Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Maya Mikdashi

This conversation was recorded on 27th January 2023.Speakers: Dr Gala Rexer, SPRC postdoctoral fellow and Maya Mikdashi, Associate Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Rutgers

INT:     Welcome back to the SPRC podcast, my name is Gala Rexer and I’m a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the SPRC and today I’m delighted to welcome Maya Mikdashi on the podcast. Maya Mikdashi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University and we’re here today to speak about her first book, Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism & the State in Lebanon, which has been published with Stanford University Press in 2022. It theorises the relationship between sexual difference and political difference, the religious and the secular, and law and bureaucracy and biopower.

            Maya has also been published in several field defining journals such as, for example, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Gay & Lesbian Quarterly, Transgender Studies Quarterly, or the Journal of Palestine Studies. She’s also a co-founding editor of Jadaliyya. Thanks so much for joining me, Maya.

MM:     Thanks for having me. I’m excited to have this conversation with you.

INT:     I noticed throughout reading the book that you often use the image of a knot to describe how things are tied together or how they’re co-produced. For instance, in the introduction, you’re asking ‘what can we learn about the ways that secular power and one of its manifestations, citizenship, is practiced at this knot of religion, sect and sex?’ And while I was reading the book, I also felt like I was untying a knot that was made out of different materialities, such as legal anthropology, queer theory, women’s studies, anthropology of the law, Middle East studies, and maybe more.

            So I was wondering, to begin with, if you could talk a little bit about how you were weaving these disciplines together, and how they shape the book, and also how this approach can maybe help us, more broadly, to think about state power?

MM:     I think that any book is a reflection of the author and the conversations they’re having, what they’re reading, what they’re teaching, and also just what world that they’re in, and you think you definitely identified the major three fields that animate the book.

            Anthropology, which was my PhD training and is my sort of methodological approach to academic work. Women and gender studies, queer theory, sexuality studies, feminist theory, which is where I now work; I work in this field and it definitely is a field that I find I’m very glad that I’ve found, and it really invigorated my thinking over the past decade or so. And, finally, Middle East studies, which I’ve also been working in for a very long time now and I have an MA degree in.

            And I think that part of what I tried to do in this book is to take all three fields seriously and to put them into conversation in a way that doesn’t try to make hierarchies between them, but to also open up pathways of conversation, because I haven’t really seen texts that take each field seriously on their own and try to not only create threads but identify the places where those threads fall apart in between them.

            That can mean things even in terms of the claims you’re making, different approaches to similar topics or subjects, different theoretical strengths in different fields, or at least what I find interesting. But also doing it in terms of the citational politics and practice where I’m drawing on all the people, all the work, that informs my work, and they are primarily from these three fields.

            I’m sure you know, for example, Middle East studies and gender studies are both interdisciplinary fields. Of course, Middle East studies, in my opinion, is more multidisciplinary in some ways than interdisciplinary and I try to present it in an interdisciplinary way in this book, and it heavily emerges from historians, political scientists.

            So having these sort of interdisciplinary fields really talk to each other and identify how they miss, they sort of parted ways in some way on subjects like sexual difference and securitisation.  At the same time, I think anthropology is just sort of the way that I’m able to think about experiences of power, what it feels like to experience different forms of power, and to live through these different practices of the state. And here I would say that I think having these fields be in a very convivial conversation is also tied to the politics of location in some ways and insisting on a place like Lebanon to be a launching pad of generating such a conversation that’s both theoretical and methodological.

            I like that you picked up on the knot, the recurring word of the ‘knot’ in the book. The way I sort of think about it, and how I try to present it in the book, is that if you pursue a knot before they become discrete categories, before they get sort of disambiguated, stabilised, securitised, you get to see, in many ways, how the categories we use themselves are constantly changing, will change, and are always in flux and in process, and are always the result of a kind of disciplinary power that’s both geopolitical but also epistemological and the sort of relations between the geopolitical and the epistemological there.

            Obviously, here I’m thinking about how the categories of our knowledge themselves change and what would happen if we try to not to assume what we’re going to find when we start our research, which is an approach I think I’ve taken from anthropology mostly. But also I’ve been thinking about this more, because I had to write something for a journal these past few weeks, which is sort of how geopolitics are not only the setting of our work, but are the conditions of our work.

            For example, I’m sure you know, given your own placement in different fields, that there’s been kind of a resurgence of work on Lebanon from different disciplines, and part of that is just the geopolitical condition of the Middle East where it’s just so much more difficult and dangerous to go to places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Palestine - of course, Palestine has never been open to a huge group of researchers. Geopolitics is not just the setting, it’s an active sort of shape of how we do our work, what is possible and even the location of theory.

INT:     I think that really relates to a question that I actually wanted to ask you later, but it’s a perfect pathway and I cannot not take it, which is the question of locality. So where do we think state power, citizenship, or sovereignty from, I guess, is one of the animating questions of your book and it really makes the case of thinking it from Lebanon. But also earlier in your work, for instance, in an article you wrote with Jasbir Puar, you referenced the ‘transnational Middle East’ and you really ask how does queer theory sit within area studies or within Middle East studies. So can you talk a little bit more about working from these theoretical peripheries, or from different locations, and how that enriches our world thinking and methodology, I guess?

MM:     Thanks for this question. Part of what we were saying in that article is not just the relation between queer theory and area studies but really kind of identifying queer theory as a form of area studies, as a sort of uncoded, geographically bound also, for the most part - of course it’s leaky, for the most part – body of theory, and then part of that is the sort of geopolitics of place itself, what place is good to stand in for the world, and what places are only places. So what peripheries are the world and what peripheries are always going to be periphery?

            And I think that definitely in this book, in Sextarianism, I wanted to do away with that idea and to do away with it confidently. I’m not trying to make a case, guys please pay attention to these parts of the world who are creating theory, I’m just saying this is what the world looks like, when thought through this location and taking this location seriously in terms of its politics, its history, its texture and the knowledge that has been created about this space.

            So insofar as, for example, if you think the world from Lebanon, the question of the state obviously sounds a little bit different from a place that’s been in civil war for most of its history - civil wars or wars with Israel for most of its history – sounds different, the question of citizenship, when asked from Lebanon. It really forces us to think about ways of making and unmaking citizenship, the relationship between refugees and citizens, and undocumented people, and migrant labour, and how political systems kind of get fuelled, in many ways, by demographic anxieties. And I know this is something that we share, this concern, or this interest, in demographic anxieties that are often stirred up by things like sex panics. 

            For example, if you think about biopolitics, securitisation, the making of national difference and demographic anxiety from a location like Lebanon, part of what we have to pay attention to is how difference gets made from sameness, or from similarities. So if you think about 1948 as this moment where Palestinians are ethnically cleansed from what becomes the State of Israel and Occupied Palestine into Lebanon, in 1948 what is the difference between Lebanese and Palestinians?

            Lebanon has been created in 1943. And it’s precisely the similarity of populations that can produce violence, as a way of making difference. And then obviously this is then repeated on a much larger scale, with the war in Syria and the arrival of Syrian refugees to Lebanon, where today the ratio is that for every three citizens there’s one refugee living in Lebanon and some studies say that actually the ratio is larger, closer to 1:2.5, or 2.5:1.

            And I think that if you ask these kinds of questions from these kinds of locations, you start to see a different texture in terms of how we think about violence, nationalism, difference, political difference, sexual difference, precisely because we’re not talking about Syrians arriving into Germany. We’re not. We’re talking about families that had been split by borders returning, in many ways, different branches of different families.

            So definitely I think where we ask these questions about our world today, precisely because it is a world with increasing movement from all the sort of different collapses that are happening, and calamities, all around us, it makes a lot more sense, to be honest, to ask this question from a location like Lebanon than to ask it from France, or at least in the contemporary moment.

INT:     That makes a lot of sense and I think you really do show that in the book. I was thinking maybe we take a step back for those who haven’t read it yet, and talk about the term you’re proposing, which is ‘sextarianism’. What does it do, as a concept, in tying together sex, sect and state power?

MM:     So the term really emerges from a long genealogy of feminist theory, feminist political theory, about sexual and political difference, and how they are co-produced and, at the same time, separated within different political ideologies, such as liberalism, like the genesis of the liberal social contract theory, for example, back to Carole Pateman’s foundational work on this issue. So the term sort of emerges from this kind of engagement but then also is grounded in kind of a winking reality of an overly primitive conversation on sectarianism that happens in our location, in the transnational Middle East, but also just in other locations of the Global South.

            And here I’m thinking about sectarianism very broadly as a term, not only in its religious definition but as forms of difference that are highly affective and rigid, or at least that’s how the literature points to it, so it could be tribalism, sectarianism, ethnic difference and, importantly, how political difference really becomes sharpened around the question of sex and sexuality.

            So if our world is sort of increasingly sextarian and is increasingly sectarian in how we define our politics and how even within different nation states people define their politics against each other based on questions of sex, based on questions of gender, and the temperature of the conversation is awfully hot, it tries to then, I think this is a global phenomena, that what I was trying to do was to offer a term that allows for us to both think about the genesis of political and sexual difference and how they’re co-constituted but also how they’re deployed. How they’re deployed ideologically that relationship, how it gets deployed politically, ideologically, discursively, and in daily practice.

            Here, again, I think that the difference Lebanon makes is that it’s like on steroids. It’s such an intense example, this relationship of political and sexual difference and the deployment of sex as a discourse of politics and as the sort of articulation of different political discourses through this question of sexual difference, whether it’s about things like birth patterns, or it’s things like the moral, national architecture of nationhood. So the term tries to work at multiple scales - the bureaucratic, structural, ideological, and the practical embodied.          

INT:     That’s another perfect pathway to talk about methodology a bit more, because what I enjoyed most while reading the book, and sort of what also was my biggest takeaway as a scholar, as a writer, was to pay attention to the multi-layered arguments that you make about fieldwork, about doing archival work, about what it means to be in an archive but also what it means to be with the documents, with the people who work there, and what sort of relations unfold in that process.

            You’re suggesting in the book a resurge in writing practice that centres not the archival object itself but the assemblage that makes that thing, so the processes, the materialities, the histories, that kind of make the thing that we study. And I think that opens up, analytically, to include speculation or opacity and, indeed, affect into the analysis.

            And I wanted to talk a bit about chapter two, ‘A Fire in the Archive’, where you describe your own affective reaction to receiving a file that describes war crimes of a militia leader and how you didn’t want to read it. And then later, at the end of the chapter, you reflect on how that file was handed to you, it was indeed thrown to you on the floor by the archivist that you were working with. I guess, many years later, in writing the book, you’re speculating about why she threw it on the floor; you’re speculating about her motives in that particular moment. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about indeterminacy as a method, as it is present throughout your work?

MM:     This is, in some ways, tied to what we’ve been talking about, knots and categories, and what comes to the fore when we ask the same question from different locations, what different texture location brings. And part of what I try to argue in the book, specifically - and I think it comes out in this chapter most strongly - is that we should be open to our own investments in the meaning and truth and fixing truth and meaning, and also sit with the fact that we’ll probably never know. We’re not  sovereign over knowledge production in some ways, both in terms of… and I also say I had a totally different project until I entered the archive. I was doing something totally different and then, when I asked people, what do you think is important, they started sharing these files with me, which is how I really came to think about sextarianism as a concept, as in seeing how just impossible it was to disaggregate political difference from sexual difference, bureaucratically and legally.

            So part of what I’m trying to say in that passage that you sort of pointed to is that, especially when there’s such a strong seduction to meaning, like that last sort of scene is sort of begging to be read in a particular way, which I point to, and I say this would be the standard way of reading it, but also here are many other ways of reading it, and they all contain each other. And I’ll never know, and I accept, in some ways, that I’ll never know, and it’s much more interesting, intellectually, to dwell in the question than to provide an answer, for me at least, and I think that’s an honest way of depicting what we do in research.

INT:     While I was reading the book, I also felt that there was a term, or a notion, or a concept, that was really present throughout the whole book, but that wasn’t addressed on an analytical level and that’s the term of ‘intimacy’ or ‘intimacies’. I found that it structured the book in your own way of approaching the archive and your careful photographic analysis, and that always refers to positionality and your locality in these histories and archives, and also it’s present in the ways in which bureaucracy and the state manage peoples’ lives in a biopolitical way and how, indeed, it structures what they can do and what they cannot do, and what kinds of questions they ask of the state and of the courts, and I think what you refer to as ‘violent intimacies’, especially in chapter 5, where you talk about hymen and anal exams conducted by the state or state adjacent actors. So what role would you say intimacy play in sextarianism as a theory and also as a method or methodology?

MM:     That’s a good question and it’s interesting you picked up on it, because it’s definitely a thread that I don’t really dedicate enough time to, maybe. At the outset I’d just say that the term ‘violent intimacies’ is actually taken from the work of Asli Zengin who is also an ethnographer of violence in and of the state. In her work it’s very much about how the state touches you, and its relation of violence through intimacy, in many ways, and how intimacy itself is incredibly violent.

            So I’m very much in conversation with that work, and inspired by it, and I started thinking about in terms of the experience of the state and how the structuring of intimacy into bureaucratic and legal regimes, but also the structuring of intimacy as a place of regulation and of hyper-securitisation is an extremely violent process. It's a violent experience and it’s an experience that we all share, which I think is an important thing to state here. If we share one thing about the experience of the state, it's, in many ways, how it’s structured, and it’s intimate intimacy and intimate relations, and what we mean by that term. Of course, intimacy itself operates on multiple scales.

            So when it comes to the question of the intimacy in the work itself, or intimacy as a way of being reflective about research, what I found the most interesting here is that the intimacy that I had with a lot of my interlocutors, ended up that we could fight a lot, and we did, and I tried to show that in the text. That these are not experiences where I’m going in and I’m analysing what people are saying to me and I’m coming up with some kind of tidy theory, like this is what they actually mean…

            This is not a question of self-consciousness where the academic comes in and translates everyday life. People are the sort of bigger, greatest theorists of their own lives, and part of that intimacy is the ability to argue, and to argue with a smile, in some ways. And I try to show that particularly on the chapter on the archive, but also, there I’m very careful – and I think this is linked, in some ways, to the last chapter and the chapter on religious conversion – to not mistake positionality for identification or for the ability to decide oneself.

            Positionality is not something that the author gets to sort of state in a sovereign way, this is my position, this is who I am in this space, because you never determine, you’re not the person actually determining what you are in social space. Definitely I could stand in front of the mirror and say, my name’s Maya Mikdashi, this is who I am, this is what matters to me. But when you answer into a social space all of that becomes in flux and positionality is something that is always changing and you’re never sovereign over.

            And intimacy, and making intimacy, is one of the ways that you get positioned in a particular social field. And that was definitely true in my archival work, but it was also true when I was doing the work on religious conversion, where obviously identification, what a state identifies you as is not necessarily what you identify yourself as. Everybody kind of understands this misrecognition; nobody assumes that it does have to be like this sort of visceral… and I think that kind of winking perspectives on these kinds of relations, I do take from a lot of the work in queer theory, and gender studies, and just my own sort of lived experience, of the state and of identification.

INT:     Maybe we could continue to talk a little bit about the state, because in the last chapter you propose the term of ‘the epidermal state’ and how it relates to the body, to further theorise how states materialise bodies but also shape them and, on the other hand, how sovereignty and violence is produced and felt on a bodily level. Specially you’re looking, as I mentioned, on the practice of hymen and anus exams to determine differently gendered sexual activity.

            But I wanted to firstly talk a bit about the term itself, because it’s really interesting you mentioning Fanon and Povinelli as sort of the parents, I guess, of this term, but also Braidotti, in the way in which you think about the body itself, so could you explain a bit more how you came to that term in conversation with these authors?

MM:     Well, this is partly about intellectual genealogy, Beth Povinelli was my graduate advisor, one of the chairs of my dissertation – the other was Nadia Abu Al-Haj - so I’m very familiar with her work and was very inspired. She sort of introduced me to the field of legal anthropology and different ways of thinking about law. And there’s also a different genealogy here of politics of location and of historical processes, where Fanon and Povinelli are talking to each other but they’re also talking about different things, in some ways, and these different things are related to different colonial projects, and the forms of violence that these colonial projects unleash not only physically but epistemologically, even in terms of our understanding of what the world is and what the body is in the world, and what the relation of the body to the world is.

            I will say that as important to me, and just as importantly as Fanon and Povinelli are in shaping this, the image of bruised bodies is just as influential to me. Here I’m thinking specifically about how I felt when I saw the images of Khaled Said circulating out of Egypt, and the way that the body became such an obvious target. I say, ‘obvious’, and it’s always been a target but at least in my own life, this is when I really started to see and feel the kind of violence unfolding all around me, during this period of the uprising, but then recognising this long genealogy of the body and violence and securitisation, and much of state power actually really condensing on this point to make you a body, a body separate from other bodies, to determine the meaning of bodies – and here I’m thinking about gender, sex, sexuality, race, nationality.

            So, in my own sort of path, I’d say the War on Terror, the uprising from Tunisia onwards, my own experiences in Lebanon of state violence and repression really are, I think, shaping my thinking of the epidermal state as theorists are, let’s put it that way. And in addition to talking about the ‘threshold of the body’, and Povinelli’s term, or the misrecognition of violence and race and identity, and the psychology of misrecognition in some ways, it’s just as important to think about the body as a space of contestation, of meaning, contesting meaning, what this part of your body means and doesn’t mean. And again, here, the threshold is of the self but it’s also of self-sovereignty, when you’re really up against state apparatus.

            I think it’s important here to just bring back the point that part of why I wrote this chapter is because the conversation on sovereignty itself is so over-determined, particularly in Lebanon, but also in places like Palestine and in many other locations in the Middle East, and that is that the understanding of sovereignty in Lebanon, it doesn’t… the Lebanese State is not sovereign, period; it’s not sovereign.

            And it’s not sovereign because it doesn’t have hegemony over political violence, but then what is political violence? Who gets to determine what political violence is and isn’t? Just because a state doesn’t have this kind of hegemony doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly violent. Because if you ask the questions from the location of vulnerability, if you ask a refugee in Lebanon, a Syrian refugee, is the Lebanese State violent? Is it sovereign in its violence over you? You will get an answer.

            And the echo here that I just want to mention, because it was incredibly important to me personally, but I think it’s important to our world and to theorisation of our world, is that the question of sovereignty pre and post invasion and occupation of Iraq is totally different. The states that have been considered failed states are not theoretical, and we have to sit with that, and that was very much part of how I was trying to think about epidermal sovereignty

INT:     A good way to end is that, when talking about sovereignty, how can we also talk about resilience or agency, which are obviously also complicated terms, but I felt when I was reading the book that they were also nods or references to these practices. For example, in the ways in which you’re describing how some interlocutors, as well as people in court files, refuse sextarian interpellation, or how they play with it, or how they use it strategically in all these different bureaucratic processes.

            I don’t know if it’s agency, but it especially appears in the ways in which you describe these people as ‘opaque’, or maybe ‘ambivalent’ in the face of the state. So, to end the conversation, I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about the affective, agentive, or opaque registers of everyday life and if these are modes of disidentification or strategic identification that you’re describing, sort of how you think about them?

MM:     To me the notions of hyper visibility and opacity are very intimately connected, bureaucratically and legally and ideologically. This kind of hyper visibility actually allows for a kind of opacity, both as a state practice, which I describe as the state not really caring what you believe in, because it understands religion just to be a governmental, biopolitical, inherited category, not a category of viscerality or belief, so it kind of allows for opacity in that way.

            At the same time, this hyper visibility of difference allows space, I don’t know if I would call it agency but play, play with categories, and the ability to play is structured by the things we already know - class, gender, race, nationality, legal status. So, in some ways, to me they are linked. The fact these are hyper securitised categories, sextarian categories, actually allows for play within them, because as long as you play by a script, people aren’t asking you if you really believe it, as long as you know the script and you’ll say it at certain times.

            That’s sort of the image I think that you’re referring to, sort of like, what if religious conversion was some kind of masquerade, where people know what they’re doing, and the state knows what they’re doing, and everyone is sort of turning to each other with a half-smile, but because we’re all seeing the script, we are performing the play.

            And that’s actually what state power is, it’s a script performance, that we’re stabilising even in our just sort of recitation of a script, with the knowledge it doesn’t have to be attached to particular forms of meaning all the time in every kind of instance. So I think the category of agency is a tricky one. Maybe it was easier a year ago when I was finishing the book than today, given what’s happening in Lebanon, the question of agency I think takes on a slightly different register and I’m more leaning to using the word ‘play’.           

INT:     Thank you. That was super interesting. Thank you so much for talking to me.

MM:     Thank you and thank you for these questions.