Nov 15 2008

Race and Technology

by at 3:04 pm

I’m beginning to realize that my research interests aren’t as specific as I thought they once were. Yes, I am interested in how the electrical metaphor and race are connected, but what about technology in general? This is of course for another paper (or another chapter in my thesis), but after reading Nell Irvin Painter’s “Representing Truth: Sojourner Truth’s Knowing and Becoming Known,” I’m starting to contemplate the advent of photographic technology and the ways it intersects with race. Two important quotations:

Although prosperous African Americans had their photographs taken for their own use, bourgeois portraiture was as uncommon as bourgeois blacks. In the 1860s images of black people were rare, and most of them had not been taken at the instigation of the subjects. Photographs of black men were most often found in the files of city police, where photography had taken its place as a tool of law enforcement two decades earlier (485, 486).


Another genre of photography also took people of color as its subject matter: the anthropological specimen photographs that displayed ‘types’ of native peoples to educated metropolitans. In anthropological photographs, captive individuals, usuaully stripped of their clothing and staring straight into the camera were displayed as examples of otherness, like insects pinned in cases or stuffed mammals in museusms. British and French explorers specialized in this genre of natural history photography, but the American biologist Louis Agassiz had specimen photographs of enslaved African Americans taken in the 1850s. Sojourner Truth’s posture, clothing, and stance distinguish her from the criminals or native types who shared her color, for she is well groomed, well clothed, and posed so as not to look directly into the camera’s lens (486).

Both passages point to the intersections between race and technology, how technology is often part in parcel of policing or, in the case of photography, actually aiding in creating “fixed” categories of race. If individuals could be photographed and their race could be labeled from these photographs, a kind of running, universal language of racial cateogories was beginning to be systematized. I wonder if a reading of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the use of “fingerprinting” to discern race as stand-in for this anthropological photography could be done. Hmm…

So, could this be my thesis??!!–how race and technology interesect, as seen in the electrical metaphor, telegraph, photography, etc.

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