Canada’s definition and documentation of “Indians” is a project of bureaucratic knowledge production in service of the continued assertion of settler colonial political visions.1 The Indian Act was introduced in 1876 to assert the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and certain peoples the Act defines as “Indians.” The Act has been amended many times, but is remains a current piece of legislation in Canada and still defines “Indian” as a political and legal category of person.2 Defining and identifying “Indians” served the broader project of managing Canada’s so-called Indian problem. From the perspective of nineteenth-century legislators, the “problem” was one of Indigenous peoples asserting nationhood and insisting on claims to the lands where they have lived since time immemorial, thus creating obstacles for settler claims to sovereignty. But it is also a problem of knowledge, which Indian Affairs administrators sought to address through a practice of classification. To apply and enforce the provisions of the Act designed to undermine Indigenous sovereignty and compel their assimilation, “Indians” had to be made visible to state legislators, bureaucrats, and other agents. The definitional work of the Indian Act is both a technique of classification and a way of seeing.
Long a matter of academic attention, the very criteria of what makes a fact now circulates as a matter of politics. Indexing the increasingly widespread concern about what makes a fact, the Oxford dictionary selected “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year.
We are members of knowledge societies, but we live in “an age of ignorance.” We are swimming in “oceans of ignorance” that have been consciously, unconsciously, and structurally produced “by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression.”1 Little wonder, then, that there is also a lot of ignorance about the persistence of racism as a structural phenomenon that orders society in discriminatory ways and racial knowledge as a normalized element of our knowledge societies.
What kind of knowledge are we addressing when we talk about folk culture? What can we extract from work songs, ballads, lullabies, and reels? What do stories of various kinds, relayed by word of mouth, tell us about the communities they sprang from? What do they reveal about how migrants organized themselves, how they navigated the socioeconomic and political currents affecting their lives?
Such questions speak not only to a history of knowledge in our own time but were important to WPA fieldworkers during the Great Depression. Under the auspices of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, or WPA, sometimes with additional local funding, these men and women collected folk music and other oral traditions for the library, which supplied the requisite recording equipment and disks. The materials they collected went into the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, now the Archive of Folk Culture and part of the library’s American Folklife Center. The resulting collection comprises field recordings, photographs, drawings, and written documentation by the fieldworkers. But the Archive of American Folk Song did not just gather and preserve such material. It also enabled the dissemination of some of the songs and stories via songbooks, anthologies, and radio broadcasts.
It has taken sixty-one editions of the Eurovision Song Contest, and fifty-three years of Portuguese participation, for any Portuguese city to have the chance to host the annual song competition and show the contest’s reputed 200 million viewers its own interpretation of Europe’s cultural identity.
Portugal’s reputation as one of the longest-running Eurovision entrants never to win meant that the victor’s privilege of hosting the next contest has never until now fallen on Portugal and its national broadcaster Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (RTP), even as early twenty-first-century Eurovision became famous for more and more first-time winners emerging across a seemingly ever-enlarging Europe.
Victorian London can be seen as multiple cities at once: the imperial metropole par excellence, where different political visions clashed in the course of establishing and governing the British Empire; the thumping heart of global capitalism, busily circulating capital from one corner of the world to another through its formal securities markets and in private deal-making; and the origin point of the modern network of interconnected “learned societies.”1 Flandreau, formerly of the University of Geneva and now the Howard Marks Chair of Economic History at the University of Pennsylvania, nimbly navigates the history of these three different Londons in Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science.
On March 6, 2016, at the height of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton or someone on her campaign posted a tweet about intersectionality. Commenting on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the accompanying diagram depicted the various issues that had intersected to cause the crisis. This was a curious moment, as a theory with roots in radical feminism was brought to the center, part of a modish interest in intersectionality as an explanatory framework for understanding contemporary America.1 Indeed, where her main primary challenger was positioned as a more economically progressive choice, Clinton’s supporters often claimed (with varying degrees of sophistication) that in an intersectional sense she was the more properly anti-establishment candidate, over the white male Bernie Sanders.2 Had Clinton won in November, this discourse of intersectionality would probably have been a main theme of her presidency. That this seemingly centrist liberal set of ideas can be traced to the radical wing of second wave feminism, the New Left, and even Marxism, adds to the curiosity of its move to the political mainstream.
As nations brace to firm up their borders in 2017, a short history of people who inhabited the periphery reminds us of the role boundaries played in an earlier era of globalization. The early woodcuts that helped define this periphery offer a window into the history of knowledge about the Other and also tell us something about the early stages of visual epistemology.
Throughout antiquity and the middle ages, a lively band of monsters lived along the edge of the known world. While discrediting the humanity of certain specimens of mankind has a venerable tradition in the history of othering, at some point, the monstrous assumed human form. In the sixteenth century, temporary visas were issued to these monstrous races and they became human. We have something to learn from the scrutiny generated by this close-up view, a relativism almost forgotten in contemporary treatment of outsiders. The visualization of the Other helped to stabilize subjects for investigation and gave rise to new knowledge structures.
The stimulating blog Black Perspectives has published an online roundtable on Black Women and the Politics of Respectability that includes two posts clearly relevant to the history of knowledge. Instead of exploring the link between education and respectability that is familiar, for example, in European social history, these pieces scrutinize the special role played by respectability in African American communities as part of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “this sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”1 One response to this acute awareness of scrutiny in a racist society were “pedagogies of respectability,” produced for and circulated via black periodicals and films in the early twentieth century. See Jane Rhodes, “Race, Media, and Black Womanhood in the Early Twentieth Century” for more.