Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

The “Founding” of America and the Field of the Visible

Seeing is not just one of our senses or a biological function—it is a means of knowing the world that is shaped by our history and socialization.  Butler explains how among the ever-present fear of the black male body, the act of violence against Rodney King came to be seen as an act of violence against the police.  It seems absurd, but the sight of the jury relocated the guilt of the police onto King’s body as a function of lurking white paranoia and the construction of the black male as an ongoing, felt threat to white, heterosexual normativity.

The notion that “the visible” is produced and manipulated appears frequently in American history and perhaps most strongly in what is popularly considered to be the “founding” of the nation.  The fact that a predominant American narrative exists in which Columbus’s arrival constitutes the beginning of the nation’s history certainly speaks for the “blindness” of the English settlers and our inherited “blindness” to Native American culture and history.

In the spirit of finding an earthly Eden, spreading Christianity and gaining profit, English settlers had a preformed field of visibility, which was also produced by a fear of “savages” and wilderness.  Upon their arrival to Native American nations (now America), white settlers saw and perceived—with their “phantasmatic production” of a paranoia of uncivilized, un-Christian, and dark-skinned Indians—Native Americans in a manner that fulfilled their paranoia.  For example, they were blind to the highly sophisticated Native American methods of agriculture and instead saw an uncivilized, godless people that were struggling to survive off of the land.  The English settlers’ production of a narrow field of vision also served the minimization of white guilt relating to the Native American genocide.

Could it be that the “racial production of the visible” that Butler writes of in regard to the black male body is rooted in a white American narrative to minimize feelings of guilt surrounding slavery and persisting racial inequality?

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