Saturday, August 29, 2009

on the order of things

As with most things, I'm late. It may be a combination of insomnia, nervousness because of doctoral studies (e.g., do I really belong here), my experiences in Canada that I daily ponder or the canceling of PBS's Reading Rainbow, but I'd like to talk about Skip Gates (reaching back to what seems to be fifty years ago), the fight for universal health care and race right quick.

While in Quebec learning grammar rules for a different language, Gates purportedly said some distasteful things to a purportedly disgraced(ful) cop. What ensued was a quick blip on the radar for (post?) racial justice, finished when the frosty mugs of beer turned warm. I mean, does anyone even remember the story? Since that time, scant little attention has been paid to police abuses of power in our cities or how the post-racial Obama Administration has increased racial profiling of “illegal immigrants” or “aliens” by expanding the role of domestic officers to arrest, detain and deport at will. The expansion (rather than the shutting down) of Program 287(g) by the Obama Administration, merely a week previous to Obama’s statement (gaffe?) that the Cambridge Police “acted stupidly” for arresting Gates, citing the history of racial profiling against blacks in this nation, contradicted any stance Obama had. 287(g) has targeted and increased racial profiling of Latino/a people in our nation. Even if the cops have a warrant for only one “suspect” (and I’m suspicious of their notion of suspect), they can arrest whomever they please, detain whomever they want and deport whenever they will.

The order of things has never been so important, in my opinion.

One thing that struck me while learning basic French Grammar is that the students, if caught speaking English by the powers that be (or, more precisely, were), could be issued a “red card,” or in French, “la carte rouge.” The grammar rules of French have word structure arranged so that the description comes after the noun to which it is attached whereas in English, the description comes first. This caused me to ponder, on a meta level, what do we encounter first: the description or the noun and if the order of things is important in all situations. I am interested, then, in the structure of language itself, the logic that structures our thoughts. Though “la carte rouge” and “the red card” speak little about personhood, when considering our (post?) racializing impulses, I wonder just how we encounter others who are perpetually Other. And how does grammar effect policy? What is the syntax by which we are governed?

This is, of course, important to debates about universal healthcare. Whereas many conservatives and Blue Dog Democrats have said little about the expansion of Program 287(g), which effectively widens the role of government with regard to a racial/ethnic/Other encounter, they have much to say about the expansion of government with regard to the medical care of bodies in the US. I hypothesize that this seeming disconnect exists, at least in part, because of the grammar and structural logic of the two systems. Incarceration and "carcerality" (hat tip to Patrick Alexander for this term) in the US was founded as a means to literally police dissident bodies and expanded during another purported post/racial period, that is, after Emancipation. The fact that prisons today are overwhelmingly littered with black and brown bodies (and poor white ones) is telling. The privatization of a once public system seems to raise little eyebrows amongst the conservative and Blue Dog Democratic forces. The structure of thought allows for incarceration and carcerality that disregards persons by way of removal from our streets and neighborhoods; but the structure of thought is not to care for people but to maintain this grammatical structure. This particular ordering of things (from public to private) works properly. This is an US imperialist, racist, capitalist project.

The healthcare debate – the desire to widen and expand coverage to all persons – distorts the grammar, the logic of imperialism, racism and capitalism. “How will private insurance companies continue to make money if there is a public option, if the government has its own program,” so the question goes. That is, how can we go from a private system that disenfranchises many to a public system that enfranchises all and advance the grammar and logic of the US imperialist, racist, capitalist project? This literally stymies the grammar of the US. This is why, in my estimation, folks at town hall meetings are decrying universal healthcare under the rubric of socialism, communism, fascism and Hitlerism; this is why it has been acceptable for many to publicly display signs of racism, classism and general dumbassedness; this is why many say “this is not MY America” and that they want “their America” back. They can’t seem to handle a different grammar’s structure, another logic of livability.

However, it appears that the order of some things don't matter and with regard to being as Other – existence as the underside and antithesis of that which is conceived as normal – does not affect grammar systems. To illustrate, it doesn't matter if one is a “black woman” or a “femme noir,” the concept of black/noir/Other renders reading unintelligible. Freud (according to Derrida) argues as such when he considers ordering things (what he calls “archiving”) as inclusive of an aggressive, destructive death drive. This drive is only detectable in the realm of the aesthetic, found literally on the skin and surfaces, on masks painted. If aggression, destruction and death are on the skins and surfaces of objects, what of black(ened) skin? What does this mean for those whose skins have been conceived as Other? It means, to me, that the skin is a marker of visible difference, difference that can illustrate aggression, destruction and death embodied. Thus, it makes logical “sense” to hold your purses ‘cuz a black boy just got on the elevator… It is apart of the grammar of race with which we are intimately acquainted in the Western world.

So the question of when Gates said what he said to the officer doesn’t really matter even though a lot of attention was initially given to if he decried racial profiling before or after he had shown his ID to Crowley. The real questions that persists are: why does Crowley continue to feel justified in making up a story about two black guys with backpacks and how does the entry of blackness as Other hallucinate the idea that blackness and destruction are two concepts that are, for many, conjured together. The logic of the allowed expansion 287(g) while trying to hinder universal healthcare are part and parcel of this same socio-cultural syntax. I mean, it has been said that if there were universal healthcare, we’d have to give it to the many “illegal aliens” in the US. Those conceived as Other are deformational of structure and logic and, as such, can be thrown in anywhere in the sentence in order to effectively stall conversation.

So I’m not so sure about how post-racial we are…because the grammar rules have been defined long ago and we’re abiding by them in some pretty clear ways.


  1. @sos: thanks! that means more than a lot coming from you...