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.


A third new paper: Foucault’s Analytics of War

Another new paper is available in an interesting-looking new journal:

“Michel Foucault’s Analytics of War: The Social, the International, and the Racial”

by Vivienne Jabri, King’s College London


The absence of the international as a distinct socio-political sphere in
Michel Foucault’s work forms a major part of the postcolonial critique of his writings. The absence of the international has a number of consequences for any critical engagement with Foucault in the context of global politics. The significance of these consequences becomes apparent when we consider Foucault’s analytics of war and power, situate these in relation to the particularity of the international, consider the very pertinent critiques of Foucault emanating from postcolonial writings, and finally re-locate Foucault in the international not, as is the predominant approach in International Relations, through the application of Foucaultian concepts, but through Foucault’s own political writings on the non-western arena, specifically his engagement with the Iranian Revolution. While limited in their scope, an evaluation of these writings appears to vindicate postcolonial critiques of Foucault, though with some revealing qualifications.

Continue reading

What did Foucault mean when he said “race”?

Wildly Parenthetical blog presents some extracts from a forthcoming paper which among other things addresses the meaning of “race” in Foucault’s work (presumably Society Must be Defended).

Foucault positions racism as a technique for fragmenting the population into superrace and subrace, and thus as not simply attaching to what we might otherwise, in more everyday use, call ‘race’ but I think to a range of other ‘attributes’ including homosexuality and disability

Foucault’s use of the word race in his lectures and HoS is certainly worth looking into as it is not the usual one. I don’t recall use of the terms superrace and subrace in his work, although they are perhaps suggested. I sometimes think it would be better if he had said “blood” or heritage because the word race can be used as a foundation for all sorts of interpretations.

Race, medicine and politics


In 2005, the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) formally approved the world’s first race-based medicine, BiDil. BiDil is a drug targeted at African-Americans with heart disease, that is, it is biologically targeted at a racial group.

Yet, as an introductory anthropology text will tell you, there is no biological basis for race.

The story of how this state of affairs came to be–and the relationship between politics, medicine and race–is told in a new article in Scientific American.

Perhaps most problematically, the patent award and FDA approval of BiDil have given the imprimatur of the federal government to using race as a genetic category. Since the inception of the Human Genome Project, scientists have worked hard to ensure that the biological knowledge emerging from advances in genetic research is not used inappropriately to make socially constructed racial categories appear biologically given or natural. As a 2001 editorial in the journal Nature Genetics put it, “scientists have long been saying that at the genetic level there is more variation between two individuals in the same population than between populations and that there is no biological basis for ‘race.’” More recently, an editorial in Nature Biotechnology asserted that “race is simply a poor proxy for the environmental and genetic causes of disease or drug response…. Pooling people in race silos is akin to zoologists grouping raccoons, tigers and okapis on the basis that they are all stripey.”