Academic journal article German Quarterly

Self, Race, and Species: J. F. Blumenbach's Atlas Experiment

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Self, Race, and Species: J. F. Blumenbach's Atlas Experiment

Article excerpt

In 1796, the renowned anthropologist and professor of medicine Johann Friedrich Blumenbach produced a scientific atlas entitled Abbildungen Naturhistorischer Gegenstände.1 Seven of the book's one hundred illustrations provide instruction in the natural history of the human species; the subset of five with which the book opens are identified as "characteristische Musterköpfe von Männern aus den 5 Hauptrassen im Menschengeschlechte."2 Given Blumenbach's prominence in European debates about taxonomic categories like "race" and "species," particularly as they might be applied to human beings, this primacy of place granted human types is not surprising. It is Blumenbach, after all, who is credited into the 20th century with naming what several generations of students learned to identify as the "five races of man." As Robert Bernasconi, John Zammito, Phillip Sloan, and others have demonstrated in recent years, attributing the invention of race to Blumenbach may have been a standard gesture of 19th- and 20th-century histories of science, but it is nonetheless a misleading simplification.3 It took Blumenbach many years to accept the use of "race" as a classificatory term, and once he did, he was always careful to stress that association with a particular race did not have bearing on individual or collective human capabilities. While this qualification is dutifully cited by critical historians of race thinking, Blumenbach's recognition of five races was cited with far more resonance by generations of subsequent scientists.4

This bifurcation of Blumenbach's reception into two equally simplistic though somewhat incompatible judgments is an instance of historicizing at its worst: it results from separating multiple meanings that were coexistent and even codependent in Blumenbach's texts, and then selecting those most appropriate or convenient for inclusion within particular disciplinary narratives. As Giorgio Agamben notes, "every reading of a work must necessarily reckon with the growing distance between different levels of meaning that is caused by time."5 In the case of Blumenbach, posterity has taken advantage of differentiated strata of meaning that time and historians have rendered distinct in order to formulate, for the most part without comment or complication, either an "objective" statement of his contribution to the structure of scientific thinking about race or a relatively simplistic description of his "non-racist" beliefs. If, however, again with Agamben, "it is also true that a genuine reading takes place only at the point at which the work's living unity, first present in the original draft, is once again recomposed," then it shall be the work of this essay to begin the necessary process of recomposition for the Abbildungen of Blumenbach.

This odd and neglected book may be hard to read precisely because it seems so easy to read. A reader is invited to study the illustrations framed by brief descriptions, and move on. If we stop instead to interrogate (with patience and curiosity) the elements of composition that are all too easily read over, literally overlooked, we may recognize that the atlas's "living unity" includes a remarkable textual negotiation of conflicting epistemologies. Or it might be better described as a sophisticated separation of epistemologies: present throughout Blumenbach's collective work and highlighted by the Abbildungen is the certainty that, on the one hand, race can function as a category of physical classification, and on the other hand, race must be rejected as an analytic category of culture. Over the course of many years, Blumenbach did maintain the existence, within the limited scope of scientific knowledge and discursive convenience, of five races within the human species. But his caveat, which appears to have been all but incomprehensible to his contemporaries as much as to his successors, attests to the very real problem of any categorical regulation when it comes to individual human beings. …

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