Representations of Race & Ethnicity in German Modernity

Sat, 03/07/2020

German Studies Graduate Student Conference: "Representations of Race and Ethnicity in German Modernity" (March 6-7, 2020)

This conference brought together scholars from numerous disciplines with an interest in critical studies of the concept of race as it has contributed to understandings of the modern subject in the German canon and beyond, tracing its appearance in the works of natural scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and writers alike. The overarching aim was to reflect on modernity and its particular entanglement with race as a historical, social, and political concept of intersectional significance, as well as to discuss its legacy since the Enlightenment.

This event drew on the expertise of a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, history, political theory, anthropology, art history, and literary studies, getting underway with a keynote address by Professor Robert Bernasconi (Penn State), whose work on the critical philosophy of race has greatly contributed to the current state of scholarly discourse. 

With generous support from: The Society for the Humanities, the Department of German Studies, the Institute for German Cultural Studies, the Jewish Studies Program, the Department of History, the Department of Government, the Romance Studies Department, the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies, The Institute for Comparative Modernities, and The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.

Keynote Address by Professor Robert Bernasconi (Pennsylvania State University) “The Emergence of Racialized Justifications of Slavery in Germany at the end of the 18th century”

Following the first two graduate student panels on Friday, March 6th, 2020, Professor Robert Bernasconi (Pennsylvania State University) joined our conference with his keynote address entitled “The Emergence of Racialized Justifications of Slavery in Germany at the end of the 18th century.” Having worked extensively on the critical philosophy of race and racism, Bernasconi has produced comprehensive research on Kant’s theoretical work on race, as well as on how his thought contributed to later, modern conceptions of race and racial thinking. Building on his in-depth work on race, Bernasconi’s keynote address provided insight into what he characterized as a formerly misrepresented part of the German discourse on race toward the end of the 18th century. As the title suggests, his talk focused on the philosophical and historical discourse around slavery at the end of the 18th century, with particular emphasis placed on how some of the most prominent German intellectuals of the time were debating the concept of race. He insightfully rehearsed the debate about race as it was conducted by Kant, Herder, and Georg Forster in the 1770s and 1780s, while integrating Christoph Meiners, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Göttingen at that time, into this philosophical encounter. His talk not only challenged the ways in which Meiners is generally conceived in terms of the history of the concept of race, but also made the case for arguing that Meiners produced the first racial justification of slavery. In Meiners’ contributions to the discourse, race was understood as a category or term within natural history, thought of as permanent and hereditary. Bernasconi argued that this particular notion of race began to serve the purpose of justifying a hereditary system of slavery in the 1790s, the first justification along racial lines.

Professor Bernasconi’s in-depth description of the German discourse around race and racialized justifications of slavery at the end of the 18th century was followed by a lively Q&A. Questions evolved around the differences between monogenetic and polygenetic approaches to race, and how they respectively influenced alleged justifications of slavery before and in the 18th century. Other questions touched upon Meiners’ use of travel reports or scholarly work as a means of justifying his own accounts of race, as well as on Kant’s work and position on race, slavery, and colonialism. (Isabel Choinowski)

photo of Professor Robert Bernasconi at the conference