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Race and the Crisis of Humanism by Kay…

Race and the Crisis of Humanism

by Kay Anderson

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Not being a scholar, I wouldn't have known of this book if not for its winning the 2008 Gleebooks Prize, one of the NSW Premier's Literary Awards. I wouldn't have bought it and started reading it if I hadn't been so taken with Raewyn Connell's /Southern Theory/ earlier this year, and consequently been interested in the impact of early European–Aboriginal encounter on European theorising, which is pretty much the concern of this book. And I wouldn't have persisted with its dense academic prose, which fairly bristles with learned references and also with the proofreading oversights and chaotic use of commas that seem to be inevitable in such publications, if there wasn't a promise of fresh insight into the nature of racism.

I'm glad I read it, because it introduced me to apparently vast scholarly conversations about race and racism, and about the history of people's understanding of what a human being is, among other things. Its central argument is something like: let's agree that the concept of innate differences between people of different 'races' was developed over the last couple of hundred years, and had the function of rationalising the genocidal brutality of nineteenth century colonialism; but describing its function isn't a full explanation of where it came from; European thinkers took their own specific society to be a universal human condition, and as they encountered different-looking and differently organised peoples their understanding of what it means to be human was challenged; rather than change that understanding they found a series of 'scientific' ways to define the new people as lesser versions of human. Something like that -- but a lot more carefully argued, and more interesting. Kay Anderson brings a coldly analytic eye to some fairly monstrous pieces of writing, all the more monstrous because I recognise in a lot of them a kind of full-blown, explicit version of ideas that still float around today, some that were presented as simple fact in my childhood education.

At some points in the book, I felt an almost physical pain at the absence of Aboriginal voices. As the European scholars -- few of whom had ever visited Australia -- argued back and forth about the status of 'the Tasmanians' and 'the Australians', collecting their skulls and measuring them obsessively, it was almost impossible not to think of the deep satisfaction of a man and woman in a recent Awaye program describing sleeping in the same room as ancestral remains reclaimed from a European museum before loading them onto a homeward-bound plane. As the scholars pontificated about the inevitable 'extinction' of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, I recalled James Boyce's account in /Van Diemen's Land/ of the machinations, negotiations, lies and evasions of the British Governors who oversaw the massacres. As they rabbited on about the 'unimproveability' of the Australians, I was glad to have read Inga Clendinnen's meticulous attempts to retrieve from the colonisers' own records an account of the first years of contact in New South Wales from the point of view of the invaded. And once or twice, when something felt personal about someone I know, I almost shouted out loud, 'Shut up! Just shut up!' Kay Anderson has a much stronger stomach that I do: she actually goes in and tries to understand where the vile stuff comes from. ( )
  shawjonathan | Jun 25, 2008 |
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