Monday, April 21, 2014

on not extending transparency (denise ferreria da silva)

I have gotten to the end of Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Toward a Global Idea of Race (University of Minnesota Press 2007) and I feel much in its aftermath. In attempting to understand da Silva's argument in the past months, I have read through these notes on Seminario Permanente de Teoria y Critica a number of times, which I have found extremely helpful. 

Descriptively, da Silva’s writing is iterative, generating its logic; the experience of reading it often reminded me of reading Hegel’s The Science of Logic, although these are very different books, of course. The book is a study and critique of modern representation, specifically of how the racial has functioned as a “signifier of globality,” producing “the others of Europe as modern subaltern subjects.” She contrasts this project with the project of what she calls “post-theory,” which she understands as the valuation in postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism of historicity, or the deployment of “a good version of historicity.” She finds that this move reproduces the logic of historicity, which “relies on the modern construction of distance as a temporal metaphor to circumscribe the place of emergence of the colonized as a transparent I” (168).  Understanding that the project of modern representation is the project of the transparent I is key to being able to understand the duplicitous condition that produces “the others of Europe as modern subaltern subjects.” I use the word duplicitous to characterize this process because it denotes the doubleness (the being “twice affectable” that da Silva describes of the female slave in colonial Brazil (241)) but also the question of truth/falsity that science brings to the scene of modern representation. But this is also a duplicitous condition because da Silva suggests throughout the book that this process is informed by both “European desire” and by the “displacement” of race through the play of other key signifiers and strategies in modernity.

This points to the position held by the term “exteriority” in da Silva’s argument, which signals the overlap of the productive and reproductive in her project, by which I mean to point to the way that the subaltern subject’s exteriority is both assumed by and produced in the scene of modern representation. Da Silva describes how this logic informed early anthropological projects:
When deploying the cultural to incarcerate the others of Europe in their traditions and to safely keep post-Enlightenment Europe in the moment of transparency, these social scientific projects have already been approaching their objects as racial things. Not because these versions of these disciplines failed to refute the “original sin,” the writing of man as an effect of the tools of productive nomos, scientific reason in the guise of Spirit, but because, as they did so, they incorporated racial difference as a substantive trait of the human body. Had this not been the case, it would not have been possible to carve their separate niches in such a way as not to distinguish them from history. (150)
Da Silva describes this “incorporation” of racial difference as a strategy of engulfment, through which “racial difference” becomes a “substantive trait.” She describes how Boas (1911), who sought to classify the impact of “natural environment” on primitive races, supposed a fundamental difference between “civilized” and “primitive thought,” which was based on his finding that the “primitive mind” is determined by its environment, whereas the “civilized” mind, via Descartes’s efforts to secure the transcendental subject as its non-determination by exteriority (42). Thus it is the valorization of the interiority of the mind as what is “true” that occasions the displacement of “exteriority.” Because this exteriority, per Descartes, is seen to be based on  its identification as an “extended” thing, that is, as “body,” it allows for, in fact, inaugurates, the displacement of bodies that are not “minds,” that are not, in other words, containers of the transcendental mind. This gesture is already a gesture that is reproductive, or reconstructive, not just projective. By this, I mean to refer to the way that da Silva identifies the forward- and backward-facing aspects of the productive moment—that the others of Europe are “produced” as the reproduction of the transcendental I. Behind this is the moment in which race is transformed into the racial:
My first move is to describe the first moment of the analytics of raciality, the science of man, to show how, although it inherited the eighteenth-century naturalists' correlation between global regions and bodily and social configurations, it is the first project of knowledge to write post-Enlightenment Europe's particularity by deploying the apparatus of scientific reason manufactured in the account of productive nomos. Its arsenal does this when it transforms race (a term previously employed to describe collectivities in terms of blood relationship) into the racial (a scientific concept), the strategy of engulfment that produces the human body as an exteriorization of productive nomos. (116)
The moment that da Silva describes is key to modern representation, because it accounts for the transformation of a something descriptive (the manifoldness of human bodies) into a concept. This process of signification thus turns on the process in which the exteriorization of the mind is made manifold. Literally, it hinges on this moment, but this is also the moment in which modern representation, the working of the transcendent I, deceives or betrays, or can be seen as duplicitous in its movement of self-realization. It would be a stretch to call this moment intentional, in da Silva's schema, and yet, it also does not really seem sufficient to call it structural either. This is the problem that da Silva encountered, it seems, in trying to get to the limits of her own understanding, as she describes the development of the project:
Yet earlier I had failed to comprehend so many events! Events that are, to be sure, fully explained by what and how I know: another death of a black or brown youth at the hands of law enforcement, another death related to drug trafficking, another prison rebellion where many prisoners die, another suicide bombing, another legal act whose objective is to place more and more "others of Europe" in a state of illegality. When I learned about them, I got mad. Because that which enables my "understanding" explains away these events (and the fear they entail), resolving them in neat sociological formulas that write the deaths I hear about and the ones I can only imagine as events foretold....Haunted and mad, I engaged in the project of mapping the trajectory of the racial, that modern signifier that delimits all the murders producing the place where the lives, the social trajectory, of the racial subaltern subjects unfold. (261)
Here, da Silva describes how sociological or structural (institutional) analysis of race and racism deploys the logical gesture that "explains" away these deaths, which is, I think, a method that could similarly be ascribed to the explanatory gesture of biopolitics today. She begins the book with a discussion of Foucault, and specifically of the limit of Foucault's critique of "truth," which she attributes to his separation of the racial as a "symbolics of blood" from the "production of minds" (24). Thus, she finds that he does "not reach the place where European particularity is but an effect of the strategies of this productive ruler [universal reason]" (25).  She describes this as his inability (refusal?) to "relinquish" interiority. Thus, the question that occupies me, I suppose, is how to relinquish interiority. In what is arguably one of the more prescriptive moments of the text, and in its last lines, da Silva writes: 
We need to trace every and each articulation of raciality, including those that profess its irrelevance, trace at each moment how it rewrites the racial subaltern subject in affectability, producing statements that not only excuse the violent effects of this rewriting but also redeploy the transparency thesis. (267)
I think the operation that da Silva calls for here involves thinking about how one can talk or think about race without it being folded into raciality. Indeed, this seems to be Seminario Permanente de Teoria y Critica's question as well, phrased differently: "My question: if racialization is inevitably part of the modern paradigm, then is there is no way to revise it out of that paradigm?" For it seems that each "articulation of raciality" implies the relation in which "interiority" is not relinquished and comes to displace race, so that tracing such articulations would account for the displacement of race from the scene of representation and its revision as culture, etc,. I believe this still leaves, however--and perhaps this is the point?--the question of what race is, nonsubstantively: collectivities of blood relationships, symbolics of blood, manifoldness of human bodies. Is it the nonsubstantivity that is key, a "mix-up"? And finally, how is this related to the question of how to not extend transparency, how to not "redeploy the transparency thesis," a question I am always afraid to ask for fear that it also already always reproduces my own transparency. There is so much more to say about this book.

1 comment:

Julie Chamberlain said...

I just finished reading this book, too, and I'm mulling over some of the same questions. What was your understanding of what interiority & transparency mean in this context? Without indications otherwise, I think I'm grasping interiority as 'meaning is rooted inside the subject,' and transparency as 'the subject is knowable, the interior meaning is knowable.' What do you think?