Reflection by Bruce Robbins
In the final pages of this intriguing and compulsively readable book, Nasser Mufti cites Etienne Balibar’s argument that civil war can serve as a conceptual model for today’s refugee crisis. Balibar’s intention, as Nasser explains it, is to recode the statelessness of the refugees as their rights-bearing membership in a kind of fictive or utopian mega-state, a membership they share, despite appearances, with ordinary citizens of ordinary states. Balibar can see the closing of borders as an act of civil war only if he assumes, Nasser writes, “a fictive civis, one in which ‘westerners’ and ‘easterners’ … are fellow-citizens. For how else could the closing of borders be an act of ‘civil war’ if those standing on either side of those boundaries were not already fellow-citizens, or at the very least members of the same polity? The ‘war’ that Balibar refers to is simply the refusal of rights to fellow-citizens of this fictive polity” (183).
The next (and penultimate) paragraph begins with a “however,” however, and suggests that this expansion of community across national borders can be exploited on behalf of the existing international division of labor, for example by valuing immigrants who can be presented as hard-working and entrepreneurial. And that is the final note. One might describe it as cynical: if you think you are escaping from “imperial politics,” or even resisting it, you are likely deluded. Imperialism rarely fails to get what it wants.
What imperialism wants, in this book, is to seize and hold the moral high ground. In the present moment, civil war is a seemingly neutral descriptor that allows the old imperial powers of the nineteenth century to continue believing in their superiority to the geographical zones they once ruled directly. Civil war happens “there,” amongst our supposed civilizational others, not here at home, where civility has been achieved. Nasser brilliantly mobilizes the nineteenth-century archive to show that once upon a time–not so very long ago, in fact– the West could admit that fratricidal antagonism was its own unexceptional truth. That is, he sets up a height of Western self-knowledge from which he can then show that there has been a fall, a fall into crude projection.
This is a major contribution to knowledge. I will only indulge one quibble. Decline-and-fall stories are at least as conventional in literary criticism, especially among Victorianists, as Whiggish triumphalism is in other disciplinary and cultural zones. But an eagerness to undo the West’s complacencies about the progress it has supposedly made away from civil war (now safely a phenomenon of the non-West), a hard-nosed rejection of all rosy futures, an insistence on “impasse”– these too may be symptoms of an ideology, no less unthought for “us” than progress is for our disciplinary others. As I have said more than once, his commitment to anti-modernity helps explain why Foucault could so smoothly replace Matthew Arnold as our guru.
Nasser is clearly interested in Gramsci’s prediction that if the interregnum does not usher in a new regime, the result will be a “skepticism with regard to all theories and general formulae” (166), or “cynicism.” It would be interesting to hear him say more about whether his desire to undo faith in history as progress toward modernity does not threaten to push him toward something like cynicism. To me, his citation of Balibar just before the end of the book is one of the gestures by which he seems to be reminding himself not to go there.