Monday, March 28, 2011

A PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE BLACK BODY

FRANTZ FANON
“The Negro suffers in his body quite differently from the white man.”  Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.
During my years of graduate study at SUNY-Stony Brook campus, all Ph.D. students in Philosophy were required to submit for the faculty’s approval an essay using the methods of one of the three major schools of twentieth-century philosophy----Anglo-American (analytic), American (pragmatism), or Continental (phenomenology). Because my background was in the visual and literary arts, and because aesthetics was my field of concentration, I chose the German and French phenomenological traditions, writing during the summer of 1975 “The Primeval Mitosis: A Phenomenology of the Black Body.” It is one of the early examinations of the lived-experience of black embodiment in a Eurocentric and racist society that objectifies the black body as a site of stain, uncleanliness, all the “dark things,” and denies to black people a life rich and complex as subjects. Over the years, this essay---simply re-titled “A Phenomenology of the Black Body”---has been reprinted and anthologized often, though my own existential  choices, personal and professional, progressively moved me away from Western philosophy to Buddhism and Eastern thought.

But that old essay is merely a prolegomenon to the bold, systematic and thorough examination of the lived experience of black embodiment in Dr. George Yancy’s Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008). In his phenomenological archaeology of this nearly uncharted territory---the region of the black body as the mediation for consciousness and an epidermalized world---Yancy guides us through the daily construction of whiteness and racial privilege in a fashion no white thinker can achieve, reminding us of Mircea Eliade’s insight that “he who reveals to us the meaning of our mysterious inner pilgrimage must be a stranger of another belief and another race.” His book is born of struggle, written in America’s existential and racial trenches.

In her outstanding literary study, Charles Johnson in Context (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), Dr. Linda Furgerson Selzer at Pennsylvania State University notes that “A 1974 report published in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association…found that only thirty-five blacks with the terminal degree in philosophy could be identified nationwide: ‘one black Ph.D. in philosophy for every million black citizens’.” 
That was my era in Philosophy, a field that for 2500 years has been dominated by white men.  Dr. Yancy, who belongs to a new generation of black philosophers and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Duquesne University, courageously and brilliantly continues  the “struggle” to liberate American academic philosophy from its racial, sexual, and cultural myopia in book after book: The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy; African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations; Cornel West: A Critical Reader; Philosophy in Multiple Voices; White on White/Black on Black; What White Philosophy Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question; Narrative Identities: Psychologists Engaged in Self-Construction; and, most recently, The Center Must Not Hold: White Women Philosophers On the Whiteness of Philosophy.  He has just completed the editing of a book on African American and Latin American philosophical perspectives; and, with his wife Susan, the editing for a book on rap, hip hop and therapy.
GEORGE YANCY

Dr. Yancy’s contribution to Philosophy is original, long-awaited, seminal, and crucial for our understanding of race and culture at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Read the following review and you will see what I mean.
White Gazes as an Embodied
Philosophy of Race
John T. Warren
Yancy, G. (2008). Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 267 pp. ISBN-10: 0742552985. $29.95 (paperback).
Perhaps the hardest lesson to teach my graduate advisees is the art of naming, with
clarity and specificity, what it is that they are trying to address in their research and
writing. Often, they seem to circulate around an idea, dance right up the edge of an
argument, only to stop without actually saying it. It is hard to teach, this art. George
Yancy (2008), in his remarkable book Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing
Significance of Race, provides an exemplar extraordinaire of what is possible when,
with precision, one names the stakes and makes the case for how and why social
systems remain so fixed in our imagination. In this review, I hope to capture what
I find to be the real payoff in Yancy’s latest book (see also Yancy, 2002, 2004, 2005);
simply put, he creates what I have come to see as an embodied philosophy of race. In
the end, his book is not just a primer for good writing that names the mechanisms of
race’s persistence on our collective imaginations, but also a powerful example of how
body-centered writing complicates our very conception of race in America.
The cover of Yancy’s text offers an endorsement from Cornel West: ‘‘courageous
and brilliant; don’t miss it.’’ I agree. However, more significant than the brilliance of
the volume is Yancy’s unyielding courage. Indeed, a book that situates the Black body
as subject to the White gaze (always, all the time, as a result of our collective
historicity) is courageous in that when naming such systemic and material acts, Yancy
cuts against the academic tendencies to skirt the issue. In other words, when talking
about race and power, academics tend to fall into the trap of niceness, reducing
racism and white supremacy to talk of ‘‘systems’’ and ‘‘discourses.’’ Such work, while
important, sidesteps the immediacy of racism’s felt effects, leaving individuals
relatively untouched by their own racist acts. I find this often in my own writing and
teaching--if I talk of ‘‘patterns’’ or ‘‘systems of power,’’ I can often avoid feeling like
I’m naming people, calling them out. Yancy’s text troubles the very distinction between
individuals and systems by writing from an embodied location--his ‘‘I’’ in
this book is not abstracted nor simply a standpoint from which he writes. Rather, he
is a body, a Black body, who encounters racism in and through his everyday
communicative interactions. By implication, Whites who enact the gaze, who
embody racism, are also individually implicated (although not solely responsible)
for their/our actions. This is not a radically new idea, but the careful crafting and
powerful naming Yancy employs is surely insightful.

The text pivots around the argument that the White, racist gaze on Black bodies ‘‘is
itself a performance, an intervention, a violent form of marking, labeling, as different,
freakish, animal-like’’ (p. 93). He makes this case by offering several contexts to see
this White gaze at work on Black Bodies. In Chapter 1, Yancy examines the ‘‘elevator
effect,’’ conducting a phenomenology of what happens communicatively when his
body enters an elevator that is occupied by a White woman. This analysis examines
how his body is rendered, is produced communicatively as the stereotypical predator,
regardless of his own actions:

Although I do not feel my body image slip away from me, pushing me toward the
precipice of epistemic violence, ever closer to living in the state of self-hatred, it is
precisely within the context of various racist social spaces that I feel as if I become
‘‘Black’’ (read: evil, sexually rapacious) anew within the context of each encounter
with the generative dimensions of the white gaze/imaginary. (p. 23)

From his own encounters with whiteness in the academy (Chapter 2) to his careful
reading of textual constructions of whiteness in literature and autobiography (i.e.,
Toni Morrison in Chapter 6 and Frederick Douglass in Chapter 5), the book proceeds
to detail the effects of the White gaze on the Black body. The White gaze is exposed as
a performative act that enacts violence and works to obscure its own production. In
this way, because the body is always a central concern, the philosophic take on
racism’s production is always an embodied form of argument, naming the ways real
bodies are implicated in these lines of argument.

In what I find to be the most innovative claim in the book, Chapter 7 examines the
production of whiteness as ambush, as a reproductive and insidious form of cultural
dominance and power enacted even by those who strive against racism. From the
dangers of well-intentioned theorists to the explosive rants of Michael Richards
(Seinfeld’s Kramer), Yancy details how racism ‘‘is embedded within one’s embodied
habitual engagement with the social world and . . . is weaved within the unconscious,
impacting everyday mundane transactions’’ (p. 230). As an almost mystical force,
whiteness is seen here as a deeply engrained part of our collective world--Yancy
cautions that Whites need to be careful of imagining that they/we have arrived.
Building from communication research examining whiteness as a performatively
constituted identity, he reminds us that one does not individually own the ways
whiteness has been constituted; rather, whiteness is produced in ways that individual
subjects may not even be aware of. Yancy here makes two important links to bring the
themes together. First, he argues that whiteness cannot be examined solely by
Whites--as White constituted subjects, there are inevitably gaps they/we cannot see;
the White scholar is always in danger of being ambushed by the very whiteness she/he
seeks to disrupt. Second, he concludes by tying the system and the individual back
together as mutually constitutive parts of the whole, arguing that we’d do well to
remember that whiteness ‘‘makes tyrants out of human beings’’ (p. 247). This link of
the individual to the system is one of the most convincing cases I have read, arguing
that to separate the individual from the system is to deny the effects of whiteness--
the bodily consequences and privileges that we all experience each and every day
through our pigmented skin. Here, Yancy notes the ethical imperative that we all
share to do the work of challenging the normative status of whiteness.

I end here by reiterating why I think this is a courageous book. Constantly in
danger of being charged with being ‘‘angry’’ or being ‘‘too sensitive’’ or ‘‘making too
much’’ of his experiences or his readings of events, Yancy dismisses those charges in
two significant and, quite frankly, brave ways. First, he does careful and systematic
research. His phenomenology of his body in the elevator (Chapter 1) alone stands as
a sophisticated piece of philosophic writing. His research is well-argued and carefully
reflexive in order to present a cogent and critical take on the relationship between the
disciplinary gaze from White folks and the effects that gaze has on Black bodies.
Second, Yancy consistently names the practices that constitute White gaze as a violent
performance of producing a ‘‘technology of docility’’ that produces the dark body as
fixed (p. 141), all while engaging the reader as an ally. In this way, I feel implicated in
Yancy’s work while never feeling blamed. As a White reader, I found myself both
convinced of Yancy’s claims while also energized to renew my dedication toward
challenging the ways whiteness works within and through my own gaze. In this way, I
am both an instrument of the system and also individually implicated in that system’s
work.
References
Yancy, G. (2002). The philosophical I: Personal reflections on life in philosophy. Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield.
Yancy, G. (2004). What white looks like: African-American philosophers on the whiteness question.
New York: Routledge.
Yancy, G. (2005). White on white/black on black. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
John T. Warren is Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at Southern Illinois
University, Carbondale. Correspondence to: Southern Illinois University, Speech Communication, MC 6605,
Carbondale, IL 62901-6605, USA. Email:
jtwarren@siu.edu.
The Review of Communication
Vol. 9, No. 3, July 2009, pp. 280-282

1 comment:

  1. I was exploring for forms of subjetivities amongs Du Bois, Fanon, Ricoeur, Hegel, Heidegger. mostly interested in Fanon and Ricoeur. I am sure the text of Jhonson will help me to explore theses subjectivities.

    Thanks

    ReplyDelete