When entering a recent exhibition called Reset Modernity! at the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM), visitors were requested to follow a series of specific procedures to reset the instruments that allow them to find their way in this highly complex question: Where is modernity heading, and how can we orient ourselves through its metamorphosis? Visitors were handed a precious little booklet that was called a field book because they were invited, really, to play an active role in surveying the quickly transforming political landscape. At the end of each procedure, a cryptic message was provided about a somewhat mysterious triangle. The curators seemed to be arguing that once this triangle had been understood things would become much clearer. It is this claim that I would like to comment on by detailing what this triangle could mean and how it has been drawn.
To address the issue of realism in Mimesis I will use the same method that Erich Auerbach used when he addressed the issue of “the representation of reality in Western literature.” Auerbach gave no preliminary definition of either reality or representation. He started from the “thing itself”: two narratives borrowed from two books that had long been given a founding role in the western literary tradition: the Odyssey and the Bible. In the same way, I will give no preliminary account of what realism means to me. I will start by focussing on a narrative: the interpretive narrative of the first chapter of Mimesis, wherein Auerbach tells us what the two narratives that he has selected reveal. I hope that, in my case as in Auerbach’s case, the very development of the analysis will show that starting from “the thing itself,” and constructing the interpretive categories from this “thing,” is itself a method with some philosophical and political implications.
Consider Francisco Goya’s Yard with Lunatics (1794), now in the Meadows Museum in Dallas. In an austere prison space, lit only by a searing triangle of blue sky, prisoners cower and caper. Goya said he saw such scenes in the asylum of Zaragoza, and it is customary to read this confession as revealing an Enlightenment anxiety concerning the mentally ill and their treatment. But that is a claim about the artist, not yet about the painting. One might try to engage the latter more directly by noting the opposition between the murky space of the inmates and the bright corner of sky, standing perhaps for the health and reason of which they are deprived. Or, more disconcertingly, like the heroes of a certain Edgar Allan Poe story, we may wonder where we stand: among the orderlies or the patients? Depending how that question is answered, our interest in the lives of the prisoners might thus itself turn out to be the object of scrutiny, the target of a critique of Enlightenment do-goodism, perhaps. Or, taking the self-critical attitude even further, we may notice that the man set apart by his black suit—whose dissolute, hair-swept features resemble Goya’s—wields a switch to separate two nude wrestlers. The light along the edge of the handle makes his weapon look sharp, like a dagger. Perhaps the artist saw himself as more than an innocent bystander.
The historiography that exists on Walpole, while both limited and controversial, is embroiled in a philosophical conflict over what it means in a democracy for a group to become an object of care or custody. For some, the events at Walpole are exemplars of Hobbesian anarchy and bureaucratic failure. This account usually takes one of two forms, either a call to increase law and order within prisons or a push to reallocate goods and services to the task of treatment. In other words, inmate participation is understood as a symptom of a failed treatment or control regimen. Call this the conventional liberal narrative. However, an alternative account emerges from a close reading of the Walpole episode. In this narrative Walpole is an experiment in participatory democracy and community control. Call this less familiar view the radical narrative.
In the life of a scholarly journal there sometimes occur moments when radically different perspectives converge on a theme or argument. That is the case with the following group of essays. The first is written by Saree Makdisi, a Palestinian scholar who has studied the occupation of his country for many years and has attempted to analyze the institutions, languages, and political forces that sustain that occupation. The subsequent essays constitute a dossier of reflections by Israeli scholars writing from the standpoint of the occupiers, seeking to understand the history of the occupation and to reflect on the moral and political issues that accompany it. Organized by Ariel Handel and Ruthie Ginsburg, “Israelis Studying the Occupation” originated in the desire of a group of Israeli scholars to engage with Palestinians and international experts at a conference on Critical Geography that took place in Ramallah in 2015. As with so many attempts to find common ground in Israel/Palestine, this desire was frustrated. The present forum, therefore, is basically an attempt to name and locate that common ground as the occupation itself and to engage in reflection from the standpoints of both the occupied and the occupiers.
“APARTHEID: by itself the word occupies the terrain like a concentration camp,” wrote Jacques Derrida in an issue of this journal thirty-three years ago. “This last-born of many racisms is also the only one surviving in the world, at least the only one still parading itself in a political constitution. It remains the only one on the scene to dare to say its name and to present itself for what it is: a legal defiance taken by homo politicus, a juridical racism and a state racism.” In reply to a critique by Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon, Derrida restated one of his central claims: “Apartheid designates today in the eyes of the whole world, beyond all possible equivocation or pseudonymy, the last state racism on the entire planet."
The idea for the present collection was conceived in the beginning of 2015, following a call for papers for the seventh International Conference of Critical Geography that was held in Ramallah. As we were critical researchers interested in the conference topics, this call raised an immediate dilemma. On the one hand, we would be obviously happy to submit a paper or organize a session in a conference that has a tradition of innovative and fascinating thought, particularly when it is being held so close to our homes in Tel Aviv. On the other hand, we weren’t sure that as Israelis, we would be welcome at all in a conference being held in the occupied West Bank. Beyond our interest in the conference topics, a question of etiquette also came up: What is worse, inviting yourself to a party at which you may be unwelcome or ignoring it completely? In other words, if the Israeli critical community shuns a major international conference held in the West Bank, is not that problematic in and of itself?
How can a critique be formulated when its material conditions are the object of critique? One can criticize one’s state, to be sure—its violence, its wars. But how can one question the legitimacy of one’s own home; how can one point to the wrongs that are embedded into the very nature of her or his political existence? What would it mean for a Jewish Israeli not simply to write against the occupation but to recognize that her or his home is historically conditioned upon the destruction of Palestinians’ homes? What would it mean for her or him to recognize that her or his attachment to this place is founded upon a history—not such a distant history—of violence and conditioned, at least to some extent, on the perpetuation of this violence? (And since Israel has become a paradigm of a certain kind of leftist critique, it is worth noting that the only difference between Israel and other settler colonies such as the United States or Australia is temporal density.) Once we move to engage in such a critique, there is no more separation between the I who writes and her or his object of critique, that is, the state and its doings (military and police violence, planning policy, legal discrimination). The I itself becomes the object of critique and her or his voice—the place from which she or he speaks, her or his language, the dialogues available for her or him—can no longer pretend to assume a position which is simply and clearly oppositional to injustice.
Can a settler society play any role in an anticolonial struggle? What is the role of knowledge produced in academia, and what is its relevance to the place where it is articulated? These questions were raised separately, yet both had to do with the Israeli left and more concretely the left in academia. In the company of different audiences and on two very different occasions doubts were cast as to its very existence and viability. The first question was raised at a conference organized by the Palestine Society at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in October 2015, which brought Israeli and Palestinian scholars to reflect on Israeli society from within the settler-colonial studies framework. The second question was grappled with at a seminar titled “Knowledge in This Place,” organized by the Minerva center at Tel Aviv University (TAU), in January 2015. Remarkable in its deep sense of pessimism, the address at SOAS by the renowned scholar Ilan Pappe tapped into the audience’s common sense, underlining the harsh reality of the lack of significant opposition within settler society. His implicit answer to the question was that Israeli society is anyhow irrelevant to the anticolonial struggle. His advice for the handful few who are aligned with this struggle was to take their cue from the leadership of the resistance, in itself disappointingly lacking a vision for this settler society’s future. At the more intimate seminar at TAU, which was a unique and important event squarely addressing issues not commonly thought of in Israeli academia, the tone was equally somber. Many lamented the marginality, irrelevance, and futility of critical knowledge in the absence of any meaningful hope for change. Of particular concern was the drift of academia further in the direction of subservience to the state in its ultra-Zionist, technocratic, neoliberal vision for society. At London and Tel Aviv respectively the very source of despair seemed to be not so much the strength of the colonial state, the weakness of the Israeli left, or the irrelevance of critical knowledge, but Israeli society itself—a hard-edged object, immovable and frozen in time.
Mariam Abu Ghalous, one of my closest old-time friends in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp (immediately to the south of the West Bank town of Bethlehem), died in February 2015, succumbing to a series of fatal strokes she had suffered several months earlier. Even though I was well aware of her serious condition, the news of Mariam’s death hit me like a sudden, unexpected blow, straight to the middle of the chest. Mariam, the rebel, the fighter, the utterly generous and utterly impoverished homemaker, the totally dedicated and impossibly overburdened mother of nine, the nonorthodox, nonconformist believer, the progressive, knowledgeable conversation partner, the stubborn, resilient woman who kept a mischievous spark in her eye throughout, is gone.
The number of studies seeking to explain the technologies of Israeli rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) from 1967 has been on the rise in the last two decades, due in part to the persistent Israeli occupation and dwindling chances for a possible withdrawal from these territories. This possibility directly contradicts the Israeli government’s agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which opened up the possibility for a Palestinian state in these areas: in other words, the two-state formula, which aimed to separate Israel from millions of Palestinians and stabilize the status quo. However, the intensified settlement process vis-à-vis the future Palestinian state has led many Israeli scholars to admit that the Israeli presence in these areas is not temporary.
Few Israelis have renounced citizenship, but an estimated one million—10 percent of the population or so—have chosen to live abroad. Are we doing covertly what Lenny Lapon did openly? When driving home from a concert, my two daughters, then five and seven years old, insisted that I tell them why I had left Israel more than ten years before. I stumbled—how to explain this to them? Why did I leave Israel? The easiest thing would be to tell them what everyone thought then—that I traveled for my doctorate. But that was not the entire truth; when I left, I already knew that this was not a temporary move. I was leaving for good.