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whiteness redux Arrow vol 3 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 NUmber 2, 2004



Whiteness Redux

Mike Hill
State University of New York, Albany

Damien W. Riggs
University of Adelaide


1. Damien: As a research area that is rapidly growing within ‘Western nations’, how would you understand whiteness studies as both creating the potential for critique, but also the potential for reinforcing the normative status of whiteness?

2. Mike: It's interesting that you use the word "potential." Because one of the issues that the whiteness studies phenomena in the US has raised—productively, if painfully—is whether or not humanities research in Western nations is at this moment capable of doing anything significant at all, critical, normative, whatever. Whither whiteness, and with it, whither scholarly books as the most effective basis for political agency? From a historical vantage point this is not a flippant question. We assume that writing leads to what significant social event, exactly? On the whiteness front, we know that writing has lead, well, to more writing, more conferences, additional debate. Do we presume a connection between this relatively recent outpouring of scholarship and progressive mass movements, radical insurgencies, real social change? The relation between humanities knowledge and the masses has I believe never been more confused. But neither has it been more crucial.

3. I mean, writing has only been thought to have any objective social bearing on democracy since the modern epoch of republican social consciousness, let's say, from the time of the mid-seventeenth century forward when radical activists started reading, when for a time censorship was lifted, print infrastructures emerged, and identity took on bio-political state interests. This is a significant time not least for the reason that this new thing called "the people" lived their political lives in the street. I don't want to get into a historical discussion necessarily. But to begin with—after a 300 year epoch of the so-called republic of letters, and as you and I are digitally networked at the speed of light across such a vast socio-geographical and temporal divide—there's no telling what critical capacity whiteness studies might sustain beyond the initial scandal of its currently ambivalent existence. Then again, this feeling of not being able to tell, of seeing openings for new political identities that might have a fighting chance to move the world forward, is I think part of the work's potential. The fret and fury over whiteness studies is lingering rather longer than I would have suspected in 1997, when Whiteness: A Critical Reader appeared, when there were no such anthologies and you could count the books on whiteness on one hand. A "critique of the normative status of whiteness" may do nothing more than speak in the self-reflexive ways it's done since the mid-1990s to a handful of people holding on by a thread to the possibility of doing, let's just say, publicly funded humanities research on racial identity in the first place. At its furthest reach, the kind of self-reflexivity on whiteness that I think you're getting at, for me, puts the relationship between the people, scholarly writing, and "critique," severely into question. It makes me wonder about the economic conditions necessary for maintaining a comfortable and worthwhile sense faith in the stability of this relationship. And it inspires thought about how to understand the afterlife of humanities research, indeed the afterlife of writing, once those conditions start to change.

4. That academic writing will bear ripe political fruit is a dream worth having, but is that prospect winnable today? I don't know. Saying so I hope won't come off as defeatist, or seem like I'm suggesting that we hedge our political bets. There no doubt are modalities of writing within the purview of the humanities that can be critically relevant in ways beyond providing enlightened critique for the masses. In any case, I don't think humanities research can any longer presume to escape the ambivalence you're signalling, which gestures toward the collision between rational intention and material effect. To the extent that such ambivalence is itself a condition of contemporary social agency and collective political life, then no more ivory tower—for better and for the worse. The devolution of public funding for humanities research—the collapse of the ivory tower I'm referring to when I think of the public university's imminent corporatisation—has also witnessed the bringing of identity to politics (and vice versa), even if this partnership has appeared in sometimes rude and aleatory ways. So much for the better. For the worse, of course, what Bill Readings has famously called "the university in ruins" is symptomatic of the withering of New Deal social services, a laying to waste of the very pretences of civil society, if not a withering of the benevolent state, root and branch. This is a horrifying event for the paid intellegensia, which I find myself an unlikely part of. But the condition of our so-called ruin has also politicised academic life in the US, and has done so decisively, if in newly complex ways. We've seen the public research university pushed to the brink of disaster here. So-called "whiteness studies," whatever critical potential it may turn out to have, is surely a part of that agonising process.

5. More directly to your question - yes, a restless political soul haunts the Western academic boom in the critical study of whiteness. This must be why so many scholars who continue to write on the topic, Michele Fine, for example, offer prefaces or epilogues asking that their work be the last word on the subject. It's a manner of inquiry I find revealing, one that secretly knows that critical knowledge sustains the phantasmagoric form of the very thing it wants to deconstruct. That we feel shame about such knowledge and try to hide rather than mobilise its contradictions, and that folks exploit such shame across the political spectrum, is the worse part of the whiteness studies game. What people who continue to write on whiteness tend not to realise is that they too are writing from a position that's inherently self-effacing, since their object of study disappears the moment they start working, then comes back, but in ways that are unwanted or unexpected. It's that ghostly encounter with absence I alluded to before. Rather than just scary or impolitic, I find in this hour of ruin a little bit of hope. That white folk are at last in an epistemologically fatal position goes to the very root of the concept of potential, to again evoke your term.

6. Let me try to explain more concretely. As I said, since I edited Whiteness: A Critical Reader in 1997, and in some cases concurrent with the publication of that book, dozens of volumes on the topic, myriad conference panels, articles, books, and special journal issues (like this one), have appeared. So my anthology was in retrospect a drop in the bucket. There are even undergraduate seminars focused on white identity, which must amuse state legislators and local politicians, not to mention concerned parents and the NAACP. It's now been a smattering of years in the fickle academic spotlight, and whiteness has been amply rebuked for its ubiquitous, unremarkable, normative ontological status. You know the various related claims that march ahead from there, right? The labour claim goes like this: white subjectivity is a historical fiction; therefore, the real collectivity of labour needs to jump the Du Boisian colour line and amass on the order of the hybrid worker-subject; the rising multiracial demographic is thus either our best liberal hope for a colour-blind society, the belated arrival of the workerist mestizo multitude, or a nationalist ruse underwriting evermore imperious and vapid forms of American exceptionalism. These set of themes are almost mantric. Think of Ted Allen's great work, David Roediger's rise to prominence, and more recently, Mike Davis's enthusiasm for the workerist tropicalization of the state of California. There's an eagerness to disavow the normative import of whiteness that has become as common in the last ten years or so as it is well-intended. So there's an eagerness for white disavowal that's essentially forward looking, based on premises that are arguably true. I for one believe them and have pretty much the same hopes, even though I realise none of this will go down freely, or in a way anyone can foretell.

7. The backlash around 2000 should have been expected as part-and-parcel of the widespread reception and proliferation of such work. You may know these counter-claims as well: whiteness studies has exacerbated the problem of majoritarian hegemony while falsely pretending to unmask it. Whiteness studies is a back-handed theoretical gimmick designed to gain professional ground in the leaner, meaner times of academic identity studies; it's imposed in a presentist sort of way on real labour history; it's bogged down in theory (those damned continentals), etc. The charges go on and are easy to recite: whiteness studies usurps the margins as so much fetishized multicultural capital. Whiteness studies voluntaristically proclaims its own objective self-effacement, and does so—white-negro-like—to get a bit of the Other while recentering itself in the public gaze. Okay. Yes. Agreed. This backlash too has real resonance, even if it's a bit cynical at times. Where there is hope there is certainly fear. (And let me say in passing that to my knowledge nobody has ever used that nutty term 'whiteness studies' unless reprimanding some imagined hostile identity politics take-over, or trying to be self-critically ironic.)

8. Responses like the ones I just listed have focused new attention on some of the effects, the realities in point of practice, of so much recent work on whiteness. This is no doubt for the better. But there's this creeping (and creepy) redundancy to what I hope are the soon-to-be hoary debates over how whiteness studies affects politics. Let's just pause a moment over that awkwardness, rather than refute or correct it too fast. What I find potentially constructive in self-reflecting any further on all this white self-reflection—and you can see how circular this can become—is that the claims and counter-claims about whiteness studies have raised important theoretical issues about knowledge and identity that are immanently linked to what I'll simply call the practical contingencies of academic labour.

9. Damien: Further to the notion of ‘potential’, do you see whiteness studies fitting into the area of social justice – would you see whiteness studies as a form of social justice in its own right, or is it better conceived as a theoretical analysis of a practice based agenda?

10. Mike: I'm saying that the "theoretical analysis of a practice based agenda" can be the agent of social justice "in its own right," if by "its own right" we mean to highlight the stakes of humanities research as inseparable from the material realities crushing the public university as we speak. From there we might inspire a critique of domestic racism; white patriarchy; the neo-liberal state; planetary capitalism; world-American Empire; etc. I have tried to inspire such things in After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority, god knows. But the "class struggle in theory," as Althusser would say, not quaintly I hope, doesn't translate flawlessly let alone automatically to the ecology of social movements, to the barricades of Genoa and Seattle, the occupied townhall of the 18th arrondissement, the empty factory hangers of Prague—places where every theorist ought rightly chase the shadows of her better political self. This doesn't mean there's no translation between the keyboards and the streets of course, just that such a point of translation is exceedingly complex, mutable, non-teleologically determined, and all the more crucial for being that way. I don't think activists should depend on academics for models of agency, though the inverse may be useful, and one is surely always both activist and thinker, reluctantly or with guts full of glory. A good book on just this idea, edited by a group called Notes from Nowhere, is called We Are Everywhere, with the idea that the totality of mass politics is all around us but will neither be anticipated nor formally named by academic thought. The first thing you notice before reading this book is that it's about the exact shape and size of a brick. I'd like to believe that this design is intentional. But anyway, it has a logic that denaturalises the practices of reading in a blunt and material way. Similarly, what we make of the rise-and-fall of so-called whiteness studies (in the US at least) depends on the larger issues of academic labour that infuse the dying breaths of "free inquiry" and publicly funded humanities research here. That's the first order of response.

11. Let me go further, this again on the order of Readings, and hypothesise with him that work and writing have come together, have in fact collided at this historical conjuncture, in a corporatised academic environment that has all but jettisoned the representational capacities of thought. Some see this as decadent postmodern navel gazing, and run for the cover of comfortable Left-wing pieties. Others, I include myself here, see this changing reality as the potential for what Foucault called "new relational rights." Or you could insert here what Negri calls constitutive power, potentia, the multitude, et. alia and inter alia. Whatever. Theoretical analysis as social praxis is exactly the right goal. But who knows how far that enterprise may really take us? As with the academy itself, unmarked white identity is only interesting once somebody says that it is, ought to, or is about to, disappear. Whiteness for one thing is the academic life of old. It's a by-gone analytic at a conjuncture where new thought practices are trying to find their sea legs. On the whole, if you're an anti-foundationalist leftist, don't you find this economy of absence significant, troubling, but also perhaps the sign of something worthwhile to come?

12. You can see that, to my mind, in this naggingly postmodern sense, so-called whiteness studies was never, and with hard enough work, will never be unproblematically present as an institutionalised theoretical force split from social praxis. This is so not because whiteness studies scholars have alas arranged for colour to absolve the contradictions that ail our political souls, but because a lack of institutional force is the primary force allowed to register in an intensely exploitative economic arrangement that is itself predicated on the self-effacement of labour. In other words, social practice is as much at work upon us than we are working for it. The idea is to refract that set of practices constructively and critically, which is as difficult to say as it is to do, especially for white folk who are used to being sure of having a voice. A post-white analytic, if you'll allow the term, requires at times a certain passivity of thought. Consider: most work in the US academy is done by graduate students who will never find the employment they've been trained for—TAs, adjuncts, "part-time" labour, precisely the folks who don't register on the radar when we think of the academy "in its own right." But they are the academy. I see even this sad fact as linked to the spate of critical interest in whiteness. Identity politics writ at its most extreme has brought with it a dissensual, non-representable intellectual work force, and this is one inherently practical dimension of higher education's de-referentialised operational mode. To point this out—and for just the reasons you raise in worrying the theory/praxis equation—is nothing more than to go on insisting that whiteness studies is a symptom of labour struggle in ruined academe. So whiteness studies, admittedly and with minimal shame, designates just one material awakening in an array of material awakenings that trouble the public research university at this strange hour. It's a tempestuous awakening, but with any luck it's soon to be minor.

13. In a way, this question about theory and social justice practices refers back to the first issue you raised about how normativity rears its banal head despite our better critical intentions. It insists once more that we recognize the importance of political economy and class to whiteness studies, academically speaking, which if a may cite you again, is just to say, "in its own right." If the rights of the academy were always premised on a detachment from material concerns, well, that's clearly no longer the case. There's your pain and there's your potential.

14. The epistemological bizarreness that a post-white analytic brings about is manifest in the internal decomposition, the loss of unity, really, of our own formerly reluctant object of thought, that is, as deconstructed whiteness. We want to know it, and disarticulate it, at the same time. So we have whiteness most critically available in its absent form. Call this a dialectics of embarrassment prone to unleash itself on any self-satisfied attempt to credit academic writing with social justice work. My point, less hostile but at the same time critical, is that whiteness studies as such should not be read as a unique sign of epistemological failure, something to be corrected later by the final, full development of white guy critical self-consciousness wedded to activist piety. There is no transparent world of free political agency for the academic, or for that matter, anyone else. To think so would give thought too much credit, and practice too little. Rather, I'd suggest that the badly named thought-practice called whiteness studies is simply one in a series of examples of how epistemological failure becomes the new rule by which the surpluses of academic labour are extended and sustained. From there I'd hope to further mobilise by way of that surplus an oppositional encounter with the forces now exploiting such labour, withthe brick-sized We Are Everywhere very firmly in hand.

15. Damien: There has been much talk recently, particular within the US and UK, of white people engaging in a movement towards ‘race abolitionism’, and as being ‘race traitors’. Do you think this connects with work in the area of whiteness studies, and in what regards (if any) do you see it as creating the potential for challenging the racialised structures of ‘Western societies’?

16. Mike: That word "potential" again. If we could only measure such a force in some way beyond just saying "yes, this or that provides our one true hope," or "no, it surely does not." I've been somewhat critical of the race traitor movement in the US on the grounds that it was voluntaristic and prone to all sorts of ontological thefting, to fetishizing the margins, to romantically blackening up, and so on. Maybe these charges were facile, or the underlying logic not so clear. But I still wonder, as I did in an article for Postmodern Culture back in 1997, about programatically performing "treason to whiteness" in order to ensure one's "loyalty to humanity," as that historically imperious neo-Enlightenment slogan goes. Humanity is a nice desire. But I wonder if this term, as evoked by the race traitor group, might turn on the way white men in particular are playing out a sense of late-capitalist public disenfranchisement, variously retooling, or really, gearing up their affective relations to colour, for everyone to witness and once again applaud.

17. Robyn Weigman has criticised white labour historians like David Roediger, and the publisher of Race Traitor magazine, Noel Ignatiev, in ways that are far more forceful than my earlier musings, though she and I share similar concerns. In a 1999 boundary 2 essay, still the most important short summation of whiteness studies since it began its current academic sojourn, Weigman argues that the "race traitor school" (hereafter RT), particularises whiteness in such a way that reveals a tacit liberalism in spite of its overtly radical-materialist intentions. This happens, she says, especially in the variant of RT that wants to displace whiteness with class solidarity, where class is writ as the unchecked nostologic appeal to a unified (but also, in the end, nominally white and masculine) collective subject. In a sort of devastating triple move, the reclaimed white masculine subject is effectively "othered," she says, while at the same time it rectifies its imagined historical marginality by usurping a multicultural history of labour. From there white masculinity moves in the predictable tertiary direction of garnering too much of the academic and public spotlight, re-born ad infinitem in usual old vanguardist guise. Weigman implies that the labour history variant of RT sublimates due attention to how whiteness studies functions locally, at the moment of imagined white disintegration within academe, and analogously, in society at large. She goes as far as to charge RT with affecting a posture of universalist white liberal narcissism. It's a tough and disarming charge, and to my knowledge hasn't received due response.

18. But we're really back at a theoretical question, feminist terrain really, that links knowledge production and identity in intimate ways, while insisting upon the primacy of political economy to academic research. Are we not? I think what Weigman is most bothered by RT's lack of interest in the way whiteness studies is plagued by what she calls the "paradox of particularity." As I mentioned before, in its ubiquity whiteness studies is both an epistemologically divided practice, and a phenomenon with a discrete relation to labour, here, the work of humanities research. According to Weigman, white-guy race traitors merely import the historically marginalised African-American worker as an under-theorised, and too conveniently colorised, version of themselves. In other words, RT white labour history wants an economic outside to which it may refer without the conditions of its own production being part of the newly expanded critical terrain. So what we get, in the US anyway, is the tendency toward something like a recentered decentering of the white masculine subject. It's a problem nobody really wants to admit, except to say, "yes, so let's stop reading and writing about white men," which is an intellectual cop-out. The RT project seems to presume that the self-conscious betrayal of whiteness leads necessarily to economic redistribution. But this is only viable if we cordon off the wild realities of twenty-first century political economy from the opportunities for racial self-recognition that may have already moved beyond the black/white racial paradigm that RT prefers. I don't yet see how becoming a race traitor is possible on one's own terms, without invitation, simply at the command of one's political good will toward something vaguely called 'humanity.' Instead, my work in After Whiteness and elsewhere has been in trying to specify how the economy-identity relation may have changed in what is surely emerging as a post-humanist, if not also a conceivably post-white, historical epoch.

19. Damien: Particularly within colonial nations, the ongoing fight for the recognition of the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples continues to be denied by many political parties, as well as by white people more generally. How would you understand some of the connections between whiteness and discourses of ownership, possession and belonging, and how this connects to the denial of the sovereignty of First Nations people?

20. I've done only a little research in the area of Indigenous peoples per se. Though I can tell you that the disavowal of "white" as a census category has become popular in preference for "Native American" in the two most recent census counts. Lenient taxes for Tobacco sales to Anglos, the proliferation of lucrative casinos on the reservation, and the desire for some sense of cultural authenticity are said to be at work in this reclamation of Indian identity—which is not in this country always concurrent with the anti-federalist reclamation of land. To the First Nations sovereignty issue, more appropriate people than I should be invited to speak.

21. The general issue of sovereignty was of great importance to me in After Whiteness though. So what I will say in a round-about response to your question is that, in the US for the 2000 census, the state has encouraged the reclamation of racial and cultural authenticity at the same time it has effectively undone civil rights claims to social justice. This is particularly interesting for beginning to limn what appears to be a marked shift in what Foucault calls "governmentality," that is, the preparation of a citizenry that is able to be governed. Part of my goal in After Whiteness was to hypothesise about a kind of governmentality that would be characteristic of US global dominance, of planetary neo-liberalism, or what Negri and Hardt have more famously called Empire. I argue that this modality is new in that it is racially permissive and inclusive on the order of world-American rule, rather than putative and exclusive on the order of Cold-war US nationalism. I think the census debates show that the state is microcosmically infatuated with colour-coding the American public. On the Left, for progressive ends, this is nothing new. But the right has been uncannily adept at putting a multicultural spin on retrograde public policy. Angela Dillard's fine book, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now?, has documented this bizarre twist on US rights discourse at length. The "native peoples" debates here have played oddly into the collapse of traditional left and right claims to racial justice. I would say that, even more oddly, the state's new investment in American diversity has become linked to an absolutist impulse, even a quasi-fascistic tendency, while at the same time signalling an opening for new kinds of insurgency in the US and abroad. But this takes us down a different path from the one your question leads to, I realise.

22. Damien: Much research in the area of whiteness can be epitomised by two approaches to understanding white identities: either that whiteness is something that we perform – something that accrues as a form of cultural capital, or else it is positioned more as an ‘objective’ category of difference. How do you see these two approaches in regards to your own work, and how do they each make available particular critiques of the status quo?

23. Mike: Well this is a huge question. I think it covers not just whatever lingering objective critical pretences this or that approach to whiteness may retain but the pressures of so much poststructuralist theory that touts instead the performative nature of all linguistic practices, especially the practice of writing. So we could move in a long and tedious direction in my response through Sausurrian linguistics and speech-act theory vis-à-vis Austin, into deconstruction and queer theory, especially around something like, say, Judith Butler's The Psychic Life of Power; and then to the question about how that all comes together in the way whiteness is articulated, and presumedly, disarticulated in this strange thing called whiteness studies. I do some of this methodological ground clearing in After Whiteness. But your question reaches farther than whiteness studies per se, which is itself only a local mutation within an array of more interesting work on race and ethnicity, gender, class. The relation between the objective and performative conditions of being, which as you indicate is fundamentally also a knowledge issue, really poses some of the toughest questions around. Such questions especially and quite rightly dog contemporary humanities writing because in this soft discipline we hold a double set of claims. We claim both analytical aptitude and subjective experience. And what's more, the institutional history of academic disciplines, probably going back to the old mind/body divide that Spinoza teaches us to discontinue, still actually forbids that these two modalities ever reconcile. In the good old days of the Cold War, English departments could poach a certain small percentage of dollars from big defence department contracts won by the hard sciences and read their poetry more or less left alone. No longer. Today in the public university, it's all about technical writing in support of the kind of tax funded R&D the bio-sciences are doing for the international private corporation.

24. So at issue we've got: objectivity, performance, writing, disciplinarity, and the demise of the humanities in corporate academe. That's a lot of ground. Instead of trying to capture all that in one take, let me tighten the frame a bit and scale down my remarks to the advent of cultural studies in the US. Then let me propose to think about performative or objective approaches to whiteness as a subset of that medium-scale constellation of problems. I reach for cultural studies (hereafter CS) both because of its immense popularity in the Western humanities, and on account of its firm grip on so much of the work being done on whiteness in the last 5 or 10 years. More than that, the CS phenomena is resonant because it can't help but reveal the kinds of ambivalence we talked about in question one, which recall the issue of material consequence over idealised intention. When I questioned the referential capacity of critical knowledge, I had in mind the way mimesis breaks down in "whiteness studies," and turns interrogation into the performative reiteration of the very thing we want to critique. But the phrasing of your question most recollects a big divide still at work in CS, especially in its Marxist variants, over the relation between structure and experience, what we could also call, signalling the work now being done on Spinoza, and Negri's rise to North American prominence, the relationship between materiality and affect. But let's begin with CS.

25. Of course, everyone knows the story of CS's mythical origins, how it began in Britain, unnamed, sometime around the late 1950s. And everyone grants that it was a practice closely connected with political activism and the teaching of non-academic workers. Even though British CS is associated with important books by the likes of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and E.P. Thompson, its roots are in broader, extracurricular social movements. Sometimes with excitement, and sometimes as a stern reminder of the apparent political detachment of theory, we hear tell, for example, of the thriving numbers of New Left Clubs and Centers that existed across Great Britain by 1961. For US left intellectuals eager to embrace CS's immigration twenty or thirty years later, such organizational centers, combined with the short-lived proliferation of the British polytechs, intimate a rare vision of workerist fidelity in the hyper-profesionalised, if not totally corporatised, halls of US academe. In the lore of CS's well-recited history, one reads of its grass-roots mission, its democratically inspired, anti-elitist, interdisciplinary commitment to adult education. A dozen issues before the journal's editorial re-orientation in the 1960s under Perry Anderson, the first issue of the New Left Review declared with a tone of confidence that'd be hard to grasp today: "we are in our missionary phase." It's tempting to cite British CS as a model of missionary work that's gone missing here, a golden age of solidarity between academics and the masses, the folks we write about, but fail dismally in writing for. But tempting as this may be, I think to long for this golden age may be wrong headed. Certainly, it misses the performative dimension of so much otherwise objectively descriptive work. There's no distinguishing the political misfires subtending mass cultural studies inside academe from the ambivalent agency of multitudes outside, I would want to insist. And this is nowhere more dramatically apparent than in the checkered fate of whiteness studies.

26. By referring to a location outside the brick walls of Birmingham CCCS, which by the way no longer exists, scholarly writing becomes an inadvertent way of walling-off the mass-cultural complexities, contradictions, and anxieties that haunt CS from within academe. This is related to what I heard you suggesting before with regard to "whiteness studies." Telling the tale of British CS seems to function as the lost index of stony academic activism, of philosophical certainty and political purity, a kind of "Wonder Years" version of the radical life of the mind. This scenario, while no doubt mythical, I think still channels today's conscience-sensitive hunt for what works as politically efficacious knowledge, and what does not. To the extent that whiteness is positioned as an objective category of difference that is made referentially available to the student of whiteness in her own writing and research, then there's still a false and arbitrary boundary between power, materiality, and thought.

27. The memory of Birmingham CS was at best a troubled fit within the conditional mandates of US academe when it arrived here in the late 1980s. The decidedly low professional profile of scholarship and teaching within CS were a good deal more pronounced in Great Britain in the 1960s than they could be in the academo-star crazed US. [Here we starve the worker and coronate the academic star.] British CS was hardly designed for a fast track toward professional security, nor was it a toll booth or gate-keeping device channelling legions of graduate students towards the jobs they would never secure. But neither should the institutional marginality of British CS be too hastily elided with a romantic polarisation between, on the one hand, an impoverished but engaged life of activism and teaching, and on the other hand, the denial of a life of scholarly writing and research in which one is sufficiently distant from labour. The recently published Duke volume from the famous 1997 Berkeley conference, The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, I think inadvertently enforces that division, even though it worries at length about overcoming it. In response, I'd say again, that the trouble with positing an objective status to whiteness that is cordoned off from the grey market where cultural capital is produced, and reproduced, is that it ends up in what I called earlier a dialectics of embarrassment. The object is always closer than it may appear, especially when that object is white economic privilege, racism, and so on, all of which we share, though we entertain the idea of reading and writing our way towards some sort of absolution.

28. This debate over objectivity and performance played itself out in E.P. Thompson's attack on Althusser in The Poverty of Philosophy some years ago. Since we're talking about the origins of CS, which can be traced back to Thompson's welcomed interest in the affective or experiential forces of the multitude (he called it the "moral economy of the English crowd"), maybe a word or two more about that.

29. Motivating Althusser's call thirty-odd years ago for a materialist practice of writing is the notion, put simply, that objective facts emerge and circulate as social and historical forces. In relation to those forces, consciousness, reason, and intention, play a secondary role. This is by now a boilerplate Marxist proposition. But here Althusser took up the more difficult issue of infinitude posed by Spinoza, which on the agency issue plays out as a plurality of epicentres of action. Objectivity from this angle permits no transparent conversation with human consciousness that remains anterior to the historical forces that consciousness may one day seek to describe. For Althusser, in contradistinction to Thompson and to CS in its humanist mode, a convenient shorthand would be to say that the object of materialist cultural studies retains the status of a multitude. And CS retains this status precisely on account of conjoining knowledge and economy in the way that the ruined university now witnesses, for example, vis-à-vis the rise of whiteness studies. In the Althuserrian sense, objects of knowledge are, to repeat a well-known term, over-determined by a mass of incommensurable—but nonetheless real—influences and meanings. The totality of this complex arrangement is unavailable for description because, as I said, there is no place for writing anterior to the forces of power that our knowledge seeks to measure. That same "no place," it should be emphasised, is critical. It is a precise locus of potential within the post-white analytic I want to describe. Enter here Althusser's enigmatic phrase that while the economy is determinate in the last instance, that instance never comes. The status of this generative absence, which has achieved a new urgency given, for our purposes, the aporic functions of whiteness studies marks essential locations for making good not on the dismissal but on the adjoining of materiality and thought. Effect over intention, again. The ongoing debates around knowledge and agency ought to be located here, in the attempt to disrupt the circularity between identity and object. We ought to relocate—within a performative dimension—an agency of multitudes that is immanent to our own work of writing. CS has encountered this dilemma partly by the academic labour market's default, as has so-called whiteness studies, I would suggest.

30. Damien: How would you understand the recent turn towards the ‘white confessional’ – the naming of white privilege, and the recognition of personal/familial acts of white violence? Would you see this as another means of managing racism, so as to implicitly reassert white privilege, rather than undermine it?

31. Mike: The long middle section of After Whiteness takes up this question of racialised intimacy, in particular of family and male intimacy, as a means both of managing racism and of performatively loosing its hold. You may have a specific genre called the "white confessional" in mind, and the word "confessional" initially signals connotations, including religious ideology, where the Foucauldian notion of disciplinary power kicks in. From here I see lurking the spectacle of white male angst that I alluded to vis-à-vis Weigman on the race traitor question. But it would be unconscionable to give up on the critical potential of affect, even for white guys like me. There is absolute joy attendant to the expression of collective political resistance, as everyone knows who's ever marched en masse, gone through a strike, and so on (which is by no means to disregard the sacrifice and pain that often also accompanies such events). Queer studies has as much to teach about this joy as the toughest class-conscious street militant. But if white folk in the US are mingling with colour along something of the order of affection, and they are, it may not be surprising that racial repudiation is never really far behind. There's a libidinal economy that subtends the realisation that race is a relational prospect, that margins are portable, that difference is proximate to the lie of white supremacy, and white normative thought. This is an especially volatile problem for your so-called "typical" heterosexual middle-class white guy, the folks we hear about as suffering from all sorts of new vulnerabilities, real and imagined.

32. As research for the middle section of After Whiteness, which is an attempt to think about race within this particular historical moment as a psycho-social matter involving heterosexual masculinity and fatherhood, I spent a good deal of time hanging out in two prominent men's movements. One was an ecumenical religious group, the Promise Keepers, the other was a group of neo-fascists, called American Renaissance.

33. I'll say something more specific about my experience with these groups in a minute. But my general sense of the guys I listened to is that neo-liberalism and neo-fascism are perfectly coequal in their respective love and hate of men of colour. White guys tend to process racial difference in a highly gendered and sexualised way, one that's aimed precisely at the maintenance of the patriarchal family. Moreover, colour and sex were linked in my experience to a kind of erotic canalisation of class conflict. In the prayer teepees scattered across the Washington D.C. mall, and in the neo-fascist beer gardens of Virginia, I saw a devil's bargain between two extremes: pseudo-libertarian white self-effacement on the one hand with the Promise Keepers, and the equally hyperbolic self-defence with the fascists of the American Renaissance on the other. Theorists of fascism since Freud have posited a psychology of racial supremacy that operates so as to posit certain extreme forms of heterosexual-masculine virility. But I found that this was true even when racially promiscuous white men were appealing affectionately, even submissively, with tears flowing and hugs all around, to their Christian comrades of colour. I discovered that a heterosexually anxious mix of racial love and hate designated a common masculine response to what is now being perceived in the US as the unmaking of the white majority. Our glossy news magazines tout the coming café-au-lait society with prosaic regularity. And to be sure our demography is changing, you could say, by immigration as much as by heterosexual reproductive default. It's logical that the biopolitics of sexuality animates how we deal with the changes of race and preoccupies our confused social imaginary. The nation has an incipient temporal hallucination that flirts with the coming US white minority. This fantasy is clear everywhere. But such an event is being lived-out today through a racialised libidinal phalanx whereby new forms of white self-division find old forms of heterosexual repair.

34. The Promise Keepers (hereafter PK) were especially compelling in this way. Their directness about multiracial religious enthusiasm—where Jesus is explicitly mestizo—is matched only by the urgency of maintaining their fragile heterosexual careers. The largest evangelical movement in US history, this group enlists performances of racial-bending on behalf of gender-binding. Race is attached by the men of PK inseparably to the dictates of patriarchy, specifically, to fatherhood and marriage. PK is only one of a number of formal organizations promoting what has been called the US marriage movement. In response to gay marriage, Bush has called for a constitutional amendment proclaiming heterosexual marriage "the cornerstone of [Western] civilisation" (his words). But curiously for PK, marriage is never more secure than when, as I witnessed time and again, white men are on stage before sixty-thousand or so other weeping, mostly white guys, washing an African-American man's feet. The men of PK plead with full sincerity for "racial absolution." And in the process of making the PK post-white imaginary, the ideological lineaments of the heterosexual family become super-charged. This occurs by appealing to hyper-masculinised forms of self-sacrifice that are hinged to what they refer to as getting rid of whiteness, somewhat on the order of race traitor, I would even say.

35. In looking at the best-selling neo-fascist novel, Turner Diaries, after which Tim McVeigh modelled his bombing of the FBI building in Okalahoma, you see effectively the same dynamic. In US neo-fascism, white-masculine heterosexuality plays out in the diametrically opposing terms of racial purity, that is, in terms of racial repudiation. PK and US neo-fascism share the same heterosexualised affective logic, I'd argue. And they do so via a kind of delicately mirrored love/hate inversion. Both groups seek to preserve masculinity by targeting race. The more curious point is that they target race with such precisely opposed affective extremes. They do so by claiming to love colour, and by hating it, so as to placate the same class-conflicted, hetero-masculine anxieties that white guys (including academics) are performing all around. Together this bizarre psychic composite is worth unpacking. In what I call in the book "a fascism of benevolence," white men's relation to alterity is writ doubly as a sort of melancholic fascination with, and a violent aversion towards, the forms of twenty-first century racial multiplicity about which no one is sure.

36. Damien: Whilst it is important to recognise the very local ways in which whiteness achieves hegemony, it has also been suggested that there are broader connections between the practices of whiteness in differing countries, particularly through their relation to discourses of empire and imperialism. Where do you see some of the important international connections within the study of whiteness?

37. Mike: In an earlier question on sovereignty, I alluded to a hypothesis of mine, taken up in the first part of After Whiteness, that looks at contemporary—we could even say postmodern—forms of governmental practice. The state has an expressed interest in race and whiteness in the US, of course. Since the civil rights movements of the 1960s, it's been presumed we could solicit that interest on behalf of racial justice. But the whole civil rights apparatus around race is being managed in new and pernicious ways, I'd argue, ways that underwrite word-American rule and relate directly to US neo-imperialism. Your final question offers room to elaborate on this counter-intuitive proposal, which links a disinvestment in white normativity to the twenty-first century debut of our nation's own planetary interests. There are clearly important things to say about whiteness on the international scene, Brazil, India, and especially South Africa, Australia to be sure. But I'll yield to the expertise of others working more directly than I on issues pertinent to these differing countries. What I can at least begin to remark on is US global absolutism. The question of whiteness is today playing out—quite bizarrely—by usurping the grounds of civil rights, which are being both curbed and superficially accelerated so as to push towards that incredulous goal.

38. Let me introduce some issues around the US census 2000, significant because of the introduction of a "choose all that apply" option for racial self-enumeration. In this country, unlike others, this was a totally unprecedented event.

39. We all know that civil rights are inseparably tied to statistical enumeration. The US constitution, concurrent with the first census count in 1790, is a document emphatically concerned with the need to classify the population. The country is a statistician's dream. But there's a difference in the way race was counted then as opposed to now. The myriad forms of antidiscrimination legislation that occurred between 1964 and 1968 produced a legal context that tied the state's interest in race, for the first time, to a voluntary act of racial self-disclosure. Race used to be bureaucratically eye-balled with no need for self-reflection on who or what one was. The new emphasis on racial self-enumeration assumed that identity would be unproblematically sutured to the law, generated internally, but also as a progressive political cause. The activity of racial naming, once performed by bureaucrats and statisticians, was thus victoriously surrendered to the dictates of the population itself. It was a triumph of the 1960s civil rights movement. But it was also one that would come to complicate the politics of rights in the twenty-first century. A kind of fragile circularity between identity and the law was solidified in the 1960s. The population has turned out to be less calculable than was conceivable at a time when African-Americans made up more than 95 per cent of the US minority population. Today minorities are increasingly composite majorities. The old psycho-social demographic ratios no longer hold.

40. Enter here the multiracial movement, which maintains an express disavowal of whiteness and, for that matter, disavows allegiance to blackness, our two longstanding oppositional correlates. There are something like sixty multiracial organizations in the US touting the cause of civil rights, self- and state-recognition, full and frank disclosure that the population designated black is mostly mixed race (as if race is a quantifiable set of blood ratios!). As I said, it's significant that, for them, "white" is a bunk historical fiction. But it's a horror for the NAACP that so too is "black." The multiracial activists seek the right to be counted as one would choose, which means the full extension of a civil rights legacy that emphasises self- over observer-enumeration. Race is addressed once again as the matter of getting identity correct in one's own eyes and in the eyes of the state. This time though, the traditional categories of race are exhausted thevery moment that race is embraced.

41. What the old civil rights organization's realised, especially given the enthusiasm of republican legislators to get multiracial people officially counted, is that the new abundance of race categories threaten to terminate the juridical unity of race altogether. A new and accelerated civil rights lexicon increases the number of race categories that individuals may legally claim. On this order, race is everywhere significant and nowhere identifiable in the old formalist sense. So you have the NAACP's awkward defence of the one-drop rule of hypo-descent—formerly associated with Jim Crow—as a sort of desperate, ironic collective self-defence against the difficulties implicit in the post-civil rights epoch.

42. This latest process of governing vis-à-vis racial distinction is different from previous civil rights struggles, which tried to liberalise the state and get government justly interested in the racial identities it once denied. Under this new set of protocols, the state has admitted racial interest and with ever greater freedom and nuance. But it has done so in order to rob racial coherency of its former political significance.

43. If you pursue the multiracialism debate to its logical ends, you can start to see how an individual's right to self-identify, paradoxically, provides an opportunity for racial identity itself to release the state from its previous civil rights obligations. In this way, the state jettisons the most important historical cite of domestic dissent the very moment it presumes to go global. You could say that the neo-nationalist end of liberalism is hereby found dormant in the logic of its once benevolent ends. In effect, all and no race relations exist in the eyes of a racially emancipated state. Multiplicity is unleashed upon identity, and the organizational capacity of government is both maximised and evaporated within the simple act of saying, "I am...".

44. The more precise way to put the point might be to call what we now have in the US a form of dissensus nationalism. As the remnants of liberalism disintegrate, patriotic absolutism rules. So what we have here is an identity politics "after whiteness," by which I mean a moment in which the civil rights agenda is turned rightward by a more strict adherence to a rights-based rationale. The bare-faced appropriation of civil rights on this new national order can be used, I'd ultimately suggest, to enter the general debate over the twisted fate of the nation-state and of civil society as such. I'd connect the perfidious rightward trajectory of a new politics of racial multitudes to an insistence on the liberal left, no less objectionable, that the resurrection of civil society is the only remaining hope for imagining more democratic futures.

45. Think for a moment about the hold-outs for neo-liberalism, Habermas's unfinished project of the Enlightenment, or Charles Taylor's politics of recognition, which every multiculturalist and diversity manager loves. Both appeal to a Hegelian notion of intersubjectivity, or of racial hybridisation, as the basis for post-national self-understanding. Both cling to a juridified ethos of the nation-state in order to realise the potential for a cosmopolitan legal order. But in the US, the so-called inclusion of the other produces a supra-national collective identity premised on the US nation-state as a global capitalist force without opposition. In the US, the state is interested in multiplying the possibilities for racial self-disclosure to the point of categorical collapse. In this sense the juridical ethos, contra Habermas, not only comes into conflict with civil rights but, as I said, terminates the state's interest in civil rights in civil society's own name. This conflict, paradoxically, occurs through the very politics of recognition that both Taylor and Habermas prescribe.

46. Please note that I call the end of civil society a conflict, rather than a final resolution. It's a conflict because, on one hand, the impasse over identity politics signals a terminal contradiction within rights-based claims to justice. But on the other hand, the instability of the statistical subject in US public policy debates retains something of Hegel's fear of undifferentiated masses, a new social calculus that is worth our continuing to activate and to try and suss through. There's a complex trade-off at work here. In the midst of multicultural chaos there's an opportunity, a potential if you like, for an incalculable community to emerge, for collectivities to mobilise that are not yet invented or named. It's clear that the state gestures toward a juridical ethos that seeks to recognize us precisely so that we may be neutralised, co-opted, destroyed. The state offers the identification of all races and race combinations so that it might eventually recognize none. We could call this, after Foucault, a move from disciplinary governmentality based on consensus, cellularisation, and fixity, to an emerging de-disciplinary socius based on dissensual civil orders, boundary crossing, and multiplicity. The question is whether or not agency can be squeezed from this latter condition. I hope that it can.

47. For the populace, "American" identity, perhaps uniquely at this moment, is at a point of realising a certain accidental detachment from governmental jurisdiction out of the sheer multiplicity of its forms. At the same time many people here, our so-called patriots, have never been more nervously attached to the dictates of government, nor the government more intrusive on the rest of us. Maybe there is critical value laying just beneath the surface of this detachment/attachment event. If there is it will likely contain the same ambivalence I've been talking about regarding the blip on the socio-cultural radar screen called whiteness studies. I'm of course not saying, as some do, that post-white neo-liberal globalisation means the state as such no longer exists. I'd just say that the liberal state no longer does. And I'd say that its disappearance is occurring, paradoxically, through the intensification of its own civic logic. Habermas exhorts the global transference of inter-subjective self-understanding. I say self-recognition as such advances toward a point of fatal multiplicity on the domestic front, while tending to play into US imperialism abroad. The cosmopolitan public sphere is foreshadowed by an internal disintegration of modern liberalism that takes place in equality's name.

48.That said, I can't help wondering about the optimistic side to this otherwise dismal story. It's clear that the right to self-identify in ways the state allows always also prohibits alternative collective realities. So there are alternatives then. You can see in my short account of the census 2000 how mixed identity dissolves the limits that codify previously established racial groups. This should help further develop an emergent picture of postmodern governmentality on the other side of the state's liberal interest in race. More than that, the persistence of multitudes beyond white neo-liberalism should signal the chance to seek collectivities that aren't yet revealed. The practice of governing in its de-disciplinary mode maximises a form of violence implicit in the very act of self-description. But within this violence, I want to go on insisting, there is as much hope as fear.

Mike Hill, Associate Professor at the University at Albany, SUNY, is author of After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority (NYU: 2004). He has also edited Whiteness: A Critical Reader (NYU: 1997); and co-edited Masses, Classes, and the Public Sphere (Verso: 2001). Currently he is writing a book on the moral and philosophical legacies of Adam Smith. Email:

Damien W. Riggs is a PhD candidate in the department of psychology at the University of Adelaide. He is the editor of this special issue of Borderlands. Email:


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