Making Sense: Race and Modern Vision

Shon, Sue. Making Sense: Race and Modern Vision. 2015. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

“Making Sense: Race and Modern Vision” explores how race as we know it becomes visually recognizable. It does so by historicizing the perceptual knowledge produced by race and vision and by demonstrating how the relationship between race and vision has come to be regarded as common sensical. In particular the dissertation examines how race has been visually structured by the development of writing practices in the modern transatlantic context. Through the analysis of a wide textual field including fiction, philosophy, and visual art, “Making Sense” traces how race has acquired “visuality” via writing that represents race as self-evidently visible. The central argument is that the practice of writing literally makes sense of race because, tautologically, the visuality of race is represented as existent prior to its discursive presentation.

While scholars have offered rich critiques of the role scientific vision has played in defining race (and justifying racial subjection), they have tended to explain the relationship between race and vision as overdetermined. “Making Sense” takes a different approach. It asks how the relationship between race and vision has been generated as common sensical in exploring vision through its historically aesthetic, or, sensorial structure. The story that “Making Sense” tells is narrated across four chapters. The chapters analyze a wide and unusual range of literary, visual, scientific, and philosophical texts that engage in racial discourse, including runaway slave advertisements, Kantian aesthetic philosophy, Darwinian evolutionary theory, turn-of-the-century architectural theories, black modernist fiction, and contemporary visual artwork. This collection of texts, produced in the context of national and global discourses of race, aesthetics, and modernity, is regarded as an archive of common sense vision. “Making Sense” examines how this archive demonstrates and exposes the fundamentally discursive structure and the formalist organization of the visual sense.

In tracking the universalizing moves of formalist discourses, “Making Sense” utilizes formal methods, including close reading. This dissertation’s innovation on formal analysis reorients what it means to perform historical scholarship and shows how narrow forms of disciplinary study have produced platitudes about race and vision.

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