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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Singing the body electric

How does animal stimulus and mechanical motion hook up? The exploration of this question formed a good deal of the research program of nineteenth century psychology. The mediating element was electricity,  which operated as a discursive image more than as a physical object up until the neurological advances of the early twentieth century.
In a sense, what happened in the early Enlightenment was a kind of coincidence of programs in the sciences. As electricity and the physics of shock, or collision, became clearer, so, too, did at least one element in physiology: there were no animal spirits. The entire two thousand year old structure of humors and animal spirits collapsed in the 18th century, a Götterdämmerung not unlike the end of paganism – or, perhaps, a codicil to the end of paganism. The wood and river spirits that were exorcised by Christianity were followed by the spirits of the liver, the heart, and the lungs exorcised by physiology. The interior forest was vacated. Now, these spirits had done the work of explaining feeling not only for the learned, but for the peasant and the townsman as well. The history of this moment is an oddly foreshortened thing. It isn’t only a minor episode in the history of physiology and psychology. It is a history in the emotional customs of the West. The twilight of the animal spirits created a hole in the way people described, or thought about, feeling.

That such holes can happen is a controversial topic in the anthropology of emotions. Robert Levy, who did his fieldwork in Tahiti, wrote a series of essays and a book about Tahitian emotional customs that introduced the idea of hypocognition: “I have suggested that some sets of feelings are relatively "hypercognized," controlled, so to speak, by discrimination, whereas others are "hypercognized" and controlled by cultural invisibility or at least by difficulty of access to communication.” This rather confusing use hypercognized to indicate two forms of control is clarified by calling the latter hypocognition – that is, a non-alignment between the discursive resources of a culture and the raw feeling that individuals in the culture encounter in their circumstances – encounter as reactions, so to speak, to stimulus. In the case of Tahitians, Levy, famously, thought that sadness was underconceptualized in the Tahitian schema of feelings. Sadness was rather taken as a marker of illness. Interestingly, that Tahitian conception is increasingly paralleled with the contemporary, post-Prozac idea, among Americans, that sadness is always a form of ‘depression’. The emergence of ‘depression’ as a widespread synonym for sadness in the American emotional vocabulary seems to indicate some deeper change in the emotional conceptual schema. And it is especially noteworthy for indicating the porousness between ‘educated’ or ‘scientific’ feeling terms and concepts and folk psychology.

Levy’s work is often taken up in the battle between those who maintain that emotions are universal and those who maintain that they are cultural. However, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that emotions are cultural – rather, it indicates that raw feelings are represented in the emotional customs of a culture in ways that differ among cultures, and that can also change within a culture. Its salience as to the feelings themselves derives from the notion that knowing a feeling is a crucial part of the experience of feeling. It is crucial to the person who ‘has’ the feeling, and it operates, as well, on the feeling,  in as much as it can change the laters relations to other feelings the person has, or the person’s longer term judgments about his or her life.

The importance of mediating images and theories of feeling within a society is, then, obvious. To understand how electricity was first discovered, and understood, in physiological and psychological terms, we have to understand the hypocognitive moment of the early modern era. To do that would require an enormous data set of all references, in whatever genre (from doctor’s report to trial transcript to poem to letter) in which feelings are referenced. And one would also expect to find the co-existence of different schemas of emotional sense-making –  humoral psychology did not collapse evenly and among all social levels, but was retained and used and comes up again and again in ordinary folk psychology and (increasingly) dissident, or alternative (or crackpot) medicine.

Surrounded as I am by the universal artificial paradise, the isle of Synthetica, with a lifestyle founded on zero and one, plug and play, voltage and plastic, I have to make a truly stoic effort to wipe away the impressions of my environment in order to reach back to the moment –the genealogical instance – in which shock, electricity and animal magnetism came into play in Europe and America – in which, for certain groups, these became concepts-in-practice. It is against this background that one can go forward and ask questions about shock.

I sing the body electric – but is this Franklin’s electricity, or Mesmer’s magnetic fluid, generated in the nerves? Has it come from the laboratory, the theater, or the old woman who runs a surreptitious business as the street’s healer, fortune teller and abortionist? 

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