“Racism” is such an unwieldy concept. Living in a world in which racism is one of the fundamental building blocks that shapes all our relationships, calling someone racist is somewhat akin to a fish accusing another fish of swimming in water. This is how I felt when I saw Democrats claiming that the election was won because of racism. If I were to make a list of racist things in American politics it would be just as likely to include welfare reform as the southern strategy, just as likely to include drones as border walls, and just as likely to include super-predators as a muslim registry.
I don’t want to create a false equivalency. There is a very important difference between a political party which relies on minority votes and one which tries to suppress them. There is an important difference between a party which engages in dog-whistle politics to win over swing voters and a party for which such voters are their electoral base. But that doesn’t get us away from the fact that – in American politics – we are always talking about relative racisms. Many of those supposedly racist voters voted for Obama in the last election, and many minority voters handed the election over to Trump in their state simply by staying home on election day. I don’t write this because I want to assign blame, but simply to illustrate how crude a tool “racism” is when trying to make sense of this all. So, if racism can’t help us, how do we talk about this phenomenon which is so central to contemporary politics?
It is not an easy riddle to solve, but one important part of the solution can be found in in the writings of Michel Foucault. Just a part of the solution, mind you, but for my own thinking on the matter it has been key. For that reason I was very happy when a bunch of anthropologists announced that they wanted to read read Michel Foucault’s lecture eleven in Society Must Be Defended as a means to think through “the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race” on inauguration day. This is because the concept of biopolitics is a very useful addition to the analytical toolkit we have for talking about the diverse phenomenon grouped under the term “racism.” As with any such analytical tools, the benefits of highlighting certain features necessarily obscure others, and there are entire books written to try to sort out exactly what is lost and what is gained by using these tools; however, today I would like to simply focus on one aspect of this lecture which has been particularly useful to me: Foucault’s use of the term “population.” Continue reading
In an effort to cut through a lot of hot air being blown on the internet I recently argued that race (and gender) is a “technology of power.” I would like to follow that up with an argument that belief is best understood as a set of social practices, not as an internally coherent ideological system. This is because a large number of seemingly well-intentioned people on my timeline are arguing something along the lines of “we shouldn’t let Islam of the hook for terrorism.” In my previous post I argued that we should endeavour to engage the best arguments that we disagree with, not those easiest to dismiss. This is one reason I haven’t engaged this particular argument before. At first blush it strikes me as little more than laughable “clash of civilizations” Islamophobia (not that Islamophobia is funny). However, some recent discussions have convinced me that there might be a more anthropological version of this argument which is worth a more serious discussion. This argument has two parts: (1) that we should take people’s ideas seriously, including those of violent extremists, and (2) that we should not erase difference by arguing that all forms of violent extremism are the same (i.e. by arguing that not all, or even most, violent extremists are Muslims). I think few anthropologists would take issue with either point, but in so doing we would still not end up in the same place as those making these arguments.
The question is not that Boas was wrong about culture. It is rather that he told anthropologists that they are the only ones who are right.
This quote is from the conclusion to the penultimate chapter of Bauman and Briggs’ award-winning book Voices of Modernity. The book employs a Foucauldian genealogical approach to trace the development of folklore studies from its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, through its development under German Romanticism, ending up with Boas and the birth of anthropology. In doing so the book focuses on a number of interrelated ideas about culture, language, and modernity as well as methodological issues in the creation of texts from oral traditions. When they awarded the book with the Edward Sapir Book Prize the Society for Linguistic Anthropology wrote:
Bauman and Briggs argue that contemporary efforts to make schemes of social inequality based on race, gender, class and nationality seem compelling and legitimate, rely on deeply rooted ideas about language and tradition. Showing how critics of modernity unwittingly reproduce these foundational fictions, they suggest new strategies for challenging the undemocratic influence of these voices of modernity.
While these themes run throughout their book, they sometimes seem to have only historical importance. After all, scholars like Herder or the Grimm brothers are associated with the rise of nationalism and so there doesn’t seem much that is “unwitting” in their reproduction of these ideologies. It is only in the penultimate chapter on Boas, a scholar known for his critiques of racism and nationalism, that the relevance of these earlier scholars (and the importance of the genealogical method) really becomes clear to the reader. In this genealogy Boas is “ego,” but before this chapter he has been absent from the story.