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Ellen K. Feder, “The Dangerous Individual(’s) Mother: Biopower, Family, and the Production of Race”

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“The Dangerous Individual(’s) Mother: Biopower, Family, and the Production of Race”

Ellen K. Feder

Hypatia vol. 22, no. 2 (Spring 2007)

Even as feminist analyses have contributed in important ways to discussions of how gender is raced and race is gendered, there has been little in the way of comparative analysis of the specific mechanisms that are at work in the production of each. Feder argues that in Michel Foucault’s analytics of power we find tools to understand the reproduction of whiteness as a complex interaction of distinctive expressions of power associated with these categories of difference.

Feminist and critical race theorists alike have long acknowledged the “intersec­tion” of gender and race difference; it is by now a truism that the ways that we become boys and girls, men and women, cannot be disentangled from the ways in which we become white or black men and women, asian or latino/a boys and girls. Feminist theoretical analyses have contributed in important ways to discussions of how gender is raced and race is gendered. and yet, there has been little in the way of comparative analysis of the specific mechanisms that are at work in the production of each, that is, the ways that they come to make sense or are intelligible as categories, together with the ways these categories come to make sense of us—as raced and gendered human beings. Recognizing important differences between the production of gender and race can help feminist and critical race theorists “think together” these categories without conflating, and thus misunderstanding, the specific mechanisms of each.

In this essay, I suggest that we may find in Michel Foucault’s analytics of power the critical tools for understanding and addressing the gap between the reality that is always a complex production of difference and our analyses that seem generally to focus on one sort of difference to the exclusion of another. Even as Foucault’s failure to address the production of gender in a sustained way has been rightfully and frequently noted, feminist theorists have found Foucault’s later, or “genealogical,” work useful for understanding the production of gender and the specific expression of power that captures its operation.1 in fact, Foucault’s famous interest in the body and its “disciplining” coincides with, or, as Susan Bordo has pointed out, postdated feminist contentions that the “‘definition and shaping’ of the [gendered] body is ‘the focal point for struggles over the shape of power’” (1993, 17). Successful fashioning of the docile body relies ultimately on internalization of standards, rules, and norms. in other words, even as women’s active cultivation of femininity may be promoted by images in magazines or other media and reinforced by means of rewards and punishments via any number of social institutions, the real mark of what Foucault called “disciplinary power” is its deployment by individual subjects who direct this power inward, applying it to their own bodies, their own selves. if external forces operating to enforce gender norms are identifiable—laws regulating abortion and marriage are but two examples—these laws and their effects are secondary, though necessary, to the enforcement that happens on the ground.2 as Foucault wrote in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, “The logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them” (1976/1990, 95). Feminists have included gender among those formations that can be described as a function of relations of power that have a “series of aims and objectives” without clear agents who have established them.

While feminist applications of Foucault’s ideas are now commonplace, comparable applications of Foucault’s work on power to questions concerning race have been more limited.3 Foucault’s own work published before his death in 1984 reflects a virtual silence with respect to the deployment of race as a category of difference. Unlike gender, which, as Simone de Beauvoir famously noted, was not the result of some “occurrence”—that is, it has no clear begin­ning or “historical facts” that can explain the category or the subjection with which it is associated (1949/1989, xxiv)—the origins of the idea of race are traceable to the early modern period, from which time attributions of racial dif­ference have entailed exploitation, enslavement, and even genocide (Goldberg 1993, 21; Smedley 1993, 15–16). For this reason, Foucault’s conception of power as pouvoir, a concept that emphasizes “productiveness” over “repressiveness,” the possibilities of “resistance” over “determination,” fails to describe the operation of “power”—in the more conventional, encompassing sense—with respect to the history of racist oppression.

Foucault in fact clarified that the conception of power as pouvoir was not intended to describe these sorts of power relations. in “The Subject and Power,” he wrote that “slavery is not a power relationship when a man is in chains, only when he has some possible mobility, even a chance of escape. (in this case, it is a question of a physical relationship of constraint.)” (2000, 221).4 Simple constraint is certainly too limiting a concept to describe the specific expression of power involved in the forms of racist exclusion prevalent today; likewise, i argue that disciplinary power inadequately accounts for the specific kind of power at work in the contemporary promotion of white supremacy. For example, de facto residential segregation—the racial homogeneity that has generally marked neighborhoods in the United States since the Second World War (Massey and Denton 1993)—can no longer be attributed to a crude sort of constraint, as laws proscribing discrimination have now been in place for decades. nor, it appears, can an ascription of disciplinary power exhaustively explain the great disparities in wealth and resources seen in segregated commu­nities. The multiplicity of measures denying black women reproductive freedom relative to white women (Roberts 1997) are similarly difficult to characterize in these terms, as is the disproportionate number of black men involved in the criminal justice system (Maguire and Pastore 1998). While it is compelling to describe the production of gender as a function of disciplinary power, then, we cannot simply extend that analysis to the production of race.

What these examples do suggest is that even if, as many have suggested, race and gender work in complementary ways, they do not work in the same way, which fact has presented a challenge to theorists trying to think the two categories together. The recent publication of Foucault’s 1975–1976 lectures at the Collège de France (Society Must Be Defended) indicates that a similar use and resonance may be identified with respect to contemporary critical race theory, and for theorizing race together with gender. in what follows, i explore how an understanding of race and gender through Foucault’s analytics of power can illuminate the reproduction of “whiteness.” Foucault’s work is extremely useful not only in providing terms that can help specify the nature of the distinctive expressions of power that produce the racial other essential to the constitution of whiteness but also because it reminds us to attend to the historical contin­gency of these categories that take shape and become meaningful at particular times, in specific geographic locations.

First, i discuss the recently published lectures of Foucault to show how they take up the genealogy of race and describe the specific forms of power that have defined it. in the second part of the essay, i explore how Foucault’s treatment of the eighteenth-century European understanding of race and its association with disease located in “the dangerous individual” finds a late twentieth-century expression in “the violent individual.” i then turn to the Violence initiative, a U.S. federal government program proposed in the 1990s, to illustrate the workings of what Foucault called biopower, or the power of “regularization” in the production of race.5 While the initiative explicitly targets the violent individual, evidence suggests a focus on the figure behind the violent individual, namely his mother. Through examination of the violent individual’s mother, we can see something of the chiasmic operation of the disciplinary production of gender and the production of race by biopower necessary for the reproduction of whiteness. at the center of the distinction between these species of power and their interaction, i will conclude, stands the figure of the family, which emerges as a—or perhaps better, as the—locus of the production of difference in the second half of the twentieth century.

Biopower and the Production of Race

in a series of lectures delivered at the Collège de France in 1975–1976, Foucault took up explicitly for the first time in his work the function of racism in the state and the specific techniques of power associated with it. in his summary lecture, he considered the development of the two different sorts of power he had undertaken to study in the course. The first was the power of the sovereign: from the early modern period, the power embodied by the sovereign is a “right of life and death” over his subjects (the right “to take life or let live”). in the nineteenth century, this power underwent a transformation into what Foucault described as a “right to make live and to let die” (1997/2003, 240–41). But this characterization does not yet fully describe the power of the racist state, or, rather, the functioning of this power in the racist state depends on another level, namely, the “microrelations of power” (Foucault 1977/1980, 199). This level of power is most closely associated in Foucault’s work with the disciplinary power he examined in Discipline and Punish (1977/1995). according to Foucault, a kind of power emerged in the mid-eighteenth century that significantly differed from, but nonetheless dovetailed with, disciplinary power. While disciplinary power was applied to individual bodies, to train and make use of them, this other kind of power exists “at a different level, [functions] on a different scale . . . and makes use of very different instruments” (Foucault 1997/2003, 242). This power, which he called here and in the first volume of The History of Sexuality “biopower” (1976/1990), is “applied not to man-as-body [as disciplin­ary power is,] but to the living man, to man-as-living-being; ultimately . . . to man-as-species” (242). Biopower, Foucault argued, “inscribes [racism] in the mechanisms of the state” (254).

Biopower creates the distinctions—the “biological” distinctions—within the population that form the hierarchy whereby “certain races are described as good and . . . others, by contrast, are described as inferior” (255). This standard is that on which a new conception of “normalization,” or what Foucault here called “regularization,” is established. in this way, biopower—like the disciplinary power from which it developed—is founded upon a gathering of knowledge; it is a power that is grounded upon, made possible by, this knowledge; at the same time, this accumulated knowledge is made to count as knowledge, in virtue of power. among the generalized mechanisms of which the biopolitical state makes use is the measurement of biological processes of the populace—rates of birth, death, and fertility. These are, Foucault said, biopolitics’ “first objects of knowledge and the targets it seeks to control” through natalist policy, for example, but also through efforts to contain disease (243).

The Middle ages were centrally concerned with “epidemics,” diseases that would wipe out a portion of the population and which required “disqualifica­tion, exile, rejection, deprivation, refusal, and incomprehension—that is to say, an entire arsenal of negative concepts or mechanisms of exclusion” (Foucault 1999/2003, 44). Foucault believed that the morbidity problem starting in the mid-eighteenth century, however, was more precisely defined in terms of the “endemic” which may be managed by attending to “the form, nature, extension, duration and intensity of the illnesses prevalent in a population” (1997/2003, 243). Here Foucault extended his discussion from the Collège course of the previous year (Abnormal) of plague and the “positive technologies of power” that accompanied it. Foucault noted early in the course that there was a whole literature devoted to the “kind of orgiastic dream” of lawlessness permitted by the outbreak of plague. But, Foucault wrote, the onset of plague made possible “a marvelous moment when political power is exercised to the full. Plague is the moment when the spatial partitioning and subdivision (quadrillage) of a popula­tion is taken to its extreme point, where dangerous communications, disorderly communities, and forbidden contacts can no longer appear” (1999/2003, 47).

According to Foucault, plague created the conditions that justified state regulation of the lives of its residents, “the capillary ramifications of which constantly reach[ed] into the grain of individuals themselves, their time, habi­tat, localization, and bodies” (1999/2003, 47). This is what Foucault termed the power of “normalization,” an idea he drew from Georges Canguilhem’s 1943 The Normal and Pathological (Canguilhem 1968/1989). normalization refers to a variety of techniques that draw for their founding and legitimiza­tion on the concept of “the norm” (Foucault 1999/2003, 50). Beginning in the eighteenth century, normalization took as its privileged object the “dangerous” or “delinquent individual” (25). Foucault’s aim in these lectures was to trace the genealogy of this power and the change that had occurred in the “medico­juridical body” such that its charge was no longer the “control of crime or illness” but rather the “control of the abnormal, of the abnormal individual” (42) who was, according to Foucault, “conceptualized in racist terms” (Foucault 1997/2003, 258).

At the end of the twentieth century, “violence” was often framed in precisely the terms Foucault outlined. it is posed as an individual pathology that will be passed on, and necessitates the identification and elimination of “degeneracy” that will be regarded as “endemic”: violence cannot be understood as a tem­porary danger but is a “permanent factor” that acts upon the population from multiple directions. The first identification of endemics, Foucault recounted, provoked the formation of public health programs that by the end of the eigh­teenth century culminated in the U.S. establishment of the national institutes of Health (niH) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC). in the late twentieth century, proponents of the federal Violence initiative promised to do for the problem of violent crime what proponents of public health in the nineteenth century did for problems associated with poor hygiene. increasing knowledge of the biochemical processes associated with violence would permit the iden­tification of violence-prone youngsters, who would, in turn, provide increasing understanding of these processes. as in public hygiene programs, the “enemy” of the people is not a “foreign body,” threatening the population from without but is located within the population itself, “in the biological threats,” as Foucault put it, “posed by the other race” (1997/2003, 61).

The Problem of Race in the 1990s

On February 11, 1992, within a week of opening arguments in the case of the white police officers who beat african american Rodney King in los angeles, Frederick Goodwin, then director of the nation’s alcohol, Drug abuse, and Mental Health administration (aDaMHa) unveiled a new federal plan to combat violence in america’s ravaged inner cities: the Violence initiative. in an address to the national institute of Mental Health’s (niMH) national advisory Mental Health Council, Goodwin called violence a public health issue, requiring the combined efforts of governmental agencies and the research apparatus they support to combat it. in the course of his presentation to the council, Goodwin made the following impromptu remarks:

If you look, for example, at male monkeys, especially in the wild, roughly half of them survive to adulthood. The other half die by violence. That is the natural way of it for males, to knock each other off and, in fact, there are some interesting evolutionary implications of that because the same hyperaggressive monkeys who kill each other are also hypersexual, so they copulate more and therefore they reproduce more to offset the fact that half of them are dying.

Now, one could say that if some of the loss of social structure in this society, and particularly within the high impact inner-city areas, has removed some of the civilizing evolutionary things that we have built up and that maybe it isn’t just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles, that we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all the social controls that we have imposed upon ourselves as a civilization over thousands of years in our evolution.

This just reminds us that although we look at individual fac­tors and we look at biological differences and we look at genetic differences, the loss of structure in society is probably why we are dealing with this issue. (Goodwin 1992, cited in New York Times February 22, 1992)

In the wake of Goodwin’s unplanned oration and the wide press coverage it provoked, the Violence initiative soon commanded national attention.6 He himself did not expect that his connection between violent, hypersexual monkeys and poor urban youth would be received as a racist invocation of images that have within “the sciences of man,” as Donna Haraway has put it, constructed blacks as “the beast” or “‘primitives’ more closely connected to the apes than the white ‘race’” (1989, 153).7 Nevertheless, Goodwin apolo­gized ten days later, characterizing his comments as “insensitive and careless” and insisting, “I have always said that in these studies it is crucial to focus on individual vulnerability and not on race” (quoted in New York Times, February 22, 1992).8

The ill-fated announcement of the Violence initiative marked a period in which the specter of the “dangerous individual” came to occupy a prominent place in public discussion. investigation of individuals’ “violent tendencies” necessitated increasingly detailed attention to the body and its operations. But while this attention can resemble the detailed scrutiny Foucault ascribed to the “disciplinary operation,” this particular investigation of the body differs in important ways from that of the disciplinary gaze: the attention directed at the violent body is aimed not at the “internalization” of an authoritative gaze by the individual him or herself, but rather, at the individualizing of a group against whom the population needs protection. Rather than a diffused gaze that “anyone” can employ, the authority of the regulatory gaze is consolidated for the state’s use.

If it seems clear that a government-funded initiative that targets a popu­lation of racially marked others who would be most “vulnerable” to violent behaviors in an effort to protect those who would be, in turn, “vulnerable” to these individuals, would provoke public controversy, it is because the specific expression of racism in the twentieth century (and evidently of the twenty-first, as well) differs from the old racism of the nineteenth century. in Abnormal, Foucault characterized this new racism as one “whose function is not so much the prejudice or defense of one group against another as the detection of all those within a group who may be the carriers of a danger to it. it is an internal racism that permits the screening of every individual within a given society” (Foucault 1999/2003, 316–17). Yet to understand the specific operation of this power, we must remember that detailed attention to the individual—the object of disciplinary power—is not the final target. The power that emerges at this time “uses” disciplinary mechanisms to get to what Foucault loosely termed the “background-body” (313), a body “behind the abnormal body” that is responsible for the appearance of the delinquent or abnormal “condition” (312). Foucault asked, “What is this background-body, this body behind the abnormal body? It is the parents’ body . . . the body of the family, the body of heredity” (313).

Monkeys, Mothers, and Monsters

At the same time, the headlines of the late 1980s and 1990s were featuring mounting evidence of crime and the decreasing age of its offenders (New York Times, September 8, november 19, 1995), another sort of “dangerous individual” was being featured right alongside. Poor, single mothers—notori­ously inscribed in the figure of the “welfare queen”—became “omnipresent in discussions about ‘america’s’ present or future even when unnamed” (lubiano 1992, 332). While no explicit mention of such mothers was made in public discussions of the Violence initiative, their presence was nevertheless unmis­takable. Goodwin’s comments concerning violent monkeys and jungles may have been written off as so much blunder, but his remarks made plain reference to an important body of ongoing niH research into the role of mothers in the making of the violent individual.

The research to which Goodwin referred is most closely associated with primatologist Stephen Suomi, best known for having identified a “dramatic biochemical difference” in the small percentage of male, adolescent monkeys who are violent for no discernible reason, who become what one science writer for the Washington Post described as “outcasts—repeat offenders for whom there is no place in rhesus society” (Washington Post, March 1, 1992). Suomi was particularly concerned with the role of “maternal nurturance” in the making of the violent individual. “What interests many of us,” Suomi said at the time, “is that serotonin levels of monkeys—and their personality differences—can be traced back to an animal’s early beginnings. . . . it makes a big difference what kind of mothers they had and what their genetic heritage was” (quoted in Washington Post, March 1, 1992).

According to a report in the Journal of NIH Research, Suomi demonstrated that infant monkeys who have been removed from their mothers and raised by what were characterized as “foster” mothers in groups with their peers, displayed a marked propensity to violence as juveniles, a finding Suomi understood as a result of “poor early attachment” (quoted in Touchette 1994) with which a low level of serotonin is associated (Higley and Suomi 1996). in addition, he found that animals with “low concentrations of [serotonin], like their human counterparts, tend to drink more alcohol,” a significant finding in the context of violence research, given that statistics show that “more than half of all violent crimes involve the use of alcohol” (quoted in Touchette 1994; see also Suomi 2002, 275).

The conclusions drawn from research concerning the importance of a primary “nurturing relationship” for a child could be used to justify a need for state-sponsored programs to facilitate the development of this crucial mother-infant bond. That the research did not lend itself to such recommendations may be owing to a second set of conclusions Suomi drew, namely, that an important genetic component also contributed to a child’s propensity to violent behavior: according to Suomi, having been separated from their mothers, male offspring of violent parents have a “tendency to get involved in fights . . . [and to] fight longer and harder than others even raised apart from their biological parent” (quoted in Mestel 1994). Yet, as he elaborates in a follow-up study, “allelic variation in the serotonin transporter gene . . . is associated with deficits . . . for peer-reared, but not mother-reared, [male] rhesus monkey adolescents and infants” (Suomi 2002, 275). This suggests that genetic factors may play a role, but only if environmental conditions (such as the absence of a mother) “activate” them—which one might imagine could speak, once again, to social policies that would support stable families.

And what of the female monkeys? If “early rearing by peers” results in anti­social offspring prone to excessive consumption of alcohol, females with absent mothers “are significantly more likely to exhibit neglectful and/or abusive treat­ment of their firstborn offspring than are their mother-reared counterparts.” The reproduction of (bad) mothering is evidenced, in other words, by the “strong continuities between the type of attachment relationship a female infant develops with her mother and the type of attachment relationship she develops with her own infant(s) when she becomes a mother herself” (Suomi 2002, 275; see also Suomi 2003, 134)—precisely the attachments that are understood to be so critical in predicting the violence of a young male. Findings by Suomi and his colleagues of deficiencies in child rearing and genetic flaws together suggest not only a kind of inevitability of the problem of violence in certain populations but also cast the mother of the violent individual as irremediably transgressive, a “monster.”

Foucault’s discussion of monstrosity in his 1974–1975 lectures on abnormal­ity detailed the historic identification of monstrosity with “possible criminal­ity” through the early modern period. From the Middle ages, monstrosity had been understood as a transgression of the law—civil, religious, and natural (Foucault 1999/2003, 63). The monster was a criminal, but criminality was not yet understood as monstrous. “Then,” he says, a change takes place when, “starting in the nineteenth century, . . . monstrosity is systematically suspected of being behind all criminality” (81). Despite this change, monstrosity as such remains somehow beyond the reach of law. Foucault explains that the mon­ster occupies an unusual position as “the limit, both the point at which law is overturned and the exception that is found only in extreme cases.” as a result, the monster’s presence provokes an “ambiguity” with respect to the law. Even as it constitutes its violation, the monster remains out of the immediate reach of the law. While the criminal is one whose subjection to the law is magnified through his violation of it, the monster, by contrast, “triggers the response of something quite different from the law itself. it provokes either violence, the will for pure and simple suppression, or medical care or pity” (56). If Foucault came to understand the notion of monstrosity as standing behind criminality, then one twentieth-century instance of monstrosity seems to be embodied by the criminal’s mother, the “moral aberration” responsible for the crack dealer, addict, or violent predator. She is, like the monster, a despised figure, one who provokes anxiety (Foucault 1999/2003, 56), but (or precisely because) she escapes (unmediated) juridical intervention.

Throughout the 1980s, and well into the period of welfare reform in the 1990s, the vilification of the welfare queen was a staple of popular discourse that increasingly attached the idea of welfare to race, and specifically to black­ness (lubiano 1992, 340; Williams 1995, 5). Scientific discussions of violence explicitly individualized the afflicted boys and men even as they had a much broader reach; by contrast, discussions of welfare queens far more openly con­nected their objects with “deeper” problems. as Wahneema Lubiano put it, the “welfare-dependent single mother” came to function at this time as “the synecdoche, the shortest possible shorthand, for the pathology of poor, urban, black culture. Responsible for creating and maintaining a family that can only be perceived as pathological compared to the normative (and thus allegedly ‘healthy’) family structure in the larger society, the welfare mother is the root of greater social pathology” (1992, 335).

Lubiano’s analysis of the welfare queen details the state’s interest in the promulgation of narratives that set white against black, where the one is asso­ciated with “normality” and “health,” and the other with “abnormality” and “degeneracy”—the very terms by which, according to Foucault, monstrosity, or the source of the pathological state Foucault depicted as the “background­body,” is cast: it is the “fantastic body of physical or functional or behavioral abnormalities that is the origin of the appearance of the [dangerous] ‘condition’” (Foucault 1999/2003, 314).

One prototypical “monster” Foucault singled out in his Collège lectures was the “hermaphrodite,” one who violates the law of nature by occupying the “impossible” position of being two sexes (71). Despite the opportunity presented in his own analysis, Foucault characteristically overlooked the salient role gender may play in the nature of the transgression “monstrosity” marks. The figure of the welfare queen offers an opportunity to explore the vexing position that gender undeniably occupies in late twentieth-century construc­tions of monstrosity. lubiano’s analysis clarifies the way that gender is discur­sively interwoven with “blackness” in the narrative production of the welfare queen. one of the most important ways that the welfare queen is transgressive is the ambivalence with which she, together with the “flip side of the pathol­ogy coin,” the “overachieving black lady” (1992, 340), occupies the position of “woman.” indeed, these two figures do not figure as women; their narrative construction opposes them to “real” women—implicitly represented as white, middle-class married mothers. This opposition suggests an important distinc­tion in the discursive operation of gender and race. Even as one is deployed to enforce the other, one seems to recede as the other becomes visible.

Now You See Gender, Now You See Race

As Hortense Spillers put it in her important essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” African American women, by virtue of their historic situation, are excluded from “the traditional symbolics of female gender” (1987, 80). While Spillers’s claim may appear dangerously reactionary—that black women do not really “count” as women—her point, following Foucault, concerns the discursive operation of these categories of gender and race, that is, the ways that these terms both convey and are limited by sedimented meaning. Equating, as a prom­inent line of feminist theorizing associated with the work of Nancy Chodorow (1978) does, “female gender and mothering” displaces black women, who were during slavery “robbed of the parental right, the parental function” (Spillers 1987, 78). The result, Spillers’s argument suggests, is that in failing to attend to the historical legacy the terms carry, contemporary uses unthinkingly replicate the exclusions that were once taken for granted. Race and gender now appear to exclude one another; that is, when speaking in terms of “gender,” feminist theorists such as Chodorow were speaking exclusively, if unintentionally, of the norms prescribed and enforced for white women, while at the same time contemporary public discourse of race “degendered” black women.

Lubiano’s elaboration on this point forcefully shows how deployment of the (gendered) figures of the welfare queen and the professionally ambitious (and likewise unmarried) black lady, serves to reinforce the prevailing racial order precisely in denying black women the status of woman.9 Examining the distinc­tive operations of power Foucault described provides a means of understanding how these categories can work simultaneously to the exclusion of each, even as one can be harnessed to reinscribe the other.

Lubiano’s analysis of the role of gender in the narrative production of the welfare queen differs substantially from the “gender” that is enforced by dis­ciplinary means. as work such as Susan Bordo’s indicates, disciplinary power at work in the maintenance of the strict division of the sexes and its proper embodiment by boys and girls functions on the principle of internalization of the standards, rules, and norms associated with it. Violations of gender norms are managed by the apparatus Foucault associated with the “individual to be corrected.” in a 1975 lecture, Foucault explicitly connected this expression of power with the operation of the family, remarking that this kind of correction may be located primarily in “the family exercising its internal power or manag­ing its economy, or even more . . . its relations with the institutions adjoining or supporting it” (1999/2003, 57).10 Disciplinary power, then, is prototypically a species of power that comes “from below”; with respect to the institution of the family, it can be understood as the power that circulates primarily within the institution, rather than a power that is imposed from without.

But if the production of gender can generally be identified with and under­stood as a function of disciplinary power, it would be a mistake to understand the power associated with the production of the welfare queen as similarly directed toward a “correction” of the individual. With regard to the figure of the welfare queen—or the independent high-achieving black lady for that matter—cor­rection cannot be understood to be an issue at all; their deviant status results precisely from their resistance to correction. lubiano identified the welfare queen as a function of a more encompassing kind of power associated with a “state” apparatus (1992, 327). Foucault’s lectures suggest that such a power is concerned not with the disciplinary correction of the individual, but is focused on the identification of “the incorrigible” monster whose management calls for “politico-judicial powers” (1999/2003, 61) that are regulatory in nature. Rather than working within the institution of the family, biopower works upon it.

The “violent individual” and the “welfare queen” are discursively joined to one another, then, in and through a third figure that has lurked all along, namely, that of “the family.” located outside the normative ideal of family, the welfare queen figures neither as “mother” nor as “woman,” escaping criminalization but not condemnation.11 The monstrous mother vilified in the 1980s and 1990s recapitu­lated, as Spillers and lubiano agreed, the “matriarch” of the “Moynihan Report” issued more than two decades before. However, where Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified the “unstable” family structure (1965/1967, 29) as the source of “a disastrous delinquency and crime rate” (38) the Violence initiative focuses on “biology” and “genetics,” familial matters of another sort.

Ungendering, Race neutrality, and the Re-Production of Whiteness

What has so often been crudely represented as the “collusion” of black women in perpetuating the “pathology” of the black family is quite differently framed in the context of the discourses that purport to have violence at the center of their investigations. as we have seen, the use of primate research in the investigation into the causes of violence has shifted the focus from behaviors with roots in the racist legacy of slavery that accordingly require social remedies (Moynihan 1967, 5) to behaviors purportedly caused by such “natural” factors as deficient levels of serotonin, genetic flaws, bad mothering, and other possible matters of “heritability.” While “the mother” remains a potent figure in this latter dis­course, she is not the mother we find in the “Moynihan Report.” It may very well make “a big difference,” as Stephen Suomi asserts, “what kind of mothers [monkey infants] had,” but no one has suggested that the havoc wreaked by monkey mothers raising violent monkey children will be ameliorated with serotonin-boosting drugs or legislative intervention.

If the strategic displacement of black women and their children for monkeys and welfare queens is one that attempts putatively to “deracialize” the search into the origins of violence, it could also be understood to resonate powerfully with the “ungendering” of which Spillers has spoken with regard to male and female slaves who endured the Middle Passage (1987, 72). Spillers argued that the conditions of capture and trade marking enslaved bodies resulted in the loss of “gender difference in the outcome” (67): The rules of gender that signified only with respect to white people of a particular class were deployed to “ungen­der” (72) the enslaved body, and thereby to make of it, in “stunning [discursive] contradiction,” both a source of powerful desire and a mere thing (67). Similarly, the conditions that mark violent individuals constitute a generalized “loss of racial difference” that converges with a contemporary ungendering. insofar as racial difference is thus disingenuously represented as an “irrelevant” factor in the investigation into the source of violent behavior—violent behavior narrowly construed as “street violence”12—the finding that a disproportionate number of black people commit violent crimes can pass for an objective con­clusion, rendering “innocent,” in turn, the institutionalization of black people as (individual) objects of research and intervention. “Race neutrality” such as this serves thereby to preserve and reinforce whiteness as an unquestioned, and unquestionable, norm.

By drawing this connection between the “ungendering” that, Spillers con­tended, marked slavery in the United States, and the “deracializing” occurring in the context of research on violence, i intend both to illustrate the similar­ity between the strategic deployments demonstrated in each and to note the synergistic development that has occurred from one to the other. While the work of ungendering is applied only to black women, deracializing functions by making “no one” racialized, and then redeploying race in a different, but no less effective, way. Similarly, the “loss of racial difference” in the context of the research on violence i discuss here highlights the way in which the represen­tation of a “race-neutral” science strategically functions to deflect charges of racism and to permit a racist science to continue its work. This very necessity of deflecting charges of racism—charges that would have been unintelligible in the past to which Spillers referred—is due to the location of such practices in what Foucault called “a new discursive constellation” (1969/1972, 67), shaped by a history of “strategic” shifts and interventions operating at once to consolidate, destabilize, and proliferate expressions of power in which “the family” remains a vital figure. as a key constituent of the “whole group of rela­tions form[ing] a principle of determination that permits or excludes, within a given discourse, a certain number of statements” (67), the family functions here as the privileged locus of the complementary deployment of race and gender, what Patricia Hill Collins characterizes as “the privileged exemplar of intersectionality” (2000, 161).

That these deployments nevertheless appear at times to constitute mutually exclusive, even opposing, categories may be identified as what Foucault termed a discursive strategy in which the family prominently, if sometimes silently, figures. in an analysis such as Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering (1978) that looks “within” the family, matters of race can be made to appear irrelevant; similarly, while gender can be a more conspicuous factor in the discourse con­cerning violence, the identification of gender as that which is produced within the family participates in the contemporary ungendering that locates racialized violence and the so-called welfare mothers responsible for it outside familial space, as the monstrous threat to white supremacy, the uncontrollable black body producing—and reproducing—its constituents: violent sons, wayward fathers, and the daughters who will themselves take up their mothers’ positions. Unfettered by the responsibilities of marriage, one version of the conservative argument goes, and abetted by a state that helps “their” women “function without marriage,” black men have no recourse but to “dominate as predators.” in short, “the crucible of crime, the source of violence . . . is the utter failure of socialization of young men through marriage” (Wall Street Journal, october 30,1995). The maintenance of gender and race as opposing terms in these discourses is not only effective in concealing the productive complementary i have tried to illustrate but is also constitutive of it.


This essay builds on my earlier article, “The Discursive Production of the ‘Dangerous individual’: Biopower and the Making of the Racial State,” Radical Philosophy Review 7 (1): 2004. I am grateful to many for their assistance as i prepared this piece. i owe special thanks to the anonymous reviewers and editors of this volume, alison Bailey and Jacquelyn Zita, who provided careful readings and insightful suggestions for revi­sion. i thank laurie Shrage for her encouragement and alia al-Saji, Carolyn Betensky, alison Flaum, Karmen MacKendrick, and Falguni Sheth for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

1.        See, for example, Butler 1986; Bartky 1988; Bordo 1988; Mcnay 1991; Sawicki 1991. For an excellent critical analysis of feminist treatments of Foucault’s work, see Mclaren 2002.

2.        Extended discussion of these matters is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is worth noting that, in Foucault’s terms, the contemporary production and enforce­ment of sexual arrangements like heterosexuality and the exclusion of homosexuality on which it has been founded can be understood as a “perpetual exchange or confrontation between the mechanics of discipline and the principle of right” (1997/2003, 39). For a wonderful analysis of this confrontation, see Calhoun 2000.

3.        Two early attempts to apply Foucault’s later, “genealogical” analysis to the production of race include JanMohamed 1992 and Weigman 1995. For more recent treatments of Foucault’s understanding of race that also draw on the recent publication of his lectures at the Collège de France, see the essays in Mendieta and Paris 2004.

4.        See also Foucault’s discussion of this point in the 15 January 1975 lecture at the Collège de France (1999/2003), in which he criticized the “traditional” conception of power as “outdated” and so “inadequate for the real world in which we have been living for a considerable length of time.” He asked, “From where is this conception of power borrowed that sees power impinging massively from the outside, as it were, with a continuous violence that some (always the same) exercise over others (who are also always the same)? it comes from the model of, or if you like, from the historical reality of, slave society” (50–51).

5.        While my analysis in this essay focuses on the categories of gender and race, class is certainly relevant to a study such as this. at the historical moment from which the example of the Violence initiative is drawn, however, class has become one element in the construction of race. That is to say, socioeconomic privilege is racialized, with privilege marked “white” and disadvantage marked “black.” Such privilege can function to deracialize economically advantaged people of color, just as depressed economic status can racialize white people. as Goldberg puts it, whiteness “definitionally signifies social superiority, politically equates with control, economically equals property and privilege” (2002, 113).

6.        For press coverage of the initiative, see New York Times, February 22, 1992; and St. Petersburg Times, March 15, 1992. Widely reported protests were lodged by Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative John Dingell (chairmen of aDaMHa’s oversight committees), criticizing Goodwin’s “extremist and appalling view” of urban problems (Holden 1992; Washington Post, March 1, 1992), as well as by the Congressional Black Caucus (Holden 1992; Los Angeles Times, april 24, 1992). The headline of an article in the Washington Post “portrayed Goodwin as comparing violent youths in inner city to aggressive primates in ‘jungles’” (quoted in Williams 1994, 97). A small newspaper in Washington, D.C., reportedly ran the sensational headline: “Plot to Sedate Black Youth” (quoted in Williams 1994, 98; see also Wright 1995).

7.        See also Charles Mills’s discussion (1997, 43) of Hayden White’s treatment of the “wild man,” the man who remains in the “state of nature,” distinguishing the “civilized” white man from this “uncivilized” savage.

8.        Much of the debate over the Violence initiative has focused on the question of what identifying violence as a public health problem entails. For Goodwin and the  niMH, the identification points to questions of “individual vulnerability,” whereas for the CDC in Atlanta, where violence was declared a national “epidemic,” prevention programs target social problems: “abusive families, poor living conditions, lack of job training, easy access to handguns and racism” (Atlanta Journal and Constitution, June 20,1994).

9.        For a detailed treatment of this point that beautifully complements Spillers’s analysis, see Hazel Carby’s 1987 discussion of the creation of the “cult of true woman­hood” in the antebellum South. True womanhood, Carby argued, was equated with motherhood, the definition of which required understanding white motherhood in opposition to the reproductive activity of enslaved women.

10.        Of course, families of color may employ disciplinary mechanisms with respect to racial identify (for example, inculcating skills for survival in a racist world or taking pride in one’s identity). However, these kinds of instructions are not “producing” race as it is discursively constructed so much as they are adapting to, accommodating, or even resisting the “production” that is a function of regulatory power.

11.        Although there have certainly been efforts to criminalize her. Mike Davis has discussed how gang members’ parents could be prosecuted under los angeles’ Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention act of 1988 (STEP) for failure to “exercise ‘reasonable care’ to prevent their children’s criminal activities” (1992, 283).

12.        Troy Duster spoke to the dearth of material considering crime committed by the privileged classes, particularly with respect to the attribution of “genetic explanations” for such behavior (1990, 100–101). He contended that in Crime and Human Nature, for instance, James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein nowhere considered the exist­ing data “documenting the pervasive character of crime among the most privileged strata of society . . . rang[ing] from criminal homicide prosecution and conviction to the knowledgeable continued pollution of workplace air with a substance known to be cancer-causing . . . [and including] the routinization of illegal practices among the most privileged sectors of society” (101). What Goldberg called “the violence of racist expression” (1993, 59) was reversed in this discourse on crime: violence is not identi­fied with the effects of racism, but ascribed to individual, (de)racialized subjects. For a historical perspective on racial violence, see Massey and Denton (1993), who discussed how the violence that permeated northern U.S. cities during the Jim Crow era was the primary tool, on their reading, that northern whites used to reinforce ghetto walls (1993, 33–35).


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