Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Oh, What A Tangled Web...

Many of you have probably read the now-famous text by historian James Loewen Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. I find that many of my students, especially those who come from liberal or progressive backgrounds, read it in high school or in some other context before they reached college. (Then, subsequently, quickly forgot it.) It's a great text for the marginalized and suppressed historical details it brings to light, but also because of its "meta"-argument (that historical narratives are social constructions, that there are identifiable biases to the historical narratives we are taught, that we should be critical readers of both the seemingly unquestionable "facts" of history and the orthodox interpretations of them). I am particularly sympathetic to Loewen's project because I see it as congruous with at least one part of what I try to do in my classes. Specifically in my courses on philosophy and race or gender, I try to trace the genealogy of things like (theoretical or doctrinal) racism and patriarchy within the mainstream history of (Western) philosophy. The point of these genealogies is not to simply track down and identify the "racists" or "sexists" in the philosophical canon, of course, but rather to try and understand how these ideologies were constructed... and how they might be deconstructed.

Recently, I've noticed a widely held position among many of my students (and some of my colleagues) that arguably could qualify as a philosophical "lie my tacher taught me" of the same sort as the historical ones that Loewen targets in his text. It goes something like this: "The fundamental basis of racism is found in a person's pre-reflective, non- or irrational 'intuition' which figures 'others' (because of their otherness) as essentially different and, consequently, subhuman. Theoretical or doctrinal racism, then, develops simply as an ex post facto attempt to construct a facade of respectability over what is, in truth, a kind of non-theoretical and non-justifiable fear."

Here are my problems with this position. First, it appeals to what seems, in my mind, a highly suspect theory of "first contact." That is, the position assumes that human beings--in the state of nature, if you will--will automatically react with fear and violence to other human beings who appear different because of an innate inability to comrehend or synthesize that difference. My problem is not only that this theory of first contact is disproven by history--it certainly has not been the case, historically, that every first contact between physically and culturally different human beings resulted in the human/subhuman distinction--but also that it requires us to believe that human beings have some natural internal mechanism that distinguishes significant physical differences in other human beings (like skin color, presumably) from insignificant physical differences (like eye or hair color) pre-reflectively and absolutely. To those who appeal to this kind of explanation I ask: why, then, do we not react with the same sort of fear and violence to all people who are different than us in any way?

Second, it seems to me especially suspect to assume that what we call "pre-reflective" judgments are not shaped, to a significant degree, by certain reflections (even if they are not our own reflections). That is to say, it may be the case that "racist" beliefs are irrational, nonrational or pre-reflective, but they are only made possible as such in an environment that has shaped and prepared certain subjects for making those judgments pre-reflectively. I think of it this way: if it is the case that I (as a racist) "pre-reflectively" or "instinctually" determine that non-whites are subhuman and, consequently, not deserving of the same considerations and rights as those who look like me, then that means that I already live in a world in which such distinctions have been theoretically (i.e., reflectively) constructed as relevant and important ones. It means that I live in a world which, through the reflections of others (my family, my church, my politicians, my philosophers), my given is taken to be already-inflected with some (proto- or fully developed) notion of not only the "human" but also something like volk or race.

My point here is to say that I strongly object to the tendency to figure racism as "irrational" or "pre-reflective" simpliciter. That does not mean that I think that racism is always rational (which it never is) or reflective (which is sometimes is), but simply that considering it as the opposite of that commits one to a set of very dubious assumptions (perhaps, "lies") about what shapes human thinking, reflective or otherwise. This, I argue, entangles us in a web of positions from which I am not sure that we can extract ourselves... like, among other things, the position that racism is "natural."

This is, of course, a fast and loose rendering of what I meant to say, but such is the nature of the blog.


Steven Thomas said...

I agree w/ your critique of the meta-narrative of "racism is an irrational belief that has now been demystified." I too have noticed that it is the fall-back position of many of our students, and corroborates their assumptions of American "progress." Things are better now, thank goodness, they like to tell themselves even though transnational slavery is still happening all over the world today, even in the U.S., as this weekend's episode of This American Life showed us.

Since I teach American Lit from 1492 to 1865, it's pretty easy to see how attitudes towards "others" changes over time in order to justify economic goals and in order to smooth over class conflict between Europeans. It's a slow process, taking place over several hundred years and full of contradictary articulations of identity, and the archival evidence is in plain view for all to see. And the archival evidence certainly agrees with your deconstruction of the contemporary liberal meta-narrative that assumes racism to be an irrational pre-judgement.

But there is another meta-narrative, different than the liberal one that you deconstructed. The other narrative (the Marxist meta-narrative as opposed to the liberal meta-narrative) is that racisim is an effect, not a cause, of economic exploitation and economic conflict. A lot of my students seem to me to be just as familiar with the Marxist meta-narrative as with the liberal meta-narrative. (And perhaps I should admit here that for me "liberal" is a code word for "stupid, but not as stupid as conservative.")

I wonder how you might deconstruct the Marxist meta-narrative in the same way that you deconstructed the liberal one. Or, is the liberal one wrong (as liberal meta-narratives always are) and the Marxist meta-narrative simply right (as Marxist meta-narratives so often are)? After all, as we know from Derrida's Specters of Marx, Chuck was the post-structuralist par excellance.

Katie said...

This is great. I especially appreciate your objections to the theory of first contact. In my own thinking about this issue I often use the explanation that the -isms and -ias are irrational but not prereflexive, but I think I'm using the word differently than you do here. As you say at the end of your post (and other times in person:-)), racism is never rational. This makes it part of the irrational that always accompanies or underpins our rational thought in some way, no?

Doctor J said...

I guess it would depend on what kind of "Marxist" we were considering deconstructing. If it was a Marxist of the hard-core matierialist sort, I would say that although economic factors figure heavily in producing the "effect" of racism, the appearance of that ideology in its present form also requires some ideological base. Or, more simply, material factors alone don't produce complex and complicated ideologies.

If we were talking to a Marxist more inclined to consider the *philosophical* factors at work in the production of racism, I would mostly agree with him/her. However, just for the sake of deconstructing, I might ask them to consider whether or not there is something more "primary" about something like "white supremacy" as a world-shaping force. That is, maybe the specific manifestation of capitalism that we see today is itself an effect of white supremacy.

I'd have to think about this more, though.

I like your (secretly psychoanalytic) claim that racism is evidence of "the irrational that always underpins out rational thought." But I would like to hear more about what you see as the differences between how I am using "pre-reflective" and your use of it?

Steven Thomas said...

Hmm... I suppose that what I'm implicitly suggesting is that any deconstruction of a so-called meta-narrative ought to pay some attention to the historical archive.

As for the Marxist bit, let's just say that no historians today (whatever their theoretical slant, materialist, po-mo Marxist, or liberal) make the claim that racism was an irrational, pre-reflective reaction to difference. So, perhaps you are deconstructing a straw-man, but I don't think you are, because I think you are right that today the general public and politicians understand racism precisely the way you said.

In contrast to modern media, almost all historains today suggest that racism emerged over time in order to justify economic goals and rationalize social positions within a very complex commercial world. Such rationales were articulated often by borrowing from Biblical and Greco-Roman texts, but certainly 18th c. writers argued about the meaning of such precedents in various and inconsistent ways, and one could hardly say that the Bible and Aristotle "caused" people to think that way. Consider, for instance, the debate between John Saffin and Samuel Sewell in Boston in the year1700. And earlier than this, in the 15th century, the dichotemy was less a white/black dichotemy (as you seem to overemphasize) but more a Christian/non-Christian one. Racial difference in the 16th century was not understood the same way as it was in the 19th century. Rather it emerged out of 300 years of small economic and legal decisions. For instance, originally in Virginia, the difference between indentured servants from Europea and slaves brought over from Africa was slight (and we all know that the word slave comes from the word for slavic people), but various legal decisions about inter-marriage, property rights, and the status of children gradually widened the difference and made the sign of the difference skin color. So -- never minding which kind of Marxism is currently fashionable to alighn oneself with -- how would you deconstruct my summary of the general consensus among historians today?

And I think I agree with Katie -- contrary to what is generally assumed today, racism is not irrational. Neither is it rational. Rather, it is a rationale (with an "e" on the end -- the accent that is la differance), and as a rationale, it always claimed to follow a pragrmatic reasoning (i.e., slavery is not good, but since the good is not feasible at this particular moment, slavery is necessary for maintaining the social order... or so the reasoning at the time went.)

Doctor J said...


I agree with you that "any deconstruction of a meta-narrative ought to pay some attention to the historical archive." No arguments, there.

I'm not sure what you're suggesing here, though. Is it that the so-called "Marxist" explanation(which, in your account, is slowly morphing into something more like the "general agreement of historians") of race and racism is non-deconstructable?

Steven Thomas said...

No, I'm not saying that the general consensus of historians is not deconstructable.

To the contrary, I'm genuinely interested in how you might deconstruct it. I'm really asking you.

Doctor J said...

Okay, Steven. I've been thinking about this a lot, mostly in confusion I admit, but let me try it again...

Your question as I understand it is whether or not the "general agreement of historians" (let's drop the "Marxist" descriptor, since I don't really think that's entirely accurate) is deconstructable. That general agreement, as you rightly describe it, is that slavery was an economic "effect"... and as slavery goes, so goes "racism" more generally. Unlike (what you call) the "liberal" narrative--which too-easily dismisses slavery/racism by pointing out its "irrationality"-- the historians' narrative cannot be so "simply" debunked by elucidating some internal ideological prejudice that ultimately deconstructs itself.

With me so far?

Doctor J said...

I think a "deconstruction" of the historians' narrative might go something like this:

Following the same model as the deconstruction of the "liberal" narrative, I think I would argue that historians' are operating within an ideological frame that assumes something similar to what I called "a highly dubious theory of 'first contact'" in the liberal narrative. The problem with the liberal narrative is that it presumes a theory of first contact that confirms its suspicion that racism is irrational (and, consequently, that 'rationality' is the measure of man). But, upon closer inspection, this theory of 'first contact' not only proves to be historically inaccurate, but it also relies on a certain set of contradictions that liberals can't explain (i.e., why *these* differences and not others?). So, the challenge (for me) is to find something similar in the historians' account... something that auto-deconstructs.

It might be that the historians' argument has its own hidden premises at work... and by "at work" I mean "subtly autodeconstructing." When historians explain slavery (and, again by extension, racism) as an economic "effect", that effect is often put forth as necessary and unavoidable. It goes something like this: (1) the conditions present in the colonial or pre-colonial environment made "cheap" labor necessary, (2) slavery is the cheapest form of labor, (3) racism is the ideological framework that greases the wheels of slavery-imposition most easily, (4) therefore, slavery/racism is an "effect" of conrete material conditions and, hence, the quasi-rational decision (or, in your words, the "rationale") of people particularly situated in a commercial world.

I think the potentially-deconstructive levers are hidden between (1) and (2)... and perhaps also between (2) and (3).

Katie said...

Wow there's a lot of deconstructing going on here! Leigh I've decided that when you explain how you'd deconstruct the materialist/economic narrative of the development of slavery/racism you are already addressing any concern I had about the difference between the pre-reflexive and the irrational. I think it's fine to say that a common liberal description of racism assumes that it is a result of a reaction to difference in a way that is both pre-reflexive and irrational, and that account is a red herring. However, in your critique of that account you really address the idea that racism cannot be pre-reflexive. It's still possible for it to be irrational (as you said, it's certainly not rational) without assuming the theory of "first contact" though. I think the best way to illustrate this is to do exactly what you did in your last comment. Which means I'm really just posting here to cheer you on after the play's been made.

Doctor J said...

Thanks, Katie. And thanks to you, too, Steven... this continues to be a very productive conversation for me...

Katie, I wanted to get back to this issue of pre-reflection for just a sec. When I used that term, I think I mostly meant it in the same way that Sartre does. So, Sartre thinks that we have two modes of consciousness: (1) our general mode of considering our objective surroundings, which is pre-reflective and (2) our consciousness of ourselves being conscious of those surroundings, which is reflective.

Neither of these, according to Sartre, can properly be called "unconsciousness." He gives the example of running after a bus: one is certainly not *unaware* of running after it, but it is only after stopping that one would reflect and think "sacrebleu, I was running there."

Booga Face said...

We're on our way.

The reasons I brought it up are

(1) in my view (and in Derrida's in Specters), Karl Marx was the first post-structuralist historian, not just the first materialist historian, and so I agree with your point that contemporary historiography is always self-deconstructing, because modern historiography remains indebted to Marx's innovations and tendency towards self-critique.

(2) because it's always been easier for me to deconstruct liberalism, and much, much harder for me to deconstruct Marxism. So I wanted to see how you'd do it.

And admittedly, I was being a jerk because I thought you were playing fast and loose with history.

Meanwhile, consider another possible lever of deconstruction. Historiography tends to assume a telos of European supremacy. So, consider this question (which I'm stealing from a historian whose name escapes me at the moment): why did the Europeans colonize and settle America from the 16th century to the 18th century, but they didn't start colonizing and settling in Africa until the 19th? (They only set up forts for trading along the coast.)

Hmm... the Europeans tend to blame it on the African climate and diseases, but another reason that we prevented from seeing because of the ideological power of our own meta-narratives is because the African kingdoms were simply too powerful.