The Liquid Racism of the Prophet Muhammad Cartoons

The existence of ambivalence and contradiction in the proximity of racist expression has been documented in the social sciences (e.g. Billig et al. 1988, Rattansi 2007:

118, 120). This has led Rattansi to argue that there can be no essentialised racist subject (Rattansi 2007: 118). Such research suggests that because subjects often negotiate contradictory discourses, some racist and some non-racist, a singular racist subjectivity is difficult to identify. We have seen that traditional forms of racist humour can act as rhetorical devices that resolve the ambiguities of racism and so aid the task of negotiation. Certain readings of the cartoons are also involved in this process. The development of the concept of ‘liquid racism’ has shown that we can move the discussion of racism and ambivalence ‘away’ from the proximity of the subject, to show how cultural signs can contain the ability to produce simultaneous and ambiguous racist and non-racist readings.

Liquid racism is a racism generated by ambiguous cultural signs that encourages the development of entrenched socio-discursive positioning, alongside reactions to racism, when reading these signs. The images are ambiguous because they combine the signs of older racisms alongside those of political and social issues that are not necessarily racist. The development of entrenched positioning occurs because, and as is unpacked further in this chapter, the ambiguity of the images can create and encourage fundamentalist reactions.[1] Reactions to the images as racism occur as the reader connects primarily with the signs of older racisms.

The term ‘liquid racism’ gives the impression that we are now faced with a racism whose structure has changed and is obviously less solid than traditional racisms. The metaphor can be unpacked significantly. Bauman describes the ‘liquid modern’ as a society without solid patterns or routines, under processes of constant change that have accelerated. It is a society where the meaning of identities, objects and ‘others’ frequently shift position and mutate. Bauman does not discuss racism in detail in his corpus on liquid modernity and so ‘liquid racism’ can be developed to identify cultural signs that exhibit some of the tendencies of post/liquid modernity. Liquid racism is generated by interactions between the sophisticated rhetoric of racism in society, the complexity and diversity of ethnic identity and continuous population movements.

Liquid drastically loses its shape when it is removed from its ‘container’. This suggests that liquid racism is one that needs a ‘container’ in which to be viewed, yet cannot stay in one shape if the container is removed. Individual subjects may, therefore, develop particular semantic containers according to context and circumstance. These are unstable and likely to fail. Structurally, an increase in the ‘volume’ of sign-slippage in liquid racism allows for no straightforward way of establishing or asserting any semantic superiority of interpretation, making critique more challenging. Liquid racism has a malleable form that has far more potential for ambiguity and this, paradoxically encourages and polarises fixed readings. Rattansi (2007: 122) describes the ‘polarised shouting matches from entrenched positions’ that often appear in debates of racism. These are common around liquid racism. The content of liquid racism is constructed through the referents of cultural racism and embodied racism but the increased volume of its assemblage will create many potential readings, and this will affect its overall definitions of the ‘other’ which are multiple and protean.

  • [1] Fundamentalism (Islamic and other forms) is defined as an appeal ‘to the inerrancyof sacred texts to legitimate conceptions of purity’ (Springett 2003: 325). It is also a fixationon ‘society’s desertion of eternally valid, divinely revealed and textually literal receivedprinciples of order’ (Riesbrodt 1993: 16, cited in Springett 2003: 328-9). Such culturaldiscursive interpretations are not always linked to violent activity. There is a tendencyin some academic accounts of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons to erase the existence ofIslamic fundamentalism, through arguing for the inapplicability of the protestant originsof the concept, or through arguing that its referents are too diverse. An example of thelatter occurs in Mahmood (2009) who argues that such definitions group a ‘diverse set ofimages and practices [that] neither emanates from a singular religious logic nor belongssociologically to a unified political formation’ (837). Of course the categorisation andcritique of what can be seen as problematic cultural practice would often connect ‘logics’and ‘formations’, as the identification of racisms and facisms always does.
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