Interview with Couze Venn on Ash Amin and Racism

Photo: Couze Venn

 Simon Dawes interviews Couze Venn on the TCS Special Section of responses to Ash Amin’s article ‘The Remainders of Race’.

Couze explains the importance of Amin’s challenge to conventional approaches to racism, summarises the responses made by Denise da Silva, Abdoumaliq Simone and Ali Rattansi, and argues for a further consideration of the role played by inequality, and how Foucault’s ‘discourse of race war’ helps us understand this.

Simon Dawes: What is it about Amin’s article that merited a special section of responses?

Couze Venn: Amin’s paper presented a challenge to a view about how to combat racism that has become conventional. That view proposes racism as an aberration which humanist ideals of a non-racist cosmopolitanism could dispel. One key practical action consistent with this approach is the policy of multi-culturalism. Amin searches for deeper, more stubborn reasons for the persistence of racism. Against the hopes of multiculturalism he emphasises a new biopolitical ‘racialisation of everything’, thus acknowledging the effects of power and the interests of dominant power relations in sustaining and indeed (re)producing racism, as discourse and in the form institutionalised practices. This biopolitics relies on or mobilises the ‘vernacular racism’ latent in the culture. And he is keenly aware of the debates in the field of ‘race relations’, so his comments are informed by a careful reading of the relevant literature. Yet he also proposes the effects of ‘phenotypical’ tendencies in the way people classify differences in order to account for the selection of skin colour as a privileged marker of difference. This is one reason for opening the debate to other views, since it makes assumptions that skirt a problematic universalism grounded in the kind of genetic and evolutionary arguments that underpin racist discourse, a position he clearly rejects. Denise da Silva in her piece ‘Notes for a Critique of the “The Metaphysics of Race” ‘ (TCS vol 28 no 1) for example argues that such a position comes close to some of the more outrageous features of Kantian universalist thinking about race, and that therefore Amin’s arguments is open to the same kinds of objection. Another line of objection is the argument developed by AbdouMaliq Simone (‘The Ambivalence of the Arbitrary: A Supplement to Ash Amin’s “The Remainders of Race” ‘; TCS Vol 28, no1) which points to the the kinds of pressures on migrant people, say in South Africa, which push them both to rely on the solidarity of kinship for support in times of destitution as well as borrow from and collaborate with people from across other cultures in order to survive. This is a more unstable, ad hoc kind of socio-economico-cultural  world than the world described by Amin. Clearly racisms survive, but the ‘nomadism’ – if one can call it that – of the arrangements displaced people make, and the circumstances in which they try to carve out liveable spaces often transcend the clear lines of ethnic demarcation  that the discourse of race draws. There is also the point of view of the historical context, particularly about the strategic decisions around multi-culturalism, which Ali Rattansi draws attention to in his remarks on Amin’s paper (‘Racism’s Recurrence: Reflections on Amin’s “The Remainders of Race” ‘; Vol 28, No 1). His view highlights the practical problems of anti-racist struggles which Amin’s theoretical approach might appear to neglect.

So, Amin’s paper presents many angles from which to rethink racism at a time when it does seem that it is being authorised again – what Amin calls its ‘return’ – in some discourses, especially in the wake of the attacks by Al-Qaeda in the USA and elsewhere. His essay can be seen in the circumstances as an attempt to put on the agenda both new challenges and new approaches to the race question. They are the reasons for exploring the issues raised through commentaries, for they are politically and theoretically important.   

SD: In your introduction to the section, (‘Reflections on “The Return of Race”: Culture, Nature, or the Political Economy of Race’, TCS, Vol. 28, No 1) you stress the importance of the economy and inequalities in wealth distribution to the framing of race. In what way is the relation between class and race becoming increasingly problematic under neoliberalism, and how can Foucault’s analysis of the ‘discourse of race war’ help us understand that relation?

CV: What the point of view of political economy basically makes visible is the question of power. This is the approach, and the interest, of Foucault in the race question, developed in Society Must be Defended (2003) (a topic he had not said much about in his previous writings). What he talks about is the ‘discourse of race war’, that is, a discourse which presents history as a war or struggle between an ‘us’ versus a ‘them’. The stake in such a struggle is the survival of one group, and the dispossession of the other of their lives or their wealth. Historically, as his arguments makes clear, the result of this kind of ‘race war’ is the subjugation of one group by another, typically through conquest, and the emergence of a discourse which authorises the winning group to legitimate and normalise the power differentials and the inequalities between the conquerors or victors and the vanquished. I would say that this situation describes the first phase of accumulation, that is accumulation through plunder or pillage; as Foucault notes, it is the motivation for all colonialism and extensions of territory. So, inequalities in this analysis is seen to be part and parcel of a process of dispossession and requires the exercise power to maintain, a power which is both military and sovereign. Racism then is part of a strategy of power, and gradually gets to be inscribed in the culture, and can appear as part of ‘vernacular culture’, that is, as part of the ideological discourses or narratives – say of a struggle for survival, or the linear history of progress/development – that work for the benefit of existing power relations (which are also relations of property). Now, in such struggles, race is not necessarily decided in terms of skin colour. For example, Foucault discusses the Norman conquest of Britain and the military means to maintain their domination as a race war. Indeed, today the problem by reference to the ‘racialisation of everything’ is that racism is no longer a black and white issue, for example, the ‘ethnic’ cleansing in ex-Yugoslavia or in Rwanda, underlying which we find economic interests and triggers.

The question of class in relation to race is that historically there have been both divisions as well as alliances across class and race especially in the struggle against the exploitations of the poor by capitalism – though such alliances have not always happened even amongst socialists, as Foucault (2003) notes. The problem is that neoliberalism has pushed individualism to its extreme, particularly in relation to social policy, and has deliberately eliminated class as a category in political discourse and rhetoric. This has been a pretty successful tactic, with the consequence that the waters of class appear muddied, with sections of the ‘left’ also avoiding reference to class. Foucault’s critique of the political economy of liberalism and neoliberalism in The Birth of Biopolitics provides us with some of the arguments for rethinking both race and class by reference to inequality and economies, or processes of accumulation, which operate wealth transfers from the poor or pauperised to the rich. One does not have to have recourse to concepts of phenotype and so on to try and understand racism and its survival.  

Couze Venn has been Review Editor of Theory, Culture & Society since 2002, and Review Editor of Body & Society since 2008. He is also a member of the TCS Books Series editorial board. Though he has taught Cultural Studies and Science and Technology Studies for about 30 years, his research interests cover a wide range of topics in cultural theory, postcolonial studies, social theory, science studies, ‘psychosocial’ studies. He is currently working on issues relating to the critique of neo-liberal capitalism, particularly the question of the foundation for alternatives to economies based on growth and the privilege of private property; he continues to keep abreast of developments relating to anything to do with subjectivity. 

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

And you can access Ash Amin’s article, ‘The Remainders of Race’, published in TCS 27.1 (Jan 2010), here

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