Archive for February, 2011

When a tree falls.

A recent discussion at Philoctetes center on the Nature of Reality featuring an expert panel of physicists, biologists and, for some reason, Deepak Chopra as moderator (http://philoctetes.org/Past_Programs/The_Nature_of_Reality , accessed on Feb. 27. 2011), included a discussion of the old question, whether a falling tree in a forest with no human being around does make a sound. Stuart Firestine reiterated the certainly ingenious answer that, of course it does, since that is, from the evolutionary point of view, the reason why humans or animals have developed ears.

While the implied causalities of the biological development, the dynamic, evolutionary process-interaction between organism-types and environments can certainly be described that way, I would also disagree. Because for a sound to “be a sound” and the notion of “I hear”, concepts are necessary. So yes, there may be an environment of chlorophyll-based organisms, to which we humans would apply the concept “forest” and we might individuate certain objects in that environment as “trees”, and one that ceases its proceedings that we humans would consider “life” and the force we think of as “gravity” pulls it in the direction humans call “down” might, upon what we humans conceptualize as “impact”, force into movement the interconnected molecules of what we call “air”. Yet only if this movement hits an ear-drum of a creature that has the cognitive-capabilities to conceptualize that something is “a sound” is it also “a sound”. That doesn’t mean that it is otherwise nothing. But for a nearby tree it has the effect of a breeze, but the tree might not call it a breeze since it has no concept of that, but it could still affect the tree’s mood (some researchers suggest that plants can have moods of some kind, e.g. they can supposedly distinguish when a person enters the room that has cut off parts of it from a person that waters them.) For a nearby stone that is thrown about by the falling tree, it may not be really “important”, even though it may now lie in a position where there is more sun which may lead to faster destruction of the stone’s integrity…or not.


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American interference in the affairs of other nations have been subject of harsh criticism for decades. Even liberal American papers have bemoaned the “dark side” of American foreign politics. It’s odd that the same people now criticize the Obama administration for keeping out of the internal affairs of Egypt and letting the will of the people play out. A sign that your society has arrived at the Age of Absolute Polemics is that whatever you do, you get bashed and trashed for it by everyone: There is just nothing you can do that is right.
This doesn’t mean that I approve of the Obama administration’s choices in this matter. All I want to say is that the press and its public should take a step back and think about how we want to lead this and future discourses: polemically or productively. Not that I put much hope in the latter becoming fact; but then again, one can hope against hope.

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In a recent contribution in DIE ZEIT, a high-ranking bureaucrat in Germany’s Research&Education administration demanded that Germany needs its own Oxford and, thus, must continue on its way of having Elite universities (http://www.zeit.de/2011/07/C-Bundesfoerderung). Considering that  Germany’s higher Education isnt’ even getting its basics right, I think it is preposterous to claim that they can have universities that can compete at an international level.

What is the German situation like? Well, it’s like a bunch of kindergarten teachers arguing whether they should cut the funds for a Play-Do or fingerpaint (which they buy second-hand to begin with), while crying that they desperately need their own Michelangelo, and, at the same time, declaring that anybody who even mentions that we should have classes in anatomic drawing is not realistic and must be silenced if possible.

My advise: Get university right before you talk about “elite university”.

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A heterotopology of the body in America.

(The Body in the Archive.)

Dummy speech draft written as a preparation for a project presentation the FAU, American Studies Research Colloquium. Erlangen, Germany, Jan. 21st, 2011. [will do some editing and proof-reading soon.]


  1. Introduction “Tour de Force”

A Holistic Detective

Understanding the Experiences of People

  1. Reasons

    a. Interest in History of Medical Concepts, Body and Virtualization

    b. Hole in the Literature

3. Method: On Heterotopology

4. The Project Outline




I am humbled, of course, that you all stayed on until this final presentation, while we all are certainly fatigued and a bit sore from sitting not so comfortably all day in these somewhat uncomfortable chairs that we are allowed by whoever decides on how much money gets spend on such things at German universities, right?

I am certainly humbled to have to follow such great presentations and we have seen so many clear and well-disciplined projects today that you will experience my work in contrast to very interdisciplinary, wild and heterotopic. Moreover, I am afraid I will have to rush you through some wide and open landscapes, somewhat of a tour de force to help you get at least a glimpse of the vast material that I have become embedded in, in order to dedicate the next 3 or so years of my life to this research.

And if there’s something in it for you, since I hope to have your constructive criticisms and comments afterwards, then that is maybe a bit of a spark for your scientific, sociological, or cultural imagination.


    1. Introduction “Tour de Force”

So let us imagine, then:

Imagine a murder trial in 1898, covered by local Boston newspapers..

A man is convicted on the basis of money that exchanged hands prior to the actual crime. Circumstantial evidence, we would call it today; and assume that on those grounds, it would be dismissed, for it may have no relevance as actual proof. But imagine, in 1898, a judge is actually convicting a man in Massachusetts, let us call the man Alfred Williams, because he, Willams, was found in possession of said money, that another claims he gave six months prior to yet another man, let us call him John Gallo, who was murdered.

Circumstantial evidence, no?

The kind of evidence where it is required that we make an inference, in other words, bring or move into a different perspective, the evidence we have, where we truly “make” the facts.

Indeed, none other than the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. would praise the ruling judge in this not so fictional trial for allowing circumstantial evidence. The same Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who went on to serve as associate justice of the Supreme Court, and whose father, OWH,Sr. was a prominent physician who helped shape the public culture of New England during the 19th century. His son, the judge, would also say that the constitution of the United States is “an experiment, as all life is an experiment”.


When I first read about the context of Holmes’s comments on the Commonwealth v. Williams 1898, I was astounded, surprised, even excited. It is my hope that, after today’s presentation, you may, indeed, share my excitement and fuel it with ideas, comments, and constructive criticism. Although I am sure, you will now want to ask me, what all of this has to do with the Body in the Archive, and if I mean to (re)solve a crime committed and tried more than century ago.

Of course, this is not what I want to do, but I want to understand the crime, or, rather, I want to understand what epistemic culture enabled Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s two expressions, one about the composition of a “body of evidence” and one about a “body politic”. In this endeavor, I will have to work like a holistic detective, a paradigm that suggests that to understand a crime truly and to its fullest extend, one must understand the society and the culture that gave birth to it.

In other words, methodologically, I seek to understand what makes experiences possible and what experiences are possible to make. And, of course, my actual topic, the actual experiences I am looking at are experiences that are accompanied by expressions of the sort: “This is my body” or “This body of yours”.

But when I was reading about the context of Commonwealth v. Williams 1898 in my preliminary research, I could easily identify that the same conceptual histories applied that also emerged in the biomedical community and the sensationalist public culture of the United States when the first successful anesthetic procedure, conducted at Boston’s MGH, made the headlines in 1846.

    2. Reasons


With this assortment of references to law, politics, public culture, medicine, you might be inclined to say that it is a rather large space that I have just opened up, or, rather, it seems like a great many spaces. Whether we want to call these really spaces, or prefer to call them fields, topics, spheres or discourses, what you need to understand is that it is where these spaces intersect1

(and, thus, becoming subject to the method of heterotopology

[see below 3.])

in the 19th century, a novel conceptualization of the human body emerges; a concept that generates the body as specific kind of epistemic object2 that is constituted by constructive and constraining forces of a system of knowledge production, which we can qualify as an epistemic culture, that, despite its being set in the 19th century, has all the markings of the global epistemic culture of knowledge and information society that we consider the contemporary Zeitgeist and, thus, to be endemic and exclusive to our age – the age of digitality (of its discontents in the digital divide3) and of biological citizenship4. It is this aspect or, call it a suspicion, if you like, that fuels my passion for this research: Namely, the slightly provocative and very (Bruno Latourian) claim that our age is not the product of the advances in science and media technology of the past 60 years, that, instead these advances and innovations required an epistemic culture that was ready to embrace and embed them, thus a culture that was constituted by historic apriori5, including a conceptualization of the human body as a very specific epistemic object, ready to be included into the settings of experimental systems that produce our medical, yes, our increasingly medicalized6 truths..


What I set out to do through the remainder this speech, before outlining the actual project, which you are beginning to glimpse behind what may seem as jargon that I am throwing around – although these are necessary technical terms or intellectual tools required to open up and disentangle the discourses that have long since grown into shadow; so, what I will do now, is (a.) to try and explain why I am interested in this question, and why I think it is important for us to unravel it, (b.) why I think this could be an interesting question, in general, and for an audience and research community interested in American Studies. I will then go on to say a few things about the methodological approach, which is informed by Critical Realism and by the Foucauldian idea of the heterotopological investigation. And, finally, I will say a bit about the more project and how I want to go about it.


    a. Interest in History of Medical Concepts, Body and Virtualization


Next to health and illness, and, of course, life itself, the body is conceptually key to the discourse of biomedical practice and research. Respectively, the following set of questions “what is the body?”, “What does it mean to have a body?” and, “what does it mean that somebody can even say s/he has a body?”, this set of questions now aims to illustrate that the body is not just a given but is in some regard relative to certain biological, social, and cultural prerequisites. In other words, “the body” treated by Galen was different from “the body” treated by Paracelsus, or Elisha Bartlett, Sanjay Gupta or your own (German) family physician. The questions that I am interested in are “Why?” and “How come?”, specifically as this fact is pertaining to the latter three people – Bartlett, Gupta and the doc you go to see when your lower back hurts. Plus, I argue that the most important epistemological developments separating the epistemic culture of today’s health care practitioners from that of nineteenth century health practitioners and researchers (such as Elisha Bartlett, William James or Reginald Fitz to name the transnationally most influential two: R.H. Lotze and R.Virchow) did not occur in the twentieth century.

The (medical) epistemic culture of today rests on historic aprioris or social prerequisites that emerged in the nineteenth century, which made it possible that the technological and structural advances and transformations that we consider wholly modern were socially acceptable. The mid-twentieth century digital revolution in technology, inclusive of medical technologies, would not have occurred if it hadn’t beforehand7 been “made acceptable”, “intelligible” and “connectable” by nineteenth century scholarship and public discourse.

Today’s post- and trans-humanist movements, who project our future bodies and minds to be augmented and en lieu with artificial intelligences, are nothing new nor are they even radical. And our ready acceptance of “how we became posthuman” – to cite N.Kathryn Hayles 1999 classic study – , lies not so much in the promises of 20th century science fiction authors or the cybernetic systems theorists, but in conceptual frameworks and metaphors that first raised their head in the 19th century.

Evidently, this involves medical practice itself but also social politics and public culture (ill-defined as the latter may be as a concept, for now).

When early in the 20th century American sociologists of medicine, Talcott Parsons in particular, declared the key to understanding medicine and health care lay in the so-called sick-role, late 20th and early 21st century authors suggest that – in the spirit of biopolitics and gouvernmentality – we have to accept the demise of this “sick role” and accept a “totally novel idea” into our social criticisms: the problem of the managed case. The managed case, however, is anything but new. Quite the contrary, as early as 1847 it can be found in text-books for medical practitioners in training, and the descriptions sound decidedly modern. And most important for us now: what is processed and managed in “a case” other than a human body?

I must, of course gloss over many details that would require and deserve mentioning, and, I am afraid, some aspects may seem to you excruciatingly dark and obscure, some of the connections ill-defined and fragile. Nonetheless, I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt that I have seriously thought this through and stomached a good portion of relevant literature from a variety of fields.

Respectively, what I now must ask you to believe me, as an act of charity, if nothing else, a series of statements that I have come to accept as quite accurate boundaries, which I describe in a series of papers and articles that are either published, forthcoming, or, submitted and still under review:

  1. Theoretical Statements


  1. There is a transformation process that inherently describes the development of our contemporary global epistemic culture as a digital information society.

  1. This process can be understood through the concept Virtualization8

  2. Virtualization consists of two diametrically opposite yet strangely complementary processes: Hyperuniversalization9 and Hyperdifferentiation10.

  3. Differentiating the social and the cultural as distinct yet interloping and interdependent environments we can sat this: These complementary process (social) rest on two phantasms11 (cultural psychology): The phantasm of total control and the phantasm of (interior) regionalization.


  1. Statements regarding contemporary medicine and society (in particular American Health Care)

  1. The (human) body of each patient subject and research subject is becoming increasingly digitalized fragmented, and virtual through hyperdifferentiation of medical technologies and hyperspecialization into ever more expert cultures.

  2. Therapeutic and Diagnostic Regimes that involve the human body become increasingly pathdependent through hyperuniversalizing case-management systems, patient careers and lifestyle trajectories.

  3. In other words: While each individual person seems to have “multiple bodies” now, at the same time, these bodies are increasingly subject to universal categories that constitute somatic norms and normalization disciplines.



  1. Hypothetical Statements in Cultural and Science History

    i. The phantasm of control and the phantasm of regionalization have their origin in the 19th century

    ii. Virtualization of the body is a product of 19th century American science and society

    iii. This can be identified in the American public’s construction of both the concept of the human body and the concept of the science of the body (aka the construction of the body as an epistemic object).

    iv. If this (III.iii.) is validated in my research, we can legitimately argue that the 19th century obtains the prerequisites of the same epistemic culture we think to be the product of the latter half of the 20th century.

    v. In conclusion:

    a. The virtualized body and the conceptual discontents of contemporary biomedicine and health care originate in the science and public culture of the (American) 19th century.

    b. The generally accepted notion that modern digital technology resulted in a social transformation beginning in the mid-20th century (the myth of the digital revolution) is misleading. Quite on the contrary, information technology would not have been acceptable in our society post-1950, if the social and cultural prerequisites had not existed and been widely disseminated as the result of longue duree processes.

    c. The concept, representations and practices of the human body are the best example of this fact, and, this is at the heart of my life’s research – past, present, and future – namely, how and why people think of bodies, organisms and life as something that is normal, healthy or acceptable, or not, and act accordingly towards themselves and others, in normalizing and disciplining practices.


    b. Hole in the Literature

Why do I think that the US in the latter half of the 19th century, precisely 1846 to 1898, are a good subject for this research?

Well, because there seems to be a hole in the literature, or rather, there seem to be two significant holes.

First of all, we have some interesting research about the history of the body concept and about pre-digital virtualization – even though not of the complexity I would desire, but close enough – for Continental Europe (mostly Germany and France). Next to the unavoidable Georges Canguilhem and his student Michel Foucault, the work of Timothy Lenoir, Robert J. Richards, Stefan Rieger or Philipp Sarasin are seminal.

We do not have the same depth of research for the US. Even a prominent character like Norbert Wiener who makes an appearance in the studies of Stefan Rieger or the cybernetic movement in its entirety as it pops up in N.Kathryn Hayles’ study, they all seem to emerge from an intellectual vacuum in the American discourse preceding them.

It’s as if all progress happened in continental Europe and if any occurred in the US, it was because somebody had learned it while travelling through Germany. This is not to say that the transnational exchange of knowledge and culture did not play an important role here. It certainly did. But are we really to believe that rarely anything of scientific importance (with regard to the concept of human body) happened in the US in the 19th century?

If we really hope to understand one day what the actual influence of European thought on American science and culture was, we need to understand what was truly of American origin. As for social politics and the public, Daniel T. Rodgers has begun this Herculean task with his book Atlantic Crossings, but there is next to nothing yet on biomedical science and the public that can compare.

The second hole in the literature is the following:

Is it not true, you might want to counter. You might intercede and say but there was and is a lot of literature about the construction of the human body in literature, art, and politics – even science – published the past three decades, mostly thanks to critical voices in race, ethnicity& gender studies? Of course, you may even go as far as to say that American scholars seem actually quite obsessed with the body.

But here is one problem: In all of these studies, the body is taken for granted. Nobody ever asks: How were nineteenth century Americans enabled to say “I have a body” or “This is your body”?

The American obsession with the body always begins with some political category or the other, be it race, gender, or else. Respectively, these studies are always already embedded in a discourse about justice and social integration, the political categories already reified and ontologized. The body that rises its head in each of these studies is always already constituted as either gendered, colored, or else. It is never a body before any of that categorizing. But the gendering of a body requires an apriori concept of the body, however crude, it needs to be marked as a body even before it it can be unmarked in the process of making it a subject to gender, race, or else .

As John Ernest in his latest book, Chaotic Justice: On Rethinking African American Literary History, illustrated (a book I was asked to review for the Southwest Journal of Culture) – drawing lessons from realist and complexity theories – we’d be smart to return to Michel Foucault’s most central of problematizations: Experience.

In the same way that Paul Starr does for modern health care and Ian Hacking for philosophy of science, Ernest urges students of (African-American) literature to understand that the reification of political categories does not help us understand the individual and real experiences of 19th century authors.

Experience precedes the categorizations, and the body is prime in these experiences. Before we can understand what the politicized body is – not to mention the body politic – , we must understand what “the body (conceptualized)” is. And that is what I suggest to do.

Call it essentialism if you must, but then you must call Parsons or Foucault essentialists, too, while both actually were critical realists (and yes on this I have published some).


3. Method: On Heterotopology


Some methodological concerns that I initially weighed in the creation of this project will have become clear by now, other things will emerge in the following sections…or won’t. I consider myself a critical realist, semantic holist and pragmatist, in the tradition of Kant, Lotze, James, Jaspers, and Foucault. I believe that, to paraphrase Lakoff and Johnson, the “metaphors we live by”, while residing in society, public and sub-culture are also an important and often neglected aspect of how science is practiced., and, at the same time, these metaphors have often a long history that we must uncover before we can understand how they shape our knowledge and our practices, in particular in reference to our bodies. And I strongly believe that both scientific and cultural development can only be properly understood genealogically.

Foucault’s Des espaces autres or Of other Spaces, is a rarely cited text that was unavailable for quite a long time. Written in 1967, Foucault allowed it to be published only a few months before his death in 1984 (despite rumors to the contrary, he, strategically smart, actually did allow its publication!).

It has recently received some attention, however, this attention is limited to architecture and the sociology of the (global) city, which has a proud tradition in social thought – originally, the civics movement, one of sociology’s British forefathers, was all about the evolution of physical geography and urban planning (via Patrick Geddes). This is connection certainly derived from the notion of “space” in Foucault’s text. However, the most common of human practices in Foucault’s understanding, speech, was exactly this: the opening of spaces, whereas non-conceptual practices allow for us to conceive of the outside, the outside of the boundary of a given space.

Heterotopology is therefore the method that allows us to try and figure out how spaces intersect and what is produced in these intersections. The products of these intersections can be understood to be heterotopia – when conceptualized they become assemblages to introduce Rabinow’s interesting conceptual tool. The human body is such a heterotopia that emerges in the intersection of spaces of biomedical science, of art and literature and popular culture in nineteenth century America.

A heterotopia also always represents a shift of perspective. That is exactly what occurs in 19th century New England, in science and in popular culture: a shift of perspective. Medico-juridical semiotics now does no longer look upon the surface of the body, it is now becoming interioralized and regionalized, while at the same time the outside of the body becomes sensationalized and subject of the control of appearance, in other words: of performance.

Foucault calls this shift heterotopia in his writings and this is not by accident or arbitrariness a clearly defined medical term that came into use in the late 19th century with Rudolf Virchow and Boston physician Reginald Fitz. In medicine, heterotopia describes the displacement of an organ or of tissue from its normal position. In art, the same shift is described as the parallax view – a form that Slavoj Zizek found to have moved from the philosophy of Kant to photography and to the literature of American Realism, embodied in the works of one Henry James, brother of the Harvard-trained physiologist, philosopher and experimental psychologist William James.

Therefore, heterotopology is the method of choice, for its own conceptual history is already deeply intertwined with the subject matter.


4. The Project

The time frame I am looking at is 1846 to 1898.

In 1846, William James is roughly four years old, and the Boston Herald has become the latest addition amongst the papers that feed the public with news and gossip, a singular event makes both headlines and revolutionizes the craft of surgery and of medical theory:

The first controlled and successful anesthesia was performed publically at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) by dcentist William Morton.

But the radical shift of perspective here was not a chemical substance or the mere idea of anesthesia itself, although it was with regard to this very moment that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. would coin the term anesthesia. The shift was that a) the mind need not experience the body’s pain, and b) a discourse on the defintion of life, death and consciousness ensued. For clincians physicians and experimenters alike, the body, and in particular its inside, now became accessible in an entirely different way, moreover, the interior of the body was now subject for interventions that weren’t possible before.

15 years later, during the Civil War (1861-65), military medicine would reap the profits. This was also the first major war that was to be documented in an entirely new medium: photography.

This new information technology reshaped not just journalism – which was itself a profession still wet behind its ears, and thus, not very professional yet – it also reshaped the art of scientific representation and with it the concept of objectivity and the meaning of art itself. Between anesthesia and photography, American Realism was born.

Painters such as Thomas Eakins, famous for his grand paintings capturing the greatest teachers of anatomy and physiology performing in their respective theaters, would in private shift the perspective on the intimacy of the body and its poses by way of photography. Many of Eakins “realist” peers, such as Sargent or Miller Bunker would earn a living by teaching anatomical drawing to students of both art and anatomy. William James and his students, like Edmund Burke Delabarre, the latter a teacher of generations of students psychophysics at Brown University, ruthlessly exploited their own bodies to experiment with drugs and their effects. And all of these men would relish in the vibrant aura of Isabelle Stewart Gardner, about whom they would soak up the gossip printed in the now emerging yellow press and who was one of Henry James’ most important supporters (think: Portrait of a Lady). Gossip, well, she would fuel it by meticulously staging and performing her appearances. When her husband died, she opened a museum in Boston in 1898 that today still houses one of the most important collections of American Realist art.

1898 is also the year of the Spanish American war. A war that was not the first covered by the press and its photographers, but the first that was covered professionally. A war that also brought about nationalism in the form of jingoism, and the debate about what it means to be American: Today we know it as the Melting Pot vs. Tapestry debate. Here cultural anthropology emerged, a field that seems (still) so inherently and uniquely American, yet the product of the inclusion of Franz Boas into the American discourse.

Between 1846 and 1898, the human body is born anew in a significant shift of perspective that I seek to uncover. Parallax and heterotopia are the forms or the style of this shift’s rationality.

The body’s transformation into a different kind of epistemic object occurs in the intersection of different spaces: Public, Literature, Art, Biomedical Practice and Research.

Therefore my source material will be heterogeneous and consist of works of art and photography, newspapers, laboratory reports, lecture notes, leaflets on health and hygiene, and such. First, I will identify some two dozen events that were publicly discussed and where the concept of the body plays a prominent role, beginning with the successful anesthesia experiment and ending with the Spanish American war, which set new standards in military medicine and in media coverage of a war – yes, it can be said that this was perhaps the first war that was driven by public opinion and propaganda.

For each event, I will create a mini-ethnography of sorts, explicating its relations in the spaces I investigate. Each event’s mini-ethnography will provide a mini-theory of the body as it emerges in the event as an epistemic concept – perhaps you see how much this approach owes to Foucault, Latour and to Mieke Bal and is, thus, the application of ANT and cultural analysis as a tool for historians. My second step will be to review the relation of these mini-ethnographies and mini-theories to a selection of artists scholars, and a historically first batch of celebrities, like Isabelle Stewart Gardner – a selection while limited still not eclectic insofar as some of these persons while influential in their time, did not achieve renown that had sustenance.

What I hope to gain is – and I try remain in the Foucauldian vocabulary – is an understanding of the transformation rules or heteronomies for the changes between the mini-theories that describe the body as an epistemic object from 1846 to 1898.

My hypothesis is that his process will reveal a shift in perspective guided by the two phantasms that I consider to be characteristic of virtualization.

I think I there is some justification, even necessity to pursue this hypothesis: Stefan Rieger, in one of his books about the media history of German anthropology, makes an important observation to the fact that regionalization became a prominent phantasm of later nineteenth century science that was turned towards the interior of body, a development that he attributes to William James and which he then leaves utterly unexplored and without reference to any literature – probably since there is little available to that effect. This is a gap I seek to close.


Conclusion: The story of a chair. Understanding where problems come from helps solving them


Let me conclude my presentation with two thoughts, one about history one about anthropology of the present:

As for my interest in cultural history and history of science:

Closing this gap I just mentioned, I want to find the prerequisites that enable somebody in 19th century America to make the statement “I have a body”, which I think is different from somebody who would have said the same sentence in 18th century Europe, for example.

I think this is a very interesting topic because of a sentence such as the quote by OWH,Jr. that states that the American constitution is an experiment just as life is an experiment.

If we hope to understand what enabled Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., son of the famous OWH, Sr. physician who was instrumental in reshaping New England’s culture of public discourse, what enabled the junior to make that statement, what enabled his audience to understand and, in some form or another, make sense of it and enact the consequences it contains, then we must understand the epistemic culture the statement was embedded in.

This epistemic culture that emerges between 1846 and 1898 rests on the prerequisites and transformation of a thoughtscape of global and epic proportions: Life as an experiment, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. calls it (in a John Stuart Mill resembling gesture of liberty), is an enunciation between two negative definitions of reason:

In 1784, Kant declared that the enemy of reason is our laziness and comfortability, respectively the task of enlightenment is contained in the famous motto: Sapere Aude!. In 1929, Harvard professor of philosophy Alfred North Whitehead would say: The anti-thesis of Reason is fatigue.

The latter is from his Functions of Reason, a lecture series written in order to, I quote, “promote the art of life”.

To understand the transition in modern intellectual history from Sapere Aude! to fatigue being Reason’s anti-thesis, we need to elucidate the ruptures and the continuities in the history of science, society and culture from 1846 to 1898 in New England, and the human body is the very heterotopia that ruptures yet continues.


Now, in connecting with the present, I also assume that those prerequisites obtain for contemporary people to be able to say: “I have a normal body” or “I have a healthy body”.

This, of course, relates to my Foucauldian conviction, that I share with the likes of Paul Rabinow, that intervention today requires historical insight.

To illustrate what I mean with a very practical example of anthropology of the present applied, let me spend a moment talking about this uncomfortable chair that I am sitting in.

Chairs are objects designed to hold a body in a certain position. Chairs, in particular those that are mass-produced, are often designed to be cost-effective and without real human bodies in mind, otherwise they would not be this uncomfortable on the one hand, and, according to medical sociologist Peter Wilkin, they would not be responsible for the increase in Lower Back Pain, which is becoming not just a health but also an economical hazard, destroying for example levels of productivty measuring up to an estimated 1.6 percent of Britain’s annual GDP (gross domestic product). The misappropriation between chair and body, Wilins shows, is a consequence of the culture of industrialization of the late 19th century. Let me emphasize, in the late 19th and early 20th century, industrial and human relations, scientific management and fatigue research were all the rave amongst researchers and the interested public in the United States.

And as ridiculous as this may sound, at first, the fact that at this very moment my back aches horribly may just have more to do with William James and Isabelle Stewart Gardner than it has with the misguided, even ludicrous, funding practices in higher education in this country.

Then again, perhaps all of this is just circumstantial evidence in accusing this chair for the murder of my back, which for all the pain makes me bow slightly and look rather humbled.


Thank you for you kind attention, the floor is open for questions and comments.


I think we should collect two or three at a time, best if that after the first comment, those who have a comment in a similar direction go next so we have some clusters.


1Intersectionality: Recent theoretical trend in sociology of gender

2Epistemic object: Concept by H.J. Rheinberger. Objects that attract epistemic curiosity, usually in experimentals settings, such as viruses.

3Digital Divide: Term attributed to Al Gore. The rift of social justice and equality is widened by access and competence in digital information and communication technology (ICT)

4Bio-Citizenship: The conditions and requisitions of citizenship become derived from biomedical variables.

5Historic apriori: See Foucault’s The Order of Things

6Medicalization: Social issues are redefined in medical categories, and medical categorization produces new social problems (See Foucaut, Peter Conrad, also Ivan Illich)

7Call it: Beforehandiness – Vorbegreifbarkeit. cf. Assemblage as Vorbegrifflichkeit?

8Virtualization: Information and Information Order: The actually real and the epistemic objects do not correspond anymore.(Information Order Problem: see C.Bayly, S.Schaffer) Virtualization is the result of nthe combiantion of Hyperedifferentiation and Hyperuniversalization

9Hyperuniversalization: Individual Cases are irregulalry summarized under a single category and become reified (see also Paul Starr)

10Hyperdifferentiation/-specialization: The increase of specialization of differentiation within a field or discipline has reached inflationary levels (see also: Donald Levine)

11Phantasm: see: Ernst E. Boesch instead of Deleuze, Lacan or Zizek

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