Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde. Read the rest.
Discussions of innovative poetry in relation to race are troubled by a problem that haunts any generalization. Any general proposition is almost certainly falsifiable by a single counter-example: the one-drop rule of empiricism's riposte to theory. Yet, extended meditation on a single example would not serve the purpose of a general argument, particularly with experimental poems that tend to be singular in kind. It is the happy recalcitrance of poetry to pose the singular against the categorical as it is the poem’s temptation to transmute the particular into the general. Rather than seek to resolve this by identifying an exemplary example, I will engage this differential play of universality and particularity as being inherent in the dialectics of both race and poetry.
My title is drawn from a peculiarly haunting and poetic phrase in Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks:
All round me the white man, above the sky tears at its navel, the earth rasps under my feet, and there is a white song, a white song. All this whiteness that burns me. . . .
Fanon condenses poetically two distinct modalities of race: first, the idea of race as erasure, or as a lived invisibility; the second suggesting that race appears as matter, the recalcitrant cinders that remain, in opposition to the universal subject position occupied by the White. These two conceptions of race appear to be contradictory. In one, the racialized subject is erased from humanity and occupies the very threshold of the human at and as its vanishing point. In the other, the racialized object persists as the very figure of materiality refusing to be erased, earth rasping its coarse noise against the pure white song.
"Race" is misconceived as an attribute that exists only in some people, giving rise to designation of race as identity.
These contradictory ways of understanding and constituting race are mediated by the work of abstraction. Abstraction performs the double function of erasing difference (in positing an undifferentiated human subject that occupies the place of the universal) while posing itself against the particularity of the material that is the irreducible remainder of any act of formalization. The sheer, formal abstractness of identity constitutes whiteness. Whiteness is in the first place not a “racial” position, an ethnic identity among others, but is the formal subject that lays claim to a universally representative position: that of the human as identical to itself. What Fanon so poetically names is a poetics of race, a relation of form to matter, a principle of selection and omission, a whiteness that is both a margin that surrounds and a song whose saturation of the field of representation drowns out and erases that which is not identical with it.
Fanon’s poetic interprets the common alignment of racial matter with the poetry of experience and formal concerns with a poetics of experiment. This alignment divides poetry read “sociologically” for its affirmation or exposition of identity from “innovative” poetry, which is critical of identity formation, of experience or of representation, understood as the presentation of personal experience or of “speaking for” a community. Experimental writing’s suspicion of reference, its distaste for anecdote or fable, is its anti-narrative taboo. It is no less prey to an anti-imagistic taboo, obedient to the iconoclastic tradition that honors the commandment against representation. But the foreclosure of representation reduces race to the mere represented, the referent of experience. It confirms the reduction of the racialized to experience and identity that it simultaneously condemns.
We can take these reflections in another direction. For Fanon, the appearance of the black man "impedes the closing of the postural schema of the white man." Race is the self-reflexivity of a mirror stage gone awry. We might rewrite Fanon's insight to say that race is the material that marks the awkward historical substance that impedes the formal work of the poem. The evasive re-inscription of race in the idea of the post-racial only underscores the persistence of a racial form in the racially marked categories of a multiculturalism still in thrall to the construction of race around the dichotomies of form and matter, universal and particular. In turn, "race" is always misconceived as an attribute that exists only in some people, giving rise to the peculiar and euphemistic designation of race as identity. Identity politics is what interrupts and destroys the unity of universal political movements. The poetry of identity is poetry understood as its biographical and sociological content, whether conveyed as narrative or as "diction." But race is not an identity—it is an historical relation to social differentiation. Within the sets of difference that constitute race as an historical category of social experience, whiteness imagines itself as not-race, as not-partial, and race as something others bear. Whiteness, “all round us,” is the universal or, at least, a movement towards the abstraction of the human in general. Whiteness is the movement of formalization itself. It is the non-identity of the identical.
To be identical with the universal—as whites may comfortably perceive themselves— is in the first place an ethical end: it is to judge from the perspective of all humanity. But it is no less the foundation of the aesthetic: to judge as if one's subjective judgment of taste were universally valid. The matter of race appears as an awkward challenge to the ethical presumption of the white subject and likewise to the ideal formality of the poem. It captures whiteness in its own awkward self-recognition as situated, embodied being, when the desire of whiteness, as of the aesthetic, is the abstracting tendency to form.
The experimental poem devoted to dismantling common sense or ideology is governed by something like the post-Romantic value of “permanent parabasis”: an irony that refuses closure. The condition of its endlessreadability is that its subject should remain unfixed, never trapped in the partiality of an articulated identity. The condition of reading is to follow the movement of a poet always presumed to be in advance—ethical and ideological savvy assured by aesthetic freedom. Assent to this sequence is familiarly vocalized in the knowing snort of laughter, down the nose, that greets the performance of poetic irony at any reading.
But to understand race as a differential relation to the social means recognizing that ignorance may be constitutive rather than contingent, a product of our formation rather than an accident of experience. Constitutive ignorance demands that we stand off from the assumption of our identity with the universal and desist from always knowing better. Fanon knows what it is to be fixed as an object, a knowledge whiteness finds inadmissible. The awkwardness of race for white poetry—which is not always the poetry of white people—lies in the materiality of the racial, which is not merely a content that can be incorporated by naming it, but which is the persistent, dialectical other of the white claim to ethical universality. Race subsists as what cannot be subsumed into subjective abstract universality. It insists, in its stubborn non-aesthetic materiality, and that insistence is its interruption, its punctuation of the white song that surrounds us.