Orientalism’s Genocidal Logic

    • Europe Inside-Out Nice 2016
    • Presentation speakers
      • John Elias Nale, University of Alabama-Huntsville, USA


    The massacre at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut, Lebanon lasted 40 hours from Thursday, September 16, 1982 to Saturday, September 18, 1982, killing over 1,000 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians A Newsweek article from October 4, 1982 reporting on the tragedy features the following lines: Witnesses said that on Friday afternoon [September 17, 1982] they saw bulldozers rumble out of Sabra, their scoops filled with bodies. At some point, the bulldozers dug out a mass grave outside the west wall of Sabra, about 200 paces from the Israeli command post. Other witnesses testify that bulldozers were used not only to tear down infrastructure, but also shops and homes with families still inside. A local witness is on record stating, I also, with my own eyes, saw the bulldozer digging up the road and wrecking the houses – it even tore down the shops over the people. They got them inside the shops, then tore them down over their heads. Still others report how bulldozers were used to indiscriminately carry bodies and rubble to dumping sites, where later, once again, bulldozers were used by rescue workers to excavate the victims. A worker for the Lebanese Civil defense described the task of unearthing the bodies, saying, ’Imagine a bulldozer taking out backfill, stones, and gravel, then it started taking out bodies’. In this presentation, I investigate the historical conditions for the possibility of burying Arabs alive in their houses and them excavating them using machinery designed to push sand and rubble. I argue that this particular genocidal violence is not grounded in the medico-biologizing racism commonly known as ’biopower’, but rather it traces its roots to a radically different nineteenth-century philological tradition. Through a survey of various initiatives to represent Arabs as an essentially ’dead’ or ’inorganic’people, I argue that canonical Orientalist writings authorize the extermination of Arab peoples precisely by establishing the conditions for the impossibility of Arab death. That is to say, the genocide of Arab peoples in the case of Sabra and Shatila to name just one example, is made possible because they are always already ’inorganic’ and as such their death is impossible. Accordingly, what is at stake is not a medico-biological racism, nor that of an inferior form of life, or a ’life not worth living’, nor the logic of a self-exterminating people. This racism that treats Arabs as inorganic is a philological racism that is best understood through the work of Ernest Renan, who in his 1855 Histoire générale et système comparé des langues semitiques writes, ‚Compared to indo-european languages, so essentially vegetative and living, the semitic languages are what we call inorganic languages. They are not vegetative, they are not alive, they are enduring’. However, we would underestimate not only Renan’s project but also the whole of Orientalist philology if we read this as merely a statement about language. According to Renan, all languages express the underlying structures of the mind. On the basis of this mirroring relationship between language and psyche, the value of the philological study of the history of languages lies in its capacity to document the history of minds. When Renan says Arabic and other Semitic languages are ’inorganic’, this is not just to say that the language is no longer growing or progressing. Rather, he is claiming that the language is inorganic because the mind – the very essence of the person – is inorganic, and thus not the kind of thing to which ’life’ and ’death’ are relevant. Through his ’embryogenesis of the mind’, Renan accomplishes what he believes physiologists and natural historians never could, and that is the recognition of a qualitatively different kind of being in the Middle East, an inorganic thing indistinguishable from the sand of the desert. This stands as the philological invention of Arabs that cannot be killed, and must be addressed as a geological formation. Elucidating the logic of this racism and tracing its development beyond Renan’s oeuvre, including not only the massacre at Sabra and Shatila but other archival sources as well, will constitute the bulk of my presentation. As time permits, I will be happy to discuss the significance of what Mbembe calls ’militant bulldozing’ in his article ’Necropolitics’, Said’s claim that orientalism is a fundamentally philological program, the meaning of the slur ’sand nigger’, and why it is important to distinguish this form of anti-Arab racism from other types of racism. However, the bulk of the talk will focus on establishing my thesis that the condition for the impossibility of Arab genocide (grounded in the longstanding historical claim that Arabs are inorganic and therefore beyond the categories of life and death) is precisely the condition for the possibility of a particular brand of genocidal violence, Sabra and Shatila being a striking illustration of that logic.