Subaltern Voices Series

Speaking & Theorizing from the Disciplinary Margins


Dr. Falguni A. Sheth (Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory, Hampshire College, Amherst)

Topic: “The Violence of Law: Race, Culture and Exclusion.”

Date: Thursday, 29 March 2007


Co-sponsored by the Centre for Constitutional Studies and the Peace and Postconflict Studies Program.

Abstract: In the five years since September 11, 2001, Muslim men and women have been subjected to remarkably cruel treatment in the name of stopping or preventing terrorist activity. What are their transgressions which engender such treatment? I suggest that one of the Western world’s more urgent concerns is the danger of radical cultural heterogeneity or the threat to the safety of cultural homogeneity. The treatment to which Muslims have been subjected reflects a fundamental hostility that sovereign institutions direct towards individuals whose comportment seems to threaten the fundamental political-cultural order on which the state is based. This hostility is a response to ‘unruly’ signs or practices that conspicuously violate a dominant ‘neutral’ cultural or political norm, such as public secularism. These signs also serve as proxies for other more elusive threats to a cultural-political regime, in this case, Western liberalism. In this paper, I will refer to the ‘problem of Muslim culture,’ although this analysis can be extended to a range of ‘minorities’ and minority cultures in relation to a dominant culture. Such persecution and ostracization has been described as exceptions or aberrations of ‘fair and just social institutions.’ But these events are neither aberrations nor mistakes. Rather, they are manifestations of the form that justice takes, when we understand this term to be not about fairness, but power, division, and violence. Whether overt instances of physical or psychic harm, or more subtle cases of imprisonment or privation of rights or procedures, these events are a manifestation of another fundamental violence that permeates our legal structure. It is a metaphysical violence, existing alongside the vivid, almost ordinary, violence that we have become accustomed to considering. Philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin have argued that this violence is the essence of law. My analysis supports this reading, although I argue that this violence is not random, as has been suggested, but rather directed towards always and already vulnerable populations.

Bio: Falguni A. Sheth, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory at Hampshire College in Amherst. She received her B.A. in Rhetoric from UC Berkeley, and her MA and Ph.D. in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. She writes and teaches in the areas of continental and political philosophy, philosophy of race, and legal and feminist theory. She has published articles on Heidegger, Foucault and race as a technology of juridical and political institutions; racial and intra-racial dynamics in the U.S. political imaginary; the tendency of liberal polities to locate ‘exceptions’ to its ethos of universalism and equal rights; the feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and ethics of various public policy issues. She is co-editor of a book, Race, Liberalism, and Economics (U of Michigan Press 2004), for which she has written an essay on the philosophical underpinnings of John Stuart Mill's disagreement with Thomas Carlyle on race, slavery, and free markets. She has been awarded a Woodrow Wilson 2006 Career Enhancement Fellowship for Junior Faculty, to complete her book, provisionally entitled, The Political Theory of Race: Technologies and Logics of Exclusion (forthcoming SUNY). There she draws upon the recent situation of Muslims and Arabs, the caste system, the practice of veiling, and the framework of liberalism, and other examples, to illustrate how racial divisions are a fundamental feature of sovereign-subject relations in a polity.