Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Innocence is suspect. posted by Richard Seymour
I've been thinking about these images and also about Blair's racist commentary on 'black crime' before his departure. Recall, Blair said about a wave of knife and gun crimes that people had to drop their "political correctness" and recognise that the violence would not be stopped "by pretending it is not young black kids doing it". He went on to blame "gang culture", and said that "We need to stop thinking of this as a society that has gone wrong - it has not - but of specific groups that for specific reasons have gone outside of the proper lines of respect and good conduct towards others and need by specific measures to be brought back into the fold." The procedure is clear: first, he pretends he is breaking a taboo, by re-affirming a long-held prejudice about 'black crime' (if the fact that they are black is irrelevant to the crime, why mention it?) - as if he wasn't aware of specific police programmes, widely publicised, designed to crack down on "black on black crime"; second, he pathologises crime as belonging to a "gang culture" specific to the group that he has identified as having "gone outside of the proper lines of respect and good conduct" (ie, black children); third, he insists upon the basic innocence of the society as a whole. Violent crime is, in the former Prime Minister's imagination, something that belongs to 'blackness'. Clearly, the reason why nominally anti-racist liberal media pundits didn't raise a fuss about this, and still basically worship him, is because they agree with his views.
The flipside of this is rarely thought of at any great length, but it is so pervasive in the culture that it ought to be recognised: why is 'whiteness' never marked in this way? That is to say, what accounts for its basic invisibility, and the refusal in mainstream ideologies to adhere it to certain forms of criminality that are specific if not unique to small minorities of white people who have done a little bit more than go outside the proper lines of respect and good conduct? Or why, more generally, do we not hear such phrases as "white on white crime"? Or even "white crime"? Why is it that in general someone will only feel obliged to point out the skin tone of a man who has committed a crime if he is in fact non-white? Clearly, the answer is that 'whiteness', like 'blackness', is a metaphor, and that its origins are in the normalising strategies of power. Obviously, no one is actually 'white', but the power of the metaphor is that it is clean, smell-free, disembodied, an empty space, necessarily invisible. It is innocent. As usual with 'racial' metaphors, there is also a great deal of sexual repression, the attempt to expunge and transfer every last trace of eroticism. So it is also innocent in the childlike, presexual sense too. The fascist male is imagined through the tropes of classicism, stripped of sexuality precisely in order that he may comport himself adequately as a harmonious and cultivated Grecian. By contrast, in fascist racial mythography, black people are seen as voluptuously, dangerously, demonically eroticised: they are reduced to bestiary. Having coded those bodies in that way (as 'racial'), the fascist gesture is to naturalise the body as an authentic, pre-social site of truth. By different degrees, this holds for racial mythography more widely, and one need only think of the classic productions of Hollywood capital in which black people are imagined as uncontrollable rapists, unable - through lack of civilisation - to canalise their base animal lusts into the proper reproductive channels.
Well, here, the innocence of 'whiteness' that results from the 'racial' categories thus erected, is something that the former Prime Minister himself benefited from immensely. The failure of dirt to adhere to 'whiteness' is what permitted the figure of Teflon Tony to thrive in the spectacle, at least until 2003. Blair's untouchability was itself a metaphor for the system's own spectacular pristineness: as he himself recently insisted, one can't fight the 'war on terror' without insisting on the fundamental innocence and goodness of Western states. No one is oppressing you, the white man insists, your ideas are absurd. The upshot of this claim is not only that the hundred lashes for anyone suspected of spreading sedition is fair and reasonable, but that the conduct attributed to 'blackness' is something external to the system, a psychopathology, a cultural text that emanates from some essential lack or deviance ("deadbeat dads" was the thesis at the time, as I recall).
And 'whiteness' is not merely normalised, it is centralised, in the precise measure that it marginalises the non-white: so that although it appears to be a marker of physical difference, and although it is grafted onto the body, it actually signifies a space of power, and points to specific historical regimes and phrase regimens, to shifting relations of domination. Its deployment, even indirectly or by ommission, is never merely descriptive: it is a strategic exertion of power. Blair appealed in his discourse on crime to exactly the same system of 'racial' metaphors that he has appealed to in the 'war on terror', but he has not - and would not have - referred to something like "the Aryan race". That is, he didn't appeal to biological or 'scientific' notions of 'race'. He may or may not believe in such notions, but that is not the reason for his coyness: the most important factor is that it simply wouldn't sit well for a contemporary centre-right politician to rely on explicitly fascistic language. The reason I raise this is because some people have a terrifically hard time understanding what it means to refer to anti-Islam racism, because they're hung up on cliches. They will remind us that Islam is not a 'race', for example, which implies that there is or can be a coherent biological entity that would conform to 'race', which Islam simply doesn't coincide with. This isn't the case, and the point here isn't simply that 'race science' has typically been non-science - in the case of phrenology, it was an emission of 18th Century romanticism deriving from the Physiognomica of Aristotle (again with the classicist motif). The points is that 'race' was initially, before it became a narrative of polygenic human societies with more or less direct linkages back to distinct originary communities with clear physical and mental distinctions, a system of domination. To put it another way, before anthropologists, missionaries and others could gather the source material for their bestial metaphors and 'Great Chain of Being' tropes, European states had to invade, colonise and enslave the populations that were then to be studied and thus categorised.
There is nothing essential about the biological claims made for 'race', which are themselves ridiculously incoherent. Racism is not directed at 'races', since 'races' don't exist. Racist language works through metonymy, through chains of association and substitution. 'Race' is a construction which organises the perception of differences (and suppresses other perceptions of the same), functioning as a pseudo-explanation for social phenomena, and providing a mandate for the exertion of power. (Hence, in Blair's analysis, black kids are uniquely responsible for violent crime due to something specific in their culture, and therefore we need to send more police with more powers into their neighbourhoods to intimidate and regulate them). Inasmuch as Islam is construed as responsible for what it cannot logically be responsible for; inasmuch as it is made to bear the full guilt for activities resulting from a dense mesh of geopolitical exploits; inasmuch as it is used to organise perceptions of difference; inasmuch as it carries the freight of less acceptable language (like 'Paki'); inasmuch as it is inflected with 'blackness'; inasmuch as one can essentialise about it (in the form of a 'Muslim Mind' or some similar chimera); inasmuch as that knowledge derives from the direct exertion of power; inasmuch as the utilisation of that knowledge is a strategic operation of power; inasmuch as Islam is depicted as a coherent organising principle for everyone who bears that identity; inasmuch as Islam is used as the basis of ascriptive humiliation; inasmuch as it is used formally or informally to organise state repression; inasmuch as demeaning or insulting depictions of Islam are coordinated with the political victimisation of Muslims; inasmuch as one being a Muslim would encourage people to think you ought to have to wear special identification; inasmuch as it would discourage people from employing you and otherwise deprive one of the normal range of possibilities; inasmuch as its invocation inhibits or reverses ordinary human empathy - well, precisely to that extent it is possible to speak of anti-Muslim racism, or 'Islamophobia' in the shorthand.
The 'war on terror' has engaged all of the above functions of Islamophobia in various ways, and the former Prime Minister is more than culpable in word and deed of anti-Muslim racism, as well as more traditional forms of racism. New Labour has been extremely conservative and traditionalist in its race relations, despite the patina of multiculturalist mauve. In its treatment of asylum seekers, it gleefully partook of the racist media frenzies, imputing criminal intent, fraudulence and corruption to them. They were assailed as beggars and as people who defecated in shop doorways. Following rioting in Bradford, which reflected a multitude of social problems and rising racism (usually described euphemistically as 'racial tensions'), the government's hard man Home Secretary took the view that Asians - that was then the preferred nomenclature - had to learn to speak English in their homes, and integrate. The language of 'flooding' - that is, an invasion, an overrunning - in reference to nonwhite migration, whether legal or otherwise, is a favourite with the reactionary tabloids, but it was also referenced by New Labour ministers. The Blair administration planned to divert all of the interlopers into 'accomodation centres' - camps dotted about the country, separated from the mainstream community and from one another. Already, the refugees pent up in sadistic 'detention centres' run by private security companies have been driven to riot and suicide, but continue to be detained en masse, having committed no crime other than being unable to prove 'whiteness'.
Some silly-billies will inevitably demand to know why I hate white people so much. Yet it should be obvious that there is a problem here. We have had one of the most reactionary governments for years which has, in various ways, pimped the policies and attitudes of the fascists. It has embarked on an extraordinarily energetic wave of international violence alongside a domestic crackdown on civil liberties, both of which predated 2001. It has fanatically, and sometimes with deranged satisfaction, threatened other societies with extreme violence - such as when Geoff Hoon promised Iraq that Britain would not hold back from using nuclear weapons against it in 2003. So, why doesn't it stick in the spectacle? Why is it that liberal commentators will still try and persuade you that Blair meant well enough, and that New Labour is a bunch of forward-thinking pragmatists? There are, of course, multiple reasons. But the alibi provided by the productive metaphors of 'race' and the presumptive innocence of 'whiteness' should not be overlooked, particularly when the government's prevailing ideology and that of the ex-Prime Minister is so heavily racialised.