Beth Coleman’s (2009) “Race as Technology” in Camera Obscura 70, V. 24/1.
177 “moves race away from the biological and genetic systems that have historically dominated its definition”
177-178 “I argue in this essay that technology’s embedded function of self-extension may be exploited to liberate race from an inherited position of abjection toward a greater expression of agency. In this case, agency indicates presence, will, and movement—the ability to move freely as a being—and it is not restricted to individuals but also includes systems: it concerns how beings are subjected in systems of power, ideology, and other networks.”
—- “liberate race from an inherited position of abjection” how can we understand that inherited position, and is it related to a psychoanalytic notion of abjection?
178 “For the moment, let us call ‘race as technology’ a disruptive technology that changes the terms of engagement with an all-too-familiar system of representation and power” [Emphasis added].
To consider this, “race…must first be denatured—that is, estranged from its history as a biological fact (a fact that has no scientific value perhaps, but constitutes, nonetheless, a received fact).”
Here Coleman cites UNESCO’s 1952 dismissal of race as a legitimate category for scientific inquiry…its clarification (many times confirmed and elaborated since) that race is not a genetically determined concept; that the racial status “black” for example is conferred inconsistently, as are other notions of “Asia,” “Africa,” “Orient,” “Near/far/middle East,” “Balkan,” or even “Native,” in relation to perceived or desired boundaries of narrative for white ethnicity.
Stuart Hall: white ethnicity’s boundaries are always necessary formations underlying the description of racial categories, but they remain invisible from the equation.
Robert Fiske: whiteness deploys power via “exnomination,” a process that removes or reduces any mark of Anglo- or N/WEuro- identity, “unnaming” that identity, through the naming of other identities. Unnaming whiteness confers on it a status of universality in relation to particulars.
BUT, the stakes of this conversation aren’t limited to concepts and identity particulars, and Coleman’s argument about race as a physical tool helps to strengthen that point: “Imagine a contraption with a spring or a handle that creates movement and diversifies articulation. Not a trap, but rather a trapdoor through which one can scoot off to greener pastures. As an object of history, race has been used as a contraption by one people to subject another. An ideological concept of race such as this carries a very practical purpose. It vividly and violently produces race-based terrorism, systems of apartheid, and demoralizing pain.”
“[No break?] A notion of race as technology, however, moves toward an aesthetic category of human being, where mutability of identity, reach of individual agency, and conditions of culture all influence each each other.”
182 “In aspiring to disinterest in an object that has been so terribly interesting for us, we can dislocate race from its historically embedded status as a de facto biological object. Creating a distance from the inherited logic of race, conceptualizing race as technology enables an aesthetics and an ethics of race: an agent can judge the strategic value of one mode of representation over another.”
BLC: But wait, haven’t we been confronted for decades now in the US with a theatre of disinterest from race? Isn’t that what proposition 209 is? How does Coleman aspire to this kind of empirical, quasi-anaesthetized view of race as a social construct, when the (various kinds of) invisibility of the construct are precisely what empower it? (See Fiske, Hall, above.) Is this really a radical move? (Open question.)
199-200 Coleman answers: “In asking the reader to consider race as technology, I…participate in the critique of racial instrumentalization, but in a fashion that exploits the nature of technology toward the human and the affective as opposed to toward dehumanization. Paradoxically, I engage terms such as denaturing and disruption to reach this goal of removing race from an overdetermined history of lack and toward a revaluation in productive difference. I engage a similar double gesture in linking disinterest (a quality that is neither embedded nor exclusively subjective)…with delight (a quality of pure affect)…
What is that “double gesture”? Coleman passes Kant through the lens of her own thinking in two different refractions simultaneously: first she asks us to consider Kant’s notion of judgment and disinterest as a foundation on which to wonder whether:
1. How is our judgment of racial difference conditioned by aesthetics of “interest” or “delight” in the Kantian sense?
2. How does Kant’s consideration of interest and delight in the process of human judgment make use of racial difference as a tool?
3. [Possible implicit third dimension: Coleman, a woman of color, at least temporarily pretends to be “disinterested” in Kant’s exploitation of racial difference through a racialized “contortionist subject.” The disinterest is hilighted by her earlier declaration of the personal, and even violent, stakes of the conversation … which she has suspended in her academic exploration of Kant.]
184 “Perhaps this ‘light subject’ portends a metaphysics of race, in which race and technology are linked not to settle human limits but instead to explore human thresholds. Occupying such a position of mobility is not without its risks… Being in flux can be much riskier than knowing one’s place, even if that place represents the lowest level of society.”
189 “The mechanism of race…is not a metal or wood contraption, but rather a thing that functions systetmatically…it is not a thing itself but an array of procedures…”
194 “What [Gregory] Bateson’s (1972) question [‘is a blind man’s cane part of the man?’] points to is a fundamental shift in Western conceptions of autonomy: the human subject, in a cybernetic system, is always set in relation to other kinds of agents, such as machines.”