Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Florida, Man! Part II: What is So Critical about Critical Race Theory

of people protesting CRT I decided to post the video of the talk referred to below. 

As I think I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog in the spring I taught a seminar on Race, Class, and Gender. This involved an engagement with both some familiar material, Balibar's writing on race and class, and some material that I have not taught before, Stuart Hall, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Sylvia Wynter, etc. (I should say that in light of the title of this piece that I did not teach CRT specifically, but rather critical writing on race). At the same time that I was expanding my teaching and research the country, or at least parts of it were moving in the other direction, passing laws that outlawed discussions of critical race theory, intersectionality, and gender theory. This was in some sense a teachable moment, or at least should be: I kept coming back to the question of the politics of knowledge and ignorance around race.

In Stuart Hall's famous lecture, "Race, The Floating Signifier" he outlines the basic point against the concept of race as a biological concept, "As we know human genetically variability between different populations, normally assigned a racial category, is not significantly greater than it is within those populations." However, as he goes onto to detail in the next section this scientific fact has never been accepted. As Hall writes, 

"First, [this general position] represents the by now common and conventional wisdom among leading scientists in the field. Second, that fact has never prevented intense scholarly activity being devoted by a minority of committed academics to attempting to prove a correlation between racially defined genetic characteristics and cultural performance. In other words, we are not dealing with a field in which, as it were, the scientifically and rationally established fact prevents scientists from continuing to prove the opposite."

Here are my two points about Hall's two points. First, as a matter of historicization, a lot has changed since nineteen ninety seven. Race is no longer the outlier as it once was. The science of global warming, vaccines, even such basic astronomical matters as the size and shape of the Earth, all now have their doubters and alternative facts. A survey of the world of conspiracy theories and people with various crank beliefs demanding to be debated on social media only serves to illustrate Spinoza's fundamental axiom that "Nothing positive which a false idea has is removed by the presence of the true insofar as it is true." Ideas, even adequate or true ideas, have no intrinsic force or power, but must be actualized, materialized by other forces. Which brings me to my second point, if an idea or the criticism of an idea, in this case the criticism of race as a biological reality, does not take hold then the problem may have less to do with the idea itself, its own intrinsic value, than with the forces, social, political, economic, psychic, etc., that are allied against it. 

Sylvia Wynter

Which brings me to my second point of reference, and that is Sylvia Wynter's essay (that reads like a book)“Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man Its Overrepresentation—An Argument/." In that essay which develops its own meta-intellectual history, Wynter engages with a question that seems as far as possible from the question of race, and that is why, given their mathematical sophistication were the ancient greeks incapable of developing a corresponding sophistication of physics. As Wynter writes, 

"In a 1987 interview, the theoretical physicist David Böhm explained why the rise of the physical sciences would have been impossible in ancient Greece, given the role that the physical cosmos had been made to play in stabilizing and legitimating the structures/hierarchies and role allocations of its social order. If each society, Böhm pointed out, bases itself on a general notion of the world that always contains within it "a specific idea of order," for the ancient Greeks, this idea of order had been projected as that of an "increasing perfection from the earth to the heavens." In consequence, in order for modern physics (which is based on the "idea of successive positions of bodies of matter and the constraints of forces that act on these bodies") to be developed, the "order of perfection investigated by the ancient Greeks" had to become irrelevant. In other words, for such an astronomy and physics to be developed, the society that made it possible would have to be one that no longer had the need to map its ordering principle onto the physical cosmos, as the Greeks and all other human societies had done. The same goes for the need to retain the Greek premise of an ontological difference of substance between the celestial realm of perfection (the realm of and the imperfect realm of the terrestrial (the realm of doxa, of mere opinion). This was not a mutation that could be easily effected. In his recent book The Enigma of the Gift (1999), Maurice Godelier reveals an added and even more powerful dimension as to why the mutation by which humans would cease to map the "idea of order" onto the lawlike regularities of physical nature would not be easily come by."

In other words, progress in the physical sciences became possible only once the world, or the cosmos, ceased to play a role in the order and organizing of human social and political life, is no longer part of our sociogenesis, to cite the term that Wynter borrows from Fanon. The social order determines and limits what can be thought or asked. On this point Wynter's argument is similar to the point Marx makes regarding value in Capital. As Marx writes,

"There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality."

While the focus is different Marx, Wynter, (and I would argue) Spinoza, are all in some sense focusing on the social and political conditions of knowledge, in order for the natural sciences to become possible or in order for Value to be discovered something had to happen in society first. In the case of the former it is the general secularization of the cosmos. We could add that this process of secularization is always fragmentary and incomplete, the continued existence of flat Earthers, who, when pressed to explain why NASA and the globe industry would lie to them about the earth, they often phrase it in terms that hark back to that old theocratic order, that a round earth spinning about in a solar system of other similar planets makes them feel small and insignificant, and not, the center of God's creation. More to the point, to Wynter's point, the end of an order predicated on the cosmos is the beginning of a new order, one predicate on humanity. To quote Wynter again,

"A new notion of the world and "idea of order" was being mapped now, no longer upon the physical cosmos - which beginning with the fifteenth- century voyages of the Portuguese and Columbus, as well as with the new astronomy of Copernicus, was eventually to be freed from having to serve as a projected "space of Otherness," and as such having to be known in the adaptive terms needed by human orders to represent their social structures as extrahumanly determined ones. Instead, the projected "space of Otherness" was now to be mapped on phenotypical and religio-cultural differences between human variations and/or population groups, while the new idea of order was now to be defined in terms of degrees of rational perfection/imperfection, as degrees ostensibly ordained by the Greco-Christian cultural construct deployed by Sepúlveda as that of the "law of nature, “ natural law": as a "law" that allegedly functioned to order human societies in the same way as the newly discovered laws of nature served to regulate the processes of functioning of physical and organic levels of reality."

Wynter's argument is that in the modern age it is humanity, the anthropos, rather than the universe, the cosmos, that is the basis of our social order. Hierarchies are no longer between the Earth and the other celestial beings, but between different aspects of humanity, or more to the point between humanity and its own internal division, between "Man" understood as the embodiment of rationality and its others. As Wynter writes,

"It is this new master code, one that would now come to function at all levels of the social order - including that of class, gender, sexual orientation, superior/inferior ethnicities, and that of the Investor/Breadwinners versus the criminalized jobless Poor (Nas's "black and latino faces") and Welfare Moms antithesis, and most totally between the represented-to-be superior and inferior races and cultures - that would come to function as the dually status-organizing and integrating principle of U.S. society. So that if, before the sixties, the enforced segregation of the Black population in the South as the liminally deviant category of Otherness through whose systemic negation the former Civil War enemies of North and South, together with the vast wave of incoming immigrants from Europe, would be enabled to experience themselves as a We (that is, by means of the shared similarity of their now- canonized "whiteness"), in addition, their segregated status had served another central function. This had been that of enabling a U.S. bourgeoisie, rapidly growing more affluent, to dampen class conflict by inducing their own working class to see themselves, even where not selected by Evolution in class terms, as being compensatorily, altruistically bonded with their dominant middle classes by the fact of their having all been selected by Evolution in terms of race." 

I will say as something of a parenthetical aside, one that I hope to include in my actual writing this summer, and not just my blogging, that on this point Wynter is close to André Tosel's understanding of neoliberalism. As Tosel argues the more capital justifies itself in terms of an anthropology, as an expression of mankind's rationality, productivity, and individuality, the more its hierarchies are anthropologized as well, which is to say racialized. Poor countries, and the racialized poor within the country's border, are understood to be produced not by history, including the history of discrimination, but human nature. 

All of which may be a long, a very long way of answering the question posed by Hall, a question which has come to light in the opposition to teaching on race from the 1619 project to Critical Race Theory. The short version of this response is that a society that still needs racism in order to justify and explain itself cannot dispense with the concept of race, with the idea of racial hierarchy, no matter how many scientific studies are published disproving it. Race, and racism, are necessary parts of our social common sense, and thus any attempt to discredit and disprove them threatens that, and, as in the way CRT is represented, can only be understood as a political assault on the existing order and not additions or transformations of knowledge. Moreover, and this is something that I discuss in the podcast below, outlawing any theoretical and historical understanding of race and racism, is tantamount to legislating racism, or, at the very least to making sure that there are no official accounts that contest the dominant common sense around race. It is the modern version of putting Galileo under house arrest, to connect the dots of Wynter's essay.

No comments: