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  • Monstrosity, Colonialism, and the Racial State
  • Sylvester Johnson (bio)

“Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!”

—White police officer of Ferguson, Missouri, to blacks demonstrating against police killing of a black teenager, August 24, 20141

I. Introduction

Monstrosity has long functioned as an element of imperial conflicts to distinguish civilized peoples from monsters. During the many centuries of Western colonialism, scores of authors, writing during the so-called age of discovery, composed gripping, eyewitness reports of monstrous races. What is most striking about these accounts of monsters is the sheer alterity of monstrous bodies. Whether describing fanged cannibals, one-eyed giants, or headless monopods, these firsthand accounts disseminated lurid tales of monstrous bodies that promised by the very nature of their physicality to confound any efforts to perceive humanness in the monstrous form.

Monstrosity, however, was rooted not in veritable accounts (there were never any actual troglodytes and headless monopods) but rather in a distinctive political context—that of colonialism. And the underlying legacy and efficacy of inscribing prolific reports of monstrosity obtained not because of phenotypic difference but through political distinctions. In other words, what appears initially as a matter of physical differences (phylogenic) has in fact been rooted in a political (sociogenic) formation—chiefly that of governing peoples as racial populations.

To account for the imperial formation of monstrosity and its chief function as a political manifestation, I focus on Thomas Jefferson’s deployment of monstrosity, putatively based on his firsthand experience with those African captives he enslaved on his Monticello plantation. Jefferson’s invocation of monstrosity is a racial discourse that, like other discourses of race, appears to concern phenotype while actually functioning as an effect of political practices. Jefferson’s deployment of monstrosity clarifies the biopolitical mechanics undergirding his imagined [End Page 182] community and speaks to the lingering ethnocratic function of the American nation-state.

II. Monstrosity as Imperial Discourse

Accounts of monstrous peoples were not unique to the age of European empires. The first-century CE Roman author, naturalist, and militarist Gaius Plinius Secundus—more familiar as Pliny the Elder—is well known for having written of monstrous races in his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia. Pliny composed his monumental work—itself a monstrosity—in thirty-seven books before his death in 79 CE. This massive discursus examined the variety of peoples, flora, fauna, material technologies, and cultures known throughout the Roman Empire. It was, in fact, very much a product of empire. Of enduring interest was his description of troglodytes, dog-headed peoples, and one-footed humans who were said to live along the outermost edges of the known world—that is, the lands conquered and administered by the empire. The Greek author Herodotus, writing roughly five hundred years before Pliny, had made similar claims. The fantastical claims of Herodotus, in fact, directly inspired Pliny’s portrayal of peoples perceived as distant and strange at such far remove from Rome.2

It was Pliny’s Historia, however, that enjoyed the greater longevity; it shaped generations of scholarship for more than 1,500 years as learned authors emulated both its encyclopedic method and the imperial ethos of Pliny’s perspective on a vast expanse of human societies. As European merchants and colonial agents began traveling throughout West Central Africa in the 1500s and 1600s, they produced prolific claims of monstrous peoples who, like Pliny’s monstrous races, hopped around on one leg (monopods), were headless with eyes in their torsos, cavorted sexually like untamed beasts, and feasted on the flesh of their own kind.3

The Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus produced the first edition of his monumental Systema Naturae (typically translated as “A General System of Nature”) in 1758. Linnaeus claimed to have identified one species of people—Homo troglodytes—whom Pliny described in his Naturalis Historia. Linnaues based this on the reports of African peoples that European authors composed. What he most desired, however, was a live specimen. He was thrilled at the prospect of examining an actual troglodyte after he heard that a young African-descended girl (from Jamaica) was being exhibited in London. Linnaeus, who typically sent his students to gather or observe life specimens, prepared a list of questions, [End...


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