Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Order and Connection of Racism: Balibar on Racist Knowledge and Belonging

Balibar print from All Grim Prints 

An ongoing albeit sporadic project of mine is trying to understand the systematic nature underlying the conjunctural interventions of Etienne Balibar. This semester this investigation dovetailed with a reexamination of his writings on race for a seminar on Race, Class, and Gender. 

With respect to the latter it seems that there are two elements that are central to Balibar's thinking of race. First, as I have already stressed in a previous post, racism has to be understood as an entire way of thinking, a mode of thought, and not, as is often the case a bias or stereotype, an aberration in thought. As Balibar writes in "Racism and Universalism, "

"I think that racism is a genuine mode of thought, that is to say, a mode of connecting not only words with objects, but more profoundly words with images, in order to create concepts. Therefore to overcome racism in one's personal experience or in collective experience is not simply a matter of abandoning prejudices or opening one's eyes to reality with the possible help of science; it has to do with changing one's mode of thinking, something much more difficult." 

As a mode of thought racism not only defines a particular way of thinking, but one that is indexed to the immediate demands of living. When Balibar writes that racism combines misrecognition with a "will to know,’ a violent desire for immediate knowledge of social relations," I understand that violent desire to have something to do with the fundamental questions of social life, who should I trust? who should I fear? who can I desire? etc. Racism promises an answer to all of these questions, one that is immediately legible, written on the body and skin. 

Racism is as much a way of thinking and a way of living. This is why all challenges to it threaten not just what counts as knowledge, but also what counts as politics, as collectivity, even if the collectivity in question is not divided or demarcated by race. 

"As feminism has progressively started to demonstrate, the issue with sexism is not, or not merely, to resist male chauvinism or to struggle against male domination: it is to have the male community destroyed from the inside. Similarly, the issue with racism, in the long run and in everyday situations, is to destroy the racist community from within, a community which is both institutional and spontaneous, based on collective privileges (many of them—but not all—imaginary) and the individual desire for knowledge."

The connection between a mode of thinking and a mode of living, the order and connection of ideas and the order and connection of things, is a profoundly Spinozist. As André Tosel argues, Spinoza's thought has as its center not a hierarchy between praxis, poiesis, and theoria, as in classical thought, but their mutual implication, a way of thinking is a way of living and producing. As Tosel writes, 

While the ancient tradition interrogates the nature proper to humanity from the triplet poiesis, praxis, theoria, supposed to represent the hierarchy of distinctly human kinds of life, Spinoza recomposes poiesis, praxis, theoria in the unity of the same form of life. Every form of life, every bios is a specific unity of poiesis, of praxis, and theoria. Or rather, in each kind of life, in each individual body, there is a relation to other bodies in nature (poiesis), and to other bodies of the same human essence (praxis), corresponding to a modality of the existence of the mind or spirit of knowledge (theoria). (That is from Du Materialisme de Spinoza, and I still have plans to work out how Balibar and Tosel arrive at their understandings of race and citizen from Spinoza). 

For his part, and as I have argued before, Balibar draws a great deal of support for his thought on race from his reading of the dual foundations of the city in Proposition Thirty Seven of Part Four of the Ethics. Here is a long passage on that point from The Politics of Transindividuality. (pg. 92-93 of that book). 

"While Spinoza’s dual foundations of the city cannot be immediately connected to base and superstructure, economics and politics, it does, however, prove useful for understanding politics, the state. Its constitutive ambiguity is not that of the tension between economics and politics, but within political belonging and individuation itself. The state, especially the modern state, which has inherited the ideal of the citizen, of a universal dimension, is always split between nation and state, between an imagined identity and a legal or institutional unity. The imagined identity, ‘what makes a people a people,’ crosses the same terrain as Spinoza’s ingenium, in other words every nation, every nationality, is formed by an organization of the aspects that constitute collective and individual identity. Language and memory play a central role in the formation of nations. In the attempt to constitute a people, to generate a fictive identity, the nation intersects with race as the quintessential fictive ethnicity. Race and nation constantly traverse each other: modern racist organizations consider themselves to be first and foremost national organizations, protecting the purity of the nation, and the national unit and belonging is impossible without the fantasy of a common language and heritage. However, the nation is not synonymous with the state, the modern state, the state that begins with the democratic revolutions, also have an irreducible universalistic dimension, an ideal of the citizen that is not tied to national belonging. Balibar goes so far as to see this division, a division not between bourgeois man and political citizen, but between nation and state, as constitutive of modern political conflict. As Balibar writes, 

For my part, I consider the demarcation between democratic and liberal policies and conservative or reactionary policies today to depend essentially (if not exclusively) on attitudes towards ethnic discriminations and differences of nationality on whether pride of place is given to national belonging or emancipatory goals (the rights of man or citizen). 

The dual foundation constitutes two different subjects, two different transindividual individuations. The first is that of homo nationalis, the human individual defined not just through his or her specific language, but most of all, through shared customs, habits and memories. The second is the citizen defined by an open transindividual process, by rights and obligations, which exist only as a collective project that is by definition universal. These individuations coexist, constituting the conflictual basis for different individuations and different politics. National belonging, national identity, especially as it is connected to shared language, history and memory, comes close to racial identity and race, which it can never fully extricate itself from. For Balibar, race is not just a matter of a fictive unity, as a definition of belonging, but is also integral to the manner in which modern democratic societies deal with, or represent, the persistence of hierarchy and division. Hierarchy and division are always a scandal to a society organized according to the citizen, to an individuation of the citizen. There is thus also a proximity of race to class; class can always be racialized, not in the sense that it is ascribed to different races, but becomes attached to a rigid and permanent division in society. The division of mental and manual labour is inseparable from a division of society into ‘mind men’ and ‘body men,’ with all of the expected ambiguous connections to animality. Race reinscribes social divisions on divisions of the body, making social hierarchies justified and visible at the same time. Race (and the racialization of class difference) resolves the incomplete nature of the democratic revolution; it is the revival of anthropological difference in societies that have declared such differences to be null and void. As much as race plays a fundamental role as an alibi, explaining the persistence of inequality in a society that claims to be otherwise, it also plays an important role in the social imaginary, a term that is justified in terms of the Spinozist idea of the imaginary. Race is an inadequate idea of social belonging and social division. Racism is an imaginary, an inadequate idea in the full Spinozist sense of the term, it is both immediate, combining affect and imagination and fails to comprehend its causes. It offers an immediate understanding of society, a transparent account of the social divisions and conflicts mapped onto the most superficial signs of bodily or cultural difference."

It seems to me that two conclusions follow from thinking about racism as an articulation of thinking and living, of knowledge and politics. First, such politics should not shy a way from the radical nature of what is at stake. Anti-racism is not just a challenge to a few lingering prejudices or biases, but to a whole way of thinking, a way of thinking that is integral to our society. (this is too long to go into here, but I am thinking also of Sylvia Wynter's "Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom" and the connection she makes between knowledge and politics, between what can be known and lived). Second, this way of thinking is also a way of living. Which is to say that the reactionaries that have perceived in anti-racism an assault on their way of living, as in the case of Florida, they are right. It benefits no one to pretend that such is not the case. Although I do think that there is work to be done on this issue, to imagine what a post-racial society would look like beyond the image of integration (which was always integration to a community defined by racial exclusion). Lastly, such a society would also entail not just a transformation of race, but of national belonging, and with it, in a longer point that I cannot make now, the class basis of modern society. 

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