- Dec 4, 2008
Social categories are articulated and placed onto material objects, like the body, in order to render them natural, irrevocable and permanent. As such, relations of power are sustained by a reliance on idioms of biological difference (Yanagisako and Delaney 1995). This process of objectification raised the following questions. If the (mimetic) production of whiteness can be naturalized and authenticated by its location and emplacement in the black body, then how can whiteness be made transparent, ephemeral and insubstantial in the white body ? What are the mechanisms through which the whiteness of white bodies is hidden and rendered unnoticed ? How is whiteness represented to be read as a natural construct ? How can whiteness, white skin, white bodies, be socially constructed as unseen ?
Taking issue with the notion that whiteness operates as a discursive construct only, I situate the normalization of a white racial aesthetic in specific body practices. Contesting and building on the notion that whiteness is solely constituted by discursive nomalization and public invisibility, my task is not to uncover how much of Western identity is constructed upon the negative identity of others (Fuss 1994 ; Bloom 1994 ; Lutz and Collins 1993), but how whiteness is positioned during those instances, those moments, when it is made visible. What are the representational strategies, the specific modalities of power, that are evident in the structuring of white space ? What is the cultural inscription of bodies that renders public displays of white skin normal and unnoticed ? More concretely, my aim is to chart the representational landscape within which white bodies draw authority from biology and nature to assume a privileged position in Western popular consciousness.
The remainder of this chapter explores the construction of whiteness in the German racial state (Burleigh and Wippermann 1991), where issues of citizenship are a point of convergence for public concerns about "belonging," revealing contested notions about identity, culture and race. What are the various ways in which German identity and citizenship can be imagined in public discourse ? And how are these imagined political realities enacted in the corporal metaphysics of public space ? Historically, the German concept of citizenship differed from that of other Western European countries. German laws "severed" citizenship from territorial residence and redefined the nation as a "community of descent" (Brubaker 1992). Social historians have documented the legislation's colonial origins, linking German citizenship to a particular type of racial aesthetic, centered on colonialism's preoccupation with whiteness and race (Linke, in press ; Wildenthal 1994a, 1994b). Framed by Germany's territorial claims in Southeast Africa, East Africa and Samoa, the formation of German national identity was closely linked to the emergence of white privilege. For those men and women living in the colonies, the acquisition of German citizenship, property and land ownership were made conditional on the possession of white skin : Whiteness was used as a visual affirmation of the legitimacy of national membership, both in a judicial as well as political sense. In the German colonial imaginary, whiteness became strategic in a cognitive lexicon of race-marked categories : by rejecting the black icon, which marked both African and Jewish bodies (Gilman 1982), whiteness was transformed into a representational emblem of the German imperial state.
In the German Reich, at the turn of the century, nationalist reform movements promoted the aestheticization of whiteness, giving rise to a racialist vision that was articulated through the body. Bodiliness, according to George Mosse (1985), became a symbolic site in the nationalist rebellion against modernity : the artificial, the unnatural, the impermanent, the decadent. Modern styles of life, with their materiality and pornographic sexuality, were "condemned as breeding grounds of immorality and moral sickness" (52). The terrain of the city, presumed to induce bodily ills, was set in opposition to the terrain of nature, which was extended to include the natural body : human nudity. Metaphors of authenticity integrated the symbolism of the white body with representations of the German state : the immutable, the purged, the regenerated. "The ideals would be strengthened by the First World War, when nudity, sun and water would become symbols of cleanliness, beauty and innocence amid death and destruction ... The native sky, mountains, valleys and flowers, rather than the 'artificial' streets or mansions of the city, guaranteed the immutable existence of the nation and its people" (52-53). The German aversion to the modern was expressed by a nostalgia for a vividly imagined traditional, "organic" society, free from the alienation of urban forms of capitalist industrialism (Will 1990). The images of both nudity and nature negated the modern, giving rise to a new sense of the national "body politic."
German nationalism, with its antiurban focus and its rejection of the modern lifeworld, was marked by a rediscovery of the body. Societal reforms were tied to the reformation of the body. In other words, the German disenchantment with the "modern" was to be cured by modifying corporeal practices : Public nudity and the unclothed human body became important signifiers of this new nationalist consciousness. Vanguard protofascist organizations, like the German youth and life-reform movements, began to advocate a lifestyle that integrated the body with nature. "[The movement's] champions refused to hide their bodies as society demanded, and instead sought to expose them to the healing power of the sun and the rhythms of nature" (Mosse 1985 : 48). Nude bathing, nude sports and exposure to the sun were prescribed as a regenerative formula, promoting physical and racial fitness. "The 'culture of sun and light', as nudism was first called in German, was founded at mid-century but did not make its mark until the 1890s. By the end of the nineteenth century, regeneration through the sun had become a continuous quest" (49). And while these were typical right-wing, proto-fascist responses to modernity, they were attractive to all segments of German society. Thus, on the left too there was an ardent search for "pure," "natural," or "original" values, a desire to return to the most basic point of orientation, the body. "Nudism was an attempt to regain, in the face of the ravages of industrialization, physical and ideological spaces for the restoration of life in harmony with nature" (Will 1990 : 21).
Freed from the constraints of modern life, and purged of the corrupting influences of modernity, the "natural" body could be reconfigured as an external signifier, an external field of expression that revealed through its outward constitution the inner qualities of race and nation. "The body expresses our very being," Baldur von Schirach, the leader of the Hitler Youth, told the League of German Girls. "The striving for beauty is inborn among the Aryan." Greek sculpture, with its stone-carved, white bodies, seemed best to reveal this Aryan aesthetic, and nude or scantily clad youths came to symbolize the strength and vigor of the Third Reich (Toepfer 1997 ; Mosse 1985 ; Köhler 1985). The bronzed body, white skin tanned by the sun, was thought especially beautiful ; a contrast to the ideal "whiteness" of Greek sculpture that was first admired a century earlier.
Classical bodies continued to provide an idealized physical beauty for both German nationalists and fascists. The "wholehearted acceptance of this Greek heritage, its annexation as the most appropriate expression of Aryan beauty" meant a preoccupation with nudity (Mosse 1985 : 171), that is, with white naked bodies. This adoration of Hellenic sculpture, through analogy with the athletes of Greece, symbolically aligned or connected images of white nudity to an ancient European high culture, thereby equating whiteness with civilization and world domination. White skin, which was promoted as a nationalist symbol of strength, came to be the presumed mark of a superior people : "The nude males who came to symbolize Germany's virility and manliness illustrate this process, and so do the naked females who often represented the ideal woman under National Socialism. Such nudes with their almost transparent, smooth bodies were frozen into position, remote and godlike" (91-92). The assumed ideal of ancient Greek beauty was promoted on a racial basis, fashioning an image of the German people as the master race of the world. The classic ideal - a physical ennoblement - betrayed the existence of a racist aestheticism that was intent on the cultivation of bodies whose beauty was supposed to demonstrate superiority over human beings from other races. Stress was on the fashioning of bodies and the display of classic proportions.
The German preoccupation with "lightness" and "white skin" (which belonged to a colonial regime of representation) and "nudity" (which derived its symbolic significance from an antimodernist revolt) converged to inspire a new corporeal aesthetic : pitted against the artificiality of modern (bourgeois) life, it sparked a search for the genuine, the authentic, unspoilt nature. Representations of whiteness, like the iconographies of nudity, had to be framed by natural images in order to convey the desired sense of cleanliness, health, beauty and civility. Public displays of white nudity were therefore thoroughly naturalized. "Pictures of the nude body made hard and healthy through exercise and sport were presented as the proper stereotype. [Popular texts] advocated nearly complete nudity in the pursuit of sport or while roaming through the countryside. But the male body had to be prepared carefully if it was to be on public display : the skin must be hairless, smooth and bronzed" (Mosse 1985 : 171). Natural nudism was to be antierotic. Representations of the fascist state required idealized racial images : sculpted icons of Aryan bodies. In other words, white nudity had to be stripped of its pornographic value in order to function as an effective national symbol (Will 1990 : 29-38). Fascist political iconography thus insisted on transcending the sexual or erotic in public displays of the white naked body. "The Third Reich sought to strip nudity of its sexuality by drawing a sharp distinction between the private and the representational. For example, some of the former nudist journals were allowed to continue publication, but as body-building magazines, whose pictures emphasized various bodily exercises during which the seminude body remained abstract, very much like a sculpture" (Mosse 1985 : 171). The naked body could thus be tamed into respectability through representational strategies : idealized, remote, remaining strangely detached from reality. Whiteness came to be associated here with white purity, and the connotations of sexual and racial purity were fused.
As early as 1903, nudity was distinguished from the undressed body : the latter was the subject of photography ; the former a "holy mystery" and the "crown of creation" (Mosse 1985 : 51). Nudity, as distinct from a mere lack of clothes, had to be represented as part of the pure, reverential contemplation of nature. "A posed nude, in spite of its framing, was thought dangerously close to lewd pictures, and there was further debate as to how such a nude, even if sun-drenched and placed in a natural setting, might be distinguished from the nude models preferred by pornography. One answer, interestingly enough, advised the use of glossy paper, which would heighten the artistic merit of the female nude without arousing lust" (51). Representations of nudity were acceptable only when the white body was seen in an unspoilt natural setting : framed by meadows and gardens or placed against the background of the sea, that is "the elemental, eternally alive, always liberated" (51). Aestheticization, that is, an emphasis on the beautiful or artistic body, was to elevate nudity into a spiritual principle : "cleanliness and sunlight strip nakedness of its sexuality, leaving only the beauty to be admired ... [m]ost nudist magazines and journals of the youth movement took it for granted that the portrayal of sun-drenched bodies in their proper natural setting would transform them into symbols of strength, beauty and sexual innocence. Artists close to the youth movement at the start of the twentieth century flooded their nudes in sunlight and surrounded them with natural symbols" (120, 52).
The fact that German national symbols and the setting of nudity coincided was no accident : the preoccupation with nature seemed to guarantee the immutable existence of the nation and its people. As Mosse (1985) noted, while some elements of the nudist movement tended to sympathize with the political left and with pacifism, its nationalist wing obtained a disproportionately large influence. "The workers' nudist movements, which had a considerable membership split between various left-wing associations, saw the emancipation of the human body from constraints as part of the liberation of the proletariat" (93). Socialist advocates of nudism implied that people should not only discard their clothes but with them the whole armor-plating of authority-fixated conditioning which held proletarians in deference to their masters : parental authority, the paternalism of school and church, the mass media and the organs of law and order (Will 1990 : 31). Nudism was understood as a strengthening of the individual's potential for opposition. Thus, a nudity cult, stimulated by the yearnings for health and a return to nature did develop on the Left. And here, it was not racist. "But the political right took the opposite approach. Nudity, it was said, furthered the regeneration of the race, reconciled social differences and ranked the Volk according to its character and physique" (Mosse 1985 : 93). The nation was represented by "natural" symbols - nudity and whiteness, for they pointed to an immutability not granted to the conditions of modernity. "The nation, in turn, strengthened those forces used for setting off the nude body, giving nature a new kind of immutability" (55). The exaltation of nature, and the quest for the premodern transformed white nudity into a national symbol : an iconographic representation of the strength and vigor of the protofascist movements and, somewhat later, the Third Reich.
The aestheticization of the white racial body, "designed to forge a cohesive national community" (Fehrenbach 1994 : 2), thus continued during the Nazi period. "Preoccupation with the human body was typical for fascism as a visually centered ideology ... those who did not correspond to its concept of human beauty became outsiders - degenerates or of inferior race" (Mosse 1985 : 178). Targeting the fascist body politic, the enhancement of whiteness was intimately linked with the annihilation of unaesthetic elements in society, "at first through withdrawal of citizenship, then sterilization and euthanasia and finally through the industrial efficiency of death camps and mass murder" (Fehrenbach 1994 : 2). The elimination of "unworthy" life became a medical imperative, which was shaped by racial preconceptions that were fueled in part by the aestheticization of whiteness and white nudity.