Noted, with comment

I’m slowly making my way through Lewis Gordon’s new book, Fear of Black Consciousness. It’s slow going, because Gordon keeps dropping in this little observations that make me stop and think.

Like this one:

“The expression ‘black bodies’ pops up often wherever antiblack racism raises its ugly, and at times polite, head. It is there on blogs, in news interviews, in editorials in major newspapers, in broadcast lectures, and in award-winning books ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me to Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist. It makes sense since racism involves a form of two-dimensional thinking in which black people supposedly lack inner lives. [Frantz] Fanon referred to this as ‘the epidermal schema.’ It refers to treating black people as mere surfaces, superficial physical beings without consciousness and thus a point of view — in short, only bodies. Yet in the midst of this attention to black bodies, many blacks are left wondering what happened to black people. How has it become acceptable — indeed, even preferable — for black people to refer to ourselves as ‘bodies’ instead of as ‘people’ or as ‘human beings’?” [pp. 31-32]

It is not for me, a white person, to tell black people how to refer to themselves. But I have been uncomfortable with the way it has become fashionable to refer to people, not just black people, as “bodies.” I suspect this comes from some kind of post-Foucauldian analysis, that is, an analysis that attempts to follow in the footsteps of philosopher Michel Foucault.

Foucault’s philosophy does place an emphasis on the body; his philosophy “aims to bring the body into the focus of history.” [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, article on Michel Foucault, section 3.4]. This move by Foucault was brilliant and necessary, to help us understand how modern society uses hierarchy and discipline to control and punish people. I don’t think Foucault’s intent was to reduce persons to bodies; however, some of his followers may have adopted Foucauldian discourse without adequately reflecting on the deeply humanistic purpose of that discourse.

Returning to Lewis Gordon’s argument — Gordon points out that the term “bodies” is now being used in a way that can indeed reduce black persons to something less than three dimensional beings — reduce them to less than human. Whether Gordon is also offering a critique of Foucault isn’t something I can comment on, since I’m not up on Foucault (I admire his work, but reading him is a chore that I don’t care to put myself through). It does look like Gordon is suggesting that Fanon would be a more useful thinker if we’re going to explore this topic.

At the same time, I don’t hear Gordon telling people to stop using the term “bodies.” Rather, as a philosopher should do, he’s pointing out where public discourse has gotten imprecise, sloppy. He’s suggesting that writers and speakers should think hard about what they really mean when they use the term “bodies.” Is “bodies” the more precise term, or are the more precise terms “people” or “human beings”? It’s fine to use “bodies if that’s what is really meant (if you’re doing Foucauldian analysis), but Gordon clearly favors the latter two terms. If you’re talking about people, says Gordon, then say “people”; if you’re talking about human beings, then say “human beings.”

You can see how reading this book is slow going for me. I had to go look Foucault. And now I’m going to have to dig into Fanon. But this is what books by philosophers should do — cause us to think hard about the way we’ve been thinking.

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