Thursday, August 28, 2008

Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire.

Here my the notes to the first chapter of Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. Because of its similarity with Lefebvre, I am tempted to argue that Brown’s critique of the ubiquitous and vacuous term, tolerance, is a fitting example of a critique of everyday life.

These notes outline her argument. In the next few days, I will work on comparing her with Lefebvre, by discussing how the factors Brown attributes to depolicization mirror Lefebvre’s categories outlined in the earlier post of what should be critiqued. I will also try to draw both out into the concrete contemporary examples.

I post these notes in hope they will provide a general framework for discussing important matters and in hope they will encourage people to use these theories to construct their own critiques.

Chapter 1 Tolerance as a Discourse of Depoliticization.

Brown begins by posing the question “how did tolerance become a beacon of multicultural justice and civic peace at the turn of the twenty-first century?”

Following a discussion of how historically anomalous this is, ( ex. The civil rights movement was not concerned with tolerance ) and how tolerance is widely hyped and ambiguously used, Brown introduces her jargon laden hypothesis; “that the semiotically polyvalent, politically promiscuous, and sometimes incoherent use of tolerance in contemporary American life, closely considered and theorized, can be made to reveal important features of our political time and condition”

Thus, the central question of the 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 thru 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 constructs and positions liberal and non-liberal subjects, cultures, and regimes; how it figures conflict, stratification, and difference; how it operates normatively; and how its normativity is rendered oblique almost to the point of invisibility.”

Brown then introduces her theoretical methodology. She will use Foucault’s political and historical notion of governmentality, which argues that governmentality “organizes the conduct of conduct at a variety of sites and through rationalities not limited to those formally countenanced as political.”

This is followed by a discussion of the history of the writing of the book. Originally Brown intended to focus on the domestic discourse of tolerance. But 9/11 and the “War on Terror” led her to expand it to examine the international discourse of tolerance. Her investigation led her to discover affinities between domestic and international forms of tolerance;

“Tolerance as a mode of late modern government that iterates that normalcy of the powerful and the deviance of the marginal responds to, links and tames both unruly domestic identities to affinities and non-liberal 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. “ 8

Brown then shifts to the next section where she lays out

Tolerance as a discourse of power and a practice of governmentality

The utilization of her critical and theoretical framework “ aims to comprehend political deployments of tolerance as historically and culturally specific discourses of power with strong rhetorical functions. Above all, it seeks to track the complex involvement of tolerance with power. As a moral-political practice of governmentality, tolerance has signifigant cultural, social, and political effects that exceed it surface operations of reducing conflict or of protecting the weak or the minoritized, and that exceed its formal goals and self-representation. These include contributions to political and civic subject formation and to the articulation of the political, the social, citizenship, justice, the nation and civilization. Tolerance can function as a substitute for or as a supplement to formal liberal equality or liberty; it can also overtly block the pursuit of substinative equality and freedom. At times, tolerance shores up troubled orders of power, repairs state legitimacy, glosses troubled universalisms, and provides cover for imperialism. There are mobilizations of tolerance that do not simply alleviate but rather circulate racism, homophobia, and ethnic hatreds; likewise, there are mobilizations that legitimate racist state violence. Not all deployments of tolerance do all of these things all the time. But the concern of this study is to consider how, when, and why these effects occur as part of the operation of tolerance, rather than to ignore them or treat them as ‘ externalities’ vis-avis tolerance’s main project. 10

With this definition of how the discourse of tolerance stated, Brown moves to discussing Tolerance and/as depoliticization;

For her “Depoliticization involves construing inequality, subordination, marginalization, and social conflict, which all require political analysis and political solutions, as a personal and individual on one hand, or as natural, religious, or cultural on the other. Tolerance works along both vectors of depoliticization- it personalizes and it naturalizes or culturalizes- and sometimes it intertwines them. Tolerance as it is commonly used today tends to cast instances of inequality or social injury as matters of individual or group prejudice. And it tends to cast group conflict as rooted in ontologically natural hostility toward essentialized religious, ethnic, or cultural difference. That is, tolerance discourse reduces conflict to an inherent friction among identities and makes religious, ethnic and cultural difference itself an inherent site of conflict, one that calls for and it attenuated by the practice of tolerance. “


“Depoliticization involves removing a political phenomenon from comprehension of its historical emergence and from a recognition of the powers that produce and contour it. No matter its particular form and mechanics, depoliticization always eschews power and history in the representation of its subject.”

Not realizing this leads to essentiaism.

Another linked definition of depoliticization is; “that which substitutes emotional and personal vocabularies for political ones in formulating solutions to political problems.” 16

ex when a “justice project is replaced with a therapeutic or behavioural one.

However, tolerance is not the only discourse of depoliticization. Here are the others. Please note they are remarkably similar to the catergories Lefebvre outlines as the target for his Critique of Everyday Life!

Liberalism: “ The legal and political formailism of liberalism, in which most of what transpires in the spaces designated as cultural, social, economic and private is considered natural or personal ( in any even independent of power and political life), is a profound achievement of depoliticization. Liberalism’s excessive freightining of the individual subject with self-making, agency, and a relentless responsibility for itself also contributes to the personalization of politically contoured conficts and inequalities. These tendencies eliminate from view various norms and social relation- especially those pertaining to capital, race, gender, and sexuality- that construct and position subjects in liberal democracies. In addition, the reduction of freedom to rights, and of equality to equal standing before the law, eliminates from view many sources of subordination, marginalization, and inequality that organize liberal democratic societies and fashion their subjects. Liberal ideology at its most generic, then, always, eshews power and history in its articulation and comprehension of the social and the subject. 17-18

Individualism; “The American cultural emphasis on the importance of individual belief and behaviour, and of individual heroism and failure, is also relentlessly depoliticizing. An identification of belief, attitude, moral fiber, and individual will with the capacity to make world history is the calling cared of the biographical back stories and anecdotes that so often substitute for political analyses and and considerations of power in American political culture ( her ex are demonized welfare mothers, Jessica lynch etc. but we should also include mccain and obama. Just watch the democratic convention and the perpetuation of obama’s biographical narrative) we are awash in the conceits that right attitudes produce justice, that will power and tenacity produce success, and that everything else is, at most, background, context, luck, or accidents of history 18

Market Rationality “The saturization of every feature of social and political life with entrepreneurial and consumer discourse…When every aspect of human relations, human endevour, and human need is is framed in terms of the rational entrepreneur or consumer, then the powers constituve of these relations, endevours and needs vanish from view. As the political rationality of neoliberalism becomes increasingly dominant, its depoliticizing effects combine with those of political liberalism and cultural narratives of the individual to make nearly everything seem a matter of individual agency or will, on the one hand, or fortune or contingency on the other. “ 18


“Tolerance as depoliticizing discourse gains acceptance and legitimacy by being nestled among those other discourses of depoliticization, and it draws on their techniques of analytically disappearing the political and historical constitution of conflicts and subjects….like above factors….tolerance masks its own operation as a discourse of power and a technology of governmentality. Popularly defined as respect for human difference there is no acknowledgement of the norms…no avowal of the means by which certain peoples, nations, practices or utterances get marked as beyond the pale of tolerance, or of the politics of line drawing between the tolerable and the intolerable, the tolerant and the intolerant. 18“

Contemporary culturalization of politics reduces non-liberal political life (including radical identity claims within liberal regimes) to something called culture at the same time that it divests liberal democratic institutions of any association with culture. Within this logic, tolerance is invoked as a liberal democratic principle but for what is named the cultural domain, a domain that comprises all essentialized identities, from sexuality to ethnicity, that produces the problem of difference within contemporary liberalism. Thus, tolerance is invoked as a tool for managing what are construed as (non-liberal because ‘different’ and non-political because ‘essential’) culturalized identity claims or identity clashes. As such, tolerance reiterates the depoliticization of those claims and clashes, at the same time depicting itself as a norm-free tool of liberal governance, a mere means for securing freedom of conscience or (perhaps more apt today) freedom of identity. 24.

Culturalization of Politics.

“more then being merely ambiguous, tolerance today is often invoked in a manner that equates or conflates non commensurable subjects and practices, including religion, culture, ethnicity, race, and sexual norms. In toleranc talk, ethnicity, race, religion, and culture are especially interchangeable.” 19

ex. A film on terror at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance conflates religion, ethnicity and race by moving from “islamists” to “racial and ethnic profiling”

“Fundamentalism as one name for the post-cold war enemy of the “free world” is assigned a shifting site of emanation that floats across culture, religion state, region and regime.” 19

Brown argues this is a result of the “culturalization of politics” which is “the assumption that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it and then explains politics as a consequences of that essence.”


“This reduction of political motivations and causes to essentialized culture ( where culture refers to an amorphous polyglot of ethnically marked religious and nonreligious beliefs and practices) is mobilized to explain everything from Palestinian suicide bombers to Osama Bin Laden’s world designs, mass death in Rwanda and Sudan, and the failure of democracy to take hold in the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq….the culturization of politics analytically vanquishes political economy, sates, history, and international and transnational relations. It eliminates colonialism, capital, caste or class stratification, and external political domination from accounts of political conflict or instability. Instead their culture is summoned up to explain the motives and aspirations leading to certain conflicts (living by the sword, religious fundamentalism, cultures of violence) as well as techniques of weapons deployed (suicide bombing, decapitation)… the West’s cold war reduction of political conflict to ideology has been replaced by its post-cold war reduction of political conflict to culture.

But crucially Brown sees an orientalist facet to the culturalization of politics’ “culture is understood to drive Them politically and to lead them to attack our culture, which We are not driven by but which we do cherish and defend.” 20

Thus ironically; “This division into those who are said to be ruled by culture and those who are said to rule themselves but enjoy culture renders culture not simply a dividing line between various peoples or regimes or civilizations, and not simply the explanation of political conflict, but itself the problem for which liberalism is the solution.” 21

This works because of the uniqueness of liberalism. “Liberalism…presumes culture and politics to be fused unless culture is conquered- politically neutered- by the universal, hence noncultural, principles of liberalism” Without liberalism, culture is conceived by liberals as oppressive and dangerous not only because of its disregard for individual rights and liberties and for the rule of law, but also because the inextricability of cultural principles from power, combined with the nonuniversal nature of these principles, renders it devoid of judicial and political accountability. Hence culture must be contained by liberalism, forced into a position in which it makes no political claim and is established as optional for individuals. Rather then a universe of organizing ideas, values, and modes of being together, culture must be shrunk to the status of a house that individuals may enter and exit. Liberalism represents itself as the sole mode of governance that can do this.” 21-22

Ex. Liberal governance imagined to be free of capital and cultural values. Thus human rights is free from stigma of cultural imperialism allowing them to be evoked to protect culture

But Liberalism is cultural …..”the theoretical claim here is that both the constructive and repressive powers we call those of culture- the powers that produce and reproduce subjects relations and practices, beliefs and rationalities, and that do so without their express choice or consent- are neither conquered by liberalism nor absent from liberalism. Liberalism is not only itself a cultural form, it also is striated with nonliberal culture wherever it is institutionalized and practiced…it is impure, hybridized, and fused to values, assumptions and practices, unaccounted by it and unaccountable within it. Liberalism involves a contingent, malleable, and protean set of beliefs and practices about being human and being together; about relating to self, others, and world; about doing and not doing; about valuing and not valuing select things. And liberalism is always institutionalized, constitutionalized, and governmentalized in articulation with other cultural norms- those of kinship, race, gender, sexuality, work, politics, leisure and more. This is one reason why liberalism, a protean cultural form, is not analytically synonymous with democracy, a protean political practice of sharing power and governance. The double ruse on which liberalism relies to distinguish itself from culture- on the one hand, casting liberal principles as universal; on the other, juridically privatizing culture- ideologically figures liberalism as untouched by culture and thus as incapable of cultural imperialism. In its self-representation as the sole political doctrine that can harbor culture and religion without being conquered by them, liberalism casts itself as uniquely tolerant of culture from its position above culture. But liberalism is no more above or outside culture than is any other political form, and culture is not always elsewhere from liberalism. Both autonomy and the the universality of liberal principles are myths, crucial to liberalism’s reduction of questions about imperial ambitions or practices to questions about whether forcing others to be free is consonant with liberal principles. “

In sum;
“The contemporary culturalization of politics” reduces nonliberal political life (including radical identity claims within liberal regimes) to something called culture at the same time that it divests liberal democratic institutions of any associations with culture. Within this logic, tolerance is invoked as a liberal democratic principle but for what is named the cultural domain, a domain that comprises all essentialized identities, from sexuality to ethnicity, that produce the problem of difference within contemporary liberalism. Thus tolerance is invoked as a tool for managing what are constituted as (non-liberal because “different” and “non-political” because “essential”) culturalized identity claims or identity clashes. As such, tolerance reiterates the depoliticization of those claims and clashes, at the same time depicting itself as a norm-free tool of libral governance, a mere means for securing freedom of conscience or (perhaps more apt today) freedom of identity. “ 24

Brown then unveils the standpoint of her critique;

“This book seeks to lay bare this political landscape. It contests the culturalization of politics that tolerance discourse draws from and promulgates, and contests as well the putatively a-cultural nature of liberalism. The normative premise animating this contestation is that a more democratic future involves affirm rather then denying and disavowing liberalism’s cultural facets and its imprint by particular cultures. Sucn an affirmation would undermine liberalism’s claims to unversalism and liberalism’s status as culturally neutral in brokering the tolerable. This erosion, in turn, would challenge the standing of liberal regimes as uniquely, let alone absolutely, tolerant revealing them instead to be self-affirming and Other-rejecting as many other regimes. It would also reveal liberalism’s proximity to and bouts of forthright engagement with fundamentalism. ….this…..makes explicit the inherent hybridity or impurity of every instantiation of liberalism, it underscores the impossibility of any liberalism ever being ‘only liberalism’ and the exent to which both form and content are potted, historical, local, lived. It reveals liberalism as always already being the issue of miscegenation with its fundamentalist Other, as containing the Other within, and thus as having a certain potential for recognizing and connecting with this Other with out. In this possibility may be contained liberalism’s prospects for renewal, even for redemption, or at the very least for more modest and peaceful practices.” 24

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