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About this book

This dynamic study of the history of the idea of race traces the concept from its prehistory across 400 years to its current status. Brian Niro introduces key theorists and philosophers and a wide variety of literary and theoretical concepts, taking the central view that the notion of race is a fluid concept that has altered consistently since its inception in Western ideology.

Starting with Greek philosophy, Niro moves effortlessly through such diverse writers as Shakespeare, Voltaire, Kant, Mary Shelly, Darwin, Fanon and Achebe in order to explore the representation of race in its various guises. Many contemporary discussions of race are intricate and limited in their scope to current doctrine, but by using a series of close readings of often-studied texts, Niro helps to demonstrate key ideas and make complex theories understandable.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Race is a monster. It is tremendous and terrible and astonishingly resilient. Race changes shape, size, and color as the need arises. It is a monster because of the manner in which it has been employed for the justification of systematic oppression and for the wholesale murder of huge populations. Race is also a monster because of the exacting tenacity with which it survives despite more than a few deliberate and sophisticated attempts to remove the concept from our ideological lexicon. Alas, the concept of race, like the word itself, is here to stay. More than merely resting in its resilience, however, race seems to be growing in stature, from end to end, both in terms of its presence in the commonsensical appreciation of “ordinary” folk, and in the dizzied minds of the intellectual elite. Race is on the lips and in the minds of the politicians, the pundits, the general population, the active, and the apathetic alike. Indeed, for many academics, politicians and professionals, race is a scary business. And to be sure, race is also big business for the editors and publishers of scholarly tomes (bless them); a simple survey of the sheer number of recent articles and books is testament to that fact. But what of value have we gathered from this scholastic archeology, and where did this monster come from? Who created it, and why?
Brian Niro

1. False Origins: The Greeks, Methodology, Etymology, and Shakespeare

Abstract
And now, let us look closely at the original object/subject of race itself. A compelling point of departure for such an endeavor, as one might expect, is the beginning. And indeed, there are at least two distinct (although imprecise) beginnings that deserve our attention. We must observe not only the conditions within Western cultures (European in particular) that cultivated a necessity for the word, but also the word’s practical entry into Western languages. The aim of this chapter, therefore, is to question the context and history of both the fundamental dispositions that cultivate the need for the word’s existence, and the word in its earliest manifestations.1 The isolation of two basic elements, the word as a material object that has passed through Western languages (most pertinently for this discussion, English) and its compositional principles, is central to treating the twofold archeology of race’s history, conceptually and pragmatically. The goal here is to isolate the theoretical framework of race, and to trace its practical application. (In stating this ambition, we must also fully recognize the mythical nature of origin. Because isolating origins is an act of recovery, they must always/already be speculative or even partially fictional.)
Brian Niro

2. The Enlightenment and the Fabrication of Race

Abstract
Having attempted to isolate a working definition of race by observing its traditional misinterpretations and misappropriations, we have spent a great amount of energy describing where race is not, or at least not exactly. In Chapter 1, we began by suggesting that the Greeks did not have a concept of race because their valuation of the political man precluded the need for genuine racial distinction. The conceptual tools, however, had been created and the framework built. Secondly, we noted the actual entry of the word race into Western languages, and specifically the considerable confusion that surrounded its earliest manifestations in English. Here we argued over Othello’s “race” (meaning noble lineage) as it operated in contrast to the barrage of epithets, exclusions, and bigotry that have become the hallmark of our contemporary concept of race. In this chapter, then, we will tie together the two original threads of race, the concept and the word, in the age of Enlightenment, perhaps exposing a more familiar connotation. Ultimately, the movement away from the initial linguistic confusion we witnessed in Chapter 1 brings us toward a more distinctly scientific understanding of humanity and signals a familiar, but rather new phase in racial history.
Brian Niro

3. Scientific Authority and Appropriation

Abstract
As we have observed in Chapter 2, the fabrication of race is a community matter, one that requires a momentous effort from a significantly varied population. Likewise, the fabrication of race is not intimately connected in a cause and effect manner to the proliferation of colonial conquest and the slave trade, as evidenced by the imperative role played by nations not participating in either matter, namely Germany. And so, the effort seems one that is both pan-European, and practically grounded in the grand empires which she nourished. As suggested in Chapter 2, Europeans were left wondering as to the reason for their growing, global preeminence. For this explanation, they turned to the imagined authority of scientific discourse. Because scientific discourse claims to merit dispassionate distance and objective observation, the legitimacy of its truth-claims are rhetorically imposing. To be sure, the reach and influence of this discourse certainly benefited from the channels, forced or otherwise, of exchange between previously disparate societies. But within this discourse there are competing avenues of authority.
Brian Niro

4. Modernity, Orientalism, Négritude, and the Phenomenology of Race

Abstract
As we move towards the turn of the twentieth century, we also witness the slow but consistent ideological and material collapse of the great empires. By the end of the First World War, Britain was no longer in a position to deny the pressures that had been mounting for some time in the commonwealth. At home, the stagnant ideologies of biological determinism were also slowly grinding to a halt as the theories of Lombroso and Nordau waned in the popular consciousness. Modernism had won the day. Of equal import as the practical demands that Britain’s foreign endeavors were placing on the Kingdom, the horrors of the First World War left a visceral emptiness towards the supposed glorious empirical pursuits that had slaughtered a generation in Europe. This change helped to usher in the new voice of modernity with the subsequent catchphrase “make it new.” As such, the newness sought by the early moderns marked a fundamental shift in the individual’s relationship with his/her social surroundings. Rather than broiled in suffocating and ultimately murderous traditions of nationhood, the “experience of Modernism was, and to some degree remains … obscure. It was an art that frequently began in sensation and outrage, or else displacement and exile” (Bradbury and McFarlane 1991: 11).
Brian Niro

5. America

Abstract
The American experience of race has undoubtedly been, and arguably continues to be, one of abject failure. The breadth of American failure extends through the tragic consequences of the conquistadors, the massacres of Cortes, the legacy of slavery, the eradication of the Native American in the north, the Civil Rights movement, and the list could go on for quite some time. Perhaps because of the dubious nature of the concept, perhaps from the purposes for which it was readily adopted and applied, race has left an indelible and brutal legacy in the Americas. From the first European encounter with the new world, the role of race seems an intimate counterpart to the entirety of its history, although not yet articulated as such. While the struggles of Bartolomé de las Casas, discussed briefly in Chapter 1, were useful in structuring the contemplation of race around the narrowing parameters of the biblical narrative, las Casas ultimately failed to prevent a significant portion of the devastation within his time and after. His failure is endemic among those who subsequently cover similar territory, so much so that race appears as a particularly disturbing feature etched in North, Central, and South American history. Moreover, there is a fundamental failure within American discourse to maintain the consistency of the register.
Brian Niro
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