The Pedigree of the Enlightenment

I already blogged a little about Nancy Isenberg’s excellent White Trash, and I have a semi-substantive review of it scheduled for Wednesday, but one specific point has been sticking with me since reading the book. It actually dovetails with another excellent book I read this summer, Alison Bashford and Joyce Chaplin’s The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus (Princeton UP, 2016), which looks at Malthus’s famous Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) and examines how the text had a global context and was primarily addressing questions posed by the colonization of the new world. (In brief: while Malthus’s controversial book did indeed draw from and speak to the debates over poor people in Britain, it was also focused on colonization efforts throughout the Pacific and Atlantic worlds, and had surprising implications for inter-indigenous encounters and ethics. It’s a model of how global intellectual history can and should be written.) Anyway, both books interwove an important lesson: many of the individuals now identified with the enlightenment were very interested in sex. And not just sex, but the participants, relatedness, and remnants of sexual relationships.

To be blunt, enlightenment thinkers were concerned with who bred with who, how often that breeding occurred, and what happened with the new breed of children. And “breeding” was a common and potent way of describing it, because they believed human populations could be identified, analyzed, and controlled just like animals. (And both these books demonstrate that the American continent offered a new canvas on which to draw new hypotheses.) In a way this shouldn’t be surprising since the enlightenment has long been cast as an attempt to naturalize and mechanize modes of knowledge, dissecting what was previously sacred and other-worldly. But it is still sobering to see the legacy of these intellectual developments: a cold calculus to control human society. It can never be too frequently reminded that these “liberal” and “progressive” thinkers also gave birth to scientific theories of, say, racial segregation, let alone racism itself. And in Isenberg’s book, one can see how southern thinkers built on these ideas to conceive of a perpetual poor class beyond the reach of redemption.

This mixed legacy is certainly part of the enlightenment’s paradoxical role in the birth of modernity.

(Side note: I’m really excited for Caroline Winterer’s forthcoming book on the American enlightenment. Given her past work, it should be fantastic.)

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