The Forensic Self: Identity and Personal Identification in France

10 May 2010
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Ken Alder
Northwestern University

European expansion and exploration began well before the voyages of Columbus. Following the Mongol expansion of the mid-thirteenth century, Papal emissaries, missionaries, traders and adventurers traveled to Asia, and these travelers stayed for years in royal courts, created expatriate trading enclaves, and established long-lived Christian missions in Asian cities. But what did Europe learn about Asia from these first interactions? The talk will address this question by surveying the information on economic and medical botany that was channeled to Europe through these early travelers. These bodies of information are of particular interest because they relied on access to knowledgeable local informants rather than simply the unmediated observation of nature. By examining the patterns of information flow and the reception of this knowledge in Europe, I hope to highlight the factors that variously impeded or facilitated the exchange of accurate information.

This talk tracks the development of the forensic sciences in France as a way to examine the relationship between identification and identity from the Renaissance to the Dreyfus Affair. Specifically, it focuses on the methods of handwriting masters, the first Europeans to claim the glorious title of “expert.” How have the techniques deployed by these experts to individuate subjects for the purposes of law–that is, for “identification”–also shaped these subjects’ changing sense of self–that is, their identity as members of a nation/race, historical/genealogical subjects, and moral beings? This project examines how experts defined the “forensic self.”


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This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Office for the History of Science and Technology

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