February 13, 2009, 01:15 PM ET
Talking Race/Racism in the 1990s, Part 1.5
One reader posted the following comment after my last blog entry:
Dear Professor Jackson,
I wonder if you would be willing to create a secondary post wherein you rephrase and unpack this one. I’m sorry to be obtuse. I would like to understand this issue but I don’t have the Foucaultian and critical-race-theory chops to connect the themes you’ve presented here. If not, thanks anyway, and I leave the discussion to your more learned readers.
In an effort to take Anthony’s suggestion seriously, let me just quickly try to respond, especially since there may be other non-Foucaultians out there with similar requests.
Here’s the original:
“Power is more complicated than imagined by simplistic and unidirectional formulations of oppression that traffic in fantastical worlds of self-evident good guys and irredeemable villians. Have you not read Foucault? Don’t you get it?
“Power is circulatory and dialectial. It is actually constitutive of those very resistive efforts that imagine themselves in sharp and absolute contradistinction to the hegemonic workings of the powerful. Power is complicit with its own resistance. And the structure of the dance they do together is capillary, not hypodermic.”
And here’s the would-be translation:
The Western model of black-hatted criminals and white-hatted heroes is something that might work in Hollywood Westerns, but it doesn’t do justice to the fact that real life isn’t nearly so clear cut. Good guys aren’t always perfect. And bad guys don’t simplistically and straightforwardly embody utter evil. Not really. The world is more complicated.
The argument pivots on the idea that power isn’t something that one group has and another group doesn’t. Power only make sense as a kind of byproduct of the sparks that fly when different social actors battle one another. One side might have more “power” than the other (say, slave masters over their slaves), but both groups conspire to reproduce that lopsided relationship, jockeying for ways to change the terms of their interactions — in big or small ways. And there is even some wiggle room left over for those aforementioned slaves to carve out spaces that aren’t simple sites of absolute misery.
Hope that helps, Anthony. Let me know.
I just got back from a wonderful visit to Williams College this week, my first time there. I talked about my recent book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, and tried to explain other ways in which discussions of differences and discrimination get tabled or downplayed, and at our own peril. At least, that’s what I’d argue.
The Williams students were amazing! The faculty and staff, too. They all asked some really hard questions and were willing to engage in a dialogue with me about the beginnings of some very tentative answers. I learned a great deal.
Several undergraduates shared their thoughts and personal experiences with me after the lecture was over, and they expressed particular concern about the possibility of being dismissed (by some fellow students and maybe even a professor or two) as racially hypersensitive and paranoid. In many ways, the aforementioned deployments of Foucault pivot on a comparable dismissal — with some added poststructuralist prose.
(Brainstorm illustration incorporating a photo by Flickr user fantasy prof)