Assemblage theory, affect and whiteness. An alternative perspective on whiteness and its mechanisms

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Racism is still rife in South Africa 24 years after apartheid ended. South Africans still seemingly do not have the required psychological, conceptual and social tools to deal sufficiently with racialised differences and the legacy of apartheid. It could be argued that whites were not re-educated after apartheid ended, causing this lack of knowledge and insight into the psychological and material impact of apartheid to be conveyed to the next generation. This structural ignorance and ways in which it is perpetuated is one of the strategies of whiteness that whiteness studies want to interrogate. Whiteness studies identify white ignorance and white apathy as key strategies that uphold privilege and structural injustice. By revealing these strategies, racial hierarchies and unearned privileges can be disrupted. Whiteness should hence be rendered visible and can be changed only from the inside. For this change to happen, an awareness of white privilege, racialisation and concomitant racial discrimination is necessary.

In this article I argue that an affective, immanent and machinic notion of racialisation as an assemblage can help to reveal these hidden strategies, and can provide insight into how racialization is performed. A description of whiteness as a machinic assemblage can contribute to an affective re-education of whites and to providing the conceptual and social tools we are so desperately in need of to deal constructively with racialised privileges and differences in South Africa. By viewing whiteness through an affective lens we can become aware of the mechanisms of racialisation as it functions on an affective, material and embodied level. Racism is, after all, something that one feels (Hook 2005), and including the body and material reality of racism in understanding racialisation is thus imperative. The work of Deleuze and Guattari, which highlights materiality, embodiment and relationality, will be used as a theoretical grounding for this argument. Deleuze and Guattari’s thoughts make it possible for us to think of racism as something that bodies do to each other and that is formed by interactions between bodies, which makes it possible to move beyond race as a fixed social category. Their ontology of subjectivity highlights the processual nature of subjectification; the subject is seen as a product – rather than a timeless, fixed entity – of the connection of heterogeneous material and immaterial elements in an affective assemblage. Affect can be described as the capacity of bodies to affect and be affected by other bodies. Affect is the result of emergent interactions between bodies, and the body’s ability to act is constantly changing due to a multiplicity of interactions available. The ability to affect and be affected plays a crucial role in the production of subjectivity.

By employing an affective, embodied understanding of race as the product of race assemblages, this approach wants to add an affective dimension to the subjective anti-racism project. An affective approach to racism can help us to understand how bodies and spaces become racialised through networks and assemblages comprised by affects, intensities, material elements and desire, i.e. how race assemblages form and function. An affective understanding of whiteness and racism, and how the latter come into existence through pre-discursive forms, can help to make sense of the hegemony of whiteness in postcolonial territories. With the help of an affective lens we can observe the functioning of racialisation and understand how bodies become racialised.

By implication, an affective lens on racism portrays racialisation and racism as events that emerge as the result of interacting bodies, which opens space for an anti-racism project that takes the materiality of racialised bodies seriously. By focusing on the embodiment of race and on how the flow of affect and intensity functions to form race, an affective, embodied understanding of racism takes shape, which can help us to broaden the anti-racism project. By using the body and social interaction as a starting point to understand racialisation, we can explore how racialisation can happen differently.

In this article race as a machinic assemblage is discussed, a concept that helps us to understand racialisation as immanent and material. Machinism enables bodies to connect directly with one another, and interaction is not mediated. Viewing race ontologically differently, i.e. as an embodied and material event, changes the way we conceive of anti-racism practices. Machinism enables an inquiry into the ways in which diverse processes, heterogeneous entities and material elements like property, sexuality, religion, language and skin colour can connect in an assemblage. Understanding race as a machinic assemblage is helpful as it moves beyond notions of race as essential, fixed and binary. The potential of this contribution to anti-racism practices is that it opens possibilities for racialisation to happen differently, moving away from commonsensical, habitual and knee-jerk reactions in racially loaded situations.

Through the work of Saldanha, Ahmed, Hook, Swanton and Lim the functioning of whiteness as machinic assemblages is demonstrated. How bodies become viscous, sticking to one another, resonate and form race assemblages that result in refrains of racism is discussed, after which alternative ways for machinic assemblages to form in micro-social spaces are explored. By describing affect as virtual and potential and understanding racialisation as the result of an assemblage, an anti-racism practice takes shape that breaks with race habits and commonsensical thinking, allowing new ways of dealing with and being in racially loaded moments of interaction in South Africa.

Viewing whiteness as a machinic assemblage and race as emergent contributes to a less essentialist approach to race and makes it possible to explore the viscosity of our own bodies and how we create race assemblages and racial divides. Such an approach to the mechanisms and strategies of whiteness not only helps us to understand whiteness as something that happens due to our interactions but also how hegemonic whiteness is kept alive through daily interactions. We are confronted with the paradox of race: we first have to understand race as material, immanent and affective before we can work on transformation and reconciliation. By understanding race as material and affective, rather than moving too quickly to a colour-blind approach or the abolishment of race, we might generate the necessary social and conceptual tools to deal with racialised differences in South Africa in a socially just way.

Keywords: affect; machinic assemblage; materiality; racialisation; subjective anti-racism practices; whiteness

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Assemblage-teorie, affek en witwees. ’n Alternatiewe blik op die werking van witwees

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