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Connie Steel on "The Anatomy of Blackness"

Cover of "The Anatomy of Blackness": Black men drinking for a gourd

Andrew S. Curran

The Anatomy of Blackness: Science & Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment

The John Hopkins University Press, 2011
310 pages

Reviewed by Connie Steel

Andrew Curran’s latest work, The Anatomy of Blackness: Science & Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment, perfectly demonstrates why one should not judge a book by its online blurb. According to the inaccurate blurb, Curran’s book “rewrites the history of blackness by replicating the practices of eighteenth-century readers.” Wisely, the author does not attempt to rewrite the history of blackness, nor does he describe— much less replicate—eighteenth- century reading practices in his two hundred and ten pages of narrative. What Curran does instead is analyze the writing of ‘blackness’ or the figure of the ‘nègre’ by canonical authors in the history of the French Enlightenment while acknowledging the practical difficulty of writing about these racially charged terms today.

The Anatomy of Blackness builds upon Curran’s strengths as an intellectual historian and member of the New York Academy of Medicine. His prior work includes Sublime Disorder: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot’s Universe (2001), published in Oxford’s Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century series, and more recently a James L. Clifford Award-winning article titled “Re-thinking Race History: The Role of the Albino in the French Enlightenment Life Sciences” in History and Theory (2011). With this background, it comes as no surprise that Curran includes a sophisticated look at the ways French notions of blackness, albinism, and monstrosity contributed to a polysemous discourse surrounding the figure of the ‘nègre.’ Furthermore, The Anatomy of Blackness contextualizes what might be considered the French literary canon by putting it back into dialogue with works on the life sciences and human sciences by Jean-Baptiste Labat, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and Abbé Raynal. The resulting work features rich materials useful to scholars of French history, Enlightenment history, history of race, ethnography, comparative literature, and African diaspora studies.

The use of the word “anatomy” in the title points to the archive Curran dissects in this book. He selects his archive from sixteenth- through eighteenth-century French descriptions and engravings of textualizations and conceptualizations of black bodies, skin, and hair with a complement of influential European works in Latin or available in translation. Curran’s use of the term “Africanist” acknowledges the theoretical and methodological influences of Christopher Miller, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said on his work. The book posits that French Enlightenment heavyweights like Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot gazed at the ‘nègre’ through a multifaceted lens constructed of travel narratives, essay contests, philosophical texts, and slave trade discourse. Curran positions his work in contrast to what he sees as the “monolithic” accounts of Enlightenment thinking by other historians. In this sense, he complicates human rights-era narratives featuring Enlightenment authors as hero-innovators of progressive thinking. For example, many writers point to Candide (1759) as Voltaire’s critique of slavery, whereas Curran’s book highlights the philosopher’s other writings, which reveal inconsistent and considerably less sympathetic views on race and hierarchy.

In a similar vein to his treatment of Voltaire, Curran presents Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751-72) as “fragmented into different disciplinary treatments, unlinked by cross- reference.” He points out the ambivalence of the work on the subject of slavery through contradicting articles and the ellipsis of technologies of slavery such as leg irons and ship conversion. The notion of a fragmented and ambivalent multidisciplinary conversation on blackness governs Curran’s organizational strategy for the book’s four long chapters. Chapter One, “Paper Trails: Writing the African, 1450-1750,” teases out the finer nuances of Africanist representations featured in travelogues with special focus on the work of Jean- Baptiste Labat. Of particular interest to literary scholars, this chapter features a section on the relationship between early Africanist writing and the epic. Chapter Two, “Sameness and Science, 1730-1750,” overlaps the first but delves deeply into the scientific debate over monogenetic versus polygenetic origins of the human species. Monogenesis theorizes a common origin of the species—represented by the work of Buffon— as opposed to the theory of Linnaeus and others that humans consisted of distinct polygenetic varieties (such as spaniels and greyhounds). Curran’s argument suggests that this debate influenced thinking about slavery later in the century. The author pays particular attention to his area of expertise, the textual treatment of albinism and how eighteenth-century awareness of albinism as a global phenomenon reveals conflict in empirical and imperial concepts of blackness.

The third chapter, entitled “The Problem of Difference: Philosophes and the Processing of African ‘Ethnography,’ 1750-1775,” delves into historical debates over the “symptoms” of blackness and categorizes them as extending to “three overlapping realms: the moral, the intellectual, and the physical.” Curran treats the reader to a fascinating, albeit macabre, discussion regarding the dissection of layers of skin tissue by scientists such as Johann Meckel and Claude-Nicolas Le Cat. Enlightenment-era anatomists investigated the color of skin, brain tissue, blood, and sperm in their attempts to ascertain the cause of blackness. The search for a “causal link” to blackness culminates as a political issue in the fourth and final chapter, “The Natural History of Slavery, 1770-1802.” Curran uses the archive established in the earlier chapters to demonstrate the influence of biopolitical and climate-based theories of blackness on both sides of the transatlantic slavery debate, although he does not expand on his interesting but short discussion of the birth of new racial categories. While the narrow focus of the book enables a deep investigation into a fascinating archive, it risks the false impression of a black-white binary by glossing too briefly the place of Africanist discourse in the larger context of French Enlightenment discourse on race and racial categories. Given that the final hundred pages of the book consist of bibliographic materials, the inclusion of an expanded section on the “big picture” would have been a reasonable addition to a text so clearly in the scholarly genre.

Perhaps influenced by his readings on anatomy, Curran considerately includes a detailed table of contents that points precisely to each of the book’s subsections. The subsections range from about six to ten pages each, thus breaking up the detailed scholarly material into tapas-sized sections rather than exhausting the reader with long chapters potentially equivalent to courses at Circe’s banquet. Another attractive feature of the work’s layout is the careful selection and curation of period illustrations, such as the one featured on the jacket cover. Printed in simple black-and-white on high- quality paper, the images are impeccably reproduced. The selection includes figures of humans, animals, and “monstrosities.” The illustrations contribute to Curran’s argument that even some of the most ‘scientific’ Enlightenment conceptions of blackness were based not only on actual travel accounts but also on fanciful or fantastic imaginings of Africa, which were often combined (or recombined) in troublesome ways. Thus, The Anatomy of Blackness makes a valuable, original, and highly readable contribution to the intellectual history of eighteenth-century literary, scientific, and racial discourses by demonstrating that they were often one and the same.