“Talking about race is difficult.” A statement which is so easily and often repeated that it has lost its integral meaning, has become really just a slurry of syllables. Behind it, a person hides, suddenly unsure of how to broach a conversation which is in its nature unspeakable, the unfortunate coincidence of time, the advent of national tensions, of a gradual disillusionment we must all endure. How can we talk about an institution which is both incredibly visible and completely untraceable, which cannot be understood as a rational entity which can be empirically touched, understood, observed, experimented with – how do we talk about an idea, or a system of ideas? “These things are hard to talk about.” And every brown person in the room rolls their eyes because it is not so difficult to think about race as superstructure, as idea-system, as ideology, as existence. For the Black person in the room, the weight of their race has forced them to think of racialization as their very ontology, as their bare life. Race becomes one’s ontology, the inescapable categorization in which the spirit is bound. And of course the Brown person, the Black person, is aware of the cage which shackles them, even if the non-raced, the White person, cannot see the cage, can only see the illusion which is superimposed over the brown body, cannot fathom that what lies beneath that shroud, the threadbare image the racialized are forced to adorn, is far more recognizable, far more familiar, than they could have ever imagined. Talking about race is not difficult if you are willing to listen to the testimonies of others, to not fall prey to the conspiratorial desire to disenfranchise and to disavow the marginalized for what is ostensibly an invisible institution.
Talking about race is not difficult once you realize that racism is inside of you.
Today I’m going to talk about affect. No, I’m not going to hit you over the head with affect theory, some of the most difficult stuff to digest. The word affect is a buzzword in the humanities, figuring in so many different discourses as a counter to the supremacy of phenomenology and consciousness. I am not of the opinion that affect is distinct from consciousness; I believe affect to be a structure, a web of information which cannot be adequately known or understood, but whose evidence is ever-present as the architecture of social being. Affect encases, fashions and informs conscious action. Affects cannot be cataloged or named, because they are in their nature unknowable. Some have tried to argue that affects are manifest as bodily responses to certain stimuli, most notably visible as facial expressions which emerge before the conscious mind can register the source of disgust, or hatred, or joy. This is, perhaps, one way of looking at affect, although I am not of the opinion that it is the only kind of affective response. What is difficult about talking about affect is that affect theorists are so heavily indebted to the social and biological sciences in which affect was first theorized and studied. It wasn’t until Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, two humanists who, aptly, saw the entire compartmentalization of academic discourse to be counterproductive towards the acquisition of universal truth, began to think about the structural elements of affect in ordinary life that the notion of the affective dimension entered critical discourse in the humanities. Since Deleuze and Guattari, many have taken up the mantle in order to better understand the limitations of human consciousness and the encroachment of affect as, perhaps, evidence of the absence of free will. This kind of deep human pessimism is not my interest today, although I tend to be quite pessimistic, to the point of bitter nihilism, for reasons I will discuss at another time. What fascinates me about affect is the possibility for a nuanced understanding of race and racism as embodied response, primarily through understanding another kind of affect – an affective affect, or an heteroaffect – ideology.
Like “race,” ideology is a word that’s difficult to define. It is an idea which is just as amorphous as race, and just as intangible as affect. Ideologies, like affects, cannot be catalogued and named. The idea of “conservative ideology” or “racist ideology” is a myth, composed of the most ossified remnants of a larger system which lacks form, body and substance. Ideologies exist in the virtual realm, are composed exclusively of ideas, images and notions. It is the very idea that they are virtual that makes them so easily mobilizable, and it is this virtualness which makes ideology so difficult to understand or identify. For the purposes of this blog post, I define ideology as the system of notions, icons, beliefs, understandings, nuances, signs and significances which encode lived experience. Ideology is partial to the collective experience which language as a human evolutionary feat facilitates – it is through ideology that we are able to interact with the world as a system of signifiers and information. Ideology is the key to hermeneutics; without it, meaning-making is not possible.
An important word in the above statement is belief. An ideology is a system which calls upon you (interpellation) to corroborate empirical information based on what you belief to be true. Your response to this interpellation is often affective, for you are unaware of the fact that you, for lack of a better word, being possessed. Ideology both lives inside of you (as a part of your body, as the wiring of your nervous system) and is distinct from you, is an entity of its own. Affect, by this logic, is you, but it’s also not you; it’s you because it is in your body, it’s you because it is constitutive of your essential essence, yet it’s not you because it’s not a part of your conscious conceptualization of yourself, is distinct from what you consider to be the conscious, thinking, acting you which controls the body in which you-as-consciousness are contained. Ideology as an affect is therefore inside of you (because it is your affect) and outside of you (because it is an independent, self-contained system), coming into your being at certain moments, forcing you, to use the words of Louis Althusser, “to become a subject of History.” The word subject here is quite interesting, for you can it is curiously contranymic; one can be a subject in the grammatical sense, serving as the vehicle through which History is recorded as memory through the lens of an ideological system, granting the interpellated a degree of autonomy despite their sudden (dis)possession; one can be a subject in the legal sense, functioning only as a being within the jurisdiction of the higher power of this collective memory as History, a being which is higher and more significant than you as an individual, as a mere subject. In the second case, the word subject functions more like a grammatical object, for History acts upon you, does unto you.
The religious connotations of the word belief and its sister word faith are also significant if we wish to understand ideology as a as a kind of possessive spirit. Marxism’s fraternization with the language of paganism, seen most visibly, perhaps, in the works of Marx himself, Derrida and Sartre, only furthers the thrust of this kind of critique. To have faith in an idea is to believe it in ways which perhaps contradict the rational significance of an idea. We have faith in ideas because we either hope that they will at one point come into fruition, or because the ideas are so significant to us as notions and as ideals that they give us a kind of forward motion (hope) which shimmers dimly, if for a shallow moment, in the otherwise bleak gray of existence. We have faith in ideological systems in order to maintain our state of enchantment, the stupor from which “wokeness” is possible. To be conscious, although I hate this term, is to be aware of one’s prior unconsciousness and enchantment, to be suddenly cognizant of a system whose grinding screeches and whirling cogs had been hitherto invisible and undetectable because of the heavy dosage of the fantastical narcotics which maintained one’s suspension within the matrix of endless dreams and self-delusion.
The litany of cultural references in the above paragraph, while heavy handed, only furthers the idea that we have been aware of ideology as a structure of centuries. It is, in a way, essential to human existence. Without ideology, we would not really be able to find security in an otherwise murderous and unstable world, would be blessed with the gift of great intellect and cursed with the burden of inefficacy all at the same time. We would find everything around us to be suddenly dangerous and menacing, would spend every waking moment of the day examining and reexamining objects in order to be certain of their undesire to kill us when we are least expecting it. Yet, ideologies can and do serve as an expedient, inhibiting critical self-awareness insofar that we allow them to possess us, to act on our behalf, to permit them to make us their subjects. Ideology is a cage only when we refuse to envision a world outside of it.
Althusser defines ideology in a variety of ways in Sur la reproduction. In one instance, perhaps the most famously cited quotation of his on the topic, he calls ideology “an imaginary representation of the imaginary relationship between individuals and the real conditions of their existence,” a somewhat impenetrable phrasing, even in the original French, although I find Althusser to be among the more lucid of his French Marxist contemporaries and disciples. The phrase highlights one important idea; ideology as relation. Ideology is what binds individuals to the world, is the virtual dimension through which all communication must travel in order to arrive, in some shape or form, to the recipient, to the viewer, to the sign-reader. Ideology is an imaginary representation because it is composed of signs, virtual stand-ins, simulacra, which signify a departed or absent object. The word chair is a linguistic sign of an actual chair, that wooden, metal plastic thing with or without a cushion and a back in which you may be sitting right now, but that word chair (/t͡ʃɛəɹ/) has no inherent meaning outside of the sign which we trust and believe it to signify. The transcription of the phonemes which constitute chair do not have literary meaning to reader unfamiliar with IPA, just as a respelling of that word as tchayr or qër or ceir does not yield meaningful information. Meanwhile, a French reader is likely to read chair as chair in French, as in la chair, flesh. The word chair and the image of the chair which the word chair induces exist in the virtual, are not tangible nor meaningful in a world of tactile charm and significance. Ideology, taking from semiotics, is therefore a system of these ideas which compose the represented image of a person’s relationship with their environment; ideology is the metaphysical webbing between you and the world, it is what keeps you tethered to this world. You cannot be outside of it, and those who are outside of it are also, in normative language, outside of society and outside of the world.
Another axiom of Althusser is the fact that ideology is without history (l’idéologie n’a pas d’histoire.”) This doesn’t mean that ideology is not historical, or that ideology is timeless, but that it cannot be understand as following a logical progression of historical facts and events, has no birthdate, and because it is never born, can never die. One does not invent a new ideology, but reconfigures signs and bends an ideological system in order to corroborate a new proposed image of the world. Ideologues (people who advocate ideologies) do not develop ideologies so much as rehabilitate and redesign preexisting ones through policy, speechcraft, media manipulation, etc. Althusser’s line also signifies the impossibility of tracing the genealogical or morphological progressions of an ideology. We cannot say that the idea of racism emerged on February 12, 1632, or in 1632, or really, in the seventeenth century. Racism-as-ideology and xenophobia-as-ideology are names which human beings have ascribed to ideas and concepts which have become sentient, which refuse or are ambivalent towards humanity’s attempts to bind them in order to humanistically study and understand them. Racism as an idea is perhaps as old as the Romans; contemporary ideas of race may seem as old as time, but the function of classifying human beings based on their phenotype, of comparing the normative self with the aberrant other, is in your body, is central to your human being. You cannot remove it from your body, for this would be like removing language; it would make you fundamentally unhuman.
What is not in your body, however, is the system which encodes the human propensity or desire to seek out bodily information (these, too, are signs) and to make sense of them through ideological systems.
This is not at all an apology for racists and xenophobes. Affect theory does, in disturbing ways, allow space for certain kinds of admissions of “bodily response” in ways which can cater to a nationalist or xenophobic agenda, escaping all claims at amorality or immorality with the blanket clause “my body responded as such,” but this is perhaps the limitations of the affective as a disciplinary framework or theme; it caters to the abolition of free will, with human beings becoming automata who respond to their environment based solely on unknowable stimuli. While the body has its own agenda and its own preoccupations, often subject to the quasirational whims of the mind, the normative, cognitive self nevertheless maintains a degree of autonomy and primacy over bodily responses in ways which maintain the possibility for civic responsibility. Even if it is in our nature to be skeptical or perhaps openly hostile to the other, we are obligated to one another nevertheless, are deeply indebted to other human beings in ways which ideologies cannot undo. Your desire to shun the other is a bodily reaction to the fear which the other represents, but nothing is free of scrutiny. When you have a fear response to a Black man sitting next to you on the bus, when you feel yourself snatching your purse a bit, it all feeling so natural, ideology has possessed you. You need not apologize (the man is probably aware of your subtle motions; Black people are raised to be far more self-aware than White people for reasons White people will likely never understand so long as that word White) although perhaps you should if it causes visible offense or distress. What you should do is turn inward, interrogate yourself, and interrogate the spirit of ideology which has possessed you. Ask yourself “Why was I so afraid of this Black woman in the elevator? Why did I lock the door as this brown man walked by my car? Why do I always think the East Asian people at the take-out place are so pushy?”
No one is above ideology, and no one can step outside of it. Yet, the power to understand ideology and to resist interpellation is always within grasp so long as we remain ever-cognizant of the degree to which we are bound and reliant on one another in this rapidly globalizing world. It is unlikely that we will ever do away with ideology, successfully remove it from the linguistic system which has allowed us to achieve so much in so short a human history. And ideology is not entirely bad. It is ideology which makes African-Americans fight for their freedom and survival every minute or every day, which coaxes women to carve out spaces for themselves in the workplace, and trans folks to seek out love and companionship in a hostile and unforgiving world. Do not let ideology entrap you. Resist your own dispossession.
Photo cred: Keisha M, by Elizabeth Catlett