Hostile Formations

Hostile Formations

This essay is one of the more coherent parts that I’ve written for my undergraduate course. It has already been graded and I’ve edited it slightly to get rid of the obscure referencing because I won’t be including a bibliography.

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The past decades have seen an epoch of border fetishism, where they are invoked, chiefly, to designate difference (and therefore, weariness and hostility). Consequentially, the status of ‘illegal’ migrant has been readily used to strip citizens of political rights and divest a person of their humanity. The morality of this becomes muddied for many in the context of a post-colonial and expansive neoliberal moment. As Koshravi describes in his book, ‘Illegal’ Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders, “just as rivers, mountain ranges and deserts, borders are presented as primordial parts of nature” and thus helping to construct a collective defensiveness toward a ‘nation’s story’. Based around shared ideals, histories, attitudes and myth, borders serve as an essential reference for a communal sense of identity. Many modern academics would argue that these ideas–and the role of notions of nation sovereignty in sustaining them­–are intrinsically tied to our own desires for individual autonomy and self-determination, but at a national level.

However, challenging these narratives–and the ‘othering’ which they encourage–should ultimately be the primary aim of any anthropologist in their work.  In paraphrasing Marx’s vivid image of money’s relation to capital and the markets which it services, I would draw an immediate comparison to the inherent violent roles that modern nation-state borders play: “If the border-crosser arrives into a world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, then the border-transgressor arrives dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. I would use this to pose the question of what defines an illegal (border-transgressor) and what defines a legal (border-crosser) traveller and how, if at all, are these definitions reconfigured through refugee status, citizenship rights or shockwave events such as wars or conflicts. In an attempt to give an answer to some of these questions, I will be drawing from three ethnographies which all detail an anthropologist’s fieldwork on borders, identity and what those experiences can tell us about how they are navigated and militarised in a contemporary political climate.

Nowhere in these texts is the question of citizenship and (il)legal status so evocatively put as when Koshravi describes his experience of being detained in a border prison cell whilst attempting to flee Iran (and forced conscription) during the war with Iraq in the 1980s. He would witness countless landings and departures of international airlines, filled with people that he refers to as having ‘surplus mobility rights’ because of the accessibility of crossing nation-state borders for those passengers, while he himself was fixed in immobility. As I have mentioned, borders represent an essential reference for a nation’s sense of collective identity and therefore, violating border regimes is also seen to violate ethical and aesthetical norms. In Koshravi’s earlier essay, and precursor to ‘Illegal’ Traveller, he highlights why this act is such a contentious one, in noting that “’Illegal’ border crossing challenges the sacred feature of the border rituals and symbols. It is seen as a criminal act deserving of punishment. A ‘transgression’ based on a capitalist-oriented and racial discriminating way of thinking, borders regulate movements of people”.

With these attitudes so ingrained, crossing borders for many can feel like a transgression, a disruption to a respected political order and an internalising of shame on these bases is quite often part of the punishment. That being said, borders can also be sites of defiance and resistance. As mentioned, Koshravi had just come out of high school when military service would come knocking at his door and those of all able young men. During the Iraq-Iran war, as with many other conflicts, it was seen as a duty to become martyrs for your country, to jump onto a live grenade with pride. To come back from the front lines alive was a chance that Koshravi did not want to take and so he crossed borders to escape martyrdom. Not only are borders contentious sites symbolically for those who cross them without whichever documentation and credential is acceptable for the time, but they are also–in contrast to common perception–opportunities for border patrols themselves to act above the law (a ‘whatever is necessary’ approach) and the spaces can even become beneficial for them, as “border crossers without papers are robbed by the guards before being taken into custody”. These are sites of an occupation of sorts; vulnerable migrants are blinded by rubber bullets, humiliated in front of border guards and soldiers, their possessions damaged, their water supplies spilled, their bodies beaten and urinated on and there are even large numbers of shootings and fatalities.

While Koshravi’s experience in fleeing the conflict is perhaps one that we can recognise in part, as the cruelty of border regimes is relatively well-known (though, not necessarily opposed), there are also auto-ethnographies and retellings of border-crossing to Western nations where migrants arrive from across seas and are met with a different kind of hostility. In De Genova’s ethnography, he describes the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks and the United States’ proclamation of their “War on Terror” and how this impacted global border sanctions, including with the heightened demands on citizenship and the eroding of civil liberties. The real result of this is that the regular juridical status of citizenship itself is made more exclusive through policy, while political debate and mass media coverage will identify migrant ‘illegality’ as a self-evident ‘problem’. The divide here comes from the presupposition “that there is something inherently suspect about the human beings who migrate”. Typically, the legal status of a migrant ever since the events of September 11th has been defined by the ‘terrorism effect’ and through one of (or all) three things: i) the previous place of residence ii) legal history iii) whether or not the migrant is able to ‘offer’ the state which they are trying to enter capital gains (e.g. a member of a workforce). This system inherently discriminates against those who, as we’ve highlighted, are forced to transgress border regimes or who are unfit for work and/or do not have a work placement which they will be entering into soon upon arrival into the country.

When we look at the totality of the structural function of borders (as a means ‘protect’ against the class and/or race-based conflicts which are their foundation), these paradigmatic scenes manifest on a micro level too. As we see during the apartheid regime in South Africa, where borders were felt in all but name with the separating of the township and white urban centre from the rural homelands. Exercising sovereignty in these ways­ mentioned–where borders are designated and emphasised as means to protect a populous from ‘the threats’ that lie outside them–is to, as described by Mbembe in Necropolitics, “exercise control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power” and signifies a strong social relation to the state. Through reordering politics, the sovereign power does not merely exclude the undesirable persons but penalises and regulates them by petrifying them into immobility in detention centres, by ignominious and terrifying forms of deportation, or by racialised internal border control – that turns the citizen into a quasi-citizen. As Balibar puts it ‘some borders are no longer situated at the borders at all’ in geographical or political senses of the terms. Borders have become invisible borders, situated everywhere and nowhere. Hence the undesirable persons are not expelled by the border, they are forced to be borders.

It seems that the way to interrogate the nature of borders should not necessarily begin from an epistemological standpoint of the state and its function, either historically or in the present day, but rather from the starting point of seeing freedom of movement as something like a basic human entitlement. Though, as discussed, borders are not arbitrary by design or something to raise awareness of for them to go away – they serve a primary function. Migrant illegality and more specifically, the exclusivity of citizenship “is a crucial form for operationalizing the more general separation and abstraction of the political from the immediate processes of exploitation, which manifests itself ubiquitously in the reification of “the” state as a greater or lesser monopoly of “legitimate” coercive violence, exercised spatially over a delimited territory”. Perhaps, then, any intellectual enquiry into the careful negotiation of freedoms and death which borders operate should begin and end with the function of capitalism itself.

In defence of postmodern furries

In defence of postmodern furries

Please don’t imagine that I am criticising Jordan Peterson when I say that he has abandoned the real world. Because he’s absolutely right: we should have never left the oceans.

At the Oxford Union, in his latest book and on Twitter, the Psychology professor, now YouTube sensation and bestselling author, has been busy tendering to his group of predominantly male, frenzied conservative crusaders. Actively feeding them more antiquated, half-chewed thoughts on individualism, personhood and gender & class hierarchies: in part through the medium of some hilarious Tumblr-esque dissections of biblical stories and myths to demystify these concepts and how they are relevant to the human condition.

To explain his success as he might, picture David and Goliath: the triumphant small man facing down a much stronger, giant adversary. In his version of events, he and his followers represent David, while postmodernism and its architects and beneficiaries, “social justice warriors” (SJWs), represent Goliath, or some shit.  The classic underdog story that everybody loves. Except his underdog story and the dramatic rise in his popularity can largely be attributed to a video that was widely shared featuring Peterson disparaging trans students on campus.

I suppose it’s easy to understand his appeal, his words can read like political ramblings from H.P. Lovecraft on bath salts even when looking at a fairly placid profile featured in the NYT. Reactionary white men will be thrilled with his loathing for the SJWs and his deranged machismo diet of eating nothing but salted meat. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticising Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds of “Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”. The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.” One thing that is common across these demographics of his base is their ineptitude in talking to—and overt hostility toward—women. Of course to address this, he applies the melodramatic rhetoric of mythical struggle between chaos (women) and order (men) to explain their fuckless everyday situation.

“Culture,” one of his typical arguments goes, “is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male”—and this is why resistance to male dominance is unnatural. Men represent order, and “Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine.” Keeping with this and his many soliloquies about modernity that he attributes, in part, to ‘cultural Marxism’, Peterson imbues life with a sense of lurking danger: the world is liberally peopled with sociopaths and psychopaths and even the dullest of conservative academics are actually ideological shock troops in a cosmic battle. He styles himself as a culture warrior against the forces of postmodernism, a worldview which, he says, is “an assault on everything that’s been established since the Enlightenment : rationality: empiricism : science.” He lambasts academia and casts off ‘postmodernists’, a catch-all he uses for any modern thought that questions the superiority of dominant Western political and scientific institutions—from Marxism, to French post-structuralism, to contemporary gender and race theory—again as “an assault on the metaphysical substrate of our culture”. Yet nowhere in his published writings does Peterson seem bothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy—that were essential to maintain Enlightenment ideals—connects too easily with such nascent viciousness as misogyny, anti-semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his ‘maps of meaning‘ aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists.

Like Peterson, many Enlightenment and hyper-masculinist thinkers saw compassion as a vice and urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior. Hailing myth and dreams as the repository of fundamental human truths, they became popular because they addressed a widely felt spiritual hunger: of men looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable. It was against this (eerily familiar) background—a “revolt against the modern world,” as the title of Evola’s 1934 book put it—that demagogues emerged so quickly in twentieth-century Europe and managed to exalt national and racial myths as the true source of individual and collective health. The drastic individual makeover demanded by the visionaries turned out to require a mass, coerced retreat from failed liberal modernity into an idealised traditional realm of myth and ritual. And this is how, for his admirers searching for some kind of spiritual nourishment, he invokes the Shaman.

Peterson considers himself to function akin to the shaman: a sorcerer and an orator of ancient knowledge (he himself maintaining a clinical practice, which draws influence from shamanic ritual – and this is actually the most consistent commitment of his). But, he and his influencers are no more a Shaman than I would be if I started yelling intellectual aggro on top of the Fjords. He frightens his enthusiasts and patients, in order to be better able to soothe.

In sharp contrast, the extract below is from an ethnography by Barbora Půtová describing the etymology of the shaman:

The Upper Palaeolithic gave rise to many works of art including paintings and engravings depicting these unearthly beings integrating anthropomorphous features, often taking the form of sorcerers. Shamans are usually interpreted to be Upper Palaeolithic sorcerers who can be seen as Earth deities, Great Spirit or the Lord of the Animals. The anthropomorphous potential of sorcerers is often depicted with anatomic features of animals such as a bison or deer.

Their animal sexual activity, fertility, vitality and strength are in some cases demonstrated with an erect phallus which is complemented with an animal tail. The images of sorcerers can be also regarded as a shaman during a magical ritual that was significant for the community which used the cave. Religious rituals played a prominent role in the society as they consist of the “ability to enter into ecstatic states via a number of techniques and to create strong, emotionally binding relationships with other people”.

Many aspects of Upper Palaeolithic art document that caves were used for shamanism and illustrate the ability to project introspective images on the surface. Furthermore, elements of cave art reflect the structure of the mind derived from internal feelings, dreams, memories, visions or altered states of consciousness. Prehistoric sites with cave art include shaman equipment, including percussion instruments, flutes made of bird bones and heel imprints indicating to ritual dances. The structure of the cave symbolises a journey into unconsciousness and a lower (under)world, representing the shaman’s inner journey. The use of deep caves was taken to be a symptom of magical intent. Shamanismus could have played a crucial role in cognitive and social evolution as altered states of consciousness facilitated adaptation to ecologic and social changes in the Upper Palaeolithic.

Further examination of shamanistic mythology and practice would evoke a more accurate comparison, one which doesn’t look like a right-wing fantasist slowly degenerating into Christopher Lee’s Dracula. And one that is actually characterised by postmodernity.

In the 30,000 years it has been since people first started depicting strange beings whose bodies symbolised the duality of the man and the animal, these beings integrating animal and human elements acquired a new dimension. Postmodern relativism and the desire to seize the human substance with alternative resources gave rise to a new type of a sorcerer — half human and half animal, known as a furry.

The oldest example of one of these [Shaman] can be found in Chauvet Cave in Ardèche (ca. 30 000 BC), it depicts a figure part human and part bison. At the end of the leg of the bison there are parallel lines hanging down. The body of the bison with a horned head is directed towards a vulva, a pubic triangle and two tapering legs of Venus that is being transformed in the back part of a feline, suggesting some sort of chase involving human and animal coitus.

Where a Shaman’s ecstasy is perceived as an altered state of consciousness, setting on a journey to other worlds—to achieve for e.g. successful hunting, good weather, healing—a furry acquires extraordinary abilities when entering the virtual reality in the form of a personal furry. The virtual space creates possibilities for constructing new identities that may provide more perceptual experiences, fantasies and illusions. Furries can change their own representation in cyberspace. Cyberspace opens to furries according to their needs and provides them ecstatic freedom, discovering new worlds. Shamans and furries thus trespass the threshold of the profane world, though in different times, in order to modify their original personality and find new existential horizons of human feelings and cognition.

Furries—in-part, defined by postmodernity (in that they are procedural identities, based on constant choice, search, configuration and representation)—are a liminal being in this sense, just as Shamans are, functioning to achieve a form of spiritual liberation. While closer interrogation of Peterson’s claims reveal his ‘ageless insights’ as a typical and painfully confined, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations. But it’s important for his followers to consider that it is not the duty of intellectuals to be reassuring and edifying, to create a serious world for adult children to wrap themselves up in. Intellectuals are supposed to be critics not clerics. If they do have a role, it is to provide tools to weather the sometimes enervating, painful, and confusing path of reflection and thought, not to allow for its easy interruption with images of glory and government-mandated girlfriends.

In his war with postmodernism, as elsewhere, Peterson wants to somehow keep the Enlightenment intact as a positive value, without realising its actual stakes or costs. In his work, he never really identifies the evils caused by belief in profit, slavery, genocide, and imperialism but he will surmise that a belief in egalitarianism, in this postmodern age of ‘cultural Marxism’ (he uses these interchangeably), leads straight to the guillotine or Gulag.

With his reactionary views and avuncular displays, Peterson functions far more as a huckster than the shaman, handing out quick fixes and vague sentiment, using his semi-related field to prey on college-aged males. Little of his work can be classed as ‘philosophy’. I’m not sure that he’s ever acknowledged—or read—any studies and findings that would still be credible in either the sociology or anthropology disciplines today. And it isn’t really politics or science either. Instead, his work is a kind of grappling with the excesses of what human beings have done or believed in the past, in the hope that it clarifies something about the present. If Peterson has a particular skill, beyond his undoubted eloquence, it’s the ability to move so seamlessly back and forth between scientific research and metaphysics, the primordial and the modern, that his audience scarcely notices the joins. And that’s the crux. That’s how Peterson is effectively able to sell his brand of intellectual and political fearlessness to them: imposing a world of mysticism upon the world that already exists, which is one of complexities that he doesn’t have the ability to grasp.


Disclaimer: This was a good idea I thought I had which ended up becoming a Frankenstein’s monster of an essay. I got the extremely cool illness of depression and was unable to finish, so it’s a conglomerate of my own writing/research and some excerpts pulled directly from articles by Pankaj Mishra and Will DaviesI’ve written a kind of supporting blog piece for this essay on my Patreon. 

Material culture and empire

Material culture and empire

I recently had an interesting interview with an anthropologist about museums, decolonisation and materialism. It’s me asking the questions. For the purpose of anonymity and because I am transcribing this through notes and my own dubious memory, some parts may be edited. I’m presenting this without comment because it’s a period of looming deadlines for my course at university, I’m also an idiot and I’ve never read anything in my life.  

Can you tell me a bit about your background in the field?

My masters was the Anthropology of Art which had a component focussing on the study of museums, so I chose to do that. I then worked at [museum in London] in the late 90s during a trend, among exhibition spaces, of changing national museums to reflect a bicultural narrative. This was a curatorial process of talking to and bringing in consultants from various ethnic and indigenous groups to assist with presenting this narrative. Before this, museums were seldom self-reflective and would often display objects as a means to convey a kind of ‘evolutionary’ process from Primitive – Enlightenment and Science.

In the early 2000s, I began studying art, museum heritage, souvenirs and looked at the content of collections to analyse how these all related to the ‘Market of Empire’ for my PhD. This is where I encountered valid critiques and scepticism towards referring to objects as “stolen” as a catch-all, which is so often ascribed to items from colonised societies, or vaguely presenting them as the product of theft and disempowerment. The problem with this rhetoric is that firstly, the objects are not usually stolen. In my field research, I traced the markets of empire by interviewing curators and archivists at local levels, acquisition of the objects was largely by early industrialists and ‘tourists’. Through navigating oral history, visual material and social impacts, you learn that colonised people were involved in that process of acquisition often. When the tourists would come in search of art and such, the Chief (or whoever meets them) is actually quite powerful. If an object was to be stolen, the thief would likely have been caught and even killed. What would tend to happen would be that the item would be presented as a gift or exchanged for a small sum. By calling it “theft” (in many cases) you effectively disempower the indigenous group twice. These items of specific cultural significance were already acquired on unequal, oppressive grounds but to then often write the group’s agency and participation in the process out of history is to disempower them again.

As I mentioned, a big part of my fieldwork was to study the oral history and the discourse of science and ethnology when these objects were acquired. I wanted to tell the story of a (hypothetical) “woman’s grandmother who had given this cloak to a figure of empire, who could trace where the item had been sold and how it was made”. I then proceeded to frame the object within its cultural relativism, rather than presenting something which was perhaps used for ritual, religion or even eating as something which is purely aesthetic (as was often the case). I would identify this to curators of museums and a timeless representation would be put back into its imperialist and religious (etc.) historical context.

You mentioned the modernisation of museums to reflect a bicultural narrative, can you elaborate on the rationale behind this and talk about your experience with the process?

For example, the Horniman Museum used to look much like what the Pitt Rivers Museum still looks like now. Both were amassed collections by scientific industrialists who presented the objects using racist science (the aforementioned tendency in the C19th to fetishise the items and also present them as primitive). In the 90s, the Pitt Rivers Museum designated that the display shouldn’t change and I agree to an extent, it was naive of the Horniman Museum (and others) to think that the display could ever have its ‘impurity’ removed through decolonising in this way. There have been attempts to un-modernise and they are largely met with resistance. [Museum in Vancouver] want to put the context back into the cultural items rather than presented as an aesthetic. The indigenous people would be the curators of the spaces, it was an idea to break down hierarchies between the qualified and the public. So, they would have storerooms with glass doors so that the public could see the objects in them for example. This changes the role of the curator as well to an extent. Before, the public would only see what the curator had chosen to be on display. There’s a good book about this process called Museums and source communities by Laura Peers.

Following on from that point: In your experience, to what extent do you feel the perspectives of archivists, historians and curators influences the final exhibition of the objects? How significant would you say their impact is in general terms?

Historians define object selection and text while the conservation group can absolutely put a “no” on something. The role of the architects of the space is also understated because they have a stake in how the exhibition is built. However, the criticism of the museums tends to fall entirely on the curators.

The biggest change since the 90s has been the inclusion of source communities within the museums, which is basically naming people. It’s ‘rehumanising’ and ‘de-ethnologising’ from when indigenous and colonised groups would be classified as ‘types’. Artist interventions have also been great in this too, artists become a somewhat heroic voice in deconstructing ‘the racist voice’ and were seemingly beyond critique. They would start doing consultation with indigenous groups and once you start this, they will appropriate you for their own means, as a way of validating indigenous culture. Take textiles for example, take something that the West values and use that as a lever for something that has been devalued in your culture. Get white people to value your culture and that way, they might listen to your political demands because we always denigrate something, art was a way of reorienting a negative discourse to a more positive one. Although the spaces were never going to be as subversive as [the artists] wanted, museums are so entangled with commissioners and bureaucracy in a way that largely prohibits radical change.

What do you think the future looks like for curation? 

The funding is in crisis, particularly for university museums in the UK, they are losing their economic base and having to look to philanthropists and new funding models. An important role for museums in the future is to show the cultural exchanges that have taken place, through the movement of people and objects. You could have a much less hegemonic history. By eliminating these simple binaries and narratives about “stolen objects”, the divisiveness of the museum space is tackled effectively. Historically, the argument for decolonisation of exhibitions has been used by right-wing governments and authorities to shut museums down, they will say “you’re right, these objects are stolen and this is not true to history” but they aren’t thinking about repatriation, they don’t give a shit about returning the objects, they just want to whitewash history entirely. This is where it becomes dangerous, decolonisation is then used to defend a white purist narrative and the double disempowerment that I mentioned becomes more violent.

Moving back to your question about the future, they should also project collections outwardly into schools for example, using digital imagery as a vehicle for education and it’d be much more socially inclusive. For a more cohesive view on society, this would be a very useful way to disseminate. Similar projects could be deployed using the digital imagery from storerooms and exhibition spaces too. This doesn’t seem to be happening widely though and how do you engage with people that don’t want to know?