White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages

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Wan-Chuan Kao
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This ground-breaking book analyses premodern whiteness as operations of fragility, precarity and racialicity across bodily and nonsomatic figurations. It examines works such as The Book of the Duchess, Pearl, The King of Tars and others, arguing that while whiteness participates crucially in the history of racialisation in the late medieval West, it does not denote or connote skin tone alone. Deploying diverse methodologies, the book asks how premodern whiteness as a representational trope both produces and delimits a range of medieval ideological regimes: courtly love and beauty, masculine subjectivity, Christian salvation, chivalric prowess, labour and consumption, social ethics or racialised European identity. The ‘before’ of whiteness, presupposing essence and teleology, is less a retro-futuristic temporisation – one that simultaneously looks backward and faces forward – than a discursive figuration of how white becomes whiteness. Fragility delineates the limits of ruling ideologies in performances of mourning as self-defence against perceived threats to subjectivity and desire; precarity registers the ruptures within normative values by foregrounding the unmarked vulnerability of the body politic and the violence of cultural aestheticisation; and racialicity attends to the politics of recognition and the technologies of enfleshment at the systemic edge of life and nonlife, of periodisation and of racial embodiment. If whiteness has hardened into an identity politics defined by skin tone alone, this book argues that it has not always been so. Operations of whiteness may generate differences that fabricate, structure and connect the social world, but these operative differences of whiteness are never transparent, stable or permanent.

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