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Friday, October 29, 2010

sun, king, and heart: circulation of the blood 2

Part two

William Harvey was acquainted with Francis Bacon – of course. Harvey was, after all, a physician at James I’s court. He remarked to John Aubrey that Bacon “wrote philosophy like a Lord Chancellor.” This remark has been taken to mean that Bacon was, in Harvey’s eyes, no philosopher. And yet, it is not simply a disparagement – a meaningless quip. For what does it mean to write philosophy like a Lord Chancellor? Could it mean that Bacon’s administrative rationality – or his sense of stratagems – prevented him from understanding nature (which is presumably what Harvey is getting at – as Harvey was not interested in larger metaphysical issues)? And yet, were not Harvey and Bacon part of the same ‘team’, the team that turned upon a culture of reading – in which the sacred book emblematized the value of books – in favor of seeing, using instruments, measuring?

Harvey, as Walter Pagel has pointed out, did not derive his conclusions about blood circulating in a the closed system from experiment – that is, he did not ‘discover’ the circulation of the blood, in the sense that ‘discovery’ is an event that is not predetermined but thrust upon the observer by the facts as they are. “On such a view,” Pagel writes, “discovery should normally be the result of a sum total of observations and suitably designed experiments, and such a process should be discernible in Harvey’s own account of his discovery as the immediate conclusion from observations and experiments – as Willis’ ‘standard’ translation has it: ‘When I surveyed my mass of evidence.’” However – Pagels points out – Willis’ nineteenth century translation slips into Havey’s text a sentence – that sentence – which does not exist in the text. So much did Willis desire to believe in a certain image of Harvey, the experimentalist, that he overwrites what Harvey wrote, which was that “I often and seriously considered with myself what great abundance there was (sc. of blood)”. (3)

Pagel emphasizes that Willis’ Harvey, who operates like a Newtonian scientist, is not the Harvey who presents himself as a Cartesian scientist – whose idea that the blood circulates was due to a meditation, which depended, in turn, on a confidence that nature never acted without purpose. From that meditation, Harvey moved to create evidence – “to become science it required the chain of brilliantly conceived and executed experiments and observations…”

In this nuanced shuffle between scientific models, where is the Baconian?

It is here that Christopher Hill’s essay on Harvey intervenes. In 1966, Hill, who was writing his book on the English Revolution, pointed out that Harvey’s first book on the circulation of the blood was prefaced with an address to the King. This address combined two analogies: one to the absolute place of the monarch in the body politics, and one to Copernicus’ discovery of the heliocentric system.

"The heart of creatures is the foundation of life, the prime of all, the sun of their microcosm, on which all vegetation does depend, from whence all vigour and strength does flow. Likewise the King is the foundation of his kingdoms, and the sun of his microcosm, the heart of his commonwealth, from whence all power and mercy proceeds"

And, just so that we don’t think that this is a matter of dedications alone, see how Harvey defends the claim that his dissection of animals has import on the constitution of the human body:

“Since the intimate connexion of the heart with the lungs, which is apparent in the human subject, has been the probable cause of the errors that have been committed on this point, they plainly do amiss who, pretending to speak of the parts of animals generally, as anatomists for the most part do, confine their researches to the human body alone, and that when it is dead. They obviously do not act otherwise than he who, having studied the forms of a single commonwealth, should set about the composition of a general system of polity; or who, having taken cognizance of the nature of a single field, should imagine that he had mastered the science of agriculture; or who, upon the ground of one particular proposition, should proceed to draw general conclusions.”

One notices, in passing, that the connection of the animal to the human is purely physical, not a fact indicating a common interiority – to push Descola’s thesis. But the absolute distinction between nature and culture was in the making – and what one notices, as well, is the tendency of the natural philosophers to push a new sense of universality. What Harvey writes here about the homology between the animal and the human body participates in the same logic that makes Newton put the domain of physics on a unified footing, dissolving the line between the sublunar and the celestial.

This is done, by Harvey, with reference, as well, to political terms – to the Lord Chancellor’s rhetoric. And, as Hill notices, this reference to the commonwealth is also entangled with the analogy to the sun. In the crucial chapter in which Harvey announces that blood flows in a circle in the body, he writes:

“The heart, consequently, is the beginning of life; the sun of the microcosm, even as the sun in his turn might well be designated the heart of the world; for it is the heart by whose virtue and pulse the blood is moved, perfected, and made nutrient, and is preserved from corruption and coagulation; it is the household divinity which, discharging its function, nourishes, cherishes, quickens the whole body, and is indeed the foundation of life, the source of all action. But of these things we shall speak more opportunely when we come to speculate upon the final cause of this motion of the heart.”

These analogies may, of course, simply be the lateral poetry that opens the scientific imagination. And yet, Hill is right to point out the background noise, here – the ceaseless cataract of history. For Harvey’s claim that the heart is central, like a sun, or a monarch, changes when he comes to write his treatise on the circulation of the blood of 1649, and on the generation of animals of 1651 – changes in accord with the beheading of King Charles. Whether or not these changes are evidence of Harvey’s republicanism – Hill’s claim – they are changes in the analogy holding between the human body, the monarch, and the solar system. Even as the human is bound to the animal kingdom, kingdoms and cosmological centers seem to fall out of the realm of essences. Or out of the realm of those analogies that give us a clue about the circulation of the blood and the function of the heart.

“In I649, moreover, Harvey went out of his way to repudiate the astronomical analogy which he had used in I628. "The knowledge we have of the heavenly bodies" is "uncertain and conjectural"; its example "is not here to be followed".'1 An astronomical allusion in the De Generationec onfirms this point, since Harvey no longer draws a parallel between the heart and the sun but between the blood and "the superior orbs, (but especially the sun and moon)", which "do by their continual motions quicken and preserve the inferior world".12 (That inveterate obscurantist, Alexander Ross, was quick to spot the dangers of Harvey's new position. In a book published in I65I, which also attacked Bacon and Comenius, he particularly insisted on the sovereignty, the prerogative, of the heart, and on the hierarchical order in the human body: the testicles are "ignobler than the heart and brain".)”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dethroning the heart: 1

“He did delight to be in the darke, and told me he could then best contemplate.” (John Aubrey, Life of William Harvey)

Barthes, in his Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes wrote that of the tropes, the one that most aroused his suspicion was analogy: “Saussure’s bete noire was the arbitrary (of the sign). His is analogy. The analogical arts (cinema, photography), analogical methods (academic critique, for example) are discredited. Why? Because analogy implies an effort of Nature: it constitutes the natural as the source of truth; and what adds to the cursed state of analogy is that it is irrepressible: as soon as we see a form, it is necessary that it resembles something. Humanity seems condemned to the analogy.

Outside of these transgressions, the beneficial opposite to the perfidy of Analogy is simple structural correspondance: homology, which reduces the appeal to the first object to a proportional allusion (etymologically, that is to say, in the happier times of language, analogy meant proportion).
(The bull sees red when its lure strikes it on the muzzle: the two reds coincide, that of anger and that of the cape: the bull is in full analogy, this is to say is fully in the imaginary. When I resist analogy, it is in fact to the imaginary that I put up my resistance: to wit, the coalescence of the sign, the similitude of the signifier to the signified, the homeomorphism of images, the mirror, the captivating lures. All scientific explanations that have recourse to analogy – and they are legion – participate in the lure, they form the imaginary of science). “

If we take Barthes at his word, it is not only humanity that is condemned to analogy, but especially the human sciences. The escape through homology – the escape through mathematics – is affected, in the human sciences, under the sign of analogy – analogy to the positive sciences.

But the positive sciences are not, themselves, as free of lures as all that. So it is with the history of the discovery of the circulation of the blood. When I talk about my Human Limit project with A., I often say that I do not want to write a talking heads history – and the way to break through that sort of history (and inhabit, a la Nietzsche, all the names of history) is to understand the interactions of images and analogies that circulate, themselves, in the socius. And one must even understand the dominance of homologies, that ultimate iconoclasm – that is, the construction of a mind set that sees the world in terms of placeholders, in which substitution is always the rule and the goal.

“He was wont to say that man was but a great mischievous baboon.”

One of the symbols of breaking out of the prison of analogy is a reference to the analogy between the reading of a book and the reading of the ‘fabric of nature’. Reading the book of nature relies on our sense of reading – an activity that, after the development of the printing press, multiplied both in the number of its practitioners and the number of the things they could read. The scientists of the early modern era – the natural philosophers, the virtuosos – were both products of this reading culture and in revolt against it. The revolt took the form of a mutation in the way in which one argued for a ‘fact’. Harvey is famous for having rejected reading – the works of Galen and even Aristotle, among others – for dissection. There is an anecdote that he dissected an animal in a class led by one of his opponents, Caspar Hoffman, to demonstrate the circulation of the blood. He literally showed how the heart works, to the satisfaction of all present – but Hoffman was unconvinced. Harvey laid down his dissecting knife in disgust. Galileo experienced a similar resistance – the resistance of the reading eye to the seeing eye – when astronomers refused to look through his telescope. In a letter to Kepler, he wrote: “what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? Shall we laugh or shall we cry?” The eye that reads, the eye that sees, the eye that cries. It seems like a paradox that the culture of reading leads to a rejection of reading as a method for understanding nature. Reading, it seems, liberates the eye to look up – and to see, or weep.

Which brings us to Christopher Hill’s political reading of William Harvey.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Descola on Nature and culture

When Nicolas Coeffeteau, in the Tableau of the Human Passions (1631), wants to demonstrate that all creatures are endowed naturally with what we would call the fight or flight response, he uses an example that sets him immediately outside of our modernity:

“For we see, with other corruptible creatures, that they have not only an inclination and a power to search out things that are agreeable to them, and to flee those which can do them harm; but in addition to this they have another for resisting and combating that which gets in the way of their actions, or destroys their being. As, for example, first is not only endowed with lightness for lifting itself higher, but it has similarly received from the nature heat, by means of which it resists and combats all that is contrary to its action.”

This comparison seems to violate a deep categorical borderline between the living and the non-living – as well as other borderlines that divide the living according to properties that we ascribe to humans and refuse to ascribe to non-humans.

In Beyond Nature and Culture (2005), Philippe Descola shows how the divide between nature and culture – the indispensable categories of modernity – does not, in fact, universally govern all cultures. In a rather beautiful passage, he contrasts the monistic, or animistic, view of the world and the modern occidental view, which he calls naturalism:

“In characterizing naturalism in previous work as the simple belief in the evidence of nature, I only followed a positive definition that goes back to the Greeks, according to which certain things owe their existence and development to a principle that is foreign to chance as much as it is to the will of human beings, a principle that our philosophical tradition has successively qualified by the terms phusis and natura, then by their different derivations in the European languages. This concept reduced to the attestation of a fact remained thus prisoner of a conceptual geneology internal to the occidental cosmology, losing by this fact the benefit of the usage of contrastive traits less fixed to the historical situation that a comparison with animism can furnish. Thus, in commenting on my up to that point incomplete comparison of naturalism and animism, Viveiros de Castro was right to underline that the fundamental opposition between these two modes of identification reposed essentially on a symmetric inversion: animism is multinaturalist, according to him, since it is founded on the corporal heterogeneity of classes of existents that are nevertheless endowed with a identical spirit and culture, while naturalism is multi-cultural in that it backs up the postulate of the unicity of nature with the recognition of the diversity of manifestations of individual and collective subjectivity. One might discuss the term multinaturalism in such a context, the multiple natures of animism not possessing the same attributes as the unified nature of naturalism: the former evokes, rather, the ancient Aristotelian sense of a principle of individualization of beings, while the second, in its singular aspect, makes direct reference to the mute and impersonal ontological domain of which the contours were traced definitively with the mechanistic revolution. …”

To put Descola’s point simply: the naturalist ontology can admit a diversity of subjective types, on the human side, which coexists with a physical continuum of forms of life. Since Darwin, biology has even postulated that we humans are fully part of this physical continuum, and the smallest molecular actions can, in a sense, ‘move’ us. Still, scientists are reluctant to make the leap to saying that science consists of molecules talking and writing about molecules – they tend to get realistic about math, for instance. They retain subjectivity even when reducing it. What naturalism doesn’t admit is a subjective continuum that would treat fire as having an interiority that is different in degree, but not kind, from the human. On the other hand, for the animist ontology, the discontinuity of physical forms – the fire, rock, plant, animal, human – is inhabited by a continuum of interiorities – ‘souls.’ It might even be inhabited by a soul that moves out of one physical form into another – shapeshifters.

This story is, of course, as Descola acknowledges, a little too neat. The material in Descola’s book itself points to the neatness. On the one side, animism is represented by entire cultures – what, for instance, the Achubar, the Amazonian tribe with whom he did his fieldwork, believes – and on the Occidental side, we run into names – Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Darwin, etc. It is as if intellectual history has predetermined the names it will run through, the rosary, in spite of the massive evidence presented not only by the numerous books left to us by lesser figures, but by things like the historical work using such things as the archives of the Inquisition, or of the Paris police, etc., which often give us glimpses of folk beliefs that are systematized and very different from what we would expect from the history of the talking heads. We speak of Montaigne or Spinoza – and we don’t speak of, for instance, Menocchio, the Italian miller whose trial for heresy was dug up by Carlo Ginzburg in The Cheese and the Worms. Or of the peasant healer Gasparutto in Friuli, who testified, in 1575, that there existed a group, the benandanti, who,during the night, use fennel stalks to battle evil doers, who use sorghum stalks, and that the benandanti got together by, for instance, traveling in spirit astride hares, cats, and so on – a group Ginzburg studied in The Night Battles. Menocchio and Gasparutto left only testimonies, transcribed by inquisitors – but they both were of the type that Gramsci called the organic intellectual. That is, they had a bent towards understanding the world in terms of some system or another. And we must constantly remember that ‘high culture’ is entirely permeable, as a practice, to ‘low culture’ – its assumptions and images are often imported into from low culture. The equilibrium of which the economists are so proud is one of these imports – it governs as a myth, but a modern myth – one that emits an array of models.