As I surveyed the tempestuous gamut of responses, hot takes, analyses, declarations, and provocations that emerged in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s declaration of war on Palestinians – as well as the subsequent unprecedented destruction of precious lives that accompanied the heated events sparked by Hamas – a persistent motif began to make itself known. On almost every Twitter page I scrolled past were announcements of where people “stood”: I stand with Israel. I stand with the people of Palestine. We unequivocally condemn this and therefore stand with that. There were memes, images, and bold fonts sans serif that wanted to let the reader know this was no time for games.
For some reason, this explosion of expressibility – ordinary as it seemed – piqued my interest. I even did an amateur Google search to examine how the words ‘I stand with’ were trending across the internet. Worldwide, usage had skyrocketed dramatically (by 650%) with the topic of “Israel” accounting for the context with the most usage. My suspicions cradled at face value, I returned to a private contemplation of what it was that churned as I met those framing words again and again. There was something very stoic and ontologically secure – perhaps even morally impressive – about declarations of near-absolute positionality. The phrase “I stand” was brimming with such fierce indisputability, such metaphysical security, perhaps echoing the utter unspeakability of a war that had left everyone slack-jawed.
I suffer from an acute inability to feel left out, but the compulsion to participate in this trend forced upon me a singular question, the very one that had stolen the air, rode the radio and molecular waves, and seemingly infected everyone on the planet: where do you stand? As buildings fall, as children die in the heat of battle, as threats of annihilation become indistinguishable from the flags that herald them, as hunger and pain curdle the atmosphere, as networks of unimaginable suffering become electrified by ballistic missiles, where do you stand?
It seems there are three popular options available in the market of stands: you are either on the side of the Palestinian people or with the Israeli occupation. Or you have some milquetoast, philosophically evasive both-and-ist response that does little to address the situation.
When I interviewed myself, two peculiar responses floated to the surface: a simpler answer and a more complex answer. The simpler answer – for those who have not already discerned my political biases and slants from the choice of terms and descriptions I have deployed throughout the text – is that my deepest compassions are reserved for people locked behind concrete apartheid walls and my most vituperative expressions of anger are dedicated to those mass media moments when Palestinian guests are tacitly presented as spokespersons for terrorism. Do you unequivocally condemn the terrorist attack by Hamas? Why would Hamas do such a horrible thing to the Israeli people?
I cannot help it. I cannot help this creaturely wave of affinity that overtakes me and entrains me with the plight of a people rendered inappropriate by the colonizing force of another. Born in the wake of colonial capture myself, not being able to speak my language, and having to navigate the residual apartheid walls that render Black bodies like mine suspicious and discardable, I know and feel this heat of being locked in. If I had my way, I’d sail to the fierce zones, break down those carceral walls, and wash the feet of every Palestinian mother, father, woman, man, and child.
As buildings fall, as children die in the heat of battle, as threats of annihilation become indistinguishable from the flags that herald them, as hunger and pain curdle the atmosphere, as networks of unimaginable suffering become electrified by ballistic missiles, where do you stand?
If this ‘position’ resonates with you, if this feels like comfort, if this feels nice and safe, if you’d rather not read on so that you don’t get upset, please do read on: it is often the discordant, the meandering, the uncomfortable, the so-called ‘impractical’, and the schizzing noise that hide queer openings and opportunities for the new.
So, yes, I have a second answer to the question, where do you stand? My response unfurls with a critical hesitation to ‘take a stand’. Don’t get me wrong: I have no qualms about the semantic quality of beginning a statement with a morally unambiguous declaration like “I stand with so and so.” My problem is not with the expression per se; my gripe is with the speculatively hidden presuppositions behind such declarative announcements. I wonder: are humans even capable of such unvarnished, presumptuously pure, moral positions? Do we really occupy these positions ontologically as tightly structured as their linguistic architectures are?
What a waste of precious time, you might say! Of course, we do! We are what we say we are! Well, mostly! Moreover, this is no time to get trapped with philosophical rubbish that has no practical consequence for those suffering right now! Well, I ask these questions because I am nurtured by certain process-based traditions that refuse to centralize humans as stable edifices in an already determined moral universe. I find it extremely difficult to think that there is already a set world out there, a world pre-divided into the categories of good versus evil – one in which every human soul comes equipped with a conscience that merely reflects this outer design of things.
I cannot trust that just because we say something, we are those things we say – because to do so would be to reduce everything to the human individual, including the fields of moral play we shape, and which shape us in return. If morality is a dense field of codes and ideas and laws and patterns, I think they emerge within relationships – and do not have some kind of transcendent, special, divine status. I also think that these fields we are enmeshed in, these codes that govern, are vulnerable to forces and flows that travel. This is what I call ethics. I think the world is an open-ended flowing of relationships, and that when those streaming bodies collect in a particular way, we call it morality – so that one might say morality is a temporary arrangement of ethical flows. Like an ice cube is a temporary arrangement of watery flows.
One of the implications of reframing morality this way – and of decentering humans from their perch as valedictorians of a morally predetermined world – is that the language of ‘stands’ begins to feel less secure, less monumental, more slippery, slushier, and beyond human. In a sense, we are diagonal beings. Or rather, we are diagonal becomings. Have you ever tried standing perfectly still? If you do, you might notice you are actually moving in barely perceptible ways, leaning back and forth, vibing in the minor key. Yes, it would seem 'standing' is always troubled by the quantum inclinations that ripple through our claims to stable and resolute positionality. The rectilinearity assumed in the mathematical precision of a stand hides from us the ways we might be participating in and sustaining the very conditions we would like to rectify. The ways we are already moved.
I cannot trust that just because we say something, we are those things we say – because to do so would be to reduce everything to the human individual, including the fields of moral play we shape, and which shape us in return.
And that there, people…that there is the meandering ‘point’ that brings me to the second layer of my complex, longwinded, answer. This part follows from the previous proposition about the ways we are a lot more porous than our stated or unstated convictions. A lot more compromised than what we say we believe (an observation that would force Yale Professor Tamar Gendler to formulate a counterintuitive notion of belief she calls ‘alief’): I think that at some level many of those who say they stand with Israel and many of those who say they stand with Palestine are saying the same thing, operating within the same logic.
Mind you, I do not mean to say that those who say it believe the recipients of their compassion are having the same experience as their enemies. I mean to say that something lurks beyond the grammar, beneath the declarations. Something that makes their apparently contradictory positions twin aspects of the same material force field, the same spinning gyre of logic: this is the faith that human individuals are free-willed agents, possessing selves, separate from others and their worlds, responsible for their choices, and discrete in their ontologies.
You may think these ideas so commonplace that it feels mildly shocking to have them rudely aired out this way – especially in a time like this when we shouldn’t be doing these kinds of things, and we should all be getting involved. Somehow. My provocation is that we are already involved – maybe not in the ways we expect. If the abovementioned axioms feel bone-familiar to you, you may not realize that these ideas are historical and contingent upon certain social arrangements, finding a home in the political ideology of liberalism – an Enlightenment era concept that took off from the assumption that humans are central to how the world works. That humans are free. And that this freedom is computationally resolved within a realm of rights and privileges, capably held by the highest form of human sociality, the state.
I mean to say that something lurks beyond the grammar, beneath the declarations. Something that makes their apparently contradictory positions twin aspects of the same material force field, the same spinning gyre of logic: this is the faith that human individuals are free-willed agents, possessing selves, separate from others and their worlds, responsible for their choices, and discrete in their ontologies.
The problem here is this: if we examined the troubles of the Middle East (which now threaten to spill into a Third World War) through liberal lenses, through intact binaries, we’d risk losing sight of the firmament of thick relational flows that precede our unique ‘I’s and how these territorial movements shape us. We’d risk reducing the ways architecture, texture, colour, concept, and intensity form dense sociomaterial fields of contingency and feedback to the flat dimensionality of ‘human behaviour’, and as such risk pathologizing the ‘other’ as evil. We’d risk losing sight of the ‘thing power’ of nation-states and the materiality of lines and how it is often the case that the poison is not in the pot, but the pot itself. Perhaps most critically, if we discussed these matters emerging, these matters ancient, through the lenses of liberalism, we’d risk winning. And in a game of sides, the greatest losses we suffer are the other side.
Isn’t this a both-and-ism situation, one which I promised not to articulate? No. Saying stuff like “both sides are to blame” or “there are good people on both sides” elides the unevenness of power relations in a world where undulation is the dis/order of things. I am no disciple of equal culpability. What I am gesturing for here is a different framing of agency and affect (or our capacity to be in response with something) that does not begin from the liberal givens that seem to be troublingly implicated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict/war.
So, travel with me a while longer: let’s assume that there is an impersonal force, flowing like a river. This force isn’t outside of us: indeed, we are shaped by and shapers of this force. We emerge only within this dense network of relations. Let’s call this force, ‘desire’. Desire does not represent reality; it is how reality is produced. It is all the processes of production that shape history, that shape whether a frog has two eyes or a mutant third growing on its back, and shape how we act and grow within capitalist nuclear families.
Let’s now treat this desirous intra-action of relations as capable of being channeled into repetitive patterns of reality production. For instance, think of all the ways we are imbricated with commodities, taught the unshakeable value of obedience within traditional family structures, or habituated into thinking good grades mean we are worthy of adulation.
What could follow from this idea of an impersonal, history-shaping, sociomaterial field of relationships and entanglements? Perhaps it might commend to us a different story: not of two incompatible people transcendentally different, but two people different immanently, gaining definition through emerging relationships and constraints. Instead of focusing on independent agents with personal desires, we’d sniff out connections instead. We’d want to understand how stranger-quenching feelings of nationalism are produced within the state, and how those feelings create postures impervious to the plight of others. We’d want to sit with what the concept of statehood as the highest expression of nationhood makes us capable of sensing, and what it renders us incapable of sensing. We’d wonder about the ways being occupied, flattened, and sat upon could push one to the edge of all screaming. You know, how enclosures radicalize us, why it was the case that people in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, citizens within the former East German bloc found it more difficult to trust their neighbours than those on the other side. Or why judges in a court of law were more likely to be lenient or punitive in their declarations based on the hardness or softness of the furniture around them.
What could follow from this idea of an impersonal, history-shaping, sociomaterial field of relationships and entanglements? Perhaps it might commend to us a different story: not of two incompatible people transcendentally different, but two people different immanently, gaining definition through emerging relationships and constraints.
I am not speaking about a causal chain of things that predetermine us; I am gesturing at an inherently creative and unspeakable force that can be trapped and can be released in how it flows and schizzes everything. I am speaking about the seemingly unremarkable matter of drawing a line down a map to divide regions into bits and pieces, and how those lines whisper to us. Whisper us.
At first blush, this odd articulation feels like an abandonment of accountability and responsibility. Not quite. What this articulation offers is a stretching of accountability to include things we don’t usually include when we contemplate human action, especially the opprobrious kinds of action that tempt us into assigning labels like “evil” to said actors. All that feels like a strange way of saying this conflict has never been an issue between Palestinians and Israeli. Instead, this is a matter of the Israeli, the Palestinians, the Westphalian order of nation-states, the Enlightenment ideology of liberalism, the materialities of the two World Wars, the affect of nationalism and its dependence on food preferences, material rituals, and gut microbial cultures. Concomitantly, a simple humanistic analysis (and ‘solution’) that focuses squarely on bad actors and their usurpation of territory risks oversimplifying the excess-inducing worlds of entanglements and cutting off all the material inducements, all the foods, all the postures, all the alchemical instigations of geography and climate, all the social algorithms, and all the ways we are held within vast assemblages and machines that produce us. All the ways we only show up in part and not in wholes.
For instance, the popularity of Zionism as an expression of Jewish settlement best attained by the achievement of statehood is only one of many roads taken. There are many other roads not taken, and many other paths not travelled. Yes, Zionism is a contested concept – not an embodiment of evil. According to author Noam Pianko, in his book, Zionism and the Roads Not Taken, there are variously suppressed histories of Jewish intellectuals that sought to steer Zionism away from liberal state capture. Pianko writes:
Contrary to one Zionist narrative, key Jewish intellectuals asserted Zionism’s mission as modeling an alternative to nation-state nationalism that would reconfigure the relationship between nationality, sovereignty, and international politics. Zionism, they contended, outlined the blueprint for a conception of national identity equally relevant for homeland and diaspora populations, compatible with particular and human allegiances, and distinct from patriotism or political citizenship. As the embodiment of the Jewish political tradition, Zionism testified to the limits of national self-determination on both moral and pragmatic grounds. It also exemplified the universal benefits of cultivating national ties across spatial and political boundaries.
Pianko further writes:
The assumption that Zionism exemplifies the paradigm of the nation-state and its attendant negation of diaspora communities was not the inevitable outcome of Zionist ideology during the first half of the twentieth century. As the discourse of European nationalism and Zionism evolved after World War I, some Jewish intellectuals saw Zionism as an opportunity to redefine national membership, both Jewish and, more generally, beyond the concrete borders of homeland and state.
Pianko shows that a variety of pre-state Zionisms that sought to challenge the neurotypical dominance of statehood thrived for a while but lost the argument to a strand of the conversation that allied itself with liberalism.
This is no apology for ‘Zionism’. Instead, this reframe challenges the idea that what we are dealing with in the Middle East are stable concepts, already fully determined, instead of contested, partially recuperated, traces of dynamic and open-ended ideas – no less open-ended in fact than human identities are.
Perhaps it is time to offer the last layer of my complex answer. And it is this: none of us can hold this. The weight and burden of this ongoing war. None of us can stand. Our knees buckle beneath the felt suffering. Some of us cry. Others take to Twitter. And a few others bury themselves in philosophy.
I don’t know what I’d do if my daughter’s life were taken by a bullet. If my son had to be dragged off into an unwilling sunrise. If my wife were murdered. How do we respond to the non-stop streaming images that remind us, driven by ceaseless capitalist bots, that a building has just collapsed on several families in the world’s largest prison? How do we process the grief? How do we pray, do we act, do we think, in ways that do not reproduce the conditions that nourish the dominant tendencies that have produced this war?
Maybe I am overthinking it, but when we consider that the ways we respond to the crisis at hand are the crisis, it becomes difficult to not want to syncopate that dominant rhythm of declarative stands from the Twitterati. I wonder: how am I imbricated in this in ways that may not lend itself to a solution, but calls me into fields and intensities of forging new alliances with the world? What new solidarities, hybridities, surprising futures, speculative storytelling, postural gestures, bold questions, and radical hospitalities might we entertain in response to what can only be sensed in part, never as a whole?
How do we process the grief? How do we pray, do we act, do we think, in ways that do not reproduce the conditions that nourish the dominant tendencies that have produced this war?
The world is at war. In the grip of lines and stencilled territories, we enact logics that exceed us, that transgress the categoricity of morally independent actors, and that might offer us a strange bewildering other thing, a line of flight away from this toxic convergence of lines. In such a world, no move is too small: every gesture ripples out into a vast tumble and tangle of things, potentizing this forest with new intelligences, with the soft response that might invite us to consider that solutions may get in the way of transformation, and that the thing to do is dance with the trouble.
Yes, stands are important to articulate. But other gestures are needed to do other kinds of work. Perhaps the thing to do when the storm approaches is to prostrate.
“The impatient idealist says: 'Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.' But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.”
― Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease