Sunday, January 9, 2011

What I Mean by Cosmology

As this blog is about whiteness as a cosmology, I want make it as clear as I can what I mean by the word “cosmology.” It think it will be helpful to consider how cosmology differs from the more familiar term ideology (although we should keep in mind that the two concepts really constitute a continuum). An ideology is a system of interrelated ideas, woven together by particular stories. For example, Capitalism and Communism are economic ideologies, in addition to being systems. Capitalism holds that free markets and unfettered competition are the best way to create the most wealth for the most people. Communism holds that workers should own the means of production and share equally in the wealth created by industry. A crucial point about ideological beliefs is that, however strongly they’re held, they are always understood as beliefs. That is, even the strongest exponents of an ideology understand that they could, in principle, be wrong. Capitalists and Communists, however strongly they believe in their respective systems, to whatever degree they are certain that they are on the right side of the debate, they know that they are in a debate.

A cosmology, on the other hand, operates at a much deeper, mostly unconscious, level. It is especially difficult to question one’s cosmology because the ideas and attitudes that make it up tend to be so basic as to seem beyond question. A society’s cosmology consists in the basic stories that make the world comprehensible and give the society is fundamental orientation. It provides the context through which society creates shared meaning and determines its most fundamental values and norms. Another way of saying this is that an ideology provides answers to already existing questions, while a cosmology governs what questions can even be asked. For these reasons, calling into question the premises of the dominant cosmology is not only hard, it is, in many cases, practically impossible because to do so is to threaten everything a society holds to be real and true.

Let’s consider money as an example of the difference between ideology and cosmology as it is a notion that has roots in both levels. One standard belief about money is that hard work and talent are the main ingredients to making money (with all that that implies about the poor). There are countless examples of stories that reflect and reinforce this basic meritocratic. The news media, popular historical accounts, and the arts present story after story that portrays individuals combining natural gifts and tireless effort to achieve great financial success. But this belief about money is ideological because it is clearly debatable. Even that most hard core believer in meritocracy can recognize that there are rational people who dispute this view of money.

On the level of cosmology, meanwhile, there are the much more deeply rooted stories about money that practically everyone accepts without question. For example, few of us ever stop to question the principle that money gives one the right to own chunks of the Earth treat it as one pleases (notwithstanding the existing environmental protections, which were very hard won and remain constantly under threat). Nor do we question the fact that one must buy or rent space on the Earth to have a genuine right to be here. But even these ideas are grounded in other more universal (in this society) stories that portray humans as, in some essential way, separate from the Earth and morally obligated to put its resources to human use.

Racism is an ideology. It is a set of oppressive and discriminatory ideas and practices based on certain groups having "different" physical and/or cultural characteristics. Whiteness is a cosmology. It identifies an unmarked, unracialized identity or mode of being based on Anglo-European values and the cognitive, aesthetic, and moral standards that follow from those values. The cosmology of whiteness entails racism even (or especially) when it claims to be colorblind because, given its hegemony, its norms are treated as universal, and whiteness is implicitly equated with humanness.

There will be other posts dedicated to teasing out the threads that make up this fabric, and all the blog posts will, I hope, contribute to the increasing visibility of the entire quilt that constitutes the cosmology of whiteness.  I welcome all thoughtful and constructive comments. 


  1. Is there any literature that you could direct us to regarding this distinction? I'd like to read some more detailed analysis (especially in terms of what renders capitalism merely an ideology/whiteness not merely an ideological question).


  2. Thanks for the question Derek. I would love to direct you to some more detailed analysis, but the cosmology/ideology distinction is mine. It is intended simply to clarify the way that whiteness functions, for most white people and some people of color, as an invisible or unconscious world view. I classify capitalism as an ideology because many of its assumptions are relatively overt. I admit that the lines are a bit blurry. I'm just trying to get folks ready to question norms & values that we usually take for granted. BTW, for more on whiteness, I recommend "Black on White" edited by David Roediger and almost anything by James Baldwin. - Gregory