Figurations of Race and Ethnicity
Session 7.5
2004 NEMLA Meeting
Pittsburgh, PA
06 March



Laura Callanan
Duquesne University


“Life Clothed in Forms”: Radical Racism as Formalist Aesthetic in Robert Knox's The Races of Men

Do not cite without permission of the author.

The 1850 publication of Robert Knox's The Races of Men was a watershed in the mid-Victorian ideological movement away from humanitarian egalitarianism and towards a more radical and polemical scientific racism. Knox seeks to classify and contain what he sees as the crises precipitated by races coming into contact with one another, inappropriately taking on one another's political structures, and attempting to blend or change what he argues are biologically rooted predispositions for particular cultural forms. He attempts this taxonomic project in part by utilizing race as an empty trope within which he places all of the social conflicts he sees as critical in his time.

The primacy of form over content typifies Knox's work. The Races of Men culminates in a formalist aesthetic premised on the importance of exteriority in an organic ideal of beauty. Although he generally takes the stance of radical and offensive racialist, contradictions in his presentation suggest a more ambiguous position than this label implies. My presentation deals with the opposition Knox sets up between real (imaginative) and ideal (material) that relates, I contend, to Knox's denigration of anything he believes is false (subjective), which is how he views most of history and most travel and scientific writings. The tangible defined the perfect for Knox. The connection of perfection and race, Knox argues, forces upon him “the introduction of the disquisition into a theory of the beautiful” ( Races 419). The exploration of form, which leads to the exploration of beauty, helps “trace to it the laws of formation, leading to the perfect; and from it the laws of deformation, leading to the imperfect; or, in other words, to explain the origin of race, or at least to connect the history of race with the great laws regulating the living organic world” (419). Or, as he asks in his 1852 work Great Artists and Great Anatomists: A Biographical and Philosophical Study, “[w]hat is the relation of Science to Art?” (xii). The answer lies in the relationship of both disciplines to form, and the primacy of structure in the biology of race.