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Reviewed by:
  • Obsession: A History
  • David Healy
Lennard J. Davis. Obsession: A History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. v + 290 pp. Ill. $27.50, £14.50 (ISBN-10: 0-226-13782-1, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-13782- 7).

In requesting that I review a book covering both the type of obsessionality that artists and scientists display as well as obsessive compulsive disorder, the editors of this journal asked me whether I knew the author or had other conflicts of interest. A certain bristling at what I was sure would be a book that conflated quite disparate things does not conventionally count as a conflict of interest.

And Lennard Davis does conflate many disparate things, but after first introducing himself, he notes that he regularly makes clinicians and others bristle. He makes this point with a winning touch that is noted in the reviews on the book cover, which mention that the learning in the book is lightly worn, beautifully wrought, sympathetic, elegant, and engaging.

The book is not about obsession so much as what the emergence of current notions about obsessions reveals about modernity. Davis charts the origins of the [End Page 291] term “obsession,” along with images of madness in premodern times and how these began to shift in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, paving the way for the self-aware subject of modernity. Davis has effectively mined several hundred years of literature and other cultural artifacts, making many of them live for me in a way they hadn’t done before. This is a book, therefore, to keep somewhere handy for future reference.

One of the hallmarks of modernity, he argues, is that the idea of a distinction between the mad and the sane collapses so that we begin to recognize the continuities, especially in the domains of preoccupation and disordered rationality that connect us to one another, no matter how bizarre some of us may be. One of the key questions is whether those who are incarcerated are any more obsessed than some of our most successful scientists and artists have been, and if they are not, he argues, there is then a case to be made that science should not divorce itself from the history of ideas, as it has been wont to do.

There is a force to this point that will disarm many critics—anyone who quibbles with it risks being seen as a premodern throwback. But there is a problem. While there are many scientists who have likely been deluded or close to it, obsessed in a clinical or lay sense as Davis shows, science is not an obsessive process within an individual that happens, in some cases, for reasons we don’t understand, to lead to success whereas other obsessives end up in treatment. The success of science arguably stems from the fact that it is a communal enterprise, with the involvement of others ensuring that the only data that survive the cut are those that others can replicate. Science does not obsessively return to failed solutions as neurotics do.

At the very end of the book, Davis outlines a Biocultures Manifesto, in which he argues that historical and cultural analysis must be intrinsic to the practice of science. The corollary of this should be historians and analysts versing themselves in statistics and being able to dismantle biological concepts. Although there is no such thing as a modern biology, our understanding of biology and science has a huge impact on what it means to be modern, and any statement of what it means to be modern will necessarily have to be scientifically sophisticated. But while Davis seems very successful at disarming the scientists who ask why any of this history is of any use to them, he seems to let claims that a lowering of serotonin levels lies at the root of our obsessionality pass without mounting any critique. In so doing he risks entrapment by the masters of postmodernity—the marketing departments of the pharmaceutical industry. Perhaps this is for his next project, as he makes it clear he’s not finished with the topic just yet. [End Page 292]

David Healy
Cardiff University


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pp. 291-292
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