Thursday, August 03, 2006

On the nonexistence of race

Race does not, scientifically speaking, exist. It belongs to the realm of fantasy, where it demonstrates a powerful ability to give substance to what is ultimately insubstantial.

I wrote that in the post below. In the comments section Eileen wondered what might be behind such a bald statement:
JJC--can you elaborate on this, especially in relation to excerpt I shared from Pinker? I was thinking, too, especially viz. Meg's comments: do we need to define more precisely what we mean by "race"? ... I feel that there is a kind of bio-spectral leftover we're still not dealing with quite adequately somehow.

And here's the problem: race is exceptionally difficult to define. Everyone knows what they mean by race, but ask them try to articulate what they mean by the word and "race" dissolves into contradiction and incoherence (kind of like Augustine complaining about defining "time"). Is race skin color? Physiology? Susceptibility to certain diseases? Geographic origin? Genetic variation? It's tough to make the concept stick to any of those categories in a coherent way, except via fantasy and unexamined belief.

Don't buy that? My colleague at GW, Gayle Wald, provides from a cultural studies point of view a succinct survey of race as a mode of representation rather than an essence. See the introduction to her book Crossing the Line: racial passing in 20th C US Literature and Culture. The starting point for much of the influential field of criticism called Critical Legal Studies is likewise that race is a category that must be constantly reified (especially legislatively) because it doesn't actually pre-exist such reification, except as an incoherent mass of assumption tacked to shifting physical criteria.

The American Anthropological Association issued a Statement on "Race" in 1998 that rebuked most common conceptualizations of what race consists of, implicitly rejecting the category's utility. The New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial in 2001 that stated bluntly "race is a social construct, not a scientific classification" (NEJM 344 [2001] 1392-93). Nature Genetics published a special, web-available issue on "Genetics for the Human Race" that looks closely at race and the human genome. Most of the articles conclude that race is not an easily identified genetic presence. Here is an excerpt from the foreword by Ari Patrinos:
If 'race' as a concept is oversimplified, what can or should we use to describe and define our heritage or familial lineage? Ethnicity, genetics, ancestry, lineage and family all denote something about our origins, but what? Perhaps the more immediate question is whether the completed Human Genome Project will define a concept of race that is scientifically credible and useful. Can a more thorough look at the genetic complement, the actual DNA sequences we each carry, clarify and inform our history and relationships? At the simplest level, each of us carries a set of genes that affects the color of his or her skin (often a surrogate for race). The exact number of these genes isn't known (PLoS Biology 1, 19−22; 2003), but they represent only a small fraction of the estimated 30,000 total genes in our genomes (Nature 409, 860−921; 2001; and Science 291, 1304−1351; 2001). We are genetically far more nuanced and variable than is reflected in just skin coloration. With more data, can we build a comprehensive understanding of ourselves, backed by societal strictures that encourage the beneficent use of the resulting knowledge rather than an urge to discriminate? Can we follow Aristotle's advice to "...venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful. Absence of haphazard, and conduciveness of everything to an end, are to be found in Nature's works in the highest degree, and the resultant end of her generation and combinations is a form of the beautiful." (On the Parts of Animals, Oxford, 1911)?

Some of the essays that follow in this special issue conclude that "race" might be useful from a patient-centered viewpoint because of concerns about neglected populations and effective care, but most are extremely cautious about linking race to a genetic reality. "Genetic variation, classification and 'race'" by Lynn B Jorde & Stephen P Wooding is typical:
New genetic data has enabled scientists to re-examine the relationship between human genetic variation and 'race'. We review the results of genetic analyses that show that human genetic variation is geographically structured, in accord with historical patterns of gene flow and genetic drift. Analysis of many loci now yields reasonably accurate estimates of genetic similarity among individuals, rather than populations. Clustering of individuals is correlated with geographic origin or ancestry. These clusters are also correlated with some traditional concepts of race, but the correlations are imperfect because genetic variation tends to be distributed in a continuous, overlapping fashion among populations. Therefore, ancestry, or even race, may in some cases prove useful in the biomedical setting, but direct assessment of disease-related genetic variation will ultimately yield more accurate and beneficial information.

The scientific question of race is obviously not settled, and probably won't be in the near future -- mainly because the word is so damn shifty. My own take on race is that, even though it seems so chimerical from so many points of view, nonetheless it has a long history of linkage to (1) inequality and (2) corporeality that in fact make it more useful for describing how medieval groups conceptualized themselves and others than terms which are supposedly more neutral.


Eileen Joy said...

In his earlier post on medieval race, JJC wrote two things that I think are most important in this discussion. First:

"No matter how cultural in their origin, differences among medieval peoples were inevitably imagined in corporeal terms, employing language that attached difference in customs, laws, and language to the body. I therefore choose to use the word race rather than ethnicity to emphasize the sheer embodiedness of group differentiation."

And second:

"A cultural product that seems in some ways artificial and abstract, race is nonetheless bound to the flesh -- not because the body will (as racialists believe) always betray the congenital signs that allow natural categorizations, but because the body is the battleground where identities are perpetually sought, forced, expressed. Race has no pre-existent truth that awaits recognition. Race is instead the product of a discriminatory system of power that intertwines identity and embodiment."

First of all, why did this stuff end up on the cutting room floor of JJC's last book? It's the best description I've read, not of what "race" is, necessarily [as a cultural-historical phenomenon, fantastical or otherwise], but of why it matters so much viz. the physical & psychic harm that has been inflicted over time upon the bodies of those deemed racially inferior, suspect, dangerous, "viral," etc.

I do not, by the way, share Pinker's views [quoted in previous post] that there is a scientific, or phylogenetic, basis for broad differences in groups of specific "peoples" [called by some "races"], and have been reading, for quite a few years now, a lot of the same texts as JJC in anthropology, social theory, etc. In fact, to anyone who would listen to me in OE studies, I have been pushing the Frazer & Tyrell, "Social Identity in Early Medieval England" and also Gillett et al.'s "On Barbarian Indentity." It's for the same reason that I recently posted about recent books by Sen and Goffart--because I think it is important that we spend some time looking at the ways in which our historical understanding of how identity--especially of a "national" or "tribal" variety--has had a profound impact upon what the founders of the Redress Project call the "unfinished project of freedom." If race has no "preexistent truth," as JJC argues, and is instead the product of a discriminatory power that intertwines identity and embodiment [JJC's words], then talking about and theorizing "race" is talking about and theorizing power, especially as it inflects [and harms] the bodies [and therefore minds and modes of expression] of individual subjects. And this subject is not merely "academic," especially because of places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Sudan [where someone--a scholar, no less--has recently argued that "race" has nothing to do with the conflict and therefore what is happening there is not "genocide"], and even America, in its prisons and other dark places. Because the material consequences of particular beliefs regarding "how race matters" have been so profound and lasting in their harmful effects, the so-called "question of race" is more about human rights than it is about science. It is even more about the past, than it is about the future [i.e. whatever future "discoveries" geneticists might bring to us]. We can't deny, that in a field like medicine--epidemiology in particular--that certain "populations" are known to be susceptible to certain diseases, but I would argue that we'll find, ultimately, that theses susceptibilities have more to do with the environment and adaptation to a certain environment than they have to do with "blood," per se, and that, too, is a question of history.

To go back to JJC's main points in this post in particular, I don't like the word "race" very much--it's somehow the wrong word, except as a cultural-historical-fantastical concept, and over in science circles, they are going to talk, instead, about traits, phenotypes, genes, populations, etc. My sister is a population geneticist [infectious diseases] and has pretty much explained all of this to me--environment, environment, environment. So, even when scientists talk about "race," they really mean something else [except for the nuts like Charles Murray--why does he get so much attention?], and when we talk about "race," we talk about it in the terms JJC outlines so beautifully for those of us who needed a bit of a primer [I certainly did, regardless of my readings in anthropology].

What to do with all this knowledge and insight--coming from science, history, theory, anthropology--seems to me, the most important question. For medievalists, especially, and likely also scholars of the early modern period, we might follow the words of David Llloyd, who wrote the essay "The Indigent Sublime: Specters of Irish Hunger," in the issue of Representations I am [still!] reading:

". . . the dead are the contemporaries of every unfinished struggle against domination. . . . The form of the imagined future is sketched in the ruins of the present. . . . Above all, we should not allow ourselves to imagine that the dead, because their ways of living were destroyed along with them, were incapable of tracing in their own practices the transformable forms of another life. . . . Memory, in this respect, is at once the memory of damage--of dispossession, of coercion, disappointed hope--and the memory of an alternative that has not yet been realized. But to view the latter memory as mere nostalgic fabrication would be to miss the dyanmic of the past: the work of memory is not to preserve the past in its fixity, but to loosen from the truncated becomings of the past the fluid possibilities that defy the notion that the social formation in dominance is the only historical possibility."

Anonymous said...

OK. I am confused. I am a simple man, and so I have to wonder what the point of this discussion is.

Here's what I see.

First: I see humanists turning to science. That's cool, but I have to inquire what they're actually taking away from the science.

Second: What they seem to be taking away, well, honestly, are ideas that aren't very scientific at all--namely, stuff like:

"race" dissolves into contradiction and incoherence


race as a mode of representation rather than an essence


race is a category that must be constantly reified (especially legislatively) because it doesn't actually pre-exist such reification

and the most unscientific statement of all:

Race has no pre-existent truth that awaits recognition. Race is instead the product of a discriminatory system of power that intertwines identity and embodiment.


This all sounds terribly familiar: it doesn't really take any intellectual energy for a PhD trained in literary studies to come to these conclusions. This is like cultural studies 101 stuff.

Three: The fact that it is Cultural Studies 101 should give us pause. Maybe taking the usual humanistic middle road is not appropriate: what is the point of saying, well, race is hard to define, it's really a representational category, BUT it has utility, in the helping professions, e.g., and even in our own discipline if we want to talk about the issues that are--after all--more central to other disciplines, namely, inequality and corporeality?

Four: Even the supposed usefulness of the term for pragmatic thinkers is confused/ing. Let me try to explain: inequality is a term that is immediately political, usually understood in terms of power--who has it and who doesn't and how that differential manifests or has manifested itself. It's not a relative term in this sense: racial inequality is something we can recognize and label as such anywhere on the globe and across time. And we can feel pretty darn confident doing it.

Corporeality ain't like that. We know that the implicit definition of what qualifies a person as belonging to a certain race widely differs globally and historically. A "black" person in the US could be considered "white" in Brazil or "colored" in S. Africa, and so on.

Five: Race, whatever it is, is not only or merely a "product of power." Bear in mind that the discussion of race we're having now is rooted in the scientific projects of the 90s that involved the collection of data about the genetic makeup of populations worldwide in the effort to explore the link between ancestry and patterns of disease. It turns out that genetic info can in fact be used to distinguish groups having a common heritage and to assign individual X to a particular group. The key is which genes you're examining: thus, sickle cell disease is found among people of largely African or Mediterranean descent whereas cystic fibrosis is found among those with European ancestry. Drug response is another medical phenomenon that appears to divide groups: e.g., studies indicate that African Americans are more likely ro respond poorly to specific cardiac drugs than members of other groups.

Six: I will humbly ask someone--jjc or ej--to put this discussion in terms I can understand. How are we advancing either the humanist take on race or the scientific one? And, do you see the two meeting? Or, does that even matter, if we're just, at the end of the day, going to be pragmatists about it?

meg said...

Eileen, I'm having trouble seeing the bright line you describe between "blood" and "adaptation." Are you suggesting that some (not you) believe in an originary Way That This Population Is, whereas others (including you) believe only in evolutionary adaptation to environment?

As I've said elsewhere, I'm not a geneticist, and I could be misunderstanding you out of either ignorance or simple dimness, but this seems like a false dichotomy, and perhaps even a red herring. I know of no reputable academics who assert that "Population X had, has, and ever shall have Trait Y," but many who believe that due to environmental and random/unknown factors, Population X has evolved with a skew toward certain genes.

Or is my misunderstanding of that passage more fundamental still?

Anonymous said...

Afternoon all - just a quick drive-by posting.

Emile said "Race, whatever it is, is not only or merely a "product of power." Bear in mind that the discussion of race we're having now is rooted in the scientific projects of the 90s that involved the collection of data about the genetic makeup of populations worldwide in the effort to explore the link between ancestry and patterns of disease."

True, but we must never forget that it is always ALSO, if not primarily, about power. As you point out, this particular discussion is based on scientific projects of the 90's, but those projects are always informed, initiated really, by the other historical "scientific" projects on race, such as Nazism and Apartheid, and before them Social Darwinism, and before that medieval climatological, cosmological, etc, projects of delineating precise racial characterisics.

The discursive perhaps cannot replace the scientific, but it's my opnion that the discursive "production of power" is what initiated the scientific discourse of race in the first place. What this means, I would suggest, is one of the contributions humanities can make to advancing the scientic aspect of this discourse is at least asking science (excuse the huge abstraction) to acknowledge that the "groups" it delineates are not necessarily purely natural ones.

For example, Emile also wrote that "It turns out that genetic info can in fact be used to distinguish groups having a common heritage and to assign individual X to a particular group. The key is which genes you're examining:"

Sure, but surely it's also important to realize that we've chosen the category "heritage" to stress - thus, it's important for science to be able to assign people to a "heritage" at least partly because race and its production and power emanations have played such a massive role in the history of mankind. It is entirely possible, for example, that if science decided to do genotyping based on the relative size of one's big toe to one's pinky toe, they might find that all kinds of medicines work better on those with a larger size differnce, or that those with almost equal measurements are more prone to have a lower IQ. I'm sure there are lots of fascinating correspondences out there. But science doesn't stress these - rather, it focuses on assigning people more and more perfectly to a racial category.
So, in the sense that we CAN assign categories and characteristics to people based on "race" may be true, but it amy also be true that other equally more important discoveries may await us if we change the focus of our inquiry to, for example, relative toe length.

So the fact that race is a product of power has, I would suggest, played a huge role in determining the history of scientific enquiry - a more open awareness of this on the part of scientists might, for example, make more and more scientists begin to form other categories of discussion, thus in time helping to alleviate the focus on race in our society.

"thus, sickle cell disease is found among people of largely African or Mediterranean descent."
Maybe it's really found in all people with one of the genes whose functions hasn't yet been determined, and once this gene is identified, it will account for all, rather than just a large percentage, of sickle cell cases. Perhaps race isn't the category here, but rather the thing which potentially blinds us to the truth, or which makes it harder for us to see that truth. This last bit is a bit facetious, but my point is that the focus on race can perhaps work like the tunnel vision of a police investigation, so that once a likely candidate is identified, attention focuses there to the exclusion of other likely possibilities. Scientists are human too.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, I also think that race is the right word to use in the Middle Ages. Critics often say no because "it didn't mean then what it means now." In a literal sense, maybe. But to me that statement is false because we don't know what we mean by it now, and we didn't really then either - in this way, it's the perfect term to use for both periods because that instability captures, to me anyway, the power dynamic inherent in the need for the word "race" in the first place. Both now and then, we can really define race as "the thing used to separate 'us' from 'them' and by extension 'ours' from 'theirs'."

So it's often said that in the medieval period, race sometimes meant religion, and the two terms were sometimes interchangeable. I can tell you (in the general sense, not specifically Jeffrey) from many a discussion at my Jewish best friend's house with him and his family that this is in many ways still true today. Intersting that the major others of the medieval western world, Muslims and Jews, are the ones whose identities were, and still are today, constructed as simultaneously religious and racial.

Eileen Joy said...

Meg--I think you and I are basically on the same page as regards how genetic "traits" [or phenotypes] are defined by biologists--due to enviornmental and other factors, population x has evolved with a skew toward certain genes [as you put it]. As to some scientists supposedly believing that certain populations have had, have, and always will have certain genetic traits--I didn't mean to argue that there are *scientists* [i.e. biologists] who argue that, but a lot of other types [some *social scientists* such as Murray] *do* believe that certain genetic traits are, let's say, transhistorical [and they think of this in terms of "race" or "racial origins"]. I honestly don't know sometimes what to think about these things, because doesn't evolution imply, to a certain extent, that certain traits *do* endure [even when modifed by adaptation] over time? Emile B. brought up medicine, which I also brought up in my earlier post, because in the study of diseases [which is what my sister, a "population geneticist" does--she actually studies malarial] there are definite correlations between descent, as Emile B. puts it, in certain "populations" and particualr diseases, such as sickle cell anemia. It's just that, from my understanding, phsyiology, body chemistry, etc. cannot really be studied apart from environment--geographic, temporal, historical, etc. Does that make sense? This is why I keep coming back to the problematic of the word "race" and "racial," which I think obscure the more precise scientific terms such as genetic traits, phenotypes, populations, descent, etc. Whether we're talking about biology or history, it's really some kind of idea of "determinsim" that I think we're really circling around. What does everyone else think?

As to Emile B.'s comment that he is "a simple man" . . . I don't think so, but more on that later!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

On drug response and race, my favorite example is the drug that started the whole discussion on efficacy of chemicals within certain "racial" bodies: BiDil. This "new" cardiac drug combined two pre-existent drugs that had come off patent and allowed its manufacturer (Nitromed) to re-patent them in a new form. Lucrative, you say? You bet! And not at all uncontroversial in the medical field, especially because it is "indicated for ... self-identified black patients." From a New York Times article on the subject:

The drug's maker, NitroMed Inc., says its decision to test and market BiDil as a drug for African-Americans is based on solid science. But BiDil's application has engendered controversy, with many scientists convinced that race is too broad and ill-defined a category to be relevant in determining a drug's approval, especially since geneticists have failed to identify a biological divide separating one race from another.

The drug has also raised questions about how marketing, regulatory and political considerations play a role in new drug development, with critics of NitroMed saying the company has artfully managed the regulatory system and patent law, as well as historical inequities in medical treatment for African-Americans, to drive its product to market.


Anonymous said...

I agree, kofi: I'd be a damn fool if I denied the role "power" plays in approaches to race. Extend that right into the academy, and look at which scholars write about race and when. I remember getting a fairly high profile book published on race, and I was a no-name grad student.

I'll stand by my adverbs, though: race is not merely or only a product of power. To assert in absolute terms that race is a product of power is just as irresponsible as claiming that power has nothing to do with it.

Kofi makes another good point:

my point is that the focus on race can perhaps work like the tunnel vision of a police investigation, so that once a likely candidate is identified, attention focuses there to the exclusion of other likely possibilities.

Yes, though such focus is one piece of the investigation, one lead, as it were, that might turn cold...or it might not.

Still, I confess to being simple minded on this subject. Perhaps it because I went through all the cultural studies stuff, and basically found it not's good to know, like kofi reminds us, that race "projects" have histories that implicate power, but now I somehow came out on the other side where I disdain (cultural) relativism and basically believe that discussions of race are of little utility in working with mental disorders. But that's me.

I found this Op-Ed interesting. Leroi is a biologist at Imperial College, London (or he was, anyway).

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, Emile. I read one about 6 months ago that I really wish I had saved, as it was very relevant here. One of the things I liked about that article, and this one, is that they both point out that this kind of racial delineation, as it were, has a really interesting and anti-racist side-effect - it tends to point out that in fact, we've all got a little of everything in us, and that there is rarely if ever such a thing as someone of pure "African ancestry," or "European heritage," or whatever.

It does make me wonder what exacly is meant when, for example, a medicine is touted as being particularly efficacious for, say, someone of "African ancestry." Since it's been determined that we all come from Africa if one traces back far enough, then does that mean such a medicine works for everyone? Clearly it doesn't, which I think reveals that all of this talk of "African ancestry" is really just an attempt to disguise the racial/skin colour aspect under an "international genetic location" argument - when they say "African ancestry," they really mean black, no? There are lots of white people whose families have lived in Africa for generations who would somehow not fit under the term "African ancestry" as it applies to that particular medication.
This last statement is partly in response to Emile's statement earlier acknowledging that "white" and "black" (among other racial terms) can mean different things in different parts of the world. I think the division is more intense and arbitrary than that, and that "white" and "black" can mean different things in the same room, much less in different parts of the world.

Another interesting article on the subject can be found here:

It's an article called "Pharmacogenomic Frontiers in Medicine and Race."

The following is the excerpt I found of most interest: -

"Indeed, the development of BiDil and other future drugs tailored to subgroups is a good thing in that it works well for people. Yet the next logical step for researchers would be to determine if there is a genetic factor. Dr. Cook-Deegan noted the possibility that BiDil’s special efficacy in African Americans may not be a genetic factor at all.

“We have an association between self-designated race and the use of this drug, but what we don’t have is the causal relationship that proves why this is,” said Dr. Cook-Deegan. “The fact that there’s some association with race does not mean that it’s biological. For the drugs that seem to have higher efficacy or safety profiles in specific races, there are many existing factors such as the environment, dietary habits, and physiology.”

It would be necessary to find what determines patient response to BiDil and to individualize treatment, noted Dr. David Goldstein, Wolfson Professor of Genetics at University College London, now the director of the Center for Pharmacogenetics and Population Genomics at the IGSP.

“It can only be an interim solution to use the drug as an ethnically indicated medicine. In the long term, that’s a mistake because that will serve to reinforce the notion that racial and ethnic groups are distinct groups, and they most certainly are not,” said Dr. Goldstein.

The issue raised by BiDil’s racially profiling nature is that race is not a marker that can be used as a definitive basis for making prescriptions. The study that showed the 43 percent relative decrease in heart failure in the African American group had patients who were “self-identified” as blacks (Taylor et al., 2004). According to a review by Dr. Gregg Bloche, such an inclusion separated this study from the “deeper” science of population genetics because people who may not have had any black ancestors but still considered themselves black were included in the study (Bloche, 2004). Furthermore, Bloche noted that even among Americans of African descent, the genetic heterogeneity of the population on the African continent is far more diverse than in other races. Should the same BiDil study be carried on random sample in Africa, results may be considerably varied.

“In the end there’s not going to be one pill for a particular race. The point is that the variations, more often than not, will be in all groups. It’s just that their distribution will be different,” said Dr. Marchuk, a molecular geneticist and co-director of Duke’s Program in Genetics. “By and large, we’re going to find that genetic variation does differ among groups. But ‘the pill’ isn’t for one race. It’s for whoever has that variant.”

Anonymous said...

Emile also said "I'd be a damn fool if I denied the role "power" plays in approaches to race. Extend that right into the academy, and look at which scholars write about race and when. I remember getting a fairly high profile book published on race, and I was a no-name grad student."

Hell, just look at the evolution of who teaches postcolonialism in universities. In another 10 years I fear there won't be a single white scholar who is hirable for a postcolonial position.

Another thought as well: all this talk of getting rid of "race" is something that's been debaed in postcolonial circles. The problem with it, of course, is that once you succeed in getting rid of race as a category of discussion, then the default race becomes, of course, "white". The same point has been made in gender studies; the struggle for gender sameness is really a struggle to re-establish "male" as the default (our language defaults to "his," "he" etc). Likewise, one of the side-effects of NOT focussing on blackness, asianness (?) etc is that most dominant representations in our societies are white (Jesus, presidents, commercials, tv, etc etc), and so other races are much more easilt backgrounded. This is one of the major reasons that postcolonialists and critical race theorists do NOT like the whole "let's not focus on race" argument. If we don't focus on it, they argue, non-whites automatically lose.

I'd be interested in thoughts on this position.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting, kofi. There is, as I understand it then, a kind of (uneasy?) alliance with the political right on the issue of race's existence?

Like this, from the right:

"Conservative" scholars complain of not being funded if their research implies that race exists.

There may, in the end, be reasons for both sides to keep race alive as a category of investigation.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Lots of provocative stuff here. It's intriguing how much those who argue for using race have in common with those who argue against it. The Leroi OpEd piece, for example, was so filled with cautions and hesitations, and wound up making an argument from utility similar in some ways to the ones made by those who say race doesn't exist (plus, Leroi ought to have researched his pharmaceutical controversies a bit better; what a picture of untainted innocence he paints).

Eileen, in response to your query about how race wound up on the utting room floor: the short answer is because in the year of teaching realease I ahd to write it I wrote two books, really, and so a lot had to go. I liked thinking about race, but didn't find it essential to my project -- indeed, it is so prone to being misrepresented by unsympathetic readers and to being the target of easy snark that I thought it best to leave it out, since it might distract from my central argument.

And Karl: aren't you honeymooning? Don't you have something slightly betetr to do?

Anonymous said...

But is there not also among the political right a tendency to want to move away from the categories of race? As I understand it, this is one of the arguments of the anti-affirmative-action movement; they've tended to argue that by focussing on race as an employment equity tool, we are really re-inforcing those categories and those divisions, when we should be striving for a society which doesn't make these decisions based on race.

I would, of course, disagree with this argument, and it seems to encapsulate the problems race theorists have with the abandonment of race as a category of discussion. Ignore race as a category in hiring, and we're back to the pre-80's era where people in certain parts of the country (well, in all parts, but more so in certain parts)feel free never to hire a black (Chinese, native, Indian, whatever) person because of their own prejudices about those peoples. Ie, we run the risk of white becoming the default category again, rather than the (admittedly troubled) discussions of race and equality that we have now.

Anonymous said...

Hehehe. I have to post this here--the relevant thread is long gone.

It was just a matter of time....

Date: Thu, 27 Jul 2006 14:01:59 -0400
Subject: CFP: Disability in the Middle Ages (12/1/06; collection)

I am seeking submissions for an essay collection on disability in the Middle Ages. The goals of this book are not only to broaden our
knowledge of medieval disabilities and the representations of these
disabilities but also to demonstrate the ways in which the modern field of Disability Studies can inform the work of medievalists. As such, I welcome essays from any field of study, but each submission should show some awareness of current findings in Disability Studies to complement its analysis of the medieval world. Topics may include, but are certainly not limited to, depictions of disability in medieval literature, historical analyses, theoretical inquiries, etc. I will be pursuing the publication of this volume with a major university press.

Please submit an abstract of 500 words, along with a brief c.v., by
December 1, 2006. Completed essays, which should be 5,000-6,000 words in length, will be due on June 1, 2007. Please direct your abstracts to Josh Eyler, Department of Language and Literature, Columbus State University, 4225 University Ave., Columbus, GA, 31907, or via electronic
attachment (in MS Word format please) to

Karl Steel said...

Per Honeymoon: what could be better? I'm reading my favorite blogs, I have Communities of Violence and The Plague of Fantasies in my bag next to my chair, and I'm looking out on the ocean, watching surfers run into each other. And the place I'm sitting played a key role in Punch Drunk Love (the hallway where Sandler tries to shake Watson's hand, but gets kissed instead), so what could be better? Except maybe if someone came by and gave me a fruity blue drink with more umbrellas in it than strictly necessary.

Nothing to add to this fascinating discussion, except, Emile, I do plan on getting into disability theory on the body at some point to open up teratology and human/animal boundaries to something slightly different. While I don't think what I'll be doing will be politically efficacious or all that grand, it will make me a better medievalist...

Anonymous said...

If you do what you say with disability studies, I surmise you might be light years ahead of the proposed collection, which, let's be honest here folks, is the kind of mindless application of theory set X to texts of historical period Y that will be damned lucky if it interests "a major university press." Such a collection is not novel.

There are those who use critical schools or traditions as the tools to break new ground; there are those who use critical traditions to do little more than paint-by-numbers.

It sounds, Karl, like you're aiming at the former, and this collection aims at the latter. Thinking through rich ideas cannot fail to make you a better medievalist.

Eileen Joy said...

Hello All--

I don't think this discussion needs me anymore, and I must confess I dropped off the edge of the planet for a couple of days [more cross-country traveling], but I *did* want to add a couple of final thoughts on our discussions about race, mainly in response to Emile B.'s comment about a lot of our discussion mainly being a recap of Cultural Studies 101 [yeah, it kind of is, but remember, too, that just because *we* already took Cultural Studies 101 doesn't necessarily mean the majority of the audience for medieval studies books, such as JJC's most recent one on hybridity and identity, took the course or were awake while taking it or weren't hostile to the whole idea in the first place] and to his question--the important one, I think for readers of this blog:

"How are we advancing either the humanist take on race or the scientific one? And, do you see the two meeting? Or, does that even matter, if we're just, at the end of the day, going to be pragmatists about it?"

One way the humanistic and scientific "takes" on race at least encounter each other is evident in the Royal Proceedings article on whether or not early Anglo-Saxons might have been "apartheid-style" racial oppressors--here, biology, ethnoarchaeology, and history meet and have to, ultimately, duke it out with each other over, not only whether or not the biological evidence can be used to draw certain conclusions, but also over whether or not humanistic studies are helpful to testing those possible conclusions. In the end, it may all remain somewhat of a muddle--i.e., the history of early England can never be 100% "visible," even with the wonders of genetic science. Clues, and then more clues, but only clues.

But I think Emile B.'s more important question--beyond the actual pragmatic consideration of how scholars in the humanities and sciences can collaborate on actual research that has something to do with understanding the history of what might be called "race" as well as processes of "racialization"--is how, say, a literary scholar's insight about race as "representation" [albeit with corporal impact--it may be representational but it is also always bound to specific bodies and specific body types, to paraphrase a bit from JJC], coupled with, say, a population geneticist's understanding of "racial" population groups and their patterns of "descent," distribution, etc., gets us anywhere helpful viz. how race, in a very material way, affects the way people live their lives every day, in a world where the term "race" is often examined and understood in radically different terms than the ones we are using here [and is also often left completely unexamined while being taken to mean various supposedly concrete things]. For me, personally, this is where I come back to the idea of human rights, and I ask myself how it is something like the Redress Project [which is a humanities-driven project, for sure, and is not concerned with more pragmatic and legal matters such as reparations] can, through their very academic and mainly philosophical work, create an intellectual discourse that might actually get us somewhere, "race relations"-wise, that is productive for the future development of democracy, individual freedom, and ethical care. It seems to me, from my brief reading so far, that the members of the Redress Project are trying to address a *lack* within the already voluminous writing and thinking [historical, legal, and otherwise] on slavery--they are trying to inhabit the space between the wrongs that can never really be righted and the idea that something like "redress" is possible, but not through the usual, legal channels, and only when one understands the past, in Walter Benjamin's terms, really, as that "secret heliotropism" that is turning toward the sun that is rising in the sky of history [or words to that effect]. The *only* purpose, in my mind, for the kind of work that the Redress Project is doing, or for humanities and science scholars [and social science scholars, obviously] to get together to discuss & research race, would have to be political and future-oriented. I agree with Emile B. that saying race is only "representational" is as naive as saying it has nothing to do with power at all. It is both biological *and cultural, just as gender/sex is. It's a false binary to say it's one or the other. The more difficult question might be: since we know it's both, how are we [or others] going to *use* that knowledge, and to what particular ends, and for what reasons? The only way out of the trap of "the category"--whether biological or historical--is a radical pluralism that is founded upon a social contract--for reasons of ethical obligation--that would bind together all living things, "human" and otherwise. And we need history as the foundation for this pluralism, because, for us, it is the archive of all the hopes for a present that is always being deferred.

Anonymous said...

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