From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").
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The following remarks on the question of the Other are explicitly political. We inherit our practices of othering and of navigating an intersubjective world from modernity, which is a political project. More specifically, modernity’s project is one in which ordering genres of life hierarchically (along a great chain of lesser to higher value) is central to its metaphysics. It is also a project that includes the epistemologies needed to legitimize the practices of domination that unfold in response to that metaphysical ordering. Questions of the Other ought to be engaged in this context. For this reason, these remarks on othering and difference are ultimately a brief overlay of our inheritances from modernity’s commitment to its differential valuation of life-worlds in general, and then of human lives in particular. In other words, I show the ways in which modern “othering” practices are intimately entangled with a metaphysics of de-/under-/sub-valuing the Other. Hierarchy, manifested in the economic, cultural, political and existential, is the grammar of modernity’s signification of the Other.
The racialization central to modernity orients otherness in terms of what is human, and what is, in some iteration, humanity’s “other”.
The field of Critical Black Studies (a collective mode of study that emerged in American universities/colleges within the historical contexts of the 1960s and 1970s, often but not exclusively including historians, legal theorists, political theorists, and philosophers) captures a wide range of intellectual orientations that take seriously the racialized significations that animate these hierarchies. More significantly, much of the work in these intellectual traditions shows that, at its most fundamental level, the racialization central to modernity orients otherness in terms of what is human, and what is, in some iteration, humanity’s “other”. It is the level that Frantz Fanon (in The Wretched of the Earth) captures in his language of “Manichaenism” – the metaphysical line that divides a (white, colonial) zone of humanity from a (blackened, native) zone of “other than human” wretchedness. In this essay, I trace a few of the ways in which this racialized othering is both enabled by and enables modern conceptions of the universal. Under such imperial metaphysical claims, modern universal conceptions (human dignity, rationality, political liberalism, etc.) put up for referendum what should be undebatable – namely, the fact of the inalienable worth of black and nonwhite persons.
Throughout their historical unfolding, modern and (later) so-called “Enlightenment” categories have always been for the sake of power, imperial conquest, and never objective in their material consequences. These categories have historically operated to cast non-white persons (and black persons in particular) outside of the category of the properly human. Across their respective theories of modern anti-blackness, Critical Black Studies makes this clear, showing that key to the discursive work accomplished through these modern, imperial categories is the association of blackened subjects with a negated/evacuated/liminal/“question mark” humanity, a violent exclusion that then predisposes such blackened subjects to the materiality of death and political fungibility. To be sure, Critical Black Studies also includes careful exposition of black people creating life-worlds within and despite modernity’s climate of black death-making. That is to say, Critical Black Studies is especially committed to laying out the complex ways in which, against a totalizing backdrop of anti-black violence, black people nonetheless etch out space (and time) for full, agential lives (culturally, spiritually, materially). As Achille Mbembe points out in a published interview (in Theory, Culture and Society) with David Theo Goldberg, “Wherever African slaves happened to be settled, no death of social life actually occurred. The work of producing symbols and rituals, language, memory and meaning – and therefore the substance necessary to sustain life – never stopped.” Though this will not be my focus here, I urge readers not to lose sight of this. Modernity’s terrain is inextricably entangled with anti-black, imperial violence. But this does not mean that black sub-humanity/black fungibility/black social (and material) death exhausts the contours of black subject-making in the modern world.
What does it mean to say that modernity’s practices of hierarchy organize genres of the human along a vertical scale of “mattering”? One way to understand this is to turn to Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant. By “mattering,” we might mean the kind of inalienable worth that Kant uses to conceptualize the parameters of human dignity. From that Kantian conception, to matter – to be recognizably human as a consequence of one’s inalienable dignity – is to always be treated as an end in oneself. It is to matter (to have value) not in an instrumental sense, but rather categorically, as a result of that constellation of traits and capacities that mark the humanity in us. However, while establishing moral justifications for the equal dignity (inherent value) of all human beings, Kant also develops robust theoretical justification for political practices that adhere to the exact opposite.
In what scholars often mark as the first conceptually robust articulation of the notion of race, Kant’s 1775 essay, “On the Different Races of Man,” outlines what will ultimately become a world system that makes it possible to devalue certain types of human beings while simultaneously acknowledging their “humanity.” The essay allows for the following discursive move: We might all be human beings, but we aren’t all human beings in the same way. It is out of that caveat – “not in the same way” – that modern racialized practices of “making Other” unfold. In the spirit of what passed as scientific inquiry during that period (which Paul C. Taylor names “early modern racialism”), Kant writes, “Among the deviations – i.e., the hereditary differences of animals belonging to a single stock – those which, when transplanted…maintain themselves over protracted generation…are called races…In this way Negroes and Whites are not different species of humans (for they presumably belong to one stock), but they are different races…”
Here, a pseudo-science seems to enable a universality (at the “stock” level of taxonomy there is no difference between Negroes and Whites) that ought to translate into a moral domain of equal human value. But this monogenetic taxonomy also ultimately enables early modern science and progenitors of racialized morality to raise the question, “Which is more meaningful: the sameness at the stock level, or the differentiation that emerges subsequently?” To this question of meaningful universality (universality that will actually signify in ways that matter, i.e., in the arena of the social world), the answer for Kant and his contemporaries is clear. For reasons that are political through and through, the taxonomical differentiation at the level of “races” is what ends up being more meaningful than the original monogenetic original stock.
Ultimately, Kant’s pseudo-science is no different from those of Herder, Blumenbach and other Enlightenment theorists of natural history and human variations: its aim was to provide a scientific basis – the gold standard for truth-bearing accounts of reality – for what early modern culture and political economy had already decided to be true. One could find “evidence” for these scientifically meaningful deviations in human types in the enslavement, domination, and conquest of nonwhite peoples all over the globe, even as these scientific accounts sought to legitimize such domination. The pseudo-science of Kant and his contemporaries would ground an implicit (though nonetheless clear) racial contract (see Charles Mills’ 1997 seminal study of this, The Racial Contract), binding early modern society to the principle of inalienable human dignity at the same time as it excluded (made “Other than”) a global majority of black (and non-European) peoples. As David Theo Goldberg writes, “The more explicitly universal modernity’s commitments, the more open it is to and the more determined it is by the likes of racial specificities and racist exclusivity.”
In her 2020 book, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson writes, “The black body’s fleshiness was aligned with that of animals and set in opposition to European spirit and mind.” Indeed, the subtitle of Jackson’s work – matter and meaning in an anti-black world – says it all. The meaningful variation that, for Kant, begins when traits are inherited (passed on via sexual reproduction) takes on further signification in an emerging (Cartesian) metaphysics that positioned the mind as the rational sovereign over the body. Jackson joins anti-colonial thinkers like Frantz Fanon and more contemporary Black Studies scholars like Lewis Gordon, Hortense Spillers, and Saidiya Hartman, whose work makes clear the ways in which bodies of the Other – racialized as black in particular but also non-white more generally – take on the signification of non-, anti-, and un-reason. Out of that modern context in which the body stands as the non-rational property of a rational, autonomous mind, the already-othered black body stands as the (lower) limit of a maximally non-autonomous, maximally non-rational node of humanity. In this sense, whether or not the otherness of blackness is explicitly beyond the category of the human is less relevant than the ontological slippage that this node of racialized otherness encourages.
Black as “other” sits at the nether regions of humanity; it is a humanity that is always “becoming human”.
The black body is Other insofar as whatever exists of its “humanity” never rescues its blackness from a cultural/sociopolitical non-rational savagery. Black as “other” sits at the nether regions of humanity; it is a humanity that is always “becoming human” (as Zakiyyah Jackson’s work shows), and why, as Charles Mills notes, black and nonwhite persons are “relegated to a lower rung on the moral ladder (the Great Chain of Being).” Most importantly, this ordering is permanent in a metaphysical sense, given the Kantian significance of those hereditary meaningful variations known as “races”.
This metaphysical structuring of the Other (as blackened borderline between rational humanity and its negation) signals to modern subjects a warning. It is modernity’s reminder of what is to be lost when the mind relinquishes sovereignty over the body. Indeed, the very possibility of being human is conditioned by keeping at bay the otherness that threatens that possibility. In other words, central to this modern constitution of otherness is a reminder to those who embody full rational humanity of their moral burden to “veil the threat of terror” (as Kipling wrote in his 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden”), to guard against the metaphysical dis-ordering brought about by blackness in particular, and non-European genres of life more generally. In his 1956 address to the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists, Frantz Fanon wrote, “Racism which wants to be rational, individual, determined, genotypic and phenotypic is changing into cultural racism. The target of racism is no longer the individual man, but a certain way of life.” This certain way of life to which Fanon refers signifies the frontier zone against which white, European rationality both determines itself and by which it conceptualizes itself as perpetually threatened.
In line with this analysis, Cameroonian political theorist, Achille Mbembe, refers to the necropolitics of our contemporary global order. “[N]early everywhere,” Mbembe notes, “the political order is reconstituting itself as a form of organization for death.” On his analysis, the term “necropolitics” captures this form of organization, visible in numerous contemporary crises, from drowning African migrants in the Mediterranean Sea to the avoidable death unfolding at the US-Mexico border. Mbembe argues that as a biopolitical order that is not merely about “letting live” but more directly about “making die,” necropolitics must relate to itself as a permanent state of emergency, constituted around a central pillar of (a forever-threatening) racialized otherness. The terrain of necropolitics, in other words, is one in which “social forces tend to conceive the political as a struggle to the death against unconditional, racialized enemies. Such struggle is then qualified as existential…a struggle with no possibility of mutual recognition”.
Othering operates within the uneven power terrain that locates the frontier (and those who embody it) categorically outside the field of mutual recognition.
The Other – not an equal “not me” with whom I work through a dialectic of recognition – is the enemy in a categorical sense. We can think of the metaphysics of modernity’s racialized frontier zones (geographical, cultural, symbolic) as an ordering around and against similar “unconditional enemies,” whereby what is “enemized” are a constellation of forces against Rational Man. These forces are often multiple and variegated, operating differently through the various epochs and geographies of modernity’s unfolding. But by and large, we can understand Mbembe’s unconditional enemy as the foil of modernity’s civilizing global program: nonwhite (and often especially black), anti-rational, savagery. Othering operates within the uneven power terrain that locates the frontier (and those who embody it) categorically outside the field of mutual recognition. To return to David Theo Goldberg’s synopsis, the material effect of modern “universal” principles of humanity is the exclusion of its Other – black subjectivity.
We can see why scholar and writer Saidiya Hartman identifies African chattel slavery and its “afterlife” as the abiding logic of both modernity and its “post.” In her 2007 book, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, she writes, “If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is…because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery – skewed life chances, limited access to healthcare and education, permanent death, incarceration and impoverishment.” To reiterate an important point, it is not the case that this structural logic of anti-blackness exhausts black modern life-worlds. To the contrary, the history of black living in the modern world has always been a history of black refusals of a prescribed “chattel” status, and of black insistence on living otherwise than as modernity’s unconditional enemy.
Racialized hierarchies produce a cultural and political milieu that is deadly and death-making for black life. What I hope to have shown are the ways in which this is, indeed, at the heart of, and not an aberration of, modern political principles. The organizational power of racialized hierarchies runs deeper than isolatable instances of outlier depravity. In fact, the foundations of modern practices of othering tell us that anti-blackness is the “weather” (as Christina Sharpe observes), occupying the place of mundane truth even as it is spectacular enough to sometimes show up as morally unfortunate. Citing the police murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999, Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot articulate the everydayness of this anti-black milieu as follows: “[The police] prowl, categorizing and profiling, often turning those profiles into murderous violence without (serious) fear of being called to account, all the while claiming impunity.” They point to the banality of such state-sanctioned killings – that they are the rule and not the exception – as what constitutes the heart of the violence (the necropower) in question. Questions of the Other may not be, as a matter of categorical necessity, tethered to hierarchical valuations. But as a matter of the history at hand (our world-history), they are. It is only beginning with this that we come to a full conceptual understanding of the Other.
Kris F. Sealey is Professor of Philosophy at Fairfield University. She graduated from Spelman College with a B.Sc. in Mathematics, and received both her M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Memphis. Dr. Sealey’s areas of research include Continental Philosophy, Critical Philosophy of Race, Caribbean Philosophy, and Decolonial Theory. Her latest book, Creolizing the Nation, was published in September 2020 with Northwestern University Press. It was awarded the Guillén Batista book award by the Caribbean Philosophical Association in 2022.
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").
We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.