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Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism by Jodi Melamed

by Allison Page
4 Sep 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Book Review: Jodi Melamed (2011) Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

In Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism, Jodi Melamed examines what she terms “official antiracisms”: racial liberalism, liberal multiculturalism, and neoliberal multiculturalism.  As Melamed argues, the so-called “racial break” after World War II positioned the U.S. state as antiracist, yet this official antiracism – perpetuated by capital, the state, and the U.S. university – bolsters rather than attenuates global racial capitalism.  In particular, literary studies plays a central role in both constituting and disciplining racial meaning, thereby operating as a cultural technology “for consolidating official antiracisms” (xviii) that support U.S. imperialism and capitalism.  By severing race from material conditions, official antiracisms make it possible to seem antiracist while furthering neoliberal capitalism, which is reliant on racialized bodies that fall outside of neoliberalism’s ideal subject.  This dematerialization of anti-racist discourse enables the negation of social movement efforts (particularly those of formations like women of color feminism) and legitimizes grossly asymmetrical material conditions, all while appearing antiracist.

The book is structured around the three time periods Melamed identifies, beginning with racial liberalism (1940s to mid-1960s); liberal multiculturalism (1960s to 1990s); and neoliberal multiculturalism (1990s to the present).  Through her analysis of literature, including so-called “race novels” and Reading Lolita in Tehran, Melamed intervenes in Howard Winant’s notion of the racial break.  For Winant, “newly mobilized commitments to substantive racial justice continually confront new adaptations of essentially white supremacist social stratifications” (6).  Melamed, however, understands post-World War II U.S. racial formation to be structured by formal antiracism guided by the state and capital, engendering new violence – epistemic and otherwise – through what appears to be formally antiracist discourse.  In this way, Melamed challenges progress narratives, highlighting instead how capital, the state, and the U.S. university incorporate antiracist discourse and knowledges as a way to continue white supremacy in a new era.  In other words, the act of incorporation itself is a continuation of racism, not its amelioration.  Melamed makes clear that this incorporation of antiracist discourse is central to global capitalism.

Importantly, for each text that colludes with racial capitalism, Melamed offers a counter-example that falls under what she somewhat awkwardly terms the “race-radical tradition of materialist antiracism” (4), thereby highlighting the centrality of culture as a site of struggle.  In chapter two, “Counterinsurgent Canon Wars and Surviving Liberal Multiculturalism,” Melamed provides an especially moving reading of Toni Cade Bambara’s These Bones Are Not My Child to illustrate the political possibilities of culture – in this case, Melamed argues that These Bones can be understood as a survival guide for the devastating effects of racialized economic restructuring and the erosion of progressive black struggle.  As Melamed writes, the text “sought to teach readers how to keep the struggle going by learning what 1980s racial thinking … was making it easy not to know” (123).  Here, Melamed deftly situates Bambara’s work in the historical context of 1980s and ‘90s liberal multiculturalism, making These Bones all the more powerful in light of the canon wars and the attendant deployment of multiculturalism as “a strategy for racial abandonment” (97).

One of the book’s strongest aspects is Melamed’s analysis of the U.S. university’s collaboration with (and, in some instances, resistance to) racial capitalism.  Indeed, as Melamed demonstrates, the U.S. university captured the subjugated knowledges of 1960s and ‘70s social movements in order to put knowledge about minoritized subjects and difference to work for capital in the wake of post-Keynesianism.  Moreover, the U.S. university constituted the knowledgeable white subject who encountered racial difference through literature, and who was thus prepared as a self-actualized and multicultural member of the professional-managerial class of global capitalism (while turning a blind eye to the material realities faced by people of color expunged from academia).

Another of Melamed’s vital contributions is her theorization of neoliberal racial capitalism, wherein whiteness is delinked from color and yoked instead to wealth and multiculturalism, with critical implications for citizenship and belonging.  In the epilogue, she identifies a new formation that she terms “neoliberal-neoracial capitalism.”  This understanding of the connections between race and capitalism in our current moment would be especially significant to media and cultural studies scholars who often consider race and gender as secondary to capital.  In Represent and Destroy, Melamed provides new theoretical tools that seek to grapple with the abstraction and flexibility of neoliberal capitalism’s rationalizing procedures as they interweave with racial orders.  As an example, Melamed points to the passage of Arizona State Law SB 1070, co-written by members of the Arizona state legislature and the Corrections Corporation of America (the largest private prison company in the world), which enabled the state and private industry “to rationalize thousands as racially ‘illegal’ in an instant to simultaneously generate new forms of permissible state violence and capital accumulation” (224).

Although Melamed draws on literary examples, Represent and Destroy has much to offer scholars working in media and cultural studies.  For example, Melamed often mentions media as a technology for shoring up official antiracisms, but focuses her project on literature, thus opening up space for further analysis.  Although Anna McCarthy’s The Citizen Machine: Governing By Television in 1950s America spends some time considering state antiracisms and racial liberalism in particular (e.g., through the deployment of figures like Ralph Bunche), McCarthy contains her analysis to the 1950s, and instead of texts, focuses on the aims of those involved with early television.  Given Melamed’s scope, it is worth examining, for instance, 1960s television documentaries on race, as well as contemporary trends in media and film.  Considering the title alone—Represent and Destroy—the book greatly complicates questions of representation, especially in our current neoliberal moment.  By troubling the notion of “representation,” Melamed shifts scholarly attention away from conceptions of “good” or “bad” representations to larger questions that consider the state, capital, and knowledge production, thereby highlighting the necessity for broader historical, political, and social contextualization.  Most powerfully, Melamed’s text would push media and cultural studies scholars to center race in their analyses of capital and culture.

Represent and Destroy is an extremely generative book, and the analytical framework it suggests could be taken up by a wide variety of fields.  One of the book’s limitations is the last chapter, “Difference as Strategy,” which feels out of place with the rest the text.  Here, Melamed focuses on the use of difference in indigenous communities to combat global resource wars and exploitation.  Though this chapter is useful and powerful, it shifts the book’s tone somewhat abruptly and does not follow the same format as the previous chapters – a minor criticism, to be sure.  In addition, although it is clear that Melamed seeks to demonstrate the material politics of knowledge as well as the inextricability of race and capital, at times the book seems to overemphasize capital, foregoing an analysis of, for instance, the role affect plays in racialization and antiracisms.  Though Melamed notes that white students in particular are taught liberal-multiculturalism as a way of shoring up their future roles in global racial capitalism, more could be said about the subjective and affective dimensions of adopting state antiracist discourse.  Along these lines, Melamed’s use of Nikhil Singh’s definition of racialization – “historic repertoires and cultural and signifying systems that stigmatize and depreciate one form of humanity for the purposes of another’s health, development, safety, profit, or pleasure” (12) – opens up further avenues for exploration of the dimensions of racialization that sustain (but perhaps also exceed) capital.  Combining recent scholarship on affect (e.g., Sara Ahmed, Jasbir Puar) with Melamed’s theorization of official antiracisms offers exciting possibilities for scholars of media and cultural studies.

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Allison Page is a PhD student in critical media studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include race, consumer culture, neoliberalism, and reality television.
All posts by: Allison Page | Email

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