THIS BOOK AIMS TO MAKE A CONTRIBUTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF race and racism in terms of the questions raised in studies of animality and human propriety. It explores the practice of racism as dehumanization to argue that the deprivation of speech that characterizes the inhuman is a political realm where the exercise of power can meet its potential neutralization through the very silence to which the inhuman is assigned. By the term “power,” I refer to Foucault’s genealogy of power in terms of sovereign, disciplinary, and biopower. If we understand modern discriminatory practice as a functioning of what Foucault terms biopower, we can immediately discern that what is termed “racism” is synonymous with the practice of dehumanization, whereby the victim is disqualified from being a full member of the elite company of human beings. It has often been observed that dehumanization occurs through the instrumentalization of the sole and sacrosanct dividing line between human and nonhuman—that is, language or, more properly, the logos as meaningful and credible speech. The other is silenced—rendered speechless as a mute beast undeserving of human sympathy or recognition. However, insofar as language as such refers to both speech and silence, dehumanization as the privation of speech raises a series of questions: How is the concept of humanness (as being in logos) articulated with power? How can power be discerned as the exercise of a decision on what is and is not human? How should language be approached in the context of power? How does power instrumentalize language, and can the two be separated? Can the withholding (rather than the availability) of speech open the space of the political? Are there perhaps political and ethical possibilities in the relation between silence and power? What does it mean to discern silence as the power of language, rather than the language of power?
Following Foucault and Agamben, my premise is that the practice of dehumanization depends on the logic of a power that can decide (p.x) on the value of a given life. Such a decision works fundamentally to exclude the other from the realm of human intercourse, which can be achieved only by denying access to speech and, of course, law. In fact, the locus of power’s decision on life is the conflation of language and law, while the exercise of power is the withholding of access to the law-speech nexus in order to consign the other to silence. In other words, power is what it is because it presupposes the union of law and language, and it does what it does by separating a part of language (silence) from the law. This is a scenario that is endemic to extreme states of violence, such as genocide or strategic neglect, where the protection of the law is withheld or denied. In such a scenario, the trinity of law, language, and humanness not only opens the abyss of silence to which it consigns the inhuman but also, above all, exposes itself as thoroughly and merely conditional in its functioning. Thus, if a certain liberation of language from the law can be countenanced, does this not also promise the neutralization of power?
In order to expand on this hypothesis and explore the themes of law and language, the argument is made simultaneously in several different registers—namely the political, theoretical, and narrative. In writing this book, I have been like a thumbless potter working at the wheel, unclear about the shape of what might emerge from the clay under my hands. As the wheel spins and the clay waxes and wanes, the odds of it being misshapen, asymmetrical, unconventional, and unregulated are high and yet one hopes it may be available to some use. Whatever it may be, it has insisted on appearing, and now responsibility for the work of these missing fingers must be fully assumed. I have learned an incalculable amount over the years from the brilliant philosophers at Boston College and elsewhere, whose lectures and texts have been humbling and chastening in ways that inspired me to at least try. I freely acknowledge an unrepayable debt to Professor John Sallis, whose lectures I attended from 2006 through 2008, and to Fr. William (Bill) Richardson SJ, whose blessing and gentle words of encouragement meant more to me than he could have ever bargained for. Kelly Oliver has been like a lighthouse—the distant beacon urging me to safe harbor. I owe many thanks to Andy Von Hendy for remaining interested in my ideas through all the changes, Judith Wilt for very firmly nudging me to let go of the manuscript and contact a publisher, and (p.xi) my wonderful and painstaking students for sticking with me through two courses on Of Grammatology and “Derrida and Agamben on Law and Sovereignty.” But above all, to Professor Richard Kearney, I feel a deep and inexpressible sense of gratitude. With great generosity of heart, he and Anne gave me the courage I sorely lacked to reflect and write. To these and other philosophers—especially my collies Frege and Russell, their cousin Maisie, and Norbu the cat eternal—as well as to every biped and quadruped in my family, I only wish this book, its cover and pages, all its words, stories, and pictures were deliciously edible so it could provide a fulfilling thank-you feast for all the noisy peace they continue to provide. (p.xii)