Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

On the Yale Faculty Resolution Criticizing Singapore

A bit of a preamble… over the past weekend, the Yale Faculty resolution aimed at the Yale-NUS College was front-page news over 2 days (April 6 and April 8) in Singapore. My reaction is as follows. It is a polemic (to match that of the resolution). It will probably make some think I’m a ‘running dog’ of authoritarian states, but I hope most readers will see that is not the point… So, here it goes…

As an American citizen, long-time resident of Singapore and National University of Singapore faculty member*, I am deeply dismayed by the widely reported resolution on the Yale-NUS college recently passed by faculty of Yale University. It is not clear what the objectives of this resolution were. Reading many articles quoting Yale faculty, there seem to have been multiple, cross-cutting reasons for their support of the resolution. Many of these have to do with internal debates over governance within Yale University. The unfortunate effect of the resolution outside of Yale, and specifically within Singapore, has been to reinforce the worst stereotypes of American high-handed arrogance and general lack of knowledge of the world beyond America’s borders.

While commentary around the resolution suggest that many of Yale’s faculty’s concerns were aimed at Yale’s corporate governance, the resolution itself says nothing of this. Rather, the resolution aims its criticism squarely at Singapore and the Singapore government. The wording of the resolution, citing a “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” suggests that the vitriol is aimed not at contemporary Singapore, but a stereotype of Singapore’s past. Are America or any other country free from such histories? On a grand scale, Singapore would score pretty well against countries that have had systems of slavery, genocide against native populations, political repression (such as McCarthyism), and profit-driven military interventionism, just to name a few things that might make one wary of partnering with an American university that has long been a bastion of that country’s elite establishment.

Why is Singapore singled out for this criticism, when Yale has many overseas partnerships and involvements, for instance with the People’s Republic of China? Why do the Yale faculty attack Singapore’s history rather than engage with the vibrant, increasingly open society that Singapore has become over the past two decades? If the Yale faculty are concerned about civil and political rights in Singapore and at Singapore’s educational institutions, have they made any substantial attempt to engage with either the faculty at NUS or any of Singapore’s many active civil society organizations? In everything I have read on this subject, I have not come across any indication that any of the faculty members involved in proposing and passing the recent resolution have taken any such steps, beyond drawing support for their pre-conceived notions about Singapore from a fairly narrow band of writings and opinions on our city-state.

Had the Yale faculty bothered to engage with Singaporean civil society actors or their counterparts living and working in Singapore at NUS, they would have learned that their rush to judgment and aggressive resolution (at least they softened the wording from “demanding” to “urging”!) would have little effect and likely be counterproductive in Singapore’s public sphere. If their complaint is with Yale’s corporate governance, the resolution should have been about that. By making it about Singapore, it only reinforces the sense that questions of civil and political rights are issues that Westerners are bent on imposing on others, with no regard to the sovereign rights of non-Western nations to evolve their own democratic forms of governance which may not conform to the cultural liberalism of the West. Singapore and other post-colonial nations still remember a 500-year history of racist, imperial colonialism perpetrated by the West and are well attuned to hearing echoes of that history in statements such as the Yale faculty resolution. The Yale faculty, by contrast, seem largely tone-deaf when it comes to recognizing these concerns.

For those of us living in Singapore, especially Singapore citizens, I hope it will be possible to recognize that the Yale resolution is a product of the peculiarities of American political culture. That political culture values free speech – the right to say anything you want, without regard to others – over responsible, informed or constructive speech. It is also a product of American political culture’s divisive tendency to speak out against others rather than substantively engage with them. And finally, we should recognized that Americans are generally more isolated in their understanding of the rest of the world than most others and recognize that this accounts for their trading on stereotypes founded in events more prevalent decades ago rather than today. I hope that Singaporeans will not make too much of these sorts of outbursts attested to in the Yale faculty resolution. Rather, I hope that the Yale-NUS College (which is unlikely to be derailed by this or other resolutions) can develop as a viable space within Singapore where those of us with a stake in Singapore can continue to develop an independent politics, aimed at prosperity, civic duty, and conscientiousness toward others, including a balance between free and responsible speech. In the long run, I hope for the sake of Americans at Yale and elsewhere that they may learn something of these values from Singapore.

*Note: The views expressed here are my own and not meant to represent the views of Americans, the American government, Singaporeans, the Singapore government or the National University of Singapore.

April 12, 2012 Posted by | Random Walks | , , , , | 3 Comments

Agamben’s Errors

Giorgio Agamben’s two treatises Homo Sacer (1998) and State of Exception (2005) have been popping up in many other texts I have been reading of late. So, I have been reading Agamben (in what little spare time I have). While reading Agamben is thought provoking, in this post I dwell on a few interrelated errors in his argument; places where I think he is simply wrong.

The following passage from Homo Sacer is where I focus my attention. In his final chapter (Threshold), he summarizes three provisional conclusions to his inquiry, the first of which is:

“(1) The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion).”

This conclusion, Agamben argues,  “calls into question every theory of the contractual origin of state power and along with it, every attempt to ground political communities in something like ‘belonging,’ whether it be founded on popular, national, religious or any other identity.”

Agamben’s extended treatise on “the ban” and “bare life” are valuable contributions to social and political theory. But the argument state above is confused and problematic.

First, as an argument about “origins” it implies some sort of historical sequence. If that is the case, then to say that the ban precedes the (contracted) social or political community seems nonsense. I would be willing to grant either that they come into existence at the same moment, or (perhaps better) that knowledge of the contracted social-political body is brought to consciousness through the ban. In other words, we know what it (the community) is by what it excludes. However, to place the origin of the polis (the political community) in the ban and in so doing to exclude the contractual (relational) from that same origin is a discursive sleight of hand that ultimately makes no sense. We can accept Agamben’s argument that the political community requires the ban as origin of its existence (or knowledge of its existence). But Agamben seems to go further, to deny the pre-existence of some sort of social-political “contract” (relationship) prior to the ban. My question is: how does the ban take place if there is nothing to be banned from?

Second, and related, Agamben is crucially confusing and conflating a fundamental distinction between the communal (community, and here I would say polis) with the social (including but not limited to contracted relationship). The communal or community, in the way Agamben uses is, is clearly a matter of identity – of “belonging” – and a matter of ideational boundaries on who is included and who is excluded (banned). In this respect it is very much the sort of “imagined community” of Anderson’s influential writings. Community, however, is not the same thing as society – in the strict sense interconnected (networks) of social relationships. Sociality’s defining feature are relationships (of exchange). Society is stitched together through relational, exchange practices embodied in gifts (which also can be come fetishes – particularly in the form of the commodity fetish). Community, as I (and Agamben) are using it, has to do with identity and belief about belonging (and exclusion).

Therefore, the social (social contract, if you like) can and does exist as a pre-existing condition to the community (communal or in political terms, polis). The polis and the ban may have their origins in the same moment, but both are preceded by the social (society, social relations).

Update to this post: The critique of Agamben that I highlight above seems, to me, very close to Esposito’s critique in Communitas, which is currently on my bedside stand.

November 18, 2011 Posted by | Random Walks, Research | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Agency of Things

One of the basic ideas of actor-network theory is that not only people have agency but that non-human things do as well. This is a pretty simple idea, but also one that people have a hard time getting their heads around. An example occurred to me when I was on sabbatical in Thailand and sat most mornings at a Starbucks overlooking a small shrine along the road in the Siam Square area of Bangkok. I would watch as people passed the shrine, regularly turning and bowing (wai) to the shrine.

From an actor-network theory perspective, the shrine has agency, in so far as agency means the power to act on others in a system of relationships. Actor-network theory would insist that agency lies in the shrine itself, not for example, those who errected or maintain the shrine. If we conceptualize agency this way (and I see no reason not to), it raises a question: do we need to distinguish between agency and intentionality? The shrine, for instance, has agency. It acts on passersby such that the physically turn and bow. But it would seem odd if not absurd to suggest that the shrine has intentionality (whereas intentionality could be attributed those who created the shrine).

I post this now simply because it came up the other day in a conversation about ANT and then today I happend across these pictures buried in my computer files. So, there is just another musing… and a post to keep this blog alive…

October 27, 2011 Posted by | Random Walks, Research, Teaching | , , , , | 2 Comments

Is Nationalism the New Racism?

The great apartheid of twentieth century was an apartheid of race based on an ideology of racism. The great apartheid of the twenty-first century would appear to be an apartheid of citizenship based on an ideology of nationalism. Race and racism remain pervasive. But racism is a largely discredited ideology. Nationalism is an ideology with such hegemonic power that almost no one seriously questions it. Sure, we question the excesses of nationalism. But does anyone seriously question the ideological basis of citizenship? In other words, does anyone question the legitimacy of the territorial nation-state and its right to define citizenship as currently configured? I for one have trouble imagining a world organized in any way other than through nation-states. Some social theorists have for sometime been claiming that the hegemony of the nation-state is dead or dying. They are dead wrong.

Twentieth Century Apartheid


Twenty-First Century Apartheid

Throughout history, at least since the rise of complex agrarian societies, humanity has been divided between haves and have-nots. In the pre-modern, pre-industrial world the ideology of the divine-right-of-kings (or some version thereof) supported a social order of aristocratic haves and commoner have-nots. Over a millennium – roughly the past 1,000 years – popular democratic social movements overthrew the old order. The new order, exemplified by French and American revolutionary fraternal democracy, replaced aristocracy with democracy. The problem, however, is how to define the demos (“the people”)? In early (18th-19th century) European thinking, the people were a “nation” and a “race” (the German people, German race, German nation). Race and nation were synonymous. Race, however, became reduced to biology, in ways which have now been proven to be nonsensical. Nation and nationality took a parallel, but very distinctive path. Nationality became reduced to citizenship, at least functionally if not culturally. We still think (culturally) for example that proper Germans and French should be of “European stock” and Chinese should be of “Asian descent.” But to be a citizen – a national – of Germany, France or the People’s Republic of China is ultimately defined by one’s relationship to the government of the territorially-defined nation-state. If Germany or China grants one citizenship, then one is de jure German or Chinese.

What we see, in the world today, is nation-states becoming territorial zones of relative affluence and deprivation. In zones of relative affluence, the wealthy nation-states (crudely referred to as the “First World”), citizenship is increasingly becoming a thoroughly legitimized mode of defining social privilege and discrimination. Ironically, the meaning of “citizenship” is devolving from French ideals of fraternity (a brotherhood of man) to Greek and Roman forms of citizenship, in which citizens were a small, privileged group (of men) with standing in the city. Everyone else was a slave.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | Random Walks, Research | , , | Leave a comment

Devout Muslims

I haven’t posted anything for a long time. So here is a little rant, just to prove I’m alive…

I recently read something about the Nigerian twit who tried to blow-up his underwear, and apparently along with it a plane flying into Detriot. In the newspaper, he was described as a ‘devout Muslim’. This made my blood boil.

Just a few weeks before, I spent a few days with a dear friend of mine – Aji – on a four day holiday. He and some other friends from Malaysia came to the Netherlands on a holiday, and I happened to be there at the same time. We had a great time, touring cheese factories, windmills and generally having a great time. I shared a hotel room with Aji. Every day, he prayed five times a day without fail.

Aji has two wives and seven kids (I think it is seven, I lose count). He does all he can to provide for them. He is the kindest soul I know. He teaches primary school in a rural town in Malaysia to Tamil-Hindu kids. When they ask to say prayers to their gods before exams, he has no problem with it. He is not so weak in his own faith that he has to be afraid of the faith of others. I don’t believe everything Aji believes. But I admire him for who he is and for who he tries to be – a devout Muslim.

When I read about the idiot on that flight to Detriot, when I read the news calling him a “devout Muslim” I want to scream: All you stupid journalists, next time you call someone a “devout Muslim” don’t use that term to refer to some pathetic inept twit who thinks killing a bunch of innocent people will be a great political statement and a fast track to heaven. A devout Muslim is someone like my friend Aji. Or the hundreds of millions of other Muslims, who are simply trying to be the best men and women they can be in this world and guided by their faith on that path.

So that is my rant for the day. I don’t have the faith of my friend Aji. But I pray to God that all of us of good will, devout or not, can come together to overcome the evils of the world. To non-Muslims, I can tell you, devout Muslims are not idiots trying to blow up planes. Devout Muslims are kind and generous people, who wish nothing more than to make this a better world.


January 22, 2010 Posted by | Random Walks | 2 Comments

Wang Gungwu and Histories of the Unique

There was a very nice write up about Wang Gungwu in the Straits Times today. I was struck by the following:

ST: His first love was literature… (but) he was left to choose between economics and history… Economics, with its abstract models, he found too theoretical. “I was more  interested in unique things and things that actually happened,” he explained. So he chose history.

This resonates with some points I’ve been thinking about regarding ‘assemblage’ theory. We in the social sciences create an overly sharp divide between abstract models and singular events; but the difference is important. If we take the idea of ‘assemblage’ to include temporality and not only spatiality, then history in the sense that Gungwu is talking about refers to assemblages across time (which are very important to understand; and which the Deluzean metaphor of “territoriality” in describing the structure of assemblages does much to obscure). Descriptive history (so badly and wrongly dismissed by some who fetishize hypothesis testing methods of knowledge) provides us with invaluable “assemblages” of events over time. This is unique and important knowledge, irreducible to “systems” (which are a necessary condition for and limit to hypothesis-testing itself… just because you can’t hypothesis-test a unique event doesn’t mean it is not ‘a thing that actually happened’!).

One of the most important contributions of the Complex Adaptive Systems revolution in systems theory is that it makes the systemic approach of “social science” entirely compatible with the reality of unique things and events (and texts and such) of the “arts” or “humanities”. A fundamental way in which dynamical (complex) systems work is that they produce unique things (unique gene sequences; unique individual humans; unique books; unique works of art; unique world leaders). Our understanding of reality can be reduced NEITHER to the system NOR to every unique event, person, or thing.

Example 1: The Malaysia political system is very likely to produce a Malay Prime Minister. The Singaporean political system is very likely to produce a Chinese Prime Minister. It is important to understand the system and to understand why. But no matter how detailed one’s understanding of the system, there would be no way to predict (except with a very short time horizon) that the system would specifically lead to Mahathir or Lee Kuan Yew being Prime Minister of  Malaysia and Singapore respectively. A purely systematic (e.g. hypothesis-testing-science) approach to knowledge will never allow one to fully understand the important influence of those unique individuals. At the same time, a purely interpretive or descriptive approach (e.g. political biography) will not provide a complete (or even very good) understanding of the systemic processes of Malaysia or Singaporean politics.

Example 2: The Sejarah Melayu or Shakespeare’s plays would never have appeared as such without the systemic regularities and patterns out of which were produced Malay court chronicles and Elizabethan theatre. Each of those general fields is well worth studying as a system (or assemblage, if you like). At the same time, it is of particular value to read the Sejarah Melayu or “Romeo and Juliet” specifically – one will never understand their importance fully just by understanding the “systems” that produced them.

So, those are just a few thoughts for the day…

Kudos to Professor Wang Gungwu on his award of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Cambridge University (the main subject of the ST article).

June 10, 2009 Posted by | Random Walks | Leave a comment

The Brief Life of “Squeezy”

I squelched the brief life of an emergent signifier today.
I feel a bit bad about doing so, which perhaps inspires me to blog about it… and thus at the very least create an archival record of the brief life and death of the very evocative word: “squeezy”.

This word is one that I have noticed my son using for some time (not sure when it first entered into his vocabulary). In fact, I was not entirely clear what he meant when I first heard him use it (which in part is what brought it to the attention of my consciousness).

Today may be the beginning of the end for “squeezy”, however, as I authoritatively stepped in and eliminated it from his vocabulary by suggesting a “correct” alternative. Here is an account of the events:

The animals (of which there were about 18… in plastic toy form) were fighting the dinosaurs (who were bigger and stronger, but out numbered about 2-to-1). This was happening on the floor, in the middle of our family room (I was sitting to the side, marking exams, trying to keep out of the battle). The fight, according to my son, was taking place in the middle of the road, making the road “squeezy” and nearly impassible to some of his larger (toy) busses and cars. He proceeded to demonstrate (“look daddy, look daddy”) how the road became more and more squeezy as the animals and dinosaurs closed in on one another in close combat.

A Very Squeezy Situation

A Very Squeezy Situation

At this point, I stepped in to explain that the word he wanted was “narrow”… the road was “narrow” not “squeezy”. He took a few moments, contemplating this, then smiled, moving the dinosaurs and animals yet closer together. “Look daddy, it’s more narrower!”

Children are a wonderful agents in the production of linguistic (and more broadly cultural) diversity. It is a bit sad that we have to constantly reign in their creative energies – in order that linguistic complexity not devolve in to sheer chaos.

April 29, 2009 Posted by | Random Walks | , , | 2 Comments

Persistently Non-Political

A friend from the United States emailed yesterday and asked, among other things, if I had any thoughts on introducing for classroom teaching issues related to the current elections over on that side of the world. She is teaching an intro to anthropology course (as I am) and as she put it, wants the students to engage in discussion of these things, but to introduce it in a non-partisan way. I don’t think I have much advice for her, but at least it is a way to introduce this blog entry…

I woke up this morning again to more US election nonsense on the BBC. Last week it was the nonsense about unwed teenage pregnancy (yes, that should be nobody’s business – except as Bill O’Reily legitimately points out, if the public is expected to pay for it (for the source of this see link to ‘gross hypocrisy’ below) and/or, as I would point out, insofar as it should be “exhibit A”” that “abstinence only sex education” espoused as policy for all American children DOES NOT WORK… furthermore, the issue in this regard is NOT so much pregnancy and abortion as it is the public health issue of sexually transmitted diseases, in particular HIV/AIDS… but I digress). This week the important issue is nonsense about porcine cosmetics and the deep sexism espoused by America’s number one uppity Negro. Given that these are the issues, it is a good thing that this campaign is not about issues.

I think my friend who lives on the left-hand coast of the United States has the same dilemma I have (her in the classroom; I with this blog). We both have this elections on our mind because it is daily fare in the media of our lives. I’ve been incredibly fortunate, in my own estimation, to have lived the majority of my adult life outside of America, and thus largely immune to the gross hypocrisy and unending nonsense of American politics. But every four years, like a plague of locusts, America’s silly season becomes difficult to avoid.

It is obvious from the posts in this blog that things going on in America’s election cycle are a point of reference for things I think about. But following one of the bright lights of social commentary here in Singapore, I want to assure and assert that this is and will remain a persistently non-political blog. To anyone reading what I have posted to date, it should not be too difficult to figure out where my general political sympathies lie in the American scheme of things. But I really want this blog to be about matters more related to teaching and research; and really do not want this to become a space for political rants.

That said, I certainly think that current affairs are an important subject matter to draw on in teaching about culture and society. How one does this, without being sucked into deeply divisive partisanship, I’m not so sure.

Hmmm… that all is just the tiniest fraction of thoughts gnawing at my mind this morning. But, I’m going to leave it at that for this post.

September 11, 2008 Posted by | Random Walks | | 1 Comment

Culture’s Deep Currents

Culture involves deep currents of symbolic meaning. One imporant point in learning and understanding how culture operates is that anything we say, anyway in which we communicate with others, is bound up in these systems of meaning. They enable our communication; but they also constrain what we can say because we have to operate within the system as given (the system changes, but we cannot change it by fiat; rather only through discourse – which no single person ‘controls’). Symbolic complexity is also the basis for mis-communication and ambiguity. Here is my latest example (in a political rant sent to a couple friends; the main point here is in the last paragraph):

“I don’t want to be mean, but, let me put it this way…
Obama and Bidden are running against a crotchety old Vietnam-war vet whose running mate is a clueless beauty queen with a knocked-up teenage daughter.
Can the Democrats seriously lose this year?
That’s all I could think of when I woke up to the latest on the Sarah Palin fiasco this morning.
I know that portrayal is deeply unfair to McCain-Palin (even if I am not a fan of their politics). But that seems to be the ‘archetype’ or stereotype of Americana that they seem to be falling into (just as Obama has had to prove to white folks that he is King and not Malcom… the other night, he did that in spades – to use a deeply inappropriate metaphor).
Why does so much of the English language have to be so complexly interwoven with the tragic history of racism? For example, the other day as I was watching Barack give his speech, right at the end when the confetti was exploding all over the stage, my five-year old daughter came in. She looked at the tv and asked “who won”? (It DID look like a sporting event, after all.) I laughed and told her “Barack Obama” – pointing him out on the screen. We had a fairly long Q-and-A session about this (of the sort one has with a five year old… her endless stream of questions; my fruitless attempts to find answers that do not lead to another “Why?”). In the course of this, she found “Barack Obama” to be a completely incomprehensible tongue-twister. In the course of the Q-and-A, she finally settled on a moniker for our soon to be President of the United States of America… “Barry Banana” (closest word she knows to “Obama”). I think it is great – utterly hiliarious. Plus, she thinks “Barry Banana” is really wonderful. But then, there is a little nagging voice in the back of my mind remembering ugly episodes involving banana peels tossed and waved at black athletes when I was a little boy growing up in Kansas. And I fret that anyone hearing my daughter and I joking around about “Barry Banana” will take this totally, totally the wrong way. Grrrrr… can’t we all get over it and once and for all relegate racist bullshit to the dustbin of history? Sigh.”

September 2, 2008 Posted by | Random Walks, Teaching | | Leave a comment

A 4-Year Old on Race: It Ain’t So Black and White

Last March, while I was watching the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, my 4-year old son joined me. The first time he looked at the TV, he asked “Is that Uncle Alex?”

Uncle Alex a friend and lecturer here in Singapore. He’s from Uganda originally (but went to the same College as I did in Minnesota).


On a trip back to the US in June I picked up an Obama ’08 t-shirt (wearing it today, which reminded me of this). When I first wore it, my son stared and stared at it.

“Who is that?” I asked. To be honest, I was thinking of the basketball episode.

“Uncle Scott!” he said emphatically.

Uncle Scott, another friend and lecturer, is from Michigan and in American culture just as lily-white as me.

Children are wonderful.

Click here for a few more thoughts on the race thing.

August 1, 2008 Posted by | Random Walks | Leave a comment