goto Appendx main menu The Places of
Feminist Criticism
:
Kim Anne Savelson
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Of course, in terms of race, a historical question seems especially pertinent here: What did Alberti know and when did he know it? Such a question can only substantiate my reading, for even the most cursory investigation into fifteenth-century European society evidences the historical fact that Alberti lived and wrote in a culture that imported Africans as slaves. Born in Italy in 1404, Alberti worked and traveled in various parts of Italy until his death in 1472. According to the patient research of C. Verlinden in his volumes chronicling the history of slavery in medieval Europe,15 Italy developed a relatively large black slave market around the middle of the century. 

The value of such historical information for this discussion seems obvious: During a highly prolific period in Alberti's life, the black slave market was on the rise,16 and not coincidentally, the architecture of whiteness as superior was a prevalent theoretical project. More specifically, documentation of an actual Africanist presence in Alberti's society allows us to assume that Alberti was exposed to this presence; at the very least, Alberti had to possess a color consciousness in terms of skin Appendx 1 page break 140 | 141 (difference), and considering the enslavement of blacks and other people of color, a racial consciousness in the class-divisive sense that we know it today. Far from being a racially neutral idea, his theoretical concept of the "white skin" is grounded in a conception of color difference that can be read as fraught with racial ideology. Even if, as historians generally maintain, racism as we know it today did not exist in Alberti's culture (there were servants and slaves in Europe who were not black, and also blacks who were not slaves), the fact remains that Africans were increasingly imported as slaves, indicating a color-class hierarchy. The foundations for modern racism were being built, not the least because of influential polemics or theoretical musings on the superiority of whiteness. 

Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that female slaves in Alberti's society were not sexually abused by their white masters. In a highly loaded remark, Wigley suggests how the white surface theory might account for this sexual abuse when he characterizes this theory as a mechanism negotiating the terms of rapability: 

    The white surface was a critical device with which a detachment from the body, understood as a feminine surface, a discontinuous surface vulnerable to penetration, could be effected. (359)
By referring to the white surface as a device that constructs an impenetrable (unrapable), dominant (white) beyond-the-body body, Wigley illuminates how the white surface identifies an "other" by identifying this other as the body—as "vulnerable to penetration" or abuse. On one level, I am inclined to racialize Wigley's interpretation by pointing to the historical reality of women in relation to slavery. In the context of a slave-holding society, white women were constructed as sexually pure and detached from the body to the extent that black women slaves, forced to occupy a space that virtually guaranteed their sexual violation, manifested sexual impurity. Alberti's white surface, promoted in the cultural climate of black slavery, can be read as the architectural construction of this particular sexual differentiation. 

More generally though, when Wigley writes that the "white surface was a critical device with which a detachment from the body. . . understood as. . . vulnerable to penetration, could be effected," he implies how all nonwhite subjects are associated with the body and the feminine, and hence, are constructed as vulnerable. This ostensibly signifies whiteness as protection against the vulnerability of the body to penetration and abusive control; yet as Wigley's gender-centric reading of the white surAppendx 1 page break 141 | 142 face demonstrates, there is no reliable protection for the white subject if that subject is feminine. By continually pointing to the white surface as a device that serves the interests of gender ideology and patriarchal domination, Wigley unintentionally demonstrates how white women cannot depend on whiteness to shelter them or provide their liberation, for their femaleness compromises their racial status. In the course of a de-raced analysis, Wigley affirms that only white men can have access to the full range of privileges associated with whiteness. I say this not to play down the privileges and comforts that white women are afforded, but to reassert that it is in white women's interests to learn how to be disloyal to a civilization that is disloyal to them. 

In Alberti's architectural theory, the white surface signifies unrapable or unexpoitable status by referring to its own a-carnality; invisible as a body, rape and other harms are not even a possibility. There is nothing to grasp, to penetrate, to starve, or to violate if there is no definition, no seeable, material outline. In a sense, by maintaining an analytic distance, Wigley's critical enterprise illustrates the detached status I am talking about; he is beyond sight, beyond the body politics he is supposedly demystifying. What, after all, is his investment? As a critic, Wigley refuses to articulate the implications of his readings for different subjects, including white women. In a disengaged tone, he explains that Alberti's 

    white surface actively assists the eye by erasing its own materiality, its texture, its color, its sensuality, as necessarily distracting forms of dirt. (360) 
In addition to eliminating the presence of materiality or color (or nonwhiteness) from the realm of sight, this process of erasure alludes to the sexual scapegoating I elaborated earlier; the white surface constructs its other as sexual in the act of erasing its own (uncivilized, immoral) sexuality/materiality: in displacing and/or erasing its "color," whiteness both absolves itself and produces its other (as "dirt"). In the context of fifteenth-century gender oppression and slavery, white women, nonwhite women, and nonwhite men were all "othered" (or colored) by this white construct, in particular ways and to different degrees. Again, this suggested alliance is predicated on the understanding that white women enjoy an automatically privileged status based on their whiteness. My point is not to contest this fact. next page 

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