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January 20 2017


Population #ReadIn

“Racism” is such an unwieldy concept. Living in a world in which racism is one of the fundamental building blocks that shapes all our relationships, calling someone racist is somewhat akin to a fish accusing another fish of swimming in water. This is how I felt when I saw Democrats claiming that the election was won because of racism. If I were to make a list of racist things in American politics it would be just as likely to include welfare reform as the southern strategy, just as likely to include drones as border walls, and just as likely to include super-predators as a muslim registry.

I don’t want to create a false equivalency. There is a very important difference between a political party which relies on minority votes and one which tries to suppress them. There is an important difference between a party which engages in dog-whistle politics to win over swing voters and a party for which such voters are their electoral base. But that doesn’t get us away from the fact that – in American politics – we are always talking about relative racisms. Many of those supposedly racist voters voted for Obama in the last election, and many minority voters handed the election over to Trump in their state simply by staying home on election day.1 I don’t write this because I want to assign blame, but simply to illustrate how crude a tool “racism” is when trying to make sense of this all. So, if racism can’t help us, how do we talk about this phenomenon which is so central to contemporary politics?

It is not an easy riddle to solve, but one important part of the solution can be found in in the writings of Michel Foucault. Just a part of the solution, mind you, but for my own thinking on the matter it has been key. For that reason I was very happy when a bunch of anthropologists announced that they wanted to read read Michel Foucault’s lecture eleven in Society Must Be Defended as a means to think through “the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race” on inauguration day. This is because the concept of biopolitics is a very useful addition to the analytical toolkit we have for talking about the diverse phenomenon grouped under the term “racism.” As with any such analytical tools, the benefits of highlighting certain features necessarily obscure others, and there are entire books written to try to sort out exactly what is lost and what is gained by using these tools; however, today I would like to simply focus on one aspect of this lecture which has been particularly useful to me: Foucault’s use of the term “population.”

There is a widespread belief that racism is a natural feature of human society. Talk to many a non-anthropologist about racism for long enough and they will likely shrug their shoulders at some point and say something to the effect that “Well, ever since the dawn of humanity we have always thought that people in the next village didn’t bathe and slept with their daughters.” This naturalization of racism is pernicious because it depoliticized racism and makes it seem like a byproduct of human character rather than a deliberate strategy of rule. Foucault’s notion of a “population” does a lot of important work in correcting this precisely by focusing attention on how racism became a “positive” force in the construction of the modern state. Note that “positive” here is not meant to imply something good, but rather something that has the power to actively shape the world. If racism were simply a feature of humanity than the role of racism in politics could only be negative. That is to say, modernity would be characterized only by the progressive removal of racism from politics rather than by a constant search for new ways to institutionalize racism into the very fabric of our institutions. At the same time, however, it is precisely because there are aspects of the concept of “population” which are seen as serving the greater good that it is so successful a strategy for the perpetuation of racism.

Foucault puts it this way:

racism makes it possible to establish a relationship between my life and the death of the other that is not a military or warlike relationship of confrontation, but a biological-type relationship . . . The fact that the other dies does not mean simply that I live in the sense that his death guarantees my safety; the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer.

Thinking about populations involves a qualitative shift in the nature of state power, because it requires the state to “intervene at the level” of the kinds of general phenomenon that are indicated by “forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures” in order to “optimize a state of life” for the population as a whole. This is a new kind of thinking, obsessed not with the good of a select few, but the good of the “average.” Even if such thinking ultimately serves the interests of the few, it is crucial to understand that these interests are filtered through the ideology of the population as a whole and the importance of those few is interpreted in terms of the contribution to the greater good.

Foucault is concerned here with the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, but the ideas are just as usefully applied to the colonial encounter, or to the prison-industrial complex. In 1871 the British colonial government in India passed the Criminal Tribes Act which began the process of listing entire communities as “ born criminals ” subject to restrictions on their movement and eventually led to their internment in labor camps. With over two hundred different communities registered as so-called “Criminal Tribes” (now referred to as De-notified Tribes or DNTs) under this act, it doesn’t make sense to think of them as a “race,” but as I argued in an 2013 post on this blog, the logic of their oppression today is very similar to the kind of racial profiling African Americans are routinely subject to in the United States.

The concept of population also helps us discuss the concept of a “Muslim registry” without resorting to the concept of “racism.” As I said above, using a population highlights some aspects of a problem while obscuring others. Certainly there is a strong racist component to “flying while brown” that mustn’t be ignored. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that Islam is a religion and not an ethnic group. Actually, considering the wide diversity of religious practices that go under the name of Islam, it might be even more accurate to refer to it in the plural, but the logic of the War on Terror has served to impose its own reality upon the world such that all that diversity is subsumed under the logic of a “population.” It is precisely because “Society Must Be Defended” that we have no-fly lists which have a disproportionate number of Muslim names on them, that we have surveillance of American Muslim communities, that we force Muslim immigrants to turn informers on their own communities in exchange for an expedited green card, that we routinely deny immigration benefits and citizenship to Muslims and those from Muslim-majority countries based on vague and baseless “national security indicators.” Oh, and did I mention that all of this was done under Obama?

The concept of racism is often used as a value judgement. As a way of diverting attention from our own complicity with the racist project of the modern state. The concept of a population helpfully puts the role of state projects front and center and lets us see clearly how deeply embedded we all are in this system. If we are going to fight the racism of a Trump administration we are going to have to get over our own sense of smug self-satisfaction and start asking some very hard questions. Foucault’s concept of population helps us start asking those questions, even if it doesn’t provide all of the answers.

  1. “As one study put it, “Non-voters tend to support increasing government services and spending, guaranteeing jobs, and reducing inequality” more than voters , by about 17 percentage points. This includes whites as well as black and Latino non-voters.” ( source

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