Performing Archive

Gathering "Types"

Ulia Gosart, Independent scholar

The main premises of Social Darwinism, specifically the ideas about the origin and meaning of race that influenced Curtis' perception of the American Indians, had the origins in the development of scientific thought that could be traced back to the writings of Aristotle.  Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) applied Aristotle’s logic to the study of natural life and devised a system of classifying living beings and knowledge about them using genus, species and class relationships in his famous Systema Naturae (1735). The first attempts to make sense of the causes for human racial diversity are visible in the writings of French physician François Bernier (1625-1688) and naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon (1707-1778). German professor of medicine, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) known for coining the term "Caucasian," which referred to the peoples of the Caucasus mountains, further positioned racial theorizing in biology with his comparative studies of crania of peoples from different parts of the world.

At the beginning of the 19th century the question race developed into a study of racial types. Hierarchical typologies of human collectives were constructed to represent states/stages of physical and social development with each type. Writings of American physician Samuel Morton (1799–1851) and English army officer Charles Smith (1776-1859) demonstrate the fascination of the early 19th century intellectuals with the question of origins and meaning of diversity of physical features visible among different peoples. Morton and Smith conceived race as a way to explain connections between different phenotypes found in various geographies, and a variety of life styles associated with each race which demonstrated intellectual and social abilities of its members. These arguments were further developed after the publication of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) Origins of Species, where Darwin suggested that difference among species resulted from biological causes.

The social evolutionists, most prominently, Englishman Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) applied the biological analogy to social settings, arguing for “survival of the fittest” among societies and nations whose prosperity and destruction, development and decline depended on working of natural laws vs. human actions. Anthropologists, led by the work of Englishman Edward Tylor (1832-1917), studied examples of “primitive cultures” in the hopes of finding evidences in support a theory of "progressive" development that as asserted guided social and historical change. Political and legal theorists applied racial arguments to justify colonial regimes as fulfilling the mission of the “civilized family of nations” over what they saw as less developed peoples, as the Articles 22 and 23 of the Covenant of the League of Nations (1919) testify. 

It is at this moment that Curtis is developing his approach to The North American Indian, including the goal to "picture all features of the Indian life - types of the young and old, with their habitations, industries, ceremonies, games, and everyday customs."3 As a "descriptive" effort, Curtis argued for the "scientific accuracy" of his project. A major part of this was the ethnographic narrative contained in each of the 20 volumes, but Curtis also envisioned the photogravures as evidence of "Indian character" and the "vital phase(s) of his existence." Like contemporary museum exhibits or Darwin's work depicting animal life phases and essential activities, Curtis' images were meant to be as informational as aesthetic. 

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