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The Banalization of Racial Events

A commentary on “The Time of the Political” by Wendy Brown, Theory & Event, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1997)

Returning to Wendy Brown’s “The Time of the Political” reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s comments on Eichmann’s affect, in the postscript of her report: “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth … he had no motive at all (…) He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. (…) He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness (…) that predisposed him to become of the greatest criminals of that period.”1 More precisely, Brown’s and Arendt’s seemingly different takes on “the banal” refers to the workings of separability,2 as both rest on a double distinction, one which places racial subjugation outside of the ‘proper’ domain of political theory. Explicitly, this distinction appears as racial matters are placed in a moral (social or cultural) terrain, where affectability (emotions and attachments) rules; implicitly, however, it refers to a deep layer of modern thought, in which raciality functions among the conditions of possibility for articulating the proper subject of the Political as a self-determined (self-regulated or self-transparent) existent, while affectability is attributed to everything (bodies, minds, places, and more-than-humans) that is not white/European. These deeper layers explain why, Brown’s 1997 piece lists the beating of Rodney King, the OJ Simpson trial, and the Hill-Thomas hearings among the ‘banal events’ that do concern ‘proper’ political theorizing.

Let me begin through Arendt’s comments on Eichmann and his crime. While recognizing that “the Final Solution” was a crime that could only be perpetrated with the use of state apparatus, The Jerusalem court insisted on treating agents of the Nazi state (such as Eichmann) as “human beings” and, as such, liable to criminal charges. The statement in the verdict that “in politics, obedience and support are the same thing” indicated that he was found guilty because he did not disobey orders not because he obeyed them.3 A few pages later, commenting on the Jerusalem court’s argument that “manifestly criminal orders must not be obeyed,”4 Arendt shows why Eichmann’s “sheer [End Page 61] thoughtlessness” and his defence that he was a mere “tiny cog” in the Nazi state machinery would not exculpate him. In simple Kantian terms, Eichmann was found guilty of not acting on the principle of human dignity because he decided to act as a (dehumanized/thoughtless) functionary, as a cog in Hitler’s machinery of evil. By treating Eichmann as a rational moral agent, that is, with free will (self-determination)—with the capacity to make moral judgements and decide accordingly—the Jerusalem court displaced affectability onto the Nazi state.

The Third Reich, however, has become an exception “in the heart of Europe,” a polity defined by its moral outlook (a criminal state) and not its political stance (a modern sovereign/self-determined power). Hence because he obeyed criminal orders from his bureaucratic superiors, Eichmann failed to act as a rational moral agent. This apparent Kantian paradox—in that the (moral) subject of decision is self-determined and the (political) functionary of the modern bureaucracy is affectable—disappears if we recall the depth of raciality’s work. For, as Sylvia Wynter reminds us, the kind of rationality to which Kant attributes dignity and self-determination, said to be exclusive to the modes of being human found in Europe, should extend to mental (moral and intellectual) and juridical and economic configurations. In so far as he obeyed the orders of the Nazi state, Eichmann behaved like a Kantian rational being (as his “thoughtlessness” suggests), and as such as the kind of human being found only in Europe. Now the problem is that raciality also accounts for how, in the aftermath of WWII, the Third Reich was singled out as a pathological exception; a racist state as opposed to the other rational ones. Put differently, “prejudice” and “evil,” instead of the “acts of state,”5 have become the chosen causes for the “unprecedented” massacres that would add the crime of genocide (and crimes against humanity) to the books of international law.

How does this concern “The Time of the Political”? The distinctions organizing Brown’s piece are between “everyday (banal) events” versus movement (expressive of conditions), “reading events” versus theorizing “conditions and possibilities”, and “hubristic pundit” versus “political theorist.” The view of the Political that privileges liberty (another figuring of self-determination) offers her—as well as much of contemporary political theory—limited tools for the analysis of the global present, in particular in regards to the persistence of colonial and racial violence. Let me bring it home by commenting on the everyday events that are grabbing our imagination now, as we endure another “media-driven” US Presidential race and its lousy politics. Among the many developments of today is the increased attention to police killing of unarmed black persons and a movement, Black Lives Matter, which is very different than the ones that Brown identifies as representative of what is worthy of political theorizing. My concern here is [End Page 62] with whether a political theory toolbox that carries on the basis of the distinctions she makes will be capable of capturing, to use her words, “the conditions and possibilities” for political existence that Black Lives Matter signals. This is a movement that has responded precisely to the ubiquity of scenes of state violence - police officers executing black persons in the streets of Black America, on TV, and in social media.

Thinking of how the double distinction I mention above—the one operated by raciality—guides Brown’s distinctions, the ‘proper’ political theory she pledges in the 1997 piece cannot appreciate the theoretical value of racial matters. The first distinction (moral versus political) immediately renders them undeserving of the kind of significant work Brown found missing in those who, like the authors of the pieces published in Toni Morrison’s volume on the Thomas-Hill hearing, were “reading [banal] events.” The second distinction (self-determination versus affectability) exposes deeper implications of the kind of “distance” and “indirection” Brown asked from political theorists twenty years ago. Let me return to Arendt. Immediately after the comments on Eichmann’s thoughtlessness, Arendt addresses the question of the nature of the crime committed by the Third Reich and/through its functionaries. For her, the concept of genocide does not adequately capture the ‘Final Solution’ (“which all agree is unprecedented”) “for the simple reason that massacres of whole peoples are not unprecedented” as “the centuries of colonization and imperialism provide plenty of examples of more or less successful attempts of that sort.” Instead, she proposes “administrative massacre,” a term related with British imperialism in India, because it has “the virtues of dispelling the prejudice that such monstrous acts can be committed only against a foreign nation or a different race.” The Jewish people were not the only victims in the Holocaust, she points out, and possibly in “ a not-too-distant future men may be tempted to exterminate all those whose intelligence quotient is below a certain level.”6 Since, according to Arendt, the British did not carry out ‘administrative massacres in India,’ she likely would not find the term “genocide” adequate to name the crime perpetrated as “administrative massacres” even if the orders given to the British soldiers explicitly told them to kill only non-Europeans living in the subcontinent. In any event, at first, in this passage, she seems open to attending to colonial and racial violence. Unfortunately, however, this comes in the form of a gesture that signals the irrelevance of the racial as a political concept (in both its pre and post-Enlightenment figurations), and the negation of the many ways in which it was deployed in justifications of “administrative massacres” in India, the Congo Free State, the Americas, Palestine, and all other moments when a raison d’état (self-preservation) has been deployed to justify colonial and racial violence as well as other modalities of racial subjugation (including those that rest on arguments of Blacks’ intellectually inferiority, which was recently rehearsed by US Supreme Court Justice Scalia). [End Page 63]

A similar gesture of negation occurs in Brown’s 2006 Regulating Aversion, in which she finds tolerance doing the same work of the tools of raciality but again does not consider the implications. According to Brown, tolerance has now become the pervasive moral descriptor of liberal democracies as it “produces and positions subjects, orchestrates meanings and practices of identity, marks bodies and conditions political subjectivities.”7 Since 9/11, she offers, “questions of tolerance as a domestic governmentality producing and regulating ethnic, religious, racial and sexual subjects [must] be supplemented with question about the operation of tolerance in and as a civilizational discourse distinguishing Occident from Orient, liberal from nonliberal, regimes, “free” from “unfree” peoples.”8 She seems to suggest that the apparatus of tolerance has replaced racial difference and cultural difference as the signifier of western (white/European) distinctiveness. How could it? Let me explain: if the pair tolerant/intolerant does the work Wynter has attributed to the pairs ‘rational/irrational’ and ‘selected/deselected by evolution,’9 one of two outcomes has to be the result: (a) it has become a tool of raciality, which rewrites racial subjects now under the terms of whether or not they embrace liberal pluralism, in which case the task of the political analysis would be to show how it reconfigures that which was produced by previous iterations, or (b) even though it has the same effects of production of subjects, tolerance has nothing to do with raciality because the latter has no relevance to the political analysis. Reading Brown’s 1997 piece and her 2006 book, it is evident that raciality for her has no analytical import as she sees ‘racial subjects’ as an effect of something that is not itself political, but which becomes political only when presented in the recognizable forms such as the Civil Rights Movement rather than in ‘banal” events such as the beating of Rodney King (and the revolts that followed the acquittal of the officers), the Hill-Thomas hearings, or the OJ Simpson trial.

What I find in the distinctions organizing Wendy Brown’s 1997 piece is a banalization of racial events resulting from political theory’s (of the left, center, and right) commitment to a conception of the Political that re-produces the deeper distinction between self-determined and affectable subjects. For contemporary political theory the racial may belong to the (Moral) matter (namely, prejudices, beliefs, or merely evil); it has nothing to offer to the form of the Political, which it identifies with the ‘rational,’ the civilized’ (evolved or selected by evolution), and so on. Today’s ‘banal events’—police killings and black revolts recall the stakes of this incapacity to consider the racial as constitutive of the onto-epistemological “conditions” and “possibilities” for the very events, institutions, and concepts—democracy, markets, ethnic difference, subjectivity—liberal and left political theory finds worthy of attention. What would a political analysis that is not uncomfortable with Arendt’s ‘prejudices’ and Brown’s ‘banal events’ offer to political theory? [End Page 64] Among other things, it would expose how these everyday events rehearse the racial grammar of the liberal democratic state at work, that is, a political (affectable) subject emerging in the scene of obliteration (police killing of unarmed black persons) in a sentence without a (self-determined) subject: Black Lives Matter.

Denise Ferreira da Silva

Denise Ferreira da Silva is the Director of The Social Justice Institute (GRSJ) at the University of British Columbia, Visiting Professor of Law at Birkbeck University of London’s Law School (UK), and Adjunct Professor at Monash Architecture, Design, and Art, Monash University (Australia). She is co-editor of Race, Empire, and the Crisis of the Subprime (JHP 2013), author of Toward a Global Idea of Race (UMP, 2007) and several book chapters and articles, including “To be Announced” (Social Text, 2013) and “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Towards the End of the World” (The Black Scholar, 2014). Denise may be contacted at dfsilva777@gmail.com

Notes

1. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, (New York: Penguin Book, 1976), 287.

2. For a discussion of how separability operates as an onto-epistemological pillar in modern thought, see Denise Ferreira da Silva, “On Difference Without Separability.” 32nd Bienal de São Paulo—Incerteza Viva. Catalogue. Edited by Jo-chen Volz and Júlia Rebouças (São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo), 57–65.

3. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 279.

4. Ibid., 292.

5. Arendt discussing the fact that the Holocaust “took place within a ‘legal order’,” she notes that acts of state was rejected by the Nuremberg tribunal because it would make it impossible to prosecute all involved in the Holocaust, include Hitler. Here she also considers ‘raison d’état’ as a possible justification but immediately dismiss self-preservation noting that “as he may have learned from the history of Jewish policy in the third Reich—in a state founded upon criminal principles, the situation is reversed” (Ibid, 290).

6. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 288.

7. Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) 4

8. Ibid., 6.

9. See generally Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom-Towards the Human. After Man. Its Overrepresentation-An Argument”—CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol 3, No. 3 (2003): 257–337. [End Page 65]