1. The Logocentric Left
Around the world, in revanchist reaction to the muddle of modernity, far right political movements are rising. In response, the far left provides answers that manage only to repel many of those who seek an alternative. Both right and left aim their critique of modernity’s weaknesses at liberal democracy. But since the inherent progressivism of liberal democracy makes it — as conservatives would portray it — a fellow traveler of the far left, and of the far left’s more disruptive transformative impulse, it is the far left that taints progressivism with its brand, even as the reactionary right targets progressivism as the source of all woe. A double challenge, then, to liberal democrats is both to reject the right in full voice, yet make clear, too, their profound separateness from the far left. This challenge has long gone poorly met. To meet it, liberal democrats must fully recognize how and where their progressivism differs from the ever-accumulating transformative regimes of the far left. Many people have come to identify a necessary disambiguating idea for this recognition as that of postmodernism. I believe a deeper understanding — the more essential, yet particular and activating difference — can be found in “logocentrism.”
According to Elizabeth Grosz, logocentrism, in the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, “is that characteristic of texts, theories, modes of representation and signifying systems that generates a desire for a direct, unmediated, given hold on meaning, being and knowledge.” This is to say that logocentrism represents people thinking, speaking, and writing in the belief that their thoughts and words make reliable (Derrideans would say “stable”) contact with some reality beyond those thoughts and words, both indicated by the words and in some way reflected in them. Derrida’s deconstructive method was a critique of this belief. Given that critique, Grosz’s further limning of Derrida just two sentences later makes a telling leap:
“Logocentrism is a nostalgia for a lost origin, a full and certain knowledge of a place in the world: it is the desire to know. To know ‘reality’, the phenomenal world, and oneself as a conscious subject, with all the ‘theological’ guarantees these presumptions require.”
These sentences take curiously lyrical flight. The end of the first sentence refers to a human “desire to know.” That seems well and empirically enough established. But to call logocentrism, as the sentence begins, “a nostalgia for lost origin” is to dive headlong into a rather murky French poetic soup that Derrida was complaining Western philosophy had already spent a couple of thousand years confusing for dry land. Desire for knowledge aims forward. Nostalgia longs backwardly. How do we conflate the two? We do it with words. Write them down, evoke, in Derrida’s terms, all the trace absences, supplement some, measure the differance, and a hauntology is born: a theoretical frame in which unintended subtractions and additions of meaning — the uncontrollable implications of language — shadow every word we speak with the ghost of every word already spoken and every word we cannot find.
In this critique of plain reason in not so plain language, we find one of the midwives of the New New Left. The Old Left, which worked its wonders in the twentieth century, was very nineteenth century in its championing of the industrial proletariat. The New Left was decidedly of its age, with a youth-culture vanguard inspired by the Fanonesque beginnings of postcolonial thought and early contact with critical theory via Herbert Marcuse. The New New Left, developed from grassroots activism and reemergent youth energy, has had multiple decades more to marinate in academia’s expanding postcolonial analyses, both deepened and broadened by every manifestation of critical and cultural studies, of textual theory and semiotic submersion. It may be so, for some, according to apocryphal Freud, that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but the word “cigar” is not a cigar, and its precise status itself as the word “cigar” is hardly certain either, in the presence of its absence and the absence of its presence.
Derrida’s logocentrism, along with those other lines of “post” production, de-centered the logos and with it, reason, and, so, the Western philosophical tradition and the Enlightenment liberalism that emerged from it. All the verities were, verily, not so vérité. If, according to Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production,” with “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” then we might claim that the far left bookoisie cannot think without continually revising the means of thinking, the instruments of knowledge production. Epistemology is ontology. To know is to be, and how you know is how you be.
Thus, the far, New New Left has turned logocentrism on its head, jettisoning one sense of it — in a misnomer, really — for another, truer sense of the word. The new form seeks knowledge not through language, but in language. Instead of seeking knowledge in the belief that thought and word are roughly, reliably coordinate to the world they reference, true logocentrism finds free-floating meaning almost religiously in the word itself. What begins as a critique of the limits of language ends by sanctifying the creative, analytic agency of language, which becomes its own end. The signifying system — what we speak — reigns, and not its referent — what we speak of — which is only palely conjured as an implication of a regime of meaning. That is why so many strains of cultural theorizing are so densely, abstrusely resistant to clear sense: the intricate phrase, the orphic neologism, the final formulation wrapped in bold, but ungraspable, incalculable contradiction, ever fading from view in suggestive non-deliverance of the clear and sensible — they become totems of reverence, semiotic godheads of opacity, sign and symbol of the reality which withholds itself, so that there is merely, in the end, the word itself, which strains at referentiality and finally fails, leaving us the presence of the real only in its absence: the weak and wondrous word. Nothing but the semiotic remains as substitute for the sensible and “[a]ll that is solid melts into air.”
2. The Rise, in Return, of the Subject
What has all this meant in political practice? In political practice, true logocentrism produces a turn to subjectivity: subjective experience is raised in value over the objective description that is no longer warranted as valid. I have previously cited Ulrich Baer, of New York University, declaring that during “the 1980s and ’90s, a shift occurred in American culture; personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument.” This belief has become fundamental to far left social justice culture. It has produced a particular nexus of anti-free speech linguistic correctness aimed at protecting interior lives — human subjective experience — politically represented on the level of group identity. It is instructive in this regard to observe essential developments, and discordances, in the movement from the civil rights to the social justice eras.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., in response to his “moderate” white clergymen critics, offered an antithetical formulation later adopted by Johan Galtung in his development of “peace studies.” The moderate, King complained, “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
King’s terms — “absence of tension” and “presence of justice” — offer a fascinating and tense interplay when considered in the context of current identity and speech controversies. A phenomenon of these contentions is that a whole range of proscribed and advised behaviors (including speech) are so constituted in order to engender the conditions of what I will label personal justice. By personal justice I mean those conditions, and that inner sense on the part of any individual — but particularly those who are self or other identified as members of a conceptually or practically marginalized group — that they not be subjected to the experience of dominating offense or oppressive disadvantage based on group identity. Expressed in these interior desires and exterior demands are some not necessarily clearly conceived conceptions of justice and harmony as personal and social goods. As people conceive of and pursue a personal experience of social justice — that is, the individual state and the group relation — they shift between the role and the experience of justice and harmony.
In seeking to end in the American South the reign of Jim Crow and the whole segregationist and discriminatory regime, King was in pursuit of social justice, an alteration in the political relationship between groups and to government: an end to “difference made legal,” as he puts it in the “Letter.” King dramatized the effects of this social injustice in a sweeping, near paragraph-long ten-clause anaphora of deeply personal, individual pathos:
“But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people ….”
It was the hope and expectation that over time, under the enabling conditions of social justice, in an unmonitored unfolding of private and personal development and destiny, inner harmony would increase — that the clouds of inferiority might lift and drift and the distortion of personality experience correction. The inner life of the child would achieve greater harmony among its own elements, and with the conditions of the social world surrounding it. Justice created conditions for this harmony. Greater social justice, then, preceded more complete harmony, both public and private, neither of which — King and all who followed and worked with him were at pains, literally, to demonstrate — could prevail in the absence of justice. (Conceptually, there was a prior gesture toward harmony, as King declared the civil law to be in discord, out of harmony, with the moral law. Action to create greater social justice restored this harmony as well.)
Social justice speech codes originating in what has come to be called identity politics seek to reverse this relationship between justice and harmony, especially when it is declared that the speech may be considered, based on an individual’s inner experience of it, the condition of a hostile environment and ground for legal complaint. In this rearrangement of the relationship — the violation, so to speak — the experience of injustice is neither institutionally supported or behaviorally imposed; rather it is in the individual’s inner sense of feeling “unsafe,” of being “triggered” in disturbing memory or troubling emotion, of experiencing (so it is felt) unwanted disparagement or labeling in otherness. Inner disharmony now prevails, and subjective disharmony by such cause is averred to be personal injustice. The offended party claims a right to have this harmony restored, and the basis for its restoration is to be sought in some external correction of the corresponding disharmony between the individual’s interior experience and the exterior conditions that disrupted that experience. In this retributive or restorative correction — pursued as some kind of sanction against the offender, or amendment to the rules of social exchange, including reeducation via workplace and campus workshops — lies the justice, a new form of social justice: personal identity justice. In this scheme of the social order, it is not the goal of political action to create social justice so that a fair ground for the pursuit of personal harmony — happiness — may be established; rather, the goal is to protect and ensure, instead, personal, inner harmony, fashioned as personal justice, and social justice shall be refashioned toward that end.
Certainly, it is appropriate to reason about and debate such terms and issues: what balance of liberal, individual rights we shall seek versus the communitarian good. The conceptual duality of justice and harmony in social relations has been long considered, within and across cultures and civilizations. It is also essential to recognize these conceptions as essential to current debates. But it is vital, too, to recognize that these debates are proceeding now, at one extreme, from the inside out, making absolute claims on the external social order based on what are offered as unassailable affirmations of subjective experience.
What seems extreme to so many on the center right and left, however — including many who locate this extremism in the academy, in its professoriate and its student body — seems extreme from more than just a general sense of absurdity, of “going too far.” It seems extreme precisely because the contention over language, this logocentric battle, originates in a reconceived relationship between language and the world. This proposed relationship makes its own revanchist claim — the most significant of the post-Enlightenment age, the broadest since that of the organized religious experience — for the power that subjective experience should be permitted to exercise over the objective world. One way the logocentric left makes this claim is via the metaphorical fallacy.
3. Metaphorical Violence
The metaphorical fallacy is both a fallacy of false analogy and a fallacy of equivocation. A false analogy is a matter of analogical overreach: one simply claims more in the comparison than analysis will substantiate or confirm. A metaphorical fallacy is a false analogy because metaphor is a form of analogy, one that creatively seeks an imaginative transfer of qualities between the objects of comparison. It is an act of equivocation because when my “Luve is like a red, red rose,” there is some lyrical, abstract way in which, for some people, yes, love is like a red, red rose (whereas for some other people, you can just get out of here with that nonsense), but there is also the very objective, concrete way (see: “other people”) in which the two are quite obviously different things: don’t try to marry one, don’t attempt to grow the other in a botanic garden. When one uses a metaphor, one equivocates — one speaks in two knowing voices at the same time. As long as one does not pretend otherwise, there is no fallacy, and only the metaphor. But when, like the logocentric left, some become enamored of, for instance, the metaphor of “violence,” but kinda sorta pretend to forget the metaphor part, then we have the fallacy.
In relatively current times, violence as a favorite trope of the far left goes back at least as far as the aforementioned Johan Galtung, who in “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” (1969) introduced the concept of “structural violence.” By 1990, he had expanded, or more particularized, the concept to “Cultural Violence.” Back in 1968, in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire had already declared, “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence.” Philosophically, though, the roots of violence as a philosophical concept, giving rise to the ubiquitous trope, go back to Hegel, and the role, in thought, of negation, of which violence is the most extreme, destructive form. It is present, too, in Heidegger, who has been so influential on poststructural theorizing. But Heidegger is powerfully influential, too, in redirecting the linguistic turn in twentieth century philosophy toward true logocentrism. “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells,” he says in his “Letter on Humanism.” Among Heidegger’s projects was to overcome — resolve as a historical philosophical error — the Cartesian subject/object split. It was not necessarily Heidegger’s resolution, but has been that of many theorists following in his wake to do so by arguing Derrida’s logocentrism. If, indeed, there is no transparent contact through reason with an objective world, because the language we use to refer to it does not reliably indicate or reflect it — in fact, from multiple influences, actually determines our understanding of it — then the split is effectively dispensed with (if not resolved). All, in inescapable subjectivity, is language and epistemology:
“Since Plato, truth has relied on definition, hierarchy and mastery. Discourse on the truth begins to be discourse on the limits of things and, thus, on who is able to set these limits and discourse. This dominant position erases its own traces, presents itself as unique and unavoidable, and excludes all other ways of thinking. This exclusion includes violence, and this violence is not merely a philosophical matter. It is written in the history of the West, which is a history that includes conquest, genocide and war.” (Vasco d’Agnese, “The Inner (and Unavoidable?) Violence of Reason: Re-reading Heidegger via Education”)
Apart from what else to note in this flash precis on the history of Western epistemology, trace the origins of violence in “limits” and exclusion: to limit is to exclude, to exclude is to other, to other is to commit — metaphorical? — violence. The discriminating mind (that which perceives distinctions, designates categories), in its application of reason to the objects of thought and of the world, performs an act of domination that leads to the actual dominions of Western colonialism and all its (violent) ills. If only Plato had been foretold what would come of his inquiry into the nature of justice (the colonization of the Western hemisphere, the African slave trade, and the British Raj) he might have remained silent, or spoken aphoristically in contradiction.
This reign of violence theorizing has not gone unconsidered by philosophers. Among other works, a comprehensive analysis can be found in Ann V. Murphy’s 2012 Violence and the Philosophical Imaginary. In it, Murphy tells us that from Levinas to Deleuze to Foucault to Derrida, Butler and Spivak, “A cursory survey of recent Continental philosophy reveals a theoretical landscape replete with images of violence” (11). Jacques Derrida, Murphy says, “has suggested [in Writing and Difference] that there is violence embedded in phenomenality itself” (11) Murphy, observes, “phenomenology, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and the social contract tradition have together circumscribed a theoretical terrain wherein it is all but impossible to think identity or the social bond in the absence of some mechanism of abjection, subjection, possession, or sacrifice, all of which are said to be characterized by violence” (12) She is more emphatic: “It would not be enough to say that violence is an important motif in contemporary theory. The image of violence is altogether requisite for the coherence of the theories” (13), thus landscaping “a theoretical terrain in which it is all but impossible to conceive of identity and relation without violence” (22).
What is central to any challenge to these theories, then, is to question the reality of violence. Most people will conceive of that reality literally, as physical violence. Many will reasonably embrace structural violence as a meaningful concept — institutionalized regimes from which physical degradations are inherently produced. As we see, postmodern theory extends the metaphor even to the exercise of reason and the exploitive action of a thinking subject upon an object of thought. What are the practical implications of such metaphorically extended accusations of violence? Framed differently, when is a thoughtless act, a disagreeable view, a verbal offense, even a humiliation not a sufficient enough transgression on its own terms, so that it must be heightened in its wrong to a claim of violence?
When one wishes to claim provocation? When one wishes to provoke in return?
Martin Luther King, Jr. is instructive again. King was perceived by many whites in his time as far from the moderate he is often imagined today. His embrace in general encomia by even most contemporary American political conservatives is a process of extraordinary historical white wash. He was thought by many whites to be what he quite literally was, a provocateur. That is what the program of “direct action” was — provocation intended to disturb and disrupt civil calm. It was the introduction into the surface appearance of harmony — order — that tension intended to reveal the deeper disharmony reflective of the absence of justice. Eventually, however, King himself came under critical attack by more extreme elements in the African-American community: Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, the Black Panthers. The disruptive element that King introduced into the civic realm, which often provoked the violence from white racists of which King and his followers were victims (while they would not themselves be perpetrators of violence) was judged by black critics to be too moderate. What was required, in this more extreme view, was the threat (far more often than the reality) of violence from Black power advocates themselves, a disruption not only of the civic order, but of the physical world. As has always been so in the political realm, the ultimate determinant of what is conceived and described as immoderate and determined radical purpose — or as extremism — is the purposeful consort with, because validation of, violence as a tool in the creation of social justice.
4. The Politics of Provocation
The current era is one in which the right views its world as changing unrecognizably. Conversely, the far left perceives a world which, despite multitudes of principled international accords and legal civil rights protections, seems almost intractably resistant to fundamental change in economic, cultural and identity-based, and social hierarchies. These are conditions that give rise to political provocation — the desire to disrupt the civil calm of the status quo. The crucial question in such instances is how accurately the theories that respond to these conditions describe them. The secondary question is how, then, appropriately the always devolved political applications of the theories respond to conditions on the basis of those descriptions. But description is provided through language, and the intellectual force of political programs cannot be separated from their own claims about the referential correspondence of language to the objective and kinetic world and the situatedness of reason. There are two additional theories currently playing vital roles in logocentric left theoretical efforts to obscure its anti-foundational Wylie Coyoteism.Each plays a role in what we might call the subjective turn in logocentric left theorizing.
The first of these theories is vulnerability theory. Developed by New Legal Realist scholar Martha Albertson Fineman, in her 2008 “The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition,” vulnerability theory offers a radical upending of the “dominant political and legal” conception of a “universal human subject defined in the liberal tradition. These theories presume the liberal subject is a competent social actor capable of playing multiple and concurrent societal roles” (10). In contrast, “[v]ulnerability initially should be understood as arising from our embodiment, which carries with it the ever-present possibility of harm, injury, and misfortune from mildly adverse to catastrophically devastating events, whether accidental, intentional, or otherwise” (9). According to Fineman, “‘equality,’ reduced to sameness of treatment or a prohibition on discrimination, has proven an inadequate tool to resist or upset persistent forms of subordination and domination” (3). Thus, “the ‘vulnerable subject’ must replace the autonomous and independent subject asserted in the liberal tradition. Far more representative of actual lived experience and the human condition, the vulnerable subject should be at the center of our political and theoretical endeavors” (2).
Though we find various origins for terms such as “microaggression” and “safe space” that predate it, vulnerability theory offers a broad reconceptualization of the individual, within legal and social frameworks, that provides them a very comforting home. Not without theoretical implications, too, vulnerability theory grounds itself in another theory, of embodiment. . Said Fineman above, “[v]ulnerability initially should be understood as arising from our embodiment.” She writes elsewhere, “Vulnerability theory understands human beings as embodied creatures who are inexorably embedded in social relationships and institutions.” [Emphasis added]
While embodiment theory might seem at first blush a focus on the obvious — “human beings as embodied creatures” — it is, beginning in anthropology in the 1960s and spanning a broad spectrum of disciplines, a profoundly refined endeavor to apprehend the full scope of subjectively lived experience through the body in the objective world. It is, at times, that concrete effort, beyond Heidegger’s vatic philosophizing, to resolve the subject/object duality and consider what Heidegger called, in Being and Time, Da-sein — being-in-the-world. It is in the body that the subjective and objective worlds experience unity. However, in the still unresolved causal primacy between mind and body, another persistent duality is obscured by that linguistic turn to “embodiment”: so, both subject and object, mind and body, are subsumed in the totality — encased in the physical and linguistic oneness — of the embodied felt experience. In practical political terms on the logocentric left, this is represented by vulnerability to power and violence, which are axiomatically the same. This is the source, too, of the current vogue, heightened by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s use of the expression, for the “black body” as substitute for black “people” or black “men” or “women.” The idea of personhood fails to capture the intensity and extremity of the felt experience heightened in physicalization — or linguistic representation, at any rate — by “body.”
The impulse to physicalize ideas for greater intensity of expression is a commonplace. Thus, over the past few decades, “effect” has given way to “impact,” and American politicians fail to see “in the future” because they are too busy “going forward.” More provocatively, for the logocentric left, whatever commits politicized personal offense further perpetrates a violence to embodied personhood. But while political provocation always seems a means to an end to those who pursue it, it does not produce precise or subtle thinking. This is the case with another current vogue, for use of the term “white supremacy” — yet one more delayed release from theory into current common political parlance — in place of what was long accepted as the adequate “racism.”
5. The World Made Flat
The most recent boost to the popularity of white supremacy as the term to describe America’s foundational racial ill came in Coates’s “The First White President,” in the fall of 2017, about Donald Trump. Though now emerging into broad usage across the general American left, many voices have objected to the sweeping use of the term in the modern American context. Among them, at the time, was Jonathan Chait, in New York Magazine, who argued that “to flatten the language we use to describe different kinds of right-wing politics is to bludgeon our capacity to make vital distinctions.” It is important to note that the term is not used simply to describe “right-wing politics,” but more generally to describe the current social structure of the United States as a whole. It is, further, essential to note that making “vital distinctions” is a fundamental process of analytical thought — which logocentric left theorizing reduces to supposedly simplistic “binary” thinking, and to the violence that reason itself perpetrates against the objects of thought.
A colleague of Coates at the Atlantic, Vann R. Newkirk II, offered a review of the reaction to Coates’s essay and of objections to the terminology. Much of “The Language of White Supremacy” is Newkirk’s defense against Chait’s charge. It is a defense that reveals the term for what it is in the current situation and times: a rallying cry and anthem, confused for social insight. It is, in a word, a provocation.
Newkirk quotes the oft-cited characterization from Frances Lee Ansley, in “
White Supremacy (And What We Should Do about It)”:
“[By] “white supremacy” I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”
For much of the last four decades or more, many people would have used, for most of the applications above, instead of white supremacy, the terms institutional or structural racism. The former is embedded, structurally, in institutions and expressed in their functioning. The latter, more expansively, follows that functioning out into the broader society, into processes of relations that are not the institutions per se, but that are social products of institutional influence and its structuring of social relations. One might ask, in pursuing a semantic point, how Ansley’s definition of white supremacy differs from those two definitions.
The first element of the definition is “the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups.” This itself has two parts to it, the bigoted sentiments of any person who might long have been described as racist, and the organized espousal of those sentiments in a group. I venture to call these organized, programmatic expressions clearly white supremacist.
The second element of the definition is “a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources.” This is a vastly more complex formulation than might at first be apparent.
A first possibility is that such white control is the product of expressed and legalized structures of white domination. South Africa and the former Rhodesia come readily to mind. These were white supremacist states. They were also, it is important to point out, white minority states. No oppression seems greater, at first blush, than that of a minority over a majority. But what if the legalized white domination is not that of a minority, but of a majority instead? That is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s very definition, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” of legalized injustice:
An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority group that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
These were the conditions of Jim Crow, and one has, perhaps, only to reorient the mind with a slight mental cock to view this domination of a majority over a minority in order to feel it the greater offense to the moral sensibility. (Minority domination over the majority, one adds not by the way, is the condition of human dominion over all the earth and its species.)
These two possibilities are the easy ones to consider. Codified white dominion over black people, whether explicit in the institution of African slavery, or implicit in active, Jim Crow disenfranchisement and continuing dehumanization of African-Americans, seem uncontroversially designated as regimes of white supremacy.
Remove the expressed ideas and the legal structures, however, and analysis becomes more complex. Add, further, as in the increasingly culturally liberal U.S. of the post-Eisenhower era, the broad and institutional promotion of humanistically anti-racist ideas — to the very contrary of white supremacy — and the intricacies multiply. Complicate by a mixed record of fulfilling those ideals, and the geography of the matter becomes richly topographic. Contextualize it all in individual social histories and we might have to account for a range of differences and commonalities between majority domination in the United States and, for instance, France. The former copes, in this very discussion, with a particular, though not unique, centuries-long history of varyingly severe manifestations, along with a contemporary record of efforts to overcome that history. The latter, with its roughly ten-percent minority population of Mahgreb-Arab origin, appears directionless in response to migratory conditions (rather than colonial) only decades old and about which it will not, by law, even allow itself to collect records. Can we think of these problematic social conditions, for all their differences, in any kind of like terms? What shall they be? Shall we say — ignoring multiple layers of ethnic particularity and historical difference — that because the majorities in both nations are white, “whiteness” is a fruitful category of analysis that will produce essential terms of understanding? In contradistinction, will “of color” offer any fundamental commonality for analysis between the American descendants of African slaves and the variously emigrated Arab populace of North Africa with whom black Africans have a conflicted history?
If we push further, toward a broader category of understanding of inherently oppressive majoritarian power structures, complicated by race, ethnicity, and history to be sure, but discoverable also between the Uyghur minority and the Han majority of China, the Rohingya being ethnically cleansed by the Bamar majority of Myanmar, or the “grinding poverty” of the struggling Hmong, along with fifty-one other minorities living among the dominant Vietnamese, will we gain or lose hold of valuable truths?
Still, there is more. The fourth element of Ansley’s definition includes conditions in which “relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” This seems manifestly what is meant by institutional and structural racism. What remains to be noted, the third component of Ansley’s definition, is a society in which “conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread.” Much important and necessary analysis is needed of the distinction between conscious and unconscious in these regards, and ideas of “superiority” and “entitlement,” while often arising and enacted together, are not synonymous. However, it is crucial to recognize that this component is different from the others, because it describes subjective experience, not objectively measurable social phenomena. One can attempt objective measurement of reported conscious subjective reality, but the vagaries of those measures are — far from flat — elevated into a mountain of uncertainty by the challenge of attributing unconscious ideas to a self. The person, and a people, becomes a black box into which to hypothesize an essential nature — such as “whiteness”: both existing scientific methodology and, especially, a culturally relative epistemology would have to allow that these hypotheses might be as much a representation of the hypothesizing subject as of the objective phenomenon — another human being’s unconscious ideas — the subject purports accurately to describe.
Still more crucial is the question of what can or should be done to influence, or less kindly characterized, alter the thoughts, to which we object, of other human beings.
Newkirk heads toward the close of his essay by fulling embracing the provocative impulse in “the language” of white supremacy, while asserting the language, nonetheless, to be accurate. Yet he offers another, extraordinary and curiously revealing embrace, of Chait’s charge that the term works to “flatten the language.”
“But, to counter Chait,” Newkirk argues, “while a more expansive view of white supremacy in media’s contemplation of politics may seem to ‘flatten’ political discourse, perhaps the difficulty here is facing the possibility that things might actually be flat.” [Emphasis added]
If the world were just, that proposal would serve as the epitaph for five decades of logocentric left discourse. They are a panoply of theories, from a wide array of philosophies, among a spectrum of disciplines, yet all these generally referenced “postmodern” tendencies do all come together in current logocentric-left ideology and performance. The common impetus is to overthrow, in Fineman’s terms, the “autonomous and independent” and “universal human subject defined in the liberal tradition.” The avowed aim is to end the historically and culturally situated domination of the regime of reason, which is Western civilization’s originating system of power — the ratiocinating subject bringing into subordination both the objects of thought and those phenomena of the world that it objectifies in thought. In its place, if we cannot perceive and represent an objective world through the logos (reason), we can, rather, extract it from the logos (language). What reason, untethered from the world, conceptually transgresses, logocentric theory, embodied, will sanctify — to speak, as Grosz did, to start, of the “theological.” And an intellectual tendency which claims, in the intricacies of its language and in the totality of its rejection of categorical thinking, to render more subtly and with ever greater fineness of insight the world in which we live, ends, in the bluntness of its applications, like a Golem broken beyond its incantatory controls, flattening the earth before it.