Nervous Acts: Nerves, Politics, and Literary Culture

Lucinda Cole
University of Southern Maine

“Mine,” writes George S. Rousseau, speaking of his academic career, “amounts to a lifelong Apollonian attempt to test the limits of the borders between literature and medicine—the arts and the sciences—through the provision of a textual body for nervous discourse in history.”1 Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture, and Sensibility (Palgrave, 2004) is not, however, an Apollonian book, if by that one means a striking model of order. Divided into three parts—a 70-page introduction written in 2003; eight earlier essays, spanning the period between 1969 and 1993; and, finally, an epilogue added while Rousseau corrected galley proofs—it bears some resemblance to the academic retrospective, in which a senior scholar comments on the “intellectual journey” that led through fascinating puzzles and resulted in a distinguished career. Rousseau’s description of his epilogue could be used to characterize the collection as whole: “it glances backward to the time of origins and remembers what it was like to problematize ‘histories of the body’ before that became a fashionable pursuit” (x). But Nervous Acts, with its introductions and commentaries and epilogues and codas and sometimes-apologetic, sometimes-testy notes, still has an argument to make: three arguments, actually. First, that interdisciplinary scholarship was and continues to be essential. Second, that no one can really understand the Enlightenment history of sensibility—with its many implications for race, class, gender, sexuality—without understanding the seventeenth-century history of neuroanatomy. Third, that evolutionary connections between the past and the present are traceable through the nervous system, here regarded both as a system of cultural meaning (as a matter of representation) and as an organic phenomenon located in the brain. The result is a flailing, sometimes confessional, cerebrally passionate, Dionysian sort of text, less a cool retrospective than a full-on attempt to dislodge disciplinary complacencies and to challenge scholars to think less narrowly, less dualistically than many—even those immersed in cultural studies—have hitherto done.

As early as 1969, Rousseau was working in UCLA’s Brain Research Center, trying to rethink the problems of imagination and memory, mind and body, from the perspective of history of science. “Intuitively” he writes, “I was searching, without knowing it until much later, for a Western chronicle of mind-body relations” (19). The book includes from this period, “Science and the Discovery of the Imagination in England,” the first of several attempts to tether British romanticism to the history of medicine; his 1972 piece on Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle (“Pineapples, Pregnancy, and Pica: Nerves and the ‘Mother’s Imagination’”); and a 1973 essay on Claude Nicolas Le Cat and biological racism (“Le Cat and the Physiology of Negroes”). Together, these essays-turned-chapters illustrate Rousseau’s contention that through the investigation of “minor figures”—professional and amateur medical men such as Robert Whytt, John Evelyn, Thomas Sydenham, Thomas Willis, and others —“rather than the giants of the era” we can understand “the diffusion of sensibility” (32). They also demonstrate Rousseau’s originality and persistence, as he attempted to bring his archival work to bear upon literary history in a largely New Critical academic culture, most of whose members had not yet read Foucault. Indeed, here and later in these essays, Rousseau sometimes exhibits a now-quaint defensiveness about his topics and sources: in 1969 he characterizes Foucault as the “French structuralist philosopher and opponent of Jean-Paul Sartre, who has written an award-winning book” (93). Rousseau’s essay on sexuality and the physician Bienville (“The Invention of Nymphomania”) ends with the claim that “erotic science” is “a subject now deemed important enough by contemporary readers to compel bookshops everywhere to carry whole sections of this type of reading” (204). The remaining four essays in this section, including his often-cited “Nerves, Spirits, and Fibres: Towards Defining the Origins of Sensibility,” are fascinating not only for their still-relevant scholarship (more on this, below) but for what they reveal, when read chronologically, about his attempt to make science matter to literary culture.

Rousseau’s argument in most of these texts is remarkably consistent: as he put it in 1975, “What . . . made the cults of sensibility possible in the first place . . . is the simple fact (and it is so simple that we have never bothered to notice it) that no novel of sensibility could appear until a revolution in knowledge concerning the brain, and consequently its slaves, the nerves, occurred” (172). In 1991, he repeats the assertion on a wider scale: “in some qualified senses it is historically valid to claim that that much of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was one magisterial footnote on nervous physiology, a remarkable attempt to secularize cognition and perception through the brain and its vassal nerves” (250). Over four decades, Rousseau’s critical language shifts, partly so as to accommodate post-structuralism and its progeny. “Nerves, Spirits, and Fibres,” for example, opens with a very Kuhnian discussion of whether or not Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding may be regarded as a “paradigmatic” text. The 1989 text “Discourses of the Nerve” demonstrates, in contrast, an explicitly Foucaldian preoccupation with the problem of disciplinarity and the truth-effects of specific institutional practices. Two years later, Rousseau uses semiotic language to explain the relation of nerves to rank, class, sex, and gender (“Towards a Semiotic of the Nerve”) which, in two more years, metamorphoses slightly into that of new historicism, with its “nervous self-fashioning” of self and society (313). As he points out, the fluid critical language of these early pieces dramatizes tensions then endemic to the profession, among them the now-familiar controversy between new criticism and post-structuralism. But Rousseau’s ready appropriation of various rhetorical strategies also helps make apparent a perhaps more fundamental if less-discussed tension.

Rousseau’s problem, stated baldly, was and is how to get literary people—New Critical and then post-structuralist—to think seriously about the role of both literature and science in constructing a relationship between words and things. As he explains this dilemma:

Because we who advocate an interdisciplinary Literature and Science worry about who our real audience is, we try to entice all potential audiences in the name of common assumptions; try to persuade in just the ways the linguists assure us we typify ordinary speech acts, especially the common assumption that scientific models are . . . ultimately neither more or less accurate than competing models, rarely free of value or ideology when set into discursive narratives, and certainly no ‘truer’ than any other fictions. And yet the two aspirins that relieved my headache on the airplane yesterday are not rhetorical, ideological, value-laden or polemical aspirins until I start talking about them. (225)
Even from the beginning, Rousseau sought to understand the notions of imagination, memory, and nerves as interdependent human functions rather than as merely transcendent or historically-conditioned tropes. Thus, Nervous Acts is driven by a kind of “anxiety” not easily explained away in purely literary-critical terms. What distinguishes Rousseau from more “literary” writers on eighteenth-century culture is that both early and late in his career, he confronts a “two cultures gap” between the humanities and the sciences. As he frames his problem: “We want to fathom how it is that a particular sign [the nerve] arises within a particular culture and under what specific conditions. But we will not be satisfied by its logocentric legacy only: those traces left in words alone” (257). If, then, the early essays sometimes manifest an anxiety about their relevance to literary culture, that is doubtless a symptom of how very difficult it was (and perhaps still is) for literary scholars working in the interstices between literature and science to intervene in what until recently was a narrow, shifting set of disciplinary assumptions and concerns. In a position he describes as “realist,” Rousseau rejects the idea of a science disconnected from the rest of society without, however, fully embracing the opposite view, that virtually everything is socially constructed: the “‘nervous body,’” he insists, “is not merely a fiction any more than the ‘brain’ is an imaginary construct” (67).

Most of these essays are preceded by brief commentaries on the conditions under which he wrote a given piece and the reception it enjoyed, or suffered. Generally speaking, once Foucault’s work was translated, Rousseau’s research on the nerves was quickly incorporated by scholars working on hysteria, melancholy, irritability, diet, sentiment, sexuality—virtually any mode of Enlightenment or Romantic embodiment. It seems fair to say that major books on sensibility—John Mullan’s Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century, for example, or G. J. Barker-Benfield’s The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain—could not have been written without it. Yet because the essays on sensibility have remained uncollected, many scholars know only “Nerves, Spirits, and Fibres: Towards Defining the Origins of Sensibility,” a piece that is by now over three decades old. Several of the chapters here were published in journals or books now neglected or defunct. Reprinted in their original forms, they may sometimes strike the reader moving from cover to cover as a bit repetitive. Yet Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture, and Sensibility is a significant collection and not simply because it will facilitate research. Ideally, it will improve research.

Part One of Nervous Acts (an introduction which Rousseau suggests might be read last) is a monograph-length materialist history of the nerves that is too rich in historical detail to be summarized here. Moving from Aristotle and Galen to the sixteenth-century anatomists such as Leonardo, de Capo, Vesalius, and others, Rousseau outlines a history of theories about the nerves in which the “animal spirits” eventually “become something more than a linguistic commonplace transformed into a veritable habit of mind and means of perceiving the cosmic world. Fundamentally Ovidian in their metamorphic status,” he writes, “they become the basis for self and identity” (8). Given the historical scope of this essay, Rousseau is able to emphasize an assumption sometimes overlooked by readers of the earlier work: that a materialist history of the “nervous body” is a necessary corrective to psychoanalysis and its “transcendental” nerves, accounts of the human condition that became “unmoored from their anatomical anchors,” and this in a relatively short period (70). Alternatively, in Rousseau’s “nervocentric” history (so-called to establish a parallel with the “phallocentric” more generally embraced by the literary establishment), little-known figures such as Thomas Willis fraternize easily with intellectual giants such as John Locke, the “nerve doctor” Sir James Paget with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the physician-turned-historian Robert Verity with Charles Darwin. The past and the present overlap in discussions of, among other things, brain theory, climate theory, nerves, and aesthetics; the rise of nerve doctors as specialists; the nervous body as an analogy for the political state; racialized anthropologies of the nerves; theories of sexual excitability, mesmerism, nerves, and gendered “madness”; developing notions of hysteria as a “neuromimetic” affliction; sectarian evangelicals; and, finally, the pharmaceutical companies. Underwriting this dazzling performance is a lifetime of scholarship and the following modest assumption: “it may not be possible any longer to view the European sensibility movement apart from its scientific and medical moorings” (69). Rousseau has done for the nerves what Foucault did for sexuality.

Intellectual biography, materialist history, rich reference source, and powerful act of persuasion, Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture, and Sensibility is, finally, a political text in keeping with the larger goals of science studies as those have been articulated by Bruno Latour. Both Latour and Rousseau locate the emergence of our two-culture divide in the seventeenth century and argue, albeit in different ways, that in order to undo this divide—a political imperative—it is necessary to analyze how science and politics have become compartmentalized, inventing methods that rethink the mutual and simultaneous production of distinct “scientific” and “political” realities.2 Indeed, in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Latour claims that science studies rejects “the entire research program” that divides reality into “politics, law, economics, institutions, and passions” on the one hand, and scientific “ideas, principles, knowledge, and procedures” on the other.3 Given its language of “interdisciplinarity,” Rousseau’s work is, on the surface, somewhat less radical than Latour’s, in most places merely calling for us to historicize the nervous body in ways that make scientific practices and discourses co-equal to those of literature. Even so, literary critics have remained for him a pretty tough crowd, appropriating his research without necessarily joining him in its goals, or producing cultural histories of race, gender, and sexuality while continuing to treat the nerves and the brain “as a specialized topic within the history of science and medicine” (344). Our personal and institutional politics have for decades been tethered almost exclusively to liberationist ideologies and their correspondent hermeneutics. While we have fully assimilated Michel Foucault, fewer of us have read Steven Jay Gould, much less Gerald Edelman, J. E. Ledoux, or more specialized scholars of science. And many literary scholars may find unfamiliar or even off-putting Rousseau’s commitment to a post-Darwinian evolutionary model, brief but cogent explanations of which can found in the beginning and end of his collection. “The nervous system,” he writes, “has been a crucial factor in the rise of evermore complex civilizations and technological cultures” (344). Eschewing a Darwinian notion of “advancement,” he looks to the evolving brain and nerves as a key to “understanding how far back complexity (the sense that everything is getting more complicated)” extends, and along with complexity its “strains and stresses (fatigue, depression, stress, even mental illness)” and “energized counterparts—vitality, creativity, emotional joviality” (344). In the United States of the early twenty-first century, where an increasing percentage of the “nervous population” is medicated and when pharmaceutical giants control a national agenda in ways it is all too tempting to ignore, Rousseau’s sense of urgency about the “nerves” is understandable. Whether or not our brains are indeed plastic enough to provoke a collective shift in disciplinary practices remains to be seen, but Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture, and Sensibility offers the most compelling of invitations.


1. George S. Rousseau, Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture, and Sensibility (Houndsmill and New York, 2004), 67.

2. See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, tr. Catherine Porter (Cambridge Mass., 1993).

3. Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), 84.