So if you’ve actually stuck with reading your way through some of my posts, you’ll know that a reasonably major aspect of my concern is tolerance-more specifically, the capacity of Merleau-Ponty’s conception of bodily tolerances to help think through the intertwining of ethics and politics with phenomenological experience. In other words, MP’s approach allows one to demonstrate how and why it might be that visceral experiences of intolerance-often articulated as disgust, revulsion, stomach-turning, nauseating and so on-exist, and their dependence upon particular configurations of political, ethical and gift and/or exchange economies. Not only this, but I’m interested by the way that the word ‘tolerance’ functions politically to legitimate, reinforce and deem ‘rational’ certain forms of these visceral experiences, and on the other hand to reject, delegitimate, undermine and deem ‘irrational’ other of these experiences which may, for example, be otherwise understood as the visceral intolerance of injustice and the unethical, for example…

I’ve already posted a little about one way in which I think that these bodily tolerances are engendered and play out, in relation to race and politics in Australia. It’s as a kind of follow-up to think that I’m turning to Wendy Brown’s book, entitled Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. The first chapter has been available here [pdf] for some time, but I’m going to put up some notes on it here, in my usual quote+response style. I should mention here that whilst the concerns Brown covers (in the chapters I’ve read so far, anyway) aren’t entirely new-that is, I spend more of my time going ‘yes that’s right,’ rather than ‘oh my god! I’d never thought of that’-approaching questions of liberalism, imperialism, bigotry, racism, civilisation, barbarism, inclusion, exclusion, difference and identity (amongst other things) through a tracking of the conceptualisation of tolerance is quite telling, and does help to demonstrate the significant role it has come to play in the contemporary climate. One point which I have to say it’s kind of a relief to find an American actually exploring is the relation between tolerance, individualism and depoliticisation. While I am, clearly, interested in what some might call ‘personal experience,’ my interest is in its contingency, in why it functions the way it does and the degree to which that effects (no, goddammit, grammar checker, I mean ‘effects’!) particular political agendas. Sometimes I think that elements of the blogosphere (in a reflection of the rest of the ‘real’ world, of course!) are so keen to get to political action/activism of whatever kind that they not only don’t stop to think it through in sufficient detail, they actively reject the idea that such critical engagement might be important; and often this winds up in a kind of reification of ideas like ‘choice’, ‘individuality’ and ‘rationality’ in ways that suppose these things to be somehow beyond the function of politics, or, more clearly, beyond the effects of ‘repression’ or ‘oppression.’ I share the concern about needing to act (absolutely!!! and I do understand the worry about ‘theory’ being impractical) but at the same moment, I think we need to find ways of acting without giving up the perpetual critical engagement with the very terms by which we act. I have a number of reasons for this stance, but one of them is that one of the biggest problems with the way that politics is currently run is that the position taken today must be true forever and ever; it’s far too totalising, and resists critical engagement. So I think it’s a significant move for activism to resist this totalising tendency of politics more broadly; this is, of course, an extremely difficult line to maintain, especially in the current context. Nonetheless. My concerns still stand, even if I understand the position that motivates ‘strategic’ investments in, say, inadequate concepts like ‘human rights.’ Mmm. I’m resisting the temptation to go on and on in the usual style of the paranoid vaguely theoretical academic-y sort in order to express my sympathy with and investment in activist politics; but I think I’ll leave it stand for now!

Aaaanyway. Back to actual topic. So, given that this afternoon (wow, actually, it’s taken me a lil while to formulate this post, so it was a while ago, really!) I picked up the book after ordering it a few weeks ago, with no further ado, here are notes on chapter 1.

There’s an epigram here that I kinda like, even as I’m not sure it engages the detail of tolerance, it does at least shift the question of tolerance away from the rational:

“Tolerance is not a product of politics, religion or culture. Liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and atheists, whites, Latinos, Asians, and blacks… are equally capable of tolerance and intolerance… [T]olerance has much less to do with our opinions than with what we feel and how we live.” -Sarah Bullard, Teaching Tolerance.

I’m not really convinced that this is accurate, in the sense that tolerance as it is understood currently seems to rely upon very particular configurations of difference and identity, arising out of a white Western framework (which I actually think tends to produce a lack of tolerance, but we’ll get into that in a sec). At the same time, the constructionist/contextualist (Alcoff’s preferred term) streak in me tends to think that phrases like ‘equally capable’ wind up meaning very little-equally capable given what context? Is this some kind of attempt to counter the naturalisation of (especially current) Western attributions of differing tolerance capacities, often down race and political lines? I’m also unconvinced that political ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ doesn’t affect the capacity for tolerance (at least if ‘liberalism’ (my god it’s so American to set conservative vs liberal as the only real political distinction, and I’m not sure it’s quite so applicable in other contexts) is taken to mean left-leaning or progressive positions). Actually, I think what I mean is that liberal and conservative people may well come out equal in the tolerance stakes, I’m not convinced that there aren’t other political positions which enable other ways of thinking tolerance; perhaps even beyond the conservative tendencies of tolerance (my god; is it possible?!).

(Just as an aside, do you think it’s significant that every time I’ve gone to type ‘my god’ in the past few days I’ve typed ‘my dog’? I’d like to think it is, though why exactly I’m not sure.)

And Brown begins:

“How did tolerance become a beacon of multicultural justice and civic peace at the turn of the twenty-first century? A mere generation ago, tolerance was widely recognized in the United States as a code word for mannered racialism. Early in the civil rights era, many white northerners staked their superiority to their southern brethren on a contrast between northern tolerance and southern bigotry. But racial tolerance was soon exposed as a subtle form of Jim Crow, one that did not resort to routine violence, formal segregation, or other overt tactics of superordination but reproduced white supremacy all the same.” (p.1)

I can’t help it; I immediately begin to wonder about the way that radical individualism which seems to characterise so much of (particularly US) politicised discourse (see the Eugenics or choice? post) permitted the forgetting of this kind of awareness of racism as not merely government controlled. That is, I would tend to think that it is as individualism became more thoroughly entrenched that this awareness of collective, ‘mannered’ racism was lost. Individualism permits incredible levels of conservatism, really, and of course the concealment of such.

Anyway, so Brown suggests that it was as a result of this awareness of the perpetuation of white supremacy that

“[f]reedom and equality, rather than tolerance, became the watchwords of justice projects on behalf of the excluded, subordinated, or marginalised.” (p. 1-2)

Although at this point it would seem she suggests that these ‘justice projects’ premised on freedom and equality countered the concealed racism of ‘tolerance,’ she’s not naively assuming that freedom and equality remained pure of the problems of tolerance…

“Since the mid-1980s, however, there has been something of a global renaissance in tolerance talk. Tolerance surged back into use in the late twentieth century as multiculturalism became a central problematic of liberal democractic citizenship; as Third World immigration threatened the ethnicized identities of Europe, North America, and Australia; [woot! Check it out, we made the ‘West’ list. Am I alone in thinking that this is pretty rare in US books?] as indigenous peoples pursued claims of preparation, belonging and entitlement; as ethnically coded civil conflict became a critical site of international disorder; and as Islamic religious identity intensified and expanded into a transnational political force. Tolerance talk also became prominent as domestic norms of integration and assimilation gave way to concerns with identity and difference on the lefta nd as the rights claims of various minorities were spurned as ‘special’ rather than universal on the right.” (p. 2)

She then goes on to demonstrate the breadth of application of the word ‘tolerance,’ from the UN (practically everywhere) to European attempts to negotiate immigration, to US attempts to tackle racialised segregation and community violence, the premise of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ solution to homophobia in the military, and even the “rubric under which George W Bush, upon taking office in his first term, declared that appointees in his administration would not have their sexual orientations scrutinized… or revealed.” (p. 2) It’s also a defining feature of education, and religious and secular discourse. I find this interesting, that tolerance is the feature of education in the US. Friends of mine who did bachelors in Early Childhood Education (that’s from preschool/childcare all the way through to year 3 or 4 at school, I think) which, granted, is a fairly innovative degree, didn’t learn how to teach tolerance, but rather had a unit called ‘anti-bias,’ a configuration which wasn’t merely about non-discriminatory practice within educational institutions, but enabled considerations of teaching things like ‘critical literacy.’ (See, I always knew critical strategies weren’t dependent on second-year uni readings!) These friends make me hopeful for education!!

Ah, and here we come to the role tolerance plays in the crossover between conservatives and liberals:

“Moreover, even as certain contemporary conservatives identify tolerance as a codeword for endorsing homosexuality, tolerance knows no political party: it is what liberals and leftists reproach a religious, xenophobic, and homophobic right for lacking, but also what evangelical Christians claim that secular liberals refuse them and what conservative foreign policy ideologues claim America cherishes and ‘radical Islamicists’ abhor. Combined with this bewildering array of sites and calls for tolerance is an impressive range of potential objects of tolerance, including cultures, races, ethnicities, sexualities, ideologies, lifestyle and fashion choices, political positions, religions, and even regimes.” (p. 2-3)

I’d just like to point out that many of these objects of tolerance gain their weight through a claim to individualism. Interestingly, though, as she goes on to point out, each of these objects do not demand the same kinds of tolerance, but a whole range of ‘modalities’ of tolerance. Her examples here are intriguing:

“That is, modalities of tolerance talk that have issued from postcolonial encounters with indigenous peoples in settler colonies do not follow the same logics as those that have issued from European encounters with immigrants from its former colonies or those that are centred on patriarchal religious anxieties about insubordinate gender and sexual practices. Similarly, an Islamic state seeking to develop codes of tolerance inflects the term differently than does a Euro-Atlantic political imaginary within which the nation-states of the West are presumed always already tolerant.” (p. 3)

These distinctions are important to make, I do not doubt. Nonetheless, I do have a sneaking suspicion that part of the homogenisation of difference that seems to characterise the West is enabled through the refusal to accept that these modes of tolerance are different. That is, the usual traps associated with deploying ‘equality’ (that of the reduction to sameness) have come to shape tolerance practice as well, such that it becomes possible to talk about the claims of ‘minority groups’ (as they’re usually characterised, at least in Australia) to tolerance as equivalent claims, even where they are really very different (especially in practical terms). In the midst of the dominant logic of scarce resources, this means that each claim to tolerance is subject to the same kinds of distrust and suspicion, the same kinds of intolerance. Mmm. A kind of intolerance to tolerance. This reminds me of the issues of generosity raised here. And Brown seems to agree:

“Given this proliferation of and variation in agents, objects, and political cadences of tolerance, it may be tempting to conclude that it is too polymorphous and unstable to analyze as a political or moral discourse. I pursue another hypothesis here: that the semiotically polyvalent, politically promiscuous, and sometimes incoherent use of tolerance in contemporary American life, closely considered and critically theorized, can be made to reveal important features of our political time and condition. The central question of this study is… What kind of political discourse, with what social and political effects, is contemporary tolerance talk in the United States? What readings of the discourses of liberalism, colonialism, and imperialism circulating through Western democracies can analytical scrutiny of this talk provide? The following chapters aim to track the social and political work of tolerance discourse by comprehending how this discourse constructions and positions liberal and nonliberal subjects, cultures, and regimes; how it figures conflict, stratification, and difference; how it operate normatively; and how its normativity is rendered oblique almost to the point of invisibility.” (pp. 3-4)

This last bit, as you can imagine, kinda makes me cheer. A consideration of the normative configuration of difference through tolerance by Brown might let me get away without having to argue this at huge lengths in the thesis. It also is useful because all too often tolerance is deployed as responding to an ahistorical truth, and the political efficacy of it remains unconsidered: that is, tolerance itself does things to the political realm, affecting the operation and responses to difference. Because tolerance is treated as an ahistorical good, we miss this too often. (I use ‘we’ pretty loosely here, so don’t feel too interpellated!

At this point, she explicitly refuses to understand tolerance as ahistorical and universal, and introduces governmentality as key (and here I kinda wish I’d read this before my very first article (about to be released… or… are articles released? published? whatever) was due) aspect of the function of tolerance, saying:

“As a consortium of para-legal and para-statist practices in modern constitutional liberalism-practices that are associated with the liberal state and liberal legalism but are not precisely codified by it-tolerance is exemplary of Foucault’s account of governmentality as that which organizes ‘the conduct of conduct’ at a variety of sites and through rationalities not limited to those formally countenanced as political. Absent the precise dictates, articulations, and prohibitions associated with the force of law, tolerance nevertheless produces and positions subjects, orchestrates meanings and practices of identity, marks bodies, and conditions political subjectivities. This production, positioning, orchestration, and conditioning is achieved not through a rule or a concentration of power, but rather through the dissemination of tolerance discourse across state institutions; civic venues such as schools, churches, and neighborhood associations; ad hoc social groups and political events; and international institutions or forums.” (p. 4)

I can’t help feeling like Brown is conscious of needing to address political theorists here, ones who might be less than open to her arguments about say the historicity of notions of tolerance. It is around this point that I want (her!) to evoke Alcoff and Merleau-Ponty, to demonstrate that tolerance also conditions bodies phenomenologically to reflect a particular set of inclusions and exclusions. In the end, I would suggest, the ‘rationalities not limited to those formally countenanced as political’ is really important to pay attention to, because I think that the characterisation of particular ways of being in the world (and attendant tolerances, of course) as rational is part of the function of the discursive construction of tolerance (this is a fairly obvious Foucauldian point, but one that I think is forgotten, sometimes!) What I mean is that I don’t really think that rationality exists ahistorically, aculturally; rather, rationality demonstrates which forms of being are to be considered as cultured (rather than (brute-ishly) natural), as cognitive (rather than bodily/emotional) and justifiable (rather than incoherent and nutty). This is a bit of a complex point, I guess, but the point I’m trying to make is that I tend towards a thoroughly anti-Cartesian conception of subjectivity, but with an awareness that the attributions of particular experiences to the ‘mind’ and the ‘body’ has important political weight. This is a feminist observation as well, because as Genevieve Lloyd has observed, rationality has tended to the codification of the ways that men have tended to think. In relation to tolerance, what I think this allows us to understand is that some forms of intolerance are marked as irrational, and others as rational; yet such distinctions lie not in how ‘cognitive’ some intolerance is, as if the irrationally intolerant were just permitting their emotional/bodily reactions to ‘rule’ them. Rather, the rationality of an in/tolerance is actually about how much that in/tolerance falls in with existing truth-discourses. Bleah. I’m not sure how significant that point was, now that I’ve worked so hard to make it articulate! Sorry about that!

Brown then observes that tolerance has shifted from a means of protection from persecution to a way of conceiving of a good society. This I think is interesting, given her earlier point about ‘freedom and equality’ being the response to the mannered racialism of tolerance in the 70s. In this respect, it’s been increasingly taken up across the political spectrum, to defend extremely different positions. The logic of ‘white liberal decline,’ (eep! whose concept is this again? I’ll try to find it!) or the ‘we are victims too, even though we’re white etc’ position both suppose that white values are under attack and at risk of being completely undermined by various, usually racialised groups, regularly deploys the need to make these others ‘tolerate’ white ‘values’ (what others would call ‘intolerance’). As Brown describes,

“the enemy of tolerance is now the weaponized radical Islamicist state or terror cell rather than the neighborhood bigot… While some of these changes [in the deployment of ‘tolerance’ talk] have simply brought to the surface long-present subterranean norms in liberal tolerance discourse, others have articulated tolerance for genuinely new purposes. These include the legitimation of a new form of imperial state action in the twenty-first century, a legitimation tethered to a constructed opposition between a cosmopolitan West and its putatively fundamentalist Other. Tolerance thus emerges as part of a civilizational discourse that identifies both tolerance and the tolerable with the West, marking nonliberal societies and practices as candidates for a intolerable barbarism that is itself signalled by the putative intolerance ruling these societies. In the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries, the West imagines itself as standing for civilization against primitivism, an din the cold war years for freedom against tyranny; now these two recent histories are merged in the warring figures of the free, the tolerant and the civilised on one said, and the fundamentalist, the intolerant, and the barbaric on the other… ” (p. 6)

She then turns to acknowledging the racial specificity of this question:

“If tolerance is a political principle used to mark an opposition between liberal and fundamentalist order, how might liberal tolerance discourse function not only to anoint Western superiority but also to legitimate a Western cultural and political imperialism? That is, how might this discourse actually promote Western supremacy and aggression even as it veils them in the modest dress of tolerance? How might tolerance, the very virtue that Samuel Huntington advocates for pre-empting a worldwide clash of civilizations, operate as a key element in a civilizational discourse that codifies the superiority and legimitates the superordination of the West? What is the work of tolerance idscourse in a contemporary imperial liberal governmentality? What kind of subject is thought to be capable of tolerance? What sort of rationality and sociality is tolerance imagined to require and what sorts are thought to inhibit it-in order words, what anthropological presuppositions does liberal tolerance entail and circulate?” (pp. 6-7)

“The conceit of secularism undergirding the promulgation of tolerance within multicultural liberal democracies not only legitimates their intolerance of and aggression toward non-liberal states or transnational formations but also glosses the ways in which certain cultures and religious are marked in advance as ineligible for tolerance while others are so hegemonic as to not even register as cultures or religious; they are instead labelled ‘mainstream’ or simply ‘American… [Tolerance[ operates from a conceit of neutrality that is actually thick with bourgeois Protestant norms.'” (p. 7)

If these hegemonic ‘cultures’ labelled at all; in fact, I think probably the most hegemonic position is that which doesn’t even need to be modified by an adjective like this. And as Brown points out, the distinction between the public and private spheres is key here in delineating the tolerable and the intolerable, and in enabling a kind of moralism to attend both individual behaviour and the reflection of it in the global political sphere.

“…[T]olerance as a mode of late modern governmentality that iterates the normalcy of the powerful and the deviance of the marginal responds to, links, and tames both unruly domestic identities or affinities and nonliberal transnational forces that tacitly or explicitly challenge the universal standing of liberal precepts. Tolerance regulates the presence of the Other both inside and outside the liberal democratic nation-state, and often it forms a circuit between them that legitimates the most illiberal actions of the state by means of a term consummately associated with liberalism.” (p. 8 )

One of the clearest domains in which this ‘circuiting’ of domestic and global politics occurs is that of immigration. The suspicion towards asylum seekers is both produced by and productive of a particular, imperialist mode of engaging in global politics. In Australia, this ‘circuiting’ lies even in the ways that certain groups are described: somehow particular groups of kids are labelled ‘Lebanese gangs,’ and the ‘of Middle-Eastern appearance’ epithet so regularly a part of designating suspects in the media. It ensures that all the weight of suspicion that already is cast over the Middle East comes to enforce particular ways of negotiating domestic politics; and, I think, it also shapes the social. The locking-together of these ‘levels’ via the concept of tolerance means that each is extraordinarily powerful. The ‘Children Overboard’ incident, for example, in which John Howard lied and claimed that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard, enabled him to claim that his domestic ‘border security’ policy was clearly what was required, because ‘those people’ had values ‘obviously’ had values so different from ours that ‘we’ wouldn’t want them here anyway. This evocation of differing cultural values drew upon the racism and xenophobia that already characterised the post-911 Western international politics, in order to reinforce domestic policy. The fact that Howard was re-elected pretty much off the back of this travesty demonstrates that individual Australians were solidly invested in this particular construction of selves, domestic and international politics. (Again, this post tracks some of this kind of logic.) Let’s not forget, in amongst all this, that the universal doctrine of human rights focused fairly squarely on enabling and producing tolerance, so it’s a term with strong history and investment (Brown goes further in this respect, but I’ll get to that later…)

More to follow soon!