In Dr. Cornel West’s essay, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism” the author suggests that racism is a highly complex device that cannot be reduced to a product of Marxist functions of an economic base driving a superstructure that forms the actual and perceptible conditions of life in a society. In place of the overly simplistic reduction to Marxism, West claims race and racism are derived from a Foucaultian discourse of language and knowledge that employs methodologies from scientism or the authority of science, Cartesian rationality, and a classical revival in the Renaissance of Greco ideals of beauty and human proportional forms. The composite discourse of these three elements is how, as West puts it, the Western world “‘secretes’” the notion and practices of white supremacy.
West’s use of discourse as the cumulative effect of three contributing factors is Foucaultian in the sense that knowledge is produced by power and is then insured by power. West’s first case of scientific authority illustrates discourse in action. Preceding the Renaissance, the authority of the Christian churches of Catholicism in the West and Orthodoxy in the Byzantine East reigned supreme and were untouchable in their absolute authority and dogmatic reasoning. Science slowly started to challenge and somewhat supersede Christianity in what West calls “the age of genius” (93) with figures like Copernicus, Galileo, Da Vinci, and Newton. At the heart of this scientific revolution were the concepts of observation and evidence. These words and their connotations have;
played, in an isolated manner, a role in previous paradigms of knowledge in the West (since the times of Aristotle and Aristarchus). But the scientific revolution brought these ideas together in such a way that they have become the two foci around which much of modern discourse evolves. The modern concepts of hypothesis, fact, inference, validation, confirmation, and verification cluster around the ideas of observation and evidence (West, 94).
After the initial revolution, science became the de facto tool to validate everything. This is how the concept of “race” was conceived. To identify phenotypical differences in colonial subjects and vassal states, science was employed to document and validate phenotypical traits as differences of human races.
The second discursive factor is the “Cartesian transformation of philosophy” (West, 93). In concert with science the Cartesian revolution helped to bring abstract concepts to material realities. From this mindset, Cartesian rationality helped to create and gate-check modern discourse as validated philosophic and scientific knowledge. In supporting science, West states;
Descartes’s conception of philosophy as a tortuous move from the subject to objects, from the veil of ideas to the external world, from immediate awareness to extended substances, from self-consciousness to things in space, and ultimately from doubt to certainty was motivated primarily by an attempt to provide a theoretical basis for the legitimacy of modern science (West, 95).
Lastly, the classical revival of Greco aesthetic qualities aided scientific and Cartesian discourse. Knowledge of idealized concepts of beauty as perfection, as opposed to naturalized concepts and representations, led to an objectification of artistic qualities. These strict limitations began with the Renaissance and proceeded though the Baroque period of complexity, to the Enlightenment, the Reformation, Romanticism and its ironic idealization of a limited ideal, and to the Victorian age of the Industrial Revolution and the Western colonial era that initiated racism. The classical aesthetic became a monopoly of truth in representation and a fetish in the pursuit of material beauty in reality. Specifically, this validation of Greek qualities are the “Greek ocular metaphors – Eye of the Mind, Mind as Mirror of Nature, Mind as Inner Arena with its Inner Observer – [that] dominate modern discourse in the West” (West, 96).
These three aspects of Cornel West’s thesis on the origins of racism rely on Foucault’s ideas of knowledge creating power. As knowledge becomes solidified through West’s scientific, Cartesian, and classical paradigms, it turns into uncontested fact. Discourse as knowledge that takes on a life of its own and starts a process of creating new knowledge derived from West’s three knowledge bases, comes to define history and shape modernity. It becomes extremely difficult to think outside of the discourse that has now been historically established. These constructed truths that West has postulated, run in opposition to Marxist ideas of race formation. In this fashion, race is a product of capitalism. And capitalism is the result of a shift in the economic base from the inability of feudalism to provide populations with the material means to live. Thus a capitalist system resulted which relied on hierarchies of wealth and the pursuit of capital as the new means of providing for the material conditions of life. The Marxist model of capitalist social hierarchies have produced racism. Both West’s discursive theory and the Marxist model allow for racism to develop from purported and supported knowledge of scientific authority that justifies colonialism and the genealogical methods needed to define phenotypical and socioeconomic differences that work to create race.
Page numbers refer to Race and Critical Theories (2002)