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.
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