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  • The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture
  • Philip Gould (bio)
The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture. Roxann Wheeler. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. 371 pp.

For at least the last two decades the study of race has significantly shaped the field of early American studies. Numerous works about Columbian and pre-colonial contact, the history and literature of African slavery, and the representation of "other" peoples accompanying Anglo-American imperialism have appeared en masse. This includes prominent critics of "race" as the discourse of hegemony: Dana D. Nelson, Henry [End Page 359] Louis Gates, Jr., Peter Hulme, Frank Shuffelton, Tvetzan Todorov, and many, many more. They should read Roxann Wheeler's recent study of "difference" in eighteenth-century British culture. It happily unsettles such a revisionist project by reconsidering the meaning of "race" in both a transatlantic context and a transitional historical period in which pseudoscientific theories about racial difference were just evolving. The book's main argument admirably conceptualizes an "elastic conception of race" (7). Wheeler reads the works of Defoe, African travel narratives, mid-century novels of amalgamation, the writings of Samuel Johnson and Edward Long, and Equiano's Interesting Narrative with an eye toward the complex and changing meanings of "complexion." As a word signifying both skin color and sensibility, it both complements and competes with other registers for identity—Christianity, civility, and commerce, for example—that make up the nexus of "human variety" (31).

Wheeler's critical inspiration derives from both historical fact and cultural theory. The introduction discusses with impressive historical understanding early modern epistemologies of "race" based on the body's humors and their interaction with particular climates. Beginning in the 1770s, with the expanding discipline of natural history, the gradual shift to anatomical and geographical models of the body began to invest skin color with new—literally "deeper"—meanings that directly connected physical appearance and "mental capacity." The outline of this uneven paradigm shift allows for her analysis of "the power of residual proto-racial ideologies" in late eighteenth-century texts, a fact that creates what Wheeler calls "the sedimentation of racial ideology" (9). These historical groundings make her sophisticated use of cultural and literary theories all the more powerful. Drawing on Derridean theory as well as postcolonial notions of cultural hybridity and exchange, Wheeler frames this study against a tradition of "binary" thinking (i.e., blackness as opposed to whiteness) that characterizes even the most sophisticated poststructuralist and materialist scholarship (311). By considering also the theories of Althusser, Raymond Williams, and Stuart Hall, she sees historically the uneven nature of racial ideologies within particular social formations. Hence, she argues for their "multiplicity" as well as their "overdetermination" that we, as critics, must demystify (38, 42). The result is a work self-consciously opposed to the "monologic" view of the "Enlightenment in general and racial ideology in particular" (6). Wheeler convincingly shows that "race" has competing meanings and contexts in a transitional era. [End Page 360]

Individual chapters go on to reconsider racial politics within the larger framework of the expansion of the British commercial empire. Wheeler's reading of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), for example, resituates the problem of difference in light of the crucial contrast between "Christian" and "savage" cultures: "Christianity represents the most significant category of difference that excuses European domination and establishes the conditions for enslavement" (61). Yet even here the book points out the absence of "clear boundaries of difference" (89) among Crusoe, Friday, Xury, and the native Caribbean inhabitants; Friday's representation, for example, unevenly oscillates among the categories of Christianity, nation, skin color, servitude, and slavery. To her credit, Wheeler's analysis goes beyond the novel's first publication and considers the "periodic Negroization of Friday" (83) in later illustrations and editions of Robinson Crusoe. Wheeler's ensuing discussion of travel narratives about Africa, published largely in 1720s and 1730s, significantly resists "teleological and presentist conceptualizations of race and racism by untangling the customary equation of slavery and race" (93). As British writers considered Africa and Africans for purposes of imperial domination, the categories of black and white were subservient to...


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