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  • L'homme altéré: races et dégénérescence (xviie-xixe siècles) by Doron Claude-Olivier
  • Marine Dhermy-Mairal
Doron Claude-Olivier, 2016, L'homme altéré: races et dégénérescence (xviie-xixesiècles) [Degraded Man: races and degeneration in the seventeenth to nineteenth century], Paris, Champ Vallon, 592 p.

Since the 2000s in France, the notion of "race" has made a comeback by way of genetics and certain kinds of population studies. Whether or not it ever disappeared from biology and medicine after the Second World War, as is commonly claimed, is in fact open to question. The modern understanding of the notion would seem instead to have been reached through a process of continual change in the fields of politics and science. This is what the historian and philosopher of science Claude-Olivier Doron suggests in his book, which encourages us to examine the present with the historian's analytic tools despite the fact that its specific focus is the period from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The book is first and foremost a history of the notion of "race" that is not focused on the issue of racism. It is also a history of the uses and circulation of the term "race" in multiple discursive areas, including nobiliary and pastoral narratives and natural history. As the author sees it, the book is first and foremost "an epistemological history that takes race seriously as a positive concept." The question driving it is how "race" gradually came to be conceptualized first as an object of knowledge, later as an object for power practices, though in fact the author stops short of a full investigation of this last point. Last, it is a history of "race" as understood by means of the less familiar notion of degeneration – the book's real subject.

For the book's real purpose is to show the historical and theoretical importance of that idea. Contrary to notions of racism as an attitude toward radical difference, notions based on anatomical classification logic, the author highlights a genealogical type of reasoning, on the basis of which we can discover another history of race, rooted in what he calls "differentialist universalism." His programme is ambitious. The first task he sets himself is to demonstrate that the most important thinkers on racism may not be the ones we thought. Whereas historians have tended to emphasize polygenicist race theorists, the author claims on the contrary that what produced the understanding that one "race" could legitimately dominate was inclusive humanism. His second task is to show that a biology-based conception of race developed only relatively late in the day and that there was no reason to think it would be readily accepted in natural history. Degeneration – or the degradation of that which is the same – is the key word here, he explains, as it enables us to understand these counter-intuitive claims. In this thinking, human diversity was explained as the result of a process by which a degraded state was transmitted from a single original identity across generations. This genealogical approach was entirely alien to polygenist thinking, where the assumptions were that biological differences between "races" had existed from the start and were definitive.

The book is divided into four parts, followed by a substantial "epilogue". Part I discusses the first uses of the genealogical notion of race. Through a study [End Page 177] of nobiliary narratives, pastoral narratives, and practices, Doron shows how the degeneration mechanism came to be cited and circulated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to explain cases of behavioural deviance from a norm of origin, while legitimating a mode of domination founded on the argument of a "degenerated self" incapable of self-government – the perfect example being colonial domination.

The next two parts seek to answer two interrelated questions. First, how, starting in the eighteenth century, did the notion of "race" become an object that was just as important to politics and policy as to science? The mid-1750s represent a genuine break in the history of the notions of race and degeneration. On the political side of the race issue...


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pp. 177-179
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