“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, July 04, 2009

the politics of being born

- Martine Francke
As I perhaps clumsily indicated in my last post, one risks falling under the spell of a parergonal logic in trying to “frame” a text, to give it a frame, to approach it from a frame. For from the start, the frame has a fatal tendency to bilocate within the frame. In this particular case, the frame is a woman – who provides the frame for the actual content of the phrase from Rousseau, “all men are born to be free…”, about which the Consolatio dialogue turns. The woman is both the support, the constitution and condition of that birth, and what is marginalized by that particular freedom. Marie d’Agoult in her Histoire provides a very good (and neglected) overview of feminist history from the French revolution to 1848 –giving due credit to figures who were supposedly re-discovered by the feminists of the 1970s, like Olympe des Gouges.

“The Revolution, after having provoked them [women] to appear on the political scene, threw them back into the shadows, on 9 thermidor, without having provided essential changes in their social condition. However the constitutional assembly, not content to render them a striking homage in entrusting the “reserve of the Constitution to the vigilance of wives and mothers” had sensibly ameliorated their fate in the family in establishing the equal sharing of goods and abolishing the perpetuity of monastic vows. The legislative assembly thought they were doing even more by legalizing divorce. But in this as well the legislators were occupied solely with women of the wealthy class. The questions of equal division of goods, of perpetual vows and of indissoluble ties did not touch the daughter of the people, for she did not expect inheritances, her family had no interest in pushing her into a convent, and the uniformity of the habits of her industrious life retained her naturally, without causing her to suffer, in the one matrimonial tie. The ideas which interested the generality of women and their rights in all social situations were not treated again after the long silence of the Empire and the Restoration than by the schools of Saint Simon and of Fourier.” (II, 33)

This is a beautiful passage, both for what it recognizes and its rather destabilizing ultra gesture. The latter became more common in leftist discourse in the 20th century, when, due to the reactionary family policy of Stalinism, the cry went forward that, as d’Agoult puts it here, the women of the people were wholly uninterested in the bourgeois topics of feminism. The game, by that time, was all about suspending indefinitely the cultural revolution (which was frivolous) while pursuing the economic and political revolution (which was serious). Seriousness is a politically charged social thematic – and alas, an all too little investigated one. However, at the time d’Agoult was writing, the sinister career of this theme was well in the future. Instead, one has to credit d’Agoult with the perception that the unity of “women” could easily disguise the social disunity of “women”. That the “long silence” is broken by the ‘utopians” – oh, this is such a rich topic, and one with such bearing on the liberal-radical alienation from the happiness culture, that I can hardly do it justice here. I’ll just point to it.

And so let us leap, following the method of the grasshopper rather than that of the scholarly ant, back to our Herzen text and end this post with a quote from the doctor:

“Did you ever think what the words, ‘man is born to be free’ mean? I shall interpret them for you. They mean, ‘man is born to be a beast’ – no more. Take a drove of wild horses – complete freedom and equal rights, the most complete communism; but development is impossible. Salvery is the first step to civilization. For development it is incumbent that some shall be far better off and others far worse. It is then that the former can advance at the expense of the latter. Nature spares nothing for development. To her man is an animal with an extraordinarily well developed brain: herein lies his power. Man did not feel in himself the agility of the tiger or the strength of the lion. He was remarkable neither for his muscles nor for especially keen senses; but he evinced a world of cunning, a host of humble qualities which, coupled with his natural tendency to live in communities, brought him to the initial step of social life. Bear in mind that man is fond of obeying; he always seeks something to lean upon, or to hid behind. He lacks the proud self-sufficiency of the beast of prey. He grows up subjugated by the family and the tribe. The more involved and tight the knot of social life became, the deeper people sank into slavery. They were oppressed by religion, which played on their fears, and by the tribal chiefs who played on tradition. There is not an animal, but one from the ‘kind corrupted by man,’ as Byron called domestic animals, that would be able to stand the strain of human relations. The wolf devours the lamb because it is hungry and became the lamb is weaker; but the wolf does not demand slavery from the lamb, nor does the lamb submit to him. It protests by bleating and running away. Into the wildly independent and self-sufficient world of the animals man has introduced an element of personal loyalty, the element of Caliban, and it is owing to this that a Prospero could appear.” (426)

Friday, July 03, 2009

more thoughts on women and doctors

Another story, another tale of substitutions.

Amie’s citing of Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus in the comments of my last post made me think about the difficulty of trying to “frame” my description of Herzen’s Consolatio when the frame is bigger than the picture. But this is not an unusual situation – indeed, though we speak of frames with the image in our mind of those ornamental strips of wood which form a square in which a picture is placed, the analogy rarely works like that when dealing with concepts and themes. For the frame is the world itself, and we must take ‘frame’ in a different, older sense: as the OED puts it, rather diffusely, “The manner or method of framing; construction, structure; constitution, nature…” Etymologically, the word is related to “from” – a root meaning advancement. The unstoppable growth of frames is, indeed, a kind of demented advancement – what begins as a boundary becomes an endless frontier.

If, as I am going to imagine it, there is a vibe in Herzen that comes from therapeutic nihilism, and a likeness of his doctor to one of France’s most prominent radicals, Raspail, there is also a vibe in that struggling dyad, the woman and the doctor. A very nineteenth century vibe, indeed. Modern historians – Angus McLaren and Thomas Laquer, for instance – in telling the story of the medicalization of the female body in the nineteenth century re-use a substitution trope that comes from the nineteenth century: the doctor replaces the priest. McLaren writes:

“when nineteenth-century observers declared “the doctor is replacing the priest” they were almost always referring to the new role assumed by medicine on the terrain previously dominated by the dictates of religion – the area of sex and the family.” (McLaren 1975:39) Now how exactly a replacement like that works – what the area is that is replaced, this hole inside the frame – is relevant not just to the politics of projection which we have been following, but to the interior of the human limit – the defining traits of the Other – that has served as one of our parameter for defining the rise of the material culture. The other within, the patient within, the invalid within the house, the bed, the nation, was becoming, archetypally, the Woman. Michelet, with whom Herzen was friendly, proclaimed, famously, in L’amour that “la femme est une malade.” “She seems destined to pain; thus suffering to be formed, suffering every month, suffering to be a woman…” Thomas Laqueur noted that it was in the 1840s that obstetricians developed a better sense of the menstrual cycle (there had been a medical theory that menses was caused by lasciviousness), building on von Baer’s demonstration of an egg in the fallopian tube of a dog:

“In the novelistic style that characterizes so much early nineteenth-century scientific reporting, Theodor L.W. Bischoff tells his reader that on 18 and 19 December 1843 he noted tat a large bitch in his possession had begun to go into heat. On the 19th he allowed her contact with a male dog, but she refused its attentions. He kept her securely imprisoned for two more days and then brought on the male dog again; this time she was interested but the animals were separated before coition could take place. At ten o’clock two days later, i.e., on the morning of the 23rd, he cut out her left ovary and fallopian tubes and carefully closed the wood. The Graafian follicles in the excised ovary were swollen but not yet burst. Five days later he killed the dog and found in the remaining ovary four developing corpus lutei.


Laquer points out that F.A. Pouchet, a famous doctor (and friend of Michelet) considered the discover that ovulation occurs independently of coition so important that “he formulated it as his “fifth and critical law of reproductive biology.” (Laqueur 1987: 26) As Laqueur points out, this shifted the medical identity of women from the vagina to the ovaries. And Emily Martin has pointed to the persistence of feminine and masculine cultural archetypes in the representation of the egg and the sperm up to the present day.

The thematic of alienation in the liberal and radical marginals begins with a turn in the interpretation of the structure of the relationship between the governors and the governed. The enlightenment notion that the bond between the people and the state consists in some relationship to collective happiness was not a direct hit on the old order – rather, a conservative view of this notion is that happiness is the equivalent of the stability given by a fixed order of dependence. Georg Foster had compared this to an order that kept the people in the stage of larvae – arrested in their development. This metaphoric of development is, of course, a biologic metaphoric. It is taken, ultimately, from embryology. Just as the embryo develops into a human in the womb, the people would develop into perfected humans in the womb of the revolutionary state – or, in the liberal version, in a state that allowed for a culture of the liberated imagination. The oddity of this metaphoric is that, although it is taken from the woman’s body, the woman in the story seems to be backed further and further away from the center. In this, she becomes a frame, a bracket, a support.

I'll return to this in another post

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

doctors and women


- Ann Svenson, untitled

It was around 1848 that Joseph Dietl, a doctor in Vienna, first used the phrase “therapeutic nihilism.” It was an attitude that had been developing in the medical school of the University of Vienna, a part of the extreme positivist reaction to the feverish cosmic analogies of the romantics. According to the circle in which Dietl taught, medical science was caught between an increasingly sophisticated ability to diagnose and the growing realization that all traditional therapies, everything in the doctor’s toolkit, had no scientific grounding. In a sense, medicine still oscillates today between the idea that cures come as a result of understanding causes and the idea that one should just empirically test to see if something cures. Penicillin, to use one famous example, was developed in the absence of a theory about why it should work. But therapeutic nihilism stood at the positivistic extreme: nature, in this view, was the only cure. The result was, curiously, that Vienna’s medical school became more and more famous, and Vienna’s hospitals became more and more disgraceful.

Herzen took classes at Moscow University in Physics, but he was certainly interested in medicine, and knew members of the medical faculty. Was he aware of what was happening in Vienna? In France, medical journals after 1860 use the term nihilisme therapeutique to refer to practices like that of Laennec’s, in the 1820s, with regard to tuberculosis. The Journal de médecine, de chirurgie et de pharmacology refers to the “doctrines sustained successively by Broussais, Schoenlien, Heusinger, Rokitansky and Lebert remained sterile in therapy, but continued to tranquilly play their role in the program of studies of our faculties of medicine under the determination, ‘pure medical science’, with which therapy conserved only a distant tie.” Lebert founded a group dedicated to the synthesis of biology and medicine in 1848 – Rokitansky was the head of Vienna’s Medical school – and Broussais was one of the most famous doctors in the 1840s.

The idea of pure medical science is, in a sense, like the idea of creating a pure science to observe the political physiognomy of a society – or the cultural physiognomy. The great master of the diagnostic metaphor in nineteenth century philosophy is Nietzsche, who, as well, considered a form of nihilism to be the great European disease. A disease of heredity:

“This innocence between opposites, this good conscience in the lie is… modern par excellence, it is almost definitive of modernity. The modern person presents, biologically, a contradiction of values, he sits between two stools, in one breath he says yes and no… we have counter knowing, counter wills, counter values, counter formulas, counter morals of opposed heredity in the body… A diagnostic of the modern soul – where should it begin? With a resolute incision in this contradictoriness of instincts, with the leaching out of its opposite values.” - Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner

All of which brings us back to the fact that a doctor is, if we can trust Aileen Kelly, voicing Herzen’s views in From the Other Shore, and, in particular, in the dialogue we are interested in, Consolatio. And on the other side of the doctor? A woman. Who we need to trace, too, who we need to look at in terms of this dyad, the woman/doctor, which turns up again and again in the nineteenth century – until we get to Freud’s wonderful case histories.

In fact, the strongest evidence that the doctor in question is influenced by therapeutic nihilism is a story he tells which, again, concerns a woman.

Monday, June 29, 2009

the revolution of the intellectuals?

Although the French revolution of 1848 was incessantly put in terms of the French revolution of 1789 by its participants, it was, in that very act, necessarily different than 1789. It is to that self-consciousness Marx alludes with the famous bon mot about farce; it was also the reason a Whig historian of the 20th century, Lewis Namier, could say that 1848 was the revolution of the intellectuals. Of course, this view is considered much too idealistic by more sociologically inclined historians. What seems true, however, is that in 1848, for reasons that remain unclear, that floating sector of intellectuals and the more easily identified sector of the working class interpenetrated for one startling moment. A wall fell, a sort of pentacost of tongues broke out in the streets. Most observers claim that, in France at least, the revolution came as a stunning surprise. Mark Traugott, who has studied the worker’s movement of 1848, wrote that “although in retrospect it was easy to appreciate how the ground had been prepared by the calamitous economic crisis that began in 1845-1846 and by the political reform movement launched in 1847, the February Revolution appeared to stun even those best apprised of the French situation” – and here he references Tocqueville. Traugott writes, further: ‘It is, in part, this contrast between the apparent unanimity of the population’s response and the failure of contemporary observers to anticipate the insurrection’s outbreak that accounts for the fascination of the February Days to students of revolutionary movements.” (1988)

Herzen’s analysis of the revolution and its failure is not couched on the level of class interest, as Marx’s analysis is. Rather, Herzen surveys the revolutionary “spirit” – the community mood – of those activists who propagandized and organized for the revolution. Herzen, who watches the revolution in both France and Italy from the standpoint of a Russian exile, correctly divines that one cannot dismiss the link between the intellectual and the people and successfully understand the events that unfolded in 1848 and 1849. The revolution of 1848 was one of those rare moment in which history as the philosopher views it and history as it is made by the people overlapped.

For this reason, I think his choice of his “spokesman” in From the Other shore is important. As I’ve mentioned, there is some controversy over what Herzen is doing in the dialogues that alternate with reports and reflections in the book. Aileen Kelly, who surely knows Herzen better than anyone writing in English, claims that we can easily see through the character of the doctor in Consolatio to the author – here Herzen is saying what he thinks. And if we identify the doctor with the radical sceptic in all the dialogues, we have this fictional character playing the traditional role, in a philosophical dialogue, of the one who expresses the author’s opinion. Morson, who is one of the American champions of Bakhtin, disagrees, and thinks that the dialogue form is evidence for the dialogic thought.

Herzen had a curious way of expressing his thoughts not in treatises or lectures – although he gave some of them – but, more commonly, in memoirs and reports on the news, in letters, in stories, and in the phantasmagoria of From the Other Shore. I think there is a reason that he chose to write in such a way as to mark the occasion of the writing – which is what a letter, a report, a conversation does. He wanted to keep a close hold on the ephemeral, to use it as a guard against the power of conceptual rapture.

If this is his point, then it is appropriate that the man who, in From the Other Shore, ‘represents’ Herzen is a doctor. There’s something teasing about that doctor, after all. Many of his traits – his radical skepticism, his disengagement from the forms of revolutionary politics and sympathies with it - fit like a glove one of the great radicals of 1848 – Francois-Vincent Raspail. Raspail was a figure after Herzen’s own liberty seeking heart. For instance, he refused to get a medical degree, even though he was generally known as a great doctor; hauled into court for practicing without a license, he still refused to get one because he refused to grant authority to the medical institutions of Louis-Philippe’s France. Norma Weiner, his biographer, points out that he became extremely wealthy by writing and printing one the Manuel annuaire de la sante. It was translated into Spanish, English, German and Italian and sold at an astonishing clip, becoming one of the century’s best sellers. (Weiner, 1959: 156) Becoming independently wealthy, he could indulge in his penchant for radical politics. Madame Agoult, who must have known him, pens a good portrait of him in her history of the 1848 revolution:

“Although his doctrines, strongly bound up in a system of pantheistic philosophy, tended to a radical communism and he considered the right of property as an illusion of amour-propre, he lifted his voice on all occasions against the thought of an immediate and violent reform: he fought against the agrarian law, that he called a chimera of restitution, an absurd idea. “Those who dream of social reform by suddenly upsetting property,” he said, “would not only be guilty; they would be insane; they would be savages who take revenge on their enemies by burning their own harvests, and who crown with their own death the success of a stupid vengeance. The equality of rights is an immoveable law, the equality of goods will not last for more than two hours.”

What he had of absolute in the expression of even his more wise ideas, his shadowy character, his austerity isolated Raspail from parties and factions. He excercized a personal ascendancy over the population of the quarters. His medical knowledge put him in the position of effectively helping, at every time of day, the injuries and sufferings that the rhetoricians of the clubs contented themselves with painting and that the ambitious were trying to exploit; but it was a moral isolated action, secretly envied and wrong footed by the chiefs of the party, and which never took the initiative in the revolutionary movement. One… never saw M. Raspail accompanied but by obscure soldiers of democracy.” The radicals of the government, MM. Ledru-Rollin and Louis Blanc, judged him dangerous. M. Caussidiere, to whom he went on the day he was installed to see the registers of the police and find out the names of those who had betrayed him in the secret societies, refused him. A few days afterwards, M. Raspail’s paper, L’ami du people, was taken out of the hands of its paper boys and torn up by a troupe of students to whom they had made Raspail’s name suspect. The rumor floated, nobody knew how, that Raspail preached the extermination of the rich, like Marat.” (V.2, 9-10 – my translation)

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