The Stratifications of Normativity

Roderick A. Ferguson

[1] In Aberrations in Black, I argued that Foucault's theorization of sexuality was posed in opposition to the theorization of capital. By this I meant that Foucault figured the repressive hypothesis in the critique of capital. There I focused on the part of The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 in which Foucault writes,

This discourse on modern sexual repression holds up well, owing no doubt to how easy it is to uphold. A solemn historical and political guarantee protects it. By placing the advent of the age of repression in the seventeenth century, after hundreds of years of open spaces and free expression, one adjusts it to coincide with the development of capitalism: it becomes an integral part of the bourgeois order. The minor chronicle of sex and its trials is transposed into the ceremonious history of the modes of production; its trifling aspect fades from view. A principle of explanation emerges after the fact: if sex is so rigorously repressed, this is because it is incompatible with a general and intensive work imperative. [i]

To restate, Foucault implies here that the critique of sexuality necessarily must displace the critique of capital. This displacement has helped to engender a tension between the study of sexuality and the critique of capital, a tension that exists within queer studies as well as in Marxist analyses. For me, that tension had to be addressed if I was going to theorize African American sexuality as the material genealogy of race and sexuality, as evidence of the simultaneity of the discursive production of racialized sexuality and the itineraries of capital. There I was especially concerned with African American sexuality as the prism through which to observe polymorphous perversions as the effect of racialization, perversions produced as part of the reflective protocols of a modern epistemological apparatus like sociology, perversions whose conditions were ironically produced by capital and regulated by the American nation-state, perversions rearticulated by African American culture, generally, and by that cultural form known as the African American novel, particularly.

[2] I'm still concerned with trying to work out the procedures of capital and how those procedures expose capital's investments in the discourses of racialized sexuality. As of late though, I've become much more interested in the production of normativity. Now, to be sure Aberrations is indeed about normativity. It considers the ways in which state, culture, epistemology, and capital have to negotiate with racialized regimes of normativity. But in Aberrations, I primarily focused on the pathologization of African American culture as the effect of normalization and on black working-class and poor communities and subjects as the target of that pathologization. Now I would like to turn my attention to the normalization of African American culture and on black middle-class and intellectual formations as the effect of that normalization. In a sense this project is the precondition for what I tried to do in Aberrations. There I was much more concerned with the question of pathologization and looking at the interactions between discourses of sexuality and capitalist economic formations by looking at poor and working-class formations. Currently, I want to think about the subtle ways in which the interactions between discourses of sexuality and capitalist economic formations change when observed through the phenomenon of normalization.

[3] I'd like to think about normalization as a way to observe social formations. In the front of mind I am interested in African American emancipation as the genealogy of a certain grammar of normalization within the United States. In the front of my mind, however, I am nudged by more contemporary interests: the simultaneity of the right to gay marriage and the procedures of war, the production of racialized middle-classes as part of the outcome of rights-based movements within the 60's and 70's and as an ideological event within the contemporary circumstances of U.S. empire.

[4] This interaction between the national and the normative in which rights-based actions dole out normalized emancipations as they secrete regulations at the level of gender and sexuality, emancipations instantiated through middle-class formations, have their genealogy within nineteenth century African American racial formations. Pursuant to this relationship between nationality and normativity, I want to also think about the ways in which this production structured relations within and outside the formal borders of the U.S.. The genealogy of this relationship between nationality and normativity lies in what I would like to call the paradox of modernity, a paradox figured in the definitions of freedom and morality.

The Paradox of Modernity

[5] In The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Volume 2, Michel Foucault locates morality within the itineraries of individual development. He writes,

Anyone who wishes to study the history of a "morality" has to take into account the different realities that are covered by the term. A history of "moral behaviors" would study the extent to which actions of certain individuals or groups are consistent with the rules and values that are prescribed for them by various agencies. A history of "codes" would analyze the different systems of rules and values that are operative in a given society or group, the agencies or mechanisms of constraint that enforce them, the forms they take in their multifariousness, their divergences and their contradictions. And finally, a history of the way in which individuals are urged to constitute themselves as subjects of moral conduct would be concerned with the models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for the decipherment of the self by oneself, for the transformations that one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object. [ii]

Here Foucault acknowledges the capaciousness of the category "morality," that is, its ability to house many meanings. This capaciousness allows various "agencies" to deposit their own interests onto moral terrains, interests expressed here as "codes." This ability seems to also permit the moral subject a certain latitude in fashioning the self, presenting the subject with opportunities for unpacking and repackaging the self. Foucault's inquiry into and theorization of morality focus on the interaction between discursive forces — rules, codes, values — and individual subjects. By ending the question of morality with self-creation, though, Foucault implies that the inquiry into morality prioritizes the individual, subordinating the question of the agencies of morality to how individuals absorb the discursive mandates of those agencies. In Foucault's theory of morality, the individual is the primary unit of analysis.

[6] But what if we were to theorize morality in such a way to account for those agencies? Here I refer to state and capital as the presumed agencies of freedom. And in what ways do they, as institutions, represent moral formations that bear upon what we have come to know as race? We might obtain a different account of morality if we attend to its genealogy within political theory. To begin with, enlightenment theorists understood morality as a subjective and institutional formation. For theorists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, morality provided the underlining logic of man's transition from the state of nature to civil society. In The Social Contract, for instance, Rousseau addresses this transition by arguing,

The passing from the state of nature to the civil society produces a remarkable change in man; it puts justice as a rule of conduct in the place of instinct, and gives his actions the moral quality what they previously lacked. It is only then, when the voice of duty has taken the pace of physical impulse, and right that of desire, that man, who has hitherto thought only of himself, finds himself compelled to act on other principles, and to consult his reason rather than study his inclinations. And although in civil society man surrenders some of the advantages that belong to the state of nature, he gains in return far greater ones; his faculties are so exercised and developed, his mind is so enlarged, his sentiments so ennobled, and his whole spirit so elevated that, if the abuse of his new condition did not in many cases lower him to something worse than what he had left, he should constantly bless the happy hour that lifted him for ever from the state of nature and from a stupid, limited animal made a creature of intelligence and a man. [iii]

Civil society is where man becomes the rational and moral subject of justice, no longer the immoral or amoral subject of inclination, instincts, and desires. Man thus becomes part of what Immanuel Kant would later refer to as "the world of understanding." As such civil society denoted not only man's entrance into a new institutional setting but also into a new subject formation.

[7] Through Rousseau we have an understanding that the institutional change towards civil society is simultaneously a subjective change toward rationality and morality. This is a rationality and morality figured through the emergence of man as the subject of the law, no longer the subject of instinct. For instance, Rousseau goes on to say that in this transition man loses his "natural liberty and the absolute right to anything that tempts him and that he can take; what he gains by the social contract is civil liberty and the legal right of property in what he possesses." Being the subject of the law and having the right to property implies what Marx later understood to be the nature of the state - that is, the liberal democratic state's purpose as the guarantor of property relations under capitalism. But Rousseau also implies something else here, something that Marx seemed to neglect - the state and property relations as the expressions and agents of morality. Rousseau gives us a sense of how civil society acts as an agent upon man. He writes,

We might also add that man acquires with civil society, moral freedom, which alone makes man the master of himself; for to be governed by appetite alone is slavery, while obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom (Rousseau, pp. 64-65). [iv]

According to Rousseau, the state of nature is the realm of the instinctual as well as the terrain outside of sociality. As the horizon of rationality, civil society is, on the other hand, the standard of morality. Bereft of the resources for just governance, the state of nature denotes the conditions of immorality and irrationality, conditions characterized by the rule of instinct. Civil society, alternatively, denotes the sphere in which reason is offered and enacted. In contradistinction to the state of nature or the realm of irrationality, in civil society, justice governs man. Under such governance, man's actions take on a moral and rational quality. For Rousseau, to be governed by instinct is the horizon of immorality as well as slavery. Civil society is the domain of freedom because it is the condition for rational self-governance and subjection to moral law. This subjection is contradictorily a mode of freedom, a subjection that grants access to law and property.

[8] Morality as governance - as a type of subjection - can be called freedom, according to Rousseau, because it is a subjection that man installs himself. It does not seize him against his will as an instinct would; it is a submission that purchases unprecedented liberties. This dialectic between moral subjection and freedom is what I would like to call the founding paradox of modernity. It is paradoxical because liberty is a mode of subjugation to the moral ideologies of law and property. Like Foucault's understanding of sexuality, morality is not a matter simply of repression. It is also a matter of production: it is responsible for the creation of new types of subjects who can claim rights, property, and morality. Unlike Foucault's understanding of morality, this theorization of morality presumes much more than the individual as the destination of moral discourses. Instead, morality here implies a whole set of agendas that emerge from the creation of moral subjects and their analogues in the formation of state and civil society. If we were to relate this to the question of sexuality, we might say that sexuality becomes part of a whole complex of managerial aims arising from the state and from institutions in civil society. The mastery presumed by state, civil society, and moral subjectivization necessitates the management and regulation of sexual desires and practices. This mastery is known as freedom and thus illuminates the ways in which freedom as a practice and as a category is weighted by moral discourses.

Marx and the Anti-capitalist Critic as the Subject of Morality

[9] Marx assembled a powerful critical response to the state as the guarantor of property relations, this was also a way of demonstrating how the procedures of freedom — state formation and property expansion drive practices of unfreedom. As Marx states in Capital: Volume 1, "The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man." [v] This realm is the realm of freedom because "both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law." [vi] But a subjective change soon occurs between buyer and seller and labor-power, according to Marx: "He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labor-power follows as his worker. The one smirks self-importantly and is intent on business; the other is timid and holds back, like someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothing else to expect but — a tanning." [vii] The degradation and exploitation of the worker, for Marx, was the most powerful rebuttal to state and capital as the domains of rights and emancipation.

[10] For Marx the most powerful contradiction of capital could be seen in this aforementioned scene - that is, the structural antagonism between buyer and seller, between the exercise of property rights and expansion for one and the devaluation of rights and humanity for the other. Here, Marx points to the fact that property as the domain of Freedom produces forms of stratification at the level of class. But underneath Marx's own narrative of class stratification is another narrative, one in which we might observe stratifications along the level of normativity. In "The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation," for instance, Marx illustrates capital as a mode of accumulation by focusing on the circumstances of British labor. Marx quotes from certain public health documents,

The results of the admirable work of Dr. Julian Hunter are to be found in the seventh (1865) and eighth (1866) Reports on Public Health... On the condition of urban dwellings, I quote, as a preliminary, a general remark made by Dr. Simon. 'Although my official point of view,' he says, 'is one exclusively physical, common humanity requires that the other aspect of this evil should not be ignored... In its higher degrees it' (i.e. overcrowding) 'almost necessarily involves such negation of all delicacy, such unclean confusion of bodies and bodily functions, such exposure of animal and sexual nakedness, as is rather bestial than human...To children who are born under its curse, it must often be a very baptism into infamy. And beyond all measure hopeless is the wish that persons thus circumstanced should ever in other respects aspire to that atmosphere of civilization which has its essence in physical and moral cleanliness.' [viii]

[11] In The Social Contract morality was known most poignantly in terms of what it rendered to those who entered civil society - enlarged minds, ennobled sentiments, freedom, access to law and property. Here in Marx, morality is underscored through its absence - contagious diseases, unclean confusion of bodies and bodily functions, sexual nakedness. There is a sociological interest driving Marx's critique, a moralization of social conditions, a rendering of sexuality as the ultimate sign of the defilement of property relations. This sociological morality becomes not only the basis of radical critique but of middle-class outrage as well. He writes,

The antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation, and thus of capitalist property relations in general, is here so evident that even the official English reports on this subject teem with heterodox onslaughts on 'property and its rights.' This evil makes such progress alongside the development of industry, the accumulation of capital and the growth and 'improvement' of the towns that the sheer fear of contagious diseases, which do not spare even respectable people', brought into existence from 1847 to 1864 no less than the Acts of Parliament on sanitation, and that the frightened middle-classes in certain towns, such as Liverpool, Glasgow and so on, took strenuous measures to deal with the problem through their municipalities. [ix]

Here official English Reports bear witness to a normative middle-class outraged by the presumed pathologies of poor and working populations, populations ostensibly distinguished by disease and sexual immorality. The reports produce knowledge about those populations and about the middle-class, knowledge that stratifies a disease ridden working-class and a respectable and fretful middle-class in terms of normativity. As the progress promised by capital imputes pathologies onto poor and working-class populations, we can see how moral discourses about sexuality subtend the general law of capitalist accumulation and how those discourses produce cross-class antagonisms.

African American Emancipation as the Genealogy of Normativity for Minoritized Subjects within U.S. Racial Projects

[12] By way of overview, morality denotes the ideological underpinnings of state and civil society, underpinnings that frame law and property as the domains of freedom, self-mastery, and subjection. This definition of morality arises out of the genealogy of political theory. Morality also refers to a kind of sociological hermeneutic that governs analyses of social conditions. The genealogies of the political and the sociological definition of morality can be seen in African American racial formations in the nineteenth century. Indeed, African American middle-class and intellectual formations express the overlapping moral genealogies of political theory and sociology. As I hope to demonstrate, the archival materials on black colleges and universities allow us to observe how the narrative of the transition from state of nature to civil society acquires a specifically racial import. We might also see how the moralization of social conditions helped to produce racial projects among African Americans. We might also see how that moralization produced class differences stratified along the lines of normativity.

[13] At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the United States faced the issue of how to civilize newly freed black subjects. Hence, the U.S. government established The Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees, popularly known as the Freedmen's Bureau. With civilization in mind, the Freedmen's Bureau founded 1000 schools for former slaves and also assisted with the founding of the major black colleges and universities. In The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Du Bois frames the founding of these schools within both the educational needs and economic possibilities of this population. He writes, "In the midst, then, of the larger problem of Negro education sprang up the more practical question of work, the inevitable economic quandary that faces a people in the transition from slavery to freedom, and especially those who make that change amid hate and prejudice, lawlessness and ruthless competition." [x] As the Freedman's Bureau attempted to deliver freed blacks to the benefits of civil society, it offered historically black colleges and universities as agencies of morality.

[14] On January 9, 1900 Atlanta University president Horace Bumstead sent a letter requesting scholarship donations for the University. In the letter Bumstead ascribes specific moral itineraries to the university and others like it. He writes,

The necessity for the solution of the Negro problem becomes more and more apparent, not only for the sake of the Negro himself, but for the sake of our country, which should not have borne the disgrace of his helpless ignorance so long as it has. There is no better solution offered, there are no practical means for any other solution than education. But that he may be raised, is being raised from vice and ignorance and taught to make of himself a worthy citizen of this our country.

Atlanta University is carrying on a unique and vastly important part in this work for the Southern Negro. Its plan is to take such men and women as show themselves capable of receiving a good education and to train them thoroughly for the work of carrying on the industrial and elementary education of the masses. This higher training is absolutely essential for certain ones, for if the race is ever to achieve a measure of independence it is necessary that its leaders be Negroes themselves. Moreover, as the great majority of the Southern colored people are beyond the reach of white people, and must be civilized, educated and Christianized by members of their own race if it at all, it is very evident that well-trained teachers are requisite. [xi]

Bumstead attributes a sociological function to Atlanta University. The university presumes and responds to a sociological problem that has national importance. This sociological problem that goes by the name of "the Negro problem" is evidenced through ignorance and vice. African American education is the antidote to that problem and the deficiencies and immoralities that it implies. African American education, according to Bumstead, can transport blacks from the state of nature connoted in the condition of slavery to an American civil society promised by the black college. A specifically moral task, therefore, underwrites the black college and university. Blacks educated in such institutions emerge as the agents of that task, revealing the ways in which black intellectual formations - subjective and institutional - become technologies of normalization.

[15] In a companion letter to President Bumstead's request, Atlanta University alumna Mary L. Hubert described how the college had benefited her as a moral agent. She begins the letter by praising the university for standing for "thoroughness and Christianity." She then proceeds to describe the work that she has tried to do with her 135 pupils in a rural town in southeast Georgia. "Being a graduate of Atlanta University I could have secured an appointment in a city public school, but I accepted this because it was a country school, for I felt that my services were needed much more in such a place than in the city where they generally have superior advantages." [xii] Later on in her letter, Hubert refers to the sociological conditions that give purpose to her life. She writes,

My experience here teaches me that much of the crime and social corruption, which surely exists among our colored youths, may be traced to their home life. In some of the homes the children never see the beautiful which they might see if only they knew how with their own hands to make home attractive, and if the mothers and sisters had known how to make home attractive, many a son and brother might have been saved from ruin. I have tried hard to reach the homes of these boys and girls. Some I find come from homes where indecency is ever before them, others from those miserable little hovels where immorality and impurity may be witnessed in their worst form. [xiii]

Here Hubert moralizes the social conditions of her rural constituency. Here she implies the sociological importance of the home in the moral edification of its members, specifically, but of African Americans, generally. Those conditions presume a discourse of sexuality that drives Hubert's civilizing effort, conditions that present the homes as "miserable little hovels of immorality and impurity." The letter is the evidence of a stratification of normativity in which Hubert and other civilized, educated, moralized black subjects provide a managerial strata that can regulate and discipline black subjects who deviate from regimes of normativity, subjects whose class and regional differences mark them as the bearers of slavery's immoral and ignominious stain. For Ms. Hubert and others like her, freedom means bringing the pupils and people like them within morality's thrall.

African American Emancipation in the Shadow of the Imperial Paradox

[16] Freedom as a mode of moral subjugation structured the logic of U.S. imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It is important to note that the period out of which the archival documents from Atlanta University arose were framed within the period of U.S. imperialism formalized through the Spanish American War in the late nineteenth century. During that period the long project of emancipation was shaped by U.S. imperial expansion. For instance, in A New Negro For a New Century published in 1900, Booker T. Washington locates the emergence of a new, modern, nationalized and moralized African American subject as the effect of U.S. imperialism. Washington writes,

The Civil War had estranged the sections almost as much as the agitation of the slave question had; for it left a bitterness in its results - such as the manumission and enfranchisement of the late slaves and the reconstruction policy, forced upon the country by that uncompromising radical, Representative Thaddeus Stevens, of Pennsylvania - which seemed to be intensified rather than tempered by time...The bitterness rankled in [the white people's] souls all the more as the war had destroyed well nigh all their wealth, along with it their slave property, which had become co-equal in citizenship; a transformation in itself of the most radical and provocative character, from the standpoint of those who for two centuries and more, had been taught to and did regard the African as less than human as simply property.

But the declaration of war with Spain was responded to with a fervor and enthusiasm in every State of the Union, among all the race elements of the population, that put at rest forever any lingering suspicion that the Republic would be divided in sentiment in the face of a foreign foe. [xiv]

Here Washington constructs the Civil War as a struggle that brought about a costly emancipation, one that cost the United States its unity and whites their privilege. But the war with Spain provided the opportunity of reunification of the states and the unprecedented chance for African Americans and whites to exist as equals, citizens, and allies. As citizenship under imperial agendas allegedly promoted an equality of conditions, that citizenship was predicated upon the increasing subjugation of peoples within Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii. We might think of the possibilities of minority enfranchisement within the conditions of imperialism as yet another instance of the stratification of normativity. In this way, black middle class formations at the end of the nineteenth century gained national and moral coherence within the context of an imperial venture that would assume the moral necessity of U.S. imperialism.

[17] We can see the ways in which African American middle-class and intellectual formations interlocked with regimes of morality through Washington's arguments about the Black women's club movement. In a chapter about African American women's clubs, Washington writes,

Among colored women the club is the effort of the few competent in behalf of the many incompetent; that is to say that the club is only one among many means for the social uplift of the race... The consciousness of being fully free has not yet come to the great masses of the colored women in this country. The emancipation of the mind and spirit of the race could not be accomplished by legislation. More time, more patience, more suffering and more charity are still needed to complete the work of emancipation. [xv]

Like Ms. Hubert, the women of the club movement engaged in a moral project of freedom. Their agency was based on stratifications constituted out of normativity and expressed through differences of class and region. The very structure of the book illustrates the simultaneity of nationalism and normativity as formations obtained within the moment of U.S. imperialism. The book begins with U.S. imperial war as the process that provides the condition for nationalization and normalization. The book ends with the Black woman's club movement, suggesting the ways in which processes of moralization bear the trace of imperial maneuvers and events. The structure symbolizes, for me, how nationalization and normalization are twin processes. As the book assumes imperialism as the context for the racial project known as the New Negro, it suggests that these processes express themselves within and beyond national borders and terrains. As the book opened the twentieth century, it also possibly announced the debut of a logic that propelled that century, a logic that insisted upon the simultaneity of emancipation and moralization. This is a logic that demands that we do a certain genealogical work around morality, looking for its broad powers and applications. It is an analysis compelled by a suspicion that the history of morality may very well be the history of empire.


[i] Michel Foucualt, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990),5-6.

[ii] Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure

[iii] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, translated by Maurice Cranson (London: Penguin Books, 1968),

[iv] Ibid 64-65.

[v] Karl Marx, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy: Volume 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 280

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid 812-813.

[ix] Ibid 812.

[x] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett Publications, 1961), 77.

[xi] Horace Bumstead Records, Clark-Atlanta University.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Booker T. Washington, A New Negro for a New Century: An Accurate and Up-to-Date Record of the Upward Struggles of the Negro Race (Chicago: American Publishing House), 23-24.

[xv] Ibid 383.