Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities

The following sub-chapter entitled “The Family and the School” is excerpted from the book Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities [link to Verso], by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities

We here run up against the lacunae in family history, a subject which remains prey to the dominant perspective of laws relating to marriage on the one hand and, on the other, of ‘private life’ as a literary and anthropological subject. The great theme of the recent history of the family is the emergence of the ‘nuclear’ or small family (constituted by the parental couple and their children), and here discussion is focused on whether it is a specifically ‘modern’ phenomenon (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) connected with bourgeois forms of sociality (the thesis of Ariès and Shorter) or whether it is the result of a development, the basis of which was laid down a long time before by ecclesiastical law and the control of marriage by the Christian authorities (Goody’s thesis).[15] In fact, these positions are not incompatible. But, most importantly, they tend to push into the shade what is for us the most crucial question: the correlation which has gradually been established since the institution of public registration and the codification of the family (of which the Code Napoleon was the prototype) between the dissolution of relations of ‘extended’ kinship and the penetration of family relations by the intervention of the nation-state, which runs from legislation in respect of inheritance to the organization of birth control. Let us note here that in contemporary national societies, except for a few genealogy ‘fanatics’ and a few who are ‘nostalgic’ for the days of the aristocracy, genealogy is no longer either a body of theoretical knowledge or an object of oral memory, nor is it recorded and conserved privately: today it is the state which draws up and keeps the archive affiliations and alliances.

Here again we have to distinguish between a deep and a superficial level. The superficial level is familialist discourse (constitutive of conservative nationalism), which at a very early stage became linked with nationalism in political tradition particularly within the French tradition. The deep level is the simultaneous emergence of ‘private life’, the ‘intimate (small) family circle’ and the family policy of the state, which projects into the public sphere the new notion of population and the demographic techniques for measuring it, of the supervision of its health and morals, of its reproduction. The result is that the modern family circle is quite the opposite of an autonomous sphere at the frontiers of which the structures of the state would halt. It is the sphere in which the relations between individuals are immediately charged with a ‘civic’ function and made possible by constant state assistance, beginning with relations between the sexes which are aligned to procreation. This is also what enables us to understand the anarchistic tone that sexually ‘deviant’ behaviour easily takes on in modern national formations, whereas in earlier societies it more usually took on a tone of religious heresy. Public health and social security have replaced the father confessor, not term for term, but by introducing both a new ‘freedom’ and a new assistance, a new mission and therefore also a new demand. Thus, as lineal kinship, solidarity between generations and the economic functions of the extended family dissolve, what takes their place is neither a natural micro-society nor a purely ‘individualistic’ contractual relation, but a nationalization of the family, which has as its counterpart the identification of the national community with a symbolic kinship, circumscribed by rules of pseudo-endogamy, and with a tendency not so much to project itself into a sense of having common antecedents as a feeling of having common descendants.

That is why the idea of eugenics is always latent in the reciprocal relation between the ‘bourgeois’ family and a society which takes the nation form. That is why nationalism also has a secret affinity with sexism: not so much as a manifestation of the same authoritarian tradition but in so far as the inequality of sexual roles in conjugal love and child-rearing constitutes the anchoring point for the juridical, economic, educational and medical mediation of the state. Finally also, that is why the representation of nationalism as a ‘tribalism’—the sociologists’ grand alternative to representing it as a religion—is both mystificatory and revealing. Mystificatory because it imagines nationalism as a regression to archaic forms of community which are in reality incompatible with the nation-state (this can be clearly seen from the incompleteness of the formation of a nation wherever powerful lineal or tribal solidarities still exist). But it is also revealing of the substitution of one imaginary of kinship for another, a substitution which the nation effects and which underpins the transformation of the family itself. It is also what forces us to ask ourselves to what extent the nation form can continue to reproduce itself indefinitely (at least as the dominant form) once the transformation of the family is ‘completed’—that is to say, once relations of sex and procreation are completely removed from the genealogical order. We would then reach the limit of the material possibilities of conceiving what human ‘races’ are and of investing that particular representation in the process of producing ethnicity. But no doubt we have not reached that point yet.

Althusser was not wrong in his outline definition of the ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ to suggest that the kernel of the dominant ideology of bourgeois societies has passed from the family-church dyad to the family-school dyad.[16] I am, however, tempted to introduce two correctives to that formulation. First, I shall not say that a particular institution of this kind in itself constitutes an ‘Ideological State Apparatus’: what such a formulation adequately designates is rather the combined functioning of several dominant institutions. I shall further propose that the contemporary importance of schooling and the family unit does not derive solely from the functional place they take in the reproduction of labour power, but from the fact that they subordinate that reproduction to the constitution of a fictive ethnicity—that is, to the articulation of a linguistic community and a community of race implicit in population policies (what Foucault called by a suggestive but ambiguous term the system of ‘bio-powers’).[17] School and family perhaps have other aspects or deserve to be analyzed from other points of view. Their history begins well before the appearance of the nation form and may continue beyond it. But what makes them together constitute the dominant ideological apparatus in bourgeois societies—which is expressed in their growing interdependence and in their tendency to divide up the time devoted to the training of individuals exhaustively between them—is their national importance, that is, their immediate importance for the production of ethnicity. In this sense, there is only one dominant ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ in bourgeois social formations, using the school and family institutions for its own ends—together with other institutions grafted on to the school and the family—and the existence of that apparatus is at the root of the hegemony of nationalism.

We must add one remark in conclusion on this hypothesis. Articulation—even complementarity—does not mean harmony. Linguistic ethnicity and racial (or hereditary) ethnicity are in a sense mutually exclusive. I suggested above that the linguistic community is open, whereas the race community appears in principle closed (since it leads—theoretically—to maintaining indefinitely, until the end of the generations, outside the community or on its ‘inferior’ ‘foreign’ margins those who, by its criteria, are not authentically national). Both are ideal representations. Doubtless race symbolism combines the element of anthropological universality on which it is based (the chain of generations, the absolute of kinship extended to the whole of humanity) with an imaginary of segregation and prohibitions. But in practice migration and intermarriage are constantly transgressing the limits which are thus projected (even where coercive policies criminalize interbreeding). The real obstacle to the mixing of populations is constituted rather by class differences which tend to reconstitute caste phenomena. The hereditary substance of ethnicity constantly has to be redefined: yesterday it was ‘German-ness’, ‘the French’ or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ race, today it is ‘European-ness’ or ‘Western-ness’, tomorrow perhaps the ‘Mediterranean race’. Conversely, the openness of the linguistic community is an ideal openness, even thought it has as its material support the possibility of translating from one language to another and therefore the capacity of individuals to increase the range of their linguistic competence.

Though formally egalitarian, belonging to the linguistic community—chiefly because of the fact that it is mediated by the institution of the school—immediately re-creates divisions, differential norms which also overlap with class differences to a very great degree. The greater the role taken on by the education system within bourgeois societies, the more do differences in linguistic (and therefore literary, ‘cultural’ and technological) competence function as caste differences, assigning different ‘social destinies’ to individuals. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that they should immediately be associated with forms of corporal habitus (to use Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology) which confer on the act of speaking in its personal, non-universalizable traits the function of a racial or quasi-racial mark (and which still occupy a very important place in the formulation of ‘class racism’): ‘foreign’ or ‘regional’ accent, ‘popular’ style of speech, language ‘errors’ or, conversely, ostentatious ‘correctness’ immediately designating a speaker’s belonging to a particular population and spontaneously interpreted as reflecting a specific family origin and a hereditary disposition.[18] The production of ethnicity is also the racialization of language and the verbalization of race.

It is not an irrelevant matter—either from the immediate political point of view or from the point of View of the development of the nation form, or its future role in the instituting of social relations—that a particular representation of ethnicity should be dominant, since it leads to two radically different attitudes to the problem of integration and assimilation, two ways of grounding the juridical order and nationalizing institutions.[19]

The French ‘revolutionary nation’ accorded a privileged place to the symbol of language in its own initial process of formation; it bound political unity closely to linguistic uniformity, the democratization of the state to the coercive repression of cultural ‘particularisms’, local patois being the object on which it became fixated. For its part, the American ‘revolutionary nation’ built its original ideals on a double repression: that of the extermination of the Amerindian ‘natives’ and that of the difference between free ‘White’ men and ‘Black’ slaves. The linguistic community inherited from the Anglo-Saxon ‘mother country’ did not pose a problem—at least apparently—until Hispanic immigration conferred upon it the significance of class symbol and racial feature. ‘Nativism’ has always been implicit in the history of French national ideology until, at the end of the nineteenth century, colonization on the one hand, and an intensification of the importation of labour and the segregation of manual workers by means of their ethnic origin on the other, led to the constitution of the phantasm of the ‘French race’. It was, by contrast, very quickly made explicit in the history of American national ideology, which represented the formation of the American people as the melting-pot of a new race, but also as a hierarchical combination of the different ethnic contributions, at the cost of difficult analogies between European or Asian immigration and the social inequalities inherited from slavery and reinforced by the economic exploitation of the Blacks.[20]

These historical differences in no sense impose any necessary outcome—they are rather the stuff of political struggles—but they deeply modify the conditions in which problems of assimilation, equality of rights, citizenship, nationalism and internationalism are posed. One might seriously wonder whether in regard to the production of fictive ethnicity, the ‘building of Europe’—to the extent that it will seek to transfer to the ‘Community’ level functions and symbols of the nation-state—will orientate itself predominantly towards the institution of a ‘European co-lingualism’ (and if so, adopting which language) or predominantly in the direction of the idealization of ‘European demographic identity’ conceived mainly in opposition to the ‘southern populations’ (Turks, Arabs, Blacks)?[21] Every ‘people’, which is the product of a national process of ethnicization, is forced today to find its own means of going beyond exclusivism or identitarian ideology in the world of transnational communications and global relations of force. Or rather: every individual is compelled to find in the transformation of the imaginary of ‘his’ or ‘her’ people the means to leave it, in order to communicate with the individuals of other peoples with which he or she shares the same interests and, to some extent, the same future.


15. Philippe Ariès, L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime, Plon, Paris 1960, revised edn 1975 (Centuries of Childhood, transl. Robert Baldick, London, Cape 1962); Edward Shorter, The Making af the Modern Family, Basic Books, New York 1975; Jack Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1983.

16, See Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and State Ideological Apparatuses‘, Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, New Left Books, London 1971.

17. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. I, transl. Robert Hurley, Allen Lane, London 1977.

18. See P. Bourdieu, Distinction, transl. Richard Nice, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1984; Ce que parler veut dire: l’économie des échanges linguistiques, Fayard, Paris 1982; and the critique by the ‘Révoltes logiques’ collective (L’Empire du socialogue, La Découverte, Paris 1984), which bears essentially on the way that Bourdieu fixes social roles as ‘destinies’ and immediately attributes to the antagonism between them a function of reproducing the ‘totality’ (the chapter on language is by Françoise Kerleroux).

19. See some most valuable remarks on this point in Françoise Gadet and Michel Pècheux, La Langue introuvable, Maspero, Paris 1981, pp. 38 et seq. (L’anthropologie linguistique entre le Droit et la Vie).

20. On American ‘nativism’, see R. Ertel, G. Fabre and E. Marienstras, En marge. Les minorités aux Etats-unis, Maspero, Paris 1974, pp. 25 et seq. and Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1986, p. 120. It is interesting to see a movement developing today in the United States (directed against Latin American immigration) calling for English to be made the official language.

21. Right at the heart of this alternative lies the following truly crucial question: will the administrative and educational institutions of the future ‘United Europe’ accept Arabic, Turkish or even certain Asian or African languages on an equal footing with French, German and Portuguese, or will those languages be regarded as ‘foreign’?

About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
This entry was posted in Adoption Reading and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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