T, ah, il pleut, il pleut. Actually I don’t know the French for it’s storming like a crazy thing, but that’s what I really mean. Days and days of bucketing rain, insane gusts, slippery footpaths, and whooshing wind fighting the closed-up chimney in my room. I actually mostly love weather like this (not least the slight drought-relief), especially when I have an umbrella in hand and am being blown away like a tiny thing (is that the sublime?), but the counter to that is that I really need to do washing—or more precisely, drying. Looks like the clotheshorse is going to make its first seasonal appearance. In the meantime, having lost my jeans to an incident with sweet chilli sauce, I am reduced to either tracksuits or swanky evening wear. Hmmm.
Okay, getting into today’s topic. Given the fairly theoretical discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of syncretic sociability already posted, I want to turn now to (just a tiny bit of) the awesome work of critical race and whiteness theorist Linda Martin Alcoff to get at some of the more practical elements. She develops Merleau-Ponty’s theory to help account for the ways that racialisation ends up operating in and through embodiment; and as such, she’s detailing what we might call the anatamopolitical disciplining of bodies according to their politicised and racialised particularity. In other words, she gives us a deeply contextual and anti-essentialist way of understanding how things like race and whiteness come to play out at the level of individual (and interrelated) bodies, and not merely at the level of institutions, political parties and big-p power (which in turn, of course, are shaped by individual bodies).
I tend to put Alcoff in the same kind of group as people like Gail Weiss, who is another feminist philosopher. I do this because there are theorists who take Merleau-Ponty to be advocating some kind of universal essence to embodiment. His failure to mark the specificity of the white middle-class intellectual male embodiment which he regularly discusses (i.e. his own) means that such a claim isn’t entirely crazy, but Alcoff and Weiss both produce work that is rich and interesting out of what appear to me to be entirely justified/justifiable readings of Merleau-Ponty.
One thing I didn’t put in the last post but is significant when we come to conversations like this is MP’s idea of ‘sedimentation.’ Now I’m grappling with the sense of temporality in this concept a bit at the moment, but I’ll try to be clear. Whilst an individual subject’s embodiment is always in process, it’s not in a state of absolute and complete flux. That is, the comportment of that subject becomes habituated, sedimented—some say ‘in the body,’ but I think that’s misleadingly Cartesian. I tend to think of this sedimentation as akin to the slow process of a river carving its way into the landscape; it’s not unchangeable, but it does tend to mean that the water will keep flowing in that place. So perceptual practices, for example, which we’ll see a bit more about today, tend to get repeated, and in being repeated, they become more and more established.
So the Alcoff piece I’m going to look at is called “Towards a Phenomenology of Racialized Embodiment” (hopefully that link actually takes you somewhere, but in case it doesn’t, you can check out the first bit of this article on the Radical Philosophy website without a sub. It was also published in Robert Bernasconi’s edited book Race (and I’m linking to Amazon because there’s a perfect case of racism in action with the second review. Ah yes, deployment of insufficient ‘objectivity’ to undermine someone’s authority. That’s never been done before! Seriously, give me a ‘more objective personality’ and I’ll show you a failure to critique.) Looks like this blog is living up to its name. I’m not this bad with the brackets in da thesis, promise!) I should mention, though, that Alcoff has published a book I haven’t managed to read yet (mea culpa!) but looks great.
Anyway, so in the article above, Alcoff first offers a critique of a range of problematic approaches to race, suggesting that ‘contextualism’ (which looks a lot like the brand of constructionism I tend toward) offers a useful way of helping us understand how race works, because it
can acknowledge the current devastating reality of race while holding open the possibility that present-day racial formations may change significantly or perhaps wither away. It provides a better explanation for the variety of racial beliefs and practices across cultures, and thus acknowledges the contingency and uncertainty of racial identities and boundaries. One can hold without contradiction that racialised identities are produced, sustained and sometimes transformed through social beliefs and practices and yet that race is real, as real as anything else in lived experience, with operative effects in the social world. (p. 270)
She goes on to say that “[a] phenomenological approach can render our tacit knowledge about racial embodiment explicit.” (p. 272) What she means by this becomes clear when we turn to questions of perception. At this point, it’s important to note that part of what she is trying to get it is the way that corporeal differences, never anywhere near the be-all and end-all of race, nonetheless is relevant to the way that it functions insofar as it is perceived. Ah, perception:
although racial classification does operate on the basis of perceptual difference, it is also the case that, as Merleau-Ponty argues, perception represents sedimented contextual knowledges. So the process by which human bodies are differentiated and categorised by type is a process preceded by racism, rather than one that causes and thus ‘explains’ racism as a natural result. (p. 272)
The epistemically relevant point is that the source of racialisations, or at least one important source, is in the micro-processes of subjective existence. (p. 273)
where of course these micro-processes are perceptual. Important to note here that this doesn’t deny the institutional, political and systemic operations of race, but helps to explain how they might occur. She cites Merleau-Ponty:
Perception is not a science of the world, it is not even an act, a deliberate taking up of a position; it is the background from which all acts stand out, and is presupposed by them. The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions…. Man is in the world and only in the world does he know himself. (MP in Alcoff p. 275)
The point of this is that when we see something, we tend to assume that we just see it, as it is. Merleau-Ponty brings that into question, suggesting that rather than perception being a neutral observation of the world, it is shaped in and through… can you guess it yet? The comportments we’ve sedimented, which are culturally produced.
If race is a structure of contemporary perception, then it helps consitute the necessary background from which I know myself. It makes up a part of what appears to me as the natural setting of all my thoughts. The perceptual practices involved in racialisations are then tacit, almost hidden form view, and thus almost immune from critical reflection. Merleau-Ponty goes on: “…perception is, not presumed true, but defined as access to truth. Inside such a system, perception cannot then be the object of analysis itself.” (p. 273)
Unless we take up his phenomenology, though even then every analysis is partial and problematic. Nonetheless, as Alcoff shows:
Our experience of habitual perceptions is so attenuated as to skip the stage of conscious interpretation and intent. Indeed, interpretation is the wrong word here: we are simply perceiving. And the traditional pre-Hegelian account of perception… blocks our appreciation of this. It is just such a modernist account that would explain why it is commonly believed that for one to be racist one must be able to access in their consciousness some racist belief, and that if introspection fails to produce such a belief then one is simply not racist. A fear of Africa-Americans or a condescension towards Latinos is seen as a simple perception of the real, justified by the nature of things in themselves without need of an interpretive intermediary of historico-cultural schemas of meaning. (p. 276)
And whiteness once more actually comes into view. I like this description because it undermines the current meme in Australia of ‘I’m not racist but…’ by demonstrating that racism need not lie in intention. Because of course the claim to a non-racist intention is merely an attempt to make the white person’s experience of the situation count more than anyone else’s—i.e., the person on the receiving end of the racism. My whiteness, then, cannot help but (in)form my comportment even or perhaps especially when I don’t intend it; nonetheless, I—and other white people—am/are not completely helpless here! (See Ampersand’s primer on how to respond to accusations of racism without continuing to be racist, with thanks to AutomaticPreference at his new digs for the link!) The perpetual encounter with these white, racist comportments of others has effects too:
spoken and unspoken interaction, gesture, affect, … stance, greetings, handshakes, tone of voice, all reveal the effects of racial awareness, the presumption of superiority vis-à-vis the other, or the protective defences against the possibility of racism and misrecognition. (p. 271)
Alcoff’s specificity here in explaining the co-existence and interdependence of whiteness and racialisation is very appealing; she demonstrates the system by which whiteness and race are interrelated, or more precisely the different ways that the differently embodied (and perceived) come to engage with this system; that is, whiteness is not neutral. By understanding the minutiae of these kinds of ways of being-in-the-world as reinforcing the entirety of not only my own comportment, but those of others helps us to understand not only why whiteness and race continue to operate, but also how and why change can happen. In addition, it helps to get at the ways that racialised comportments can function within particular communities: that is, there might be forms of behaviour peculiar to groups identified as a particular race which circulate within that group (syncretic sociability), not least the protective responses to white culture. Alcoff sums up the perceptual practices necessary for the perpetuation of race, and the possibility of changing them:
There is a visual registry operating in social relations which is socially constructed, historically evolving and culturally variegated but nonetheless powerfully determinant over individual experience. And, for that reason, it also powerfully mediates body image and the postural model of the body. Racial self-awareness has its own habit-body, created by individual responses to racism, to challenges from racial others, and so on. The existence of multiple historico-racial schemas produces a disequilibrium that cannot easily be solved in multiracial democratic spaces, i.e. where no side is completely silenced. Racial identity, then, permeates our being in the world, our being-with-others, and our consciousness of our self as a being-for others. Phenomenological descriptions such as the ones I have discussed here [she discusses Fanon's account of race and phenomenology (also in the Race book in short form) and her own experience of reading an ex's account of the beginning of their relationship and being horrified at how much her race (she's Latina) had informed his response to her] operate uncomfortably to reactivate racist perceptions and experience. One might worry that such descriptions will have consolidating effects by repeating, even explaining, the process of racist attribution, suggesting its depth and impermeability. But the reactivations produced by critical phenomenological description don’t simply repeat the racialising perception but can reorient the positionality of consciousness. Unveiling the steps that are now attenuated and habitual will force a recognition of one’s agency in reconfiguring a postural body image or a habitual perception. Noticing the way in which meanings are located on the body has at least the potential to disrupt the current racialising processes. If racism is manifest at the level of perception itself and in the very domain of visibility, then an amelioration of racism would be apparent in the world we perceive as visible. A reduction of racism will affect perception itself, as well as comportment, body image and so on. Towards this, our first task, it seems to me, is to make visible the practices of visibility itself, to outline the background from which our knowledge of others and of ourselves appear in relief. From there we may be able to alter the associated meanings ascribed to visible difference. (p. 281)
This question of visibility hooks back, I think, into Emily’s questions here, here and here, and in turn to questions of reading, writing and the interdependence of the two. Nonetheless, I’ll leave it there, because by the time I get to the end of this article, every time I always think “ah, it’s so well-argued, what more is there to say?” There is, of course, very much more to say, not least the whole question of bodily tolerances… but that will be reserved for another time. Enjoy your weekends!