Habitability: Buridan on Dark-Skinned People

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BnF français 25344, 128v, Gautier de Metz, Image du Monde

Today, my “Problems in Posthumanism” graduate seminar worked on Alexander and Dindimus, Montaigne on Cannibals, Petrarch on the Canary Islands (well, we at least read it), and chiefly Sylvia Wynter’s groundbreaking, monumental “1492: A New World View.” Given Wynter’s arguments about the cognitive disruption occasioned to the “Scholastic order of knowledge” by the full-scale European encounter of a globe fully inhabited by humans, I prepped by rereading Valerie Flint’s 1984 Viator article on the (uninhabitable) antipodes and the premodern community of monsters and men, encompassed within a homogeneous humanity; and by glancing at Aquinas on Aristotle’s Meteorology, where our Dumb Ox follows Augustine, Bede, and other luminaries by likewise asserting that most of the earth is unpeopled, eg,

Just as these places are uninhabitable on account of the excessive heat, so the regions under the constellation of the Bear [which is the part of the heaven always visible to us] are uninhabitable on account of the cold caused by the sun being far away. Hence that part of the earth in which we live is between the two circles, i.e., between the one that passes through the summer tropic and the one which bounds that part of the heaven always visible to us.

So far so good. But to complicate Wynter, I also reviewed the Book of John Mandeville, whose hundreds of manuscripts affirm a fully inhabited globe; consulted Higgins’ Mandeville to glance at the 1330 Directorium ad faciendum passagium transmarinum (translated soon thereafter into French by Jean de Vignay), in which a widely traveled Dominican asserts the general habitability of the world; and, at last, I skimmed the problem of the habitability of the Earth in Jean Buridan’s fourteenth-century Quaestiones super libris de caelo et mundo, which presents a wide range of options on this problem, even in the very Parisian center of the “Scholastic order of knowledge.”

I did this not to disprove Wynter (and indeed, in the course of prepping the class, I found ‘disproofs’ of Wynter that stumbled, badly, because of their ignorance of the Middle Ages). As my students observed, Wynter is enormously generative, and though she does make errors in (medieval) facts, so do Agamben and Foucault and other notables in “traveling theory”: few declare Agamben and Foucault useless because of this. One suspects that the withering corrections of Wynter are motivated by something other than scrupulous rigor.

Rather, I was doing my duty as a medievalist and to the Middle Ages: I presented a heterogeneous premodern, a Europe not dominated by a singular scholastic “Feudal” order of knowledge, but one that nonetheless would be profoundly altered by the European involvement in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.

And while reading Buridan, I found this:

And now we speak about the middle zone that is between the tropics within the equator. Immediately it appears that this is uninhabited because of too great heat, since coming up on the tropic of Cancer they [=travelers?] find so much heat that there the men are burned and black beyond the common measure of men, looking like those of India and Ethiopia. Therefore, it seems that beyond this heat that no man could live there. And this is confirmed, since if it was inhabited beyond this zone, some of us would have come to them, or they would have come to us; because none has been heard [to do so], as some say.

Et modo dicemus de zona media quae est inter tropicos sub aequinoctiali. Statim enim prima facie apparet quod illa propter nimium calorem sit inhabitabilis, quia procedentes usque ad tropicum Cancri inveniunt tantum calorem, quod ibi homines ultra communem modum hominum aduruntur et fiunt nigri, sicut apparet de Indis et Aethiopibus; ideo videtur quod ultra esset tanta caliditas quod non possent ibi homines habitare. Et hoc confirmatur, quia si essett ultra habitatio, aliqui nostrum venissent ad eos, vel illi venissent ad nos; quod non est auditum, ut aliqui dicunt. (quoted from Ernest A. Moody, “John Buridan on the Habitability of the Earth“) (also available here, p 156).

My Latin’s a bit rusty, so do correct me if I went astray. As as counterexample, Buridan next cites Avicenna, who believes that the equatorial zone is not only inhabited, but even graced by mild weather (and a very noble city!), since there the sun passes directly overhead, remaining so only for a short time, while elsewhere, the angle of the sun means it beats down on us for longer. Maybe so!

I’m particularly struck by Buridan’s “proof” on the basis of skin color. While this is a scholastic “proof,” and therefore offered more as a thought experiment than a certain description of reality, it still says something about what dark-skinned people are made to represent for Buridan. Even as a man from the “frozen North” (which is to say, Béthune, roughly between Arras and Dunkirk), he likely would have encountered dark-skinned people in his life, and certainly in art. However, Buridan’s proof at least implicitly asserted that such dark-skinned people were evidence that there could be no darker people. The darker the person, the more certain that the torrid zones were uninhabitable. Darkness tended towards impossibility, nonexistence, a life that could not be.

He notably has nothing similar to say about whiteness “beyond the common measure of man” as disproving the habitability of the far North. More directly to my point, and perhaps to Wynter’s, darkness is at once evidence of the limits of habitability and an intimation of uninhabitability: it was a visible sign of the limits of life, and therefore a kind of geographical memento mori. Or vacuum. Wynter argues that in the modern era the medieval habitable/uninhabitable mapping would be remapped onto the color line:

the color line had come to inscribe a premise parallel, if in different terms, to that which had been encoded in the feudal Christian order, by the line of caste that had been mapped onto the physical universe as well as onto the geography of the earth….[viz.] the white (unmixed people of Indo-European descent) and the black (peoples of wholly or of partly African descent) opposition, with the latter hereditary variation or phenotype coming to reoccupy the earlier signifying place of the earlier torrid and Western Hemisphere, within the logic of the contemporary globalized and purely secular variant of the Judaeo-Christian culture of the West. (39)

In other words, in the modern era, Black people come to signify, for the dominant White-identified genre of Man, the form of human life that is excluded from the human. They are a materialization of non-identity, of non-existence, of Human non-being. And perhaps we have here, in Buridan, a hint of the same, of what would metastasize into the full, horrendous form it took in the fifteenth century and onwards.

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