Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Daniel Schultz reviews A Face Drawn in Sand

Rey Chow. A Face Drawn in Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. 232 pp.

Review by Daniel J. Schultz

21 July 2021

In her new book, A Face Drawn in Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present, Rey Chow takes aim at the way the global corporate university, with its ever-swelling ranks of administrative managers, employs diversity and inclusion rhetoric as a style of entrepreneurial governance. What we see here is a form of power that patterns pedagogy and various modes of intellectual inquiry through the ruse of identity-based politics; moreover, it provokes and recruits self-defeating apologetic discourse around and about the humanities. Chow warns that efforts to defend the humanities through hyphenated modifiers (digital, medical, environmental, and so on)—appendages designed to establish the validity and use-value of the humanities—end up surrendering the very thing they set out to protect, in other words the open spirit of humanistic inquiry that unfolds without promises of utility or pregiven answers.

In this fast-paced volume, Chow enacts a writerly refusal to be governed in this way and at this cost. Part 1, which consists solely of an introduction, sketches the broad contours of this problem space and uses Michel Foucault’s notion of the outside (le dehors) both to diagnose and to destabilize the alignment of representational politics and neoliberal governance. Part 2—“Exercises in the Unthought”—consists of five chapters (and a coda) that critically stage these issues in creative conversation with Foucault. Here, Foucault’s oeuvre appears as a kaleidoscope, with each chapter a new configuration—we move from the biopolitics of language, to (in)visibilities in the analysis of painting, to race as a norm of global governance, to sound theory, and finally to confession as a form of value production for the neoliberal self. Across this mosaic of themes, Chow displays an enviable grasp of Foucault’s writings, and while some of her readings are tantalizingly under-elaborated, they remain highly original in conception.

At the heart of this work is an expansive rereading of the repressive hypothesis that will be familiar to readers of Chow’s 2002 book The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. If Foucault, in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, sought to contest the liberatory promise of confessing one’s (supposedly repressed) sexual identity, Chow extends this analysis to show how other identity formations (ethnic, racial, postcolonial, and so on) are similarly captured by forms of neoliberal governance at work in the contemporary university. How does this work? For Chow, the epochal achievement of (post)structuralism is the “dislocation of the sign,” a rift between words and things that allows language to touch an outside that destabilizes the very objects it renders intelligible (p. 15). This notion of an outside, long a preoccupation of literary studies and continental philosophical discussions of representation and ontology, names the unthinkable that is the horizon of thought’s possibility, something that both enables and undoes it. In the current university milieu, argues Chow, “identity-based signifiers (be they people, practices, languages, histories, or cultures)” predictably come to inhabit this position of the outside (p. 19). This routine imputation of the outside to specific forms of knowledge production makes it a counterfeit outside or a “transcendental signified” that secures in advance what it sets out to show (p. 19). An outside that is thinkable (indeed, already thought) contributes in a compensatory and reparative way to consolidate an inside (Chow has in mind the way nonnormative sexual identities, non-white ethnic and racial identities, and non-Western cultures are curricularly and rhetorically solicited to do institutional moral clean-up work, for example, used to manage and assuage cis-het white Western anxieties about cis-het white Western social space). For Chow, inclusive emancipatory logics have to be rejected; they are epistemic traps that promise liberation but deliver stigmatization, discipline, and dismissal.

Another version of this argument is explored in chapter 3: “Thinking ‘Race’ with Foucault.” Chow uses Foucault to think race not from the inside out (as, for instance, biologically expressive) but from the outside in (as normatively governed by the incitements of power). She analogizes race and sexuality as instances of the “entry of life into history,” the movement of zoē into bios (as Giorgio Agamben has popularized it) (p. 96). The emphasis here is on the protean and mobile logics of racialization as they are employed (often violently) to enhance the vitality of some populations at the expense of others. The most suggestive piece of this chapter is Chow’s attempt to suture Foucault’s genealogy of Christian pastoral power to the current international racial policing of Islam. “Since September 11, 2001,” writes Chow, “those associated with Islam have increasingly come to occupy the position of a subrace (those others who have to die in order for us to live)” (pp. 111–12). Figuring Islam as a race—the (delinquent) object against which global society must be defended—trades less on cultural prejudice or phenotypical traits and more on a multinational consensus to govern (see p. 112). What Chow sketches, in effect, are the outlines of a political theology of liberal global militarism (an idea that merits a book of its own).

How should we assess Chow’s critique of these various forms of identity formation? Is what she says true? For anyone who has recently taught undergraduates in the humanities at a small liberal arts college and, I venture, at most major research universities in the anglosphere, elements of this argument certainly feel true. The eagerness with which students read through identitarian grids can be startling; texts are routinely seen as expressions of the racial, gender, and geographical inscriptions of their authors and are value-coded accordingly; the regnant assumption is that positionality equals identity, which frequently carries the corollary: the more marginal the position the more oracular the identity. From admissions literature to hiring committees to classroom discussions, there are indubitably social and institutional force relations that invest, incite, and reinforce these discursive practices.

However, for those actively involved in the work of decolonizing curriculum (and at a moment in the US when some state legislators are banning the teaching of critical race theory), one might sense an undertow of intellectual conservatism in Chow’s book. Is she bringing to crisis the double-bind of identity politics as they get institutionally expressed in the neoliberal university, or is this an injunction to return to a more traditional canon? Is there an anxiety here about “cancel culture” or a provocation to a more direct politics of antagonism? Her text presents a sustained engagement with poststructuralist themes, but its desire seems to sit with a more traditional Marxism that’s deeply annoyed with the milquetoast cultural politics of academic life. Is the target of this annoyance the intellectual work that is done under the headings of the disciplinary formations she mentions, or is it the way labor markets and institutional logics of governance latch on to and selectively deploy their rhetoric?  

The fact that the book leaves many of these questions unresolved (perhaps they are unresolvable) does not detract from its pleasures. Chow’s text accomplishes something rare these days: an original reading of Foucault that crackles with insight. As Foucault has become increasingly canonical, scholarship on his work has drifted towards the exegetical. Chow’s text might well be taken as an object lesson in how to read the French thinker, with a little less reverence toward the proper noun and with a sharper focus on dismantling our present.