Emily Hoffman | Race, Affect, and Antifascist Praxis

By Emily Hoffman

Confronted with texts such as these—“racist, bigoted, anti-semitic, misogynist, xenophobic,” as Bernard Harcourt cataloged, and, I would add, crucially, increasingly popular—the critical mind reaches immediately to a handful of interpretive tactics: to unearth the logic that structures the text in order to expose inconsistencies; to name a set of real problems in the world to which the text offers a mistaken or wrongheaded response; or to turn the text back on ourselves, to use it to expose similar ideas lurking in ostensibly friendlier quarters (the logic of neoliberalism, in the case of Zeynep Gambetti’s intervention; liberal thinkers like Mark Lilla, in the case of Jason Stanley’s response). I don’t catalogue these tactics in order to mount a critique against them, per se. I do mean to mark lightly, however, the predictability of the critical maneuver, and also to question the feeling of mastery it engenders. Given that these texts function to a large measure affectively (as Renata Salecl discusses), is our critique striking at the heart of their power, both how they function and how they circulate? Vis-a-vis circulation, are we conscious of the respectability which we offer such texts by reading and discussing them in a visible public forum at Columbia University? In the balance, surely we do more to advance these ideas simply by discussing them in such a setting than our critical maneuvers could ever hope to undo. This is not to say we ought not to read them, only to situate the relative efficacy of critique against other material factors.

That being said, I would like to offer one observation about the texts in the above critical vein. It is to do with race—not only its absolute centrality to the alt-right platform, as Kendall Thomas rightly noted, but also the importance of its reconstitution as a primarily biological category.

Perhaps it is an obvious point, but one which I believe bears remarking, that the stunningly overt racism, the white supremacy, of these texts is reliant on a conception of race as a fundamentally biological category. In A Fair Hearing, George T. Shaw caricatures liberal pieties about race and racism as follows: “1. All apparently different human populations in fact have identical behavioral tendencies and intellectual capacities. 2. Those who imagine that they see different behavioral tendencies and intellectual capacities among differently-evolved human populations are lying, doubtlessly because of psychological issues, and ultimately because of genocidal hatred.”[1] The implication being, of course, that any sane person can see with his own eyes that there are innate differences between racial groups. This common-sense appeal is echoed by Björn Herstad in The Real Right Returns: “You don’t need a PhD to understand that girls and boys are different from one another, or that there are different people and cultures. Conversely, you do need one—or several—to be able to construct an explanatory system ‘proving’ the opposite.”[2]

Their bogeyman is anthropology, or, as Shaw puts it in his introduction to A Fair Hearing, “anthropological theories that place absurd amounts of emphasis on nature, or environment, and completely overlook heredity”[3]—or, again, as he puts it in his more gloves-off conclusion, “the race denialism of Jewish anthropology.”[4]

It is important to remember that the discipline of anthropology was bedeviled at its founding by just this question of race and heredity. One of the first British anthropological institutions, the Ethnological Society of London (founded 1844), was split in two by it. One group, led by two Quakers (Thomas Hodgkin and James Cowles Prichard), advocated a vision of a unitary human nature differentiated into distinct cultures by environmental factors. The second, led by James Hunt, believed anthropologists ought to focus on anatomical differences between racial groups and argued for the “diversitarian,” or polygenetic, origins of human difference—namely, that racial differences were inherent and genetic, and that the human species did not share a common origin. The fighting became so contentious that Hunt split off from the Society and founded his own organization, the Anthropological Society of London, where he became notorious for his racist tirades and for his dinner society, The Cannibal Club. It wasn’t until 1871 that the universalist strain of anthropology prevailed, through an alliance with Darwinians (who, naturally, opposed Hunt’s “diversitarian” theory, favoring a singular origin of the species), under the leadership of Thomas Huxley, who renamed the Society the Royal Anthropological Institute.[5]

I mention this to point out that even in “Jewish anthropology” we are not safe from biological determinism. The necessary assumption on which white supremacy rests (that race and culture are biologically determined) rears its head in many quarters, and in every era. Today we have only to look at the tens of millions of people willing to send their DNA to companies like 23andMe for information about their racial background to see the lasting purchase of race as biology.[6]

Why the recent resurgence of the biological over the cultural? There are many ways to account for this, but here is Friberg’s own answer:

Ethnic identity is today a natural point of departure for political organisation. The liberal concept of the individual, as well as the class analysis of socialism, have both been proved inadequate. Ethnic groups now constitute the fundamental factor in almost every context, and because of this constitute excellent points of departure for political analysis and practice alike…For many people their local, regional, or national affiliation remains the most important identity marker. Historical circumstance, however, has made these groupings insufficient, at least as political entities, for looking after the political interests of Europeans throughout the world.[7]

We ought to take seriously Friberg’s critique of modernity, even if we must also categorically disavow his prescription. If class has failed as a category of analysis, can it be resuscitated? What are the new contours of solidarity that can draw affective attachment? And how can we foreground race as a category of analysis without letting in through the back door ideas of biological immutability?

One distortion produced by analyzing the alt-right through these texts, however, is that the texts are not, in fact, demonstrative of the alt-right’s primary modus operandi. What seems to me absolutely central to alt-right praxis (if we want to call it that) is not pseudo-academic argument, but mockery. Shaw explains it this way:

Much of the outrageous and offensive material, such as gas chamber jokes and over-the-top ‘racism,’ can be seen as necessary if painful corrections. These devices serve to break down barriers to honest discourse with humor, and to neutralize the ability of the cultural commissars to police right-wingers with demonstrations of outrage. There are only so many times that liberals can gasp in horror, gravely denounce, and be reduced to tears by ‘racism,’ ‘anti-Semitism,’ etc. before their theatrics produce nothing but eye-rolls from the public at large. While there must certainly be a strain of lowbrow, un-ironic ‘Nazism’ in the alt-right, what is generally observed is the use of crass, blunt arguments and mockery as a calculated means of demoralizing laughable prudish and fragile leftists.[8]

For Jason Stanley, the name of the game is respectability, and the function of outrage is to create the cover for more vanilla versions of these positions to infiltrate mainstream discourse. This is certainly one of the primary functions of this strategy.

But there is something else here, too, which was gestured at by Michael Taussig (1:29), though not taken up by the panel. And that is the spirit of destruction, of illogic, of pleasure in cruelty, of doing things “just for the heck of it,” of trolling: Bataille’s “unproductive expenditure,” as Taussig glossed it, which cannot be reduced to economic explanation. I think this affective aspect is crucial. Kendall Thomas called enjoyment of this kind the “wages or dividends of alt-right whiteness” and named it, specifically, a “public racial enjoyment,” by which I took him to reference, rightly, the history of lynching and other spectacles of group racial violence. This exuberant excess must be contended with on its own terms, not least of all because it, more than any other facet of alt-white “praxis,” is impervious to critique.

That fascism, generally, is impervious to critique is the fundamental contention of Antifa, who know that to be drawn into debate with a fascist is already to have lost. As a Left militant praxis, Antifa might be well worth our future attention and analysis.

[1] A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right in the Words of its Members and Leaders, Ed. George T. Shaw (Arktos Media, 2018), 189.

[2] Daniel Friberg, The Real Right Returns – a Handbook for the True Opposition (London: Arktos, 2015), 215.

[3] A Fair Hearing, xii.

[4] A Fair Hearing, 216.

[5] Frederick Barth, “The Rise of Anthropology in Britain, 1830-1898,” One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 4-5.

[6] For the dubiousness of genetic testing methods, see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/magazine/dna-test-black-family.html. For scholars writing on race and human genetic research see Kim Tallbear, Ruha Benjamin, and Alondra Nelson.

[7] Friberg, 28.

[8] A Fair Hearing, xiii.