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.

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

Continue reading

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

Reading sensations

Reading Sensations - front cover

Embodied books on the cover

“Glosing wordes tickle and stirre vp the affections to be conceited of some fond passion” [1]

Henry Crosse, Vertues Commonwealth (1603)

It took me a while after this first post, but this summer I did finally buy Katherine Craik‘s Reading Sensations in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). This is a book I wish I had written. Its subject matter is utterly fascinating and Craik writes in a beautifully crisp style. 

The book posits that reading in early modern England was a bodily, material experience. In its pages, readers can be found licking the sweet juice of stinking books, being tickled with sugared rhetoric, softened or sharpened by words, pricked or pierced by sermons, or stirred and inflamed by poetry. Indeed, words themselves are material; they have weight and texture, while books have humoral properties that interact with the physiology of their reader, conveying the humoral state of its author to the reader’s body.

The topic resonates with recent interest in the body and embodiment in early modern culture (see also this bibliography). It picks up on Gail Kern Paster’s exploration of the porousness of the body and its exchanges with its environment. Craik studies the exchanges between the word and the flesh – “the relationship between literary texts and the bodies of English gentlemen.” Continue reading

Vision in early modern culture

vanities1.jpgStuart Clark’s Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford University Press, 2007) had been waiting for me on my bookshelf for a while, and this week I finally got round to it. It was a great read. Vanities of the Eye is a wonderfully erudite book, teeming with information and original ideas about the changing perception of the sense of vision in early modern culture.

The book argues that contrary to what theories of the rationalization of sight and the invention of perspective suggests, vision came to be characterized by unreliability and uncertainty in the early modern period. As Stuart Clark puts it with a pun: “It is as though European intellectuals lost their optical nerve.” Continue reading

Shakespeare's wife

Most of you will know Ann Hathaway, whether it be from a biography of Shakespeare, from education, popular literature or the internet. The image most people have of her is based on a few facts. When they married, for example, William was eighteen while Ann was twenty-six and several months pregnant. In his will, William left Ann his second-best bed. In the words of Germaine Greer, she “left a wife-shaped void in the biography of William Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare’s Wife convincingly shows how biographers have filled this void with their own ideas of what Shakespeare’s wife would have been like. In the popular imagination, she or her parents and friends forced the young Shakespeare to marry her after a roll in the hay at Shottery. A few years later, Shakespeare escaped to London and led a wild life among the brothels in Southwark. Here, for example, is a quotation from the page on Ann’s life on the website of Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare:

At 26, Anne knew the way of the world while William was still a troubled youth, unsure of his path and coping with the collapse of his father’s businesses and the uncertainty of the times. After William turned 21, there would be no more children for Anne and him. There would instead be long absences as William later toured the country and set up home amongst the theatrical community in London. There would be extramarital affairs and head-turning passions for the poet, and he would encounter much more of the world than Anne in rural Warwickshire ever could.

The great thing about Germaine Greer’s biography of Ann Hathaway is that she challenges the representations of Ann that are commonly taken for granted, even (or perhaps especially) among academics. In a podcast she says that it was her reading of Stephen Greenblatt’s biography Will in the World that made her want to write this book, but her biography includes revealing quotations from many other works besides Greenblatt’s.

Continue reading

The secret history of emotion

In an earlier post I wrote about (and disagreed with) Neil Forsyth’s view of revenge as a universal human emotion. I think that, although the urge to retaliate may be found in many cultures, and reciprocity is seen as the basis of our social organization by sociobiologists like Matt Ridley, ways of thinking about revenge, the rhetoric and images of revenge, reasons for taking and ways of executing revenge are so much culturally and historically specific, that vindictiveness just cannot be seen as a universal emotion, because emotions are so culturally specific. I will write a longer post on this issue sometime, but I just found an ally in Daniel M. Gross’s The Secret History of Emotion (2006), a book in which early modern conceptions of the passions play a central role in the argument for cultural specificity rather than universality of the emotions.

The Secret History of Emotion pits itself against an essential biological (psycho-physiological) interpretation of the emotions by presenting a fascinating rhetorical history. One of Daniel Gross’s recurrent sparring partners in the book is Antonio Damasio, a neurobiologist and author of several best-selling books on emotions and the mind. His main objection to scientific analysis of the emotions is that it often reduces or neglects social phenomena in order to be able to conduct the experiment. Continue reading

Women and early modern ecologies

“In this book I am retelling, as best I can, some of the old ecological stories; they are well worth remembering as we tell our new stories and begin to theorize the potential and power of narrative to intervene in politics and culture.”

Sylvia Bowerbank’s Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England (2005) is en example of ecological feminism. This is a particular kind of ecocriticism concerned with the question “how to theorize the difficult interconnections between women, nature, and language, and how to manifest in our daily lives a just and appropriate politics of nature”(2). Bowerbank realizes that this is a risky combination. When women speak for nature, do they not rehearse the stereotypes that associate women with nature, men with culture? Her book is therefore not a straightforward celebration of women’s writing about nature, but examines early modern women’s ideas about nature from a critical distance.

The book contains a rich store of ecological stories and intelligent analyses. I was intrigued by the chapter “Nature as Trickster: The Philosophical Laughter of Margaret Cavendish” (pp. 52-79), especially by the section that discusses Cavendish’s relation and reactions to seventeenth-century science.

The early modern period is pivotal in ecocriticism, since it is retrospectively seen as the time in which the medieval paradigm of nature was overthrown by the paradigm of modern science. Robert Boyle, for example, in his A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (1685-86) debunked the idea of nature as a wise, independent being requiring respect and restraint. Instead, Boyle tried to establish a competing concept of nature as governed by a providential system of laws, the secrets of which could be discovered by humanity.

In her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666, 1668), Cavendish laughs at the pretensions of Baconian scientists.

I do not understand, first, what they mean by our power over Natural causes and effects … for Man is but a small part, and his powers are but particular actions of Nature, and therefore he cannot have a supream and absolute power. (67)

For Cavendish, to understand nature truly requires taking pleasure in her amazing agency. “Stimulating nature’s sly and strange generosity, [her poems are] swarming with odd ideas and fresh questions. According to Cavendish, new knowledge is more likely to be discovered by bold imagining than by repeatable experiments,” Bowerbank writes (69). While natural philosophers set rational man apart from nature, Cavendish rehabilitated the very idea of resemblances, correspondences and connections in nature (an idea that Gabriel Egan also rehabilitates from Tillyard in his Green Shakespeare).

The separation of man from nature permitted scientists to suspend moral judgement in their dealings with nature. Bowerbank describes contemporary reactions to Robert Boyle’s experiments involving small animals and a vacuum pump (see illustration), and shows how purely empirical observation was mingled with empathy — often gendered feminine — with the animal.

Bowerbank offers one of Cavendish’s observations of butterflies as a counter experiment to empirical research. Whereas the experiments conducted, among others, by Boyle interfere dramatically (and often deadly) in animal life, Cavendish found a cocoon and simply left it on her windowsill.

One morning I spi’d two Butter-flies playing about it; which knowing the window had been close shut all the while, and finding the Insect all empty, and only like a bare shell or skin, I supposed had been bred out of it; […] And it is observable, that two Butterflies were produced out of one shell, which I supposed to be male and female. But this latter I will not certainly affirm, for I could not discern them with my eyes, except I had had some microscope, but a thousand to one I might have been also deceived by it: and had I opened this Insect, or shell, at first; it might perhaps have given those Butterflies an untimely death, or rather hinder’d their production. This is all I have observed of Butterflies. (71)

Cavendish does not desire to cut open the cocoon or observe the butterflies under a microscope, because the new knowledge that she would gain by so doing would interfere in the lives of the butterflies themselves. As Bowerbank puts it, Cavendish’s “style of natural philosophy is to ridicule such efforts and to imitate [in her texts] the wily ways of nature, in her shifts, her doublings, her tricks and contradictions” (73).

Bowerbank does not merely contrast Cavendish’s view of nature to the empirical view that survived into our time. She is also critical of her work, and is sometimes less pleased with Cavendish’s notion of  natural life. She signals that it lacks reflection on the consequences of using up nature’s bounty as (an aristocratic) consumer. When, in The Convent of Pleasure, nature’s gifts are figured as luxury goods such as Turkish rugs and perfume (“Wee’l Cloth our selves with softest Silk | And Linnen fine as white as milk,” I.ii), Bowerbank asks critically: Is this Cavendish’s notion of natural life? “It is assumed that the pleasures, reserved for happy ladies, will be within nature’s capacity to deliver.” This trust in nature’s bounty, from a modern perspective, is perhaps naive. Cavendish, although critical of empirical science, just did not think to ask how nature should be preserved and shared evenly.

I was sad to learn that Sylvia Bowerbank died of cancer in August 2005, a year after this book was published. Her analyses of these ‘old ecological stories’ live on, as critical and inspiring food for thought for the ecological movement.


Green Shakespeare

I often use Gabriel Egan’s online database of early modern drama, and today I noticed that not only has the layout of the site changed, it also brings news of Gabriel Egan’s new book, Green Shakespeare.

After Jonathan Bate’s two influential works Romantic Ecology (1991) and The Song of the Earth (2000), ecocriticism has now reached Shakespeare Studies. Amazon reports that the book contains

an analysis of themes such as nature and human society; food and biological nature; the supernatural and the weather; and a bold argument for a contemporary ‘EcoShakespeare’, taking into account the environmental and political implications of globalization and intellectual property laws.

I cannot wait to read the book. What does ecocriticism do with Shakespeare? Or what did Shakespeare do with ecopolitics? Should we draw lessons from the abolition of the commons, or from life in the forest of Arden in As You Like It? Does Prospero’s storm tell us anything about human manipulations of the weather, or Lear’s storm about human inability to manipulate the weather? I am not being cynical, believe you me, I’m curious. Anyone out there who has read the book already?

Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism was published by Routledge in April 2006.