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Atavistic Tendencies

Atavistic Tendencies: The Culture of Science in American Modernity

Dana Seitler
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Atavistic Tendencies
    Book Description:

    The post-Darwinian theory of atavism forecasted obstacles to human progress in the reappearance of throwback physical or cultural traits. In this stimulating work, Dana Seitler explores how modernity itself is an atavism. Examining late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century science, fiction, and photography, Seitler discovers how modern thought oriented itself around this paradigm of obsolescence and return—one that served to sustain ideologies of gender, sexuality, and race.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6642-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Down on All Fours
    (pp. 1-30)

    Modernity is an atavism. Its advent in Western culture led to and was given shape by political, social, and aesthetic developments that can be characterized by a recursive temporal subjectivity. This book provides a historical and theoretical account of that subjectivity by looking at late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century science, fition, and photography. Theories and expressions of atavism in these representational spheres reveal the way modern thought oriented itself around a paradigm of obsolescence and return that structured the experience of modern time. If “modernity” designates itself in terms of its eternal up-to-date-ness, atavism—a theory of biological reversion emerging...

  5. 1. Freud’s Menagerie: Our Atavistic Sense of Self
    (pp. 31-54)

    In this chapter, I explore some of Freud’s most famous case histories as foundational texts in the thinkability of the human. In particular, I take “The Wolf Man” (1918) as a locus classicus. Sergei Pankejeff, the patient who came to be known as the Wolf Man, was the son of a rich Russian landowner. He is described in the study as suffering from debilitating compulsions resulting from his sexual development having gone awry during childhood. While growing up on his parents’ estate, Pankejeff developed an animal phobia and had the famous dream of wolves, which for Freud proved invaluable to...

  6. 2. Late Modern Morphologies: Scientific Empiricism and Photographic Representation
    (pp. 55-93)

    In 1870, attempting to prove that criminal behavior was hereditary, Italian anthropologist Cesare Lombroso performed an autopsy on a convicted criminal and purported to find that his skull possessed a number of atavistic features recalling an animal past. He described his discovery as “not merely an idea, but a flash of inspiration. At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal—an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the...

  7. 3. “Wolf—wolf!”: Narrating the Science of Desire
    (pp. 94-128)

    Atavism demonstrates, sometimes quite poignantly, that the body does not coincide with its present. It dramatizes the past as in communication with the present; it insists that the past and the present are temporal spheres fused in continuity. By making manifest a disordered temporality, the atavistic body demonstrates something of the nature of cultural preoccupations in late modernity. At the same time, the epistemological projects orbiting around this body demonstrate something of the nature of the formal procedures exercised in the scientific pursuit of corporeal mastery. If those procedures may be seen in psychoanalysis and medical photography, they also emerge...

  8. 4. Atavistic Time: Tarzan, Dr. Fu Manchu, and the Serial Dime Novel
    (pp. 129-174)

    Our experience of everyday life is always an experience of time: hours, days, months, dates, schedules, but also habits, rituals, memories. What Kath Weston has called the “time claims” of our world-historical moment dictate, in part, our sense of self, and our own sense of time shapes those claims in turn.¹We act on time, and time acts on us. In Freud’s case studies, discussed in chapter 1, this temporal function takes the form of a psychic recurrence whereby childhood trauma expresses itself as delayed consciousness, requiring a period of latency before its eventual return. For Freud, the return of the...

  9. 5. Unnatural Selection: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, and Regeneration Narratives
    (pp. 175-198)

    In a 1915 short story inVanity Fair, Anita Loos, the wellknown author ofGentlemen Prefer Blondes, portrays a young woman in the grip of an unfortunate decision. In a story entitled “The Force of Heredity, and Nella: A Modern Fable with a telling Moral for Eugenists,” Loos tells us that “twelve years had elapsed since Nella had promised her old mother that, come what might, she would always be eugenic.”¹ In the duration of those twelve years, Nella moves to New York City, becomes a manicurist at a fancy hotel, and disavows “the teachings of her good old mother.”...

  10. 6. An Atavistic Embrace: Ape, Gorilla, Wolf, Man
    (pp. 199-226)

    In the final scene of Eugene O’Neill’s dramaThe Hairy Ape(1921), the main character, Yank, encounters a gorilla at the zoo.¹ As the two stare “intently” at each other, Yank admires the gorilla’s body: “Some chest yuh got, and shoulders, and dem arms and mits!” (195). Inspired and awed by the strength of the figure before him, Yank breaks his new friend out of his cage, only to be repaid with “a murderous hug.” Lying near death on the floor of the cage, Yank utters his last words “in the strident tones of a circus barker”: “Ladies and gents,...

  11. Coda: Being-Now, Being-Then
    (pp. 227-242)

    What if Robin Vote and Felix Volkbein met Yank? What if they all ran into Tarzan one day, or had coffee with Dr. Fu Manchu and asked Wolf Larsen to join them? And what about the Wolf Man and the Rat Man; they would have a lot to talk about, no? These aren’t academic questions, I know. But I pose them because this book, in part, has been about putting this cast of characters in the same room together. Meeting them, and having them meet each other, has meant asking and trying to answer all sorts of questions about history,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 243-284)
  13. Index
    (pp. 285-316)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 317-317)