- Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human by Alexander G. Weheliye
During a time of seemingly retrogressive approaches to humanity and humanness around the world—manifest in populist projects featuring racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, nativism, and gender inequality—it is incumbent on us to think our way out of such conditions. Alexander G. Weheliye's Habeas Viscus is an exemplary contribution to the effort to newly envision and articulate humanity, as he adeptly goes beyond a theoretical "thinking outside of the box" to a level of innovation that requires thinking outside of the flesh. Weheliye tumbles the hierarchy of "humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans" and reminds us that the idea of "humanity has held a very different status for the traditions of the racially oppressed" (8).
Habeas Viscus, in which Weheliye substantially draws on and pays homage to the oeuvres of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynters, works to supplant the bare life and biopolitics-laden theories—by predominantly white European theorists (with perhaps less skin in the game)—that have left ethnicity and race as epiphenomenal, if engaged at all. When considering theorists who think beyond humanism or against humanism, Weheliye makes it clear that—whether Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Karl Marx, or Sigmund Freud, among others—there is a continuous "reinscrib[ing] of the humanist subject (Man) as the personification of the human" (9-10). In this pointed and sometimes quite witty volume, Weheliye presents us with "habeas viscus"—"you shall have the flesh"—as a means of considering "alternative versions of [End Page 541] humanity" (10) and forging a more differentiated extraction of the human (read as white Christian male) from the potentiality of other criteria for human-ness.
Integral to habeas viscus is the countering of the flaws of habeas corpus. Weheliye, making it clear that the possession of one's body and—by extension—personhood has often-violent contingencies, explains that "the state's dogged insistence on suffering as the only price of entry to proper personhood […] maintains the world of Man and its attendant racializing assemblages" (77). Citing the cases of the Amistad, the Dred Scott decision, the recognition of First Nations people, and the 2006 Military Commissions Act in the United States, he laments that "the entry fee for legal recognition is the acceptance of categories based on white supremacy and colonialism, as well as normative genders and sexualities" (77). It is this condition that interestingly exemplifies Weheliye's centring of Black studies as inherently positioned to consider human identity. Seeing Black studies as "illumina[ting] the essential role that racializing assemblages play in the construction of selfhood," Weheliye asks, "How might we go about thinking and living enfleshment otherwise so as to usher in different genres of the human and how might we accomplish this task through the critical project of black studies?" (2-3). It is the first part of the question that has its broadest analytical application, as Habeas Viscus—extending questions emerging through Black feminist theory—is interested in human suffering and its relation to agency and freedom across oppressed communities. This is a consideration of suffering from the inverted lens of those who are suffering because they are recognized as other than human and then are cyclically positioned to concretize this "not-quite-human" status (because their very suffering is a marker of negative racialization).
Weheliye, working to disrupt the marker of suffering as a gateway to human-ness, asks, "Why are formations of the oppressed deemed liberatory only if they resist hegemony and/or exhibit the full agency of the oppressed?" (2). This question is particularly explored in Weheliye's extensive attention to the Muselmänner in the "bare life" of Nazi concentration camps. Taking to task Giorgio Agamben's assessment of the Muselmänner as an ultimate manifestation of bare life that appears to transcend race, Weheliye argues that "[f]ar from exceeding race, the Muselmann represents an intense and excessive instantiation...