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New Literary History 32.1 (2001) 157-176



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Racializing Babylon:
Settler Whiteness and the "New Racism"

Penelope Ingram *


Since the beginning of the 1990s scholars from disciplines as diverse as history, sociology, and film studies have been engaged in an attempt at theorizing the role played by whiteness in the formation of dominant subjectivities. 1 Specifically, these theorists have suggested that most white people experience their whiteness as intangible, universal, or transparent, and they find whiteness to be represented accordingly in literature, film, and other media. This essay will explore these issues from a perspective previously unexamined in these theorizations, that of the postcolonial white settler. I will make an intervention into these predominantly British and American analyses of whiteness from the perspective of settler studies and examine how settlers, by way of an analysis of the Australian novelist David Malouf's prizewinning work Remembering Babylon, attempt to define themselves as white subjects; that is, how they represent and construct whiteness in general and, importantly, a sense of their own whiteness in particular in literature. Whiteness is produced in contemporary settler texts in ways different from those identified in the representations of whiteness examined by other critics. Specifically I am arguing that in contemporary white settler texts whiteness is not portrayed as unraced, transparent, or neutral, but rather is racialized or marked. And this desire to mark or differentiate whiteness in these settler texts is part of a general valorization of racial and cultural difference which far from benefiting indigenous and racial others through a respect for difference, conforms instead to ideologies of what Pierre-André Taguieff and Etienne Balibar have called the "new racism." 2

Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark, her examination of the role of the Africanist presence in the formation of a specifically American literature, has argued that nineteenth-century American writers such as Poe, Melville, Twain, and others used the "Africanist character . . . to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness." 3 Just as Edward Said has argued is the case in European representations of [End Page 157] the Orient, Morrison argues that the presence of black bodies in early American texts provided writers with a standard against which to define themselves. Interestingly, according to Morrison, for these early writers, "[w]hiteness . . . is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable" (PD 59). In order to escape from the veil of nothingness that whiteness represented to these writers in the New World, they employed blackness in their texts as a means by which to define their newly realized selves as white. And they defined this whiteness, and thus themselves, as universal, transcendent, pure, and righteous. Though whiteness ceased to represent the fearful unknown, specifically the boundarylessness of the New World, it retained its status as the universal standard, the norm against which others were measured. In searching for a definition of themselves as raced, these early nineteenth-century American writers represented themselves as unmarked, unraced.

In White, his study of white representation, Richard Dyer analyzes precisely this tendency for whiteness to be represented as unmarked or unraced in filmic and photographic representations in this century. Dyer explains that in these media white bodies are lit in such a way as to appear translucent, thereby assuming a spiritual aura perpetuated by Christian iconography. What Morrison and Dyer demonstrate, then, is that in film and literature, as well as other media, whiteness triumphs both thematically--it is uplifting, noble, universal, and pure, whereas blackness is represented as demonic, unholy, downtrodden, dirty--and aesthetically, through the codes employed by the respective media in their representations of whiteness. Thus whiteness is not simply represented as universal, pure, true, and so on, it is habitually constructed as such through the textual and aesthetic codes deployed by these media, which in turn establish and propagate these kinds of representations as truths. As Dyer makes clear: "the aesthetic technology of the photographic media, the apparatus and practice par excellence of a light culture, not only assumes and privileges whiteness but also constructs it." 4

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 157-176
Launched on MUSE
2001-02-01
Open Access
No
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