Interview with Ash Amin on the Responses to his Article on Racism

Photo: Ash Amin

Ash Amin responds to the responses to his article, ‘The Remainders of Race’, which was published last year in TCS.

In this interview with Simon Dawes, Amin discusses the claims made by Ali Rattansi, Abdoumaliq Simone and Denise da Silva in the current issue of TCS, addressing in particular his epistemological pessimism, the idea of living in difference, and the common ground for freedom.

Simon Dawes: Although you argue against any form of biological determinism and the idea of racial instincts or inborn racism, you stress that it is the interplay between institutional legacies and human sorting instincts that maintains similarity and difference as racially coded. How would you respond to Ali Rattansi’s claim that this implies that the potential for sorting humanity into races is inherent in nature, and that we should instead aim to historicise these sorting instincts?
Ash Amin: I agree with Rattansi’s and da Silva’s insistence that we look at the history of racial labelling as a history of scripting, of the institutional maintenance of race through hegemonic inflections of knowledge, perception and feeling.  And, as they note, these inflections are not natural, but woven into complex narratives of self, other and community so that racialised sorting becomes second nature – a kind of social instinct.  My intention in this article was to go a bit further by entering into the murky water of interrogating ‘social’ instinct.  Puzzled by the strength and durability of phenotypical labelling and the pre-eminence of race in such practices, the question I posed was whether some link can be made between racial labelling and any inborn human instinct to categorise (itself a controversial question).  My tentative answer was that the historical accumulation of racial scripts – through the ‘technologies’ elegantly described by Rattansi and da Silva – permits this connection.  It bridges the gap between the learnt and the reflexive by coding difference and sameness as a racial category.  So, I am not that far from my critics – we agree that racial sorting is not inherent in nature.  Where we perhaps differ is in our interest in the human absorption of scripts and in their inter-generational transmission even before the foul air of racial labelling is breathed.
SD: Rattansi also suggests that what you refer to as your ‘ontological pessimism’ is simultaneously an ‘epistemological pessimism’, because you represent the way we understand difference as dependent not just on the ‘natural’ sorting instincts, but also on ‘cultural’ sorting activities. Later in his article, he goes on to warn against not making a clear enough distinction between general sorting instincts and more specific practices of stereotyping, arguing that this encourages a generalisation of the inevitability of race, and a pessimism about combating racism. Do you agree with these argument?
AA: I think Rattansi wants my pessimism to be epistemological and not ontological.  After reading his thoughtful response, I conclude that my pessimism is both ontological and epistemological.  Stereotyping is one way in which race works, and therefore if we can change the ways in which the world is apprehended (e.g. through education and by exposing facile stereotypes) the misuses of race can be addressed.  But the problem is that race keeps bouncing back, even when you think it has been put on the back foot by the accumulations of anti-racist action.  Worse still – as the current hysteria against Muslims and Islam confirms – it bounces back with primeval force, sweeping aside hard-won victories.  This is where my ontological pessimism creeps in, inquisitive about the etching of race into the neurological and sensory system.  This is why I suggest at the end of the paper that race might need to be contained and neutralised rather than eliminated from human judgement.  If the harms of phenotypical racism can be minimised, then other ways of sensing and thinking difference might be able to come to the fore.  Perhaps through such a politics of containment, the very ‘metaphysic of race’ that da Silva claims to lie at the heart of the ‘biopolitical arsenal operating in the postcolonial/global political terrain’, could give way to other epistemologies human categorisation and evaluation.  But I do not think we should be complacent about the ontological archaeology of race, about how knowledges and practices eventually become the world and its ways.
SD: At one point in your article, you discuss the contemporary sweeping aside of the late 20th Century multicultural politics of recognition by a politics of assimilation. To what extent would an account of the interweaving of race with nation, class, gender and sexuality (that Rattansi encourages) aid an analysis of recognition and assimilation?
AA: Stories of community/nation rely on strategic mobilisations of race, gender, class and sexuality, so as to demarcate the inside from the outside, the hierarchies of belonging, and the lines of differentiation.  Showing this has to be part of the armoury of questioning the fabricated nature of community.  This is a first step in arguing the case for a different way of understanding – and feeling – community, drawing, for example, on empathies that cut across the social divisions mentioned by Rattansi, imaginings of ties with distant strangers, and divisions based on outlook and ambition rather than the cards dealt out at birth.  All this said, an interesting question is why has multiculturalism been so quickly vilified and set aside at least in populist and governmental declarations in the west.  A part answer, in my view, is the ease with which an exclusionary biopolitics has been able to tap into the subliminal of phenotypical racism; re-presenting multiculturalism as unnatural, a threat to social cohesion, before thought can step in. 
SD: Perhaps the main argument of your article is for a reframing of anti-racist politics (which tends to neutralise rather than transcend race) as a counter-biopolitics; that is, combating and replacing a racial biopolitics with another biopolitics, based on human particularity, recognition and reconciliation. What would be the difference between this conceptual reframing and the shift within anti-racist politics, from a struggle for sameness to a struggle that is attentive to difference, that you recognise is already occurring? And would a new biopolitics assume, as Abdoumaliq Simone suggests, that security is not just about excluding and classifying, but also about redirecting attention to new and other people and experiences?
AA: The kind of politics I am trying to name is a politics of the commons, a politics of proliferation and excess gradually crowding out difference and diversity as an exception, as a problem.  This is a politics of universal welfare, the urban crowd, the shared commons, the undiscriminating public infrastructure, the porous border, the mixity of things, the surprises of pluralism, and the public arena as field of open and agonistic contest.  It is a politics that on the one hand allows difference to proliferate to such a degree and in so many ways that the cravings of sameness become anomalous, and on the other hand gathers difference around a shared sense of turf and destiny.  The hybrid, complex and experimental nature of urban life can potentially nourish such a politics, which is what I take from Simone’s perceptive comments on the innovations and continual adjustments demanded by urban living.  The disruptions of urban living – of course never the same in different cities – can be regarded as the material of a new politics of living in difference … if the grounded experience of negotiating multiplicity can be made explicit as an already available atmosphere of democracy.. 
SD: Do you accept Simone’s suggestion that this ‘deployment of rational accountability that you propose as an aspect of counter-intervention parallels the formats of scrutiny that depend on race’, and to what extent is this problematic?
AA: I appreciate Simone’s emphasis on how the habits of living shape racial thinking and feeling: habits that break free from rational calculus.  And in the scheme of acknowledging the precognitive and non-rational foundations of race, he is right to want to situate a politics of redress around the disruptions of practice.  But biopolitcs also derives its power – as da Silva so presciently notes – from the rationalisations of race, which is why I propose the need for counter-rationalities.  It becomes important to give a different account of reason, so that community/nation can be narrated differently, so that the scripts of social knowledge can be rewritten, and so that the codes of differentiation and selection built into the technological armature of racial discrimination can be changed.  The rationalities of race will not be displaced by thinking with feeling alone, but will also require another account of reason.
SD: To what extent do you agree with da Silva’s claim that the dismantling of the arsenal of racial subjugation will require the renouncing of a conception of justice sustained by universality, the abandonment of freedom as self-determination and the relinquishing of self-determination itself? And to what extent do you think this is likely, possible and desirable?
AA: I can see why, after the Enlightenment, da Silva is nervous about the coupling between universality and self-determination.  In the history of the west it has succeeded in projecting the interests of the few as those of the many, and in meting out injustice to the unassimilated in the name of justice.  I appreciate her exposure of the hypocrisies of singularity.  On the other hand, is something valuable lost in jettisoning a universalist sense of justice, applicable to all, and in all situations?  It may well be risky to try to define a gold standard of the just society, given the dangerous manipulations that this can produce (and indeed, have produced, in the past).  However, it helps to have a clear sense – in the way that the United Nations tried to at its inception – of the basics of human being; all the more so in light of the gross and unregulated violation of human rights around the world that we continue to witness.  What I am getting at here is a monitored consensus on the common ground for freedom to be considered even as a possibility and this requires being clear about the universal harms that must be addressed.
Ash Amin is Professor of Geography and Executive Director of the Institute of Advanced Study at DurhamUniversity. His work focuses on the intersections of society and space relating to urban and regional development, the geographies of situated practice, and the challenges of race, multiculture and politics in a post-territorial age. He is author, most recently, of Cities: Reimagining the Urban (with Nigel Thrift, Polity Press, 2002) and Architectures of Knowledge (with Patrick Cohendet, Oxford University Press, 2004), and editor of Community, Economic Creativity and Organisation (with Joanne Roberts, Oxford University Press, 2008), Thinking About Almost Everything (with Michael O’Neill, Profile Books, 2009), and The Social Economy: International Perspectives on Economic Solidarity (Zed Books, 2009). [email:]
Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society
You can access all the articles in the Special Section on Race and Responses to Ash Amin, and the rest of the articles in the January issue of TCS (28.1, Jan 2011), here
You can access Ash Amin’s article, ‘The Remainders of Race’, published in TCS 27.1 (Jan 2010), here. The article will be freely available to all until 01/03/11.
And you can read Couze Venn commenting on Amin’s article and the section here

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