Michael Macrone
Articles & Essays

Book review (The Berkeley Graduate, 1987)

By Michael Macrone
The Making of the Modern Body
Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century
Edited by Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur
Berkeley; University of California Press, 1987
242 + xv pages; cloth and paper

By now, everyone in a graduate literature program—at least at UC Berkeley—has been exposed to the cross-disciplinary approach to textual evaluation known as “the New Historicism.” I say “approach to textual evaluation” guardedly, for two reasons: the specification of what exactly a “text” is, and its definition against supposedly non-textual phenomena (historical events, social formations, scientific data and theory, etc.), are among the critical parameters called into question by the New Historicism; and, with such problems set aside, textual criticism per se is still only one aspect of the New Historical approach—often a purely functional aspect, at that, rather than a necessary end point.

These knots in the definition of what exactly New Historicism does are likely to daunt the uninitiated—especially when qualification sets in so rapidly, in a book review of all things. But my own hesitations point to an almost endless chain of shifts in the critical assumptions—about the social and institutional role of one’s work, the nature of one’s practices and objects of investigation—underlying New Historical criticism. If indeed the volume at hand really exemplifies such criticism, another assumption that will be ruthlessly questioned before we’re through.

book cover A few simple things may be said. The label “New Historicism” obviously originates outside the field of history as it is traditionally defined. Yet historical methodology is in fact privileged, as are concerns that have historically been those of history departments. But the phenomenon of New Historicism is more than a colonization of other fields by history departments; it is an attempt to reconstruct the institutional organization of fields themselves; it is an institutionally politicized cross-fertilization.

The particular methodological matrix of any New Historicist project depends largely on the particular era and aspect of culture under scrutiny, and upon the methods at hand to the New Historicist in her or his field of specialization. Specifying a general set of methods is difficult, but the editors of The Making of the Modern Body (a newly repackaged edition of the Spring, 1986 issue of the Berkeley journal Representations) present the following précis in describing the underpinnings of their project:

[The eight articles in this volume] belong to a new historical endeavor that derives partly from the crossing of historical with anthropological investigations, partly from the thematization of the body in modern philosophy (especially phenomenology), and partly from the emphasis on gender, sexuality, and women’s history that large numbers of feminist scholars have brought to all disciplines. (p. vii)

This portrayal represents the project of the book as, above all, historical: a “new historical endeavor.” The role of literary analysis in shaping this endeavor is minimized; and indeed, the cultural artifacts which concern the authors of these essays are rarely literary texts. Yet, much of the energy behind the journal Representations, and behind the “new historical endeavor” of The Making of the Modern Body and related projects, is supplied from within English departments, notably Berkeley’s. One editor of the volume, Thomas Laqueur, is a historian; the other, Catherine Gallagher, is a professor of English.

On the other hand, departmental boundaries and institutionally classifiable methodologies are blurring under the pressure of such new historical endeavors, which seem more anthropological than literary-critical. The labels and disciplines invoked in the introduction to the book serve their ad hoc descriptive function, only to be put, in a sense, “under erasure.”

But exactly what gives this new endeavor such power and how is it different from old historical endeavors? Things have hardly defined themselves to the point where pat answers to these questions are readily available; and of course, the distinction is only approachable from within the new endeavor’s placing itself apart from the old. While New Historicism continues to serve as a blanket term for diverse, dispersed and developing approaches, much of the difference is in the positing of difference itself. Nevertheless, it might prove helpful to sketch out for the “general reader” a few superficial and generalized characteristics of New Historicism, as perceived from my position within a department of literature (English). Let me say before proceeding that the following neat historical breakdown of intellectual trends holds—if it holds at all—precisely from within the (deteriorating) boundaries of my particular field; and that I am here providing a schematic temporalization of a debate which is still very much with us.

What might be called the “Old” Historicism was an effect, so to speak, of a humanist ideology current in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Culture was set apart from history in a relationship of transcendence. Literature and the arts in general, seen as a supplement to “real life,” were expected to affirm moral values while enlarging the experience of terms: history was the material transmuted and idealized by the author, whose consciousness exceeded it and brought it under his control. Literary critics turned to history largely for biographical purposes, and also to define the “context” against which an individual author achieved greatness by working on it from above.

The old version of “historicism” came under attack (while many of its assumptions were preserved) with the rise of formalist criticism. The first ascendant version of formalism, in the age of T.S. Eliot, became known as the “New Criticism.” New Critical axioms assumed the independence and self-sufficient (“organic”) unity of works of literature—henceforth “texts.” Biographical data were discounted, as were any appeals to authorial intention or significant historical “referents.” Of course, formalists recognized that works of literature are created under certain historical traditions, yet those works were conceived as virtual repudiations of history for the purity of aesthetic form.

Formalistic advances in linguistics, by which language was seen to operate according to intrinsic structural and bipolar oppositions, opened the door for a cross-disciplinary extension of formalistic interpretation known as “structuralism.” Even more than the New Criticism, structuralism (which took hold most deeply in anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and literary criticism) undermined traditional humanistic conceptions of culture and history, primarily by undermining the status of individual consciousness in favor of structures intrinsic to cultural forms and, in fact, to thought itself.

From within structuralism, in its philosophical and anthropological versions, Michel Foucault developed, from the 1950s to the 1980s, new methodologies that were to exert the most influence upon “new” historicism. Foucault carried the attack on humanism to its present limit, while at the same time recovering history as the primary field of focus in which cultural formations are seen to arise. Foucault was the most brilliant exponent of the cross-fertilization of archaeology, history, historiography, sociology, philosophy and cultural criticism, to the end of an analysis of large structures of power relationships, social definitions and the classification of individuals. Foucault privileged such terms as “power,” “ideology,” and “discursive practice” in rewriting history as the ascendancy of institutions over individuals. Indeed, in Foucault’s work—especially in his later work—the autonomous human “subject” disappears; subjectivity itself is represented as the construction of ideologies—that is, as a representation.

Foucault is just one of the shapers of new (“post-structuralist”) methods of analyzing socio-cultural formations. The late work of Roland Barthes, deconstruction, feminist revision of structural psychoanalysis, and Marxist hermeneutics have also been taken up in the current agendas of cultural analysts. But Foucault is the largest presence in New Historicism, not only because of the tremendous power of his own writings, but also because of the assimilability of his techniques without—as is the case with deconstruction proper—irreversible distortion.

Moreover, Foucault, in representing large-scale formations, forces, discourses and ideologies as the primary active agents in history, opened a new channel for radical social critique, along more or less Marxist lines. A discourse of discourses—of dominating and hierarchical politico-rhetorical structures—has always accorded with, even produced, radical critiques which are resisted by inherently conservative ideologies of the individual, and especially of “great men.” Focus on individuals’ shaping of history implies a celebration of “heroes” who both epitomized a social order—nostalgically desired or seen to be slipping away—and also transcended their time, negating the claims of historical-social formations. The New Historicism, after Foucault, foregrounds, rather, ideological discourses over individual subjects; in this way, the oppressive mechanics of ideology are exposed by a sort of symptomatology: artifacts, texts, scientific “discoveries,” and so forth—and the subjects who author them—are analyzed as symptoms of the cultural force-field in place, a force-field without a subject, subject to no one’s control, always subjecting the bodies and consciousness of individuals.

The project of The Making of the Modern Body is to explore in what way the body and its representations (and no representation is innocent) served as pressure points, fields of battle, even metaphors and metonyms, for new ideological imperatives and paradigms in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. After Foucault, the authors intend to recover an opacity or materiality for the body, a palpability and consequence surrendered by formalist and conservative humanist cultural analysts, who conceived of the relationship of body to consciousness and subjectivity in primarily trivial, transparent terms.

I shall focus here on half of the eight essays in the volume: those by scholars based at Berkeley and Stanford. These are, conveniently enough, the first four essays in the volume. The first of two of these, co-editor Thomas Laqueur’s “Orgasm, Generation and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,” and Londa Schiebinger’s “Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy,” both examine the essentially ideological thrust of post-Enlightenment medical discourses surrounding the female body. Laqueur, a professor of history at Berkeley, examines the problematics of representing “natural” gender categories within hegemonic cultural assumptions of women’s inferior “sphere.” He demonstrates that the great late-18th century shift from conceiving woman’s body as an approximate yet inferior version (or derivation) of man’s to conceiving it as radically different (or deviant) from man’s, occurred without significant scientific “discoveries.” In fact, pre-Enlightenment representations of female genitalia as “inverted” male genitalia, and many other representations of female anatomy, were still in the early 19th century not “inherently plausible.” But the privileged representation of any era would be privileged even despite the contradiction of “evidence” because of the particular normative function of that representation.

Laqueur takes on the shift to a model of “natural difference” between the sexes as that model became crucial both to a defense of segregated spheres and to feminist claims of social equality. While this seems paradoxical, the feminist position is readily comprehended, if not assimilated to the anti-feminist position, in light of the old “derivation” model: if women were “naturally” the same as men, they could never escape being portrayed as inferior versions of men, measured against the norms established by men.

Laqueur concludes the essay by examining efforts in reproductive biology to account for menstruation, and by examining the profoundly ideological nature of those efforts. In the process, he displays the convergence of multiple anxieties among representative white male scientists—and presumably across the culture—regarding feminine sexuality: the natural basis of the social order, the distinction of human from beast, and the cultural authority of scientific methodology and discourse.

Schiebinger, who teaches at Stanford, examines how similar anxieties are at work in the debate over the first representations of the female skeleton. As we have seen in Laqueur’s essay, the female body was long considered an inferior version of the male body, so that virtually all representations of the human skeleton were based on male subjects and male anatomy. The normative and idealizing thrust of these representations speaks profoundly in anatomists’ “squaring” their initial sketches against the most beautiful Renaissance sculpture.

Schiebinger is most deeply invested in demonstrating how female subjects of the new representations were excluded from science, and thus from authoritative scientific discourse, by virtue of the anatomical “proof” of their incapacity to do science. Furthermore, she emphasizes that such “scientific” representations always imply ideological norms, in that they present models against which all humanity is measured, on a single scale. In the 19th century, women, “primitives” (non-Europeans) and children were cross-analogized, and thus the first two groups show to be underdeveloped and evolutionarily inferior.

Both Laqueur’s and Schiebinger’s contributions—as well as Mary Poovey’s article on obstetrics in Victorian England, Laura Engelstein’s on the medical discourse surrounding syphilis, sexuality and class in Russia, and Alain Corbin’s on efforts in France to control prostitution—in addition to being elegantly conceived and written, are exemplary New Historical articles. The command of detail, the wealth of citation, the sensitivity to the metaphorics of putatively “neutral” and “objective” representation—these combine with Foucaultian models of hegemonic discursive practice and ideologies of classification to produce a de-naturalizing critique of power structures. And like similar projects along New Historical lines, these articles at once manage to be powerfully convincing, committed to the social (and socially committed), implicitly contemporary, and open to question.

The main question to be asked is to what extent current critical paradigms are subject to question, if indeed such were possible while they’re in force. Certainly, the representation of the representations in question must itself assume that such things as “ideology”—the true subject of inquiry—may be adequately represented (or constructed) by New Historical methods. Indeed, there is a deep commitment to inductive demonstration and to the unveiling of subject-less, untranscendable social formations and lines of power. The form this commitment takes is open to the charge of positivism; yet there is little that is naively positivistic about the enterprises in The Making of the Modern Body. In purely pragmatic terms, the authors’ very commitment becomes at once the ground of value, and that beyond which there can be no appeal if any work at all is to be done.

Co-editor Catherine Gallagher, Associate Professor of English at Berkeley, proceeds along more literary-critical lines of sustained textual analysis in her essay, ‘The Body Versus the Social Body in the Works of Thomas Malthus and Henry Mayhew.” Gallagher examines the vicissitudes of metaphor in economic treatises by Malthus and Mayhew, focusing on the link between a valorization/problematization dynamic of the body in political-economic theory (especially the Malthusian inversion of body/society identifications) and Victorian repression of and disgust with the body.

At stake for Malthus and Mayhew were the relationship between labor and exchange (production, circulation and commodification) and the social effects of the English market economy. For both, the body became a locus of an intense investment and an intense problematic. Malthus championed the irreducibility of the needs of the laboring body, arguing that the only valuable production was that production—of wheat—which directly translated back into more and healthier laboring bodies. Yet, in Malthus’s model for a circuit of exchange with a radius of zero, the basis of valuation becomes pure tautology; as Gallagher writes, “Food and the body, commodity and labor, thus constantly indicate each other as the source and gauge of their value” (p.96)

Extension of exchange is necessary to the abstract system of valuation (so much wheat equals so much lace) that undergirds the political-economic system. And for Mayhew, this creates the problem of circulating bodies: “nonproductive laborers,” agents of the exchange mechanism who produce no more value. The robustness and feistiness of this class—the sailors, costermongers, cabmen, etc.—becomes emblematic for Mayhew of excessive bodily vigor, mobility and visibility—the overdeveloped physique which theatrically renders the omnipresence of the market economy.

Gallagher’s reading is infinitely more complex and suggestive than this summary. She builds her argument dialectically, by deftly presenting the various conflicts among and within not only the writings of Malthus, Mayhew, Adam Smith and Enlightenment utopians, but also within the body/society metaphorics and valorization/ problematization dynamics at the heart of their discourse. Gallagher shows how techniques of textual analysis can reveal the conflictual dynamics at play in “non-literary” discourses, and thus brings to the fore the literary-critical roots of much of the New Historicism. She demonstrates a sensitivity to the “textuality” (in its ever-broadening sense) of cultural phenomena—not by trivializing or negating the “real” into hyper-culture, but by appreciating the mechanics of self-effacing or self-naturalizing metaphorics (as studied by post-structuralist philosophy) in authoritative descriptive discourses, and the latently tautological structure of putatively clear-cut, normative cultural oppositions, such as body/society.

D.A. Miller, who teaches English and comparative literature at Berkeley, is an excellent reader of literature who, like Gallagher, founds his method on the inextricability of reading texts from reading the social. His current work is inspired by the writings of Foucault, Freud, Barthes and, especially here, visiting Beckman lecturer Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Miller, who is a master of literary nuance and a fine stylist in his own right, parts more obviously from New Historical methodology than anyone else in the volume; his readings are more phenomenological in cast and address themselves to one central text as a point of departure. Miller’s citations are less historical/historiographic, more centered upon theoretical concerns, although he always places the reader in the milieu of the text. Yet his work is socially committed, and seems perhaps more explicitly concerned with the continuity of present social formations than with those of the Victorian period.

In his contribution here, “Cage aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White,” Miller initially takes up the question of the Victorian body in its relationship to the “sensation novel”—exemplified by Collins’s text—and then more generally with respect to the social mechanisms, from the Victorian period to the present, of coding psycho/ somatic phenomena with gender, genre and sphere. The sensations effected by the sensation novel are analyzed in terms of the project of “reading,” or determining meaning. In fact, Miller claims, the specification of meaning is a process of mastering sensation provoked by sensation—an effort to diffuse psycho/somatic anxieties in the male characters and the presumably male reader.

Miller shows that the somatic effects (palpitations, shortness of breath, hairs on end, etc.) produced by narrative suspense/shock techniques are culturally coded as “feminine”; in the male character/reader, such effects produce anxiety about his “masculinity” and provoke a reaffirmation of gender roles by what is effectively “shutting up” “feminine” neuropathia. The Woman in White stages and incites a reinstitutionalization of the feminine; norms are re-constituted in reference to aberrations which abound in the first half of the novel. The “sensationalistic” renditions of the passage through “abnormal” (carceral) space, however, threaten to make all-too-powerfully clear that all norms are (re)constituted through their abnormal antitheses and necessarily internalize them.

Miller continues by demonstrating how “sensation” entails, under the social conditions at hand, efforts both to reaffirm “masculinity” by controlling such “feminine” somatic effects (diffusing them by inscribing them within masculine-referenced—phallocentric—structures of signification) and to resecure the limits of “femininity”—the experience of reading “feminizes” the female reader centered in her male-identified gender role.

Collins’s novel proceeds in the main to construct feminine incarceration in the phallocentric institution, but also needs to take care of the residue of its sensational procedure: the homophobic anxiety embedded in that system, brought to the fore in “unmediated” man-to-man relations. The novel, Miller claims, in its representations of ab-normal homosocial intercourse, produces an “aversion therapy,” typical and routine since at least the Victorian period. The desired end is to “privatize homosocial desire within the middle-class nuclear family, where it takes the ‘normal’ shape of an Oedipal triangle” (p.133). The ideal of the of the middle-class family—the “liberal” space of the home—thus serves to code/repress desires without extinguishing them: to propel the social mechanism with the coded desires themselves.

Miller’s essay—as well as Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s rhetorical/psychoanalytic reading of Benjamin on Baudelaire on prostitution—points up most clearly the inadequacy of generically classifying the volume as representative of “New Historicism” and, for that matter, of fencing off concerns that entail numerous approaches within any limiting genre at all. Perhaps, then, it is less useful to wedge this book into the New Historical category—which is to say, prove the New Historicism against the book—than to appreciate the theoretically extensive nature of its concerns.

Each in her or his own way, the authors strive to recover a materialism in analysis, and the body is their material—their site of the “real.” Ultimately, they work toward a new appreciation for the materiality of reading—reading historically applied to the individual body; reading transfusing the social body; reading of culture. Essential to these projects is the readers’ own awareness of reading (in) the present, being present, in genetic terms, as the offspring of the past.

Michael Macrone is a PhD student in the UC Berkeley English department.

– 30 –

First published in The Berkeley Graduate (April, 1987)

article scan article scan

articles  • •  home