# HISTORY /// The Body as a Terrain of Experiments: Medicine and Vile Bodies According to Grégoire Chamayou


As announced in the previous article about the “thanatopolitics of death penalty,” I will propose a review of the book Les corps vils : Expérimenter sur les êtres humains aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles (Vile Bodies: Experimenting on Human Beings in the 18th and 19th Centuries) written by Grégoire Chamayou (see past article) and published in 2008 (La Découverte). This book has not been translated into English yet and I am happy to propose a clumsy translation of a few excerpts in this article in order to share a little of its content to a broader audience than the francophone one. The original excerpts in French are included at the end of this article.

The subtitle of the book is explicit about the content of the research. In the Foucaldian tradition of drawing philosophical arguments through the precise examination of history, Chamayou investigates the role of medicine in relation to the development of the new mode of sovereignty embodied by biopolitics. This includes as much the new means of punishment as the administration of the colonies. Chamayou bases his book on the Latin locution “experimentum in corpore vili” (experimenting on vile bodies) that justifies the principle of experimentation on human beings at the condition that the considered body could be determined as vile. The first chapter of the book thus looks at the dissection practiced on executed bodies in order to enhance the medical knowledge of the time (my translation):

Since dissection appeared as an infamous treatment, it was therefore applied only to subjects that were already considered as infamous. Dissection was then inscribed within the extension of the sentence they received. It could only be practiced on executed criminal bodies, in a sort of continuity between the gesture of knowledge and the gesture of punishment. (Grégoire Chamayou, Les corps vils : Expérimenter sur les êtres humains aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Paris : La Découverte, 2008, 24.)

Chamayou then describes how some people were paid by doctors to ‘jump’ on the executed bodies as soon as they had expired in order to dispose of the corpse in its ‘freshest’ aspect. Depending on the conditions, such capture of the body was either arranged in advance with the sovereign or done in complete illegality in the form of a strange kidnapping. Similarly, Chamayou evokes how, at the end of the 18th-century in England, the “resurrection men” constituted gangs hired to exhume corpses from their graves in order for doctors to practice dissections. His book is however not a ‘simple’ historical description of experimentation on human beings; going back to the original “experimentum in corpore vili” and observing indeed how there might have not been enough “corpore vili” (vile bodies) available for medicine to be satisfied, Chamayou investigates the mechanisms of vilization (avilissement) – I apologize for this neologism — that were thus used by medicine and its political support in order to increase the number of vile bodies (my translation):

We should establish a typology of vilization [avilissement] technologies: marking, imprisoning, punishing, indebting, competing, forcing dependence… We should also stipulate that these technologies are a subdivision of exploitation technologies. And we should add that there are not only discursive (saying, writing, justifying that some categories have more value than others), but they are also physical (if such a dichotomy even makes sense): starving someone to constraint him to accept an offer, for instance, can be considered as a vilization technique just as much as the various discourses in order to convince this person of his inferiority. By lowering his power of acting, one decreases the price of his acquisition. Vilization technologies are political technologies, that is technologies designed to insure the exercise conditions of a power. (Grégoire Chamayou, Les corps vils : Expérimenter sur les êtres humains aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Paris : La Découverte, 2008, 17.)

Of course, vile is not an essence since it corresponds to a characterization of a given body by society. Strategic processes of vilization of a body therefore exist to apply the power of the norm, and in the case of experimentation, to produce bodies that can be subjected to it. These processes are involved within the shift of sovereignty described by Foucault. Biopolitics have the particularity of producing positivity (in the utilitarian sense) to serve society, and biopolitics applying itself on life itself by definition, it is not surprising to see that medicine was at the core of this shift (my translation):

Imprisonment and death penalty are negative measures – privation of liberty, privation of life. However, they are also simultaneously productive measures. What death penalty produces is available bodies, susceptible to be integrated in new uses. Not only medicine inherits of bodies on which punishment is exercised, but medicine also actively participates to the administration of the punishment itself by perfecting punishment’s mechanisms or by controlling its process in order to control its conditions. Gradually, the doctor does not come from the outside to use bodies that the penal system products independently from him, but he now collaborates to the production of penal death itself in such a way that, during the 18th-century, a medical-penal production of the execution emerges and is converted into experimentation.  (Grégoire Chamayou, Les corps vils : Expérimenter sur les êtres humains aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Paris : La Découverte, 2008, 23.)

It would be erroneous to assume that the production of vile bodies constitutes the only characteristics of the transformation of medicine. As Foucault describes in The Birth of the Clinic (1963), the entire medical system is now taking fully part in the utilitarian (from which capitalism emerged) societal scheme. In this regard, Chamayou recalls the transformation of the hospital into clinics, as well as the role that vile bodies can play in the utilitarian scheme established by Jeremy Bentham (my translation):

It is probably in Esquisse d’un ouvrage en faveur des pauvres[Draft for a Book in Favor of the Poors] that Bentham has the most systematized this principle of compensation and usefulness that he was introducing at the core of the assistance relationship. By placing disabled in “houses specially designed for them,” we could “use some of them to work whose production could simultaneously provide help to medicine and help their cure while saving public money.”
The hospital function was conquered by the doctors who took its head and control and revised its former meaning towards utilitarian purposes, progress and the advancement of knowledge. They wanted to make the hospital useful by making it producing socially distributable medical experiments as a counterpart of the care of which poors and indigents were benefiting. It was a way for the clinic to invest into the hospital in order to make it function for its own profit. (Grégoire Chamayou, Les corps vils : Expérimenter sur les êtres humains aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Paris : La Découverte, 2008, 166, 169.)

As said above, these new biopolitical conditions function within the logic of always producing new vile bodies and the colonial expansions of countries like France and the United Kingdom will provide entire available populations in the presence of the colonized people, as well as the slaves of the Caribbeans and the United States, for the Western medicine to continue its experiments. These experiments have two dimensions. The first constitutes the continuation of the quest for medical knowledge in general, while the second is specific to colonization itself. As Chamayou describes, the fact that the colonial troops and colons were finding themselves unfit for the climatic and bacteriologic conditions in which they were now living, there was a need for the colonial power to understand the biological difference between the colonial and colonized populations. The colonized body was thus ambiguously considered as both vile and more fit to the conditions in which it was living. Once again, medicine and politics were forming an indissoluble mechanism of power (my translation):

Political authorities, military doctors and the Medicine Academy were able to quickly receive mortality statistics in the troops and discover their frightening content: diseases more than combats were the factors of the soldiers’ death. During the 19th-century, soldiers’ and colons’ mortality became the central problem that the expansionist and colonial politics needed to address. This constituted a question of the very existence of these politics. In France, many have questioned the ability of colonial projects to be biologically viable considering the change in climate that it was imposing on the metropolitan white population. (Grégoire Chamayou, Les corps vils : Expérimenter sur les êtres humains aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Paris : La Découverte, 2008, 362.)

What Chamayou’s book reveals is the absolute impossibility for any discipline to get involved with the system from which it benefits. In the context of the experimentation on human beings, medicine first founded itself interested in the only available bodies for this experimentation, the executed corpses. Once this interest was systematized, it was impossible for medicine not to participate within the logic of the execution, and by extension of punishment. The punished bodies having no other characteristics proper to medicine than their social exclusion (“corpore vili”), medicine then got involved in the extension of the characterization of bodies as vile, to go as far as the generalization of this characterization to an entire population in the context of colonialism. Chamayou’s book finishes at the end of 19th-century but we all know too well that the combination of medicine and politics will reach its tragic climax with the various experiments accomplished by the Nazis in the camps. The vile bodies here were characterized as such for their religion, ethnic origin, political belief or sexual preference. What is true in medicine is also true for every other discipline that have repercussions in the construction and maintenance of the relationships of power in a given society. In this regard, we could think of a book that would do the same investigation for architecture than the one that Chamayou did for medicine.

Original excerpts ///

La dissection apparaissant comme un traitement infamant, elle était par voie de conséquence réservée à des sujets déjà infâmes, et inscrite dans le prolongement d’une peine qu’ils avaient déjà reçue. La dissection ne pouvait dès lors être pratiquée que sur les corps de criminels exécutés, dans une sorte de continuité entre le geste savant et le geste punitif. P24

La présente recherche s’inscrit donc dans la perspective plus vaste d’une étude critique des technologies d’avilissement. De ces technologies d’avilissement, il faudrait faire une typologie : marquage, enfermement, punition, dette, mise en concurrence, mise sous dépendance… Il faudrait aussi préciser qu’elles sont un sous-groupe des technologies d’exploitation. Il faudrait ajouter qu’elles ne sont pas seulement discursives (dire, écrire, justifier que certaines catégories valent moins que d’autres), mais aussi matérielles (si une telle dichotomie a une quelconque pertinence) ; affamer quelqu’un pour le contraindre d’accepter une offre, par exemple, relève des techniques d’avilissement, tout autant que les discours destinés à le convaincre de sa propre infériorité. En abaissant sa puissance d’agir, on fait baisser le prix de son acquisition. Les technologies d’avilissement relèvent des technologies politiques, c’est-à-dire des technologies destinées à assurer les conditions d’exercice d’un pouvoir. P17

L’emprisonnement et la peine de mort sont des mesures négatives – privation de la liberté, privation de la vie. Mais ce sont aussi et en même temps des mesures productives. Ce que produit la peine de mort, ce sont des corps disponibles, susceptibles d’être intégrés à de nouveaux usages. Non seulement la médecine hérite des corps sur lesquels s’exerce le châtiment, mais elle participe activement à l’administration de la peine elle-même, que ce soit pour en perfectionner le mécanisme ou pour en contrôler le déroulement afin de mieux en maîtriser les conditions. Progressivement, le médecin ne vient plus, de l’extérieur, utiliser des corps que le système pénal produit indépendamment de lui, mais il collabore à la production de la mort pénale elle-même, de sorte qu’au cours du XVIIIe siècle se met en place une véritable coproduction médico-pénale de l’exécution, peu à peu convertie en expérience. P23

C’est sans doute dans son Esquisse d’un ouvrage en faveur des pauvres que Bentham a le plus systématisé ce principe de compensation et d’utilité qu’il introduisait au cœur de la relation d’assistance en plaçant les infirmes dans des « maisons spécialement établies pour eux », on pourrait, écrivait-il, « employer plusieurs d’entre eux à un travail dont le produit, en même temps qu’il servirait à leur procurer les secours de la médecine ou même à effectuer leur guérison aurait l’avantage d’économiser les deniers publics ». P166

La fonction hospitalière est conquise par les médecins, qui en prennent la direction et le contrôle, révisant son ancienne signification dans le sens de l’utilité, du progrès et de l’avancement des savoirs. Il s’agit de rendre l’hôpital utile, lui faire produire, en contrepartie des soins dont y jouissent les pauvres et les indigents, de l’expérience médicale socialement distribuable. Il s’agit, pour la clinique, à tous les sens du terme, d’investir l’hôpital pour le faire fonctionner à son profit. P169

Les autorités politiques, les médecins militaires et l’Académie de médecine disposent rapidement des statistiques de mortalité des troupes, et celles-ci sont véritablement effrayantes : ce sont les maladies qui fauchent les soldats, plus que les combats. La mortalité des soldats puis des colons devient au cours du XIXe siècle le problème central auquel doivent s’affronter les politiques expansionnistes et coloniales. Il en va des conditions de possibilité mêmes de ces politiques. On s’est longtemps interrogé, en France, y compris parmi les promoteurs des entreprises coloniales, sur la question de savoir si les projets coloniaux étaient biologiquement viables étant donné le changement de climat qu’elles imposaient à la population blanche de la métropole.
Avant même d’être militaire, le problème de la colonisation est médical. D’où le développement d’une médicine coloniale. P362

5 Comments on “# HISTORY /// The Body as a Terrain of Experiments: Medicine and Vile Bodies According to Grégoire Chamayou

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