“To speak of Whites is not to essentialize the White as white…White is a social relation and not a natural fact. It only exists as such as a moment…” —Sadri Khiari

The central question in building an account of whiteness is how to figure the body. How should the body figure? In dominant understandings of race, the body signifies the human body, and race is articulated as a social construction in order to account for the different scales of experience at which race registers as meaningful from personal identity and heredity, to the legal organization and operations of racial states. But in the deep anthropocentrism of this focus, we’ve been left with a contradictory idea that does not adequately refute the original argument against which social constructionism pushed back: biologized notions of race science. In the end, social construction states that race does not emerge from the body, but somehow racial order is constructed according to the body’s visual, phenotypic markers. Barnor Hesse addresses this contradiction in his analysis of Omi and Winant’s widely cited definition of race. He points out that various strains of race and modernity studies overwhelmingly “invoke some visual form of corporeality, while insisting on an analytical disassociation between the category of race and the corporeal schema.”1 In other words, the biological basis of race has been rejected as false science in favor of a nominal insistence on a social constructionist argument, but without a real excision of biological referents.

Here I would offer a shift in focus in two ways. First, against the social constructionist formulation we may position the argument that race is a relation of the modern-colonial organization of power.2 Rather than conceptualizing race as identity, phenotypic characteristics, or biological inheritance, my reading of race as relation suggests that race itself is an event. It is not just a relation, but an event of relating. There are echoes here with Jose Esteban Muñoz’s provocation, building from Austin’s notion of performativity, “to get at an aspect of race that is ‘a doing’”3 or, as Sadri Khiari is quoted above, that “only exists as such as a moment.”4 Indeed, it is in large part my aim to try to think of race as something that is done rather than had, and as something bodies are doing rather than being. From this perspective, race is not in the body at all. Rather, race is a relation generated by the interaction of at least two bodies—it is the character and the outcome of their interaction, identifiable by what their event of relating has capacitated.

If we can begin to think of race as an event and an event of relating, it still needs to be stated what constitutes the event itself. I define race as the modulation or modulating of a body’s affective horizon—its capacity to affect and be affected—according to a colonial legacy. Or, race is the designation of relative potential, ascribed through the iterative taxonomic determination of colonial administration, across all the afterlives of the colonial project and shifting names by which we refer to it. This is an articulation of race which emphasizes its relational, contingent, and processual nature, rooted in affect, toward the determination of bodily capacity.

Here is the second shift, which is in the range of bodies we expect to be engaged in events of race. As Melissa Gregg and Greg Seigworth offer, “affect marks a body’s belonging to a world of encounters” where bodies are defined “not by an outer skin-envelope or other surface boundary but by their potential to reciprocate or co-participate in the passages of affect.”5 Affect captures the way we find ourselves in the world already in motion, embedded with a swirl of other bodies, all rotating on their axes while twirling in their orbits. In the reciprocal relationship affect invokes, it references a field of bodies coming to be, resonating, shaped and moved by the forceful effects of one another, like planets aligning and being aligned. To the extent that what emerges from the encounter between two bodies belongs to or extends modern-colonial modes of power, or remains fundamentally compatible with them, we might be able to mark the coherence of those events, identifying them as “doing whiteness.” In this frame, the bodies in question don’t have to be human bodies. In fact, our account of where and how whiteness operates becomes much more complete once we can account for non-human bodies as central elements of the architecture of modern racial life.

In his articulation of whiteness as a dynamic event in which bodies iteratively reproduce certain kinds of impermeabilities in their attachment to power, Arun Saldanha reminds us that whatever resulting viscosity constructs our sensations and movement in real space involves more than the clustering of human bodies. “One important thing to remember about human viscosity is that actual speed on one scale can ‘slow down’ the abstract machine of a web of relations on a higher scale. The fluidities of finance capital, missiles, business travel, advertising, and telecommunications serve to consolidate the topological power of the capitalist system.”6 Indeed, the relationality through which whiteness operates depends upon much larger bodies operating in multiple and asynchronous events of race at scales that are radically different than notions of race that extrapolate from the experience of individual identity. Frontier, architecture, infrastructure, neoliberal economy, ecological genocide, petrochemical exploitation, sub-oceanic internet cables and the digital instantaneity they enable dependent on the mining of rare earth elements—these all exist in iterative, overlapping relations that the human body enters into at different points.

Take a simple building as an example. The building I sat in as I wrote this essay: The Center for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The building, standing in the gerund, is instantiating the authority of the state of Wisconsin and the US nation-state, actively curbing the possible expressions of Ho-Chunk authority that could have emerged or taken place on that same land. In the relationship between the building and the land, the building is sustaining a 250-year relation of whiteness, an event it directly entered into in 1906 when it was built. It is a relation whose endurance eclipses my single human life, and yet I enter into it, I inhabit this ongoing event as I inhabit the building, moving through and being bound up in the relation of whiteness in the extension of my “potential to reciprocate or co-participate in the passages of affect.” This is a kind of affective reading of race and whiteness which accounts for the operation of race beyond individual intent, and instead looks at the fractally reverberating investments our human and non-human bodies reproduce to sustain colonial order. It gestures towards a broad and banal attempt at the regulation of the capacities to affect and be affected, iterated with each event of race, as both a question of individual stakes and scales far beyond the individual that push us to the limit to conceive of how we might abstain from these concatenated relations.

It is with the term “affective horizon” that I refer to the limitations or proscriptions imposed on a body’s capacity to affect or be affected. Jonathan Flatley and Ben Anderson both develop the notion of “affective atmosphere” to describe the landscape across which encounters happen in the world.7 The affective atmosphere is the sum total of the conditions of an encounter which have emerged from the realization of certain potentials rather than others. However, my notion of affective horizon points to the mechanism by which race attempts to curb or determine a body’s perception of the affective atmosphere itself. In this, the priming force of the affective atmosphere, reflected in the extension of certain conditions and not others, is further restricted to realize only those possibilities reasonably compatible with modern power.

Horizon constructs something out of atmosphere; it invents a virtual division which may never be grasped or attained, but which instantiates itself as an object of orientation. I use horizon to denote its function as both a limit and a tool that attempts to impose order on feeling, relation, and bodily resonance. The horizon has long been the symbol of aspirations for control, as Hito Steyerl notes, contextualizing the notion of horizon in the West, “The use of the horizon to calculate position gave seafarers a sense of orientation, thus also enabling colonialism and the spread of a capitalist global market, but also became an important tool for the construction of the optical paradigms that came to define modernity, the most important paradigm being that of so-called linear perspective.”8 Similarly, the concept of an affective horizon suggests more than a boundary. Rather it points to the perpetual and malleable instantiation of boundedness itself, that is both imposed upon and engulfs bodies (and their perceived capacity for relation) within the purview of modern power. Race is the event within which the instantiation of the affective horizon is executed. Indeed, as this instantiation of boundedness must, in each new event, be redrawn and delimited out of the breadth of the affective atmosphere in which a body is continually emergent, the ‘execution’ of affective boundedness is rather an exercise in modulation, an iterated, iterative, simultaneous broadening of certain potentials and diminishing of others.

The marshaling of affectability is deeply imbricated with the production of the global, as we learn from the work of Denise Ferreira da Silva.9 In detailing how the frame of the global was constructed and hosted the very instantiation of race, racial capital and colonial economy, she traces the relational emergence of the “transparent ‘I’: Man, the subject, the ontological figure consolidated in post-Enlightenment European thought.”10 The existence of the individual rational subject of European power depended on its deep relationality with the “affectable Other” and an absolute disavowal of any reciprocity of that relation. Whiteness emerged in its ability to affect and (claim to) not be affected, and I would argue, it continues to depend on a habituated impression of unaffectability. The same gesture underpins the appeal to individual experience in the anthropocentric orientation of social constructionism, in both the limiting of the body to the scale of the human and in the localized extraction of the human body as a static object, separable from the flows of capital, racial power, modern modes of attunement, and colonial habituation. This same gesture overdetermines the body as the site of race and makes the body unavailable to account for the dynamism race. The central question in building an account of whiteness is how to keep sight of the body’s emergence across many horizons.

  1. Barnor Hesse, “Racialized Modernity: An Analytics of White Mythologies,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30, no. 4 (2007): 645, https://doi.org/10/dmjkr6.[↩︎]
  2. These do not all distinguish themselves from social constructionist arguments, but some very compelling articulations of the relationality of race can be found in: Ann Laura Stoler, Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, American Encounters/Global Interactions (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Fernando Coronil, “Listening to the Subaltern: The Poetics of Neocolonial States,” Poetics Today 15, no. 4 (1994): 643–58, https://doi.org/10/frbfb6; Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).[↩︎]
  3. José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position,” Signs 31, no. 3 (2006): 678, https://doi.org/10/cgrx9s. [↩︎]
  4. Sadri Khiari quoted in: Houria Bouteldja and Translated by Paola Bacchetta, “Party of the Indigenous of the Republic (PIR) Key Concepts,” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 1 (2015): 29, https://doi.org/10/gfgnpd.[↩︎]
  5. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, The Affect Theory Reader. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 2.[↩︎]
  6. Arun Saldanha, Psychedelic White Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 51–52.[↩︎]
  7. Ben Anderson, “Affect and Biopower: Towards a Politics of Life,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37, no. 1 (2012): 28–43, https://doi.org/10/fb6jcf; Jonathan Flatley, Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Harvard University Press, 2009).[↩︎]
  8. Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, ed. Franco Berardi (Sternberg Press, 2012), 15, http://ehsancritique.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Steyerl-Hito-The-Wretched-of-the-Screen.pdf.[↩︎]
  9. Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, Borderlines 27 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), http://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/toward-a-global-idea-of-race.[↩︎]
  10. Da Silva, xvi.[↩︎]
Christine Goding-Doty received her PhD from the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University. The main concern of her research is the concept of whiteness in the digital age which she explores from the intersection of critical philosophy of race, new media studies, and affect theory. Her forthcoming article “Beyond the Pale Blog: Tumblr Pink and the Aesthetics of White Anxiety” considers the way pale blogs on Tumblr aestheticize contemporary anxieties around white supremacy and manufacture a virtual frontier upon which to sustain colonial desire.