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Mark C. Jerng, Racial Worldmaking: The Power of Popular Fiction (Fordham University Press, 2017, 284pp, $30.00) [import only]

Reviewed by T.S. Miller (Sarah Lawrence College)

 

Racial Worldmaking is an ambitious and wide-ranging study that seeks to intervene in several interrelated critical discourses surrounding race and genre in both the humanities and the social sciences. One of its boldest provocations lies in a proposed revision of the basis for much social constructionist writing on race in Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s originary concept of racial formation theory. Jerng’s critique relies on a distinction between ‘seeing’ and ‘noticing’ race, and he proposes ‘racial salience’, more broadly understood as his preferred object of analysis. Racial Worldmaking demands that we attend ‘to the often nonvisual ways in which race is “noticed”’; in the paired literary and cultural analyses that drive Jerng’s later chapters, this involves in practice very closely tracing ‘race’s formal, linguistic, and rhetorical dimensions’. Accordingly, Jerng’s purpose is never merely to diagnose and then dismiss particular examples of popular fiction as regressive or ‘racist’ in the ordinary sense of the word. Rather, Jerng remains interested chiefly in understanding the subtle ways in which ‘the mechanisms of genre and race operate together in making available certain knowledges about and projections of the world’. Genre, in Jerng's narratologically inflected argument, does not simply package or convey existing racial content and viewpoints, but itself teaches readers ‘where, when, and how race is something to notice’. Students and scholars of speculative fiction, then, should not mistake the meaning of Jerng's concept of ‘racial worldmaking’: he does not mean ‘worldbuilding’ in the usual sense, but rather the full spectrum of ‘narrative and interpretive strategies that shape how readers notice race so as to build, anticipate, and organize the world’. Thus, although Jerng’s conclusion does speculate briefly ‘On the Possibilities of an Antiracist Racial Worldmaking’, the ‘power’ of racial worldmaking referred to in the subtitle of the book is not inherently a force for progress, but rather an often insidious power to create ‘the structures of our racial worlds’, to shape how we perceive race and participate in racist worlds.

The literary texts that Jerng has chosen to help advance his thesis are drawn from American and British popular fiction dating from 1893 to the present. The eight chapters are divided evenly into four parts that centre the following historically specific yet enduringly influential formations: ‘yellow peril’ genres, plantation romances, sword and sorcery and alternate history. The book’s dense but precisely argued introduction contains a telling sentence in which Jerng offhandedly cites both J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the plantation in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind as examples of ‘worlds constructed through narrative’: in Jerng’s analysis, such narrative worlds built in high fantasy and historical romance are structurally the same. Because of this rather more ecumenical approach to the study of genre fiction and worldmaking, sf scholars will no doubt find some of the chapters more interesting and relevant to their own areas of inquiry than others. Nevertheless, Jerng still has much to say about the concept of genre itself, arguing that ‘enre and race should [...] be conceptualized as deeply interrelated ways of building-in knowledge of the world’. In short, Racial Worldmaking can still teach us a great deal about how we might rethink the ways we have (or have not) read race in sf.

Part I argues that ‘yellow peril’ texts, from the turn of the twentieth century, ‘develop new spatio-temporal logics for noticing race that do not rely on representations of race via biological difference’. In Jerng’s argument, it is not so much the obvious racial caricature we can find in such works that should be understood as their lasting legacy, but rather their dominant narrative logics, which can persist long after their surface racism has largely been rejected. Representative fictions include M.P. Shiel's The Yellow Danger and H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air, the latter of which, in Jerng's convincing reading, parodies yellow peril narratives while retaining their logics. By also scrutinizing a range of other materials such as journalism for their parallel strategies of embedding race into notions of temporality and world-organizing conflict, Jerng here establishes a pattern for juxtaposing fiction with non-fiction and other cultural discourses. Part II, for example, invites us to see anew how postbellum plantation romances of successive generations ‘intervene in the popular imagination at the level of different narrative strategies for building race into our everyday interactions with social structures’, with the work of Frank Yerby cited as ‘an early example of strategies of antiracist racial worldmaking’. These chapters, tracing a shift to racialized diegesis and thus increased rather than decreased racial meaning, perhaps most convincingly support Jerng’s larger point that we should no longer think of racism as a simplistic binary between more or less overt manifestations: ‘Instead of characterizing race in the twentieth century in terms of broad shifts from overt to covert racism, this study tracks the coexistence and emergence of multiple regimes of racial perception and attribution that are not reducible to the visual body, individual, or group’.

But it is Parts III and IV that will likely prove of greatest interest to sf scholars. Part III explores a pathway from Robert E. Howard to Samuel R. Delany, with particular attention to a concept that Jerng terms ‘atmosphere’, defined as ‘the general mood of a narrative established by highly associative language or imagery’ and which, in his argument, ‘invites a high level of narrative attention to background and involves the reader in the activity of deciphering with particular implications for how race is used to construct meaning’. I have not encountered a more compelling analysis of ‘blackness’ as an atmospheric element in Howard’s sword and sorcery and its connection to ‘a narrative strategy that produces race at levels other than biological differences’. Moreover, Jerng demonstrates his skill in connecting finely observed close readings with broader assessments of cultural movements and moments, contextualizing sword and sorcery in relation to developments in both cultural anthropology and economics. Part III concludes with Delany’s Nevèrÿon series, which in Jerng’s argument ‘challenges the ways we notice race, because he understands that these ways are intimately tied to the construction of value’.

Part IV builds usefully on the forays into legal history and politics in Part III with its emphasis on the counterfactual as a unit of legal analysis, but these chapters also show how far later twentieth-century fiction has and has not come since the yellow peril days examined in Part I. Indeed, as disparate and disconnected as the chosen material can sometimes seem, his choice to examine counterfactual Civil War fictions begins to reveal an almost uncanny coherence in the patterns of racial worldmaking traced in the book. The alternate histories of such high-profile authors as Harry Turtledove, Terry Bisson and Philip K. Dick reveal much more complexity (for good and for bad) in their racial worldmaking under Jerng’s careful scrutiny.

The conclusion, which turns out to be more of a (fantastic) short essay on W.E.B. Du Bois’ strategies for anti-racism, left me wanting a full-length analysis on the topic, which arises only at oddly dispersed intervals in the main text of this book. My greatest disappointment with Racial Worldmaking was how little it had to say about gender and its potential intersections with the ways in which Jerng so astutely analyzes genre and race as categories of meaning. Most regrettably, the many examples of more recent ‘anti-racist racial worldmaking’ that Jerng cites include no women authors, not even Octavia Butler. Despite a lack of typographical errors, there is a puzzling reference on the first page to ‘Thomas Dixon’s Birth of the Nation’. It is not clear from the limited context if Jerng means the author’s original novel and play, The Clansmen, on which D.W. Griffith based his film, or that film itself; the error is especially strange because Jerng mentions The Clansmen and the Griffith film later in the text without any such confusion.

All in all, the book is cogent and compelling in its arguments as well as neatly organized. Theoretically sophisticated and interdisciplinary, Racial Worldmaking may intimidate some readers less familiar with one or more of the critical conversations that it engages, yet Jerng visibly works to ameliorate this potential problem through patient repetition of his main ideas at moments when his prose may have veered into abstract territory. Jerng advances a number of persuasive theses on both the small and the grand scale, and the most important component of his larger set of arguments is the insistent reminder that what we read always frames the racialized worlds we inhabit, even when we pride ourselves on having left ‘racism’ (or even race) behind. Jerng puts it the most powerfully, I think, at the end of his introduction: ‘Racism is not a “backward” idea that is just trying to take us back to past forms of inequality. It is forward-looking, laying claim on our capacity to imagine the future’. Here is the real work for sf, and sf scholarship, in striving towards antiracist worlds.