Friday, May 29, 2009
What I can (and can’t) say about Jenny Davidson’s Breeding.
They say that when you’re writing a dissertation, every cultural artifact you consume because grist in its conceptual mill—and they are correct. Because when you’re writing a dissertation, everything seems relevant. So even though I’m courting cliché by saying it, I’m going to say it anyway: everything in Jenny Davidson’s Breeding seems relevant to my research. Why?
Because it is.
For those who only know me as the guy who does those posts on film and comic pedagogical strategies, behold my credentials. Why am I talking about myself instead of Jenny’s book? Because understanding my one quibble with her argument requires you understand something of mine.
The short—and I mean it—version is that non-Darwinian theories of evolutionary and social development survived in and were desseminated by works of literature irrespective of their status in the scientific community. You can see why I might consider Jenny’s book (published by Columbia University Press) a prequel to my dissertation (available for download via a database very few people can access). Given that my dissertation focuses on these debates raged ninety-five years after Jenny’s century ended, I’m not really qualified to speak to—much less certify—the validity of her evidence. But to address John’s concerns, I can say that every time she recounts a theory or debate I’m familiar with, she does so in a way no charitable reader would find fault with.
That’s not to say that I always agree with her, if only because she often suggests points I want forcefully asserted. Her reluctance to do so may merely be rhetorical: in a book that lets primary works speak for themselves, forceful assertion might not seem simply out of place, it could result in the casting of suspicion on the curiously adament claim. For example, she concludes her discussion on resemblance in Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story by claiming:
When the old problems [relating to the heredity basis of resemblance] resurface late in the nineteenth century, most scientists are ignorant of the earlier theories: Thomas Huxley is an exception, as are a few others, but Darwin knew little of nothing of the seventeenth- and eighteenth century controversies alluded to here. Literary texts, though, retained a palimpsest of these arguments, providing one means by which Darwin and others could gain access to the knowledge of earlier generations. (36)
This would be the weak version of an argument whose strong version would look something like this: given that Jenny earlier indicated that Darwin read Inchbald’s A Simple Story alongside Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park in 1840, why not try and verify whether Darwin recognized the palimpsest as such and took something from it? Because a quick search of his notebooks reveals there might be something to it.
In 1840, Darwin was writing “Old & Useless notes about the moral sense & some metaphysical points.” It contains notes on books like Louis-Aimé Martin’s De l’éducation des mères de famille (1837) like “I suspect conscience, an heredetary [sic] compound passion, like avarice” (601), which in essence means Darwin was investigating whether greedy children resembled their greedy mothers. It stands to reason that Austen might have something to say about that.
But I would say that. Eighty percent of my dissertation involves sussing out just those sorts of connections: the lines of argumentation—some acknolwedged, most not due to the arguer being unaware of their continued influence on his or her thought—that persist, despite scientific progress, largely on account of their presence in popular literary culture. In short, my complaint is that Jenny didn’t write the book I would have written, which as complaints go is fairly universal. But to return to John’s qualm, the fact that the claim she suggested might bear fruit seems like it will indicates that our trust in her is not misplaced. Whether this is because the discipline has done it job—rewarded a scholar whose knowledge of the field is such that her suppositions are more likely to bear out than not—I can’t say.
Well, the short answer is that academic publishers routinely demand that scholars cut down their footnotes and supporting evidence, to bring down the expense of producing all those pages of tiny, unreadable print. (Though frankly, those are the most useful portions of most academic books)
The more reflective answer would hold that as long as you and I are finding the generalizations valid (and I have), then the evidence is sufficient for its purpose. I haven’t found an instance where I felt that a context or a work was being caricatured or misrepresented in some way, so I think she’s doing very well with a book of this scope. The job of testing and extending those parameters will really come when others attempt to use her book for their own research.