10.0584 Cultural Production

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 13 Jan 1997 21:58:49 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 584.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (81)
Subject: Cultural Production of Bodily Technology

The following was sent to me by Scott Jordan, apparently an historian of
science and technology. It raises some interesting points that at least a
few Humanists will find amusing.


The Cultural Production of Bodily Technology

Recent work in cultural studies has thoroughly discredited the notion that
scientific and technological knowledge has an essentialist character to it.
This is best expressed in the words of the French theoretician, Jacques
Deraison, who recently noted, and I quote, that "the displacement of the
self from the center to the periphery is actually a replacement (or
"remplacement") of the decultured, and so denatured, Aristotelian essence by
the Western cyborg, as exemplified by Julien Offray de Lamettrie's L'homme
machine. Put another way, it is precisely the absence of the essentialist
presence that transforms circumferences of techno-imaginaries into cultural
perimeters." This, of course - and I need not elaborate the point for an
audience such as this one - is exactly why the Greek logos is not, indeed
for that very reason cannot be, an engine for the hegemonic empowerment of
culturally-situated knowledges, such as the mechanically embodied powers (or
"puissances") of science itself.

However, and here I hope to make my own contribution to this conversazione,
we have yet fully to understand that the body is in itself a construction.
My aim, in the few moments available, is to rip open this partly-healed
scar, to give voice to the stifled screams of an early post-modernity, to
empty the effulgent chamber-pots of Western bodily denial and rejection - in
short, I intend nothing less than to shake apart the cloying residues of
Platonic logo-centrism in the realm of the body. In the words of the great
southwestern shaman, Borna Bird, "to understand the worm you must first
crawl in the dirt".

I turn now to the past - to a place we can never visit, but where we all
must forever live. To, in fact, London at the dawn of modernity itself, to a
time when the Western body was first constructed.

There, late in the 17th century, certain members of the Royal Society
(itself of course a construction which embodied and transformed contemporary
cultural notions of truth-telling) gave general credence to the maxim that
breathing is a desideratum for social propriety. In this setting, for
reasons that as yet remain unclear, but which are likely connected to the
emergence of novel forms of life in Restoration society, it was widely
believed that respectable existence required the provision of air. Of
course, as we know from the many studies which have graced the field of
cultural studies in recent years, all maxims are matters of social
negotation. And so we should naturally expect that the counter-maxim must
certainly have been held by some cultural groups.

I have spent many years in British archives looking for textual traces of
these vanished groups. Although I did uncover a set of coffee-house
pamphlets, printed during a very brief period - in fact, there are
indications that the pamphlets were all written during a single afternoon -
for as yet unknown reasons these groups do not appear to have had a
continuing influence upon Restoration culture. One naturally suspects the
work here of hegemonic interests who, exercising the prerogatives of power
and patronage, deprived the silenced of their voices, and may indeed
actually have resorted to physical violence, since there are indications
that many of the "anti-breathers", as they were pejoratively denominated,
met a swift and unpleasant end.

One might indeed even say that "the breath" had become, like Boyle's air
pump, an actant on the agonistic field of emergent experimental discourse.
Naturally, with breath activated, the body became decentered, as its
existential character, qua object (or "objet"), was displaced by its
functionalist behavior, qua breather. This, of course, is entirely of a
piece with what Michel Foucault so wisely spoke of as "the colligation of
bodily modalities in the origins of modernity".

To continue, the "breather's maxim" was actually incorporated into a much
broader experimental culture. As with Newton's prisms, belief in what one
might call the "power of breath" colonized Europe, far beyond the confines
of the Royal Society, as English "breathers" carried their skilled practices
with them on "grand tours" of the Continent. Indeed, by the end of the 18th
century nearly all members of the university-trained classes in England,
Scotland and Northern Europe had incorporated breathing-facilitating
technologies into their daily social practices and cultural beliefs. By that
time, fear of tightly-closed spaces had become widespread, and Scottish
fairy-tales, among others, often had cautionary sentences about securing
breathing spaces in culturally contested circumstances. Whether this holds
true as well for Italy and the Balkans awaits further study, to which I
shall devote the remainder of my scholarly career.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk