Robert Thornton is an anthropologist who teaches at Wits University in South Africa. He also maintains  a blog: An Anthropologist in South Africa. In this guest post, he gives his take on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Guinean-American hotel staff member who accused him of rape. What’s different here, from the thousands of other analyses you’ve read? Thornton argues that it is important, here, to include an analysis of global economies (both the ‘legitimate’ and the ‘black’) showcasing complex, interdependent power relationships between seemingly oppositional sets of people. He also posits that gender, race, and other binaries beaten to death in the popular media may be secondary to the most significant issues relevant to this case. We at AIAC found Thornton’s positions to be provocative, innovative, and yet, simultaneously problematic and needing engagement. Contributor Neelika Jayawardane takes up some of the points raised by Thornton in the second half of the post.*

Robert Thornton:

The most extraordinary aspect of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case is the remarkable similarity between DSK and his accuser: they are both global players. Each deploys gendered power in different ways within radically different but intimately linked frameworks. Far from being the exemplar of the powerful against the powerless, each shows agency in extraordinary ways.

Commentators have focused on the fact that they represent the polar opposites of global political and gender categories: a predatory and powerful male against a powerless and virtuous woman, one rich the other poor, Jew and Muslim, White and Black, European and African, French and American immigrant, a manager of vast wealth and a hard working cleaner who was there to pick up his tissues and wash his sheets.

The affair seemed to personify the great dialectical oppositions of race, class, and gender. What brings this affair to international notice, however, is not just their difference but that fact that both operated in global markets, each successful in their own terms.

DSK was the head of the International Monetary Fund, while the Guinean hotel maid was an international multiple fraudster. According to the reports in the press, she had faked her appeal for asylum status by memorising a tape that she had bought from a man who specialised in sad stories of abuse and trauma.

These were not just any sad stories, but stories that Americans, and American immigration officials in particular, would believe. Her story revolved around being a devoutly religious woman who had been gang raped by out-of-control African men in the violence-torn streets of yet another African failed state.

The apparent back story is that this is where terrorist train and hide from American forces, but where good women who fear god, but who can also change bed linen and run a vacuum cleaner, also live in precarious balance with the forces of evil.

In a continent where HIV/AIDS prevention programmes pour hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting sexual abstinence, a masculine gang had forcibly raped her. By seeking to escape this antithesis of morality and good government, and by bravely standing against the oppression suffered by all women, she stood out as a beacon of what is called ‘hope’. Except she didn’t.

Instead, it turned out that she was a strongly motivated and clever player in the global market. The story that she told the US Immigration office, that she had learned by heart off a tape that she had paid good money for, had been worth its weight in any currency she might deal in. She had asylum status in the wealthiest country in the world, and was making a mint.

She was not what she seemed: a poor hard-working African women without agency or power to oppose the forces of patriarchy, race and class that oppressed her. Instead, she had multiple bank accounts spread at least across the US, if not the world, and had received at least $100,000 into the US accounts in the last year alone. She had reported on her US tax return that she was the sole bread-winner for two children, (only one of whom turned out to be hers), and that her only income was from her job as a cleaner in a big hotel chain that catered for uber-wealthy clients like Domnique Strauss-Khan. She was cheating the welfare system for rent on a New York apartment, and a successful tax fraud. The female accuser has moved from a point of high virtue to someone that Americans seem to hate most: an illegal immigrant, a tax fraud, and a welfare cheat. Its all about the economy.

In fact, it turned out she had a boyfriend in jail in Arizona. He was a Wolof-speaker like her from Guinea to whom she exposed her plan on the telephone. Translated from an obscure dialect of Wolof, she assured him that she knew what she was doing with Frenchman, and that she expected to make a lot of money from the rape story. Her boyfriend had been caught trying to barter counterfeit fashion items, almost certainly made in China, for marijuana from Mexican drug dealers in Arizona. He was an illegal alien, and the prison recorded his conversations. All in all, this was an elaborate global deal involving people from most parts the world’s multiple economies.

A Times correspondent in France, Elaine Sciolino, commented after the new stories emerged that “Until today, it was white versus black, rich versus poor, man versus woman, Jew versus Muslim.” It seemed to reflect, in other words, the received wisdom about the standard categories of world conflict. Although these were also in play, what is perhaps more important is the fact that DSK as IMF primo represents that global public economy while his accuser clearly represents the other global economy: secret, mostly illegal, untaxed, mostly unobserved, dealing in drugs, fraud, money laundering, counterfeit goods and clever narratives that make it all work.

Both Strauss-Kahn and his accuser are part of opposite halves of the global economy. Their stories reveal its hidden double nature. The formal, public economy of the IMF creates as its dark twin in the unobserved economy that supports many people like the Guinean hotel maid, her children, and her boyfriend.

This is not just a story of rich and poor, white and black, macho male and guileless female. It is also a story of how the world really works as opposed to how it is supposed to work. When the accuser phoned her boyfriend to discuss how much money she could make off Strauss-Kahn, she was doing on a personal level what a Goldman-Sachs trader, or any banana-republic dictator, does on a daily basis: they gamble and deal with flows of wealth that span the globe, that knit its economies together, but also permit a range of economic practices that may be far from the norm, and far from legality.

Seen as a global player in the unobserved economy of drugs, fraud and cash, DSK’s accuser was a successful woman. She was making money despite her origins in a country that should have doomed her to poverty. Ironically, she is one of those who benefits most, as she is meant to, from the euro-socialist policies that Strauss-Kahn speaks for. That she does so fraudulently is built into the way the system actually works.

But the IMF is also accused by its many detractors of dealing very roughly with those who do not play by IMF rules. It imposes harsh penalties on countries that do not comply with its structural adjustment programmes. In some cases, those penalties drive people like DSK’s accuser all the way to New York where she can seek a kind of revenge on the chairman of the IMF itself. The IMF works at the level of states and complex institutions. DSK’s accuser works at the level of networks of hidden economic deals involving untaxed and unaccountable values and cash in an unobserved economy of a different sort entirely.

This has implications, too, for the way we understand gender. The political version of the gender story in this case is about the powerlessness of the female victim of male violence, the immigrant, the single mother, the black woman in the urban metropolis. When we are able to perceive the varieties of power that this woman is able to utilise, however, we also should be able to see how the realities of ‘power’ and gender is as multiple—or at least two sided—as the economies that DSK and his accuser participate in.

Gender here may indeed be less important that the social forms of gendered lives that oppose each other. Dominique is the pater familias supported by a loving wife and daughter. This is a powerful social form, not just a powerful ‘male’. This ‘domestic’ unit is opposed to the fatherless composite family that the woman supports with the help of a felonious boyfriend dealing global contraband and confidence stories.

Gender appears in this light far too abstract to comprehend the real struggles. It is the social forms of ‘family’ in which gender plays only a part that is far more important in the longer-term outcome of the alleged rape. A focus on the rape alone, like the focus on class, race and gender fail to illuminate much that is important. The small scale social forms of the ‘domestic’ and the daily life, as much as the global political economies in which they each participate, are as important as the grand categories of the usual social analysis.

In other words, the homogenising, binary concept of ‘gender’, like the concept of ‘the economy’ or ‘class’ obscures more than it reveals in an attempt to understand the DSK affair that concentrates so many of the grant dichotomies of today’s world.

To be ‘real,’ women need more than being assigned to the category ‘female’. The same is true for men. To be ‘real women’, in other words, women need what we call ‘flirtation’, and this is something that mere category of ‘male’ and ‘female’, or even ‘patriarchy’ and ‘the oppressed’ fails to generate. But more than this, it is hard to deny that the sense of danger, or of loss and gain as in a game, can be central to our sense of being who we are as ‘gendered’ selves. The fact that both DSK and his accuser are ‘predatory’, seeking gain with other’s loss, make this story even more compelling. While much has been written in the press, and said in conversation, about how ‘powerful men’ seem to need the predatory sexuality that seemed to be in play here, less has been said about how the ‘powerless’ deploy their own systems of predation. The fact that one is more successful than the other in long run is what makes class and gender the fundamental categories that they are, and we must not lose sight of the intricacies of the way they are played in the real world.

Neelika Jayawardane: Response

The insomniac’s early morning on which I read that DSK’s accuser had been identified as ‘African’, I shot off an email to Sean Jacobs: already, we almost foresaw just how things would play out – and they have, rather predictably. The initial narrative that reached the world, as it was orchestrated by the popular media, was one that represented “the polar opposites of global political and gender categories,” as anthropologist Robert Thornton observes: a ‘powerless’ woman’s word against the pronouncements of a man (and his team of lawyers) who had power over the global economy; a poor African immigrant who had to supplicate her way into a cleaner’s job contrasted with a superbly well-connected global cosmopolitan; a ‘devout’ Muslim in opposition to the ‘liberal’ mores of Enlightenment Europe – embodied, in this case, by a Jewish man. Yes, we loved that initial story, as long as it remained an “affair” that “seemed to personify the great dialectical oppositions of race, class, and gender: man/woman, white/back, powerful/powerless,” as Thornton clarifies. But, unsurprisingly, out came muddy details of the woman’s romantic life, immigration narrative, financial status – all of which derailed the previous, ‘attractive’ narrative of untarnished victimhood. Yet, this secondary narrative was quickly adopted as ‘victorious’: while ‘bad’ happened in this world, the ‘system’ in a democratic nation still ‘worked’. This now became fashioned as “a victory for corroboration and justice,” as Dan Moshenberg pointed out in a previous post.

The French Left did spend some time trying to prove that DSK was elaborately set up by the offer of sex in a hotel room, all the better to defame him and thereby eliminate him from opposing Sarkozy in a future election. French reporters were incredulous, then, to find that the chambermaid did not appear to be particularly ‘seductive’, as they proceeded to systematically violate her privacy: imagine encountering the agent sent to seduce one of the most important European officials in the world, and she turns out to be…well, a woman who did not strike the reporters as some hot harlot looking like she was doing the walk of shame/glory at the courthouse after a night of conquest at a frat party. However, as long as this was the case about the hardworking and law-abiding immigrant hotel chambermaid who was allegedly assaulted by a white, wealthy, well-connected European official, most people in the US only argued about whether this case of assault and sexual battery could be proven or not. For many, this case of rape illustrated what people always knew: that rape is a potent tool in demarcating difference and displaying power. Further, the case appeared to illuminate an axiom that comments on the junction between violence and power: the wider the gap between gender, ‘race’ and class of those who collide at any particular confluence, the greater the probability of injustice.

However, as Thornton points out, the binaries that gave us comfort are problematic at best. He initiates his discussion with the claim that DSK and his accuser are “both global players” who “deploy […] gendered power in different ways within radically different but intimately linked frameworks,” showing “agency,” each in her/his own way: in this, Thornton points out, far from presenting us with binaries, the “players’ are “remarkably similar.” Further, Thornton argues that it is important, here, to include an analysis of global economies (both the ‘legitimate’ and the ‘black’) showcasing complex, interdependent power relationships between seemingly oppositional sets of people. He also posits that gender, race, and other binaries beaten to death in the popular media may be secondary to the most significant issues relevant to this case, and instead, showcases the more complex, interdependent power relationships (including power as it reveals itself in familial and sexual arenas) between seemingly oppositional sets of people as determinants of their ‘agency’.

What I have trouble with has to do with is the wording of Thornton’s descriptions of the ‘players’, and what such choices of words reveal about our biases. For instance, DSK is described as “the head of the International Monetary Fund,” while, in the same sentence, “the Guinean hotel maid” is described as “an international multiple fraudster”. Indeed, she had (again, according to press narratives), “faked her appeal for asylum status by memorising a tape that she had bought from a man who specialised in sad stories of abuse and trauma,” had an “illegal alien” lover who was in jail, and was a “successful tax fraud” and a “welfare cheat”.  While DSK is indirectly reprimanded for being head of an international financial machine that is “also accused by its many detractors of dealing very roughly with those who do not play by [its] rules … impos[ing] harsh penalties on countries that do not comply with its structural adjustment programmes,” our chambermaid “moved from a point of high virtue” to someone that Americans vilified.

If we are looking into DSK’s accuser’s financial dealings, let’s look at his. What of DSK? What of his hustle, the billions he helps squeeze in and out of nations, blackmailing like any gangster-hustler, and the millions he has in lawyers to ferret out the financial information, when the case is about rape? Why have we not ferreted out his financial records? Why are the IMF’s black dealings not part of the narrative? Are we won over by DSK’s (and his lawyers’) ‘legitimacy’ to blackmail, fuck over, and obliterate the focus of the case, because the maid said, “I know what I am doing, he is a rich man”? I wish the woman who said she knew what she was doing had known what she was doing a little better – that would have made her more of an ‘equal’ in this lopsided hustle.

Thornton shows us the significance of DSK being appealingly invoked as “the pater familias supported by a loving wife and daughter”: this powerful representation of a man as part of the “‘domestic’ unit’”, as “opposed to the fatherless composite family that the woman supports with the help of a felonious boyfriend dealing global contraband and confidence stories” certainly brings about a different set of binaries. I’d agree with Thornton that an ‘intact’ and ‘nuclear’ family headed by a powerful man with supportive spouse and daughter (both of whom are indentified as ‘modern’, independent, emancipated – rather than women who fearfully cling dependently to a patriarch for status and money) play a significant role in the public’s imaginary – and are deployed as such by those very family members, lawyers, and firms hired to project and remake one’s public image. But I remain unclear about why Thornton sees gender as “less important” and “too abstract to comprehend the real struggles”, or why the “focus on the rape alone, like the focus on class, race and gender fail to illuminate much that is important.” True, focusing on any one part of our lives inevitably reveals only half-truths about each of us, but if DSK is accused of one thing, let’s focus on that.

What troubles the most is that the accuser – the former victim, “the working African women without agency or power to oppose the forces of patriarchy, race and class that oppressed her,” is now caricatured as a global player with agency deployable on the same scale as the Global Player. When those in vastly smaller/diminished positions of power play in the fields of the Big Lords, they do not become, in any way, ‘equal’ players. It’s been fashionable, lately (especially in South Africa/Cape revisionist history) to look at how the indigenous, slave, indentured, and those in sexual bondage somehow managed to negotiate ‘power in the interstices’. Sure, those who are subjugated, at any level, cannot be written off as bastard-victims, wordless fools with barely a frontal lobe in evidence – thusly permitting them no room for negotiating a (however slight) better position for themselves. But let’s be careful. When we desire to do ‘good’, by not blanketing all subjugated people under the same moronic victimhood, we may fall into the trap of giving those who are ‘victimised’/subjugated (or in whatever position of diminished power) far more agency than they actually had/have.

There’s agency, and there’s agency.

For instance, having a $100,000 in US bank accounts or in unreported income in a year in the US? Whatever. That’s not even considered ‘wealthy’ in American terms, which says one must earn more than $125,000 to be considered properly wealthy (and that’s just for tax purposes). Whether $100,000 makes one ‘wealthy’ is especially relevant in an overpriced city like New York (in Chinatown the other day, I saw a man wearing a t-shirt bearing the statement: “I Can’t Afford to ❤ NY”).

Now: are we angry that a woman who should be ‘lower’ than us knew how to hustle in the black economy – the only one in which she could have access to the marketplace of power – and are we even more angry at her for not staying ‘authentic’ and poor, devout and downtrodden, immigrant and cleaning, there for us to glorify in her pure Mother Mary victimhood? Sure we are.

And are we angry that she learnt that in order to supplicate at the gates of power, she had to obliterate any agency she had in fashioning a future for herself, and manufacture a feature film-version of victimisation? Knowing that Power loves Victims, she narrated the necessary story – in order to make a living (in a way, every job interview is like that). Millions of people have done that in order to be mobile, to participate in powerful economies, and make themselves something other than victims. That’s what immigration is about – and recipient nations love to subvert our stories, and fool us into believing that we are here solely because we are exceptional, because we ‘worked hard’, and that is why we succeed in such an ‘exceptional nation’.

Finally, what bothers us most about Calibans is this: that they dissemble, that they play not one role, that they do not remain in supplicating positions, that they do not stay victims. One could grow to love even a hideous Proconsul, but only if it spoke monosyllabically, and had no plans but to supplicate with a singular narrative. But give the monstrous Caliban poetic language, multiplicity, and yes, some agency, and we will not only turn on him, but attempt to conjecture that he exists on a level playing field with Prospero.

Every once in a while, we in these Enlightenment nations love a story where the less powerful get to have their day – it legitimises the myth of a working ‘system’. A number of us who write for Africa is a Country are immigrants to the US – we came here from varied social, economic, and family backgrounds. Allow me to invoke the power of the personal narrative here: each immigrant can tell you that her/his agency (power to make decisions, direct our lives, and even re-route others’ lives, while speaking meaningfully about our worldview) as an immigrant depended intimately on the social power with which each person arrived. Each of us learnt about what it meant to hustle on multiple stages of the global economy (one that determined our geographic, intellectual, and financial mobility), putting up with those who exclaimed how lucky we now were, to be welcomed in a ‘superior’ system that ‘worked’. Educational opportunities, familial support systems, connections to other well-connected people, a great deal of fortuitousness, and the internet means that we can actually project a shared – and different – worldview of ourselves, rather than settle for the story being told about us. Like Dan Moshenberg, I cannot presume to know the Guinean-American woman’s story, nor that of DSK. But I am interested in moving away from what Slavoj Zizek most criticises in contemporary ‘Liberal-leftist-intellectual-academic’ circles: high-minded, well-meaning, moderate, and esoteric modes of thought. While the ‘Middle Path’ is something for which I attempt to strive, I’m also far more interested in mobilising towards a more ‘radical’ conversation with emancipatory politics in favor of increasingly obscure considerations of our subjectivities.

* We’re not sure whether this will become a regular feature. But we consider this is our inaugural Debate post.