The Economy of Invisibility and Visibility: How to Classify Humanity
The modern international world has been governed by an investment in ‘anthropological difference’ since the early modern era when the geopolitical sphere called “Europe” first emerged. What is referred to as ‘anthropological difference’ is neither a norm nor an empirically verifiable fact, but rather an incentive for systematic discrimination of one kind of humanity against another. Hence, it may well be described as a sort of prescriptive demand or desire that one kind of humanity humanitas ought to be distinguished from the other kind of humanity anthropos; this cannot be determined as a fait accompli at any moment since it is a project for the future, an expectation or anticipation to be actualized in the future anterior. It functions as a sort of regulative idea or schema of the world that supposedly guides the progress of humanity, rather than as an empirically verifiable regularity that determines the classification of humanity at some specific moment in history.
Nonetheless, this investment in ‘anthropological difference’ has served to socially consolidate such co-figurative bifurcations as Europe and Asia (Africa, Americas etc), the West and the Rest, and the white and the colored. These binary oppositions must be qualified in terms of co-figuration because Europe and Asia, the West and the Rest, or the white and the colored, are constituted as pairs of binary figures; Asia, for instance, is figured only when it is co-figured together with Europe (or the West).1 Likewise, the West is constituted when it is projected as a figure, an image, or a schema in contrast to the Rest. It follows that neither the West nor the Rest exists without the co-figurative dependence on its counterpart. Outside these co-figurative bifurcations, none of those indices can be determined for its signification in and of itself. After all, Europe, the West, and whiteness are all so overdetermined that they do not cohere in any context, yet it is also widely fantasized that historically, geopolitically, socio-economically, and bio-politically, Europe, the West and whiteness are somewhat innately linked to one another.
The network of tropic affiliations among Europe, the West and whiteness is very complex and contingent, so I would not venture to subject it to an exhaustive analysis in this essay. What I would like to outline instead is the identity politics of whiteness, according to which an individual identifies him or herself with Europe, the West or whiteness by investing in ‘anthropological difference’ in the desire for European culture, Western civilization and a race somewhat distinguished from ‘peoples of color.’ Yet, Europe, the West or whiteness is never more than a putative identity; an individual can never be exhaustively European, Western or white by any measure; it is only through the performance of contra-distinction in the co-figurative bifurcations to what is not Europe, what is not the West, and to what is not white but colored that one can identify with any of these.
It has been taken for granted since the beginning of the modern era that ‘the West’ is essentially a geographic index. (From the 17th century through to the end of the 19th century, it was Europe rather than the West that symbolized the center of the modern world, but from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the West gradually replaced Europe.) For a long time, it has been somewhat upheld that Europe and the West designate particular locations identifiable on the world map, so that their positions are ultimately identified in terms of latitudinal and longitudinal indices. But, today, they are less and less associated with geographic positioning. The figure, image or identity of the West is increasingly unhinged, so to say, from the grid of cartographic mapping. Just like the racial notion of whiteness, it does not cohere as a concept in objective knowledge that can be scientifically authenticated. Neither is its unity unitarily determinable on empirical grounds. In other words, the West appears dislocated in more ways than one: it is dislocated on the geographic surface of the earth; it is dislocated with regard to the habitats of populations who are supposed to be attributed to particular territories for residency; it is dislocated ethnically, that is, in terms of the habitual and behavioural traits of human groupings; it is dislocated with regard to the political and social privileges associated with an individual’s nationality and race; it is dislocated socio-economically in respect to wealth, monetary income and access to professional resources, and so on. Neither as a concept nor as an index, does it make coherent sense since it is overdetermined. Just like a phantom, it refuses to be identified objectively. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people in the world do not abandon the casual use of this uncanny sign, the West.
The West, therefore, must be considered above all else as a mythical construct; it bestows powerful effects on us as it gathers contradicting and oxymoronic properties around itself. It is mythical, but it nonetheless constitutes an essential component of the modern world into which we project ourselves at every moment, and into which we exist or transcend ourselves. It is an indispensable part of our worlding, an essential component of our being-in-the-world.
At the same time, however, we must acknowledge that this overdetermined constitution of the West serves as an entry point to the general problematics confronting us nowadays: the global advancement of commodification, the colonial formation of the modern international world, national humanism, and the louder and louder voice for the outdated reassertion of white supremacy. On the one hand, the historical analysis of the West will provide us with a new chronology of modernity in which the continual transformation of capitalism has been accompanied by the further ethnicization and nationalisation of populations. On the other, it will help us apprehend the changing production of minorities in the midst of so-called globalization. In short, an analysis of the West as a mytheme is indispensable to the understanding of our-being-in-the world including such diverse topics as globalization, the system of international law, the transformation of national state sovereignty, and racism. However, I do not think I can discuss these mutually-connected topics either synthetically or systematically in one lecture. So please allow me to focus on the issues associated with one particular modern way of classifying humanity. Indeed, among the characteristic ways in which humanity is classified in modernity is generally that of race.
Race, Racial Cognition and Racial Classification
Whereas racism in general and anti-immigrant racism in particular may be assumed to derive from an observation of certain physiological features of the human body, it claims to be determined by the manner in which the genus of humanity is specified or classified into plural species. The pseudo-scientific thesis commonly referred to as ‘scientific racism’ insists that the speciation of humanity is grounded in the systematic classification of the entire human population in terms of scientifically verifiable data concerning the biological and physiological properties of the individual human body. Race is thus postulated as a species of humanity subsumed under the genus of homo sapiens as a whole. Appealing to the tenets of Aristotelian logic, ‘scientific racism’ claims itself to be a doctrine supposedly verifiable according to the procedure of scientific reasoning.2 Above all else, therefore, racism is apprehended as a modality of speciation with regard to humanity. However, despite its popularity (let us not forget that, for many people, race is still a concept of the biological sciences), scientific racism fashioned in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century has been repudiated literally in every account; no serious student with a basic knowledge of biological and social sciences would talk about race in the old way any longer.
Nowadays, however, it is far from being innocuous to say that ‘scientific racism’ has been thoroughly discredited. We cannot afford to overlook its anachronistic popularity. For, scientific racism can be appealed to in order to essentialize and naturalize the racial identities that are, as a matter of fact, in constant flux, and to help cauterize the anxiety generated by the foundational instability of the category of race.
It has been established and institutionalized in virtually every country in the world since the advent of the biological sciences in the eighteenth century — the doctrine of scientific racism was propagated much later in ‘the under-developed parts of the world’ since the modern sciences of biology and physiology were known much later there, but, in the early twenty-first century, the non-West is virtually contemporaneous with the so-called West as far as many symbols of modernity including this pseudo-science on race — ‘scientific racism’ in which the way one human appears to other humans is persistently confused with the racial constitution of that body in terms of biology and physiology — are concerned.
What is at stake here is not how we can possibly discredit or defeat the claims of scientific racism; instead we ought to be concerned with how to free ourselves from certain epistemic presumptions concerning race that we have learned from it. Whereas ‘scientific racism’ is not trustworthy, what is referred to as racism is of reality. And ‘scientific racism’ is a total failure in explicating what racism is and how it works. So we cannot deny the actuality of racism simply because we reject the claims of scientific racism. One would never comprehend the modern world without an appreciation of how racial categorization has come to dominate our perception of other people/person, modes of our social conducts toward them, and aesthetics of our social interactions, so that we may be able to recognize others, behave with them, and feel about them in ways clearly different from previous fashions. In other words, we must come up with effective ways to analyse, refute, and dispense with the workings of racism. In this respect, a rejection of ‘scientific racism’ is absolutely not sufficient in the refutation of racism in general, for we must apprehend how the category of race works. An analysis of scientific racism would not help us much in our attempt to apprehend either the speciation of humanity in terms of race, or why the categories of race had to be invented together with the apparatus of ‘national population’ at the onset of the modern international world. Instead, to insist on comprehending racism in terms inherited from ‘scientific racism’ would prevent us from grasping how racism is instituted under historically specific conditions.
There is no doubt that race is a subject-matter intimately associated with how a human body appears to others. The bodily and physical appearance of a human body plays an indispensable role in our recognition of any person, and the perception of a person’s physical appearance is an absolutely indispensable factor in our perception of him or her as well as in our social identification of that human being. The look of a person’s face constitutes an essential component in our identification of that person.
And, of course, how one person is perceived by another is an essential element in the micro-politics of socio-political power in which the recognized person is integrated as an operative variable into the discourse of social and political institutions at large.
Normally from infancy human beings develop an extraordinary capacity to perceive, discern and identify facial and bodily appearance and expressiveness. The face is an integral part of the human body, which helps us not only to identify the person as incorporated in that body but also to perceive emotive-sentimental changes that prevail between the face and the subject who looks at it. It is astonishing to observe that an infant acquires tremendous skills to discern, recognize and identify its mother’s face and body, and to engage in an inter-personal affect between their two bodies. More generally, the appearance of a person’s body plays an indispensable role in his or her social interactions.
Yet, we must note two requisite truths in the perception of the bodily and physical appearance. Further, the first truth must be bifurcated into two. The first half of the first truth says: it is only an other’s body that an infant perceives objectally or as an object present in front of him or her; it is only the features of some other person’s physical or physiological appearance that he or she recognizes. The bodily appearance of the enfant is never thematically perceived or recognized by the enfant him or herself. In perception of the features of the bodily and physical appearance the enfant is blind, so to say, to the self. For, in the Hegelian manner of speaking, it is by virtue of mediation by negativity that consciousness reflects upon itself, turns into a self- consciousness, and becomes conscious of its self. In addition, it is important to emphasize that no enfant — or, no human individual generally — is capable of visually seeing or grasping his or her entire body instantaneously. Its own bodily appearance is invisible to the subject of the perception. This is the first half of the truth that we must keep in mind when we discuss racial cognition pertaining to the predication of bodily features.
The second half of the first truth that we must not overlook concerns the fact that, generally speaking, physical appearance has little to do with physiology or biology unless the observer is a specialist in these scientific disciplines, such as a medical doctor diagnosing a patient, that is, unless the observer is couched in an attitude in which he or she is resolute to attribute biological or physiological knowledge to what is perceived in a patient’s bodily features at the expense of all other percepts. It is only on extremely rare and exceptional occasions that one seeks to attribute some scientific knowledge to what is casually observed about the features of some person’s bodily appearance. To put it slightly differently, race is implicitly — later let me explore this implicit status of racial projection in the modern institution of knowledge production — a stereotypical category projected onto the other’s corporeal appearance so as to determine the status of the perceived body in relation to that of the perceiver in a given social relationship. It is because, racial identification is always a relational and relative determination. The racial categorization is mobilized in order to conduct the procedure of identification: this identification is not simply objectal, not exhaustively confined to determining the properties of an object; it is also self-referential for the subject. The identification occurs at the intersection of persons where one person’s body appears to another person’s gaze. Here, already, one can point out an entry to the many implications of the second truth.
A person’s gaze must be sustained by his or her body. Can you imagine gaze without gazing eyes? Eyes to see with must be located on a face, and a face is nothing but a certain surface of the body where eyes are organs to symbolize the personality embodied in the body. One might recall the old wisdoms generally referred to in the idiom ‘mirror stage’ in this context as well. Only as a visual figure reflected on the surface of a mirror, that is, only as an image, a substitute in the absence of the actual body, can an enfant recognize her or his self. Unless the body of the perceiving subject is potentially exposed to the gaze of the perceived’s body, somebody’s body can never appear as an objectal object for racial identification. If the perceiving agent’s body remains invisible or unrecognizable for some reason, the sense of the self for the perceiving agent can be gained indirectly, imaginarily or through its reflection on somebody else’s expression.
‘Colorless People’ and the Economy of Invisibility and Visibility
In order for the other person’s body to remain exclusively as an objectal object, the very possibility for the perceived person to look back at the perceiving subject must be entirely excluded by some measure. In other words, the body of the subject who recognizes the bodily features of somebody else’s would remain invisible unless the person who is gazed at is allowed to gaze back. This is to say that the potentiality for the person who is gazed at to retrun the gaze to the perceiving subject must be disrupted, prevented or censored in order for the perceiving subject to remain invisible. Under the reign in which the objectal object of racial knowledge is not permitted to participate in the production of knowledge, the racial predication of the body of the object would be conducted without reference to the presence of the subject of such knowledge. Recognition of the properties of a body would be attributed to the body upon which these properties are predicated. What allows a body to be racially classified is allegedly inherent in the very body itself. Apparently this is the epistemological setting under which scientific racism operates. The perceiving subject can remain invisible only on condition that an objectal object of racial recognition is not allowed to gaze back. It remains deprived of its basic capacity of perceiving, recognizing and knowing.
Of course, it is not possible to suppress the potentiality of the object of racial perception to gaze back at the subject of racial cognition for any long duration by coercive or physical means. You can shout at a child “don’t look in this direction” while wrapping a present for him or her. But, soon or later, the child will find a way to peek at you. It is only institutionally that such a suppression can be sustained for any length of time; it is an institutionalized inhibition to dictate that, as an object of racial knowledge, one is not supposed to gaze at the perceiving subject, that one is supposed to be no other than an objectal object never occupying the position of the subject of gazing, of cognition or knowledge. In this respect, the idiomatic use of ‘people of color’ and ‘colored people,’ in English — often used in the United States, particularly in the South, in the United Kingdom, and South Africa (and some other languages as well) — in the description of racial identities offers an excellent example: most often in racial classification, the idiom ‘people of color’ or ‘colored people’ would not make sense unless it is placed in the following paradigm: white people versus ‘people of color.’ It seems that, in these uses of the idiom ‘people of color,’ white people do not belong to the classes of people upon whom the adjectives of color, black, yellow, brown, red, and so on, are predicated. In order for the white versus color opposition to function as a dichotomous scheme for general racial categorization, are white people supposed not to belong to the people of color(s)? Is it implied that white people are, as a matter of fact, without color? Does it mean that white people are essentially colorless people or that the word white does not signify a color?
Thus, what is indicated by these idiomatic uses of ‘white’ in the paradigm of white versus other colors should not indicate the tint of an object that is perceived. Rather it is a dichotomy between invisibility and visibility, a peculiar comparison between what is neither visible nor describable in terms of objective properties and what is visible and describable in concrete physical properties. In short, this is a pair of two contrasting positionalities in the epistemology of perception: a positionality for the subject of cognition who gazes at an object but who cannot be gazed at versus the positionality of an objectal object that is gazed at, observed and determined in terms of its physical and physiological properties. It is an epistemological economy of the binary distribution of the subject and object of racial knowledge, which serves to constitute the two contrasting positionalities of invisibility and visibility as the dynamics of bio-political power. It goes without saying that this dynamics of power cannot be narrowly confined to the domain of racial categorization. It prevails in many domains of knowledge production. It pertains to the colonial-imperial order of the modern world at large.
In fact, scientific racism, namely a confusionism of biological-physiological observation for the classification of humanity, stems from the basic misapprehension of how the individual human body appears to others. Please allow me to state something embarrassingly elementary. A body’s appearance is never perceived without another subject perceiving it. Unless some other person is present to perceive it, no knowledge of its appearance can ever exist for social categorization. Race must be apprehended in the domain of social knowledge, where no phenomenon is postulated as an objectal object of knowing unless it involves a social interaction between subjects, between the perceiving agent and the perceived body. Hence, racial recognition is from the very outset social; it happens only when people co-exist and encounter. The defectiveness of scientific racism is all the more evident, since this pseudo-scientific pretence is incapable of apprehending the fundamentally social nature of racism. Hence, racial categorization cannot be registered in biological and physiological sciences in which, by definition, any recognition concerning the social and interactive character of perception is bracketed. Underlying this confusionism is the total misapprehension of how one’s body appears, and how we make judgments about that particular person on the basis of corporeal appearance.
Of course, how a person appears always plays an important role in one’s judgment of her. It is almost always the case that one gets to know her from one’s interaction with her and from her appearance. When one person meets another for the first time , one acknowledges who that person is, by acting upon that person, observing her reactions, assessing her social positionalities and so forth; this is based upon her look, voice, clothing, make-up, her relations to the other people present in the situation, professional qualifications and so on. I identify her as a person in terms of how she appears to me. To get to know who she is is to classify her in multiple registers. Of the many ways to classify people, racial recognition is a significant one, but it is worth repeating that, while the category of race is mobilized to classify an individual, this classification does not determine her as belonging to a particular race in a permanent and fixed manner, to a species of racial speciation among the genus of homo sapiens — according to the method of classification somewhat organized after the fashion of the Linnaean taxonomy of Systema Naturae — into which a person as an individual is subsumed. Unlike subsumption under the Linnaean taxonomy, racial recognition is a social classification which does not determine the perceived in an objectal manner. What is determined is the relationship between the perceived body and the perceiving body in which the body of the perceived appears to the perceiving subject.
The entire set of human beings is divided into a limited number of sub-sets, and of course there are many systems of speciation here. Just like the international system of nationality, racial speciation may seem to divide entire humanity into sub-sets. Therefore, it may appear that, whereas humanity constitutes one overarching genus, race is a species as a sub-set of the general set of humanity, to appeal to the terminology of Aristotelian logic.
Accordingly, what we understand in terms of the dynamics of racial cognition is in fact regulated by two different regimes: I) to compare and identify various features of the individual human body and classify them according to the formula of Aristotelian logic, individual-species-genus, or to the typically modern classification in natural history, generally known as Systema Naturae. In this classification system in which each racial category is symbolically represented by the name of a color, white is just like black or yellow. It is one of many labels of color, displayed on the complete spectrum of colours. II) to distinguish two positionalities according to which the subject of cognition is distinguished from the object of cognition, the agent of perception and knowing is separated from the objectal object of knowing and racial perception. The agent of knowing is allocated to the positionality of invisibility whereas the object of knowing is fully displayed and allocated to the positionality of visibility. Hence, in this regime, the white is deprived of color, of any feature of an object that must be gazed at since the subject of knowing is not allowed to be gazed at. In this second regime, whiteness means invisibility or colorlessness.
Please allow me to repeat: I have just stated, “it may appear that, whereas humanity constitutes one overarching genus, race is a species as a sub-set of the general set of humanity in the terminology of Aristotelian logic.” Here I would like to underline “it may appear”: in no way did I presume that racial classification ultimately succeeds because I do not believe in the logical coherence of this classification for racial speciation. Whenever we discuss race and racial identity, it is absolutely imperative to consider that the category of race is extremely unstable and that one’s racial identity fluctuates in time and from one social formation to another. The racial categorization of Irish immigrants in the United States in the mid-19th century is a very well-known case in point. In his inspiring investigation into the historical process in which racial formation was transformed in interaction with the social class structure in nineteenth century United States, David R. Roediger argues that it was quite common to compare African-Americans and the Irish, who often lived side by side in the slums of American cities in the 1830s. “For some time there were strong signs that the Irish might not fully embrace white supremacy.” Love and sexual activity between Black men and Irish women were not uncommon. Roediger cites Daniel O’Connell upon American Slavery to show that abolitionists came across little popular racism but much sympathy for the plight of the slave back home in Ireland.3 And he recounts, ”in antebellum Philadelphia,…, ‘to be called an ‘Irish man’ had come to be nearly as great an insult as to be called ‘nigger.’” However, toward the Irish famine of 1845, the Irish themselves came to insist on their whiteness and the general premise of white supremacy. Roediger attributes the success of the Irish being recognized as white to the political maneuver of Irish and other immigrant voters.4 But earlier the Irish were not regarded as ‘white,’ and there are innumerable cases like this Irish one where different racial identities were customarily ascribed to the groups of people who are identified differently later. One who is recognized as yellow today might well be brown tomorrow; one who is labelled as brown in one country may be white in another. Dependent upon social conditions, an individual’s racial identity is constituted and reconstituted, so that nobody can be absolutely certain about his or her race status at any time in any place, despite the fact that under certain steady social conditions one’s racial identity may appear carved in stone.
Because of this inherent instability and uncertainty of race status, one cannot evade the overt or covert feeling of insecurity or anxiety in the pursuit of racial identification. In this regard, scientific racism serves a remarkable function: by attributing racial categorization to the biological and physiological properties of an individual body, it reduces the category of race, that is actually a social category, to a hereditary feature of a person.
Since I have limited time today, I will not elaborate here on how the system of racial speciation fails to satisfy the requirement of the logical procedure of individual– species–genus classification; I reserve that topic for another occasion. As is amply manifested in the case of whiteness, the category of race does not cohere; it exhibits a most typical example of iterability that must be constantly supplemented for its alleged self-sameness. It is no more than a putative identity to be rephrased, reformatted, remapped, or reconstituted on each occasion that identification occurs.
It may be expected that a human individual can be classified as black, white, yellow, brown and so on, by simply following the internal rules of logical categorization. Yet the system of racial classification seems to be organized by a paradigm of different racial categories, with whiteness at the centre: whiteness is undoubtedly one of many species in racial classification, but, at the same time, it is a universal point of reference to which each of different sub-sets is contrasted. Accordingly, whiteness is doubly articulated: on the other hand, whiteness is merely one species among many, one color among many, and it may seem that the generality of races is to the overarching generality of color, just as the specificity of each race is to the particularity of each color. On the other hand, whiteness is not a color; it is beyond color, a colorless marker. This is why, whereas whiteness is one racial category among many, it marks the non-color, a universal point of reference. It designates the universal position transcendent of colors, in relation to which all the other racial categories can be subsumed under the general class of the colored. Thus, whiteness is often equated to a non-color. Let us note that the duality inherent in whiteness derives from the relational nature of racial specification: in the modern world, there is no racial speciation that is not at the same time a comparative and relational operation in reference to whiteness.
We can find a similar configuration in these names: Europe, the West, and the Occident. These signifiers can serve as markers of geopolitical, civilizational, and ethnic identities only when paradigmatically contrasted to non-Europe (Asia, Africa, Americas etc), to the East or the Orient, and to the Rest respectively. Neither Europe, the West, nor the Occident is an index of a racial category indeed, yet they are all associated with the system of racial speciation. None of these signifiers directly designates a species of race, but they can never be totally independent of the system of classification called racism.
In this respect, let us remind ourselves of what Stuart Hall called ‘the discourse of the-West-and-the-Rest.’5 He hyphenated the West and the Rest so as to underline the fact that the West and the Rest of the world are paradigmatically and synchronically constituted in the modern international world. Europe and the Americas did not exist prior to the Discovery of the Americas; Europe was discovered reflectively and retrospectively with the Conquest of America; it is a consequence of an historical venture inspired by the circular vision of the earth prompted by Heliocentrism. Exactly the same can be said of Europe and Africa, and the Americas and Asia. And, of course, the same logic works for whiteness too. Then what is the dynamics of historical entanglement that allows us to link these names to whiteness, that authorizes us to treat Europe, the West, the Occident and whiteness as if synonymous?
The Putative Unity of the West
Empirically speaking, it is important to remind ourselves time and again that what we apprehend by this mytheme, the West, is increasingly ambiguous and incongruous: it gives rise to tremendous anxiety among those who identify themselves with the West, as well as those who identify against it or in contrast to it; its immoderately overdetermined nature can no longer be shrouded. This does not mean that the West has ceased to be a reality whose putative objectivity is globally accepted; our sense of the world is still directed by this historical construct. This is why the West must be understood, first of all, as a mytheme which regulates our imagination on how to configure peoples and institutions on the world map hierarchically, in the scales of more to less civilized and more to less advanced, and also as functioning as the privileged pole in the bi-polarity of the West and the Rest. The West does not mean anything if not in contra-distinction to, in relationship with, the Rest.
Now I have to pose the question of what articulates whiteness to the West, the Occident and Europe? Indeed I would not claim that whiteness is a quality shared by all the members of the West. Neither would I assume that blackness is some common feature observed among the residents of Africa. I do not believe that racial categories can be directly attributed to the geographic, civilizational, or cultural indices of Europe, the West or the Occident at all. For, such a simplistic comprehension of racial categorization cannot be endorsed unless we totally overlook the power relationship between the subject of racial knowledge who recognizes the racial identity of an object and the objectal object who is passively recognized, the very economy of invisibility and visibility. My question concerns itself with how these different registers of speciation are associated with one another, with the dynamics of historical entanglement by which they are articulated to one another.
Above all else, an elementary truism must be declared: by mentioning the opposition of the West and the Rest, Europe and Asia, or the Occident and the Orient, we inevitably rely on some tropes by which an encounter of individuals or of small groups of individuals is indirectly portrayed or narrated. Such propositions as “The West and the East never meet,” “Europe invades Asia,” and “the Occident rules the Orient,” metaphorically and summarily, signify that some events happen in which some individuals from these civilizations participate in, are committed to, or implicated in some struggles, competitions, collaborations, and confrontations in which their conducts are inexorably and mutually entangled. But, in these incidents of entanglement, it is far from certain that those individuals are aware that they are members of these civilizations; it is impossible to presume that they automatically identify with their respective civilizations.
For me, the dynamics of historical entanglement concerns what Michel Foucault called ‘the microphysics of power relations,’6 with the practices of power in which Europe and Asia, the West and the Rest, the Occident and the Orient were constituted as such. The unities of these civilizational indices cannot be taken for granted because an individual’s identification with his or her civilization is already a matter of political power. In this attempt to re-articulate the geographic, civilizational, or racial indices, therefore, I want to outline the multiple registers in which the West and the Rest are both opposed and linked to one another.
Let us not forget that there are many registers in which the mytheme of ‘the West’ acquires its legibility and is articulated to other geographic and civilizational indices. But, first, I have to attend to the question of the West’s identification, how Europe identifies itself in contrast to Asia, or the non-West at large, before inquiring into the epistemic mechanism in which Europe’s geographic location was articulated to other geographic indices such as Africa, Americas, Oceania and Asia; into the histories in which the identity politics of Europe or the West was instituted in terms of new arrangements of sovereignties, territories, and population; or into the deployments of capitalist rationality according to which the regions of the globe were hierarchically organized by degree of progress, stages of development and evolution and so on.
Before analysing these registers of entanglement, allow me to pose a question: how has Europe distinguished itself from Asia; how has Europe viewed its uniqueness in relation to other kinds of peoples, civilizations, traditions, and so forth? In other words, how does an individual, or individuals, perform in such a way that the civilizational index of Europe or Asia constitutes a relationship in which two contrasting positionalities are paradigmatically distinguished from one another as well as related to one another in the microphysics of power?
Of decisive importance is the very conception of difference in humanity at large, the anthropological difference between humanitas and anthropos that legitimates and authorizes the treatment of Europe and the rest of the world as independent entities. I would like to discuss a very peculiar way in which European humanity is differentiated from the rest of humanity. In this context, what must be evaded at any cost is the presumption — one might as well call it a racist presumption — that Europe and the rest of the world had already been substantially different from one another before their encounter, before being related to one another. We should not start from the premise that Europeans were already that before they came to the Americas, or came across peoples in Asia and Africa. In other words, the first question we must ask is how the very idea of anthropological difference was given rise to. And let me add that this is an epistemic question that must precede the historical question of Europe’s identity.
First of all, let us not overlook one characteristic feature that is tacitly assumed about anthropological difference: it is indeed feasible to discover differences in a variety of contexts. Within Europe, one group of people can be different from another group of people. There are many sorts of minority groups within Europe, who are different from the majority in many respects; evidently rich people are different in many regards from poor ones within Europe; in terms of political orientations, some people are different from others; ordinary folk are seen as different with respects to the cultural capital gleaned by some elites schooled in higher education. Strangely enough, none of these differences discovered internally within the alleged unity of European humanity can be included in the very notion of anthropological difference. From the outset, anthropological difference is expected to be found between Europe and its others. Miraculously and mysteriously European people are given as a homogenous and integrated community, externally in contra-distinction to non-Europeans, when it comes to the topic of anthropological difference.
Characteristically, for some time and by certain authors such as Edmund Husserl and Paul Valéry, it has been claimed that it was theory in terms of which anthropological difference is asserted between European humanity and humanity in general. Allegedly European humanity is different from the rest because only Europeans are capable of committing themselves to a peculiar faculty of mind, a reflective, critical and creative way of thinking: theory or the spirit of critical and universal rationality. It is with regard to nothing but the topic of theory that the anthropological difference of European humanity has been asserted in contrast to humanity in general. In summary, it states that Europe or the West must be distinguished from the Rest, and this distinction is in one way or another promoted, justified, or legitimated as anthropological difference. Here, it is important to remind ourselves that neither Europe or the West is a unity that can be empirically asserted or verified on a factual basis; above all, it is a putative unity that can assert itself in the future anterior.
It goes without saying that this particular deployment of anthropological difference and theory is a colonial legacy of the modern world in which the unity of Europe, and later the West, was endowed with the status of centrality by the system of international law. From the seventeenth century onwards, as newly-formed territorial state sovereignties took over the western portion of Europe and formed what was then called ‘the international world,’ the rest of the world was deprived of its capacity to rule territories and populations. According to the system of international law (Jus Publicum Europaeum), the world was divided between the international world where each of the sovereign states was endowed with the legitimacy to govern its own national territory and population, on the other hand, and the non-international world where international laws did not apply,7 on the other; Europe was the name for this privileged region, ‘the international world,’ on the earth, where each state was given absolute autonomy within its territory, whereas the Americas, Asia, Africa, and so on were names for the regions for colonial conquest. In other words, the world was bifurcated between the group of colonizing states (Europe and later the West) and the group of colonies or potential spaces for colonization (the Rest).
Ostensibly anthropological difference indicates differences in terms of which European humanity is marked as somewhat distinct from the rest of earth’s humanity; against the backdrop of the dynamics of settler governmentality it serves to differentiate the colonizers from the colonized in the colonial-imperial order of the modern international world. Implicit in the notion of theory deployed together with anthropological difference is the presumption of the central position occupied by European humanity in the modern international world. And this presumption has continued to legitimate the colonial-imperial order of modernity, according to which supposedly the Europeans are endowed with the capacity for theoretical rationality.
Theory and Asia
For the last three or four centuries, the colonial-imperial order of the modern world has been sustained by a variety of institutions, strategies, and military maneuvres. Undoubtedly violence is one feature of the colonial-imperial order without which the distinction of the colonizing population from the colonized could not have been maintained. Ever since the Conquest of America, there is no doubt that large scale uses of military violence gave rise to the discrimination of the colonizers against the colonized, which has been institutionalized and systematized, and thereby resulting in modern slavery, colonial governmentality, and what is generally referred to today as ‘the discourse of the West and the Rest.’ Even though the colonial-imperial order of the modern world originated from the violence of the colonial manoeuver, however, the continued existence of the segregation of one sort of population from another, namely, the colonizing population from the colonized one, and eventually the West from the Rest, has never been justified or legitimated in direct reference to the originary colonial violence.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the very colonial order of the modern world was legitimated legally in terms of the system of international law, according to which the entire land surface of the earth was divided into two contrasting spaces, the international world (Western Europe, North America, and a few regions in Asia) and the non-international world (Central and South Americas, Asia, Africa, and Oceania etc). These two spaces have been called the West and the Rest since the end of the First World War, when the word ‘Europe’ was gradually replaced by the West. What is significant about this modern bifurcation of the world is that it is not merely two cartographic spaces; it is not solely about territories, but also about two types of populations; the colonial-imperial order of the modern international world legitimated itself on the grounds of the division of humanity into two kinds, European humanity and the rest of humanity, in other words, into the dichotomy of European humanity, generally called ‘the white,’ and the rest of humanity, generally referred to as ‘the people of color’ in English and some other languages.
As I have argued above, these two distinct registers of modern bifurcation correspond to the contrasting positionalities of invisibility and visibility. But, we must not hasten to conclude that this is all of the racism that characterizes the modern world, because racism encompasses other features of categorization such as racial speciation. It is not only in contradistinction to whiteness that other races are identified. Historically many phenotypical racial categories have been proposed: europaeus, asiaticus, americanus, etc; the Caucasoid, the Mongoloid, the Negroid, etc; in addition to the yellow, the black, the brown, the red and so on. These racial categories are mainly concerned with racial speciation, a particular procedure of classification by means of which a human is identified with respect to his or her phenotype.
But, racism also concerns itself with epistemological positioning, who is entitled to know versus who is passively known, who occupies the positionality of subject as opposed to who is assigned to the positionality of objectal object. The white may be distinguished from people of color in terms of the observable traits of their physical appearance, but this is not the most important feature or characteristics for their differentiation from the non-white.
The most decisive variable in respect to which European humanity ought to be distinguished from non-Europeans is in epistemology, in one’s capacity to know. Many, not only such figures of the early twentieth century as Edmund Husserl and Paul Valéry, but also the contemporary scholars like Rodolph Gasché, have argued that the spirit of Europe cannot be divorced from the European’s unique capacity for knowing. Husserl, for example, emphasized many different ways to distinguish the West from the Rest, European humanity from people like Indians, Chinese, and the Gypsies. What was at stake in the teleology of reason was an individual’s capacity to know, a special determination to know scientifically and universally. It is in the very problematic of theory and the theoretical attitude of theoria that anthropological difference between European humanity and the rest must be asserted.8 But, as Edmund Husserl asserted, the historical mission of European humanity demands commitment to theory, concretised in the universal science of philosophy, the commitment to ‘the spiritual shape of European humanity,’ some extraordinary epistemic capacity as well as resoluteness which can be shared with no other humanity of ‘anthropological types.’
It is not hard to see that the racial politics of knowledge is already outlined in the economy of invisibility and visibility, covertly and surreptitiously, although it is regrettable that the detailed mediation that articulates the politics of knowledge to the epistemic bifurcation in racism cannot be deployed here. Nonetheless, as soon as ‘the spiritual shape of European humanity’ is ascribed to one’s commitment to the infinite pursuit of universal theory, the crucial question as to who the Europeans are will inevitably arise. Are the absolute majority of people living in territorial Europe, who have no interest in the pursuit of theoretical knowing as philosophy, naturally disqualified as Europeans? Can the potential candidates for European humanity only be found among the cultural elites, so that the word ‘Europe’ carries no historically significant connotation outside the highly educated population? As a matter of fact, can those to whom Husserl wanted to attribute the European spirit be singlehandedly ascribed to the proper noun ‘European’? Does the very idea of theory not bring about devastating incongruity to the identity politics of whiteness? Does it suggest that, only with the total disqualification of Europe as a distinct tradition or genealogy in terms of which Europeans are associated with civilizational, ethnic, or racial affiliation, can we rescue the idiom such as ‘the spiritual shape of European humanity’?
Naoki Sakai is Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Asian Studies Emeritus at Cornell University. He used to teach in the departments of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature, and the graduate field of history and the graduate faculty of feminism, gender and sexuality studies until he retired in July 2021. He has published in the fields of comparative literature, intellectual history, translation studies, the studies of racism and nationalism, and the histories of textuality. His publications include: The End of Pax Americana – the Loss of Empire and Hikikomori Nationalism (Duke University Press, 2022); Nationalism of Hikikomori (Iwanami Shoten, 2017); Japan/Cinematic Images/US, (Ibunsha, 2007); Translation and Subjectivity (University of Minnesota Press, 1997); The Stillbirth of the Japanese as a Language and as an Ethnos (Shinyô-sha, 1995); Voices of the Past-the status of language in eighteenth-century Japanese discourse (Cornell University Press, 1991) and many others. He edited a number of volumes including Politics of Translation, special issue of Translation, co-edited with Sandro Mezzadra (2014); The Trans-Pacific Imagination co-edited with Hyon Joo Yoo (World Scientific, 2012); The End of Area, special issue of positions asia critique (Duke UP, 2019). Naoki Sakai served as the founding editor for the project of TRACES, a multilingual series in five languages – Korean, Chinese, English, Spanish and Japanese.