kathy De Bolt elaborates: "When they come into our checkpoints, we can say, ‘You’re this bad guy from here’" (quoted in Associate Press 2002). The algorithmic language of biometrics and the seeming neutrality of digital data fails, here, to escape the contamination of a moralising inscription: every digitised bit of the face of the other is already ensnared within the project of imperial mastery and its universal criteriology of the "good" and the "bad."

43. Within the schema of the BAT, the language of mathematics and digital data operates effectively as an ontological "reduction of the other to the same by the interposition of a middle and neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being" (Levinas 1969: 43). The interposition of the scientific term – "biometrics" – guarantees the objective and neutral dimensions of this project. The empirical violence of this racialising essentialism has manifested itself most clearly in the detention and incarceration, in the USA and Australia, of hundreds of non-white bodies (including Sikhs, South-East Asians and Africans) who have all been captured within the impossibly open-ended configuration of Middle Eastern appearance (see Davis 2003: 31 and 103; Lyon 2003: 30-1, 99-100; 50-1DaSilva 2002).

An Arab-American woman who went to court to challenge two parking tickets … claims the judge said: "You have money to support terrorists, but you don’t want to pay the ticket." Justice Crosbie admitted asking Ms Khoder if she was a terrorist, saying it may "have been inappropriate," but denied saying anything further on the topic (Focus 2003: 20).

44. In order to underline the failure of these racially based security projects to produce the results that they were designed to achieve, a recent report from the US Justice Department states that the "Vast majority of the more than 900 people whom the US Government acknowledges were detained after the September 11 attacks have been deported, released or convicted of relatively minor crimes not directly related to terrorism" (quoted in Focus 2002: 13).

45. Underpinning the racialising essentialism that conditions the figure of Middle Eastern appearance is the fallacy of composition, whereby race, and its identificatory descriptors, becomes coextensive with the activities of an entire community rather than the few individuals who actually commit crimes (Collins et al 2000: 60). The fallacy of composition, when transposed to the streets, generates acts of violence. In the Sydney context in which I write, Muslim women have been spat on in the streets and have had their veils torn from them. Mosques have been set alight and Islamic schools have been trashed. The figure of Middle Eastern appearance, as a political technology of racialised identity, has enabled the project of surveillance to become part of the routine of everyday life.

46. In this contemporary economy of war, the Australian Commonwealth Government recently distributed to every household in the country an "Anti-Terrorism Kit." The slogan printed on the stickers and fridge magnets that come with the kit is: "Be alert, not alarmed" – incendiary slogan animated by a sly, duplicitous logic that incites alarm through denegation, that foments violence through disavowal. This national slogan silently legitimates innumerable acts of violence that it cannot curb or govern. In not alarming the nation, it has mobilised it against itself, divided the nation against its citizens of Middle Eastern appearance: "The Federal Government has defended the cancellation or refusal of passports to Australians of Middle Eastern background, based on adverse security assessments by the country’s domestic intelligence organisation. But the NSW Council of Civil Liberties said the Federal Government’s refusal to let these citizens travel, and other cases involving people of Middle Eastern extraction, revealed a pattern of victimisation by ASIO" (Skehan 2003: 4).

47. In the Let’s Look Out for Australia anti-terrorist booklet distributed to all households, under the rubric "Keep an eye out for anything suspicious," the Commonwealth Government alerts the reader to this fact: "Some of the best people to spot things that are out of the ordinary in a neighbourhood or workplace are those who are there every day. As we go about our daily lives, we should keep an eye out for things that may be unusual or suspicious. Be alert, not alarmed" (2002: 7). Encoded in the slogan, "Be alert, not alarmed," is the message: "Be alert to every move of your neighbour of Middle Eastern appearance: they are all potential terrorists. Report them to the authorities." The Government Anti-Terrorist Task Force has fielded on its Anti-Terrorist Hotline thousands of calls from those who have so assiduously surveilled sinister figures of Middle Eastern appearance. In the current politically charged anti-Arab context, it is precisely the figure of Middle Eastern appearance that cannot inhabit the category of the "ordinary." In both this text and the multiple reports made to the 24-hour National Security Hotline (1800 123 400), the category of the "ordinary" is compelled to disclose its racialised subtext: counterposed to the seemingly non-raced "ordinary" Australian citizen is the extra-ordinary figure of Middle Eastern appearance attempting to inhabit the civil spaces of Australia’s neighbourhoods and workplaces. In the USA, a literal dragnet designed to identify potential terrorists has named its targets: "mostly Arab and Muslim, to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted by federal authorities" (Broder and Sachs 2002: 10). Further to this, on February 23 the Sydney Morning Herald's front page story recounting the arrest of 4 young Australians of Sri Lankan background—who were taken off the plane in the US, incarcerated, questioned and finally released—serves as a powerful illustration of the 'Middle Eastern appearance' racial profiling practices operating there (Kremmer and Banham 2004: 1, 4).

Let’s look out for Australia.
Let your common sense and good judgement guide you.
Terrorists rely on surprise (Commonwealth Government 2002: 15).


Yet this tactical advantage is already compromised by the manner in which figures of Middle Eastern appearance announce their presence before the fact. Relax: you need not even exercise your common sense or good judgement.


Stones of Defiance

In the space that is left -- there were there is no locus, no patria,
In the face of a corpus countersigned by the visage of the other,
In the interval between the Saying and the Said . . .
These three points of suspension are singularities,
stones of defiance,
born from utter destitution,
idiom of the poor and dispossessed,
they are founded in ellipsis: in the interval
between the mark and its absence,
present-absentees they open toward a horizon
where the fragile figure of a Palestinian shimmers in the heat:
he reaches to a small stone
and casts it in the air.
Touchstone that will ricochet wildly around the mediascapes
of a networked globe, instantly confirming all their worst Orientalist
fantasies --
its trajectory in fact articulates an infinity of traces that defiantly marks
the survival of his being and the existence of his people
in the face of the exterminating violence of the non.

Dr Joseph Pugliese is an Australian cultural theorist. He is currently lecturer in the Department of Critical and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney. Email: Joseph.Pugliese@mq.edu.au

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Filmography

Abood, Paula (2001) Of Middle Eastern Appearance. Sydney: Metro Screen.

DaSilva, Jason (2002) Lest We Forget: 9.11. New York: In Face Films.

 

© borderlands ejournal 2003

 

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