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Reconfiguring Racism
Using Foucault and Felski to understand the uses, and emancipatory power, of literature.
Reconfiguring Racism
By Fabio Tollon / filmsforaction.org
Nov 16, 2016

There is a growing sense of doubt among literary and cultural critics as to the pragmatic value of literary thought. Revolutionary thoughts which were received with much enthusiasm thirty-five years ago because of their novelty ( such as the decentred self and the social construction of reality) have been used to excess and thus lost their true meanings.  It is with this in mind that we must attempt to redefine how literary works can be used as sources of epistemic value and social change. In order to do this the work of Michel Foucault and Rita Felski will be most helpful.

The Uses of Literature

Modernity seems to have a habit of equating knowledge with the production of endless tables, graphs, questionnaires, pie charts, input-output ratios and feedback loops. The once trusted paradigm in which familiarity with literature was positively correlated with moral progress and certain cultural attributes seems to have been left far behind. With the aforementioned kept in mind, how is it possible to say that students of literature make positive contributions to society with their work? There is one line of thought that proposes that the decline of literature can actually be made endogenous.  The argument is that the rise of “theory” is what has in fact caused the decay of literature. Aesthetic pursuits became subjected to sociological critique and the pretentious ramblings of intellectuals who attempted to impose their own carefully considered meanings onto works of art. But what is really meant by theory? Theory is simply a process of mediation in which a scholar considers the underlying frameworks, principles, and assumptions that shape individual acts of interpretation. Thus, attempting to draw a division or assert a privileged position to either term (literature/theory) is to admit to not understanding their intimate relationship. This is one of the fundamental insights of literary theory: that attending to a certain work of literature objectively is a practical impossibility. Reading relies on a complex interaction of subjective particularities. It is for this reason that reading can never be a one-way street, we cannot help but impose ourselves on literary texts and be simultaneously exposed to ourselves.

Acknowledgment of this mutual implication allows us to delve into what is known as the “hermeneutics of suspicion”. It is a paranoid style of investigation, requiring constant vigilance and reading against the grain. What this means is that there is an inherent cynicism in literary criticism. Scholars seek to invert binaries and subvert genres. The negation has become normative. It involves a reading of a text that exposes any contradictions that may be present in a text.  What is important to note is that this fascination with a self-conscious interrogation of fixed ideas has itself become a bias to be weary of. The decision to proceed in this way is less of a free choice and more of an institutional and academic imposition. This view of literature sees it as an “other” when contrasted with reality. Literature is different from the world that created it, it is a fundamentally different way of making sense of the world. This separation of literature and reality is, however, a false dichotomy. Accepting this distinction means to ignore the ways works of art influence our daily lives. It ignores the connectedness that literature shares with the conditions that made it possible.

Another interpretation of literature is through an ideological perspective. This method seeks to place literature in the social world. This focus means that literature is always part of something that is greater than the work itself. Literature is thus a signal to understanding the broader social whole. This approach reduces literature to the role of supplement, to merely a resource available to the critic to be used diagnostically in order to understand broader societal issues. To define literature as ideology is to make a pre-emptive judgment that texts can only be objects of knowledge and never sources of knowledge. This approach assumes that a literary text can never claim to know as much as a theory.


Finally there is a historical approach to understanding literature. This method of investigation focuses on the affective aspects of reading, a work is placed in its point of origin and demarcated a position in relation to vast interplay of forces.  This approach seems to be the best at enabling a proper and fruitful engagement with a text. Readers must of course be aware that it is inconceivable to attempt to recreate the past. Any historical approach is mediated by the wills and counters of the present moment. What is important is that this method of historical inquiry forces one to consider the multifarious contextual elements which combine to create the text.

It is with this in mind that we can investigate how texts, specifically the texts of Michel Foucault, can be used to enhance our understanding of racism. In order to do this, however, it is imperative that one first have a grasp of Foucault’s understanding of how power operates throughout society.

Foucault’s Conception of Power

According to Foucault, traditional attempts at understanding power relations fall short of the mark. There are two main mutually implicated reasons for this claim. Firstly, power has been understood in terms of “repression”. This means that there is a way out of power relations, a way to liberate oneself. Secondly, power is understood as being wholly dominant, with no possibility of escape. It is clear to see that when viewed together these objections are mutually exclusive, and Foucault brings this to light by naming this false dichotomy the “juridico-discursive” model of power. If we seek to better understand power we need to eviscerate ourselves from this way of thinking. There are five major elements of this model that need to be overcome. Firstly, that power is understood as a negative relation, as an exclusion, rejection or concealment. Secondly, that power can only be exercised via the rule of law. Thirdly, that powers dominant mode of expression is though cycles of prohibition. Fourthly, that power explicitly censors any dissenting opinions. And lastly, that power operates in a uniform and congruent manner throughout society. The question that is now brought to the surface is why we have been coerced into believing that power functions entirely through negative mechanisms that prohibit us from doing that which we want to do? Foucault states that “power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms”. With this understanding of power we must have a more nuanced approach to how we analyse it. Using broad categorizations such as “repression” or “prohibition” when trying to analyse power are exactly what allow it to function. In order to do this we need to remove from our discourse “the theoretical privilege of law and sovereignty if we wish to analyse power within the concrete and historical framework of its operation”. For Foucault power is not some kind of homogenous entity that can be assigned a specific place in space and time. Rather, it is a heterogeneous proliferation of multifarious force relations, combining to form an unstable force that is around us always and everywhere.

With this conception of power it is possible for any party to be empowered in a battle. Power is accessible to all. This means that it is possible to escape the juridico-discursive understanding of power. In order to achieve the aforementioned there are four rules that need to be followed. Firstly, there is the rule of immanence. This means that it is impossible for power to function without the influence of knowledge and truth. Secondly we have the rule of continual variation. This rule states that power is a dynamic process as opposed to a static one. Thirdly there is the rule of double conditioning. According to this rule each polarity of a power relation is implicit in its opposition whilst simultaneously maintaining its heterogeneity. Finally we are left with the rule of the tactical polyvalence of discourses. Discourse is never power neutral, and so for this reason it is subject to the same rules as power.

Now that a familiarity has been established between Foucault’s juridico-discursive understanding of power and the rules that need to be followed in order to prevent a lapse back into this state, we can attempt to see why this analysis can be helpful. This theoretical movement is a form of social critique. This critique creates a gap in the organization of power into which those who feel as though they have no power can exert pressure. It lays bare the fact that there is in fact no such thing as being “powerless”. Everyone has power, as power is constantly in play regardless of political or social organization/categorization. A constant characteristic of power is its changing nature. It is constantly in a situation of flux, accruing and reconfiguring itself. These characteristics mean that power is vulnerable to forms of resistance.

With this in mind there are certain issues with Foucauldian methodology that need to be addressed. Because this type of inquiry is concerned with the conditions that make certain power relations possible, there is a strong historical aspect. What this implies is that there is no such thing as a neutral subject, no type of objective moral judgment that can be made. Foucault calls his type of investigation “historico-political” discourse, and outlines three major differences between this and traditional, “philosophico-juridical” discourse. On the one hand there is a difference in the type of speaker. In contrast to the supposedly objective position occupied by the speaker in the traditional system, this new system requires one to acknowledge his/her own subjectivities and biases. Secondly, the new system demands that the scholar sets aside the goals of the traditional system. These goals included the presentation of an aesthetically beautiful system with universal application. In place of this idealism, history needs to show as it really is: an ugly, dirty, complicated series of serendipitous opportunities. Lastly, once again in opposition to the philosophico-juridical, which seeks to find some kind of peace in history, the historico-political discourse stresses the fact that war and blood are the defining characteristics of analysis. War is acknowledged to be ever-present, even in the academic world, where battles are fought through books, articles and lectures. 


Foucault has a unique way of describing race. Traditional understandings of racism start with groups of people who belong to different races and then seeks to describe their interactions with one another. Foucault proposes a radically new methodology: start with one group of people and divide that population into those who must live and those who are allowed to die. According to Foucault, at the beginning of the Classical Age we witnessed a decline of sovereign power and thus a shift in historical strategy. This resulted in a change in the object of history, a change from sovereignty to “the nation”. During the Classical Age “nation” and “race” were synonymous with one another. Wars between nations could be understood as wars between races. A new conceptualization of racism is born when it becomes free from the power of the sovereign.

This new formulation of an old idea means that racism is in fact a war between different groups in a society. It is the subrace that is offered as a sacrificial danger to the proper biological functioning of society. It is seen as a danger to the purity of the superrace, and as such it needs to be eliminated in order to preserve racial purity within the state. Foucault pays particularly close attention to the precariousness of blood, specifically how concerns about sexual activity and race depend foundationally on anxieties about blood (either through disease or the mixing of blood).

It is through the vehicle of blood that we come to our modern understanding of racism, as it allows a “politics of settlement, family, marriage, education, social hierarchization, and property”. The aforementioned characteristics all stem from the desire to preserve the purity of the supposedly superior races blood. It is through this concern for life that racism is tied to sexuality and bio-power. Concern for the future health of “the race” is bound up with birth rates, population control mechanisms and the spread of disease. Those who are seen as degenerate need to be at a remove from society, so as not to infect it. There are thus two important shifts that Foucault identifies. The first is the shift of racism away from simple sovereign antagonisms. Secondly there is a further shift from racism as a concern of purely phenotypical features, away from racism as aesthetic preference. Modern racism is thus a decision about who can die, either through direct or indirect actions. These indirect mechanism are much more common. They include decisions about who needs medical insurance and whose actions need more or less disciplinary control. Thus, this new conception of racism is not limited to skin colour, but includes sexual orientation, socio-economic status and even political preference.

The hidden operations of racism must be addressed so that the multifarious forces that shape us as subjects can be understood and hopefully one day overcome. The power structures that allow the proliferation of racism are everywhere. This means that opportunities to resist these structures are also available to us. In light of recent political developments, ideas like this offer a glimpse of hope. They show us how we might be able to use literature to better conceptualize the power bindings that mediate our lives. Through a proper understanding of these interactions we can hope to overcome prejudice and bigotry. If we can define concepts in ways that reflect the actual ways they influence reality, we can come closer to real change.

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Reconfiguring Racism