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18th-Century Visual Cultures of Race & Empire

ENGL 544.401
also offered as: COML 541/5410, ARTH 568/5680
Thursday 12-3:00pm

This course approaches the Western history of race and racial classification (1600-1800) with a focus on visual and material culture, natural history, and science that connected the Atlantic and Pacific worlds. “Racial” refers to the nascent capitalist modes of acquisition that transformed European understandings of slavery, blackness, white supremacy, and human rights. Across the long eighteenth century, new knowledges about human diversity and species distinctions emerged alongside intensifications of global trade with Asia. The course will include case studies of chinoiserie textiles, portraits of consuming individuals, natural history prints and maps, Chinese export porcelain and furnishings, and “blackamoor” sculpture. Objects of visual and material culture will be studied alongside readings on regional and world histories that asserted universal freedoms as well as hierarchies of human, animal, and plant-kind.


Keeping in mind that the idea of race continues to be a distributed phenomenon—across color, gender, class, religion, speech, culture—we will explore changing vocabularies of difference, particularly concerning skin color, across a range of texts and images. Knowledge often does not take written or literary form, and for this reason, we will study examples of visual and material culture as well as forms of technology that were critical to defining human varieties, to use the eighteenth-century term. Although we will be reading texts in English, some in translation, we will also account for European and non-European knowledge traditions—vernacular, indigenous— that informed scientific and imaginative writings about the globe.


Topics will include cultural and species taxonomies, global circulations of commodities between the East and West Indies, the transatlantic slave trade, the casta system of racial classification in the Americas, religious and scientific explanations of blackness and whiteness, and visual representations of non-European people.


fulfills requirements
Elective of the Standard Major
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 2: Difference and Diaspora of the Standard Major
Pre-1900 Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major