CFP Reading and health in early modern Europe

Symposium on Reading and Health in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800

Medieval and Early Modern Research Group, Newcastle University

5-6thJuly 2013

This symposium will explore how early modern texts engage with the regulation of the body and mind through reading. It will investigate the connections between reading and health and consider how reading was understood as an embodied practice in the period with profound implications for both personal well being and conception of the healthy body politic.

We invite proposals that address the relationship between health and reading in any genre in print or manuscript in any European language. The genres might include medical, scientific, literary, religious, or pedagogical and rhetorical writings. We encourage proposals that recover diverse reading communities and practices and readers/hearers. We also welcome papers that consider problems of evidence: e.g. manuscript marginalia; print paratexts (and directions to readers); visual representations; non-material evidence (voice; gesture; touch).

Topics might include, but are not restricted to:

Reading as therapeutic (devotional; recreational etc.)

  • Reading medical writing
  • The physiology of reading
  • Reading and well-being
  • Reading and disability
  • Health and the senses
  • Health as a literary theme
  • Reading and the healthy body politic (censorship; free speech; reading communities etc.)

300-word abstracts for 20-minute papers from individuals and panels (3 speakers) to be sent to the conference organisers.

The deadline for abstracts is Thursday, January 31st, 2013.

View the conference website at Newcastle University.

New guide to the field of emotion studies

Margaret Wetherell, Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (London: Sage, 2012)

Research into the emotions is rapidly expanding and deepening in all kinds of disciplines. Cultural historians, psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists, biologists, researchers in cultural studies and political science – everyone is turning to affect as an essential topic of research. This makes for a  lively and exuberant field of research, but it can also sometimes give me the overwhelming feeling that I will never be able to read up on everything that is going on. My research focuses on early modern drama and I am taking in current thinking on the emotions in cultural history and cultural studies, but how am I to relate to new insights in the relation between emotion and cognition, mirror neurones, or the transmission of affect?

Margaret Wetherell’s Affect and Emotion is a pragmatic and down-to-earth guide to what is currently happening in the landscape of emotion studies. A professor in social sciences and social psychology, Wetherell conducted what she calls a ‘reading marathon’ across all these disciplines to see what they had to offer. “With some navigating,” she writes, “it did seem possible to put together integrated readings of the somatic, discursive, situated, historical, social, psychological and cultural bases of affective activity” (4). The model that she puts together is based on the flexible concept of “affective practice.”  She develops a working model for empirical social science, but the book certainly has its uses for the cultural historian as well.

Wetherell pits her model against three views of affect that she considers to be wrong turns in emotion research. The first, not surprisingly for a sociologist (or a cultural historian) is the idea of basic, universal human emotions pioneered by Paul Ekman. The second approach that Wetherell considers to be leading us in the wrong direction is the separation of affect from discourse in cultural studies (Clough; Massumi) and human geography (Thrift). She stresses that current research in neuroscience shows that body, brain and mind are all dynamically connected and involved in affective practice, and it would therefore be a mistake to separate affect from speech, text, cognition and interpretation:

I agree with Massumi, Thrift and Steward that it is time to take the effervescent, the mobile, the concrete, and ordinary social action seriously. But, I think one can’t do this without sustained attention to discourse. What is needed is an eclectic approach that investigates how the organisation of discursive formations or ‘big discourse’ intertwines with the patterning of everyday, dynamic and immediate discursive practice. (56)

[Note: Tony D. Sampson disagrees with her view on affective contagion in his review of the book (series of 5 blog posts)]

The third approach that Wetherell considers less useful is the view of the transmission of affect as something ‘uncanny’ in much recent work that employs terms such as ‘contagion’ or ‘group minds’ to describe the way passion moves from body to body. Examples she gives of this approach are Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect and the field of social psychoanalysis, which works with an outdated model of the self.

Another key figure in emotion research whom Wetherell disagrees with is Antonio Damasio, “social scientists’ current, number one, favourite neuroscientist” (28). Basing her critique on psychobiological research, neuroscience, anthropology and social sociology as well as genetics (she could have added cultural history to the list), she takes Damasio to task for still adhering to the basic emotions model and for distinguishing between affect and emotion. Drawing on the work of Klaus Scherer, she emphasizes that emotion processing is distributed in different brain circuits, and that cognition is not sealed off from affect in neurobiology.

The book provides a very lucid and useful overview of recent developments in emotion research. Wetherell is one of those people who can digest an awful lot of information and report on it in detail (even neuroscientific detail), but never lets you lose sight of the bigger picture. She is very clear on the reasons why she considers certain approaches less useful. But the book does not only guide you through the wrong turns of emotion research. Based on her magisterial overview of state-of-the art research in various disciplines, Wetherell also puts forward a new model for social scientific research. In her model, affect is a flowing activity, but with ‘affective ruts’ (14) formed by interweaving patterns resembling Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling, but more flexible: “something that comes into shape and continues to change and refigure as it flows on.” Thirdly, power works through affect and affect emerges in power. She deftly weaves together elements of the theories and models she surveys to form her own. In Wetherell’s view, affective practice is always situated, material, embodied, and contextual. One of the very useful examples she gives of how affect can be read, is that of conversation analysis, in which the exchanges between people are meticulously written down. The nitty-gritty level of a transcribed conversation soon confronts the researcher with all the specific contexts that need to be taken into account when analysing affect. In Wetherell’s words: “The concept of affective practice, then, encompasses the movement of signs but it aso tries to explain how affect is embodied, is situated and operates psychologically.” (159)

Wetherell’s style is pragmatic and no-nonsense; she takes you by the hand and guides you through the “deeply murky territory” of affective meaning-making (51), or through psychobiologists’ descriptions of emotion that read “rather like weather reports” (49). She is open about her own reading experience and the obstacles she ran into, and it can sometimes feel as if you are having coffee with her during a break in her reading marathon. She reports, for example: “When quoting Massumi it is almost impossible to stop. His words are so evocative and dizzying. What he is suggesting is so vague, breathless and escaping.” This sounds a tad dismissive of cultural theory as a whole, but that is not the case – Wetherell quotes Lauren Berlant approvingly throughout, and Sara Ahmed’s work on affective economies figures prominently in her model.

How is this book useful to the cultural historian? To begin with, cultural history is part of the framework in the book. Wetherell discusses the work of William Reddy most prominently, but also draws on Barbara Rosenwein and Thomas Dixon. Also, I think the model that Wetherell proposes, although most suited for empirical social science research, is food for thought for cultural historians – especially in its emphasis on the need for attention to the material situatedness and the embodiedness of emotions.

Emotions in History – Lost and Found

At the Umeå conference on the cultural history of emotions in pre-modernity in 2008, one of the frequently recurring themes was the desire for a new grand narrative of the history of emotions. After historians’ criticism of Norbert Elias’ influential model of the civilizing process, a new framework for the explanation of the historical change of emotions was called for. In her keynote lecture, Barbara Rosenwein hinted that she was working on a new book that would paint such a broad historical overview based on the rising and falling influence of emotional communities. Ute Frevert’s new book on modern (18th-century and later) emotions offers the kind of broad historical narrative of change that we looked forward to at the conference.

Emotions in History – Lost and Found is the publication of the Natalie Zemon Davis annual lecture of 2009, held by Ute Frevert at the Central European University in Budapest. Frevert is director of the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Her broad reading and in-depth knowledge of the cultural history of emotions found their way into this engaging series of lectures on the rise and fall of historical emotions.

The book has three chapters: a chapter on emotions and social groups that cultivate and drop them, one on gender and emotional styles and regimes, and the final chapter on the emotion of empathy and its rise to prominence from the 18th century onwards. The subtitle “lost and found” to me initially suggested a notion of cyclicality – the idea that emotions could lose prominence in certain historical periods, only to resurface again in others. This is not, however, the tenet of the book. Rather, Frevert focuses on honour as a “lost” emotion and empathy as a “found” emotion in the modern period. What is more, she argues that even if seemingly similar emotions can be encountered across history, these are not in fact the same:

So, the central argument is the following: Even if there are signs of acedia, melancholia or depression that resemble each other, the labelling, framing and contextualising of those signs are vastly different. Relating the symptoms to diverse systems of reference (magic, religion, arts and sciences, neurobiology) affects the value attributed to them. This in turn affects the appraisal and experience of those states. Seen from this perspective, acedia and melancholia are indeed “lost emotions,” lost in translation to a new emotional state called depression. (36)

Frevert opens her book with the example of president Sarkozy  who in 2010 reacted to criticism from Brussels on French campaigns against Roma camps by angrily declaring that he would not allow his country to be insulted. He considered the remarks “outrageous,” “disgusting” and “shameful” (3). The French president’s reliance on such a concept of national honour was met with “widespread bewilderment,” also in France (85). Frevert traces the trajectory of the emotion of honour in modern Western Europe, and suggests that it may be on its way to becoming a “lost emotion.” Honour serves to strengthen a group’s internal cohesion, and therefore becomes less important when boundaries between groups are less defined. She suggests that the European Union is an environment where national boundaries have become less prominent, and where the emotion of honour will become “obsolete” as a political concept and emotional disposition. (85) This teleology evokes the spectre of Elias’ civilizing process, and I should add that the suggestion is voiced in a section entitled “The decline of honour, or its return?”.  Frevert in the same section also asks how we should account for honour killings in European cities, for Zinédine Zidane’s headbutt in answer to slandering remarks about his mother and sister on the soccer pitch, or to the concept of national honour in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.

The second chapter, “Gendering emotions” looks at the ways in which emotions and their related practices have been related to ideas about men and women since the eighteenth century. Whereas in early modern societies the display of affect was ordered primarily on the basis of social rank and estate, and secondly on the basis of gender, in modern societies it was the other way around. The new social equality did not extend to the emotional differences between men and women, which were seen as based in nature. (100) “With the emergence of modern civil society, affects became not only closely observed and regulated, but also deeply and uniformly gendered.” (142) That process of modernization and increasingly gendered affect extends to emotional labour in today’s workplace — Frevert offers The Argus’ “Service with a smile” as an illustration — but at the same time capitalist consumer culture, with its endorsement of emotional intelligence in both men and women, makes gender differences less explicit and far-reaching.

The book focuses on what in the theoretical framework of the history of emotions would be called ’emotionology’: the study of the the ways in which emotional norms are shaped and reproduced by social institutions, practices and media. At the same time, Frevert acknowledges the possibility of individual or collective agency challenging these norms. In the third chapter on empathy, for example, she considers the ways in which the emotion was shaped in the late-eighteenth century by social groups who felt excluded by the notion of the “rights of man” – women and slaves. Throughout the lectures, Frevert emphasizes the heterogeneity of subcultures or immigrant communities, and thereby also rubs shoulders with Rosenwein’s concept of “emotional communities.”

As an early modernist, I did sometimes feel a little uncomfortable with the boundary that the book establishes between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century. The use of terms such as pre-modern and modern gives rise to a figure of thought so common in historical periodization in which you see certain phenomena as originating precisely in the period of your specialization. Although Frevert emphasizes that she does not deny a vibrant early modern history of the emotions (and has read widely on this earlier period as well), she does occasionally resort to rather sharp contrasts between the two periods. She characterizes the early modern period, for example, as a time without self-help manuals and scientific treatises on the passions (18) – a statement that is open to debate depending also on how strictly you define these genres, as is the idea that before 1661, in “teachings on affects and passions, the gender issue had been conspicuously absent” (99).

This is a minor quibble, however, because I very much enjoyed this engaging book that comprehensively covers a broad historical period, offers a clear perspective on the social and cultural character of emotions, and very convincingly shows the relevance of the cultural history of the emotions for the problems that we are faced with today.

New journal: Passions in Context

I just discovered a new online journal on the history and theory of the emotions called Passions in Context. It is a peer-reviewed journal that presents contributions from a variety of disciplines in English and German, and which was first published in the spring of 2010.

Th[e] growing interest in the history and theory of emotions is now both interdisciplinary and international. In particular in the English speaking world and in Germany are developing special centers for the research in the history and theory of emotions. Until now this interest has lacked a forum where contributions with such a wide orientation can be published. Passions in Context will be such a forum.

The first issue “Writing Emotions” featured an opening contribution by Barbara Rosenwein (via whose website I found the journal) on problems and methods in the writing of the history of emotions, as well as articles on staged feelings; emotions in collective viewing; pathos and atrophy. The second issue is called “Atrocities – Emotions – Self” and features the edited papers from the “Atrocities, Emotion, Self” conference that took place at the Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, in 2009. If I understand the timeline correctly, a new issue should be forthcoming this spring.


Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England

Disssertation Reviews is a new website that publishes friendly, non-critical reviews of unpublished dissertations, to give an immediate insight into new developments in scholarship. They used to focus on Chinese, Japanese and Korean Studies, but have recently branched out into “Science Studies” and are seeking editors to cover more fields in the humanities and social studies. Science Studies editor Leon Rocha invited me to write a review of Erin Sullivan’s PhD thesis on early modern sadness, which I very much enjoyed reading. The review will be published there shortly, and Leon kindly allowed me to reproduce the review here. Of course you should also visit Disssertation Reviews for more reviews of recent PhD theses.

Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England
A review of Secret Contagions: 
Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England by Erin Sullivan.

The history of emotions is a burgeoning field within cultural history. In recent years, a number of key publications have mapped out the beginnings of a theoretical and methodological framework, and academic centres on the subject are mushrooming around the world. Erin Sullivan’s thesis Secret Contagions: Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England is a valuable new addition to this growing field, not in the least because of its innovative approach to the exploration of historical emotions.

Readers in the early modern period were extremely interested in sadness and grief: the period has been called melancholy’s ‘golden age.’ A number of books exploring this early modern fascination with grief have appeared in the past few years, such as Angus Gowland’s Renaissance Melancholy (2006), Jeremy Schmidt’s Melancholy and the Care of the Soul (2007), Jennifer Vaught’s Masculinity and Emotion in Early Modern English Literature (2008), and Gary Kuchar’s The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England (2008). Whereas these studies focus on particular kinds of sadness (melancholy, religious sorrow) and on particular genres of texts, Sullivan takes a wider contextual view by basing herself on a variety of sources ranging from plays and poems to doctor’s casebooks, diaries, and bills of mortality. In so doing, her rich thesis is able to show convincingly that multiple discourses of sadness (medical theory, moral philosophy, Christian theology) co-existed in the period, sometimes overlapping or conflicting with each other.

The thesis concentrates on the period between the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 and the Restoration in 1660. It is not, however, the particulars of Tudor and Stuart monarchies or the trauma of the civil wars, but the aftermath of the Reformation that forms the dominant historical context for Sullivan’s argument. The new forms of Protestant religious practice that took shape in early modern England shaped their own discourses of emotional experience. Sullivan concludes that whereas medical and philosophical advice tended to see grief as a damaging and therefore dangerous passion, these new Protestant ideas considered sadness in a more positive light, as a means to come closer to God.

Sullivan is not only interested in the way sadness is shaped by these co-existing discourses. What I found particularly captivating is her fascination with the way individuals used these different discourses of sadness to make sense of their emotional experiences in their own (written) expressions and representations. Inspired by developments in anthropology as well as the work of historian Charles Rosenberg, Sullivan moves from the social constructivist framework current in emotion history towards a model of thinking about the passions that leaves more room for individual agency, “recognizing that social processes are messy and that they are affected by people, just as people are affected by them” (88). Her approach in this way combines three key concepts employed in the cultural history of emotions, which Sullivan in her introduction neatly characterizes as “a set of theoretical nesting eggs” (30): Carol and Peter Stearns’s ‘emotionology,’ which focuses on dominant emotion discourses in a historical period; Rosenwein’s concept of ‘emotional communities’, which examines how social groups employ these discourses; and finally Reddy’s ‘emotives’ which focuses on the individual expression of emotions (although he also relates that expression to ‘emotional regimes’).

The first chapter, “Sadness and dis-ease in early modern thought,” distinguishes between four categories of sadness shaped by three different discourses. In a philosophical context, grief was considered as a disease of the mind that needed to be overcome by reason; medical discourse saw melancholy as a disorder of the physical body; and godly sorrow and despair are categories of sadness shaped by religious discourse that were considered to originate from conflicts in a believer’s conscience that could only be healed by God’s grace (65). Even as she makes these elucidating distinctions, Sullivan stresses that these are dynamic constructions that often merged and overlapped. Just as the authors of treatises on the passions have often crossed disciplinary boundaries in their choice of their subject, so do these categories know many different permutations. The bodily nature of grief, for example, also played a part in philosophical and religious discourses. What is more, points of conflict existed also within these discourses themselves. In medical theory, for example, the Galenic humoral model was challenged by chemically-based systems of medicine such as that of Paracelsus. Sullivan therefore stresses the importance of a context-dependent approach to representations of sadness, an approach also that takes into account the way these ideas were used in personal practice. These discourses, she writes, “did not form a whole to explain passions: an individual’s personal attitudes towards sadness depended on her particular outlook on life, as influenced by factors such as religiosity, level of education, and social standing” (83). After the first chapter has thus mapped these overlapping discourses of grief, the following four chapters each deal with a different aspect of grief in the early modern period.

The “secret contagions” of the title are quoted from The Uses of the Passions (1649), a translation of a treatise by Jean-François Senault. He uses these words as he ponders the ways in which mind, body, and soul affect each other in the experience of emotion. The second chapter, “Grief, death and the possibility of self-knowledge,” takes this issue of the relation between body and mind as its central question, focusing on the idea that one could die of grief. Drawing on the London Bills of Mortality, Donne’s poetry, the plays of Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys’ diary among many other sources, Sullivan shows that although grief is on the one hand seen as a passion that results in extreme physiological changes and could lead to death, other texts conceive of it more as a passion of the mind and connect it to human agency and understanding, a perspective that also allowed for a more positive view of grief as enabling personal insight and wisdom. The finding that these two discourses co-existed leads Sullivan to nuance the recent emphasis on the literal, material and bodily meaning of expressions such as “sunken spirits” or “broken hearts,” for example in the work of Gail Kern Paster. Rather, she underlines that this material view of the passions circulated alongside discourses that situated the passions in the mind, and which questioned the extent to which they materially altered the body.

The next chapter, “The problem of melancholy: theory, discourse and practice,” starts once again from a contradiction within a discourse, in this case that of melancholy. On the one hand, this type of humoral sadness caused by a surplus of black bile is associated with self-obsession and self-indulgence, while it is on the other hand also seen as conducive to intellectual and artistic creativity. The central question in this chapter is how individuals “square[d] the commonly voiced, negative views of melancholy with its more desirable possibilities” (144). Sullivan turns first to literary texts such as Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” and Shakespeare’s As You Like It with its typical melancholic character Jaques, to find that literature tends to represent the ambiguous character of melancholy, showing its intellectual face but at the same time hinting at its negative aspects. She subsequently turns to doctors’ casebooks and patient narratives, to see how these two views of melancholy were experienced in medical practice. Sullivan discovered that doctors tend to associate the condition with rather mundane physical complaints, and that patients often turned to religion as a framework to explain their suffering and healing.

The final two chapters of the thesis explore the ways in which Protestant religious practice shaped new understandings of grief in post-Reformation England. In the fourth chapter, “Embodying faith: godly sorrow and the heart,” Sullivan again employs a broad range of sources including sermons, religious treatises, spiritual autobiographies, and the poetry of John Ford and George Herbert. She shows that in contrast to the prevalent conception of grief in medical and philosophical discourse, religious practice shaped a more positive experience of grief. As she puts it: “[t]he passive acceptance of sadness and suffering, believed to be sent from God, was one of the central ways in which believers could demonstrate to themselves and others the extent of their sorrow for sin, their connection with God, and their inclusion among the elect” (204). Interestingly, she also argues that in Protestant religious practice, the bodily aspects of grief were not eschewed: its understanding of grief was heavily based in notions of physical affliction. The heart, at once bodily and metaphysical in this discourse, functions as a reminder of grief’s “secret contagions”: the overflow between the bodily, mental and spiritual nature of sadness in religious practice.

Chapter five, “Tales of despair: narrative authority and interpretive possibility” establishes a fascinating link between the doctrine of double predestination and the notion of individual appropriations of existing discourses of grief that is so central to this thesis. Religious despair, if moderate, could be read as a sign of the elect, but in excessive form it was an emotion that pointed to the opposite. Because of this room for interpretation, “it became increasingly important that people wishing to identify themselves as among the godly narrated their experience of religious anxiety in a way that limited the potential for alternate interpretations” (249). In this thesis’ characteristic manner, the chapter turns to various expressions and representations of religious despair in a myriad of sources to explore the ways in which early modern believers narrated this form of sadness. In an entertaining example, Sullivan shows that attempts to relieve religious despair did not always have the intended effect. The anxiety generated by the doctrine of double predestination spawned a great number of works of “practical divinity” which sought to help their readers in identifying signs of their election by God. William Perkins published a “Table declaring the order of the causes of Salvation and Damnation,” which charted the various paths of life towards grace and reprobation (see illustration).

Perkins, "Survey or table declaring the order of the causes of salvation and damnation according to God’s word …”

The poem “The Distracted Puritan” (1648), however, suggests that these well-intended guides may have increased religious despair rather than relieved anxiety. Set to the tune of Tom of Bedlam, the speaker of the poem complains:

I observ’d in Perkins Tables
The black Lines of Damnation:
Those crooked veines
Soe stuck in my brains,
That I fear’d my Reprobation. (p. 281)

This is a wonderful example of what I consider to be one of the key strengths of this thesis: Sullivan’s attention to the ways in which the various discourses of grief were appropriated, combined, and reshaped by individual authors in early modern England.

Dissertation information: University College London, University of London, 2010. 348pp. Supervisors: Hal Cook, Andrew Wear, and René Weis.

Printed Images in Early Modern Britain

Cover of Printed Images in Early Modern BritainI promised I would get back to Michael Hunter‘s (ed.) Printed Images in Early Modern Britain: Essays in Interpretation (Ashgate, 2010). I sat down with it last evening and read the introduction and first five chapters, which together form the section ‘Printed images and the Reformation.’

According to Michael Hunter’s introduction, printed images have until recently been rather neglected. Engravings were mainly studied from an art-historical perspectives, woodcuts as an emanation of popular culture. A more socio-cultural approach was introduced in the 1980s. More recently, a number of studies has broken down the technical and disciplinary boundaries, and has started to analyse the settings from which printed images originated to provide a deeper understanding of the role of printed images in the cultural history of early modern Britain. Hunter mentions works such as Joseph Monteyne’s The Printed Image in Early Modern London; Helen Pierce’s Unseemly Pictures; and Malcolm Jones’s The Print in Early Modern England. The sections in the book are similarly concerned with the ways in which images relate to cultural history. They each connect printed images to particular cultural-historical context, such as science and cartography or politics. Hunter hopes that historians will become more adept at including images in their analyses of early modern culture, inspired by this volume but also by the increasing availability of these images online — as for example in bpi1700.

Printed images and the Reformation

This section of the book looks at images in the religious context of the Reformation. The first two chapters are tightly connected and cross-reference each other when relevant – a sign of thorough editing. Margaret Ashton examines the controversies surrounding the representation of God and Christ on title pages from the early Reformation to the 1640s. She shows how depictions of God as a bearded old man in the clouds on title pages of bibles, as below on The Great Bible of 1539, were replaced by the use of the tetragrammaton YHWH, a new formula that had appeared in Anabaptist circles on the Continent in 1529. The Coverdale Bible (1535) was the earliest book to use the symbol in England.

God on the title page of the Great Bible of 1539

God on the title page of the Great Bible of 1539

tetragrammaton on the title page of the Coverdale bible

Tetragrammaton on the title page of the Coverdale bible

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British Printed Images to 1700

I made a serendipitous find in the library today. In my university library this is quite a feat, because most of the books are behind closed doors and need to be requested at the desk. They do, however, have open stacks containing the latest additions to the collection, and that is where I saw Printed Images in Early Modern Britain: Images in Interpretation, edited by Michael Hunter (Ashgate, 2010). The volume brings together a number of papers given at two conferences held at Birkbeck and the V&A in the context of the AHRC-funded ‘British Printed Images to 1700’ project. I hope to write a post on the book at a later stage, but I first looked into the online database that resulted from the project — because, to my shame, I have to admit I didn’t know it existed.

British Printed Images to 1700 (bpi1700) contains thousands of prints from the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum and from the Victoria and Albert Museum. One of the ways to search the database is with the ICONCLASS system, developed at my alma mater Utrecht University, which categorizes the prints according to their subject matter. I looked under Human being > Human body > Senses and sensation, and found these etchings:

bpi no. 664


bpi no. 665

bpi no. 666


bpi no. 667


bpi no. 668

They are by Francis Cleyn (1582?-1658): a series of five plates called Quinque Sensuum descriptio, in eo picturæ genere quod (Grottesche) vocant Itali (Description of the Five Senses in that kind of painting that the Italians call grotesque).

What interested me about these images is their subject matter of the senses, but also the way in which they are depicted, with a woman symbolizing one of the senses occupying the centre of the image In the centre of the image, and man-sized flowers and other decorations surrounding her. In the image representing Hearing, for example, a woman sits playing a lute in a bower formed by a man and a woman who are very Ovidianesquely metamorphosing into trees. To either side of her are huge orchid-like flowers, a hind and a stag, putti, and there’s also a rabbit at her feet. Above her head is the title of the etching – ‘Auditus’, or hearing.

The etchings made me think immediately of the chapter “Green Spectacles” in Bruce Smith’s The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture (2010), which discusses this Sheldon Tapestry:

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Literature, mind, body and emotion


Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

In the eighteenth century, young female readers were warned not to meddle with romances, novels, and chocolate, all of which were likely to inflame the passions. (182)

This juxtaposition of two of my favourite actitivities-  reading and eating chocolate – emblematises Daniel Lord Smail’s view of literature in his On Deep History and the Brain (2008). Like my third addiction, coffee, a novel is a psychotropic substance that alters the chemistry of the brain, and thereby alters moods and feelings.

This view of literature features in the final chapter of a book that is aimed to stimulate historians to revise their view of the grand narrative of history. Although the Judeo-Christian chronology in which history began with Genesis has been abandoned by scientists, it has been translated into a secular key: history in the textbooks is assumed to begin when biological ‘pre-history’ gave way to culture with the rise of civilization, six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. Traditional reasons for neglecting the Paleolithic, the period from the introduction of stone tools by hominids to the introduction of agriculture (2.6 million years ago-10.000 BC), is a lack of written sources. Smail convincingly demonstrates that current historiography is no longer based on this assumption. There are other signs than writing that historians can analyse. Smail chose to focus on the brain as a means to connect what he calls ‘deep history’ to our current world. Continue reading

The return of aesthetics

In an earlier post, I noted that Catherine Belsey’s keynote speech at the International Society for Cultural History conference in Ghent this August advocated a renewed attention to literary form and the utopian aspects of fictional worlds. This autumn’s issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly (59:3, Fall 2008) contains an article that thinks along similar lines.

Hugh Grady’s “Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics: The Case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (subscription required) acknowledges that the idea of the aesthetic is often regarded as precisely the opposite of a political reading of a literary text. Aestheticism tends to be associated with formalist approaches that discussed literature as isolated from its cultural context – as a self-contained work of art. Grady, however, proposes a revaluation of aesthetics. He introduces the notion of “impure aesthetics” as a way to avoid a return to formalism. Impure aesthetics, he writes, is “aesthetics conceived as creative of an imagined realm separate from empirical reality, but one that draws its materials from that reality.” (275). This approach does not view a work of art as unified, but takes from current theory the idea that a literary text is disunified and contains internal conflicts.

Although Grady thereby pays tribute to new historicism and especially cultural materialism, like Belsey, he is also critical of their tendency to read literary texts and aesthetic themes purely as vehicles for ideology. The elision of the boundary between artwork and the society that produced it, in his view has led to the loss of possibilities to think about art’s utopian potential – “its ability to create visions of the nonexisting, to embody desire and not just received ideas” (276). The article analyses A Midsummer Night’s Dream – not to attempt to find a unity in the play’s various materials and styles – but to argue that in its representation of the differences between the aesthetics and spaces of the fairy world and the world of Athens, the play offers a theoretical model of the relation between the aesthetic and the larger social world.

I am not entirely sure how the argument that one of the chief characteristics of the play is that it “starkly contrasts an aestheticized, utopian vision of potential harmony with a familiar world of law and ideology” or that “a counterfactual and comic realm can help clarify our unmet needs by conceptualizing their fulfillment in an artifactual, unreal form” adds to traditional interpretations of the forest as a magical world in which the laws and logic of Athens do not apply. What I do find interesting, is that Hugh Grady, like Catherine Belsey, sees in the creation of fictional worlds a possibility for rethinking existing ideologies – both, I think, see fiction as able to step outside of existing ideologies, to create new perspectives. Grady writes, for example, about the way that A Midsummer Night’s Dream can make us (early modern or present spectators/readers?) aware of our own ideologies by offering alternatives:

Shakespeare makes a distinction between a utopian or aesthetic sexuality unrestrained by marriage and a social, “human” world where marriage is the only solution to desire in unconstrained circulation. The result is one of the fundamental possibilities of aesthetic representation: to distantiate us from the familiar human world, to lead us to imagining other modes of living and loving, to look critically into the received ideologies of love and marriage.

I think that both Belsey and Grady would say that the potential of art (Grady’s term), fiction or literature (Belsey used these almost interchangeably) to step outside of a culture’s ideological framework and to offer new concepts and perspectives is enabled by complexity, by the mixing of genres and styles within a work of art, but also by what Grady calls “the internal clashes and the insubordination of repressed materials” (276). This return of aesthetics, then, is based in notions of friction, conflict and disunity, rather than in well-wrought works of art that can be read as unified wholes.

Grady and Belsey are not the only critics to advocate a return to aesthetics in literary theory. Grady’s notes includes references to such works  as James Soderholm, ed., Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in an Age of Cultural Studies (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997); Michael Clark, ed., Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today (Berkeley: U of California P, 2000); Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); and John J. Joughin and Simon Malpas, ed., The New Aestheticism (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003).

Digital Literary Studies now online!

An anonymous commenter just left a link to the new online edition of A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Three cheers to Blackwell for making this expensive resource freely available online.

The format of the site is the same as that of the Companion to the Digital Humanities: a menu of chapters on the left and a text file of the chapter, with hyperlinks, in the right-hand frame of your screen. The site is not very Web 2.0 – there is no room for discussion or interaction, but suggestions for corrections may be sent to John Unsworth by mail. The volume closes with a useful Annotated Overview of Selected Electronic Resources where you can now click on the links, instead of reading them from paper. Enjoy!