July 12, 2012 / Theology
Von Balthasar’s theology of the Trinity provides a compelling framework in which Christians can engage the problem of evil, including its recent formulations by the New Atheism.
November 25, 2014
That moment . . . between the release of the trigger and the fall of another black body, of another brown body, and another . . . haunts this book. What is there to do? To capture, to resignify as one remembers, reconfigures, and disassembles what lies before those elusive moments.
—Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race
Throw a rock any direction and it’ll likely hit someone smart talking about desire: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari coining the term desiring-production, René Girard theorizing about mimetic desire, or John Milbank echoing Saint Augustine’s sense that desire “rightly ordered” is the secret heart of heaven’s city. With the proliferation of critical and theological treatments of sexuality, moreover, the idea of desire sounds forth again and again, an endless siren song enchanting discourses on the left and right alike. Things could not be otherwise, I think, at least not without a relapse into Western thought’s proudest and perhaps most ruinous error, namely, the body’s erasure in the making of knowledge. We could not cut off desire talk midsentence if we wanted to, nor should we.
But the line of questions I pursue in this essay reaches toward a kind of reversal: What might it look like to think desire by way of its opposite? What might come into view if we approach the problem of desire through its network of inversions—fear, repulsion, disgust, horror? And perhaps most importantly, what role do these “negative” modes of affect play in the “positive” making of the self and its others within Western modernity? In framing the questions this way, I am after a way of placing desire on the ground of everyday human experience, where its lives and afterlives, its subjects and subjectivities, come into view as concrete social realities. Indeed, in what follows, these permutations of desire emerge in the form of the creation of a particular social world, a symbolic order that haunts our bodies and the spaces between them.
Most centrally I am advancing three claims. First, when treated independently of its hidden inversions, the structural logic of desire in modern European thought remains abstract and reified (and implicitly, if this is true, so do those theological endeavors that find in desire the basis for an ethics of Christian practice). Second, the paradigmatic inversion of desire within European modernity is a specific racial formation—it is the white constitution of the black body as an object of knowledge. And third, the structures of feeling at play in this formation are far from natural, but rather, they presuppose a particular arrangement of space. In short, desire presupposes a geography. Hence, in what follows, I will examine the affective investments by which something called the “black body” emerges as an object to be seen, unseen, and regulated within the (white) visual spaces of European modernity.
Because these matters already sprawl beyond what can be addressed in a single essay, I gather them into focus by probing just a single historical event: in a widely discussed 1727 case study, the English surgeon William Cheselden studied a boy who, although born nearly blind, had his sight restored at age thirteen and whose responses to the visual world around him, including black people, thus became a stress point for eighteenth-century European debates on epistemology, race, and the body.
Placing Whiteness under Threat: An Excursus
Before addressing the Cheselden case directly, I must remark on my own embodiment and social position as a white male attempting to write something about race and, less directly, gender. This is not merely a throat-clearing gesture but, in fact, the first substantive point of the argument itself. It matters that there exists a long intellectual tradition stretching back to the earliest colonial encounters, one in which the educated white man—working from a supposedly universal and disembodied standpoint—examines something called the black body. That body is, in a very important sense, not the object under consideration here. My concern instead is the white body, that peculiar subjectivity which sees something called “blackness” and learns to feel certain things in relation to that seeing. In other words, I am not so much interrogating blackness as the political and theological conditions of white visuality itself. I am trying to confront my own position as one which is already placed under threat, already driven from its claims to self-sufficiency and drawn toward the voices of others. How so?
There is a tradition of thought—every bit as old as the European tradition of seeing—which has always placed colonizing knowledge under threat. Black studies, as Cedric Robinson noted following the great C. L. R. James, is not the narrow concern of one identity group; it is nothing less than a critique of Western civilization itself. It is worth noting that my inquiry thus proceeds as an act of listening to and dialogue with this tradition, especially voices like Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Hortense Spillers, bell hooks, and Saidiya Hartman—not to mention mentors closer to home like Willie Jennings, Jay Carter, and Rey Chow.
Although my voice emerges from this threatened position of white embodied seeing, mine is also a position whose life is not currently threatened and has never been threatened in the way black life has from its inception been threatened as a result of the very processes under critique here. In other words, it is worth saying plainly at the start that the processes I am analyzing—by which an affect of white fear is joined to the seeing of the black body—are not only processes we all remain inside of today but also processes whose consequences are unequally distributed. Indeed, the terms appearing in our mass media, like racial profiling or stop-and-frisk, can only be sanitizing abstractions from this: white eyes, black life—hands, feet, blood, pavement, again. A concrete experience foreign to bodies like mine: the everyday danger of simply being the sort of person who by virtue of wearing a hoodie, playing music at a gas station, seeking help after an accident, or riding a train can at any moment become the occasion of a white person’s fear.
George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn, Darren Wilson: each says he acted in fear for his life. In each case the juridical outcome crucially rests on whether this claim is found credible, indeed, reasonable. And this in turn introduces a set of questions that illuminate my concerns here: How is such fear made reasonable? By what procedures and through what histories does white racial terror suture itself to Western rationality? What conditions of possibility enable the white, fearing subject to rationalize itself—that is, to make its actions reasonable to juridical rationality (i.e., judges, jurors, the public)—precisely by positing a black object whom it seems only rational to fear? And simply to pose these questions is to suggest the following: these contemporary, deadly encounters of seeing and feeling and fearing—like desire itself—must never be granted the status of a natural or ahistorical given, nor should they be chalked up to unspecified human failing. Grasped instead as events in a specific history, they demonstrate that a cultural and theological system of meaning is at work. They unveil a network of relations of power. And knowing the history of these relations can aid struggles for justice today.
On one hand, it would be wrong—and wrong in a very vulgar way—to imagine the writing of essays an adequate response to the loss of actual lives, of real people with names like Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, to name only a few; on the other hand, it would but compound the mistake further to carry on writing as though they did not exist. A white person cobbling together an essay on race must never presume solidarity with a situation they do not experience: no white parent, for instance, can presume to grasp what Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in the wake of the initial Michael Dunn non-conviction: “The inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.” But this does not legitimate white inactivity—quite the opposite. As brilliant writer and critic Ayesha Siddiqi pointed out recently, foregrounding the agency of people of color does not entail that they alone are to be charged with the task of dismantling white supremacy. White people can, and therefore must, bear witness; they can, and therefore must, do work. So with this sense of how my inquiry intersects contemporary life, I turn to examine the Cheselden case study as a point of entry into these pressing concerns, as one key early event in the making of this ongoing history.
The Cheselden Case, Part 1: The Realignment of the Sensorium
Published in the 1727 issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Cheselden’s case study was a major intellectual event. Its upshot was this: the experiences articulated by the newly healed boy seemed to contradict the widely held notion that an individual subject, having its sight restored, would need to be taught visual categories like size, perspective, and color rather than knowing them innately. Because the boy was seeing for the first time at age thirteen, the affective associations he formed with certain colors were thought to be the products of a “pure” seeing—rather than an acquired response. His sight ostensibly granted philosophers and scientists an immediacy of access into the nature of sensual and especially visual perception, untainted by society and its contingencies. As a result—and this is the most crucial bit for our purposes—in the widespread conversations that followed the publication of the study, the boy’s reaction upon seeing blackness and a black body slowly took on all the discursive weight of the ahistorical, of the natural, or of what Hortense Spillers would call “a symptom of the sacred”:
Now Scarlet [the boy] thought the most beautiful of all Colors, and [among] the others the most gay were the most pleasing, whereas the first time he saw Black, it gave him Uneasiness, yet after a little Time he was reconcil’d to it; but some Months after, seeing by Accident a Negroe Woman, he was struck with great Horror at the Sight.
It is worth bearing in mind that the implications of this case study were debated directly by the premier intellectuals of the eighteenth century, including Edmund Burke, Moses Mendelssohn, Denis Diderot, and Voltaire. Throughout Western intellectual circles, moreover, its findings were employed to assess the epistemologies of René Descartes, John Locke, Gottfried Leibniz, and Immanuel Kant. My point is simply that although the inquiry of the present essay is narrow in historical scope, the event in question was no sideshow or curiosity; it was an event of serious intellectual and scientific consideration in its day. And because, whether we wish to or not, we remain inside a shared historical trajectory with these figures of Western thought, it has remained an event worthy of ongoing critical consideration in our own day as well.
In a now classic 1975 essay, for instance, Sander Gilman pointed out that Cheselden’s account bolstered at least three important ideas. First, the Cheselden account suggested that responses to color were not merely learned but that they were inherently based in human visual perception. Second, it secured “the total acceptance of the anthropomorphism of darkness as the fearsome figure of the Black”; that is, it served to collapse actually existing black people into the totalizing perceptual category of “darkness.” And third, the experience of seeing this blackness begins to be inextricably linked to the experience of feeling horror. In short, at the site of this encounter of Western scientific knowledge with the figure of the black body, we witness an inversion of desire—an affectivity of repulsion, anxiety, terror—becoming silently embedded into the visual protocols of white subjectivity.
This is not to suggest that this racialized dynamic was something new for Western culture (quite the opposite is obviously the case). Rather, my aim is to underscore the fact that, given this event’s importance in the intellectual life of eighteenth-century Europe, the event offers a clear example of how the embodied pathologies of white racism play a central, rather than incidental, role in the emerging aesthetic and scientific rationalities of Western modernity. It highlights the hidden place in modern thought of what we might call a realignment of the sensorium: sight, touch, affect, desire—each becomes entangled with the inversions produced by the pathologies of white racism. And just to the extent that we remain entrapped in an ongoing history of antiblackness—and in myriad ways surely we do—the beautiful and the good which form the objects of our desire remain deeply entangled with that evaluative regime which designates their inversions: the ugly, the unvirtuous, the lazy, the dangerous. And this regime that haunts our bodies and the spaces between them is one whose white supremacy—even, or especially, in a so-called post-racial era—is all the more pernicious for its discrete operation; it is less an overt program of racial hatred than a subtle encoding of a whole range of racialized affects.
In short, I am encouraging an attentiveness toward the historical dynamics of white visuality and white affect: that is, the deep patterns by which the white body in modernity learns to see and feel as a closely coordinated social movement. I emphasize an attentiveness toward these dynamics especially for scholars who find in desire a resource for political theology—for instance, desire as the will’s orientation toward the good or virtuous desire. To be clear: I do not think that we must no longer say desire—indeed, as I suggested above, we cannot avoid saying it. Rather, we must understand that upon its enunciation, desire releases certain echoes; it reverberates, inevitably, with signification beyond our intent. And in these echoes, we should discern the traces of an evaluative regime, the bodies trapped within that regime’s racialized violence, and the realignment of the sensorium which, even today, haunts our bodies and the spaces between them. Even (or especially) when we seek to resource “desire” and its related concepts in premodern Christian traditions, we can only access them from here, from the concrete and embodied position we have, one which lies on this side of the history of these echoes. And this implies, at the minimum, that resourcing the premodern—the precolonial, the preracial—must entail a confrontation with, not a circumvention of, these modern inversions of desire.
The Cheselden Case, Part 2: “Accidents” in the Evaluative Regime
I have sought to foreground the affective and the visual as modes of refiguring the ground on which political-theological work is done. In this section, I will run the inquiry in the other direction, so to speak, exploring how the intersecting space of the political and the theological refigure the visual and affective.
In the previous section I risk a particularly dangerous misunderstanding. In highlighting the role of a realignment of the sensorium in European thought, I risk conceiving of racism as, at its core, a problem of interiority, a pathology of mind, a disease of the heart, and so on. This is the way popular discourse almost invariably conceives of racism in the multicultural era, or in the so-called post-racial era: racism is hateful prejudice at the personal level, contained safely within irrational and easily identifiable bigots—your Paula Deens and Donald Sterlings. In this view, the racialized inversions I have been indexing are granted a sort of autonomy. Desire and its opposites just exist. They originate from nowhere but the private and unfortunate idiocy of a few backward individuals. Treated as an explanatory cause of action, rather than as one node within a whole network of causes and effects, desire thus conceived hides from view its own need to be explained by reference to more properly basic causes.
In the context of a very different sort of argument in Whose Justice? Which Rationality, Alasdair MacIntyre raises a surprisingly similar point: human desire, he argues, cannot be treated as “some kind of nonmoral, natural, precultural given,” the satisfaction of which could then serve as the goal of a political order, as is the case in many modern moral philosophies. This, he writes, is because within any particular culture “the established patterns of [desire] will only be adequately understood if they are understood as giving expression to some distinctive moral and evaluative position. Psychologies thus understood express and presuppose moralities.” Or to reframe the point within my own terms: desire and its hidden inversions always express and presuppose an evaluative regime.
I favor the term evaluative regime (a term I owe to Willie James Jennings) over MacIntyre’s evaluative position (or simply morality) because of the way the word regime counters the overly intellectualized model of history for which MacIntyre is sometimes rightly criticized. His model is one in which conceptions of the good appear to drive history forward, instead of one whereby those conceptions proceed from and are embedded within actual strategies of governance, structures of economic production, and so on. And keeping this shift in approach in mind, from “moral positions” to “evaluative regimes,” I will now highlight a particular aspect of the Cheselden case study that is often ignored. It invites just this sort of inquiry into the sort of evaluative regime that, in fact, precedes desire and makes coherent its inversions.
An overwhelming breadth of incisive critical literature on the Cheselden case has centered upon the related pairs of contrasts that emerge: blackness versus the other colors, uneasiness versus pleasure, horror versus beauty. But the overlooked piece I wish to examine is the apparent innocence of this “seeing by Accident a Negroe Woman.” Of course, this “by accident” can be taken to mean merely that what occurred was not observed as part of a planned experiment. It may also be treated, however, as a sort of crease or fold in the textual record, out from which emerges a certain line of inquiry: what would it mean to be one whose very body constitutes a visual accident—a black interruption of an otherwise seamlessly white ocular landscape? To ask this is to suggest that certain arrangements of social, political, and intellectual space must have been made in advance, such that we might know and regulate which bodies can appear, in which spaces, and at which times. And conversely, it is to suggest that these same arrangements designate that other bodies can appear only as accidents, only by a slippage in or transgression of these arrangements. Crucially, this is also to imply the presence of a particular theological anthropology, a conception of human nature at work, such that the white subject imagines for itself the godlike task of creating and sustaining such arrangements, of ruling and regulating lived global space.
What I am driving at with this line of inquiry is the way the Cheselden case gives us a European evaluative regime, one which assigns the black body an impossible and contradictory social position within its arrangements. The figure of the black is constituted as an accident within the white frame of sight—an inessential property of the thing—and yet it provides just the sort of contrasting negations that are necessary for assigning “positive” value judgments to whiteness, agency, and beauty. In this economy of evaluative relations, strikingly, the figure of white virtue is in fact parasitical upon the figure of black vice—goodness as the privation of evil!—not the other way around. To establish itself, white virtue needs black vice, even as this act of establishment requires the simultaneous erasure of the black figure. Thus, the black figure is critically needed yet constantly disavowed. It lies neither fully inside nor fully outside “proper” European space. It occupies no stable or static point within the frame of categorization but is instead a figure of ceaseless movement, threatening the very borders that designate inside from outside—beautiful from ugly, virtuous from vicious—and thereby moving somehow both within and beyond the evaluative protocols of Western classification itself.
And hence, in the endless project of policing this restlessness, white bodies in the tradition of Cheselden learn to conceive of the black person as a figure of threatening mobility. They see a figure whose mobility is threatening just to the extent that it is an unregulated mobility. Wandering is dangerous. The movement through space of the black person becomes the site of the white body’s fear. A geography of white racism generates and is coextensive with a structure of white feeling, namely, the sort of terror that justifies programs of disciplinary violence, both state-sponsored and spontaneous—which is to say, more concretely, the sort of terror that justifies the disciplinary violence both of Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman.
If these connections sound like heavy theorizing, consider the palpable white anxiety in the following snippet from one of London’s daily newspapers, dated April 5, 1723 (contemporaneous with Cheselden’s case): “‘Tis said there is a great number of Blacks come daily into this City, so that ‘tis thought in a short Time, if they be not suppress’d, the City will swarm with them.” Swarming, I would suggest, is nothing if not the term white terror gives to threatening-because-unregulated mobility. Or in other words, the specific form of movement that defies white categorization, white management, and white control is just the sort of movement that inspires white terror, and perhaps more to the point, white terrorism.
Fugitivity, Spirit, and American Life
If white racial vision is capable of recognizing black movement only as a “swarming” to be regulated, I suggest that, when viewed from the opposite vantage—that of the black radical tradition—this untrackable mobility goes by a different name: that extremely generative and improvisational concept of recent black thought, namely, fugitivity. “The fugitive,” writes Samira Kawash, for example, is one who “evades the regularized and regulated paths of circulation—of goods, of persons, of information.” Fugitivity traverses and thereby renders unstable white borders, the classificatory lines that structure intellectual and geographical space. While refusing to romanticize the fugitive condition or sacralize its bodily suffering—what Spillers calls “high crimes against the flesh”—this sort of destabilizing movement nonetheless emerges within the antagonisms of Western modernity as a productive, political, life-giving force, one which can register upon the screen of Western modernity only as “accident”: as a nonplace, a nonpolis, a nonlife.
And in closing, just to the extent that Christian theology, from its earliest doctrinal and scriptural articulations, has associated the Holy Spirit with destabilizing movement—it blows wherever it wishes, it unsettles linguistic and national borders at Pentecost, it is the inner-Trinitarian dynamism within the Godhead itself—perhaps the threatening mobility of the fugitive invites us to a new turn in pneumatological speech today. In a manner that echoes, in key part, what Amaryah Shaye has recently argued, it is not reconciliation discourse but fugitive movement, so feared by the white body—so feared by Cheselden’s boy or, more likely, Cheselden himself—which in fact marks an invitation to enter the life of the Spirit: to a nonspace inside the cracks and fissures of our social world, a non-order within that symbolic order in which white racism continues to haunt our bodies and the geographies between them. Within these cracks, perhaps new forms of desire become possible.
In attempting to illuminate the present by way of the Cheselden event, my point is decidedly not to draw any sort of direct or simple linkage, still less a straight line of causality between eighteenth-century Europe and present-day American realities. Needless to say, history in all its untidiness simply does not work that way. I realize and anticipate, moreover, that there are many levelheaded, reasonable people who will wish to explain the deaths of Jordan Davis and Renisha McBride and Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin (and now Mike Brown) through causes other than white racism and its many permutations in American life—causes other than the histories explored here, indeed, causes which can serve to direct our attention anywhere but here. And such people will invariably find levelheaded, reasonable ways to do so. But I risk saying, with some caution, that perhaps the histories explored here—even this 1727 event of a boy born blind—do illuminate the shape of our life together today. Perhaps they even make it a bit less surprising, a bit more coherent when a nation producing Darren Wilsons and George Zimmermans—our current avatars of lethal white terror, in state-sponsored and extrajudicial form, respectively—is a nation which trembles at specters like “the knockout game” instead.
 See Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen Lane (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983); Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965); Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1990).
 See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977), chapter 9, “Structures of Feeling.” Cf. Paul Gilroy’s deployment of the concept throughout his pathbreaking work The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), especially 77–80.
 Many treatments of this nexus of colonial power and colonial writing exist. An excellent starting place is Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (New York, NY: Palgrave, 1999), especially chs. 1–3.
 As Richard Wright once told a French reporter when asked about “the Negro problem” in America: “There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem” (as quoted in George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics [Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006], 1).
 See Chuck Morse, “Capitalism, Marxism, and the Black Radical Tradition: An Interview with Cedric Robinson,” Perspectives on Anarchist Theory 3, no. 1 (Spring 1999).
 The works most directly influential to my essay here include the following: Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York, NY: Monthly Review, 2000); Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York, NY: Grove Press, 2008); Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 64–81; bell hooks, “Marginality as Site of Resistance,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, eds. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, et al. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990); Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (June 2008): 1–14. I am also indebted to colleagues in the Duke Graduate Program in Religion and the Divinity School, especially Oluwatomisin Oredein, Marvin Wickware, and Michelle Wolff. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 2014 University of Virginia Graduate Colloquium on Theology, Ethics, and Culture, where I received helpful and substantive feedback from many colleagues, particularly Matt Farley, Ashleigh Elser, and Joe Lenow, though many more could be named.
 For an example of the term racial profiling, see Andrew Cohen, “Sheriff Joe Arpaio: The Most Lawless Lawman in America,” Atlantic, March 26, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/03/sheriff-joe-arpaio-the-most-lawless-lawman-in-america/359613/; for an example of the term stop-and-frisk, see Devon W. Carbado, Cheryl I. Harris, and Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, “Racial Profiling Lives On,” New York Times, August 14, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/15/opinion/racial-profiling-lives-on.html?_r=0; and for examples of deaths caused by white fear, see, respectively, Ann Oldenburg, “Geraldo Rivera Blames Hoodie for Trayvon Martin’s Death,” USA Today, March 25, 2012, http://content.usatoday.com/communities/entertainment/post/2012/03/geraldo-rivera-blames-hoodie-for-trayvon-martins-death/1#.U-qmMSjAydw; Lisa Bloom, “Yes, It Is About Race,” Huffington Post, March 13, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/yes-it-is-about-race_b_4948342.html; Joseph Lichterman and David Bailey, “Renisha McBride Shooting: Trial Set for June,” NBC News, January 15, 2014, http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2014/01/15/22314634-renisha-mcbride-shooting-trial-set-for-june?lite; Kevin Drum, “Oscar Grant Killer Found Semi-Guilty,” Mother Jones, July 8, 2010, http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/07/oscar-grant-killer-found-semi-guilty.
 See Coates, “On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn,” Atlantic, February 15, 2014, http://m.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/on-the-killing-of-jordan-davis-by-michael-dunn/283870/; and Siddiqi, @pushinghoops, Twitter post, May 3, 2014, 10:30 a.m., https://twitter.com/pushinghoops/status/462645369009364992.
 For the phrase “symptom of the sacred,” see Spillers, “Mama’s Baby,” 71. The case study is published as William Cheselden, “An Account of some Observations made by a young Gentleman, who was born blind, or lost his sight so early, that he had no Remembrance of ever having seen, and was couched between 13 and 14 Years of Age,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 35 (1727–1728): 447–48.
 For just a few examples: Simon Gikandi, “Race and the Idea of the Aesthetic,” Michigan Quarterly Review 40, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 330–32; Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 42ff.; Paul Gilroy, “Ethnic Absolutism and Cultural Studies” in Cultural Studies, vol. 4, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (New York, NY: Routledge, 1992), 189ff.; Francette Pacteau, “Dark Continent,” in With Other Eyes: Looking at Race and Gender in Visual Culture, ed. Lisa Bloom (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 89ff.; Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), esp. ch. 5, “The Despotic Eye and the Oriental Sublime,” 192–5; Meg Armstrong, “‘The Effects of Blackness’: Gender, Race, and the Sublime in Aesthetic Theories of Burke and Kant,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54, no. 3 (July 1, 1996): 213–36.
 Sander Gilman, “The Figure of the Black in German Aesthetic Theory,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 8, no. 4 (summer, 1975): 376–8.
 At the University of Virginia Graduate Colloquium on Theology, Ethics, and Culture, several people helpfully pressed me to clarify precisely what sort of argument I take myself to be making concerning what happened to the boy in Cheselden’s study. I am primarily concerned in this essay with the specific role the 1727 event as a text comes to play within European modernity’s intellectual reflection upon its own social life. I am less concerned with the precise mechanics of “what really happened” with the boy, his family, and others, either according to Cheselden, who is himself subjected to racial formation, or even to some hypothetically unbiased account of what specifically occurred in those “Months.” In this context, the primary point for me is how the racial formation takes center stage and how both the subject and the object of the knowledge being produced are racialized. As I later argue, however, racial horror presupposes an arrangement of space, and in this case, I believe the social conditioning of the boy may have occurred long before he could physically see; the boy already belonged to a certain social world, one with clear racial categories. His visual experience merely matches his previous aural, bodily, and spatial experiences: what he has heard, what he has been taught, the way his body has been moved through and pressed into social spaces. His racial formation, in other words, began long before his eyes were healed.
 See Matt Bruenig, “The Racial Wealth Gap,” American Prospect, November 6, 2013, http://prospect.org/article/racial-wealth-gap; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: New Press, 2010); and Coates, “Fear of a Black President,” Atlantic, August 22, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/.
 Of course, racism is not foremost ‘prejudice’ but plunder, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued many times, most recently and forcefully in his widely discussed essay “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, May 21, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 76–77.
 See Gikandi, “Race and the Idea of the Aesthetic”; Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste; Gilroy, “Ethnic Absolutism and Cultural Studies”; Pacteau, “Dark Continent”; Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans; Armstrong, “‘The Effects of Blackness.’”.
 I borrow the phrase the figure of the black from Gilman, “The Figure of the Black in German Aesthetic Theory.” And I use the pronoun it (rather than she or he) when referring to this figuration not to dehumanize but to underscore that such racist characterizations are figurations—that is, fantastic constructions whose effects are nonetheless very real. In both my discussions of the figure of the black and the white body, I encourage readers to recognize each of us as implicated in but not identical with or reducible to these figures, these deeply embedded tropes. To say this is also to make a civil attempt at anticipating and thereby precluding a comments section filled with various versions, no matter how sophisticated, of “But not all white people . . .”
 For a profound meditation on similar themes, see Sarah Jane Cervenak, Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
 David Dabydeen, Hogarth’s Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth Century English Art (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1987), 17.
 See, for instance, “White Supremacy and American Racial Terrorism,” in Randall Law, Terrorism: A History (Malden, MA: Polity, 2009), ch. 8.
 Samira Kawash, Dislocating the Color Line: Identity, Hybridity, and Singularity in African-American Literature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 80.
 Shaye, “Refusing to Reconcile,” Women in Theology, parts I, II, and III, http://womenintheology.org/2014/01/19/refusing-to-reconcile-against-racial-reconciliation/, http://womenintheology.org/2014/02/16/refusing-to-reconcile-part-2/, and http://womenintheology.org/2014/03/28/refusing-to-reconcile-part-three-the-best-man-holiday-and-the-besideness-of-blackness/.
 See Jamelle Bouie, “Guess What? The ‘Knockout Game’ Is America’s Latest Phony Panic,” Daily Beast, November 25, 2013, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/11/25/guess-what-the-knockout-game-is-america-s-latest-phony-panic.html.
Matt Elia is currently a PhD student in the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University. His research considers contemporary American social existence by interrogating the intersections of race, political theology, and the making and remaking of visual cultures.