The Medieval Body: History, Power, and Biopolitics
From census to labor power, health care to eugenics, prisons to border control, bodies are subject to, and subjects of, modern states. How do we define people as bodies and bodies as political subjects? Did bodies matter in pre-modern Europe, where political power was fragmented and non-bureaucratic? How has the way we define and control bodies changed and what can we learn from those changes? Conventional histories of the West insist on a sharp break between the medieval and the modern, but what if that definitional break is, itself, a way of bringing power to bear on certain subjects and bodies? Of developing and institutionalizing techniques for organizing, multiplying, and exploiting certain lives?
In this course, we will turn to medieval aesthetics, politics, philosophy, and religion in the spirit of seeking sources that might give us tools with which to disassemble the inherited complexes of what Michel Foucault called “biopolitics” and, later, what Achille Mbembe introduced as “necropolitics.” We’ll begin by exploring medieval notions of materiality, tracing a history of political thought, from Aristotle to Hobbes, that might allow us to anticipate and unpack Marx’s historical materialism and the modes of politics and institutionality that seem constitutive of the modern state. Next, we’ll examine medieval religious and proto-racial framings of bodily similarity and difference, connecting congelations of the “human” and other political “desires” to burgeoning projects of exploitation and colonization. Finally, we’ll bring medieval readings into conversation with contemporary theorists of biopolitics and necropolitics, including Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Kathleen Biddick, and Achille Mbembe. We’ll ask: How, in the medieval period, were bodies materially, spiritually, and politically conceived? How does a consideration of biopolitics across time complicate notions of political modernity and pre-modernity? And, in what ways do conventional narratives of political power read into the past modern conceits of temporality and periodization, warping history and delimiting our political future?
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
June 17 — July 08, 2020