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Of citizens and ordinary men: Political subjectivity and contestations of sectarianism in
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Download date: 23 Aug 2020
Political subjectivity in
the interstices of theory
The discussion in the preceding chapter of the ideological complex of civil society has primarily drawn attention to the differences
between ‘civil society’ and the discursive space of the neighbourhood
of Khandaq. I’ve also drawn attention to how people from each world
perceive the other as different. You will recall form the previous chapter
Abu Zalem’s alienation from the cultural and political elite of the coun-
try, who value all the wrong things and honour all the wrong people.
from the Introduction you will remember how difficult it was for the
people from the Zoqaq al-Blat project to engage the population, not in the
least because of their ideas of ‘sectarian society’. Yet it is significant that
even though people from both sides express a sense of difference and
distance, those differences are of a greater concern for civil society folks.
the lack they perceive among the people constitutes the very essence of
what it means to be ‘in’ civil society: it is one of the prime obstacles to
the progress that society needs and which ‘civil society’ struggles for.
Interestingly, social scientific theories of citizenship resonate with ‘civil
society’s conception of the order of social things. these theories identify
or presume, on one side, a citizenship that Lebanese civil society also
works towards and to a certain extent enacts (i.e. a space for individuals,
informed, who engage in advocacy and enlist media platforms to further
their cause): a citizenship akin to the ideal typical citizen of ideal typical
liberal democracies. on the other side, there is a citizenship for people
who are actually deprived of the socio-cultural and legal preconditions
for that kind of engagement with others and with state and politics, and
who find other ways of making do. In this chapter I question and qual-
ify the usefulness of that opposition in understanding the differences
between Khandaq and ‘civil society’. At the end of the chapter, I show
how an examination of political subjectivity may do more justice to these
differences. Let me first review various influential authors who have con-
templated the nature of such distinctive forms of citizenship, in the con-
text of post-colonial states.
While these authors are not all explicitly in conversation with each other
(though some are), there are genealogical links tying them together. the
most ground-breaking work was done in the ‘subaltern studies’ group.
the south-Asian scholars that made up this group in the early 1980s
had taken to explore the position of Gramsci’s “subaltern classes” – the
oppressed, the subordinate, the downtrodden – on the Asian subconti-
nent, in all its relational complexity. In other words, their project was pre-
cisely about bringing into empirical and theoretical focus those people
marginal to the central order, and thus the people who most likely would
qualify as being a different kind of citizen. on the basis of these explora-
tion some of the first outlines of a theory of differential insertions into
state-projects were formulated. James scott’s work is a second influen-
tial account, and one tied loosely to the subaltern school. he brings in a
more traditional political scientific account of marginality, whereas much
of the focus of the subaltern studies was on knowledge production and
identity. the union of these two approaches constituted a rough frame-
work in which others followed. the basic premise of all this work is that
there are spheres of society, social activities or populations that fall out-
side of the grasp or purview of the state (we can see the continuities here
with simone here and why he would be attracted to Deleuze-Guattari154).
from that position of relative invisibility (holston 1998, Boeck 2014) or
marginality (subaltern studies, simone 2010), the question is how they do
encounter the state (primarily, and ‘society’ as the body of other citizens,
In order to address that question, these scholars tend to work with a
dual conception of citizenship. Qualifications of, let’s call it, the marginal
kind of citizenship range from ones more in line with more conventional
political theory, such as “informal” citizenship (singerman 1995), to more
exciting ones like holston’s (1998; 2008) “insurgent” citizenship, to differ-
ent qualifications of a special political logic at play, such as chatterjee’s
(2002) “political society” or simone’s (2010) “anticipatory politics”.
these forms are juxtaposed to a citizenship we think we are familiar
with in democratic, constitutional states. the duality can be explicit (as
in singerman, who distances her approach from those who stare blind-
ly on formal definition of citizenship and politics; or in chatterjee, who
154 Of course, Foucault was central to the Subaltern project (though not to Scott’s), so post-
structuralism was always in some way part of this body of work and the step to Deleuze is not
entirely out of the ordinary.
opposes political society to the more well-known civil kind of society) or
implicit to varying degrees. still the ‘other side’ is always present as the
conceptual and theoretical background against which the author is build-
ing her argument.
As we will see, one of the crucial points of differentiation tends to be the
non-ideological nature of marginalized citizenship155. thus, if we look at
the formulation of what scott called “informal, covert” “everyday resis-
tance” in his influential Weapons of the Weak:
to require of lower-class resistance that it somehow be “principled”
or “selfless” is not only utopian and a slander on the moral status of
fundamental needs; it is, more fundamentally, a misconstruction of the
basis of class struggle, which, first and foremost, a struggle over the
appropriation of work, production, property, and taxes. “Bread-and-
butter” issues are the essence of lower-class politics. consumption,
from this perspective, is both the goal and the result of resistance and
counterresistance. It is precisely the fusion of self-interest and resis-
tance that is the vital force animating the resistance of peasants and
proletarians. When a peasant hides part of his crop to avoid paying
taxes, he is both filling his stomach and depriving the state of grain.
(scott 1985: 296)
scott is calling here for an extension of our understanding of politics,
beyond the “direct, symbolic confrontation with authority” (id.: xiv), like
addressing the state ‘as a matter of principle’, within the political field.
Instead we should look for the fusion of “self-interest and resistance”, by
means of informal networks in everyday settings and actions. ‘Popular
politics’ is therefore presented rather straightforwardly as calculation;
whatever role political consciousness, ideology or ideals may play in this
game, it is downplayed156.
of the aforementioned authors, chatterjee takes the distinction between
the principled kind and the strategic kind of politics and citizenship to
its most explicit levels. he takes up the subaltern and scottean differ-
entiation in order to make an intervention in a different though related
theoretical debate: that on the nature of civil society. the result of that
cross-fertilization is also fruitful for us, as it clarifies the stakes and con-
sequences of working with the distinction. Below I therefore discuss his
work more extensively.
155 with the possible exception of Holston’s work, to whom I shall return.
156 Downplayed to the status of what Scott called a ‘moral economy’ in his earlier work.
Civil vs. political society: the logic of rights and the logic of alliance
In chatterjee’s work on ‘political society’, his principle bone of contention
is with theorists of ‘civil society’. his bone concerns an often formulated
point of critique brought up against civil society theorists, which is that
the intension of the concept often does not seem to corresp