Race - the Floating Signifier

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Stuart Hall Race -- the Floating Signifier

directed by Sut Jally, Media Education Foundation, 1997

Classification and power work together.
Classification maintains the order in any system.
We cannot think without classification.

The survival of biological thinking

Race is one of the major concepts which organize the great classification systems (including gender and class) which operate in human societies. Classification seems basic to human thinking. What is the right strategy for an anti-racist politics? Just being "black" does not guarantee that your politics will be correct. In order to find a politics that will end racism, "You can't just say, well black people are doing such and such and they must be right." I want to discuss an approach to the political. There are no guarantees. Failure is always possible. You must do "right" because there is no guarantee ethically and theoretically that your position is "right."

Race is a discursive construct.

Despite the fact that scientists have agreed that biological race does not exist, race thinking of all sorts persists. Why is this? This is the subject of this lecture. Some people believe that all that can usefully be said about race has already been said.

If the biological concept of race cannot hold water, we must resort to a socio-cultural concept of race. W.E. B. Du Bois told us that racial differences are impossible to corellate with intelligence, personality, etc. Nevertheless, race persists and Du Bois argues that color is important as a badge of the social heritage and insult of slavery.

1. there is scientific consensus on this
2. there is no relationship between intelligence and race but a small minority of researchers continue to try to "prove" that this is so


Charles Murray The Bell Curve, Christopher Brand
liberal thinking is also based partly on biological assumptions about race genetic definitions of race are common across the political spectrum and in everyday thinking 3. Much of liberal theory can be explained by resorting to race.

4. diametrically opposed philosophical positions can be derived from the same position

What matters is not scientific fact, but the systems we use to make human societies intelligible.

There are four things we can say about our social contract:

1. the common and conventional wisdom amongst leading scientists is that biological race does not exist.

2. this view is enshrined in the founding documents of UNESCO by Claude Levi-Strauss, but this fact has never prevented intense scholarly activity by a minority of academics who continue to try to prove that race and intelligence can be connected

3. these scientific pursuits are vociferously condemned by larged and various groups but still the search for the "reggae or baseball gene" persists

4. Diametrically opposed political positions can often be derived from the same philosophical position

"The biological definition, having been shown out the front door, tends to sidle around the verandha and crawl in the window."

Race needs to be understood as a discursive fact. All attempts to ground this category (race) have failed; therefore, the only grounding is in discourse.

Race is a discursive construct = race works like a language

Race is a signifier which can be linked to other signifiers in a representation Its meaning is relational and it is constantly subject to redefinition in different cultures, different moments There is always a certain sliding of meaning, always something left unsaid about race Hence: Race is a floating signifier

Example: Gender is a language -- think of the semiotic square for gender.

But what about the reality of racial discrimination and violence? Millions upon millions have suffered and died. Where does all this come from?

There are two classic positions:

1. The realist: real genetic differences are the basis for racial classification

2. The...
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