Rowan Williams on the Complexities of the Church’s History and Identity

Rowan Williams’ little book on the church, Why Study the Past?  The Quest for the Historical Church, is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the historical and theological complexities of the continuity and discontinuity of the Church.  As usual, Williams does not offer overly facile solutions, nor does he tell a triumphalist story in which the Church marches forward untainted, having never soiled herself along the way.   Rather, Williams admits the various failures of the Church—from the early fathers Rowan Williamsmisogynistic tales to historic Protestantism’s “embarrassing record of collusion with uncritical nationalism” (73) to the Church’s overall failure on the issue of slavery.   Nonetheless, Williams does not leave one in despair.  He emphasizes throughout that the Church is founded and sustained by divine action, particularly one divine action which is both “a set of historical events and an eternal act, the self-giving of the Son to the Father in the Trinity” (96).  If the survival and resilience of the Church depended solely on humans, the story would have ended some time ago.  Thankfully, it doesn’t; yet, Christians must be active and continue to put themselves, the Church and the world into question.  We must study our past, our tradition, our Scriptures, (and, as St. Thomas taught us, truth wherever it is found) bringing to light our failures and learning how to translate what is true, good and beautiful into our present contexts.  Williams, attentive to the interplay between historical contingencies and the ways in which history “makes” us on the one hand, and the reality of transcultural (yet contextually-applied) truths on the other, denies that we are stuck in a hermetically-sealed present or unable to break into a hermetically-sealed past.  As he explains,

To engage with the Church’s past is to see something of the Church’s future.  If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth.  If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun.  And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours.  That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible.  T.S. Elliot, faced with the glib modern claim that ‘we know so much more than our ancestors’, riposted, ‘Yes; and they are what we know.’ As was said in the first chapter, we must become aware of our hidden debts for who we now are (94-95).

If only Williams’ critics would actually read his works with care.

Foucault on What is Said in Silence

In the middle of a paragraph discussing how sex gradually became a discourse, Foucault writes,Foucault Leather Jacket

Silence itself–the thing one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers–is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies.  There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case.  There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses (The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, p. 27).

Fanon, Foucault and the Interiorization of a Panoptic Gaze

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon presents his two-fold schemata, the historico-racial (schéma historico-racial) and epidermal racial schemata (schéma épidermique racial) as a corrective to Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema (schéma corporel).  In brief, Fanon’s historico-racial schema brings to light the historical contingencies and mythological narratives imposed upon blacks, whereas the racial-epidermal schema speaks to the sedimentation of the so-called “black essence.”   In other words, once the (white-imposed) narrative of what it means to be a black person, which includes the various meanings that have been assigned to phenotypic differences, has become fixed, ossified and even naturalized in the social consciousness, various “scientific” discourses, and cultural and legal practices, the black essence has been “successfully” created.[1]Frantz Fanon

When the transition to the racial-epidermal schema takes place, the all-pervasiveness of the white gaze—here understood broadly as the white mythological narrative as manifest in the cultural consciousness and systematically expressed in the cultural institutions and practices of a given society—functions like a Panopticon, keeping the black person under constant inspection.  Though speaking of the incarcerated, Foucault’s description applies quite well to the black person’s situation vis-à-vis the white, European other, “he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”[2] As soon as the racial-epidermal schema has come to fruition and the black essence fixed, the requisite racial machinery has likewise been established to ensure “proper” social boundaries and to keep the white mythology unchallenged.  In a way similar to the Panopticon’s ability to “disindividualiz[e] power” and distribute it through various socio-cultural and legal structures, institutions and people, Fanon’s schemata point to the systemic racial structures of colonized Europe.[3] These racialized disciplinary practices, though not identical to the disciplinary practices Foucault describes, nonetheless share close family resemblances with “a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference.” [4] The racial-epidermal schema, broadly construed to include these systemic, disindividualized power structures, enables even the most vulnerable and innocent members of society—the child on the train—to be an instrument of and even operate the racial machinery.[5]

When the white mythology has its way, it gives birth to black subjugation, which has both an external and an internal dimension.  The external aspect is socio-political in nature and is often manifest in discriminatory legislation and unequal educational and employment opportunities.  The internal aspect comes when the black person can no longer bear the weight of the white alienating gaze and internalizes the narrative.  To return to Foucault’s metaphor, when the black person breaks down and accepts the white mythos, there is a sense in which the panoptic surveillance is no longer needed.[6] In Fanon’s description of his self-fragmenting descent, he draws attention to the sense of powerlessness that he felt in a colonialized context wherein mis-recognition by the white other was the norm.  “Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples about imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from myself, and gave myself up as an object.”[7]

Foucault Fanon is cognizant, in other words, of the black person’s participation in this already-given white-scripted history.  His statements, “I transported myself” and “gave myself up as an object,” acknowledge his active involvement in accepting the white mythology.  Although this particular act is negative, it nonetheless highlights the fact that the black person in a colonialized or similarly oppressive context is in reality not a mere res, a thing determined from the outside and lacking genuine freedom.  Fanon, in fact, makes numerous statements affirming his freedom—a freedom that involves his ability to creatively re-script his own narrative and to refuse to be shackled by a pre-given white narrative.

I find myself one day in the world, and I acknowledge one right for myself:  the right to demand human behavior from the other.  And one duty:  the duty never to let my decisions renounce my freedom.  […] I am not a prisoner of History.  I must not look for the meaning of my destiny in that direction.  I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention into life.[8]

These declarations in no way undermine Fanon’s schemata, particularly his account of the coming-into-being of a fixed black essence once the racial-epidermal schema has been established. This is the case because his genealogy of racial sedimentation (i.e., black essentialism) or the giving way of Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema to the racial-epidermal schema is not a necessary but a contingent event, which qua contingent can (in theory) be undone or at least significantly dismantled.

In other words, Fanon’s agonized cry of alienation, although genuine and intensely felt, should not be interpreted as a despairing last word.  Rather, Fanon calls for a counter-narrative which refuses to be frozen in a white-scripted past.


[1] On the movement and interpretation of Fanon’s schemata, I concur with Weate’s analysis, which characterizes the racial epidermal schema as “a later stage in psychosomatic disintegration and alienation” (“Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” p. 174).  Weate goes on to discuss the movement to the epidermal schema as Fanon’s attempt to trace a “genealogy of racial essentialism” (p. 173).  As he explains, “[b]y marking the two stages of the ‘historico-racial’ and then the ‘racial-epidermal’, he is therefore contesting the view that essentialism, and in particular black essentialism, is grounded in a biological problematic.  For Fanon, the essentialization of blackness is the product of a concealed perversion of history. It is only once this concealment is consolidated (through epidermalization) that questions concerning the biological ground of race arise.  The distinction he makes between the two stages of schematization or epistemic enframing therefore allow biologistic discourses around race to be seen as phenomena derivative upon a prior perversion of history that is subsequently concealed” (Ibid., pp. 174-75).

[2] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 200.

[3] See, e.g., Fanon’s critique of Monsieur Mannoni in chapter four of Black Skin, White Masks. Contra Mannoni’s claims, Fanon draws attention to the fact that the very “structure of South Africa is a racist structure” (p. 68).

[4] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 202.

[5] In his chapter, “The Lived Experience of the Black,” Fanon recounts his experience on a train of being “fixed” by a white other—an other which happened to be a child who had already been habituated to see blacks as defined by the white imagination.  As the child’s refrain, “Look! A Negro!” crescendoed forth and came to a close with a fearful questioning of the “Negro’s” next move, Fanon not only experienced the gaze of the white other, he also began to see himself through the white gaze. See Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92.

[6] See Weate, “Fanon, Merleau-Ponty and the Difference of Phenomenology,” p. 176. See also, Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92.  Again, Foucault’s account of the effects of being constantly seen but never seeing share similarities with the experience of a black person in a white-dominating context.  “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.  By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects” (Discipline and Punish, p. 203).

[7] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 92.

[8] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, pp. 203-4.  Fanon goes on to say, “[t]he density of History determines none of my acts.  I am my own foundation.  And it is by going beyond the historical and instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom” (p. 205).