Breakdown of Denise Ferreira da Silva: TOWARD A GLOBAL THEORY OF RACE

This post will attempt to explain Ferreira da Silva’s book. The purpose is to understand it, but also to have a handout that could be used as the basis of a lecture. We must therefore situate the book. What does she say? Why does it matter? This book could be a an important turn in race theory. I am interested in her remarks on the erasure of race in particular. More generally I am interested in and the ways in which she shapes the field she addresses, and in the implications of her theory — the vistas it opens up, and the challenge to the extension of Enlightenment universality and equality to everyone. My question: if racialization is inevitably part of the modern paradigm, then is there is no way to revise it out of that paradigm? See page 175: “because the arsenal of raciality secures post Enlightenment Europe’s mind and social configuration in transparency, as it writes the others of Europe in a place not encompassed by transcendentality” is WHY “this same subaltern positioning does not unleash the ethical crisis expected by those who argue that racial subjection contradicts modern ethical principles.”

WHY I LIKE THIS BOOK: It is the most insightful theoretical take on race I have seen since Omi and Winant. Formation theory explains a great deal but as Silva says, it does not entirely deconstruct race as such [need quotation here]. I have never fully understood why there are so many “short circuits” [as I call them, and I need to find a way to explain myself] around the question of race, and I am always amazed at how race keeps coming up as an issue no matter what people do to try to “resolve” it. Silva’s theory, that racial thinking in fact produced modern global space, explains why it never goes away. Her discussion of how race was produced [through the production, I emphasize, of whiteness as the color of universality] highlights its artificiality in a way formation theory does not quite, and lets us see what it really is — a purely theoretical construct, but not one that can be dismantled or wafted away since it is a building block in the modern world system or even an anchor of it.


+ Mestizaje, paradoxically, is a way to eliminate the Other, since one way to do that is to make the modern subject a mestizo one.
+ Mestizaje is at the same time a utopian dream of abolishing race: because if the Ferreira thesis is true, it is impossible to have equality between races in modernity
+ SHE says: the core argument of the sociology of race relations is that the Other really is inferior and the postulate that the solution to racial subjection requires the elimination of difference.
+ NOTE how I was always taught there was no moral difference, only physical, and some cultural, but that was enriching. Compare this to the mestizaje dream. Everyone wants to get rid of difference, and the problem is that sometimes the way they do it is by getting rid of the differenT.

THESIS OF BOOK: Racialization is constitutive in the discourse of modernity. Its political force derives from its constant repetition of the founding ontological statement (the cogito, with its interiority/exteriority division). That is why racism persists despite multiple declarations of its irrationality and immorality. It is why we accept racist actions to the degree we do. Note that this goes counter to the Habermasian idea of modernity as an incomplete project. It suggests that the exclusion of colonials from French citizenship (in the Revolution) makes sense, and that the original United States, with slavery, makes sense. That in turn explains why racial others have not yet been allowed to attain full citizenship in these societies, and why the world has been divided as it has into central and peripheral countries. (It is not just about the economy, it is about race, and not because race is an essence, but because we need the idea of race to construct the universal Subject.)

VERY KEY POINT: People think that racial thinking and the idea of race is an error and it is not: it is what enables modern thought. People think they know how racial subjection is caused, but are at pains to describe how precisely the racial produces the others of Europe as subaltern subjects / and the modern subject. So people want to erase the racial from the modern lexicon, but do not explore how it constitutes the modern grammar — so their efforts are superficial in the end, and the racial is not erased.

FROM THE BLURB: The modern subject is formed in philosophical accounts that presume two ontological moments, historicity and globality, which are refigured in the concepts of the nation (historicity) and the racial (globality). The notion of racial difference governs the present global power configuration because racial others, NOT being in the place of universality and self determination, make it possible for these ethical ideals to emerge. The racial is the signifier of globality. It is important to be able to explain these things. We hope that in what follows, we will learn how.


+ It is Hegel’s way of resolving the threat to the Cartesian subject, which must be interior, that it could get contaminated with exteriority. He decides through history (temporality) and the dialectic that exteriority is a moment in the subject’s construction. Then the contradiction is resolved and otherness folds back into sameness.  (see 70)
That is the scene of engulfment (evoke then elide; deny difference; include but hierarchically, etc.)


+ the cogito is not affectable by or in exteriority
+ before Hegel created the transparent I, projects of knowledge that deployed the tools of scientific reason to uncover the “truth” of the mind were not allowed and/or not necessary
+ before transcendental poesis placed the mind in transparency, there wasn’t the 19th century scientific apparatus
+ the analytics of raciality and how it was produced is the focus here
+ we will see how it — in other words, th epolitical-symbolic arsenal that subjugates the Other — was produced
+ the scientific texts of these centuries transform the mind into a thing of productive nomos
+ and the Global emerged as the privileged ontoempistemological context
+ this produced post Enlightenment Europe’s particularity as an effect of outer determination … as the marker of a difference that could be captured only when placed alongside an “other”
+ KEY: race, which was before about kinship and blood, becomes THE RACIAL, a scientific concet and the STRATEGY OF ENGULFMENT that produces the human body as an exteriorization of productive nomos. This produced the transparent I, in Europe, and the affectable I, elsewhere. And first physical differences were ascribed to the affectable I, and then in the 20th century, moral ones.
+ IMPORTANT: 20th century makes culture key, but does not obliterate the idea of the racial. That is in part because without it “the cultural would not maintain the boundaries of transparency.” (117) COMPREHEND this, and reread the paragraph that ends 117 and begins 118.


+ By rewriting racial difference as a signifier of cultural difference, the toolbox of race relations writes the U.S. social subject and social configuration in transparency and replaces the others of Europe in affectability. (154) Thus it creates the racial subject, which is not a transparent I (not universal and does not have self-determination). [In the U.S.] the presence of these racial others contaminates the transparent Is of Europe, so those others have to be excluded if the I is to remain transparent (I think this is how it goes). SO the U.S. has to have segregation. Brazil uses OBLITERATION to get rid of the other, but the U.S. uses EXCLUSION. Yet the logic of exclusion is subordinated to the logic of obliteration (find out what she means by this). It presupposes the failure of the latter and so has to see the racial itself as foreign to modern social configurations. (So the U.S. has exclusion and assimilation, whereas Brazil has obliteration?)

+ Important: rather than producing the others of Europe outside of historicity and univrsality, the racial engulfs them by writing their difference as an effect of the play of productive reason. AHHHH this is getting hard, the prose is thorny. ANYWAY, the Cartesian subject as it gets rooted in the concept of the nation gets racialized.

+ I am marking in the book because I cannot take notes and also read. See 168-69: it is true, critiques who want to reinstitute transparency can only guide emancipatory projects that use “historic” signifiers – class, nation, culture – as signifiers of a racial subaltern consciousness.

+ Important: the cultural is a strategy of engulfment


+ Important epigraph from Du Bois: throughout the 19th century race consciousness grew; “culture … came to be and had to be built upon the knowledge of these differences.”

+ She asks: why has [this] “analytics of raciality,” which Du Bois already articulated, been missed in CRT and in postmodern critiques of modernity?

+ Consider, she says, that to ascribe transparency (in the past, before colonization) to the subaltern does not dissipate the effects of raciality. This is essentially because although it has been decided that racialization is not a good strategy of power, the idea that there are races has become naturalized. (Saying “all races are equal” does not do it.)

+ Foucault says the modern episteme emerged in the 19C, and Hobsbawn says the modern political subject, the nation state, emerged in the late 19C.


+ In the United States Blacks are not the ever-vanishing affectable others, but the inhabitants of a moral and juridical place (a subaltern one, outside the Constitution — see arguments re Plessy v. Ferguson, 209ff.).

+ It is not that they are excluded from an already existing civil society — it is that they and other Others had to be produced as others so that the U.S. could have a transparent “I.”

+ “Racial subjection does not result from excessive strategies of power, but is an effect of the analytics of raciality, the political-symbolic apparatus that has produced that has produced in the United States [the transparent I and its others, two kinds of global/historical subjects].” (219)


+ Observers since early on have been shocked at racial “promiscuity” in SSA. So how does Brazil then try to construct itself as a transparent I? How could it become the subject transcendental poesis had located within post Enlightenment Europe? The answer: by rewriting misgecenation as a historic signifier. It said Africans and Indians could not survive … so it instituted the mestizo / mulato in the “white” location [my paraphrase] … but this then is the Brazilian predicament because miscegenation is intrisically unstable as a scientific signifier.

+ Raciality informs the Brazlian text, the whitening thesis, and racial democracy , and the transformation of this scientific strategy (of containment) into a historic strategy (of engulfment) produced a gendered political text, “for Portuguese power/desire could only be written as the force of Brazilian history through the appropriation of the non-European . . . female subject as an instrument.” (223)

+ The productivity of European desire resides not in transcendentality but in the premodern … [re-study the top of 224]. Miscegenation as a strategy of particularization produced a modern subject that threatened transparency … but because it produced bodies that signify continuity between Europe and its others, it was also a signifier of globality that could be deployed to “write a zone” of deployment of European power in affectability (224).

+ The silencing of the racial underclass in Brazil is not done by placing the racial “other” outside the national subject, but by [writing miscegenation] such that the Other could be obliterated [I think … see 225].

+ Nina Rodrigues: miscegenation causes weak minds, is a pathology … they are not self regulated … so Brazil’s predicament is the mestizo’s metal inferiority … only whites can have the transparent I. So progress in Brazil will have to be purification, i.e. obliteration of the Other. This did not eliminate blackness of course, and in fact it produced Africanity, but it was a good strategy of racial subjection.

+ The mestizo has to be written as tending to whiteness … if not Brazil could not become modern. Blackness and Africanity signify Brazilian particularity while producing blacks and mestizos as subaltern subjects (233). Sexual violence on the plantation is thus rewritten as producing the trajectory of the Brazilian subject toward transparency.
So (as I have always said, although she puts it in a more technical way), you have to include and exclude … EVOKE AND ELIDE in my words … racial others in order to have a modern I that is also specifically Brazilian. This is on 234, reread it.

+ Romero: miscegenation gets rewritten as modern, because democratic (236-37). So NOW the mestizo, who embodies Portuguese desire, becomes the privileged agent of Brazilian history, and he is whitening: so mestizaje is no longer degeneration but whitening and progress.

+ Racial difference is resolved in the interiority of the always already slightly tanned subject of patriarchy (241). And miscegenation institutes social configurations where the racial does not operate as a strategy of power. In Freyre, Brazil is a kind of culmination of Portugal… and patriarchy is key because Brazil chose it over modern conceptions of juridical authority and economic relations, so family and sexual life are the privileged sites for narrating how racial difference operates in Brazil (240). That renders the Black man irrelevant to Brazilian history, of course, since the miscegenator is the Portuguese!

+ The African contribution to Brazil in Freyre is the body of the female slave; through her you get the slightly tan transcendental I and thus Brazilian particularity, and blackness is an auxiliary (not a determining marker) of this particularity (often refereed to as a “residue” of the African “spirit”) … the African culture is always-already vanishing

+ Slave / WOC body is acted upon, affectable by gender and race, public, not rational … and her offspring are signifiers of Brazil’s unstable placing at the outskirts of modernity (so the whole house of cards is unstable, fluctuates)

+ Araujo 1994: again wants to erase the racial from the modern political grammar … and to do so erases the fact that miscegenation has operated as a solution to the predicament of Brazilian elites only because it signifies the obliteration of racial difference (what I called DENIAL OF DIFFERENCE) (247-48).

+ This argument (248-49) is complex but key. Racial democracy attempts to resolve Brazil’s predicament in a scene of ENGULFMENT, where the productive moment is the violent appropriation of black female bodies. Race consciousness is not available because it presupposes an excluded other, but all these others are engulfed in the national subject in Brazil. And this is how Brazil and other polities in the global South become global subaltern subjects.

+ U.S. excludes Black people but Brazil engulfs them [I think that’s the point]. Difference is always placed in the past.

+ Celebrations of hybridity, having racial difference as their only target, reflexively renew the foundational statement of race relations which says Others cannot become transparent … and keep countries like Brazil at the outskirts of modernity.

+ The difference that marks the subaltern subject also instituted the place of those who dominate them.


+ There is a quotation from Foucault on Don Quixote, the graphism who neither crosses to difference or reaches the heart of identity, and who can become a knight by listening from afar to the age-old epic that gives form to Law, and a marvelous one from W.E.B. du Bois, about how race is the key problem in modernity.

+ Modern thought assumes an inner mind thinks about things that lie outside it. Notice this interior/exterior binary, is it so fixed? And note: the noetic protects the mind’s self determination and does not render it an object of scientific reason. This leaves the [idea of the mind] open for appropriation in the poetic. This it does not matter if modern thought had privileged exteriority as opposed to interiority. The point is that this disctinction “signifies” from within modern representation which depends upon the binary. So: how is it possible that this distinction preserves interiority as the attribute of the transparent “I”?

+ The madman and the poet are at the margins of modern representation but do not move beyond its boundaries. The racial imposes a questioning of interiority upon modern representation. [Comprehend this.]

+ Postmodernist critiques of modernity challenge universal reason but still embrace universal poesis (which rearranges signifiers but does not aim to replace the divine author). They also privilege historicity, which is about truths the final realization of justice, and so on — universality.

+ Transcendental poesis cannot fulfill the promise of inclusion because transcendentality is not global. Hegel locates the realization of Spirit in Europe, as we know; it was necessary to write post Enlightenment Europe’s particularity as something irreducible … and fully achievable only when the difference Europe/Other becomes an effect of nomos. (258) And the error of postcolonial and postmodern critics is that they do not realize that the limits of that Self is not the other (as in the poet — the person on the margins) but in the Other.

+ Modern representation can sustain transparency only through the engulfment of exterior things. This is the key argument in the book.

+ Questions the author had before writing the book include fatigue with the ways race was being discussed (see 260-61), and the intuition that differences between race as it operates in the U.S. and in Brazil had to do with the relationship between race and nation.

+ Violence against racial others are “deaths foretold” … and the racial is “that modern signifier that delimits all the murders producing the place where the lives of racial subaltern subjects unfold” (261). And the strategies of scientific reason consistently write the affectability of the racial subaltern subject (262).

+ The dilemma of liberal thought (Locke, Rousseau): they have to deal with the problem of exclusion and universality. [Recap: to have transparency you need differentiation, so you need exclusion to have universality, and this is the paradox. Check to see if it is right.]

+ We keep trying to extend more justice, and to base justice on the idea of universality, even though we know freedom and equality have never been all encompassing (the liberal founding deal was only for white men of property).

+ So much is specular: because Black women as seen as “welfare queens” they are dispossessed, and because they are that they are [“welfare queens”], so the system of representation goes around and around and reproduces itself.

+ The error in liberal thought and, I guess, historical materialism and so on, is to think that the subaltern, once the veil of [patriarchy or whatever] is lifted, will be a transparent subject … but that is impossible since the Black mother, for instance, is already outer-determined, and whose social trajectory is an effect of how “the productive nomos institutes her … position.” (266)

NOTE: That would be why, to have equality, you would have to get rid of the subaltern entirely, so in this way the conservative position is logical … although then again not, because to have a transparent I you have to create an Other. So in the discourse of modernity you have to have inequality, it seems, at the same time as you retain a DREAM of equality. [I wonder if this is right.]

+Neither the sociohistorical logic of exclusion nor the notion of patriarchy can account for this kind of social subjection. Because of her double affectability the female racial subaltern is always the subject of lust … hers is a dangerously unproductive will because it is guided by nothing but the preservation of life (i.e. instinct, she is outside the law, always erupting, has to be an object of public policy). Similarly we have “terrorists” and so on.


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9 Responses to Breakdown of Denise Ferreira da Silva: TOWARD A GLOBAL THEORY OF RACE

  1. L says:

    Thanks for this – I am trying to work my confused mind through Silva’s work right now…

  2. ect says:

    these notes are really helpful–v. glad to have discovered your writings.

  3. Paula Esteves says:

    Really when someone doesn’t know after that its up to other people that they will assist, so here it happens.

    –Paula, I do not understand you. Could you write in your native language? –Z

  4. omarquez2012 says:

    thanks for this. also trying to wrap my head around her argument and this has been helpful

  5. Pingback: January Study Packet (2018) – True Leap Press

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