Snippet: Giving Race Back Over to the Ontological

A snippet from an in-progress piece on race, technology, and transgender:

To pair “race” and “ontology” is to invite misunderstanding.  Race, after all, is perhaps submitted more frequently by the humanities than even gender as a category that is “socially constructed,” which refers to it being discursively or culturally produced as a form of knowledge or epistemology that inscribes otherwise ontologically un-raced bodies, projecting its epistemology masquerading as ontology onto materiality in order to secure the illusion of categorical fixity or identity across time.  Rather than an attribute of bodies, race in a socially constructed sense is entirely contingent as an effect of historico-socio-cultural-political formations; although race concerns the body, there is nothing inherent in the body that causes the formation of race or the processes of racialization—this makes social construction a Cartesian project, since identity or subjectivity is cleaved from the body precisely at that moment when it would seem to most concern the body because the body is itself racialized, not just consciousness.  There are good reasons that race has been treated in this way in the humanities and social sciences over the past several decades: the historical effects of biological racism, eugenics, and essentialized racist cultural tropes, not to mention contemporary sociobiology and genetic reductionism, all index the power of a theoretical paradigm that argues that race is completely open to cultural transformation or potentially even its transcendence.  By suggesting that human cultural evolution can override the superficial corporeality of race—that is, to argue that race is not even “skin deep”—social construction theory also provides a form of political agency compatible with the Western Enlightenment subject, the autological-genealogical subject of European modernity.[1]  This neat fit alone should raise skepticism from a postcolonial perspective.

As Arun Saldanha points out, though, the “deontologisation of race” also results in a concept of race that “refers to the cultural representation of people, not to people themselves,” or, in the language I am using, not to the bodies of people themselves.  If race is a differential effect of signification, Saldanha draws attention to the unresolved question of “how signification comes to have any effect at all, if not through the materiality of signs, bodies, and spaces.”[2] Thought that radically insists on the social construction of race produces and regenerates an undecidable tension between discourse and materiality intrinsic to all forms of humanism, one that looks familiar alongside, for example, performative theories of gender’s constitution.[3]  In order to gain the advantage of an argument for the open-endedness of race to transformation, then, the price of social construction is the evacuation of the material body’s dynamism from thought.  This is both a problem of exclusion that diminishes what thought can do by separating the body from what it can do since thought is not disembodied, but, more importantly, an exclusively epistemological account of race ignores the how of the literal production of race as the racialization of material bodies.  Once de-ontologized, the only dimension of race available for consideration are its material effects, not any of its material causes.  Unlike socioboligical or genetically reductionist accounts of race that operate on models of linear causality, however, the ontological account of racialization I am exploring here operates through nonlinear causality.

[1] This is what Amit Rai means by the “reactive dialetics” of antiracist politics in“Race Racing: Four Theses on Race and Intensity,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 40, 1-2 (Spring/Summer 2012):  64.

[2] Arun Saldanha, “Reontologising Race: The Machinic Geography of Race,” Environment and Planning D 24 (2006): 9, 12, emphasis in the original.

[3] Judith Butler’s work on performativity encapsulates the confluence of these problems in an intersectional relationship of gender to race in Bodies that Matter, New York: Routledge, 1993 where the unresolvable question haunts her work on the relation between signification and matter in her account of race and gender’s “materialization.”  See the chapter “Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion,” pp 121-143.


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