The Body and the Uniform

Throughout his chapter on racism and biopolitics in Habeas Viscus, Alexander Weheliye illustrates the notable absence of an overt and encompassing racial theory in the work of Foucault and Agamben, on various levels. One is the suspect nature of Agamben’s insistence on the figure of the Muselmann in the Nazi death camps as being one that is both conceptually and practically transcendent of a traditional understanding of race, inherently due to its own racialisation of psycho-physically oppressive body horror. Foucault, Weheliye allows, is at least willing to discuss overtly racism in Society Must Be Defended, but only racism as he conceives it as extant, after (or, at most, concurrent with) the constitution of the biopolitical form of power. Foucault indeed acknowledges racism’s pre-existence, but its presumably different operations, outside Europe, supposedly lack “the magical aura of conceptual value” (p57). From such a perspective, Foucault holds that there are two forms of racism: “ethnic” and “biological,” which may be described as “on the one hand, an ‘ordinary racism…that takes the traditional form of mutual contempt or hatred between races’ and, on the other, racism as an ‘ideological operation that allows States, or a class, to displace the hostility that is directed toward them…onto a mythical adversary.’” (p.58-9).

It is perhaps unsurprising, thus, that both Foucault and Agamben after him would choose as the sole illustrative model of the latter formation of racism the Nazi regime’s genocide of those perceived as untermenschen, inasmuch as such people might well be considered otherwise white (and certainly in some cases – political prisoners, anarchists, communists, homosexuals – Caucasian). However, Weheliye rightly bemoans, Foucault falls short of pursuing this to an analysis of the construction of racial categorisation through bio(-ideo)logical means, ultimately “leaving the door open for the naturalization of racial categories and the existence of a biological sphere that is not always already subject to ethnic racism…it appears as if Foucault can only authenticate the uniqueness and novelty of European biopolitical racism by conjuring the antithetical spirits of racisms always already situated in a primitive elsewhere” (59-60).

What is most damning here, certainly, is (as Weheliye invokes) the lacuna of this analysis in Foucault’s work, as it has been undeniably influenced by George Jackson and Angela Davis. It is notable in its absence, because the ghost of its presence remains: indeed, this is why his work is so easy to invoke in terms of studies of the marginalised body, because it already carries the traces of such marginalised bodies’ struggles.

Later in this essay, Weheliye’s discussion of the music video (or indeed short film) to M.I.A.’s Born Free engages overtly in some of the points of analysis missing both from Foucault and Agamben’s brief respective touching upon race. The representation of a SWAT team, renditioning and summarily executing a group of “gingers” has been attacked – even banned – in some areas, on account of a reading of this piece as a potentially “revanchist [or]…metaphoric substitution” (p67), though this is assuredly a misreading for various reasons, but it is a misreading worthy perhaps of analysis in and of itself. Indeed, within such a reaction is a deeply entrenched perspective on which bodies can be expected to be black-bagged and forced to run across minefields, to such an extent that the presentation of white bodies in that position is dissonant enough to be read solely as an attack or visual manifesto. Of course, enabling such a perspective, as Weheliye indicates, a denial of “the nimble mutability of racial taxonomies.” Such mutability is expressly indicated in the fact that the chromatic distinction between victims and perpetrators is only defined through the uniforms of the latter. Biology, as the word’s suffix indicates, is a manner of reading in and of itself. “Biological racism” is indeed the reading, interpreting, and translating of bodies. All that may be needed for such distinctions is a great enough emphasis on the uniform – whether worn by the oppressors, or forced on the oppressed. Nevertheless, these uniforms are themselves mimetic of a process of a weaponized logos that neither we, nor Foucault and Agamben, can afford to take for granted.