Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Seeing Race: Techniques of Vision and Human Difference in the Eighteenth Century
by Griffith, Tyler James, Ph.D., Yale University, 2015, 248; 3663481
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation examines the importance of geography, performance, and microscopy in the construction of theories of human difference in Europe in the eighteenth century, with a particular focus on "fringe groups" such as albinos with black parents and individuals with complexion disorders. It joins a growing discussion in history, the history of science and medicine, and critical racial theory about the social and philosophic bases of early-modern human taxonomic schemas. Collectively, the fields analyzed in this study share a common conceptual root in their dependence on transferable physical processes—techniques—as much as on the intellectual frameworks investing those gestures with meaning. The necessarily embodied processes of exploration, spectatorship, and microscopic visual analysis produced discrete ways of seeing human difference which influenced the conclusions that natural philosophers reached through those embodied experiences. Marginal groups of individuals with unexpected or "abnormal" complexions drew a disproportionate amount of attention in the eighteenth century, because they were not easily identifiable with pre-existing conceptions of human difference and consequently provided a strong impetus to reconsider those epistemic categories. Overwhelmingly, the perspectives of eighteenth-century natural philosophers were profoundly non-racial in nature; instead, they drew upon ideas as varied as monstrosity, morality, self-analysis, dramatic tragedy, entertainment, and imagination to position experiences of unexpected human diversity in a distinctly valuative and sensational understanding of human difference. Through the interrogation of new and underutilized sources, this dissertation argues for an enrichment of our understanding of the "history of race" by taking into account the diversity of the physical techniques that were used by eighteenth century thinkers to arrive at ideas about human difference, while simultaneously demonstrating the centrality of hitherto understudied groups—such as albinos with black parents—in the formulation of systems of human difference.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Bertucci, Paola
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 76/11(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Black history, Philosophy of Science, Science history
Keywords: Albinos, Cartography, History of race, Microscopy, Performance
Publication Number: 3663481
ISBN: 9781321929690
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