Amrit’s Picks is a new series on The Funambulist and Archipelago. It consists in a series of transcripts curated by Amrit Trewn (literacy educator, and aficionado of early ’90s jazz rap, poetry, and Sylvia Wynter) of past conversations recorded for Archipelago. It allows a written and illustrated archive of these conversations through a curation and an order that I am very happy to leave to Amrit here. The first conversation presented here is the second Archipelago conversation with friend Mimi Thi Nguyen — the first one was about clothing and politics (October 2013). This conversation was originally motivated by some unformatulated concerns that I experienced during the campaign #bringbackourgirls in April-May 2014 in reaction to the rapt of 276 Nigerian young women by Boko Haram. I therefore meant to ask a few questions to Mimi, as well as converse with her about the crucial importance to formulate problems in ways that won’t make our questions legitimize that against what they want to challenge. The arguments we expose here emerged from Mimi’s long-documented research about supposedly “transparent” concepts such as freedom and beauty, as well as a few (too) brief articles that I recently wrote on The Funambulist. Together, we attempt to dismantle the language we use in a political and intellectual context, as well as challenging ideas that, despite their intuitive virtue (our outrage at seeing children massacred in Gaza for example), serve discourses that go against our struggles.
Conversation recorded with Mimi Thi Nguyen in Chicago on July 26, 2014
Transcription by Amrit Trewn
Léopold Lambert: Hello everyone. Today my guest is Mimi Thi Nguyen, who some of you might remember from a previous podcast on Archipelago; I’m very happy to have her here again. She is an Associate Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies at University of Illinois in Champaign as well as a professor in Asian American Studies. And she is also the Associate Chair of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department.
Mimi Thi Nguyen: Hi!
LL: Well, first off, I think that people who have not listened to our first conversation should really listen to it because I think it was a great one. The first time we were in New York, this time we are in Chicago. And it ought to be noted for architects and architecturally interested people that we are recording from the Mies van der Rohe’s designed library of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Today we are going to talk about “true problems,” I would say. Problems that don’t necessary appear as problems at a first glance but that participate with that against which we struggle. And it’s very much a critique of our own positions as intellectuals in our political struggles, so we’re going to try to be very didactic and articulated about it. I mean, at least I have no doubt you will. I will try to be too!
Last year you were telling us that you were working on a project called The Promise of Beauty, and I think that since then you have given a few lectures about it. Could you maybe give us a little update?
MTN: Yeah. So The Promise of Beauty is sort of related to the first book project which was called The Gift of Freedom. I’m always really interested in those things that are supposed to be transparent social goods that we should all want, like freedom or beauty or truth or virtue. I’m also interested in how they are the premises for practices and actions of control and interference. The first project, which was on the gift of freedom, was looking at how the gift of freedom informs liberal empire and liberal war. It also looked at how the gift of freedom isn’t just a rhetorical ploy that sounds pretty and hides the violence of liberal war and empire, but it’s actually how liberal war and empire conceptualize its violence and power.
Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages, Durham: Duke University Press, 2012
So The Promise of Beauty kind of follows from that project because one of the things I found while I was working on the first book was I wrote in the second chapter about the little girl who got burnt by napalm whose photograph, of course, is deemed iconic in the archive of the Vietnam War. I wrote about her and how a part of her story, a part of her biography that gets retold over and over again is about how she deals with her physical scars and how she has this deep desire for beauty as a result of the scars. She feels that, somehow, she has been denied access to beauty and, in being denied access to beauty, she has been denied access to all these other wonderful things like love and sociality. She starts to, in the biographical narratives about her, attach beauty — the promise of beauty — to things like a good life and true love and a certain political project which turns out to, of course, be Western democracy because she ends up…
LL: … in Canada.
MTN: In Canada, yes, fleeing and asking for asylum.
So that and some other things got me thinking about the particular way in which this idea of the promise of beauty might operate as a diagnosis of the conditions under which beauty is imagined to thrive and the conditions under which beauty is threatened. And how the idea of beauty as a diagnosis of these things then becomes mobilized as a crisis moment, as an entry point into history. What are we going to do about this beautiful thing that is being endangered or that is vulnerable right now? How can we preserve it?
It seems very obvious, right? It seems like, “Of course we want to preserve beautiful things.” But, of course, the idea that we necessarily, automatically want to preserve beautiful things — which seems like a very transparent desire — actually involves all kinds of structural actions, consequences, evaluations about what conditions are imagined to be best for the beautiful object, the beautiful person to thrive under.
So I’m still working it out. But I’m interested in how that idea — the promise of beauty as the promise of life being furthered, to borrow from Kant on the beautiful — then might feed into certain kinds of biopolitical projects that are concerned with the management of life. So I’m looking at a bunch of different objects and I hope that made sense.
LL: Yes, it certainly made sense. And, even better than that, it offers a great introduction for our conversation today because I think what you were saying about freedom and beauty being undeniable virtues is very much what we’re going to address today in the fact that sometimes we take time to dismantle the discourses or the actions of that against which we struggle.
To give a little bit of background on why I wanted this conversation to happen: it goes back to last April in 2014 when the Nigerian group Boko Haram, based in the Northeast of the country, kidnapped 276 young women and said that they will enslave those women and force-marry them, which is not so much what we’re going to talk about but rather the campaign that followed that, whether on social media or in more traditional media. This campaign called “bring back our girls” started on Twitter but really went beyond that, and we even saw people in the Cannes Film Festival holding little signs saying “bring back our girls.” I’m pretty sure that I was not the only one to feel extremely uncomfortable in front of this campaign, but without really being able to articulate a critique of it. And I immediately thought you would be the perfect interlocutor with whom to formulate this critique. So here we are in July 2014. It took a few months, but we made it! So I would very much like to use this first example as an entry point for our conversation and we’ll go through other examples. What I was describing about the Cannes Film Festival is pretty obvious as a problem, but there were even more subtle forms. Could you maybe help me with that?
Well, I did see this critique circulating so I’m just articulating a critique that is informed by postcolonial feminist theories. Around the “bring back our girls” campaign we saw a variety of seemingly transparent values being circulated. The idea of the young girl, the idea of their innocence, the idea of their futures being violently directed away from their education… I mean, the fact that they were schoolgirls was a big part of the sort of rhetorical aspects of the campaign. So there were all these transparent values about what was good and what was bad that were being circulated, which it made it very easy for the campaign to pick up a lot of speed because, as I argue, there are these seemingly transparent categories of the good that should function in a particular way that were being circulated. And, then, the example of the girls being kidnapped was seemingly transparently bad because of the circulation of these things that seemed transparently good. Again, the schoolgirl and her youth, her innocence, her education were all being invoked in those campaigns.
But, of course, as you I think also pointed out in something you wrote about it—Did you write about it?
LL: No, I did not, precisely because I was not able to articulate a very sharp critique of it. I was waiting for this conversation.
MTN: But, then again, those are tropes that have long imperial and colonial histories, so that when Western empires have gone elsewhere they’ve always claimed to do the civilizational work. And they use the figure of youth and young girls oftentimes, in particular, as a trope to structure the argument for the civilizational good that they’re doing in those places in which they’re interfering or occupying.
LL: Many people would understand how this campaign carries something problematic. But I suppose in front of it, within this critique, you would find people who would say, “It’s better than nothing” and others who would say, “No, actually, it is worse than nothing.” I think that’s what’s really at the core of what we want to talk about today.
MTN: Right. That’s the ongoing argument that happens around so many transnational feminist, global feminist tussles. Those are the arguments that happen around female genital cutting. Those are the arguments that happen around child marriage. The “Well, we have to say something and the situation is so urgent that we have to use what we have at hand.” What happens to be at hand are these imperial and colonial tropes about a girlish innocence that needs to then be rescued. That is an ongoing argument and debate, the idea that the urgency of the situation is so pressing that we can’t stop to think about the pitfalls, which are often then deemed to be theoretical pitfalls because we need practical action right now. And these are the most effective terms that we have that will result in, you know, practical consequences and actions that will rescue and we can talk about it later. I feel like that’s often the kind of dichotomy that gets set up. That the urgency of the situation calls for practical action right now which means that we have to use the most effective terms possible. And, then, the other side is imagined to just be wanting to sit around and discuss the language of these campaigns, the language of these appeals (or the aesthetics of them) but that’s somehow slowing us down and then we won’t be able to address the urgency of the situation. But I actually think that’s a very false dichotomy.
LL: Yeah, and I suppose in that case there was also the risk of a military intervention. That was very much at stake within this campaign which could have given legitimacy to a potential military intervention. I mean, especially when we saw even Michelle Obama being a part of this campaign.
MTN: Yes. As I often tell my students, the way in which you describe a problem, the language and aesthetics that you use to describe the politics of a particular problem, will absolutely effect the type of solution that resolves. So if you describe the problem as being that someone from the ‘international community’ needs to intervene, the solution will then be the imagined solution that the US will go in and somehow fix things. But that’s not what actually happens when the US goes into places militarily. So I definitely come down on the side of thinking about the language and aesthetics of how we talk about a particular problem even in a moment of urgency as not slowing us down. It actually forces us to think more critically about the categories we are using to describe what is happening and how to fix it, if that makes sense.
LL: Yeah, I think it does. And I think just talking with you makes me think more. So that’s exactly what I’m hoping for.
I can also see this will for an intervention (almost a divine intervention) to ‘save’ these young women, for example. I associate it with my own feeling of despair or absolute feeling of powerlessness in front of what’s currently going on in Gaza, for example. As we talk, the siege is still going on and we’re reaching more than 800 Palestinians killed and 167,000 displaced. We’ll talk about Gaza soon, but every time I experience this feeling of absolute powerlessness, the thing that I force myself to think about is that despair is a privileged position. I mean that it’s coming from the fact that we’re used to getting what we want. So if we don’t get immediately what we want, for some reason, we feel hopeless. Obviously things are more complex than that, so we need to continue and be patient, which is something that is very difficult to reach sometimes.
Anyway. Let’s go back to what you were just saying about the way you formulate problems. And maybe that’s the only task we have as intellectuals: to formulate problems with the right terminology, the right language, so that the question would be asked in such a way that there could be something that could be done.
And, to breach this conversation with another one I’ve been having with Derek Gregory about the American politics of the drone intervention in several countries of the globe, there are some questions that are considered critical of the use of drones, but that are in fact legitimizing it. One, for example, is, should the US government be allowed to kill a US citizen without due trial? Well, that’s not a critical question because the real question is that, should they be allowed to kill anyone? So the very fact of pointing out one particular problem sometimes makes room for all the rest to be legitimized. Another thing that I’ve been looking at recently was this relatively strange outrage, I’d have to say, against what’s been called the “anti-homeless spikes” in many cities across the world and, for some reason, that seem to have been discovered very recently when, actually, they’ve been at work for quite a well. But that’s not even the problem. The problem is that, all of a sudden, people were arguing that homeless people should be allowed to sleep anywhere in the street when the real problem is that they are actually sleeping in the streets. I’m thinking of those examples as just a few ways to poorly formulate a problem. And, I don’t know, maybe you have other examples. I’m already talking too much.
MTN: No, no, no, those are all good examples because the ways in which you describe a problem has real effects on what becomes the solution you imagine. If the problem is described as “un-housed people should be able to sleep wherever they want on the streets,” then the solution is to get rid of the spikes rather than to find ways to house them, right? So that’s absolutely relevant. Or all the kinds of questions about, are these wartime actions legal or illegal according to these white papers written up by the justice department? That is completely besides the point. The fact that something might be legal doesn’t mean that it’s okay. When problems are about things like whether or not it should be legal for the United States to kill someone who is a US citizen without due process, then you define the problem as a problem of the law rather than a problem of state violence. Right? The law absolutely produces violence. So going to the law as some kind of protection against violence doesn’t make any sense. All it does is measure it and mediate what kinds of state violence can happen. But that doesn’t mean that state violence isn’t the problem. It’s not the measure of it that matters most but the fact that it happens.
LL: I think what we should come at as well is that not only are those questions beside the point but they very actively participate with what they’re critiquing. Maybe we do so as well every now and then when we’re not very intentional. This conversation is not about finger pointing of any kind. It’s very much about us wondering about what our positions can be. I suppose a way to try to synthesize this point is to say that it’s not enough to critique something. You need to critique it with a language that itself has been dismantled to analyze the logic of where the problem is coming from.
And, talking about language, we can now move to the current massacre in Gaza by the Israeli Army. We see several things. We see the press that is just fundamentally lying or disingenuous. We see some others who are trying to convey a symmetrical situation between the people of Gaza and the Israeli Army. And it’s very, very easy to realize how this symmetry corresponds to nothing in reality. But then we also have other discourses that do not want to be part of this symmetry and that fundamentally criticize the actions of the Israeli Army, for example, the Israeli government, or the current racism that has been going on within the Israeli society. But because there isn’t an operation of dismantling the language, there is actually a perpetration of this symmetry. Talking about a conflict between Palestine and Israel, for example, is very much a good example of it. Everything that conveys this idea that there are two, equal forces fighting against each other is doomed to perpetrate the status quo. I’ll continue later along this line, but I’m sure you have plenty to say about this as well.
MTN: There’s definitely some fascinating rhetoric going around. You and I were just talking yesterday about the newspaper headlines and how the New York Times had those four Palestinian boys who were killed on the beach and how they changed their headline to say that they somehow found themselves in the middle of crossfire or something, as if they weren’t actually targeted, which, of course, they were. The language of the idea of the ‘conflict,’ the idea that these are symmetrical forces just completely denies the fact of occupation. I mean, this is an occupation in a completely, structurally asymmetrical situation. It doesn’t seem to make sense to describe it as a “conflict.” But, of course, that’s the language that gets churned out over and over again.
LL: And I think the New York Times itself is actually part of the group of people who are very much working on the language but almost in the opposite way.
MTN: Right. Yeah.
LL: The effort they put into trying to de-responsibilize the Israeli Army is so extreme that they almost reach a degree of humor, or what would be humor if they were not describing absolutely horrifying events.
At an even more subtle level, I think that there’s something that brings us back to what you were describing at the very, very beginning: who are we choosing for figures of innocence? I recently wrote this small article about how, counterintuitive as it may be, we should not insist on how the Israel Army is bombing and killing women and children, and coupling this indignation with atrocious photographs of children being killed in the worst possible way. This is highly counterintuitive, of course, but the very fact of picking one figure of innocence is actually, without wanting it, justifying, almost, the treatment that is done with all those other figures that are not considered innocent. And, in the case of Gaza, it’s pretty simple. In the article, I differentiate between the status of innocence at a judicial level — in which case, I don’t believe anyone in Gaza received a proper trial before being executed by the bombs of the drones and F16s of the Israeli Army, so the entire population is judicially innocent — and the idea, as we say, a child is “innocent” whose, upon reaching adolescence or adulthood, parents would say, “Oh, well, she’s no longer innocent.” I was trying to make the point that in Gaza no one is innocent because no one has the luxury of being innocent. When you’re born in a hospital that is dependent for its drugs, or even of being or not being bombed by the Israel Army, then there’s no innocence that can be found. So we should refrain from any figures of innocence in that particular case. And I think you have many things to say about this very notion of innocence.
MTN: Well I’m sure it happened on your Facebook newsfeed too, but on my Facebook newsfeed I just see tons and tons of pictures and references to all the children who’ve been killed in Gaza. Pictures of little girls who are burned and screaming, little boys who are covered in blood and their parents are mourning them, if not dead next to them. We have seen invoked over and over again children as particularly innocent figures. Again, children are imagined to be transparently recognizable as figures of innocence. How does that happen? What disappears to make that kind of transparency possible? Who falls out as being, then, not innocent? And why? How do we then value them, if at all? I have felt very uncomfortable with the emphasis on the figure of the children being massacred in Gaza because, as you point out, everyone in Gaza who is being massacred — the men who are of fighting age, for instance — how come they’re not imagined as innocent? They’re automatically chalked up to be militants because they’re of fighting age, which is what the Obama Administration imagines when they hit people with drones in Pakistan. As long as you’re a man from 15 to 40 or 60 you are classified as a militant and you have no access at all to any kind of innocence, neither legally nor ethically.
So the figure of the innocent child obscures the fact that, then, we might be suggesting by default that there are people who, as Foucault puts it in his writing about criminal justice, resemble their crime before they even commit it. After a certain period, that child who was so innocent comes to resemble the militant instead, whether or not they’ve actually been militant or involved in any of those activities. Lisa Cacho in her book Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected calls this a “status crime,” when the “gangbanger,” the “terrorist,” the “militant,” the “undocumented” person are all imagined to be guilty of status crimes. Ontologically, they’re already guilty of being criminal whether or not they’ve actually engaged in any criminal behavior at all. I think the figure of innocence (our emphasis on and circulation of it) then obscures the fact that the counterpart to the innocent figure is the person who is guilty of a “status crime” for just being alive in Gaza, for instance.
LL: Yes. And maybe to continue on that, I think we should even look at the way the Israeli and US armies are considering children when they conduct a “targeted assassination” — which again makes us wonder, what a non-targeted assassination is. They are anticipating that the relatives of the person assassinated, children included, might very well become combatants following this assassination and, therefore, they become targets as well. So there’s something incredibly twisted in the levels of self-accomplishing prophecies that those two armies are able to think about. Within their own rationale, they are somehow agreeing that there would be legitimacy in thinking that relatives of someone who has been killed by a drone would become so deep in despair because of this event that they would become combatants. We’re really reaching some levels of twistedness that are probably unprecedented because I don’t think armies had to ideologically and discursively justify their actions that much in the past. So we’re reaching a way of the language becoming a weapon itself that’s very, very problematic. And I think that’s why we’re talking about it today.
MTN: Absolutely. Militarily and also in terms of police profiling. Consider all the intelligence reports about what is the likely causal background of a person who becomes a criminal or a terrorist, for example. And then they go and create that causal background, as you point out, by killing a person’s family members. The causal background is absolutely self-fulfilling. They identity the causal background and then they produce it. And then it becomes a “See! We told you so!” kind of situation.
LL: So it’s no longer bodies that look like the crimes they haven’t committed yet. It’s bodies that look like the crimes they’re going to be forced to commit later…
LL: …because we’re going to provide the conditions for it to happen through this self-fulfilling prophecy.
Maybe to conclude this conversation we need to go back to us and what it is that we should do, or how we should critique our own positions within all these discourses and the ones we’re contributing to as well. I tried to articulate an idea about it a little bit this morning, writing an article about how careful we need to be as intellectuals because, despite the fact that sometimes our political struggles and what we’re describing are combined pretty well with our own personal ambitions, there is always a moment where there is a choice that needs to be made between our own ambition and that which we are fighting for. And I was taking the very obvious example of this publisher who sent me an email yesterday promoting its books, saying that it was currently becoming historical because it was about the Torre de David in Caracas that was being evicted from its 3,000 squatters who had been living there for the last 15 years. But it’s easy to finger point without applying the same criticality to ourselves: in my case, I wrote all those articles about Gaza recently and I could see that I was gaining readership based on them, for example. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad, but it means that there is a precautionary attitude that needs to be adopted in that case because there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the description of the horror of what is going on in Gaza right now and an interest-based success. Would you help me with that, on how we should manage to situate ourselves as intellectuals?
MTN: This is related to a project I’m actually working on that has nothing to do with state violence necessarily, but is definitely informed by my work on thinking about state violence. One of the things I’ve been trying to deal with is the question of what it means to have things that I’m calling “minor objects,” which are those marginal forms, persons, words that are often mobilized in narratives to designate a moment of crisis. So a minor object might be the refugee figure that designates a moment of crisis that can lay bare the contingent quality of citizenship or state violence or liberal empire. But, then, what happens when that minor object becomes institutionalized as an object of knowledge? That’s one of the things I really struggled with when I was writing the first book about the gift of freedom and the figure of the refugee, and how I often ran into people who wanted me to articulate the figure of the refugee as an outside figure who would necessarily then be able to stand for an entire critique of US empire. And, for me, it doesn’t actually work that way. I don’t think I want to create this figure of resistance that would then track neatly into this critique because I think it’s actually more complicated than that. But I found that figures of resistance and minor objects circulate as a certain kind of academic capital.
I find that happening to me as somebody who grew up as a punk kid and has been making zines for a really long time, since 1991. And my zines have been institutionalized in particular ways. I often get asked, since I am an academic, to then comment on my own zines or to write about punk as an object of study or my zines as minor objects that can tell us something about youth culture or resistance. I feel resistant to that. I feel resistant to the institutionalization of minor objects that are made to stand in for resistance or ambivalence because I often feel like, while minor objects often do describe a limits of a structure or practice and can be met with clear violence, they can also be recruited to manage or overcome that crisis. For example, the refugee figure in The Gift of Freedom becomes institutionalized through acts like recognition and inclusion. And I feel like the idea of this minor object, this moment of resistance, these people who are squatters who are now being evicted and then are now captured in this book which is now an historical document and a rare commodity…that just demonstrates the dangers of the institutionalization of a minor object to stand in for a constitutive outside that, nonetheless, gets called upon to provide a complete picture or some ideal presence for something that was imagined to be missing, but without actually ever getting to be present.
LL: I think that in the case of the book about the Torre de David, because of they considered its inhabitants as “minor objects” (to use your own terminology), there is an absolute interest for this book that these same people be evicted because, in that case, the status of the book completely changes.
MTN: Right. It becomes even more rare.
LL: Yeah. We can see the exact same thing with Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong that was demolished in 1993. Now we have to turn to books to research about it, rather than just going there and being immersed in it. So we are reliant on the way it has been described by a very small amount of people. I think it’s important to see that you don’t need to intervene to have an interest in the story. That’s where we really have to be careful because it doesn’t take much for us to become complicit with the military intervention.
MTN: Right. So many of our impulses for repair, recovery, or rehabilitation are also occasions for control, interference, and accumulation. And that definitely applies to us as intellectuals. We do get and accumulate social and cultural capital by way of proximity to our minor objects. I definitely think that admitting to our own imperfectability, and not imagining that we are somehow capable of perfectible knowledge, goes a long way towards getting us to a place of being humble enough to be kind and compassionate about what we don’t know but also what other people don’t know.
LL: Well, thank you very much Mimi. It’s always great to know that I can turn to you when the time gets dark, as it does now. I think many of us really have trouble even reading the news. Hopefully this conversation would have been useful to more than me. Thank you.
MTN: Thank you.
 “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife,” in New York Times (July 16, 2014).