Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Book

Can you comment on the critique of the Cartesian subject presented in a book I am reading? I do not know how deep the author’s understanding of Descartes is or is not. That is my problem.

Here is my summary of the book’s argument so far as I understand it. What do you think of it?

1. Racialization is constitutive in the discourse of modernity. Therefore it persists despite multiple declarations of its irrationality.

2. This is so because the cogito, modernity’s founding moment, depends upon a division between interiority (the mind that thinks) and exteriority (that which lies outside the mind), and it privileges the mind (the mind comes first, its existence is the first certainty).

3. To emerge, this modern (universal) subject requires a non-modern (non universal, racialized) Other.  Because racialization is necessary to the emergence of this subject, we cannot escape racial thinking. [I would have said this subject GETS raced, but that is in part because I want it to be capable of de-racing. The author says it cannot be. That is the whole point of the book.]

Here are my comments, on which you can comment if you wish, but I do not ask it, as it would take time.

1. This goes counter to the Habermasian idea of modernity as an incomplete project. It suggests that the exclusion of the colonies from the French Revolution makes sense in the modern paradigm, since modernity could only be extended to those endowed with universality; and that the original United States, with both democracy and slavery, makes sense for the same reasons. That explains why racial others have not yet been allowed to attain full subjectivity in these societies, and why the world has been divided as it has into central and peripheral countries. These situations are then, according to this author, not accidents or errors, but inevitable in the modern episteme.

2. In an apparent paradox “universality” cannot exist without an Other, so there is no universal subject except in the sense of the Kantian transcendental subject which, as we know, corresponds only to the transcendental realm. The “universal” subject, the modern subject who knows and thinks in more practical areas of life, according to this author is not universal but has an identity: it is a white man from the global north.

This entry was posted in Colonialisms, Créolité, Race. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Book

  1. profacero says:

    A long set of comments got written on this on my other blog and here they are:


    Carl — Hi, and yes! The whiteness thing is my focus — and I’m trying to figure out in general how it is that blackness keeps getting pushed underground (long story there — it’s my Project). Anyway, it does seem that precisely because absolute whiteness is unattainable (but utterly desirable in the project of modernity), you have to keep striving to produce it, which also means you have to keep producing blackness (so as to have something to give meaning to whiteness). Thus one runs up against a paradox: to be modern would be to have freedom and equality extended universally. But since those things go with whiteness, they cannot be universal, since whiteness cannot exist without blackness. So, one can in this logic understand the proposals to “exterminate the brutes” and the alternative, to get everyone to a mixed shade, proclaim that THE shade, and eliminate otherness that way (because only the ideal category can enjoy freedom, equality, and “universality”). And yet the Other keeps reemerging as subaltern because without it, there can be no “white” or ideal category. And around and around we go.

    That, of course, is predicated on the idea I am working with, which I am not sure is right, that the founding liberal/Enlightenment ideal *does* require whiteness (as was indeed the case at the founding of the U.S., for instance). And so Habermas’ idea that modernity just hasn’t been extended far enough yet wouldn’t work, because modernity has to have an Other.

    Hmmm that is as far as I have gotten today. But blogging does cause research, because due to Undine’s comment I looked up the new English translation of Cecilia Valdes and it seems the editor has a book on Haiti that may be of interest! 🙂
    March 14, 2009 at 10:34 am · Edit

    CV was abolitionist, but Villaverde was very influenced by the ‘anexionista’ ideology during exile in U.S. So brutal slavers are bad, but paternalist kind slaveholders like Isabel Ilincheta are better (slaves sing praise song). Narrator’s perspective still racist and text both omits mention of the actual rebellions/repression (set before the worst) and is retrospectively fearful of inability of white criollos to lead an multi-racial alliance for independence and still end up on top: fearful of ressentiment of free people of color and slave revolt (a la Haiti).
    (Just had to read a grad student paper on it)
    March 14, 2009 at 10:36 am · Edit

    I thought of Cane River when I read your post. I also tried to imagine what the world would be like without the burden of race; if the concept did not exist. Where would we be then. Perhaps we will have found ‘heaven.’
    March 14, 2009 at 11:24 am · Edit

    Awesome! And around and around, yes! What is to be done?

    Well, modernity is not a person. It has no intention or even historical reality except as a collection of qualities, trends and strategies that provide convenient leverage for categorizing borderwork. Modernity works just like whiteness and blackness this way, or the fictitious Europe of ‘eurocentrism’ and its fictitious antagonists, Africa and the Orient.

    So is there something essentially ‘modern’ about the freedom/equality project, just like there’s something essentially ‘modern’ about the inscription of that project in the discourse of whiteness and/vs. otherness? As such, are they essentially bound up together, haunted by each other? Or is that just a story we tell to frighten and punish ourselves, perhaps even give ourselves alibis? Might freedom and race be two projects that characterize recent times, have accordingly been assembled together in various ways that can be studied, but have no essential relationship to each other?

    Just to take a stand for a moment, I see how the Enlightenment project has in many instances been assembled with the racist (and sexist) project, and I can see how that was expedient on particular historical grounds, having largely to do with the bootstrapping of capital on a new continent. But I don’t see any more fundamental ‘requirement’ that this “go with” should always be so.

    If we could get the Enlightenment project critically disentangled from its racist corruptions and imaginary glories for a moment it might be possible to think it more fruitfully – to see, for example, that freedom and equality are troubled ideals in many ways, procrustean beds that torture us with inherently unattainable aspirations and red herrings that distract us from more prudent goals.
    March 14, 2009 at 1:57 pm · Edit

    Joanna – yes … and all these fears / this hedging is why it can be the national novel. The omissions are important, and the fear of whites not being on top is enormous.

    Barbie – I really should read Cane River. Must. The author of this novel spent a lot of time in Louisiana and some of the things he says about Havana and its environs are not just similar to N.O. and LA because we’re in the same region, but because he *is* describing N.O. and LA.

    Carl – here’s the problem: I’m good enough at philosophy to guess that certain postmodernist understandings of Descartes et al may not be as “true” as people in some other fields think they are … yet not good enough at it to decide. My reading for this week claims that racialization is a building block of modern thought, not a holdover from something else or a flaw that can be smoothed away. If that is true, it explains a lot. But I’m not on board with the idea of dumping the whole 18th century, in part because it is what the right wing wants to do, too!
    March 14, 2009 at 2:35 pm · Edit

    “So is there something essentially ‘modern’ about the freedom/equality project, just like there’s something essentially ‘modern’ about the inscription of that project in the discourse of whiteness and/vs. otherness? As such, are they essentially bound up together, haunted by each other?”

    In A GLOBAL THEORY OF RACE, Denise Ferreira da Silva says basically this … although I don’t think she says the freedom/equality project is essentially or only modern. So, looking for freedom/equality elsewhere would be one way to go, yes.

    “Or is that just a story we tell to frighten and punish ourselves, perhaps even give ourselves alibis?”

    Hmm … interesting question … but is this story that commonly accepted as truth?

    “Might freedom and race be two projects that characterize recent times, have accordingly been assembled together in various ways that can be studied, but have no essential relationship to each other?”

    Well, race as we know it seems to have been created in the 15th century or so, from what I can tell so far. And it got to be a bigger and bigger deal as and, so far as I can tell, because slavery did. So they go together. And the modern idea of freedom requires unfreedom, it seems. And, hmmm.

    I’d be curious to hear more about freedom and equality as Procrustean beds, and about alternative / more prudent goals.
    March 18, 2009 at 1:33 pm · Edit

    I’ve not read Ferreira, and should because she sounds intriguing, but from what you’ve glossed here and at your other site I’d say that she’s asking a lot of Descartes to carry the whole weight of the invention and delimitation of modernity. It’s possible to make that stick by getting really narrow about what modernity is and then ‘finding’ cartesian dualism back at its beginning, which in some version is the standard ‘eurocentrism’ story. But to do that requires ignoring all of the monadic, pluralistic and even panpsychic threads of philosophical modernity, just as narrowing the methodological thrust of modernity to the search for centers and certainties requires ignoring all of the nominalist, probabilist, pragmatist, conventionalist etc. strands.

    On these topics I like Toulmin’s Cosmopolis and Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. The line about frightening ourselves is from the latter:

    “It is not only out of arrogance that Westerners think they are radically different from others, it is also out of despair, and by way of self-punishment. They like to frighten themselves with their own destiny…. Why do we get so much pleasure out of being so different not only from others but from our own past? What psychologist will be subtle enough to explain our morose delight in being in perpetual crisis and in putting an end to history? Why do we like to transform small differences in scale among collectives into huge dramas?”

    From this perspective there is a striking reciprocity between racism and its critiques, both attempting to impose a big, dramatic, purified essence of ideal Being/Freedom/Equality on a lifeworld that is much more mediated and situated than these categories can capture.

    Therefore, explaining the persistence of racism is not at all difficult sociologically. It’s a tool among many others that offers emotional, cognitive, relational and institutional advantages to those who adopt and wield it (on both sides), not to mention the dwell time in old habits dying hard. Only if we think that dramatic intellectual refutations of an idea should make it go away instantly is there a perplexity, and ironically this is what Gramsci called an “Enlightenment error” – that reason and clear ideas trump all other considerations. At a minimum, this question is a category error, because everyday ideas do not obey the same rules of logical and evidentiary rigor as high philosophy and science.
    March 18, 2009 at 2:42 pm · Edit

    Thank you Carl, that really helps! I am studying her now (I read the book forwards to get an idea, and now I am going backwards) and it seems she does not pin the whole thing on Descartes. She says the usual things about how he does the mind/body or interior/exterior split. Then, as we move on and especially in the 19th century, race, nation, and color characteristics get attached to the Cartesian subject.

    What is innovative is that she INSISTS that race as a concept is a founding piece of modern thought – it’s not secondary, and therefore not just phased out. It isn’t just that people have reasons not to give it up, it’s that the idea of it is hardwired into how we think of the world and organize knowledge. That’s why even if it were otherwise possible to renounce race, racialization, and racism in a grand way (for moral, logical, etc. reasons) it would still stick around because without it (essentially) we can’t think. (Ferreira is quite Spivakian, by the way.)

    She critiques Omi and Winant’s formation theory on the grounds that they appear to think race is a real thing, even though they say they realize it is a fiction. (Winant has been accused by some Brazilian scholars of projecting U.S. categories into Brazil … I am not convinced that is true.) I don’t see them as taking race to be a biological truth, but just as a concept which has been around for quite a while (and not just since Descartes), is imbricated with nation (and not just in the 19th century), and so on.

    So although the thickets of prose in Ferreira’s book are hard to read, there are lots of ways in which it is too simple: flattening out Descartes, not talking about anything before Descartes, wanting a silver bullet theory to explain racialization, dressing the Eurocentrism thesis in a new way, etc.

    What I like best about the book so far is the explanation of why Afro-Brazilians don’t have the same race consciousness as Americans. Racism operated differently. In the U.S. there was a logic of exclusion, segregation, that had the effect of creating Black institutions. In Brazil there was a logic of “obliteration” that worked by including Blackness in whiteness … so that it was still subordinated, but not legally regulated, and didn’t have to exist. I add that in this space Black cultural capital could be preserved while people who looked like its original creators died or got bleached out. Result either way is you get a white dominated society, of course, but differently configured.

    It’s one of the best comparative studies in that way that I’ve seen. And the modernity thesis is intriguing in that it makes so central … I’m just not convinced that at bottom it isn’t somehow really simplistic.
    March 18, 2009 at 3:22 pm · Edit

    OH YES – and the other reason I am interested in the book is that it tries to work on a global idea of race, and look at it transnationally and conceptually not just in more limited comparative studies / data sets. Enough Brazilians say Brazil can’t be compared at all, are very invested in Brazil’s particularity, etc., for good & bad reasons, and so it’s interesting that she wants to do it this way: although her “global” is actually French philosophy + US + Brazil? – and she is of course referring to the divided globe.
    March 18, 2009 at 4:39 pm · Edit

    AND/BUT::: IMPORTANT::: She says that to say racism persists because it serves peoples’ interests / furthers their goals is to “explain it away” (xxv). It is not that one cannot see how racism benefits is users.
    It is that race is a structural device in modern thought and a key one, and this is why it doesn’t go away.
    March 18, 2009 at 4:55 pm · Edit

    Yes, I see – I agree that there’s a lot to that way of comparing Brazil and the U.S., and that a global idea of race is a neat project. But my problem there is that I don’t think it’s possible to boil race down to one idea, or even a cluster of ideas that share one common element. Instead, I think it’s an overlapping, dispersed assemblage of habits, concepts and practices that shades off into not-race without ever hitting a hard border.

    From this perspective it’s always going to look to people who are committed to some particular race concept like race is ubiquitous, because there’s not an end to it. Except that there are many, many ends to it, right at its core and out at its boundaries and through and through.

    As for modernity, I like your image of the flattened Descartes! Again, I think if you define modernity selectively enough you can get it to be almost anything, so I suspect I would agree with Ferreira about everything except the part where she thinks that she’s talking about everything. French (cartesian) philosophy + US + Brazil is a sweet accomplishment, though, more than I’d care to try.
    March 18, 2009 at 4:57 pm · Edit

    OK, but why isn’t saying that race is a key structural device in modern thought explaining it away? That seems like a big wave of the magic wand to me.
    March 18, 2009 at 5:37 pm · Edit

    That’s my doubt about the whole thing. Either it’s brilliant and Now We Know (but we’re stuck, because we are in modernity), or it’s all too pat. (Or is it I who am *making* it pat?)

    She of course would say that she’s not explaining it away … everyone *else* is trying to erase race and don’t realize they can’t because it is built into the modern grammar (i.e. modern ways of organizing and producing knowledge).

    I am always delighted when someone points out that raciality is built into every aspect of life (since the 15th century at least) & doesn’t deny it, but I am not at all happy with pinning it on Descartes & I think that thins the argument.
    March 18, 2009 at 5:57 pm · Edit

    On race, yes, I agree, although perhaps it’s helpful to remember that she’s talking about racialization itself.

    Modernity, I am not sure it is a good term at all. It has led to so many caricatures!
    March 18, 2009 at 6:32 pm · Edit

    “Now We Know (but we’re stuck, because we are in modernity)”

    That’s so right on. So a snarky retort might be that she’s ably produced an elaborately overdetermined alibi for her own obsession with race, which she can’t be blamed for because we’re all in the same boat.

    And then if it turns out this is True… what? Presumably we could just stop being modern, so then it would turn out to be a good thing to be working with a flattened modernity, so that the babies aren’t in the bathwater.
    March 18, 2009 at 10:07 pm · Edit

    We’d have to rewire our brains. She suggests that without seeing the origin of racialization we can’t undo it … but can we rewire our brains? This is one of my problems.

    Alibi, yes, not for her obsession in particular, but for the situation in general, that’s my other concern. Although I don’t think her actual objective is to create alibis, she’s an antiracism activist IRL.

    The other key thing she’s trying to do in terms of theory (and this paragraph is part of my notes on trying to figure out high points of the book) is go beyond what postcolonial theorists and multicultural theorists have done with race and hybridity. That’s a laudable goal in my view and I need to talk about it in my post on the other blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s