• Violence and Sexuality in the Modern Era (monograph)

Homosexuality, sadism, masochism, fetishism, telephone scatologia, acrotomophilia, and so many others—the colorful list of sexual “perversions” coined by psychiatrists since the nineteenth century appears to be endless. Yet only homosexuality has benefited from the sustained attention and intellectual commitment of scholars: LGBT programs are spread all over the academic world, respected journals specifically devoted to lesbian and gay culture have existed for several decades, and an avalanche of monographs and edited collections have explored same-sex sex in all possible times and places. On the surface, my book simply proposes a change in perspective by calling attention to the history of types of sexuality that remain rarely studied. Specifically, I focus on perversions that result in acts of violence against others, such as sadism and pedophilia. But my decision to study sexual violence is not arbitrary, and beyond a mere change in perspective the higher stakes of my book are to revise fundamentally the traditional interpretation of the history of sexuality by bringing to light the central yet neglected role of violence in this history.

If we step back and survey the historical landscape of the Western world from the early nineteenth century to the present, we perceive an early, constant, widespread, and still very much alive scientific interest in violent types of sexuality. The first case of sexual perversion (in the strict, clinical sense of the term) was a case of necrophilia/sadism in 1849, and one of the latest diagnoses invented by forensic psychiatrists, “hebephilia,” has been specifically tailored for “sexual predators,” since it refers to the sexual attraction to pubescent children (roughly between the ages of 11 and 14). By contrast, homosexuality and other types of non-violent or consensual sexuality began to intrigue scientists only later in the nineteenth century, and have been much more relevant in some countries than in others. Obviously, today homosexuality still sparks very vigorous political debates, but these are increasingly disconnected from the scientific question of the nature and causes of homosexuality. Why, then, have psychiatrists and other scientists demonstrated a more profound and enduring interest in violent than non-violent types of sexuality?

Violence and Sexuality in the Modern Era answers this question by considering the larger cultural context of the science of sexuality. My book shows that this science participates in the broad political movement of liberalism that began in the early nineteenth century and that has become dominant in Western societies. A fundamental assumption of liberalism is that freedom does not lead to anarchy, for human nature is good, or at least good enough. As John Stuart Mill explained, while despotism was a legitimate mode of government for barbarians, liberal governing is possible in our modern society because mankind has “become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.” Instances of extreme and unmotivated violence raise then a challenge to liberalism and need to be explained away. This is where the science of sexuality has played a crucial role: since the nineteenth century it has detached sexual violence from its purely moral implications and has transformed it into the symptom of a type of sexuality, i.e., into the expression of a diseased sexual instinct, which cannot be controlled and which defines one’s identity. “The sadist” and “the pedophile” have become possible kinds of people who are categorically different from “normal” people. Having been defined out of humanity, these “perverts” no longer threaten the necessary optimism of liberalism, and instead become its requisite personages.

  • Embodied: Space, Time, and the Emergence of Modern Medicine  (monograph)

Traditionally, scholars have argued that the emergence of clinical medicine in late eighteenth-century France was the outcome of the rise of physical examination, which itself was possible when physicians overcame cultural taboos against touching bodies.  Questioning this interpretation empirically as well as methodologically, I historicize both the patient’s diseased body and the physician’s experience of perception. My project shows how the shift in medical practice that took place between 1750 and 1850 was not located in the physicians’ putative acknowledgment of the body, but in a new conceptualization of disease and a new way of looking at, touching and listening to the body. While my general approach is reminiscent of Foucault's in Birth of the Clinic, the specific historical conclusions I reach are significantly different.  

Embodied concentrates on four medical practices, chosen both for their historical importance and for strategic reasons: consultation by letter, the taking of the pulse, percussion of the chest and pathological anatomy.  Current scholarship takes consultation by letter as a symbol of Ancient Regime medicine because of the absence of any direct physical contact between patient and doctor; it assumes that the taking of the pulse has not undergone any dramatic change between 1750 and 1850; and it sees in both percussion of the chest and pathological anatomy the first steps in the emergence of modern medicine.  By giving a new interpretation of the history of each of these practices, Embodied offers an original understanding of the emergence of modern medicine as a whole.

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