Ubiquity: Racism, Ideology, and Governance

…freedom is a process of becoming, of being able to see and understand difference within unity, and resisting the tendency to reproduce the hierarchies embedded in the world we want to change.

– Angela Y. Davis,   The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues

Thinking through Jehu’s recent post and my own intervention and response I had to go back into my own life and take a hard look at the world I grew up in during the 50’s of the last century in the oil fields of Odessa, Texas. One admits that it was an insular world, a world isolated in its backward cultural frames of working class and rich. It even played itself out in the bifurcation between two cities: Midland and Odessa. Midland became the world of finance, oil, corporations and the elite who controlled the world of money and oil in the region. While Odessa was the segregated apartheid of White’s and African-American (and, even, Hispanic) workers. In Odessa there was this further separation with the term of “Black Town” for a section of the city where African-Americans lived, etc. As a child of course I was oblivious of this ubiquitous culture of religion, ideology, and secularist governance that was slowly inculcated and brought to bare upon my growing mind through all types of linguistic and semiological systems of control (“slurs, racial epithets, cuss terms, etc.; restrooms for Whites and African-Americans; unwritten code of restaurants disallowing African-Americans, etc.). We were governed by an invisible network of ideological thought, norms, and sheer invisible world semiological and tainted signs that bound both the oppressed and the oppressor in a set of ubiquitous relations. And for the most part we were bound by this code of silence and custom, unaware (or if we were aware were fearful of expulsion and ostracization, etc.). 

Zizek is not so much a theoretician of the obvious as he is a force that keeps returning us to those ubiquitous control systems (ideologies) that pervade our world and inform all our decision making processes. In his recent book he makes the point that language itself is one of those ubiquitous systems of control that have been used both for freedom and oppression. Speaking of India, where the oldest form of exclusion and oppression in the world that marked a racist ideology (the untouchables, etc.) Zizek says:

According to some Indian cultural theorists, the fact that they are compelled to use the English language is a form of cultural colonialism that suppresses their true identity: “Since we have to speak in an imposed foreign language to express our innermost identity, does this not put us in a position of radical alienation, so that even our resistance to colonization has to be formulated in the language of the colonizer?” The answer to this is: yes— but this imposition of a foreign language itself created the very X which is “oppressed” by it; that is, what is oppressed is not the actual pre-colonial India, but the authentic dream of a new universalistic and democratic India.1

What he’s getting at is the language itself became a tool in the hands of the white Anglo-Saxon minority regimes that allowed them to impose new terms of governance on the population, colonizing not only their lands but their minds, infecting them with the linguistic rules and norms that pervade the English language so ubiquitously. Many linguist admit that language guides and shapes our view of life, a lens that standardizes perception for good or ill. As Edward Sapir said: “The complete vocabulary of a language may indeed be looked upon as a complex inventory of all the ideas, interests, and occupations that take up the attention of a community.” ( need citation: have in notes) Which brings us to the Dalits (the “untouchables”):

It is crucial to note that this role of the English language was clearly perceived by many intellectuals among the Dalits (the “untouchables”): a large number of Dalits welcomed the English language and indeed even the colonial encounter. For Ambedkar (the main political figure of the Dalits) and his legatees, British colonialism— at least incidentally— created the conditions for the so-called rule of law and the formal equality of all Indians. Prior to this, Indians had only caste laws, which gave the Dalits many duties and almost no rights.(Zizek, 132)

One could spend years studying racism in the linguistic governance of peoples across the globe from both those who saw this colonization of their minds as either oppression or (like the Dalits) liberation (from an even worse linguistic and cultural imposition).

One of the key messages that Zizek tries to get across in this new work is that as the Secular Order falls apart and disintegrates, along with its old linguistic ties to the past, its mores, customs, laws, etc. the powers that be are encouraging it, even seeking to accelerate this process of decay and corruption of the human into the inhuman. They know that if they can destroy our ties to the past, our mores and customs, our mental and physical habits that have bound us for hundreds if not thousands of years, then they can modulate us, create a new order of the ages, etc. Yet, one must be cautious here, because unlike conspiracy theory which believes in some Big Other behind the events of world history we must side with Zizek, Badiou, Lacan and realize there is nothing and no one behind the curtain, no Wizard of Oz sitting there guiding things along the way (no corporate initiative, no governing body, or elite group, etc.). Language is not some big Other shaping us in the Foucaultian or postmodern sense. Linguistic systems inhabit a realm of rhetoric shaped over countless years of political strife and have emerged in and with this strife. Languages die or emerge. They become, and change. Some like English enjoy wider cultural horizons and impose a sort of ubiquitous appearance of being natural, but are rather political tools of social governance at its most sovereign. 

It’s the old notion of the mirror. I remember my child gazing at herself for the first time in the full-length mirror in our old house. At first she seemed to talk to this image as if it were another person, then something changed and she tried to touch the creature in the mirror and it frightened her at first. Then she began to look around as if myself or my wife could help her, then she turned back to the image that seemed to follow her every move and began laughing delightedly. But then something turned darker, the double in the other world, the mirror world seemed to become more real, take on another life. She suddenly backed away and began crying, anxiously staring at the object in the mirror. I’ve often wondered if at that moment she realized that the object, the thing, the creature in the mirror was none other than her self. Was this the moment of the true emergence of subjectivity in my daughter? I wonder if in her young mind she suddenly saw herself for the first time as an object, a body, as something else: knowing herself not as a “who” but as a “what” (an object).

Zizek in one of his interminable anecdotes will tell us of a woman going missing in a volcano, only to be revealed as never being missed in the first place; that, in fact through a faulty description she joined her own search party (having previously change clothes at a food stop, others didn’t realize it and mistook her as missing). She will realize afterword that she was the one they were looking for all along. The  point he makes, much like my mirror scenario:

The source of the weird fascination of this story is that it echoes and simultaneously mocks the New Age spiritualist topic of self-loss, of someone losing contact with the intimate core of their being and then desperately trying to discover “who they really are”— this is precisely the temptation to which one should not succumb. It is much more productive to formulate the problem in terms of the tension between signifying representation and identity: insofar as signifying representations designate our properties, what a subject “is like,” the question is that of the old Marx brothers’ paradox: do I look like myself? In other words, not “who” but “what” (for an object) am I?(286)

The temptation is to suppose our self, our subjectivity exists somewhere deep within the core of our being, some substantive kernel of being; but, in truth, we emerge in that no man’s zone between representation and identity: the self in the mirror and our knowledge of that fact.

Something that Jehu pointed out in his post was the notion that for the consciousness of the American white worker, the black worker is not human nor entitled to be treated as human. Ferguson is not a historical accident, but the result of a long history of development of the American working class: Even today, if you want an issue to be ignored, all you have to show is that it mainly affects the black working class. This is all within the orthodox Marxist framework, yet the trick is the exclusionary tactic of the African-American’s being treated as “not human”. This notion that the Whites represent what is human, and that the African-American is not white therefore is not human is tautological at best. Yet, the drift is the same as in India with the Delits (“the untouchables”) who are in many ways totally invisible to the vast majority of Indians in their midst. Isn’t this the point of Ralph Ellison’s great American classic novel The Invisible Man. Being excluded because of the ideological veil of custom and mores, living in a white world where one is not only not human but invisible?

Jehu in his post will tell us that there “is no accident at all in the history of the class struggle in the US: white labor has from the first used black labor as sacrificial pawns to absorb the impact of capitalist development. The white worker has done this knowing full well the consequence of his action for the black worker and with no guilt. … Thus, in the consciousness of the American white worker, the black worker is not human nor entitled to be treated as human.”

This notion of human / non-human as an exclusionary tactic is at the center of much discourse these days. That Jehu raises it as a racial issue brings it home. But what to do? Zizek sees in such notions the grasping for a universal, as if the white man held some universal substance known as human nature that other races did not have: some real kernel or substance at the core of being that others were excluded from: a general appeal to a shared humanity can cover up any particular horror; it holds as well for the victim as for his or her executioner (Zizek, 314). Yet, the truth should be opposite there is neither human nor inhuman (non-human); rather, the truth is that there is uniqueness – a uniqueness that know one is willing to admit or accept. What is being excluded is not one’s human(ess), but one’s uniqueness. As Zizek will say: “It should not have been “You should accept us because, in spite of our differences, we are all human!” but “You should accept us because of what we are in our uniqueness!” (314)”

When I listen to Angela Davis say:

What would be the purpose of uniting the entire black community? How would one possibly bring people together across all the complicated lines of politics and class? It would be futile to try to create a single black community today. But it does make sense, I said, “to think about organizing communities, organizing communities not simply around their blackness, but primarily around political goals. Political struggle has never been so much a question about how it is identified or chooses to identify as it has been a question of how one thinks race, gender, class, sexuality affect the way human relations are constructed in the world.”2

This notion that we are nothing but social construction tool-sets, ready made toys of the divergent networks of social relations has been at the heart of postmodern thought for years. Foucault is probably the best known theoretician of this world. I know longer buy into this view of things, and I think Foucault himself saw this as an aberration of his core ideas as well. Even in his Lectures: The Birth of Biopolitics he saw sovereignty and the “art of governance” at the heart of social relations. Governance as a “art” against any notions of universal claims:

Historicism starts from the universal and, as it were, puts it through the grinder of history. My problem is the opposite. I start from the theoretical and methodological decision that consists in saying: Let’s suppose that universals do not exist. (3)

In other words not Platonic eternal order of universals, instead we see applied a “decision” that starts not with some Platonic notion of universals to be applied to history, but rather the beginnings of a notion of events emerging out of history as becoming. This hits at Zizek’s statement notion of the radical asymmetry of class struggle:

 …the aim of the proletariat is not simply to negate (in whatever way) its enemy, the capitalists, but to negate (abolish) itself as a class. This is why we are dealing here with a “third way” (neither proletarian nor capitalist) which is not excluded, but also with a suspension of the principle of contradiction (it is the proletariat itself which strives to abolish itself, its condition).3

 In this way the path for African-Americans is not to negate its enemy, the white-supremacist capitalists, but to abolish the conditions that enforce such relations to begin with. As long as it sees white-supremacy as the Big Other, as the God that has excluded them from the world in invisibility or non-humanity it will play into the hands of the ideological machine. Rather it must find that “third way”:

What we should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on the enemy’s turf: time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be taken (recuperated) from us— everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our “terror,” ominous and threatening as it should be.(ibid. KL 22431)

Maybe it is time for the terror of Silence. But this silence speaks louder than words can tell. This is the Night of the World. The moment of the truly New emerging in our midst.

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 132). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. Davis, Angela Y. (2012-08-14). The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues (City Lights Open Media) (pp. 118-120). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition.
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 22508-22511). Norton. Kindle Edition.

1 thought on “Ubiquity: Racism, Ideology, and Governance

  1. Very intriguing analysis. The quote you begin with is outstanding.

    I am always interested in thinking about language and how it is used as a tool for oppression and continues to perpetuate the hierarchies in societies around the world. It amazes me how the languages of colonial powers are still the only means to higher status and wealth in countries that are supposedly no longer colonized by these nations.

    Liked by 1 person

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