The “stigmata of past experience”: Foucault on how power relations are inscribed on our bodies.

This is my response to readings for the class Mediating The Bio-Political Body.

The task of genealogy, writes Michel Foucault in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” is to “expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.” Foucault’s investigation into genealogy examines concepts present in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, a text that interrogates our ideas about the origins of knowledge.

The three German words Foucault references when he talks about the idea of origins are Ursprung, Entstehung, and Herkunft. Herkunft is suggestive of a type of descent or lineage, sustained by the bonds of tradition. Historical meaning, argues Foucault, is generated through a process by which humans inherit the countless logical inaccuracies, hasty conclusions, and ideas of previous generations. Our bodies give rise to the same errors, manifesting “the stigmata of past experience.” Herkunft, or descent, “attaches itself to the body,” rendering the body “the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas)…a volume in perpetual disintegration.”

The body, according to Foucault, thus becomes the site of endless conflict. Our nervous systems, our moods, and our minds are vulnerable to the destructive capabilities of history that is the product of the “endlessly repeated play of dominations.” Domination, like history, creates marks of its power and engraves memories on our bodies.

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