U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Post-Trump Teach-In––Session One: Reading Robyn Wiegman, “Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity”

With recent events in mind, I propose that we engage in a rolling teach-in here at the s-usih blog. Each Tuesdays, I will offer a short review of a book or article that seems relevant to the current crisis. In the comments section, we can talk and argue.

Should there be no immediate interest in this form of mediated argument, I will not take it personally. Even in the absence of discussion, I think there is something potentially useful about sharing texts that help to clarify our political situation.

This week, we take a look at an essay that has become something of a classic: Robyn Wiegman’s “Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity,” published in the journal of literary criticism Boundary 2 in 1999. I have chosen this essay because I believe that the politics of whiteness played a crucial role in the triumph of Trumpism, a claim that I am trying to back up in a series of essays (the first of which can be found here).

The bulk of Wiegman’s essay is concerned with two valuable engagements: an intervention in then-brewing debates regarding the new field of “whiteness studies,” and a close reading of the film Forrest Gump. Here, I am going to skip over this material (Wiegman’s writing is very lucid and clear). I zero in instead on some of the analysis laid out in the essay’s opening section.

Wiegman lays out three points about the politics of whiteness (circa 1999) in the United States.

First, a historical claim: “that the distinctiveness of southern white supremacist identity since the Civil War hinges on a repeated appeal to the minoritized, injured ‘nature’ of whiteness.” The great allegorical symbol of this new, mimetic, aggrieved whiteness is the museum built by one John Howard in Laurens, South Carolina, meant to celebrate the heritage of the Ku Klux Klan (defended, on both moral and legal grounds, by way of a set of analogies to civil rights movement heritage sites).

By using “the language of civil rights” in order to protect a whiteness that is cast “not only as a minority identity” but also as one “injured by the denial of public representation,” Howard enacts the constitutive gesture of postmodern white supremacy.

Wiegman’s analysis turns upon a subtle and dialectical reading of the interplay of claims to universality and claims to the particular in contemporary identity politics–this is a profound point, but one that is difficult to reproduce in summary. For readers unfamiliar with the more general conversation, it might be useful to consult Etienne Balibar’s essay “Racism as Universalism.” 

What I would like to highlight, here, is Wiegman’s establishment of the circuit: civil rights language>denial of public representation>injury>legal grievance presented before the state and demanding immediate redress. When whites plug into this circuit they engage in new forms of “white supremacist collective self-fashioning”: which functions “by producing the threat of its own extinction as the justification and motivation for violent retaliations.”

Second, Wiegman argues that whiteness eludes analytic capture because whiteness’s own constitutive arrogance (manifesting itself as the unproblematic ground against which difference distinguishes itself) tends to trick the interpreter. The great problem facing the historian of whiteness is the recognition that whiteness is an inherently unstable object, constantly changing, and subject to constant tension between the pull of the universal and the pull of the particular. Thus, Revolutionary Era whiteness indexed a figure never encountered in the archives (the human being who is “five-fifths of a person”); Jim Crow-era whiteness drew upon this heritage while also specifying (in the “For Whites Only” sign) the presence of whiteness as a coherent ethnic identity. For Wiegman, the period that begins with the Bakke assault on affirmative action programs witnessed a revitalization of this ethnicization and identitarian particularization of whiteness.

Third, students of whiteness need to be attentive to the structuring tension that now exists between what might be called Whiteness 1 (white universalism), Whiteness 2 (ethno-particular whiteness, often articulated through the symbols of southern and rural working class culture) and Whiteness 3 (liberal whiteness–the post-racial, colour-blind regime that nevertheless produces websites like “Stuff White People Like”).

It is within this matrix that the infra-racial class struggles of US whites are fought: hostilities which have now brought us to the precipice of Trumpian America.

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Does it require more than one person to have a teach-in? Maybe not. Let’s see.

    As I have thought about this brief recap of Wiegman’s theoretical platform, I have returned again and again to part that diagrams the conquest of the language of civil rights by aggrieved whites. For Wiegman––writing in 1999––the white cooptation of civil rights language seeks to establish commonality (or isomorphism) linking the denial of public representation to African Americans (which, with the advent of Jim Crow, took the form of disfranchisement, exclusion from public facilities, denial of equal opportunities at school and work, and exposure to state violence) to the ostensible denial of public representation to whites (in the form of a kind of “discrimination” that manifests by depriving whites the opportunity to take pride in majoritarian heritage). By borrowing from the language of rights and fairness (elaborated over the course of the civil rights movement), whites identify an injury and attempt to turn it into a tort: a “legal grievance presented before the state and demanding immediate redress.” Wiegman emphasizes that the white demand for recognition does not simply ratify a previous articulation of whiteness, but, in fact, forges a new white subject, convinced of the urgency of threats to the survival of the white race, which then licenses retaliatory violence.

    This is clearly a map to the logic of the alt-right. We want to return to this in future comments, but for now, open the question of whether this is *sufficient* to understand the alt-right’s operating system, whether things have changed since 1999 (when Wiegman’s essay was published), and in what ways this strong version of postmodern white supremacy made itself felt in the Trump campaign of 2016.

  2. This is an interesting idea, but of course it is too simple to explain the alt-right wholly. It seems to me that there is a range of emotions in addition to defensive white fear involved, and the civil rights movement parallel is maybe more tactical than philosophical, for the true alt-right. How would you explain the weird, disturbing playfulness of this movement, just for example? I.e. the jokey trolling, which I think is more central than might first appear. As just one disturbing dip into all this, have you seen the document linked below, which has been circulating a little as a way to understand this ideology? (Trigger warnings aplenty.) It’s an insider-produced, frighteningly cogent account of multiple streams of influences feeding into the alt-right, and honestly what I read it in felt important to take in.

    (Sorry if such a link is not compatible with the intended project of this teach-in. There are probably arguments against reading these kinds of documents, but it seems very urgent to me to look specifically at what we are facing, in addition to more general temporally abstract theorizing. Or, maybe one of the questions here is how, as intellectual historians, to approach this situation. Should we consider this kind of movement primarily theoretically and through analogy to the past [analogy especially is a surprising move given our frequent skepticism of analogy between disparate periods, yet it seems that has been our instinctive response in many cases], or should we be making ourselves face some of the primary material too? I guess that is the job of the sociologists and anthropologists and political scientists, etc., but the importance of the alt-right feels so sudden that I don’t know where to turn in these fields and wonder what is out there.)

    Link: http://web.archive.org/web/20161019094607/http://www.dailystormer.com/a-normies-guide-to-the-alt-right/ (This is an archive.org link to avoid giving traffic to the site itself.)

  3. I, for one, am looking forward to future installments as you expand your argument. In the field of early American studies, I wish the historical profession would emphasize the works of Rawick, Roediger, and Saxton with as much vigor as Appleby, Bailyn, and Wood.

    I am glad that you commented, Kurt, because this reader was confused by usage of the term “Trumpism.” Your comment helped me narrow your subject from the millions who may not have voted for Hillary Clinton to the logic of the alt-right thought. I hope that your future essays help to explain the rise of Trump like leaders in European countries without our history of settler colonialism.

  4. Kurt, this is great, we need to think through the many layers to whiteness, indeed, the construction of whitenesses in their plural and shifting ways, as you and Weygman suggest–including, for example, how Latinxs also play their own role in this construction, as an ethnic group that can identify racially as white (I left a similar comment about whiteness, including a quote from Robin Kelley’s recent manifesto in the Boston Review, to Eran’s comment).

    Palante, Kurt.

  5. Wonderful contributions all: each of which could be a post in its own right, much better than anything I could do. Please let me know if you want to guest for a week or two as teach-in leader (this offer extends to all readers).

    EW: I agree so much with your point regarding the partiality of my presentation of Wiegman’s argument vis-à-vis the complex formation called the “alt-right.” Recent discussion by John Carl Baker on social media of some of the subtler details of Horheimer and Adorno on fascism make me think that the role of humor and the ludic, in general, in reactionary politics, needs to be probed further. I think we might read Gabrielle Coleman’s book on Anonymous to locate the current formation? Other suggestions very welcome. And let’s do a week on the article by the prominent alt-right/Neo-Nazi you have helpfully provided to us. It is never an easy decision to devote attention to those enemies who crave it, but we can err, too, on the side of the “beautiful soul” syndrome.

    Brian: thanks so much for your comment. I think that we need to marshall all available resources to think through the connections between dispassionate Trump voters and the amped-up white supremacists–they are not the same, must not be treated as belonging to the same political world, and yet must be analyzed, in the last instance, as co-collaborators in the same project (once again, we return to the still fresh history of the “Good German”). I agree so much that Rawick, Roediger, and Saxton must be our guides.

    Here, I throw back a question (which is more a confession of my own narrow-mindedness): for me, the Rawick we need is that of Sundown to Sunup (his efforts to document the slaves’ work of building an autonomous culture in the face of unrelenting white inhumanity, and also to continue the labors of Du Bois in exposing the inter-entanglement of white supremacist desire and the construction of a historiography of slavery and Reconstruction: and, in particular, the notion that whites, from antebellum times to our own, used fantasies of the plantation to construct a “pornography of their own past”–a pre-industrial idyll that wished away the brutality of chattel slavery); the Roediger we need is the essayist who deals so brilliantly with figures like Covington Hall, Southern gentleman and Wobbly poet; with artistic artefacts like “The House I Live In,” and with the whole literature of postracial/color-blind America–who will never let white America off the hook for its tendency to go only so far in the direction of an honest accounting about whiteness and the past before it becomes resentful, irritated, and demanding; and also, especially, the Roediger who in recent years has done so much valuable work (with Elisabeth Esch) to historicize the racist roots of capitalist managerial technique; and the Saxton we need is the Saxton of the Rise and Fall of the White Republic–that extraordinarily careful, and remarkably materialist account of the early decades of the US and the twisting (often unpredictable) path of antiblack and anti-indigenous thought as it seized, especially, Northern ideologues in positions of power.

    I lay this out with the hopes that I might muster disagreement: am I wrong? Perhaps we should be looking precisely at other dimensions of these thinkers’ projects? And, if so: which ones and towards what ends?

    This excites me a great deal, I have to say. Because it strikes me that the tradition embodied in the works of Rawick, Roediger, and Saxton is the toolkit we need so much today, and because we may finally have a realworld and realtime test of the critique launched by Eric Arnesen against “whiteness studies”: which (in my experience, at least) has proved persuasive for many graduate students in US History and American Studies. I harbor a hope that some critics of “whiteness studies” may come, now, to acknowledge that a critique of whiteness must be foregrounded in any labor historical or working-class-historical project that aims to understand the contemporary crisis. (I do not, however, hold my breath).

    Thanks a million for your generative and provocative comments. Let us keep thinking and arguing about these questions.

    And I invite all other readers to jump in. No previous experience in history or academic stuff is required. And there are hundreds of people who read this blog who can answer questions—any questions—that you might have. Unlike lawyers and economists, historians think it vital to treat each other with respect and in the spirit of friendship, and you will encounter only warm enthusiasm for any engagement here, I promise. (Offer does not extend to frog-meme people).

  6. Kurt –

    Thanks for all of this. Some thoughts, late in, or after, the discussion, as usual … :

    Part of Wiegman’s claim seems to be that whiteness was in some sense or degree particularized, with minoritized black movements as the paradigmatic case. Reference to “minority” and “ethnicity” suggests a need to look earlier, since discourses of identity politics grew out of earlier work.
    For instance, Louis Wirth’s classic definition of minority considered parallels between blacks and Jews, and mentioned its possible extension to women, an idea picked up in 1951 by Helen Hacker in “Women as Minority Group,” and by 1958 Melvin Seeman had considered the appeal to intellectuals of viewing themselves as a minority. The notion of blacks as a “prototypical” minority group has been widely discussed by Philip Gleason, Joanne Nagel, David Hollinger, Mitch Berbrier, and many others. Farther back is how “culture” was slowly distinguished from “race,” making post-racial multi-culturalism possible, but remaining open to a re-racialization that carries its secret re-universalization.

    Theory can figure out how all this works, including the “structuring tension” of your three forms of whiteness, which express the interplay and tension of universal/particular, distinctions that partially overlap with abstract/concrete, sameness/difference, essentialist/constructed, etc.

    Your post reminded me of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s response to some criticisms of Provincializing Europe –

    “I have argued not against the idea of universals as such but emphasized that the universal was a highly unstable figure, a necessary placeholder in our attempt to think through questions of modernity. We glimpsed its outlines only and when a particular usurped its place. Yet nothing concrete and particular could ever be the universal itself, for intertwined with the sound-value of a word like “right” or “democracy” were concept-images that, while (roughly) translatable from one place to another, also contained elements that defied translation. Such defiance of translation was, of course, part of the everyday process of translation. Once put into prose, a universal concept carries within it traces of what Gadamer would call “prejudice” – not a conscious bias but a sign that we think out of particular accretions of histories that are not always transparent to us. To provincialize Europe was then to know how universalistic thought was always and already modified by particular histories, whether or not we could excavate such pasts fully.” [96]

  7. Bill: thanks so much for your wonderful comment.

    I am so grateful that you have filled in the conceptual history of the minority/majority matrix: this is one place where, I think, intellectual historians need to be making interventions. White identity politics thrives in the absence of clearly emplotted histories of the very ideas of majority and minority, and especially in the vacuum created by positivist sciences of race and ethnicity, which often boil down to this or that method of counting bodies. And, guided here, again, by George Lipsitz, I think it remains urgent to understand the prototypicality of African Americans as US minority even as we seek to understand the complexities of racial hatreds targeted at a variety of overlapping groups. I like Brad Evans’s “Before Culture” quite a lot on the ways in which the very notion of culture, in the US context, was swathed in racial conceits.

    And I am so happy you brought Chakrabarty into the conversation: “nothing concrete and particular could ever be the universal itself, for intertwined with the sound-value of a word like “right” or “democracy” were concept-images that, while (roughly) translatable from one place to another, also contained elements that defied translation.” This, it seems to me, is one of the most profound (and accessible) deployments of deconstruction (even if DC indexes hermeneutics) towards concrete analytic and political ends, and reminds us that the quest to ever be rid of either the universal or the particular is bound to be quixotic at best. (I wonder, too, if you think that Derrrida’s great essay “White Mythology” is pertinent, here?)

    Thanks so much. Let’s keep the conversation going!

    • Kurt – Thanks for the feedback. You’ve opened up some new avenues for me here… always a good thing as I see it.

      I’m not familiar with Brad Evans’ book, though with George Stocking’s much earlier disciplinary history traced the conceptual separation of race and culture in anthropology. I noticed that an essay by Evans was included a book edited by Richard Handler, whose “Critics Against Culture,” 2005, you might find helpful. On Chakrabarty, I thought the way he uses the concept of “translation” was interesting, and wonder about the potential for linkage with the work of Emily Apter, Talal Asad, and others on that. I’ve just obtained an adobe of Derrida’s essay, and will be reading it soon. Finally, I hope many people are reading Gerald Izenberg’s “Identity. The Necessity of a Modern Idea,” 2016.

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