Rei Terada, Metaracial: Hegel, Antiblackness, and Political Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2023. 231pp. ISBN: 978-0226823713

Reviewed by everet smith, Emory University 

Rei Terada’s Metaracial: Hegel, Antiblackness, and Political Identity offers a critique of Leftist radicals of the Hegelian and, to an extent, Marxist varieties. The crux of Terada’s argument is that Leftist political radicalism is inherently anti-black––even if not most especially owing to its antiracist stance. This is, she contends, a holdover from the work of Hegel and the Left’s critical yet problematic adoption of his philosophy. The Left accepts the Hegelian model of  a “relational ontology” that is “empty so as to be open, negative so as to be real,” meaning that Hegelian philosophy depends on an anti-essentializing logic that voids the subject, via negation, of its particularity, emptying it so as to make it open to relationships with others. Such a negation not only includes, but is, in fact, epitomized in the overcoming of slavery and slavishness. The radical Hegelian is, Terada contends, unable to acknowledge the role of slavery in their development, and so, by extension, disavows and vilifies Blackness (9). The meta-theoretical framing of her critique, coupled with Terada’s emphasis on the anti-blackness of the Left’s political assumptions, situates her text firmly in the tradition of Afropessimism.

The first section explores the emergence of anti-blackness on the Left, particularly in relation to Hegel’s allegedly radical politics. For Terada, Hegel’s radicalism depends on his anti-blackness. This appears, for example, in the quintessential struggle for recognition that takes place in the so-called “master/slave dialectic.” In this dialectic, the slave revolts, becoming politically aware through their work and thereby shedding their enslavement through trial and tribulation. In this narrative of revolt, the race of the slave is rendered contingent, insofar as slaveness is something that can and must be overcome by anyone to gain entry into the political realm. Yet, given the historical and material associations of Blackness and slaveness, Terada contends that this narrative of revolt leads to an insistence that the Blackness of slavery is itself a roadblock to achieving political consciousness. To insist on one’s Blackness, therefore, is a politically insufficient overinvestment in racial identity, a closed position that flies in the face of the Hegelian demand for openness. Hegelian openness is thematized in the narrative of the slave overcoming their oppression; to insist on the Blackness of slavery fills the subject that Hegelians demand become “empty,” racial particularism closing off the path to political consciousness. This “racialism” weds slaveness to Blackness, and, thus, Blackness comes to be seen as a marker of political immaturity that Hegelians demand be overcome. However, Terada contends, Blackness, unlike contengently-racial slaveness, presents a unique conundrum for Hegelian radical politics: it cannot be overcome. In fact, it actively resists overcoming. The significance of the resistant nature of Blackness is a theme pursued across the later parts of the book, and one that Terada grounds in Hegel’s account of Africa and German tribalism.

Terada locates the origins of the Hegelian castigation of racialism in Hegel’s account of Africa, which converges with his criticisms of  “German tribalism.” African “backwardness” serves as an anti-political foil against which proper politics becomes articulable (23). Terada dubs this a “metaracial logic,” wherein antiracism obfuscates the antiracialism at work in all Hegelian-derived Leftism due to its positioning of racialism or tribalism as the backdrop against which a truly political subject can emerge. Hegel, and all the Leftists who follow him, position slavery as the threshold of political consciousness: the overcoming of racialism, which contingently rendered one enslaved, comes to be the mark of political consciousness (9). With the positing of the overcoming of slaveness as the threshold to the political, Terada argues that Hegelians split the “good” slave from the “bad” slave. The good slave is the one who can overcome their enslavement, emerging as a political subject, while the bad slave is the one who retains their slavishness in the form of racialism. In other words, the bad, non-political slave is the one who insists on their Blackness. In the context of contemporary debates about race, this Hegelian logic levels a charge of racialism against those who would insist on the importance of Blackness for failing to catch up with the post-racial arena where true political activity takes place. Therefore, where the Hegelian Left sees antiracism and radical political consciousness, Terada sees a disavowal of race. This disavowal, however, does not get rid of race, but rather suppresses it as the necessary condition for the emergence of politics. Terada thus charges adherents of Hegelian political philosophy with anti-blackness and, moreover, an attachment to an abstract (and therefore necessarily ahistorical and deracinated) idea of the slave for which it cannot account (63).

In her second section, Terada explores the problem of this unaccounted for attachment to slavery by turning to Romanticism and an exploration of such thinkers as Rousseau, Kant, and Mary Shelley. There, Terada argues that the overcoming of racialism is couched in a progressive, modernizing argument that characterizes racialism as a primitivist stance. Terada aims to demonstrate that the primitivism Hegelian radicals purport to have left behind is, to a large extent, retained in the form of (anti)racialism. Hegelian philosophy professes to have overcome slaveness in its progression of political consciousness, leaving behind primitive racialism by attaining entry into the political realm. Yet, insofar as Blackness is repressed as the ground of the political, or the slave is retained as the threshold to it, Terada suggests that primitivism remains nestled within the political realm, in the form of the narrative progression from enslavement to modern, political subjectivity. 

The final section examines “non-political distinctions.” Shifting from the Romantics to Marx, Terada argues that racialism is a viable ground for an emancipatory position. Racialism, Terada suggests, goes beyond, or lies beneath the political as an alternative ontology. To articulate this racialized ontological alternative, Terada offers a counter-reading to Todd McGowan’s interpretation of Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” (1844). McGowan, according to Terada, commits the Left Hegelian sin of sacrificing racial particularity––in this case, Jewishness––for political progress. Contra McGowan,Terada argues that “if Nazis could not stand universality, what they really couldn’t stand was universality through Jewishness” (183). This claim puts Terada’s earlier arguments about the political slave versus the racial (Black) slave in a new racial context. Here, Terada argues that interpretations like McGowan’s illustrate the splitting off of racial particularity is the logical result of adopting Hegelian radicalism. According to Terada, on McGowan’s reading of “On the Jewish Question” the Jew represents a political threshold––to the universal, radical stance––which Nazism then sought to eradicate. Terada argues that McGowan is unable to deal with the racialism of the Jew in this case, splitting Jewish racial particularity from universalism, and thereby obfuscating it. 

Just as we saw with the Blackness of the slave, the racial particularity of the Jew is traded for entry into universal politics. Terada’s suggestion is that the universality that the Nazis feared in the Jew, and the universality that McGowan champions (i.e. communism), are not the same variety. The universalism of communism that McGowan advocates for, on Terada’s read, is unable to acknowledge the racial particularity of the Jew. According to Terada, the Jew in the Nazi imaginary is another ontological entity, which, like the racial slave, is an ontological possibility that is sacrificed to the altar of human emancipation (182). Both the radical Hegelian and the Romantic imaginary, Terada claims, “de-realize” these alternative racialist ontologies in the name of a radical, progressive political narrative. The Black slave, and now Judaism, are themselves viewed as “null,” while the Black slave and Jew “of the dialectic models the possibility of the radical’s antiracist reality” (182).

While Terada insists that McGowan “occludes” this alternative ontological plane, she ignores his assertion that “the oppressed group in a struggle of competing particulars will always represent the universal, even as it is degraded by the oppressor” (2019). Jewishness is, on McGowan’s terms, universal. Jewishness is not split off from this emancipatory narrative, as Terada implies. Her criticism of McGowan, thus, draws many of her earlier claims on racialism and the radical Left into question, since McGowan’s position highlights that Left Hegelians are not excluding particularisms from their discussions of the universal. Instead, many Left Hegelians uplift race into a universal; this is a decidedly political and anti-fascist gesture, particularly in the context of antisemitism and the second World War. Terada’s response to McGowan’s interpretation of universal Judaism, however, is irresponsible, flippant, and uncritical. Terada explicitly equates racial Jewishness with its “degree of separatism” in an attempt to draw a connection between Bauer’s criticism of Jewish racialism and “similar [voices] indulging the antiblack fantasy of criticizing Black separatism” (182). Yet, Terada makes no attempt to discuss how reactionary, “racialist” Zionism historically emerged in response to oppression––especially following World War II. This is a massive oversight, particularly because the position Terada advocates for over and against the alleged position of McGowan, Marx, and other Left Hegelians, is a separatist, closed, racially particular society. The connection between this position and reactionary, post-war Zionism are too overt to ignore. 

Terada’s criticism of McGowan––that he disavows race in favor of political emancipation––is symptomatic of her overall argument. Terada’s defense of Black and Jewish separatism sheds light on her privileging of the Beautiful Soul, the character of the moralist in Hegel’s philosophy. For Hegel, the one-sidedness of the Beautiful Soul leads to its withering away and, eventually, its demise (such as we find in Goethe’s novel from which the character is lifted). Terada understands this as the political blackmail touted by the Hegelian Left: join or die. Terada instead emphasizes the “unchosen” withdrawal of the Beautiful Soul, vindicating the allegedly non-political one-sidedness of the Beautiful Soul as an ontological solution to our political problems. This move demonstrates Terada’s wholesale indictment of politics (142), as the moralist’s one-sidedness she claims challenges the centrality of political organization itself (66). In an attempt to elude this challenge, “Hegel [needed] a political, deracinated slave to affirm the process [of political organization as a result of sublimation]” (ibid.). Hegel’s indictment of the Beautiful Soul or moralist prefigures the Leftist positioning of the racialist, who appears to withhold relationality and so is construed as improperly political. Terada thereby offers her clapback to Leftist relationality: relationality is contingent, and, in fact, it requires a disavowal of non-relationality in order to secure its favored position in politics and theory (69). 

Moreover, Terada’s privileging of the Beautiful Soul makes apparent that her critique of the Hegelian Left concerns its requirement for open borders, societies, and relations, and that these constitute, she argues, the Left’s anti-blackness. Terada’s position is largely a reaction to interpretations of Hegel that maintain that a nation cannot progress without contact with the outside world. Given more space, one could opine here on Terada’s devastating misreading of Hegel on the question of relationality, the remedy for which resides in Gillian Rose’s brilliant Hegel Contra Sociology (1981), which Terada cites, but never discusses. However, Terada’s response to this misreading is vastly more interesting than the misreading itself. “Hegel’s conclusion,” Terada writes, “is literally that, because within their own societies Africans supposedly do not experience the dismemberment of negativity, and rather encounter negativity everywhere but without being disturbed by it, they remain in an irrational stage of racialism” (30). Terada here offers a curious provocation: what if Hegel was correct in his claim that Africans did not experience negativity and relationality? And what if this is something to be affirmed? To be clear, she has argued for this claim previously in an article written for Radical Philosophy in 2019. However, we now see that this is in many ways the central claim of her book: her critique of the post-racial racism of Left radicalism made possible by a defense of racialism and the so-called closed society that Leftists construe as a threat to revolution. Hence, Terada insists on the insidiousness of relationality as such, condemning both it, and the political consciousness that endorses it, as fundamentally anti-black. 

Ironically, her criticisms of Hegel and the radical Left’s insistence on openness uncritically accepts Hegel’s characterization of African society as closed, a position that can be easily rebuked by looking to critical philosophy and anthropology from an Africanist perspective (Oyěwùmí 1997). However, Terada’s position is also contested by the very terms of her own critique, since her entire criticism of the Left is that they posit a non-social, pre-political, often racialized being that precedes politics. Yet Terada herself posits Blackness as indicative of a non-social being that precedes politics. This comes out strongly in her claim that the metaracial logic of Hegelianism “imputes racialism to Africans to demand access to Africa. Access claims to be nonracial because it desires opening” (30), implying that to be racial is to be closed, non-political, and one-sided. Hence, Terada’s position actually affirms the oft-criticized Hegelian caricature of Africa as backward, non-historical, and overinvested in “kinship, attachment, and so forth” (ibid.). Terada’s interest in non-relationality emerges by way of an unfortunate, if common, misconstrual of Hegelian relationality as referring to an innate capacity of the human being. Terada attempts to vindicate an inherently non-relational being as an ontological alternative, a product of her understanding of Hegelian relationality as an ontological claim rather than an historical one. However, Hegelian relationality is not ontological, precisely insofar as relationality, for Hegel, presupposes social structures. In other words, to make claims about non-relational existence in Africa is to claim that there literally is no society worth speaking about in Africa. This is the logical conclusion of Terada’s argument, and is, therefore, the position that she endorses.

Terada’s affirmation of the Hegelian caricature of Africa is on special display in her chapter exploring Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). There, she draws connections between Shelley’s “Creature” and Blackness, arguing that the “illegibility of the Creature’s origins” and its human-like, but not human body beg the question: “What, then, is [the] minimal nurture” required for a body to be understood as human? This turn to Frankenstein for a critique of the Hegelian Left is incredibly interesting, not least of all owing to her critique of Hegelian negativity. In Terada’s reading, the negativity of the Hegelian subject is the power of “dismemberment” and “self-shattering.” These are descriptors of the Hegelian relational ontology that voids the subject of particularity, rendering the subject open to relations with others and legitimating it as a political subject. If the radical Left is indicted for its openness, its emphasis on the “discipline of the world,” and its self-shattering, then Terada asserts racialist non-relation as its antithesis. The irony is that Frankenstein’s monster is itself a hodgepodge of dismembered parts, a shining example of Hegelian self-shattering par excellence: the Creature is literally built from dismembered and patched-together pieces of flesh. That the relations undergirding the Creature’s appearance are construed as unintelligible, or even absent, says more about Terada’s misconstrual of relationality than it does about the possibility of non-relational existence. 

Much like Terada’s interpretation of Shelley’s Creature, her critique of Kant appears troublingly one-sided as well, insofar as she disparages Kant’s refusal of the possibility of being “coexistent and in sequence” in time (97), while ignoring aspects of his argument that evidence the contrary (1987, §61). Terada similarly caricatures Left Hegelians to the detriment of her argument, as many Left Hegelians espouse positions close to her own. The affinity between radical Left Hegelians and Terada’s argument for one-sidedness is especially evident in her emphasis on refusal and failure. This favoring of refusal is highlighted in her commentary on the correspondence between Hegel and Friedrich Niethammer in her eighth chapter. Niethammer insists on failure to the point of his own destruction, his “apocalyptic language” rejecting the state of “bearing it” Hegel allegedly endorses. Terada’s conclusions about Niethammer, which enshrine his one-sided refusal as a radical alternative to Hegel’s advocacy for overcoming political strife, is in fact quite close to positions of Left Hegelians like Slavoj Zizek and Todd McGowan, both of whom make the list of theorists to whom her critique applies. The “radical openness” of Left Hegelianism is, for many, synonymous with failure––what Hegelians of the Lacanian persuasion refer to as “constitutive lack.” Terada’s partiality to “the double negative utopian category of neither/nor” (185) and interiority is the same as the lack that Lacanian-Hegelians in turns construe as either openness (to failure) or a suicidal ethical negation, as in Antigone’s famous “No!”. Terada’s affinity with Afropessimism wavers here––or else she poses serious questions for Afropessimism––as some of her UC Irvine affiliates elsewhere castigate Lacanian psychoanalysis for being unable to account for Blackness (Wilderson, 2010). Putting this aside, what we see in her readings of Hegel, Shelley, and Kant is that Terada repeatedly offers questionable, obviously partial interpretations of the theories and thinkers with whom she chooses to engage. Terada’s interpretation and critique of Left Hegelians, but also Kant, Rousseau, and others, leaves one with the sense that Terada manufactures the radicality of her work precisely through these one-sided interpretations. Unfortunately, this leaves the critical intervention of her book feeling, at best, forced. 

All that being said, Metaracial begins with a real and important problem: that all too often, even in the most radical positions “racism [appears] outside the self, in people of insufficient understanding and worse politics” (3). What Terada sets out to address in her introduction is not a new problem but a persistent debate within revolutionary political theory––the place of identarian particularisms, such as the nation, ethnicity, and race. This has been one of the fundamental concerns of the Left since its inception. Unfortunately, while she claims to be motivated by a deep concern for radical politics, Terada ultimately trades in questionable interpretations and alternative ontologies rather than cogent political analysis, immanent critique, and radical political interventions. This leads the so-called radical intervention of her work to the least radical position of all: stop doing politics. More bluntly, the position Terada endorses is to do nothing. Terada champions the one-sided refusal of the Beautiful Soul, arguing that it may offer a departure from the radical Leftist politics that she finds inadequate. Unfortunately, this indeterminate negation of the neither/nor remains what it has always been––even, if not most especially, in the hands of Left Hegelians: not a radical refusal of the political status quo, but a quietist endorsement of it.