- Seeing (Beyond) The Limits of Our Racial Knowledge:Tucker's The Moment of Racial Sight
Scholars write from certain perspectives. To say that is not a claim to initiate a conversation regarding a tension between objectivity and subjectivity and thereby bias. That argument is not as interesting as maybe it once was. Rather, I mean to signal the ground from which a thinker views the landscape of the question which she attempts to engage. Irene Tucker's The Moment of Racial Sight: A History can be thrilling, inasmuch as that word can be appropriately applied to an academic book. Though by her training one presumes her ground is in literature, Tucker is far from content to address the matter of race by keeping her vision close to her intellectual home. Rather, Tucker sees a wide world, conceptually and historically, that she believes if conveyed artfully and precisely can allow us to see beyond our immediate conceptual boundaries. From the perspective of political philosophy, I indeed find this thrilling. Political thought could do with more work that is less preoccupied with parochial engagements with 'others in the field', stretching its reach to other conceptual lands in service to one's question rather than one's peers' standards of intellectual mettle. Also, as a scholar of color, I find it energizing to know that Tucker desires matching the complexity of race with a complex array of thinkers across time. Moving from Immanuel Kant to HBO's The Wire with stops along the way to engage thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin, Tucker's book is so ambitious that I suspect it is susceptible to many kinds of engagements. My own interest in Tucker's book - and I would suggest your own interest ought to be as well - is whether Tucker's grasp of race as an active and recalcitrant social category is as firm as her conceptual reach is vigorous. Does the work as a whole say something we need to hear about race and does it say it clearly? It turns out this issue of perspective is quite significant in terms of answering that question.
Race has been and remains a powerful determining force in blacks' lives. From disproportionate incarceration to higher concentrations of poverty or susceptibility to police brutality or more mundane yet problematic behavior like job discrimination, race is often a harbinger of systemic disadvantage, if not tragedy. You know, then, that a book about race, in which the source for the opening example meant to capture its preoccupation, is culled from a Dr. Seuss story, is going to take risks. Moreover, such a book, in which race plays a substantively direct role in only one of five chapters while playing almost no analytical role in another of those chapters, is clearly deploying a distinct strategy in the service of furthering our understanding of the author's idea. On Tucker's view, we (intellectuals) have been overly committed to and focused on talking about race in a manner that is ultimately linguistic. She rightly observes that a lot of analysis around race concerns its arbitrary nature (why should any particular skin color signify anything about anyone?) as embodied in the idea of (social) construction (while arbitrary, blackness has come to embody a set of attributes that are a function of some group's ability to imbue black bodies with particular meanings). Thus, "[o]nce race is understood as a kind of language … critiques of race of necessity take the form of theories of language" (4). Tucker does not deny the usefulness of that mode of analysis so much as she is concerned that it has important limits. In particular, this type of usage is unable to reveal the ways in which we have come to know the signs and symbols we trade in when we speak about race.
Tucker's project is one that seeks to shift our analytic perception from an emphasis on language to one of epistemology. Her book represents the "hope that readers will respond to this study not simply...