Paul Youngquist. Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. ISBN 0816639795 (cloth), 0816639809 (paper). Price: $59.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.[Record]

  • Christopher Rovee

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  • Christopher Rovee
    Stanford University

Paul Youngquist’s Monstrosities, born among the Hunterian Museum’s skeletons, tumors, stomachs, and fetuses, offers an embodied, biologizing counterpoint to the critical inclination “to see ideas as what matter most” (xiv). For Youngquist (as for Judith Butler), bodies matter, not only as objects of the regulatory schemes of culture but also as media of regulation, “the material through which relations of power circulate to reproduce cultural norms” (xiv). Examining “deviant flesh” in its intersection with culture, he shows how medicine professionalized monstrosity in the nineteenth century, coming to view bodies not in relation to their life histories but rather in relation to other people’s bodies. Yet, in delineating this norm of embodiment, he shows how monstrosity nevertheless sustains a disturbing and haunting presence: liberalism’s proper body is troubled by what it excludes. Monstrosities jam the system, “inserting the material fact of bodily difference into the circuit of its reenactment” (xv). On the one hand, monstrosity is a fiction produced by a regime of propriety: “the norm of the proper body … constitutes monstrosities through exclusion” (xxvii). On the other hand, the monstrous body—irreducibly material and unincorporable to the ideology of the proper body—preserves a counter-normative agency. Moving beyond Rosemarie Thomson’s reduction of marvelous monsters to medical cases, Youngquist reveals a “dynamic history” that entails “the resistance of deviant flesh” to the power of medical culture (9). The book’s three sections roughly correspond to the Blakean conditions of Innocence, Experience, and Higher Innocence. The first, titled “Incorporations,” examines the ideology of the proper body as it emerges at the interface of aesthetics and medical science in the early nineteenth century. It begins with an enthralling account of John Hunter as “the Immanuel Kant of modern anatomy, reducing particular appearance to general functions in what might be called a transcendental critique of animal cadavers” (11). Hunter’s physiology grounds a norm-generating medical establishment that enables the construction of deviance as a recognizable category. The chapter yields a renewed appreciation for the role of the exemplary body in the political texts of Burke and Paine, both of which, Youngquist demonstrates, are governed by a fixation on the norm of proper embodiment. The ideology of the proper body is so total that Burke’s and Paine’s various liberalisms both “make deviant flesh the dark other of solid citizenship” (26). Chapter two turns to John Brown’s Elementa Medicinae, which posits excitement as the characteristic quality of living tissue and health as the consequence of dynamic interchange of excitation and exciting powers. Wordsworth’s descriptions of poetry turn on excitement and stimulation, and Youngquist shows how the “physiological aesthetics” of this “poet laureate of the proper body” (29) bear a striking similarity to Brown’s theories of life. The chapter also builds on the work of Peter Stallybrass and Allon White to contextualize Bartholomew Fair—ground zero, in Wordsworth’s Prelude, for the representation of deviance as monstrosity—as a carnivalesque site of resistance. It includes fascinating material on some of the medical curiosities who inhabited this space of physical and quasi-political representation, including the amazing Sarah Biffin, a limbless artist who paints with her mouth, and Daniel Lambert, a mountain of a man who makes a living “just by sitting in his parlor, offering his body to amazed gazes” (39). The latter part of the chapter is peculiarly satisfying, for not only does Wordsworth deserve to be completed by characters he works so hard to marginalize, but the readings themselves are fantastic, especially that of Lambert as an unlaboring-laboring man whose property in himself is so great that he need acquire no more. A turning point in Monstrosities, this …