- Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human by Alexander G. Weheliye
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014, 224pp.ISBN 9780822357018
Alexander G. Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human covers vast terrain in a scant number of pages. Weheliye radically reorients discussions of biopolitics by challenging Michel Foucault’s and Giorgio Agamben’s theorizations of population management and bare life. These philosophers, Weheliye argues, have neglected to theorize racialization as the prime mechanism for articulating “a set of sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans” (4). The book’s title, Habeas Viscus, indicates just how far into the depths of the body—the heart and lungs—Weheliye will plumb in his theorization of ways that racialization, Man, and rights come together to exclude some from the rights of personhood. From this perspective, slavery emerges as one of the primary disciplinary apparatuses for separating out strains of humanity in the North American and African contexts. Building on this focus on slavery, Weheliye urges us to think through Hortense Spillers, who argues that gender and sexuality are central to the workings of racializing [End Page 156] assemblages, and Sylvia Wynter, who positions this decentering of Man at the heart of the enterprise of black studies. As such, Habeas Viscus analyzes the flesh or viscus in order to preserve the gendered and racialized specificity of biopolitical regimes. In addition to bringing black feminism into conversation with continental philosophy, Weheliye articulates black studies as an intellectual endeavor that “pursues a politics of global liberation beyond the genocidal shackles of Man”(4). This means that the flesh, following black feminism’s usage of it as the signifier of the gendered but not quite human and not quite animal body, is a space of potentiality because it offers a way to think about “alternative modes of life alongside the violence, subjection, exploitation, and racialization that define the modern human” (2). It is in this flesh that alternatives to Man might be able to truly take hold.
The book begins by insisting that blackness offers a way to study the disparate modes of humanity because, owing to colonialism and the slave trade, it is both inside and outside of modernity. Weheliye draws on Wynter’s troubling of “the genre of Man” (25) in order to argue that “racialization figures as a master code within the genre of the human represented by western Man, because its law-like operations are yoked to species-sustaining physiological mechanisms in the form of a global color line—instituted by cultural laws so as to register in human neural networks—that clearly distinguishes the good/life/fully-human from the bad/death/not-quite-human” (27). This insistence on racialization through culture not only sets the stage for his specific intervention into Agamben and Foucault, but it opens the book to a wide array of sources—critical theory, law, film, and music—in order to prove that racialization and cultural production go hand in hand. The ordinariness of these racializing assemblages acts as an affront to the eventialization of bare life that Agamben articulates and the scientifically oriented mechanisms of biopower that Foucault favored. This is violence that is designed to cloak its origins. By way of explaining the workings of these assemblages, Weheliye argues that the video for M.I.A’s Born Free, in which redheads are rounded up and executed because they have culturally been deemed “other,” is exemplary of this racial logic. Rather than argue that red hair stands as a substitute for blackness and abjection, Weheliye argues that the video exposes the “techniques by which sociopolitical hierarchies are camouflaged by the natural features of the human body” because it shows the link between technologies of surveillance and violence and physical traits that have been made to stand for important differences (71). This is racism at its core in that it draws on the body to claim differences that become naturalized into hierarchies. In a subsequent chapter, Weheliye...