It occurred to me. If we want to solve the problem of racism, perhaps we should reflect, not on how we think about the people of other race, but on how we perceive our own race. That is, racial affinity, which is another way to look at the same problem. This occurred to me, of all places, at a lecture on Finnegans Wake I attended tonight.
James Joyce was obviously well-read. I think he saw Finnegans Wake as a culmination of Western civilization. He incorporated everything he knew. The lecturer described it as incorporating the history of the “world.” For me, that is a cognitive dissonance, because, despite the extensive references Joyce made to all the great cultural works and figures of history, across many cultures and languages, there is a line he draws beyond which his references do not extend. How is this line drawn? If you think about it, it’s race.
Well, actually, Joyce wasn’t so rigid compared to other European intellectuals. Even today, in this Global Village, when you read the works of Western philosophers, they are dense with references to other White philosophers. You rarely come across references that cross the racial boundaries. It is quite impressive that these intellectuals took the time and effort to learn multiple European languages, namely German, French, Spanish, Italian and even Latin. That is, having to learn a different language does not stop them from being curious about these works of foreign philosophers. Then, why is it that they rarely show any interest in studying, say Chinese philosophers? I think it’s because it crosses the racial border.
In several occasions, when I corresponded with some of these intellectuals, they said, “I have too much respect for Eastern philosophy to even talk about it.” This is just a nice way of saying, “I’m really not curious about what you people think.” After all, how do you “respect” something if you don’t know anything about it? It is an insincere way to put a foreign culture on a pedestal. Given that a language barrier is not a show-stopper for them, it is reasonable to assume that race is a significant factor in where they draw the line. There is a sense that they are contributing towards a team or community of some sort, and it’s not defined by language or culture. It’s largely defined by race.
The white nationalist, Richard B. Spencer, who recently became famous for hailing Trump at one of his conferences, to his credit, at least recognizes that race is a significant factor for our sense of affinity. That is, he is at least aware of race being a driving force in our sense of camaraderie and teamwork. Our civilizations and cultural traditions continue being divided by race.
When I poke my nose into one of these intellectual communities, they are all very nice and accommodating. They are happy to see outsiders showing interest in their work. Nobody could be accused of being racist. But this makes sense because appreciation of their culture by outsiders would only enhance their own authority. The problem is that they rarely reciprocate. They are perfectly happy staying within their own team. And, White people are certainly the worst in this regard. They go on making seemingly endless references to the great thinkers of the West like Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan, Wittgenstein, etc.. You could go on listening to them for years without hearing them make a single reference outside of their own race. In contrast, if you listen to any non-white intellectuals, references to White intellectuals are quite frequent.
This isn’t such a big problem for Asians because China is on its way to becoming the biggest economy in the world. Soon, Asians will be just as powerful as Whites; the former would be able to ignore what the latter thinks, just as the latter is doing now. And, I believe, this is partly why racially motivated nationalism is on the rise among Whites; it is because Asians too are defining their own team racially. Their cohesion is indeed a serious threat. China, Japan, and Korea are what Richard Spencer would call “ethnostate”, his ultimate dream.
In contrast, there is a serious problem for Blacks since there is no significant concentration of economic power among Blacks anywhere in the world. Whites and Asians can safely ignore what Blacks have to think. Sadly, economic power ultimately trumps all the other forms of power.
When James Joyce first published Finnegans Wake, nobody paid attention to it. It must have been a very different experience to read it then. Since it had no cultural authority, it was safe for anyone to dismiss it. Why bother spending hours, days, months, or even years trying to understand his cryptic language? If you came across a book by an unknown writer today which is filled with seemingly nonsensical gibberish, would you make that kind of effort? But a few people did pay attention and took the trouble of unpacking everything hidden within Joyce’s text. What was their motive? Given that the book had no authority, it’s not like they could have bragged about understanding the work.
Today, it’s an entirely different situation. Joyce is a literary giant, and Finnegans Wake is a masterpiece. There are even people who call themselves “Joycean scholars.” To fully appreciate the depth of his work, you would need to be well versed in all the great artists and thinkers of the West. Understanding his work, therefore, proves you are highly educated and cultured. It’s like winning a trophy. Now, it’s worth all the trouble you have to go through to decipher his cryptic language. A big part of the pleasure of reading his work is an internalized Other praising you for getting the references Joyce made. But back when the book was first published? There was no such reward or incentive as the book had no cultural authority or currency.
Someone who would have read Finnegans Wake then wouldn’t be reading it now (OK, I’m exaggerating). Why? Because every generation has works equivalent to Finnegans Wake to which nobody is paying attention, just as everyone ignored the Wake when it was first published. And, I believe, the treasure troves are in the other teams, where the interest is not motived by authority or power.