Looking beyond history: The optics of German anthropology and the critique of humanism

Late nineteenth-century German anthropology had to compete for intellectual legitimacy with the established academic humanities (Geisteswissenschaften), above all history. Whereas humanists interpreted literary documents to create narratives about great civilizations, anthropologists represented and viewed objects, such as skulls or artifacts, to create what they regarded as natural scientific knowledge about so-called 'natural peoples'-colonized societies of Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas. Anthropologists thus invoked a venerable tradition that presented looking at objects as a more certain source of knowledge than reading texts. Visual representations, especially of the colonized, not only allowed anthropologists allegedly objective insight into humanity but also put them in direct contact with popular audiences of ethnographic spectacles, exotic photography, and even pornographic images. Anthropologists thus sought to create a peculiar kind of anthropological vision that both differentiated them from humanists as 'objective' natural scientists but also distinguished them from the leering 'Schaulust' that they believed characterized popular consumption of exotic images. To do so they invented technologies of visual representation that eschewed the subject position figured by linear perspective. These novel optics dispensed with the leering subject posited by popular spectacles and the knowing subject posited by humanism and created an anti-humanist form of knowledge.
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DOI 10.1016/S1369-8486(01)00017-6
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Joel Snyder (1980). Picturing Vision. Critical Inquiry 6 (3):499-526.

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