Thursday, 17 March 2011

Interview with Pheng Cheah on cosmopolitanism, nationalism and human rights

Photo: Pheng Cheah
(taken by Yuk Hui)
Yuk Hui interviews Pheng Cheah about nationalism and the nation-state, cosmopolitics and globalisation, human rights and the inhuman, financial crises and the importance of economic theory and collaborative work

That which cannot be recognized as human: interview with Pheng Cheah on cosmopolitanism, nationalism and human rights in contemporary globalization

Yuk Hui: It seems to me that you have a quite ambivalent relationship towards nationalism, since you wanted to demonstrate the complexity of the issue. Especially sometimes you value nationalism in a quite positive way. You spoke somewhere for example of figures like Benedict Anderson who criticizes nationalism as “poverty of philosophy”, while for someone from the subaltern group like Ranajit Guha, nationalism is a deep philosophical question. Can you tell us more about your position?[1]

Pheng Cheah: You are right to say that my position regarding nationalism is ambivalent.  But then my position regarding cosmopolitanism is also ambivalent. Benedict Anderson was my teacher. One thing that I learnt from Anderson is that we shouldn’t simply look at nationalism as an ideology, that it is important to make a distinction between official nationalism, nationalism as an ideology of the state,  and popular nationalism, a feeling of communal belonging from below, which Anderson argued was generated by  print capitalism. The latter has a positive or progressive character. And this is why Anderson insisted on distinguishing between patriotism or nationalism and racism.  People generally regard national identity and race as being the same.  However, I also approach nationalism and cosmopolitanism from a different angle than Anderson, who suggested that  nationalism didn’t have a philosophy.  It seems to me that there are certain philosophical ideas that provide the basis of nationalism, for example concepts like freedom, organism, culture.   It seems to me that these concepts of European philosophy from the Enlightenment and beyond do not only inform nationalism or the nation form.  They give rise to nationalism, but at the same time they also lead to the emergence of cosmopolitanism.

Concerning my ambivalence to both nationalism and cosmopolitanism, it is important to note, first of all, that if you look at things from a historical perspective, nationalism was not initially opposed to cosmopolitanism. Nationalism came into being after cosmopolitanism, not the other way around. And cosmopolitanism in its initial flowering was not opposed to nationalism, which didn’t yet exist as a widespread sentiment and way of thought, but to statism.  Cosmopolitanism was a way of tempering the absolute power of the sovereign state.  It was only later, let’s say the revolutions of 1848, that something like nationalism emerged alongside cosmopolitanism as an alternative way of limiting and modifying statism.  So the nation emerged as something that gives legitimacy to the territorial state and its institutions. 

Then the picture changes in contemporary globalization. Because what happens with globalization is that after the nation state has already come into being and becomes the institutionalized political norm, the hyphen between the nation and the state becomes distended.  Various transnational processes, movements and forces emerged and supplied the material conditions for the rise of new kinds of cosmopolitanism.  But for me, these new cosmopolitanisms are not necessarily progressive or popular. It doesn’t mean the end of nationalism.  Instead, we are witnessing yet another change in the relation between nationalism and cosmopolitanism as result of globalization.  Now, this global terrain or field of forces in which both nationalism and cosmopolitanism emerge and meet up again is what I call “the cosmopolitical”.  We have to critically analyze the inscription of nationalism and cosmopolitanism in this field of forces in order to assess their consequences and effects.

YH: You mentioned the connection between nation and state. In recent years we have seen quite a few works contesting such a conception. For example, we see Empire (2000) from Negri and Hardt, where they propose the coming of an empire rather than a rigid state sovereignty. Then after the financial crisis in 2008, did you see any return of nationalism? For example in Asia, people are talking about the Chinese model which is closely related to the state, while in Europe, following the bankruptcy  of Greece, and the Germany bailout, there seems to be increasing tension inside the EU itself.

PC: I would say that the prognosis of the coming into being of an empire is probably a bit precipitous.  The general argument in Empire was that just as capitalism was capital in its most developed or naked form, just as socialism was society in its most developed or naked form, so too contemporary empire is in itself the most developed and naked form of empire.  This is a somewhat Hegelian argument.  I think the pronouncement of the existence of empire in the book was probably a little bit premature since it suggests an all-pervasive ‘structure’ of hegemony.  I would rather stick with “the cosmopolitical” as a field of forces. 

With regard to the current financial crisis, let’s not forget that the first financial crisis in the late 20th century was the Asian crisis in the late 1990s.  The current one we are witnessing is the second wave. I have written on the first wave of financial crises in an article, “Crises of Money”, which was published a few years ago.[2] If you look at the first wave of financial crises, the treatment of and response to this in the international media and by the international regulatory bodies is very different from the treatment and response today. In the earlier case, the IMF and the World Bank prescribed very severe measures and the blame was placed at the feet of these Asian countries.  Accusatory and pejorative labels such as “crony capitalism”, “casino capitalism”, and so on were used and the implication is that at the very least, these countries have engaged in unsound financial practices, and that in a certain way, they deserved what happened to them.  What was silently glossed over or left out of the picture is that this kind of crony capitalism can only flourish because of the insistence of radical financial market liberalization, which opens the banking system of a given country to unregulated international financial flows. Because of the high build-up of liquid capital in the North Atlantic, including Japan, this money has to be sent elsewhere, but it is merely speculative capital.  Hence, what was prescribed to many of the affected countries such as Indonesia and South Korea, was belt-tightening and severe adjustment measures.

Now, with the situation with the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the near-collapse of Wall Street investment banks that became first visible in America, we have the U.S. government bailing out some of these big banks for the good of America and the global financial system.  The phrase “crony capitalism” is not being mentioned.  The treatment is vastly different and there is a kind of double standard at work. The Asian financial crises were viewed as an Asian matter, a matter that involved the correction of something that went wrong in Asia because it was corrupt or not disciplined enough. The current crisis, which began in the U.S., and gradually spread to Europe, is regarded as a world or global problem. There is certainly a double standard that is informed by the assumption the North Atlantic is hegemonic in the global economy and, hence, their financial crises are regarded as world financial crises, crises that can bring down the whole world.

But on the other hand, I think we need to begin to analyze the issue of China’s rise in the world economy. If you think of something like the US war against terror, what seems to me interesting about this situation is that it is not good business as far as maintaining U.S. hegemony in the global economy is concerned because it is driving the U.S. government into deeper and deeper debt. Now, many people interpret this as an example, perhaps the paradigmatic example, of the resurrection of imperial warfare, as a confirmation of the fact that the U.S. as an imperial sovereign is reasserting its power. But when you consider the U.S. treasuries that China has bought up, we can say in a round about way that China is financing the U.S. war against terror, especially the second Iraq war. There is a lot of domestic and international agitation for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq. But in a peculiar way, the most effective way to put an end to the war is for China to sell all the U.S. bonds it has purchased since it would then be very difficult for  the U.S. to continue financing the war.   Seen from this perspective, it would be very difficult to see the U.S. as an imperial sovereign for what we have here is the empire of money.  After all, Lenin did define imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, understood as finance capitalism, although he characterized this in terms of a monopoly of capital in the hands of a small oligarchy of powerful banks. 

The situation today is more mutable and complicated than the monopoly capitalism Lenin envisaged.  To return to your question of whether there is a reassertion of nationalism or national identity, it seems to me that these financial flows, regardless of how transnational they are, always become nationally marked. When these flows come from China, their power almost always becomes nationally marked.  One cannot forget that money is denominated in regional and national forms. You have the Euro currency, the U.S. dollar and so on. These regional or national forms are not going to disappear.  You can say it is empire of money in general. But then in this empire of money, there are all the tensions that are happening between different regionally and nationally marked currencies. I need hardly say that this is a matter of power.  There is political jostling for which currency is going to be the currency of foreign trade, whether the Japanese yen or the Chinese renminbi should be used to replace the dollar.  These decisions are ways to exert the influence of a given country’s economic power in the global economy.  That is why the British pound is always separated from the Euro. I don’t want to do commentary by tourism, but a few days ago I saw and heard on British TV a suggestion that in this current bailout, Germany may separate its currency from the Euro. The power of a national currency is also a matter of great symbolic pride.  Since you are from Hong Kong,  I remember when the HK dollar used to be much higher than the renminbi and when you visited Shenzhen, vendors would be happy for you to pay them in HK dollars.  But that is no longer the case and it is a matter of symbolic shame for Hong Kong people that their currency is now lower than the mainland currency.  These details qualify the argument that we are in a moment of the fullest development of empire and that we now have a “smooth world” where national differences and nationalist struggles and an international order are becoming obsolete.  On the other hand, it is also clear that popular national struggles (I am mindful of what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia as I correct this interview) can no longer occur in the same manner as in the nineteenth century but have to negotiate with the empire of money with all its striations, particularly after the success of popular revolution.

YH: In contrast to Hardt and Negri’s Empire, we also have scholars outside the American and European context like Wang Hui who in his recent book The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (2010), proposes that China has been moving from the party-state to state-party through the gradual adaptation of neoliberalism, and throughout this process, ‘nationalism’ is playing a more and more important role.

PC: In a private conversation with Wang Hui two years ago when he visited Berkeley, we discussed the fact that the Chinese government buying US treasuries is not a good investment, because bonds have very low return. In fact, if the Chinese government thinks that the best return it can get is to buy US bonds, maybe it is not growing as fast as it can grow. Because this indicates that within China, there is not enough opportunity for the vast build up of foreign reserve to go into the Chinese economy to stimulate further growth beyond what is happening now. Bonds are a safe investment. If China wants to invest overseas, it can do much better than investing in bonds.

So, the situation is not the black and white picture given in the international media, where China is portrayed as the next superpower because it is growing so fast. People forget that China is not just Shanghai and Beijing.  Beyond these big cities and the coastal cities, there is extreme poverty.  Much of Chinese nationalism is state-sponsored and it is a response to market socialism or post-socialism, the dynamics of a former socialist state coming into alliance with global capitalism in its neoliberal dispensation. It seems to me that a state sponsored nationalism or official nationalism has emerged to legitimize the post-socialist state and to distinguish its path of market capitalism from that of Western capitalism. Of course, this kind of nationalism can have very disturbing consequences. It can legitimize the PRC state’s Tibetan policy and paper over the devastation of huge regions by market-socialist development policies; for example, the destruction and displacement in the Three Gorges area documented by Jia Zhangke in his movie Still Life (2006).  Official nationalism will celebrate these projects as being for the national good and justify the displacement accordingly. 

On the other hand, this is probably Wang Hui’s main point: the state-nation will hopefully provoke the emergence of a popular nationalism as a counter hegemonic force. Here, one interesting question to consider is whether this counter-hegemonic nationalism can emulate a historical element in the past of China, when a kind of popular nationalism came into being in the republican period after the May 4th movement, in opposition to the Ching dynasty and this republican nationalism was supported by elements in the Chinese diaspora.  Can this new popular nationalism that is against neo-liberalism link up with the transnational flows from the Chinese diaspora today?  Or does the transnational flow of capital from the Chinese diaspora only help to strengthen the state ideology of market socialism and official nationalism as a way of justifying the PRC’s adaptation to neoliberal imperatives? 

YH: Now let’s move from nationalism to cosmopolitanism. People have been talking about the emergence of a new cosmopolitanism, especially referring to the rapid growth of international NGOs, which seems to have the potential to reconfigure the distribution of power and responsibility at a global level. In your writings, you are sceptical of this sort of optimism, which is expressed, for example, in your critique of Habermas.

PC: This was actually the topic of the public lecture I gave at the LSE yesterday. I briefly discussed the work of Ulrich Beck, whose thesis of risk society Habermas cites with approval, in order to distinguish my position on cosmopolitanism from Beck’s.  In 1998, when I co-edited the volume Cosmopolitics-Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation (1998) with Bruce Robbins, that was the second book out on the so-called new cosmopolitanism. The first book that sought to revive cosmopolitanism was Martha Nussbaum’s long essay, For Love of Country (1996), initially published in the Boston Review. Nussbaum had argued for a revival of Kantian cosmopolitanism just as Habermas also argued in a different way for an updating of Kantian cosmopolitanism. Our collection was more diverse; it looked at actually existing practices of cosmopolitanism and examined how these new cosmopolitanisms are not the same as the Enlightenment cosmopolitanism. Because of that book, I have been associated with new cosmopolitanism and am often seen as a proponent of the new cosmopolitanism, whereas I have a more ambivalent relationship to cosmopolitanism. Proponents of the new cosmopolitanism argue that there are in fact political institutions that are cosmopolitan.  If people haven’t been able to realize that, it is because the social sciences and the humanities remain mired in a methodological nationalism or a nationalist imaginary. Hence, people have to learn to see things in a different way.  Arjun Appadurai had suggested this and this is also Beck’s position.  

But, in fact, Beck’s position wasn’t that new. Kant grounded cosmopolitanism in a material structure: world trade and the world market that it created. And if you look at Marx, he grounded proletarian cosmopolitanism in a deeper material structure: a globalized mode of production.  Now, proponents of the new cosmopolitanism seem to have forgotten this and argue that it is only in contemporary globalization that a real cosmopolitanism has come into existence.  This is Habermas’s and Beck’s position, and they have a more carefully argued position than other proponents of the new cosmopolitanism, which is a hot topic of the moment.

It seems to me, however, that one should think of cosmopolitanism as grounded in an even deeper set of material processes: the globalization of biopolitical technologies of governmentality. The new cosmopolitanism is often associated with human rights.  We have witnessed the increasing proliferation of human rights instruments and also NGOs advocating for human rights, and engaging in humanitarian activities. There is the automatic identification of the existence of these NGOs and human right instruments with the actualization of new cosmopolitanisms so that these NGOs are often called “international civil society”.

But what we have learned from Foucault is that civil society is not necessarily a space of autonomy in relation to the state. It is an object that is produced by technologies of government. One of the primary avenues of the globalization of technologies of government is the discourse of development.  A fundamental axiom of development discourse is that the state has to develop its population as a resource because this is its most valuable resource.  This is willy nilly derived from the idea of human capital elaborated by the economists of the Chicago School.  At a quotidian level, we see it in office-management talk about “human resources”.  This message about the importance of developing the population as a form of resource is endorsed by international bodies like the IMF and World Bank and in this way, biopolitical technologies of government become globalized.  If governmentality at the level of the nation-state produces civil society, then what the globalization of biopolitical technologies produces is humanity.   This is a different way of looking at human rights. People often understand human rights in terms of natural law theory, namely, that there is this collective being called humanity, and by the law of its nature, humanity should have rights.

But if we approach human rights in terms of a biopolitical analysis, you can argue that what produces humanity and all its capacities such as needs, interests, the capacity to labour and so on, are biotechnologies that have now become globalized.  Human rights or human rights instruments are the codification of these capacities in a juridical discourse, that is to say, in the language of right.  Hence, we don’t begin with the human being who has rights, but with the production of fundamental human needs and capacities, which we subsequently  understand in terms of rights that we can claim for ourselves or on behalf of others.  But we can only claim these rights in the first place if the needs and capacities that these rights seek to protect were synthetically produced in us by biopolitical technologies.  If you look at the new cosmopolitanism in this way, then things become more complicated. The examples I talked about concerned the human rights of migrant labour.  The UN instruments that recognize and seek to protect second and third generation human rights, namely, economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development, presuppose that these rights are the rights of universal humanity. But these instruments always presuppose the duty of the state to protect the rights of its own citizens.  In the case of migrant labour, it is suggested that an effective way to foster and protect the rights of its citizens is for the state to export labour.  This is because in the current situation, many “Third World” countries, nowadays we would say countries in the economic South, were not successful in developing by encouraging the inflow of global capital investment, for instance, under export-oriented industrialization policies.  Hence, the best way for them to cultivate or enhance the capacities of their citizens is by sending them abroad. You can say it is a form of international sub-contracting to enhance the capacities of citizens and to develop human resources. Countries that don’t have the capacity to do this internally are in a de facto way contracting out the task of developing the capacities of its citizens to the destination or host country in the process of exporting labour. So unfortunately the new cosmopolitanism that is grounded in human rights discourse can be a form of legitimation for the exploitation of migrant labour.  It can justify the power of the territorial state to export labour. The state can say that it is doing this for the country, it is unfortunate at this point, but it can only cultivate the capacities of its citizens by exporting labour. Hence, we have an aporetic scenario, where these instruments that are supposed to protect the humanity of these workers can end up creating a situation that makes them more vulnerable to human rights abuses.  If states are very aggressive in exporting labour, they are not going to push for the protection of the rights of their migrant workers because they are part of a transnational market for the selling and buying of labour. If a given host country can choose where it wants to buy its foreign labour from, then it can very well say that the migrant labour from certain countries are troublesome because these workers demand rights or their states are zealous in protecting their rights.  It can then decide to buy labour from another source.  Of course, none of this is explicitly said because it sounds ugly, but this reasoning occurs.

I am not opposed to human rights instruments and related NGO advocacy.  I’m not saying that they don’t have effectivity.  Of course, they have some effectivity. At the same time, they are participating in global governmentality. They are agents or actors in these practices and processes of global governmentality and they do not stand outside governmentality.  This is why I am ambivalent about this type of new cosmopolitanism. It is not that I don’t think it does not or cannot have positive or progressive effects.  However, we always have to analyse the different situations of the new cosmopolitanism, and we cannot make diagnostic predictions about them. In short, new cosmopolitanism is not a teleological good, whereas in the work of Habermas and Beck it is a teleological good even if they do not explicitly espouse a teleological style of thought.  So it is both the idea of humanity and cosmopolitanism as a means for the actualization of humanity that I would like to put into question.

We should also be careful about homogenizing the new cosmopolitanism.  It is a set of diverse discourses.  Anthropologists and cultural studies scholars also discussed the idea and phenomenon of hybrid cosmopolitanism.  It seems to me that these arguments sidestep the economic processes at work, the economic aspects of globalization, partly because of a knee-jerk reaction to any kind of economic analysis.  This is a continuation of the reaction to Marxism beginning in the 1960s where Marxism was accused of economic reductionism. Even in Althusserian discourse of overdetermination, it was suggested that because Althusser spoke of “the economic in the last instance”, even if he noted that “the lonely hour of the last instance never comes”, there is a kind of economic reductionism.   The allergy to economic reductionism gave rise to a style of cultural studies that you find especially in America.   If you look at my colleague, Judith Butler’s account of power, you will see that it cannot address economic issues. She has a non-economic and even anti-economic understanding of power that is all the more problematic in the age of globalization. I don’t think you can understand what power is in contemporary globalization without taking on board economic issues.  Moreover, because scholars in the humanities and cultural studies are not trained in political economy or economic theory, we also work with a very limited and dated understanding of economic processes.  Because we are not trained to understand economic phenomena, we tend to simplify them and take this simplistic picture of economic processes as our target, that from which we want to take a critical distance, when this is a way of failing or refusing to engage with the complexity of economic processes.  The liberalization of transnational financial flows, trading in derivatives etc., these are also processes of power and we need to think of power in a way that can account for how these processes intersect with, bleed into and even support or underwrite the institutions and processes that have been conventionally regarded as being the sites of power. 

YH: Referring to what you have said about cultural studies and methodology, how deep should one go into the field before making any comment? As you know, even in a field such as political economy, there are different levels and perspectives of understanding. Does it mean that, for example when a literary critic wants to comment on capitalism, he or she has to go very deep into these economic issues?

PC: One shouldn’t over-generalize about cultural studies, because cultural studies in the UK is very different from cultural studies in America. Of course, we are also limited as to the kind of work we can do by virtue of our capabilities and how we are trained. What seems to me to be troubling about a lot of cultural studies today, is that scholars are able to make huge claims about important geo-political events, based on very little or no research. If they are commenting on an area where they have scholarly training, they wouldn’t make the kinds of inflated claims that we are now seeing in “academic” publishing. When I read this work, I feel ashamed at the claims that are being made, because I am trained in the humanities and a lot of cultural studies in the U.S. comes out of humanities. If the desire is to make some kind of political intervention at an intellectual level, it doesn’t help, because scholars who are trained to do research in the areas in question will not take these overblown claims seriously.  You may publish a book that sells very well to a cultural studies or humanities readership. For instance, you may write a book about terrorism, war, or violence that sells very well. But scholars who have done extensive empirical research on these topics are not going to take this book seriously.  Indeed, what seems to be more important with this kind of writing is not that that the writing has made a contribution to the existing body of scholarship on the topic but simply that the author in question can hold forth and pronounce about the topic because it is one of current interest.  This kind of narcissism puzzles me greatly. For instance, a scholar who is trained in phenomenology would not dream about making overblown claims about intentionality or the nature of the subject or experience, the way that some claims are being made about war and violence.  Why doesn’t the topic of terrorism or war (and these are random examples) deserve the same respect?  This kind of writing merely cheapens what we call “scholarship”, and as academics, we are in the business of producing decent scholarship.  This desire to be “politically relevant” without paying heed to the minimal criteria of scholarship is very troubling. 

As far as methodology is concerned, you ask whether a literary critic should look at economic issues and try to learn how economic processes operate. I would say yes, if you are making claims that bear on how these economic issues work.  If you say capitalism works in certain ways, you better go and do some homework. Many people who make big claims in cultural studies don’t even read the Economist.  They don’t quite know how financial markets operate etc., but they are able to make large claims about global capitalism. The other thing I feel strongly about and sincerely hope will happen, is that many of these issues require collaborative work. People should speak across disciplines.  If people who are trained in political economy, or in economic theory engage with us and we can learn from them, it will be a collaborative process of learning. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen because in the humanities, works are written as though authors are individual entrepreneur capitalists producing a commodity to sell on the market. This obstructs any kind of genuine collaboration.  If I had my life to do over again, I would study for a PhD in political economy or macroeconomic theory.  Because I think these discourses are very important for understanding the contemporary world and how it is being made by complicated political economic processes.  

YH: Lets go back to the discourse of human rights we discussed before. You also emphasized the role of techne in your understanding of cosmopolitanism and biopolitics. For example, there are two conceptions of techne in your book Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights (2006), one, as you quoted Kofi Annan, is that which leads to alienation, and there is another side of techne that rescues it. How do we understand techne/technics in this way and what kind of technics is demanded in the current situation?

PC: Kofi Annan uses the term “inhuman” in the statement that I quote, but he is not using it the same way I am using it. The question of techne for me is primarily a philosophical issue. We conventionally start from a human subject, being or humanity etc., and we take it as a ground. Even if we complicate it by saying that the human has no essence or that the human being makes himself, which is what social constructionism or the theory of performativity suggests, we are taking for granted the power of the human being even if the human being is a being which is made as opposed to a being which is given. In my interpretation, Kofi Annan understands ”the inhuman” as a consequence of the alienation of what being human is, and what is alienated can be returned to the human being, and the human being can then recognize or achieve its full humanity. This is a Marxist schema.  The language of alienation is unavoidably Marxist in connotation. What I tried to do was to look at the inhuman in a Foucaultian sense.  If we take seriously the fact that human being is constructed, and is, therefore, not only a technical object but a technical being, what follows from this? It implies that the inhuman or the non-human is something that precedes the human being and exceeds the human being. One has to look at how the human being emerges from these inhuman forces. 

It is important to insist that we do not presuppose society or culture or language as the special preserve of human beings where these structures then become the “framing agent” for the construction of the human being since this is merely to subscribe to an anthropologism.  Instead, we have to understand inhuman forces as forces that run through you and constitute the very stuff of your body and the materiality of your body even at a molecular level, if you want to go the Deleuzian route. In that sense, the inhuman must be distinguished from the inhumane, because the inhumane implies a value judgment about what is human and should be treated as human. If you treat human beings badly then you are acting in an inhumane way. But the inhuman is not the same as the inhumane. The inhumane is always derived from a prior standard of being human and therefore from humanity, whereas the inhuman is not derived from humanity.   That is the way I am using inhuman and the way I understand technics.  Technics is not simply an instrument or tool of the human subject nor is it a condition that is unique to human beings.

Let me say a few more words about the inhuman. There are different ways of thinking about the inhuman today.  It is a trendy subject in critical theory, popularized I think, by Giorgio Agamben. The primary way of thinking about the inhuman is to link it to the inhumane. If we think of Agamben’s argument about inclusive exclusion, which was first articulated in Homo Sacer, one begins with a norm and what doesn’t live up to the norm is excluded such that the norm is also constituted through the gesture of exclusion.   In the case of Homo Sacer, what is excluded is bare life (zoe), as opposed to meaningful life (bios). But then because bios is constituted by excluding zoe, zoe is included in that very gesture of exclusion. It seems to me that the argument is very similar to the argument made by my colleague Judith Butler in some of her recent works on what lives are worth or not worth grieving. You have some kind of norm that is human, and therefore a being that is considered human worth mourning for, and some being that is not considered human even if it is technically human, i.e. a being that does not symbolically count as human, and therefore  is not worth grieving for. Although these arguments use the vocabulary of biopolitics, they are not compatible with how Foucault understands biopolitics. They understand power as operating in terms of the imposition of a norm or the setting up of a norm.  Foucault, on the other hand, distinguishes between  normalization and normation. The technology of security works through a process of normalization in which the norm is not an intentional or ideational starting point, a model to distinguish the normal from the abnormal, but instead where the norm is an effect of  different distributions of normality in a concrete field.  What is important about this is that the process of normalization works at the level of the biological capacities of the population, and the physical milieu that shapes these capacities, and not at the ideational level of discursive representation, which is primarily what arguments about the imposition of social norms are concerned with.  The inclusive exclusion argument is very close to a schema first introduced by Julia Kristeva in the 1980s.  In Powers of Horror, Kristeva argued that culture is constituted by abjecting what is disturbing or unclean. Now this idea of abjection was employed by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble, when she made the argument that heteronormativity was constituted and sustained by processes of abjection/exclusion.  What is excluded then returns as the repressed, so to speak, to trouble the norm that has been established through the exclusion.  This way of approaching the inhuman is an old argument and it presupposes a notion of power that Foucault problematized.  Even though this approach is articulated under the name of Foucault or biopolitics, the notion of power it presupposes is un-Foucauldian.  

Another way approaching the inhuman, which is what I try to do in my work, is to look at the inhuman in terms of the forces that make the human being so that the human being is understood as emerging from inhuman forces. This approach has the virtue of forcing us to take economic issues into account because economic forces are important forces that go into the making of people. This is not a simple matter about contextualizing or resignifying the norm of what is human. It was important to say in the mid-1970s and in the 1980s that things could be resignified, that things could have a different meaning because they always appeared through the grid of language.  This kind of linguistic or hermeneutico-discursive constructionism is a consequence of the background of many critics in literary studies.  But such an approach doesn’t take into account the complexity of economic processes. What does it mean to say that economic activity can be resignified? This doesn’t mean that economic processes don’t have a discursive component, but simply reducing it to a discursive process is very reductive. On the one hand, we have the commonplace accusation of economic reductionism levelled against those interested in economic issues.   On the other hand, critics who are making these accusations are themselves reducing all kinds of processes, not just economic processes, to processes of signification, another kind of reductionism!  For Foucault, discourse was a complex word.  But it is now used in cultural studies in a very simple way that is never fully defined on the grounds that it is violent to define anything, because everything can be resignified.  It seems to me that the claim that everything can be resignified has now become a dogma and that it is not immune to critique. If you remember Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, he said that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point is to change it”. Marx’s critique of the young Hegelians can be levelled against social constructionism and the theory of performativity, which reduce all struggles to struggles of signification in a very problematic manner. For me, the idea of the inhuman and of originary technicity is the starting point from which we can attempt to track the inhuman forces that are at work in the making of the human being at the most material level. I am not saying that the human being is an ideological fiction.  Far from it.   The human being is very real precisely because it is constituted by these real forces. And the human being can be effective, is effective and is actual, not in the Fichtean-Hegelian-Marxist understanding of actuality and effectivity as an autonomous power of humanity, but because techne is the original opening of the human being to something that is heterogeneous, to the inhuman, to something that cannot and can never be recognized as human.

This interview took place after Pheng Cheah’s lecture, 'The Physico-Material Bases of Cosmopolitanism', at the London School of Economics on Wednesday 1st December 2010.

Pheng Cheah is Professor in the Department of Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley

[1]  See Pheng Cheah, Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), pp. 3-5.
[2] “Crises of Money,” Positions: East Asia Culture Critique, Vol. 16, no. 1 (Spring 2008), 189-219.  Revised version in Francoise Lionnet and Shih Hsu-mei (eds.), The Creolization of Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

TCS and B & S are published by SAGE.


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