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Rethinking Genealogy, Rethinking Race

To read genealogically in this mode is to read anachronistically, to theorize the present through temporally removed contexts while allowing for their difference.

Haunting is a term sometimes given to describe the intergenerational travels and continuities of violence and oppression (Avery Gordon) as well as submerged historical sites of possibility (Mayra Rivera Rivera, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). To borrow a framework from Frederic Jameson, this sort of haunting is where our present desire and practice hit a wall and we struggle to understand why. “History is what hurts,” and we know this because our attempts to explain present pain by examining present conditions leave us overwhelmed and unsatisfied.

Why, for instance, if race is decidedly not biological, and if treating it as such has patently deadly social and ecological effects, is there an ongoing attachment to narrating racial identity through biology? What is the attraction of positing identity as inextricably about race, and both as biologically determined? Why do we keep attempting to construct personal genealogies through what is widely panned as ‘bad science’—both for its overall accuracy and for its reliance on flawed historical presumptions in its claims to mark ancestral origins?

To focus on just one contemporary manifestation of this issue, we could look to DNA ancestry tests that promise to reveal one’s true ethnic makeup. There are doubtless multiple reasons that people invest in DNA ancestry tests, not all of them a search for racial and ethnic identification. They are increasingly marketed as tools for anticipating health problems, for instance. It is hard to pin down the political project and there likely is no unified political project (I once saw a subway advertisement for a test that could “Give your dog the gift of identity”).

Yet there are predictable effects of this phenomenon that carry strong political implications. These range from affirming a cheap pluralism in which ‘diversity’ is embraced through whiteness that can absorb all Others, to further marginalization of whoever is considered unmixed—a label that attaches most readily to blackness, as argued by Jared Sexton. DNA tests are especially inaccurate when it comes to identifying Native American ancestry and, as Kim TallBear points out, undermine Native American interpretations of kinship and tribal membership. Additional sinister effects may be yet to come from the fact that these companies retain and own the genetic information they acquire.

I do not want to fall into a trap of calling something religious or theological because it seems to operate without another clear mode of explanation. Yet something about the beliefs and investments that DNA ancestry analysis solicits seems to me worth analyzing in a theological frame. There is a promise of something true or teleological that can confer an altered meaning on present life as it’s being lived. Perhaps it is true, as Sylvia Wynter stated in 1989, that Race takes the place of God.

Understanding the magnetism of these genealogical promises requires, I would argue, its own genealogical investigation.

Rather than asking why or how unscientific, irrational beliefs endure, we might question what came before and alongside these developments that allows them to seem natural, even inevitable.

While there are important efforts to examine the development and effects of racial science through an empirical lens (see Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts), the method I have in mind is more theoretically experimental. A genealogical approach in this vein would admit the contestability of its claims, keep them tentative and open, and neither forestall nor obviate questions of cause and effect. It would offer cross-temporal glimpses of similarity and change that might ultimately deepen the questions we ask about particular historical moments or technological inventions.

A starting point

One might begin, for instance, with the concept of limpieza de sangre, or purity of blood, that took shape in Spanish and colonial thought in the 15th and especially 16th centuries. It designated those without Jewish or Muslim blood and indicated a purity of faith as well as body. Following the Reconquista and efforts to establish Spain as a Christian nation, the concept expressed anxieties about converts to Christianity whose status as reliable, true Christians was thrown into question by Jewish or Muslim ancestry.

María Elena Martínez in Genealogical Fictions traces the idea’s travels from Castilian to colonial contexts. In Spain, physical and heritable traits were barriers to a fully psychic and spiritual notion of conversion. Blood may not have fully determined religious identity, but it implanted an intractable susceptibility to failed conversion. Limpieza de sangre is not using contemporary biological concepts, but it saw ethno-religious identity as passed through bodily material (blood but also breast milk, Martínez points out). It heightened the perceived dangers of reproducing with racially ‘stained’ people and of acquiring ‘infection’ through bodily substances.

In the colonial context, limpieza de sangre was both a theological idea and a bureaucratic one, and both dimensions reflected Spanish political aims and concerns. Spanish immigration to the colonies and elite status within colonial administrations had purity of blood requirements; religious and judicial status were directly and explicitly joined. Indigenous persons were thought to have an original purity (stemming from a presupposed absence of religion) which allowed for sometimes surprising genealogical claims to untainted lineage.

Political status in this framework is thus determined by whether one can securely attain salvation, and this possibility is a biological one. Furthermore, political, theological, and biological necessity make virtually the same demands. The uncomfortable area of exception, of course, was that Catholic Christianity desired and commanded the conversion of those whose impurity could not be undone.

Anachronistic interrogations

To posit that this context might be relevant or related to contemporary investments in racial science is offered less as a truth claim than a provocation toward further questioning. A genealogical account undertaken in earnest would have several intervening points in time and space, as well as a clearer statement of what changes and continuities it means to track. Yet even in briefly setting present-day fixations beside European early modern ones, juxtaposing these two contexts raises new question about present predicaments and what came in between.

Recognizing that past alignments between bodily substance and race (itself a term that undergoes hotly debated transmutations) were matters of salvation, we might become more attuned in present contexts—and those before and after limpieza de sangre—to redemptive promises and valences. For those who would fantasize an undoing of racism through ‘realizing’ that one is racially mixed, what prior forms of ostensibly unmixed racial identity does this notion build upon?

How, too, might the accumulation of data about (supposed) familial and individual racial composition be part of longer biopolitical efforts to manage, reward, or punish certain actions and practices? How do the politicization of family formation, policing of migration, and ongoing hierarchizing of racial compositions and combinations still inform who is considered fit for civic participation and leadership, but also basic survival?

The point of such work is not to make transhistorical declarations based on superficial similarities, but to sensitize us to dynamics that haunt our present problematics and make their elucidation difficult. The above genealogical bookends would still need to grapple with the emergence of racial scientific thinking and the development of evolutionary theory in the 18th and 19th centuries, and more. Yet this approach would not imagine that modern racial science emerged out of nothing, or that Western racial conceits began with Kant.            

To read genealogically in this mode is to read anachronistically, to theorize the present through temporally removed contexts while allowing for their difference. It activates something like what Elizabeth Freeman calls queer temporality across a much wider range of archives and inquiries. It leaves room to sense ghostly shadows from the past amidst novel, technologically-drive trends that are said to change everything. This mode of reading raises new empirical questions and recognizes that not all questions about how we arrived at the mess we are in have solidly empirical answers. It might recognize that the search for empirical assurance can itself participate in ‘unscientific’ projects and reawaken supposedly discarded assumptions and beliefs.

Genealogy in the Present

Symposium Essays

Genealogy’s Bad Blood

An epidemiology of critique investigates our work as genealogists by taking it too literally. It exaggerates, satirically, the materiality of genealogy’s metaphor and clarifies, sincerely, how it structures critique’s politics—its predisposition to quarantine, purge, and escape.

Rethinking Genealogy, Rethinking Race

To read genealogically in this mode is to read anachronistically, to theorize the present through temporally removed contexts while allowing for their difference.

The Violence of Care: on Genealogy and Social Reproduction

To become part of an institution as a member of a group which has historically been excluded from the university or from the discipline of theology is to be extremely conscious of the fragility of our survival within that institution, to feel the necessity of struggling against the forces of reproduction which conspire towards our ongoing exclusion.

Genius, Genealogy, and Get Out: On Melanosis

The Sunken Place’s genius consists in the fact that it-itself conjures the genealogy of the “statement” it makes.

Viral and Human Origins

If the scientific work of phylogenomics teaches us that evolutionary history is more complex, and less clear than we might have imagined, this has not had an effect on the commercialization of human racial ancestry.

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