CultureDiversityFood for thoughtTolerance

Interview | Ghassan Hage

By Monday 19 October 2020 No Comments

Ghassan Hage is Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne and the RCMC Distinguished Fellow of 2018. Wayne Modest interviewed him about decolonization and multiculturalism in relation to the museum.

WM: Hi Ghassan.

Now you are with us here at the Research Center for Material culture which is a research institute within the Tropenmuseum, Museum Volkenkunde and the Afrika Museum and now recently we have taken on the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam, now as museum institutions – what we now call ethnographic museums or anthropological museums – we have been struggling for the last 30 or so years with critiques of our practices of collecting our relationships to the colonial project, or forms of representation. And it seems impossible for museums to escape this idea that there are old colonial structures that cannot be decolonized. Now anthropology as a discipline, the discipline which emerged in relationship to our museums or from which we emerged, has in some ways been a colonizing project. Could you describe a little bit what anthropology has done or has been doing to change? And what do you think might be the possibility of our museums to change or are we hopeless?

GH : This of course I have at least three hours to answer right?

Well first of all, I think, personally I am a bit ambivalent about the notion of decolonizing the museum or decolonizing anthropology to the extent that I think that colonialism is still with us. As my late friend Patrick Wolfe has said: colonialism is a structure, it is not an event. And the difference between colonialism as event and colonialism as an structure is the difference between thinking that colonialism as something that happened in the past and as something that we are still dealing with – its effects – today. And so decolonisation becomes the idea of how can we treat the effects of colonialism on things that we are using today, effects that happened in the past when colonialism happened. But if we think that colonialism is a structure which is continuously renewing itself and is still with us in a variety of forms, then to me the idea of decolonising anthropology or decolonising the museum sometimes (I’m not saying it necessarily has to mean this) – can mean something like thinking: ok how am I going to remove an institution from the structure of society? Because society is colonial. So why should we aim, in a colonial society, to decolonize the museum or decolonize anthropology?

It seems to me that the aim should be: in what way can the museum or in what way can anthropology help the forces of decolonization? Not in what way can they be decolonized, as in, ok we decolonized the museum; now whoever is still colonized can go and look after themselves. So in a sense, yeah, I prefer the idea of: in what way can the museum be weaponized in the struggle against colonialism, not in which way it can be decolonized? So I think as far as what the processes of decolonization in anthropology that have been happening today – and a lot has been happening with what people call postcolonialism, decolonialism, decolonization, decoloniality – each one has almost become like the Trotskyist party. Like each one differs from the other in one little thing and everyone thinks it is the most important thing in the world. But I think on a whole, in anthropology, the biggest and most important move has been the move away from anthropology thinking that it is itself the only discipline which has been non-racist to the extent that it has been the only discipline which said: I’m going to take ‘the other’ seriously. And I think that’s true, that anthropology throughout its history is the discipline that said: “these people might look to you that what they are doing is totally weird and has no relation to religion, but I’m actually going to take them seriously, and I’m going to say what they are doing is religion even if you don’t think of them as monotheistic religion. I’m going to take seriously whatever they do, shamans, etc., forms of economy, forms of kinship, etc.”

So I think taking the other seriously is the most positive thing that anthropology has done, and as everyone knows, this was made possible by colonialism. This is the contradiction: that the only way you could actually know the other in this superior mode of ‘let me know you’, was because anthropology was part and parcel of the colonial structure. But I think it is very crucial not to throw everything out and just say, “anthropology is the product of colonialism.” And ok, it is the product of colonialism, but it is also the product of the first western people who really said, I’m going to take otherness seriously. I would like to retain this idea that anthropology is the discipline that takes otherness seriously.

But the most important shift that has happened today, is this: that from thinking religions, plurality of religions, plurality of modes of economic exchange, plurality of forms of kinship, that from thinking that anthropology’s role is to think otherness, it has increasingly shifted towards how can it think in another way. That is very crucial, because the first step has been that anthropologists always used to say: “we are not racist because we are interested in other cultures” but they never questioned the verb, interested.

What does it mean to be interested and how are you interested? They were always interested in a western point of view, even though they were interested in other cultures. And today the anthropologist’s main task is to say: “while it is very good to go to the shaman and say, my western thought is capable of taking you seriously and analysing you, are you [the anthropologist] willing to think the possibility that shamanic thought can analyse you?” So it is no longer about the other being the object of research but being that which you think with. And that, to me today in this discipline that people call comparative cosmology, that is I think where the most avant-garde and most philosophical, if you like, aspect of decolonisation is happening.

WM: There are several things you say here that are nice. I want to come back to that last one at the end. Because what you sketch out is a kind of hope for a kind of future, which is more hopeful than the more critical perspective that many people have of us, so I want to end with that.

But right now there are two things that I am interested in. You suggested, let us stop thinking about – or that it might be more useful to think complexly about – not necessarily decolonizing the museum but how to weaponize the museum to achieve a decolonial project in the present, which I agree with.

Yet I struggle with, how do we … what is a weaponization process? Because one would have to suggest that one needs to do something to the structure, to the way of working and knowing, to the discipline itself, to be able to ask new questions, right? So what do we need to do as museums for ourselves, or what does the discipline have to do to be able to open itself to weaponization rather than a reproduction [of the colonial].

GH: On reflection, maybe weaponization is a bad choice of words.

WM: No, I like the word.

GH: To the extent that, you might be excused of terrorism.

But what I’m aiming to say, obviously, is to what extent can the museum take part in the struggle against colonialism, to not simply think about decolonizing itself but to participate in the struggle in the rest of society. Because, you know, the museum seems to be like a discipline of anthropology in itself, it can think of its own autonomous dynamic and can become, in a sense, totally wrapped up in its autonomy and forget that it is in and part of the rest of society. The question then, to me, comes to this: when someone visits a museum, does their mind work in a way that reproduces colonial-structured thought, or do they leave the museum having disrupted this colonial structure of thought?

If by saying the decolonized museum is the museum which allows the visitors to leave having disrupted colonial thought, then we can use the decolonized museum. Why not? And so the question becomes, how? How do they do it? Because obviously we can still go to the ethnology museum and think of the objects as acquisitions, which reflect the greatness of the civilisation that has acquired them. Western culture – not just western culture, all cultures actually – have a long history of exhibiting others. Like the royal menagerie, it is like you visit the king and the king will tell you “I’ve got a giraffe and I’ve got a lion.” You don’t say, how great the giraffe is or how great the lion is, but you say how great the king is, because they have the giraffe and the lion. And I think it is important not to create that effect in the ethnology museum, whereby the visitor thinks “oh what an amazing mask, wow amazing boat by these ethnic people, oh wow” and come out thinking, “my country and its empire were great,” which is possible.

WM: We were in a discussion recently, where what was being critiqued was this notion of ‘the other’. And you speak of anthropology being the only/first discipline to have a real investment and interest in the other. But in the discussion we were having earlier, people were critiquing whether or not it was even possible to have an other outside of a hierarchical structure. That the other in the colonial project is always a hierarchical other: the West, the scientific, the museum looking at the ‘primitive’ other. Now what you are suggesting is that you have a little more hope for our relationship with the other. Can you speak a bit more about this?

GH: There are two things. One, there is, especially in multicultural societies, a notion of the facile other. The idea that by eating Thai food, you have crossed into the other. And now, ok, I am happy with that. But I want to say that anthropology was the first one to think that there are forms of otherness that are not so easy to access. That by accessing them, you become uncomfortable in your own thoughts. To me, that’s important in a general society which makes it so facile to think that “I have done otherness.” [It is important to have] this tradition [of anthropology] which says, “well let me tell you, it’s a lot of hard work and lots of pain, and it is not so easy at all to actually enter the world of the other.” So I want to retain that difference. But the other difference which you are speaking about, is the difference between the other as an object of knowledge from which you have the power to know. And to what extent is that power to know the object, which has its source in colonial power, is disrupted or can be disrupted?

I think that’s important to challenge as well. And I think one of the issues I have been talking about is precisely that idea. I don’t think many serious anthropologists today would think that anybody in the world needs them to know the Amazonian tribe, the indigenous tribe, the Papua New Guineas. It is the [old] idea that the anthropologist is the person who goes and lives among that tribe so we can know about the tribe. I think a lot of anthropologists go today and try to know the tribe really well, but they do it in a process where they think that, “knowing this tribe allows me a more radical way of knowing myself.” I don’t think many anthropologists would be involved in the process of going to Papua new Guinea trying to say “let me do a sociology of you guys, and I will tell you what your kinship is.” I think, today, first of all there are a lot of sociologists, etc., even within the western tradition embedded in their own people and culture who are capable of doing this. So there is no need for anybody else to bother and spend all this time to adapt. I am sure you will find some anthropologists who still stick to this, but I am comfortable saying “no serious anthropologist would think like this.”

WM: I want to pull out two things of what you just said, which are nice. I want to take from you, one, that perhaps the museum should be that space where, when people come in, it disrupts them. It is a disruption of their taken-for-grantedness that “this is how the world is and this is what it means,” and that this disruption pushes them to think of the other as another way of being in the world. And then the second thing that you proposed is the idea that to be able to do that, or to do that, is an attempt – or at least is an opening – of an understanding of yourself. It is not just the others over there, but it is about that relationship between self and other in an uneasy way. It would be nice… I’m hoping that our museums will be places where people can come to do that.

GH: Well, I think any critical anthropology’s starting point is the idea that – and I will define it in the very main form – that we can be other than what we are. We can be other than what we are. And that idea is an idea that there is nothing natural about how we think ourselves at this moment, and that there are various ways in which we can be that are hidden from us. And so you can see the museum as somewhere you visit to know, but you can also see it as a place where you go to un-know [what you know]. And I think that process of unknowing yourself, which is a difficult process, is one of the most radical decolonial promises of the museum. If I look at objects and they make me think, not about “oh what an interesting tribe in the jungle”, but they make me thing “ah gosh, me, I’m so complex, there are so many parts of me that I don’t understand. What I think I know is simple. How can I settle for what I know about myself? I want to unsettle myself.” So this, as you said: unsettling, unknowing. Yes.

WM: Nice. And I am probably going to do that. And that is what the RCMC tries to do, it is a space for unsettling.

You hint at the question of the multicultural society and a lot of your work has been animated by an interest in thinking the structures of multicultural governance – how we govern particular subjects in multicultural politics. Your book White Nation was important to that thinking. Could you in one sentence just say what you were trying to achieve with White Nation?

GH: Well, first of all you have to think about the fact that I, as someone from Lebanese background, come and take white society as my object of research. So that already inverts modalities of knowledge in a way which might be called decolonizing. The most critical thing for me is the idea that multicultural governance has always relied on itself as being a negation of race systems and I think the most important aspect of white nation is that it shows how what is called multiculturalism is still in continuity with the history of racism, and I try to show the variety of ways in which it is so.

WM: One of the things I and my colleague Anouk de Koning found helpful – and we use this is an edited volume that we are working on – is how you, in White Nation, articulate the ways in which in these kinds multicultural governance, there is a kind of prescription of how people are supposed to be, and there are some people who feel entitled to prescribe the being-of-the-multicultural. In many ways, museums, I find, are complicit in this, you know “this is how a Surinamese person should be; this is what a migrant should look like; this is what culture migrants should love” – in that sense. Is/was the museum, or any other cultural institution, in the back of your mind when you were developing this or does the museum challenge to think further on this?

GH: I think there is no doubt that there is a dimension of the museum which introduces the basic structures of multicultural modes of existence. Because for the museum, in the back of its imaginary, the viewer is still a white viewer. It is a white viewer that comes and consumes forms of otherness, and leaves the museum feeling enriched and they leave the museum thinking “I am great, because I am so amazing that I am capable of enjoying these incredible cultures from the world.” And they might even leave the museum thinking, “how superior I am to these racists who don’t know how to enjoy all the beautiful tribal stuff and who might look at tribal stuff and say why are you interested in such backward culture?” And so in that sense the museum replicates the multicultural structure. And it replicates it in the way that the viewer, who would never want to cage himself or herself and put themselves on show, is always thinking themselves as the viewers and as the ones [being enriched]. So it’s about the relation between who is enriching and who is enriched. My argument in White Nation is that [this structure] is permanent, that there are always the same people that think they are the ones who are being enriched, and that it’s always the same people from the same cultures who are positioned in the role of enriching, as playing a function of making life better for the enriched.

WM: The other book which was very important to me is Alter-Politics. Where you develop this notion, or think through the notion of the alter. And I wonder, what do you think is the utility of thinking the alter in relationship, for example, to the anti for a museum like ours, a museum that has collections from all over the world, cosmologies from all over the world? What might it mean to [the museum] – that ‘thinking alter’ – and how might we use that as part of our project?

GH: I think there is a long tradition of thinking utopia with lack of realism. And so in this tradition, reality is one (singular), and if you are a realist you accept what there is; if you are not a realist you can think of alternatives, and dream about them, imagine them, etc. And the realists will laugh at you and you say “I don’t care.” But I think we have advanced in our analysis of the constitution of social reality enough to know that social reality is so multiple that a category does not capture all of it. Let’s say society is capitalist. Before, it used to be, ok society is capitalist and therefore if you want to think of non-capitalist society, you dream about it. Now I think a lot of analysis shows that when you say that society is capitalist, you are actually missing a lot of other realities, not missing a lot of dreams. Even in the middle of what we are calling capitalism are actual realities that are not capitalist. And so to me, the notion of the alter is a new realism, a realism which accepts that alternative possibilities are possibilities that are actually really happening. And so the hope and the positive thinking that comes with the alter is not about dreaming; it is about researching the existence of real possibilities that are hidden from you. Which is a very important difference from the idea of imagining alternatives. It is about finding the alternatives. And everywhere you go, I think, you can see that people and the way people relate are way too complex to be captured by a single definition. You know, you can say “instrumentalism rules.” And you go to do research and you will find instrumentalism, but then you will also find love. You will find solidarities. You will find all kinds of things, sometimes just hidden in a corner, sometimes in another dimension. And I think the crucial aspect of thinking the alter is precisely this idea what I call, minor realities. That instead of thinking about reality and ideas as alternatives, think of major dominant realities, and minor realities. And so to what extent the museum can provide and support minor realities is, to me, an interesting question in terms of alter-politics.

WM: And I want to close with that, with that particular thing. Because we have already talked about questions of hope, right? And very often nowadays when I use the word hope, people look back to me like “what are you talking about?” But might it be so that it is in that space of minor realities that is the space of hope for other possible futures. So can the museum be a space of hope, and not a flippant, easy hope, but a hope that demands a certain kind of work?

GH: Sometimes I stop thinking with hope, because when I wrote my book, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society, I use to get people calling me from television and say , “can you come talk to us?” And I would say, “About what?” And then they would say “Hope!”

So it was almost as if people thought I was a priest, that I bring hope, sort of like it is not a research issue. So yes, there is always this danger when talking hope, that it becomes flippant, but I think the crucial thing about when you use hope is to notice that people use hope to define situations and to define subjectivities. So for instance you say “the situation was hopeless, but I’m hopeful.” And I think by thinking alter-politics with minor realities, I aim to always say, “There are always situations that are hopeful. It is not just you who needs to be hopeful about every single problem.”

So there must be some relation between the hope that reality produces and the subjective state of hopefulness and I think that’s where the crucial real politics of hope, to me, happens.

WM: I want to thank you, Ghassan. And perhaps in our next conversation, we can talk in favour of other parts of your work, for instance your recent book, Is Racism an Environmental Threat?, which I think is also interesting. And on the work you are currently doing on questions of diaspora, I am interested to talk about that in our next conversation, should we have it. But I want to thank you, and let’s go drink beer.

Professor Ghassan J. Hage (1957) is the University of Melbourne’s Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He is best known for his work on the enduring presence of race in our contemporary world. Hage’s earlier work centers on the experience of nationalism, racism and multiculturalism among White Australians. In White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (1998) he explores the desire for a white nation lurking in even the most cherished liberal Western ideals. He has also written on the political dimensions of critical anthropology. Professor Hage’s most recent publication, Is Racism an Environmental Threat?, is concerned with the intersection between racism and the ecological crisis. He is currently finishing an ethnographic book on the transnational culture of the Lebanese diaspora.