5 Mar 2013

The Empire of Cheese: An Interview with Joseph Massad

Following his colossal interview ‘The Empire of Sexuality’, we arranged to interview the most prominent Arab intellectual in the post-Fatimid era, Joseph Massad, about another problematic concept at the intersection of late capitalism and Euro-American hegemony, cheese. We were intrigued by Massad’s comments about western culture’s tendency to label the various stages of milk into clear-cut ‘categories’, such as butter, cheese and ice cream, so we dispatched Alex Osman Fassbinder and Mga Mga Mawali Mxmachk (the x is silent) to talk to him. The interview below promises to radically transform how we understand and conceptualise dairy products.


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’.
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21 comments:

  1. Cheese milk yogurt. Liban. Haleb. Seems an immense Stalingrad style conflict over Haleb at the moment.

    Of course Nan style bread & sheep / goat milk based cheese is ubiquitous in Middle East but a speciality here in UK.

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    1. Brilliant comments.

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  2. Best line: "tying those labels to distinct consumable, and spreadable, categories..."

    :)

    Awiyyyyyyyyyyyyyeh.

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  3. God, you are one brilliant and funny dude. My stomach literally hurts from laughing so hard.

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  4. Thank you, Karl, for having the courage to post this unique and groundbreaking analysis from Professor Massad which could never have appeared in the hegemonic mainstream media.

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  5. Brilliant article. This just confirms what I have been saying all these years. Maybe the cheese conglomerates will now finally sit up and LISTEN!

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  6. The problem is that this interview is more comprehensible than the one it parodies.

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  7. "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?"
    =
    "Well, if you're a gay sex-tourist going shopping in the Middle-East, Cuba or South-East Asia, and you want to buy some exotic man-meat, how are you to find it if you can't freely use labels such as gay? Doesn't it make it harder to shop around?"
    Conclusion: a blog for non-dairy queens?

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  8. This is the best reply to these pretentious academics ! Thank you

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  9. You really have outdone yourself, the only problem is that while people will continue to be impacted, provoked, challenged, and even frustrated, irritated by Massad for years to come they will continue to read and discuss his work. This piece of writing on the other hand is so astoundingly banal, so analytically and intellectually poor even as satire---that no one will continue to read or remember it in years to come. I dare say no one will be reading this entire pseudo-intellectual 'body of writing' but somehow they will still be reading Massad---perhaps that's what this all about. But thank you for the light entertainment many of us find you rather amusing although sadly most of wont be returning to this one hit wonder site.

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    1. Personal attacks with no substance is typical of people who read or support massaad or other academics, people who have achieved nothing in their lives and trying to cover that with pseudo-intellectual publication that has no substance except trying to undermine the work done by others, Karl actually did the right thing, making fun of them, these people should not be taken seriously

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    2. What guarantee do you that future generations --whether or not fromageophiles-- will read or will want to read Massad's scribbling or will even know who he is?

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    3. correction:
      What guarantee do you HAVE that future generations . . . .

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  10. I would like to have seen more about cheese's role in desserts like konafeh and how this simultaneously challenges several binary distinctions: sheep's milk/cow's milk, sweet cheese/salty cheese, solid cheese/liquid cream

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  11. Ok people, before you get carried away, this isn't even critique of Massad, it's the use of academic-style language banalised into a funny skit. Fair enough - if you find that kind of thing funny that's your problem. But it in no way challenges his point that social mobilization by European-derived categories have limited horizons and replicate colonial thinking and practices. At best you'll get pseudo-democracy/ rule of law/ rights, etc. but no real liberation. Just look at Latin America. What a great mess the hundreds of years of independence have achieved, they never de-Europeanised their thinking, elites are coopted and its still the US's backyard. There must be ways of mobilizing people while bypassing this colonial jargon and its legacy, no?

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    1. "de-Europeanised their thinking"? That's the most absurd cultural reductionism. Marxism by that logic was 'colonial jargon'.

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    2. Use of word jargon was too flippant. But Marxism was and is indeed a Eurocentric view of society. Different systems of patronage vastly complicate the formation of class in non-European settings. It is still the most instructive system of critique we have, but let's face it, academia remains a collection of very Eurocentric disciplines. Marx's understanding of capital accumulation through the extraction of labour value and control of distribution is prob the most universal of his contributions. Maybe even alienation and commodity fetishism apply to all capitalist formations, but assumptions of social organisation certainly needs to be revised or adapted for proper revolutionary potential to be understood in each context. Or else, Marx's ideas will remain talking points of well-intentioned, well-educated (Europeanised) middle classes the world over without much relevance. This is a travesty of his legacy.

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  12. "Alex Osman Fassbinder and Mga Mga Mawali Mxmachk (the x is silent)"? Really? Have we gone so low as to make fun of people for having "strange" (aka non-white) sounding names? I'm surprised Karl didn't remark on potential clicking sounds in their names...

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    1. why do you think they are strange names? they don't sound strange to me. I think you should check yourself for latent racism.

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    2. C'mon mate, at least admit you were poking fun at the original interviewer's names because they were unusual, that's the only reason your choice of names is funny or supposedly satirical. You added the Django Unchained accolade to make * your * latent racism taste better.

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  13. DECOLONIZE DAIRY
    DECOLONIZE DAIRY
    DECOLONIZE DAIRY
    DECOLONIZE DAIRY
    DECOLONIZE DAIRY

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.