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According to W. J. T. Mitchell, a “color-blind” post-racial world is neither achievable nor desirable. Against popular claims that race is an outmoded construct that distracts from more important issues, Mitchell contends that race remains essential to our understanding of social reality. Race is not simply something to be seen but is among the fundamental media through which we experience human otherness. Race also makes racism visible and is thus our best weapon against it.
The power of race becomes most apparent at times when pedagogy fails, the lesson is unclear, and everyone has something to learn. Mitchell identifies three such moments in America’s recent racial history. First is the post–Civil Rights moment of theory, in which race and racism have been subject to renewed philosophical inquiry. Second is the moment of blackness, epitomized by the election of Barack Obama and accompanying images of blackness in politics and popular culture. Third is the “Semitic Moment” in Israel-Palestine, where race and racism converge in new forms of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Mitchell brings visual culture, iconology, and media studies to bear on his discussion of these critical turning points in our understanding of the relation between race and racism.
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Read an Excerpt
From Lecture Two: The Moment of Blackness
Has this veil been lifted in the post-black era? Has skin color ceased to be an important determinant of the perception of social identity or an index of economic status? Does the election of Barack Obama signal that color is no longer a factor in American politics? Not hardly. The remarks of Senator majority leader Harry Reid to the effect that America might be ready to elect a “light-skinned Negro” to the presidency testify to continued relevance of color as an index of racial identity. Of course at the same time the election of Obama (another “teachable moment”?) testified to the prevailing taboo on “race talk.” Despite the continual calls for “an honest conversation about race,” i.e., a conversation that would lift the taboo on even mentioning the subject outside of scare quotes, it was clear that race was the last thing Obama wanted to discuss. Even to bring up the topic in the post-racial era is to be accused of either beating a dead horse that should be safely buried, or of being a racist oneself. While I doubt that the post-racial moment can simply be reduced to a taboo on the word “race,” this certainly has to be one of its main elements.
As for Obama’s election as a sign that the color line has been erased, a more accurate account would say that the line still exists, but as Jacques Derrida would have put it, “under erasure.” That is, the line is still there, still visible, but somewhat blurred, partly repressed, and crossed over in both directions with increasing ease. Like the word “race,” it must be bracketed by “scare quotes” to distance it from the speaker, who thereby signals that he is not using the word, only mentioning it while disavowing responsibility for, or contamination by it.
We will get to the meaning of Obama’s election presently, but first, since the major premise of this whole argument is that race is best considered as a medium—that is, not merely a content to be mediated, but itself a medium of representation and expression—I want to say something about the relations between the post-black and post-racial era, and what is called the “post-medium condition.” As you may have surmised by now, I am somewhat impatient with the whole rhetoric of the “post-” that has dominated attempts to historicize the present since the 1970s. The postmodern and the postcolonial, for instance, both strike me as place holders, temporary substitutes for a positive historical description that has not yet found its proper name. The postcolonial might be more properly named a neocolonial period, in which military occupation and economic exploitation of less powerful countries have proceeded under a new set of ideological alibis involving democratization, human rights, and economic development. When it comes to postmodernism, I take Bruno Latour’s point that, since we have never been modern, postmodernism is simply a preposterous parasite on an illusion.
As for what Rosalind Krauss calls “the post-medium condition,” the era in which traditional artistic métiers such as painting, sculpture, architecture, etc. have been replaced by a hodge-podge of “multi-media” experiments such as performance and installation art it is important to note a couple of salient features of her invocation of this term. The first is her stated wish to “draw a line under the word medium, bury it like so much critical toxic waste, and walk away from it into a world of lexical freedom. ‘Medium” seemed too contaminated, too ideologically loaded, too dogmatically, too discursively loaded.” I hope it is clear how closely Krauss’s rhetoric matches the “post-racial” arguments we have been tracking. One could easily substitute the word race for medium without missing a beat. Could it be that the word “medium,” like race, has a set of fetishistic, totemic, and idolatrous connotations, albeit in the smaller world of art and aesthetics?
What People are Saying About This
A must-read book for anyone struggling to think outside the racial boxes in which we have been enclosed too long. With characteristic verve and originality, Mitchell breaks through the binaries that have shaped the discourse about race in an ostensibly post-racial America, challenging us to see race as a consequence rather than a cause of racism
Elizabeth Abel, University of California, Berkeley
This is a brilliant provocation to see anew how we see the world through images bearing on race, but didn't know we were so doing. Extending his lifelong inquiry into how images work in everyday life as well as in the realm of art history and theory, the author releases the liberatory potential of images. W. E. B. Du Bois would, I believe, be most pleased with these almighty clever and passionate lectures recently delivered at Harvard in his name.
Michael Taussig, Columbia University
Seeing Through Race engages with one of the most contested concepts of our time while raising new questions and offering new insights. What Mitchell proposes with regard to race and media is akin to the rethinking of sex and gender in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, or to the turning of the tables performed on the ethics of violence by Talal Asad in On Suicide Bombing.
Gil Anidjar, Columbia University