Archive for the ‘History of Science, Medicine, and Ideas’ Category

Turncoats: Linguistic, Iconic, Medial

The metaphoric guideline of the latter half of the twentieth century social science and philosophy was the so-called linguistic turn. Toward the end of the 1990s, another major shift occurred, the iconic turn. The world is no longer text-in-word, as was the suggestion of the linguistic turn, that every information and cognition could be rendered and reduced to textual information, but the world is text-as-pictures (text, because the ‘(social) nature’ and agency of pictures is still construed to be textual, fictitious, signal) – it is important to note, however, that the methodological premises, with the boundary work we do, can be transformed to work with our insights. Sociology had begun to heed this intellectual shift towards accepting the mutual dynamics of the social construction of pictures and the pictorial construction of the social. In the widest sense, visual sociology involves the use of photography and film both as tools and/or subject matter for sociology.

In the linguistic turn, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein can be considered the founding event of the focus in the humanities and social sciences on language. There is a component to his rise to fame and influence, which demarcates a shift in institutional history of science: Before Wittgenstein, before the British logicians of the brand of Bertrand Russell or Jevons, and American thinkers such as John Dewey, the majority of influential scholars in Europe and the US were educated in an interdisciplinary range, involving not only studies in philosophy, psychology, and physiology, but also hands-on laboratory training, at times, traveling or exploration. Therefore the focus of this earlier generation of scholars inherently involved the body, its expressions and functions (including above all the relation of vision and cognition)and its relation to its environments. Whether in the works of the Germans Rudolf Hemann Lotze, Hermann Helmholtz or Wilhelm Wundt, the American Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson or the early Pragmatists such as William James or Edmund Burke Delabarre, their scholarship and their use of metaphors and analogies betrayed a strong debt to physiological studies, visual perception, and bodily movements.

With Wittgenstein and Russell et al, the focus shifted. And, eventually, in the mid-1960s American philosopher Richard Rorty edited a collection of landmark essays which focused on this transition. The title of this collection “The Linguistic Turn” (1967) coined the guideline for a program that would steer the humanities and social sciences for decades to come. In various aspects ( and unlike the critical realism/idealism of lab-savvy natural philosophers like Wolff, Kant, Schelling, Lotze, or James), this followed in the footsteps of a contemplative philosophy hermeneutics (of ficition), originally made fertile for philosophy in a long clerical tradition of exegesis of the bible by Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834), which became a new leading paradigm for the social sciences and philosophy with Martin Heidegger and his student Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose seminal “Truth and Method” became an interdisciplinary bestseller and guide for generations (see the discussion in Habermas EI und “EI after 30 years”). In France, this type of contempaltive hermeneutics was discussed and improved intensively by Paul Ricoeur and turned into an ethical movement with Emmanuel Levinas and then launched the method of Deconstruction with Levinas’ disciple Jacques Derrida.

Around the same time in France though, the Kant-inspired, critical realist works of historian Michel Foucault, philosophers Francois Laruelle and Gilles Deleuze, psychologist Felix Guattari, philologist Roland Barthes, and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu re-launched an interest into the body which culminated in the iconic turn in the 1990s, and which is now, finally, becoming re-evaluated, synthesized and moves ahead.

Of some interest is the role of the work of the so-called ‘founding father’ of American Pragmatism Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914). Textual Hermeneutics have initially claimed Peirce within the linguistic turn, in the most sophisticated version in the work of Karl-Otto Apel and Umberto Eco. However, Peirce’s work on semiotics can also be used to work in favor of the scholarship of the iconic turn. Semiotics is the study of signs. Peirce focused on the sign as a relation between three entities: The sign itself always represents. That is its function. The object can be considered to be the entity that is the subject matter represented by the sign and referred to by the interpretant which is the meaning of the sign, its truth-condition, so to speak. Peirce also considered different classifications of signs. The most famous distinguished between icon, index and symbol. The icon is a sign that has a quality of its own, while the index must have some real connection to its object, the symbol designates a rule that lies with the interpretant. This can be reconstructed as either a minimalist or a reductive account, leading to both branches of methodologies. As Peter Janich has argued, with regard to information theory, Shannon/Weaver display an undercurrent of Peirce, which was introduced through the adoption and appropriation of Peirce through Charles Morris.

This appropriation also leads to a more fertile off-shoot in close proximity to social phenomenology, which, however, profited from its founders’ discourse with the Kantian realist Talcott Parsons. The school of Ethnomethdology which was founded by Harold Garfinkel in 1967, is another derivate of phenomenological sociology. But other than Schuetz, the Harvard trained Garfinkel ought to bring Husserl, Schuetz and Parsons under one theoretical umbrella. He integrated the motivations of the actor into his thought, which is a prominent idea in Parsons, but not in Schuetz, since for Parsons these motivations are also influenced by the process of socialization. Analyzing tapes of jury procedures, Garfinkel speculated that jury members were using a methodology of their own, but that it was rooted in their individual common sense knowledge as specific to their society and thus also different from scientific knowledge.

Social facts, the object of sociological study, according to Durkheim, are yet not facts out there, as Durkheim suggested, but are more take-for-granted facts by the actors, which they use as means of interpreting situations and therefore reintroduce into the process. People each order their experiences in ways they think social reality is like.

Social Phenomenology has also experienced its “feminist critique” by Dorothy E. Smith (°1926). She conflated social phenomenology with critical conflict theory. She is interested in exploring how women construct and experience the world of the structures of male domination in their everyday experiences and how they react to these situation emotionally and cognitively. Se thereby hopes to “give women a voice” by giving them a sociology.

In 1995 John Searle, a famous philosopher concerned primarily with language published his seminal The Construction of Social Reality. This investigation followed on a career build on the investigation of speech acts, a theory postulate by John Austin in How to do things with words.

Austin’s insight rested on the fact that words can actually accomplish changes in reality. In a very simple aspect, a priest’s phrase “I hereby pronounce you husband and wife”, invokes a whole set of changes in the actual world.

Following this theory and deconstructionist philosophy and psychology, literature critic Judith Butler has alerted us to the fact in her study Gender Trouble, that with a speech act as simple as “it’s a boy”, a series of events can be set in motion that constructs the psychological gender identity. In many ways, George Canguilhem in 1943 in The normal and the pathological illustrated the dependence of medical and scientific practice on the way think of truth. What we treat as normal and what as pathological is strictly depending on our social practice. For example, a person does not have cancer, if he o she is not told so. If he or she does not experience physical pain, she/he will feel normal, even if there may be a tumor existing or growing in the body for a long time. Not until the tumor is discovered – say in a routine check – does this person actually have cancer, until then the person and her body are considered to be normal and healthy by herself and her environment. The declaration of the cancer enables social scripts to be applied that completely change the reality of this persons life. He or she may even reinterpret the recent past fro the cancer perspective, completely reconstructing a past reality from the new social situation of herself as a cancer patient.

On the other hand, Searle also addresses the question of language and its effects. He explicitly deals with the concept of intentionality and the effects that speech acts have in the real world. His work preceding Intentionality (1983) established that from the point of view of the illocutionary act, the speech act that actually effects real changes, truth is rendered problematic. He begins to revise and update this position by pointing to the fact that for a speech act to become illocutionary valid, it implies certain conditions that need be satisfied for it to count. One condition that he then introduced to be a condition of satisfaction was for certain types of speech acts, they must actually be true. This is the case for a sentence like “Angie bought her dog Olivia a new toy”, which is satisfied only I it is true. An order like “Angie, buy your other dog Coco a toy, too” is only satisfied I she actually goes and does as told. The first example is called by Searle “word to world direction of fit”, the second example is called “world to word direction of fit”.

In Intentionality, he speaks of intentional states in a sense as if they accompany speech acts. Saying that Angie has a new toy entails a intentional state which encompasses a belief on the side of the actors psychology and the actual content of Angie having a new toy.

There is, Searle has argued, a so-called background of dispositions, tendencies, capacities and potentials, which are not part of the intentional states. For example if we are ordered to drive to the store, we know that have to use a car.

In The Construction of Social Reality, he introduces the distinction of collective and individual intentionality. Both are distinct, but the collective intentionality cannot be thought of as some kind of group think or collective consciousness. Group decisions still rest on individual intentions hat refer to the world, which for Searle is the question of how it can be that in a world of physical matter and forces, constructs like a car, money, a painting, e. can actually exist.

And while philosophers would point out many differences between Schuetz, Husserl and Searle from a more pragmatic point of view of applying their approaches to sociological analysis it must be said that the differences are not that substantial.

The future of social phenomenology seems to hinge on the fact that it has “sunk into” the academic mainstream. There are very few today who would deny that in part people “construct” what they think of as real. Practiced as a “strict” approach it has only very few followers left today. Symbolic Interactionism or Ethnomethodology would appear to be better equipped to do justice to the complexity of the Real, simply because they do not employ the reductionist baggage of contemplative hermeneutics, Shannon/Weaver signal fixation, Husserlian phenomenology, and the Schuetzean fictionalism. Although it should be noted that in neurocognition and neuro-philosophy, there is currently an intersting effort under way for a fertile Husserlian reconsideration, because some experimental results cannot be accounted for by the current concepts, but resonate with subjective philosophies, these interesting and actually fertile apropriations have been created by the equally studios and creative Evan Thompson and Dan Zahavi.

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I was just asked this question and here is my quick and ad hoc answer (I hope it is sort of satisfying and covers it correctly in the fashion I have been writing about at an earlier stage):
In between Hegel and Herbart, Lotze appropriated in his critical reception of the latter (and against Hegel) a notion of individualism (we might go as far as claiming it to mean: methdological individualism). One must understand that Lotze viewed Herbart as somebody who had considered himself, much like young Fichte, as a Kantian. Therefore Lotze would have attempted a fairly Kantian interpretation of Herbart (or what he could use of Herbart). Therefore, the fact that Herbart suggests that all our deliberations have to begin with empirical conceptions may have appealed to Lotze on those grounds. I would assume, however, that Lotze read Herbart more as a Kantian than Herbart himself would have allowed, in that I am fairly certain that Lotze viewed Herbart’s conception of the Real as reconcilable with a Kantian conception. In other words, the method of ‘critique’ was the issue of discontent between Herbart and Kant and not the conceptualization of the Real.
Herbart had adopted a similar position with regard of the observer position that Lotze (and James, Jaspers, and Arendt) held, which Dewey would deny, even ridicule. I think the observer position is a necessity for a critical realist (comparative thought is close impossible without it).
However, the caveat is that Lotze himself claimed that the “influence of Herbart on his work” that others have claimed exists, was actually the influence of “physics” as he learned from reading Fechner (and Weber?). I would conclude, however, that Fechner developed (and made this explicit!!!) many of his ideas both in dispute and in agreement with his predecessor Herbart. Respectively Lotze is is made possible by Herbartian thought.
In short, however, I would sum up as follows:
Herbart was concerned more with ontology than epistemology. Lotze dismissed Herbart’s ontology as being just that: ontology, but took those lessons from it that could be adopted for epistemology and combined them with his understanding of physiology towards creating a psychology fit for a comprehensive anthropology. In doing so, he rejected bald naturalism but also didn’t ascribe to idealism. What remained was a realism that did not accept the external world as absolutely given but asked for the conditions of its possibility – not for the mere fact of its existence, that’d be ontology, but how it comes to exist in the way it appears to me as its observer. This is a notion of ‘quality’, which Lotze adopted from Herbart, however, Herbart constructed qualtities from a poiint of view of absolutism and as constitutive of reality, whereas Lotze appropriated quality for a concept of experience (and he also turned the notion of the absolute into a regulative ideal; against Hegel, for whom the absolute is constitutive). Finally, Herbart did wield a concept of equilibrium that Lotze could adopt for his physiology-derived reflections on interaction (Wechselwirkung) and regulation. Since American transcendentalists, such as Emerson, adopted this notion from Herbart, the fact that Lotze seemed attractive to them is partially explained by the use of this “assemblage”, in particular because Lotze, as a physiologist by training, remodeled Herbart’s static concept into dynamic or procedural one.

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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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