Thursday, 21 July 2005

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Super-Adequate Structural Homologies, or The Ornithorynchus Shuffle Frank Sulloway titles his recent review of James Secord's Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of 'Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation with brazen inaccuracy: "He Almost Scooped Darwin." In his response to my contribution to the Theory's Empire event, Sean McCann criticized the distinction I had made between Althusserian interpellation and Foucauldian discourse: [A]t some level the Althusserian account of the interpellation of the subject and the Foucauldian account (in Archaelogy) of its disappearance are in conflict. But the conflict isn’t really that deep, is it? What the two accounts share, of course, is a sense that autonomous personhood is wholly the illusory creation of larger, limiting structures...In other words, would it really be wrong for a latterday American academic to recognize an affinity here? As I noted in my response, Sean's right to say that with sufficient conceptual distance the Althusserian account of social determination resembles Foucault's. Much is lost in the acquisition of that distance. (And by much, I mean "the premises.") Granted, McCann's operating in the tradition of the New Historicist, Benn Michaels Brigade. The NHBMB values structural homologies, and McCann's analysis pointed to the possibility of a structural homology between Althusserian and Foucauldian thought which would've belied the historical and personal animus between these two pillars of French post-structuralist thinking. I spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking about the Althusser/Foucault homology and I still don't know where I stand on it. But it's keyed me into the appearance of homologies of this ignore-the-premise-focus-on-the-conclusion sort. Hence my problem with Sulloway's title and the argument sitting pretty beneath it. To claim even titularly that Chambers' nearly scooped Darwin is to fundamentally misunderstand the significance of the theory of natural selection. Such a claim entails a cult of personality based first around the anonymous author (later revealed to be Chambers) of the Vestiges and later around Darwin (after the publication of the Origin). If Sulloway's argument held the water I think drowns it, this cult of personality would have to be founded on the principle that the public adored anyone who said "Things Change!" Because "Things Change!" is the extent of the connection between the intellectual content of Chambers' Vestiges and that of Darwin's Origin. (Don't take my word for it. Read the Vestiges yourself.) The most significant difference between Chambers and Darwin concerns the mechanism of evolution: Darwin had natural selection. Chambers had monstrous birth. He discusses the power of monstrous birth in Chapter 14 of the Vestiges. He first grants that the natural laws of reproduction demand that a mother of a given species give birth to a child of the same species. But what if man in his inability to be everywhere all the time has missed the occasional monstrous birth? Is it possible that every once in a while a goose gives birth to a mouse? According to Chambers, who cites as proof the work of Charles Babbage, we cannot disprove that no geese has ever given birth to...

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