Skip to main content


Showing posts from June 28, 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, w

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 tha

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, t

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 apprecia