An interesting anecdote

I’m still slowly making my way through is Fear of Black Consciousness, by Lewis Gordon. I’ll read a few pages, which will get me thinking hard about something, I’ll go follow those thoughts for a while, until eventually I come back to Lewis Gordon’s book. The latest bit that’s sending me off on a tangent is this interesting anecdote:

“During … [a] conference … in South Africa in the late 1990s, the hosts took the presenters to a wildlife preserve. I hate even the idea of a safari, but I went along in the spirit of being a good guest. As the game warden and the resident veterinarian were explaining safety measures at the facility, I glimpsed one of the guests, a white Frenchman in his thirties, straying away from the group. Curious about what he was up to, I watched as he made his way over to a fence, behind which rested a lioness. Seeing him coming close, the lioness rose on all fours. The Frenchman looked at her for about a minute and then slowly extended his hand to pet her. The lioness licked her lips.

“‘Stop!‘ yelled the game warden.

‘The Frenchman paused, his hand near the fence. ‘Why?’

“‘Because she’ll eat you!’

“There is something many people of color, especially those of us from the Global South, know about white people as a group but rarely discuss with them. Although many white people despise nonwhite peoles, especially blacks, they love animals. The love is to the point of many if not most whites seeming no longer capable of imagining animals as wild.” [pp. 40-41]

I have noticed this tendency among some of my white friends, a tendency I don’t quite share. I remember walking into a city park with a white friend, when we passed an eagle sitting, quite fearlessly, fairly close to a boardwalk over a constructed wetlands. We both looked at the eagle for half a minute. Then I continued walking, but my friend decided to stay and commune with the eagle for the net half hour. I didn’t share their impulse, but I could understand it.

Contrast that with another young white friend, who was majoring in biology and managed to get a summer job working with a field biologist banding birds. After that summer, she no longer thought birds were cute, nor did she particularly like them, although she did respect them. Or another young white friend who was in 4-H. After milking goats, and cleaning up their shit, and watching them give birth, and taking care of their illnesses, and sending them off to be slaughtered for food — she did not see goats, or any other animals, as cute and cuddly. Then, too, when I was working lower middle class jobs, I had a number of white friends who were hunters or trappers. They lacked any sentimentality about killing animals; in fact, for some of the older ones, hunting and trapping had been how they got through the Great Depression. So there are white people who, because of their experiences, lack sentimentality when it comes to animals. However, it’s worth noting that these white people tend to see animals in utilitarian terms, or as resources to be conserved or exploited.

Lewis Gordon points out: “Pleonexia — wanting everything — requires the absence of limits. White pleonexia transforms land, living things, including other human beings, and even thoughts, into property; the covetous mentality is applied to the skies, to outer space, and even to time…. This desire expands to the expectation, if not presumption, of invulnerability and absolute entitlement….” [p. 40]

[A side note: what I mean by “animals” in this post, and what I think Lewis Gordon means, are the charismatic mega-fauna and mesa-fauna, primarily in phylum Chordata, classes Mammalia, Reptilia, and Aves — we’re mostly not talking about poriferans, molluscs, arthropods, annelids, etc.]

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.