Laura Salisbury and Andrew Shail (eds), Neurology and Modernity

Laura Salisbury and Andrew Shail (eds.), Neurology and Modernity: A Cultural History of Nervous Systems, 1800-1950 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). 298 pp. £60 Hb. ISBN 978-0-230-23313-3.

Neurology and Modernity announces itself as a book which argues that 'to speak of neurology and modernity is to describe a relationship of mutual constitution' (1), describing the two as 'symbiotically related, complexly co-generative' (1). In setting out the ground for this exploration in their thorough and wide-ranging introduction, the book's editors use the idea of a network in order to resist 'linear temporality and simple assertions of priority in which one set of circumstances is rendered as obviously producing another' (9). It is this network of connections between neurology and modernity which the book explores. In doing so it offers a wonderfully rich set of accounts which present many of the versions of selfhood represented in cultural and scientific texts of modernity. An essential element of this portrait is the way it reveals that while neurology was ostensibly part of the discourse of scientific positivism, it also produced versions of selfhood which exceeded positivism's capacity for rational explanations. Another key aspect of the book is in representing the centrality of neurology to portraying embodied selfhood in the period, and furthermore how this 'investigation into the materiality of thought constituted a major disciplinary alternative to the discourse of psychoanalysis, long regarded as modernism's scientific counterpart' (37).

The editors' introduction offers a detailed yet succinct history of neurology which extends back beyond 1800-1950, providing essential contexts for the essays which make up the remainder of the book. Arranged in broadly chronological order, the essays comprise a wide range of cultural histories of nervous systems and states across the sciences and the arts. The way in which the collection has been arranged and edited allows for a necessarily multi-faceted and diverse account to simultaneously emerge as a coherent and singular cultural history. If the essays in the collection have a unifying notion it is the embodiment of the mind, and the ways in which 'thinking was [...] consistently represented as a visceral event' (4) in both neurological and cultural texts. In the opening essay, Michael K. House explores responses to Franz Joseph Gall's materialist organology - which offered a 'physical account of the mind' (41) - that were resistant to what they saw as Gall's project's reduction of the mind to something physical. However, in time the newfound physicality of the mind would emerge as an aspect of modernity that moved beyond its immediately terrifying nature (as represented by the outraged responses to Gall's theories) and imbued the body and its processes with a new significance for the self and the mind.

Andrew Shail argues that neurology was a fundamental discourse in enabling the modern construction and understanding of menstruation; Hisao Ishizuka uses Thomas Carlyle as a case study to connect late nineteenth-century biliousness or nervous dyspepsia to mental strain and suffering, linking it to contemporary fears about over-taxing the brain; Jane F. Thrailkill connects the condition of railway spine with understandings of male hysteria. Thrailkill examines both medical writings and a novel by Oliver Wendell Holmes to examine how physical 'impressions' were understood to translate into mental states and how doctors had to therefore begin to read the evidence of body as well as hearing what patients said when dealing with the 'terror-stricken man' (110). Aura Satz considers spiritualism and neurology from the late nineteenth century, focusing on their portrayals of phantoms, be these ghosts or limbs. She uses two works by Silias Weir Mitchell - one a short story and one a medical text - to discuss his representation of phantom limbs (he coined the term) in relation to spiritualism. George Rousseau traces the cultural and neurological framework in which a new type of paranoia emerged at around the same time as modernism; Shelley Trower examines texts in which vibratory movements were understood as both dangerous and therapeutic for the nervous system; Michael Angelo Tata asks how the case study superstar challenges the apparent rationality of modernity; Vike Martina Plock offers an account of Edith Wharton and neurological discourses (using a reading of Wharton's Ethan Frome, Plock argues that Wharton reacted against notions of psychological interiority and instead favoured selfhood centred in scientific materialism). Laura Salisbury explores narratives of aphasiology which disrupted the distinction between psychic and somatic processes through presenting people as organisms 'thrown into the processes of their own becoming in the world' (224) and argues that aphasiology led to a new paradigm for understanding the subject of modernity as embodied.

Jessica Meyer examines shell shock and self-inflicted wounds to consider the space between medical disability and military offence and the involvement of volitional consciousness in the production of these related but different conditions. Jean Walton's essay presents the enteric nervous system or second brain in the stomach and the ways in which it, like other nervous systems, deals with the world which passes through it and is required to undergo processes of regulation in order to function smoothly in the modern world. Finally, Melissa M. Littlefield investigates the 'psychon': a category which emerged in the 1920s for measuring basic units of psychic activitiy or thought as a psychic equivalent to the neuron. Through examining representations of the psychon in psychology, neurology and science fiction she considers the ways in which the very notion of the psychon challenged the boundaries between psychology and neurology.

This brief summary of Neurology and Modernity is intended not only to demonstrate the range of material included in the book but also to show how it offers a portrait of the network of connections between neurology and modernity which, fittingly, is both disparate and coherent, mirroring the states of neurology and modernity themselves. It is this incongruent quality of both neurology and modernity, not to mention the relationship between them, which makes an edited collection such as this one a powerful means of considering their interconnections. It allows for an overall argument and unified cultural history to emerge whilst simultaneously challenging the extent to which this narrative is actually unified. The history of neurology's relationship with both modernity and modernism, as well as the ways in which this relationship impinges upon accounts given of modernity/modernism in relation to psychology and psychoanalysis demand further exploration. And yet the very complexity of the ways in which these fields were connected to yet remained disparate from one another challenges the abilities of a straightforwardly rational narrative, just as the selves portrayed by neurology 'exceed[ed] [...] the capacities for rational explanation' (8) seemingly demanded by the scientific tradition to which neurology ostensibly belonged.

Susie Christensen, King's College London

 

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