The Invention of Race
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The Invention of Race

Scientific and Popular Representations

Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, Dominic Thomas, Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, Dominic Thomas

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eBook - ePub

The Invention of Race

Scientific and Popular Representations

Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, Dominic Thomas, Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, Dominic Thomas

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About This Book

This edited collection explores the genesis of scientific conceptions of race and their accompanying impact on the taxonomy of human collections internationally as evidenced in ethnographic museums, world fairs, zoological gardens, international colonial exhibitions and ethnic shows. A deep epistemological change took place in Europe in this domain toward the end of the eighteenth century, producing new scientific representations of race and thereby triggering a radical transformation in the visual economy relating to race and racial representation and its inscription in the body. These practices would play defining roles in shaping public consciousness and the representation of "otherness" in modern societies. The Invention of Race provides contextualization that is often lacking in contemporary discussions on diversity, multiculturalism and race.

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Part I The Genealogy of Race in the Eighteenth Century

1 Biologization of Race and Racialization of the Human

Bernier, Buffon, Linnaeus
Thierry Hoquet
DOI: 10.4324/9781315813318-2
Identifying the person who invented the modern sense of the word “race” is a difficult and hotly contested task. Here I shall examine the formation and formulation of an idea of “races” in three “early taxonomists” (Jackson and Weidman 2006, 24): François Bernier (1625–1688), Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), and G.-L. Leclerc de Buffon (1707–1788). These three are not, of course, the only potential candidates: other scholars point to Immanuel Kant, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, or John Locke and Thomas Hobbes (Bernasconi 2001, 11–36; Hannaford 1996). In reality, the greatest difficulty has to do with the definition of the word “race” and its exact content.
What terminology did each of these authors use to designate human diversity: did they speak explicitly of “races,” and if not, what terms did they employ? The term “race” played an important role in nobiliary thought, and was associated with the idea of transmission by birth, in a tradition which Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658–1722) inherited. But the concept of race progressively evolved from this genealogical sense to encompass a growing trend of “biologization”: the history of the concept includes a shift from lineage-based thinking to a naturalist approach. According to this reading of history, “race” was first applied to humans and then extended to the rest of the animal kingdom. In addition, the polysemy of the word “race” in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writings implies an effort to delimit its scientific, modern, and naturalist use. That is why, before reading the works of Bernier, Buffon, and Linnaeus, I propose six questions that will help to clarify and mark out the potential use of the concept “race.”
  • (1) Is the term used? What I mean is: does the author explicitly speak of “race”? The question is one of prudence: I do not wish to project “race” onto all “anthropological” thought or anything that deals with human diversity across the globe. After all, it is possible to speak of differences between peoples and customs without speaking of race. The use of the term “race” is thus an important element in the present study. Of course, a concept of race can be present, even when the term “race” does not appear. But in that case, how are we to identify it? What characterizes the concept of race, in the absence of the word?
  • (2) How are humans divided? Here, I draw the reader’s attention to types of anthropological division: are humans divided into a finite number of distinct and discrete categories? Or are they a spattering of peoples and cultures? It seems to me that the concept of race demands a description of a small number of distinct categories in which all human differences are distributed.
  • (3) Does skin color play an important role in the formation of groups? The idea of race often mobilizes an opposition between “whites” (or “Caucasians”) and other-colored groups. It behooves us to know if the authors in question made use of this criterion in their descriptions of peoples.
  • (4) Are human groups hierarchized? Are notions of inferiority and superiority associated with having a particular skin color or being of a particular origin? Are such distinctions distributed over a hierarchical scale? Hierarchization can be thought in terms of degradation and degeneration; or in terms of animalization.
  • (5) Are the categories the result of natural causes? Here I am interested in understanding how difference is founded: in particular, does climate or continental distribution play a role? Are differences a priori givens, or are they the result of discrete events that occurred over the course of human history?
  • (6) Are the distinctions reversible—or not? What I mean is: is there or is there not the possibility of transition between the discrete forms identified? It is important to distinguish between race conceived as a necessary and ineluctable “destiny” and race that is related to contingent events (as in question 5).
These six questions will help us trace out the conditions of the possibility, as well as criteria of identification, of an idea of race, terminologically and conceptually. The first two criteria (the use of the term and division) shall allow us to distinguish race from false look-alikes: anthropological variation, ethnographic diversity. Attentiveness to the lexicon employed by the authors in question will guard against anachronism and the temptation to speak of “race” in inappropriate contexts. However, words have their limitations: we must also attempt to identify the concept of “race,” what it is, its origins. Question 2 (division) emphasizes the notion that race concerns the division of humanity into several large groups: if there is “race,” it is always at base a “continental race.” Questions 3 and 4 (color and hierarchization) get to the heart of the concept of race, in its most immediate sense: opposition between skin colors and presumed inferiority (or superiority) based on color. Finally, the last two criteria (natural causes and irreversibility) invite us to refine our analysis, by observing mechanisms at work in ideas of human difference. If race is conceived as a historic contingency and not an essential reality, does it still fit within the concept of race?

François Bernier or Race as Logic

The historiography of race has emphasized the key role of an article written by the Gassendist François Bernier that was anonymously published in 1684 in the Journal des Savants (Bernier 1684, 133–40). This publication, which included the syntagm “races of men” in its title, appeared not long before the promulgation of the Code Noir [Black Code], which regulated triangular trade and the fate of slaves in 1685. In addition, Bernier’s sources concerning Africans were primarily from his observations at Turkish and Arab slave markets (Stuurman 2000, 5, 10): Bernier is thus often presented as a traveler whose time abroad did nothing to alter his prejudices (Boulle 2007, 47–58).
In what sense was the short text in the Journal des Savants innovative, decisive? The historian Léon Poliakov did not hesitate to “date with precision the first manifestation of modern and pseudo-scientific racism” to the publication of Bernier’s article (Poliakov 1989, 53). Poliakov sought to “uncover the West’s responsibility in the formulation and prolongation of a racism, of which the 3rd Reich was the extravagant—but logical—culmination”; he thus placed Bernier at the origin of a lineage that opposed “the white race to all the others,” on pseudo-scientific grounds (Poliakov 1989, 56; Todorov 1989, 140). Did the article in question serve the function that Poliakov later attributed to it?
The historiography that places Bernier at the origin of racist thought is based on an opposition between Christian and materialist traditions. According to this framework, a fundamentally monogenist Christianism functioned as a shield against racism; inversely, anti-Christian materialism was strongly inclined toward polygenism, which essentially led to racism, notably in Bernier. Richard Popkin therefore cites the decline of Christianism as the foremost among three major factors that contributed to the development of Western racism, along with the slave trade and the fact that naturalist explanations were evaluative (Popkin 1973, 245–62). The historian Colin Kidd argues that Bernier is “one of the first authors to propose an alternative to the Biblical scheme of racial taxonomy” (Kidd 2006, 9): unlike of the Biblical model (Genesis, IX, 18–27), in which all humans are descendents of Noah and his three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth), Bernier’s proposed division of humanity into four or five races was naturalist. The real feat was that “while Bernier’s anthropology was consistent with the Bible, he did not call upon the Bible as evidence for his position” (Jackson and Weidman 2006, 14).
The Bible vs. materialism narrative is reflected in the opposition between mono- and polygenism. Bernier is sometimes described as a crypto-polygenist, a hidden disciple of Isaac de La Peyrère (Gliozzi 1977, 602–5). For others, Bernier is a monogenist, as indicates his inclusion of Native Americans in the “first” race or species (Stuurman 2000, 12). Bernier is especially striking for his hybridity: on the one hand, his monogenism concerning human history was a renewal of some aspects of Biblical genealogy; on the other hand, his discourse relied on geographical and anthropological findings, anticipating what would be, in the eighteenth century, “the natural history of humanity” (Stuurman 2000, 2).
What exactly is contained in the 1684 article? He proposes making anthropology a key for geography, by dividing the world according to “species or races of men.” The division is rather disproportionate, as the first “species” includes Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India, along with part of Southeast Asia; the second, Africa; the third, a part of Asia (China, etc.); the fourth, Lapland. Distinctions between “species” are not based on color, given that two among them are white: the Mongols, the Chinese, and the Japanese are described as “veritably white,” despite the very major differences in their corporal disposition. Bernier is attentive to nuances: his division relies on the continents, but he does not strictly respect them. Inhabitants of Africa (the entire Mediterranean coast) are therefore grouped in the first division; Native Americans occupy an ambiguous place at the end of the enumeration—Bernier considered creating a fifth division, before simply putting them with “our own.”
Let us consider the terms that Bernier employs. The text distinguishes four “species or races,” often designated with the single term “species,” though never does the term “race” appear on its own. Bernier limits himself to enumerating “species,” or logical types (the “first,” the “second,” etc.). The use of the term “species” shows that Bernier understood his divisions more in terms of logic than biology (Sloan 1987, 101–40). For Bernier, logic made it possible to transition from general ideas to more limited ideas. His example in l’Abrégé is the shift from Human Kind to Nations to Provinces and so on. But he notes that the definition, being “general by abstraction,” would be even less general (and as a result less perfect) if it did not designate all the individuals contained in the general term (Bernier 1992, 39). Bernier therefore very clearly recognized that it would be logically incorrect to define human kind by the whiteness of faces or the shape of noses (Bernier 1992, 39). Moreover, he suggested that the true color of one’s skin could be distorted by the sun and that darker skin might simply be the result of “sun-tans.”
Bernier’s text is generally recognized for “launching” the idea of racial divisions of humanity in Europe. But the way in which he divided humanity was rather idiosyncratic, and did not really presage what racial divisions would look like in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Color, for instance, was relegated to the background. Bernier’s influence was less in his description of “races” and more in the way in which he applied to them materialist natural history, which was emancipated from sacred history.
Bernier does not, then, constitute a rupture in racial thought. His propositions in terms of natural causality were well within old Hippocratic views and the theory of humors. In the Hippocratic Corpus On Airs, Waters, Places, organisms are related to their climates through a phenomenon of direct connection. The application of climate theory to the division of humans can be seen in Renaissance thinkers. For example, Jean Bodin: “I shall divide all people living on earth on this side of the Equator into three parts”; this was followed by a division between hot regions (southern peoples), temperate regions (middle peoples), and regions of excessive heat (northern peoples) (Bodin 1986, 12). Or in Pierre Charron, who divided the world into three parts, which is to say, in “three general seats of the world, which are the two extremities of the South and the North, and the middle”; again, the division of the world was made according to three types, “of natural aspects of men different in all things, mind body, religion, mores”: the Northerners, the Middles, the Southerners (Charron 1986, 285). The Hippocratic tradition thus posited the importance of climate: if humans took on the “pigment” of the climate, then colonials relocating to the newly discovered territories would end up resembling the natives.
Two points deserve special emphasis in Bernier. First, reference to the animal is included in the description of species 2, 3, and 4. The hair of the second species is “a kind of wool that resembles the hair of some of our Barbets.” The third species is, in the published version, described as having “little pig eyes, long and deep-set” (the manuscript says instead: “oval-shaped eyes”). The fourth species has “a surprisingly long face; it is terribly frightful and seems to take after the bear”; Bernier concludes “they are nasty animals.” Second, the description of peoples is joined by a long development on the “beauty of women” (Schiebinger 1993, 126). Bernier’s contribution to racialist discourse thus ap...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half-Title Page
  3. Series Page
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Table Of Contents
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Introduction: The Invention of Race—Scientific and Popular Representations of Race from Linnaeus to the Ethnic Shows
  9. PART I The Genealogy of Race in the Eighteenth Century
  10. PART II The Internationalization and Institutionalization of Racial Anthropology in the Nineteenth Century
  11. PART III The Transcription and Exhibition of Race
  12. Contributors
  13. Index