- Epistemic hyper-reflexivity in the face of the modern seduction of race: a response to Soudien1
Soudien’s ‘The modern seduction of race: whither social constructionism?’ provides a compelling philosophical argument that highlights how the potential for the reinscription of race in certain epistemic traditions has in fact become realised in everyday practices, especially in the contemporary academy. In particular, he suggests that the increasingly uncritical and widespread utilisation of social constructionism as a framing for our analysis of race as a social construct, has begun to fold in on itself, resulting in a decline in the criticality of these analyses, and in fact an inadvertent return to more essentialised notions of race as a social marker and category of difference. Here, he points to antithetical ways of thinking embedded in dialectics, more static conceptualisations of history, the reification of difference in the turn to language, as well as newer technologies – all as some of the contemporary knowledge counter-weights to the potentially progressive influence of social constructionist perspectives that have historically shaped the nature of critique in the humanities, arts and social sciences. The article is particularly pertinent, given the influence of the academy on broader social discourses that are consumed and reproduced in everyday life outside of the academy, or in more commonsense contexts of deployment. On the one hand, the academy as a space of elite discourse production, reproduction and articulation has often lagged as it has described everyday articulations of race in all its mutable forms (eg symbolic racism; aversive racism; rhetorical strategies, lexical registers and interpretative repertoires associated with the denial and reproduction of race and racism; the culturalisation of racism; the ethnicisation of racism; etc). On the other [End Page 39] hand however, this is by no means a unidirectional process where the academy simply responds to everyday discursive uses of terms and labels, as it is also instrumental in co-constructing these phenomena through the very naming, labelling and production of it as an object of study. Clearly, elite discourses that are produced in particular places and spaces also directly and indirectly shape the commonsense use of certain terms and understandings within the public domain more broadly. Van Dijk (1993:4), when referring to the issue of elites and their discourses, notes that:
[a]lthough this notion is notoriously vague […] [it serves] to denote those groups in the socio-political power structure that develop fundamental policies, make the most influential decisions, and control the overall modes of their execution: government, parliament, directors or boards of state agencies, leading politicians, corporate owners, directors and managers, and leading academics.
Of course, this debate on the potential reinscription of race in the very work that attempts to disavow and undermine its existence is by no means new, and certainly people like Bowman et al (2006) have examined the contradictions in the use of race categories in data that focused on redress in the social and health sciences; Ellison et al (1997) conducted work on health statistics and the problematic implications for their ongoing racialisation in post-apartheid South Africa; and, of course, Taylor and Orkin (1995) have written on the problems associated with the racialisation of social scientific research in and on South Africa; to mention but a few. However, what this does raise is a phenomenon that we have been increasingly aware of in the era of mass and instant communication, and that is that elite discourses are perhaps more easily and readily accessible, apprehended and consumed by a public and integrated or reconfigured into everyday commonsense discourses in sometimes contradictory ways. This of course immediately raises the critical question about the role of intellectuals in knowledge production processes (and in this case, in relation to race and racism) and the fundamental Gramscian (1982) question about the importance of the relationship between the intelligentsia, ideology and/or its critique, as well as their relationship to the political project of transformation itself.
Soudien makes several important points in his paper, the first of which suggests that within the collective social imaginary it is difficult to extricate ourselves from a world that is raced, even when we are committed to such an imagined...