Academic journal article Philosophy Today

On Castration and Miscegenation: Is the Phallus White Skin?

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

On Castration and Miscegenation: Is the Phallus White Skin?

Article excerpt

In Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (1995), Lewis Gordon offers a sustained analysis of antiblack racism in phenomenological or, more specifically, Sartrean terms.1 Part III of Bad Faith advances a critique of the metaphysics of presence; Gordon exposes the faulty identitarian logic that underpins the equation of "darkness" with the excluded "Other" of Western reason in an antiblack world. Like feminist and other poststructuralist critiques of Hegel, Gordon sees the reified structure of antiblack values as rooted in a failure to contend with difference in general; that failure effectuates "the ossification of human reality into a monadic entity identical with one aspect of its assumed duality" (94). For Gordon, the antiblack world is Manichean in that it reflects an ossified value system that assumes an "identity relation between whiteness and [humanity]" (103).2 Although strongly reminiscent of Irigaray's critique of Hegel's logic of identity, parallels between Gordon and post-structuralist feminist theory may well be more of an "intersection of different roads than a shared route on a common highway" (165).

In his effort to decode the symbolic sources of antiblack racism, Gordon faces the same, very difficult theoretical task that confronts feminist social theory: how to avoid a reductionist methodology that isolates one kind of oppression and its sources as the primary cause of all other kinds of oppression.3 Yet Gordon's phenomenological approach to symbolic practices rejects the Lacanian-based thesis that the phallus is primarily masculinely coded. At first glance, Gordon's pivotal counterclaim that the "phallus is white skin," appears to entangle his analysis in precisely the reductionism he thinks inheres in Lacanianinfluenced accounts of phallocratic symbolic systems (128).4 It appears to lead to the conclusion that black men are always worse off than white women.

In this essay, I wish to accomplish two goals. First. in Part I and throughout this essay, I will press a constructive reading of Gordon' s proposal that gendered and racialized values coalesce in the symbolic sources of both antiblack racism and misogyny. This reading suggests that any assessment of Gordon's hermeneutic as reductionistic would be premature and inconsistent with his primary intent. That intent is to explore race and gender as coextensive features of symbolic reality, while nonetheless refusing to disregard empirical differences between forms of oppression. Second, I will give a programmatic suggestion for how to reconcile Gordon's claim, that being black renders people materially worse off than other kinds of oppression, with the fact that every oppressed group is equally vulnerable to the most radically violent reaction from at least some people.

Toward this end, Part II explores two possible meanings of Gordon's thesis, not only the weak claim that the phallus is "white masculinity" but also the strong claim that the phallus is "white skin." Although I show that Gordon offers a viable critique of Lacanian-influenced models of identity-formation, I will nonetheless argue that only the weak version of this thesis allows us to account for multiple group experiences of hatred toward them. I conclude by suggesting that Kristeva's semiotic theory can supplement Gordon's existential analysis of the symbolism of castration and miscegenation in a way that allows us to account for the equally phobic reactions people have to multiple marginalized social groups, without implying that some groups do not suffer greater material exploitation than others. I also propose that Gordon, in spite of his intent to the contrary, cannot avoid a third brand of hermeneutic reductionism if he does not allow that multiple symbolic registers exist and that these overlap in non-simple ways. This form of reductionism, by subsuming the symbolism of femininity under blackness, begins to contradict his main premise that race and gender are coextensive features of reality. …

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