Article Review: M. Fissell’s “Hairy Women and Naked Truths” (2003)

Oh, I apologize, Dear Reader! I realize it’s been a couple of days since I last posted. September has overwhelmed me already (seriously–I’m counting down the days until I go on vacation). I’m running tutorials for the first time (for a course on the history of evolutionary biology) and I underestimated the amount of prep work required. What this means is that all dissertation-related work has taken a backseat to all other projects and responsibilities: tutorials, working and organizing for two (!) conferences, writing an article, and reading for two reading groups. BUSY.

However, I’ve been thinking a lot about representations how it relates to bodies of knowledge. I recently read Mary E. Fissell’s (John Hopkins) “Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle’s Masterpiece” (William and Mary Quarterly LX (2003): 43-74) and was marveled on her notion of “vernacular epistemology”—or, how ordinary people understood knowledge and knowledge claims.

Fissell’s article focuses on the idea of knowledge being represented, preserved for interpretations by an audience. She looks at the frontispiece of various editions and reprints of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, which was first published in 1684 and was neither a masterpiece nor written by Aristotle. Rather, the treatises were guides for pregnancy arnd childbirth and were bestsellers during their times. The Masterpiece spanned numerous reprints and editions throughout the eighteenth century, and it was a grand competitor in a “crowded market” on the topic of childbirth and reproduction, and Masterpiece I was actually composed of two earlier works: Lemnius’ Secret Miracles of Nature, and the anonymous Complete Midwives Practice Enlarged. Masterpiece II (1697) included a (unauthorized) reprint of John Sadler’s A Sick Womans Private Looking Glass. Masterpiece III (1710) as well, included parts from earlier texts, including those in previous printings of the Masterpiece.

Fissell’s focus on the text derives from its questioning frontispiece, which illustrates two “monstrous” individuals: a hairy woman, and a black baby (born to white parents), and she analyzes the various shifts in representation that is produced with each edition and reprint of the Masterpiece. The original edition contains the hairy woman and black baby, both the result of the maternal imagination, and Fissell questions the paradoxical nature of the illustration: why would a book intended for pregnant women contain such an image of monstrosity on its front cover? She argues that it actually served to represent arguments about knowledge and secrecy, or “vernacular epistemology.” Thus, for Fissell, revealing the meaning of the image(s) would provide clues to histories of gender relations and natural knowledge.

As theories on gender relations shifted through the eighteenth century (from paternity towards maternity), as did the politics of popular knowledge, the images on the Masterpiece was cut to represent the shift. Masterpiece I was a standard account of conception, pregnancy, labour, delivery and newborn care, and also contained Lemnius’ prints and discussions on monstrosity, which tried to provide a naturalistic account for such malformations. Masterpiece II includes an image of a medical consultant, with a doctor, as Fissell notes the aim was to provide women information to discuss with their doctor, instead of having the book replace the doctor (which it actually was done). Masterpiece III, was different that the first two, its representations a combined attempt of both I and II, as it places the hair woman and the black baby in the learned man’s study, “poised at the threshold between nature and culture.” The elements portrayed in III reflect the philosopher “Aristotle” as a figure of learned culture, the hair woman an element of Nature, animality, savageness and lust – all measured in excess. The black baby also embodies elements of comparison: against “whiteness” or “fairness,” reflections on tensions of “race,” and even notions of heredity, as popular texts emphasized the “two-seeded model,” where both parents shaped the appearance of the offspring.

Fissell also notes that the relationship between “seeing” and “knowing” was well-represented in the text, and the binary relationships which recapitulates the vernacular epistemology of the book, as knowledge was sexualized, placed in political terms (paternity crisis), though nowhere in the text are the symbols of the images explained. She also notes that later editions of the Masterpiece replaced the hairy woman with a naked or half-clad one, who was to represent truth, beauty or nature, reflecting a transformation of society towards politeness, especially with a shift in gender relations and views on women’s sexuality in the eighteenth century. The philosopher as well, becomes subordinate to the nude woman, and as a reflection of politeness, the black child becomes white. The book’s representations, therefore, are used as a mirror-image of society and its cultural beliefs and values.

Fissell also published her book, Vernacular Bodies: The  Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2007).

I haven’t had a chance to read it, but it’s nicely sitting on my bookshelf and waiting for me to go through my reading list.


ActiveHistory Post: “The e-Book Revolution”

Be sure to check out my guest post over at ActiveHistory, on the e-book revolution and the transforming print paradigm.

I bought an iPad. Before you cheer or frown, let me tell you, I’m filled with an immense surge of guilt—not because my purchase left a hefty dent in my wallet, but because I have needlessly contributed to the e-Book revolution…Read more

via ActiveHistory.

Article Link: “The Analytical Spirit and the Paris Institution for the Deaf-Mutes, 1730-1860”

As I’m researching for my dissertation, I’m finally digging through a giant pile recent articles from the past years on topics relevant to my dissertation. I thought I’d share some interesting ones with you.

Christine Aicardi (University College London) published a piece, “The Analytical Spirit and the Paris Institution for the Deaf-Mutes, 1730-1860” in History of Science, vol.47, pt.2, no.156 (June 2009), pp.175-221. The article provides a history of the pedagogical frameworks at the Paris Institution for the Deaf-Mutes in light of the l’esprit philosophiue of late eighteenth-century France, which precipitated a flurry of complex intellectual theories rooted within a rationalistic and empirical spirit. Examining Charles-Michel de l’Epee’s teaching, Aicardi explores how the intellectual curiosity of the Institution’s educators eventually attracted bureaucratic attention and transformed the Institution based on academic and governmental interests. Additionally, she argues that through the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary years, theories grounded in analytical sensationism were applied to the students, constructing the school into a “multi-purpose pilot project where such theories were both tried an applied.” Here’s a brief excerpt:

During l’Epée’s lifetime and in the following decades, the deaf-mutes belonged to acategory of human subjects which excited the interest of the French intellectual élite,in relation to linguistic, cognitive, social and educational issues. They were thoughtto be, in their untutored natural state, at an early stage of socialization, virtually presocialhuman beings, and were consistently equated with the savage man who sofascinated the French philosophes, as well as their Revolutionary disciples. Yet thedeaf-mutes educated outside the Paris Institution never achieved the consistent andlasting degree of attention that went to the pupils of this establishment. Moreover,the Paris Institution enjoyed a robust longevity while the legacies of other deaf-muteteachers contemporary of l’Epée, the best known of whom was Jacob Pereire, didnot perpetuate themselves. It raises the question of what can possibly have justifiedthe extra interest that went into the pupils of the Paris Institution for the Deaf-Mutes,and explain the school’s extraordinary fate.