How postmodernism and “critical theory” are obstacles to a useful political practice in opposition to the racism of Pauline Hanson and the right-wing populism of Paul Sheehan
A critique of two books: White Nation by Ghassan Hage and Ghassan Hage’s contribution about ethnic eating to Home/World, Space, Community and Marginality in Sydney’s West, by Helen Grace and others; and a short comment on another book, Race Daze by Jon Stratton.
In the course of trying to sketch out the beginnings of a political strategy to defeat the right-wing populism most strikingly expressed by Paul Sheehan in Amongst the Barbarians, I have recently become vividly aware of a “high theory” school of ostensible criticism of Sheehan and company, embodied in the three books above, published by Pluto Press.
Having read the three books, I am both thoroughly repelled by them, but also a bit fascinated, particularly by the writings of Ghassan Hage. Asking around, I’ve discovered that White Nation, in particular, is selling quite well on the postmodern academic circuit, and that Hage is becoming rather a celebrity in the groves of academe on matters pertaining to racism and ethnicity.
I have had the intention, for some time, of developing my views on the damaging influence of the “high theory” on historical and social inquiry and practice. These three books, ostensibly about serious immediate questions, which I have been researching and writing about in depth myself, give me the opportunity to test my views and proposals against the views of some postmodernists and cultural theorists.
Hage’s method In White Nation
Hage starts off in a belligerent, in-your-face kind of way, for which I have a sneaking respect, being often a bit like that myself! Nevertheless, his basic approach to these important questions is a dramatically inaccurate reconstruction of past Australian history.
His approach is an obstacle to developing a useful political practice to defeat racism and xenophobia in Australia. White Nation is obviously the book version of a postgraduate thesis. It is an extended tour de force in which Hage demonstrates a certain fidelity to the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu of the Paris Ecole des Hautes Etudes and the College de France, and his ability to showcase these ideas in an Australian setting.
In the process Hage crudifies Bourdieu’s style and method. There is a very useful article about Bourdieu by Clare O’Farrell in The Judgement of Paris, edited by Kevin Murray (Allen and Unwin 1992). This article, rather amazingly for a postmodern text, is an intelligible and clearly written introduction to Bourdieu’s ideas and description of the social context of his intellectual activity in France.
Among other things, she mentions that in 1981 he was the 36th most influential intellectual in France, but by 1989 he had undergone a meteoric rise to fifth place. Hage has a certain nose, obviously, for cottoning on to current French intellectual fashions. Bourdieu repeatedly proclaims that he is a sociologist, not a philosopher. He is a neo-Marxist who has put his own distinctive spin on the enterprise of Louis Althusser, which was to reduce Marxism to a crude, mechanistic sociology, removing the active element of deliberate organised activity for social change.
Bourdieu uses this rather mechanistic Althusserian sociology, but he has added the common structuralist element of concentrating on the discourse and language of all situations, and transferred this whole process to a kind of intellectual cyberspace. Great fun if you can do it!
Bourdieu places very little emphasis on trying to directly influence developments in the real world. He adopts a stance that his particular discourse is the only valid one, and he refuses to defend or justify this proposition. He adopts a tone that more or less implies that anyone who doesn’t immediately accept the form and content of his discourse is implicitly brain-dead.
In the useful book, French Philosophy of the Sixties by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, published in 1985 by Gallimard, and reprinted in 1990 by the University of Massachusetts Press, there is a very useful chapter about Bourdieu. On page 167, note 27, says this about Bourdieu’s claim to intellectual superiority:
- “As evidence, if indeed any is still required, we cite Bourdieu’s explanation, in Le Sens pratique, of his own superiority as an agent in the field of intellectual production due to his specific social position. We refer to two unforgettable passages: In the first (p.30) Bourdieu suggests that, if he is better able than others to understand the social conditions of the scholar’s relations with the world (relations characterised by an ‘objectivising distance’), it is because he is a ‘mountain peasant’ and as such had ‘a greater awareness’ of the problems posed by a distance from the object; later (p.37), we learn that in order to elaborate a theory of objectivation one must ‘produce a theory of what it means to be a native’, the native being one who, trapped in the object, understands it in an immediate way, but with no distance from it, therefore blindly. To understand the process of establishing a distance, which is characteristic of the scholar’s relations to the object, the (practical) relations of blind proximity are taken as the starting point and an attempt is made to discover the stages one must pass through in order to overcome it. Bourdieu suggests that this theory of the native ‘cannot be developed through theoretical experience alone’; that is, one must have been a native oneself, one must have lived these practical relations to the world, one must not have benefited from the ‘distance from need’ that is the prerogative of a bourgeois existence — so that one is compelled to pose the problems of objectivation in all their sharpness. The moral of the story is clear: unless one has been a mountain peasant, preferably socially indigenous, one is in grave danger of become a bad sociologist.”
In the intellectual climate of the Parisian left bank Bourdieu gets away with this rather breathtaking claim to intellectual superiority. There are always fashions in French intellectual life and for the moment Bourdieu is rather fashionable, and his public lectures are very crowded. He actually occupies an ecological niche in French academic life a bit like that occupied in postmodernist circles in Australia by Meaghan Morris or McKenzie Wark: that is, he is a widely quoted postmodern pundit on almost everything from the consumption of bedroom slippers in France to Belgian literature and the thought of Martin Heidegger.
His most obvious feature, as a critic and pundit, is this breathless assumption of intellectual superiority. In a recent issue of New Left Review (No. 227, January-February 1998), there is a reprint of his speech accepting a prize from the Ernst Bloch Institute, in which he attacks any notion of developing a radical practice in any particular European country and stakes out a claim to be a new type of radical European intellectual, divorced from any particular national context.
What he means by this isn’t entirely clear from the article, but his intention by this proclamation of reinforcing his claim to a unique intellectual superiority, is pretty obvious. This speech ends:
- “In conclusion, therefore, I need only formulate the question which ought to be at the centre of any reasoned utopia concerning Europe: how do we create a really European Europe, one that is free from all dependency on any of the imperialisms — starting with the imperialism that affects cultural production and distribution in particular, via commercial constraints — and also liberated from all the national and nationalist residues that still prevent Europe from accumulating, augmenting and distributing all that is most universal in the tradition of each of its component nations?”
Insofar as the above passage can be understood, it appears ferociously Eurocentric, and among several rather dubious elements, it clearly includes an element of the cultural xenophobia that totally dominates French intellectual life, directed against American popular culture. In this context the main imperialism referred to by Bourdieu is probably the perceived cultural imperialism of CNN!
The other authority who Hage quotes at length is the Slovene intellectual, Slavoj Zizek. He is also a currently hyper-popular European public intellectual performer. In a profile of Zizek, in the Independent International of May 3, 1999, Guy Mannes-Abbott says about Zizek:
- “Zizek is a bundle of unlikely elements. He’s arguably the brightest and most significant star in Europe’s philosophical cosmos, throwing out light by way of an infectious plundering of popular culture and an interest in the tabloid domain of Viagra and virtual pets. Crucially, he is a theorist of the whole when the perceived wisdom is that grand philosophical theory is now neither credible nor possible. Worse, that theory is rooted in Freud and Marx, and fuses the notoriously opaque thinking of Jacques Lacan with the founding figures of German idealism from Kant to Hegel. However, Zizek — like any original — is rewriting the rules. His cultish popularity since the collapse of Eastern European socialism a decade ago has made him a lot hipper than the legions of philosophical cynics.”
Wow! Obviously Hage has a good eye for contemporary European intellectual trends. The main issue on which Hage continuously quotes Zizek is Zizek’s broad brush attack on the notion of multiculturalism. Zizek’s views on this matter are stated at length in an article entitled Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism in New Left Review of September-October 1997.
Zizek’s standpoint is obviously profoundly influenced by where he sits as a leading Slovene intellectual, and former leading Slovene dissident against the Stalinist regime in the old Yugoslavia. It is reasonable to say that the Slovenes, living in a small, compact republic in Yugoslavia, close to Austria and Italy, and heavily influenced culturally by Germany, tended to reject the rather flawed multiculturalism of Yugoslavia, from the point of view that Slovenia was really part of “Europe”, not of Yugoslavia.
On that question Zizek’s views haven’t changed much since the 1970s. It is important to note, however, once again, as in relation to Bourdieu, the thoroughly Eurocentric character of this opposition to multiculturalism.
Ghassan Hage’s Australian narrative in the light of the major cultural influences that he invokes
In his two significant writings, White Nation and the essay on food mentioned above, Hage makes an imitative but quite respectable attempt at a Bourdieuian or Zizekian tour de force in an Australian context. White Nation hits you in the face with a totally dishonest but very effective image on the cover. The publisher of the book found a photo in an old copy of the Women’s Weekly or some such magazine, of a chubby white baby, sitting on a wharf, clad only in a nappy and a sailor’s cap, holding a piece of rope, with a big, implicitly “imperialist” smile.
The addition, in large white lettering, of the book’s title, White Nation, creates an overwhelmingly powerful image, and certainly attracts the reader’s attention. I have noticed several people buy the book after initially being struck by the cover, so the device certainly works. (Nowhere in the book, however, is there any attribution of the photo. Such attribution would obviously reduce the impact.) Poor baby and proud parents, if they ever see the book.
Hage, who teaches anthropology at Sydney University, in his introduction makes like an anthropologist or a sociologist. As the pundit said, “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”, and Hage is guilty of a certain intellectual hypocrisy in the way he organises his narrative. He makes a big feature, both in White Nation and the food article, of having got students to do field work for him, and painstakingly describes the large number of interviews conducted by his team, in both instances.
However, it’s all window dressing. He nowhere uses this acquired research in any recognisable sociological or anthropoligical way. He nowhere gives any statistics or breakdown of what proportion of the interviewees had different views on anything. His method of using the interviews is really quite dubious.
He selects from this pool of interviews only those that suit his purpose of constructing a totally white racist model of Australian society. He takes the most extreme interviews, or the interviews that most suit his already constructed model, and uses them to illustrate his point of view. It’s not really anthropology or sociology at all, but it makes like sociology.
The interviews are carefully selected and then used as objects for cultural criticism and deconstruction, within the framework of Hage’s already preconceived intellectual arrangement. This curious method, however, is quite effective in achieving one of Hage’s obvious aims, which is to give him the opportunity for constant tours de force on this or that cultural question, showcasing his postmodern erudition.
A third influence on Hage is obviously the Palestinian-American intellectual, Edward Said, though he only quotes Said twice. Said is known for his discussion of “orientalism” and his attack on it. What Said means by “orientalism” is the tendency of European cultures to treat other world cultures as something exotic and alien, and both to romanticise them and to separate them from the main stream of world culture as something primitive.
Said constantly attacks tendencies he discerns in European and American culture to do this. Said is, of course, frequently correct in this discernment of the tendencies in “first world” cultures, but the curious use to which Hage puts Said’s insights in these matters serves another, and essentially negative, purpose.
Hage’s eclectic Australian narrative
Brother Hage is a pretty shrewd public intellectual performer. He constructs for the more derivative and less thoughtful section of the Australian academic market a very cute combination of the above three influences. He imitates the bombastic and bold assertion of intellectual superiority by Bourdieu and Zizek, and he quotes them at length, almost to the point of boring the pants off the reader.
However, he nowhere mentions their profoundly Eurocentric standpoint. This is obviously because the Eurocentrism of these two thinkers is in sharp conflict with the third element he introduces into his discourse, that partly derived from Edward Said.
From Edward Said, he takes over and adopts,unknowledged, Said’s critique of “orientalism”, and attaches it to his Bourdieuian and Zizekian cultural criticism. Hage’s narrative uses Bourdieu and Zizek’s cultural style to buttress his proclaimed position as the only “authentic” representative of the views of “NESB” (Non English Speaking Background) people: a pretty bare-faced narrative twist.
He’s quite an intellectual tapdancer, our Brother Hage. In the current theoretical climate in many Australian educational and university circles there is a vague mood that there must be something in the widespread fashion for French high theory and cultural criticism, but this mood is not often combined, unfortunately, with too much detailed understanding of the ideas and history of these trends.
It is in this rather confused intellectual environment that Hage is energetically trying to stake out a piece of territory for his bit of ideological theatre. Hage’s enterprise gains a little momentum from the fact that he is from the Middle East, being a Maronite intellectual from Lebanon. He asserts that his Middle East background qualifies him as the major intellectual talking head for those whom he describes as NESB people.
A further factor that intertwines with this is his obvious considerable personal knowledge and involvement with French intellectual life. This is a common characteristic of Lebanese intellectuals in every generation, due to the long history of French cultural influence on Lebanon, particularly on the minority Maronite Catholic cultural community, which in the Lebanese and Arab context have traditionally asserted their “Europeanness” by exaggerated involvement in all things French.
In this respect Hage is carrying on a quite old Lebanese and Maronite Catholic cultural tradition. It is interesting that Hage feels such an intellectual community with Zizek, the leading Slovene intellectual, and it’s easy to see why he does. The Slovenes have traditionally had a similar attitude to the culture of Western Europe as have the Maronites to France.
The Slovenes have often asserted that they are Western Europeans, also influenced by French culture, and not “Balkan barbarians”.
Hage stakes his claim as the only significant talking head for NESB people against “white Anglo-Australia”
What initially grabbed my attention very violently about Hage’s narrative is the ignorance he displays of Australian history, in an area in which I have been working over the last couple of years, researching the major changes that have taken place in the ethnic and cultural mix in Australia and the experience of Australians in that process of change.
My point of departure in my own analysis was an angry initial response to the ahistoricism displayed by Pauline Hanson and Paul Sheehan when they proclaim loudly and vocally that Australia was united before multiculturalism. That proposition was sharply contradicted by my existing knowledge of Australian history and led me to a line of investigation and research into all the fault lines in the Australian past on these matters, and to emphasise and celebrate the elements of opposition in British imperialist Australia, to the ruling class racism and chauvinism that have existed since European settlement.
To my own satisfaction, I have described in a number of essays how those elements of opposition have expanded and developed to the qualitative point that they are now probably the dominant element in society and the old British imperial racism is in full retreat.
Along comes Hage, with his quite spurious pretensions to be the only authentic representative of “non-white”, in opposition to a “white” Australia that he artificially constructs. From that standpoint, he totally accepts and reinforces the Sheehan-Hanson proposition that Australia was united before multiculturalism, or maybe until Hage came along.
What a breathtaking proposition! Only possible really by a Bourdieuian piece of intellectual effrontery, and sharply in conflict with any useful interpretation of Australian history. However, this construct: “mono-cultural united White Anglo-Australia” (both, as he puts it, “white nationalists” and “white multiculturalists”), versus Ghassan Hage the self-appointed sole representative of NESB people, is absolutely central to the method of Hage’s book.
Hage makes quite a point in the introduction of classifying the whole previous Australian culture as “white” and by a rather ludicrous piece of sleight of hand, constantly reiterates his claim to be the talking head representative of “non-white”.
It’s a bit bizarre, but this completely artificial construct is the core of Hage’s curious intellectual project. (It’s worth noting that there has been a long discussion in government, immigration and census-taking and statistical circles as to whether people from the Middle East, Turkey and North Africa are classified, for statistical purposes as Europeans, Asians or Africans. After long agony by Anglo statisticians, generally speaking, people from Turkey, North Africa and Arab countries in the Middle East, are classified, by Australian statisticians, as Europeans, but this has not been achieved without a struggle against the more primitive British-Australia European racists. Hage seems to agree with the more primitive British racists in his claim to represent “non-white” versus “white”, although, as I’ve pointed out above, this does not prevent him, in other contexts, passing off the ideas of the Eurocentric Bourdieu as if Bourdieu was Edward Said.)
Maronite Catholic migrants in Australian history
As part of the background to his theoretical tour de force Hage makes some play of his Maronite Catholic Arab ethnicity, and he includes a quite interesting collection of material about the experiences of recent Lebanese migrants in Australia, although his focus is almost always on how migrants perceive Anglo-Australians and how Anglo-Australians perceive migrants, rather than any investigation of more concrete economic and social aspects of the migrant experience.
A serious historical overview of the history of Maronite Catholic migration to Australia, actually sharply contradicts Hage’s main construction (NESB people in total opposition to “white” Australia).
Maronite Catholics from the mountain area behind Beirut have steadily migrating to Australia since the middle of the 19th century, when they were classified by British-Australia as Syrians because at that time Lebanon was part of greater Syria. They were often called “Syrian traders”.
They often started off in Australia as small-time peddlers of clothing and other goods. When I was a kid in the 1950s I used to go for holidays to a sheep station in the Hunter Valley at Merriwa owned by my uncle’s family, a country Catholic family whose grandfather was a free selector.
We used to go to Mass in town every Sunday and everybody else at Mass were other Irish Catholic people, with the exception of one family, the Wakims, of Maronite extraction, who owned the clothing store in Merriwa. My uncle, a rather religious Catholic, used to joke that when his father was staking out the family free selection on the land of a big Anglo squatter, the Wakims’ father was driving a covered wagon all over the Hunter Valley and northern NSW, selling clothes and fabrics, and that the Wakims had worked their way up to owning the clothing store.
Over much of country NSW, the Maronite “Syrian trader” clothing store was, in the 1950s, as ubiquitous as the Greek cafe. The scattered Maronite families blended in with their co-religionists, the Catholics of Irish extraction, and were collectively somewhat an out group in relation and in opposition to, “British” Australia, which to some extent was defined by the Australian ruling class against Irish, Italian, Maltese, and Maronite Catholics.
These Maronite families were scattered all over NSW and Victoria in the 19th century. Steve Bracks, the new Labor Premier of Victoria, is of that background from country Victoria. Darryl Melham, the Labor MP for Banks in NSW is another. Nick Shehadie, the former Lord Mayor of Sydney is another, and a well-known business, Maloufs, run by Maronites of the older generation, has existed in Sydney for 50 or 60 years dealing in secondhand metal shelving at Mascot.
The point of this is that rather than being a non-white opposition to White Australia, the Maronite Lebanese, along with Greeks and Maltese and other non-British Catholics, rapidly became part of Irish Catholic and secular working class Australia versus British-establishment Australia, a set of circumstances completely out of focus with Ghassan Hage’s entirely literary reconstruction of Australian history, into white and non-white.
The history of the Maronites in Australia is a perfect example of the cumulative growth of a heterogenous community in Australian society that has undermined racist British Australia. This started with the Irish Catholics and the secular working class in convict times.
Hage’s construction is artificial and is actually contradicted by the facts about the history of Maronite migration in the 19th century and early 20th century, which fits in much more with an incremental increase of oppositional elements to the British establishment than it does to some artificial white versus non-white construction with Hage as the representative of the non-white. Post-Second-World-War Maronite migration formed part of the great shift from British to European migration, and then to Middle Eastern migration and finally to Asian migration, over the past 40 years. Even within Lebanese migration in the 1960s and the 1970s, the Maronites tended to come first because they already had contacts with Australia through the earlier migration.
Lebanese Muslims came a little later. In the Australian context, Arabic speakers have actually come to form a distinct grouping within the Australian multicultural set-up. It was very notable, during the Lebanese civil war, that there were sharp conflicts between Muslims and Maronites for a period. People I know who in workplaces where there were a lot of Lebanese used to be fascinated by the fact that both religious groups would gather together at lunchtime arguing rather furiously about the civil war in Arabic, and that despite the conflict about the civil war, they still tended to form a subgroup in those workplaces, defined by the Arabic language.
Everything I have discovered about the history of Lebanese migration to Australia reinforces the usefulness of an intellectual construction in which a vigorous defence of multiculturalism, without too precious an artificial construction of white and non-white, rather than Ghassan Hage’s strange edifice.
Hitler, or, who is a real intellectual?
There is another theme that runs through the start of White Nation: Hage as the representative of “real intellectuals” versus inferior minds. It’s worth quoting the section about Hitler that Hage had to rewrite after Paul Sheehan threatened to sue him, according to the magazine Strewth, if he compared Sheehan directly with Hitler.
I have some sympathy for Sheehan on this matter. I don’t like Sheehan much, but it’s taking things a pretty long way to compare him with Hitler, and it’s displaying ludicrous naivete to think that he wouldn’t sue you if you were to so compare him.
- “This is neither my granny, nor any of Australia’s anti-intellectual populists speaking, but Adolf Hitler, and I cannot help thinking of him when people start abusing intellectuals. Hitler was the classic anti-intellectual: a man who had enough intellect to be a mediocre intellectual and enough also to realise that he wasn’t a member of the intellectual elite.”Like many mediocre intellectuals, he thought he had a natural talent for knowledge, rather than realising how much hard work is put into whatever knowledge people end up gathering. Hitler was not, however, the sort of person who would just sit there and take it. He was too motivated by dreams of social, political and intellectual mobility to allow himself to just sulk and do nothing.”So, he discovered the time-honoured way to “beat” the intellectual elite. This is the road often chosen by people who want to be recognised as intellectuals but who are either not socially equipped to be so or feel they have better things to do than putting in the hard labour necessary to achieve such a status. These people compensate for their lack of knowledge by speaking in the name of “the people”, who become such a formula of success for mediocre intellectuals that they make themselves — and some others, too — believe that they actually are “the people”.
So there you have it. You had just better shut up and listen to Hage. He is the only authentic voice of NESB people and, in addition to that, if you disagree with him you are probably some dopey sub-intellectual autodidact (like Hitler) who hasn’t read as many books as him.
Also, in the preface he makes a great show of savaging his Maronite Catholic grandmother, who he sets up as a cardboard figure for people who worry about things. Poor old Gran. This rather forced construction is all part of reminding you of his ethnicity.
Hage’s unpleasant, petulant, carping tone
A feature that is quite common to “deconstructionists” is a constant tone of feigned irritation at human stupidity. Hage has this petulant, carping, nasty tone in spades. He seems constantly irritated at the human race. He starts the book proper in a grand, Bourdieuian, way.
Chapter 1 is called: Evil White Nationalists: The Function of the Hand in the Execution of Nationalist Practices. This is a very long disquisition in the most erudite postmodern fashion about the function of the hand in racist practices. Great showcasing for Hage.
A dozen or so pages on he quotes his first interviewee, the most rabid proletarian racist he can find. (The method of interview collecting is even further loaded by a specification that the interviewees must be people who have lived in the inner city for more than 10 years, the obvious result of which is to find people, pensioners, older people and so on, who are the survivors of both the advent of migrants and the gentrification of the area.
Such survivors are obviously going to produce a statistically higher number of extreme interviews. One suspects some of them may even be a bit like Margaret Mead’s Samoan girls, making a little bit of mischief to have a bit of fun. Hage’s first interviewee certainly sounds a bit like he was taking the mickey out of the interviewer.
This first interview is worth quoting: a garbage collector in Marrickville who described himself as an “Aussie with a vengeance”, gave us his specific version of this:
- I’d say like, like I know a fair bit of people in Marrickville, you know like, ah … I’d say like, like people, like, well … the Vietnamese, I … They’re sort of, ah … overpopulating the place, you know. There’s still a fair bit of Aussies around, like, but … it’s not the same. I’d be lucky to get a can of beer at Christmas. The Vietnamese … well … mate, they don’t even know how to put their garbage in a garbage bin. And … and … well … you know … I don’t want nothing from nobody … but picking up garbage is not how it used to be, you know … people, like, they leave all sort of things without putting them in plastic bags … I tell you, it doesn’t smell like Australia anymore around here … you know what I mean, mate?”
If I might be permitted just a little gentle Bourdieuian cultural criticism of my own, it seems to me that Hage, in this instance, by choosing this as his first interview to deconstruct, is himself displaying a little of the outraged anger of the gentrifying new resident of the inner-city when confronted with the traditional demand from garbos for some sort of a sling at Christmas, or maybe Hage is just unconscious of his own reaction to this well-known traditional phenomenon of Sydney garbage collection.
The couple of interviews that Hage chooses for his Evil White Nationalists riff are so rabid that he has plenty of material to deconstruct. He even manages an erudite discussion of Durkheim’s views on suicide in this chapter. He is very erudite, our Hage.
Chapter 3 is entitled: Good White Nationalists: The Tolerant Society as a White Fantasy. For this chapter, Hage selects a couple of interviews with people, overtly more tolerant than the ones in the previous chapter, but that lend themselves to his criticism for “objectifying” migrants.
We never get to know if there were any interviews that might have met Hage’s criteria for being all right, though it’s obvious from the way he has constructed the ground rules that it would be very unlikely that any interviewee would even have the basic qualifications, as defined by Hage, to say anything meaningful about migrants and migration.
By definition, if you are not an NESB person, as defined by Hage, you are inevitably going to say the wrong thing. Most of the rest of the book is a broad-brush criticism and attack on what Hage calls “white multiculturalism” from every conceivable angle.
He mulls over every interview he has from people of more civilised views than the overt racists, to try to prove them guilty of thought crimes in the way they view migrants and migration. If they are overtly in favour of migrants, migration and multiculturalism, they seem to get the most flack for errors of representation.
He quite explicitly condemns all existing multiculturalism as not meeting his specifications. One chapter is quite interesting. He attacks the benign racists who go into sylvan rhapsodys about the Australian landscape and use it to justify opposition to migration. He’s quite funny on this topic. I don’t like those pastoral racists either.
The real question, however, is the need to develop a concrete refutation of the argument that they advance that Australia is so overpopulated that migration should be reversed because we can’t physically support more people without a catastrophic further degredation of the environment. This view is quite widespread in Australia and it requires concrete material argument against and refutation if the majority of Australians are to be convinced that reasonably high migration, with access for less privileged people to Australia, should continue.
Hage makes considerable, very effective and very erudite fun of the sylvan racists, but he makes no attempt to reply to their arguments. He even ridicules a number of times “white liberal racists”, like myself presumably, who engage in immigration debates, of which he is totally contemptuous.
He never actually spells out his view on the current arguments over what concrete decisions governments should make on the size and character of immigration. Who knows, Brother Hage may even be in favour of lower immigration! He doesn’t really tell us.
But he makes absolutely clear his hostility to those who engage in immigration debates on the side of higher immigration and in defence of the existing multicultural arrangements. Hage uses his posture of “authentic” representative of non-white to try to intimidate “white multiculturalists” like myself.
Well, in a long life of political activity, I’ve seen that sort of posture adopted a number of times before by people trying to carve out a niche for themselves, by the use of the most left rhetoric they can dream up. After being involved in heaps of arguments and battles, on the generally progressive side, over many important political questions, I’ve got a very thick hide in these matters.
The nub of the question is not Hage’s posture of sole legitimacy, “non-white” versus “white”, but much more importantly, whether Hage’s construction is truthful or useful to the struggle for a more civilised Australia, and it clearly isn’t.
Ghassan Hage and national identity
Hage attacks those who argue that migrants should claim a part of the existing Australian national identity. He ridicules, in fact, all notions of Australian national identity. This is a very dangerous approach in the practical sphere of real cultural politics directed at a good outcome for all Australians of all origins, including recent migrants.
In terms of Lenin’s classic, and still entirely valid, description of what a modern nation actually is, there is no question that a real Australian nationality exists. Australia is a nation state with an existing national identity.
As I describe at length in this and other essays, the nature of that Australian national identity has been contested from the time of European settlement between the “lower orders” of society, initially mostly the Irish Catholics, and on the other side, the originally dominant British racist ruling class.
There is unquestionably a national identity but the essential nature of that identity is historically an area of the sharpest contest between the “lower orders” and the ruling class. It’s ludicrous to deny the existence of a distinct Australian national identity. The real issue is how this national identity evolves and what forces become dominant in it.
Multiculturalism has become a very real and concrete part of a popular, civilizsd and egalitarian Australian national identity. Each wave of migrants has almost immediately staked out its claim to be Australian in every real sense, particularly in the area of citizenship, but most waves of migrants have also staked out their right to a separate identity, a multicultural identity within the broader Australian framework.
Most waves of migrants do two things at once, including “Third World looking migrants” to use Hage’s oddly ambiguous category, which he introduces late in the book. They stake out a full claim to, and attempt to, acquire knowledge about the existing Australian national identity.
They try to integrate in and claim a part of it. But also, usually at much the same time, they develop their discrete multicultural identity, expanding and celebrating their original cultural framework in the Australian context: Greek Australians, Arab Australians, Albanian Australians, Chinese Australians and so on.
This almost inevitable line of development is the basis for a healthy Australian national identity composed of all the better things from the old working class and Irish Catholic underclass of racist British Australia, including the better things that come from the old British ruling stratum of racist British Australia after their ruling class pretensions have been overthrown, combined with all the subcultures that come from each new wave of migration.
All of these elements combine but also remain discrete, to develop a new, civilised Australian national identity and consciousness. This is the only possible progressive way society can be expected to develop in the context of the still-existing domination of the institution of the nation state on Planet Earth.
The only two possible alternatives to this development are a kind of forced assimilation, either into Pauline Hanson’s model of a ridiculously idealised British Australia, or in the case of Ghassan Hage, a clearly present but not too clearly spelt-out notion of some sort of Third World cosmo-universalism, not too unlike the cosmo-Europeanism of Bourdieu and Zizek.
Hage’s approach to Australian national identity is really quite opposed to any realistic construction of a political and cultural strategy to achieve a civilised multicultural Australia.
Ghassan Hage, Pierre Bourdieu and dinner
Hage’s essay, At home in the entrails of the west: multiculturalism, ethnic food and migrant home-building is such a bizarre and unpleasant cultural theory tour de force that a careful analysis of it is worthwhile. The first part of the essay is an extended inquiry into migrant nostalgia and home building practices in Australia.
Even in this section, some of which is quite interesting, the dominating thing is questions of representation and language, rather than any discussion of the concrete problems of employment, financing a home, and so on, faced by the migrants he surveys. It’s Hage’s Maronite Catholic Lebanese home turf, so to speak, so he knows the cultural territory well and his observations are quite interesting despite their constant emphasis on how other people view the migrants or the migrants view other people rather than practical questions that face the migrants.
The second and third parts of the essay carry the punchlines, so to speak. Hage has a bizarre and unpleasant view of what he calls “ethnic eating” in commercial cafes. His approach to these questions owes a great deal to his master, Pierre Bourdieu.
- “In a book quoted earlier in this article by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, they make this comment about Bourdieu’s discussion of dinner: “If the bourgeois serves sausages for dinner, it is through snobbism, trying to show that he’s not so different from the working class: thus he demonstrates a typically bourgeois attitude, and if he prefers to serve smoked salmon, well there is no longer any doubt about the diagnosis (My God, it’s obvious!). How is it that under these conditions, Bourdieu didn’t die of hunger long ago?”
In the Australian context, Hage out-Bourdieus Bourdieu’s discussion of dinner. He uses his pseudo-sociological methodology, gets some students to do interviews and then uses the interviews that suit him in the eclectic way with which we have become familiar in White Nation. He has great fun with small snobberies displayed by chefs in inner-city restaurants about western suburbs restaurants. (What does he expect his research to disclose, for goodness sake!)
He makes great play of whatever pretensions and elements of objectification he can dig up from his interviews with patrons of ethnic restaurants. He has a field day ridiculing, in a rather nasty way, any other element of minor snobbery in relation to eating out he can dig up. If one were to believe Hage, almost everyone who patronises ethnic restaurants does so for reasons of elaborate conspicuous consumption.
He develops the concept of what he calls “cosmo-multiculturalism” and he launches a sweeping and total attack on all tourism, both domestic and overseas. He really gets into his stride in the third section, in which he discusses ethnic restaurants in Cabramatta.
Their crime is that they deceive and seduce their patrons by a style of extreme spareness and authenticity, and their patrons are damned for snobbery in allegedly pursuing this extreme ethnic authenticity in eating out. He’s a great opponent of all pretense, is our Mr. Hage, or so he says. He’s particularly caustic about some ethnic restaurants which contain an element of what he regards as deception.
To get something of the flavour of Hage’s analysis, it’s worth quoting the following passage from the last part of the essay:
- “In a seminal analysis, Alfred Sohn-Rethel links abstract modes of thinking to the dominance of the commodity form. His thesis was, as he put it, that ‘the formal analysis of the commodity holds the key not only to the critique of political economy, but also to the historical explanation of the abstract conceptual mode of thinking’. His conclusion is well summarised by Slavoj Zizek: ‘Before thought could arrive at pure abstraction, the abstraction was already at work in the social effectivity of the market’. If this general argument is applied to cosmo-multiculturalism in particular it could be argued that the very possibility of thinking such an abstraction as a multiculturalism without migrants, this plurality of cultures without a plurality of people from different cultures, lies in a subjectivity dominated by the presence and circulation of cultural otherness as a commodity, as abstract ethnic value. This is why cosmo-multiculturalism cannot be understood without an analysis of its structuring by the circuit of touristic capital and the dominance within it of the production of ethnic products as forms of exoticisms for the international market. A capitalism where, as Lawrence Grossberg has put it, ‘it is no longer a matter of capitalism having to work with and across differences … it is difference which is now in the service of capital’. The nature of producing cosmo-multicultural food involves ethnicity detaching itself from its ‘ethnic’ producers (this is probably one of the most liberating effects of the phenomenon). Despite the cosmo-multicultural quest for authenticity, we have a Scottish manager owning a Tuscan restaurant, an American managing a Vietnamese one, and so on. The role of the Scottish manager is not to produce a Scottish-Tuscan cuisine but to offer and stage Tuscan authenticity for the cosmo-multicultural clientele.”
This extract exemplifies Hage’s work: very derivative and very hard to understand. Once the effort is made to understand it, the argument is really rather trite. Running ethnic cafes is an industry under capitalism, patronised by customers including tourists, out of which capitalists make money, workers make a living and human beings eat food and often get entertainment. Because of the capitalist elements, Hage seems to disapprove. Ho, hum!The last paragraph typifies Hage’s puffed-up pseudo-rage at the grossness of ethnic eating. Some restaurants camp it up a bit. Actually he frequently doesn’t tell you the full story. The Vietnamese restaurant he mentions is the “Old Saigon” just down the road from my bookshop. The American who he mentions ran the place for 10 years in partnership with his wife, a Vietnamese woman who he met when he was a war correspondent during the Vietnam War.
Their Vietnamese-American, now Australian, kids worked in the restaurant. All this was very public and embodied in a rather striking way the triangular relationship between Vietnam, Australia and the United States that emerged from the Vietnam War. It seems to have offended Mr Hage. I can give Hage an even worse example. Right next to my bookshop is an apparently Italian restaurant called “Rosalinas”, formerly “Mamalinas”. It has been there for more than 15 years and serves a reasonable, mid-price Italian cuisine, has a loyal clientelle and makes a passable living, although the sheer number of local restaurants makes competition pretty fierce.
Just after I opened my bookshop in Newtown about 10 years ago, I was fascinated to hear the proprietor, who incidentally, is a dead ringer for Manuel out of Fawlty Towers, speaking to his brother in Arabic. I asked him what the story was. It turns out that he is a Muslim Lebanese from Tripoli and that his brother had been a chef in the only Italian restaurant in Beirut.
When the brother came to Australia the Arab restaurant territory in the inner west seemed to him too crowded, so he started an Italian restaurant as he knew how to cook Italian cuisine. When he moved away to start another restaurant, he passed it on to his brother, Robert, who now runs it. The woman chef, who has been there the whole 10 years I’ve been in Newtown, is a Greek.
Together, this Lebanese Muslim and Greek run the best little Italian restaurant in Newtown! The “Rosalinas” story will no doubt shock Hage.
Hage’s bull about ethnic eating highlights the fatuousness of a sociological method that highlights questions of “representation” and neglects, or even implicitly ridicules, social realities. The reality of restaurants, including ethnic restaurants, is that they are a capitalist industry, and that many of the capitalists are very small business people, often running the businesses with family labour.
Small businesses like this employ many hundreds of thousands of people, including many migrants, all over Australia. Many people make their living out of the food industry, and incidentally, out of the tourist industry. Many, many of these are NESB people who Hage appoints himself as talking head for.
Some of these migrant restaurant proprietors or workers are quite likely to try to lynch him if they become aware of his implicit desire to put them out of business. Many migrants come into my shop while they are doing courses, looking for books about the hospitality industry, restaurants and cooking. That’s the social reality of restaurants and tourism.
They may be capitalist industries, but for the moment we live under capitalism, and a big and growing section of the working class make a living out of this industry. Hage’s preciousness and superiority about these matters is thoroughly anti-social, particularly from the point of view of migrant workers.
From the point of view of the consumers of this “ethnic eating” as he calls it, Hage is a bit of a pain in the neck as well. For a start, questions of price have a very low priority in Hage’s pseudo-sociology. In real life, Newtown is doing much better than Glebe, for instance, and the eastern suburbs, because many more of the ethnic restaurants in Newtown are mid-price. In tough times, mid-price ethnic restaurants do better than high-price restaurants.
While eating out involves a certain amount of the conspicuous consumption that Hage wildly exagerates, other social dynamics are at work and are in fact vastly more important than conspicuous consumption. Throughout the capitalist world restaurant eating and fast food of all sorts are inexorably increasing as a proportion of the amount spent on food and other goods.
Modern life produces circumstances in which people prefer to eat out than cook at home. Hage has a very strange view of the world and human behaviour. He painstakingly deconstructs the cafe practices of eaters-out in ethnic cafes and he wildly exagerates the part played in the selection of restaurants by snobbish subjective factors.
In my not-so-limited experience of life, decisions on where to eat are not dissimilar to decisions about what video to borrow for immediate viewing late at night, or even, dare one say it, decisions about who to go to bed with after a party. For instance, from my observation running a video shop, people selecting videos for immediate watching are almost totally dominated by a perspective of immediate gratification.
Watching people select videos for hire is very educational. Snobbery is a very tiny element in selection, compared with complex interplays of desire and excitement.
The same sort of thing obviously applies to sexual selection. Elements of sexual desire, pheromones, and real excitement usually predominate over snobbery, although in the case of sexual selection, snobbery sometimes intrudes. The choice of where to eat is much closer to the choice of a video than it is to anything else.
In my experience of life and observation of eating behaviour in King Street, Newtown, questions of immediate culinary desire and gratification are infinitely stronger than any snob element. The price of the meal is also a major factor. Hage must move in unbearably rarefied yuppified circles if snobbery plays as large a part in the selection of restaurants as he seems to think.
In real life my impression of the ethnic restaurants in King Street is that the proprietors and staff make a reasonable living and the customers, who are in my experience often second and third generation NESB people from the whole south-east region of Sydney, get a reasonable feed at a reasonable price. Snobbery and questions of representation rarely come into it.
It’s worth considering this ponderous paragraph, the last one in Hage’s essay:
- “It seems, however, that it can convincingly be argued from a normative perspective that any reality worthy of the title of multiculturalism in Australia has to involve a certain degree of homely forms of intercultural interaction in which both the eater and the feeder experience themselves as subjects. What characterises the multiculturalism articulated to the culinary practices and interactions described here is precisely that it is a multiculturalism that provides this homely space for the migrant by interpellating him or her as a subject: a dominated subject sometimes, but a subject nevertheless. If we direct our gaze to the multicultural reality lived in western Sydney, a far better understanding of what is at stake in debating the multiculturalism of Australia can be achieved.”
What this spectacularly dense paragraph appears to suggest is the proposition implicit in Hage’s whole essay: eating out in, or running ethnic cafes is no good. It is politically incorrect, and those who make their living providing the food and the exploitative customers should all give up their incorrect practices.
However, ethnic cooking practiced exclusively in the home amongst consenting adults, is all right! What a ratbag Brother Hage is!
Race Daze by Jon Stratton
This book, also recently published by Pluto Press, is obviously another book version of a thesis. It offers essentially the same argument that Ghassan Hage puts forward, but suffers from the fact that the author hasn’t got such a sexy angle as Hage (claiming to be the representative of NESB people).
Coming from an ordinary academic, the essential argument: attacking multiculturalism and counterposing to it some vague universal cosmopolitanism, sounds bizarre and a bit boring.
Stratton isn’t as colourful as Hage, and not nearly as much fun to take to pieces. The major part of this book is elegant cultural criticism of Australian movies from this standpoint.
Personally, I can only take a certain amount of deconstruction of the representation of people and social relationships in films. Every cultural studies book I have ever read goes on like this and I am bored to death with them!
I have the feeling that Hage’s book, White Nation, will cause a certain amount of argument for a while, which is why I consider it worthwhile to analyse it at length. I have a strong feeling that essentially the same argument, expressed in Stratton’s boring book of film criticism, will sink like a stone.
Stratton might have done a bit better if he could have dug up a Maronite granny.
June 4, 1999