14 May 2006

Book reviews

Philip Ball, The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

None embodied the Renaissance’s excesses of imagination better than Paracelsus (1493-1541) whose birth, life, death and legacy are still surrounded by controversies and legends, including that of Dr. Faustus. Bayon called him a “rude, circuitous obscurantist,” Singer, “repellent,” Zimmerman, a “drunk,” Gesner, “an impious sorcerer,” Erastus, an “atheist pig,” Butler, a “mountebank.” and the Hoovers, “eunuchoid.” His champions include Browning, Mary Shelley, Borges and New Age followers.

Philip (Paracelsus) Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim was born to a once-noble family in Einsiedeln and grew up in Villach. He studied in European universities but left without a medical degree. Leonecino in Ferrara taught him to question Aristotle, Plato, and Galen. On his travels along the Venetian trade route, he documented peoples’ medical folklore in Europe, Africa, Russia and Scandinavia. Like Bacon, he favoured first-hand observation and experience over prescriptive book learning and galenics. Paracelsus learned about metals in Sigismund Füger’s labs, which informed his alchemy, an art practised by Newton and other scientists, but which marked him as a practitioner of witchcraft and black magic.

Ball clarifies the differences between Paracelsus’s views and those of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Ficino, Nicholas of Cusa, Erasmus, hermeticists and others. Much of Paracelsus’s life was spent dodging the plague, peasant wars, city-state battles, a corrupt church, various reformations, and the inquisition and he lost appointment after appointment. Paracelsus’s unfortunate personality and his vague writings didn’t help. He burned the works of Galen and Avicenna on a bonfire, harangued in taverns, wore the same filthy cloak for months, and once offered up a dish of faeces to his disputants as proof of transubstantiation.

Ball has written a fine introduction to Paracelsus. Only after Universite du Zürich’s monumental Paracelsus project is completed, will we learn the secrets of this complex seeker of knowledge without borders.

J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (University of Minnesota Press, 2006)

Materialist feminist geographers Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham who write as J.K. Gibson-Graham have reissued their postmodern critique of representations of capitalism and economy. Using an Althusserian lens of overdetermination, Gibson-Graham show that capitalism is not an inevitable tendency or hegemonic in diverse post-Fordist societies, as it has often been constituted in triumphalist right-wing discourses or in marxian analyses, but that alternative noncapitalist economies are possible.

Gibson-Graham’s project is to propose a language of the diverse economy incorporating counter-discourses from alternative traditions of economic thought, feminism, and working-class, third-world, and social and community movements such as the Zapatistas in México. For this, they use case studies and deconstruction of essentialist concepts such as class which they formulate as a process of intersecting sites for gender, orientation, income-status, and other oppression markers.

The authors have to be careful not to centralize their privileged white feminist locations in the academies. In analysing the feminist rape script, for example, which characterizes the domination of MNCs in today’s globalized economy as phallocentric, Gibson-Graham’s study of the semi-conductor industry in southeast Asia leads to their claim that “the economic ‘rape’ wrought by globalization in the Third World is a script with many different outcomes…we might read the rape event as inducing a pregnancy, rather than initiating the death and destruction of indigenous economic capacity.”

As Gibson-Graham’s next phases are to cultivate subjects for noncapitalist spaces and to build community economies, it is wrong to conclude that the inclusion of academicians in the movement can be sufficiently explained by an “erotics of desirability” on the part of other participants who may see them as exploitative, arrogant, detached and careerist. Some dislocation is needed within western academia and its own discourses before the distances between enunciators of theory and community can be bridged satisfactorily.

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