Affect and Rearticulating the Racial “Un-Sayables”

Excerpt from Essay

“I approach the question of whither race studies in the context of teaching a first year seminar here at Duke, ‘Prison, the U.S., and the Citizen’: a course that has, as part of its curricular mission in Duke-specific institutional terms, ethical inquiry. This course has driven home for me in particular ways the inability of general public discussion—what my students are aware of in abundance but which they understand as ‘natural’—to accommodate elaborated and unelaborated discourses for cathected critical engagement, e.g., white supremacy and its connection to prison, the history of the U.S. state, and the idea of the citizen. If those of us who participate in teaching, research, and public intellectualism frequently take as our object of critique the limitations of the liberal bourgeois subject, we must also run up against the difficulty of moving our students from that hegemonic subjectivity to something more specifically critical.”   

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published numerous essays on race, including, Deborah A. Thomas’s "Democratizing Dance: Institutional Transformation and Hegemonic Re-Ordering in Postcolonial Jamaica" (2002); Helen A. Regis’s "Second Lines, Minstrelsy, and the Contested Landscapes of New Orleans Afro-Creole Festivals" (1999); and Jacqueline Nassy Brown’s "Black Liverpool, Black America, and the Gendering of Diasporic Space" (1998).  

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on prisons, including Chris Garces "The Cross Politics of Ecuador's Penal State" (2010), Karolina Szmagalska-Follis’s “Repossession: Notes on Restoration and Redemption in Ukraine's Western Borderland” (2008), and Lorna Rhodes' “Changing the Subject: Conversation in Supermax” (2005).    

About the Author

Wahneema Lubiano is an Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. For more about her work see Lubiano's faculty page profile

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. In this essay Lubiano describes the way “white supremacist common sense” pervades the classroom (and as we have seen recently, Florida courtrooms). In light of this atmosphere she suggests (with Kamari Clarke) that a possible future for Race Studies is one which considers “the affective contours of decision-making.” What are some ways this sense of affect, as an embodied atmosphere, works itself out in your classroom? How does it reproduce itself as a sensorium of “un-sayables”?

2. Lubiano ends the essay with a commentary on the “glamour of race thinking as a compensatory aesthetics,” what are some examples of how this racial discourse works? Are aesthetics in this framing something like a naturalized system of values which structure daily discourse and corporeal reality?   

3. Describing a similar classroom scene, Kevin Kerpiak has recently suggested (here) that moving out of “the dark corner” that offers cover for the actions of persons such as George Zimmerman, the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case, “requires not just a description but a practical reworking of our collective life.” Do you see rearticulating the affect of unsayablity as one way of transforming our embodied experience of race – of moving out of the shadows?

4. Embedded in Lubiano’s essay is an argument for the inadequacy of liberal empathy and its attendant blindnesses. What might replace liberal empathy in the politics suggested by Lubiano?

More from Wahneema Lubiano

(With Jeremy Dean.) “Black Studies, Multiculturalism, and Airport Bookshops: An Interview with Wahneema Lubiano.” e3w Review of Books 8 (Spring, 2008): 56–59.

"Race, Class, and the Politics of Death." Transforming Anthropology 14, no. 1 (2006): 31–34.

(With Robyn Wiegman and Michael Hardt) “In the Afterlife of the Duke Case.” Social Text 25, no. 4 (2007): 1–16.

Further Reading

Butt, Leslie. "The Suffering Stranger: Medical Anthropology and International Morality." Medical Anthropology 21, no. 1 (2002): 1–24.

Clarke, Kamari M., Kamran Asdar Ali, and Alan Smart. "Toward a Critically Engaged Ethnographic Practice Toward a Critically Engaged Ethnographic Practice" Current Anthropology 51, no. S2 (2010): S301–312.

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Harris, Cheryl I. "Whiteness as Property." Harv. L. Rev. 106 (1992): 1707.

Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice. Raleigh, NC: Alex Catalogue, 1974.

Petryna, Adriana. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Ticktin, Miriam I. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Williams, Raymond. "Structures of Feeling." In Marxism and literature, 128–135. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Yeats, William Butler. "The Second Coming." The Collected Poems of WB Yeats, edited by Richard J. Finneran, 187. New York, Simon and Shuster, 2010.

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