I'm on the lookout for history of science or science studies topics escaping into US history or American studies venues and publications. Please send me leads as you find them. I'll shortly be posting links to recent HOS-related book reviews from past numbers of the Journal of American History.
For now, I spotted a couple interesting papers at the Eastern American Studies Association meeting at Rutgers on March 30-31. Read past the jump for an abstract of Kathleen Brian's paper, part of a project on the history of suicide and eugenics. [I have also added an abstract from Arjun Poudel.]
These were the two papers that caught my eye:
Kathleen Brian, ““The Suicide Contests”: Metasomatization in the Life Insurance Industry, 1862-1883”;
Arjun Poudel “Minor Science, Major Literature: Melville’s Scientific Method in Moby Dick”.
Kathleen Brian, a graduate student at George Washington University with a fascinating dissertation that will "offer an alternative genealogy of American eugenics by focusing on debates about suicide from the 1850s to turn of the century" sent me the abstract for her paper. Here it is:
“The Suicide Contests”: Metasomatization in the Life Insurance Industry, 1862-1883
This paper argues that the ancestral body of suicides as a tool of insurance underwriters emerged in response to the legal successes of beneficiaries, who increasingly pathologized suicide in their pursuit of policy payouts. To make this argument, I analyze the suicide clause in life insurance policies as it circulated within industry journals, company advertisements, and federal court cases. Meant to exclude claims when death occurred as a result of “one’s own hand,” the suicide clause became the nexus of heated legal debates during the 1860s and 1870s. These debates focused on property forfeiture, familial responsibility, and the potential criminality of self-destruction, but were embedded in a hereditarian discourse that also allowed insurance companies to perfect their technologies of metasomatization, such as the family history. While Foucault developed his concept of metasomatization most powerfully through an analysis of psychiatric discourse and praxis, the suicide contests demonstrate that this phenomenon was very much at play in federal courtrooms. In their legal arguments for federal protection, insurance companies juxtaposed the diseased ancestral body of suicides against two additional ancestral bodies of their own creation. The first of these was the ancestral body of healthy, industrious American policyholders; the second, the ancestral body of the insurance corporation itself. Through this juxtaposition, insurance companies ultimately succeeded in laying claim to federal protection. The suicide contests thus illuminate new ways in which categories of (dis)ability and (ill)health solidified at the intersection of finance capitalism and the federal state.
Arjun Poudel, a grad student in English at Northeastern, works on " Anglophone post-colonial writing, Herman Melville, and 20th-century British and American novel." I'll post his entire abstract below, but I'll highlight the bit that interested me most:
In late 1830s, Melville was enrolled in Lansingburg Academy in New York, near Albany, where he received formal training in engineering and geographical survey techniques, and also got some exposure to Linnaean taxonomy. Again, this crucial part of his career (unlike Melville’s experience as a mariner, his relationship with his father-in-law judge Lemuel Shaw, and their influence in his work) hasn’t received more than a passing reference in some biographies, let alone its impact in his work.
Here's the entire abstract:
Minor Science, Major Literature: Melville’s Scientific Method in Moby Dick-Arjun P. Poudel“There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.”A group of mostly European paleontologists have published a series of letters (an academic genre regularly published in journals like Nature) and articles in natural science journals reporting the finding of many new species of whales in the last 2-3 years. This flurry of publications has followed the scientists’ visit in 2008 to a region in Peruvian south that hosts deposits of thousands of whales’ and other marine animals’ fossils and is therefore regularly frequented by such scientists. One research report, however, became a news sensation and found its way down the supply chain to the popular science magazines as well as a large number of daily news media. The sources of the species and genus names chosen for the taxonomical christening (a form of antonomasia) of this new species of sperm whale Leviathan Melvillie, I will argue, were to an important degree responsible for the publicity generated by the report. Admitting that they were all fans of Herman Melville, the paleontologists had abdicated the chance to immortalize themselves or someone from their own field (as they have historically done) and chosen the US novelist and his fictional species Leviathan described by Ishmael in a geologist’s guise, using Vesuvius’s crater as an inkstand, in the crucial Chapter 104 in Moby Dick.In Deleuzian terms, this international group of paleontologists representing many of Europe’s world famous natural history museums can be viewed as quintessential state apparatus or apparatus of “royal science” which he contrasts with “minor science,” and their appropriation of the name and work of a 19th-century itinerant writer and mariner for the publicity of their own work clearly exemplifies what Deleuze calls the “abduction” of the nomadic and accomplished “minor science” by lazy and sedentary “royal science.” Does Moby Dick then represent a minor science, minor literature or a minor cultural practice comparable with the works that Kafka wrote in the “sub-standard” German of the Prague ghetto?This paper seeks an answer to this question by examining the multiple scientific and geometric methods and motifs employed by Melville in several crucial chapters of Moby Dick. Of particular importance, in this regard, will be (besides the geological point of view used in the above-mentioned chapter 104) the cetological taxonomy employed in much of the novel, the circle that cannot be squared (chapter 80), the conical grandissimus (chapter 95), cycloidal horology (chapter 96), and what is today called “complexity theory” in chapter 61 in which Stubb kills a sperm whale. These methods and motifs receive a much more serious treatment than the numerous pseudo-sciences like craniometry, phrenology, and physiognomy that were quite popular in the 19th century and that Melville discusses in some cetological chapters only to dismiss them soon afterwards. My contention, here, is that Ishmael is a minor scientist without a faith in his craft’s effectiveness, because he is not only skeptical of the scientific method that he employs so effectively and with good judgment, but also imposes the legal grid (striated space, in Deleuzian terms) of some unifying chapters (such as chapter 45 entitled “Affidavit”) upon the “smooth” space of the cetological and many other chapters that cluster around the unifying ones in the novel.Ishmael refers at several points in the novel’s narrative to his “method” and “methodical” approach (the quote above is from chapter 82) to the study of Whaling that is clearly inspired by the rationalist more geometrico of early Enlightenment. And yet, this crucial aspect of his narrative technique has not received much treatment in the gigantic body of critical work on this giant of a novel. In late 1830s, Melville was enrolled in Lansingburg Academy in New York, near Albany, where he received formal training in engineering and geographical survey techniques, and also got some exposure to Linnaean taxonomy. Again, this crucial part of his career (unlike Melville’s experience as a mariner, his relationship with his father-in-law judge Lemuel Shaw, and their influence in his work) hasn’t received more than a passing reference in some biographies, let alone its impact in his work. This paper hopes to fill a part of this gap in Melville criticism.