Nihad M. Farooq. Undisciplined: Science, Ethnography, and Personhood in the Americas, 1830–1940. 280 pp., 9 halftones, notes, index. New York: New York University Press, 2016. $30 (paper)
In four chapters, Farooq analyzes a multitude of scientific and artistic “border-crossers,” beginning with Charles Darwin in the 1830s and concluding with African American artist-ethnographers who traveled to Haiti in the mid-twentieth century. Chapter 1 considers Charles Darwin’s journey alongside Captain Robert FitzRoy aboard the HMS Beagle in 1834, and his interactions with three returned captives in Tierra del Fuego. These interactions led Darwin to question ideas about fixed biological difference among humans, thus influencing his subsequent theories of evolution. The most fascinating and novel intervention of this chapter is the link Farooq draws between Darwin’s fieldwork and ideas of cultural relativism embraced by later anthropologists like Franz Boas and Zora Neale Hurston. Farooq convincingly argues that while Darwin himself was not an anthropologist nor an ethnographer, his evolutionary theory shaped the field by showing that “social and biological taxonomies are […] contingent, always shifting, never stable” (48). Darwin’s theory of evolution implied that humanity was in a constant state of “becoming,” and this led to a conviction that differences among human races were “neither fundamental nor fixed” (55). What’s more, Darwinian theories of a shared human kinship and common ancestry were eventually appropriated by socially and politically marginalized intellectuals like Boas and Hurston. In these ways, Farooq shows how Darwin’s evolutionary theories—frequently associated with subsequent scientific racism and eugenicist theories—also opened up new avenues for thinking about racial fluidity and connections among humanity.
In Chapter 2, Farooq shifts her analysis to two other scientific travelers: Louis Agassiz and his student, William James. In 1865, Agassiz and James traveled to Brazil, hoping to collect photographic evidence of the degenerative effects of racial mixture. But James’s experience in Brazil instead led him to reckon with the fundamental impossibility of quantifying or classifying racial difference. Here, then, we see another moment in which scientific encounter led to the unraveling of the narratives of biological and cultural fixity. At the end of the chapter, Farooq links these new ideas about transatlantic “raced personhood” with the works of contemporary writers of color like Martin Delany and Pauline Hopkins. Farooq argues that these writers could “[work] from within the parameters of racial science” to undermine narratives of racial hierarchy and white supremacy (99).
In her final two chapters, Farooq looks at ethnographers, scientists, and artists who, through their work, “deliberately and strategically [crossed] the manufactured boundaries between nations, races, cultures, and the professions that observe, study, and define them” (100). In Chapter 3, she examines the work of Franz Boas and Zora Neale Hurston, showing how each navigated the tenuous divide between “insider” and “outsider” in their ethnographic work. The section on Hurston is one of the most engaging parts of the book; this section (along with a return to Hurston in the conclusion) also provides an illuminating example of how mobility and encounter could “hasten a productive and radical undoing of the fiction of distinction” that undergirds Enlightenment ideals of personhood as well as structures of colonialism and racism (140). Here, more so than in earlier chapters, Farooq clearly explains the ways that ethnography and science call into question the very idea of the “self” and of self-possession. While this section is highly useful to Farooq’s broader argument, her engagement with debates on creolization is less well developed. Attempts to connect Hurston’s ethnography to Jamaica’s Christmas Uprising in 1831–32 under the banner of “creolization” ultimately distracts from the usefulness of this chapter.
Finally, in Chapter 4, Farooq turns to Haiti and several Americans who traveled there. Here, Farooq builds upon her arguments in the previous chapter, showing how African Americans in Haiti navigated the dichotomies of insider and outsider, observer and observed. In this final chapter, the author moves slightly away from ethnographic discourse to focus on the artistic productions of artist-ethnographers like Langston Hughes and Katherine Dunham. Farooq concludes that in the intersection of science and art, “the impossibility of objectivity and authenticity […] finally come to light, and performance reveals itself as the only available, albeit temporary, truth” (148). Farooq ends the book by convincingly linking this argument to Darwin’s work from nearly a century earlier. Calling back to Chapter 1, she shows that Darwin set the stage for these twentieth-century examinations of racial and cultural fluidity. For Farooq, this renunciation of fixed, stable understandings of raced personhood “is one of the most profound lessons that nineteenth-century science articulated to the modern West” (148). While Farooq does not engage deeply with those concurrent strands of intellectual thought that sought to entrench racial hierarchies and notions of human difference, she does convincingly show that artists, ethnographers, and other intellectuals of the time were reading nineteenth-century science in this alternative way.
Taken together, these four chapters resist simplistic narratives about the relationship between ethnography and broader systems of oppression such as slavery, colonialism, and racism. Instead of merely considering the ways that science entrenched racial hierarchy, Farooq convincingly and engagingly argues that a scientific discourse of difference ultimately brought about its own demise.Undisciplined is also useful for its creative, literary interpretation of Darwin’s fieldwork in Chapter 1, and the links the author draws between Darwin’s work and twentieth-century anthropology and literature. Finally, Undisciplined contributes to the history of anthropology through its engaging analysis of the relationship between observer and observed, subject and object, and “ethnographer and ethnic” (187). While this theme is most deeply explored in Chapters 3 and 4, it is present throughout the book, and Farooq takes great care to show how the indigenous and diasporic populations under study managed to subvert the ethnographic gaze and thereby play a role in shaping nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientific discourse.