In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

C h a p t e r 6 Children of Light: The Nature and Culture of Suntanning Catherine Cocks “Race denotes what man is,” the economist William Z. Ripley declared in 1899, whereas “all these other details of social life”—environment, ethnicity, nationality, and language—“represent what man does.”1 This distinction between what humans are and what they do, which gained influence over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, summarized a major shift in the understanding of human variation. Ripley’s remark underscores the binary thinking that underlay the new understanding: opposing nature to nurture, bodily inheritance to environmental influences, and perhaps most contentiously, race against culture. This final opposition proposed that on the one hand, people have bodies bearing obvious physical differences; on the other, they have customs and traditions derived from historical and social connections. One is biological, the other a human invention. Neither determines the shape of the other. Before 1900, though, is and does—race and culture—appeared to most intellectuals and ordinary people to be tightly interwoven and mutually determining; notoriously, they determined a system of fixed racial hierarchies, among many other inequalities. Picking this fabric apart to render race and culture as opposites played a critical role in challenging the inequalities of the old order. Yet by obscuring the “relational ontologies” that join nature and culture, this opposition makes it difficult to Children of Light 123 formulate an ethical politics that encompasses the relationship between our embodied, encultured, and culture- and biology-producing selves and the biosphere to which we belong.2 Revisiting the moment at which race and culture were rendered as opposites opens a way to think about the ways that bodies and cultures mutually construct each other without being captured by oppressive determinism or antimaterial idealism. The phenomenon through which I propose to make this argument is the spread of suntanning among white North Americans after 1900. This fashion trend literally embodied a critical change in the way that whites thought about the relationship between their natures and the rest of nature. Though only a few sunbathers waxed philosophical about their practice, its meaning emerges from its interweaving with phenomena that did have explicit intellectual rationales, including the scientific acceptance of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution, the spread of eugenics, the rise of germ theory, and the discovery of vitamins.3 Precisely because it was a popular practice that embodied a specific relationship between selfhood and environmental forces, suntanning illuminates the extent to which nature and culture are not opposites but fluid conditions of possibility. Environmental Determinism The popular assumption today is that before the general acceptance of the concept of culture in the mid-twentieth century, white people conceived of human nature as determined by biology. In their ignorance they subsumed things today considered cultural—ethnic identity, family form, and gender roles, for example—into the body and called the assemblage “race.” Supposedly we know better now; we know that race marks physical differences that should have no social effects and that culture is a set of values and practices we learn from those around us. Looking back through the lens of contemporary beliefs, the earlier theory seems at best simplistic and unenlightened. But the situation in the past was far more complex than this formulation allows, and that complexity sheds light on the extent to which the two concepts are closely related ways of understanding the relationships among human bodies, human cultures, and the nonhuman world. For centuries North Americans and Europeans considered human nature the product of a larger nature, the world outside the human body. Theirs was not a narrowly biological determinism but a broad-based environmental one, a grandly geographic vision. The shift that occurred gradually around the turn of the twentieth century 124 Chapter 6 was not the recognition that upbringing (culture) is far more important in the shaping of human beings than biology (race), as histories of the culture concept usually argue. That binary is the product of this shift and the often violent struggles that forged it, not a description of past beliefs. Rather, what happened was the erosion of the complex, long-standing set of beliefs that cast human beings in their individual and collective differences as the products of the places of their nurture, particularly the geography and climate. The idea that biology (human nature) and customs and traditions (culture) are distinct realms whose precise relationship is a problem stemmed from the breakdown of...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.