note: I will be blogging on my recent book club readings on Smedleys’ book, Race in North America. These are just main concepts and notes, and not indicative of complete arguments. All quotes are from Smedley. Parenthetical texts are personal philosophical musings.
Race is a relatively recent concept in human history. The fact that many people think it is an essential part of human identity, or that ‘everybody belongs to a race’, reflects how deeply entrenched race ideology is in people’s minds and in the overall social imaginary. It feels like race is as old a concept as human, sex, or even class. But this is not so. (This is a good example of how humans have the tendency to project back upon one’s past memories an affect of negative-power in the present, thereby coloring the historical past with all sorts of inadequate ideas, adding power to an ideological stronghold at the core of one’s identity– the unquestioned sovereignty and selection of one’s fetishized memories– that guards against cognitive dissonance.)
How has the concept of race become embedded into our everyday lives? We have been conditioned to think in binary terms, in terms of black and white, or self and other. It’s become a habit. In other words, “It is a particular worldview perpetuated as much by the continued use of the term in our daily lives and in the media as it is by the stereotypes to which so many of us have been, often unconsciously, conditioned.” (5) Like so many other essentialized concepts, race is sustained by habit and an addiction to master narratives.
How the concept of race developed:
The people of conquered areas “did not participate in the invention of race or in the compilation of racial classifications imposed upon them and others. To the extent that these people utilize the idiom today and operate within its strictures, they have inherited and acquiesced in the system of racial divisions created for them by the dominant Europeans.” (14)
Smedley asks, if modern science increasingly argues that ‘race’ does not exist, “how can public attitudes and understandings retain the notion of their verity and the belief that sciences has proved their reality?” (This echoes Deleuze’s question about people living in the midst of capitalist empires: why do people pursue their slavery as if it were their freedom?) In other words, why do people hang on to certain ideologies as if they were absolutely true, when in fact all evidence points to the contrary? Anti-intellectualism is clearly at work when ideologies are utterly unaffected by contradictions and inconsistencies– we call this fundamentalism.
There is a disjunction between scientific discourse on race and social reality. Even as scientists deny the existence of race as a biological category, they cannot escape its influence on everyday life.
Race is a term that expresses pejorative difference. There is no positive value to it. The concept delineates inequality and the underlying assumption is that these differences are absolutely unresolvable, meaning they cannot be overcome under any circumstances. There is black, and there is white, and never the twain shall meet.
“Race is a way of looking at the kaleidoscope of humanity, of dividing it into presumed exclusive units and imposing upon them attributes and features that conform to a ranking system within the cultures that are defining the races.” (20)
If we wanna get away from the notion of race as a biological concept and focus on it as a social construct then it would help to ignore actual phenotypic differences among humans. Except, this is hardly possible. Because clearly physical differences are connected to the origin and persistence of race categorization. “Race originated as the imposition of an arbitrary value system on the facts of biological (phenotypic) variations in the human species. It was the cultural invention of arbitrary meanings applied to what appeared to be natural divisions. The meanings had social value, but no intrinsic relationship to the biological diversity itself. Race was a reality created in the human mind, not a reflection of objective truths. It was fabricated as an existential reality out of a combination of recognizable physical differences and some incontrovertible social facts: the conquest of indigenous peoples, their domination and exploitation” etc. (20) It is a peculiar American phenomenon where physical/phenotypic variations in the way different people look is connected to a hierarchical classification system that has its historical roots in violence and oppression. However, race does not necessarily have to refer to biology or even physical features. A good example comes from western Europeans who in the 19th century created their own notion of race, not out of phenotypic differences, but out of class and ethnic parameters.
“It is not the presence of objective physical differences between groups that creates races, but the social recognition of such differences as socially significant or relevant.” (23) Race ideology today persists regardless of differences in skin color and physical traits– to the extent that phenotypic differences are relevant to the concept of race is only a symbolic gesture stuck in the social imaginary.
5 elements of race ideology in N. America:
The folk myth of ‘race’ spread during European expansion and colonialization of non-European lands and peoples, and as these people were conquered by Europeans, the classification system of race were imposed upon them along with the myths of their differing capacities– all inferior to the gold standard of ‘white’. Because ‘race’ offered a way of structuring and organizing society based on ‘natural’ and divinely assigned inequalities (19th century science in concert with various state governments conspired to legitimize this structural inequality by turning it into law) it was strategically adopted, broadcast and championed as an irrefutable, commonsense and God-given worldview by those who were in the business of empire-building. Fast forward to today, “the idea of race continues in large part because of its value as a mechanism for identifying who should have access to wealth, privilege, loyalty, respect, and power, and who should not.” (27)
“Biophysical traits should never be used as part of the definition of ethnicity. Every American should understand this explicitly, since there are millions of physically varying people, all sharing ‘American culture’ (ethnicity), who know little or nothing about the cultural features of their ancestors, who may have arrived here from almost anywhere.” (29)
Because we’re so conditioned to think in terms of race, and because race is a pejorative term, we’re conditioned to only perceive others in terms of their difference. Because of this Americans are incapable of perceiving the similarities that are common to Americans. (common notions are concealed by pejorative difference, thereby inhibiting us to move beyond the negative)
“Race signifies rigidity and permanence of position and status within a ranking order that is based on what is believed to be the unalterable reality of innate biological differences. Ethnicity is conditional, temporal, even volitional, and not amenable to biology or biological processes.” (31) In other words, ethnic characteristics can change depending on historical and geographic shifts, because culture and customs change over time. But race does not change because it is believed to be a God-given and fundamentally unalterable condition.
The negative ramifications of a dominant racial worldview are:
- Because race is inborn, one’s social status and behavior can never change. One of the major factors in understanding why there continues to be such a wide disparity of power in society despite all our alleged liberalism.
- It perpetuates the mindset of exclusion (or binary thinking in terms of me vs. them) and inhibits people from seeing commonalities between each other.
- It in turn gave more power and credibility to the Christian worldview that justifies, by recourse to morality, perpetrating violence on others who are different.
“Politics of Recognition” vs. “Politics of Imperceptibility”
“Grosz rejects the politics of recognition on the grounds that the desire to be known, seen, and valued by the other is an inevitably submissive acquiescence to a humanism that can never fail to be masculine.” (85) The main concern here is, recognition…by who? The “satisfaction of a desire for recognition is an awkward yardstick for justice.” (86) How is recognition ‘completed’? if identity building, or becoming is an open-ended and ongoing process? What qualifies recognition? Legislation? The capacity to be commodified and reduced to a talking point, marketing strategy, or brand? Participation in the marketplace and visibility go hand-in-hand. Is there a difference between publicity and recognition?
Recognition, according to Cornell and Murphy emphasizes “the freedom to recreate oneself through the assertion and recognition of one another’s humanity…which entails attention to each person’s potential and need to develop and transform her self-representation and cultural meaning.” (87) To be clear, recognition here does not imply ‘authenticity’; what is recognized is not some static notion of identity, rather that individuals are their own source of meaning that is continually undergoing processes of transformation– “continually being revised and reinterpreted.” (87) Basically, ‘granting’ people the freedom to control how they are seen in public.
“The politics of recognition takes account of how systematic social invisibility, misrepresentation, or distortion constitute a genuine harm– indeed, in extreme cases, psychic mutilation– to the autonomy of individuals and groups…formal equality, greater access to jobs, housing, and social services alone” (86) are not enough to heal the damage produced by the various histories of violence and injustice. Redistribution of capital merely slaps a bandage on the wound and is predicated on a fundamental misrecognition of what the victims feel or desire. And yet, recognition itself is a “negative exigenc[y] of redress, reparation and restitution”. (91) Ultimately, it is reactive and passively accepts the influence of a greater power in shaping one’s sense of self-worth and desire for reciprocity.
“I am misrecognized” presupposes a unitary vision of the self that can be recognizable…and visualized into a fixed image. This is the kind of self-policing identity politics that Foucault and Ranciere resist precisely because they allow the regimes of surveillance to police all life that much more effectively. – The felt need to be recognized already places the subject within a power dynamic that renders it servile to a pre-existing dominant symbolic power. “Any vision of justice predicated upon the validation of social subjects by other subjects belongs to ‘a politics that is fundamentally servile.’…governed, in advance, by the image and value of the other.” (88) This desire for a transcendent Eye (regardless of it being within or without) to shine it’s revealing light upon oneself is symptomatic of phallocentric logic, and keeps subjects fixed within a totality and binary/hierarchical system.
Recognition also assumes that subjectivity can only be considered in terms of violence and antagonism, on a pre-existing trauma, or idea of otherness as hostile. This potentially “elides the real differences between coming to be a social subject under conditions of radical oppression and coming to be a subject in a context of privilege.”(88) – While ‘seeing others better’ is typically advocated as an ethos of responsibility, the call for mutual transparency between subjects can be problematic.
For Grosz, violence and conflict are both necessary and irresolvable but not because human subjects cannot help but relate through binary logic and structures; rather, violence and conflict are products of impersonal and a-subjective forces. Forces don’t have an ‘other’, only humans do. By privileging activity, forces, energies and bodies, Grosz devaluates and de-centers the self-other binary from ethics.
Becoming is a process “that cannot be represented by concepts or explained through developmental narratives”. Not “predicated on identification, imitation, resemblance or analogy…[nor] reflection of an unconscious urge to work out a psychic identification with a lost other.”(89)
Critics of Grosz may argue that the language of force is patriarchal. But Grosz replies that “this maneuver of identifying force with the masculine is already to humanize force (which in effect is to masculinize it…), to anthropomorphize it and to refuse to see its role not as the effect but as the condition of subjectivity and subjective will.”(90) Humanization = masculinization, this equation reflects the reduction of value and life to the self-reflected Sameness of the Self, to One symbolic order, that of the human. And such a move is phallocentric. Why does ‘the human’ mark a limit to what we can do, how we act? Unless it is entirely inadequate, mired in imaginary and representational ideas– the first kind of knowledge for Spinoza. Indeed, we do not even know what a body can do.
As opposed to ‘human’, “subjects can be conceived as modes of action and passion, a surface of catalytic events…”(91) Subjects understood as modes of power, modifications of life, as bodies determined by movement and rest…by their capacity to act rather than identify.
Sharp relates the desire for recognition with what Spinoza refers to as ambitio, “the desire to please and be esteemed by fellow human beings.”(92)…”drive for that special kind of respect owed to one’s humanity.”(93) This desire ultimately always depends on others, upon being seen as an absolute requisite for being. “The remedy for the affect of ambitio…involves the indissociability of humanity from the rest of nature.”(93) “Getting over oneself, or relinquishing a cherished image of humanity and personhood.” (94) But understanding this ‘adequately’ is no easy task, let alone being able to transition to active joys from being mired in negative passions.
Contra Butler. Sharp notes that Butler “has probably undertaken one of the most profound radicalizations of social construction, thoroughly denaturalizing any notion of sex or gender.”(94) Grosz instead is interested in a “sort of renaturalization that has been taken away, redynamizing a certain kind of nature.”(94) Human experience may be socially constructed but this is perhaps to give human institutions too much credit in a mirrored-sameness, or self-reflective way. To argue that a representation of the body can only be socially constructed is tantamount to saying rather simply that one does not even know what a body can do. Since, via Spinoza, all representations are inadequate ideas.
Sharp is not very clear about what ‘becoming-imperceptible’ expresses. It seems to affirm a non-unitary inhuman conception of the ‘self’, a ‘self’ that resists, challenges, or ceases to conform and identify relative to any given socio-symbolic order because it is too plugged into or affected by things in a way that does not treat the world instrumentally or economically; that is, not morally but ethically.
Parallelism according to Sharp “supports a portrait of ideas themselves as forces…striving to prolong and enhance their existence.” (97) “Ideas, like bodies, are forces. Thus, no matter how true, they will die without many others to sustain them.”(99) “Truth has no added power by virtue of its veracity.” (99) Like bodies, it must combine with other simple parts or perhaps ‘simple truths’ in order to have any mode of existence that expresses such truths.
A politics of imperceptibility involves encounters with other ideas and bodies based not on identity but on desire. Not in terms of instrumentality but in terms of what empowers and affirms one’s power of action.