Writing Against Identity Politics: An Essay on Gender, Race, and Bureaucratic Pain (AE vol 39 no. 4)

My essay, “Writing Against Identity Politics: An Essay on Gender, Race, and Bureaucratic Pain,” appears in the latest issue of American Ethnologist (Volume 39, Issue 4). Here is its abstract:

Equating bureaucratic entanglements with pain—or what, arguably, can be seen as torture—might seem strange. But for single Mizrahi welfare mothers in Israel, somatization of bureaucratic logic as physical pain precludes the agency of identity politics. This essay elaborates on Don Handelman’s scholarship on bureaucratic logic as divine cosmology and posits that Israel’s bureaucracy is based on a theological essence that amalgamates gender and race. The essay employs a world anthropologies’ theoretical toolkit to represent bureaucratic torture in multiple narrative modes, including anger, irony, and humor, as a counterexample to dominant U.S.–U.K. formulae for writing and theorizing culture. 

Keywords: agency and identity politics, critical race theory, intersectionality, world anthropologies, autoethnography, symbolic anthropology, welfare bureaucracy, single mothers, ethnonationalism, citizenship, Israel–Palestine, Mizrahim

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Comment by Smadar Lavie on January 30, 2013 at 2:30am

Yes, your assumption is correct. In my Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures entry on Zionism I discuss the history of Zionist eugenics. The preferred baby was and still is Ashkenazi. See here: http://www.academia.edu/1804723/Colonialism_and_Imperialism_Zionism...

Comment by Abraham Heinemann on January 29, 2013 at 6:36pm

Would the theme of segregation amongst Israelis, particularly the the European and the Mizrahi, be playing a part in the state of Israel's sterilisation black Mizrahi (e.g. the ethiopian case)?

Comment by John McCreery on January 10, 2013 at 6:09am

Smadar, as I said earlier, I have not been following the resistance literature closely. I am in the curious position for an anthropologist of studying people who are frequently smarter, more powerful and much better paid than I am: top advertising creatives in Tokyo. My impression is that when resistance was first brought up as a topic, something important had been noticed. States and other authorities define situations and make demands based on their definitions. Those they seek to control are often complicit in their own subjugation by accepting the authorities' definitions of what is going on—but, here was the important point, they often have ways of challenging or evading the rules that authorities seek to impose. And, yes, we anthropologists need to look at those. From banditry, bribery, and secret societies and what Keith Hart labeled the informal economy to working to rule to slow down an assembly line, we underlings have our ways.... What annoyed me, however, in the little that I read in this area was the way in which "resistance" became a buzzword whose instances once pointed out were rarely examined in sufficient detail while lumping together everything from minor griping and joking about the boss to bloody revolution. I never saw the sophistication you mention. That could, however, be my own fault. I would love to learn more about what you find of value in the resistance literature.

Comment by Smadar Lavie on January 9, 2013 at 9:33pm

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, John. I differ with you about resistance literature. I think it's a sophisticated field of theory and ethnography. Why is it given primacy in social and cultural anthropology? That's another question my piece addresses. I'm re-reading issues of "primitive classification" which are at the crux of the discipline's history, I think. Why do you think there was a shift of focus? And why, according to WAN collective members, the more the discipline was "decolonized" in the US-Eurocenter, the stronger the theoretical grip of  Anthro departments elite universities, mainly in the US with regard to the decolonization of the discipline. I hope other members of this coop are willing to share their take on these issues. Thanks again. Smadar.

Comment by John McCreery on January 8, 2013 at 10:23am
Smadar, I have to admit that I have not been following these developments in anthropology. One personal problem with this sort of thing is how to validate perfectly justified anger and reply analytically at the same time. Thus, for example, to me you have made a strong case that Israeli bureaucracy would like its clients to behave robotically and employs mental and emotional torture to keep them in line. We're I in the situation you describe I would be furious, too. That said, I don't think that you have made a case closing the gap between wanting to eliminate agency and employing practices designed to prevent the exercise of agency and eliminating agency on a practical or political plain. You are, are you not, your own counterexample,able to invade faculty clubs and publish your opinions in american ethnologist? And the single mothers who joined the protest were not behaving according to the bureaucratically prescribed program.i can heartily agree that much of what I have end in the "resistance" literature seems juvenile. The gestures are far too weak to count as serious agency, which, at least in my experience, always entails a large risk of failure. But the women you describe see to have moved beyond this stage. This protest may have failed. So did those in the prehistory of the US Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King proclaimed, "We shall overcome," how much he would achieve was still very uncertain.
Comment by Smadar Lavie on January 7, 2013 at 10:38pm

Thanks, John. Anthropologists today, at least those working with the US-European paradigm, insist that every subject must have agency and enact identity politics. Even if agency is docility, as in Mahmood's ethnography. I think this insistence has to do more with the middle class and up background of many US-European anthropologists that allows them to bestow benevolence over their research subject, than with the lived realities of agency-less "the subaltern". The focus on agency led to the "identity politics" ethnographies of the 1990s and early 2000s. These emanated from the US-UK centers of our discipline, and adopted by many of the cosmopolitans working elsewhere. This is what the  piece is about. I chose the genres of non-cosmopolitan World Anthropologies and of  US woman-of-color auto-ethnograpy (like Anzaldua or Lorde). Perhaps women of color scholars in N. America or W. Europe are premitted these days to express anger in their scholarly texts. But when similar scholarship comes from outside N. America or W. Europe, it is labelled "polemic."

Comment by John McCreery on January 7, 2013 at 2:26pm

A powerful piece that is, for this comfortably well-off white male grandfather searingly painful to read. What, besides acknowledging the pain, is it possible to say? I do not know.


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