Invisibilities: Deviation

From the Series: Invisibilities

Photo by kdsphotos.

To deviate a little, I would like to critique a form of invisibility called racism. This invisibility is much like the previous invisibilities discussed in this forum, but with an important difference: many, including myself, argue that this deviant kind of invisibility should be chased out of hiding in order to eliminate it entirely. I have attempted to do so through tools that I draw from Latourian philosophy of science. My critical approach is deviant in the sense that entering into critical relationship with subjects generally leads Latourians to suspect that I am acting as an all-seeing critic attempting to unveil the facts to everyone else who are blinded by illusions, a visual metaphor that Latour (2004) generally employs in a pejorative fashion. I will argue that my deviance is not as radical as it may appear at first glance since Latour’s own work, and perhaps most explicitly in his recent Inquiry into Modes of Existence (Latour 2013), has consistently involved tactics of making invisibilities visible.

Latour’s criticisms of what he calls critique do not apply to the visibilizing tactics that I use in my research. For one, as William Girard says about Latourian invisibilities in the introduction to this series, race and racism are neither “mere social constructions” nor “autonomous realities beyond our reach.” As Donna Haraway (1997, 233) writes, race is a “inextricable weave of historically specific discursive, scientific, and physical reality.”

In the field, I do not deploy unveiling tactics that imply that I alone can directly perceive the operation of race. Instead, my research has involved collective processes of making race and racism visible. This process of visibilizing is greatly facilitated by what I call breakdown situations: the perturbation of breath in asthmatics by typically invisible entities helps make breath visible (as in Ali Kenner’s post), violent and unresolved death make spirits especially visible (as in J. Brent Crosson’s post), and the breakdown of technical artifacts helps visibilize the networks needed to sustain them, networks which generally go unnoticed until things fall apart (Latour 1991, 36).

The breakdown situations that motivated my research on French institutions were the revolts in the poorest and most segregated neighborhoods in Los Angeles in 1992 and in the outskirts of Paris in 2005. In the United States, the psychiatrist Frederick Goodwin—preceding his appointment as director of the National Institute of Mental Health—compared poor urban African-American rioters to “hyper-aggressive monkeys” in order to defend research on “conduct disorder” (Feder 2007, 74). In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, then head of internal security, argued that the rioting “black giants from the periphery who are under eighteen and frighten everyone” are not like the more normal delinquent youth of the 1940s. His comments were also given in defense of similar research on so-called youth conduct disorder, which was published in a review of Anglophone research by the National Institute of Health in France in 2005.

Foucaultian philosopher Ellen Feder (2007, 70) argues that Goodwin’s remark represents a “discursive ‘break’, revealing what is meant to be unspoken about race and the management of difference during this period.” Sarkozy’s comment was another break of this type that occurred in a similar political climate. As an anthropologist, I simply traced the network of actors implicated in these remarks concerning large-scale urban revolts and in the ensuing bio-psycho-social controversies in France specifically. In this way a whole network of institutions became visible and controversial as well as a form of governmentality that “exerts its violence in total silence, through the indisputable foundation, the impression of naturalness, of obviousness that it has succeeded in giving to . . . institutions” (Latour 2008, 668).

The psychosocial institutions that I encountered—such as the National Institute on the Education of Handicapped and Special Needs Children, where I attended workshops on so-called behavior disorders—manage routine violence in poor segregated neighborhoods and especially in their schools, the primary contact zone between stigmatized families and the state. I argue that this form of governmentality is based on a racial logic that, due to the particular history of racism, must remain invisible to operate as it does.

Ever since Hitler lost popularity among the white elite throughout the world, biologists in the United States that had been in friendly contact with Nazi scientists replaced words like eugenics with sociobiology or human genetics in the titles of their journals and began to define Hitler and other racists as aberrational psychopaths (McWhorter 2009, 249). Biologists nevertheless continued to focus on the management of abnormal individuals, which they evaluated through psychometric technologies that found (90 percent of African Americans to be “feeble-minded” (McWhorter 2009, 237).

Today, public health research like that mentioned above still labels large numbers of inhabitants of poor segregated neighborhoods as deficient and intervenes in their lives. For instance, supposedly disordered youth are frequently placed in segregated educational institutions. These institutions avoid accusations of racism by avoiding any explicitly race-related vocabulary.

Thus, it is not surprising that the majority of psychosocial professionals that I accompanied in France perceive any accusation of racism as one of the greatest insults. To gain their respect for my positions, I first needed to make visible the explicitly racial character of the controversial remarks that frame the research I critique. I go against the grain of the race-neutral language of even the largest protest movement criticizing such research in France. The images the movement uses for their publications suggest that the little blond, blue-eyed “petit Nicolas” is the principal victim of delinquent behavior programs.

However, visibilizing the repeated references to racially segregated neighborhoods in the workshops I attended also has its risks, as Crosson’s discussion of the right to opacity rightly highlights. Pointing out that specific populations are being talked about in discussions about problematic behavior can simply further stigmatize those populations if done inappropriately. As a constructive critic, I avoid seemingly transparent judgments concerning the nature and origin of youth behavior, the types of judgments certain psychological theories make. Rather, my method has primarily been to complicate the dominant judgments of the professionals I was in contact with. I did so by revealing the racist implications of their judgments through stirring semidormant controversies with the help of other more marginal actors implicated in these debates in France.

It was necessary to draw attention to the larger backdrop of racism as a “massive network of biopolitical machinery,” which includes “institutions for confinement and discipline” as well as “practical knowledge systems” (McWhorter 2009, 238). Through debate and through opening doors to new experiences with youth, I tried to help professionals see how a more generalized form of racism is tied up with rational expertise, naturalized perceptions of the supposed dangerousness and irrationality of trouble-making youth that seem to correspond with experience, mixed with widely shared ethnocentric judgments that tend to be unquestionably taken as universally valid.

I did so by highlighting additional breakdown situations, such as conflicts in schools over wearing a cap or casquette, one of the principle sources of conflict in schools that professionals in the scientific workshops mentioned while entirely dismissing the supposedly irrational reasons that the youth provide in their attempts to keep wearing caps in class. My research sparks controversy by publicizing the ways in which hip-hop figures and certain Muslim teachers that I discussed with also defend the cap—an important target in a broader institutional war against hip-hop street culture and the racial backgrounds that it is predominantly associated with.


Feder, Ellen K. 2007. Family Bonds: Genealogies of Race and Gender. New York: Oxford University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

Latour, Bruno. 1991. "On Technical Mediation: Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy." Common Knowledge 3, no. 2: 29–64.

_____. 2004. "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern." Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2: 225–48.

_____. 2008. "Pour un dialogue entre science politique et science studies." Revue française de science politique 58, no. 4: 657–78.

______. 2013. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

McWhorter, Ladelle. 2009. Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.