This talk contradicts the longstanding reading of Emerson as invested in idealism and instead charts his obsession with matter both organic and inorganic, organized and unorganized. By attending to his interest in sciences of life, Branka Arsić reconstructs the geological and botanical theories that led him to formulate a genuinely vitalist ontology; and by outlining his vitalism through readings of both early and late essays and lectures, Arsić ultimately asks what the ethical and political consequences of his vitalism are.
Branka Arsić specializes in literatures of the 19th century Americas and their scientific, philosophical, and religious contexts. She is the author, most recently, of Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Harvard University Press, 2016).
CHARLES STANG: Good evening, everyone. And welcome to the CSWR. My name is Charles Stang. And I'd like to thank you all for coming out, this evening, for this lecture. And as always, I'd like to thank the Center staff for helping make this event possible. So let me begin by reminding you to, please, silence your phone. I'm going to do that, myself, so that I don't become the host who embarrasses himself. OK.
I have the distinct honor and pleasure of welcoming Professor Branka Arsic this evening, for a lecture entitled, "All One Stuff, Emerson's Materialism." Professor Arsic's lecture is meant to accompany a seminar I'm teaching this semester, together with my colleague, Dan McKanan, on the topic of transcendentalism and nature. She just joined our seminar this afternoon. And the students have been preparing for her visit, the last two months, by reading, extensively, in Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also in her own two most relevant books, books on those very figures, about which I'll say more in just a moment.
Her lecture this evening is also part of the Center's ongoing series entitled, "Matter and Spirit, Ecology and the Non-Human Turn," a series that has hosted such figures as the anthropologists Eduardo Kohn, and Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, this semester, Eduardo Kohn, last year. The writer and scientist, Robin Wall Kimmerer, just two weeks ago. And next week, the cultural ecologist and self-described geo-philosopher David Abram. So please do join us here at the Center, next week, for his lecture. That will be on Tuesday evening, and it's entitled, "The Commonwealth of Breath, Climate and Consciousness in a More-Than-Human World."
And finally, I'd like to acknowledge and thank our CSWR research fellow, Mary Balkin, whose reading group on animism has been of such enormous help in steering this series. Branka Arsic is the Charles and Lynn Zhang-- am I saying that right, Zhang?
AUDIENCE: I think so.
CHARLES STANG: I think so. [LAUGHS] OK, good. [LAUGHS] Oh, thank you. Charles and Lynn Zhang, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She specializes in literatures of the 19th century-- I'm sorry, 19th century Americas-- and their scientific, philosophical, and religious contexts. She is the author most recently of Bird Relics, Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau, which was awarded the MLA James Russell Lowell prize for the best book of 2016. Our seminar has read portions of this book, along with her 2010 book, On Leaving, a Reading in Emerson.
She's also published extensively on Herman Melville, and is in the midst of a new book, entitled, Ambient Life, Melville, Materialism and the Ethereal Enlightenment, which will focus on images of the elemental, vegetal, and animal that transverse Melville's work, as a means of investigating how he imagined the capacity of matter to move and transform. That book will suit this series just as well. So we'll have you back, if you're willing. So now, having listed some of Professor Arsic's many books, let me try to say something, briefly, about their significance.
I cannot pretend to be entirely au courant with the scholarship on Emerson and Thoreau, but I've had to begin to be conversant, in order to prepare for the seminar that Dan and I have been teaching. But I'm confident-- I'm confident to say, that, for me, there is no one writing today who is as careful, close, or creative a reader of Emerson and Thoreau as she is. She relishes in turning longstanding, scholarly readings of these two figures on their heads.
In her hands, for example, Emerson does not champion a stable, stoic self, a citadel of individualistic self-reliance, but rather, an ethic of self as Sojourner, always drawing circles around itself, whose borders it will then cross. Always leaving itself, an ethic of ecstatic onwardness. In her hands, Thoreau is best read literally. And his endless descriptions of material transformations, for example, of humans turning into animals, and animals into plants, and animals into other animals, are not so much allegories of the soul's interior metamorphosis, but rather signs of an earnest view that all matter is an ever-shifting field of vitality, in which life and death are always coincident.
So this evening's lecture promises to do much the same, . She will, in her own words, now, quote, "contradict the long-standing reading of Emerson, as invested in idealism. And instead, chart his obsession with matter, both organic and inorganic, organized and unorganized." Along the way, she puts these two locals in conversation with contemporary philosophers, such as Harvard's Owen Stanley Cavell, with anthropologists such as Eduardo Kohn, whom I mentioned we hosted here just last year, and political theorists such as Jane Bennett, whose theory of vibrant matter resonates deeply with Arsic's reading of the transcendental archive.
In sum, she succeeds in making Emerson and Thoreau, and Melville too, I'm sure-- although, I haven't read your work on Melville-- present to us anew, contemporaries, disturbingly timely because of their untimeliness. And to close, with Nietzsche's definition of untimeliness, from his meditation of that name, quote, "I do not know what meaning classical studies could have for our time, if they were not untimely. That is to say, acting counter to our time, and thereby, acting on our time. And let us hope for the benefit of a time to come." So thank you for joining us. Please join me in welcoming Professor Branka Arsic.
BRANKA ARSIC: Thank you very much, for everything. For inviting me here, hosting me, for the opportunity to talk to your wonderful students, and to you and Dan and now, to all of you. It's extremely important to me, symbolically, because of the whole transcendentalist history that is related to Harvard. So it's a true honor to be here. So what I'm going to read, today, is a chapter from another book I'm working on, that's called, Oyster Metaphysics. And that's looking at a cluster of antebellum American authors, and their treatment of matter and continuity and heterogeneity.
So readers of Emerson generally agree that his transcendentalism was a form of idealism. And in fact, to even begin to discuss the nature of matter in his thought, by pointing to readings that claim it's merely ideals statues, would require summarizing the whole history of approaches to his thought. I didn't find any that would disagree with the diagnosis that he was an idealist. I'm going to try to do that, tonight. So however, even if Emerson was, throughout his life, indeed interested in and often appreciative of varieties of idealism, he was also always careful not to identify his own thinking they did.
My argument will start from the earliest philosophical statement of Emerson's, his first book called, Nature, from 1836. An entire chapter of that book is dedicated to idealists. Written as a sort of diagnosis of the spiritual situation of the times, it examines the bearings of contemporary philosophy, art and sciences, and outlines reasons for the preference the age-- his age-- gives to versions of ideal philosophy. It proceeds from a simple claim that, despite idealism's often significant variations, it is always generated by a skepticism, defined, and I quote, "as a noble god that their nature outwardly exists, or whether it is merely an appearance." And quote, "rendering the material universe a spectacle for an observer whose consciousness alone is," as Emerson puts it, "stable and essential."
According to the argument the chapter advances, philosophy, poetry, religion, ethics, and science, at the end of the 18th, and the beginning of the 19th century, are all in agreement about the truth of the idealist answer to the challenge of skepticism. Emerson sums it up in his claim that nature "does not enjoy a substantial existence without, but is only in the mind," end quote. Philosophy, contemporary to him, he thinks, is explicit about that.
And I quote Emerson, "intellectual science has been observed to beget, invariably, a doubt of the existence of matter. Turgot said, 'he that has never doubted the existence of matter may be assured he has no aptitude for metaphysical inquiries.'" end quote. Similarly, poetry, while contemporarily, poetry does not explicitly ask either ontological or epistemological questions regarding matter-- does matter exist? Can we know it? In conforming his perception of things to his own thoughts that he then expresses, or as Emerson puts it, disposes them anew, the poet announces that he, too, practices idealism.
Contemporary science, also, is shot through with idealism. And I quote, "even in physics, the material is degraded before the spiritual. The astronomer, the geometer, rely on their irrefutable analysis and disdain the result of observation," end quote. And less surprisingly, religion and ethics, similarly, ride on idealism. Again Emerson, "finally, religion and ethics have and analogous effect with all lower culture in degrading nature and suggesting its dependence on spirit," end quote. However, although Emerson so adequately and systematically diagnosis the century's mainstream idealist obsession, what is rarely discussed is the fact that he ends the chapter by removing himself from such an obsession, on both ontological and ethical grounds.
The end of the chapter insists on the wrongness of all idealism, of all trends that, as he puts it, "tend to affect our convictions of the reality of the external world." For in doubting that what is embodied can be essential makes matter depend on spirit for life. Such a premise leads idealism to, and I quote, "a certain hostility and indignation towards matter as the Manichean and Plotinis. They,"-- that's not for you--
--"they distrusted in themselves any looking back to these flesh-pots of Egypt. Plotinus was ashamed of his body. In short, they might all say of matter what Michelangelo said of external beauty, 'it is the frail and weary weed in which God dresses the soul, which he has called into time.'" end quote. So what Emerson finds fallacious about the premise of platonic and neoplatonic and Christian idealism, that sees the body as a deathly density that captivates, or imprisons, the soul is not only of an ontological order. What bothers him is not only that idealism claims matter is something that isn't whereas it is, entailing the conclusion that all matter is merely the unspirited debris of life, void of energy, which he calls weary weed.
What is unacceptable to him is, in fact, the ethical consequence of such a metaphysics of weariness. For in rendering our bodies jaded, turning them into unregenerative, exhausted weeds, it wants to slander everything that comes from them, such as sensations and affects, to treat all that as inconsequential for the real life of spirit. In so doing, idealism doesn't only denigrate as irrelevant earthly life, which is mostly spent in making and touching things, sensing the creatures of the world, and being affected by them, it also produces the shame of the bodily, as it did in Plotinus, as if the body had deserted the realm of the divine.
And it is that desire to neglect what is embodied. The natural that is unethical, according to Emerson, because it fashions and appreciates a forgetting of what is truly life giving. On Emerson's account, in dreaming of the purely spiritual and eternal, idealism acts ungratefully towards the earthly life-- and that's his word, "ungratefully"-- towards the earthly life that is all that is given us. In all its finite and creaturely simplicity or complexity, unwilling to show such ingratitude, Emerson removes himself from that thinking. And I quote Emerson, "There is something ungrateful in expanding, too curiously, the particulars of the general proposition that all culture tends to imbue us with idealism. I have no hostility to nature, but a child's love to it. I expand and live in the warm day, like corn and melons." end quote.
So at the end of the chapter on idealism, Emerson, therefore, feels closer to corn than to Plotinus, and declares his philosophy untimely. Because unlike all education of the times that imbued with idealism can still, as he puts it, "establish man." He-- again, this is his words-- "and fashionably only wishes to indicate the true position of nature, in regard to man," end quote.
When he says that idealism is concerned, dominantly, with establishing man, rather than nature, in regard to man or man's position within nature, Emerson suggests that idealism seeks to institute a hierarchical difference between the human and the natural, that would elevate men over nature, on the basis of his spirituality. And by means of this elevation, consecrate him with rites of dominance. Thus, at the end of the chapter, idealism appears as inherently anthropocentric.
And I quote Emerson, "the advantage of the ideal theory is this, that it presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to the mind. Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping past, but as one vast picture, which god paints on the instant eternity for the contemplation of the soul. Therefore, the soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet." end quote.
The following, then, on a basis of this quote, the following, then, are the features of contemporary idealism, as this passage catalogs them. One, idealism adjusts the world to its own image of that world, rather than adjusting itself to it. It presents it in the way most desirable to the mind. Two, the essence of the world is transcendent, as in supernatural, hence, he can say, idealism sees the world in God. Three, because true reality is otherworldly, whatever is individuated is rendered trivial. The painful accumulation, atom by atom, act by act, of persons and creatures, is not of significance. The particular things are acts, singular events, specificities of cultures or religions, become but a temporal false instantiation of the eternal essence that, alone, is of interest to contemplation.
And four, consequently, since what is generated by atoms into discrete forms is rendered incidental, the sole distances itself, substituting the universal and abstracted, the vast picture, the universal tablet for the particular and concrete. Already, nature Emerson will precisely situate his own philosophy in direct opposition to that idealism in the following four ways. First, instead of adjusting the world to its own image of it, his philosophy will want to disperse with our representations of it. Prospects, the last chapter of nature, in which Emerson proleptically announces the task of any future philosophy, famously diagnosis that, as he put it, "the ruin of the blank that we see when we'll look at nature, is in our own eye," end quote.
So to repair the ruin, Emerson's philosophy will work at disseminating our blindness, to affecting earthly things in order, precisely, to have us "come to look at the world with new eyes," end quote. For "whilst the abstract question"-- that's also Emerson-- "--occupies your intellect, nature brings it in the concrete to be solved by your hands," end quote. The truth then resides in what we touch and handle, in what we see adequately, and hear receptivity, requiring us to approach it bodily and perceptually. Such an approach will allow us to do away with fables, as he puts it, by preparing us to face the boldness of the singular fact.
Second, because the truth is located in the natural, the essence of the world have to be, if there is something like that, will have to be sought and found here. Thus, in contrast to an idealism that sees the world in God, Emerson sees God in man and the world. Unlike Christianity, which declares Christ infinite, because it thinks him as divine. Emerson will, in a statement that both opposes and redefines Christian doctrine, declare that he has a faith, like Christ, in the infinitude of man and not God. That's Emerson's Divinity School address.
Third, because the true reality is this world, whatever is individuated by the painful accumulation, atom by atom of persons and creatures, will be rendered indispensable and essential. And finally, in opposition to idealism's disregard for the buzz of political events or specificities of country and religion, on the premise that their unstable messiness prevents us from seeing the eternal vast picture of history that God intends, Emerson declares that he's thinking will be saturated by them. And I quote, "men and women and their social life, poverty, labor, religious and political revolutions, and the abolition of slave trade are the questions that must, and will obsess it."
And finally, since what is generated by these atoms into discrete forms is rendered thus essential, the soul, of which he speaks, far from removing itself from the material to question the existence of what is external to the mind, will affirm its reality. "I do not wish to fling stones at my beautiful mother nature, nor soil my gentle nest. Children believe in the external world. The belief that it appears only, is an afterthought. But with culture, this faith will as surely arise on the mind as did the first," end quote.
Now, it is especially this last intention of Emerson's philosophy to come-- that will be further articulated in the essay, Nature, from the second series of essays in 1844. Starting from the afterthought that rejects matters non-existence, the essay will move to the fourth thought, that we are thoroughly material, including our spirit, going so far as to claim that it is somehow exuded, the spirit, by rocks and stones. And this is Emerson, "we never can part with matter. The mind loves its home. As water to our thirst, so is the rock, the ground, to our eyes and hands and feet," end quote.
The essay will dissociate itself from idealism, not just explicitly, but also polemically, and announce that its main stake is to understand what it means to say that the home of the mind is matter, to-- this is quote, "to come to our own and make friends with matter, which the ambitious chatter of the schools would persuade us to despise," end quote. However, even if it dismisses idealism as mere chatter, the essay doesn't instead propose the brand of materialism that privileges the mechanism and inertia of matter. Instead, it will opt for a non-dualistic ontology that understands the spiritual is concretized and embodied in a vital matter. Such an ontology can perhaps-- it's my proposition-- best be identified as materialist vitalism.
The essay's argument, regarding the nature of matter, proceeds phenomenologically. Telling us what matter is on the basis of how we perceive it. We perceive it as a series of discrete formed phenomena, that Emerson, borrowing the concept from Spinoza, terms created nature, natura naturata. It comprises, he says, natural objects such as snowflakes, rocks, water, land, or material landscape that are distinguished on the basis of the temporary stability of their forms and their spatial distance. Yet, the numerical diversity of natural objects doesn't entail, for Emerson, they're a discontinues being.
For even if we perceive them as separately figured, they are imminently connected by an identity that Emerson understands as one of the essential traits of the natural world. However, the identity he has in mind doesn't cancel the difference among beings into sameness, for it is imagined as a force that binds what is individuated into an uninterrupted flow of change. Such a force runs through all the differences of the natural, connecting them as continuity, or as Emerson says, this guiding identity runs through all the surprises and contrasts and characterizes every law. That, on the one hand, phenomena are discrete and even heterogeneous. While on the other, regardless of how heterogeneous they might be, snowflake from a dog, landscape from a flower, their differences constitute a bounded continuance.
And I quote Emerson, "moon, plant, gas, crystal are all regions of nature, bounded. Linked by relations then make of them a continuous stream of matter." Again, in Emerson's terms, "things are so strictly related that according to the skill of the eye, from any one object, the parts and properties of any other may be predicted. That identity makes us all one and reduces to nothing great intervals of our customary scale," end quote. However, if it is often difficult to perceive phenomena in the moment of transition, then parts and properties of one are reassembling into properties of another, it is because such transitioning is sometimes slowed down.
What we perceive as separately figured bodies is what Emerson calls nature's organized rest. By which he refers to longer or shorter periods of time and the mobility and transformation of beings and phenomena decelerates. But if Emerson never thinks of this repose as a complete cancellation of motility, it is because, for him, matter is never inert, but is to the contrary imminently animated. If it were inert, something other than it, and something immaterial, like a spiritual prime mover or a god would be required to animate and make it. But to claim that matter is enlivened by something other than itself would be to render everything that is living utterly dependent on the force that can, at any moment, abandon it. It would mean exposing the whole natural world to the continuous threat of catastrophe, which could, at any point in time, completely eradicate it, delivering it to death, so that, as Emerson puts it, the air would rot.
For those reasons, opposing the belief of idealist theory that God creates the world in an instant, Emerson will argue that far from being created by something that is not it, nature must be inherently self generated. The aspect of matter that references in its inherent livelihood is called, by Emerson, again, borrowing Spinoza's concept, creative nature, natura naturans, which he understands to mean efficient nature, or interchangeably, the quick cause of things what enlivens everything while creating it. And inherently animated matter doesn't mean simply that matter is its own first cause of organization, but also, that the initial impulse to create never fades away. Matter's efficiency is continuously generative. Matter keeps on recreating itself.
Thus, it is not only that, as he puts it, nature bestowed the impulse of mere push to enact animation. It is also that that famous Aboriginal push propagates itself to all the balls of the system and to every atom of every ball. The idea that animation traverses every atom of every ball suggests that, for Emerson, animated nature is, in contrast to Lucretia's atomism, not exhausted by organized and biological matter, but includes all matter. For Emerson, everything embodied, including stones and rocks, dust and air, is spinning, that in itself their life.
As he will explicitly state in The Method of Nature, the physiologist concedes that no chemistry, no mechanics, can account for defect. But a mysterious principle of life must be assumed, which not only inhabits the organ, but makes the organ. If, in that particular instance, Emerson offers an organic example, nature makes clear that this vitalist matter is, in fact, imagined as creative of everything embodied, from the inorganic to the organic, from what is simple to what is complex. And I quote, "the addition of matter from year to year arrives, at last, at the most complex forms. And yet, so poor is nature with all her craft, that from the beginning to the end of the universe, she has but one stuff. But one stuff, with its two ends, to serve up all her dream-like variety, compounded how she will. Star, sand, fire, water, tree, man, it is still one stuff and betrays the same properties," end quote.
So elements and flowers, trees and man are all of the same stuff, only differently assembled. This is, of course, not to claim that there is no difference among them. But rather, that those differences are numerical, rather than substantial. As Emerson will explicitly put it in the Natural Method of Mental Philosophy, all difference is quantitative, quality is one. The diversity of form and organization is thus understood as quantitative variation of the same substantial quality. That imminently relates simpler phenomena, perceived as inorganic.
So that he would say, "and as man and man are superficially unlike, but radically identical-- leaves of one tree-- and men and animals are modification of one. So in a larger generalization, the animal creation and the globe on which they live, man and his planet, these have all common relations. They are of the same identity," end quote. To say that man is made of the same stuff as stars and trees, a sort of compound of the globe, is to point to one of the most radical and scarcely thinkable consequences of Emerson's materialist vitalism for it advises that everything that constitutes man, including his thoughts, affects, and sensations must consist of matter.
In nature, Emerson will insist on that point, arguing that regardless how refined phenomena are-- that are more crude, such as bodies or more sophisticated, such as thoughts-- "nature still goes back for materials and begins again with the first elements on the most advanced stage. Otherwise, all goes to ruin," Emerson says. Thus, not only are two numerically different bodies of the same substance, but a thought and the body are merely variant modalities of the same substance, differing as two ends of one stuff. Emerson is serious about this point, advancing it on several occasions.
As already mentioned, at the beginning of Nature, he suggested, if he never can part with matter, it is because the mind loves its home. Similarly, in the Natural Method of Mental Philosophy, human intellect will be identified as a fine vegetation. And most explicitly, inexperience, spirit will be called matter, reduced to an extreme thinness. Thus, dreamlike variety of nature is literally understood to be compounded of one vital stuff. There is something of matter, even in dreams. And bits of dreams, even in trees.
Now, nature can be continues, all changes passed without the shock or leaps, as Emerson, because the vitality that swarms into phenomena renders them motile and thus, unstable. And exerts pressure on them to exceed their boundaries and tip over into what is adjacent to them. Emerson's sense of continuity is that, because life is communal-- we are all one identical stuff-- all forms must be porous. There is-- this is Emerson-- "there is something social and intrusive in the nature of all things. They seek to penetrate. Each the nature of every other creature and itself, alone in all modes and throughout space, to prevail. Every star in heaven is discontented and insatiable. All things are mixed," end quote.
So Emerson calls the pourousness of things, variously but synonymously, enthusiasm, excess, exaggeration, and ecstasy of nature, itself. Ecstasy is here understood, neither as the category from the vocabulary of mysticism, that would name human communication with the divine, nor is the mental state of excitement leading to self abandonment. It is instead meant, literally, as ecstasies of forms. That is, as an ontological uneasiness and restlessness that takes everything out of itself. Nothing is settled in its form. Even stars being discontented. But everything is a rushing stream of life, a rhythmical flow in which the figure continuously overflows into something else. A process of, as he puts it, rapid metamorphosis, to which everything is, as he also puts it, always becoming somewhat else.
Life is thus intense abundance, a slight-- Emerson says, a slight generosity, a drop too much, a small excess, pressing everything to step outside its form. And I quote Emerson, "exaggeration is in the course of things. Nature sends no creature, no man into the world, without adding an excess of his proper quality." A little violence of direction, to which warriors will transcend to reach what is, they'll transcend itself. This ecstatic self transcendence that gives phenomena over to becoming, is systematically identified by Emerson, as the method, or law, of nature. Ecstasy, the genius of the method of nature. Or the power of nature is ecstatic. Or ecstasy is the law of nature. Or nature can only be conceived as a work of ecstasy.
So when Emerson talks about the force of transcendentalism, forms transcending themselves, he means, first and foremost, that everything, literally or materially, oversteps itself. Hence, the famous gloss from Circles. The way of life is by abandonment. Now, in exiting itself to become something else, everything is always beginning. Hence, always nascent and infant. But that all seems just begun doesn't mean that everything is moving in the same predetermined direction towards a certain goal. Emerson discards the idea of the teleological unfolding of life, because it cancels the possibility of ecstatic life. If everything were purposive, moving in a predetermined direction, then no excess or ecstasy would be possible, and every instance of impulsive transcendence would be merely apparent but in essence, programmed.
In a position to teleological understanding of nature, thus, Emerson claims the absence of any finality. We can point nowhere to anything final, says he. If being is not final, then man is not the thelos of natural life. Men might be a more complex being than other animals or plants, but because every single form of life is only the beginning of something else, man, too, is in the process of metamorphosis. And I quote, "that no single end may be selected in nature and nature judged thereby, appears from this, that if man himself be considered as the end, and it be assumed that the final cause of the world is to make holy or wise or beautiful men, we see that it has not succeeded," end quote.
However, the idea of constant and diverse change doesn't mean only that life has no final end, but also, that everything in it moves in multiple directions. To explain the multi-directionality of life, Emerson uses the example of the human body. Just as life is simultaneous throughout the whole body, "the equal serving of innumerable ends, without the least emphasis or preference to any, so nature can only be conceived as existing, not to a particular end, but to a universe of "ends, he said. Such a known purposive excessiveness of life leads Emerson to conclude that life proceeds in a spontaneous way.
To risk a paradox, the only necessity operative in nature would then be contingency. Its only fate, chance. As he puts it, "the results of life are uncalculated and uncalculatable." That is why, in contrast to a variety of biological determinisms, Emerson advances the proposition that there is no physical necessity in any form of life. An embryo does not enfold its future. And I quote Emerson, "I see not, if one be once caught in this trap of so-called sciences, any escape for the man from the links of the chain of physical necessity. Given such an embryo, such a history must follow. On this platform, one would soon come to suicide. But it is impossible that the creative power should exclude itself. Into every intelligence there is a door which is never closed, into which this vital force enters."
Now, crude materialists, which is precisely a sheer biological determinism that presumes matter to be mechanistic and purposefully directed towards certain ends, in such a way that the law of every being is knowable in advance, is, for Emerson, less a scientific than an ideological proposition. In the 1840s, when Emerson formulates his understanding of material life, the platform of determinist materialism summed up in the claim, which he references that the history of a being is inscribed in its embryo, is mobilized in support of the racist politics of pseudo-sciences, such as mesmerism or phrenology.
And I quote Emerson, "I know the mental proclivity of physicians. I hear the chuckle of the phrenologists. Theoretical kidnappers and slave drivers, they esteem each man the victim of another, who winds him 'round his finger by knowing the laws of his being. And by such cheap sign boards as the color of his beard or the slope of his occiput, reads the inventory of his fortunes and character. I saw a gracious gentleman who adapts his composition to the form of the head of the man he talks with. I had fancied that the value of life lay in its inscrutable possibilities, in the fact that I never know, in addressing myself to a new individual, what may befall me. But it is impossible that the creative power should exclude itself," end quote.
The theories that build on physical necessities, such as mesmerism and phrenology, are here identified as theoretical kidnappers because they, in fact, did enable real kidnapping. They know, that in the decades that preceded Emerson's claim, mesmerism and phrenology triggered the occurrence of unspeakable things. For instance, mesmerists arriving in Haiti from France spread the hypnotic frenzy that led slave owners to believe that they had access to a technique to which the law of everybody's being would be noble in a way that would enable them to be manipulated, like zombies. The Swiss naturalist, Charles Bonnet, thus received the following report from Saint Domingue.
"The great debate surrounding mesmerism hardly seemed to be settled definitively. Two mesmeric tubs in this colony were directed by Monseigneur Puységur, officer of the Royal Navy. Marvelous cures that could hardly be attributed to any play of the imagination have been reported. A cripple brought from the plain to Cap Francois on a litter walked freely afterward. A female slave paralyzed for fourteen years was entirely cured in a short time without her realizing that she was being treated, and can now work. A plantation owner on this plain made a big profit in magnetizing a consignment of cast-off slaves he bought at a low price. Restoring them to good health by means of the tub, he was able to lease them at prices paid for the best slaves. The rage for magnetism has taken hold of everyone here. Mesmeric tubs are everywhere." End quote.
Thus, when Emerson says, in Demonology, that mesmerism is a high life below stairs, and that animal magnetism inquiry-- this is Emerson-- "animal magnetism inquiries pursued on low principle, that it peeps and becomes, in the hands of a class of persons, a black art. He has in mind, precisely, this low hope of mesmerists, that they could determine the action of others by knowing in advance the secrets of their being. Mesmerism is unacceptable, because it violates the integrity of persons in the same way that it violates the integrity of nature as a whole. For it subdues the freedom of persons to the uses of the thing, the commodity, the power, by selfishly studying nature as a trade," end quote.
And similarly, phrenology. When Emerson says that anatomy and physiology is, in selfish hands, become phrenology, he almost certainly has in mind Samuel George Morton, a Philadelphia anatomist and physician, who notoriously collects skulls to determine, on a basis of their size and shape, the psychological traits of races and persons. The result of his research are published in his infamous 1839, Crania Americana, with an afterward by a phrenologist, George Combe. Combe claims that Morton's findings, regarding the shapes and sizes of skulls from a variety of Native American tribes, both corroborates and enables phrenological theories of physiological determinism.
Morton proposes, on Combe's account, that the national character of different tribes must be predetermined by features of the brain that are revealed by the skull. His phrenological method combines, as he puts it, "inside on the shape and size of skulls, relevant because the size of the brain is indicated by the dimension of the skull," end quote. The knowledge of the development and functions of various brain areas, as a way of resisting historicism, and claiming that easily discoverable characteristics of the racial, or national brain, determine not just the historical, political, or cultural environment, but also, the idiosyncrasies of individual behaviors and even specificities of personal ethics and desires.
And I quote Combe, "the phrenologist has observed that a particular size and form of brain is the invariable concomitant of particular dispositions and talents, and that this fact holds good in the case of nations as well as of individuals. A knowledge of the size of the brain, and the proportions of its different parts, in the different varieties of the human race, will be the key to a correct appreciation of the difference in their natural mental endowments, on which external circumstances act only as a slightly modifying influences," end quote.
Thus, Emerson's dismissal of phrenology as the selfishness of a physiologist, who looks at life as a trade, is precisely based on the consequences that follow from Combe's investigations, which fantasize how the skull determines an individual disposition, and so contributes to taxonomists, that imprison classes of humans in non-negotiable hierarchies. Emerson's vitallist materialism must therefore be seen, not only as an ontology that radically revises Western metaphysical dualism, but also, in the context in which it works in direct opposition to determinist biopolitics.
To the racism of phrenologists, Emerson opposes a movement of life that is unpredictable, unconditioned by anything other than its own creativity. Above all, that life is common to all. So then, as Emerson says, "man and man are superficially unlike, but in fact, radically identical. Thank you.