Monthly Archives: October 2012

I’m in Edmonton this week, participating in the annual conference of the Canadian Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies. I’ve listend to myriad papers on myriad topics, and together, the little snippets of ideas I’ve taken away from them add up to a cabinet of curiosities, a bunch of seemingly unrelated ideas that, taken together, constitute the absolutely nonlinear workings of my mind.

That said, there was some good stuff there and it’s worth mulling over, sharing, and thinking through. One panel explored European (and colonial) representations of indigeneity. Early proto-ethnography was ambivalent about aboriginal peoples and cultures, sometimes presenting a laudatory image (as in some comments made by Kant, which drew attention to women’s power within aboriginal society, a power that far outstripped the powers enjoyed by their European counterparts), and sometimes a critical image. European visions of aboriginality were fundamentally shaped by two factors: pre-existing assumptions, on the one hand, and travel accounts (of different levels of reliability), on the other. These two factors also informed and challenged one another.

It was an interesting panel, but I shared the concerns of another presenter: why are we always looking at European representations of aboriginality? Can’t we engage with emergent indigenous and aboriginal method/ologies in order to tell stories from different perspectives?

That said, I was very impressed with the attentions paid, by the panel as a whole, to questions of language. All spoke to the concern raised by another speaker, about the process of naming one’s Others. Judith Still observed that to use a more ‘neutral’ term than the French “sauvages” was, in essence, a process of whitewashing that erased the complexity of aboriginal/settler relations, a complexity better captured in the still troubling term, “sauvages,” with all the baggage that it brings along with it. Andreas Motsch, meanwhile, argued that the whole thing was about language: everything was in translation. From aboriginal languages to French to German to English and back again, there were slippages all the way through, Ultimately all agreed that language is a vexed issue; there are no easy answers, only a lot of thinking and questioning.

I was also struck by Darren Wagner’s paper, entitled: “Pain and Pleasure: Physiology, Philosophy and Sexuality.” Darren’s been working in the area of bodies and texts for a while now, and this particular paper gave e a lot to think about concerning the tensions between pain and pleasure. Part of this was due to his understanding of tickling as a form of pain, a statement that sent me skittering over to my Tissot letters, to think through the implications of this in relation to the correspondent’s who understood their sexual initiations as a form of “chatouillement voluptueux.” If pain and pleasure are intimately linked, how might we understand the politics of (sexual) pleasure in eighteenth-century society?

This morning’s papers brought me into the world of eighteenth-century anatomy and its connections with contemporary concerns around biomedicalization. I won’t forget Fragonard (the anatomist, not the visual artist)’s dancing fetuses (fetii?); and I’ll definitely be putting the Museum of Morbid Anatomy on my bucket list! On that same panel, Christina Smylitopoulos explored the figure of the “nabob” in prints, demonstrating that that nabob came to represent anxieties around British identity, economics, and culture, particularly in relation to Britain’s imperialist projects and ambitions.

Bodies in and out of place were also on the agenda on the last panel I went to this morning. Dana Wight offered a a reading of Richardson’s Pamela that focuses on the role and function of fainting in the narrative. On the one hand, fainting (which always happens when Mr. B. is trying to sexually assault Pamela), enables Pamela to perform and maintain her virtue. Mr. B. does not rape her while she is incapacitated, thus allowing her to present both moral virtue and physical virginity. On the other, her fainting paves the way for the moral reform of Mr. B., in the process opening the door for what might be seen as “Virtue’s Reward,” or marriage. A fascinating analysis, but one that makes me question, once again, how it is that a novel that is ostensibly about sexual assault (and then the validation of that assault through marriage to the assailant) ended up being a canonical literary text.

Jes Battis, a former fellow student now teaching and researching at the University of Regina, introduced me (everyone else knew her work) to Margaret Cavendish. Striking in this paper was Jes’ discussion on blushing, both how it was experienced and how it was conventionally read. He observed that blushing was read as coyness, as a signal of acceptance and acquiescence that encouraged amorous young men to proceed in their sexual conquest of a person that cultural scripts imagined as, if not eager, at least willing. For the blusher, however (in this case MC herself), a very different understanding could be at play. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, we’re still having this conversation about “the messages that girls send with their bodies” today. But that, my friends, is an entirely different story that likely deserves its own post.

Finally, I really enjoyed Emily West’s paper on the role of he pen – as a writing instrument that facilitated the articulation of sexual pleasure – in relation to John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Erotic epistolarity opens up the possibility for me to really examine the letters that individuals wrote to Tissot about sexual pleasure, pain, and suffering. I’d already considered the self-referentially voyeuristic qualities of these letters, but now I think there’s even more at play…..

And finally, what was I on about at this conference? Well I was looking at the articulation of pain in two very different, but still related, artistic works, Marais’ “Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille,” and Fanny Burney’s epistolary description of her 1811 mastectomy. I engaged with Elaine Scarry’s notion of the inexpressibility of physical pain. Scarry argues that pain doesn’t only exceed language, it actively destroys it. This can be a really useful way of looking at letters. But I also argued that these two works also suggest the potential of silence: silence is not just the absence of speech; it can be considered as a moment of suspension that allows for collective witness and reflection. Intriguingly, I was able to think through some of my ideas as I listened to others…

If an illness is not visible, does it exist? This is a question that a number of Tissot’s patients grapple with. Unsurprisingly, it’s an issue that comes up in relation to the various sins of the flesh.

For some patients, the invisibility of illness appears to serve as a justification for engagement in otherwise illicit activities. Witness, for example, the case of a 40 year old man, described in a 15 page consultation dating from February 1777. His doctor begins by observing that the patient has been gifted with a strong corporeal legacy passed down from his parents, who were strong, healthy folk who lived lives of moderation.

The patient, too, appears, at least on the surface, to be healthy as well. Though less inclined to moderation – particularly in the realm of sexual pleasure – than his parents, he does not appear to have suffered the physical manifestations of his moral disorder; that is to say, he has no visible signs of sexually-transmitted disease.

But that’s not to say that he’s safe. In the words of his doctor?: “il n’a aucune maladie vénérienne visible quoique souvent il en ait couru le danger.” [Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/].

There’s more than a hint of moral censure in this part of the letter. The doctor suggests that although illness isn’t visible, it may well exist (given what appears to be a gesture towards his patient’s immoderate sexual exploits). In this reading, venereal disease is not the real disease. Rather, it is but a symptom of a much more menacing disorder that resides in the individual’s psyche and in what his doctor understands as immoderate sexual practices.

The patient, however, disagrees. Through his doctor’s mediation, he asks Tissot a number of pointed questions, among them the following:

“L’usage modérée des femmes est-il si pernicieux qu’il faille absolument se l’interdire, et comment peut on croire qu’une Evacuation si naturelle provoque une maladie qu’on attribue a surabondance? …. Le consultant doit ajouter que dans les différentes attaques (portant l’observation à tout) il a fait usage des femmes, et que loin d’en sentir de mauvais effet, il a cru se trouver mieux.” [Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/]

Is it so very terrible to engage in sexual encounters with women? Is it really necessary to avoid these practices at all costs? For this patient, the opposite appears to be true: he finds that he feels better after his sexual encounters. From this, it is clear that the patient in question has his own meanings about his body and how it works. As far as he’s concerned, there should no cause for worry in this regard; after all, his body has manifested no physical signs of sexual malady. Indeed, how could something so natural cause illness?

This oscillation between moderation and excess, particularly in relation to visible signs of disorder, appears as a tension in many letters regarding questions of sexual pleasure. Depending on their moral stance, patients will either ascribe all of their sufferings to immoderate engagement with the sins of the flesh, or they will pledge allegiance to lives of balance and moderation.

Others find external justifications for their sufferings. Sexual initiation – at the hands (quite literally) of friends or in the illicit encounters with maids and other servants – is imagined as the gateway to their current excessive behaviours and physical disorders. Such individuals put the responsibility for their actions squarely on the shoulders of others. Innocent lambs, these patients imagine themselves as victims of the salacious intentions of those around them. In this way, they are able to maintain the appearance of virtue, even as their bodily habits suggest something entirely different.

But another group – one which includes our first 40-year old patient – is very different. These patients claim their right not only to sexual pleasure, but also to sexual debauchery and excess. Going against the advice of doctors and of friends, such individuals assert that their illnesses and sufferings are not related to their lives of excess, but must have another cause. In other instances, patients take care to assure Tissot that they have suffered no ill-effects as a result of their actions.

Finally, some patients filter the Enlightenment’s emphasis on ‘Nature’ through their own experiences, in the process turning Tissot’s vision of the strong and healthy peasant who lives his life in moderation and draws his inspiration from the beneficence of Nature, on its  head. Witness, for example, a certain M. de Gounon. Like others, Gounon discusses his youthful indiscretions and positions himself as “victim” of excessive passions. Nevertheless, he accepts this as a part of who he is: “I loved women with a fury, my whole life was play and I drank much wine and consumed coffee continually. The temper of my soul has always been to seize everything with passion.” [Fonds Tissot, IS3784.II.].

When is an illness not an illness? It’s a good question. If the letters to Tissot are any indication, illness was always subject to interpretation.

Not that this is any surprise to any of us who work in archives (and who have read or thought about the structures, histories and purposes of archives), but archives are intensely political spaces. And on top of that, they’ve traditionally been spaces that store material artifacts. What’s going to happen now that more and more stuff is happening in the virtual sphere.

Kelly Wooten, Research Services and Collection Development Librarian for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Special Collections Library, and Librarian for Sexuality Studies for Perkins Library at Duke University, talks politics, archives, third wave feminisms and queer activism in “Archives as Activism.” You can also learn about her new co-edited book, Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century.


Take a look at this article, in today’s National Post: “This is your brain on music.”

In the words of the artist, Erin Gee:

“What’s unique to this project is that it’s all about bodies. It takes these tiny bodily physical performances that happen when one is emotional and transfers these tiny beating hearts and fluctuations in breathing and nerve activity — and amplifies it through technology.”

Productive collaborations between neuroscience and the fine arts, and all about the stories that bodies tell and how we might make meanings of them.

Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I have terrible handwriting. My students know this as well (and this is why I generally type out comments…). Sometimes, even I  find my handwriting illegible. And that, I have to admit, is somewhat embarrassing.  Would you be surprised to hear that I never did better than a B- in handwriting in elementary school?

But even given all of this, I’m a huge fan of writing by hand. I think differently when I write long hand. I think in ideas,  in sentences, in big pictures. I think broadly, and I make connections that are impossible to find when I try to write on the computer. I’ve talked to others who feel the same way: there is just something very, very different about the kind of thought patterns that happen while I’m writing by hand.

Perhaps this is because I’ve been trained as a touch typist. On a computer keyboard, words are reduced to rhythms. Each word has its own very specific rhythm and it is my ability to master these various rhythms that speeds up my typing process. But in reducing a word to a rhythm, I lose contact with the idea of the word. I lose touch – and yes, this is ironic, given that I work with ‘touch’ typing – with the bigger picture. Instead, words, sentences – thoughts! – become nothing more than a series of clicks.

From my experiences in the university classroom, I think that long hand writing is still highly relevant for students who, for the most part, were born holding a mouse. An essay assigned to be written by hand during class time is inevitably much more strongly conceptualized and considered than an essay assigned to be written at home and handed in at a later date. This would appear to go against all logic: surely a paper that you had time to think through, write, revise and rethink would be a stronger paper? I’d think so, too. But inevitably, the best papers I get are those that students write in class.

What’s so different about this environment? One of the key things is that they’re forced to write by hand.  And this dramatically affects their thinking. Instead of thinking in a series of clicks that tap out the rhythms of individual words, or in small chunks that are easily erased, students are required to think in terms of the bigger picture. Their ideas flow out of the end of a pen or pencil and such ideas come out not in rhythms, but rather, in whole words, in phrases, in concepts. But they’re also forced, by the very materiality of the medium, to think through the larger picture. They can’t delete an entire passage (well, not as easily) and they can’t easily shift passages around. This results in different ways of thinking through their ideas, and in different structures to express them.

Now, I’ll freely admit that I’m a luddite. I don’t have a cell phone (I never have) and I have no desire to own one. I don’t  watch a lot of tv (although I did discover Bones on our most recent Netflix trial, a discovery that is straining my ‘no TV’ halo) and the kids are limited to only a few hours of video/computer/wii games per week. And I’m certain that my luddite-ishness shapes my appreciation for the art/act of handwriting. But there’s more to it.

Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article in The Guardian: “Why Handwriting Matters.” It’s an excerpt from Philip Hensher’s new book, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, and Why it Still Matters. Now, I don’t agree with all of the points that Hensher makes, but one thing that really sticks with me is Hensher’s insistence on the materiality of hand writing: it’s not just the materiality of words on a page, it’s a materiality that manifests itself in your body. It’s in the nub that develops on the middle finger of your writing hand. It’s about the pen cap that you obsessively chew. It’s about the ink that you smear when you slide your hand across the page just a moment too soon. It’s about the physical act of scratching out, of erasing. It’s about making sure that your physical presence, in writing, is different from that of those around you. Conversely, it’s about representing your ideas and your ideals in print, about claiming the curls and loops of individuals and groups with whom you identify.

Hensher puts it this way:

“These attempts to modify ourselves through our handwriting become a part of who we are. So too do the rituals and pleasurable pieces of small behaviour attached to writing with a pen. On a finger of my right hand, just on the joint, there is a callus which has been there for 40 years, where my pen rests. I used to call it “my carbuncle”. “Turn right” someone would say, and I would feel the hard little lump, like a leather pad, ink-stained, which showed what side that was on. And between words or sentences, to encourage thought, I might give it a small, comforting rub with my thumb.”

As he points out: “Our rituals and sensory engagement with the pen bind us to it.”

As we move increasingly into a digital, computerised world, do we have similar relationships with our computers? How might I understand the relationship between my handwriting callus, on the one hand, and my hints of RSI, from too much time spent at the computer, on the other?  I can’t gnaw at a computer in the same way that I gnawed at my pens. And gnawing was both a way of staking my claim to certain pens (nobody would want to use them afterwards), but also integral to my thinking process.

And as we move increasingly into that digital and digitized world, what does all of this mean for all of the letters that I spend so many hours reading? And what does it mean for how my students and I relate to those letters? How we understand them? The meanings that we attach to them? Can we even begin to understand handwriting if we have never done it ourselves?

Now, to be fair, even in my ode to handwriting, I can recognize some of the benefits to using the computer, its keyboard and related technologies to construct ideas. There is something at least superficially democratizing about technology. Spell check evens out surface inequalities in educational attainment. And typing makes even the worst handwriter (me) legible to those around her.  Word processing programs offer the opportunity to rethink and rewrite and revise and makes those processes much easier and much more efficient.  There is much to beguile us: everything looks neat, tidy, and professional in Times New Roman, 12 point font and justified margins.

Word processing cleans things up. It can erase class differences (or at least reduce them); it can support even the least-enthusiastic writer. But such a democratising process is illusory. Class difference is not erased. Nor are writing weaknesses. In some instances, typing a document can exacerbate differences that might have been smoothed over in other media. Furthermore, keyboarding can also wash the personality right out of the individual.

What happens to our understanding of the past if we lose contact with writing? How will we understand class? How will we understand gender? How will we understand sexuality? All of these identity categories are clearly visible in the practice of handwriting. And handwriting gives us new lenses through which to analyse them.

In some of the letters written by the Marquise de La Ferté-Imbault and written in her hand, for example, I catch glimpses of a woman who enjoyed an extensive informal education but, perhaps, a less extensive formal education. Indeed, in my first encounter with her letters, I discovered that I learned more from reading them out loud to myself than from transcribing them! In others, however, I lost her handwritten voice. Instead, I read her words through the handwriting of one of her early nineteenth-century descendants, who had transcribed and collected them.

Handwriting itself – the mechanics of writing – is also revelatory: beautiful copperplate script is often the sign of an educated person; of an individual who had considerable access to formal education and who, as a result, spent a lot of time writing. This too, is revealing in the manuscript sources I explore. In the disjuncture between a copperplate body of a letter and the scratchy scrawl, for example, I note the collaboration of secretary and correspondent.

The personality and situation of a letter writer also shine through. In collections of letters written (or at least dictated) by a single correspondent), I come to distinguish among different handwriting styles. I can recognize Madame Necker’s handwriting. I can also recognize that of her secretaries. But I can also trace changes in handwriting: there is a clear difference between Madame Necker’s signature on letters dating from the 1790s and those dating from the 1770s. Indeed, in these later letters, her bodily frailty imprints itself in her signature.

Handwritten letters also bear witness to their authors’ thought processes. Some of the letters to Tissot have scratched out sections. In other instances, as I noted in a previous post, correspondents have added extra notes in the margins, expanding on the ideas they originally wrote down.  In all instances, each writer’s handwritten voice is unique. And this is what I love the most about them. The individuals that wrote to Tissot didn’t write in Times New Roman, 12 point, double spaced. They wrote in their own individual, quirky, personal and subjective ways….

On this rainy Thanksgiving afternoon, I’m spending time with Fanny Burney, working through her remarkable description of her 1811 mastectomy. The only copy available to me is a digital edition of her collected letters. Yes, it’s easy to work with. And yes, I can easily do quantitative analysis. And yes, I’ll admit that it’s fabulous that this document is now so easily accessible to scholars and students and interested people anywhere in the world.

But how I wish I had the manuscript in front of me. How I wish that I could see her handwriting. How I miss the voice that comes not from the words, but from the writing itself. After working so long with archival materials, I feel like I’m missing half the story. And what a loss that is.