Mar 08 2013
Following his colossal interview ‘The Empire of Sexuality’, we arranged to interview the most prominent Arab intellectual in the post-Fatimid era, Joseph Massad (JM), about another problematic concept at the intersection of late capitalism and Euro-American hegemony, cheese. We were intrigued by Massad’s comments about western culture’s tendency to label the various stages of milk into clear-cut ‘categories’, such as butter, cheese and ice cream, so we dispatched Alex Osman Fassbinder (AOF) and Mga Mga Mawali Mxmachk (the x is silent) (MMMM) to talk to him. The interview below promises to radically transform how we understand and conceptualise dairy products.
AOF & MMMM: In your work and your academic interventions, you have argued that the imposition of the categories such us butter, cheese and yoghurt on the non-Western world is inseparable from the politics of imperialism and the dominance of the capitalist mode of production. Can you describe this process?
JM: The point to begin with here is the fluidity of dairy products. Outside the Euro-American hegemony, the boundaries between those products were blurred historically. Indeed in the Levant, the ‘labné’ concept mocked the autonomous distinction between ‘cheese’ and ‘yoghurt’. Not until the modern era did those categories begin to solidify. Needless to say, as capitalism is the universalizing means of production, it began by enforcing distinct linguistic labels on dairy products and tying those labels to distinct consumable, and spreadable, categories. But native Arab dairy philosophies, and there never was a single dominant one, were innately unsuited to these categorisations.
Mind you, I am not arguing that these dairy identities always fail to institute themselves inside or outside the West and that this failure is total, rather that they succeed and fail differentially across classes and countries depending on the effect of capitalist structures, and their production of certain colours, forms, and smells of cheese on different classes, which are in turn the outcome of uneven capitalist development. While imperial capital is often productive of new dairy categories, including cheese types commensurate with its dissemination of the white cheese block idealised form globally, and the racialized implications that entails, whatever new dairy categories it creates and generates in the periphery are not always or often mappable onto the cheese-yoghurt binary.
AOF & MMMM: Can you elaborate on the linguistic dimensions, the persistence of semantic distinctions and the hegemony of meaning as defined through the narrow frame of single attributes?
JM: This is somewhat of a personal issue to me. I have struggled against this hegemony of meaning, the Western insistence on linguistic categorisation that is quite infuriating. Why do we have to make a distinction between cheese and yoghurt for example?
AOF & MMMM: Well, if you are in a shop and you want to buy some cheese? Surely that’s the point of shared linguistic signifiers?
JM: That’s a typical expression of the Western instrumental appropriation of language and its possibilities. In my work, I have tried to disassociate this signified – signifier relationship from the question of meaning. That’s why I often use words that seem to make no sense at all, and don’t even seem to fit together in a sentence. I often use phrases like neo-liberal paradigm, colonial epistemology, and bourgeois dissemination randomly in ‘sentences’ and everybody understands what I’m saying. And don’t even get me started on punctuation.