CFP: Representations of Race and Ethnicity in German Modernity (15.01.2020)

Dennis Wegner Discussion


Representations of Race and Ethnicity in German ModernityGraduate Student Conference at Cornell University, 6-7 March 2020


Keynote Speaker: Robert Bernasconi (Penn State University)


Since the late 20th century, critical race theorists have studied the Enlightenment to trace cultural and institutional mechanisms by which modernity has imbricated what Hannah Arendt called “race-thinking” with racism to produce “race-societies” (​Origins of Totalitarianism​). Insisting not only on questions of modern raciology, but also on intersecting issues of class, nation, gender, and identity, critical race theory has leveraged the insights of post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and postcolonialism to reconstruct modern accounts of “discovering” and determining race to be a process of constructing otherness. This process relies on communal wish fulfillments and crystallizations of power or class interests while configuring unstable categories of race. Thus Nell Irvin Painter historicizes “the expansions of Whiteness” in American society (​The History of White People​), and Kwame Anthony Appiah critiques the Western-exceptionalist and nationalist (which is to index, for him, German Romantic origins) of anti-racist rhetorics in African-American Pan-Africanism (In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture​). While Immanuel Wallerstein and Etienne Balibar emphasize racism’s modernity by unpacking its symbiosis with capitalism and class dynamics (​Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities​), Achille Mbembe articulates a concept of “Black reason”, which observes the universalization of the violence Western modernity had initially meant for Black bodies (​Critique of Black Reason)​. Fatima El-Tayeb, a leading theorist of Black German Studies, analyzes “invisible” racialization and “racial amnesia” in contemporary Europe (​European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe)​. If many critical race theorists present the Enlightenment as a turning point that marks race’s fateful enmeshment with modern cultural politics, work by scholars such as Emmanuel Eze and John Noyes emphasizes alternative avenues in (counter-)Enlightenment thought, where traditions of thought opposed to race-thinking might be reconsidered. Noyes, for example, argues for the use of Herder’s elaboration of an anti-imperialism for a postcolonial critique ​pace​the currents of Enlightenment thought (​Aesthetics Against Imperialism​). 


As John Zammito shows in detail, Herder’s work situates the question of human diversity at the center of a disciplinary rupture among Enlightenment thinkers, leading to the birth of anthropology (​Kant, Herder and the Birth of Anthropology)​. This period is characterized by a measurement of the disciplinary autonomy of philosophical inquiry on the universal nature of rational and empirical knowledge against the pragmatic need for an anthropological study of diverse human forms and experiences. Against Herder’s conviction that races are continuous organic varieties, Kant, in preformationist vocabulary, distinguishes them in terms of pre-formed “Keime,” which, for him, accompany deviations from a ​Stammgattung,​ while excluding white people from the course of this ostensibly natural determination (AA, II:435-446). Debates situating human diversity in classification systems, with white people supposedly transcending the same, persist beyond this period. Schelling and Hegel, for example, contend that only white people cannot be characterized in solely biological terms, since they alone allegedly overcome, through spiritual progress, limitations imposed on them by their situatedness in nature (SW, XI:97-9 ; W, II, 10:61). 


Our objective for this year’s German Studies graduate student conference at Cornell University is to invite critical reflections on concepts of race and ethnicity across ​different periods and genres ordered under German modernity. We want to reflect on modernity and its particular entanglement with race as a historical, social and political concept, as well as discuss its legacy since the Enlightenment. We welcome submissions from a variety of disciplines interacting with German literature, philosophy, anthropology, aesthetics, politics and intellectual history from early modern to contemporary time frames to be presented at Cornell University ​on March 6-7.​ 


Potential topics may include, but a​re certainly not limited to​: 

  • Theories of race and culture from the Enlightenment to the contemporary
  • People of color in philosophies of history and German intellectual history
  • Theories and narratives of recognition 
  • Gender and race, the racialization of women 
  • Queerness and race 
  • Comparative modernities, modernity and race in transnational methodologies
  • Discussions and depictions of Jewishness 
  • Constructions of whiteness, critical whiteness studies
  • Race and musealization, the anthropological discipline
  • Science and pseudoscience: taxonomies, genealogies and heredity
  • Climate change: migration, inequality, race and the environment
  • International mobility and access: migration vs. immigration
  • Pre-modern conceptions of race, race before race 
  • Representations of race across visual media, early modern to contemporary
  • Cosmopolitanism, colonialism and decolonization: theories, narratives and histories
  • Comparative European discourses of race 
  • Anti-racist activism and pedagogy 


Abstracts (250-300 words) for 20-​minute presentations and presenter bios are due by January 15, 2020. Please send your paper proposals to​.