AOF & MMMM: In your work and your academic interventions, you have argued that the imposition of the categories such us butter, cheese and yoghurt on the non-Western world is inseparable from the politics of imperialism and the dominance of the capitalist mode of production. Can you describe this process?
JM: The point to begin with here is the fluidity of dairy products. Outside the Euro-American hegemony, the boundaries between those products were blurred historically. Indeed in the Levant, the ‘labné’ concept mocked the autonomous distinction between ‘cheese’ and ‘yoghurt’. Not until the modern era did those categories begin to solidify. Needless to say, as capitalism is the universalizing means of production, it began by enforcing distinct linguistic labels on dairy products and tying those labels to distinct consumable, and spreadable, categories. But native Arab dairy philosophies, and there never was a single dominant one, were innately unsuited to these categorisations.
Mind you, I am not arguing that these dairy identities always fail to institute themselves inside or outside the West and that this failure is total, rather that they succeed and fail differentially across classes and countries depending on the effect of capitalist structures, and their production of certain colours, forms, and smells of cheese on different classes, which are in turn the outcome of uneven capitalist development. While imperial capital is often productive of new dairy categories, including cheese types commensurate with its dissemination of the white cheese block idealised form globally, and the racialized implications that entails, whatever new dairy categories it creates and generates in the periphery are not always or often mappable onto the cheese-yoghurt binary.
AOF & MMMM: Can you elaborate on the linguistic dimensions, the persistence of semantic distinctions and the hegemony of meaning as defined through the narrow frame of single attributes?
JM: This is somewhat of a personal issue to me. I have struggled against this hegemony of meaning, the Western insistence on linguistic categorisation that is quite infuriating. Why do we have to make a distinction between cheese and yoghurt for example?
AOF & MMMM: Well, if you are in a shop and you want to buy some cheese? Surely that’s the point of shared linguistic signifiers?
JM: That’s a typical expression of the Western instrumental appropriation of language and its possibilities. In my work, I have tried to disassociate this signified – signifier relationship from the question of meaning. That’s why I often use words that seem to make no sense at all, and don’t even seem to fit together in a sentence. I often use phrases like neo-liberal paradigm, colonial epistemology, and bourgeois dissemination randomly in ‘sentences’ and everybody understands what I’m saying. And don’t even get me started on punctuation.
AOF & MMMM: You talked once of how this categorical hegemony of dairy manifests itself in a rationalised geometry that tries to reproduce its innate logic of standardisation within the periphery, as a signal of its universalist logic. Can you expand on that?
JM: I think of this more as the intersection of epistemology and geometry, rather than a purely geometric manifestation. How do you encounter cheese formally in the west? In the shape of circles, triangles, rectangles. There is a purposeful and persistent imposition of Euclidian geometry on what is after all a plastic and malleable matter. It is both the product of rationalisation and the symbolism of rationalised commodities, the latter a fetish of the neo-liberal paradigm. In Arab cultures, cheese and dairy manifested themselves in post-Euclidean geometries: intertwined strands, subversive incomplete spheres, skewed blocks that are to rectangles what jazz is to knitting. The geometric imposition has created a trauma and a sense of indignation, the sense that your dairy products are treated as inferior simply because they don’t fit the idealised Euro-American mould. This has left a bitter taste.
AOF & MMMM: Academic circles as buzzing with excitement at rumours of your project to initiate a Foucauldian investigation into the neo-imperial production of dairy categories and the wider implications for a narrative of resistance that will turn those categorisations upside down. It’s already being referred to as your moment of ‘unrivalled cheesiness’. Can you tell us more about it?
I believe that what is required is a Foucauldian investigation into the conditions of possibility for truth statements to be made about dairy and its variable manifestations . Instead of assuming and seeking to uncover the mechanisms by which something called ‘cheese’ operates inside the category ‘dairy’, we must begin, as Foucault taught us, with the “positive mechanisms” that generate this Western will to know. The outcome of this kind of approach will reveal much about how Western scholarship on dairy not only constitutes something it calls ‘cheese’ but also how it constitutes categories like ‘Roquefort’, ‘camembert’ and ‘Stilton’.
The whole edifice of dairy-categorization will come crumbling down, and with it the creation of an exotic otherness out of periphery dairy products, such as Cypriot Haloumi and the Westernised attempts to repress its Levantine equivalents through a hegemonic system of trade and privileged Euro-centric appellation. The possibilities for deconstructing ethno-racial normativity are huge.
AOF & MMMM: Thank you for your time, that was enlightening. It’s time for the photograph now. Say ‘cheese’.
Like this blog's page on Facebook to stay updated about new posts or follow me on Twitter or read my other parodies here.