Deconstructing Ghassan Hage
How postmodernism and "critical theory" are obstacles to a
useful political practice in
opposition to the racism of Pauline Hanson and the right-wing populism
of Paul Sheehan
A critique of two books: White Nation by Ghassan
Hage and Ghassan Hage's contribution about ethnic eating to Home/World,
Space, Community and Marginality in Sydney's West, by Helen Grace
and others; and a short comment on another book, Race Daze by
By Bob Gould
In the course of trying to sketch out the beginnings of a
strategy to defeat the right-wing populism most strikingly expressed by
Paul Sheehan in Amongst the Barbarians, I have recently become
vividly aware of a "high theory" school of ostensible criticism of
Sheehan and company, embodied in the three books above, published by
Having read the three books, I am both thoroughly repelled by
but also a bit fascinated, particularly by the writings of Ghassan
Hage. Asking around, I've discovered that White Nation, in
particular, is selling quite well on the postmodern academic circuit,
and that Hage is becoming rather a celebrity in the groves of academe
on matters pertaining to racism and ethnicity.
I have had the intention, for some time, of developing my
the damaging influence of the "high theory" on historical and social
inquiry and practice. These three books, ostensibly about serious
immediate questions, which I have been researching and writing about in
depth myself, give me the opportunity to test my views and proposals
against the views of some postmodernists and cultural theorists.
Hage's method In White Nation
Hage starts off in a belligerent, in-your-face kind of way,
which I have a sneaking respect, being often a bit like that myself!
Nevertheless, his basic approach to these important questions is a
dramatically inaccurate reconstruction of past Australian history.
His approach is an obstacle to developing a useful political
practice to defeat racism and xenophobia in Australia. White Nation
is obviously the book version of a postgraduate thesis. It is an
extended tour de force in which Hage demonstrates a certain fidelity to
the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu of the Paris Ecole des Hautes Etudes and
the College de France, and his ability to showcase these ideas in an
In the process Hage crudifies Bourdieu's style and method.
There is a very useful article about Bourdieu by Clare O'Farrell in The
Judgement of Paris,
edited by Kevin Murray (Allen and Unwin 1992). This article, rather
amazingly for a postmodern text, is an intelligible and clearly written
introduction to Bourdieu's ideas and description of the social context
of his intellectual activity in France.
Among other things, she mentions that in 1981 he was the 36th
influential intellectual in France, but by 1989 he had undergone a
meteoric rise to fifth place. Hage has a certain nose, obviously, for
cottoning on to current French intellectual fashions. Bourdieu
repeatedly proclaims that he is a sociologist, not a philosopher. He is
a neo-Marxist who has put his own distinctive spin on the enterprise of
Louis Althusser, which was to reduce Marxism to a crude, mechanistic
sociology, removing the active element of deliberate organised activity
for social change.
Bourdieu uses this rather mechanistic Althusserian sociology,
has added the common structuralist element of concentrating on the
discourse and language of all situations, and transferred this whole
process to a kind of intellectual cyberspace. Great fun if you can do
Bourdieu places very little emphasis on trying to directly
developments in the real world. He adopts a stance that his particular
discourse is the only valid one, and he refuses to defend or justify
this proposition. He adopts a tone that more or less implies that
anyone who doesn't immediately accept the form and content of his
discourse is implicitly brain-dead.
In the useful book, French Philosophy of the Sixties
Ferry and Alain Renaut, published in 1985 by Gallimard, and reprinted
in 1990 by the University of Massachusetts Press, there is a very
useful chapter about Bourdieu. On page 167, note 27, says this about
Bourdieu's claim to intellectual superiority:
"As evidence, if indeed any is still required, we cite Bourdieu's
explanation, in Le Sens pratique,
of his own superiority as an agent in the field of intellectual
production due to his specific social position. We refer to two
unforgettable passages: In the first (p.30) Bourdieu suggests that, if
he is better able than others to understand the social conditions of
the scholar's relations with the world (relations characterised by an
'objectivising distance'), it is because he is a 'mountain peasant' and
as such had 'a greater awareness' of the problems posed by a distance
from the object; later (p.37), we learn that in order to elaborate a
theory of objectivation one must 'produce a theory of what it means to
be a native', the native being one who, trapped in the object,
understands it in an immediate way, but with no distance from it,
therefore blindly. To understand the process of establishing a
distance, which is characteristic of the scholar's relations to the
object, the (practical) relations of blind proximity are taken as the
starting point and an attempt is made to discover the stages one must
pass through in order to overcome it. Bourdieu suggests that this
theory of the native 'cannot be developed through theoretical
experience alone'; that is, one must have been a native oneself, one
must have lived these practical relations to the world, one must not
have benefited from the 'distance from need' that is the prerogative of
a bourgeois existence -- so that one is compelled to pose the problems
of objectivation in all their sharpness. The moral of the story is
clear: unless one has been a mountain peasant, preferably socially
indigenous, one is in grave danger of become a bad sociologist."
In the intellectual climate of the Parisian left bank Bourdieu
away with this rather breathtaking claim to intellectual superiority.
There are always fashions in French intellectual life and for the
moment Bourdieu is rather fashionable, and his public lectures are very
crowded. He actually occupies an ecological niche in French academic
life a bit like that occupied in postmodernist circles in Australia by
Meaghan Morris or McKenzie Wark: that is, he is a widely quoted
postmodern pundit on almost everything from the consumption of bedroom
slippers in France to Belgian literature and the thought of Martin
His most obvious feature, as a critic and pundit, is this
assumption of intellectual superiority. In a recent issue of New
(No. 227, January-February 1998), there is a reprint of his speech
accepting a prize from the Ernst Bloch Institute, in which he attacks
any notion of developing a radical practice in any particular European
country and stakes out a claim to be a new type of radical European
intellectual, divorced from any particular national context.
What he means by this isn't entirely clear from the article,
intention by this proclamation of reinforcing his claim to a unique
intellectual superiority, is pretty obvious. This speech ends:
"In conclusion, therefore, I need only formulate the question
which ought to be at the centre of any reasoned utopia concerning
Europe: how do we create a really European Europe, one that is free
from all dependency on any of the imperialisms -- starting with the
imperialism that affects cultural production and distribution in
particular, via commercial constraints -- and also liberated from all
the national and nationalist residues that still prevent Europe from
accumulating, augmenting and distributing all that is most universal in
the tradition of each of its component nations?"
Insofar as the above passage can be understood, it appears
ferociously Eurocentric, and among several rather dubious elements, it
clearly includes an element of the cultural xenophobia that totally
dominates French intellectual life, directed against American popular
culture. In this context the main imperialism referred to by Bourdieu
is probably the perceived cultural imperialism of CNN!
The other authority who Hage quotes at length is the Slovene
intellectual, Slavoj Zizek. He is also a currently hyper-popular
European public intellectual performer. In a profile of Zizek, in the Independent
International of May 3, 1999, Guy Mannes-Abbott says about Zizek:
"Zizek is a bundle of unlikely elements. He's arguably the
brightest and most significant star in Europe's philosophical cosmos,
throwing out light by way of an infectious plundering of popular
culture and an interest in the tabloid domain of Viagra and virtual
pets. Crucially, he is a theorist of the whole when the perceived
wisdom is that grand philosophical theory is now neither credible nor
possible. Worse, that theory is rooted in Freud and Marx, and fuses the
notoriously opaque thinking of Jacques Lacan with the founding figures
of German idealism from Kant to Hegel. However, Zizek -- like any
original -- is rewriting the rules. His cultish popularity since the
collapse of Eastern European socialism a decade ago has made him a lot
hipper than the legions of philosophical cynics."
Wow! Obviously Hage has a good eye for contemporary European
intellectual trends. The main issue on which Hage continuously quotes
Zizek is Zizek's broad brush attack on the notion of multiculturalism.
Zizek's views on this matter are stated at length in an article
entitled Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational
Capitalism in New Left Review of September-October 1997.
Zizek's standpoint is obviously profoundly influenced by where
sits as a leading Slovene intellectual, and former leading Slovene
dissident against the Stalinist regime in the old Yugoslavia. It is
reasonable to say that the Slovenes, living in a small, compact
republic in Yugoslavia, close to Austria and Italy, and heavily
influenced culturally by Germany, tended to reject the rather flawed
multiculturalism of Yugoslavia, from the point of view that Slovenia
was really part of "Europe", not of Yugoslavia.
On that question Zizek's views haven't changed much since the
It is important to note, however, once again, as in relation to
Bourdieu, the thoroughly Eurocentric character of this opposition to
Ghassan Hage's Australian narrative in the light of the major
cultural influences that he invokes
In his two significant writings, White Nation and the
on food mentioned above, Hage makes an imitative but quite respectable
attempt at a Bourdieuian or Zizekian tour de force in an Australian
context. White Nation hits you in the face with a totally
dishonest but very effective image on the cover. The publisher of the
book found a photo in an old copy of the Women's Weekly or some
such magazine, of a chubby white baby, sitting on a wharf, clad only in
a nappy and a sailor's cap, holding a piece of rope, with a big,
implicitly "imperialist" smile.
The addition, in large white lettering, of the book's title, White
creates an overwhelmingly powerful image, and certainly attracts the
reader's attention. I have noticed several people buy the book after
initially being struck by the cover, so the device certainly works.
(Nowhere in the book, however, is there any attribution of the photo.
Such attribution would obviously reduce the impact.) Poor baby and
proud parents, if they ever see the book.
Hage, who teaches anthropology at Sydney University, in his
introduction makes like an anthropologist or a sociologist. As the
pundit said, "hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue", and Hage
is guilty of a certain intellectual hypocrisy in the way he organises
his narrative. He makes a big feature, both in White Nation and
the food article, of having got students to do field work for him, and
painstakingly describes the large number of interviews conducted by his
team, in both instances.
However, it's all window dressing. He nowhere uses this
research in any recognisable sociological or anthropoligical way. He
nowhere gives any statistics or breakdown of what proportion of the
interviewees had different views on anything. His method of using the
interviews is really quite dubious.
He selects from this pool of interviews only those that suit
purpose of constructing a totally white racist model of Australian
society. He takes the most extreme interviews, or the interviews that
most suit his already constructed model, and uses them to illustrate
his point of view. It's not really anthropology or sociology at all,
but it makes like sociology.
The interviews are carefully selected and then used as objects
cultural criticism and deconstruction, within the framework of Hage's
already preconceived intellectual arrangement. This curious method,
however, is quite effective in achieving one of Hage's obvious aims,
which is to give him the opportunity for constant tours de force on
this or that cultural question, showcasing his postmodern erudition.
A third influence on Hage is obviously the
intellectual, Edward Said, though he only quotes Said twice. Said is
known for his discussion of "orientalism" and his attack on it. What
Said means by "orientalism" is the tendency of European cultures to
treat other world cultures as something exotic and alien, and both to
romanticise them and to separate them from the main stream of world
culture as something primitive.
Said constantly attacks tendencies he discerns in European and
American culture to do this. Said is, of course, frequently correct in
this discernment of the tendencies in "first world" cultures, but the
curious use to which Hage puts Said's insights in these matters serves
another, and essentially negative, purpose.
Hage's eclectic Australian narrative
Brother Hage is a pretty shrewd public intellectual performer.
constructs for the more derivative and less thoughtful section of the
Australian academic market a very cute combination of the above three
influences. He imitates the bombastic and bold assertion of
intellectual superiority by Bourdieu and Zizek, and he quotes them at
length, almost to the point of boring the pants off the reader.
However, he nowhere mentions their profoundly Eurocentric
standpoint. This is obviously because the Eurocentrism of these two
thinkers is in sharp conflict with the third element he introduces into
his discourse, that partly derived from Edward Said.
From Edward Said, he takes over and adopts,unknowledged,
critique of "orientalism", and attaches it to his Bourdieuian and
Zizekian cultural criticism. Hage's narrative uses Bourdieu and Zizek's
cultural style to buttress his proclaimed position as the only
"authentic" representative of the views of "NESB" (Non English Speaking
Background) people: a pretty bare-faced narrative twist.
He's quite an intellectual tapdancer, our Brother Hage. In the
current theoretical climate in many Australian educational and
university circles there is a vague mood that there must be something
in the widespread fashion for French high theory and cultural
criticism, but this mood is not often combined, unfortunately, with too
much detailed understanding of the ideas and history of these trends.
It is in this rather confused intellectual environment that
energetically trying to stake out a piece of territory for his bit of
ideological theatre. Hage's enterprise gains a little momentum from the
fact that he is from the Middle East, being a Maronite intellectual
from Lebanon. He asserts that his Middle East background qualifies him
as the major intellectual talking head for those whom he describes as
A further factor that intertwines with this is his obvious
considerable personal knowledge and involvement with French
intellectual life. This is a common characteristic of Lebanese
intellectuals in every generation, due to the long history of French
cultural influence on Lebanon, particularly on the minority Maronite
Catholic cultural community, which in the Lebanese and Arab context
have traditionally asserted their "Europeanness" by exaggerated
involvement in all things French.
In this respect Hage is carrying on a quite old Lebanese and
Maronite Catholic cultural tradition. It is interesting that Hage feels
such an intellectual community with Zizek, the leading Slovene
intellectual, and it's easy to see why he does. The Slovenes have
traditionally had a similar attitude to the culture of Western Europe
as have the Maronites to France.
The Slovenes have often asserted that they are Western
also influenced by French culture, and not "Balkan barbarians".
Hage stakes his claim as the only significant talking head
for NESB people against "white Anglo-Australia"
What initially grabbed my attention very violently about
narrative is the ignorance he displays of Australian history, in an
area in which I have been working over the last couple of years,
researching the major changes that have taken place in the ethnic and
cultural mix in Australia and the experience of Australians in that
process of change.
My point of departure in my own analysis was an angry initial
response to the ahistoricism displayed by Pauline Hanson and Paul
Sheehan when they proclaim loudly and vocally that Australia was united
before multiculturalism. That proposition was sharply contradicted by
my existing knowledge of Australian history and led me to a line of
investigation and research into all the fault lines in the Australian
past on these matters, and to emphasise and celebrate the elements of
opposition in British imperialist Australia, to the ruling class racism
and chauvinism that have existed since European settlement.
To my own satisfaction, I have described in a number of essays
those elements of opposition have expanded and developed to the
qualitative point that they are now probably the dominant element in
society and the old British imperial racism is in full retreat.
Along comes Hage, with his quite spurious pretensions to be
authentic representative of "non-white", in opposition to a "white"
Australia that he artificially constructs. From that standpoint, he
totally accepts and reinforces the Sheehan-Hanson proposition that
Australia was united before multiculturalism, or maybe until Hage came
What a breathtaking proposition! Only possible really by a
Bourdieuian piece of intellectual effrontery, and sharply in conflict
with any useful interpretation of Australian history. However, this
construct: "mono-cultural united White Anglo-Australia" (both, as he
puts it, "white nationalists" and "white multiculturalists"), versus
Ghassan Hage the self-appointed sole representative of NESB people, is
absolutely central to the method of Hage's book.
Hage makes quite a point in the introduction of classifying
whole previous Australian culture as "white" and by a rather ludicrous
piece of sleight of hand, constantly reiterates his claim to be the
talking head representative of "non-white".
It's a bit bizarre, but this completely artificial construct
core of Hage's curious intellectual project. (It's worth noting that
there has been a long discussion in government, immigration and
census-taking and statistical circles as to whether people from the
Middle East, Turkey and North Africa are classified, for statistical
purposes as Europeans, Asians or Africans. After long agony by Anglo
statisticians, generally speaking, people from Turkey, North Africa and
Arab countries in the Middle East, are classified, by Australian
statisticians, as Europeans, but this has not been achieved without a
struggle against the more primitive British-Australia European racists.
Hage seems to agree with the more primitive British racists in his
claim to represent "non-white" versus "white", although, as I've
pointed out above, this does not prevent him, in other contexts,
passing off the ideas of the Eurocentric Bourdieu as if Bourdieu was
Maronite Catholic migrants in Australian history
As part of the background to his theoretical tour de force
makes some play of his Maronite Catholic Arab ethnicity, and he
includes a quite interesting collection of material about the
experiences of recent Lebanese migrants in Australia, although his
focus is almost always on how migrants perceive Anglo-Australians and
how Anglo-Australians perceive migrants, rather than any investigation
of more concrete economic and social aspects of the migrant experience.
A serious historical overview of the history of Maronite
migration to Australia, actually sharply contradicts Hage's main
construction (NESB people in total opposition to "white" Australia).
Maronite Catholics from the mountain area behind Beirut have
steadily migrating to Australia since the middle of the 19th century,
when they were classified by British-Australia as Syrians because at
that time Lebanon was part of greater Syria. They were often called
They often started off in Australia as small-time peddlers of
clothing and other goods. When I was a kid in the 1950s I used to go
for holidays to a sheep station in the Hunter Valley at Merriwa owned
by my uncle's family, a country Catholic family whose grandfather was a
We used to go to Mass in town every Sunday and everybody else
Mass were other Irish Catholic people, with the exception of one
family, the Wakims, of Maronite extraction, who owned the clothing
store in Merriwa. My uncle, a rather religious Catholic, used to joke
that when his father was staking out the family free selection on the
land of a big Anglo squatter, the Wakims' father was driving a covered
wagon all over the Hunter Valley and northern NSW, selling clothes and
fabrics, and that the Wakims had worked their way up to owning the
Over much of country NSW, the Maronite "Syrian trader"
store was, in the 1950s, as ubiquitous as the Greek cafe. The scattered
Maronite families blended in with their co-religionists, the Catholics
of Irish extraction, and were collectively somewhat an out group in
relation and in opposition to, "British" Australia, which to some
extent was defined by the Australian ruling class against Irish,
Italian, Maltese, and Maronite Catholics.
These Maronite families were scattered all over NSW and
the 19th century. Steve Bracks, the new Labor Premier of Victoria, is
of that background from country Victoria. Darryl Melham, the Labor MP
for Banks in NSW is another. Nick Shehadie, the former Lord Mayor of
Sydney is another, and a well-known business, Maloufs, run by Maronites
of the older generation, has existed in Sydney for 50 or 60 years
dealing in secondhand metal shelving at Mascot.
The point of this is that rather than being a non-white
to White Australia, the Maronite Lebanese, along with Greeks and
Maltese and other non-British Catholics, rapidly became part of Irish
Catholic and secular working class Australia versus
British-establishment Australia, a set of circumstances completely out
of focus with Ghassan Hage's entirely literary reconstruction of
Australian history, into white and non-white.
The history of the Maronites in Australia is a perfect example
the cumulative growth of a heterogenous community in Australian society
that has undermined racist British Australia. This started with the
Irish Catholics and the secular working class in convict times.
Hage's construction is artificial and is actually contradicted
the facts about the history of Maronite migration in the 19th century
and early 20th century, which fits in much more with an incremental
increase of oppositional elements to the British establishment than it
does to some artificial white versus non-white construction with Hage
as the representative of the non-white.
Post-Second-World-War Maronite migration formed part of the great shift
from British to European migration, and then to Middle Eastern
migration and finally to Asian migration, over the past 40 years. Even
within Lebanese migration in the 1960s and the 1970s, the Maronites
tended to come first because they already had contacts with Australia
through the earlier migration.
Lebanese Muslims came a little later. In the Australian
Arabic speakers have actually come to form a distinct grouping within
the Australian multicultural set-up. It was very notable, during the
Lebanese civil war, that there were sharp conflicts between Muslims and
Maronites for a period. People I know who in workplaces where there
were a lot of Lebanese used to be fascinated by the fact that both
religious groups would gather together at lunchtime arguing rather
furiously about the civil war in Arabic, and that despite the conflict
about the civil war, they still tended to form a subgroup in those
workplaces, defined by the Arabic language.
Everything I have discovered about the history of Lebanese
to Australia reinforces the usefulness of an intellectual construction
in which a vigorous defence of multiculturalism, without too precious
an artificial construction of white and non-white, rather than Ghassan
Hage's strange edifice.
Hitler, or, who is a real intellectual?
There is another theme that runs through the start of White
Hage as the representative of "real intellectuals" versus inferior
minds. It's worth quoting the section about Hitler that Hage had to
rewrite after Paul Sheehan threatened to sue him, according to the
magazine Strewth, if he compared Sheehan directly with Hitler.
I have some sympathy for Sheehan on this matter. I don't like
Sheehan much, but it's taking things a pretty long way to compare him
with Hitler, and it's displaying ludicrous naivete to think that he
wouldn't sue you if you were to so compare him.
"This is neither my granny, nor any of Australia's
anti-intellectual populists speaking, but Adolf Hitler, and I cannot
help thinking of him when people start abusing intellectuals. Hitler
was the classic anti-intellectual: a man who had enough intellect to be
a mediocre intellectual and enough also to realise that he wasn't a
member of the intellectual elite.
"Like many mediocre intellectuals, he thought he had a
talent for knowledge, rather than realising how much hard work is put
into whatever knowledge people end up gathering. Hitler was not,
however, the sort of person who would just sit there and take it. He
was too motivated by dreams of social, political and intellectual
mobility to allow himself to just sulk and do nothing.
"So, he discovered the time-honoured way to "beat" the
elite. This is the road often chosen by people who want to be
recognised as intellectuals but who are either not socially equipped to
be so or feel they have better things to do than putting in the hard
labour necessary to achieve such a status. These people compensate for
their lack of knowledge by speaking in the name of "the people", who
become such a formula of success for mediocre intellectuals that they
make themselves -- and some others, too -- believe that they actually
are "the people".
So there you have it. You had just better shut up and listen
Hage. He is the only authentic voice of NESB people and, in addition to
that, if you disagree with him you are probably some dopey
sub-intellectual autodidact (like Hitler) who hasn't read as many books
Also, in the preface he makes a great show of savaging his
Catholic grandmother, who he sets up as a cardboard figure for people
who worry about things. Poor old Gran. This rather forced construction
is all part of reminding you of his ethnicity.
Hage's unpleasant, petulant, carping tone
A feature that is quite common to "deconstructionists" is a
tone of feigned irritation at human stupidity. Hage has this petulant,
carping, nasty tone in spades. He seems constantly irritated at the
human race. He starts the book proper in a grand, Bourdieuian, way.
Chapter 1 is called: Evil White Nationalists: The Function
of the Hand in the Execution of Nationalist Practices.
This is a very long disquisition in the most erudite postmodern fashion
about the function of the hand in racist practices. Great showcasing
A dozen or so pages on he quotes his first interviewee, the
rabid proletarian racist he can find. (The method of interview
collecting is even further loaded by a specification that the
interviewees must be people who have lived in the inner city for more
than 10 years, the obvious result of which is to find people,
pensioners, older people and so on, who are the survivors of both the
advent of migrants and the gentrification of the area.
Such survivors are obviously going to produce a statistically
number of extreme interviews. One suspects some of them may even be a
bit like Margaret Mead's Samoan girls, making a little bit of mischief
to have a bit of fun. Hage's first interviewee certainly sounds a bit
like he was taking the mickey out of the interviewer.
This first interview is worth quoting: a garbage collector in
Marrickville who described himself as an "Aussie with a vengeance",
gave us his specific version of this:
I'd say like, like I know a fair bit of people in
Marrickville, you know like, ah ... I'd say like, like people, like,
well ... the Vietnamese, I ... They're sort of, ah ... overpopulating
the place, you know. There's still a fair bit of Aussies around, like,
but ... it's not the same. I'd be lucky to get a can of beer at
Christmas. The Vietnamese ... well ... mate, they don't even know how
to put their garbage in a garbage bin. And ... and ... well ... you
know ... I don't want nothing from nobody ... but picking up garbage is
not how it used to be, you know ... people, like, they leave all sort
of things without putting them in plastic bags ... I tell you, it
doesn't smell like Australia anymore around here ... you know what I
If I might be permitted just a little gentle Bourdieuian
criticism of my own, it seems to me that Hage, in this instance, by
choosing this as his first interview to deconstruct, is himself
displaying a little of the outraged anger of the gentrifying new
resident of the inner-city when confronted with the traditional demand
from garbos for some sort of a sling at Christmas, or maybe Hage is
just unconscious of his own reaction to this well-known traditional
phenomenon of Sydney garbage collection.
The couple of interviews that Hage chooses for his Evil
riff are so rabid that he has plenty of material to deconstruct. He
even manages an erudite discussion of Durkheim's views on suicide in
this chapter. He is very erudite, our Hage.
Chapter 3 is entitled: Good White Nationalists: The
Tolerant Society as a White Fantasy.
For this chapter, Hage selects a couple of interviews with people,
overtly more tolerant than the ones in the previous chapter, but that
lend themselves to his criticism for "objectifying" migrants.
We never get to know if there were any interviews that might
met Hage's criteria for being all right, though it's obvious from the
way he has constructed the ground rules that it would be very unlikely
that any interviewee would even have the basic qualifications, as
defined by Hage, to say anything meaningful about migrants and
By definition, if you are not an NESB person, as defined by
you are inevitably going to say the wrong thing. Most of the rest of
the book is a broad-brush criticism and attack on what Hage calls
"white multiculturalism" from every conceivable angle.
He mulls over every interview he has from people of more
views than the overt racists, to try to prove them guilty of thought
crimes in the way they view migrants and migration. If they are overtly
in favour of migrants, migration and multiculturalism, they seem to get
the most flack for errors of representation.
He quite explicitly condemns all existing multiculturalism as
meeting his specifications. One chapter is quite interesting. He
attacks the benign racists who go into sylvan rhapsodys about the
Australian landscape and use it to justify opposition to migration.
He's quite funny on this topic. I don't like those pastoral racists
The real question, however, is the need to develop a concrete
refutation of the argument that they advance that Australia is so
overpopulated that migration should be reversed because we can't
physically support more people without a catastrophic further
degredation of the environment. This view is quite widespread in
Australia and it requires concrete material argument against and
refutation if the majority of Australians are to be convinced that
reasonably high migration, with access for less privileged people to
Australia, should continue.
Hage makes considerable, very effective and very erudite fun
sylvan racists, but he makes no attempt to reply to their arguments. He
even ridicules a number of times "white liberal racists", like myself
presumably, who engage in immigration debates, of which he is totally
He never actually spells out his view on the current arguments
what concrete decisions governments should make on the size and
character of immigration. Who knows, Brother Hage may even be in favour
of lower immigration! He doesn't really tell us.
But he makes absolutely clear his hostility to those who
immigration debates on the side of higher immigration and in defence of
the existing multicultural arrangements. Hage uses his posture of
"authentic" representative of non-white to try to intimidate "white
multiculturalists" like myself.
Well, in a long life of political activity, I've seen that
posture adopted a number of times before by people trying to carve out
a niche for themselves, by the use of the most left rhetoric they can
dream up. After being involved in heaps of arguments and battles, on
the generally progressive side, over many important political
questions, I've got a very thick hide in these matters.
The nub of the question is not Hage's posture of sole
"non-white" versus "white", but much more importantly, whether Hage's
construction is truthful or useful to the struggle for a more civilised
Australia, and it clearly isn't.
Ghassan Hage and national identity
Hage attacks those who argue that migrants should claim a part
the existing Australian national identity. He ridicules, in fact, all
notions of Australian national identity. This is a very dangerous
approach in the practical sphere of real cultural politics directed at
a good outcome for all Australians of all origins, including recent
In terms of Lenin's classic, and still entirely valid,
of what a modern nation actually is, there is no question that a real
Australian nationality exists. Australia is a nation state with an
existing national identity.
As I describe at length in this and other essays, the nature
Australian national identity has been contested from the time of
European settlement between the "lower orders" of society, initially
mostly the Irish Catholics, and on the other side, the originally
dominant British racist ruling class.
There is unquestionably a national identity but the essential
of that identity is historically an area of the sharpest contest
between the "lower orders" and the ruling class. It's ludicrous to deny
the existence of a distinct Australian national identity. The real
issue is how this national identity evolves and what forces become
dominant in it.
Multiculturalism has become a very real and concrete part of a
popular, civilizsd and egalitarian Australian national identity. Each
wave of migrants has almost immediately staked out its claim to be
Australian in every real sense, particularly in the area of
citizenship, but most waves of migrants have also staked out their
right to a separate identity, a multicultural identity within the
broader Australian framework.
Most waves of migrants do two things at once, including "Third
looking migrants" to use Hage's oddly ambiguous category, which he
introduces late in the book. They stake out a full claim to, and
attempt to, acquire knowledge about the existing Australian national
They try to integrate in and claim a part of it. But also,
at much the same time, they develop their discrete multicultural
identity, expanding and celebrating their original cultural framework
in the Australian context: Greek Australians, Arab Australians,
Albanian Australians, Chinese Australians and so on.
This almost inevitable line of development is the basis for a
healthy Australian national identity composed of all the better things
from the old working class and Irish Catholic underclass of racist
British Australia, including the better things that come from the old
British ruling stratum of racist British Australia after their ruling
class pretensions have been overthrown, combined with all the
subcultures that come from each new wave of migration.
All of these elements combine but also remain discrete, to
new, civilised Australian national identity and consciousness. This is
the only possible progressive way society can be expected to develop in
the context of the still-existing domination of the institution of the
nation state on Planet Earth.
The only two possible alternatives to this development are a
forced assimilation, either into Pauline Hanson's model of a
ridiculously idealised British Australia, or in the case of Ghassan
Hage, a clearly present but not too clearly spelt-out notion of some
sort of Third World cosmo-universalism, not too unlike the
cosmo-Europeanism of Bourdieu and Zizek.
Hage's approach to Australian national identity is really
opposed to any realistic construction of a political and cultural
strategy to achieve a civilised multicultural Australia.
Ghassan Hage, Pierre Bourdieu and dinner
Hage's essay, At home in the entrails of the west:
multiculturalism, ethnic food and migrant home-building
is such a bizarre and unpleasant cultural theory tour de force that a
careful analysis of it is worthwhile. The first part of the essay is an
extended inquiry into migrant nostalgia and home building practices in
Even in this section, some of which is quite interesting, the
dominating thing is questions of representation and language, rather
than any discussion of the concrete problems of employment, financing a
home, and so on, faced by the migrants he surveys. It's Hage's Maronite
Catholic Lebanese home turf, so to speak, so he knows the cultural
territory well and his observations are quite interesting despite their
constant emphasis on how other people view the migrants or the migrants
view other people rather than practical questions that face the
The second and third parts of the essay carry the punchlines,
speak. Hage has a bizarre and unpleasant view of what he calls "ethnic
eating" in commercial cafes. His approach to these questions owes a
great deal to his master, Pierre Bourdieu.
"In a book quoted earlier in this article by Luc Ferry and
Alain Renaut, they make this comment about Bourdieu's discussion of
dinner: "If the bourgeois serves sausages for dinner, it is through
snobbism, trying to show that he's not so different from the working
class: thus he demonstrates a typically bourgeois attitude, and if he
prefers to serve smoked salmon, well there is no longer any doubt about
the diagnosis (My God, it's obvious!). How is it that under these
conditions, Bourdieu didn't die of hunger long ago?"
In the Australian context, Hage out-Bourdieus Bourdieu's
of dinner. He uses his pseudo-sociological methodology, gets some
students to do interviews and then uses the interviews that suit him in
the eclectic way with which we have become familiar in White Nation.
He has great fun with small snobberies displayed by chefs in inner-city
restaurants about western suburbs restaurants. (What does he expect his
research to disclose, for goodness sake!)
He makes great play of whatever pretensions and elements of
objectification he can dig up from his interviews with patrons of
ethnic restaurants. He has a field day ridiculing, in a rather nasty
way, any other element of minor snobbery in relation to eating out he
can dig up. If one were to believe Hage, almost everyone who patronises
ethnic restaurants does so for reasons of elaborate conspicuous
He develops the concept of what he calls
and he launches a sweeping and total attack on all tourism, both
domestic and overseas. He really gets into his stride in the third
section, in which he discusses ethnic restaurants in Cabramatta.
Their crime is that they deceive and seduce their patrons by a
of extreme spareness and authenticity, and their patrons are damned for
snobbery in allegedly pursuing this extreme ethnic authenticity in
eating out. He's a great opponent of all pretense, is our Mr. Hage, or
so he says. He's particularly caustic about some ethnic restaurants
which contain an element of what he regards as deception.
To get something of the flavour of Hage's analysis, it's worth
quoting the following passage from the last part of the essay:
"In a seminal analysis, Alfred Sohn-Rethel links abstract modes
of thinking to the dominance of the commodity form. His thesis was, as
he put it, that 'the formal analysis of the commodity holds the key not
only to the critique of political economy, but also to the historical
explanation of the abstract conceptual mode of thinking'. His
conclusion is well summarised by Slavoj Zizek: 'Before thought could
arrive at pure abstraction, the abstraction was already at work in the
social effectivity of the market'. If this general argument is applied
to cosmo-multiculturalism in particular it could be argued that the
very possibility of thinking such an abstraction as a multiculturalism
without migrants, this plurality of cultures without a plurality of
people from different cultures, lies in a subjectivity dominated by the
presence and circulation of cultural otherness as a commodity, as
abstract ethnic value. This is why cosmo-multiculturalism cannot be
understood without an analysis of its structuring by the circuit of
touristic capital and the dominance within it of the production of
ethnic products as forms of exoticisms for the international market. A
capitalism where, as Lawrence Grossberg has put it, 'it is no longer a
matter of capitalism having to work with and across differences ... it
is difference which is now in the service of capital'. The nature of
producing cosmo-multicultural food involves ethnicity detaching itself
from its 'ethnic' producers (this is probably one of the most
liberating effects of the phenomenon). Despite the cosmo-multicultural
quest for authenticity, we have a Scottish manager owning a Tuscan
restaurant, an American managing a Vietnamese one, and so on. The role
of the Scottish manager is not to produce a Scottish-Tuscan cuisine but
to offer and stage Tuscan authenticity for the cosmo-multicultural
This extract exemplifies Hage's work: very derivative and very hard to
understand. Once the effort is made to understand it, the argument is
really rather trite. Running ethnic cafes is an industry under
capitalism, patronised by customers including tourists, out of which
capitalists make money, workers make a living and human beings eat food
and often get entertainment. Because of the capitalist elements, Hage
seems to disapprove. Ho, hum!
The last paragraph typifies Hage's puffed-up pseudo-rage at
grossness of ethnic eating. Some restaurants camp it up a bit. Actually
he frequently doesn't tell you the full story. The Vietnamese
restaurant he mentions is the "Old Saigon" just down the road from my
bookshop. The American who he mentions ran the place for 10 years in
partnership with his wife, a Vietnamese woman who he met when he was a
war correspondent during the Vietnam War.
Their Vietnamese-American, now Australian, kids worked in the
restaurant. All this was very public and embodied in a rather striking
way the triangular relationship between Vietnam, Australia and the
United States that emerged from the Vietnam War. It seems to have
offended Mr Hage. I can give Hage an even worse example. Right next to
my bookshop is an apparently Italian restaurant called "Rosalinas",
formerly "Mamalinas". It has been there for more than 15 years and
serves a reasonable, mid-price Italian cuisine, has a loyal clientelle
and makes a passable living, although the sheer number of local
restaurants makes competition pretty fierce.
Just after I opened my bookshop in Newtown about 10 years ago,
fascinated to hear the proprietor, who incidentally, is a dead ringer
for Manuel out of Fawlty Towers, speaking to his brother in
Arabic. I asked him what the story was. It turns out that he is a
Muslim Lebanese from Tripoli and that his brother had been a chef in
the only Italian restaurant in Beirut.
When the brother came to Australia the Arab restaurant
the inner west seemed to him too crowded, so he started an Italian
restaurant as he knew how to cook Italian cuisine. When he moved away
to start another restaurant, he passed it on to his brother, Robert,
who now runs it. The woman chef, who has been there the whole 10 years
I've been in Newtown, is a Greek.
Together, this Lebanese Muslim and Greek run the best little
restaurant in Newtown! The "Rosalinas" story will no doubt shock Hage.
Hage's bull about ethnic eating highlights the fatuousness of
sociological method that highlights questions of "representation" and
neglects, or even implicitly ridicules, social realities. The reality
of restaurants, including ethnic restaurants, is that they are a
capitalist industry, and that many of the capitalists are very small
business people, often running the businesses with family labour.
Small businesses like this employ many hundreds of thousands
people, including many migrants, all over Australia. Many people make
their living out of the food industry, and incidentally, out of the
tourist industry. Many, many of these are NESB people who Hage appoints
himself as talking head for.
Some of these migrant restaurant proprietors or workers are
likely to try to lynch him if they become aware of his implicit desire
to put them out of business. Many migrants come into my shop while they
are doing courses, looking for books about the hospitality industry,
restaurants and cooking. That's the social reality of restaurants and
They may be capitalist industries, but for the moment we live
capitalism, and a big and growing section of the working class make a
living out of this industry. Hage's preciousness and superiority about
these matters is thoroughly anti-social, particularly from the point of
view of migrant workers.
From the point of view of the consumers of this "ethnic
he calls it, Hage is a bit of a pain in the neck as well. For a start,
questions of price have a very low priority in Hage's pseudo-sociology.
In real life, Newtown is doing much better than Glebe, for instance,
and the eastern suburbs, because many more of the ethnic restaurants in
Newtown are mid-price. In tough times, mid-price ethnic restaurants do
better than high-price restaurants.
While eating out involves a certain amount of the conspicuous
consumption that Hage wildly exagerates, other social dynamics are at
work and are in fact vastly more important than conspicuous
consumption. Throughout the capitalist world restaurant eating and fast
food of all sorts are inexorably increasing as a proportion of the
amount spent on food and other goods.
Modern life produces circumstances in which people prefer to
than cook at home. Hage has a very strange view of the world and human
behaviour. He painstakingly deconstructs the cafe practices of
eaters-out in ethnic cafes and he wildly exagerates the part played in
the selection of restaurants by snobbish subjective factors.
In my not-so-limited experience of life, decisions on where to
are not dissimilar to decisions about what video to borrow for
immediate viewing late at night, or even, dare one say it, decisions
about who to go to bed with after a party. For instance, from my
observation running a video shop, people selecting videos for immediate
watching are almost totally dominated by a perspective of immediate
Watching people select videos for hire is very educational.
is a very tiny element in selection, compared with complex interplays
of desire and excitement.
The same sort of thing obviously applies to sexual selection.
Elements of sexual desire, pheromones, and real excitement usually
predominate over snobbery, although in the case of sexual selection,
snobbery sometimes intrudes. The choice of where to eat is much closer
to the choice of a video than it is to anything else.
In my experience of life and observation of eating behaviour
Street, Newtown, questions of immediate culinary desire and
gratification are infinitely stronger than any snob element. The price
of the meal is also a major factor. Hage must move in unbearably
rarefied yuppified circles if snobbery plays as large a part in the
selection of restaurants as he seems to think.
In real life my impression of the ethnic restaurants in King
is that the proprietors and staff make a reasonable living and the
customers, who are in my experience often second and third generation
NESB people from the whole south-east region of Sydney, get a
reasonable feed at a reasonable price. Snobbery and questions of
representation rarely come into it.
It's worth considering this ponderous paragraph, the last one
in Hage's essay:
"It seems, however, that it can convincingly be argued from a
normative perspective that any reality worthy of the title of
multiculturalism in Australia has to involve a certain degree of homely
forms of intercultural interaction in which both the eater and the
feeder experience themselves as subjects. What characterises the
multiculturalism articulated to the culinary practices and interactions
described here is precisely that it is a multiculturalism that provides
this homely space for the migrant by interpellating him or her as a
subject: a dominated subject sometimes, but a subject nevertheless. If
we direct our gaze to the multicultural reality lived in western
Sydney, a far better understanding of what is at stake in debating the
multiculturalism of Australia can be achieved."
What this spectacularly dense paragraph appears to suggest is
proposition implicit in Hage's whole essay: eating out in, or running
ethnic cafes is no good. It is politically incorrect, and those who
make their living providing the food and the exploitative customers
should all give up their incorrect practices.
However, ethnic cooking practiced exclusively in the home
consenting adults, is all right! What a ratbag Brother Hage is!
Race Daze by Jon Stratton
This book, also recently published by Pluto Press, is
another book version of a thesis. It offers essentially the same
argument that Ghassan Hage puts forward, but suffers from the fact that
the author hasn't got such a sexy angle as Hage (claiming to be the
representative of NESB people).
Coming from an ordinary academic, the essential argument:
multiculturalism and counterposing to it some vague universal
cosmopolitanism, sounds bizarre and a bit boring.
Stratton isn't as colourful as Hage, and not nearly as much
take to pieces. The major part of this book is elegant cultural
criticism of Australian movies from this standpoint.
Personally, I can only take a certain amount of deconstruction
the representation of people and social relationships in films. Every
cultural studies book I have ever read goes on like this and I am bored
to death with them!
I have the feeling that Hage's book, White Nation,
a certain amount of argument for a while, which is why I consider it
worthwhile to analyse it at length. I have a strong feeling that
essentially the same argument, expressed in Stratton's boring book of
film criticism, will sink like a stone.
Stratton might have done a bit better if he could have dug up
a Maronite granny.
June 4, 1999