Cabinets of curiosity are at the historical heart of scientific and medical enterprises. They remind us that the modern effort to know, and perhaps understand, always departs from the same shore: collection. Such cabinets were described as curiosities (“wunder”) because they also elicited affects of amusement, surprise, amazement, desire, and disgust. For example, the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia (that country’s first museum), contains a horrifying and yet fascinating array of specimens, including malformed fetuses, the skeleton of an abnormally large man, and other such sundries (below).
The affects of curious horror can indeed be pleasurable — especially when it is not your head in a jar — and it is easy enough to get lost in spectacle. It is much harder to put a thing into a jar, and harder still to pull off the feat of the “impossible bottle” trick by removing the hand cleanly. Indeed, cabinets were also collections with particular aims and ends. In Peter the Great’s case, the Kunstkamera was meant to enlighten an empire by dispelling the idea that deformity was an affliction of dark forces. Cabinets interposed curiosities into all-too-human facts of nature, and the stakes of collection hinged on the reach between hands and things.
One can also stand back a few feet from the cabinet’s open doors and take in the effort of collection as a scene unto itself, with its own history and afterlife. Preservation, transport, printing/labeling, and study all constitute the techne that will lead, hopefully, to that promised land of classification and categorization. Each act of filing, of curating, and of labeling leaves trails, and burrows out fields of knowledge. Perhaps today’s cabinets, often made of thin MDF and laminated to emulate wooden solidity, have a shakier hold on the wunder-enterprise. But the effort to know medico-scientific worlds lives on in the cabinetry of other wood byproducts: books and journals. To be sure, their titular entries are perhaps less demanding of attention than sensational accounts such as “A Remarkable Case of Obesity in a Hindoo Boy Aged Twelve Years” in an issue of The Lancet in 1859 (below). Yet now, as then, such cabinets of evidence condense surprise into headlines: an investigation reveals partial correlations, suggests confidently of the need for further research, and generalizes from the specificity of the narrow. And now, as then, the question of discovery’s relations of authority – who collects whom – is often eclipsed as cases aggregate into volumes, and volumes aggregate into the cabinetry of scholarly disciplines.
If collection is one moment of conception for scientific and medical knowledge, then it is worth asking whether we may be living in a post-collection moment. As Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault and many others have observed, we now move in and with classifications and categories that are frequently not of our own making. To give just two examples: It is not even possible to understand what metabolism is without first understanding some basic things about indigestion. Grappling with the powers of a vitamin requires thoughts about small but accumulative acts of supplementation. Our bases for understanding anything at all rely on quite a vast infrastructure of prior classifications and categories, one that grounds a monstrous and yet mighty episteme. Mighty because since the first naïve collections, science and medicine’s commitments to advancement and progress may save our lives. But monstrous because we may also suffer from those commitments, finding ourselves out of sorts, so to speak, when desires, politics, and alternative ways of knowing world and body are found to be non-categorical. Cabinet cubbies make ontological slices: What ends up fitting into them condenses multiple and often conflicting truths, regardless of how comfortably snuggled in it may seem. This state of affairs brings another kind of cabinet to mind: the medicine cabinet. Damien Hirst riffed on this theme by accentuating the neat arrangements we make of those banalities of longevity and therapy – pills, vials, boxes. It is the kind of lined-up austerity that reveals something unsettling, perhaps threatening at the heart of health.
This unfolding project on Somatosphere aspires, then, to a “cabinet of commonplaces” in order to return, in an ironic sense, to the naiveté of the cabinet. If objects in the early wunderkammer were as-yet-uncategorized oddities, then our contributors cast a denaturalizing (or, perhaps, to adopt literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky’s term, enstranging) gaze on the objects, processes and sites that today populate our scientific and medical everyday. For Shklovsky, it was verbal art’s power to “make the stone stoney” that was of central importance. For us, it is the denaturalizing and politicizing gaze of the author that leads us into the cabinet’s boxes. Rather than curiosities, we pursue here commonplaces: those unrecognized and yet central infrastructures of the everyday whose banal nature, once unbound, may very well become curious once more.
The premise is simple. “Commonplaces” will draw together a series of short entries (approximately 500-1000 words) by scholars reflecting on the classical and contemporary sites in medicine and science. Think: the needle, the patent, the pill, diagnosis/prognosis, the scan, the white coat, the chart, the trash, the number, side effects, placebo. New entries will generally, but not always, appear every Monday. The aim, in the end, is to produce a collaborative cabinet—one that is less a coherent collection than a series of interruptions in the white noise of the technological present.
Images: 1) Detail of “Musei Wormiani Historia”, the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm‘s cabinet of curiosities; wikipedia; 2) Kunstkamera. 2003, Photo by Tomas Matza; 3) Don, W. G. “Remarkable Case of Obesity in a Hindoo Boy Aged Twelve Years.” The Lancet 73.1858 (1859): 363; 4) Photo by Michael Rivera, wiki commons