In the first chapter of Race, Carter begins the work of excavating what is theological—to be slightly more specific, what is theopolitical—about the problem of race, making “a case for how matters of race, religion, and the modern state as the organizing form of civil society and public culture are far from unrelated” (39). To begin, Carter outlines two contemporary accounts of race, noting how they lay a sort of groundwork for his own analysis but ultimately are inadequate, thus opening up the space for his own contribution to this area of scholarship.
Carter begins by examining Cornel West’s narrative, found in Prophesy Deliverance!. Especially useful to Carter is the method West employs—genealogy, in that it seeks to isolate what it is about the very structure of modern discourse that allowed and even mandated white supremacy through and by both science/rationale/objectivity and aesthetics/cultural ideals. Driving West, Carter explains, is the desire to move beyond an ontological or essentializing account of race and thus open up space to reckon with “the micrologics, according to which racial ideas and practices shift and mutate” (46).
Carter demonstrates how West’s account of race relies on Foucault’s analysis of power.Two points of Foucault’s analysis are addressed. First, there is the point about power being understood through various local centers/nodes through which it manifests. An analysis that stops here, however, results in a sort of vulgar Marxism for Foucault that only locates power in these sites. Thus, the second key point is the understanding of the operations of power within the patterns themselves, power intrinsic to the shifts that occur and the modes of knowledge that accompany said shifts. West, Carter points out, pays much more attention to this latter point, whereas a Foucauldian genealogy demands probing the interconnections between the two points.
West suggests a tripartite structure to account for the oppression of people of African descent in modernity—the scientific revolution, the Cartesian transformation of philosophy, and the classical revival. It is this last aspect—the classical revival producing the “normative gaze” of modern aesthetics to which blacks to not adequately measure up—where Carter notes “that the chief limitation of West’s analysis presents itself” (50). He explains:
West’s genealogy powerfully shows the epistemological, or what he calls the discursive, conditions that made possible the idea of white supremacy as a mechanism of modern racism, but it does not provide insight into the mechanisms by which those discursive factors interacted so that modern racism and the idea of white supremacy moved beyond epistemic possibility and into discursive actuality (50).
In short, West’s analysis “leaves unanswered the question of whether modern racism and the idea of white supremacy emerged contingently or of necessity” (51). Citing other critiques of West, Carter suggests an account of the nation state is missing from West’s narration. Moreover, by leaving out nondiscursive factors from his analysis, West also fails to account for the theological dimensions of a modern racial imagination. Carter ends his examination of West’s account of race with some questions that indicate where he plans to go. How does the normative gaze established in modernity represent a disassembling and then a reassembling for its own purposes of Christian’s own understanding of the true, the good, and the beautiful” (52)? Laying the foundation for his own account even further, he continues, “how do they do this at the juncture of the Jewish question, and how does a discourse of race emerge out of this” (52)?
Carter then returns to Foucault, turning to an examination of Foucault’s account of modern racism, offered in his lecture series now compiled as Society Must Be Defended, noting that Foucault brings us a step further in that he helps us see why “reckoning with, instead of bracketing, the discourse of the modern state is not ancillary to coming to terms with the problem of modern racial reasoning but, rather, is central to it” (53). Foucault is also a significant interlocutor for Carter, in that “he sees race and racism as yoked to the problem of and even the anxiety over religion in modernity’s ongoing constitution and reconstitution of itself” (53). Foucault points to what West’s discourse was finally unable to get at: the convergence of the plotlines of race, religion, and the modern state” (62).
Carter proceeds to offer a brief overview of Foucault’s genealogy of power, looking specifically at Foucault’s account of the shifting roles of the nation state in the operations of power—explaining the move from the absolute power of the king to where “the locus of unity came to be reimagined as located in the state and in its bureaucracies” (54). This marked a shift to the epoch of the modern nation-state, where subjects began to rule themselves, “albeit through the medium of the nation-state in which as “the people” they vest themselves” (54). Power shifted from an external focus—the rule of the sovereign over the subjects, to an internal focus—the rule of the subjects over themselves, a self-policing, to finally, something that combines a bit of both: “biopower brings together centralization and decentralization, discipline and control, territorialized and deterritorialized power” (57). Key to biopower is the “problem of population,” how the modern state constitutes and protects itself. This means that not only does the state have to guard against the external threat of the other, but “the behaviors of social integration and exclusion proper to rule are thus increasingly interiorized within the subjects themselves” (57). In this way, “modernity’s inner anxiety is a racial anxiety” (58), and Carter now turns to how this operates in Foucault in relation to anxiety over Jewish identity. Here, Carter suggests, Foucault rightly recognizes the linkages between the nation-state, race, and religion, but falls short in some key ways. Foucault’s acknowledgment of these linkages stem from this querying of the “continuity-in-discontinuity”—of how the “people” hand themselves over to the sovereignty of the state, and then move to exceed any particular space—the move to the national and then to the transnational (60). Race, like sexuality, comes to work in this decentralized, biopolitical way. A shift happens from a war of races to modern racism.
Power, as the continuation of war by other means, as a multiplicity of force relations operating in a dense web through different nodal points, means that there is space for those from the underside to speak:
What Foucault points out here is how modern historical discourse shows that war is the analytic of the identity of people groups or nations, and no longer simply that by which glory accrues to potentates—how war is an analytic of the identity not just of the victors as a people group, but of victors and vanquished in their continued group opposition to one another even under the conditions of so-called peace, and how this peaceful opposition comes to be expressed in politics and codified in law and finally enforced by a government, by the state, as the means through which to produce itself as a people (65).
Counterhistory, then, “remembers how the unifying light of the present order of things presupposes and is sustained by opposition” (65-66). This, for Foucault, is what race is—these creations of binaries that run through society.
On the one hand, race war has emancipatory possibilities. The counterhistory narrates and sustains a counterhegemony. However, within the paradigm of biopower, the struggle between the races begins to “transmutate into a struggle within ‘the race.’ It becomes an internal matter of the people against the people, and so a matter of the people, of bios, against itself” (67). As Carter deftly summarizes: “Race struggle as a struggle against sovereignty thus devolves…into statist, biological racism as the means of unifying and defending the sovereign social body” (67).
This is precisely the point where Carter begins to find fault with Foucault’s analysis. In exploring how a discourse of race could metastasize into racism, Foucault turns to how “late modern sovereignty also drew on myth to justify itself” (69). The way Foucault positions Jewish faith and identity in this narrative is significant. Jewish faith and identity for Foucault, “reflects the modern world at its “counterhistorical” best—and also at its “historical worst”—back to itself” (71). The history of the Jewish people, on the one hand, embodies the emancipatory possibilities of race wars, it provides a counterhistorical narrative—“This means that Foucault, at least on this score, reads Jewish existence in positive terms, as that which much be embraced. Jews are the vantage from which to understand the counterhegemonic” (73). On the other hand, however, reading Israel as this type of grid for the modern world means that there is the problematic potential for what is liberatory about race wars to turn into racism. “Jewish existence must be overcome to the extent that its racializing of its existence (through the war of races figured through the Jew-Gentile distinction) can lead to racism, to a notion of blood purity or racial group superiority, and thus to preventing modernity from fully elaborating itself and living into its dandysme or counterhistorical attitude” (74).
Carter contends that Foucault’s account reinscribes a problematic racial imagination by repeating modernity’s supersessionism. This occurs because, while Foucault rightly acknowledges the linkages between race, the state, and religion in the modern racial imagination, he fails to offer a theological account of Jewishness—Foucault’s account “centers on an insufficient theological grasp of the covenantal status of this people and its election” (75). Carter explains that Foucault
fails to query how modernity represents a deformation of Israel’s covenantal status into a racial existence. Indeed, by not acknowledging the theological significance of Israel’s existence or interrogating how modernity represents an attempt to triumph over what Israel theologically signifies, Foucault’s discourse remains trapped within the story of the modern racializing—we can even say, Orientalizing—of the Jew (75).
In this first chapter, Carter provides his readers with a strong foundation that provides a thorough account of key contemporary accounts of the modern problem of race and sets the scene for his argument that “modernity’s racial imagination has its genesis in the theological problem of Christianity’s question to sever itself from its Jewish roots” (4). In chapter two, Carter proceeds by delving into the content behind what he marks as the failure of Foucault’s analysis—demonstrating, via a closer examination of the Aufklärung, how the Jews came to be constituted as a racialized people, how, contra Foucault, “the story of the modern invention of race had everything to do with the story of the modern invention of religion; that both of these were of a piece with the story of the rise of the modern nation-state as a new form of political economy or sociopolitical governance; and that the so-called Jewish problem was a key subtext in all of this” (76).
On Wednesday or Thursday, I’ll post on the second chapter (which will probably/hopefully be a bit more succinct…), and include some concerns, questions, and highlights I had from “Dramatizing Race,” the first of the three parts that make up Race: A Theological Account.
For those “reading along,” what came up for you from this first chapter?