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Colonialism and the idea of 'sex' in eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought

Tuesday 3 November 2020, 4.30PM

Speaker(s): Onni Gust, University of Nottingham

In 1741, James Parsons, a medical doctor and fellow of the Royal Society, published A Mechanical and Critical Enquiry into the Nature of Hermaphrodites, in which he aimed to definitively deny the possibility of ‘hermaphroditism’ in humans. Directing his argument at popular ‘superstition’, Parsons argued that the recent examples of so-called ‘hermaphrodites’ were in fact merely women with elongated and enlarged clitorises. This phenomenon, he claimed, was particularly common in Asia and Africa. Indeed, Parsons himself was prompted to write his pamphlet in response to the display of an Angolan person as a ‘hermaphrodite’ in Bristol in 1740.

Parsons’ Mechanical and Critical Enquiry acts as a starting point for a project that looks at the relationship between European colonial expansion and ideas of ‘sex’ in eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought. In this paper, I situate Parsons’ pamphlet at the intersections of histories of sexuality, sex and gender, histories of disability and ‘defect’, and histories of colonialism, ‘race’ and colonial race science. Drawing on recent work in black, transgender, and critical race studies, I argue for the historicization of ‘sex’ in constitutive relationship to the production of blackness and whiteness.

Email if you would like to attend. 

Onni Gust's book Unhomely Empire: Whiteness and Belonging, c.1760-1830 (Bloomsbury Press) is out in November. 


Location: Zoom