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  • Race and Periodization:Introduction
  • Urvashi Chakravarty and Ayanna Thompson

This special issue of New Literary History on "Race and Periodization" explores the ways early critical race studies allows us to reimagine the boundaries, borders, and possibilities of historical and disciplinary periodization.1 Medievalists and early modernists have, of course, long grappled with the meaning and use of their own historical period designations as well as the strictures of periodization itself. Meanwhile, critical race theory situated in both historical and contemporary disciplines necessarily challenges assumptions about historical knowledge, theoretical borders, and scholarly dissemination and impact. In this special issue, we bring these discourses together to examine how critical race theory can enable new insights about, approaches to, and critiques of periodization. We ask: What does an inquiry across traditionally demarcated historical periods afford critical race studies, and how does early critical race studies work to articulate or contest regimes of historical knowledge? How, where, why, and to what critical ends might the study of historical periodization intersect productively with critical race studies?

For premodern studies, periodization has been a perennial interest, a problem, and a plague. How do we periodize? And what are the politics of periodization? For critics such as Kathleen Davis and Dipesh Chakrabarty, premodern periodization can only impose "homogeneities," while periodization itself—especially in designated breaks between modernity and premodernity—simultaneously signals the operations of power.2 In their introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies on periodization, Jennifer Summit and David Wallace, meanwhile, argue that periodization is "a template for dividing up not only time but also place."3 Such an analysis is the subject of Ania Loomba's essay in the same volume, which argues both for a closer examination of overlaps, distinctions, and "reiteration[s]" between the medieval and the early modern, and for a greater attention to local histories and to a Saidian "contrapuntal method" of inquiry.4 Adam Miyashiro cautions us, however, that as we attend to these larger contexts and attempt to "globalize the 'medieval'" (and, implicitly, the early modern as well), as we seek to take into account the multivalent [End Page v] and varied registers of different local histories, we "should beware not to repeat the colonial narratives that defined European empires in the Americas, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia."5 Crucial work in premodern queer studies, meanwhile, including Carolyn Dinshaw's theorization of "asynchrony," allows us to rethink traditional periodizing frameworks, even as their limit and contingencies inflect how we understand the contours of queer and sexuality studies.6 Thus, concerns around historicism, temporality, and teleology have long been central to the study and periodization of queerness, often rooted in the distinction between acts and identities associated with Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality, Volume I.7 Notably, in an influential essay on the rise of "teleoskepticism," Valerie Traub addresses the assumption that "teleological thinking present in queer historicism undergirds a stable edifice of temporal normativity."8 This problem (or assumption, or even accusation) of teleology also lies at the heart of racial periodization, as Geraldine Heng has recently explored at length.9

What, then, are the racial politics of periodization? And how might periodization relate to the processes of race-making? The question of premodern race itself often immediately invokes the problem of periodization, inevitably raising the question: when does race "begin"? For adherents of a "biological" or "scientific" notion of race, race originates in the eighteenth century with the forms of classification that Carl Linnaeus promulgated, and then solidifies in the nineteenth century. The "concept" of race, therefore, is itself contingent on modes of disciplinary periodization that often insist that, as an Enlightenment development, race "cannot" exist in earlier periods. This cavalier insistence not only propagates a view of "race-innocence" in earlier periods; it also simultaneously reinforces, however tacitly, the notion that to talk about race is to talk about the biological rather than the social.

Yet, as Heng and several other critics remind us, there is also a danger in speaking of a "move" from premodern to modern, from cultural to biological modes of race, in ways that imply a teleology of race...