Friday, March 4, 2011

Obsession Has a History

There are a number of books that I’d like to highlight on this blog which explore the historical and cultural understandings of behaviors that are associated with the phenomenon we call “fandom.” One example is Lennard J. Davis’s Obsession: A History (U. of Chicago Pr., 2008). I first encountered Davis’s book after I had already done a year’s worth of research and reading on monomania, a medical “condition” of the 19th century, and also on enthusiasm, an associated and equally controversial behavior that goes back to Plato, Martin Luther, and the Earl of Shaftesbury. In that context, Davis recounted a familiar story of people in modern Western society attempting to control excessive non-rational behavior--what Philip Ennis has called the “institutionalization of ecstasy.”

Davis nicely summarizes some of the diverse ways that artists, philosophers, doctors, and others have thought about obsessive behavior since the 18th century, suggesting that, while it can certainly be debilitating, say, in the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, we nevertheless need to understand obsession as historical. That is, modern Western society has arrived at a set of medicalized understandings about obsession; the extent to which obsession is a “problem” has been rather dynamic over time, dependent on changing assumptions and values about normalcy. We need to think of obsession not simply as a universally biological disease, he writes, but—borrowing a term from David Morris—as a “disease entity,” a bio-cultural phenomenon.

Davis shows that what was described plainly as "madness" before the 18th century slowly became recalibrated as a condition of varying degree beginning in the mid-1700s. By the early 19th century, some people were understood to be more obsessive and compulsive than others; for some it was a matter of agony and paralysis, and for others it led to valuable kinds of expression and discovery. In particular, obsession seemed to connect madness and genius. Some thinkers allowed that the frequent exercise of the imagination distorted one’s mental equilibrium, but suggested that, in the case of great artists and writers, madness might be okay as long as that imbalance was temporary or isolated. (Not coincidentally, the mid-1700s was also a time when enlightenment philosophers were rescuing “enthusiasm” as a concept from its religious connotations of possession or zealotry and remaking it into a secular concept of avidity, a move that was not altogether successful—see Jon Mee’s work for a nuanced reading).

Most important for the new thinking about obsession was the advent of the idea of “partial insanity,” or “monomania,” to which Davis devotes three chapters. The diagnosis was formulated by French doctor Etienne Esquirol in 1810 to refer to “a disease of the sensibility,” where someone could function normally in most aspects of life while also suffering from a fixation characterized by “maniacal excitement.”  While Esquirol created the diagnosis for legal purposes, to explain “crimes of passion,” Davis explains that monomania nevertheless “opened the doors to a wide-ranging application of the idea of insanity to the general population.” In fact, the idea of monomania became a “mania” in the middle of the 19th century. It appeared widely in works of literature (the protagonist of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” suffers from monomania, as does Herman Melville’s Ahab in Moby Dick), as well as serving to describe the approach to writing of a number of authors, such as Emile Zola or Gustave Flaubert. It accounted, too, for various kinds of fixations, like bibliomania, and later, Sigmund Freud’s elucidation of “neurosis.” In all of this, Davis provocatively juxtaposes instances of mania in medicine, art, and human relationships to suggest the extent to which there was considerable public debate among doctors, artists, philosophers, writers, critics, and monomaniacs themselves about which kinds of mania were acceptable or valuable, and which were not.

The link between obsession and fandom is a strong one. However, as I have suggested I think there is actually a broader history of “maniacal excitement” than the one presented here; it would be useful to compare and contrast the history of obsession with the histories of enthusiasm, devotion, and fanaticism. Debates about ecstasy and attraction from art, religion, philosophy, and medicine operate in very different realms but also seem to be connected together in their concern for defining the personal, social, and, ultimately, political meanings of emotional connection. Most immediately, for me, Obsession: A History offers a helpful methodological framework for thinking about the emergence of cultural behavior. As he writes, “I’m trying retrospectively to see how a space opens in a cultural field. One could easily object that what I am doing is based on a fallacy of trying to find in the past structures for things that don’t yet exist….On the other hand, there is, I think I’ve shown, sufficient historical and archival evidence that a major shift occurs.” (51) Figuring out that apparent contradiction is one of the main problems of studying fandom’s history.

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