Configurations 10.1 (2002) 193-195
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Zakiya Hanafi. The Monster in the Machine: Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000. xii + 272 pp., illus. $59.95, $20.95 paper.
Zakiya Hanafi ends The Monster in the Machine bystating, "the monster is a concept that we need in order to tell ourselves what we are not" (p. 218). The book, however, endeavors to show us that we have the potential to be monsters, or at least that we must recognize the monsters of our own making. Hanafi teaches this lesson well, due largely to her meticulous and informed—sometimes even inspired—close readings of early modern sources and her success in rendering accessible key paradigms of conceptualizing monstrosity, even to an audience previously unversed in teratology. Wide-ranging in its coverage and application, the book is excellent, especially in its early chapters, and represents a revealing study—penetrating enough for the specialist, general enough for the novice—of the supernatural and its intersections with various scientific discourses in early modern Europe.
Hanafi focuses on Italian texts, but her sensitivity to sources outside Italy, coupled with her tendency toward general insight, demonstrates that she is out to delineate larger, pan-European cultural forces. Perhaps this breadth is a product of her imagined audience, not limited to specialists in early modern Italian scientific discourse or in the history of monstrosity in Italy—specialists who, Hanafi notes, may be dissatisfied with her admittedly "eclectic" array of source material—but inclusive of "readers who are interested in a variety of topics and issues" related to science, technology, medicine, and the supernatural (p. x). By taking a nod from Wittgenstein and "seeing connections" rather than "making explanations" (p. x), Hanafi rightly views her study as enabling. First, she enables the texts themselves by permitting "the early modern voices to be heard," some of them for the first time in modern English translation (p. x). Second, and even more importantly, she enables her reader by providing explanatory models through which to study monstrous phenomena and theories of monstrosity. [End Page 193]
By offering such a complex weave of insight and employing a style that hinges more on an inductive, thematically driven rhetorical performance (along the lines of Foucault or de Certeau) than on a rigid deductive argument, Hanafi risks losing her larger points over the course of her analysis. The book's style also courts danger, both because Hanafi sometimes makes enormous claims when considering only a single source, and because the reader must work to make many of the links among her rather permeable chapter divisions. Yet one never gets the sense that her claims are inappropriate or unjustified. Her success, I think, stems from the way she approaches her source material. Her readings of specific passages seem to occasion, rather than to generate, her larger insights; it is as though her sources serve as texts for meditation. This approach may also explain how she is able to manage such an eclectic set of texts. Whether her sources are drawn from Italian (as most are), French, or English writers, she fits them into the larger theories they reflect. She announces in the preface that she views the book as "guided tour" (p. x), and her overall success as a reliable guide is impressive. Her approach is risky, but, while her last two chapters lack the clarity and efficiency of the earlier chapters, and while it is at times hard to discern whether certain insights apply to an exclusively Italian context or to a larger European context, she carries off her overall performance convincingly.
Although it is impossible to summarize the book adequately in the limited space afforded this review, it is possible to highlight some of the larger themes. The central question of The Monster in the Machine asks how removing the monster from the purview of the sacred and introducing it to rigorous scientific investigation affects conceptions of monstrosity. In the earlier chapters of the book...