Current Affairs new materialism

the assemblage of white populations

As you probably learned in high school or college, the different races of humans with which we identify today have no biological basis but are social constructions. A brief refresher on the matter is here. Basically though there are few starting points for this construction. One occurs in the 17th century when American colonists decide that rather than just enslaving individual Africans that they would create a race of Africans they could enslave and a race of Native Americans they could conquer. Of course they also envisioned a white race that was essentially–ontologically–superior to them. Another starting point is in the early 18th century when the pseudo-science of race takes off in Germany, which spread to America and elsewhere. These ideas carried into eugenics and was integral in fascism.

But of course we all learned these things long ago, right?

One implication that’s hard to get your mind around, especially if you are white, is that there is no concept of white identity, white people, white culture, white civilization or anything like that which is not inextricably tied to white supremacy. At minimum, for 300 years, from 1650 to 1950, the purpose of socially constructing a white race was to justify the essential, ontological superiority of its constituents over the rest of humans.

And what about since then? What about now? We just had an attempted coup. 58% of white people voted for Trump. In the eyes of these rioters, all their white friends voted for Trump. So how could Trump have lost? Obviously the election was stolen from them! Just as the nation is being stolen by black people and immigrants. These folks probably don’t call themselves racists; they just want to preserve their culture and their identity. But as I just said, their culture and identity, my culture and identity as white, is racist. It is a mechanism of white supremacy. In short (and unsurprisingly), these historical operations still continue.

[I should just add, in case it isn’t clear, that these understandings of racial history have long been developed and examined by historians and other antiracist scholars with significantly more depth and nuance than this off-hand blog post would even imagine. I mean, I learned about this stuff when I was an undergrad and was reading works written long before that. So, find a library or a google search engine or something.]

Of course, we also have anti-racist movements. We have had abolitionist and civil rights movements in which white people have participated. From these traditions we can ask: is there a way to have a white race that is divorced from white supremacy? What would be the point? On the other hand, what would have to happen for us to abandon the concept and identity of the white race? It is a social construction, so like all social constructions it can be dismantled and left behind, just as we once left monarchies and the divine right of kings behind us. I suppose if we can dismantle whiteness entirely that hypothetically we can just revise it somehow or make some new social construction, but what would/should that be. If we dismantled the white race, what would/should happen to the social constructions of other races? I honestly don’t know.

While I don’t really know what should happen exactly (beyond the broad brushstrokes of eliminating white supremacy), I do have some abstract, ontological understanding of how populations dissolve. The first point is recognizing that as individual humans we are captured in an extrinsic relationship with a material-historical assemblage that articulates us as members of a race. It is always hypothetically possible to shed those extrinsic relations. In fact, I could travel to another country today (well, not today, because, you know, death is in the air). When I got there, I might still be identified as “white” but it would mean something different than it does here. In short, on an individual level, changing my identity could be as easy as hopping on a plane. Of course, that doesn’t do anything to address the problem here.

What I am talking about–and here I am turning to abstract, theoretical concepts–is a dynamic and nonlinear material history. Unlike the more familiar concepts of dialectical materialist history which require mass movements and revolutions to enact change on this scale, the basic premise of nonlinear functions is that small actions can produce disproportionate effects. I hasten to add that this does not mean that mass movements and revolutions don’t or shouldn’t happen (because obviously they do). It’s simply a different method for describing material history.

To give one example in my own area of research: propaganda asserting election fraud spread through social media. It was encountered by tens of millions of Americans who were influenced by it. However there were nonlinear dynamics at work there. A small number of users played a disproportionate role in spreading that propaganda. This includes the executives of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms that provided the technological means. They were joined by cable and nationally syndicated news networks across a range of media. And by leaders of massive evangelical churches. All of this was done in support of white supremacists who are angry and scared because Trump lost even though white people voted in favor of him.

So, hypothetically, here’s what might be done. In America, with very few restrictions (e.g. yelling fire in a theater), we can say what we want in our homes and in public spaces. If you want to talk about storming the Capitol in your house or with your buddies at a bar or out in park somewhere, you can. If you want to make your own website listing your complaints, you can. But when you engage a social media platform to spread your message and/or conspire with tens of thousands if not millions of others, then I think we’re talking about something different. The 2nd amendment doesn’t give us the right to own bombs. The 1st amendment doesn’t give me the right to set up a stack of amps in my yard and broadcast political screeds at my neighbors. So what about using social media?

Of course the counter-argument is that this is a slippery slope. Undoubtedly it is. We just had a coup that was instigated and organized through social media. I’d say we’re already on a slippery slope. The question is, do we want to try to ski in a particular direction or not?

In this particular scenario, the nonlinear dynamics are the less than 1000 individuals who were disproportionately responsible for spreading propaganda online and through other media outlets. However, social and mobile media are themselves examples of nonlinear dynamics at work. Here too we could say that we are looking at technological developments for which fewer than 1000 individuals have had disproportional responsibility. Change those and change the dynamics.

In other words, we don’t necessarily have to change laws. We might just change the technologies. Changing the technologies will change how populations are assembled. Historically our conceptions of race have relied upon mass media. There’s no white nationalism without nationalism. And there’s little chance for nationalism without a media that strengthens the bonds of collectivity. Change the way media function and you change the nonlinear dynamics that produce white identity. I’m not saying that’s enough on its own. But it’s an example of how nonlinear material history operates.

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