White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages

By Wan-Chuan Kao

White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages
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  • Price: £55.00
  • ISBN: 9781526145802
  • Publish Date: Jan 2024
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
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  • ISBN: 9781526145796
  • Publish Date: Jan 2024
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
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    Book Information


    This groundbreaking book analyses premodern whiteness as operations of fragility, precarity and racialicity across bodily and nonsomatic figurations. It argues that while whiteness participates in the history of racialisation in the late medieval West, it does not denote skin tone alone. 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.


    An innovative and timely book that makes a genuinely thought-provoking intervention in both medieval studies and the study of the long history of race and racism. Scholarly and personal, White before whiteness ranges widely: from medieval skin suits to The Buried Giant, from Chaucer's use of white-bread imagery to Charlottesville. It joins a small group of recent books that have looked anew at premodern race, encouraging scholars and students to think again about the long history of whiteness. Grounded in both medieval intellectual history and contemporary theory, Kao interrogates concepts central to our current moment - precarity, fragility, racialicity - via a series of insightful readings of medieval texts.
    Marion Turner, J.R.R Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language, University of Oxford

    In this study, whiteness adheres not only to bodies but also to physical objects and value systems. Kao argues that 'in the play of color, affect, and memory', perceptions of whiteness obscure as much as they reveal and lay the foundations for the misrecognition, desire, mourning, and fragility that exist in suggestive relation to modern racial concepts like white fragility. Focusing on frequently-taught texts, including Pearl and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, Kao's ambitious readings integrate a range of theoretical influences - from psychoanalysis to biopolitics to cuteness studies-into literary close reading, all to approach the complexities of medieval race.
    Seeta Chaganti, Professor of English, University of California, Davis

    White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages is an essential read for all lovers of medieval literature and those who would like to break down periodized silos. Seamlessly weaving together disparate analytical tools like critical whiteness studies, trans* studies, premodern critical race studies, cognitive studies, animacy studies, and more, Kao carefully demonstrates how limited our approaches to race and history have been to date. Placing the human and non-human on equal footing, Kao's careful analyses force the reader to ask what we have missed by prioritizing biopolitics. This book marks an important step forward in literary studies.
    Ayanna Thompson, Regents Professor, Arizona State University

    White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages positions medieval literature as crucial to rethinking the relationship between material embodiment and cultural construction. As such, it is poised revise our notions of racial, cultural, and bodily difference. With chapters on Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Mandeville, and the Pearl-poet, Kao shows that whiteness is central to our thinking about canonicity in late Middle English literature. And, by arguing that fragility, precarity, and a basic failure to flourish are all central to whiteness, this book has the potential to dislodge existing accounts that presume whiteness's stability and permanence.
    Holly Crocker, Carolina Distinguished Professor, University of South Carolina

    In a series of lush renderings of late medieval cultural attachments, Kao cultivates a striking new account of whiteness as an array of logistical bargains. Through unexpected contact with Asian-inflected contemporary aesthetics (cuteness, the superflat, pop art) and technologies (biometrics, commodification), among other pairings, Kao renders familiar Middle English texts unrecognizable, revealing strategies and priorities previously invisible. White before whiteness displaces habits of categorical thinking to detail an extensive range of racializing relations that extend well beyond the human. This intervention will redirect attention across medieval studies for years to come and will enhance post-medieval critical race studies.
    Myra Seaman, Professor of English, College of Charleston

    Wan-Chuan Kao's White before whiteness fashions a brilliant new literary history of whiteness, refuting notions of whiteness as a solid, transhistorical, or simply corporeal category. Kao demonstrates the 'operational' function of whiteness within medieval English culture: as a fetish, a signifier of lost purity, and an idea that can mediate between human and non-human, abstract and concrete. This timely study bracingly theorizes and historizes a category that has too long gone uninterrogated within medievalist scholarly conversations. Kao offers stunning new insights into texts including The Book of the Duchess, Pearl, Mandeville's Travels, Piers Plowman, and The King of Tars.

    Nicole R. Rice, Professor of English, St. John's University


    Introduction: Operational whiteness

    Part I: Fragility
    1 Memorialisation in white
    2 Desiring white object

    Part II: Precarity
    3 Stretched white leather
    4 Flat white

    Part III: Racialicity
    5 White dorsality
    6 In the lap of whiteness

    Conclusion: White environmentality


    Wan-Chuan Kao is Associate Professor of English at Washington and Lee University

    White before whiteness in the late Middle Ages

    By Wan-Chuan Kao

    Hardcover £55.00 / $81.95

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