February 20, 2004

Quicksilver and Foucault

I am finally almost done with Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (just in time for the sequel!) Stephenson reminded me of why I find early modern Europe so interesting, but also of why the work of Michel Foucault was so appealing to me and to many other historians when we first encountered it.

It is easy to label postmodernism as a single agglomerated villain and attribute to it every bad thing in the past thirty years. It gets blamed (sometimes in one breath by the same person) for dragging intellectuals into total irrelevance and for accomplishing a devastatingly comprehensive subversion of Western civilization. In academic arguments, a generalized postmodernism often functions as an all-purpose boogeyman in declensionist narratives, the singular explanation for why the young turks aren’t as good as the old farts. (Though that may be shifting: the genuinely ardent postmodernists are themselves becoming the old farts, and will presumably shortly be blaming something else for falling standards.)

This general posture allows people to get away with some appalling know-nothingism at times. When reading E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, I was excited at first by his ambitions to achieve the “unification of knowledge”, to re-create the practice of the Enlightenment when science and philosophy, interpretation and empiricism, were joined together. Then I began to realize that Wilson meant “unification” roughly the same way that Hitler meant to unify the Sudetenland with Germany. Nowhere was this more evident in his treatment of Foucault. Wilson basically admits that he just read a bit of his work, haphazardly, and thought “Come on, get over it, things aren’t so bad”.

I say all this as someone who does often talk about an agglomerated postmodernism rather loosely, and who certainly views it quite critically. I reject almost all of the deeper ontological claims of most postmodernists and poststructuralists, and I find the epistemologies that many of them propose crippling, useless or pernicious. And yes, I think that a lot of them are bad writers, though let’s leave that perennial favorite alone for once. But I still recognize the ontological challenge that postmodernism, broadly defined, offers as a very serious, substantial and rigorous one. Nor do I just brush off the epistemological challenges that postmodernists have laid out: they’re real and they’re important. (Though yes, at some point, I think it’s perfectly fair to say, ‘Yeah, I get it, I get it’ and move on to other things. You’re not required to read and read and read.)

The thing I regret most about casual rejectionism of a loosely conceptualized postmodernism (or any body of theory) is that it seems to deny that it is possible to read a single work and extract some insight or inspiration from it that is not really what the author’s full theory or argument is meant to lead you to. It's rather like one of the professors who I encountered in graduate school who would circle words or terms he didn't like and ominously ask, "Do you want to be tarred with that brush?" It's a theory of citation as contagion.

Taken in totality, I think Foucault is doing his damnedest to avoid being pinned down to any particular vision of praxis or anything that might be summarized as a ‘theory’, in a way that can be terribly coy and frustrating. Inasmuch as he can be said to have an overall philosophy, I find it despairingly futilitarian and barren, and I accept very little of the overall vision. Taken instead as a body of inconsistent or contradictory suggestions, insights, and gestures, his work is fairly fertile for historians.

If nothing else, he opened up a whole range of new subjects for historical investigation from entirely new angles: institutions like prisons or medicine and their practices, forms of personhood and subjectivity, and sexuality. It’s interesting that the historical work which Foucault inspired often ended up documenting that he was wrong on the actual details and often even the overall arguments, but even then, you can clearly see how generative that his choices of subjects were.

What Foucault does most for me comes from his attempt to write genealogies instead of histories, his attempt to escape forcing the past as the necessary precursor to the present, to break the iron chain and let the past be itself. That’s what brings me back to Stephenson’s Quicksilver and early modern Europe in general.

The temptation is so powerful to understand early modern Europe as the root of what we are now, and everything within it as the embryonic present, all its organs already there, waiting to grow and be born. But what I find so dizzying and seductive about the period is also its intimate unfamiliarity, its comfortable strangeness. I don’t feel as epistemologically and morally burdened by alterity as I do when I’m dealing with precolonial African societies, where there’s so much groundwork seemingly required to gain the same sense of interior perspective, but on the other hand, I always feel that around every corner in early modern European societies the familiar makes itself strange right before my eyes. The genesis of the present but also the possibilities of other histories; the world we have inherited but also all its dopplegangers and ghosts.

That’s what I feel Foucault’s idea of genealogies helped me to explore and understand, and what I think Stephenson manages to deliver in Quicksilver. The thrill of natural philosophy unbinding the world, so much a part of the more whiggish history of science is there, but also its distance. The Royal Society are ur-geeks and proto-technophiles and yet, they’re also aliens. Jack Shaftoe is the libertarian dream, the free man cutting loose of the constricted world around him—but he’s also the passive, drifting inhabitant of a commercial and social landscape unlike anything we know today, to whom events happen, recapitulating the narrative structure of the picaresque. Reading Quicksilver is like wearing bifocals: you can switch in and out of being able to locate yourself within its episteme. I’m not entirely sure it’s a good modern novel, really, nor is it good history—but it is a good genealogy as well as genealogical simulation of the narrative roots of the novel form.

This isn’t a pleasure limited to representations of the early modern world: Jeff Vandermeer’s edited anthology of pseudo-Victorian/Edwardian medical prose, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases delivers some of the same satisfactions through simulation (rather like Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum does by simply showing you the medical artifacts and exhibitionary vision of the same era). But simulations or explorations of the Victorian usually feel much more like recursions of the present than trips to a fever-dream alternative universe. Quicksilver, like Foucault, travels farther and tries harder to give us a way of representing the early modern European world that doesn’t just make into a toddler version of our own times.