Skip to content

Thinking blackly beyond bio politics and bare life

Alexander Weheliye’s 2014 book, Habeas Viscus is a vital critique of two dominant accounts of the limits and contours of humanity: Michel Foucault’s biopolitics and Giorgio Agamben’s bare life. But beyond providing us with a much needed problematisation of these two theories, what they omit, and the Eurocentrisms they reproduce, this book offers much more. In fact, despite the book’s framing around the critique of bare life and biopolitics, Habeas Viscus in my reading is really a call to see race – and thus the concept of the human – otherwise and a rallying call for Black thought and its centrality for making sense of modernity. Alexander Weheliye, a professor of African-American studies, is primarily a cultural-literary theorist/philosopher. His points of reference and his lyrical, evocative but dense writing style are harder for sociologists to access. Nevertheless, his insistence on placing Black feminist thought at the heart of this theorization of race, the human and the ‘possibilities of other worlds’ (Weheliye 2014: 2) means that there is a lot that race critical students interested in the function of race but also the constant possibility of self-emancipation in the face of its structuring constraints can learn from his groundbreaking book.

The strength of Habeas Viscus is Weheliye’s ability to combine literary and film studies with discussions of philosophy, the law, autobiography and emancipatory political action in an extremely novel way. The book has been widely discussed from a variety of perspectives (see for example here and here). While re-reading Habeas Viscus, I was struck by how it helps me to build on the threads opened up over the previous five blogs in this series while opening up new routes for thought. It also ties into thinking I have done elsewhere on the importance of what Lewis Gordon (2010) calls ‘theory in black’ for really considering how race operates as the division of humanity into ‘human, not-quite-human, and non-human’, as Weheliye puts it. It adds a corrective to the anti-humanism of poststructuralist European thinkers which I have used in the past to think about the racism-universalism relation (Balibar 1994) by demonstrating how Black and ethnic studies were excised from these attempts to challenge the ‘smooth operations of western Man’ (Weheliye 2014: 9).

Theory in Black by Lewis Gordon (2010)

It also places the work of Black feminist thinkers, primarily that of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter, at the heart of thinking about the question of the human in modernity. In particular, Spillers’ evocation of the body made into flesh in contexts of extreme ‘depravation and deprivation’ (ibid. 39) – slavery primarily – retain within it what Weheliye calls the ‘pesky potential’ vital for the maintenance of the illusion of racial difference even after the official granting of ‘proper personhood’ to former slaves or colonized subjects – their formal inclusion in Humanity (ibid.). Lastly, the book, for my purposes, really extends what it would mean to think relationally about race, in the ways opened up by David Goldberg, Zine Magubane, Gurminder Bhambra and Lisa Lowe. In particular, it helps me to think about the relationships between colonialism, slavery and the Holocaust, and the specific ways in which the latter has become the exemplar of what I have called ‘frozen racism‘, often to the exclusion of the co-temporality of colonial governance, and the parallels with slavery that can be drawn. In that discussions of what constitutes humanity in the post-Holocaust era have been largely determined  by the ways in which perpetrators, bystanders and their descendants have coped with their enactment of genocide, it is possible to see, through Habeas Viscus, how a reckoning with this history is partially dependent on an excision of the continuities of colonial domination and white supremacy exemplified to this day by the perpetuation of racial-colonial inequalities, the proliferation of borders, and the continuity of Black ‘social death‘.

There are three areas that I wish to enlarge upon. First, I take up the importance of Black thought in Weheliye’s discussion of the definition of the Human and, beyond engaging with his critique of bare life which frames his approach, I try to consider how ‘thinking blackly’ is vital for correcting ‘white’ approaches to the study of race and racism. Secondly, I dwell briefly on Weheliye’s use of assemblage as a means of bringing Black feminist thought to the fore and contrast it, following Jasbir Puar, with intersectionality theory. I will also, in appreciation of a recent discussion on Novara Media on the theme of ‘reclaiming feminism’ think about what assemblage might offer us in terms of organizing. Last, I wish to develop on the theme of relationality by considering the way in which Weheliye juxtaposes the experiences of C.L.R James during his detention on Ellis Island, Harriet Jacobs who hid from her slavemaster for seven years in a tiny attic to remain near her children, and the Muselmanner of the concentration camps help us think about the circulating effects of race and the potential for the bringing together of racialised experience at a time of increased particularization in movement politics.

  1. Thinking blackly about race and the human

What Weheliye offers us in Habeas Viscus is a reading of the violences of modern humanity that nonetheless retains the ‘existence of alternative modes of life’ that persist despite them. The slight shifting of the focus from within a perspective that maintains the enormity of the crimes of race – colonization, exploitation, enslavement, genocide – to include the enduring life force of those subjected to these regimes of rule is made possible by his privileging of Black feminist thought. As he says, biopower and bare life, but also Mbembe’s necropolitics, despite offering other insights, neglect these alternatives modes of life. But, habeas viscus (‘You shall have the flesh’) in contrast to habeas corpus (body) demonstrates ‘how violent political domination activates a fleshly surplus – an idea he borrows from Spillers (1987) – that simultaneously sustains and disfigures said brutality’ (Weheliye 2014: 2). It is, thus, a theorization of survival in the face of ‘racialising assemblages of subjection’ (ibid.). This approach is particularly important in the face of a suffocating postracialism that, rather than seeking an end to the effects of race, batters us down with an insistence that it was merely  illusory and thus, always already post (cf. Hesse 2011). In other words, Weheliye shows us a way of thinking about the centrality of race for a full understanding of modern humanity which at the same time refuses to think of it teleologically; it insists on race being a set of processes, regimes, constraints, structures, etc. that are imposed on human beings, rather than in any sense being bound to their identity in a way that condemns the racialised to a singular outcome.

Weheliye defines race, racialisation, and racial identities as follows:

“Ongoing sets of political relations that require, through constant perpetuation via institutions, discourses, practices, desires, infrastructures, languages, technologies, sciences, economies, dreams, and cultural artifacts, the barring of non-white subjects from the category of the human as it is performed in the modern west” (Weheliye 2014: 3).

The major problem I see in many studies of race that centre a postracialist drive towards the minimization of race that often excludes it entirely from their discussions of the effects of racism, is that they entirely miss the performative dimension described in Weheliye’s definition. Racism, thus, becomes reduced to a set of attitudes, behaviours and pathologies that place it at a remove from the object of ‘serious’ concerns such as, precisely, the nature of modern humanity and the interaction of this with processes of law-making, state-building, geo-politics, etc. This can only be achieved through a centering of the liberal subject as the norm of humanity to the exclusion (perversely) of the racialised from a theorisation of their own experience. Thus, those subjected to racial rule are read through the lens of a view of humanity that wishes, formally, to incorporate them but only on the terms predetermined in white (and male) molds. What this leads to, as is exemplified by Weheliye’s critique, especially of Agamben’s notion of bare life, is an inability to consider the very humanness of those whose function it is to define the contours of Humanity. In other words, if the function of race is to determine the boundaries of who is considered human, and who is at its borders (not-quite-human) or indeed, completely outside (non-human), then any attempt to theorize race without placing centrally the thoughts and experiences of those precisely defined as not-quite and non-human reenacts a racialising violence.

More than this, however, following major Black thinkers, such as Lewis Gordon and Jared Sexton, using what Barnor Hesse has called a ‘black analytics’ to think about questions of social theory in general generates more complete accounts. As Lewis Gordon suggests, ‘black thought’ (but also ‘Jew, Moor, (New World) Indian’), with its implicit profane challenge to the holy, has the potential for allowing us to ‘see that which should not be seen’ (Gordon 2010: 196-7). This is the starting point of Du Boisian ‘double consciousness’, which Gordon succinctly defines as ‘seeing the self through the eyes of hostile others’ (Gordon 2010: 206). If we take seriously Jared Sexton’s invocation that ‘all thought […] might best be conceived of as black thought’ (Sexton 2012), what we are really being asked to entertain is the suggestion that, unless we are endowed with what Du Bois called ‘second sight’ (Du Bois 1903: 23), which he had as a result of being forced to see himself through white eyes – an ‘insight’ that can seldom be reciprocal – then to theorise, we must take what we learn from those that have this insight as our starting point. Therefore, black thought can precisely be made to have the ‘universal potential’ that Gordon rightly points out it is denied by those who object to what they see as its particularity (Gordon 2010: 195). That is not to say that black thought should be abstracted from its specific history, but that it should be at the heart of any theorisation of the human condition because, without it, to paraphrase Du Bois, what is considered ‘legitimate’ thinking will remain singular (white), possessing the sole claim to reason. This should be doubly the case for the study of racism.

However, Black thought is not axiomatically equivalent to the thoughts of Black people. This is clear in Weheliye’s evocation of C.L.R. James’ discussion of Black studies. Weheliye opens the book’s first chapter with a quote from James,

“Now to talk to me about black studies as if it’s something that concerned black people is an utter denial. This is the history of Western civilization” (C.L.R. James 1969)

Hortense Spillers

As Weheliye says, far from saying that Black studies are irrelevant for Black people, James is making the distinct point that they are not uniquely for Black people. Weheliye draws on Spillers to insist that the aim of Black studies should be to ‘become an object of knowledge by virtue of recognizing itself in the mirror of  a particular mode of knowledge production, which, in the process, “introduce[s] a new set of demands”‘ (Weheliye 2014: 18; Spillers 1994). Black studies should disarticulate Black people from blackness, according to Spillers, in order to enable Black studies to productively identify new objects of study. Such a project would be cognizant of the ‘complexity of the object of knowledge’ (Althusser and Balibar 1968: 107). Weheliye, reflecting on the potential for Black studies, relates it to the ways in which following Spillers’ call to search for the complexity also crucially participates in the denaturalization of race. The risk for Black studies to work with ‘blackness as one of black studies’ primary objects of knowledge with Black people as real subjects’ is that it mirrors the synonymity of ‘the human and Man… in western modernity’ (Weheliye 2014: 18). Weheliye goes on to say that the reference to these as stable certainties,

“accepts too easily that race is a given natural and/or cultural phenomenon and not an assemblage of forces that must continuously articulate nonwhite subjects as not-quite-human. Analogously, as an object of knowledge, whiteness designates not actually existing groupings but a series of hierarchical power structures that apportion and delimit which members of the Homo Sapiens species can lay claim to full human status. In short, insisting on black studies as a mode of knowledge production provides the conditions of possibility for viewing race as a set of articulated political relations or assemblages, and not a biological or cultural descriptor” (ibid. 19).

The major objection to black studies, just as in the objection to the centering of race I wrote about in my third blog post, is that it renaturalizes race and/or the object of racialisation in dangerous ways. Hence, a recent discussion on a Race and Ethnicity listserv I participate in saw a contributor call Black studies a form of racism. They accused prominent Black theorists of participating in a form of so-called ‘counter-racism’. This is but one example of the belief that merely invoking the terminology of race and blackness reproduces the terms of racial hierarchy; a nonsense. Beyond such obviously egregious examples which belligerently dismiss the work of Black feminist scholars in particular, the general objectification of racialised subjects that results from the deployment of ‘white analytics’ in the discussion of race is notable. Paradoxically, the determination to not spell out the operations of race within the processes that Weheliye describes as creating and recreating the racialised assemblages that define one’s place vis-a-vis humanity cannot take place without a reification of non-white people. Specifically, the failure to place the lived-experience of racialised people centrally in any account of racism creates a skewed vision of their reality. But more importatly – because nowadays the commitment to ‘engaged research’ at least plays along with the privileging of experience – the failure to foreground a Black analytics commits this experience to the narrow domain of the ethnographic. Weheliye says this when he reminds us that there has been a lack of critical scrutiny around the claims of Foucault and Agamben which are often accepted ‘without scrutinising the historical, philosophical, or political foundations upon which they are constructed’ (Weheliye 2014: 6). Further,

“theoretical formulations by white European thinkers are granted a conceptual carte blanche, while those uttered from the purview of minority discourse that speak to the same questions are almost exclusively relegated to the jurisdiction of ethnographic locality” (ibid.).

There is, on the one hand, an undeniable erasure of the work of Black and other racialised theorists in general. Often their ideas are borrowed, uncited by white authors who then popularize them. On the other hand, and more importantly for my discussion here, there is the not unconnected issue that disconnecting the realm of ideas/object of study from the actual views of those affected by race on them will produce better scholarship. This problem is related to the general one of the search for objectivity, rejected by Du Bois as an impossibility. Concretely, in relation to the study of race, the only way in which ‘objectivity’ can be achieved is through a dual sidelining of Black/racialised thought and Black/racialised experience with the resulting effect of minimizing racism. I write about this in an upcoming book chapter, ‘(Not) Doing race: Casual racism’, ‘bystander antiracism’ and ‘ordinariness’ in Australian racism studies’. The article examines a dominant strand in Australian studies of racism that, to my mind, fail to centre a ‘Black analytics’ in their account. In ‘The Resilience and Ordinariness of Australian Muslims’, the authors designed their research into the experiences of what they called ‘ordinary Muslims’ in Australia to deselect respondents who expressed concern about racism in Australian society. In my chapter, I note,

“Having deselected those for whom the experience of racism is significant and admitting that ‘racism denial’ was high among respondents (Dunn et al 2015: 5), thus signaling the cultural sanctioning of highlighting racism in Australian society, the authors appear to wish to avert our gaze from racism to ‘the strong desire for acceptance from the Australian community’ (31). There is a wistful appeal to this community – constructed here as non-Muslim, with Muslims as outsiders rather than members – to understand that Muslims not only share ‘ordinary’ values and aspirations, but will not trouble them with complaints about racism. Furthermore, while providing plenty of evidence about the high level of racism experienced by Muslims in Australia, the report finds that, ‘fortunately’, these incidents are infrequent. The authors use this lack of frequency to relativise the effects of racism by suggesting that ‘rare instances’ of racism are magnified through their discussion on social media and through ‘collective memory and adverse discourse’ (12). Thus the experiences of racism, despite being unacceptable where they do occur, are painted as isolated, over-wrought and minimized in contrast to ‘the ordinariness of the lives of Australian Muslims’ (39)” (Lentin forthcoming)

I was reminded of this wish to minimize or deny the effects of race even in studies that concern their very objects when reading Weheliye’s fourth chapter on ‘Racism: Biopolitics’. His discussion of Agamben and Foucault therein is explanatory of the two sides of the problem I have been laying out. Agamben, in his trilogy Homo Sacer, State of Exception and Remnants of Auschwitz  is representative of a theorist who denies the import of race in his theorization of ‘the biopolitics of racism’. Foucault, in contrast, centres racism but offers a whole Eurocentric account of its evolution which elides coloniality and, moreover, plagiarizes the work of the Black Panthers by whom he was inspired but who he fails to cite!

In that Agamben deals at all with race it is through his evocation of the figure of the Muselmann, ‘a class or caste of Nazi concentration camp detainees so ravaged by chronic malnutrition and psychological exhaustion that they resembled phlegmatic but still living corpses’ (Weheliye 2014: 53). Weheliye notes that Agamben claims that in reaching the state of becoming Muselmann, ‘the biopolitics of racism so to speak transcends race’ (Agamben 2005: 85). Weheliye asks, ‘how can racism – geopolitical or otherwise – exist without race?’ (Weheliye 2014: 55). It appears that, for Agamben, in becoming a Muselmann, the person is positioned as ‘the final biopolitical substance to be isolated in the biological continuum’ (Agamben 2005: 85).

Weheliye does not say this explicitly, but it seems that what Agamben is doing here is in fact re-reifying race as a biological category which the Muselmann, in becoming something other than human (the final stage along the biological continuum), no longer inhabits. In other words, there are various biological races into which humans are divided and the Muselmann, in no longer approximating a human being, moves outside the racial schema. This is beyond Weheliye’s interpretation, and may be a misrepresentation. However, I think it is consistent with what he goes go on to write: In essence, by failing to deal at all with race theory or Black thought, Agamben is at a loss to explain race or indeed racism. He seems to be borrowing from Foucault’s notion of ‘biopolitical racism’ thus reproducing the absence of engagement with race in Foucault. Weheliye:

“Far from exceeding race, then, the Muselmann represents as intense and excessive instantiation thereof, penetrating every crevice of political racialisation; how else to explain the very name Muselmann, racial slur for Muslims?’ (Weheliye 2014: 55).

Weheliye explains that, in saying that the Muselmann represents the biopolitics of racism beyond race, Agamben wishes for the Muselmann to represent the transcendence of race. However, racism is precisely ‘the political exaltation and (re)producing of race’ (ibid.). So, the Muselmann, if anything, is the epitome of race in action as racism, what Ruth Wilson-Gilmore calls ‘the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death’ (Wilson-Gilmore 2002: 261).

In that the very idea of remnants of Auschwitz appears to be inscribed in European post-Holocaust thought obsessed by the question, ‘how could this happen here?’, the wish for the Muselmann to represent the final endpoint of race is fundamental for the European search for redemption. I have written extensively about how the banishment of race in the aftermath of the Shoah – the European silence of about race – represents the European inability and unwillingness to face the deep trace of race in modern European and the co-presence of the colonial with and after the Holocaust. Later, in Chapter 7 of Habeas Viscus, when Weheliye interrogates the relationality between the Muselmann and the self-emancipated, yet still incarcerated slave, Harriet Jacobs it becomes clear that, far from the Muselmann embodying the endpoint of race, after which it is implied there will be redemption from the hold it had over politics, the Muselmann is forever being remade in the multiple figures of ‘depraved and deprived’ racialised life which, despite this, continue to strive for their own freedom.

Weheliye contrasts Agamben’s omission of race with Foucault’s centering of racism in his account of biopolitics in his lectures at the College de France. However, Foucault’s clear lack of engagement, despite the influence of the Algerian war on him and his engagement with the anti-prison literature of the Black Panther Party, with the history and theory of race is clear. As Weheliye remarks, Foucault makes a divide between (old) race and ‘modern racism’. However, in what he calls ‘a reversal of colonial modernity’s teleology that locates the temporal origin of all things in the west, racism only attains relevance once it penetrates the borders of fortress Europe’ (Weheliye 2014: 57). So, race may originate in the colonized ‘rest’ of the world, but only becomes biopolitical – and by association, politically forceful – in its incorporation into Europe. As Weheliye shows, Foucault repeatedly uses the word ‘colonization’ as ‘a synonym for hegemonic appropriation’ (ibid. 58), rather than to name specific instances of colonial rule. Therefore, he glosses over racial rule as it actually manifested in colonial settings and develops two forms of racism – ‘ordinary’ racism or ‘mutual contempt or hatred between races’ (Foucault 2003: 258) – and ‘ideological’ racism ‘that allows States, or a class, to displace the hostility that is directed toward them… onto a mythical adversary’ (ibid.). Beyond this is modern European biopolitical racism which manifests in the Third Reich.

As Weheliye comments, it is only possible for Foucault to take the Nazi regime to be the only example of full biopolitical racism by ignoring both the forms of biopolitical racism ‘perfected in colonialism, racialised indentured servitude, and racial slavery’  as well as the aftereffects of these in the persistent (re)making of ‘racializing assemblages’ (Weheliye 2014: 59). By ignoring the relationality of these racialized assemblages, Foucault is able to present us with two forms of racism – ethnic and biological – thus ‘leaving the door open for the naturalization of racial categories and the existence of a biological sphere that is not always already subject to ethnic racism’ (ibid.). Moreover, Foucault’s context for biological racism at the time of his writing was in the Socialist states’ treatment of the mentally ill, dissidents and the like. It seems, therefore, that biopolitical racism is only at play for Foucault when racism also targets white people; it is ethnic when it has the Black and brown in its sights. But as Wynter shows, according to Weheliye, the very way in which racialisation and racial rule works is by selecting subsets of humans ‘not distinctive in Man’s racial-epidermal schema’ and labelling them as deviant from full humanity. Therefore,

“put bluntly, there exists no significant difference between ethnic and biological racism in the way Foucault imagines, since both rely on the same tools of the trade: racializing assemblages” (ibid. 60).

This is crucial, and chimes completely with my own insistence’ over a number of years, with the ahistoricity of the idea of cultural racism as a new form of racism. Thinking of race as assemblage helps us to think about how race draws on both the putatively biological and the cultural, religious, ethnic, epidermal, etc. to divide and categorise, order and discipline humanity for the purpose of modern governance.

2. Intersectionalities and assemblages

Weheliye starts the third chapter of Habeas Viscus with a foray into Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the word assemblage, agencement in French, meaning ‘continuously shifting relational totalities comprised of spasmodic networks between different entities (content) and their articulation within “acts and statements” expression’ (Weheliye 2014: 46; Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 87-88). I am far from being a scholar of either Deleuze and Guattari (or both) so I will make no attempt to reiterate Weheliye’s engagement with their thought. However, in that racializing assemblages is key to his formulation of race, I shall briefly dwell on what I think is useful in this and how, following Jasbir Puar, it critiques and develops on the notion of intersectionality.

As Weheliye remarks, the concept of assemblage is only productive when ‘put to work in milieus (e.g. racialized minority discourse or queer theory as in the case of Puar) beyond the snowy masculine precincts of European philosophy’ (Weheliye 2014: 47). He notes the impossibility of merely transposing Delueze and Guattari’s interpretation of racializing assemblages into race critical theory. In the end, much like Foucault and Agamben, their failure to deeply engage with the history and politics of race makes them unable to fully encapsulate what it is doing. Weheliye claims that Delueze and Guattari run the risk of naturalizing racial categories because they do not think about race as ‘the territorializing articulations’ of racializing assemblages. Rather they consider these assemblages to ‘articulate relational intensities between human physiology and flesh, producing racial categories. which are subsequently coded as natural substances’ (Weheliye 2014: 50). Weheliye insists, in contrast, that race,

“should be viewed not as an ideology or the erroneous ascription of social meaning to existent biological classifications, as Deleuze and Guattari do by giving preference to the hybrid, but, in the words of Dorothy Roberts, as ‘a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations… Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one'” (Weheliye 2014: 51; Roberts 2012: 4).

Weheliye therefore wants to think through the relationship between assemblages and articulations. Articulation is a necessary corrective to the drive within the notion of assemblage to transcend ‘limited notions of the subject or identity’ because, as Weheliye points out, this often ‘leads to the neglect of race as a critical category’ (ibid. 48).

Stuart Hall

In contrast, in Stuart Hall’s seminal discussion of the Althusserian idea of articulation as it relates to racism, he explains how ‘complex structures’ are always the result of linkages (articulations) between different phenomena (Hall 1980). This explains why, in Hall’s view, it is short sighted to reduce racism to either economically reductive or uniquely sociological explanations. He also denies the utility of any naturalising accounts of race, writing ‘appeals to “human nature” are not explanations; they are an alibi’ (ibid.: 338). In ‘Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance’, Hall states that ‘the structures through which black labour is reproduced […] are not simply “coloured” by race; they work through race’ (ibid.: 340). In other words, at each level of social formation – ‘economic, political ideological’ – race enters to shape the ways in which, in the case of his example the ‘black labouring classes’, are ‘complexly constituted’ (ibid.). Race shapes the ways in which these Black workers are treated in the labour market, the forms of political representation and struggles they can engage in, and the tenor of debates over culture, representation, and it is important to add, gender and sexual relations (Hill Collins 1990). Race is not chosen as the modality through which these conflicts or confluences take shape.

For Weheliye, combining assemblage and articulation ‘accents the productive ingredients of social formations while not silencing questions of power’ (Weheliye 2014: 49).

“Articulated assemblages such as racialization materialize as sets of complex relations of articulations that constitute an open articulating principle – territorializing and deterritorializing, interested and asubjective – structured in political, economic, social, racial, and hereopatriarchal dominance’ (ibid.).

This is echoed by Jasbir Puar who advocates, following Delanda, to see racism as a pattern of recurring links, as well as the properties of those links”’ (Puar 2011, Delanda 2006: 56). This idea underpins Puar’s critique of intersectionality theory as relying too heavily both on racism (and other forms of governmentality) as an isolatable event or series of events (i.e. everyday racism/micro-aggressions) and as identitarian in nature. As Puar remarks in Terrorist Assemblages,

“No matter how intersectional our models of subjectivity, no matter how attuned to locational politics of space, place, and scale, these formulations—these fine tunings of intersectionality, as it were, that continue to be demanded—may still limit us if they presume the automatic primacy and singularity of the disciplinary subject and its identitarian interpellation” (Puar 2007: 206).

 There is a balance to be struck, politically, between the recognition of the effects of race in creating solidarities among those made to appear politically as belonging to a biological category (to paraphrase Roberts) and reproducing these categories as certainties. A paradox noted by Puar, is that intersectionality as an idea/body of work has ‘produced a proliferation of work on WOC while simultaneously excusing white feminists from this work, re-centering gender and sexual difference as foundational and primary’ (Puar 2011). What this misses is the fact that bodies are surveilled ‘not on identity positions alone but through affective tendencies and statistical probabilities’ (ibid.). Nevertheless, she proposes that intersectionality and assemblages need to be put to work in  tandem:

“intersectionality attempts to comprehend political institutions and their attendant forms of social normativity and disciplinary administration, while assemblages, in an effort to re-introduce politics into the political, asks what is prior to and beyond what gets established” (ibid.)

 Verso Books

Such an approach is useful to mitigate against the proliferation of intersectionality theory within liberal institutional feminism and academia. In an article on ‘Whitening Intersectionality‘, Sirma Bilge examines the way in which ‘academia incorporates black women and intersectionality as material (bringing a new flavour to research projects, course material and publications), and as actors joining academic ranks, without altering its structure’ (Bilge 2014). She shows how the cooptation of intersectionality into mainstream gender studies necessitated an unwriting of the genealogy of intersectionality detaching it from the Black feminists at its origins, such as the Combahee River Collective. Black and majority world feminism is reinscribed as a ‘contribution’ to second wave feminism that, along with queer and ethnic studies more broadly, helped it hone its ideas on the intersections of gender with race, class, and sexuality.

This ‘mainstreaming’ of intersectionality, and its detachment from its roots in Black women’s activism, has helped to solidify the impression that intersectionality is too rigidly welded to an identity politics that renaturalises racial/ethnic categories in the ways that Weheliye and Puar warn against. As Bilge shows, this is often all too convenient, noting Grosfoguel’s critique of the dismissal of minority knowledges as ‘identity politics’ in a way that conceals ‘the identity politics concealed behind “universal” knowledge’ (Bilge 2014). However, to follow Puar, intersectionality as it is often used does present with a problem in that it reifies ‘sexual difference as a/the foundational one that needs to be disrupted—that is to say, sexual and gender difference is understood as the constant from which there are variants’ (Puar 2011). While intersectionality at its origins recognizes the instability of identities, and ‘that all subjects are intersectional whether or not they recognize themselves as such’, the practical application of intersectionality as method has led to the resecuring of white women as the unquestioned neutral centre. This is because most approaches to intersectionality have focused on the difference of women of color from the white norm.

Puar points out that, notwithstanding the importance of pointing out the origins of the concept of intersectionality in Black and majority world feminist thought, there is a conflict at the heart of the actual theory which posits that ‘all identities are lived and experienced as intersectional’ and the centering of the experiences of particular groups of women:

“intersectionality always produces an Other, and that Other is always a Woman Of Color (WOC), who must invariably be shown to be resistant, subversive, or articulating a grievance. And more pointedly, it is the difference of black women that dominates this genealogy of the term “women of color” (and indeed, Crenshaw is clear that she centralizes “black women’s experience” and posits “black women as the starting point” (Crenshaw 1991: 1243) of her analysis). Thus the consolidation of intersectionality as a dominant heuristic may well be driven by anxieties about maintaining the “integrity” of a discrete black feminist genealogy, one that does not necessarily resonate in terms of how intersectionality functions” (Puar 2011).

Weheliye warns that Puar creates too neat a distinction between assemblages and intersectionality, the first ‘wholly in flux’, the latter fixed. To his mind, this neglects the fact that assemblages are ‘marked as much by territorialization as they are by deterritorialization’ (Weheliye 2014: 155). Nevertheless, reading Weheliye’s proposition of a productive combining of assemblage with articulation – thus the constant interplay of the processes of racialisation as traveling and structuring – alongside Puar’s call for a complementarity between assemblage and intersectionality helps to bring the focus back to race as political domination.

This was reiterated in a recent conversation on ‘Reclaiming Feminism: Sex, Work and Womanhood‘, with Ash SarkarEleanor Penny, Lola Okolosie and Juno Mac. During the conversation, the participants answered the questions ‘is intersectionality useful?’ Paraphrasing, it was pointed out that intersectionality appropriates the labour of Black woman who were using the term to explain a particular set of conditions; now it has become a proxy for a better understanding of the materiality of a given situation. Intersectionality has become descriptive; many different kinds of feminists have started to give themselves the label ‘intersectional’, sending the signal that, having achieved this status, there is little left to be done. Analogously, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s article, Decolonization is not a Metaphor, make a similar point about how labels – which have literally turned into bumper stickers, such as ‘Decolonize this Place’ cannot be proxies for actual decolonization – the resolution of land and the payment of reparations to Indigenous people. Ash Sarkar made the important point that while intersectionality is an important teaching tool, useful to summarize and express conjunctures that are not immediately obvious because we have grown up in a racist, heteropatriarchal and classist society (‘We do not emerge as Audre Lorde’s from the womb!’). However, she says,

“As a hermeneutic I have beef with it, because as if gender isn’t intimately bound up with the process of racialization historically; as if femininity didn’t come into being with racialized others as part of it; as if the experience of racism doesn’t have gendered aspects… as if men of colour aren’t gendered differently to white men… Angela Davis says this, “even when we’re talking about a white, heterosexual man, aren’t we always talking about racism and patriarchy as well?”‘

For Ash Sarkar, therefore, intersectionality is not a sufficient tool for talking about history. This it appears to me where the racializing assemblages and articulations theorised by Weheliye go towards rectifying more digestible models for explaining racism and patriarchy which nonetheless rely on forms of compartmentalisation that run the risk of reification. This is especially true when taken out of the academy, which intersectionality has been with great success, and applied to a range of contexts in which little attempt to relationalise dynamic processes is made, particularly in the quest to be interesectional which, just like being decolonial, is an impossibility. It also provides a useful corrective to the whitening of intersectionality noted by Sirma Bilge which, by claiming to have included an ‘intersectional approach’, allows gender studies to continue to reproduce racialised hierarchies in academic environments; funding structures, hiring practices and research priorities.

3. Beyond resistance and agency

When I was reading Habeas Viscus I was reminded of an incident that took place after a friend watched the 2002 Roman Polanski film The Pianist, based on a true story that takes place in Poland during the Nazi occupation. He was perturbed by the fact that the central character, Wladyslav Szpilman, played by Adrien Brody, watches his family being taken away to a concentration camp while he looks on and then goes into hiding; the rest of the film chronicles his survival. My friend was concerned that Szpilman did not run after his family or attempt to save them. My answer to him was that there were very few ‘heroes’ of the Holocaust; for the majority, survival was paramount.

Weheliye begins the introduction to Habeas Viscus, writing ‘I wondered about the very basic possibility of agency and/or resistance in extreme circumstances such as slave plantations or concentration camps’ (Weheliye 2014: 2). This leads him to related questions, in particular,

“Why are formations of the oppressed deemed liberators only if they resist hegemony and/or exhibit the full agency of the oppressed? What deformations of freedom become possible in the absence of resistance and agency?” (ibid.).

His response begins with the suggestion that Black studies (and minority thought more generally) offer a way to think about ‘different genres of the human’ because they propose ‘a substantial critique of western modernity and a sizable archive of social, political, and cultural alternatives’ (ibid. 3). The main contribution of Black studies is a way towards the abolition of Man, advocating ‘the radical reconstruction and decolonization of what it means to be human’ (ibid. 4). It can do so, as discussed in the first section of this post, by centering the role played by racializing assemblages ‘in the construction of modern selfhood’ (ibid.). In other words, the emphasis handed down to us, eurocentrically, on agency and resistance as the embodiment of the route to freedom is enabled by the lack of engagement with the embeddedness of racialisation in the very idea of the human as (European) ‘Man’. Race structures global humanity into categories of ‘human, not-quite-human, and non-human’; as Balibar also notes, the very idea of universal Man requires a constitutive outside to define itself – always in relation to what it is not (Balibar 1994). Therefore, no theory or politics of global liberation can be based on a project of inclusion within the boundaries of the human of those whom it was established to keep out; hence universal human rights – perhaps of utility as an always partial legal tool – can never be a political end in themselves.

Beyond critiques of human rights, Weheliye sets his sights elsewhere; because he begins with Black studies, and Black feminist work in particular, he does not stay mired in the arguments about the ‘ends of human rights’ (cf. Douzinas 2002). His formulation – habeas viscus – to recall, is an ‘articulated assemblage of the human (viscus/flesh) borne of political violence, while at the same time not losing sight of the different ways the law pugnaciously adjudicates who is deserving of personhood and who is not (habeas)’ (Weheliye 2014: 11). However, he is not claiming that flesh – rather than Man/the human – can abolish violent political structures, or be a new source of agency. Rather, the book examines the spaces between the flesh and the law to see whether therein there can be avenues beyond the reduction of racialised subjects to suffering. He notes that, since the Enlightenment, suffering has become the ‘defining feature of those subjects excluded from the law, national community, the human, and so on’ (ibid.). The consequence of this is the further subjugation of Black people even as the liberal order formally promises to include them to assuage their suffering: inclusion is not freedom.

Weheliye proposes that relationality is ‘a productive model for critical inquiry and political action’ (ibid. 12). In this sense, he takes relationality beyond the domain of the methodological, as described by Goldberg, and into that of politics. Relationality is crucial because it can both reveal the globality of ‘racialized, sexualized and gendered subjugations’ and consider how ‘political violence has given rise to ongoing practices of freedom within various traditions of the oppressed’ (ibid. 13). This echoes Lisa Lowe’s discussion of the imbrication of racialised slavery, settler colonialism, and migrant labour in the liberal order. Weheliye also echoes the critique of comparativism I made in my third blog post, stating clearly that comparisons merely ‘reaffirm Man’s existent hierarchies rather than design novel assemblages of relation’ (ibid.). In other words, not only is comparativism an inadequate methodology, it is also a stunting political strategy (or perhaps that is the aim). Indeed, Weheliye writes, while comparativism may allow some minoritised groups to gain recognition and certain privileges, this is only achieved at the expense of commonality:

‘it feeds into a discourse of putative scarcity in which already subjugated groups compete for limited resources leading to a strengthening of the very mechanisms that deem certain groups more disposable than others. In the resulting Oppression Olympics, white supremacy takes home all the medals in every competition… As long as numerous individuals and populations around the globe continue to be rendered disposable by the pernicious logics of racialisation, and be exposed to different forms of political violence on a daily basis, it seems futile to tabulate, measure, or calculate their/our suffering in the jargon of comparison’ (ibid. 13-14).

In the penultimate chapter of the book, Weheliye reads three very different cases of hunger relationally in the aim of looking for the spaces of freedom of those for whom the flesh (but not bare life) is all there is. These are C.L.R. James’ incarceration on Ellis Island subject to deportation from the United States in 1952, the Muselmanner of the concentration camps, and Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave who hid in an attic above her enslaver’s house to remain close to her children. In each case – James unable to eat the food provided in the detention centre, the Muselmanner, and Jacobs whose bodily contortions in the tiny space of her confinement produced lifelong disability – these individuals’ confrontation with the extremes of bodily torture in regimes of racialisation nevertheless was not devoid of an understanding of their situation and a yearning for freedom. Weheliye details the nature of this in each case: James’ insistence that he was a political prisoner whose denial of palatable food was as much an ideological act against him as his very imprisonment, the Muselmanner’s constant dreaming and discussion of food or even their inability to digest certain foods, and Jacobs’ seven year endurance to eventually escape from captivity and to the North.

Dwelling on the case of the Muselmanner, Weheliye asks, contra Agamben and the Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi on whose writings Agamben bases many of his observations, how can ‘the very process of becoming-Muselmann [be] a form of politics?’ rather than a ‘template for the inhuman in the human’ (Weheliye 2014: 119). In contrast, argues Weheliye, actually reading the testimonies of former Muselmanner reveals the extent to which, despite their ‘bodily and mental degradation’, their ‘(in)humanity is survival, as a potentiality or an actuality, as that, at least for some is nothing but a politics’ (Weheliye 2014: 121).

Henry Taylor, ‘The Times Thay Ain’t Changing Fast Enough’

A few days ago, I visited the 2017 Whitney Biennial. On a fifth floor dedicated mainly to art works dealing with race in the United States, there were a series of banners hanging from the ceiling, one of which, was embroidered with the words ‘We Were Never Meant to Survive’ on a glittering silver background. These words, taken from Audre Lorde’s poem ‘A Litany of Survival’, came to mind in reading Weheliye on the Muselmanner. Seeing the banner in all its shimmering festiveness is meant to be read as testimony, just as the former Mulsemanner’s account of ‘mouthwatering dreams’ of delicious meals and discussions of recipes is evidence of the potential for life after living death. Hung among portraits, such as one of Philando Castile dying in his car having been shot by the police broadcast on Facebook live, the banner ‘We Were Never Meant to Survive’ is cognizant, not of ‘resilience’ in the face of ‘adversity’ – as is often said of Black people – but of the persistence of even the smallest spark despite all effort made to extinguish it. This, for me, is what Weheliye is attempting to bring forth by focusing on the minuscule, the almost inobservable, yet stealthily ever-present beating pulse of the flesh.

Teeth found in meal, Manus Island detention centre

Food at the Manus island Detention centre, where Australia has been illegally holding 1,000 asylum seekers since 2013, has been an ongoing issue of protest. In the latest episode, in March 2017, a barrier has been put up in the detention centre because guards have alleged that detainees have been taking more food than they should. This follows reports of human teeth found in meals or being  contaminated with worms. Despite this and much worse – sexual and physical abuse and the murder by either injury or medical neglect of three detainees, Reza Berati, Faysal Ishak Ahmed and Hamid Kehazaei – detainees continue to protest. (Later blogs in this series will tackle the issues of asylum detention more directly). Protest, not just at Manus, but globally in immigration detention has often taken the form of hunger strikes and the sewing of lips, further illustrating how detainees use the flesh, in Weheliye’s terms – that which is evident of their livingness – to protest the injustice of their situation.

C.L.R. James during his imprisonment on Ellis Island, as an ‘alien’, was denied habeas corpus and was hence treated ‘not as a person before U.S. law’ while still being subject to the law (Weheliye 2014: 115). His reaction to the food in detention, which he was unable to consume, leading to his severe weakening, is interpreted by Weheliye both as a visceral response and as a ‘political stance that exorcises the powers that be from his body’ (ibid. 116). Both protesting against food restrictions, rotten food, etc. and hunger striking and the simple revulsion toward food, such as that described by even the most famished former concentration camp inmates, is evidence for Weheliye of the will to survive.

This relational articulation of experience – both of revulsion and the protest in the face of it – is productive for thinking about politics. It is common in a way that the buzzwords of the present, ‘resilience’ first and foremost, can never be. Resilient, as mentioned earlier, is often a word used in association with Black people who are said to be more so because of their history of suffering. However, it is that same recognition of past suffering that perversely causes the infliction of more suffering, for example in the administration of less pain medication to Blacks than white patients. Furthermore, the invocation to be resilient is individualizing as it is based in a neoliberal morality of personal improvement to the detriment of commonality (if I am more resilient it requires you to be less so). Resilience is wholly centred around the Man Weheliye wants us to abolish. It is in a wholly different realm to the freedom Weheliye imagines which requires us to know in ways that the partial presentation of the history of Man can never know. As he puts it, echoing C.L.R. James,

“If it’s after the end of the world and we just don’t know that yet, surviving in the space of the flesh might just be tantamount to inhabiting a future anterior elsewhere in which ‘contemporary events throw a penetrating light into the past and thereby illuminate the future'” (Weheliye 2014: 132; James 1992: 167).

Audre Lorde

A Litany for Survival (Audre Lorde)

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning

when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

Alana Lentin