Some Thoughts on the Limits of “Visibility” as Metaphor

by zunguzungu

Paul Harvey wrote a nice review of Thomas J. Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty over at his blog, which I got to via the indispensable linkmeister Ralph Luker. In his review, Harvey notes something very interesting about how “visibility” patterns both how it is possible to perceive racial inequality and how, conversely, that kind of practiced seeing produces a particular kind of blind spot within the liberal imagination. In his words: 

“…racial segregation in the North was both highly visible and at the same time “invisible.” In the present day, the fifteen most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the United States are in the Northeast and Midwest, while the five states with the most segregated schools are New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California. Racial segregation is painfully visible. Yet, the North did not have a tradition of deliberate, southern-style Jim Crow segregation. Thus, northern segregation, real as it was, appeared to most whites as “natural,” an inevitable outcome of the aggregate of individual decisions, of “choice.” It was invisible because whites could pretend that it was not constructed.

“There are few urban myths more deeply rooted than this one, but it is fatuous. As Sugrue systematically shows, northern segregation was anything but an accident of market-based individual choice, but was instead deliberately fostered through discriminatory policies in banking, mortgage, “urban renewal,” and education. And while southern segregation could be dramatically confronted through lunch counter sit-ins and the like, it proved far more difficult to challenge real-estate redlining, federal home loan guarantees that virtually mandated a racially segregated suburbia, and neighborhood schools that defended white racial privilege as a democratic right.”

 In other words, an emphasis on visibility as the condition of possibility for a liberal intervention can be very effective in confronting a very visible racial injustice, segregated lunch counters being the clearest example. Yet in learning to see racism as a southern phenomenon, also we learn not to see it in some of its other forms, structural forms that are no less malign for being invisible.  

I’ve been thinking about this question for a long deferred follow-up post to the stuff I wrote about The Wire some time ago, since I suspect that one of the irritations that produces that pearl of a show is a desire to shine a light into America’s heart of darkness and a frustration (especially sharp by later seasons) that doing so has not actually accomplished anything. More specifically, though, I’m struck by the ways Sugrue’s account maps onto a discussion I’ve been having in my head between Timothy Mitchell and James Scott, of Colonising Egypt and Seeing Like a State respectively. I’ve been trying to write about Henry Morton Stanley, lately — he of In Darkest Africa and Through the Dark Continent, by the way — and one of the points I’m trying to push into an argument is a feeling that Mitchell’s analysis of Egypt is both a useful way of expanding our sense of colonialism outside of the boundaries of formal colonialism (which I need for talking about Stanley), and not quite sufficient to the task of explicating different forms of colonialism (which I really need for talking about Stanley).

For example, Timothy Mitchell describes the West’s production of itself as “objective people” by means of the technologies of colonial exhibitions and spectacles, a long term project of self-fashioning where the West came to understand what “the West” was by reference to the ways it viewed the world: the west was a part of the world that looked at other parts of the world (and didn’t like it when they looked back). I have some reservations about the strongest version of this claim – Mitchell says that “ordinary people were learning to live as tourists or anthropologists” and I think we need to soften it down to an interest in the limited extent to which this is the case – but there is a tremendous amount of explanatory power in this notion; “colonialism” comes to be a projection of power into the non-West by “the effect of seeming to exclude the other absolutely from the self, in a world divided absolutely in two.” And this division is understood by reference to sight.

This is Fanonian, as Mitchell points out. Fanon’s critique of colonialism in Wretched of the Earth the very visible way that colonialism wrote itself into the built fabric of constructed social life. As he put it, the colonial city was a “world divided into compartments,” and a “world cut in two, inhabited by two different species.” And this very visible distinction, he asserts, was precisely the point:

“The originality of the colonial context is that economicreality, inequality and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities. When you examine at close quarters the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race, a given species. In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

Apartheid or Jim Crow, after all, proudly declared the rightness of a race translating into what rights and privileges one was right to claim. And this is exactly the sort of thing the twentieth century has made unacceptable. To say, openly, that one’s civic identity should be determined by one’s racial identity is now unacceptable, and the election of a black president is the best example of that fact. Yet to think about what kind of racisms are left over once that’s been done – and which the fact of a black president does not contradict – it’s worth thinking about how that Fanonian logic works. For example, before the passage I quoted, Fanon writes:

“The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for of the two terms, one is superfluous…The settler’s town is a well-fed town, an easy-going town; its belly is always full of good things. The settler’s town is a town of white people, of foreigners…The town belonging to the colonised people, or at least the native town, the negro village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire.”

In James Scott, I find an important supplement to this idea; while Fanon might be right to assert that in theory the two zones are opposed, Scott’s Seeing Like a State works very hard to think about how and why it is that in practice the state gets implemented (as a higher unity) out of precisely this opposition, how and why “legibility” becomes the principle by which the state differentiates between a dark “native” town and a shining white city on the hill. To ruthlessly plagiarize myself, James Scott points out that the high modernist dream city of Brasilia was almost immediately supplemented by an enormous unplanned cloud of settlements for the workers who had to be there to build it, but who hadn’t been planned as part of the final order. As the planned city grew, so too did the shadow city around it:

“The unplanned Brasilia – that is, the real, existing Brasilia – was quite different from the original vision. Instead of a classless administrative city, it was a city marked by stark spatial segregation according to social class. The poor lived on the periphery and commuted long distances to the center, where much of the elite lived and worked. Many of the rich also created their own settlements with individual houses and private clubs, thereby replicating the affluent lifestyles found elsewhere in Brazil. The unplanned Brasilias – that of the rich and that of the poor – were not merely a footnote or an accident; one could say that the cost of this kind of order and legibility at the center of the plan virtually required that it be sustained by an unplanned Brasilia at the margins. The two Brasilias were not just different; they were symbiotic.”

In other words, there is a systemic relationship between the two towns, one which Fanon seems not to want to address. I say that not to fault him for it, exactly; we shouldn’t demand something different from him than what he was trying to accomplish, and in that particular passage, he was thinking towards a psychoanalyst’s thesis, not an urban planner’s. He wanted to understand why

“The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession-all manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonised man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive ‘They want to take our place’. It is true, for there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place.”

But if we want to think about how to solve the problem of deeply segregated American cities — and, interestingly, it may even be the we do – we have to go beyond trying to understand the neurotics of division (and an accompanying pathologizing of the division itself) towards understanding the practical function they serve within larger social functions. As Scott seeks suggests, the native quarter gets produced as visibly distinct from the white city by the same sort of logic which creates slums in a general sense: the state recognizes one (building it into charts, blueprints, and tax codes) and dis-recognizing the other, thereby relegating it to an inert non-existance where it can be acted upon without itself having agency.

That’s why I found Harvey’s account of Sugrue so compelling. We are living in a historical moment where formal segregation is almost universally understood to be illegitimate. And the form of colonial order which Fanon and Mitchell describe – one in which visible markers of identity get openly translated into the visible fabric of the city – is simply no longer present. Yet because this has become true, the exact same patterns of segregation can obtain almost without anyone protesting: because no one is demanding openly that our cities be segregated by race, we are able to close our eyes to the fact that it is happening, or rather, has happened, has never stopped happening.

I was interested, then, to note that Fanon went on to argue that “This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem. Everything up to and including the very nature of pre-capitalist society, so well explained by Marx, must here be thought out again.” I think he’s on to something with regard to the argument he wants to make: Marx is surprisingly unhelpful for describing colonial economies of racial inequality, for when wealth is a product of whiteness and whiteness is a product of wealth, Marx’s intensely empirical focus on the hows and whys of literal capitalist accumulation are counterproductive (after all, if one is wealthy because one is white, then someone who is empirically poor but white can still be wealthy).

But what if those economies don’t really exist anymore? In that sense, I wonder if Fanon’s strategic step-back from Marx, which made sense in its time and place and discursive context, isn’t the sort of move which now needs to be reversed. If you want to know how the white city came into existence, “visibility” might be the key. But if you want to know why it’s still in existence, perhaps you need to think more about how capital is a thing which comes into the world dripping blood and dirt from every pore and how “race” might increasingly be determined by economics, instead of simply being equated with it. After all, has there ever been a more perfect example of the myth of primitive accumulation than the idea that white economic privilege in today’s society is a product of white “Greatest Generation” striving, and not a determined aftereffect of historical racial injustice? Because we can’t see that kind of racial violence in the present, we forget that it doesn’t need to exist anymore; the fact that it happened once, in the way that it did, forms the fabric of our cities, and a system in motion tends to stay in motion. Thus, an emphasis on the visible implementation of racialized injustice (and the accompanying pathologies which it produces and which reproduce it) might need to give way to an emphasis on things we can’t see, that aren’t, in fact, seeable. To give Harvey, paraphrasing Sugrue, the last word:

“…while “Depression era activists situated racial inequality in a larger context of power relationships and economic inequality,” postwar social scientists “saw prejudice as the manifestation of psychological or emotional deficiencies.” Social scientists also focused on black internal pathologies deriving from psychological responses to white racism. Religious leaders of the time, Sugrue points out, made their peace with the rising emphasis on psychology, for “psychology easily segued into spirituality.” Thus, while a previous generation stressed economics, the liberals of the post-war era focused on personal relations, through such feel-good exercises as Brotherhood Sundays and race relations seminars. We see here, of course, the roots of the current corporate industry of “diversity training,” based on the presumption that group therapy will solve structural inequalities.”