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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


Tobias Barnett

College: Robinson


Supervisor: Professor Martin Crowley

Research Topic: 

'The Colonial Milieu: Empire and the Architectonics of Modern French Scientific Thought (1830-1962)' 


Positioned at the intersection of modern French thought, cultural, intellectual and conceptual history, and the history of empire, Toby's doctoral research explores interactions, in late-19th- and early-20th-century France, between colonial politics, understandings of human life, and disciplinarity in the natural and human sciences.  

Toby's thesis proposes that modern French thought's sustained interest in (and exposure to) the human 'milieu' — a concept Georges Canguilhem (1952) famously described as 'a universal and obligatory mode of apprehending the experience and existence of living things' — expresses itself as a need to negotiate between competing frames of reference: matter and spirit; the innate and the acquired; humanism and antihumanism; the empirical and the transcendental, to name a few. With reference to French philosophies of medicine, of science and of education, Toby seeks to affirm the political origins and repercussions of this dynamic in the French context. Specifically, his work considers the fundamental concept of milieu in its interaction with the practical and epistemic projects of the Second French colonial empire (1830-1962). This particular confrontation, Toby argues, did more than inflect the concept's use as an adaptive means to interrogate relations between humans and their surroundings, often for governmental ends; rather, in its exposure to colonial rationality, milieu would probe the ever-changing form — and political scope — of philosophical thought, understood as a form of decisive (and self-reflexive) action given shape by life. 

Examining such figures as François-Joseph-Victor Broussais, Hippolyte Taine, Félix Ravaisson, Alain and Georges Canguilhem in their historical and intellectual context, Toby's research traces forgotten, imperial genealogies in modern French intellectual culture, casting new light on the historical formation — and political mediation — of the modern French sciences humaines. In so doing, Toby also seeks to problematise a renewed interest in the form (and formation) of thought typified, in recent years, by the work of Bernard Stiegler and Catherine Malabou. 


Research Interests 

Toby's broader research interests span: Modern and contemporary French thought and culture; critical and literary theory; history of empire and postcolonial cultures; history and philosophy of science; historical epistemology, critical history and the philosophy of history; philosophies of technology and technicity; political architectures and architectural theory; hermeneutics and information theory; the 'pre-history' of cybernetics (19th-c); cultural materialism and the work of Raymond Williams. 


Before beginning his doctoral studies at Cambridge, Toby obtained an undergraduate degree in French and German from University College London, studying at the Sorbonne in his third year, and an MPhil from the University of Cambridge, with a thesis on aesthetic strategy and geo-politics in the Franco-Algerian 'docu-fiction' (1975-2019). Toby has also worked as a translator (also in Paris) and studied in Germany, at the Universität zu Köln. In 2022, Toby returned to Cambridge as Crausaz-Wordsworth Scholar in the Humanities at Robinson College, where he is also the recipient of a Vice-Chancellor's Award (Cambridge Trust). 


Awards, Scholarships and Prizes

  • Peter Bayley Award - University of Cambridge (2024) 
  • Vice-Chancellor’s Award - Cambridge Trust (2022-2025) 
  • Crausaz Wordsworth Scholarship in Humanities - Robinson College, Cambridge (2022-2025) 
  • Research Award - Institute of International Visual Art (Iniva) (2021) 
  • Jennings Prize - Wolfson College, Cambridge (2021) 


  • *2024. 'Catherine Malabou's Historical Epistemology', in Paragraph, 47.2, pp.162-177 (*Forthcoming July 2024). 
  • 2022. ‘Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Terminal Sud (2019) and the resurgence of a Franco-Algerian archive’, in Expressions maghrébines, Vol.21, No. 2., pp. 171-189.


Course Supervisor

  •  FRB2 - Translation from French 

Seminar leader 

  • Critical Theory (Tripos Parts IA, IB, and II; on behalf of Trinity, Corpus Christi, Queens', Gonville & Caius, Jesus, Robinson and Trinity Hall) 

Toby welcomes enquiries from students wishing to carry out undergraduate dissertation projects relevant to his research interests. 

Selected Papers and Invited Talks

  • 'Form and Function at the Historical Limit: New Modes of Rationality in Contemporary French Thought', Society for French Studies (SFS) Graduate Conference, King's College London, London, UK, 19 May 2023. 
  • ''Memory Supports' and 'Agents of Belief': The Technical Economy of Culture in Bernard Stiegler's La technique et le temps (1994-2001) and Marie-José Mondzain's Image, Icône, Economie (1996)', Robinson College, Cambridge MCR/SCR Conference, Cambridge, UK, 28 January 2023. 
  • 'Culture as Technology: Technical Affinities in the Work of Bernard Stiegler and Marie-José Mondzain', Cambridge French Graduate Research Seminar, Cambridge, UK, 2 December 2022.
  • ‘Kader Attia and Colonial Repair’, Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva), Future Collect Conference: Handle with Care, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, UK, 25 November 2021.  

Conference Panels 

  • Panel co-chair for ‘(Post)colonial Legacies' session, University of Cambridge French Graduate Conference, University of Cambridge, 13 January 2023.


Since 2022, Toby has delivered outreach sessions on behalf of the Cambridge MMLL Faculty, which have seen him share research with prospective undergraduate applicants in Modern Languages (17-18), and teachers of French A-Level: 

  • 'Film between France and Algeria: Rabah Ameur-ZaÏmeche', Diversity in French and Francophone Studies: A CPD workshop for teachers of French. University of Cambridge / Association of Modern and Contemporary France (ASMCF). 20 February 2023.   
  • La rencontre Algérie-France: Aesthetic Strategy in Terminal Sud (2019) and La Bataille d’Alger (1966)’. Why Not Languages? @ Cam, University of Cambridge. 21 June 2022. 

Other projects, activities and roles

In Lent Term 2024, Toby co-organised the cross-Faculty and cross-School research seminar series 'Transhistorical Humanities? Methods in Conversation', with generous support from the MMLL Faculty Cross-Faculty Research Seminar fund. Held at King's College, Cambridge, the Transhistorical Humanities series brought together leading academics working across languages and historical time periods to reflect on questions of method, historicity and disciplinarity, and their broader relation to the contemporary humanities. 

Toby is also co-convenor, alongside Professor Emma Wilson and Maddison Sumner, of the Cambridge Modern French Research Seminar (MFRS) and, with Duarte Benard da Costa and Maddison Sumner, of the Cambridge French Graduate Research Seminar (FGRS). 

As of September 2023, Toby is Conference Assistant to The Society for French Studies