Stuart Hall Race -- the Floating Signifier

directed by Sut Jally, Media Education Foundation, 1997

Classification and power work together.
Classification maintains the order in any system.
We cannot think without classification.

The survival of biological thinking

Race is one of the major concepts which organize the great classification systems (including gender and class) which operate in human societies.  Classification seems basic to human thinking.  What is the right strategy for an anti-racist politics?  Just being "black" does not guarantee that your politics will be correct.  In order to find a politics that will end racism, "You can't just say, well black people are doing such and such and they must be right."  I want to discuss an approach to the political.  There are no guarantees.  Failure is always possible.  You must do "right" because there is no guarantee ethically and theoretically that your position is "right."

Race is a discursive construct.

Despite the fact that scientists have agreed that biological race does not exist, race thinking of all sorts persists.  Why is this?  This is the subject of this lecture.  Some people believe that all that can usefully be said about race has already been said.

If the biological concept of race cannot hold water, we must resort to a socio-cultural concept of race.   W.E. B. Du Bois told us that racial differences are impossible to corellate with intelligence, personality, etc.  Nevertheless, race persists and Du Bois argues that color is important as a badge of the social heritage and insult of slavery.

1. there is scientific consensus on this
2. there is no relationship between  intelligence and race but a small minority of researchers continue to try to "prove" that this is so


3. Much of liberal theory can be explained by resorting to race.

4. diametrically opposed philosophical positions can be derived from the same position

What matters is not scientific fact, but the systems we use to make human societies intelligible.

There are four things we can say about our social contract:

1. the common and conventional wisdom amongst leading scientists is that biological race does not exist.

2. this view is enshrined in the founding documents of UNESCO by Claude Levi-Strauss, but this fact has never prevented intense scholarly activity by a minority of academics who continue to try to prove that race and intelligence can be connected

3. these scientific pursuits are vociferously condemned by larged and various groups but still the search for the "reggae or baseball gene" persists

4. Diametrically opposed political positions can often be derived from the same philosophical position

"The biological definition, having been shown out the front door, tends to sidle around the verandha and crawl in the window."

Race needs to be understood as a discursive fact.  All attempts to ground this category (race) have failed; therefore, the only grounding is in discourse.

Race is a discursive construct = race works like a language

Race is a signifier which can be linked to other signifiers in a representation
Its meaning is relational and it is constantly subject to redefinition in different cultures, different moments
There is always a certain sliding of meaning, always something left unsaid about race
Hence: Race is a floating signifier
Example:  Gender is a language -- think of the semiotic square for gender.

But what about the reality of racial discrimination and violence?  Millions upon millions have suffered and died.  Where does all this come from?

There are two classic positions:

1. The realist:  real genetic differences are the basis for racial classification

2. The linguistic position:  The purely textual version of race. there are no real differences between races.  The differences are created between humans in language and culture.

3. Hall's position:  The Discursive -- Differences exist in the world, but what matters are the systems of thought and language we use to make sense of the difference.

The differences acquire meaning when they are organized into categories.

power/knowledge creates race and representation

Classification systems have a history and racial categorization has a history.

However, race has a reality.   We can see it.  Since the Renaissance, race is a signifier of great importance.

1. religious justification  -- Encounters during the age of exploration raised the first religious question regarding race -- Who were those beings?  Sepulveda vs. Las Casas --  However, first they looked to religion, which was the arbiter of truth and knowledge at the time, to justify the classificatory system. -- it failed.  They asked, "What is the nature of these 'people' in the New World?'"  Are these real people?
2. anthropological justification -- It failed -- James Clifford helps it fail.
3. scientific justification -- People looked for the sanction for race in science.  It finally fails without a doubt after genetics proves race does not exist.  You can't see genetics.  It is a wonderfully secret code which only a small number of people have at their disposal.

Fixing Difference: the cultural function of science

(there is a great deal of scholarship about this -- see Donna Haraway on science, primates, race and feminism)

The Enlightenment says everyone is one species.  So you need to find a way to divide the species.  Edmund Burke, 1777 -- "Now the great map of mankind is unrolled all at once and there is no state of barbarism . . .which we do not have in our view."

The very different . ...  (get quote from film...
The cultural function of science and the languages and discourses of . . .

For centuries, the effort was to make a clear distinction between two groups.  Then after the Enlightenment, the idea was to make distinctions within the human race.

The panoptic glance of the Enlightenment.  Quotes Edmund Burke.

Science/anthorpology/religion fix and secure the . . . reality of race.

Culture is made to lean on nature.   They operate metonymically.  So that it is possible to read off the one against the other.   Once you know where they fit on the scale, you can determine their basic characteristics.  We understand culture in terms of our fantasies of nature.  Naturalizing race.   Taking it out of culture.

Race makes nature and culture correspond to one another.  Once you know where a person fits in nature, you can know where they fit in culture.

This is how the idea of the noble savage fits into race, culture and nature.  The noble savage exists in nature but has the attributes of the best of culture.   However, this is a fantasy, a fetish which we use to comfort ourselves.  This fantasy stabilizes racial thinking while it appears to destabilize it.

Seeing is Believing.

Race thinking goes like this:  the gross physical characteristics of color, hair and bone signify race in the everyday world.  This is a visible difference.  What fixes the difference is the genetic code.  These things you can see are signifiers of things you can't see, e.g. intelligence, morality, sexuality.  You can read the body as a text.  We inspect this text, the body.  We are readers of race.  We are readers of social difference. We invoke the body as if it were a transcendental signifier.

The grosser phyisical differences of color,  hair and bone.  W.E.B. DuBois

They are the visible difference.  They are beyond dispute.  They appear in the field of vision where seeing is believing.

see Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

the dark and unarguable evidence of my own blackness. ..  finish quote.

Genetics: Making sense of difference

There is a search for the guarantee which addicts us to the preservation of the biological trace.

Reading the Body -- you can read the body as a text.  You assume that it is the genetic code which produces these difference of color, hair and bone.

If you cut me, I bleed.  Yes.  But insofar as the system of classification systems, we read the text.   We are readers of race.  Readers of social difference.  The very obviousness of the visibility of race convinces me that it functions as a signifying system, as a text we can read.

This notion that the genetic code is imprinted through the body.  You cannot stop on the surface.   The body is invoked as a way to prove the "reality."   The body becomes the ultimate transcendental signifier.  It proves race.  We cannot turn to the body of race.  It is standing in the way of our understanding of race as a cultural system.

Analysing the Systems of the Body

Fanon is driven wild  by the fact that he is caught and trapped in his body and that the other can see through him by reading the text of the black body.  Fanon understood that beneath the body is another schema which is really what constructs the relationship between the body and . . .a schema composed of the stories and the metaphors and the images which is what really composes the body.  In this way, racial difference is more like sexual difference than it is like other systems of difference.  What we have learned about gender, is what we know begin to learn about the languages of race which we speak.  Though race cannot perform the function of fixing the truth.  Gender difference and race difference are alike in that the obviously visible differences seem to wind up the subject.  Gender studies have revealed that subtlety of this process.  Race studies must investigate the subtleties.  Anatomy/physiology seems to wind up the question.

It is difficult to do without a foundational guarantee.  It is a political argument.  Something will guarantee the truth and authenticity of what we believe.  It is hard to give up because in the end, we do not know what it is like to conduct a politics without a guanrantee of race (especially an anti-racist politics).  We want something which tells us that the contingent choices we make can be read off against the biology.

Why does it matter?  Battling racism

Race is difficult to get rid of it because we need a foundational guarantee.  This is a political and a theoretical argument.  We are continually in search of a biological guarantee.  We don't know how to conduct a politics of anti-racism without a guarantee.   The scientific template will back our decisions up.

We could all be wrong.  We are often/usually wrong.   We are not guaranteed in the truth of what we do.

What might it be like to conduct an ethically responsible politics about race.  The discourse of ethnicity appears to be grounded in culture, but as you deeply examine ethnicity, you get to race, blood and heritage.

How to reduce the heirarchy of difference?

Only some kinds of difference are selected as the axis upon which power is distributed.

Final question:  How do we construct an ethically responsible politics around race without the guarantee of biology.