Corps de l’article

The study of the body in the long nineteenth century, with its material and textual elements, its physiologies and its cultures, is an obvious candidate for interdisciplinary study. No one approach seems to do it justice, and even to ask the question—what would a history of the body require?—seems to open lines of flight from any one approach. Such a question is exhilarating (where will it take us?) and a bit frightening (are we prepared to go there?).

An anecdote perhaps illustrates some of the perils and pleasures of interdisciplinarity. A few years ago, I was working in a university library (not my own) and wanted a reference. Knowing that I had cited the work in my recently published book on Victorian mapping and cholera epidemics, I decided to take a quick look at my book.

I found it in a remote and lonely corner of the library next to several oversized and dusty books. Until that moment, the significance of the library of congress designation had not been sufficiently clear to me. The LOC had, apparently after a cursory glance at keywords, decided the book was an atlas. Hence, it had been shelved as an atlas. And, as I discovered in speaking to the librarian, the LOC’s authority was not to be questioned.

I had approached the librarian simply as a patron—it felt strangely awkward to claim authorship at that moment. I suggested that the book had been misshelved. When he pointed out that the LOC designation indicated that it had been shelved correctly, I demurred. “This book,” I said confidently, “is obviously not an atlas.”

The librarian looked it over. He then patiently explained to me that it was an atlas—that many books that have more text than maps are atlases. I tried various argumentative tactics, to no avail. Finally, the only support I had left was the weak reed of authorial intent, and I felt it was too late to “out” myself as the author without looking even more eccentric than the librarian obviously thought me. As I stood there, having been told in soothing but definite tones that I had written an atlas and had best get used to the fact, I realized that I was no longer sure I had not written an atlas. Wasn’t I buying into the intentional fallacy that I had been told to avoid ever since high school? I looked at the book in the librarian’s hand with surprise and some mistrust. Who was I to say what the damned thing was?

So, no doubt exposing my bias as a literary scholar, I turned to the OED (venerable philology the higher authority than the parvenu discipline of library science). Having pored over the atlas beetle, the atlas vertebra and the Atlas of myth, I found my atlas: “a collection of maps in a volume.”

No help there.

Another definition offered me a bit more purchase: “A similar volume containing illustrative plates, large engravings, etc., or the conspectus of any subject arranged in tabular form; e.g. ‘an atlas of anatomical plates,’ ‘an ethnographical atlas.’” This seemed to get at my objection, which was that the book was not intended to serve, nor did it serve, as a guide arranged in tabular form, but as a narrative, with related sub-arguments, about maps and related documents and a series of close readings to support that narrative. But that definition was not precisely disallowed by the OED.

So. Not only had I perhaps written an atlas, (in a fit of absence of mind?), I, putatively a scholar of maps, had failed to recognize it as such.

Perhaps critics of interdisciplinarity were right about the dangerous shallowness of such work; I really did not know what I was doing.

Interdisciplinarity has, so the lore goes, been a watchword of Victorian Studies since the young idealists of the 1950s founded, well, Victorian Studies (1957). And certainly our field has led such efforts, among modern literary periods at least. (Classicists and medievalists have been, perhaps perforce, historically more connected to adjacent disciplines than the scholars of modern belles lettres.) Under the broad rubric of interdisciplinary work lie roughly three approaches, all of which are valuable in their ways: interdisciplinary work, in which a question not answerable from within one discipline is explored outside of the boundaries of the discipline(s) in which it would normally fall; cross-disciplinary work, in which the object of study identified with another discipline is subjected to the methods of inquiry traditional to one’s own discipline, so that it is subjected to novel questions and may yield novel answers of use to scholars in one or more of the disciplines (my “atlas” was aiming for such an outcome); and multidisciplinary work, wherein a scholar who has mastered two or more disciplines works from both perspectives simultaneously. As Rohan McWilliam says,

At the risk of placing the interdisciplinary bar too high (so that most scholars fail to make it), a genuinely interdisciplinary approach needs to do more than just demonstrate an awareness of what other disciplines are doing and must be more daring than the older approach based on juxtaposition. This is not a call to ditch the various protocols and forms of knowledge that are peculiar to the different disciplines or to create an indifferent form of analytical porridge that will please no one. The distinctive quality of interdisciplinary work is its readiness to ask questions of the different kinds of academic explanations available. This generates a certain self-consciousness of technique . . . but also an awareness of the varieties of explanation that can generate new insights.


One might add that there is a kind of anti-disciplinarity in some interdisciplinary work (notably some work under the rubric of cultural studies); such scholarship seeks to elude what are seen as inherently limiting assumptions within disciplines and to retain a lively and flexible hermeneutic. Many anti-disciplinarians point out that the field of English itself has historically had a history of anti-disciplinarity, being the heir of the anti-disciplinary aspects of philosophy as the general “queen of the disciplines” and that is why researchers, as persons of general learnedness ranking above the disciplinary specialty, are still called Doctors of Philosophy. After all, modern academic disciplinarity was resisted even at its inception in the eighteenth century as careerist and narrow, and the relatively youthful field of English literary studies has spent its short history alternately embracing and rejecting its investment in disciplinary boundaries (see Moran; Keep).

Perhaps all of these approaches are made more accessible to those of us working in the nineteenth century because the disciplines were not then yet as concrete and distinct as they are now (being largely founded in the era between 1740 and 1880) and because the production of knowledge had not yet arrived at the exponentially accelerated pace of the later twentieth century. One does not have to be an economist to understand Ricardo or Smith, though an economist certainly might understand their historical implications in a different way than a literary scholar. But Smith was considered a moral philosopher in his day and I suspect a political philosopher would claim an understanding of his work as profound as an economist’s.

However, as Timothy Alborn reminds us in this volume, not all divisions between areas of knowledge were equally ill-defined, and the Victorians themselves, for example, had a firm grasp on many of those distinctions, and their implications. To continue the metaphor of geography, some disciplines are adjacent, some are close and some are widely divided. Literature and History (not to mention literary history, or historiographic studies) are contentious siblings, but rather close ones. Art history is somewhat further off, and once we arrive in the social sciences and then march off toward the hard sciences, we had better have our passports in hand. However, this was not always the case. The relations of medicine and natural history, or philosophy and general “culture,” were rather close in 1838. Undergraduate work in psychology and biology has been more than sufficient to prepare me for my readings in medical journals and case studies of the early to mid-nineteenth century. Were I to attempt a history of physics, I would be somewhat harder pressed. A current-day physician might find different things of interest in the same materials, but, without extensive reading in the early nineteenth century, would probably be less prepared to understand and interpret some of these materials than the average graduate student in Victorian literature. But by the late nineteenth century, material produced by medics is less accessible to the non-specialist and, by the mid-twentieth century, some more specialized training is really required to understand the implications of most discussions in medical journals.

Yet it is important not to overestimate the “pre-disciplinarity” of the period either. Today, a scholar of literature might (perhaps mistakenly!) expect to understand a scholarly discussion of religious belief more easily than one of surgical technique. Yet I have found early Victorian discussions of religion much more dependent on a specific body of knowledge—knowledge less readily accessible to a literary scholar today (at least to this one), than that of, say, early Victorian obstetrics—and on assumptions about the “rules” for producing new knowledge not transparent to a newcomer—in short, an established discipline. This is not surprising, considering the enormous and ancient apparatus devoted to the production of theological knowledge upon which that discussion depended, whereas medicine, until rather late in the day, was largely a combination of theoretical knowledge that had not changed much since Galen and practical knowledge passed on by apprenticeship and articulated in fairly basic terms. My point here is that it is not necessarily the disciplines most obviously specialized today that require specialized knowledge of the scholar of the nineteenth-century. Further, I suspect that many of us in the humanities and in the “qualitatative” branches of social sciences today would be hard pressed to measure the outer limits of our disciplines: the centers are often clear (such and such questions, such and such methods) but the precise delineation of the extremes might be a bit beyond us. Like pornography, we know it when we see it—or think we will.

One thing seems clear about what those of us who might publish in or read RaVoN do: it has a historical component. A period prior to the present and after the Renaissance—whether Romantic, Victorian, late-modern, nineteenth-century long or straight up—seems clearly indicated. As a respected medical historian once told me when I asked him what methodology he found most helpful for beginning a project, we “read lots of old things.” Add look at, touch, listen to, and occasionally, smell and taste, and you have the beginning of our work. Increasingly, we also read the same old things: that is, historians read novels, literary critics read parliamentary debates, and art historians read medical treatises. Yet, we tend to read new things, too. And, across several disciplines at least, there is a fairly impressive overlap between the works we find useful—often texts that fall into the Broad Church of “theory,” but which probably began as philosophy, sociology, narrative theory, etcetera—or even as history or art or literary criticism.

Amazingly, good interdisciplinary work has often been achieved despite the general institutional resistance to interdisciplinary work: funding and publishing venues that are organized by disciplines often reject work that seems to fall (or soar) between two stools; tenure and promotion takes place within departments which may have difficulty evaluating work that doesn’t seem to “belong.” (This continues to be true, despite the fact that every academic institution I have ever seen claims to have an especial warm fondness for “interdisciplinary” work.) The alternate problem, as Francis O’Gorman has pointed out, is that when universities say they support “interdisciplinary” work, the adjective can also be a term of art meaning something like “more fundable because more accessible or appealing to a general public or to funding bodies”—which is not at all a bad thing, unless the work one does ends up being shaped by the demands of the funding at the expense of the intellectual value of the inquiry. It is also not at all necessarily the same thing as interdisciplinary work.

The focus on the body that started with feminist scholars of the seventies—often coming out of Women’s Studies, which was then even more broadly and deliberately interdisciplinary than it has perhaps come to be, since in the nineties it tilted markedly toward a social-sciences approach—encouraged interdisciplinary work. So did the historical, material and spatial turns that followed it in literary studies (and the literary and the spatial turns within history at the same time). Endlessly and evidently textual yet irreducibly material, the body was a site at which medicine, science, anthropology, and the arts converged, floundered, fought and continually redefined themselves and the object of study. In nineteenth-century studies, a surge of work on gender, race and the body has been matched and amplified by work on medicine and sexuality, the history of anthropology, art history, the history of science (especially optics), but also work on smell, sound, and touch.

Nineteenth-century scholars have a unique opportunity, as inheritors of a conversation shaped by a period of inquiry defined by its identity as a high point in disciplinary formation, to reflect doubly on the interdisciplinarity of their own work and that of their objects of scrutiny. Timothy Alborn, featured in this volume, offers the perspective of a trained economic historian, one with some grounding both in the history of the period and of economics as a discipline. His essay, which focuses on the definition of normalcy, as in “what is a normal life?” shows the very different answers—and very different ways of framing that question—that emerge in probability theory, medicine and economics. The history of life insurance, a quintessentially nineteenth-century invention, brought these disparate approaches together and demanded that they “talk to” each other in ways that made the business of assessing insurance cost and risk possible. As Alborn points out, such “interdisciplinary collaboration” not only brought disparate practices together, but transformed them. Doctors who worked for insurance companies had to focus on the normal, rather than the pathological; thus, the practice reversed the general trend of specialization in the clinical gaze, forcing the physician to see the whole person in relation to some idea of an average or “normally” healthy individual, and to see that person as a narrative over time rather than the history of a particular complaint and its termination. (Normalcy did not merely mean, as it has since come to mean in popular parlance, health, but also included some morbidity; after all, everyone gets sick and, eventually, dies. For insurers, the crucial question is only one of duration.) Yet, there was a limit to the impact that disciplinary difference had. Alborn notes that the failure to find a reliable “law of mortality” meant that life insurance abandoned a perfectionist ideal of the normal in order to sell insurance while the disciplines of medicine, statistics and economics still retained it. And enough experts in those latter disciplines were willing to work from the insurance companies’ perspective while under their pay that the companies could advance their business without being swayed by the disciplinary commitments of their employees. Disciplinarity could be reshaped or simply set aside by other conditions in the field of action: here, that of enterprise. Disciplinarity then, as today, operated as controlling assumptions that shaped knowledge; yet actors accessed and produced many knowledges simultaneously whose relations are neither obvious nor outside the volition of those accessing them.

Peter Logan also focuses on sites where nineteenth-century disciplines intersected and also refused to mesh. He begins with the sensational novel by Charles Reade, Hard Cash, a book satirizing a real-life alienist, John Connolly, as a monomaniac fixated on the character of Hamlet. His patient sends him into a fit because he maintains that it is impossible to diagnose Hamlet because Hamlet is not real, and therefore, cannot be mad. Reade’s portrait is particularly apropos, Logan points out, because Connolly’s major works tended to focus on artistic representations of madness: both The Physiology of Insanity (1858-9) and A Study in Hamlet (1863) analyze artistic representations of the sick person. One reason Connolly can make this move is that he claims a privileged gaze. But this privilege derives not simply from medical experience; Connolly’s gaze is educated by his aesthetic expertise, and finally, for him, the question of diagnosing insanity is an aesthetic one. Insanity can be feigned by a good actor well enough to fool the general public, but one cannot fool the true aesthetic connoisseur of insanity. However, as Logan points out, the sense of a certain kind of disciplinary separation was advanced enough in the mid-Victorian period that Reade’s attack was a persuasive one. For many readers, a novelist could “realistically” describe insanity, whereas a physician was not licensed to comment on the realism of art.

Both Alborn and Logan point out that, in some regards, the boundary definitions of Victorian disciplinarity were already far advanced; although we may see the nineteenth-century doctor or scientist as much less bound by discipline than they are today, that didn’t mean they were perceived as having epistemological carte blanche. Alborn’s actuaries know—and have a sophisticated meta-discourse about—their differences from medical professionals and how they view data. And Logan shows us Connolly’s interdisciplinary claims being met with suspicion. But both authors also point to present-day scholars’ own disciplinary work and how, if they enable us to see some features of our material with new clarity, they also throw others into shadow. As Alborn points out, the Foucault-inspired Victorianist studying Dickens or reading medical journals might tend to see the period as one dominated by the pathological. But “most people thought of themselves … as normal” and a study of normalcy may therefore be more revealing of the period as the majority actually experienced it. On the other hand, the traditional literary or medical history scholar, as Logan reminds us, might fail to see how foundational aestheticism is to Connolly’s story; the medical historian for lack of focus on Victorian aesthetics and the literary scholar for lack of close attention to primary medical texts.

The following three essays focus even more insistently on the value of understanding the interdisciplinarity of the nineteenth century subject. Gavin Budge and Susan Zieger are both interested in the cult of the author and the hyper- (or compromised) masculinity of the nervous male subject. Budge focuses on the Romantic period and the neurotic, obsessed poet—the monomaniac was highly creative, a founder of aesthetic schools and social movements, but also a potentially effeminate failure. In the Romantics’ interest in neurological bases for creativity, they created a pathologized understanding of the artist as both suffering from and inspired by “sustained neural irritation,” a Brunonian understanding of the mind-body connection. The Romantic writers were interested in these medical models, and, like us today, they sustained no inconvenient bar to their understanding of these treatises in the form of disciplinary specialization; indeed, they contributed to a discussion in which the categories of the aesthetic and the medical were not necessarily discrete. Budge notes that Romantics’ focus on optics and the optic nerve lead to concern about mediatization as a form of morbid overstimulation, a concern that dogged the picturesque. Mediatization led to specialization, an overemphasis on effect, and often on a single effect.

Susan Zieger continues the analysis of mediatization and the visual, beginning in the Victorian period and gesturing toward the twentieth century. Her subjects are also interested in their nerves and also nervous about overstimulation and the loss of control—all the more because they are engaging in activities modeled on or borrowed from the native or colonial other. As these poets, anthropologists and doctors experimented with hallucinogens from opium to mescaline, they charted their physical reactions with scientific attentiveness. But they also celebrated fantasies of disembodiment and transcendence of their physical limitations, often enjoying visual hallucinations as mediatized experiences presented for their delectation. In this period, we see the separation of specifically medical and artistic texts, as doctors claim a particular kind of objective expertise to self-monitor reactions to drugs. However, there is also a clear continuity between the aesthetic, the ethnological and the clinical in the drug-related literature, as Silas Weir Mitchell and Havelock Ellis echo De Quincey. Here, within various emergent disciplinary discourses, Zieger shows us not only the separation of such perspectives, but their “interdisciplinarity,” that is, the way in which values and beliefs are echoed, repeated and reshaped across these boundaries. Unsurprisingly, the gender anxieties evident in Budge’s survey of Romantic attitudes toward neural overstimulation are continued and amplified in the later period, complicated by the racial and cultural boundaries represented by the expert observer’s participation in native or underclass rituals of drug-taking.

As Budge shows us how Romantic poets grounded their aesthetics in the physiological, Meegan Kennedy attends to the way in which professional medical discourse, whether verbal or visual, is deeply indebted to prior aesthetic discourses associated with the arts. Kennedy takes us toward Victorian fiction in roughly the same moment discussed by Zieger. If Zieger focuses on the scientific (and emerging social-scientific) disciplines and their adoption of a clinical gaze which disembodied its subject, Kennedy shows us the extent to which the medical gaze was embedded in traditions of fiction writing—and some of the ways in which fiction writing reciprocated. Unlike other studies that have shown either specifically medical subjects or the logic of the case study as a form of realist narrative (Lawrence Rothfield’s fine work, for example), Kennedy shows, through her extended reading of Hardy, a self-conscious use of the clinical gaze as metaphor, not only for the work of the author, but for artisanship, as well as artistry. As she points out, overspecialization was already a concern, and medical practitioners were admonished to be men of full culture, just as novelists cultivated an ideal of possessing a kind of observant faculty which was both sympathetically humane and clinically penetrating. A conscious meta-discourse about professional and disciplinary difference combined with concerns about the limits of specialization to lend particular kinds of explanatory power to an overtly “interdisciplinary” narrative strategy.

Now I am fairly sure most geographers would say, with me, that my book was not an atlas. But they aren’t really the experts, are they, on what makes what kind of book? That, of course, is the purview of library science. Of course, library scientists are actually historians (looking backward to the mass of knowledge of the past) and, in a way, well, cartographers (spatially organizing that mass in ways that will speak to developing categories of knowledge) of epistemology, and…

Ah well.

The LOC, in a rare reversal, changed the designation of my book to a medical geography number. Since the old designation was already printed on the books, they have not been reshelved. Perhaps this is just as well, since in most research universities, this would take it out of the general library used by scholars in the humanities and place it in the medical school library. The new designation shows up in the LOC catalog, where a book icon now appears, instead of a map—but in local catalogs, the map icon remains. I am not sure whether this is a sad example of the persistence of error or a liberating proliferation of descriptors, traces of a small but successful rebellion against discipline. The intersection of bodies and spaces, apparently, is a hard one to pin down—do we describe them in books or atlases? Medicine or geography? Science or art?

And so we end, where we began in this issue—with the productive messiness of bodies, and the discourses that explain, produce, organize and discipline them. A multi-layered approach that addresses both the histories of those bodies and the histories of the disciplines through which we have come to know them can allow us to understand not only the putative object of our study, but also to place and contextualize knowledge that we ourselves produce as creatures embodied and embedded in these histories of knowing. This approach may not simply tell us where we stand or what we have produced. But it begins to articulate our relation to our ways of knowing that allows us both to see how unstable our ground is and how that instability itself creates opportunities for acts of knowing whose resistance to discipline may be itself a form of affirmation.