In this essay, I bring together Victorian studies and race studies in an effort to overturn what has come to be the most familiar form of racial analysis in contemporary culture: the notion that race is “constructed,” that it operates by aligning visible marks of difference with a shifting— and hence contingent—series of meanings and associations. I argue that the very concept of an arbitrary, constructed racial sign might itself have a history. Rather than presuming that skin functions as the default sign of racial difference and then tracing a given set of meanings that might be appended to that sign, I open my analysis by noting that in the final quarter of the eighteenth century, skin suddenly came to be privileged as the primary sign of racial identity. Immanuel Kant has long been identified as the first prominent European thinker to single out skin color in this way, and, as a consequence, I examine his essay on the topic, “On the Use of Teleological Principles for Philosophy” (1788). Read in the context of his late essay on the relationship between philosophy and medicine in The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant’s emphasis on skin color suddenly becomes legible in the light of shifting medical paradigms of the human body. Racial constructionism’s rhetoric of otherness obscures the degree to which perceiving race involves, for better or for worse, experiencing individuals’ likeness to one another rather than their difference. Kant’s racial skin turns likeness from an idea that must be discovered over time to something legible instantly.
"Historicizing the Theorization of Race: A Nineteenth-Century Story,"
Criticism: Vol. 61
, Article 6.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol61/iss4/6