Robert Young. Signs of Race in Poststructuralism: Toward a Transformative Theory of Race.
While poststructuralist theory is hardly ubiquitous, its influence is felt in almost all quarters of the academic humanities, beginning (but hardly ending) with the proliferation of academic monographs that avoid "big picture" or "superthematic" arguments in favor of smaller contexts and greater details. Despite its subject, Robert Young's Signs of Race in Poststructuralism: Toward a Transformative Theory of Race is hardly such a book: its breadth, depth and intended reach are bracing and invigorating. Whether you agree or disagree, Young will have you arguing with him, with yourself, and with any unfortunate colleague who makes the mistake of saying hello mid-read.
In brief, Young maintains that poststructuralist theorists of every stripe, from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to Hortense Spillers to Robert J. C. Young, have it wrong. "Essentially" (pun intended), Young (not to be confused with Robert J. C. Young) contends in his introduction that "poststructuralist thinkers frame the question of race around the issue of textuality, and this linguistic model shapes theorizing of race in a wide range of contemporary inquiries." Surveying literary theory, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, queer theory, and black feminist theory, Young argues that "these theorist [sic] fail to link the question of use value to the question of exchange value, and consequently, it is difficult to see race beyond its textuality; in other words, race becomes a cultural fetish." In still other words, by failing to interpellate minority subjects, constructions and figurations through the system of capitalism, works such as Rod Ferguson's Aberrations in Black, Mason Stokes's The Color of Sex, Siobhan Somerville's Queering the Color Line, Valerie Smith's Not Just Race, Not Just Gender, Kobena Mercer's Welcome to the Jungle, and Omi and Winant's Racial Formation in the United States, just to name a few, produce a notion of race that is largely meaningless, divorced as it is from economic considerations.
Race, Young argues, operates as a commodity fetish in capitalist culture, and that is why it has failed to disappear in the nearly 150 years following the abolition of slavery and almost half a century after the civil rights era. His argument is summed up quite memorably in his last chapter, a reading of Gayl Jones's novel Corregidora, in which Young concludes that the protagonist Ursa's search and battle for a viable subjectivity in the face of a deeply oppressive ancestry, history and present "is not simply a political issue, or a sexual issue, nor an issue of voice, rather it is an economic issue." To be sure, Young points to any number of economies at work in Jones's sexually explicit and sexually devastating text: there is a "clitoral economy," a "fellatio economy," and even a "luck economy." In other words, Young does not restrict himself to financial economies, pointing out the ways in which the black body, as commodity fetish, is exchanged. Yet it is hard to swallow Young's conclusion on this disorientingly ambivalent novel: "By moving toward the fellatio economy, Ursa transcends the exchange system and the patriarchal Symbolic Order which legitimates it, and she does so with the very act that is thought to signify the Law of the Father: fellatio. Ursa denaturalizes our understanding of fellatio from giving head/pleasure to the male patriarch to a transfer of a gift, and the gift economy shuttles between fellatio and its other: cunnilingus. Both are outside of reproduction and constitute an ideological break from the exchange economy" (146).
Despite Young's uncompromising stance on poststructuralism and its engagements with race (and to be sure, Signs of Race in Poststructuralism is so broad in its selection of texts and so detailed in its analyses one can hardly dismiss this determined stance as the result of a naif's lazy work), by the end of his text he cannot do without certain poststructuralist formulations, including Jacques Lacan's Law of the Father. Indeed, from the beginning, Young deploys certain poststructuralist formulations (perhaps despite his will), largely due to his lack of a definition of the term "race." Failing a cogent and workable materialist definition, "race" operates wholly at the discursive, textual level. It seems clear that by "race" Young means "blackness" (a woefully common yet wholly inaccurate conflation in African American, Africana, African diaspora and black theoretical texts), yet a careful definition is crucial in this context because one must ask if other races are also commodity fetishes, or if it is only "Middle Passage blacks," i.e., African Americans, who trace their arrival to the U. S. to slavery. Are South Asians a commodity fetish? Are whites? Is everyone, given that all bodies can be forcibly categorized into one reductive racial category or another, even against their will? If this is not the case, why are African Americans so particularly prone to this type of fetishization? Is slavery the reason? If it is, does this fetishization also apply to contemporary African immigrants? Why or why not? Finally, where do we place the black bourgeoisie? Does race, ironically, "trump" economic difference so that all blacks, from the most abjectly poor and vulnerable all the way up to Oprah and Obama, operate without distinction?
Young is to be commended and imitated for this rarity among books on theory: one which ably demonstrates its mastery of a broad range of complex theories by thoroughly laying out the fundamental principles of a concept and then cogently describing and analyzing their intersections and the resulting paradoxes and aporia. Equally laudable to my mind is Young's truly rigorous, egalitarian and balanced approach: he does not, like so many other theorists who work on race, simply pay lip service to black feminism and queer theory, but gives them equal weight and consideration rather than directing them to the margins of consideration as nontheoretical interest groups.
The project as a whole, however, seems oddly impractical for a Marxist: after all, few if any poststructuralists will abandon their practice because it fails to meet Marxist standards. I absolutely agree that poststructuralists can often ignore or "forget" socioeconomic conditions Oust as Derrida, Lacan and Foucault studiously ignored race in their theorizations). But Young's second major point, that the failure to produce a materialist account of race is equivalent to a total failure, is legitimate only to a Marxist. Given the rich offerings in poststructuralism on blackness in contrast to the relatively sparse offerings from Marxist theory, I wonder why Young doesn't encourage his fellow travelers to examine how blackness operates in Marxist thought rather than try to abolish one of the few theoretical areas today where the concept of blackness enjoys such rich, varied debate.
Michelle M. Wright
A frican A merican R eview, Volume 43, Number 4 [c] 2009 Michelle M. Wright
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|Author:||Wright, Michelle M.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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