The Politics of Environments before the Environment: Biopolitics in the longue durée

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Our understanding of body–world relations is caught in a curious contradiction. On one side, it is well established that many concepts that describe interaction with the outer world – ‘plasticity’ or ‘metabolism’- or external influences on the body - ‘environment’ or ‘milieu’ – appeared with the rise of modern science. On the other side, although premodern science lacked a unifying term for it, an anxious attentiveness to the power of ‘environmental factors’ in shaping physical and moral traits held sway in nearly all medical systems before and alongside modern Europe. In this article, I build on a new historiography on the policing of bodies and environments in medieval times and at the urban scale to problematize Foucault’s claim about biopolitics as a modern phenomenon born in the European eighteenth-century. I look in particular at the collective usage of ancient medicine and manipulation of the milieu based on humoralist notions of corporeal permeability (Hippocrates, Galen, Ibn Sīnā) in the Islamicate and Latin Christendom between the 12th and the 15th century. This longer history has implications also for a richer genealogy of contemporary tropes of plasticity, permeability and environmental determinism beyond usual genealogies that take as a starting point the making of the modern body and EuroAmerican biomedicine.
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Archival date: 2021-07-21
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