Thoughts on philoSOPHIA 11 #2: Race, Technology, and the Body

Alia Al-Saji’s keynote was, as usual, all-around fabulous. One aspect of it particularly stood out to me, because it responded to this open question that I’ve been carrying around with me this semester. The question is about Falguni Sheth’s Towards a Political Philosophy of Race, which I taught this past Spring semester. In her book, FS shifts from a race-as-identity paradigm (i.e., race as a property, a thing or a what) to a race-as-technology model (i.e., race as a means of accomplishing things, race as a how). The Foucaultian in me of course appreciates the race-as-technology argument, and I think it’s really useful (I’ve argued that elsewhere in this blog). However, it seems that in the move from what to how, we lose the body. Where’s the body in Sheth’s account of race? Ought her account, or any account of race, address the body? Does the body need to be present, somewhere, in the race-as-technology model?

I asked my class these questions, but I was concerned that it was perhaps my feminist training that inclined me to assume that there needed to be an account of the body, that the body ought to be present somewhere in any and every theory of race. (Not that that feminist lesson isn’t valuable or correct—I just wanted to make sure it was warranted and not a merely knee-jerk or habitual reaction.)

Alia’s presentation adopted a race-as-technology framework, but one that centered on the body. She described several ways that discussions of difference that elide or evade the body (biology, phenotype, etc.) do so in order to hide the racial dimensions/stakes of these discussions. For example, claims about “cultural” difference (e.g., Western vs. non-Western, French vs. Muslim) distinguish themselves from “racial” claims by holding that “race” is necessarily biological; they make this move in order to hide the racial logic that motivates and structures the distinctions represented as “merely” cultural and non-biological and non-corporeal. It seems to me that the implication here is that the shift from identity to technology is not necessarily an anti-racist one; Alia shows one way that the race-as-technology framework is used to naturalize and rationalize racism (instead of critiquing it). We lose something analytically/theoretically when we lose the body. So the question now is: Where is the body in the race-as-technology model? It’s likely everywhere, in lots of different ways—but it seems important that we pay attention to corporeality even and especially if we reject the view that race is “just” an identity.