The aftermath of al-Qaida's attacks on the US is forcing the West to remember the Middle Ages - in particular, how pre-modern societies used individual religious affiliation to define a person's 'racial' status, argues Geraldine Heng
It has become clear since September 11 2001 that, contrary to earlier prognostications, history has not come to an end. Indeed, history - and in particular, the cultural legacy of medieval history - has returned with a vengeance. For the West, which had consigned its Middle Ages to the role of cultural unconscious, the aftershock of September 11 registered a sudden, renewed urgency to grasp and calibrate the workings of non-western mentalities that had never forgotten their premodern history, their living sense of calculated continuities between pre and postmodern time.
We have seen stern, severe faces appear on newscreens and in the press to remind the West that for some, the Crusades have never ended, and the Gulf war and Afghanistan were but the latest distinctive manifestations of confrontations between collective groups that began more than 900 years ago and were periodically renewed through the long durée , with a final outcome yet to be decided.
Belatedly, quick summaries on Islam, Koranic civilisation and the Crusades, on medieval pogroms and expulsions of Jews, and the political relations of East and West in the crucible of violent historical change have appeared in bookstores in an effort to remember the past.
Forgetting has occurred because western intellectuals are raised on a catechism of distinct, posited breaks in historical time and culture that mark premodernity from all that belongs to later modern time - with the very identities we know as modern being posited on, and requiring, such breaks. In premodernity, we are schooled to believe, nations, races and empire-making, with all the political effects and consequences they proliferate, did not yet exist - these are dispositions bedevilling only post-Renaissance, modern societies - and thus the Middle Ages, characterised as a pre-political,
pre-racial, pre-nationalist and pre-imperial time, in opposition to modernity, have been relegated to irrelevancy and elided over and forgotten. There are many costs to that forgetfulness, but my focus here is on the issue of race.
Before September 11, the 2000 US census had already visibly attested to the breakdown of workable racial definitions. It had asked informants to bear the responsibility of self-identification across a variety of 63 possible racial categories: suggesting perplexity in official thinking as to what today might actually constitute a race, beyond individual acts of decision. But it was the panicked aftermath of September 11 - when governmental agencies floundered to grasp the group identity of the aggressor - that dramatised how insolvent our contemporary hypotheses of race had become: hypotheses that had grown old and inadequate to 21st-century conditions, after having ably served to critique Enlightenment-derived forms of racism founded on assertions that biology predisposed inherited “essences” of group “nature” and character - outwardly identifiable by phenotype, colour and anatomy - that rendered human beings classifiable into hierarchies of dominance and subordination as decided by interests of power.
By about the last decade of the 20th century or so, public discourse had come to echo the axiom in academe - thanks to the confirmatory revelations of DNA genetics - that race (like gender) was really a construct and not a system of somatic or biogenetic types. Contemporary critical race theory in fact teaches that each deployment of racial categories is always a moment of invention - a moment that produces its own referent denoting what race might be within a particular context of use, and for a contingent
purpose - and thus admits the corollary implication that categories of race must then, in fact, lack any specificity.
We understand that “race” is a portable, protean term, empty of stable referent, but a history of commitment to countering Enlightenment racisms posited on biology, phenotype and nature nonetheless continues to raise biology to a position of paramount importance in deciding what constitutes racisms and racial enactments, creating a cognitive hesitancy, a lag, that has made it difficult to admit other definitional criteria.
But if the definitional criteria used to identify and act against members of a group are “cultural” - if people, say, are spuriously grouped by their religion, or language - then such acts of categorisation, however unfortunate, do not amount to racial acts, nor point to race logic, nor produce races to order. Thus the spectacle of racial genocide and mass sexual brutalisation witnessed in Bosnia was publicly referred to as “ethnic cleansing” when religion - understood as properly belonging to the realm of culture, not biology - was given definitional primacy by the perpetrators of genocide in conferring an essential identity that rendered their victims innately different from the perpetrators in their own minds (ironically exemplifying, in this, a typical line of racial thinking).
Accordingly, race studies scholars, following the influential example of Anthony Appiah, who distinguished the “theocentric” orientation of premodernity from the racial orientation of modern times, have found it difficult to name the treatment of Jews and blacks in the Middle Ages as racial practices. Even when legislation was passed, in a 13th-century England rapidly consolidating its identity as a nation, to require the English minority population of Jews to wear a self-identifying badge, be prohibited social intercourse with the larger populace and neighbours among whom they lived, and, finally, be herded en masse out of the country permanently, such medieval racisms-by-other-names (anti-Semitism? xenophobia?) were not considered authentic racial practices because the master discourse ordering difference in the medieval period was religion, and religion, as we have seen lately, produces at most merely “ethnic” abominations.
Since September 11, however, we have demonstrably, ineluctably, seen new definitions of race emerge pell-mell in practice - definitions flaunting an uncanny similarity to concepts and practices on display in medieval culture, literature and history - at airport security checkpoints, in the news media and in public political discourse. Racial categories can now be, and have been, decided on the basis of religious identity (with “Muslims” at times defined as a race, even if, confusingly, African-Americans - an older racial category - form the majority of US Muslims). National/geopolitical origin can decide racial membership (“Middle Easterners” are sometimes grouped together as a race); and linguistic identifiers can also disclose one’s race (Arabic-speakers might be assumed to be Arabs, though, confusingly, Christian Lebanese and Jews might also speak Arabic - cultural criteria, we note, sometimes clash in the new regimen of flexible definitions).
Ever a moving target, race has emerged again - playing the role it had in the medieval literature and history I study and teach - as a thing that can be conferred on an individual by virtue of religious status or membership in a community of culture as much as by phenotype. In the palpable collapse between biological and cultural essentialisms as determinants of race - in the sudden demonstration that culture and biology might function very similarly in some circumstances - can be discerned the return of the Middle Ages and a medieval way of understanding human groups and ordering and manipulating human differences in answer to exigent demands. To those who have held that races, racial practices and race-making began in the West only with the large-scale experiment of slavery in the 15th century and after, or with the advent of the modern state, or in the Enlightenment’s scientific discourses on the body, the aftermath of September 11 returns the example of the Middle Ages.
The making of races - the sudden entrance of specific groups of humans into race (in the 2000 census, “Arab” was not a specified racial category) through acts of identification and naming contingent on sociopolitical imperatives - returns this, our historical moment, to the medieval past, as it materialises the trace of the past in our time.
Why should the Middle Ages - an obscure, distant era to most people - matter today? Or, to put it more tendentiously, why should a medieval depiction of a fictitious Muslim king whose skin colour transmogrifies from black to white when he is Christianised, changing his racial markings along with his religion, in a literary fantasy spuriously known as the “King of Tars”, matter, in the new dispensation of the 21st century, a time of cyberoptics, electronic warfare and global flows of people, data, and capital?
The answer lies in the spectacle of those who are busily defining race and religion once more for us - among a host of other definitions and calibrations - post-September 11. In order for the present to pick its way, less than blindly, to the future - in order, perhaps, to have a future worth possessing - it is useful, I think, to return to the past for an understanding of race, in all its proliferations, that will fit the 21st century.
Geraldine Heng is director of medieval studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy , to be published by Columbia University Press in March 2003. She will speak at the “Race and the return of the Middle Ages, post-9/11” session at 9pm on December 29.