White Lies

Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion

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Christopher M. Driscoll
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , November
     2015.
     316 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138910997.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

White Lies is a tour de force exploration of the senescence and dying of whiteness as the reigning god-idol of contemporary American society. It joins the growing field of critical whiteness studies as singularly prescient in wrestling with its subject, at once human and other, a real unreality. Interdisciplinary to the core, it tracks the fault line of race across a zone of thought that never quite “lands” on its object. And this, by design! Driscoll insists that the Ur-event of white genesis in history—the ritualized lynching of black bodies post-Civil War—convened a certainty of identity, illusory in the ferocity of its becoming. Ranging across disciplines as polymath as critical social theory and theology, post-structuralist philosophy and existentialist nausea, history of religious phenomenology and anthropological savvy, along with literature and ethics and cultural studies—the text is indeed dizzying (as its author admits and intends).  

Keying on contemporary events like the killing of Trayvon Martin, the book enacts a self-confessional agon. The author consistently queries his own formulations as one caught inside the very force field he attempts to name into appearance. The result is dense and rich, at once a torment of expressive passion and a labyrinth of exegesis.  At many turns of phrase and page, the sheer piling up of nuance and analysis suddenly flashes with horrific epiphany, like lightning on a battlefield at midnight. The militants show up like ghosts; their weapons like gods. The work of reading here is labor, but the reward is a slow gathering of vision—a seeing that flickers with monstrous import. Race is not mere sociology. Neither is it co-terminus with a word. Driscoll’s favorite words—“human limitation,” “radical contingency,” “uncertainty,” “relinquishment,” “dying”—are orchestrated in such a maelstrom of half-lights that the mind cannot simply hold the assembled sight, but must rewind even as it pushes on.

Whiteness for Driscoll, emerges as an impossible attempt at prophylactics—an ever-failing intention to avoid death by visiting it on others. In a carefully conducted tour of this landscape of deceptive self-adulation built upon quite real dead bodies, the reader is offered a substantial mirage. “White being” arcs between little lies and huge idols. But it cannot secure itself. No matter how desperate the ritual enactments or vitriolic the worship, it shares with all else living the irrepressible fact of its own demise. White people will die. As will the very fiction of white superiority, of “whiteness” itself, as the majoritarian social assumption and political position in this country. White Lies seeks to tutor white scholars in this over-reaching mortality, offering an itinerary of mourning that might (uncertainly) allow white people the possibility of “learning how to die with others.”

Driscoll accomplishes this “pedagogy of dying” by “writing” twilight.  He would “adumbrate” rather than illuminate his subject—tracking death not only as physical end and disappearance, but crucially as contingency at every level of experience. The remedy the author offers?  Give up certainties of belief as of salvation. Embrace contingencies of conceptualization as of identification and embodiment.  Learn to live and die with those  whose difference is as obscured as the moment before night falls. 

The effort here rewards a patient perambulation in reading. But the strength, not surprisingly, is also the weakness. The text is strenuous; certainly no one unversed in philosophy will be able to access the remedy. Like a Dante lost in the thicket of mid-life, the faint whispers heard in the shadows must already be somewhat familiar before they can materialize as an apparition. But of course, the same could be said of this very review.

Of like concern is Driscoll’s (partial) insistence on abstinence from black voices and bodies in his theorizing—in a resolve to “do the work for ourselves.” Laudable and necessary as the impulse is, it is for this auditor, only one-half of the impossible conundrum. The danger in relying largely on white voices out of a concern not to burden black scholars and artists and common folk with once again “doing the heavy lifting” for whites, is white solipsism and slippage into more of the same. The paradox is inescapable. Despite Driscoll’s demurral, “relying on the other” is the ultimate goal, in an interdependence where there are no clear distinctions drawn. But how to get there? Ah, dilemma! For my money, we whites—a la Driscoll here—must assume one hundred percent of the responsibility for the work to be engaged. But we must also presume that our very enthrallment to the white god/idol means a level of incapacity/incompetence, absent on-going black (and brown and red and yellow, etc.) input. How to walk this razor’s edge when we need the very advice and wisdom we have no right to ask for? This is part of the edge of uncertainty that Driscoll has so resolutely tracked. There is no escaping this conundrum or its pain. It is part of the necessary dying.

There are other moments that may occasion second-guesses: the choice to camp out on novelist Lillian Smith’s inversion of Billie Holliday’s “strange fruit” lament, and re-focus it on whiteness as a grotesque yield from the national tree, could backfire in charges of white self-concern—once again overwriting black suffering. But there is finally no way to avoid such risks in the attempt to sound out this idol. Likewise there may be a slight mis-focus in underscoring the eloquence that, “those who teach us to love are also those who teach us to hate.” Certainly hate is astir as the fate of whiteness becomes clear; but I judge much more insidious and hydra-headed the indifference (towards black experience) that so often accompanies white self-love. But this is mere quibbling at the edge of profundity.

In sum, the tour is indeed a force! The expose is powerful. But it does leave hanging in the twilit air an unanswered summons: having so well thought, what now will we do?

About the Reviewer(s): 

James W. Perkinson is Professor of Ethics and Systematic Theology at Ecumenical Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
August 6, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher M. Driscoll is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Lehigh University, where his teaching and research explore race, religion, philosophy and culture—with attention to whiteness, hip hop, and existentialism/humanism. He is Co-Founder/Co-Chair of an AAR Group on Hip Hop and Religion and a contributing editor to Marginalia (LA Review of Books).

Keywords: 

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