Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Kant's Race Theory, Forster's Counter, and the Metaphysics of Color

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Kant's Race Theory, Forster's Counter, and the Metaphysics of Color

Article excerpt

At a key moment in his 1777 travelogue A Voyage Round the World (Reise um die Welt) describing his adventures aboard Captain Cook's second exploratory journey into the Antarctic, the narrative of the young German naturalist, Georg Forster (1754-94), takes on a decidedly more excited tone. In August 1773, he and his traveling companions were enjoying the charms of the Society Islands, when, during a banquet featuring traditional dancing, the atmosphere became sexually charged. The sailors bribed the women with bits of meat to continue making seemingly indiscreet dance movements, while the hosts treated the British officers and Prussian naturalists to a peek into the dancers' dressing room. Forster writes:

To complete our entertainment this day, the chief gave orders for performing another heeva, and we were admitted (behind the scenes) to see the ladies dressing for that purpose. They obtained some strings of beads on this occasion, with which we took it into our heads to improve upon their ornaments, much to their own satisfaction. Among the spectators we observed several of the prettiest women of this country; and one of them was remarkable for the whitest complexion we had ever seen in all these islands. Her colour resembled that of white wax a little sullied, without having the least appearance of sickness, which that hue commonly conveys; and her fine black eyes and hair contrasted so well with it, that she was admired by us all.1

Forster 's excitement helps to relay the intense experience of a special event which "perfects the joys of the day" as he writes in German, "Um die Freuden dieses Tages vollkommen zu machen."2 In this moment, they have not only been released from the physical hardship of months at sea aboard an eighteenthcentury sailing vessel, but they are taken with "einstimmige Bevmnderung" a kind of "unanimous wonderment," beyond their immediate reality in their response to several of the greatest beauties of the land. Forster makes this judgment concerning beauty from the perspective of a naturalist forwarding a new science of anthropology. Its universality gives this concept of beauty a kind of systematic, even scientific, necessary status; it acts as evidence for Forster 's work in natural history. In Forster 's account, beauty is immediately, universally recognizable, another factual observation accompanying such obvious characteristics as fair skin and dark hair. Forster 's perspective encompasses both a desired objectivity as a naturalist and a kind of aesthetic sensitivity associated with the appreciation of beauty in women as in art. As this scene depicts a concept of universal beauty placed in the context of scientific discovery, it demonstrates the integral connection between aesthetics and anthropology at their conceptual foundation.

This interconnection between aesthetics and anthropology combines discussions concerning definitions of color with respect to early anthropological classifications and concepts of the beautiful with respect to the female body.3 At the same time, the rise in interest in colonialism during the enlightenment period also contributed to the emergent discussions surrounding a new category under human "species" for "race" and the reinvention of meanings for gender. Susanne Zantop discusses the connection of gender and race with respect to colonial fantasies in her 1997 book Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family and Nation in Precolonial Germany. She writes,

Recent studies of British imperialism, such as those by McClintock and Young, have shown, however, that sexuality plays a crucial role, if not the crucial role in colonial fantasies. In fact, racial and sexual stereotypes intersect and overlap in the colonialist imaginary, creating the peculiar dynamics of attraction and repulsion within colonialist subjectivity identified by Bhabha and others.4

Forster 's Voyage serves as one influential text contributing to German colonial fantasies as described by Zantop. …

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