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witnessing whiteness Arrow vol 3 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 2, 2004


Witnessing whiteness: articulating race and the "politics of style"

Robyn Westcott
Australian National University/Macquarie University


This paper will explore the ways in which practitioners in the area of whiteness studies have co-opted literary forms and generic convention to generate a critical idiom idiosyncratic to the locution of whiteness. If, as Rosi Braidotti observes in the introduction to her book, Nomadic Subjects, the question of style is inseparable from the making of political choices, the scholarly techniques though which the subject enunciates his or her whiteness require a more nuanced analysis. Ruminating on the how of whiteness, the rhetorical strategies at work in the production of material truths, I postulate that two distinct impulses are evident in white writings: a drive to achieve reconciliation (of self with other, or indeed self with self) and a desire to perform transformation (both subjective and textual). These inclinations are related, if not with complete exactitude then with a reasonable degree of probability, to two structural genres I have provisionally termed the confessional and the autobiographical. Drawing on the writings of Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard, I will argue that whilst the autobiographical genre enables the white subject to access a degree of reflexivity in order to consider his/her racial situatedness, white "confessional" writings take pleasure, both textual and libidinal, from the recognition of one's privileged racial identity and thus should be regarded skeptically in a scholarly movement which identifies itself as anti-racist.

1. This paper is a meditation on voice. It asks, of the questioning white subject inaugurated within the corpus of whiteness studies, three specific questions. Firstly, who is it that presumes to speak? Secondly, whose interests are vested in the articulation of a self-reflexive whiteness? And finally, what effect does rhetorical choice have on the production of a politically engaged white subjectivity?

2. It seems awkward for the self who has become accustomed to championing ideas of indeterminacy, flux, hybridity and partiality to engage in the construction of a position that is apparently incontrovertible - "I am white". When the white subject names herself as raced, this annunciation resonates not only textually, but also ethically and morally. To write "I am white" is to acknowledge the cumulative force of historical discourse imprinted on the self as subject. It is to discern that the self has derived benefit, be it material or symbolic, from the possession of skin legally or scopically sanctioned as white. Of greater challenge still is the awareness that this assertion is made meaningful because of its fixity. It must stand against erasure, impervious to mitigating identity claims (gender, class, sexuality etc). Paradoxically, current critical conversations are deeply concerned with the incarnation of race as text – mobile, evasive, always already ‘in play’. Thus, it seems that to declare one "is white" reverberates between the energy of two apparently contradictory intentions. The primary drive is synchronic – to make oneself present as white, requiring a suspension of differance and the co-option, however tenuous, of a static position. Its antagonist, a desire to move horizontally and enquire into the "strategic elaboration" of whiteness as a myth of purity and power, would seem to require a submission to flux and chaos, a complication of the position from which to speak.

3. It is almost inevitable that work conducted by white researchers under the rubric of whiteness studies will contain some reference to the author’s racial situatedness. As Alastair Bonnett (1996, 147) notes, "[t]he central device of this new introspective practice is to monitor and acknowledge that one is speaking as a White person. To be able to speak in this manner implies that one has the right to speak about and, perhaps even for, White people" [emphasis mine]. Reflecting on Bonnett’s designation of introspection as a theoretical and textual device, I am struck by how little consideration has been given in whiteness studies to (i) the relationship between rhetorical form and introspective utterance and (ii) the political implications of enacting the personal as a gesture of atonement or even reconciliation. If, as Rosi Braidotti (1994, 16) observes in the introduction to her book, Nomadic Subjects, the question of style is inseparable from the making of political choices, the techniques of white locution require a more nuanced analysis.

4. "What is it", asks Linda Martín Alcoff (1998, 8), "to acknowledge one’s whiteness?". She continues: "[is] it to acknowledge that one is inherently tied to structures of domination and oppression, that one is irrevocably on the wrong side? In other words, can the acknowledgement of whiteness only produce self-criticism, even shame and self loathing?". Alcoff’s contemplation of the difficulties of confronting the self as white prompts two interrelated responses. Firstly, her question demands a substantive response – what elements (textual, discursive, material) would constitute an appropriate acknowledgement of one’s racial identity? How can the white subject subvert her assumption of race privilege and achieve, in Richard Dyer’s much cited words, the condition of making her whiteness "strange" (1997, 10)? How does the subject who signs, and is interpolated, as white, queer and ultimately disconcert their position in the prevailing regime of racial ‘truths’?

5. The response of the academy to this issue of acknowledgement has been to nominate witnessing as the fundamental work of whiteness studies. Scholars interrogating the production of white identity have sought testimony – statement and account solicited through historical investigation, the ethnographic survey, ficto-critical narratives and personal reflection. To testify, argues Shoshana Felman (Felman and Laub 1992, 5), "is to produce one’s own speech as material evidence for truth". Further, she suggests that testimony accomplished through the dynamism of speech "explodes any conceptual reifications and any constantive deliberations" (1992, 5). Feldman offers this analysis in the context of her work on the Shoah, where the function of witnessing (through the production of survivor testimony) acts to recoup the fact of genocide from the aporia of history and, as such, is a profoundly moral undertaking. While I hesitate to invoke a parallel between the Holocaust writings and the critical turn to investigate whiteness, and certainly do not wish to be interpreted as conflating them, I think that there is benefit in asking what the political implications of white subjects assuming a specific mandate to consider their own speech as material evidence for truth might be. Can such action produce the explosion of "conceptual reification and [. . .] constantive deliberation" that Feldman speaks of?

6. A consideration of the production of truth effects by white subjects returns me to my second response to Alcoff’s troubling of the process of acknowledging one’s whiteness. In asking what it is to acknowledge white identity, a secondary question insinuates itself. In what ways are generic and narrative forms employed to yield testimonial whiteness? Ruminating on the how of whiteness, the rhetorical strategies at work in the production of "material truths", I propose that two distinct impulses are evident in white writings: a drive to achieve reconciliation (of self with other, or indeed self with self) and a desire to perform transformation (both subjective and textual).

7. These inclinations are related to two structural genres, which I have provisionally (if awkwardly) termed the confessional and the autobiographical. While it will become clear quite quickly that I consider work produced by the transformative impulse to be more useful to the project of disorganising the white body, and consequently white metaphysics, it is not my intention that these terms should be organised hierarchically and as exclusive of one another. Each tendency retains the trace of the other in a complex circularity that resists a systematic and decisive bifurcation. However, the compulsion to confess, if it serves to restate the white subject at the crux of discursive and psychic power, must inevitably be regarded with a degree of scepticism in a theoretical project that styles itself as profoundly anti-racist.

Invoking the personal

8. The personal is a discursive space riven with incongruities. In academic work influenced by poststructuralist and postmodern insights, the personal has been invoked to "to re-introduce human agency and difference into academic discourse and knowledge claims" (Hindman 2001, 88). Central to this project has been an assault on the formation of categories such as the ‘knower’ and the ‘known’. Historically, to speak through the "virile figure of the subject agent" (O’Hanlon 1988, cited in Grossberg 1996) as one who ‘knows’ has allowed the metaphysical consolidation of oppressive social practices. In the context of this investigation, I am interested in the rhetorical position occupied by the white subject who ‘knows’, who, as Lorraine Code (1991: 1) notes, has long been regarded as a "featureless abstraction" in Western epistemology.

9. Whiteness, as a regime of behaviour and performance, finds political sustenance in the liberal humanist tradition. This symbiosis produces both positions within the knowledge economy and subjects empowered to access them (the ‘knower’), thus enabling the dissemination of "universal truths about knowledge and human nature" (Code 1995, 109). Historically, the grand narratives produced by the mutually beneficial collusion of liberalism and racial superiority have facilitated the emergence of the "self-reliant and self-making" (Code 1995, 109) subject who assumes the capacity to self-rely and self-make as indicators of superiority and success, as markers of an evolutionary status.

10. Considering the use of the personal as a pedagogical intervention, Richard E Miller (1996, 265) contends that a "profound sense of discomfort [. . .] can be produced when, in an academic setting, the request is made that one see or hear the actions, events or details of another’s life as warranting sustained academic attention". Reading Harris, I was disturbed by the ease with which I had provisionally erased the word ‘another’ and supplanted the term ‘the other’. This slippage, from the subject who could occupy the space of sameness (another) to the assumption of alterity, clarified an assumption that I suspect lingers amongst those of us who have presumed to ‘know’.

11. The personal is often perceived as a conduit to someone or somewhere else – a space and experience removed from that of the phantom ‘subject–agent’ who occupies the position of observer, orients the gaze and determines the criteria for knowledge collection. As such, the personal (with its subjective, and therefore suspect, orientation) has been used to represent a difference delineated neatly from the self who speaks from the normative position. The ‘discomfort’ engendered by the confronting genre of the personal has proved politically productive in academic work that has sought to trouble the status quo from a non-dominant position. The methodological consideration for white race talk is whether this discomfort will retain its potency as its point of remove from the hegemonic contracts.

12. At stake in whiteness studies, therefore, is not only the position from which an utterance is given (the ‘knower’ or the ‘known’), but also the ways in which self-reflexive white speech acts are constituted. Whiteness studies offers the white scholar the beguiling, albeit problematic, potential to act as both informant and interlocutor in the matter of investigating her racial positioning. Recent theoretical endeavours offer little in the way of methodological assistance to work through this curious collapse of interiority and exteriority. There are few critical projects involving power/knowledge arrangements analogous to those evident in whiteness studies – thus it lacks a template from which to model a critical apparatus appropriate to investigating the conditions that inform its production. This situation is compounded by the fact that whiteness has been considered by practitioners across a vast array of scholarly traditions, whose differing critical vocabularies, epistemological frameworks and theoretical archives arguably work against the production of accounts of white experience that translate easily between disciplines. Ultimately in whiteness studies, it is the testifying voice of moral culpability that augments and makes meaningful potentially dissonant theatres of empirical investigation.

13. How then, to disentangle the trace of the knower from the known? If there is "no good reason to believe that knowledge as a product would fail to bear the mark of its producers or of the processes of it production" (Code 1995, 106), is it possible for whiteness studies to effect an epistemologically significant contribution to a counterhegemonic understanding of white ontology? I would argue that scholars have sought to mediate this boundary disintegration through the utilisation of both narrative strategies and material content derived from lived experience and the genres archetypal to its expression in Western discourse. It is in this recourse to the personal, confronting the fact of racedness with an absence of critical and conceptual tools to assist its dismantling, that the condition of white experience as almost "exceeding our frame" (Carstens 2001, 296) for deconstructing it is revealed. However, initiating a self-reflexive intervention into both discursive and material power from the position of those who benefit from that advantage is precarious, both politically and rhetorically.

14. The personal – be it the adoption of a scholarly persona in the first person, the offering of empathic connection to a white audience through the deployment of ‘representative anecdotes’ or the intimacies of biographical revelation – has come to sustain the conceptual inferences of white race talk. Writing ‘I’ is alluring. It suggests the revelation of deep structures, of things at their essence, of the subject conveyed as noumenon. To speak to the personal is to produce an account of the self. However, this enumeration of the self’s silences, the sedimentation of its various residues and excretions into a coherent ribbon of narrative, is not without political dimension. Considering the ethics of ‘self-marking’, Judith Butler (1995, 442) notes that,

to mark oneself is to take account, to give account, and hence, implicitly, to answer to a charge and seek exoneration. The moral horizon of guilt and innocence frames such an imperative from the start. And when politics is reduced to political moralism of this sort, the self-referential declaration of identity is elevated to the status of an ethical imperative, restricting the field of public discourse to individualist declarations or to claims first grounded in such declarations.

15. If, as Butler suggests, the "self-referential declaration of identity" is always already manifested in the prevailing moral doxa, it invites (or directs) the addressee to accede to a judicial position. Yet as Candace Spigelman (2001, 63) notes, such scrutiny of the personal has the potential to encourage the judgement of the writer’s life rather than their work. Ultimately, the valuing of life over work would suggest that some accounts of white identity are inherently more valuable then others because of their depiction of an apparently guileless, truthful self whose testimony is confirmed by the moral and ethical standards which prevail amongst the audience to which the utterance is directed.

16. Deborah Brandt (2001, 57), in a forum considering the place of personal writing in academia, argues that "the politics of self-disclosure center around the social and cultural forces that press certain individuals to ‘bare all’ and press other individuals to closet themselves, all because their stories are not valued as consumable ‘goods’". Such a scenario, where the domestic not only informs the professional but is expected to resonate as present, thus enabling the ‘ethical imperative’ of self disclosure, is acutely challenging to the ephemeral position of the knower, who had previously been able to occlude her presence in the grammatical sanctuary of the third person. It also provokes a plethora of uncomfortable questions regarding the degree to which critical work in the humanities should initiate symmetrical political action in the socius. This is an issue far too fraught and entangled to work through adequately in the context of this paper, but we should be mindful of the implications that it presents to both the argument that I advance here and to critical work in the humanities in general (see also interview with Mike Hill in this issue).

17. Perhaps the white ‘knower’ who is cognizant of her relationship to the perpetuation of regimes of disciplinary knowledge can acquire the capacity to perform her raced-ness differently – transformatively – by accomplishing an introspective and therefore ‘truthful’ account of the self. However, the deconstruction of white identity is a project that could be (mis)interpreted as an "interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as subject" (Spivak, 1988, 271). Accordingly, white scholars have sought to position as the focus of their endeavours not only the recovery of lost or occluded accounts of white privilege (which could be construed as a re-centring of white experience within the academy), but also the production of a profoundly meditative and introspective white subjectivity.

18. Thus it could be argued that whiteness studies derives its legitimacy as a strategic critical approach through its application of self-reflexive rhetorical techniques to the understanding of racial privilege and both the material and narrative institutionalisation of racism. This invitation (or admonition) to speak to the white condition has generated a field of enquiry deeply implicated in the production of accounts of white subjectivity that assume a degree of moral authority because of their proximity to the personal. Yet as both cathartic and restitutive as the self-referential declaration of whiteness can appear, we should perhaps keep close Foucault’s injunction that at stake in the will to "utter this ‘true’ discourse," is always "desire and power" (Foucault 1981b, cited in Miller 1996).


19. When I open myself to the idea that my skin signs, I am no longer looking for the presence of the other, fluid and exotic, in myself. Instead, I am inculcated to seek out the other’s other – that strange point of stability, nurtured by a pantheon of mythic forms, that resides within. And when I sense the other’s otherness, (a thread of thin energy that I imagine pulses with the obstinacy of a decaying fluorescent tube), I have either to suppress this realisation or interpolate it. The choice to interpolate it leads me to a second potential impasse – how do I testify to this realisation, the one that betrays me as white? Confessing one’s whiteness pins the subject in a trajectory of moral ritual that Foucault (1981a, 58) notes has ordered the production of truth since the Middle Ages.

20. Foucault’s observations on confession as a disciplinary practice in the first volume of his History of Sexuality are as illuminative when applied to the problem of white racedness as they are in their original context. "When one confesses", writes Foucault, "one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever it is most difficult to tell" (1981a, 59). Much work in whiteness studies presumes that articulating one’s whiteness, rendering it visible, is that which is "most difficult to tell". Thus it is almost mandatory, either at the outset, or after the polite, even comforting, digression of a page or two, to engage in the project of ‘coming out’ white (see also paper by Ahmed in this issue). Incongruously, this acquiescence produces the benefit of self-awareness, a commodity privileged in a cultural and political environment in thrall to the therapeutic. As Lisa Carstens (2001, 306) argues, despite our cognisance that the self awareness vested in confession produces a ‘truth’ situated in specific historical and discursive conditions, "the perception is no less that the one who confesses reveals herself in her true colors. The confessed material is granted a privileged relation to the truth".

21. To pause for a moment and force an admission from myself – confessional writing frightens me, makes my stomach clench and the membranes in my nostrils burn. Confessing the whiteness of one’s identity seems to speak to a conception of whiteness as a colossus, as monumental, rising vertical and basely mechanical against the fear of invisibility that it inspires. It is as if the right words, the difficult words, spoken in the hushed cadence of penance, between what Foucault describes as the most "defenceless tenderness and the bloodiest of powers" can cast an incantation and tear the tower from its foundations. I find my own dis/ease reflected in the words of Judith Butler (1995, 443):

Taking account of race is thus equated with a reduction of the critic to a racial position. This wilful act of self-reduction is sanctified as public self-declaration, and this culminates, paradoxically, in the production of the saintly white person, the responsible white person, the politically accountable white subject. In the place of a thoroughgoing analysis of race or racialization, we witness – obscenely, yet another self-glorification in which whiteness is equated with moral rectitude.

22. This is the danger that I intuit in the act of confession - that the white subject will achieve not only spiritual restitution after a fashion, but then appoint herself to enact the pleasurable closure of narrative resolution. The subject who has always spoken now closes the play of signification, whatever its terror and violence, and walks away a saint. Confession has eliminated the abject - the other’s other - from the white body. Yet this process of purging, this retching at the monument’s foundation, does not threaten the body itself. The body that speaks, endures. What if confessing merely reorganized the white body, reconstituted it, consolidated its power, sanctioned and sanctified it? What if confessing ultimately concretised the "I am"?

23. To wonder further still. If the subject confesses to her whiteness, does "mak[ing][the] truth intelligible", render it "perhaps less reprehensible" (Heyns 2000, 48)? Latent in the struggle to articulate that which is abject, and thus reveal the authentic and repentant self, resides the possibility that rather than "confronting that culpability", the white subject is "accommodating, establishing a comfortable relationship with it" (Heyns 2000, 42, emphasis in original). To contemplate the possibility that reconciliation with one’s racial position could be achieved through the process of its ritual disavowal is simultaneously morally disturbing and materially threatening to the political agenda embraced by whiteness studies.


24. Confessional truth is not produced in the forbidding intricacies of the interior. It is not possible to confess alone - the confession cannot exist, existentially or otherwise, in the absence of an interlocutor. Thus, if confession is an act that can only be constituted in the domain of the public, it would suggest that attestations of white identity are not produced solely as a mechanism for working through private issues of conscience. "The one who listened was not simply the forgiving master, the judge who condemned or acquitted; he was the master of truth," writes Foucault (1981a, 66-67, emphasis mine). "His was a hermeneutic function". In this construction of the ritual of confession, the power to interpret and hence control the production of truth resides with its audience. When the white subject speaks to her racial privilege, who does she anticipate is listening?

25. The issue of audience has passed largely unremarked in ‘canonical’ writings on whiteness. As I have noted previously, there is a tacit inference in work related to the undoing of whiteness that it participates in a dialogue about race, speaking back to what had been an enduring silence. In this paradigm, the witnesses to white confession are assumed to be the racially ‘other’, who are looked at perhaps as having it within their power to provide absolution. However, if confession is to be intuited as a "reciprocal process, a form of dialogue and a writerly/readerly exchange" (Gill 2001, 90), there is an apparent absence of work responding to revelations of white self interest from a non-white perspective. This is perhaps not surprising considering the desire in most white confessions (both explicit and implied) for exoneration from the burden of white guilt, a process that Jeanne Perreault describes as the working through of "[t]he absurdity and panic that seems to characterize our reactions, the crisis of arrogance [. . .] on the one extreme and utter self-abnegation on the other" (1994, 230).

26. Alternately, it could be construed that white race writings find their intended audience in other white people either receptive to the project’s anti-racist intentions, or who seek confirmation of their own status as questioning, guilty or absolved through the recognition of, and empathic connection to, similar accounts of white experience. A desire to have one’s experiences interpolated consentiently is not misplaced in and of itself, however the possibility of a sympathetic white audience accommodating and validating confessional whiteness is both real and possible.

27. When considering the function of audience in the constitution of confessional speech, an observation by Roland Barthes suggests itself as illustrative of the conflicting dynamics circulating between the positions of speaker and listener (‘knower’ and ‘known’). Barthes writes:

[y]ou address yourself to me so that I may read you, but I am nothing to you except this address; in your eyes I am a substitute for nothing, for no figure [. . .]; for you I am neither a body nor even an object (and I couldn’t care less; I am not the one whose soul demands recognition), but merely a field, a vessel for expansion (1975, 5).

28. Whilst recognising that interpretive agency always and ultimately resides with the listener (confessor), Barthes’ characterisation of the audience as "merely a field, a vessel for expansion" deserves considered reflection, particularly relative to those white race writings which presume to instigate dialogue with racially different readers who are separated from the writer (confessant) by divisions that are not only discursively apparent, but politically and economically manifest. Similarly, there must be an acknowledgement that the purpose of critically interrogating whiteness is not to authorise a representation of the dislocated self as a "soul demand[ing] recognition" (or absolution or exoneration). This is nothing more than the exercise of a conquistadorial will, a reterritorialisation of the other who is substantial only in the moment of address, who has no claim to mark the experiential beyond this moment of enunciation.


29. To be recognised as penitent through the rite of confession fulfils more than the ethical imperative of producing a "self-referential declaration of identity". Foucault attests that confession also "invent[s] a different kind of pleasure, the pleasure of knowing that truth, of discovering and exposing it, the fascination of seeing and telling it, of captivating and capturing others by it" (1981a, 71). In performing ritual absolution, the white subject seeks catharsis through the purging of that designated as abject. In a sense, this elimination of that which has produced discomfort (the admission of race privilege established as ‘that which is most difficult to tell’) constitutes a form of pleasure. This pleasure is not only textual or aesthetic but also libidinal in its relation to the psychic energy to command power and knowledge.

30. The Roman Catholic rite of confession, which Foucault’s analysis in History of Sexuality Volume 1 implicitly references, requires that the confessant not only account for their transgression but also undertake some form of restitutive rite to atone for the injustice that has been perpetrated. Thus confession is constituted through the enactment of a codifiable sequence of events. Firstly, there is an internal recognition on the part of the subject that the collective good has been infringed. This is followed by the precipitation of a confessional script in the domain of an audience who assume a priestly function. Once the confession has been witnessed, the penitent seeks to enact her atonement materially.

31. Confessional writing in whiteness studies, however, appears to collapse the final elements in this ritual sequence, the utterance and the restitution. Producing the confessional script, and thus erasing the distinction between the public and private sphere whilst locating the position of the ‘knower’ and hence the gaze, is in and of itself a fulfilment of the directive to enact one’s atonement materially. As such, it could be argued that the conflation of utterance and atonement allows for the cathartic pleasure to be enjoyed in the process of writing. White race writing constituted in such conditions aligns easily with Barthes’ definition of the "text of pleasure" (1975, 14). The text of pleasure "contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading" (1975, p14, emphasis in original). Informed by institutionalised religious and disciplinary practices, confessional writing is a textual genre confirmed by both history and culture. Ritualised and predictable, it satisfies both confessant and confessor, but grants the confessant the dividend of pleasure, the capacity to negotiate "the compelling dialectic between fascination and revulsion, sympathy and horror, guilt and relief" (Gill 2001, 81).

32. The confessional text, albeit produced with the best of political intentions, is historically static and tends, at best, to assist a literal inversion of the moral (metaphysical) status quo; the good are revealed as bad, the innocent as guilty, those who ‘know’ are rendered transparent etc. Although it may enable a highly contingent form of reconciliation (of self and other through the priestly audience or self with self through via the cathartic benefit) it fails to engage a transformative impulse. The initiation of a new conceptual trajectory would require, to defer again to Barthes, the interplay of two edges, the first "an obedient conformist plagiarising edge" (1975, 6), which we can cite as the text of confession/reconciliation. The composition of the second edge however is more obscure. Barthes describes it as "mobile blank (ready to assume any contours)" (1975, 6). The interplay of these two textual seams, the instance where they cut against each other or overlap authors the "text of bliss" (1975, 14). Whereas the "text of pleasure" is conservative and hegemonically verifiable, the "text of bliss" is radical and inconsistent. It "imposes a state of loss [. . .] discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistencies of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis the relation with language" (1975, 14).

33. For the introspective white subject to produce a radical text of racial scrutiny that attends adequately to both the reconciliatory and transformative impulses, a disjuncture, a point of intersection and destabilisation, must be created. Thus I propose that the genre of the autobiographical be read as occupying the pivotal space of Barthes’ "mobile, blank" edge.

The Autobiographical

34. If the personal is political and the notion of identity politics valuable, is it possible to speak constructively of the self without creating either a counternarrative of victimhood or tilting at canonisation? Perhaps this is where the genre of the autobiographical could be invoked, being as it is "inherently philosophical since it presumes the self has become a problem to itself" (White 1991, 291).

35. Traditionally, autobiography has been the literary conduit through which the events of a life have been recorded and, in so doing, an authentic subjectivity presented by the most intimate and authoritative voice possible. As Leigh Gilmore (1997, 228) conjectures, "[a]utobiography has been used as both proof text and limit case of what can be known and represented through the category, however contested and changeable, of identity. [. . .] Identity as it is represented in autobiography has been used in cultural narratives about [. . .] human value, social progress, and citizenship". This ‘knowing’ self of autobiography needs no priest or interlocutor; she speaks sanctioned by the very orientation and intent of her discourse, her stories attesting to shifts in the accumulation of cultural capital and the vicissitudes of history. However, I think it is perilous to the project of constructive accounts of white identity to accept that autobiography, like confession, produces a truth or testimony of the self that is in some way set apart from that which can be obtained through any other form of textual ‘auditing’, be it spiritual or secular.

36. The novelist Jeanette Winterson reminds us that autobiography, as a strategy of applying the determination of narrative to the forcefield of a human life, will only ever produce the frisson of "art and lies" (Winterson 1997, 141). Arguing similarly against the possibility of self-knowledge as "adequated" or "revealed", Derrida is emphatic that subjectivity is generated through an active engagement with that which exceeds us. "[T]he self", he insists, "does not exist [. . .] It is given by writing, by the other: born by being given, delivered, offered, and betrayed all at once. And this truth is an affair of love and the police, of pleasure and the law – all at once. The event is at once grave and microscopic. It is the whole enigma of a truth to be made." (Derrida 1995, quoted in Kronick 2000, emphasis in original).

37. The self is a composite of filaments and fragments that simultaneously confirm and defy each other. When I ask myself to write, "I am", there is no transcendental white self that I can attest to and seek atonement for. There are only these desires and deceits, the self who struggles with the conquistadorial will, who would like to play saviour (I’ll be the one to change it. Myself. My work.). But, ironically, she is violently afraid of the gaping maw of the ‘other’ and doubly fearful of the ‘other’s other’, latent and abject, staring at back her, wide-eyed and familiar. To write one’s story, to enact the autobiographic, is to let go of the finality and legitimation offered through the technique of confession. This is why I render the term in its adjectival form, to write not autobiography as such, but to respond autobiographically, with a keen sense of the artifice inherent in the creation of any testimony to the experiences of the self. To write autobiographically, one has to possess a sense of being constituted in and through narrative, of remaining in flux. To understand that there is no essence except that "fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms" (Foucault 1991, 78).

38. Autobiographical writing works, in this sense, against a teleology of redemption, understands the self as located, seeks no pleasure, no release, no recompense. In his work Negotiations, Deleuze writes hauntingly of the struggle to write the self:

It’s a strange business, speaking for yourself, in your own name, because it doesn’t at all come with seeing yourself as an ego or a person or a subject. Individuals find a name for themselves, rather, only through the harshest exercise in depersonalization, by opening themselves up to the multiplicities everywhere within them, to the intensities running through them. A name as the direct awareness of such intensive multiplicities is the opposite to the depersonalization effected by the history of philosophy, its depersonalization through love rather than through subjection (1995, 6-7).

39. I am not arguing for a cessation of the body; that somehow through discursive play the body, the site of skin and stories, evaporates, but I am suggesting that white scholars need to read their bodies differently - perhaps without organs. If confession re-organises the body, stabilizing that category of reference we seek to trouble, then Deleuze and Guattari’s figure of the Body without Organs (BwO) sees the self radically dis-organised. Urging us to seek caution rather than wisdom, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the BwO is "what remains when you take everything away. What you take away is precisely the phantasy and the significances and the subjectifications as a whole" (1987, 151). To understand the body as without organs, not arranged through a theology or fascist process that demands the speaking of a literal truth or the making of an embodied knowledge through confession, suggests a possibility for writing the "I am" differently.

Writing the Dis-organised Self

40. The BwO is opposed to a perception of the subject as "organism". The organism, the condition of the ‘organs organized’ is effected when desire is contained ideologically, bound to a conception of the psyche, state, capital etc, that forces its submission to a pre-determined expectation or limit. Thus the organism is defined as terminal, regulating or inhibiting the potential or "immanence" abeyant in the BwO. Deleuze and Guattari render the BwO as "nonstratified, unformed, intense matter, the matrix of intensity, intensity = 0, but there is nothing negative about that zero, there are no negative or opposite intensities" (1987, 153). In contrast, the organism is construed as "a phenomenon of accumulation, coagulation and sedimentation that in order to extract useful labour from the BwO imposes upon it forms, functions, hierarchised organisations, organised transcendencies" (1987, 159).

41. Thus far, it may appear that I am simply championing a metaphorical or linguistic shift from ‘stasis’ to ‘flux’, or from the ‘whole’ to the ‘hybrid’. In a reductive sense, I suppose there is some truth to this. I am convinced that dispensing with the imagining of ourselves as the "full body" of the sovereign subject is intrinsic to the project of articulating whiteness in a politically useful way. An admission that the white subject can only be a partial presence must precede any substantive revisioning of whiteness as a category of discourse production and economic, social and cultural power. Yet we are seemingly without the conceptual and intellectual tools necessary to achieve such a shift.

42. Deleuze and Guattari, whose work ipso facto does not address issues of "justice or freedom or democracy" (Patton 2000, 1) and evidences an "almost complete lack of engagement with the central problems and normative commitments of Anglo-American political thought" (Patton 2000, 1), may not present as an instinctive choice of reference for a critical project committed to engendering change. However, it is precisely their querying of contemporary metaphysical constants such as "the negative law, the extrinsic rule, and the transcendent ideal" (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 154) (which have for the most part escaped sustained contemplation in whiteness studies), that introduce a point of anti-production and hence energy into a discipline that has too often settled for philosophical complacency. Deleuze and Guattari cite as motivation a commitment to "summoning forth a new earth and a people that does not yet exist" (1994, p108). As naively utopian as this might present, it is radical and troubling concepts such as the BwO, enjoined with thinking as a revolutionary activity, that provoke us to question the terms on which we occupy and, as such, defend our racial identities.

43. "What does it mean to disarticulate, to cease to be an organism?" ask Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 159). We might respond with equal fervour, by postulating what it might mean to "disarticulate, to cease to be a subject who identifies discursively or politically as white". The verb ‘to disarticulate’ denotes not only a collapsing of discrete units or segments (white and black, self and other, self and the other’s other), but implies a surrendering of the utterance, a silence in the racial conversation. A stutter. This collapsed and mumbling self is recorded on the BwO in defiance of the "judgement of God [that would] uproo[t] it from its immanence and mak[e] it an organism, a signification, a subject" (1987, 159). The covert worryings of the supposedly diminished inner liberal are dramatised in the cuttingly comedic voice of Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘priest’:

You will be organised, you will be an organism, you will articulate your body – otherwise you’re just depraved.
You will be signifier and signified, interpreter and interpreted – otherwise you’re just a deviant.
You will be a subject, nailed down as one, a subject of enunciation recoiled into a subject of the statement – otherwise you’re just a tramp (1987, 159, line breaks added for emphasis).

44. The subject who claims to occupy the position of the knower cannot be depraved. The subject who self-makes cannot be a deviant. The subject who self-relies cannot be a tramp. This fallacious reasoning underwrites the continuing investment in a science of presence premised on the binary distribution of signs and subjects. The vertical hierarchy established by the law of the excluded middle (you are white or not white, a knower or not recognised with such capacity, you self-make or risk condemnation as a deviant or a tramp) is directly addressed by Deleuze and Guattari’s framing of a transformative horizontality that privileges the syntagmatic connection over the paradigmatic choice. The choice to connect, rather than raise the bulwark of duality, traces a "whole "diagram" as opposed to "still and signifying and subjective programs" (1987, 161).

45. Whiteness must be decoupled from thanatos. Freud’s evocation of the psychic drive to stillness is echoed in the moment of stasis that whiteness strives for. Whiteness is compelled by a paradoxical dynamism. As the tactical interplay of political and discursive forces, whiteness is necessarily mobile, both evasive and plottable according to circumstance. However, this fluidity is teleological rather than diffuse or meandering. Its goal is always to preserve privilege and in so doing retain command of the chain of racial signification. Whiteness presupposes an end to the delirium of deconstructive play and whispers that the collapse of the sign with its supplement is inevitable. Whiteness denies that the text and its subject (or the subject and her text) are sous rature or eternally ‘on trial’.

46. This returns us to the original paradox: that which is fluid is governed by an instinctive orientation to fixity. As a discourse of ‘fixity’, white race privilege apportions limits and marks out the body of the subject who "isn’t" through the institutionalisation of the stereotype and the fetish. The BwO resists this drive to quiescence. A conceptualisation of ourselves as dis-organised involves the recognition that "dismantling the organism has never meant killing yourself, but rather opening the body to connections" (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 160). Composing an autobiographical script that resists the phantasy of the self as sedentary opens the critically inclined white subject to an awareness of that "fascism in all of us, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power" (Foucault 1983, xiii).


47. There is no rhetorical ‘rightness’ that the white subject can seek recourse to when addressing the problem of how to speak to her subject position as a function of anti-racist practice. The introduction of the personal testimony as a counterpoint to the abstractions of imperial reason can be viewed in extremis as either positive in its restatement of the affective and potentially empathic, or as a co-option of the ethical agenda of whiteness studies by privileged subjects who demand their intellectual and moral struggles be acknowledged. The reality of white race writing evidences aspects of both inclinations. "When embodied writing is successful – that is when my personal writing is disciplined and responsible", writes Jane Hindman (2001, 103) "it transforms my immediate self-absorption with subjective affect into an awareness of not only how my responses have been socially conditioned and socially perceived, but also how I as author can intervene in that conditioning". In this paper, I have attempted to work through some of the conflicting political and psychic investments manifest in critical accounts of white subjectivity: a desire to help, to generate change, to retain control of the terms on which knowledge is produced, to be the one who ‘fixes it’, to be a fascist, to be loved. There is no existent practice of intellectual inquiry or model of rigorous academic engagement from which to draw a methodology capable of encompassing the work undertaken in whiteness studies and the interests vested therein.

48. In examining the confessional and the autobiographical as sites of rhetorical intervention, I do not presume to have produced a ‘solution’ to the challenges inherent in a politically responsible positioning of the self as white. Whilst I have indicated that I find the confessional problematic as an approach to working through whiteness because of its potential to efface our capacity to do good by restating the sanctified white subject at centre, the autobiographical is not without inadequacies as a critical technique nor the BwO a conduit to theoretical nirvana. The confessional impulse to right racial wrongs will always inform work in whiteness studies. My argument is with its use as a rhetorical cover for an ‘old’ metaphysics which masks the presence of the liberal subject who ‘knows’, and makes truth through self-mastery and authorial intent. The cryptic reiteration of the sovereign subject is not useful in this context. What are desperately required are new events in thought, strategies that illuminate the colonial intent buried in the ways in which we orient ourselves to the world and thus condition the scope and intent of any political or material action we would undertake in the name of anti-racism.

49. The conceptual figure of the BwO provides us with a point of departure to rethink the relationship between subject and signification, desire and production. Its invocation is not without risk, however. Deleuze and Guattari warn that it can sustain "relations of violence and rivalry as well as alliance and complicity" (1987, 163) and ultimately present as the "cancerous BwO of a fascist inside us, or the empty BwO of a drug addict, paranoiac or hypochondriac" (1987, 163). Thus the BwO is neither a definitive answer or solution to the conundrum of self-marking. It is however, a sortie, a way forward. A recognition that naming the self as white, if regarded as a finite act of penitence, can only ever be a "meaningless piety" (Spivak 1988, 271).

50. Similarly, Lyotard’s figure of the great ephemeral skin, the body butterflied and its creases, cavities and libidinalities imagined as a moebius band of heterological textures and intentions seems to offer an unrealised metaphorical potential to the project of desiring-production (1993, 1-5). Like Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard insists that "[w]e must model ourselves an affirmative idea of the Zero" (ie lack) (1993, 5). The affirmative Zero threatens the authority of knowledge premised on the integrity of the "representative cube" (1993, 4) and the organic body. Lyotard’s writing likewise works against stasis (or what he refers to as "sedentarising" (1993, 12)), arguing that this causes us to "occupy and cultivate the earth under the security of the True" (1993, 13). Again, Lyotard cannot be positioned as providing the definitive trope for reconceiving racedness, but his work is confronts much that remains guarded, and hence unspoken, in testimonial whiteness. To my mind, the task of deconstructing whiteness is of such import and significance that no source of inspiration should be discounted. For those of us who have baulked, tongue-tied, at confessing, or lamented our lack of a story, much work remains.


Robyn Westcott is working toward a PhD in Critical and Cultural Studies supervised by staff at both Macquarie University and the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. Her thesis entitled Whiteness as Rhizomatic Relation: Maintaining distinctions between Englishness and Irishness during the period of the Great Famine explores the how the nexus of narratives regarding race, liberalism, capitalism and individualism shaped the English response to the influx of Irish refugees at the Famine’s height. She holds a BA (Hons) in English Literature, specialising in literary and critical theory and postcolonial literature, particularly writing from West Africa. Email:


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