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Monthly Archives: September 2010

In rereading some of Judith Butler’s work as published in 2004 in The Judith Butler Reader, I was startled to note how little she actually addresses race. This seeming silence on race is particularly odd when editor and introducer Sara Salih gives Butler a lot of credit for looking at race and in light of Butler’s fairly unambiguous antiracist credentials. (For example, in her refusal of an award from the Berlin Christopher Street Day (i.e. gay pride) people due to racism within their organization)

Indeed, it seems that Butler in some sense “discovered” race sometime between Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993); her 1990 objection to Mapplethorpe’s depiction of “naked Black men” as one which “engage[s] a certain racist romanticism of Black men’s excessive physicality and sexual readiness” (197) is not on par, theoretically, with the kinds of complex arguments she was making about gender at the same point in her career.

In the Reader, it was only in her 1999 introduction to the reissue of Gender Trouble that she pointed out that “racial presumptions invariably underwrite the discourse on gender” (95) or that “gender norms” are substantially “underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation” (101).

These brief mentions, and the recognition that “race and gender ought not to be treated as simple analogies” and “the sexualization of racial gender norms calls to be read through multiple lenses at once, and the analysis surely illuminates the limits of gender as an exclusive category of analysis” (95) are really all she gives us.

It thus becomes the reader’s job to discern how Butler’s ideas about gender illuminate (or don’t) aspects of the operation of race as a system of discrimination (in both the “differentiation” and “inequality” senses, a dual valence Butler points out with respect to Wittig on p. 29), and so I shall.

The idea of performativity tends to generate resistance because it violates cultural common sense: “What do you mean, race (or gender) is produced by doing? I can see with my own eyes that this person has a race (gender)!” (The fact that this obviousness only occurs with respect to marked categories of race or gender, and white people and men don’t “obviously” have a race or gender to most people, though important, is beyond what I can consider here.)

Accordingly, the social construction of the matter of bodies generally has to be established before performativity can make sense (which makes the fact that Butler explained gender first (1990) and then the body (1993) unfortunate for both her and her readers).

Butler argues that body parts (or bodily characteristics) only come to exist at the point that we notice them (145); accordingly, the physical features that say “race” to us are products of paying attention to them. This does not, however, mean that they are not “real,” either materially or socially, but only that we make sense of bodies through social categories (100) that tell us that this skin color or that eye shape indicates membership in a particular race category.

These are, like sex categories, arbitrary—people from some Pacific Islander groups have the same, objective, “hue”–as it is described by Richard Dyer in his 1997 book White–skin color as some Africans, for example, but we understand them to be different “races” through classifying what “matters” about the “matter” of these bodies, and in so doing materializing these bodies in particular ways (and not others).

Once the matter of bodies is understood as social, performativity becomes easier to accept. Though there’s nothing inherent in the body about the races or genders we inhabit, we experience them as the inner truth of a person because they “act like it.” The possibility of “doing” race out of line with the socially produced body is exemplified by the idea of the “Oreo” or “banana”—people of color who “act white” and are presumed then to be “white on the inside.”

Finally, as Butler notes about gender, performances of racialized selves are not volitional acts—we are hailed at birth into a race as much as a gender, and the social imperative to be raced and gendered is difficult and painful to refuse (What are you?).

In the end, then, I think it is clear that Butler’s work on gender can be useful for making sense of race, though clearly this does not relieve Butler of the obligation to make these articulations herself.

Diagram of Bentham’s panopticon

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons"

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault  traces a shift in how power works, arguing that in the late 18th and early 19th century punitive spectacle went out of fashion as the way of managing illegality.  It was, he describes “Bye-bye public execution, hello panopticon.”

Unfortunately, however, nobody bothered to tell the South.

Indeed, according to Joane Nagel’s 2003 telling of the history in Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers, it was not until the 1890s that “lynchings moved beyond instances of local lawlessness to take on the proportions of large-scale spectacles”(p. 114).

These occasions of excessive visual penality, Nagel says, were “publicized in advance and attracted crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands,” and she argues that they “were part of the consolidation of the color line and the construction of whiteness in the postwar U.S. South” (p. 114).

Until well into the 20th century in the South, then, the idea that power had ceased to act upon bodies in destructive rather than productive ways is simply not applicable when it comes to white power acting on black bodies.

Similarly, Tony Bennett (who is damn hard to find on the Internet given that other Tony Bennett)  argues explicitly in his 1995 book The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics that having “witnesses of a symbolic display of power [ . . . ] remained important—and more so than Foucault’s formations often allow” (p. 24). He particularly notes that the museums his own work analyzes made particular use of the display of “other, ‘non-civilized’ peoples upon whose bodies the effects of power were unleashed with as much force and theatricality as had been manifest on the scaffold” ( p. 67).

In Foucault’s defense, there is a sense in which this lapse on his part is the product of looking at the history in one place or set of places and generalizing to all places, which it’s not entirely clear he meant for his work to do.

However, there is nevertheless a real racial absence in Foucault’s work, which is all the more perplexing when racialized difference had to have been relevant in the precise time and place he is intending to describe–France was a colonial power exercising repressive power over bodies that were somewhere in the process of being racialized as other.

Why is it that some bodies were still fair game for this kind of punishment at the same time that others were being subjected to discipline and made productive? Can we explain this simply as those people being seen as ineligible to become docile and productive due to some racialized imputation of unruliness? Is this a product of the production of some bodies as not-quite-human?

These are vital questions, as they can perhaps help us think through things like contemporary uses of torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and Foucault as written doesn’t help us answer them, so now it’s our job.

Gay marriage advocates, as it turns out, are complicit with the people who want to privatize Social Security.

This is no nefarious scheme, but rather the consequences of buying in to a certain kind of political logic that has become the standard language of politics in the United States.

Though David Roediger discusses in his 1991 book The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, discourses circulating at the time of the American Revolution that “thoroughly conflated opportunity to accumulate and secure productive property with the ‘pursuit of happiness’” and taxation with slavery and therefore unfreedom (p. 28), in the era typically known as neoliberalism this equation of economic with political liberty has become orthodox—and in the mainstream at least it is verging on becoming unquestionable doxa.

It is this (strange) unquestionability of the equation of property and freedom that animates contemporary activism around gay marriage. That is, though in 2003 Wendy Brown pointed out in Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy  points out that political liberalism can “lean more in the direction of maximizing liberty (its politically ‘conservative’ tilt) or maximizing equality (its politically ‘liberal’ tilt)” (sec. 6), and the demand for equality of marriage rights from the state is clearly the latter, the ways in which the demand for state recognition for one’s marriage is about inequality with respect to things like inheritance and taxes indicates that this “tilting” is within a relatively narrow orbit of economic laissez-faire liberalism.

Kevin Floyd‘s 2009 book The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism makes this argument quite explicitly, arguing that “neoliberal efforts to limit the horizon of struggles against ‘homophobia’ to the right to get married and own property” function “to assimilate homosexual practices not only to a heteronormative model of monogamy and ‘commitment’ but to a related, uncritical identification of privacy with property” (p. 68).

This contention is also implicit in Mary Gray’s description in her 2009 book Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America of the successful framing of gay rights as “special rights” in Kentucky—“rural voters who reject recognition of LGBT rights,” she argues, “telegraph their own feelings of economic vulnerability, lack of access to social-welfare benefits, and reliance on the material more than symbolic preciousness of marriage to span the gaps in a woefully threadbare social safety net” (p. 179).

“Guarantee us the right to accumulate property with and bequeath property to whomever we choose,” the activist attention to marriage seems to say, but it’s only a segment of the population (gay or straight) who can take advantage of those benefits of marriage.

The idea, then, that “my ability to get married is my property and I should be able to do with it what I want” points right back to the logic that “my Social Security contributions should go into an account for me, and yours should be for you, and if you don’t have enough when you retire then tough.”

Most gay rights activists would be horrified at the latter statement, so why is the former their organizing principle?

When reading Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, after I had pried myself away from Google-stalking Mary L. Gray to figure out where she was from (She’s from where I’m from! Sort of.), I had one of those “I never thought of that before, but it’s so true!” moments with her argument that there is a link between the ideology of coming out and that of being disembodied and free on the internet.

As she puts it, “the politics of LGBT visibility’s demanding refrain to ‘come out, come out, wherever you are’ echoes the rhetorical invocations of disembodied freedoms and escapist anonymity attributed to the ‘effects’ of the Internet” (p. 15). In both of these discourses, that is, family/community/the private is framed as bad and oppressive as opposed to the individualist liberation to be who one really is—whether by coming out or becoming digitized.

However, as Gray presses us to ask, who are family/community/the private bad for? They’re necessary, she argues, for rural youth, for whom they are the means of distribution of both emotional and material support.

They’re also necessary—as her analysis hints at with the story of African-American queer youth Brandon but doesn’t interrogate in depth—for many people of color, as has been argued by a number of scholars working on issues of queers of color (and I know it’s horrible, but I can’t remember which right now. I think one place this was articulated was the Combahee River Collective Statement [originally published in 1981]. Bear with me, it’s early).

This raises the question: “why are those who privilege gay visibility valorized as ‘beyond the closet’ and youth of color, rural young people, and other individuals with core identities vying for recognition seen as in denial?” (p. 134) That is, who is it that has the privilege or inclination be public/visible?

Moreover, as Gray’s analysis shows, public and private don’t really work the way we think they do on the internet anyway. These technologies are, first, both public and private, as anyone who’s posted something meant for one audience that subsequently made its way to an unintended other audience knows: “Internet technologies can be both a private experience and a suspended moment of public engagement” (p. 106).

Additionally, as the articulation of the internet as enabling “public engagement” suggests, the idea that the Internet serves a “need or desire to mask queerness from an imagined inherently more hostile social world,” that it promises some sort of alternate public space of freedom from local, embodied troubles is in need of interrogation (p. 106-7; of course, others, including quite prominently Lisa Nakamura, have argued that offline inequality follows us online).

Thus, Gray argues, her findings “complicate the presumption that new media liberate our bodies from locations and highlights what rural queer-youth identity work can teach us about the politics and conditions of sexual- and gender-identity formation and their indissoluble entanglement of the ‘public’ and the ‘private’” (p. 108). And that’s pretty cool.