Notes over Mitropoulos’ “Materialization of Race in Multiculture”

Notes over “Materialization of Race in Multiculture,” by Angela Mitropoulos

Because it’s unlikely that most people read this for today, I tried to summarize the piece while covering the main theoretical points.  WordPress hates me and won’t let me take most of my notes out of italics, sorry.

Mitropoulos is, according to a recent interview in Shift Magazine, a writer and activist in Australia, who also runs a blog at Mitropoulos’ background is in No Borders organizing, camps and otherwise.


Mitropoulos’ starting point here is the strategic transition in the management of difference in Australian society from an officially-celebrated multiculturalism in the 80s to the explicitly harsh surveillance and control practiced today. This shift occurred not just in reference to borders and immigration, but also in the management of indigenous people.


In the 90s, Australia’s high court, in the Mabo decision, abandoned terra nullius, or “empty land,” the legal principle that the continent had been unowned and barbarous before European colonization, thus allowing the Crown to issue land title unilaterally. This allowed indigenous peoples to file suit for title, and to use land co-extensively with White ranchers, though another court decision a few years later gave precedence to the latter in such agreements.


Mitropoulos argues that the multiculturalism of this period, which underlay this “concession,” demands homogenous, representable minorities that can be integrated functionally into democratic discourse. So this concession actually shifted the burden of conflict away from the previous dynamic of ‘indigenous vs. settler society’: the really-existing consequence of multiculturalism was the ‘internalisation’ of conflict in the form of disputes over authenticity, identity and its borders.”


Further, multiculturalism relies on these homogenous minorities to be pliant, asserting cultural difference but willing to cooperate on important matters like development, and the Australian public tired of a seemingly intractable indigenous “problem.” This culminated in 1997, with the declaration of a national emergency, responding to a supposed crisis of child sex abuse in indigenous communities. Mitropoulos emphasizes the gendered, paternalistic dimensions of the intervention on behalf of “women and children,” relating this to an important quality of modern liberal management, its depoliticization. This reflects a shared interest and broad set of values within the democratic spectrum (which is implicitly whitened), that is forced to respond to an entire, racialized class of people who stubbornly remain outside of society’s norms: “‘They’ made ‘us’ do it by – and by being far too ‘they’ in the first place. The conditions under which the contract might be suspended is already written into contractualism: the failure of will to prevail over ‘custom’, the non-identity of the contracting parties, the inability of certain people to ‘control themselves’.”


Following Tronti and others, Mitropoulos understands the interplay between these events – indigenous land rights struggles in the 80s, the Mabo decision, title suits, the child sex emergency, etc. – to reflect a non-linear struggle for power. The Mabo decision was not necessarily either just a concession or a recuperation. It allowed for indigenous groups to seek possession over traditional holdings, but it also forced them to articulate precisely the historical nature of these holdings and concede rights permanently over much of the rest (this is similar to the Treaty Rights process in British Columbia).


More broadly: “In that policy, and in that process of managing the passage from the ostensibly particular differences of the otherly-complexioned to their integration into the apparently neutral terrain of social identity (citizenship), distinctions were always made between proper and improper forms of difference. As Mathew Hyland notes, this becomes the route by which an “open-ended obligation to the state and its proxies” is demanded.”


My summarization strategy of note-taking breaks down here, because the next three paragraphs seem really important:


Or, as Harry Chang put it some time ago, it is not the instrumentalisation of physiognomic differences that is at issue, but rather “objectification, ie, relational poles conceived as the intrinsic quality of objects in relation”[8] Chang went on to insist that while, therefore and for instance, enslavability could be regarded as an attribute of blackness, not everyone who is black is therefore destined to be enslaved.


it does not aim at an air-tight predictable outcome when it comes to the question of who shall be in what class; the rule has to work itself out actuarially. … an elaborate system of gambling-house odds. … what is a gambling-house mentality if there are no winners occasionally? Nonetheless, the abstract need of class relations (eg, there shall be slaves) demands some concrete demographic solution (eg, Blacks as ‘candidates’ for slaves).[9]

Racialisation is, to stress the point, actuarial; it is coincident with the hazards and triumphs of meritocracy and its predicaments, the organisation of ruin, gain, winners and losers, and the incessant restlessness that these imply. Race is, then, not a question of fixed categories, even if fixity and determination is what it imputes in manoeuvring around the troublesome questions of contingency and destiny. It delineates the points of a process, a set of filters that sift between those who might be groomed for inclusion (and potential value) and those set aside for exclusion and superfluity (or determined to be without value). This is why the application of its categories acquires a mobility that can only be understood as situational and concrete, never abstract or ahistorical; at times turning around the dualities of black and white or, at other times, the spectra of complexion, migratory waves or physiognomic assortment.

Mitropoulos argues against both biologically-essentialist conceptions of race and “voluntarist” social constructionism. Instead, she points to the actual materialization of race, the process by which the imperatives of race are imposed on populations:

“Where the biological concepts of race adhere to certain understandings of causation (conceive, for instance, of higher rates of mortality among indigenous people as an effect of ‘biology’, sometimes rendered as ‘culture’; or understand higher rates of infection without recalling the denial of certain antibiotic treatments and health care that are routinely available elsewhere), the latter champions the tautologies of contractarianism while exteriorising a presumed excess.”


This reminds me of Arendt in “Origins of Totalitarianism,” but I actually prefer this different passage as an explanation of the principle — “Thus, Das Schwarze Korps conceded several years before the outbreak of the war that people abroad did not completely believe the Nazi contention that all Jews are homeless beggars who can only subsist as parasites in the economic organism of other nations; but foreign public opinion, they prophesized, would in a few years be given the opportunity to convince itself of this fact when the German Jews would be driven out across the borders like a pack of beggars.” Seeds of a Fascist International.


Race is not a stable construction that one is either born into or can leave voluntarily, but an unstable tautology that is physically imposed on populations and reproduced constantly particularly within the logic of the economy:

“In other words, race exists insofar as capital – its conditions, relations and procedures – is spectralised, just as abstract equality exists to the extent that concrete differences are sifted, ordered, repudiated, costed and abjected. This circumstance is neither a result of will nor biology, even if it organises the semantics and practices, both mundane and sensational, of will and of bios through which race becomes materialised.”



One response to “Notes over Mitropoulos’ “Materialization of Race in Multiculture”

  1. “Race is both condition and effect, the predominant form of social tie and its undoing.”

    I saw a really interesting parallel between Chang’s note “enslavability could be regarded as a attribute of blackness, not everyone who is black is therefore destined to be enslaved,” and Mitropoulos’ description of the “national emergency on the pretext of an anecdotal ‘epidemic’ of child sexual abuse.”

    So the analogy is that if enslavability is an attribute of blackness, then “child sexual abuse”/ “a failed society where law and order and behavior have broken down and where women and children are unsafe” is an attribute of indigenous ethnicity.

    The national emergency seemed to be a process by which the Australian state assigned sexual abuse of children as an attribute of indigenous ethnicity.

    This analogy is most interesting, because assigning both attributes trigger exception.
    Povinelli comments, “One cannot answer the charge of sexual abuse.”
    Both enslavement and the charge of sexual abuse of children suspend the ability/right of the respective race to rebuke or respond to the condition/attribute.

    “Race marks the boundary of that which is considered to not be amenable to will.” The racialisation of these conditions (the transformation of these from charges into attributes of a race/ethnicity) create race giving it this really functional role where race has elements of bios (“the feigned materialism of biological concepts”) and will (“the social constructionism reduced to such a degree of voluntarism”), where race is both the condition and the effect.

    Race plays this dual in social contracts: both a condition precedent to the contract (makes symmetry between parties possible) and the process that triggers the exception (i.e. presumes the asymmetry and renders the social contract void for public policy).

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