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I’ve written before about Ferguson’s exposing of strange bedfellows around the discourse of “black matriarchy”; he argues that black nationalists and cultural conservatives—who in virtually every other way were antithetical—both pointed to this as the problem at the root of poverty and other social ills in African-American communities.

What I noticed on this second reading of Aberrations in Black, however, is the sheer variety of unexpected connections and contradictions he articulates between institutions and groups. As I think that, ultimately, this is the book’s greatest contribution, I’d like to elaborate them here.

To enumerate the connections in the order that Ferguson does, he first shows how Marxism is complicit with bourgeois liberalism. He argues that Marx, in taking “normative heterosexuality as the emblem of order, nature, and universality, making that which deviated from heteropatriarchal ideals the sign of disorder,” was making the same argument as the bourgeois thinkers of his day when they condemned the working class for their sexual deviance, such that ultimately “both liberal reform and proletarian revolution sought to recover heteropatriarchal integrity from the ravages of industrialization” despite the fact that Marx blamed capital and the bourgeois blamed the working class’s lack of self-control (6, 10).

Second, Ferguson demonstrates how what he calls “canonical sociology” is implicated in state practices of exclusion, despite the discipline’s pretensions to objectivity. Like Marx, sociology identified nonheteronormative behavior as “dysfunction,” and in articulating normativity as the way out of the problems experienced by the African-American community the discipline “aligned itself with the regulatory imperatives of the state” (18, 20)—meaning that surveillance of black populations’ sexual habits, whether by ADC social workers, “vice” squads, or sociologists, could thenceforth be figured as being for African Americans’ own good.

However, Ferguson also elaborates the ways in which ideas or institutions that we typically imagine to be working toward a common purpose are actually fundamentally incompatible.

In his argument that capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy, he goes beyond the standard critique of neoliberalism (that the refashioning of society such that everything runs on market processes is undemocratic, which implies that running some things through the market is okay).

Rather, Ferguson argues that capital produces nonnormativity through both recruiting certain kinds of labor and not others—creating homosocial work environments, separating families, etc.—and its reliance on inequality between groups to drive down the price of labor.

This is all in complete contradiction to liberal democracy, which both requires universal, interchangeable subjects stripped of particulars and (at least in its U.S. iteration) valorizes heteropatriarchy.

Finally, Ferguson articulates points at which the state acted at cross purposes to itself. For example, African-Americans were judged insufficient as citizens due to nonconformity with patriarchal ideals of a “providing” husband and a wife who managed the house rather than working, which rendered them ineligible for some features of state aid. However, the state encouraged this very “deviance” by denying Social Security benefits to jobs disproportionately occupied by black men and treating black women who stayed at home as shirking work.

The common thread between all these convergences and divergences, of course, is the ways in which nonheteronormativity—whether the result of racial difference, alternative gender formations, sexual nonnormativity, or, usually, some combination—is grounds for exclusion, but what is interesting and useful is the ways in which Ferguson traces the consequences of this through so many institutions and uncovers so many unexpected relationships.

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  1. By » Complexities, Complicities Mel Stanfill on 31 May 2012 at 6:20 pm

    […] Wednesday in Gender, Power, and the Body we discussed Aberrations in Black, and as we saw in last week’s blog, Ferguson’s (2003) book is nothing if not attentive to complicities among the strangest of […]

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