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Book: Thinking with J. Z. Smith

Chapter: 4. An Uneasy Silence: J. Z. Smith and the Divorce of Race from Power

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.39925


Craig R. Prentiss takes a closer and critical look at one of the topics Smith addressed - the birth of racial imagination – to conclude that in “Close Encounters” Smith conceptualizes race “in such a way as to render the ferocious subjugation of bodies, the organization of massive new labor forces, the plundering of resources, the expropriation of lands, and the production of an intellectual scaffolding necessary for the manufacture and maintenance of historically contingent authority structures, secondary to a set of logic games playing out in the minds of a comparatively small band of renegade intellectuals comfortable casting off the shackles imposed by the hegemonic status of biblical creation”. As such, Prentiss claims, the problem with Smith’s account of the birth of racial imagination is not that it is “wrong” but rather that its usefulness is very limited because it ignores power relations that are always a factor in any taxonomic enterprise, including the constitution of “difference”. Like a Tylorian intellectualist treatment of religion as emerging from the puzzling nature of death and dreams, Smith’s “Close Encounters of Diverse Kinds” treats “race” as springing from an apparently innocent human curiosity about difference.

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