Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Readings in "Race": Kant and "The Drama of Race"

After a summary prelude, Carter spends chapter one of his book analyzing the contributions and shortcomings of Cornel West and Michel Foucault's "genealogies" of race, exploring how they think today's "race problem" came about. 

In chapter two he clears way for his own suggestions by analyzing the thought of Immanuel Kant, tracing in particular how his lectures on race in the 1770s may inform our understanding of the premises behind his later (more recognizedly influential) works.

What follows are a few more excerpts that bookmark the progression of Carter's argument, relay some of the ways that Kant has influenced modern thought, and further highlight the mental grids within which today's racial ideas take form. 


"[B]etween the 1775 course advertisement and its modification into the 1777 essay, Kant modulated his language in an important way.... [T]he specific term 'race' (Rasse), which Kant consistently applied to the Negroes, Huns, and Hindustanis to explain their origins, has for whites now dropped out.... As he sees it, whites are a group apart. They are a 'race' that is is not quite a race, the race that transcends race precisely because of its 'developmental progress' (Fortgang) toward perfection." (88).

"Although each race suffers from a different kind of imbalance, the core problem for all of them is their inability to be self-governing or autonomous.... None of this, however, applies to whites.... Kant's ultimate concern is with the success of the universalist project of modernity, the project of whiteness as the advance of cultured civilization" (93-95).

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
As Kant says: "[T]he human being is his own final end. Therefore to know the human being according to his species as an earthly being endowed with reason especially deserves to be called knowledge of the world [Weltkenntnis], even though he only constitutes one part of the peoples of the earth.... [What is important is] what he as a free-acting being makes of himself, or can and should make of himself" (98-99).

"It is this disinteredness or autonomy that positioned the Germans, as Kant saw it, to direct the other European nations in how to lead the species in its mission to cover the globe. They are the most free. Autonomy must lead the way.... But here is where negative examples come in. [The coloured races] cannot abstract themselves from their own bodies and enter into an autonomous way of existence.... [By] focusing attention on the Jews as the sole negative racial other in Anthropology, Kant makes them stand in for all nonwhite flesh.... They are a heteronymous people.... [and] their heteronymous and sensuous nature arises from their religion.... They are the proverbial neighbour next door ... who we fear ... [will] send 'autonomous' equity values plummeting" (102-105).

"Kant's objective ... was never the overcoming of religion.... In [his] articulation, Christianity is reimagined as 'racially' severed from and ethnographically triumphant over its oriental Jewish roots. Functioning in the modern world as a revitalized Gnosticism ... Christianity, reconstituted as the moral religion par excellence of reason, extols a Jesus who, rather than disclosing YHWH or the God of Israel as the ground of redemption for Jews and Gentiles alike, instead affirms what the human species 'can or should make of itself'" (106-107).

"In the name of Paul, Kant presents Christianity as the ultimate expression of Western culture and civilization.... Christ's wisdom is continuous with, though it represents a purer form of, the wisdom of the Greek philosophers. The Greek philosophers.... In this moment, Christ ceases to be Jewish. Or, perhaps better: he is a hybrid, though his hybridity comes at the loss of his covenantal identity as a Jew.... For Kant, Christ represents the wisdom of Europe at the moment of its Greek birth" (113, 117).

There was a lot going on in this chapter, but I think these excerpts represent it adequately. While there may be many factors in the rise of racism, in the end Carter reiterates that any account of race which understates its historically religious rationale misses a pretty key factor. Thus in the next part Carter turns his attention to "the theological problem of Gentile Christianity's refusal to think its existence apart from within the bosom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (121).

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Friends of Roger Ebert

Stanley Hauerwas said his autobiography would be as much about the friends who made him as it was about himself. With Roger Ebert's memoirs this was even more so. Through his regaling of the details of place and personality, we get our impression of the man. Since Ebert was famous for interviewing others and reviewing their works, I suppose this is apropos.

This was a captivating memoir--probably largely in part because I liked Roger Ebert, but also because it is so rawly yet excellently written. Some of the best parts are the chapters about film directors and other characters in Ebert's life. I loved how he would capture them in a phrase or two. Here are some of my favourites:

Ingmar Bergman

On visiting Bergman on set: "When you are making a film about the silence of God, it helps if everyone feels right at home and there's a pot of coffee brewing."

"'What kind of crew do you use?' [David] Lean asked him. 'I make my films with eighteen good friends,' said Ingmar. 'That's interesting,' said Lean, 'I make mine with one hundred and fifty enemies.'"

Robert Altman

"Altman was a collaborator. Many directors are private and dictatorial. He involved everyone. He and Kathryn moved in a crowd, and actors became like familiy. He directed in a conspiratorial style, as if he and the actors were putting something over on absent enemies."

Woody Allen

"At one point, [Soon-Yi] advised him to be more animated when he appeared onstage with his band... 'They want to see you bob a little,' she says, and he gets defensive: 'I'm appropriately animated for a human being in the context in which I appear.' But in the next concert, he bobs a little."

Werner Herzog

"Each film has proceeded from an idea of a unique character approaching reality at an oblique angle.... When he uses movie stars, it is for their oddness, not for their fame. But he doesn't make freak shows. His characters are more human than the grotesque fabrications I see in many romantic comedies or violent action movies."

Gene Siskel

"[A]nother Chicago media couple, Steve Dahl and Garry Meier ... gave us advice about how to work together as a successful team. Soon afterward Steve and Garry had an angry public falling-out that has lasted to this day. Gene and I would never have had that happen to us. In our darkest brooding moments, when competitiveness, resentment, and indignation were at a roiling boil, we never considered it. We were linked in a bond beyond all disputing."

"'Do I look okay, Gene?' I asked him one night when we were waiting backstage to go on the Leno show.... 'Roger, when I need to amuse myself, I stroll down the sidewalk reflecting that every person I pass thought they looked just great when they walked out of their house that morning.'"

In sum, Ebert writes: "Artists like [these] bring meaning to my life, which has been devoted in such large part to films of worthlessness." To Ebert's credit, much of the meaning he found in others came from his own approach to life and to journalism, which he took from the advice of Studs Terkel: "Ask questions... If you don't know anything, just respond by asking questions. It's not how much you know."