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  • From Lamarck to Aberration: Nature, Hierarchies, and Gender
  • Caroline Warman (bio)

Nineteenth -century French culture and, arguably most intensely, the fin de siècle seem to have turned a particularly anxious gaze on the question of aberration (physiological, psychological, moral, and other), aberration being seen in human terms and as a human problem. Scholarship in the wake of Foucault has interrogated discourses of the body intensively, and the present issue maintains that focus, making manifest why it is such an important approach and how rich a seam it is. Here, however, I would like to resituate the specifically human within a biological, natural, and material spectrum and see whether, having done that, we can begin to understand why aberration was such a fraught domain and why the human came to be so tensely associated with questions of gender and sexuality. My first point will be that the eighteenth-century materialist idea of the human as matter or molecules organized in a particular way had, surprisingly, become widely accepted.1 We are all probably familiar with nineteenth-century conceptions of nature as a series of forms that are modifications of one another from evolution theory, whether in Lamarck’s pessimistic version, whereby we move ever farther from the source of heat and creation, or in Darwin’s more upbeat model of perfectibility, as evinced in the term evolution itself. Both streams placed humanity at the top of this hierarchy of creation, but the twin terms evolution and degeneration tell us how what was human was perceived as relating to the rest: turning these terms into questions, we see that they asked implicitly what humans would evolve into next or, more negatively, how they might degenerate and return to earlier forms. Scholars of the nineteenth century know how Bénédict Auguste Morel answered this question in his 1857 Traité des dégénérescences (Treatise of [End Page 8] Degeneracies, 1857) and the impact this thesis had.2 We may be less familiar with the conceptions of matter that underpinned these theories of evolution, and there may be some quite interesting reasons for what Pierre Daled has recently qualified as a collective amnesia owing at least in part to the antimaterialist efforts of early-nineteenth-century philosophers, Victor Cousin among them.3

The question remains, Why did Cousin—and others—attempt to prevent materialism from being taken seriously? Jan Goldstein shows that what she calls Cousinianism had an impact on French education that endured at least until Jean-Paul Sartre’s childhood (thus about one hundred years), resisting “the forces for psychic fragmentation inherent in biologistic modes of reasoning about mental life” and attempting, apparently successfully, to shore up notions of a “unitary self.”4 Yet if Sartre had been educated to believe unquestioningly in a “unitary self,” we have no difficulty now in associating fragmentation rather than unity with the self in nineteenth-century French culture (testimonies such as Mme Bovary’s role playing and Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s anguished diary come to mind), and that’s without even considering the illuminations of recent research in this area, let alone the insights of poststructuralism.5 Nonetheless, the real impact of materialist thinking may still be misunderstood: Anne C. Vila concludes her important book Enlightenment and Pathology (1998) with a suggestive chapter entitled “Sensibility in the Aftermath of the Enlightenment,” which laments that the eighteenth-century philosophes had failed “to devise a unified vision of humankind in which everything human could be seen as linked together [End Page 9] in a seamless natural continuum.” What she argues instead is that although “sensibility and the strange hodgepodge of sentimentalist, vitalist and materialist ideas related to it remained popular, . . . nineteenth-century thinkers refined the meaning of sensibility for their respective fields.”6 Strikingly, Vila downgrades or rather denies the commonality of conceptions of matter, giving the birth of disciplines and specializations as the reason for this fragmentation, a process that she does not call into question.

Yet on closer inspection, it begins to seem as if disciplinary specialization may have been much less embedded than we have come to suppose and that common ways of thinking across disciplines, in particular about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 8-25
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-20
Open Access
No
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