J. Kameron Carter, language theory, science

J. Kameron Carter on Language and the Theological Roots of Scientific Classification

I have been waiting a very long time for the video of Carter’s lecture on “Language and the Theological Roots of Scientific Classification: Jose de Acosta and the Production of Modernity’s Racial Imagination.” A year in fact.

Part of the problem for the wait is that somehow I missed Scott’s alert back in March. Somehow I missed it, despite longing to share this with others. Boy I feel stupid. Anyways…

The lecture itself is incredibly helpful for understanding the modern colonial project. I cannot stress enough how crucial this lecture is for linking Carter’s thesis in his book Race to current life. I wish he’d put it in his book. But even if one doesn’t buy all of Carter’s thesis, this lecture stands on its own. Following one of the lecture’s clear implications, the colonial practice is racist because theo-scientific racial classification is part of the “inner architecture” of colonial-scientific life.

Without further delay, WATCH IT:

And the careful viewer could see me in the audience, more specifically, my better side!

J. Kameron Carter, race

Carter’s Race Reviewed

From The Christian Century, Peter J. Paris’ review of J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account:

Carter is primarily interested in how theology contributed to the process by which humans came to be viewed as racial beings, and thus was a willing ally in the modern project of empire building. He contends that theology reconstituted itself in order to establish race as the defining characteristic of modernity. This shocking claim establishes Carter’s argument as a revolutionary critique of theology’s affirmation of modernity as a racial project.

More specifically, Carter argues that modernity’s racial imagination originated in the process by which Christianity was severed from its Jewish roots. The modern West began viewing Jews as an alien, inferior race and their religion as the nemesis of Christianity. This type of reasoning implied the natural supremacy of white European peoples and the corresponding superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Carter’s thinking dovetails to some extent with Cornel West’s critical race theory and Michel Foucault’s theory of sexuality.

… Carter’s call for a new kind of theological imagination that moves beyond the traditional theology that strips Jesus Christ of his Jewishness is an insightful approach to the difficulty that confronts 21st-century theological discourse. Few scholars have demonstrated so convincingly how ancient theologians such as Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Great can be helpful resources for current theological discussions about race, colonialism, slavery, tyranny and oppression—to mention only a few major problems we have inherited from the theology of race and modernity.

As an ethicist, I look forward to future writings by Carter that relate his theological enterprise to the thought and practice of the social gospel movement, the various African-American religious struggles for racial justice, and especially the work of Martin Luther King Jr. It is more than a little troubling that Carter did not discuss such figures and events in this major work. Nevertheless, it is a great book by any standard. Its breadth and depth are impressive beyond measure.

For those of you having a difficult time with certain assertions made about modernity and racism on this blog, it would do you well to read through this book very carefully. I have found it very helpful and informative and one would probably misunderstand anything more than the general thrust against modernism’s inherent colonialism without exposure to this book.

J. Kameron Carter, political theology, race

Misguided Ways of Dealing with Race and Racism

In the wake of Obama’s inauguration, I’ve seen a number of responses across the news, on the internet, and amongst friends. And so, what follows is a brief endeavor to list a few problematic responses and point out their underlying logic. Interestingly, the logic of each point in the list that follows, have much overlap between each other.

Colorblind: Some people (I’ve only heard this from Christians lately) still seem to think that the proper way to deal with race is to act like one shouldn’t see race. I have a sinking feeling why this is still so prevalent is because it was Contemporary Christian Music’s way of dealing with race (when it rarely did). To accept the colorblind philosophy is to accept a notion of making what is visible, invisible. Essentially, to be colorblind is to divest a person and people group of their story — the history that has formed them as a group. Specifically when this comes to race in America, such a move ignores the historical context of suffering and community bonding in the face of structural oppression that at least still fuel vestiges of privilege. This skips steps that have yet to be made. Justice and reconciliation looks the past straight in the face and deals with the repercussions that occur today. Thus, to ignore one’s story and the formation of the community past that still exists out of necessity today, is to take away one’s positive relationships, while ignoring struggles. This in effect dehumanizes people and leaves people exposed to the rending of the foundation of identity: relationships. In sum, we still live in a world where the color of one’s skin plays an important role in our historical and contemporary stories and actions. We should not ignore this by claiming to be colorblind.

Just let the old people die out, because their tired, old fight doesn’t translate today. Post-race means we’re past our history and we’re pretty much past racism: We aren’t post race. J. Kameron Carter has an excellent critique, and shows that racial categories are predicated on modernism and its theological and scientific grounding. Racial categories are in themselves racist. Also, to live in the modern world is to live in a racialized world. Even if we could adequately deal with Obama’s hybridity in public, we’d still be in some form of racial categorization, but probably taking a step in a positive direction that recognizes the hybridity in most (if not all) of us.

But how do we square the imposed racial categories of modernity’s scientific and theological logic with the need for community in the colorblind point above? For instance African Americans, Asian immigrants, Latin/South American immigrants, Native Americans, etc. form their own communities, partly out of survival. These communities are good, even though they have been categorized with the modernist racial category. This survival is done in the face of colonial violence and a theological divestment of their humanity. In fact, one could say that these communities of the oppressed function as the salvation for those who do not see their own humanity slipping away as they are the ones who have enforced these colonial categories.

But to find the good in the oppressed communities still stays within the racial modernist structure. Thankfully there is something else. To divest a person or people group of a skin color, that is considered beautiful by God, is partly the action of a terrible creation theology. Creation theology does not have a semi-gnostic persuasion that turns colors to grey, but helps recognize what is created and encourage flourishing. Even if colorblind philosophy is only symbolic, insomuch that it attempts to address the racist assertion of a qualitative difference between skin color, the right response does not mean the elimination of beautiful skin color. Thus, while the skin color is beautiful and God given, the divisive work of racial categorization must be dismantled by first looking it in the face, rather than ignoring it. Both the colorblind philosophy and its new protégé, post-race, take the strides that have been made and assert them as the fulfillment of MLK Jr.’s dream, while ignoring MLK Jr.’s warning against colonial America. So where can we all stand? In solidarity.

Therefore (either because we should be colorblind, or the old people live in a different world) don’t speak about the racial categories, its divisive: Well, not really. If the racial categories still exist, and if privilege still exists in structures, then to call for us to ignore the currently divisive, racial, modernist structure is to yet again ignore reality in favor of a white narrative (Yes, I’m using white here as a symbol. Don’t get your underwear in a knot.).

If someone else, like a white person, said this…: From my post on Rev. Wright: Dr. Wright is also not a “reverse racist” (as if only whites could be true racists…). This is not to say that a black person cannot be racist, however, what Newt Gingrich purports assumes that racism does not continue to exist in any large way. Yet, if what Wright does say is true, understood within a racist culture at large, than it merely rings true. However, Wright is not engaged by others at the level of his and his community’s experience. Instead, Wright’s words are taken from his mouth – from his black body and black context – and put into a white person’s body and context. In some senses, it seems that even Wright speaking cannot be understood as a black person speaking; rather, culture at large must think of him as a white person. How is that not itself racist, stripping him of his own humanity? Sure, maybe if we took Wright’s words and gave them to an oppressive people, the content of the words might sound racist, because they would be coming from the oppressive people’s lips. The body and context from whom the words come from are infinitely important. To call Wright a reverse racist merely on the basis of what he said in his speeches, based on forgetting the black community’s story and acting like he is a white man, is bullshit. This is just another way to marginalize a black man speaking prophetic truth.

So what common theme ran through this list of points? Divestment. To divest someone within the category of race is going to lead to some form of racism. Hell, to divest a person or community of the opportunity to be wrong likewise divests them of their humanity, as it fetishizes them rather than recognizes their failure. Divestment — racism — can only be met first by a honest and deep look that continues until the community is no longer segregated. I’m looking at you, church.

J. Kameron Carter, race

Still more Impressions from Carter’s Book

1. I like Carter best when he isn’t explaining someone. Granted, he seems to do a good job of explaining the relevant data he seeks to engage, but he feels a bit constrained. I think its a good constraint, however; he seems to really take his time to make sure that the voice of his subject is accurately heard. But when he begins to build on or critiques what he has previously outlined, he is a hell of a lot of fun to read in my opinion. He goes after it. Its refreshing. So take heart, those who feel a bit bored during the introductions, he does get more energetic later.

For instance, in the third chapter (the first chapter of part two), he begins to take off on page 143, after nearly twenty pages of introducing Raboteau. The introduction is quite necessary, but when he gets into the difference of history faith and religious faith, narrative, whiteness and then into an outline of icon theology, I’m pumped. I wish I could simply quote the last half of that chapter for this post.

2. Remembering Icon and the Western loss of the Icon. Speaking of getting pumped, reaching back to Icon through Raboteau’s orthodoxy is more than a terrific addition. Western Christianity is absolutely bankrupt in its theology when it comes to Icons and the recognition of Nicea II. And icons functioning as a christological visibility and invisibility engaging with history? Iiiiinteresting… and helpful.

3. As far as I am concerned, Carter’s critique of James Cone (chapter 4) is right on target. Oh, and Carter spends much of the time going over the change between Early Cone, who subscribed to Barth, and Later Cone, who subscribed to Tillich. Interestingly, Carter does affirm Cone’s critique of Barth by way of von Balthasar’s similar critique of Barth. Cone wasn’t out to lunch when he said Barth wasn’t all that helpful for him.

4. Carter does avoids mentioning R. Niebuhr when critiquing Cone. However, its been said that Niebuhr’s theology was from Tillich, whom Carter focuses on for the later Cone. I suppose it makes sense and works, but I would’ve liked to have read some about Niebuhr, particularly because of how much Cone does rely on Niebuhr’s anthropology now. The irony of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History is that the book critiquing America never mentions racism.

5. Carter has some terrific citation notes in the back. Some are quite long, but I love them that way. The breadth that Cone mentions about Carter is carried on in the footnotes with many smaller conversations ranging from Robert Jensen, John Howard Yoder, Aquinas, George Lindbeck, John Milbank, and many more, while there is much more on Foucault, Kant, Barth and others essential to his project. His notes start on page 381 and end at 467. Many, many notes tend to look like the following:

By this I simply mean that Foucault’s argument will help me chart the way in which modern racial discourse contributes to the construction of religion as a category through which one gains knowledge of modern “man.” As William T. Cavanaugh has put it, in modern terms, religion refers to the imagining of a “set of beliefs…[as arising more or less out of]personal conviction and which can exist separately from one’s public loyalty to the state.” William T. Cavanaugh, the Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 31. Now while there are other serious limitations to Cavanaugh’s analysis–particularly, that his analysis of the modern problem of religion takes no account of the modernity as a colonial reality and because of this blind spot there is no account of how liturgy and sacramentality were themselves made to function within religious constitution of the modern/colonial world–he is nevertheless right to see a deep connection between religion conceived of as a personal conviction and the state’s production of bodies or citizens. To this I would simply supplement Cavanaugh by observing that religion conceived of in terms of beliefs, the beliefs constitutive of a particular religious faith, get ordered according to a hierarchy of rationality that coincides with a hierarchy within the human species itself. This hierarchy within the species is the hierarchy of races. The most rational or reasonable religions are those that habituate the rational races toward loyalty to the state as its Ecclesia or what ensures humans’ natural redemption or salvation and safety in a dangerous world. The irrational religions are those that do not so habituate the irrational races into citizens of the state. … (393-394)

Suffice it to say, if you’ve got a question and you see a number in the text, check the back.

And to leave you dear reader with another quote, chew on this:

Beyond an ontology of separateness, I propose a theology of participation, the content of which is YHWH’s covenantal relationship with the one to whom YHWH has elected YHWH’s self. This one is the covenantal and theological–and therefore, to say it again, not the racial–people of Israel. Hebrew Scripture and then the New Testament bear witness to this covenant. It is in light of the reality of the covenant that Chalcedonian Christology itself must be understood so as to decenter dialectic, which is to say, ontologized understandings of the person and work of Jesus. Understood in the light of YHWH’s covenant with YHWH’s parnter Israel and thereby with the world, Chalcedon is to be conceived of as witnessing to a theology of covenantal participation in which the life of YHWH is thoroughly implicated in and suffuses the life of Israel. Indeed, YHWH is known only in this suffusion, for such suffusion is proper to YHWH-God and is constitutive of YHWH’s transcendence. This can be called YHWH’s identity in historical transcendence with Israel and therby with the world. It is precisely this participatory transcendence, this ecstasy by which God is God for us, that makes creation strnscendent within itself in its ecstasy back to its Creator, YHWH. The problem with dialectical thinking and related forms of philosophical thinking is that they being from closure and then have to negotiate passage through an “ugly broad ditch” between things that are closed.

But in modernity as looked at from its underside, this ditch is the ditch of coloniality, which itself is the ditch of the racial imagination built upon the severance of Jesus from the covenantal people of Israel and thus Christianity from its roots in the reality of YHWH’s historical transcendence toward the world through YHWH’s covenant with this people. The covenant witnesses to the fact that for God, and only because of God’s identity as God for us, there is no ditch to be crossed by us. God has from the first bound Godself to us in God’s communion with Israel as a communion for the world. This is the inner logic of the identity of Jesus, the inner logic by which Israel is always already a mulatto people precisely in being YHWH’s people, and by which therefore Jesus himself as the Israel of god is Mulatto. At the level of his identity, or who he is, Jesus carries forward, and does not supersede, Israel’s identity as partner to YHWH for the world. He is miscegenated, and out of that miscegenation discloses the God of Israel as the God of the Gentiles too. What the covenant framework discloses, then, is this: Because YHWH is on both the Creator and creaturely sides of the covenant holding it, a dialectical framework of I-Thou, while useful in some regards in responding to problems in the world, proves ultimately inadequate. Indeed, it is not radical enough. pgs. 191-192

J. Kameron Carter, race

More Quick Impressions of Carter’s Work

I’m still reading J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, albeit rather slowly. I’ve got other things to do. But I do have some more impressions and quotes.

1. As far as I’m concerned, he abuses Kant, or is it that he exposes Kant? And not in a bad way, a good way. He makes Kant, the neo-Marcion, squeal. Granted, I’m not exactly up on Kant’s corpus and I’d need to spend more time studying Carter’s reading of Kant (or wait for a scholar with a specialty in Kant to review the section), but so far, Carter proves his point about modernism’s fundamental, pragmatic racial anthropology. Carter begins his summary of chapter 2 and introduction to part 2 with:

Thus, the “euthanasia of Judaism,” which Kant figures as coeval with the realization of the coming ethical community, only brings to completion a rational theology of the atonement in which the death of Christ is a dying away from Judaism and from all that makes one a “son of the earth” rather than a son of God. In short, it is a dying away from all that holds one “fettered to earthly life to the detriment of morality.” (pg. 120)

2. I was surprised that Christ was understood by Kant as a revolutionary: “Eh? I didn’t see that one coming.” Only to find out, the revolutionary Jesus is a Marcion-like (“white”) Jesus: no longer actually Jewish through the “loss of his covenantal identity as a Jew”, a supercessionist Jesus (117).

3. A senior theologian was right, I need to read more Foucault. He’ll help my own project, especially when addressing sovereignty and bio. Oh, and He sounds fun. History of Sexuality here I come, which isn’t about the history of sex acts… I think. Imagine that!

4. There is a short contrast between Agamben and Foucault, so its a good thing I’ve read some Agamben. But he doesn’t play heavily in the book (only a few times really), so no worries to those who don’t know Agamben. Also, Carter attempts to catch the reader up on his point about Agamben. When Cone talks about breadth, he isn’t joking. Carter closes chapter two, focused on Kant, with:

What the Kantian vision discloses, then, is that the dramas of race and politics in modernity are, in fact, a great drama of religion. Yet, behind the veil of this great religious drama is a less easily detected but controlling story, the story of how whiteness came of age as a theological problem that camouflages itself as just such a problem. When looked at from this vantage point, whiteness as a theological problem is inseparable from the production of the modern citizen on the one hand, who as a citizen subject is constructed in such a way that the body articulates the body politic. And on the other hand, it is inseparable from what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben refers to as the modern state’s constitution of itself through bios or bare life, life that is bounded by and ever exposed to death. This “death-bound subject” is “homo sacer,” or “sacred man,” the figure whose life is ever exposed to death or sacrifice for the life of the nation-state. Furthermore, Agamben grasps that the quintessential homo sacer figure of modernity is the Jew.

But what Foucault understood beyond Agamben, and what has been important for the argument developed here in part I of this book, is this: homo sacer’s sacrality is simultaneously religious and racial. Indeed, homo sacer’s dark body is the body not fully assimilable to the body politic, except by a process of excruciating violence. This violent process of assimilation is a singular process of racialization and “religionization”: religion racially dramatizes the body (politic) and vice versa. It is the religio-racial process as an immanent teleological process that functions internal to imperial power. It is this process that constitutes the Western metropole as white and in relationship to the colony as nonwhite. That is, homo sacer’s sacrality contains within it modernity’s Rassenfrage, which has as its animating center Judenfrage or the theological problem of gentile Christianity’s refusal to think its existence from within the bosom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The three chapters making up part II of this book offer a reading of the field of African American religious scholarship as an ongoing attempt to diagnose this situation and respond to it. To this I now turn. (pg. 120-121)

5. “Cosmopolitan” functions as an ugly concept in this book so far. I can agree with that notion whole heartedly. Boy, do I wish I had this book when we reviewed Appiah’s book in class. Some of my favorite sentences are when he riffs on cosmopolitan secularism.

J. Kameron Carter, race

Early Impressions of Carter’s Book

1. Clarity. His writing is generally quite clear. I would feel confident giving this book to many different levels of students, mainly because I think they could read it and mostly understand it. He digests and summarizes concepts quite well. Sure, explaining might be in order for newer students to theology or philosophy, but I don’t think it’ll have much to do with the way Carter writes. The biggest problem is keeping up with Carter’s breadth. Cone is right, the book does demonstrate “great intellectual range and theological imagination.”

2. While Carter maintains a helpful level of self-control to keep his argument admirably on track, every once in awhile, he’ll go off and say something like this (particularly the part I emphasize below), and make me smile from ear-to-ear:

How do the new science (of the true), the new philosophy (of the good), and the new aesthetics (of the beautiful)–the discursive elements of modern discourse, according to West–represent a disassembling and then a reassembling for its own purposes of Christian theology’s understanding of the true, the good, and the beautiful? And how do they do this at the juncture of the Jewish question, and how does a discourse of race emerge out of this? Lastly, how is the discourse of modern state sovereignty (which mutates into a discourse on the nation) constituted so that it reinvents itself at the same time that it masks the way it operates parasitically on theology as simulacra of a Christian soteriological vision of redemption, through the agent of redemption is different, namely, “Leviathan” (Hobbes)? That is, how does the discourse of modern state sovereignty conceive of the state as democratic “redeemer” inasmuch as it is the “creator” of a new mode of political existence and thus a new way of imagining community? [pg. 52, from part of Carter’s critique of Cornel West, and the emphasis is mine]

3. The book itself is interestingly minimalistic. And I love it. Theres little to the cover, but they designed it quite well. Its not some sort of eye-grabbing book, its captivating in its form following function. Continuing the minimalism, there is no forward and the blurb on the inside jacket about Carter only makes note of his professorship at Duke and does it in less than three full lines. The book avoids all the bullshit, flowery fluff that accompanies many other projects on race that don’t go anywhere positive, or commit an equally bad sin: uninteresting and unhelpful. You could judge this book by its cover, if that judgment is good. I could go on about the graphical beauty, but I’d convince people of something I don’t have: a book fetish. I just have a crush on this book. Honest.

4. This book will be big. If it isn’t in the near future (or perhaps moderately near future, after all, some academics can be pretty slow sometimes), there is something seriously wrong. It has the feeling of books that have made a tremendous impact in the past.

I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts in the future, but until then, let this quote sit amongst your thoughts:

I say theological and political (or theopolitical) to signal that my claim calls for analyses of the problem of race (and, relatedly, of the Jewish question) that explore the senses in which such a discourse is bound to the nature and practice of modern politics and thereby indelibly tied to what is religious about modernity and the way it parodies theology at the same time that it cloaks this fact. The discourse of race is critical to the cloaking process and thus functions as a vital cog within modernity’s own religious and quasi-theological machinery, a machinery intent, as the quotation by Étienne Balibar that opens this chapter alerts us, on producing bodies and people, but bodies and people of a particular sort. It produces bodies and people that can populate an enlightened, global, and cosmopolitan social order, the domain of civil society. The people produced is the modern citizenry; the body, that of the modern citizen; and the social order enacted and perpetuated, that of the modern (nation-)state. Given this, the politics of race and the politics of the modern state are of a piece, for both are religious or pseudotheological in character. Failing to reckon with this fact not only leaves the problem of modern racial reasoning inadequately understood but also can yield responses that risk–unwittingly, no doubt–reinhabiting, at the politically unconscious, theopolitical level, the very problem that needs overcoming. pg. 40

J. Kameron Carter, race

Race’s Theological Account

J. Kameron Carter’s thesis:

My fundamental contention is that modernity’s racial imagination has its genesis in the theological problem of Christianity’s quest to sever itself from its Jewish roots. This severance was carried out in two distinct but integrated steps. First, Jews were cast as a race group in contrast to Western Christians, who with the important assistance of the discourses of Christian theology and philosophy, were also subtly and simultaneously cast as a race group. The Jews were the mirror in which the European and eventually the Euro-American Occident could religiously and thus racially conceive itself through the difference of Orientalism. In this way, Western culture began to articulate itself as Christian culture (and vice versa), but now–and this is the new movement–through the medium of a racial imagination. Second, having racialized Jews as a people of the Orient and thus Judaism as a “religion” of the East, Jews were then deemed inferior to Christians of the Occident or the West. Hence, the racial imagination (the first step) proved as well to be a racist imagination of white supremacy (the second step). Within the gulf enacted between Christianity and the Jews, the racial, which proves to be a racist, imagination was forged.

From Race: A Theological Account by J. Kameron Carter, pg. 4.