A Toolkit for Reading Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (2014)
By Marianela Munoz and Charles Holm
1. Alexander Weheliye: Biography
Dr. Weheliye is an Associate Professor of African American Studies, and is the director of Graduate Studies in the African American Studies Department at Northwestern University. He received his PhD from Rutgers University. His first book, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Duke University Press, 2005), won the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Study of Black American Literature or Culture. Habeous Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biolpolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke University Press, 2014) is Weheliye’s second book. Weheliye’s current projects include a study on the thought of W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter Benjamin, and a historical study on the relationship between R&B music and technology from the 1970s to today. More information and links to Weheliye’s writings, syllabi, and current projects can be found on his personal website.
2. Unpacking and understanding Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human
Weheliye’s work seeks to intervene in “rectifying the short comings of ‘bare life and biopolitics discourse,’” suggesting that Black Studies proposes “alternate ways of conceptualizing the place of race, or racializing assemblages, within the domain of modern politics” (1). Weheliye takes an intersectional, and often global perspective, and counters others who have theorized “bare life,” “biopolitics, “social death,” and “necropolitics” for neglecting or disputing “the existence of alternative modes of life alongside the violence, subjection, exploitation, and racialization that define the modern human” (1-2). Interested in abolishing the systems that define the modern human, Weheliye insists his analysis does not work “within the lexicons of resistance and agency,” because “these concepts have a tendency to blind us, whether through strenuous denials or exalted celebrations of their existence, to the manifold occurrences of freedom in zones of indistinction” (emphasis added, 2).
First tool: Black Studies and Black Feminist Thought
Weheliye works within Black Studies, describing it as a “(non)disciplinary formation” (3). Working in Black Studies provides his work with alternative perspectives regarding “bare life” and “biopolitics” as Weheliye makes “blackness, and racializing assemblages” central to his theorization, and contributes to his understanding racial assemblages themselves as “political relations that require…the barring of nonwhite subjects from the category of the human as it is performed in the modern west” (emphasis added, 3). Black Studies presents a global critique of Western modernity and Western modes of knowledge production, while constructing alternative modes of thought and working for abolishing the West’s conception of Man.
Weheliye notes how Black Feminist thought has been dismissed and disavowed, not only within traditional disciplines, but also within Black Studies itself. Habeus Viscus draws on the work of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynters, Black Feminist scholars who share the goal of disrupting the “conception of humanity as synonymous with western Man” and who bring to this project “analytic tools for thinking the deeply gendered and sexualized provenances of racializing assemblages” (5). Weheliye also cites W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1963) as informing his understanding of racialization and racializing assemblages.
Second tool: Revisiting Agambem and Foucault
Habeas Viscus engages with the work of Giorgio Agambem and Michel Foucault, problematizing how theorizations about sovereignty, states of exception, homo sacer, bare life, on the one hand, and biopolitics in general, on the other, tend to be deracialized or have a narrow definition of racism. “How would Foucault’s and Agambem’s theories of modern violence differ if they took the Middle Passage as their point of departure rather than remaining entrapped within the historiographical cum philosophical precincts of fortress Europe?”, Weheliye asks.
By establishing Nazi racism and European biopolitics as the paradigmatic example of biopolitical racialization, both Agambem and Foucault fail to consider “the historical relationality and conceptual contiguity between Nazi racism and the other forms of biopolitics… those perfected in colonialism, indigenous genocide, racialized indentured servitude, and racial slavery, for instance.” (59).
Check this video about some of Agamben’s theoretical foundations (and bias), and think about how the sole images selected may enrich Weheliye arguments: AGAMBEN HOMO SACER ANIMATIC
Additionally, we recommend to read the following quotes to understand the entanglement of sovereignty- biopower and biopolitics for Foucault’s theorization on the formation of power and the practice of modern nation states in Western societies:
Biopolitics: “The power of European state to “make live and let die” (... ) a new technology of power...[that] exists at a different level, on a different scale, and [that] has a different bearing area, and makes use of very different instruments." (Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. 1997: 242)
Biopower: "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations". (The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. 1998: 140). “By this I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species. This is what I have called biopower.” (Security, Territory, Population 2007: 1)
Third tool: Understanding “Habeas Corpus” as the Great Writ
Habeas corpus: From Latin habeas, 2nd person singular present subjunctive active of habere, "to have", "to hold"; and corpus, accusative singular of corpus "body". Literally the phrase means "you shall have the body". The complete phrase habeas corpus ad subjiciendum means "you shall have the person for the purpose of subjecting him/her to (examination)". These are the opening words of writs in 14th century Anglo-French documents requiring a person to be brought before a court or judge, especially to determine if that person is being legally detained. ("Etymology Online". Habeas Corpus Etymology.)
Watch the following video of the Military Commission Act of 2006 (President Bush) and think about how “Habeas Corpus” historically represents a limit to the arbitrariness of the Sovereign: Habeas Corpus. What are the possibilities of reading Habeas Viscus in dialogue with a Constitutional right?
Fourth tool: Poetics of the Image
The cover art of Habeas Viscus is a Collage from the Kenyan Artist Wangechi Mutu: http://wangechimutu.com/
Her work has been described as feminist centered and Afro-futurist. We suggest a visit to her web site, having in mind Weheliye Arguments about the hieroglyphics of the flesh