Gnosticism And The Contemporary Production Of Race (Jacob Vangeest)

“Blackness is not only that which relates to the constitutive outside of any social bond—whether that outside be excluded or included is secondary—but also that which relates to the undoing or unraveling of every social bond” -Jared Sexton, “On Black Negativity”

Carl Schmitt defines the Greek nomos as the cutting up of the World through appropriation, distribution and management (351). Pace Schmitt, the Jewish theologian Jacob Taubes suggests that where nomos is the distribution of social order, cosmos is the divinely inspired distribution of the world. Together, cosmos and nomos provide a theo-political determination of the ontological distribution of the world. Sylvia Wynter discusses the way this process of cosmography works in the production of race.

Drawing on Foucault’s “epistemic shifts,” she signals 1492 as an ontological event, shifting from one episteme to another.  The theological grounding of representational categories is ruptured by biological and scientific rationality. Biological difference is signified by the categories of “us” and “not us,” presented along lines of biologically grounded white and black (via methods such as phrenology).

While theological representation remains within this bio-scientific ontology as a means for justification (i.e. God made us superior), Wynter suggests this is only secondary to a secular, biological foundation wherein they are categorically distinct from us (and thus used towards our political ends). Wynter argues 1492 is a politically motivated this-worldly counter-cosmos that ruptures the other-worldly cosmos of medieval-feudal Christendom.

In Black Prometheus, Jared Hickman argues that 1492’s shift from other-worldly transcendence to this-worldly immanence is a theological rather than biological, counter-cosmos. God is immanentized rather than killed. Through this theological move, the man/God distinction is ruptured, allowing man to take God’s place in the cosmological distribution (47). White, European man—as Promethean—steals the cosmological technē of God; White Prometheus rebels against Zeus, in turn proclaiming himself Zeus.

With the power of the Absolute in hand, Europe produces the cosmos of 1492: an imperialist cosmos.  In the guise of freeing humanity, White Prometheus uses this power to paradoxically enslave the Other and produce race (51). To explicate this requires a diversion through gnosticism. Gnosticism derives from gnosis, the Greek term for knowledge. Centered on a cosmic struggle between an evil Platonic Demiurge and the good Judeo-Christian Yahweh, gnosticism presents the death of this world, in conjunction with Yahweh’s transcendence, as salvation of humanity from the Demiurge.

Gnosticism posits a radical dualism between an evil, immanent world and a good transcendent world. In this sense, gnosticism inaugurates a Manichean dualism between an “evil sphere of creation” and a “good sphere of salvation” (56). It is fitting that Hickman cites Augustine, a Manichean, as a key figure in the Gnostic inversion of Christianity: where the Platonic creator God becomes the savior and man becomes the Demiurge.

Hickman suggests that it is through a number of ruptures—the move from scholasticism to nominalism, followed by the rupture of 1492—that Christianity opens to Gnosticism. The new cosmos of 1492 is the “literal emergence of a new world” (60), shattering the old cosmos, and providing a new, gnostic dichotomy where Euro-Christianity takes the position of the savior God who rescues the pagan from their inferior, evil gods.

White Christianity, granted the technē of cosmos, provides salvation to this pagan in a new cosmography that racializes the Other as non-Euro, non-Christian heathen. Euro-Christianity is the becoming of the Absolute; God is immanentized into the colonial project; “Gnosticism is racialized” (61) into the us-them, good-evil relation.

White Prometheus racializes the Other in relation to itself. Both Euro-Christian Absolute and anti-Imperialist, counter-Gnosticism are reciprocally understood, which in turn produces race (68). Hickman explores this through Hegel, who he argues represents Africa as foreclosed to the Absolute and history. Arguing against Paul Gilroy and Susan Buck-Morss, Hickman suggests that even the lord-bondsman dialectic is foreclosed to the slave. He suggests that Hegel is “racializing historical teleology itself on the basis of a theological critique of African religion as productive of a ‘bad’ immanence” (124).

Africa assumes the position of Demiurge, foreclosing it to the historical Geist unless it denies itself for the white God. Modern cosmology re-inscribes the gnostic, Manichean dualism between White Prometheus and that which rejects it: Black Prometheus. Black Prometheus is, then, a refusal of White Prometheus alongside a dialectic that is based in Fredrick Douglass rather than Hegel or Marx (75).

While Marx transvalues Hegel’s Prometheus, he retains Zeus as an “atheist-materialist Prometheus” wherein emancipation is “not only freedom from the gods, but the freedom of the gods” (137). Marx retains Zeus’ throne. Unlike Marx, Douglass doesn’t attempt to usurp the throne, but challenges its conception (143).

For Hickman, Douglass posits a Black Prometheus against the throne of Zeus; challenging not only the expression of cosmos, but the form, in something akin to an anti-cosmology or Nietzschean critique, wherein the issue is not merely the expression of cosmos but the foundation of cosmos. To overcome the Absolute, one cannot become the Absolute, but must unground the possibility of the Absolute position. Yet, unlike Nietzsche, Hickman does not call for the destruction of the throne, instead leaving it vacant. In leaving Zeus’ place empty, Hickman goes against a negation of the World, arguing instead for a new form of inscription without the Absolute. 

This new cosmos can be read as a (democratic) re-creation of the world, not unlike that presented in Mbembe’s Necropolitics. Mbembe suggests that a new world—a new cosmos— requires a new language that is constantly working to save life from the disaster to come. This (democratic) re-creation follows a cosmology without Absolute, insofar as it is a cosmos outside the Absolute. Nevertheless, my interest here is not, ultimately, the solutions presented by Mbembe or Hickman, but the problematic they unearth. It is here, with my decision to bracket (democratic), that an entry into this problematic can be made for the contemporary cosmos

Mbembe explores what one might call the ‘nonconcept’ of democracy (or perhaps the accident of democracy) by questioning how a pro-slavery democracy can exist? A bifurcation of “fellow” and “non-fellow” (recalling us and them) is at the heart of democratic logic (17). This logic follows what Hortense Spillers has terms “hieroglyphics of the flesh” (64-81). Flesh is marked by the cosmos of the White Absolute as Black and other. Essentializing the Other as Other, this inscription fails to recognize the flesh as base to the superstructural representational logic within a racializing assemblage.

Flesh is the nonconcept of the racialized body, an excess essential to the formation of race, but which is not subsumed or dissolved in the concept. Rather, flesh insists as an immanent or negative dialectic against the concept. Democracy’s hieroglyphics of the flesh mark flesh as fellow and non-fellow—us and them—producing a violent underbelly that perpetually undermines democracy. Mbembe suggests democracy is inseparable from its twin concepts—the colony and plantation—insofar as the logic of “fellow” requires its “non-fellow.”

Inclusion requires exclusion, and it is here that democracy contains its immanent contradiction. Thus, the (democracy) to come cannot be signified as democracy but is bracketed. Foucault is central to this analysis. Introducing biopolitics, he argues modernity complements “the right to take life or let live” with “the right to make live or let die” (241).

Biopolitics is as a mass phenomenon that inscribes humanity as species through statistically driven analysis of the general population. It focuses on statistical data to perpetuate life within a population—making people live. The other half of the equation—letting die—concerns Mbembe. Through statistical measures, biopolitics divides between good and inferior races. Racism functions as the interruption of the general population, promoting life for those who are good, while ignoring the bad who are allowed to die (255).

White and Black Prometheus remain in conflict within the fellow, non-fellow dichotomy in a negative dialectic of the biopolitical socius. This raises the question: “How [is the body] inscribed in the order of power?” (12).

What is of primary interest in this essay is the way that the White cosmos is reinforced by contemporary apparatuses of technological advancement. Mbembe extends the position of excess beyond the enslaved Black (and the encamped Jew) to the Muslim, Arab, Foreigner and Refugee. Here, colony becomes camp and plantation becomes max security prison. The structure of this Othering works on various levels.

The interconnectedness of modern computing produces virtual hordes on the basis of identity (56). Racist hate groups repeat Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction, intensifying divisions both internal and external to traditional state borders, and reinforcing the potential of both endo- and exo-colonization. Where exo-colonization is the colonization of space outside a state’s borders, endo-colonization colonizes the internal populace (107). Due to increasing pluralism and interconnectedness, old formalizations of friend-enemy would appear to collapse.

Yet, these paradoxically become structurally intensified by way of an inclusive disjunction that is central to the contemporary world: The Other—our enemy—might be among us. As a result, it is important to allow something like endo-colonization to take place, to protect us from those enemies in our midst. The state of emergency is internalized into the rule of law, justifying a multiplicity of surveillance measures (253–64).

The virtual horde and the state are largely exclusive but work simultaneously to Other the enemy. What remains immanent is the perpetuation of a white cosmos. Mbembe suggests that the West’s inability to contemplate its own finitude has pushed it to perpetually understand itself as an Absolute universal. White Prometheus retains the place of sovereign Absolute. Within this space, the virtual horde (or the state) is capable of producing a virtual enemy who is only actualized after its production as fiction.

This cosmological power is not unique to modernity but is intensified in the way that borders are produced. I cite Mbembe here at length: 

Humanity’s division into native and foreign peoples is far advanced. If […] yesterday’s fundamental demand was to find the enemy and bring him out in the open, today it suffices to create him so as to rise up against him, to confront him with the prospect of total annihilation and destruction. For, indeed, these are enemies with whom no communication is either possible or desirable. No understanding is possible with those who lie beyond the confines of humanity. (64)

This is the creation of an enemy that does not even exist. The enemy is cosmologically created as a fiction. The terrorist, for instance, can be inscribed as a signifier without a signified. Only after this initial fiction does the racializing assemblage inscribe the flesh as terrorist, as Other, as nonfellow. The enemy is a virtual creation actualized only after the fact.

Within the interconnected pluralism of contemporary communication technologies, this enemy could be anywhere: a realization which justifies both endo-colonization (e.g. the patriot act) and exo-colonization (e.g. the war on terror) against an enemy who now exists, post-inscription, as existential threat to White Prometheus. In a recent article, “Deglobalization,” Mbembe writes “Every sphere of life has been penetrated by capital and subjected to quantification. In this context, borders have become nothing other than the violence underlying our world’s order, a war against mobility that is filling Europe with dead bodies and migrant camps.”

Today, borders have become the nomos of the earth. Borders perpetuate the underlying difference that undoes the potential for a shared (democratic) humanity. These borders exist as both internal and external. Mbembe follows Agamben in suggesting the camp as a structuring logic: “camps for foreigners. That, ultimately, is what they are. Camps for foreigners, in Europe’s heartlands and at its borders. It is the only suitable term for describing these structures and the sort of carceral geography they establish.”

Internality and externality are problematized by technology, which only serves to intensify the division of fellow and non-fellow. The camp and prison allow for the production of a border constituting an outside that is internal to a state: a zone of indistinction. Taking up the border as an extension of the camp, Mbembe understands the border and its plea for security as a structuring nomos. Here, security becomes the dominant aim of the biopolitical apparatus.

For Mbembe, technology has led to a perpetual state of security, constantly on guard against the dangerous, racialized Other. Simultaneously, the production of this Other provides the justification for security and surveillance. The border, as cosmology of the White Prometheus, perpetually enslaves Blackness to keep itself on Zeus’ throne.

In this sense, what the border and White Prometheus claim as an existential threat is simultaneously the foundation of their existence: an enemy to protect against. As such, Black Prometheus is the non-concept of White Prometheus, its excess and undoing. White Prometheus needs to create its racialized other to perpetuate itself. Technology and modernity only tend to intensify and exacerbate this reach. 

Jacob Vangeest is a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism. His research is located at the intersection of political theory and continental philosophy. More explicitly, his current research explores the possibility of socio-political change by way of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s conceptualization of thresholds.

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