Sunday, February 10, 2008

Review: Exalted Subjects

[Sunera Thobani. Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.]

The idea that things do not have to be as they are -- that they have reached their current configuration through a combination of random chance and deliberate action rather than an all-powerful, 'natural' inevitability -- is not a particularly novel one. After all, stated or not, it is a necessary premise for involvement in social change activity that human actions can change the world. Otherwise, why act?

But I feel like I have come to a much more focused appreciation of that idea in the last couple of years, mostly through reading my own eccentric mix of history and theory. For instance, it still blows my mind to have an appreciation of how the features of social organization that are most fundamental to our world today might be completely different had the course of certain peasant struggles in Europe four or five centuries ago gone differently. Or that the barriers around employment that some women began to overcome through feminist struggle in the '60s and '70s were not relics of some flat, primordial patriarchy -- something that gets simplistically and often implicitly associated with the broad, subordinating category of 'the primitive', which we are in turn taught to associate with the West's past and the rest of the world's present. No, it was in part because there were active, deliberate campaigns waged by elites and by non-elite men to exclude women from guilds in Europe during the period of the transition to capitalism.

Those are just examples. For me, given my reading and writing, a lot of reflectin of this sort has specifically to do with what is currently called "Canada." The shape that this part of the world has in my head -- its past, its present, its people, its institutions -- has been changing incrementally for years away from the crude propaganda poster drawn in crayon that the formal school system and the mass media originally created in me.

Though Thobani is the first to admit that this book is only a first attempt based on looking at certain key moments in Canadian history rather than a comprehensive reinvestigation of its entire span, Exalted Subjects is also one of the most relentless volumes I have yet read in advancing the idea that "Canada" and "Canadians" have been made, and exploring how that has happened. At the centre of her argument is a process she labels "exaltation," in which the subjective experience of belonging and legitimacy by national subjects and the socially organized relations that create belonging reinforce each other to allow the national subject to experience her/himself and to actually function as an order of human beings actively exalted above all Others.

The first chapter talks about the initial act of exaltation, and the one upon which all subsequent experiences of exaltation are premised, in the moment of colonization. "Canada" and the identity "Canadian" are grounded in the assumption that they are entirely legitimate, and that their legitimacy is based on the rule of law. In this chapter, Thobani examines "claims to the lawfulness of nationality, highlighting the violence that upholds it" [35]. She goes through the founding lies and the founding violence against indigenous peoples that have made "Canada" possible. She traces the supposed legal basis for the colonization of Turtle Island, and points to the violence at the initial imposition of colonial relations, the violence inherent in creating the imported and imposed European law as the highest authority over this territory, and the violence required on an ongoing basis to maintain colonial relations in the face of indigenous peoples that continue to resist.

In this discussion, she makes the interesting point that the transition in Europe from religious law to secular law was in fact partially prompted by the needs of colonization: The colonizers initially justified their barbaric treatment of indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans by the fact that those they were brutalizing were not Christians. However, as colonization proceeded and non-white peoples converted to Christianity, another approach was needed to legitimize white supremacy. That was most easily found by moving away from laws that saw everything in overtly religious terms to the supposed objectivity of secular, state administered law, which proceeded to find other bases for subordinating racialized people.

More recently, she says, Canada's Indian Act has been central in creating "Canadians":

The Indian Act was as much about enhancing the domain of nationals as it was about controlling Aboriginal peoples. Constructing the nation as white required Europeans to come forth and multiply as Canadians, and to this end, the state endowed them with the rights to enter the country, to settle the stolen land, to live and work on it. The state upheld the legality of the national's ownership and the Aboriginal's dispossession of the land, and herein is rooted the proprietary relationship among law, state, Aboriginals, and nation(als), racialized in all its permutations. The national subject came to know itself as a lawful subject, an exalted member of the nation. It experienced its humanity as being of a different order than that of the Indian.

You can see this in a lot of the anti-Native rhetoric from certain settlers responding to indigenous actions such as the land reclamation in Caledonia, Ontario.

The second chapter traces some of the evolution of citizenship in Canada. It points how the creation of a "White Canada" was not an accident, but based in both colonization and in the active and deliberate exclusion of non-indigenous racialized peoples from the territory claimed by the Canadian state up until the late 1960s. Though the liberalization of immigration law that occurred at that time is usually constructed in the liberal myth-making of Canada as the attainment of a race-neutral form of citizenship, she argues that it is an institution that remains associated with whiteness. The greater legitimacy the institution of citizenship acquired through liberalization has in fact strengthened its utility in dismissing the claims of indigenous peoples, who are permitted the same liberalized claim to citizenship as all other groups even as their pre-existing claims to justice and to the land are erased. Shifts in the role of the state in regulating the lives of people once they have arrived in Canada which began to be applied after those entering the country came to be primarily racialized -- whether that is through constructing these new entrants to the country as one form or another of migrant workers or through the deprivation of rights of social citizenship through sponsorship regulations -- have also helped to keep whiteness at the centre. It is notable in this section how Thobani foregrounds the tripartite relationship that is at the heart of Canadian society, with non-indigenous racialized people still largely subordinated to "white Canada" but still deeply complicit in the colonial dispossession of indigenous peoples. She also makes some interesting points about citizenship and belonging not just as legal categories but as a product of social rituals that are enacted everyday -- social rituals in which white nationals frequently perform their own exaltation and mark racialized people as Other.

Among the rituals and rites of citizenship can be included the affective recitations of national anthems; the raising of flags; the public pledges and oaths of allegiance to the sovereign; and the celebration of national holidays and the parades, plays, firework displays, street parties, family dinners, and so on, that mark these. The political practices associated with elections, referendums, voting, and so on, are clearly integral to producing forms of affiliation that are central to civic integration; they become the sites where members of the collective perform their own belonging and recognize that of their compatriots.

The rites and rituals of citizenship, however, can -- and do -- assume other more overtly malevolent expressions. Among the rites that have also inducted individuals into the national political communities in North America are the ritualized forms of 'national' violence, such as the lynching of Black men in the souther United States, the painting of swastikas on synagogues and the 'Paki-bashing' by ultranationalists; the raping of women in situations of war and conflict; the organized riots and mob violence enacted upon the bodies of Chinese and other aliens. Such rites also include the highly ritualized erasures of the presence of minorities in national historiography and the markes of national accomplishments, as well as the more banal liturgies recited against their presence (why don't they speak English? do they have to wear turbans? why do they have to live in such large families? their clothes and houses smell; they are too noisy; their religions and customs are strange; their marriages are arranged and their costumes gaudy; and so on). The exclusion of racial minorities from housing, employment, access to loans, the repeated questioning about where the are really from, the repeated insistence that they provide documents to prove their legality add to the repertoire of these bonding rituals among nationals.

The third chapter looks at the Canadian welfare state. It builds upon a tradition by white Canadian feminists of critiquing the welfare state as reinforcing patriarchy in the family and creating a sort of public patriarchy for the surveillance and control of poor women by injecting an analysis of racialization and migration. The welfare system as it came to be after World War II also contributed to the exaltation of the national subject through allowing Canadians to construct ourselves as compassionate for giving and as worthy of receiving social supports. The explicit exclusion of most racialized migrants from Canada up until the '70s and the conditions of entry imposed after that point, especially for women who were mostly allowed to enter under the "family class" as sponsored by a man, constsructed immigrants as less worthy of receiving this largesse and less able to access it than white nationals. She argues, in fact, that by its default awarding of power within the family to an adult man and its admission of most racialized women as 'dependents' on that man, while enforcing that dependency by limiting access to social welfare resources for a decade after entry, "Sponsorship regulations have played no small role in the popular construction of immigrant families as overly patriarchal and of immigrant women as family bound, dependent on their families and cultural communities" [138]. Thobani also contrasts the relationship between the welfare state and the families of white nationals versus the welfare state and the families of indigenous people. Patriarchy may have been reinforced in the former, but in that patriarchal form they were supported, while indigenous families were attacked outright first by stealing their children and putting them in abusive residential school situations and later by stealing their children and putting them in mostly non-Native foster homes. By its elaboration of a bureaucratic apparatus that existed mainly through the professionalized caring labour of white women, the welfare state also served to exalt white female nationals in gendered ways by the relationship it created to the lives regulated by these women in their professional capacities.

Multiculturalism is the next target of Thobani's pen. Given its prominence in liberal white Canadian self-satisfaction, multiculturalism as state policy is also a means by which privileged national subjects are exalted. Others have talked before about how multiculturalism in Canada was a state response to the need for immigrant workers in the face of declining interest in moving here by Europeans -- that meant racialized people had to be admitted in larger numbers for the first time, and so the state had to come up with some way to regulate them. Her new twist on this understanding is that multiculturalism also serves as a way to stabilize white supremacy in a new mode for an era of decolonization. After World War II, eugenic and racialist theories that were popular all over, including in white North America, were discredited by global horror at the Nazis. Decolonization struggles across the so-called Third World also unsettled assumptions of white supremacy to a certain extent. And, of course, racialized people entering the labour force in large numbers in the white-dominated countries and showing much greater competency in all areas than traditional white supremacist discourse allowed also destabilized white supremacy. The multicultural response to these things allowed whiteness to construct itself as 'tolerant' and cosmopolitan but still unmistakeably in charge. It constituted the Others as less liberal, less tolerant, monocultural, and in need of being taught by the white folk. And it created a system in which those classified as Other often accepted or even embraced that classification, because the culturaist essentialization at the heart of this new approach to racialization was undeniably a step up from the previous racism and did hold the promise for some (though not much) access to state resources for those people and communities who accepted its terms.

Chapter 5 is a detailed examination of two social policy consultations done by the federal government in the mid '90s, one focused on social welfare and the other on immigration. She traces the discourse in official documents associated with these consultations to show the role of both the state and citizens in constructing who is part of the nation and under what conditions, and who is suspect.

The final chapter discusses the period since 9/11. In that time, the Other against which "Canada" and "Canadians" are constructed has become increasingly identified with racialized Muslims, and increasing importance has been placed upon discourse of culture and civilization. This allows "Canada" and "Canadian" to be tied ever more tightly to the overarching idea of "the West" which has been central in many countries to mobilizing support for the various nasty things -- war, empire, neoliberalism, among others -- conducted under the ideological banner of the "war on terror," thus engineering greater Canadian buy-in to that process. She argues that sovereignty has been rearranged such that, in the case of Muslims who hold Canadian citizenship, that citizenship can now be overridden at will by national interests of the U.S. state. She also points out how the new environment has further exalted white nationals by casting the belonging of racialized citizens under ever more suspicion -- Muslims and those who can be mistaken for them must prove that they are the 'good' kind by overt demonstrations of fealty to whatever the mainstream determines to be true markers of Westerness, lest they be thought the 'bad' kind and arrested under a security certificate, deported to Syria for torture, or subjected in an even more intense way to the everyday rituals of subordination enumerated above.

There are aspects of how the book was put together that could have been more effective. The emphasis on the new concept of "exaltation" felt suspiciously like a piece of academic branding. It's not that it isn't a useful idea, and she does some really powerful things with it with respect to Canada, but I'm not sure it is as huge a leap from already-existing ideas as its packaging tries to imply. Not that I blame Thobani for this -- academics have to navigate the institutional realities that have power over their continuing ability to do useful, radical work, so some level of engagement with the game is a given. The writing also exhibited a particular kind of insistence on political precision and thoroughness that I associate with academia, though I also fall into it myself from time to time. This can make the writing more useful for others with academic or quasi-academic intent, but it can also easily make writing less powerful in a literary sense. As well, I think it is important to keep in mind Thobani's own warning that there remains a lot more to explore -- moments, sources, fragments of the nation.

Those reservations aside, I learned a lot from this book, and think its conception of "Canada" and "Canadians" has something significant to contribute to projects seeking to-the-root justice and liberation in northern North America.

The question I kept bumping into as I read was not in the text itself, but was more a product of taking it up in a way oriented towards using it as a basis for doing, whether that doing takes the form of talking or of writing or of organizing. The question is: What exactly am I supposed to do with these rich, radical insights? What do you do with them in the context of people who really don't want to know about the contingent, constructed, and oppressive realities of "Canada" and "Canadian"?

I mean that question in a very specific context. Any act of communication requires, I think, that those who are communicating permit themselves to be fully present in a kind of dynamic tension, in which they are conscious and accepting of what they have in common with the other party or parties, and conscious and accepting of where they differ. Various kinds of things are likely to disrupt this tension. For example, some sort of interpersonal polarization, which amps up rhetoric even as actual positions remain much the same, is a good way to make sure real communication stops. (There are, of course, times when there is nothing wrong with this.) Another common example is when a conversation enters a new area, and the shape of agreement and disagreement differs sharply than in the previous areas, and that provides a shock that makes the tension less comfortable. Yet another, connected in some ways to both of those, is the introduction of a position by one participant which is so contrary to the common sense of the other that listening stops, or at least changes significantly in character. It doesn't necessarily result in conflict -- in many instances it results in what I have seen referred to as 'blanking', in which ideas are not met with open hostility but they are processed at a much more superficial level of consciousness then when true listening is occurring.

Here is a hypothetical example where I am the one who tunes out. Say I'm having an interesting discussion with someone. Say we have areas we agree and areas we disagree, and there really are lots of differences in how we see the world but we like each other so there is a sense of anticipation about exploring the shape of those differences. Then, say the other party introduces the fact that they are really, truly convinced that 9/11 was an inside job and they see uncovering that truth as central to any meaningful social change in the world. At that point, even if I don't want to, and even if the conversation moves immediately to other things, my ability to exist in the tension of agreement and disagreement has taken a hit, and it may or may not recover.

Now, getting back to Thobani -- I think that this kind of analysis of "Canada" and "Canadians" is likely to function as that kind of destabilizer of connected communication with many (especially white) Canadians, because it is so in the face of very powerful, dominant commonsense. I can think of plenty of people I could have interesting discussions with, where we could both exist comfortably in the dynamic tension of agreement and disagreement, but who would react to the introduction of this type of analysis by something akin to 'blanking.' I imagine their internal narrative to be something like, "Wow, that Scott sure has some crazy ideas. Well, he's a smart enough guy, I suppose, but this really has nothing to do with real life, and I have no idea how to address it, so I'll just smile and nod."

How do you deal with the way in which commonsense forged in the life experience of an exalted national gets in the way of hearing this kind of analysis, whether it is in interpersonal conversation or as the basis of some sort of collective political effort? How do you let that inform when you speak up and when you hold back? How do you decide when to risk alienating, and how do you know when to prioritize the connection?

And, really, what does this insight into the commonsense of the exalted national, of which I am one, say about the challenges of turning a good talked line into a walk that means something? Reading the book and being able to spout it back says little about turning this sort of challenge to "Canadianness" into a broader, meaningful, and sustained political practice.

I'm not going to try and answer all of that in this post. It is, really, just one more instance of those of us with privilege trying to wrap our heads around what it means to have it and how to undermine it -- settlers in solidarity with indigenous struggle, white people trying to oppose racism, men opposing gender oppression, and so on. It can turn into a sort of navel gazing that decentres the experiences of oppressed people, but it still has to happen in certain times and places. And as best as I can tell, you muddle through, you mess up, and you keep muddling.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


skdadl said...

I'll be back tomorrow, Scott. I'm so interested to see that Thobani has published, but I'm flagging now, and this looks serious. Thanks for your work.

Scott said...

Thanks, skdadl...hope you find the review useful!

riadh gadhi said...

I really find your review of thobani's book very useful and rich. I was looking desperately for this book because I really need it for my masters' thesis. I am from Tunisia and my masters's thesis revolves around the effects of the policy of multiculuralisma as a state policy on the racialized community in Canada. can you provide me with any additional reviews or articles about the book.

Scott Neigh said...

Hi Riadh,

Glad you found the review useful. Unfortunately, I don't have any other reviews or articles about the book close at hand that I can point you towards. There are a few other relevant books I could name, though given your topic you're probably already aware of them -- things like Eva Mackey's *The House of Difference* and Himani Bannerji's *Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Racism*, for instance.

Sorry I couldn't be of more help, and good luck in your search!

Scott 8)