Since the publication of volume 1 of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality in 1979, scholars have come to view the body as critical to all facets of the history of public and private life: to politics, consumption, discipline, punishment – indeed, to the very construction of the modern western self. What Foucault called biopower was foundational to the emergence of modern state bureaucracies; it was indispensable to the creation of ‘rational’ citizen/subjects as well. In modern European history, the body has undoubtedly had a distinctive career as a vector of labour and violence, reproduction and atrocity, alterity and civility. Yet, if bodies have served as lightning rods for politics of all kinds, the body has also been nothing more or less than the scandal of the state, in many senses of the term.1 For the agencies of modern power have struggled with, and often failed in, the project of fixing bodies, striving to make them legible to dominant forms of power and stable as sites of profitability. Whether corralling labour for capital or ensuring the reproduction of norms of masculinity and femininity for social order, the modern state has relied on docile bodies for its own sustainability – determining to make them conform if they resisted incorporation into the body politic. In the process, state power has often violated, reshaped and otherwise deformed the body: most commonly in the name of progress and civilization and with a very specific iteration of a ‘universal’ white, male, heterosexual and middling class model always in view. In this chapter I make two arguments about the body that grow out of a quarter of a century’s scholarship in modern European history. First, I suggest that race and sex – as categories and as the basis for people’s actual historical experiences – have been lived through the body and that the body is, therefore, one key way of thinking about them together. Although early work in feminist history emphasized the recovery of women’s experience and gender as a discrete category of analysis, in fact most scholars have come to understand that sex and race are inseparable: that women and men live as embodied racial subjects and that gender is one modality of many in which race is lived.2 Similarly, histories of race and class need to be understood as shaped by sexuality and gendered experience: whether we are speaking of white women’s work or black men’s politics, sex and race are entangled variables and must be examined as co-constitutive of how people lived and how power worked as well. As we shall see, tracking bodies helps illuminate in concrete ways how interrelated these forces were and how crucially concerns about managing them shaped both the imagination and the direction of modern European history. Critical to this claim is my second argument: namely, that empire and colonialism have not operated only outside the boundaries of Europe, but have had a formative impact on the body politic of modern ‘European’ histories writ large.3 Research undertaken in the wake of Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, which argued for the central role of imperial policies and power in the making of modern European culture, has shown how linked empires and their colonies were, not just symbolically but via the continual traffic of commodities, ideas and – of course – bodies between them.4 These histories are what might be properly called ‘postcolonial’ because they were set in motion by the beginnings of mid-twentieth-century decolonization. As Frantz Fanon so famously remarked, ‘Europe is literally the creation of the Third World’.5 Just as the convergence of sex and race is most spectacularly visible through the history of the body, so too the making of modern European politics and society is arguably most powerfully legible via analyses of bodies in contact, in motion, in thrall to and elusive of colonial regimes of power.6.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge History of Sex and the Body
Subtitle of host publication1500 to the Present
EditorsSarah Toulalan, Kate Fisher
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9780203436868
ISBN (Print)9780415472371
StatePublished - 2013


Dive into the research topics of '‘The Roots That Clutch’: Bodies, sex and race since 1750'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this