Race Defaced: Paradigms of Pessimism, Politics of Possibility

Race Defaced: Paradigms of Pessimism, Politics of Possibility

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Race Defaced: Paradigms of Pessimism, Politics of Possibility by Rodolfo Torres, Christopher Kyriakides

From Manifest Destiny to the White Man's Burden, Harold Macmillan to Tony Blair, and John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama—the historical development of racial doctrine has been closely connected to the relationship between radical and conservative politics. This book compares different forms of racism and anti-racism in the United States and Great Britain from the 19th century to today, situating the development of racial doctrine within the political movements of the modern capitalist world order.
In conversation with current debates, this work places the treatment of racialized human beings within a wider dynamic of capitalist exploitation. It unpacks the influence of anti-emancipatory thought on "race relations," and argues that there is a consensus of thought across the political spectrum underpinned by the contemporary acceptance of the impossibility of human emancipation. Ultimately, Race Defaced is a heretical intervention into questions of race and racism that challenges both conservative and radical orthodoxies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804763356
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 09/05/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Christopher Kyriakides is Assistant Professor and Director of Ethnicity and Communications Research at Cyprus University of Technology and Research Associate at the University of California, Irvine.
Rodolfo D. Torres is Professor of Urban Planning and Chicano-Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and former visiting fellow in the Centre for Research on Racism, Ethnicity and Nationalism at the University of Glasgow.

Read an Excerpt


Paradigms of Pessimism, Politics of Possibility
By Christopher Kyriakides Rodolfo D. Torres

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6335-6

Chapter One


I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.

Antonio Gramsci

Have pity on the pessimist. He spoils his own existence. In fact, life is endurable only on condition that one's an optimist. The pessimist complicates things to no purpose.... What would have happened to us, by Heaven, if we'd been a group of pessimists! ... How could I have been successful without that dose of optimism which has never left me, and without that faith that moves mountains? ... One must have faith in life.

Adolf Hitler


The belief that another, better world is possible and that Man, not God or Nature, has the power to make this happen, is a distinguishing hallmark of modern political thought. It is also that which is typically dismissed by End of History thinkers as redundant, even dangerous. The dismissal also has a long history captured within the constellation of meanings that are usually labeled "utopian," but the negative impulse takes a profound form today. The work of English philosopher John Gray is symptomatic. Taking his cue from ardent anti-utopian postwar liberal Isaiah Berlin, Gray goes further, negatively casting all modern political projects as utopian. In Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Gray argues that the Enlightenment humanist belief in progress was a secularized form of religious apocalyptic thought. The secularization of an essential human need for faith is responsible for the deadly belief that human beings can make a more perfect world. We are unable to free ourselves from a conflict-ridden human nature, because "nothing is more human than the readiness to kill and die in order to secure a meaning in life." To the familiar "utopian" sources of meaning against which Gray sets out his stall—communism, National Socialism, and neoliberalism—neoconservatism and al-Qaeda's Islamic fundamentalism are added. Gray's highly conservative appraisal of the need for meaning speaks to a contemporary state of emergency. The current darling of zero-hour intellectuals, he is hailed by writer Will Self as "the most important living philosopher." It is striking that such importance should be placed on a theory that considers human aspiration to be fundamentally flawed, even dangerous. But that Gray begins from one of the architects of postwar liberalism and ends on such a negative view of the Enlightenment tradition, projecting apocalypse onto the present as a warning against the dire consequences of humanism, is particularly revealing, for as the historian of ideas, Russell Jacoby notes, "The defeat of radicalism bleeds liberalism of its vitality."

Gray's philosophical orientation is not particularly helpful; in fact, his antipolitical stance kicks at an open door to a post—Cold War age in which the absence of utopia is generally heralded as a victory to be maintained against the Left-Right ideologies of the past. True, those who still consider themselves on the Left or the Right continue to look for and "identify" their political adversary; however, an alternative reading of the present centralizes not the continuance but the collapse of the Left-Right ideological framework, and in this reading neither Left nor Right remains intact. Nor does an unrepentant neoliberalism hold sway. In A World Without Meaning, the present, according to Zaki La'idi, is a period in which "liberal theories [are] made suddenly obsolete." While the end of the Cold War should logically have put liberals "on a pedestal" (and it is on this logic that theories of neoliberalization stand), their relative obsolescence is probably because they and their anti-liberal homologues—though with some nuances—drew their resources from a common well, and ordered their weaponry from the same arsenals, under the illuminated sign of linear progress commanded by the nation-states. The Enlightenment also left its mark here.

Laïdi argues persuasively that the end of communism led to political, ideological, and theoretical fragmentation, an inability globally to find meaning:

... if by meaning we imply the triple notion of foundation, unity and final goal: "foundation" meaning the basic principle on which a collective project depends; "unity" meaning that "world images" are collected into a coherent plan of the whole; and "end" or "final goal," meaning projection towards an elsewhere that is deemed to be better.

If "Man," or the belief that Man could radically transform the world, was the critical foundation on which the modern political sensibility was founded (and we will elaborate on this point later), then the absence of foundation alerts us to the presence of a fundamentally new and unprecedented historical context in which the unity (the human race) and final goal (a better world) have not only altered but have dissipated. It is within this context that we seek to situate the idiom of postraciality, now practically synonymous with the election of Barack Obama.

The entry of a "mixed-race" US president into the White House provoked both celebration and skepticism. This was only to be expected, but the casual observer would have been surprised that negative appraisal stemmed not only from the Right but also from the Left. For those who have spent a lifetime canvassing, advocating, and agitating for the rights of minorities, radical "certainty" dictates that one not be too dazzled by star-spangled utopias, carried away in what Tariq Ali has described and dismissed as the "ideological euphoria" that followed the Obama promise to "heal America's wounds at home." Writing amid Obama's first election campaign, Angela Davis had already cautioned against "a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change" lest the proverbial color-blind flag of racial unity continue to drape the national disunity that has plagued liberal race relations fears since Gunnar Myrdal's dilemma. Davis argues:

[Obama] is being consumed as the embodiment of colour blindness. It's the notion that we have moved beyond racism by not taking race into account. That's what makes him conceivable as a presidential candidate. He's become the model of diversity.

But to a certain extent, both Ali and Davis miss what is different, and crucially so, about the present. Gray's negativity is more clearly representative.

Today, what the Marxist Ernst Bloch once called "the spirit of utopia"—the idea that human beings have an unqualified capacity to dream of and create a better world—is sorely called into question. Ali's cynical yet unreflective jibe at "ideological euphoria" reflects the all-pervasiveness of this negative impulse. Ali cannot situate his own anti-utopianism within the wider political current that he criticizes. One must surely be cautious when interpreting the present as a one-dimensional progressive move forward from, in the words of former British prime minister Tony Blair, "the conservativism of either Left or Right." As we later discuss, however, although the Right may have won the cold (tug of) war over Man, it collapsed and took the belief in human agency—the foundation of hope—with it. In this sense Francis Fukuyama's "last man" was but a shadow of the human subject of history that prefigured modern political thought, at least for the past two hundred years. Today's hopeless subject is not the agent released by "liberal victory." In the absence of meaning, the search for hope, most recently advocated by President Obama and the African American scholar Cornel West, seems to lose itself to an unfulfilled wish.

The absence of hope is the elephant in the room of contemporary human culture. This was not always the case, and it is necessary, as Jacoby recently argued, in an age characterized by the End of Utopias to salvage through clarification the relationship between utopian thought and the privileging of human value such that the pursuit of a better world can once again become a legitimate goal but without the trappings of past mistakes. Understandably there is an urgent sense in which the politics of race and the demand for equality suffer from the absence of emancipatory vision. Consequently, in this chapter we lay out the rudiments of a paradigm of possibility through which an alternative history of racial politics—from racial ordering to the postracial disorder—is charted in subsequent chapters. We begin by unraveling the strands of contemporary paradigms of pessimism via a critical review of some of the key postwar theorists of the Holocaust. We do this not from some putative need to be critical, but rather, we believe the future of the human condition is dependent on our ability to steal hope back from the paradigms of pessimism that gave the Hitler movement its barbaric optimistic stance.


The perverse logic that led the human race to the gas chamber 70 years ago continues to dumbfound us, for we were all condemned by it. In what sense barbarism was permitted to unfold while we watched in most part from the sidelines is a question that continues to haunt us, for we are yet to find a satisfactory answer. A sufficient reply to Hitler remains elusive. How could the annihilation of millions of human beings have been a positive goal, the seeming fruition of which validated and generated optimism? In many respects the origin of post–World War II antiracist politics and antiracist theory represents an implicit attempt to grapple with this question. Yet, a crucial distinction between the optimism/pessimism of National Socialism and that of socialism is seldom brought to bear on the search for answers. Where Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wanted to move humans optimistically toward a better future, Hitler's denial of a universal humanity underpinned the optimism of racial victory. Where pessimism was for Gramsci the basis of a critical stance directed against the obstacles placed between humanity and freedom, for Hitler this critical stance—the very idea of a universal civilization—was an obstacle to Aryan racial supremacy. The distinction serves to remind us that optimism and pessimism are not simply conditions of individual temperament but of wider philosophical, intellectual, and political significance. It is our contention that the history of racial doctrine cannot be understood without first grasping the conflict between these two positions—the radically subjective and the conservative subjective as represented by Gramsci and Hitler, respectively. Contemporary theory ignores their crucial schism.

Following World War II, early pioneers of "official" antiracist thought at UNESCO recognized that "the great and terrible war that has now ended was a war made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races." Subscribers to the statement held that racism was rooted in the "minds of men," an irrational force that in the absence of truth gripped individual psychology. The rightfulness of racial inequality was a mistruth; race lies spoke to emotion, offering spurious validity to unrestrained irrational expression and disrupting the rational social order. UNESCO's formulation was underlined by the implicit acceptance that "knowledge of the truth does not always help change emotional attitudes that draw their real strength from the subconscious or from factors beside the real issue." Racial doctrine smoothed the way from gut feeling to reaction, from wrong premise to wrong conclusion. Taking its cue from the spirit of Enlightenment humanism, reeducation could "prevent rationalizations of reprehensive acts or behavior prompted by feelings that men will not easily avow openly." UNESCO's answer was to proffer moral condemnation of those who may be tempted by the lie of race, with the dual antidote of antiracist education. For the team at UNESCO, the Holocaust was an aberration, a deviation from modernity's Enlightened dictum that all individuals are equal—the cornerstone of civilized humane praxis. To modernity, the irrational acts of racial cleansing were antithetical.

Others saw it differently. Hannah Arendt's appraisal of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann delivered a chilling caution to those who interpreted Nazi atrocities as the work of madness. Nor would moral condemnation suffice as a response. On trial in Israel (1961–1962) for his complicity in the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, Eichmann, the SS-Obersturmbannführer, showed signs neither of guilt nor responsibility for his actions; he was "merely following orders." What struck Arendt was the absence of anti-Semitism or psychological abnormality in Eichmann's self-defense; in short, his "terrifyingly normal" personality—a point on which psychologists commissioned by the Israeli state concurred—had to be accounted for. According to Arendt, Eichmann's demeanor patently undermined the idea that Nazis were psychopathic or different from people in general. He embodied the banality of evil. Arendt was not simply arguing that anyone could commit such atrocities given circumstances conducive to their enactment but that Eichmann was a fool who had relinquished his will to make moral choices. He had voluntarily abandoned his autonomy to the Fuhrer, renouncing the ethical path open to self-critical free-willing individuals. If the human conscience has a mediating function that tempers the relationship between an individual's universally given empathic drives and his or her willful actions toward other human beings, reasoned Arendt, then "the problem" for Nazis "was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering." Eichmann's voluntarism stemmed from the normality of the act and the legitimization of the latter as duty by a plethora of German laws. Legalized atrocity erased its immorality, relinquishing the doer of personal responsibility, overriding any deep-rooted revulsion toward human suffering. For Arendt, Nazism was synonymous with conscience surrendered to a higher authority; the subservience of crucial emotional drives to rule-following, although not inevitable, negated individual moral sense.

Arendt's analysis widened the parameters of postwar theoretical deliberations on race, and like UNESCO, her critique reflected Cold War concerns. The establishment of UNESCO should not be conflated with the analyses developed by its contributors, which were by no means consensual, but the institutions' foundation reflected an emerging Cold War framework within which Western liberalism sought a counterpoint to communism. UNESCO's early pronouncements on race were orientated under a Cold War umbrella, where power and meaning were fused in a teleological end-game underpinned by Enlightenment universalism. Each side in the ideological battle offered a vision of social progress predicated on competing visions of the good life. Thus, Lai'di argues, "because Sovietism offered a global meaning, a synthesized representation of the world and its objectives, liberalism was for a long time required to produce a symmetrical counter-discourse, to try to export Locke to check Marx."

It is useful to think about this formulation as a tug-of-war scenario. The communist team collectively believes in socialist Man, and the capitalist team collectively believes in individualist Man. The adversaries are separated by a ditch of fire representing the anti-Man critique catalyzed by Holocaust and Hiroshima. The rope, representing entwined strands of ideology, has a stick of wood (Man) tied to its midpoint that hangs in the balance over the burning ditch and into which each team must pull the other, thereby bringing Man to ideological victory. Weakened by the flames of anti-Man critique, the singed unraveling ideological fibers threaten Man's loss, but on the order to "take up the strain," rope is stretched ideologically taut, the stick (Man) lifted up and out of the ditch to hang suspended in the heat out of fire's reach. Whistle blows; contest begins. Each antagonist vies to wrench power from the other, pulling at the strands of ideology in a bid to bring Man to their side. If both teams pull equally, Man remains suspended, weak but alive. If one team should yield, the stick (Man) falls to the winning side as the victors collapse. The Cold War is represented in the analogy up until the "victorious" end, and we will return to the fall of Man later. But in a real sense, this is what happened. Anti-Enlightenment pessimism resulting from the Holocaust and Hiroshima did have an impact post–World War II, but it was held in check by the Enlightenment liberal-socialist contest to represent the future of Man. It was in this context that antiracist theory and the politics of race developed. Only after the contest ended did paradigms of pessimism come to hold sway both intellectually and politically.


Excerpted from RACE DEFACED by Christopher Kyriakides Rodolfo D. Torres Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


CHAPTER 4 OTHER THAN MEXICANS....................120
CHAPTER 5 WHAT MAY I HOPE?....................158
CHAPTER 6 A PRELUDE TO CLASS....................187

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