Writing whiteness: the personal turn

by Anne Brewster

© all rights reserved

Recent writing in Australia and elsewhere on whiteness has been characterised by the turn to a personalized or autobiographical narrative mode.1 The personal turn can be seen as part of a trajectory, from the 1980s onwards, of the humanities and social sciences’s growing interest in experience and memory, especially that of minoritarian constituencies—such as working class subcultures, women, youth, and racial and ethnic minorities. During the 1980s and 1990s there was also an expansion of writing investigating renovated ethnographical methodologies, which sought to develop new ethical practices of embodied knowledge production. Some of the work in this broad field drew on personal narratives in an effort to deconstruct the binaries between public and private memory, between ‘objective’ and subjective modes of discourse and between specialized knowledges and everyday life.

Ruth Frankenberg’s ground-breaking study, white women, race matters (1993), for example, is a project, begun in 1983, which draws on a series of life-story interviews with white women in order to theorise ‘the social construction of whiteness’. It aims to track the imbrication of the public with the private and vice versa. While official discourses maintain a gendered, hierarchised separation between the two, work such as Frankenberg’s attempts to deconstruct this dichotomy. It suggests that the personal/private is itself a zone impacted upon and formed by social relations. Frankenberg argues that to theorise from experience is to insist that there is no separation between women as public members of society and women in their more private realm as thinkers (1993: 8). She is particularly interested in the way that the personal realm is played out in the everyday. Her own methodology of drawing on interviews is aimed at investigating ‘the material daily relations of race’ and ‘the dailiness of racial separation’ (9). She is interested in demonstrating, in particular, ‘not only how race is lived, but also how it is seen—or more often, in [her] immediate social and political networks, not seen’ (9) [her emphasis].

Personalised embodied narratives foreground the particularity of the everyday. While feminist women of colour during the 1980s had been working to ‘specify their histories’, Frankenberg identified the lack of a ‘corresponding particularism’ in the work of white feminists, a lack she saw her project as addressing. She argued at this time that ‘for white women visions of “difference” and “multiplicity” may remain abstract’ (1993: 10). She pointed to the burgeoning of white women’s autobiographies during this period as a beginning of the process by which white feminists would develop an ‘understanding of the social forces that made them who they are’ (10). She characterised this process of self-reflexivity as the ‘reciprocal specification of white womanhood’ [my emphasis] (19), produced in response or reaction to personalised writing by women of colour.2 Concomitantly, it is possible to read the appearance of the personalized turn in some Australian women’s writing3 on whiteness and postcoloniality as a reciprocal interlocutory engagement with the personalized modes – specifically life story and personalized essay – which dominated Australian Indigenous women’s literary production in the 1980s. This is not to invoke a communicational model of reading and imply a direct intentional exchange between the writer and reader. I do not intend to suggest that these modes of writing whiteness constitute an unmediated form of reading or hearing indigenous women or that writing translates directly into social amelioration or political reparation. Such claims are beyond the purview of this article. I am interested, rather, in the dialogic and reciprocal emergence of discursive forms. I argue elsewhere (Brewster 2005) that the discursive ‘dialogue’ enacted through the speech acts of writing is virtual and belated. In this article my interest lies in the intertextual imbrications and ethical reciprocity of the personal turn in whiteness writing. The personal address of whiteness writing seems to me in part predicated rhetorically upon the ethical imperative to reply.

In a later article, published in 1996, Frankenberg adopts a more directly personal tone in a turn to autobiography. She identifies the significance of a personal process of self-naming, of ‘coming to consciousness about one’s racial identity and/or race privilege as white’ (4). She is at this point careful to insist that this process of ‘coming to consciousness’ about one’s whiteness is not the same as ‘transforming it’: ‘racial positioning and self-naming are contextual and thus their transformation must always entail collective processes’ (4). Putting aside for the moment the distinction here between the apparently ‘private’ process of self-naming and the process of collective transformation, I want to analyse further Frankenberg’s project of self-naming.

If, in the 1980s, renovated ethnography and postcolonial studies foregrounded the anxiety and indignity of white theorists ‘speaking for’ their others (perhaps most notable here is the work of Gayatri Spivak), new whiteness writing in the early twenty-first century develops out of an uncertainity around ‘speaking as’ whites. Frankenberg’s characterisation of whiteness draws on the notion of a performative and multiple subject; ‘I plunge back into the “I”, she says, ‘in order to examine the condition of its making’ (1996: 4). The subject here is non-identical with itself and non-sovereign. Her project of studying the ‘micropolitics of racial cross-traffic’ (15) takes the subject-formation of whiteness as its primary focus, specifically white subjectivity as it is played out in everyday life. Her investigation takes up two important questions which she addresses to herself, namely: ‘how did I become white?’ (5) and ‘how was I racialized?’ (8). In her project of ‘examining the conditions of [the] making’ (4) of the self we see evidence of a split subject, realised in the structure of her piece which takes the form of a conversation with itself. The text is divided into two. One part comprises an anamnestic narrative of Frankenberg’s childhood in the UK and her later experience as an undergraduate student in California , where she came into contact with women-of-colour community activists. The other part of this article comprises a parallel italicized metanarrative. This consists of a commentary on some of the questions she raises in the autobiographical narrative. Here we see an intense self-reflexivity and self-scrutiny mobilised in the project of, as Frankenberg puts it, ‘documenting … what my being, as a white being, is like’ (15).

Her article deploys an intimate, personal tone; it is passionate, troubled, doubtful. The first-person narrative has a directness and immediacy that transports us into the private realm of the immediate social relations of the urban quotidian. Its main project takes as its subject ‘the emotional work of being white’ (14) [my emphasis]. It is significant that Frankenberg stages the initial uncomfortable coming-to-consciousness of her difference, that is her whiteness, in the scene of entering into the private space—in this case, a conversation around the kitchen table—of women of colour. I quote at length from Frankenberg’s description of the event:

When I arrived at Estée’s [a Puertorriqueña friend of Frankenberg’s], two other women were already there, each about Estée’s age, both African Americans. All three were engaged in an animated discussion about a younger woman, mother of two pre-schoolers, in a precarious process of recovery from heavy use of drugs … Over tears, coffee and much discussion, a detailed plan was created whereby the younger woman and her children would be helped through this difficult period … I sat quietly through this discussion – what else, after all would have been appropriate? I was mesmerized, as I remember, as much by the newness to me of what the women had to say, as by the manner in which it was said (1996: 11).

Frankenberg concludes her description by saying that this was ‘the first time I had been in private space with women of colour …[and] it took me some time … to realize that something extraordinary had happened in my somehow being invited into that space and that conversation’ (1996: 11).

This scene stages an embodied moment of reversal, of apparent white minoritisation, in which Frankenberg learns about her ‘own boundaries’: she ‘sat quietly’. Frankenberg invokes the surprise attending upon a recognition of the limits of her ability to participate in the conversation, by the rhetorical question: ‘what else, after all would have been appropriate?’ This surprise is an index of what I describe below as the experience of defamiliarisation. Cognitively and affectively Frankenberg is ‘mesmerised’ by the contact, the conversation, and the ‘newness’ of the situation. This moment of the surprised recognition of her own ‘boundaries’ proves to be definitive in her quest of tracking the inscription and functioning of her whiteness. I will argue below that the questions Frankenberg addresses to herself (and, concomitantly, her audience), in the course of this article, precisely mark the constitutive limits of her whiteness.


Everyday Life

The account of Frankenberg in the women-of-colour’s kitchen demonstrates how the affective realm of everyday life informs her theorization of whiteness. The everyday is incorporated into the projects of numerous theorists during this period through the narrativity of autobiographical modes and personalised essays. The investigations of experience by Frankenberg and others, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, are part of a wider interest in the everyday which developed in sociology, history, anthropology and philosophy from the 1950s onwards. This wider interest focussed on ordinary people (as distinct from the grand narratives of the nation etc), and what has been called ‘the politics of the everyday’. The latter phrase refers to the power relations of everyday transactions—in the home, the workplace and other locations. The interaffective and intercorporeal detail of these ‘micropolitical’ transactions remains largely unremarked and invisible in official discourses.

The quotidian is the sphere of embodied practices of habituation and interpersonal relations; it is also, John Frow suggests, the mode in which is enacted the ‘primary social relationship with the stranger’ (2002: 631). The turn to the everyday in the personalized enterprise of re-writing whiteness is part of a deconstructive move to address the hierarchised and gendered binary of specialised knowledges and the everyday. Frow, among others, argues that the everyday has historically been defined in negative terms, that is, according to what it is not. It has been distinguished, for example, from the epic and monumentalising narratives of history and science; from the rational and cognitive processes of philosophy; from the putative rigors of scholarship; from the formality and officialdom of institutions; from the aura of the sacred, the exotic and the uncanny. Historically, these binaries have maintained the hierarchical opposition between the everyday and the official discourses of public life. However, Frow argues that, rather than being oppositional to these categories, the everyday has a determinate and supplementary relation to them. The everyday is not essentially different from and other to these categories. Rather, it embodies the familiarisation and routinisation – as well as theeffect – of these categories (633). In other words, rather than being exclusive of them, Frow argues, the everyday paradoxically both includes and excludes each of these categories. It is from the everyday that the ideas, ratiocination and abstract concepts constitutive, for example, of philosophy and science emerge; conversely, we can only define the everyday through the specialised discourses of science, philosophy etc. The everyday, moreover, is not reducible to simply pure or raw data from which these discourses are produced. Frow argues that it underlines, shapes and informs the modes of rationality which are said to transcend it (634). Formal and official discourses and institutions, in turn, inform and shape everyday life. Frow’s work seeks to deconstruct the conventional playing out of the relationship between the two which, historically, has been hierarchised, gendered and contestatory.

One consequence, Frow suggests, of the deconstruction of the binary between everyday life and specialised knowledges, is a new understanding of everyday life as a ‘transformational’ zone in which heterogeneous forms of knowing and doing intersect. Rather than being mutually exclusive, these heterogeneous zones inform each other. Rather than being seen as redundant, trivial and empty then, everyday life can be thought of as a field in which ‘macrostructural categories’, such as those of official and pedagogic discourses, ‘are ongoingly translated into manageable structures of sense at human scale’ (Frow 2002: 633).

Studies of the everyday across several disciplines, especially history, have drawn on life stories. Scholarly writing on whiteness, which variously deploys life story, autobiography, personalised narratives and interviews, can be seen as part of this continuum. It can be characterized as doing the ‘transformational’ work Frow describes, in tracking the interanimation of the ‘macrostructural’ technologies of racial difference and the everyday, in the performance of what Frankenberg calls the ‘dailiness of racial separation’. If everyday life can be seen as the realm of the ‘reproduction of the person’ (Frow: 628), personalised whiteness writing does the work of scrutinizing the reproduction of racialised privilege and entitlement at the micropolitical level.

We have seen that for theorists such as Frankenberg, whiteness is constituted not only as a collective and institutionally-informed identity, but also as a personalised zone. If everyday life can be understood as a ‘transformational’ realm characterised by the intersection of heterogeneous knowledges, then personalised critical whiteness writing can be seen as a point of intersection between everyday practices of the self, on one hand, and the discursive reproduction of specialised knowledges, on the other. Writing such as Frankenberg’s literalises the leakage of the categories of the everyday and specialized knowledges; of the private and the public; and of ‘objective’ and subjective discursivities. It simultaneously mobilises the enunciative positions and rhetorical strategies of heterogeneous literary genres—such as the philosophical essay and personalised narrative—and brings them together in the ethical project of examining the ‘micropolitics of racial cross-traffic’, that is, the everyday performances of self staged within the institutional structures and practices of whiteness.


Particularising Whiteness

My concern in this article is to situate the personal turn in Australian whiteness theory within its discursive, cultural and literary contexts and to speculate about the ethical work it aims to effect. My interest lies in the ‘dialogue’ and exchange between the traditions of indigenous and white literary and scholarly production; and in the rhetorical transformations of the scholarly narrative modes of white writing about race (eg the essay). I want to resist the claim that the personal or self-reflexive turn in critical whiteness studies enacts a complete divestiture of the privilege and entitlements of whiteness. I want also to explore the idea that the discursive shift in the textualities of whiteness reorients both the subject and object of the scholarly enterprise.

I’d like at this point to consider briefly Robyn Wiegman’s critique of whiteness studies in the US . While she has not – to my knowledge – discussed Frankenberg’s work, Robyn Wiegman has elaborated a sustained analysis of ‘liberal whiteness’ (for which I substitute the term ‘neo-liberal whiteness’4). Wiegman examines the contradictions of what Howard Winant defines as ‘white racial dualism’.5 She analyses the white neo-liberal desire to produce an antiracist (or more utopianly, a postracist) white subject disaffiliated from the deployments of white privilege and authority. She outlines the way in which neo-liberalism seeks to disconnect itself from its white supremacist history by rearticulating an anti-racist counterwhiteness. The latter aims to differentiate itself from white supremacy by particularizing itself; it thereby insists upon the definitive discontinuity of its own enterprise and that of white supremacy.

Wiegman identifies a paradox here in the production of a neo-liberal anti-racist logic which seeks to particularize whiteness in order to transcend it. She analyses the oscillation—characteristic of anti-racist white neo-liberalism—between enacting an unconscious universal privilege on the one hand and making claims to a (countering) particularity on the other. She argues that the particularizing of whiteness is an index of its ‘historical and political elasticity’ (150) and that it functions to reconfigure white power. She critiques a number of anti-racist projects6 that aim to refunction neo-liberal whiteness and dispense with its universality, through making whiteness visible and particularising it. She argues that, in particularising whiteness, the anti-racist theorists she examines assume the position of a mobile subject characterized precisely by its ability to effect conscious political production. In other words, the anti-racist theorist assumes an authorising agency which in fact situates him/herself as ‘a humanist subject at the centre of a social constructionist analysis’ (136). This humanist subject position, and its claim to anti-racist particularity, functions in effect to reintroduce universalism by disavowing the position of privilege from which the claim to authorize political change is made. To summarise: Wiegman characterises the white neo-liberal anti-racist projects she examines as articulating the ‘humanist subject now hyperconscious of itself’ (149). She recommends that the proper project of whiteness studies is to engage with and critique the ‘ways that being particular will not divest whiteness of its universal epistemological power’ (150).

I would like to address Wiegman’s critique of the various trajectories of critical whiteness studies in order to suggest that her deconstructive project (of examining how the particular ‘will not divest whiteness of its universal … power’) can be complemented with another kind of whiteness project. This latter project comprises an investigation into what Fanon called ‘the zone of occult instability’ (1976: 183) of racialised intersubjectivity, and the discursive rendering of its effects. It investigates what might be called a new explorative ethics of relationality. Initially, like Wiegman, I want to refute the idea that white particularity (as it is realized, for example, in Australian personalised whiteness narratives and their interest in the everyday) guarantees a radical break in the reproduction of race privilege. While not claiming a guarantee of macrostructural transformation, the troubling of white self-identity in Australia from the 1990s on, and the development of a new ethics of relationality, are nonetheless an index of a shift in neo-liberal whiteness. They raise the question as to how whiteness might transform itself and attempt to formulate a new ethical project. I’d argue that this kind of anticipation is a symptom of historical cultural change if not directly an agent of socio-economic redistribution.

My purpose in discussing Australian critical whiteness writing is, therefore, to identify and situate this writing within a specific historical moment. Just as Stuart Hall argues that blackness in Jamaica was an identity that was learned at a certain historical moment (1987: 45), so new critical whiteness writing emerges within specific discursive contexts. This moment represents a shift in the embodied textualities of whiteness which has been articulated partly in response to the personalised indigenous writing of the 1980s and 1990s.

Whiteness studies in Australia has developed along a trajectory that differs from that in the US . A survey of the entire development of whiteness studies in the US is beyond the scope of this article, but I make the observation here that labour historians and historians of racial slavery (eg Roediger 1991, 1994, Allen 1994) have been a foundational force in the establishment of the general field. (This is not to discount contributions from many other disciplines including law, psychology, sociology, education, feminism and gender studies.) Allen’s 1994 study, The Invention of the White Race , for example, stakes out new ground in its thesis that ‘the origin and nature of the so-called “white race” … contains the root (from the seed planed by W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction ) of a general theory of United States history, more consistent than others that have been advanced’ (1994:1). Allen suggests that the study of the occluded history of whiteness is indispensable to an investigation of the general history of the US nation. It is also interesting to note in passing that he acknowledges the prior work of the African American DuBois as the ‘seed’ that generated his own work.

Much of the mainstream work by whiteness theorists in the US takes little account of the presence and status of American indigenous peoples.7 In Australia, by contrast, the field of whiteness studies has been very visibly convoked by Indigenous scholars, prominent among whom is Aileen Moreton-Robinson, whose book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman (2000) represents a milestone marking out a transdisciplinary affiliative horizon of scholars broadly interested in investigating inscriptions of whiteness within historical and contemporary Australian cultural formations. Other indigenous scholars such as Wendy Brady and Lillian Holt (1999) have made significant contributions to the constitution of this field. I would like to suggest that we can also include several decades of Indigenous women’s life narratives in the category of indigenous women’s ‘talkin’ up to the white woman’. Indigenous women’s writing, I suggest, prompted a decade of white women’s writing which emphasized the importance of the practice of listening, and of recognising and respecting the political and cultural imperatives and agendas of indigenous people in their discussions of cross-racial, anti-racist and social justice issues. Attendant upon this sensitivity was the imperative for white women to situate themselves within their readings of indigenous literature, history and culture, their pedagogies and other scholarly and activist projects.

I do not want to oversimplify the development of whiteness studies in Australia , or to suggest that it has been solely delineated along a white-indigenous axis. There have been many commentators, activists and writers who have made formative contributions to the growth of whiteness studies in Australia (Ghassan Hage is exemplary in this instance). Furthermore, whiteness writing in personalized modes may well have been influenced by the many postcolonial and cultural studies writers in the 1980s and 1990s who made use of the first-person mode – often in the form of anecdotes or personalized rhetoric inserted into the body of the scholarly essay. (The work of Margaret Somerville is particularly significant here.)



This article focusses on what might be identified as a sub-category of whiteness writing which aims to interrogate the subject-formation of whiteness through mobilizing personalized modes of writing. I propose that contemporary personalized Australian whiteness writing may figure a shift in the discursive rendering of subjective relationality; relationality, that is, both to the self and the other. I suggest that investigations of the particular can be politically efficacious in anti-racist projects due to the fact that such investigations foreground the dependence of whiteness on its others. Whiteness, in contemporary theory, might be described, to paraphrase Wiegman, not as ‘hyperconscious of itself’ (or, indeed, hyperconscious—ie fetishising—of the other ), so much as hyperconscious of its relationship with the other, that is, of the relationality of self and other—their intersubjectivity, intercorporeality and interaffectivity. I suggest that the particularity of personalized whiteness writing bears witness to the psychic, bodily and discursive everyday imbrication of whiteness with its others. It adumbrates the affective, chiasmal realm of racialised relationality.

This space of reversals, oscillations and interruptions is not entirely legible, but can be partially traced in writing through the contours and trajectories, for example, of affect (see, for example, Prosser 2002). Writing projects which investigate these intersubjective, intercorporeal moments, to some extent, therefore, deconstruct the putative coherence of the self-authorising, rational and disembodied humanist subject which is at the centre of Wiegman’s critique. Below, in the final section of this article, I bring Wiegman’s critique together with Deleuze’s discussion of relationality and the self in elaborating further what I see as the double-sided intervention by new Australian critical whiteness writing. On the one hand, there is the troubling of the putative sovereignty, self-sufficiency and self-determination of the white neo-liberal humanist subject. On the other there is an attempt at figuring the embodied participation of whiteness in the charged, incipient and unfolding relation with the self and with the other. In Brian Massumi’s words, the participation of subjectivities within this relation ‘is logically and ontologically prior to [the putative separateness of] its participants’ (2000: 197).


The Question

Before I engage this issue further, however, I want to return to Frankenberg’s posing of the questions ‘how did I become white?’ and ‘how was I racialised?’ Shannon Jackson, in her performative investigation of whiteness, asks the question ‘where do I begin?’ Indigenous scholar Wendy Brady, and her collaborator Michelle Carey, recommend that the practice of the anti-racist white scholar is properly to ‘generate questions about their own identity’ in order to effect a ‘repositioning of identity and to expand understandings and action’ (Brady and Carey, 272). Critical whiteness studies makes this shift in interrupting the focus of the (white) gaze on the other by placing white identity formation under the microscope. Blanchot has said that ‘ethics is possible only when the other puts the self into question’ (qtd in Bernasconi, 1993: 12). He talks about the ‘insufficiency’ at the root of being and suggests that this insufficiency ‘puts itself in question, which question needs the other or another to be enacted’ (Blanchot, 1988: 5).

The questions regarding whiteness, which the white theorists and performers I quote above pose, are self-addressed although prompted by the other; as such, they mark the discursive and non-discursive limits of the (white) self. Autobiographical and personalized modes of whiteness writing often investigate what Blanchot calls white ‘insufficiency’. They critique the humanist notion of a self-identical subject which exists prior to the other and scrutinise instead the dependency of the self on the other. The self-addressed question frames (belatedly) this moment of insufficiency, anxiety or puzzlement. A trope that interrupts the naturalised reproduction of a normative discourse of self and identity, the self-addressed question defamiliarises the self by acknowledging its constitutive limits. Kristeva argues (albeit from a slightly different perspective) for the ethical imperative of recognizing difference within the self:

Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he [sic] is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time [when] understanding and affinity founder. By recognising him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself’ (1991: 1).

The self-addressed question, in critical whiteness writing, may rhetorically perform this act of splitting and defamiliarisation. It often functions to figure the subject formation of whiteness within a split first-person discursivity. I do not intend to argue that the first-person mode is guarantee of ‘truth’. Self-fashioning, critical or otherwise, is always textual, mediated by technologies of writing. My interest in this article is in the discursive and textual effects of the rhetoricity of the first-person address;8 its historical and critical contexts; and the specificity of its ethical project.

Candace Vogler suggests that ‘it may be impossible to do ethics without engaging the individuating question, What should I do? Or, more generally, How should I live’ (2002: 625). The (re)entry of the first-person address into scholarly writing across a range of fields is an index of the ethical dilemma and the discursive crisis of neo-liberal whiteness. I would like to observe, in passing, the limitations of the analytical tradition of literary and cultural criticism—enshrined as it is within the principles of detachment and objectivity—when it comes to writing about intersubjectivity and racialised difference in the early twenty-first century. Isobel Armstrong has characterised the analytical tradition of scholarship as ‘the last bastion’ of investment in the notion of a sovereign and autonomous self.9 Vogler’s question returns us to the self, but it is a self aware of its embeddedness in, and defined by its relationality to its others. Such a figuring of self demands new methodologies of writing. These methodologies often revisit and renovate 1980s and 1990s work on self-reflexivity. Where the earlier work on reflexivity sometimes relies on an humanist assumption of the self as a rational agent of reflexivity, new whiteness writing extends our understanding of how the intertwining of the self and other plays out across the entire spectrum of intersubjectivity, intercorporeality and interaffectivity. New whiteness writing often enquires into the instability of racial difference through a scrutiny of the limits, doublings and intertwinings of the subject—the gaps, interruptions, contradictions, decussations and reversals—that haunt it in the repetitions of identification and disavowal. If it is patently impossible to divest ourselves of whiteness, I’d suggest, perhaps the best we (as white subjects) can hope for is persistently to interrupt our narrativisation of it.

Heather Kerr has argued that contemporary postcolonial elegiac writing, which mourns a history of colonial terror and its continuing effects, reconvenes aesthetics and ethics. She discusses the ‘principled stances [taken by white postcolonial scholars] in relation to [their] objects of knowledge’. This body of postcolonial writing often mobilises an ‘expressive poetics’ in which ‘the affective … perform[s] the work of the ethical’ (2003: 181). New modes of whiteness writing in Australia such as those deploying an expressive poetics are able rhetorically to accommodate affect in more direct and intimate ways than, for example, the essay (see Ferrell 2003, Prosser 2002 and Schlunke 2003). Some new whiteness writing, in its formal renovations of the essay, enacts thus a very conscious engagement with the aesthetics of the genre. Certainly the contemporary turn to anamnestic and personalised narratives in the rearticulation of whiteness is doing the work of reconvening aesthetics and ethics in the field of racialised intersubjectivity. As I have suggested, this intellectual work investigates a further area of relationality, additional to the racialised inter subjectivity elaborated by cross-racial sympathy (see Kerr 2003). In addition to the contiguity of self and other , the non-coincidence of self andself becomes foregrounded in personalised writing about whiteness. Whiteness experiences a splitting and doubling and the white subject becomes simultaneously an index and a critic of whiteness.10 I have argued that we see this splitting literalised in the trope of the self-addressed question, a prominent rhetorical and methodological device in remedial writing about whiteness.

If, as Dyer suggests, the project of refunctioning whiteness necessitates ‘making whiteness strange’ (1997: 4), this can be effected through making oneself strange. I have argued elsewhere (Brewster 2003, Brewster forthcoming A) that the experience of defamiliarisation produced by reading indigenous literature, for example, shifts us into a space of uncertainty because the ‘self’ to which we return is not a fixed site. Defamiliarisation reminds us of the inability of identity to remain identical to itself and of the fact that whiteness itself is a zone of indeterminacy. In understanding the concept of the relation with oneself and how strangeness functions in this dynamic, it is useful to turn to the work of Gilles Deleuze.


The Fold

In his study of Foucault, Deleuze elaborates the concept of the relation to oneself. He suggests that the relation to others is doubled by the relation to oneself; that ‘the relations of the outside[,] folded back to create a doubling, allow a relation to oneself to emerge’ (1988: 100). Deleuze rehearses Foucault’s critique of interiority to argue that the subject is a product of processes of subjectivation. He says that Foucault ‘does not write a history of subjects but of subjectivation’ (1988: 116). Foucault’s history of subjectivation surveys ‘the conditions governing the way in which the relation to oneself constitutes a private life’ (1988: 116). Subjectivity and interiority can be seen as the relation to oneself that folding creates. Deleuze suggests that ‘to think is to fold, to double the outside with a co-extensive inside’ (1988: 118).

Deleuze’s characterisation of self-knowledge and self-creation as being produced through folding, is essentially performative. He argues that ‘subjectivation, the relation to oneself, continues to create itself, but by transforming itself and changing its nature … [T]he relation to oneself is continually reborn, elsewhere and otherwise’ (1988: 104). Once again he insists on the performative nature of this relation: ‘the relation to oneself … can be established only by being carried out’ (1988: 102). He sees memory as a key issue here: ‘Memory is the real name of the relation to oneself, or the affect on self by self’ (1988: 107). If the everyday is the sphere of habituation, then memory has a definitive role in the recursive, cyclical practices of the quotidian. Frow defines the everyday as ‘the experience of modernity’ and, as such, a ‘new mode of duration’ (2002: 631). As I suggest above, he also describes the everyday as the locus of the ‘primary social relationship with the generalized stranger’ (2002: 631).

Memory and its supplement, forgetting, are key issues in contemporary writing about whiteness (Brewster, forthcoming B, Ferrell 2003, Prosser 2002). Shannon Jackson describes ‘the act of remembering a condition such as white privilege’ as being ‘like trying to recall an experience that you slept through’ (52). She also defines art-making – in which realm we can include writing – as ‘a mode of attention’ (52). New whiteness writing in Australia often focusses on memory, the body, and divided and dislocated forms of subjectivity.11 It may investigate the mutual imbrication of forgetting and remembering; as Katrina Schlunke says, ‘to remember is to remember whiteness’ (Schlunke, forthcoming). My own collaborative fictocritical writing on memory and affect (Brewster and Smith, 2002 and 200) draws on tropes of repetition, interruption and a range of paratactical strategies in this enterprise, and there are numerous other theorists using a range of paratactical and interruptive narrative effects including the layering and interweaving of narrative modes. New whiteness writing often interrogates neo-liberal humanist nations of subjectivity, memory and knowledge production; it problematises narrative, epistemological and ontological closure and sufficiency. I have suggested elsewhere that an ending is ‘only a pause between events’ (Brewster and Smith 2002: 204) and Prosser suggests that ‘memory is a complex process of stories without end’ (2002: 171). Prosser further points to aspects of subjectivity and the body that are not legible or readable:

The personal museum sees each artefact embedded with memory, each artefact speaks of these memories, but each artefact is only partially rendered “readable”. (2002: 163)

Earlier, I examined Wiegman’s formulation of an imperative for anti-racist critiques of whiteness, namely the investigation of ‘the ways that being particular will not divest whiteness of its universal epistemological power’ (1999: 150). As I have remarked, the project she outlines is the deconstructive one of scrutinising the limits of anti-racist projects (that is, the way in which they are not able to divest whiteness of its neo-liberal humanist investments). I identify here a complementary project in which white theorists can usefully investigate the reproduction of whiteness in the embodied decussations of intersubjectivity and interaffectivity. The defamiliarising questions, ‘how did I become white … [and] racialised’ (Frankenberg) and ‘what should I do? How should I live’ (Vogler), will continue to mark the double scene of whiteness with its oscillations and reversals of proximity and distance, and its anxiety of belatedness (it is always already too late to intervene in the reproduction of racism). Wiegman’s circumspection (reflected in the critical modesty of the deconstructive formulation of her anti-racist enterprise) underscores the ethical difficulty of resignifying whiteness as positive content at this historical juncture.

The project of rewriting whiteness may involve a reorientation of a recurrent question of the 1980s and 1990s: ‘how can I come to terms with that which is Other without reducing it to the terms of my own understanding?’ (Frow 1997: 73).12 I would suggest that the ‘answer’ to this question—’we can’t’—constitutes its deconstruction. An alternative investigation, I suggest, formulates a different question (which is implicit, of course, within the above question) about the limits and reversals of our ‘understanding’ of the ‘Other’: namely, where, how and when these limits and reversals are effected (both discursively and non-discursively).

It might be argued that new critical whiteness studies in contemporary Australia reformulates the scrutiny of racialised intersubjectivity, recasting it as an investigation into the limits of neo-liberal whiteness. In this way we move away from setting the other up as the frame of reference, and fetishising it.13 A complementary enterprise focuses on the intensity and immediacy of the relation of whiteness to its others, a relation which precedes either term of the racialised binary.14

Anne Brewster is a lecturer in English at the University of New South Wales . Her publication and research interests include Aboriginal literatures, fictocriticism and explorative methodologies, American language writing, and Singaporean and Malaysian literatures in English. Recent books include Those who remain will always remember: An Anthology of Aboriginal Writing (co-edited with Angeline O’Neill and Rosemary van den Berg, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000), Literary Formations: nationalism, globalism and postcolonialism (MUP 1995) and Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiographical Narrative (SUP in assoc. OUP 1996).


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  1. For whiteness writing in Australia which adopts personalized modes of narration or commentary see Brewster 2004, Fergie 1998, Ferrell 2003, Nicoll 2000, Prosser 2002, Riggs 2002, Schlunke 2004, 2003, and Garbutt in Placing Race/Localising Whiteness , the conference proceedings for the 2003 Whiteness conference held in Adelaide, forthcoming. See also Westcott 2004 for an analysis of autobiographical, confessional and testimonial modes of whiteness writing.
  2. Sara Ahmed makes a similar point about tracing a critical genealogy of whiteness studies. She argues that such a genealogy ‘must begin with the direct political address of Black feminists’. (Ahmed, ‘Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-racism’. Unpublished paper, p. 1).
  3. While personalized whiteness writing is a mode that has been popular with women, men are also contributing to this field (eg Riggs 2002 and Garbutt forthcoming).
  4. I am influenced by Julie Ellison (1996) who uses the prefix ‘neo’ to signify a post-1960s civil rights liberalism. For a different use of the term see Omi and Winant’s Epilogue to the second edition of Racial Formation in the United States , NY: Routledge, 1994, p. 212, fn. 7.
  5. Quoted by Wiegman 1999: 120.
  6. She examines three US projects: the race traitor school, the white trash school and the class solidarity school (Wiegman 111: 122-3).
  7. Work by Richard D. Alba (1990) is exemplary in this sense. It suggests that within the range of contemporary US identities, various identities are distinguished by different forms of immigration; indigenous people are absent in this schema.
  8. The personalized modes of new whiteness writing, in their focus on the particularized everyday, are akin to the textuality of the novel. But whereas realist fiction moves from the particular to the universal (the protagonist represents the ‘human condition’), this move is forestalled in personalized essayistic writing. The ‘truth’ effects of the essay, I’d argue, foreclose on the individual subject being fantasised as synecdochic of the collective. While the first-person address of the personalized essay, in some respects, draws on the same realist discursivity, it works in the opposite direction to fiction. I’d distinguish, for example, between the question in new whiteness writing – and the crisis of subjectivity it figures – and the plenitude and presence of, say, the epiphany figured in realist fiction.
  9. Armstrong 1998: 63. See Kerr (2003) for further discussion of Armstrong.
  10. Riggs, for example, argues for ‘an intersubjective notion of agency [that] can be understood by recognizing that in becoming a subject, we are simultaneously subject-ed’ (2002: 4). In this enterprise his own critical-reflexive methodology ‘weave[s] back and forth between the position of narrator and narrated’ (2002: 5).
  11. Riggs, for example, aims to realise, in his theorizing of whiteness, ‘a multiple subject position which takes incohesion as a starting point’ 2002: 1).
  12. To some extent I am setting Frow up as a strawman here. In borrowing this question from Frow as an exemplary instance of the fascination with the other, I detach it from the quite different context in which it appears in his article.
  13. Sara Ahmed suggests that whiteness’ ‘others’ become fetish objects ‘by being cut off from histories of labour, as well as histories of circulation and exchange’ (Ahmed, 2004).
  14. This article was presented at the 2003 Whiteness conference in Adelaide , and at ‘the body politic’ conference in Brisbane in 2004. I would like to thank those who gave me feedback on the paper at those fora. My thanks also to Raya Massie, Cathy Waldby, Heather Kerr and Julia Ravell for reading through the article in its various drafts.

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