Skin in the Early Modern World, 1450-1750: The Deep Surface
Professor Koslofsky’s current book project on skin in the early modern world locates the origins of today’s conceptions of skin color and race at the intersection of early modern European, African, and American ways of marking and knowing skin. He will show how West African and Native American scarification, tattooing, dyeing, and piercing challenged European ideas about skin marking as dishonorable. He will then examine the hybrid dermal practices of the age of Atlantic slavery, such as the branding of enslaved persons and the rise of the legal category of whiteness, to recast early modern skin color as a hybrid dermal practice.
To understand how early modern European, African, and American ways of marking and knowing skin intersected, Professor Koslofsky builds on the concept of "epidermalization" introduced by Frantz Fanon in his germinal work Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs; 1952). Fanon created the term epidermalization to describe the reduction of an individual to his or her skin (itself a synecdoche for skin color). Fanon's approach allows us to see human skin as a place where history is made, in this case revealing how the early modern Atlantic reliance on skin color appropriated and inverted African and American dermal practices in the service of new social and economic ends, such as Atlantic slavery and settler colonialism. Working in the history of medicine and science, Professor Koslofsky’s research shows how early modern ideas about skin developed within formal, structured bodies of knowledge such as law, medicine, natural philosophy, and theology, but were never contained by the logic or boundaries of these fields. Skin in the Early Modern World follows the history of skin across these boundaries, revealing a fateful set of quotidian and embodied pathways to our modern, epidermalized world.