Introduction: "Racial Disciplines"

Monique Rooney

The essays in this "Racial Disciplines" volume of Working Papers on the Web are concerned with the way in which the category race affects and is affected by language, knowledge and power. Some may argue that this topic treads over well-worn ground. Scholars, it seems, have endlessly debated the question of whether race is an objective truth, a set of material differences that distinguish one social group from another, or a socially constructed concept and an ideology that has been used by humans for political and ideological reasons. This exploration of race as a tool of language and power also perhaps risks muddying or trivializing an issue that has become extremely fraught, even dangerous. Terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and on the Bali nightclubs in 2002 have engendered a climate of panic and fear and sparked a new wave of government propaganda that plays on racial preconceptions. As the United States prepares for war against Iraq, as border control and protection take on high importance on western government agendas and, at a local Australian level, as Muslim and middle-eastern civilians are targeted in anti-terrorist campaigns, it is clear that racial difference remains a powerful instrument for inciting violence, mobilizing popular fears and controlling minority groups.

This study analyses race as a metaphor, that is a particular way of reading and organizing the world, but one that is based on specific lived experiences. Race is read not only as a tool but also as a product of those Western systems of classificatory thought that have emerged and taken on significant force in the modern era. Many scholars have argued, for instance, that racial difference is an idea that emerged in tandem with European expansion at the end of the late eighteenth century. Racial difference and classification is a product of the scientific discourse that operated alongside and in many cases facilitated Europe’s colonization of the Americas, Asia and the Pacific region. Such arguments posit race as a social construction with a particular cultural history but also raise the problem of whether race is therefore a willful invention, that whether individuals have control over their destinies despite racial differences. Race is, for some more than others, a concrete and often inescapable reality but one that is unstable and changeable, contingent on social and cultural context. The degree to which racial difference affects one’s life depends on a constellation of biological, historical, social and cultural influences that may have positive as well as negative repercussions. The products of racial discourse may be seen in racial discrimination and stereotyping, racial violence and segregation as well as in affirmative action, multicultural policies and minority rights. This collection studies a range of responses to race and racism and in doing so it represents mainstream and minority viewpoints to present arguments and counter-arguments that reinforce as well as challenge the status quo. This study explores the ways in which race continues to operate as an important epistemological category that has a significant impact on the organization and regulation and in some cases punishing control of particular persons and social groups.

The "discipline" of the title’s collection "Racial Disciplines", evokes the notion of the trained or disciplined body as illuminated by Michel Foucault in his influential book, Discipline and Punish (1975). Although he does not deal explicitly with race or the racial subject, Foucault’s location of a fundamental change in the operation of modern Western power structures around the late eighteenth century is relevant to this collection. Especially significant is that Foucault’s analysis of power in terms of the technologies of knowledge is careful to elucidate the importance of the material body.

For Foucault, the invention of the penal system inaugurated a significant historical change in the way in which the criminal, and by implication the modern individual, was treated. The invention of the prison signified a new form of power, one that moved away from the spectacle of physical punishment to one that instituted policies aimed at correcting the individual "soul". In this modern system, Foucault argues, there is no longer a direct relationship between those who administer punishment and those who receive it. Instead, the body is disciplined through its subjection to a range of institutions (prison, school, hospital) in which authority is disembodied and invisible. The panopticon, an all-seeing observation tower, is Foucault’s figure par excellence of the modern power structure as a machine that purports to see all without itself being seen. This power structure is one that shifts the focus from the spectacle of power and its punishable object to a disciplined body under the gaze of an omniscient technological apparatus. Yet in his definition of the modern soul, Foucault articulates its grounding in the material world:

It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished—and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized, over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives.[1]

Foucault’s description of the eighteenth century prison has an uncanny resemblance to the contemporary treatment of particular racial minorities, including victims of persecution, as the prison continues to play a key role in the management of the colonised as well as the racially disadvantaged and stigmatised. For instance, in the United States, one in three African-American men are in jail or on probation as opposed to one in fifteen of their white counterparts. As I write this introduction, detained asylum seekers fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in Australia have set fire to their prisons in South Australia to draw attention to their plight. The management and production of race continues to show its mark, not in the government policies that have led to these horrific circumstances, but on the body of those minority groups and individuals who define and cannot escape the reality of racial difference.

Discipline thus refers to the training and correction of the body as well as to those discourses of instruction and learning that make up contemporary knowledge about race. In the main, the discipline that these papers focus on is literature. These papers engage with the way in which racial ideology affects literary and cultural production. They also explore the affect that these individual responses, both minority and mainstream, black and white, have on established ideas in American and Australian contexts. They engage with those who rehearse stereotyped understandings of race as well as with those who transgress and overturn boundaries. The contributors responded to a call for papers requesting considerations of the way in which particular writers deploy particular disciplines and technologies to reconstruct racial discourse. This was requested not to perpetuate the notion that writers are able, voluntarily, to create a new, more meaningful or altruistic, version of race. It was intended, instead, that the papers explore the ways in which a writer, equipped with a certain discipline or technology of knowledge, can influence an object of study. In much the same way as a microscope brings into sharp focus an invisible cellular world, this collection studies the act of reading and its affect on that on which the eye is trained.

The essays study American and Australian texts written in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The colonial history of both these countries make for strong points of connection in relation to the treatment of race. Both countries began as British outposts and both have culturally diverse populations, as a result of waves of immigration from Europe, Asia and the Middle East throughout the twentieth century. Both countries also have a dark history of colonial conquest, of violence inflicted on their indigenous population and, in the recent past, of government policies that have divided and disempowered those native peoples who survived colonization. In both America and Australia, questions have arisen concerning immigration policy and minority group as well as indigenous rights.

Two of the papers focus on African-American literature and culture. This literature, intimately engaged with the legacy of slavery, arises from very different cultural conditions to that of the relationship between whites and indigenous Australians explored in the last two essays. One important difference concerns the extent to which African Americans have identified with, even though often excluded from, mainstream culture and politics. That African-Americans have historically seen themselves as a part of the American national family is represented by the recurrent theme of a "double identity" in African-American literature and politics. As W. E. B Du Bois famously articulated it, to be African and American is to have a "warring soul", the one black and the other white.2  Aboriginal Australians have also dealt with the problem of mixed racial heritage, however the cultural issues surrounding indigenous literature are generally very different. As the nation’s original inhabitants, Australian Aborigines have fought for political causes involving land rights and the struggle to reverse the idea of terra nullius, the colonial notion that Australia was an empty desert when Europeans arrived on Australian shores. They have sought recognition and apology for the atrocities committed against their peoples, their families and their culturally distinct culture. These issues shape indigenous literature as well as white responses.

Julian Murphet’s essay "The Mulatto: an unspeakable concept" examines the treatment of the African-American mulatto as variously represented in the work of Mark Twain, Thomas Dixon and W. E. B Du Bois. According to Murphet, this aporetic figure has been the site of both racial anxieties and projections concerning the future of the American nation. Murphet traces the development of the mulatto as, initially, the product of a pseudoscientific discourse that located the figure as a key to social progress. Murphet further examines the mulatto’s pivotal role in the definition of race as a dangerous and volatile cultural construction. He concludes with an analysis of Du Bois’s reading of the mulatto as a "non-essence", as a pure American subject. [2]

My essay titled "My you: Fannie Hurst, Zora Neale Hurston and Literary Patronage" studies the professional/personal relationship between popular white writer Fannie Hurst and African-American novelist, folklorist and essayist, Zora Neale Hurston. In doing so, it analyses African-American responses to Hurst’s controversial novel Imitation of Life and connects this response to attitudes surrounding white patronage of black writers. I study Hurst’s patronage of Hurston and relate this to the way in which both writers’ used racial stereotype in their fiction and autobiographies as a way of transgressing inescapable racial boundaries.

In her essay "Intersubjectivity, whiteness and race: Reading Indigenous life stories (with particular reference to Ambrose Mungala Chalarimeri’s ‘The Man from the Sunrise Side’", Anne Brewster analyses the literature of indigenous Australian writer Ambrose Mungala Chalarimeri and his life story, ‘The Man from the Sunrise Side’, to argue the productivity of an intersubjective dialogue between indigene and colonizer. For Brewster, the cross-cultural contact engendered by the textual meeting of indigenous writer and white reader helps to breakdown definitions of race and elaborating "a space for new formations of anti-racist whiteness".

In "Poetry, race and nation: white desires for belonging in contemporary Australia", Brigid Rooney analyses the poetry of Les Murray and Judith Wright to study the hegemonic operations of whiteness in the context of contemporary Australian poetry and its cultural production. Rooney deploys Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of "cultural capital" to examine the ways in which Australian writers distinguish themselves in their cultural field and to illuminate poetic preoccupations with inheritance and the trope of "tragic whiteness".


1 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (Orig. published 1975, New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 29.

2 W. E. B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903), 3.