The influence of the milieu on subject formation (2)

Continued from Part 1

Who was Buffon? According to Jonathan Marks in Human Biodiversity, the Count de Buffon was the leader of a sort of opposition to Linnaeus. Linnaeus had replaced the idea of the great chain of being with his set of nested categories (class-order-genus-species). Species were members of a genus, a member of an order and of a class (eg mammals). However, Linnaeus saw no evolutionary processes or formations of new species.

Buffon also opposed the theory of evolution and that species had remained stable since their formation. Within species however the environment (milieu) could cause distinct population differences. Where macroevolutionary ideas did surface in the early 19th C. such as with Lamarck they occurred within the Great Chain.

In the 20th C., says Marks, anthropology moved from a largely Linnaean scheme to a Buffonian scheme. In the 1740 edition of his work Linnaeus posited four geographical subdivisions of humans: white Europeans, red Americans, yellow Asians and black Africans. These were natural categories. But they didn’t quite work geographically–Marks says they were really a “socio-cultural criteria” (p. 50).

Where Linnaeus had classification as his goal (isolation of common elements), Buffon had diversity (explaining variation). Unfortunately for anthropology, says Marks, between 1758 (Linnaeus’ 10th edition) to 1968 (when it was overthrown) physical anthropology followed Linnaeus in searching for races and their nature.

Buffon asserted that environment and especially climatic temperature operated to produce changes (he suggested a test of moving an African population to Denmark to see how long it took to turn white).

With the rejection of Linnaean classificatory goal, the focus now turns to understanding the range of diversity in human populations, without the over-arching categories of race. How do populations adapt to environments? What is the role of genetic drift? These are now the two questions.

This move is what Foucault means by “race” in his Society Must be Defended as well. There he does not always mean the standard idea of race, especially when he discusses “race” internally within a society. This is mixed up with an analytics of blood though, so it is not always easy to tease out.

So we see milieu plays an important role in Foucault’s accounts from madness (HoM) to security (STP) and governmentality (SMD). He emphasizes the now (post WWII) more accepted approach of Buffon (rather than Linnaeus). Race remains a difficult term in his work (SMD) because not always differentiated from “populations.” It is populations that should be emphasized as race has no enviro-biological reality. The milieu shapes not races, but human population groups.

One Response

  1. […] milieu/disciplinary spaces/sovereignty, and milieu part 2 […]

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