Posthumous Racisms

by Ackbar Abbas

The Doxic and Toxic  

A doxa is a popular belief, strongly but uncritically held. Racism is a condition where the doxic is toxic. Where the doxic is toxic, we find the racism of good intentions. I will analyze four films as case studies, focusing specifically on one detail in each film around which the film’s whole story turns and which, at the same time, turns the whole story around. I will end by trying to draw out from the four films some implications about race and racism.  


“The posthumous empties racism as we know it of overt content – kills it – but keeps the form or structure that could then recharge itself by appropriating any-content-whatever.”


Fists of Fury

Recall an early scene in Bruce Lee’s 1972 film Fists of Fury, made in Hong Kong but set in Shanghai around 1910 during the dark days of foreign domination. Bruce is forbidden to enter a public park by a racist sign that reads “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed!” His response is to do a flying kick, smashing the sign to pieces. Yet this anti-racist scene, full of rightful indignation, includes a disturbing detail: the film presents the park’s Indian gatekeeper in a clearly ridiculous way with no awareness of how inadvertently racist such a portrayal is. So, protesting against racism and being racist are not mutually exclusive: they can co-exist. This is the first conundrum of how anti-racism and racism can be mirror-images of each other, one image the parodic double of the other. Note that this is parody with no overt satiric or critical edge: blank parody. Such parody makes dealing with racism akin to moving through a house of mirrors.

Brokeback Mountain

Perhaps because racism is so non-obvious and dissembling, there is a tendency to simplify or deflect it, turning a complex question into a more understandable cliché. Consider now (my second case study) Lee Ang’s mainstream film Brokeback Mountain (2005) about two gay cowboys living in a redneck community; a community that defends its homophobic and racist prejudices at all costs, not stopping at gratuitous violence and even murder. In its sympathetic portrayal of the gay couple and its critical representation of the rednecks, Lee’s film is clearly addressed to a liberal-democratic audience. The more bigoted the redneck behavior, the more tolerant and open-minded the audience can feel itself to be. One typical comment on the film (an example of ‘open-mindedness’) is to say “it’s not about homosexuality, it’s about love,” which turns out to be a crucial but double-edged response: The inclusive gesture excludes at the same time other forms of love. If it’s not about homosexuality, as if homosexuality as such cannot be a form of love, and is only tolerated if it is ‘normalized’ and not different. Just as toxic and murderous as redneck prejudice is homogenization and conditional toleration: I will include you on condition that you become like me. This then is the deep dark secret of Brokeback Mountain, that toleration may be bigotry’s double rather than its opposite. What the film enacts is a ‘blank parody’ of toleration, taking us another step towards the racism of good intentions.


I turn for my third case study to Danish director Lars von Trier, the enfant terrible of European cinema. He is notorious for taking things to catastrophic extremes, as if it were only at such moments that the real shows its true face. In Cannes 2011, goaded by some reporters over his German ancestry and how this might be related by implication to the racism and misogynism of his films, Lars von Trier blurted out in exasperation, “OK I’m a Nazi…I understand Hitler.” These remarks got him banned from Cannes. Perhaps von Trier was fighting a simplification with a simplification of his own, and this suggests that we have to return to the structural complexity of the films themselves. My example is Dogville (2003) and specifically one detail in it. The story concerns Grace (Nicole Kidman) who appears one day in Dogville, pursued by gangsters. The townspeople give her refuge but also exploit her vulnerable position. She does twice the work for half the pay and one after another of the men rape her. Grace responds to her situation with stoicism and forgiveness. How is this possible? One answer is suggested by a small detail in the film. The only occasion when she breaks down and cries is when Vera, one of the townswomen, spitefully smashes up her collection of ceramic figurines. These figurines, ‘made in Dogville,’ are like tourist souvenirs, an important detail because it points to the possibility that Grace’s moral fortitude is that of the tourist who knows she can leave at any time. This supposition is confirmed when we learn that Grace is in fact the daughter of a mafia boss, running away not from gangsters or the police but from a loving and overprotective father. Towards the end, there’s an explosive dialogue between Grace and her father, who accuses her of arrogance [father: not just a common thug but something of a dialectician]:

Grace: So, I’m arrogant; I’m arrogant because I forgive people?

Big Man: My God! Can’t you see how condescending you are when you say that? You have this preconceived notion that nobody – listen – nobody can possibly attain the same high ethical standards as you, so you exonerate them. I cannot – I cannot think of anything more arrogant than that. You my child, my dear child, forgive others with excuses that you would never in the world permit for yourself.  

To forgive in others what you would not forgive in yourself is to disrespect them, and to say indirectly that you are better than they are. The disastrous conclusion that Grace draws from this dialectic is that to respect the people of Dogville means also giving them the punishment they deserve for what they have done, which is death. With the power from her father, she orders the town’s destruction. Dogville is burnt to the ground, and everybody is killed, men, women and children. Only the dog, Moses, is spared. Note the catastrophe or turning point is not just the spectacle of the town’s destruction; it is also the catastrophe of the implosion of differences, the fusion and confusion of forgiveness and arrogance, of power and virtue, blank parodies of each other.


Structurally similar to Dogville, the last case study I will discuss is Jordan Peele’s 2019 Us. The film concerns a black family, the Wilsons and in particular Adelaide (Addy) Wilson, but race is never directly mentioned. In fact, their best friends, the Tylers, are white. Most of the film seems to be a kind of horror story, about how the Wilson family on vacation are terrorized by a zombie family very much like their own, their parodic double. The horror story works together with the Sci-Fi genre about clones and replicants, and Bladerunner is the classic example. A third genre is the government conspiracy story, about how the government created as an experiment a race of clones which are ‘tethered’ to ordinary citizens, and used to control them. But if these stories about zombies, clones, and government control shock us, they do so in a very conventional way. Shock becomes shlock, the expected shock in the expected places. Shlock does not shock us out of our complacencies.

This brings me to the crucial detail with which the film begins and ends. It brings us to Peele’s film, which is a horror story of a very different kind. The film begins with a strange incident that happened to Addy as a child in an amusement park. She wandered away from her parents into a house of mirrors where she met her double. We don’t know how this scene ends, only that she was so traumatized she could not speak for a long time. It is only in the very last few minutes that we learn how this opening scene played out. The double had grabbed Addy by the throat and changed clothes and places with her. So, the ordinary woman we have been empathizing with is actually the clone (Red), while the terrorizing zombie is actually Addy. This switch or doubling requires us to watch the film all over to double-back; just as we need to retrace our views on racism to see the racism of good intentions.

Let me try now to draw out three points from my case histories. One question they ask is why democracy, social justice, belief in diversity and so on, have not only not put an end to racism but have instead given rise to racism by other means. Perhaps we need to pose the question differently for it to be fruitful, and ask not why racism persists, but how it persists. I would suggest as a first point that it persists in posthumous form: the posthumous referring to a life, a renewed vitality, based on the condition or alibi of its death and disappearance. The posthumous empties racism as we know it of overt content – kills it – but keeps the form or structure that could then recharge itself by appropriating any-content-whatever. Hence racism can be the issue even when the subject seems to be about something else.

Hence, a second point: posthumous racism operates on the mood of hysteria; its symptoms are puzzling. Unlike organic symptoms which are related to a cause (stomach ache – unclean food), hysterical symptoms are relatively arbitrary; e.g. anxiety can display itself in all kinds of ways: as a blush or paleness of the face; as an inability to speak or an inability to stop speaking. So, symptoms of racism too are relatively arbitrary, often seemingly unrelated to issues of racism at all.

This suggests a third point, that racism cannot be understood or analyzed in isolation. It is part of a larger social ecology, just as ecology itself is not just green. A huge task but a happy corollary is that we are also fighting racism every time we resist a cliché, however well-intentioned.