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traversals Arrow vol 6 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 3, 2007

 


Traversals


Jane Mummery

University of Ballarat

 

We are like travelers navigating an unknown terrain with the help of old maps,
drawn at a different time and in response to different needs. While the terrain we are
traveling on, the world society of states, has changed, our normative map has not.
I do not pretend to have a new map to replace the old one, but I do hope to contribute
to a better understanding of the salient fault-lines of the unknown territory which we are traversing. (Benhabib, 2004: 6).

1. To perform a traversal you would perform an often oblique crossing from one side or thing to another. It may also be back again, in a zigzag manner, the motion a skier may perform traveling down a slope or that of a ship navigating contrary currents or winds. Traversals, however, can be tenuous, risky - a movement from something established or set through a zone of indeterminacy to what you hope is a better position. A rock climber, for instance, carries out a traversal when s/he moves across a rock face from one feasible line of ascent or descent to another. In other words, a traversal might incorporate a moment or a period marked by a loss of certainty, a sense of not quite knowing how to go on, of where the next move should be. A traversal, though, even when performed without complete certainty, is still a movement. That loss of assurance does not mean an absence of motion. After all, stopping can be the worst idea, leaving you to the forces of wind or current or gravity.

2. Traversals are not only performed in physical terms. We can also traverse in thought, and not just in the dictionary definition sense of examining the whole of a subject. Rather we can be faced with the need to make a traversal movement in our thinking, to shift from where we are to somewhere else whilst not being completely sure that we know how to, and searching out the least treacherous path as we go. A traversal in this sense contains both our awareness of the need to make it - our acceptance that we cannot stay where we are - and the actual path we make and take.

3. It seems clear that we are at a point in our ethico-political thinking where we are faced with the need to perform and to continue on with a range of traversals. Indeed, we are already traversing despite our lack of readiness, our lack of preparation of new systems and guidelines to help us in this movement, and despite even the comfort of knowing what the other side looks like. As Andrew Norris notes in his introduction to Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer, not only can we not remain in the past but it is even unlikely that 'the politics of the past could help us navigate the treacherous waters of our current technological society' (2005: 1). What, then, are we traversing, and why is our traversal over treacherous ground or water?

4. The short answer here is that we are faced with problems regarding the criteria for legitimate ethico-political delimitation and action: who can justifiably do what to whom. Problems that have become so urgent that we cannot not set forth on a traversal, however risky it may be. These include issues as to what counts as political - countable - life and why; the meaning and utility of supposedly inalienable rights if they are open to suspension or being over-ridden; the need to thereby better ground the 'right to have rights' (Arendt, 1966: 296); the problematics of creating and patrolling boundaries and thresholds, and offering, giving and receiving hospitality; the seeming crisis of the Westphalian model of state sovereignty; the possibilities of cosmopolitanism; the looming ethical and social problematics developing in regards to bio-engineering; and, even more generally again, how we should manage conflict. These are not abstract issues unrelated to our lived experiences. Far from it. Rather, even a cursory glance at current events shows us the irrecusability of these issues. We are already trying to negotiate their pitfalls, and to find better ways of both doing so and avoiding such pitfalls in the future. We are already traversing.

5. Given this interlacing of current events and the consequent necessity for traversal, these issues, problematics and pitfalls are at the forefront of work by a broad range of thinkers across diverse field. Politicians, social critics, ethicists, political and legal theorists and practitioners, post-colonial theorists, strategists, and philosophers, among others, are all engaged in traversing these problematics, recognizing that new paths and possibilities need to be developed. Seyla Benhabib, for instance, contends in recent work that the fraying of state sovereignty and national models of citizenship, and the subsequent development of 'new modalities of [political] membership' (2004:1), along with the current facts of transnational migration and alienage, all mean that unquestioning acceptance of state-centric assumptions needs to be challenged. In her turn Martha Nussbaum draws our attention to what she contends are the three key 'unsolved problems of social justice' (2007: 1):

First, there is the problem of doing justice to people with physical and mental impairments. These people are people, but they have not as yet been included, in existing societies, as citizens on a basis of equality with other citizens ... Second is the urgent problem of extending justice to all world citizens, showing theoretically how we might realize a world that is just as a whole, in which accidents of birth and national origin do not warp people's life chances pervasively and from the start ... Finally, we need to face the issues of justice involved in our treatment of non-human animals. (Nussbaum, 2007: 1-2).

As she notes with regard to all three of these, 'it seems likely' that to face each of these well 'will require not simply a new application of the old theories, but a reshaping of the theoretical structures themselves' (2007: 2).

6. Giorgio Agamben is also concerned with our making and justification of distinctions that cut between political life (life that should be counted) and bare life (that which does not need to be counted). Building upon the work of Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt, among others, Agamben argues that we are currently facing the need to achieve a 'radical transformation of the political-philosophical categories of ancient thought' (1998: 4). As he reminds us, '[t]here is no return from the camps to classical politics' (1998: 188).

7. Such problematics of distinction also exercised the late Jacques Derrida, who has consistently reminded us over the course of his work that we have no absolute guarantees for our ethico-political decisions - or indeed for any of our decisions. He reminds us that while we utilize existing rules, we also have a responsibility to invent new ones that are better able to respond to current factical situations. He has shown us that we are inextricably caught in 'the tension between memory, fidelity, the preservation of something that has been given to us, and, at the same time, heterogeneity, something absolutely new, and a break' (Derrida, 1997: 6). And that while both this tension and any attempted newness cannot help but be risky, the alternative is far riskier.

8. These, then, are the sorts of challenges that a range of contemporary thinkers have recognized, and that have also exercised all of the contributors to this issue. Drawing on the work of classical political theorists such as Niccolò Machiavelli and Benedict Spinoza through to the late twentieth and early twenty first century writings of Agamben and Derrida, engaging with a range of current events both within Australia and in the global arena, all of our contributors have faced up to the need for traversal. They are all on the move, not willing to continue along the already established paths with their many pitfalls, but calling for new trajectories and new possibilities.

9. Filippo Del Lucchese thus begins the issue with a meditation on the political concepts of secession and sedition, concepts that he sees as defining the 'theoretical field of the relationship between politics and war and ... between law and conflict'. He contends that while there has been a tendency in modern political philosophy to privilege 'order and the neutralization of conflict', seeing the relationship between law and conflict as either one of mutual exclusion or circularity, this is not the only way to think of this relationship. Drawing on the work of Machiavelli and Spinoza in particular, along with a range of classical thinkers, Del Lucchese suggests that we can also, just as justifiably, see this relationship as 'recursive, marked by interpenetration and co-existence', and that taking this theoretical structure seriously would be enough to 'shake the foundations upon which all the dogmas of modern political thought rely' (Del Lucchese, 2007).

10. From this broad examination of and challenge to our conception of the nature of the relationship between law and conflict, we turn with our second paper of the issue, Hugo Reinert's 'The Pertinence of Sacrifice - Some Notes on Larry the Luckiest Lamb', to a consideration of the third issue of social justice pointed to by Martha Nussbaum, that of our treatment of non-human animals. Here Reinert turns our attention to the 'ethical and analytical status of industrially slaughtered animals', asking whether we can understand their status and slaughter in terms of western theoretical conceptions of sacrifice. In other words, Reinert, taking his cue from Agamben's work, first asks 'whether non-human animals can meaningfully be described as "bare life"', and second contends, as does Nussbaum, that any understanding of biopower today, to be adequate, must 'incorporate non-human life within the analytical horizon'. That to not do so means that we do not yet fully understand the 'invisible economies that regulate the conduct - and value - of our lives' (Reinert, 2007, original emphasis).

11. Our third paper shifts the focus back to human life. Kathleen Arnold's essay 'Enemy Invaders! Mexican Immigrants and U.S. Wars Against Them' focuses on how anxiety about Mexican immigrants '"stealing jobs" and usurping welfare, education and healthcare benefits' and other stereotyped characteristics, is being tied in the U.S. to sovereign concerns around terrorism and invasion. Also drawing on Agamben's conception of 'bare life', Arnold makes clear that the effect of this articulation has been to 'create a [Mexican] subject that is highly exploitable and legally vulnerable', and that can therefore be justifiably treated as if 'outside the normal boundaries ... of citizenship and ... beyond everyday legal understanding and rights'. Such an articulation, she contends, is desperately in need of challenging as it marks a 'strengthening of sovereignty over and above democratic activity' (Arnold, 2007).

12. The engagement with Agamben's Homo Sacer project also continues into our next paper, Arjun Chowdhury's 'The Colony as Exception'. Here, however, Chowdhury is concerned with the attempt to theorise colonial spaces as states of exception, situations where the sovereign power decides to suspend law in order to preserve the legal order. He contends, in contrast to a recent tendency to use the conception of state of exception to 'describe multiple conditions', that such a paradigm does not best fit colonial spaces. As he puts it,

the distinctively modern rubrics of state of exception, sovereign power and biopolitics may misrepresent colonial situations. Bluntly put, the exercise of violence by state authority does not automatically equate to a state of exception. (Chowdhury, 2007).

Rather, in colonial space, state violence can mark the 'factical failure of sovereign power', a failure that is 'not an accident but a consequence of the nature of colonial power as it is understood by its subjects'. A failure, though, that Chowdhury reminds us means that the colony is actually better understood as failed state than state of exception (Chowdhury, 2007).

13. Turning closer to home now, Fiona McAllan argues in '"Customary" Appropriations' that we need to be aware of and challenge the way 'colonising relations with [Australian] Indigenous peoples' have continued well into contemporary times. Specifically McAllan outlines how 'morality-imbued and white paternalist notions of self-determinism and re-articulations of legitimised histories, entwined with neoliberalist idealogies' have been and are still being used within Australia to legitimate 'colonising practices'. This, she argues, needs to be challenged, and she suggests that one way to do this might be through a re-examination of the risky inter-subjectivity inherent in perspectivism. Such a possibility, she suggests, is visible in the words of Mutitjulu elder Bob Randall who, at a screening of Kanyini - a film made jointly by Randall and non-Indigenous filmmaker Melanie Hogan - suggested that we needed 'to learn "oursness" in place of "mineness"' (Randall, 2007, in McAllan, 2007). This might also remind us that sovereignty could perhaps be 'a shared relation' rather than 'the province of the domain of whiteness' (McAllan, 2007).

14. Also concerned with issues of colonising relations and issues of sovereignty, Kekhriesituo Yhome aims with his 'Politics of Region: The Making of Nagas Identity During the Colonial and Post-Colonial Era' to show how a theorizing of region and margin in terms of the partitioning of space and the exercise of power over it can help us understand 'the politics of identity in the context of the Nagas identity construction'. For Yhome, the 'assertion of the Naga identity can ... be interpreted as an attempt to regionalize space', an attempt that re-imagined and transcended the spatial order constructed by the modern state (Yhome, 2007).

15. Our next paper continues to pursue and question issues of state sovereignty, but this time back in the Australian context. In her 'Culture Wars: Liberalism, Hospitality and Sovereignty', Elaine Kelley argues that the Howard government's inter-lacing of discourses of (neo)liberalism, hospitality and state sovereignty effectively enabled it to promote a racialised 'teleological grand narrative underpinned by whiteness' which was able to 'reconfigure public debate, policy and law'. Specifically, she suggests that under the Howard government's framing of Australia's 'culture wars', this narrative was able to impact significantly on 'conceptions and practices of hospitality toward asylum seekers and migrants' (Kelley, 2007). As all of our contributors do, Kelley concludes by challenging us to rethink this inter-lacing:

The hope for ethical interventions into violent political landscapes rests with revealing the conceptual complexities of both hospitality and sovereignty in the face of the reduction of such concepts for various politico-economic agendas. (Kelley, 2007).

16. Ida Nursoo, in her turn, considers the problematic of hospitality in a broader theoretical domain, juxtaposing the conceptions of hospitality developed on the one hand by Immanuel Kant and on the other by Jacques Derrida. Also working within the context of the contemporary Australian political domain, Nursoo's essay 'Dialogue Across Difference Différance: Hospitality Between Kant and Derrida' argues that Kant's 'widely admired right of hospitality' is in fact a pretense, a deceptive hospitality with conditions such that it is in fact little different to that outlined in Kafka's sketch 'Before the Law', where hospitality is such that the guest cannot actually receive it. In both cases - Kant's and Kafka's - Nursoo suggests that the guest has no recourse insofar as 'hospitality is expressed in terms of the needs of the host, not in terms of [any] duty to the visitor'. In contrast, Nursoo contends that the Derridean conceptions of hospitality and différance could perhaps mark the building blocks of a 'real' hospitality able at the very least to give the Other 'some opportunity to speak of their initial having-been-spoken-for' (Nursoo, 2007).

17. Finally, our last paper of the issue, D. Venkat Rao's meditation entitled 'Derrida Elsewhere: A Mnemocultural Dispersal', is a 'homage to the work and thought of Derrida from elsewhere'. Specifically, Rao explores the thematic of memory and inheritance through an examination of Derrida's own conceptual inheritances and how these inheritances resonate with, gesture towards and yet miss the inheritances inherent in the Sanskrit (Vedic) tradition. As Rao writes, making clear the focus that also works to frame this entire issue:

Learning from [Derrida] that the contexts, events and signatures that weave our textures of reflection must be set to work in contexts of our own singular performative enactments, I thought it should be possible to move Derrida elsewhere from his own Europe-centred claims of heritage. While recording my debt to him for my own half-heard, barely understood intimations of his work on the question of memory - I thought it should be possible to take him elsewhere to an-other heterogeneous trace structure of memory, to another barely understood a-normative palimpsest of memory traces. Even if it meant betraying him in a certain way, I thought of taking Derrida across to the inexhaustible mnemocultures of heterogeneous India. I wish to affirm my fidelity or gratitude to the memory of Derrida in what might be seen as this un-grateful departure. Yet this is to affirm him. (Rao, 2007, original emphasis).

18. Rao, in other words, like all the contributors to this issue, is engaged in traversal, an activity that is simultaneously a movement into the unknown whilst a holding onto what is always a problematic inheritance. It is a recognition of the need to reshape our theoretical assumptions and structures - that simply applying existing ideas differently won't be enough - whilst understanding with Derrida that first we can only ever start from where we already are (1976: 162), and that we cannot ever completely leave behind or renounce where we were or are (1978: 280-281).

19. Finally, on behalf of our editorial team, I hope you enjoy this last issue for 2007, and that it challenges you to engage in some traversing of your own. A big thank you is also due to the rest of the team Anthony Burke, Vijay Devadas and Lorenzo Veracini, and to all of our authors and referees, for all of their ongoing work and support.

 

Jane Mummery is the lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ballarat, Australia. She is the author of The Post to Come: An Outline of Post-Metaphysical Ethics (2005), and her current research turns around the ethico-political possibilities of contemporary Continental philosophy, with a particular focus on its revisions of enlightenment heritage. Her most recent work is published in Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy and Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. She is currently co-authoring a book for Acumen examining the central practical and theoretical problems that the feminist project has sought to address.


Bibliography

Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. D. Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1966. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Arnold, Kathleen. 2007. 'Enemy Invaders! Mexican Immigrants and U.S. Wars Against Them', Borderlands E-Journal 6(3).

Benhabib, Seyla. 2004. The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chowdhury, Arjun. 2007. 'The Colony as Exception (or, why do I have to kill you more than once?)', Borderlands E-Journal 6(3).

Del Lucchese, Filippo. 2007. 'Sedition and Modernity: Division as Politics and Conflict as Freedom in Machiavelli and Spinoza', Borderlands E-Journal 6(3).

Derrida, Jacques. 1997. 'The Villanova Roundtable: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida', in John D. Caputo (ed.), Deconstruction in a Nutshell . New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 3-28.

_________ 1978. Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge.

_________ 1976. Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press.

Kafka, Franz. 1992 [1914]. 'Before the Law', The Transformation ('Metamorphosis') and Other Stories . London: Penguin Books, pp.165-166.

Kelley, Elaine. 2007. 'Culture Wars: Liberalism, Hospitality and Sovereignty', Borderlands E-Journal 6(3).

McAllan, Fiona. 2007. '"Customary" Appropriations', Borderlands E-Journal 6(3).

Norris, Andrew. 2005. 'Introduction: Giorgio Agamben and the Politics of the Living Dead', in Andrew Norris (ed.), Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer. Durham NC: Duke University Press, pp. 1-30.

Nursoo, Ida. 2007. 'Dialogue Across Difference Différance: Hospitality Between Kant and Derrida', Borderlands E-Journal 6(3).

Nussbaum, Martha. 2007. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge MA & London England: Harvard University Press.

Randall, Bob. 2007. Question & Answer session, Kanyini screening, Manly Cinema, 27 June 2007.

Rao, D. Venkat. 2007. 'Derrida elsewhere: A Mnemocultural Dispersal', Borderlands E-Journal 6(3).

Reinert, Hugo. 2007. 'The Pertinence of Sacrifice - Some Notes on Larry the Luckiest Lamb', Borderlands E-Journal 6(3).

Yhome, Kekhriesituo. 2007. 'Politics of Region: The Making of Nagas Identity During the Colonial and Post-Colonial Era', Borderlands E-Journal 6(3).


© borderlands ejournal 2007

 

 

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