As I was a third of the way through Richard Dyer's White, the news of Diana's death broke. Reading, in what novelist and historian Mukul Kesavan dubbed ad1, was a spooky business: everything seemed to be somehow related to Her. Though, apart from two pictures and a couple of sentences, Princess Di is almost absent from this book, her presence haunts each page. It is not often that a theoretical book so precisely prefigures its most perfect real life expression.
Dyer sets out to study the representation of white people in western culture. He aims not to be revelatory, but to uncover the workings of racial ideology in our most commonly held assumptions, literally to get underneath the skin of culture by "making white strange". As a consequence, whilst there are no penny-dropping, Eureka moments in this book, obvious statements are fashioned to challenge traditional ways of seeing.
It is blindingly obvious, for example, that white people are not white in colour. It is also clear that white (the colour) and white (the race) are not one and the same thing. What is interesting is the way in which the connotations of one have been mapped upon the other to construct a particular set of interlocking ideas in the realm of the symbolic.
In western culture, white people are seen not as belonging to a race, but are "just people". Dyer's insistence that whiteness too should be seen as "raced", is part of a necessary project to question - in order to overturn - what Peggy Mclntosh refers to as the "unearned advantage and conferred dominance" of being white. Any fears that this school of study is a symptom of "me-too-ism", a kind of "poor us-ness" that gave rise to masculinist celebrations in the face of feminism, is roundly and rightly rejected by Dyer.
Dyer insists that whiteness should be seen as racial (as opposed to normal) even in texts which are not overtly about race, or are populated entirely by white figures. However, the bulk of his examples, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to The Jewel in the Crown and The Bodyguard, feature whiteness thrown into relief against darker skins: Diana's pale skin heightened by its contrast to the ebony skin of sick African children.
Don DeLillo's masterful novel White Noise (1984) would have been a superb text to analyse at this point, the title itself referring to the ubiquitous, unnoticed, electrical noise which surrounds us all the time - a background noise which goes unheard. However, Dyer's field is the visual, not the aural, and his forte is the analysis of photography and film.
Though he is best known as a film theorist, I found that Dyer's analysis of the constructed, hard, male bodies of 1950s and '60s Italian Maciste films, of Tarzan, Stallone and Arnie, had little to add to the insights by Fred Pfiel, Lynne Segal, Yvonne Tasker and many others. Much more interesting is Dyer's research into the history of film and photographic lighting, in which he manages to bridge the gap between technical know-how and theoretical analysis to uncover the "white-centricity of the aesthetic technology of photography". The "glow" of perfect white skin, the haloing of the heroine's hair, using "Northern light", the favouring of carbon-arc over tungsten lighting- all these are techniques used to perpetuate, and indeed visualise myths of white racial superiority. It would have been interesting if he had suggested how this technology might have developed had it been by developed by dark-skinned peoples using their own skin tones as the norm.
For Dyer, the key to understanding whiteness lies in the "spirit", not "soul" or "spirituality" but the very male-gendered spirit of enterprise, from the Wild West to the final frontier of outer space. His analysis of The Jewel in the Crown illustrates how uneasily white femininity fits into this construct, in which "white women have nothing to do and do it very unpleasantly; those who do try to do something fail, go mad or create havoc".
At the heart of whiteness lies white peoples' peculiar relationship to race, "Of not being quite contained by their racial categorisation." An English rose, yet the People's Princess, Diana represented the most perfect example of this: belonging to everyone in a way that no non-white figure could ever attain.
From the froth of her virginal bridal gown to her final burial beneath a sea of white lilies, she was the apotheosis of whiteness. "The cult of virginity expressed an idea of unsullied femininity... which was held to be visible in the woman's appearance. It could be intensified by the cult of fasting (common still among young women, if seldom now for religious reasons), which makes the person look paler and signifies lack of corporeal engagement with the world, the body not dirtied by having had matter stuffed into it." It is hard to think of any more glaringly, glowingly literal a translation of this into the real world than transubstantiation, via the media, of Princess Diana's body: blond, blue-eyed, beautiful, virtuous, angelic, pure, noble, Christian, radiant, slim, wronged, a mother. Cinderella at the ball; Snow White in her glass coffin.
Which brings us, neatly, on to the last chapter of the book, "White death". From the racial cleansing of Bosnia-Herzegovina to the whiter-than-white-sheeted Ku Klux Klan, from pale, blood-sucking vampires to spooky ghosts, whiteness is associated with death. As well as being death-bringers, whites are represented as somehow intrinsically deathly, whiteness itself as somehow less earth-bound, closer to God, nearer the angels. Dyer's analysis of Christian iconography in the first part of the book is echoed in this last chapter, which was, for me, the most challenging section, yet the least developed. Dyer might here have benefited from using insights from Elisabeth Bronfen's Over Her Dead Body to examine more fully the gendered and sexualised notions of mortality which pervade western culture.
A final word of praise for the publishers. From the glowing white cover, with the Birth of Venus peeking out through the cleverly stencilled title, to the excellent paper and picture quality inside, the physical production is a delight. I am sure that the author, whose task has been to explain exactly what is concealed and what is revealed in whiteness, would enjoy the irony that in order to protect the pristine, unsullied whiteness of his book from the grime of India, I have had to cover my copy in plain, brown paper.
Anita Roy is commissioning editor for cultural studies, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India.
Author - Richard Dyer
ISBN - 0 415 0936 0 and 0 415 09537 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 256