QA 51. Optical illusions, the political economy of


One image that can be seen in two distinct ways, but never both at once. Faces or a vase? Duck or rabbit? Crone or maiden? Someone shows you: See, the old woman’s chin is the young woman’s throat! All of a sudden, you do see. You start to switch the two back and forth, grinning like a kid. You can’t believe your eyes!

In times like ours, which call on us to think differently, the skills of vacillation are good to cultivate. Look at it this way. We are all, more or less, caught in the thrall of a particular mode of thinking and its moral order. Call it Western hegemony or what you will, this dominant perspective prizes objectivity, reason and utility, and excels in categorisation, prediction and control. It conceives of humans as self-interested and separate beings that are concerned with their own being, and as winners and losers in competition for scarce resources. It is a view that marginalises and dismisses human tenderness, vulnerability and relatedness. But it knows a duck when it sees one!


And clearly, we are ducks. There’s plenty evidence of our waddling and quacking. All that’s left to argue about is the kind of ducks we are, and how we should conduct ourselves and treat each other. If we don’t like the dominant political order, we can appeal to its reason, build counter-arguments, rip through logical inconsistencies and fallacies. We can try to change the game or win the game – but we can’t get off the board.

It seems to me that twentieth-century struggles for social justice followed this strategy. Call it “speaking truth to power”. It also seems to me that this approach, as it developed into identity-based politics, has become less productive in its effect. Black people and women, even as some rise high in the order of things, find themselves hated more virulently than ever.

Resistance to the dominant order has also embraced heterogeneity against homogeneous normativity and liberal notions of universality. All ducks deserve equal rights, but not all ducks are the same! And perhaps we are seeing a limit to the returns on “otherness” when we see gender-based identities splintering across the alphabet, from gay to LGBTQIA.

To be clear: I’m not dismissing struggles for inclusion and advancement. Not at all. But I don’t think they’re good enough on their own, and I think that this is becoming evident in the growing levels of violence we’re facing – racial, sexual, economic, national, environmental, you name it. I’m also not saying that we’re not ducks or that we shouldn’t try to be better ducks.

What I am pushing towards is, first, that our duckiness is perceived from one – currently very powerful – perspective. And second: the exclusive authority of that view is an illusion. (Look, you can see the duck’s bill as the ears of a rabbit.) And third: if we conceive of identity and humanness differently, we will find ourselves in a different light. With space to move, new dimensions of possibility. With delight.

One way to do this is to bring what was marginalised – our inter-relatedness and tenderness ­– into the centre of human meaning. Emmanuel Levinas made this his career, pointing out that our responsibility for the lives of others is both unreasonable and irrefutable. The heart also has its reason.

We can take seriously our identity as this unique “first person singular”, a living heart-mind-sensorium always in relation to reality and truth. Such contemplation gives rise to a self-awareness otherwise than – perhaps transcendent of – either an egoic will-to-power or the consciousness of one’s class or category. Michel Foucault’s work on different techniques of governance and the self is helpful here. Levinas and Walter Benjamin also help us to see language from two views – as expression and relatedness before and beyond any content the words may carry.

This isn’t a case of duck-aversive wishful thinking: we need to validate this phenomenological/ethical rabbit perspective as rigorously and precisely as any other. We can always get it wrong. But when we need to undo the power that keeps all the ducks in a row, perhaps this other view will dispel the lie that we are this and only this. Perhaps it will help us to recognise each other differently. Perhaps it will encourage us to acknowledge and depend on our self-reliant interdependence. And perhaps, when we do, we will find that we have been doing so all along, in the dark.

(With thanks to Ghassan Hage and Sasha White for recent writings.)

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