Monday, January 17, 2011

Joyful Science

"I think this anthropology is just another way to call me a nigger." So observed Othman Sullivan, one of many informants in John Langston Gwaltney’s classic study of black culture, Drylongso. Perhaps a kinder, gentler way to put it is that anthropology, not unlike most urban social science, has played a key role in marking "blackness" and defining black culture to the "outside" world. Beginning with Robert Park and his protégés to the War on Poverty-inspired ethnographers, a battery of social scientists have significantly shaped the current dialogue on black urban culture. Today, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists compete for huge grants from Ford, Rockerfeller, Sage and other foundations to measure everything measureable in order to get a handle on the newest internal threat to civilization. With the discovery of the so-called underclass, terms like nihilistic, dysfunctional and pathological have become the most common adjectives to describe contemporary black urban culture. The question they often pose, to use Mr. Othman Sullivan's words, is what kind of "niggers" populate the inner cities?

Unfortunately, too much of this rapidly expanding literature on the underclass provides less an understanding of the complexity of people's lives and cultures than a bad blaxploitation film or an Ernie Barnes painting. Many social scientists are not only quick to generalize about the black urban poor on the basis of a few "representative" examples, but more often than not, they do not let the natives speak. A major part of the problem is the way in which many mainstream social scientists studying the underclass define culture. Relying on a narrowly conceived definition of culture, most of the underclass literature uses behaviour and culture interchangeably....

...In the Harlem and Washington Heights communities where I grew up in the mid- to late 1960s, even our liberal white teachers who were committed to making us into functional members of society turned out to be foot soldiers in the new ethnographic army. With the overnight success of published collections of inner city children’s writings like The Me Nobody Knows and Caroline Mirthes' Can't You Hear Me Talking to You?, writing about the intimate details of our home life seemed like our most important assignment. (And we made the most of it by enriching our mundane narratives with stories from Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-O and Speed Racer.)

Of course, I do not believe for a minute that most of our teachers gave us these kinds of exercises hoping to one day appear on the Merv Griffin Show. But in retrospect at least, the explosion of interest in the inner city cannot be easily divorced from the marketplace. Although these social scientists came to mine what they believed was the "authentic Negro culture", there was real gold in them thar ghettos since white America's fascination with the pathological urban poor translated into massive book sales.

Unfortunately, most social scientists believed they knew what "authentic Negro culture" was before they entered the field. The "real Negroes" were the young jobless men hanging out on the corner passing the bottle, the brothers with the nastiest verbal repertoire, the pimps and the hustlers, and the single mothers who raised streetwise kids who began cursing before they could walk.

-Robin D. G. Kelley, Yo' Mama's DysFunktional, 1998

Even histories of race as a construction risk reifying what they seek to dismantle by treating it from the start as explanandum rather than explanans. When first invented, race was an answer to questions we no longer ask, and conceived in terms of schemes of human diversity we barely remember. Kant lectured on human diversity against the backdrop of geography and history throughout his career out of an eighteenth-century sense of diversity as real and inevitable as well as potentially meaningful. The critical turn and his mature ethics did not displace these concerns. They reframed them and, as they did, "race" became a term claiming at once scientific, providential and pragmatic significance. In this essay I will explicate Kant’s writings on race of the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s, not in terms of the disingenuous "science" his work helped make possible, but rather in relation to the concerns of Kant's practical thought in their true home.

Scholarship on Kant's contributions to race theory tends either to focus on his appalling views of non-Europeans, especially Africans, or to see him as engaged in a classificatory exercise, albeit one connected to understanding man's place in nature and history. But Kant didn't need the concept of race to maintain noxious views of non-Europeans, and classification of human varieties is never innocent. Scholars also often fail to distinguish between writings from different stages of Kant's career, allowing others to draw false comfort from the possibility that Kant dropped his hateful views with the critical turn of the 1780s or his theory of race with the cosmopolitan turn of the 1790s.*

Kant's views did change in important ways. Once invented, however, the race concept only became more complex and ambitious, moving from geography to anthropology and from discussions of "what nature makes of man" to those concerning "what man can and should make of himself".

Kant's theory of race shows the importance of reading together elements of his oeuvre that tend to be studied in isolation: practical philosophy, philosophy of history, anthropology, physical geography. But race is more than an instance of their interrelation. Both before and after the critical turn, Kant was committed to race for its potential to anchor his larger understanding of human diversity and destiny, and reserved a special place for Whites beyond race.

In a manner paralleled by his characterizations of the German national character and one of his accounts of moral autonomy, Kant argues not that Whites are a superior race but that they are the pre-emption and redemption of race: Kant's invention of race was attended by the simultaneous invention of "whiteness" as an escape from it. Seeing in Kant race’s pivotal role linking nature, diversity and freedom raises difficult questions for Kant scholarship.

It can also help us understand the appeal of this pseudo-concept and why it was able to exert such widespread influence throughout western culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

*Important arguments that fail to distinguish pre-critical from critical works by scholars such as Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Achieving Our Humanity: The Idea of the Postracial Future (London: Routledge 2001), ch. 3) and Charles W. Mills ("Kant’s Untermenschen", in Andrew Valls (ed.), Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 2005), 169 /93) allow scholars like Thomas E. Hill and Bernard Boxill ("Kant and race", in Bernard Boxill (ed.), Race and Racism (New York: Oxford University Press 2001), 448 /71), and Robert B. Louden (Kant's Impure Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press 2000), 93 /106) to claim that Kant's racism was confined to his precritical thought. Pauline Kleingeld has recently shown that Kant's racial views persist well into the critical period (she goes so far as to assert that he supported slavery during this time), but argues that he renounced his view of race in the 1790s; Pauline Kleingeld, "Kant's second thoughts on race", Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 229, October 2007, 573 /92.

Mark Larrimore, PDF Antinomies of race: diversity and destiny in Kant PDF

No comments:

Post a Comment