Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Lauren Neal
Priscilla Wald lecture (late)

The English word “theory” comes from the Greek “theoria,” meaning contemplation, speculation, or sight. It is related to the word “theatron,” or place for viewing – the theater. Theater and theory are kin.

I found Priscilla Wald's lecture remarkable and compelling, particularly her insistence that any theory is itself a story, a narrative, a way in which we 'tell ourselves to ourselves' in the Clifford Geertz-ian ("Interpretation of Cultures") sense. She argued that we must take into account the deliberate production of narratives (discourse?) and asked if we should take them seriously as a form of power and activism. Wald affirmed that exclusion from history renders one's life meaningless, as one is stripped of the opportunity and promise of the Self into the future. Notions of visibility strike me as particularly critical to this argument. Here I point to the above definitions of theory and theatre, which derive etymologically from the same root, emphasizing a mode of vision, thought, or seeing. Is this not another way of citing 'narrativity,' or the modalities by which we tell our stories and represent ourselves, our histories, etc.?

1. Race as Performative Repetition
In "Race as a Kind of Speech Act," Louis Miron and Jonathan Inda argue that "race does not refer to a pre-given subject. Rather, it works performatively to constitute the subject itself and only acquires a naturalized effect through repeated or reiterative naming of or reference to that subject." (7) The norms that constitute the symbolic order and create "the grid of intelligibility" are produced and circulated by the relations of power existing within a given society. In a white supremacist society, for example, norms work by constructing a binary opposition between white and black (or nonwhite) in which white is always privileged over black. (8) Subjects are thus interpellated into the symbolic order as gendered and raced beings and are recognizable only in reference to the existing grid of intelligibility. For Miron and Inda, the interpellation "Look, a Negro," famously addressed by Frantz Fanon, is parallel to "It's a girl!" (9) And once interpellated, subjects must, in turn, incessantly cite and mime the very race norms that created their intelligibility (and thus their condition of possibility) in the first place. In short, according to Miron and Inda, race performativity is the power of discourse to bring about what it names through the citing or repetition of racial norms.

Thinking of the narrative relative to this quote, I find it critical to reiterate the final point: "race performativity is the power of discourse to bring about what it names through the citing or repetition of racial norms." In other words, the way in which we narrate our statuses, positionality, and histories may itself incite racialization. In essence, we take the raw data of human existence and from it derive algorithms which we then apply to our understanding of the world and its operative functions. Really, we should be paying closer attention to the production of such algorithms (theories, discourses, modes of 'seeing') because they are what eventually labor to reproduce the raw data associated with certain conditions of living. This eerily invokes the notion of cells and their relation to a donor: what happens to basic human operatives (cells, or, 'actual' conditions of living) once removed from their source, processed, reproduced, and passed along to others? Are they now stripped of their particularities?

Is the human stripped of the particularities of his/her experience once integrated into a global/communal environment? (or, rather, once we acknowledge the situating of an 'individual' in a 'communal' context)

What is an individual's relationship not only to the multiplicitous, global experience outside oneself, but also one's relationship to the multiplicity of cells inside oneself? Each cell is individual, promoting biological diversity, but the singular is integral to the creation of a 'mass' or a 'whole.'


There are various "allegorical readings [which] let us see how the assignment of particular narrative functions to black characters can imply that the African presence in American social and political life, while serviceable, is expendable" (from "Look, A Negro!" by Robert Gooding-Williams). Racialized persons serve as decoration in a variety of famous tales (i.e. films like "Casablanca" of "Ghost"): utile but flat, void of their own narrative or platform for sharing their own multifaceted stories.

The social, especially in the United States and other places haunted by slavery and colonization, interpellates racialized persons into positions of voicelessness; while, conversely, biology creates hyperinvisible subjects of these persons by rendering their particular, multivalent experiences concurrent with any nonspecific narrative.


I was also moved by Wald's notion of 'bioslavery' - or, the 'spectre of enslavement' haunting a present-day commodification of organic/corporeal material, and when that becomes the commodification of humanity or personhood. I think it's intriguing to consider the fact that the African-American experience of slavery included sexual relationships with white slaveowners: white genes are present in a large majority of African Americans, whether acknowledged or not. When conditions of slavery have been and/or are reproduced in 'peculiar institutions' (think: Loic Wacant) like Jim Crow, the urban ghetto, American sports, the American prison, they are oft ignored. The history of miscegenation is pushed even further under the bookshelves. The idea of a black woman's cells being disseminated across the globe is fascinating in contrast to a predominantly white, imperialistic spread of ideological (and biological) seed throughout history.

When will we tell that story in a new way, so we can understand why it is that the telling of, say, HeLa cells is so disturbing?

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