Monsters, Pliny and Races

Today has been the first day back from AAG and a nice sunny day here in Atlanta, so naturally I took the opportunity to read through the 19th century translation of Pliny that I had received through ILL shortly before I left town.

Pliny’s Natural History (trans. John Bostock and H.T. Riley, 1855, and H. Rackham’s 1942 translation for the Loeb Library) is a fascinating compendium of geography, the natural world, zoology, and in Book VII “man, his birth, his organization, and the invention of the arts” as B&R put it. (Both translations are necessary; Rackham’s is acceptable but his translation is without much depth and often glides over important nuances, whereas B&R provide not only extensive footnotes but contextualizations).

Pliny’s book has been tremendously important and influential for a number of reasons. He drew not only on an extensive library (he claims to have read 2,000 books in preparation for his History) but he was a keen traveler himself, and ironically, given current conditions, he died in the eruption of Vesuvius in CE 79.


But he also provided a way of organizing natural and human diversity through what have become known as the “Plinian races.” These races, or monstrous beings, included such examples as the Blemmyae (men with faces in their chests), the Anthropopohagi (cannibals) and the Ascians, or men without shadows (Book II, chap. 75), ie those who live near the Equator where twice a year they cast shadows only under their feet. (Gene Wolfe uses this name in his Book of the New Sun.)

The Plinian races reappeared many times in medieval writings such as that of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies and the Nuremberg Chronicles.

Foucault’s Abnormals

Pliny does not appear, unfortunately, in Foucault’s discussion of abnormals (though he quotes him in History of Sexuality, the Use of Pleasure). As you may know, in Abnormal Foucault is concerned with several figures; the “great monster, the little masturbator, and the recalcitrant child” (p. 291). In the case of the former, his lecture of 22 January 1975 provides an account of the shift in dealing with monstrosity as the figure both outside nature and outside the law to one where the monster is actually not unnatural or a transgression, but rather eccentricities, or a “deviation” (p. 73). His case study here is hermaphrodites (mentioned in Pliny in book VII, chapter 3 as such, and also of cases where males turn into females which is “no fable” and he tells of meeting one Lucius Cossicius who turned into a man on his wedding day).

So for Foucault there is a move from this monstrousness as being beyond nature, to transgressive mixings, to understanding them as somewhere within the legal code if at the deviant or marginal ends. This occurs, he says, between say 1765 and the 1820-1830 timeframe (p. 74). So being now within the legal code their monstrosity is such that it is understandable as a question of criminality, or of how much monstrousness stands in relation to criminality.


In the very last moments of the 1975 lecture course on abnormals we ought to recall that Foucault sets up this analysis for his topic the next year, the far more popular and more familiar lectures Society Must be Defended (1976). He suggests, and I think correctly, that the abnormal is now taken into the question of the law, but of the law as dealing with threats. And even more specifically, of the law as dealing with threats to the body politic and to populations. Psychiatry, for example “becomes the science of the biological protection of the species…so as to become the general body for the defense of society against the dangers that undermine it from within” (p. 316).

This mode of science (ie psychiatry but also other sciences) allows us to see what Foucault means in 1976 by “racism.” This is not the “traditional” or “ethnic racism” but an internal threat “that permits the screening of every individual within a given society” (shades of airport screenings, but more pertinently genetic screening). Foucault mentions eugenics. As Spiro has shown in his biography of Madison Grant (naturalist, racist and American Geographical Society councilor) this was mainstream science by the early twentieth century.

I just wanted to document all this because Abnormal is an easy read and sets up nicely the following year’s work quite precisely.


One Response

  1. I’ve slowly been gaining more respect for the Abnormals. both as a lecture course and as a contribution to Foucault’s work in general. It really sets up some of the missing elements that would have helped define Foucault’s first project on the History of Sexuality. The studies of the monster, the onanist, and psychiatry, while only in note form and largely sketchy, still help to flesh out how Foucault would have developed the genealogy outlined in History of Sexuality volume 1 before he abandoned the work. The descriptions of the monster, at least, seem to rival the graphic details of Damiens for the intellectual/graphic entertainment.

    Generally, I tend to view this course as a bit more of a loose batch of notes, as opposed to the consistent brilliance of say Society Must be Defended or The Hermeneutics of the Subject. But I guess my assessment may be too hasty, possibly reflecting an unnecessary demand that Foucault’s lecture courses match his books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: